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I Took the Plunge and Maybe You Should, Too: Writing Workshops and Developmental Editors

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Around this time last year, my mom said four words guaranteed to keep anyone up at night.

“I found a lump.”

If that weren’t anxiety producing enough, a diagnostic mammogram required a referral and she had no primary care physician. Those accepting new patients were booked solid for months because so many had delayed routine care during the initial COVID surges.

Two things were clear. First, she was going to have a wait on her hands to find out what, if anything, that lump signified. Second, I was going to make a bad situation worse if I gave in to the existential terror the word ‘cancer’ provokes. That demon had already claimed both my grandmothers and an aunt. A second aunt was securely in its clutches and passed away a few weeks ago.

The manuscript languishing on my laptop was the obvious place to pour all my nervous energy, but panic and focus aren’t exactly a winning combination, especially when I’m stuck. I needed a sense of direction. Accountability. Deadlines.

I needed something like Kathryn Craft’s “Your Novel Year” class.

I’d considered taking it before. I knew Kathryn, I loved her novels, and I suspected I’d work well with her. Barreling through a shitty first draft isn’t something I’ve ever managed to do, though. If forced to participate in NaNoWriMo, I would be clinically insane by Thanksgiving.

It took a nudge from our own Therese Walsh, combined with a major life upheaval, to get me to take the plunge.

If you have ever wondered whether this class or something like it would be worth the time and expense for you, here are some things to consider.

Know your mentor/coach

Handing over unfinished work, particularly in the early stages, involves some major creative risk. Trust is an essential component to a successful working relationship. If you can meet your proposed mentor, at a conference or at least online, you will be better able to gauge their critique style, how flexible they may be, whether you find them approachable or intimidating, etc. Do they have published novels? If so, read them. If they don’t wow you, hesitate before signing any contracts. If your prose is uber-descriptive and theirs is spare, know that you will be encouraged to rein yourself in. This isn’t a dealbreaker if you are secure in your own voice. If prone to blindly follow every suggestion, proceed with extreme caution. Do they write in the same genre (ideal) or at least have a lot of experience with it? If you write women’s fiction and they write spy thrillers, your proposed mentor may have the biggest name and the greatest connections and still be of no actual help to you.

Know that this is an investment with no guarantees

Intensive workshops, especially those involving developmental edits and individualized coaching, aren’t cheap. You will be making an investment, financially and emotionally. To get the most out of the experience, you must be willing to sacrifice a significant chunk of time and energy. In exchange, you will very likely have an improved manuscript, maybe even one that is publication worthy. Many good novels, even great novels, still do not sell. Are you prepared for that possibility?

Know your process

If you are the sort of writer who sets word count goals of 1000 words a day and consistently meets them, you’ll have no issue keeping up with any intensive class. If, like me, you start off each writing session going back to the beginning of any chapter you are working on and adding another layer of polish before writing any new words, you may need a mentor who is open to reviewing revised work, too.

Is your comfort zone crippling you?

Not letting anyone see your work until, say, draft 25, may ensure that the beta readers see flawless prose. However, the most beautiful sentences in the world will do nothing for your manuscript if that chapter you spent a month on doesn’t move the story forward. A good developmental editor will pick up on that in draft one or two, which may save you twenty drafts of said chapter, and countless drafts in subsequent chapters.

(Yeah, guilty as charged on this one. Thanks, Kathryn.)

Also, the work will never be perfect. Waiting to show it to anyone until you internally debate the necessity of certain comma placements might just be a convenient excuse to spin your wheels indefinitely. If this sounds like you, forcing a break in that cycle might be liberating.

How thick is your skin?

If your chosen class involves developmental editing, and you’ve never been through that process before, be prepared for a lot of virtual red ink. Much of it may not be of the ‘rethink this sentence structure’ or ‘this gesture made me cry’ variety. You may have key points in your plot deconstructed or, worse, told that your story has no discernible plot at all. You may be told that your main character is unlikable or that their story goal is unclear. You may be asked why the reader should care about any of these people. Chances are good that feedback days will involve big emotions, both good and bad. If something is especially triggering, that is a good sign the editor is onto something. (Yes, I speak from experience.)

Better to hear this from a paid editor than an agent or a publisher.

There is no such thing as perfect timing

When I signed up for Your Novel Year, I thought that 2022 would be a time of high productivity. One child lives full-time in her college town. The other is still home but largely self-sufficient. I am lucky enough to not require a paycheck to survive. Had I known last December that this year would be spent ricocheting from one hardship and hassle to another, I would have claimed it would be impossible for me to get any writing done. I didn’t have staring down my own mortality and choosing to remove five organs from my body on my bingo card any more than my mom had cancer warrior on hers. Nevertheless, I persisted.

Set realistic goals

Had I been able to stay on pace, Your Novel Year would have allowed for a developmental edit of up to 300 pages of material. I knew that was unrealistic for me, though I had hoped to get to 200. Counting revisions, I’ve done that, but my actual page count in the novel just surpassed 100. Am I disappointed in myself? No. Do I feel the class was worth the time and investment? Absolutely. Those 100 pages are now rock-solid, and I have a clear path forward from here. This would not have happened without Kathryn’s guidance. (And no, she is not paying me to say that.)

What about you? Have you taken an intensive writing course? Worked with a coach? Hired a developmental editor? Was it helpful? Do you have any tips to share?

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