Why I Workshop

It was January of 1987 when I decided to make professional publication my goal. I’d completed one novel, which still has never sold (and shouldn’t ever see the light of day,) and on that dreary winter afternoon I began another. I also bought my first copy of Writers’ Digest at the Hendersonville Bookstore, which is now a nail salon.

Of course I was clueless. I’d been writing as a hobbyist since I was twelve, but didn’t have the faintest idea where to look for a chink in the battlement of professional publishing. I’d never heard the term “over the transom,” and the Internet at that point was limited to government employees, university students, small, isolated bulletin boards. and Usenet. I was five years away from buying my first computer, and spent my days typing out my early work on a $75 manual typewriter. A year later, having completed and polished my second novel, I took it down to the printing shop to photocopy it, and began sending it out.

Then I went to work on my third unsold manuscript.

I only ever sent my work to professional publishers (nowadays called “royalty” or “traditional” publishers), because back then self-publishing, or “vanity” publishing, cost far more money than I had just lying around, and I had no desire to become a book distributor. Print-on-demand didn’t exist. Ebooks were a distant dream that smacked of Star Trek. Traditional publishing was what we just called “publishing.” I wrote manuscripts and sent them to New York, and the machine I wrote them on did not have an electrical plug, never mind a monitor.

Four years and four unsold manuscripts later, frustration crept in and I began to realize I was getting nowhere. I’d subscribed to Writers’ Digest and read it every month, but it told me nothing that wasn’t known by every other yahoo with a typewriter looking for an editor or agent. One of those things it told us all was when and where there were workshops all over the country. Workshop. It rang in my ears like vacation. No interruptions, no distractions, no worries but to put one word next to another.

I found one in Louisville, KY, a week-long novels retreat in the dead of winter, when my husband was home and could run the household while I was gone. I took a Christmas job in the gift-wrapping department of Castner Knott, and earned enough cash to pay for the trip and tuition.

The Green River Writers’ first Novels In Progress Workshop in January 1991 was, for me, better than a vacation. It was a palpable step in the right direction. Each day I was there I only wrote, read books, and talked about writing and books. My mentor was Jim Wayne Miller, a noted Appalachian poet and award-winning novelist. Each evening students would hang out in the dorm lobby, chatting long into the night about the craft of writing. Some were poets just trying their hand at long form fiction. Some, like me, were committed novelists who rarely wrote short stories, much less poetry. In that one week I was steeped in the craft, then when the weekend came we all got to meet with editors and agents flown in from New York and North Carolina.

I had hives. I’d met rock stars without flinching, but I’d never before spoken to a genuine editor or agent and had no clue what to expect. Turned out these were very kind people, but weirdly none of them had any interest in fiction. Odd they should come to a novels workshop, but still I came away with a far better sense of the business than I’d had going in. It was experience I could use in future cover letters, and I did.

I attended the GRW NIPW for two more years as a student. Every year I learned something important. Each time I went, the support and camaraderie charged my batteries for the work of writing and submitting that work during the following year. I always went with the knowledge I was making good use of my time, and the conviction I was moving closer to publication. I figured if I kept improving as a writer, eventually they would have to publish my work.

My third year I had the most astonishing compliment from Jim Wayne Miller, who was again my mentor. I’d brought my guitar because I liked to play during breaks from the writing. One day I was alone in the dorm lobby, playing and singing “Darkness on the Edge of Town.” Jim Wayne arrived, and headed for his office, but he stopped to listen. When I finished, he asked, “Did you write that?”

I wish. I replied, “No, that’s Bruce Springsteen.”

He proceeded toward his door, but said as he went, “Oh. Sounds like you.”

I was flattered into little, bitty pieces and got scattered all over the floor. Yes, I’m bragging. For a writer, those moments are few and far between, and we must make the most of them.

In any case, I did make actual progress with my writing from the workshopping. My confidence improved, my actual skill improved so that, starting with my sixth unsold manuscript they began to become truly publishable.

It took another several years and an equal number of unsold manuscripts before I finally sold my thirteenth novel from an outline. For several years after that I taught at that same workshop. I learned as much by mentoring as I had as a student. This year I intend to go looking for a retreat for professionals, where I can spend a week or so doing nothing but writing, reading, and talking about writing and reading.

I feel like a vacation.

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