Tag Archives: writers group

Conning your way: Moderating a Writer’s Workshop

Screen shot 2015-08-05 at 1.29.01 PM

Graphic from Bo’s Cafe Life

Moderating a writer’s workshop at a con is easy.  Someone has passed you the power to sit down and conduct.  All you have to do is show up, say go, and let the people talk. Right?

Yes…but no.

Moderating a writer’s workshop well at a con is not so easy.  The point of a workshop is not to see that a half dozen people get to talk on a manuscript; the point is to guide the workshop to help an author make a better manuscript.  Workshops can do that, but they can also do the reverse.

I know of one instance where the writer went home, took the advice of one of the pros, and totally chopped up the manuscript.  I was at the workshop so I heard the advice, and since I know the writer, I saw the result.  The advice was a reiteration of something I’d said: writing structure should reflect writing content (a blog for another time).  For instance, in the writer’s action scene, her sentences sometimes got away from her.  They were longer and occasionally more rambling than they should have been for the situation: a gun fight in the forest. While these sentences were perfectly good sentences for the right situation, right there, they needed to be shorter, punchier, and more directed to the immediate events (no time to dissemble on stray thoughts).  However, what and how the pro said it may have confused that writer  for she went home and applied the advice to the whole manuscript to its detriment.  Took her a few months to undo the damage.

You as moderator want to try to keep the workshop session focused on the goal of helping author-entrants to improve their works.  The value of those works should not be under discussion. At one time, I had a writer’s group member make the comment in group about my work, “Ho hum, another Conan the Barbarian novel, but I guess you know that” (No, I didn’t, he is the only person to have ever said that—I left that group as a result).  Another con workshop I heard about had an author-entrant writing about Norse mythos.  A workshop participant compared her to Marvel’s Norse-influenced work and said they liked Marvel better.  We writers need to follow our bliss, so don’t judge the author’s choice.  Instead, guide each author to make his or her take on the subject his or her own unique story.  So in your workshop, judge the intent of the stories and help the author-entrants meet their goals. If this type of judgment does happen, be prepared to gently redirect the attention to the intent and those goals.

Over the years, I’ve learned from my mistakes and successes to develop pretty simple guidelines.

Workshop Format

The science fiction and fantasy cons I’ve moderated for use the same format.  The workshop comprises three author-entrants, two pros, and a moderator.  Three manuscripts of up to thirty pages are delivered to all the workshop participants in advance to be critiqued in a three-hour session.

I will breakdown the process of a workshop using this format. If your workshop varies, you’ll have some math to do. This also assumes the room is yours for the full three hours. If it’s a dedicated room to the workshop, this is likely the case, but if a panel follows you, they will assume you were supposed to be out before the hour.  To be sure, ask your program coordinator or look to see who is in the room after you.

Introduce yourself and that this is a workshop session. If more people are in the room than you expect, let them know it’s a private session. Go around the table and have everyone introduce themselves. I like to ask the pros to share their latest project—a moment of shameless self-promotion if you will. Set the rules for the workshop.


I’ve adjusted these guidelines from my college creative writing workshops.  Each critiquer reviews the manuscript without interruption either from the other critiquers or the author-entrant. The critiquer whose turn it is to speak should not engage the others at the table (including the author-entrant) with questions unless the critiquer has a quick clarification he or she needs to make a point.  He or she may then ask a question to elicits a very short answer from the author-entrantYou as moderator should be prepared to say, “let’s make note of that and address it further at the end” if the answer goes on too long.

The author-entrant will have time to ask questions.  I like to stress that this workshop is for the author-entrant, not the critiquers.  Author-entrants should not defend their work. After all, a shrink-wrapped version of the author does not come with every copy of the book sold.  It’s not important that the critiquers understand what the author-entrant is trying to do, it’s important that the author-entrant understands what a reader may infer.  No rebuttals or justifications are necessary and no good ever comes of such.  If a critiquer is wrong, it’s just not that important that he or she knows. You as moderator may be called on to gently curtail an author-entrant who is trying too hard to defend the work.  The only exception to this is if an author-entrant would like clarification on why a critiquer came to a particular conclusion. In this case, the author can outline the back information necessary to frame the question, ask where he or she went wrong, and inquire about suggestions to fix it.


  1. Each manuscript gets (about) 1 hour.
  2. Each critiquer will get up to 8 minutes to speak with a one-minute warning at 7 minutes. (I use my phone to have an alarm go off at the seven minute point. This way, I don’t clock watch, can remain engaged in the workshop,  don’t lose track of time, and  don’t have to personally interrupt folks.)
  3. 10 to 15 minutes of open table time starting with asking the author-entrant if they have questions.  This will usually instigate an open table conversation. If it doesn’t, be prepared to ask questions to get conversation rolling.
  4. 5 minute break


I give the order the critique will go in.  This is really up to the moderator. I usually go clockwise, counter clockwise and clockwise again.  However, some people may have never been involved in a workshop or feel insecure about going first, especially in the presence of pros. If one of the author-entrants is sitting left or right of you, you might inquire if they would prefer to go later (but don’t forget them!  It’s quite embarrassing).  Or you may just choose to start with one pro and move in a circle from there. Or you could determine an order before you even arrive and announce it when you start that critique.  I tell people I will go last so that I can adjust for timing if it gets off.

I then announce the order of the manuscripts. Because of the workshop introduction, the first manuscript may go over the hour. You may wish to start with a manuscript that is shorter or you think might elicit fewer comments.

End of Workshop

Thank everyone for their time and participation.  Remind the author-entrants to take time to think about and feel out the advice they have been given. They are here to learn, but ultimately they are the shepherds of their own work. They are the ones that need to guide it.  Sometimes in experimenting with new ideas and ways of doing things, the writing can go wrong. So make a clearly marked back up of the story before massaging it.  It will be liberating, allowing the author-entrant to push harder, and it will ensure that writing paths that lead to dead ends don’t lead to a manuscript’s dead end.

That’s What Editors Are For

Screen shot 2015-05-16 at 8.39.54 AM

Graphic: creators.com retrieved from Laugh Tracks at GoComics.

I put together a bike for my brother’s kid this Christmas.  Turns out, I’m pretty handy with a wrench.  Thought I might try building a car next.  What do you think? Should I go for it?

What you are thinking right now is a little glimpse into my head when I tell people I’m an editor and writer, and they say to me, “Oh, yeah, I’ve been thinking about writing a book.  It’s about XXX. What do you think? Should I go for it?”  I’m torn between trying not to smile too hard or being a little insulted.  I usually land on amused.

Continue reading »

Someone once asked me how I do what I do after I helped that person fix a pretty big hole in their novel.  I laughed and said, “Shell out thirty grand for a degree in creative writing, then pony up more for a certification program in editing, attend a dozen cons, moderate half a dozen writer workshops, participate in five writers’ groups, read an uncounted number of how-to books and unpublished manuscripts, and oh yeah, work for thirty years as an editor/writer.” What I’m trying to say, if you haven’t had your coffee yet, is that although all the people I’m talking to speak English, speaking it and writing it are two different skills.  That’s the first thing that person asking me about writing a book will need to learn because it will free them to pursue the myriad avenues that help people learn to write.  If I try to point this out gently, I have often heard the response, “Well, that’s what editors are for.”

No.  No, we’re not.  The tasks of editors are varied, but fixing your fiction manuscript for you isn’t one of them. I will help you, I will work with you, but I won’t do it for you. I find that people often don’t understand the role of an editor, and that has been a problem sometimes in my career.  I have worked as a developmental editor (a favorite), substantive editor, technical editor, copyeditor, production editor (another favorite), proofreader, and editorial proofreader (my least favorites)—and that’s not all the kinds of editors.  If you don’t know what all of these mean, you are not alone.   The lines between the editing roles blur and overlap, so if I have a little trouble at where one starts and another ends…well, I thought it might be time to try to help authors out.

The Developmental Editor. DEs work with authors through the phases of writing and revision to ensure that manuscripts reach their potential and communicate clearly to readers. In my role as DE, I’ve aided in knitting parallel storylines together that should have but never met.  I’ve extracted the “real” story from scattered plotting.  I’ve even given one character a sex change.

When do I need one?

If you are early in your career and have a manuscript worth rescuing (meaning that it’s not headed for the bottom of a trunk if and when you realize just how much you really don’t ever want anyone to see it), you might find hiring a DE useful.  Or if you are an experienced author who is under time pressure or needs help with focus in your writing efforts or storyline, a DE might help.  A DE gives the author a person to bounce ideas off of, and to get creative juices flowing again. A fresh perspective can lead down very interesting paths. Teresa Edgerton helped me out with my novel in just such a fashion.  I had a race of functionally immortal people (they lived so long the locals thought they were immortal) that could no longer bear immortal children.  This meant their race was dying, albeit extremely slowly, and that parents would watch their now mortal children live a comparatively brief life and die.  Teresa pointed out the terrible affect this would have on the society, families, and individuals.  It affected the development of my story right down to the architecture. It grew into the core problem between the antagonist and his father, enriching the story immeasurably. A DE might be a means of helping lift that heavy stone, writer’s block, helping you to see work that is stale in your eyes in a new way.  I once helped a person who could not get past a particular chapter.  I suggested they change the point of view to another character in the scene.  The author told me they’d stayed up through the night and finished the chapter.

The Substantive Editor. They perform all copyediting tasks and work heavily with sentence structure and wording to improve the flow of text and smooth transitions.  They can offer rewrites for consistency, logic flow, tone, or better focus.

When do I need one?

I use my substantive editing skills when I do developmental editing, but rarely am hired to perform this function alone for fiction.  But I do see a use for it because I use it in my writers’ groups and workshops all the time.  A substantive edit is a good teaching tool.  If you really want hands-on guidance, you might choose to work with a substantive editor.  I wouldn’t make this your first lesson in writing.  I suggest doing it after you have participated in workshops and writers’ groups, studied up on styles of authors you like, or read the how-to books. Once you’ve done those things, if you still feel a lack, you might want a teaching tool tailored specifically to your writing to discover your individual weaknesses and strengths.

Copyeditor.  How to prepare a manuscript for publication is covered in books called style guides.  Each one follows different rules for different circumstances. For instance, the big US publishers tend to use the Chicago Manual of Style (CMS) while journals often use the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA).  This will dictate things such as do you represent this number as 11 or eleven?  APA dictates 11, whereas CMS, eleven.  A copyeditor knows the style guides and house styles and applies them and other resources to make consistent corrections to punctuation, spelling, grammar, and capitalization. They will flag inappropriate language or inconsistent tone.  They may do a little research for you to check your facts. I edited a story once where a man walked into a neighborhood bar in 1923—the middle of prohibition—and I didn’t catch it.  While that is not strictly the purview of a copyeditor, I still was a little embarrassed!

When do I need one?

This one’s easy: on your way to publication.  Ideally you want a copyeditor and a proofreader. Please, oh please, do not send your work to press and public without a professional copyedit and proofread (or combination thereof).

Proofreader. The proofer is the last person to touch the manuscript before publication.  Ideally the proofer sees the final copy that you are ready to send to the typesetter or your publishing service.  The proofer generally only corrects hardcore errors. This harkens back to the use of galleys in precomputer-typesetting days. Publishers used to get a typeset manuscript on a roll. Every change cost money to retypeset, so the proofer would only correct the text if it was a real problem.  Today, proofers can be a little less restricted and offer a little more intensity, but in essence, they are still correcting only errors that the author and other editors may have missed.

When do I need one?

Right before you go to press. I’ve been working on my manuscript forever. The first chapter has been edited, proofed, and massaged ad nauseum over the course of years. Last month I still found a dropped word. Try not to touch your text after the proofer is done.  That just introduces opportunity for error.  Trust me—I can’t tell you the number of times a last minute change has introduced error.

Often times some of these roles double up.  For instance, owing to time or money constraints, you might combine the role of copyeditor and proofer (which is what an editorial proofreader is). Though in an ideal world, your copyeditor and proofer are different people, most copyeditors will do this.   I often double up the role of developmental editor with substantive editor to offer a little story-level help and a little writing improvement.  Don’t hire someone to do all the roles.  The most I’m comfortable with when I’m combining roles is two. After that, I get too involved in the text to see it clearly in much the same way as the author does.  If I’ve done developmental and substantive editing, I really don’t want to be responsible for the proofreading.

Editing is expensive, and many new authors don’t have the luxury of hiring an editor right away.   Don’t despair.  You can get some of these benefits from a writers’ group or workshop in the early stages of you work. I know that participating in a writer’s workshop has drawbacks. For example, controlling your time frame is harder.  You have to determine the quality and applicability of the feedback.  The other participants may know something is not right, but not know how to articulate it. You also have to devote a lot of your time to other people’s manuscript problems.  However some of these drawback turn into boons.  You get better at your own writing when you critique others, and you discover the wonderful sense of community that is out there for writers. You also will have a head start on working with your editor once you’ve undergone the critique process.

So there is your primer on editing.  Now go ahead.  Ask me again.  So what do I think?  Should you go for it?  Should you write that book?

Absolutely.  The only way that first story in you becomes a novel is if you write.  But remember, that is the first step in a long flight of stairs.  If you need help, we editors will be here.

How Did a Math Major Write a Fantasy Novel?


Moreover, how did she get published?

Keep in mind that I majored in math for two reasons. The first was it was fun. It’s okay…I’ll wait for you to stop laughing. Really. I’m serious. I enjoyed it. I’m a puzzle person, and most mathematics is solving puzzles, which appealed to me.

But I confess that a part of me majored in math because it wasn’t English. It didn’t involve English. To get my degree I needed little more than English 101 to graduate, and that sounded like a good deal. In fact, I put it off until my senior year—yes, I hated English that much. The whole “writing papers” thing…what a wasted of time! And the reading! Bah!

Continue reading »

Interestingly, there was this other part of me, however, that daydreamed. A lot. A lot, a lot. I’ve been guilty of that since I was knee-high to a grass hopper. Music, TV, movies, all of these generated a constant stream of playmates, friends, and distractions. As I got older, these “phantoms” had adventures.

I decided to write these down.

Oh, they were horrible! I really needed to learn how to write. Yes, I could see these people and write what they did and said, but reading it was more like a description of animated robots. The writing was lifeless, colorless, and cumbersome.

Wow. I should have taken more English.

Meet the Member—Laura Of Lurking: Reviewer, Writer, and My Inspiration

By Jennifer L. Carson

I’m the only one in the group on the sane side of the pond—Go UK! I’ve had a penchant for telling stories as far back as I can remember. I always wanted to lead the “Let’s Pretend” games when I was a kid, which my mother documented on some horrifying cassette tapes of me around age three. I apparently gathered all my teddies around and told them stories and jokes and sang songs to them. If spontaneous combustion ever happens in my home, please let it be in those tapes!


Continue reading »

In the last three years, Leasspell has become an important part of my life. I had all but abandoned real efforts to finish my novel. Yesterday, I wrote the final chapter. Without this group, I wouldn’t have had the deadlines I needed. Without this group, I wouldn’t have made some fundamental changes that I knew the moment I wrote them were so much better. Without this group, I wouldn’t have found the support my mind and heart needed to be sitting here today, telling you that I finished the last chapter of my novel.

I’m not the only one whose life Leasspell has touched. Our newest member, Carolyn, is a longtime friend, but she stopped writing for a while. Since joining the group a couple of months ago, she’s gotten together with me twice for writers retreat weekends. I hope Leasspell does for her what it is doing for me: keeping me at the keyboard. Denise and Jax finished in first and second place in a publishing contest for Assent Publishing’s fantasy imprint, Phantasm Books. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that out of eighty-four submissions, first and second place went to members of our writers group. It is an outstanding group. And I know Jason is using the deadlines to spur his writing. I think everyone of us is learning more about the whirlwind changes in the formerly staid old publishing industry because of our pooling together and sharing our experiences, our research and knowledge, and our contacts.

This is all to say: Leasspell has changed my life.

So what does this have to do with Laura? Everything. Without her, Leasspell wouldn’t exist. I had been in writers groups at various times with Carolyn, Denise, and Jax. Jax had been prodding me to get our last group back together, but this time online since she had moved. I dragged my feet. Technology issues, time, lack of motivation on my own writing—all things in my head that kept me waving her off with a “yeah, yeah, good idea…sometime.”

Then I met Laura online. She was young when I met her, seventeen, I think. We met through a social media game. Must have been preordained ’cause I hate playing social media games. But my husband had an interview with this company and needed accounts to play with. So I started one and got a bit hooked for three months. But in that time, Laura helped me out with the game, which lead to us talking and some very long emails.

I found out she is a smart funny young lady who has a talent for writing. She was raw, but had splashes of crisp clear writing that really surprised me, and she had the passion to go with it. I saw some of myself in her. Then I found out Laura is disabled. Very, very disabled and sick much of the time, too. The world comes to her through books and her computer. She lives much of her life in the fantasy worlds in her head and she wanted to put them into books. I wanted to help her do that, and I wanted to help her do it well, as I knew she could with a little guidance and practice.

I called Jax, and I said let’s do this. Thus was Leasspell born—all thanks to a bright young woman I met through a video game.

Today, Laura’s illness and disability have progressed to the point that she cannot spend a lot of time at the keyboard, so she is no longer submitting her own manuscripts to our group. She reads more now than ever before—125 books last year! Blew my mind! Her voracious reading is likely the reason she was one of the best commenters on fantasy that I’ve met. I have lots of writer friends giving me writerly advice, but Laura has a reader’s eye and an amazing understanding of genre conventions. That is a rare and valuable thing to a writer. Now Laura has made that keen insight available to all on her reviewers Web site. This is what she has to say about choosing that path:

For a long time, I was just a lurker hidden in the shadows of online reviewing. I would read these great, often indie published, books and have opinions. I often disagreed with other reviewers but never stated my mind. Then I thought, “You know what? I’ve read voraciously since I was seven, I think I have the right to validate my points.”

And so she did. She started reviewing on Amazon and then last year started her own blog—a very busy one at that! When asked what she likes to read, she says:

Anything and everything really, including the contents of the bathroom cupboard on those days you, well… just get stuck there! My favourite genres are science fiction and fantasy. I enjoy a good biography of somebody who has overcome great obstacles. I also read historical fiction and horror. That’s pretty much my order of preference.

So if you have a small-press or indie-published book (or one about to be published) and are looking for a good reviewer, today is your lucky day. Hop on over to Laura’s Web site, Laura of Lurking, and check out the more detailed submission guidelines. If she’s not accepting books for review, you can always email her to find out what her timeframe is till she opens up again. Like I said, she reads fast! Or if you just want to know what’s good out there in the indie and small-press community, she’s put up quite a list of candidates this past year and so her reviews can help you find a good book that suits you.

Laura has been an inspiration to me. She has every reason to be down most of the time. Instead she always greets me with wit and humor and the same voraciousness for life that she has for her reading. I sometimes wonder how she does it, and one day I finally asked. I will leave you with her answer to that, for it is good advice for us all:

What the future holds—who knows? Who really wants to? If you study the future, you’ll miss those little gems passing by right now.

Characters in Search of a Plot

I got invited to join my first SF/F writer’s group after attending a workshop at a Baycon many years ago. I was so excited! I had taken creative writing classes in college, and I had been part of a mixed-genre writer’s critique group for a couple of years. This was the first group dedicated to speculative fiction. They would understand me, at last! It had a couple of professionally published authors, along with novices like me. I had high hopes, back then, that with a little spit and polish my manuscript would be rescued from the slush pile, and I’d be the next Marion Zimmer Bradley.

Continue reading »

Well…My manuscript needed a little more than spit and polish. It had some serious problems. It wasn’t so much the writing itself. I had a pretty good handle on all the mechanical things like pacing, description, dialogue, and so forth. Some tweaks to world building, okay.

Where the whole thing fell apart was my grasp of the main characters’ emotions. Writer’s group became more like therapy sessions for me. I sat and listened to everything that was wrong with my character’s behavior week after week. It was hard not to take it personally. To hear them read aloud excerpts and laugh, I cringed and could not believe I wrote that badly. My heroine was a bitch. My hero was an asshole, a creep, and a stalker. My villain was ridiculous. Clearly my intentions were not coming across on the page.

Like many novice writers, I started to get defensive. I went to the Number One Cop-Out position, which is to say, “That’s just my character’s personality. There’s nothing I can do about it.” And week after week, my characters got dragged through the ringer as my writer’s group got more and more frustrated.

One day, a pro writer in the group sent out a global email to me and cc: to everybody. (I shall refer to this fellow as K. for anonymity’s sake.) It was a very long message in very strong language with lots of F words and such. But it was not a rambling attack like most of what you see on the internet. It was a detailed, well-constructed essay with lots of specific examples and analysis. It made total sense. I read it and somehow a light bulb went on in my head. I wish I had saved it, because that was the kick in the pants I needed.

Of what I recall, K. informed me that my characters come from my own mind. They are not independent entities acting in a dream world where I am merely the spectator. I realized at that moment that all the advice in writing books was wrong. It was a mistake to let the characters behave according to their own will, for the sake of making them seem real. My characters are not real. They are created in my head, and I have control of them. It is my job to keep track of inconsistency and the flow of action/reaction. As the author, every word on the page is my responsibility.

After K. sent out that email, the others in the group got very worried about me. One woman (I shall refer to her as B.) called me on the phone and asked, “Are you okay? Are you going to quit writing?” I just laughed, no. I surprised everyone by being glad for the tough love. Maybe I didn’t know how to fix the problem right away, but for the first time I understood the problem.

Moral of the story? Critique groups helped me grow as a writer but only when I moved beyond simply taking the punches and listened to the message.

About Denise Robarge Tanaka

Denise is a lifelong writer of magical beings and creator of fantastic worlds. Her debut novel, Touch, is being published by Phantasm Books of Assent Publishing towards the end of the year.