Are Writing Workshops & Mentorships Worth It?
Hi, my name's Katja, and I'm a workshop junkie.
Seriously, I love workshops. I love learning new things. I like hearing different viewpoints and expanding my understanding of the writing process. I have never NOT learned something from a workshop. Sometimes I come back with my world changed, other times, I'm grateful for the experience and have just one or two small things I plan on rolling into my writing routine.
Writing is a strange beast. Everyone's process is different, but we all end up with a book-shaped thing at the end. I have writing friends who's first drafts are super solid. My first drafts are chaotic and it normally takes me 2-3 revisions before I can consider it solid. Because my process from idea to polished manuscript takes a bit longer, I'm always looking for ways to simplify and streamline it. Which is where workshops and mentorships come in.
Publishing is a hard road--from writing and revising your manuscript to querying and navigating agent passes, to watching members of your writing group reach milestones and receive recognition while you're still spinning your wheels. And of course, even when you achieve milestones like getting an agent or landing a publishing contract, it still continues to be fraught with unexpected roadblocks.
At every stage of the game, agents and editors and readers are looking for you to step up your game. And whether you're just beginning on your journey or you're looking for ways to level up, one way to improve your craft and build your writing community is to attend workshops and apply for mentorships.
As a workshop and mentorship junkie, I've attended a lot! Both in-person and on-line and I even managed to snag a coveted mentorship from a published author. Yet, here I am still unagented and unpublished. No, it's not going to be that kind of blog where I bemoan how troubled and discouraging writing can be. But I think it's REALLY important to note that I've done all the suggested things. I've worked, I've paid for workshops, I've won free critiques, I had a game-changing mentorship. And has it improved my craft? HECK YES. Has it achieved my current goal of securing agent representation. HECK NO.
So let's parse this out a bit more. Workshops and mentorships are not direct routes to becoming a published author. We see tweets and blog posts from mentees (usually Pitchwars) who were catapulted from obscurity into having an agent and being published. These are all well and good (and really, who doesn't love a success story?). But the majority of writers still get traditional representation the old fashioned way--trudging through the Valley of Query Hell. Some of those mentees had several mentorships. Some of them signed with agents and they still haven't sold a project. In the world of social media, we mostly only see the big, flashy, feel good stories. This is changing and we're seeing more posts about the absence of "success," which I'm personally a fan of. The realist in me appreciates seeing how others who aren't hitting the milestones they want handle there disappointments and keep moving forward.
Which is why I wanted to write this ode to workshops. To learning the craft of writing. To building a community of writers, to challenging yourself to grow, and to preserver even when you aren't getting the results you've aimed for (aka: outside validation of your writing by traditional publishing)
Before we go any further, I want to address the privilege that allows me to participate in these things. I'm a white woman, queer, disabled (able-bodied passing), I have a job that provides me with health care, has steady, regular hours, and after 16 years, I am making a wage that puts me towards the upper-middle of the middle class. I don't have a partner. Or kids. I am responsible only for me (and my doggo and cat!). There's a mixed bag here, but it all adds up to privilege that allows me to participate in workshops and mentorships.
Middle Class Wages allows for *fun* things that go beyond my basic financial needs
Steady job hours/calendar: As a teacher, I know when I have to work and when I have time to participate in these things. The hours rarely change.
No partner/kids: This means no one else to plan around or to worry about
Supportive Family & Friends: I don't have kids, but I do have pets. If my parents didn't watch Bellamy while I traveled or my friends couldn't check on my cat & water my plants, a lot of these wouldn't be possible.
Attending workshops isn't just about paying the fee for the workshop. You have to take into account travel, childcare, transportation, hotel fees, and costs of eating out. Many places offer scholarships for the workshop fees, which is fantastic, but even with those scholarships, many can't afford all the rest. So I acknowledge that I am privileged in being able to attend these based on my identity and place in the socio-economic strata of the world. (is that a thing? socio-economic strata? It sounds super cool. I'm rolling with it, even though I probably just made it up!)
Now that we've got all the fine print out of the way, what are my THREE big take aways on why workshops and mentorships are worth pursuing?
This is why you applied or signed up in the first place, right? The best thing you can do is go with an open mind. Listing out all the fabulous things I've learned at workshops would end up being like this scroll GIF. Some things I took to heart and do exactly the way the instructor presented it. Some things I've adapted to fit my specific needs. And sometimes, I learned really cool things or got insightful tips from other attendees (more on them in a second!). But you've come to LEARN and so you need to be open to that.
Even if seems unhelpful, think about why you feel it's unhelpful and then what you might change to make it work for you. And have those discussions with your fellow workshoppers or the instructor. Sometimes this takes a few hours or days or even weeks. I've had ideas seeded in my mind at a workshop and sometimes it just takes time to see the full wisdom and brilliance of them. Or, alternately, I wasn't at a place where that information or strategy applied, then I get to it and BAM! I'm prepared. This is also partially my learning style. I like to listen, to hear all the different ideas and then steal bits and pieces of them and make them into my own writing process. I'm like a dragon, hoarding the shiny bits of knowledge. Most workshops and mentorships reflect what you put into them. So if you want a stellar experience, then go prepared to be a stellar student. Often times, this means LISTENING and making the changes, and putting your own ego to the side. Push out of your comfort zone and DO! THE! THING!
One of the big advantages of participating in these events is the chance to build your writing network. Admittedly, this is hard for me, I want to just sit and observe but not participate, so this is something I need to actively push myself to do. At in person workshops, it's a bit easier because it's harder to ignore the person sitting at your table and I'll eventually be roped into conversation. In discord or zoom, it's much easier to become part of the background and fall into full on lurker mode. This also varies depending on the size of the discord or zoom call. I'm currently in a discord that has HUNDREDS of people in it and lots of authors I look up to and ngl, I'm just like, wait, we're here, together, and I NEED TO FANGIRL OVER YOUR STUFF. Which I've never had an author be upset about (they tend to love it!) but I always struggle with wanting to present myself professionally and staring at them like I'm a five year old who just met a unicorn doesn't necessarily fulfill that desire. But I am definitely awestruck by authors who I get to interact with on a personal basis whether it's through an online workshop or in person.
Networking is NOT introducing yourself to some big name author/editor/publisher and shooting your shot. That's a weird movie stereotype that completely bastardizes the purpose of networking. Instead, networking is making meaningful connections between you and other writers, regardless of what their place is in the publishing food chain. This is about building community and connections, so treat those people you've never heard of with as much care as you do the NYT best sellers. Don't pursue big asks. Don't ask for a referral from someone you just met or look at them for the connections they could offer you. Instead, offer your expertise, let people know how you're able to support them. I'm really good with horse stuff, so while it has rarely been called upon, I let my fellow writers know that I'm absolutely willing to help them navigate any bits in their stories that involve horses. Likewise, I really love brainstorming plot problems. It's one of my favorite things. So I offer these things and encourage them to reach out to me
One of the best parts of participating in workshops or mentorships is the energy I get from them. In a mentorship, it's that validation that THIS PERSON CHOSE YOU. They read my work and had a vision of how it could be better and that is just so refreshing in the publishing world when a lot of it is filled with passes and rejections. The feeling of being selected is invigorating. So much of writing is built on the community that encourages and supports you. When I'm drafting I rely on my writing friends to cheer and scream over any snippets I send them. No context, sometimes they are clunky, but they CHEER. And I (like many writers) need that to keep going. Yes, I write for myself, but I still crave that recognition.
Workshops and mentorships check off that box. When I leave a workshop, I am so excited to write. I've just had fabulous conversations with other writers. I've exchanged ideas and encouragement. I've been shown new aways to look at things and I'm not only refreshed, but I'm ready to tackle whatever's been holding me up in my own writing journey whether it's a revision, querying, or drafting. I feel ready to conquer it. The motivational high that follows these work sessions is just so, so, so, so good. Getting that dynamic interaction is the perfect pick me up whenever I start to feel a bit burnt out. It's not a cure for burn out, but if you can recognize early signs, it might help to course correct and prevent that burn out from becoming an actual thing.
It's not always excitement and laughs...
Not every workshop or mentorship is going to knock your socks off. Sometimes you have brilliant writers who just can't teach their craft. Sometimes you go expecting X and it turns into Y and you have to suffer through it (hopefully those are zoom workshops where you can turn off your camera and dip out quietly...)I've been to workshops that have rocked my world and workshops that made me cringe from how inaccurate and unhelpful they were. But no matter what, even from those really bad workshops, I learned something (even if it was just how to NOT run a workshop). I'm also a teacher--so I'm not only judging the material being presented, I'm judging how it's presented. How prepared is the instructor? Do you engage me with their presentation and are they able to answer questions. Sometimes it comes down to a clash of personalities. No matter what, try to find positive things to take away with you. There's as much value in learning what doesn't work for you as what does.
Are you ready to dive in? Here are a few places you can look for workshops and mentorships. There are lots more out there, but here's a few places to start!
In the end, I've gained so much from each experience. I've become a better writer. I've had fantastic people offer help and I've made genuine connections in the writing world. It's not what I set out for. My initial focus was entirely on getting traditionally published. And that's still my goal, but I've learned to enjoy the journey. Querying is the worst. And from what I've heard, being on sub is a worser-worst. So knowing I have the tools in my tool box to keep myself afloat and to know I have an amazing network of writing friends is what keeps me going.
What are your thoughts on workshops and mentorships? If you've participated in either, what did you love about it? What other things do you consider when decided whether to sign up or not? Tell me in the comments!