Six of us sat around an oval conference table. The instructor, who made seven, (we’ll call him Instructor) sat next to me. He chose not to sit at the head of the table. Intentional, perhaps. He announced the manuscript we would critique first, allowed us a moment to pull it from our bags and backpacks and then said, “Raise your hand if you didn’t like it.”
The group fell silent. One writer looked at the next who looked at the next. For a few, the conference was their first workshop experience. The others had experience, though perhaps were still not prepared for this.
“Excuse me,” one of the writers said.
“Raise your hand if you didn’t like it.”
“I don’t think that’s necessary,” the same writer said.
I raised my hand.
The group continued to exchange glances. One more hand went up. The rest stayed down.
Instructor pointed to one of the writers who had not raised a hand. “Why do you like it?”
The writer had no answer.
“You didn’t raise your hand. You liked it. Tell me why.”
Still, no answer.
“Then you,” Instructor said to the next writer who didn’t raise a hand.
She looked down on the manuscript she had marked up with red ink. “I guess I liked the idea of it,” she said. “I liked what it could be.” She flipped through a few pages and avoided looking at the author of the submission. “I guess I didn’t really like it.”
“I still don’t think this is necessary,” the writer who made the original objection said. “What purpose does it serve?”
“You liked it,” Instructor said. “Tell me why.”
“It doesn’t help to be mean,” the writer said.
Instructor looked at me. “Are you being mean?”
“Why did you say you didn’t like it?”
“Because I don’t.”
“Tell me why.”
And I told him.
I don’t remember all the reasons I didn’t care for the submission, but among them were a lack of plot, a fuzzy point of view, too many characters to keep track of, conspicuous dialogue tags, elaborate adverbs and heavy-handed filtering that removed me from the story….in short, many of the same mistakes I made in the manuscript I submitted when attending my first writers’ conference six months earlier. I was fortunate enough to have an instructor and peer group who were not hesitant about pointing out my many failings.
In the end, all of the other writers except the one who voiced the original objection had raised their hands to indicate that they didn’t care for the submission. We discussed the various reasons. Instructor used a white board, drew circles and lines to illustrate plot and flow of time, offered suggestions on how to fix the manuscript. No one criticized the author, just the work. She was crying by the end. I knew that was a good thing and told her so. “You’ll be better for it,” I said. I didn’t cry after my first workshop experience but only because my work was critiqued last, and I had the benefit of seeing eleven other strong, accomplished writers have their work dissected and scrutinized. My skin had six days to toughen up before I was workshopped for the first time.
After an hour and a half, we put away that author’s work. My story was the next to be critiqued.
Instructor said, “Raise your hand if you didn’t like it.”
Three hands shot in the air.