Ways to be Helpful when Workshopping

So, I’m in two courses right now for workshopping fiction, and it’s striking me how utterly bad at it certain people are. This is a collection of my knowledge gained just this week alone.

It’s been a long week, and next week my work is going up for trial again (just submitted a piece), but I had a very particular experience workshopping the first chapter of my novel, Children of Conflict.

Sometimes, when you get someone else’s work and you’re asked to read and comment on it, you totally get it, and every comment you make is helpful. That’s always a great moment. That’s a rare sort of thing, though, and you’re much more likely to not quite get it, and even sometimes not get it at all.

Because this is the most common situation, actually, not quite getting it, I think it’s very important to be a kind as possible when workshopping. I mean, obviously be honest. Be blunt where you have to, but be nice about it.

The first step in this is by being sure to say that you like something if you like it. And if you can’t find anything you like, think really hard. There must be SOMETHING they’re doing well, even if it’s just using a word you like.

The second step is tempering all negative comments. A comma out of place is a comma out of place, but just because you don’t like the tone of something, or don’t think they’ve used the right word, doesn’t always mean you’re right. They might have carefully selected that tone and simply need to refine it, or they may have picked that word for very specific reasons you simply aren’t getting. Not all writing is the same, nor should it be. Avoid harsh language. Delivering such comments in person can be tempered by tone of voice, but when you write it down, the words stand out starkly for themselves.

Delicacy is key.

Finally, the most important thing to remember when workshopping is to be constructive. Be kind. You’re meant to give advice that’s helpful, not tear someone down utterly. Even if you think you’re being constructive, you might not be, so if you’re worried that your comments are too harsh, run them by someone else first! You may not be the target audience, but at least you can try to think like the target audience.

As with everything in life, it’s usually better to err on the side of nice, especially if you’re not very good friends and know that writer’s emotional limits or even their train of thought with the piece.




Music to Write To

Obviously, everyone writes to different music, if they write to music at all. I know that some people are “white noise” people, or “total silence” people, and that’s fine. I’m a music person by-and-large. I have my total-silence moments.

I have tried literally every genre of music while writing. Literally. Everything.

My current playlist, however, is fifteen songs long, and I’m going to detail all of them. This is the shortest playlist of any kind I’ve ever made, so it’s a big deal for me. I’m going to talk about them in no particular order. Just what’s playing as I type.

1. Augustana, Boston

This song is upbeat, sad but perky, which is just the sort of anomaly I love in my music. The music video, although irrelevant when writing, is also a strange sort of The Awakening moment of sad people playing instruments as the tide comes in. There’s just something about seeing a whole beach full of pianos that fits in with this playlist perfectly.

2. Matt Nathanson, Suspended

This is flat out one of my favorite of his songs, and I love EVERYTHING he’s ever done. And if you didn’t know, that’s a lot of music. I have a live version on my playlist, although I have the album version as well. In a lot of ways, I like this live version best, though. It’s just Matt Nathanson and his guitar, in that stripped-down way that all of his live shows are.

3. Ron Pope, In My Bones

I stumbled across this song literally days ago and I’m so in love with it I don’t even know how to express how wonderful it made me feel, hearing this song for the first time. First of all, the more Ron Pope I hear, the happier I feel about modern music. But it’s also just a beautifully written piece of music. The lyrics are perfection. If I tried to pick out my favorite lyric I would probably fill up the rest of this post with all of the lyrics because I wouldn’t be able to choose one. But I’ll give myself two runs: “I can’t hate you if you’re not here,” and “The truth about the two of us is we don’t make no sense. When we made love our love was just pretend. Now I’m trying to forget her while I feel her in my bones and I wonder if she thinks of me at all.” I mean, does it get better than that? NO. No, it doesn’t.

4. Fifth Harmony, Who Are You

As some of you know, I watched X-Factor when these girls were on the show (haven’t watched the most recent season, so don’t ask me about it), and I voted for them. I’m a big supporter of their work and think they’ve done a tremendous job, out of all the contestants, of the path to superstardom. They have lovely, powerful voices and they pick songs that work well for their blend, their age, and their audience. This song is a beautiful ballad, which is a great contrast to their upbeat girly anthems that really define them. I just think it’s beautiful. If they made an album just of ballads, I would buy it, no questions asked.

5. Matt Nathanson, Pretty The World

This is a more upbeat song, and has some really well-done poetic lines. It’s also really fun to sing in the shower, if you’re looking for that sort of song as well. I like the lines in particular about “bolded all your best words to have something to wrap their mouths around.” I just think that’s one of the best lines ever in anything. I’m not really sure why, but more than even “Modern Love,” this song really just sticks in my head and makes me want to dance and sing. For those of you who like “Modern Love,” they’re actually very similar songs, even content-wise.

6. Alter Bridge, Broken Wings

This is potentially my favorite song of all time. I was on Twitter one day, ages ago, when James Phelps said that he was running to this song, and I looked it up and FELL IN LOVE with Alter Bridge. This song is still my favorite, the most poetic, and one of the more chill non-ballads. I even have this on the playlist I fall asleep to, it’s that chill. That’s why I think it’s non-distracting enough to write to.

7. Ron Pope, Headlights on the Highway

This is another beautiful, perfect, poetic example of why Ron Pope is excellent. Just the opening line gets stuck in my head at the strangest times. I’m not even entirely sure what that line means, but it’s fantastic. That’s part of why I love it so much. Maybe this is just me, but I have this thing about things I don’t understand…. I tend to like them more for not being able to understand them.

8. Hinder, Better than Me

This is one of only two rock songs on this playlist. I’ve listened to a lot of Hinder, but I keep coming back to this song, over and over, and I truly think that it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. The music video creeps me out. I’m not going to lie, I can’t watch the whole thing. But it’s the sort of song I think of when I look back on my darker years of life and I think it captures those sorts of emotions beautifully.

9. Ron Pope, Fireflies

I actually have a version of this that’s some sort of special studio performance of it. It’s lovely. I can’t think of a single line of this song that isn’t poetically perfect. If I had to pick a favorite one, it’s probably, “It suddenly rains on us. She’s laughing and turns up her hands.” It’s a representative line because the verses are very much episodes of a certain sort of romance, and it’s that episodic nature I appreciate most as a writer.

10. Josh Groban, Higher Window

I sing this in the shower as well. All the time. Josh Groban is arguably one of the best vocalists of our generation. The thing I really love about him, though, is his impeccable song choice. It doesn’t matter what language he’s singing in or who is making a guest appearance in the piece or even what sorts of strange instruments he’s throwing in, whether it’s an original or a cover, Josh Groban finds pieces he can knock out of the park and make every person who has ever sang want to sing along.

11. Damien Rice, Cannonball

This song is the epitome of chill. It’s actually ridiculous, but I didn’t even listen to the lyrics the first dozen times I heard it because it just lulls you into thinking it’s background music. The lyrics are sort of sweet and strange, but they do make me happy when I do think about them, so that’s a good sign. I actually discovered this song on the Pandora station that was a playlist Selena Gomez created. Great playlist, actually. This was just one of many songs I fell in love with.

12. Ron Pope, A Drop in the Ocean

This song was actually my introduction to Ron Pope. It’s a beautiful, melancholy song, and excellent as a shower song as well. In fact, my discovery of many of the songs on this list stems from my obsession with this song from the moment I heard it. And a surprising number of people also know this song, for a song that I’ve never actually heard on the radio. I was introduced to it by a girl in one of my courses over a year ago who was bonding with me over music while we waited for class to start.

13. Missy Higgins, Where I Stood

It’s probably not possible to not fall in love with this song. Her voice is sultry and soulful and it’s a poetic relation of a highly relatable material. My brother and I have decided that she’s a mix of Sara Barelleis and Colby Callait, which we think is an excellent mix. This particular song deserves to be, as it is, her best known song. It is a very universal sentiment, and stated vaguely enough to still be poetic, not just popular. As a professor once said, poetry is the ability to be personal and universal at the same time, and this song strikes that balance brilliantly.

14. Sixpence None the Richer, Kiss Me

This just has to be the ultimate feel-good song. It’s been around for ages, been popular for ages, and somehow people never seem to get sick of it. I’ve used this song in fanfiction. I’ve used this song in just about every happy playlist I’ve ever made. It’s on my baking playlist. It’s on my dancing playlist. It’s just good for every occasion.

15. Bastille, Pompeii

When I first heard this song months ago, I didn’t get it. But I listened to it, over and over, because it was on a station I was listening to a lot, and eventually it sort of seeped into my consciousness in the way good songs do. A couple of months after I first heard it, I got excited every time I heard it. Although, I have to say, I heard the acoustic version the other day and was underwhelmed, which rarely happens with acoustic versions, even with songs heavy in electronic elements, like Passion Pit’s “Take a Walk.”