by Jeremiah Tolbert
When I first decided to take up writing as a serious pursuit, I figured the best way to get started was to ask a writer for advice. My lucky break was that Connie Willis happened to be in town to give a reading, and she gave me a wonderful tutorial in the basics; just Connie, her husband, and my wife, talking for a couple of hours in a Laramie bookstore. I owe a lot to Connie’s early advice. It was basic stuff that I needed, like, submit your work. Keep writing. Go to workshops.
Of course she talked up real world workshops like Clarion, but at the time, I didn’t think Clarion was something I could ever swing, and I had barely begun to actually write. But she also mentioned in passing hearing about some online writer’s workshop for SF/F. This, I could do.
So I signed up for what was, at the time, the Del Rey Online Writer’s Workshop, and later was dropped by Del Rey and just became the OWW.
This is not an attack piece on the OWW, which you may be expecting after my slightly incendiary title. It’s more about human nature, and how we kill each other with kindness sometimes.
I finished my first stories because I was eager to show off what I thought were sparkling ideas. This was before I discovered that ideas are a dime a dozen. I was enamored with my ideas then. I thought my prose could use a lot of work, probably, and it never even occurred to me to bother learning things like plotting or characterization.
Boy, was I dumb as rocks. Problem was, my early submissions to the workshop did little to disabuse me of the idea. They had this rating system where you could give a story 1–5 on a number of categories and then give detailed feedback. And you had to give critiques to be able to post stuff. Most of the other writers were in the same place as me, or a little further ahead. Few of us had sold anything major.
I garnered a lot of 4–5 ratings on my early stuff. They had something called the Editor’s Choice where professional authors, or Del Rey’s staff, would provide a detailed critique in the monthly newsletter. This was the brass ring you really wanted to gain, and I lucked out with a couple of early pieces getting selected. Those critiques were a great balance of encouraging and helpfully pointed. But the rest of us… I think a lot of us were afraid of being too negative to each other. If someone joined the workshop and was brutally honest, they found, over time, few people would return to read their work. There were a lot of folks to choose from.
I took rejections pretty hard early on. I couldn’t understand it; the “workshop” loved my stuff, didn’t it? How come I couldn’t sell anything? I was baffled. False confidence was a bitch to handle.
Also, after some time, I attempted to write things to impress others on the workshop more than trying to write something meaningful to myself. I bounced all over in tone, topic, genre. It was a great learning experience, but I wasn’t writing for the right reasons after a while. It took several years for me to start to question what I really had to say. I’m still questioning myself on that quite a bit.
Eventually, I got lucky, sold a couple of things. Continued failing largely, though. I drifted from the workshop as I matured a bit, but by the time I stopped paying and using the service, I’d made friends with other writers at my same general level of career, and we just handed stories around via email.
That’s when things got a lot more productive, I think. After a few years of knowing each other, we could be more honest. Critiques were more pointed. I learned a lot in that period of time, maybe more than when I was an active “structured workshop” participant.
I wonder if the workshop slowed me down by giving me too much praise early on from writers like me who didn’t know any better yet. But maybe not. Too much discouragement would have shut me down entirely, as it did when I was a teen writer. The leaders of the workshop , including Charles Coleman Finlay, did a great job building a good community for fostering talent. Many writers–some I consider great friends– have come out of that community and gone on to amazing careers.
Things turned out the way they did, and I can speculate all day on how they could have been different, but I’m comfortable with how things have turned out. I still have plenty of room for growth, and that’s the way I want it. But if a new writer were to ask me for advice, I think I’d tell them to take the early positive critiques with more skepticism than I did, and to also be more willing to listen to the negative viewpoints than I was. And write for yourself, above all others.
Jeremiah Tolbert is a writer, photographer, and web designer living in Northeast Kansas. His fiction has appeared in magazines including Fantasy, and Interzone, and anthologies including Way of the Wizard. For additional information, visit his blog, where this post first appeared.