The Importance of Peer Reviews and Workshops
a guest post by Seth Skorkowsky
a guest post by Seth Skorkowsky
Years ago, when I first made the life changing decision, "Hey, I'll write a book," I was terribly unsure of my abilities. That was a good thing because I was also pretty bad. I started my first novel, and in increments of 5 and 10 pages, I'd give them to a few trusted friends for feedback.
While my friends did offer a lot of great suggestions, I quickly learned two important things. First, my friends were biased toward me. Their opinions of my work were favorably skewed and they didn't want to hurt my feelings with harsh criticisms. Second, they weren't writers themselves, and they lacked the technical skills I needed to fully improve my craft. So while they were very supportive, and gave me the initial boost of positive reinforcement that I needed, if I was serious about writing, I needed to work with writers.
Writing groups have been around for about as long as people have been telling stories. Just about any community will have one, and now with the internet, anyone can find a group to help hone their craft. There are many different workshop formats and each has their own plusses and minuses.
Now, I'm not discussing Beta Readers. Beta Readers are their own godsend that I use once a manuscript is complete. The workshop reviewers are usually used to scrub through the book incrementally, usually one chapter at a time, or only a few pages.
Workshop reviewers are often strangers. They can look at the work with no prior knowledge of what it's about and review the work exactly as it's presented. This is wonderful because strangers are more honest in their opinions and their lack of being told what the story is about, means that their opinions are based solely off the work itself.
Aside from improving their manuscript, authors learn two critical skills through workshops. The first is learning how to review others. The ability to critically analyze a story and offer suggestions has been one of the best skills I've learned. After a while, you can't help but turn that critical eye on your own writing and suddenly see where it needs improving. Next, and this is just as important, you learn how to take and analyze criticism.
A budding author will receive a lot of constructive feedback and the initial urge is to apply all of it. It becomes evident pretty quickly that it just isn't possible. It's not that the peer reviews can contradict or are bad (though sometimes they can be), it's that a workshop reviewer is only looking at a piece of a larger structure. They may or may not have seen other pieces previously, but they aren't looking at the entire work.
As the author, you have to be able to take these criticisms and learn to apply them to not only the section being reviewed, but to the context of the reviewer.
For example, a few weeks ago I was offering a partial chapter of my current Work In Progress to a workshop. Most of the reviewers had not seen the previous chapters or read the previous books. The section in question followed a very long and intense action scene and was set as a bit of a breather. In the scope of 3-4 chapters, this is a good flow. But only seeing the breather chapter by itself, the very first response was that it was too slow. The actual wording used was, "Why do I care?".
Once, when I was still unsure of myself and questioned everything I wrote, I would have taken this extremely hard. I'd have scrapped the chapter, inadvertently damaging the flow of the book. Now, this was hardly the only advice that I received, and most of it was very helpful, but an author must be able to pull away from the manuscript and analyze each criticism and suggestion in order to weigh its importance.
Any time I speak with new authors, I suggest workshops. It' the first test of how others can take your story and the feedback is invaluable. But as an author, you must never lose sight of YOUR story. It up to YOU alone to decide what's best for it. At the end of the day, that's between you, your psychiatrist, and your editor. Allow peer reviews, workshops, and early readers to be a tool that stimulates your thinking --- not a leash you get pulled around by.
Seth Skorkowsky is a writer that gravitates to the darker sides of fantasy, preferring horror and pulp heroes over knights in shining armor. He is the author of Dämoren and Hounacier, both titles in the Valducan series. Seth has also released two sword-and-sorcery collections in the Black Raven series, Mountain of Daggers and Sea of Quills. He lives in Flower Mound, Texas.