The Problem With Workshopping Novels

My writing group has been trying a new thing – workshopping complete novels. We have five people in the group, all of whom have written or are writing a novel, and it just seemed like the best way to do it. We tried it the traditional way, with people turning in chapters, alternating turns, but too much time went by between installments. The author was spending most of the meeting refreshing the memory of the others as to what happened in chapters before.

We are on our second book, now, and I have to say, I love this method! This method is way better. It is so much more helpful to have someone read your book all the way through and make general comments than to analyze in-depth what a character says, say, in Chapter 16.  Plus, we meet for dinner, now. We drink wine. We make the meeting a celebration for the author who finished the book. And the books have been great! I’ve enjoyed both of them immensely.

What do you think about our new method? I’d love to hear what other writing groups do about the problem of workshopping novels.

23 thoughts on “The Problem With Workshopping Novels

  1. That sounds productive. I’ve never been in a workshop where I had to workshop novels, just short stories, novellas, and poetry, so we never had to split anything up, and I liked it that way, otherwise, as you said, the author would have to refresh memories. There were two writers who did submit a chapter at a time of their novella in progress along everyone else’s short stories. Everything went along smoothly for the most part, but after a few weeks, we’d often forget certain parts that were in the first chapter that went along with something in the fourth chapter that we were currently reading. So, I understand what you’re saying.
    Dinner and wine while critiquing seems like a lot of fun! It’s so much fun to be able to get into the imagination of another.

  2. Love this idea! I just joined a brand new crit group and we’re still ironing out the details. I’m going to suggest this method and see what they think.

  3. In my writers’ group, we do what you used to do – take it in turns to supply a random chapter for feedback. I’ve found this approach to have benefits and weaknesses. It particularly works when someone has a ‘problem’ chapter that they want advice on.

    However, we do have the issue of not understanding/remembering context etc. I’d love to share whole novels (or at least more sizable chunks) but most of our group just don’t have time for that level of commitment. So that’s what my beta reader groups are for. Hope this new approach continues to work well for you. 🙂

  4. That sounds like such a brilliant idea. While there’s something nice about having someone egg you on and encourage you as you’re writing your ms, getting feedback on the whole thing – and giving it too – must work so much better than trying to work through it on a sporadic basis!

  5. We do chapters at a time and there are times when I really want to try the whole book approach. It sounds like a really good option. Question: is everyone in your group writing books? We have some people who are focusing on short stories right now … Not sure how to handle that.

    • Yes, we’re all writing books. Sometimes someone will write a short story and we’ll look at that, but for the most part it’s been chapters. You can always ask the people in the group who do have a book if they want to exchange. A couple good readers may be all you need.

  6. I’ve done both and they each have their strengths. On a chapter by chapter level, I feel like it’s hard to remember what happened in a previous chapter and then others can forget something crucial by the time it comes into play. But it also offers more of an in depth look at chapter and sentence level stuff. I feel like the workshop way is great for book structure, character development, and can help with overall flow and pace. It just depends, but both are great and are helpful for your book.

    Great post 🙂 Have fun with your group! Sounds like you have great get together’s!

  7. Hi, Kirsten, One of the groups I meet with is taking this approach now. Well, we aren’t meeting for dinner and wine yet, but we are planning to read total revisions instead of chapter-by-chapter, and it’s very motivating. Hope you are still enjoying the process. I’d like to keep in touch with how it’s working. This is the first time for us.

  8. That’s a great idea! One reason I switched from a larger critique group to a few critique partners is that the rotation slowed everyone down. This sounds like a nice way to keep the group together and still be productive!

  9. Wah-ho Kirsten! This is exactly what’s happening in my crit group. I spent 9 months getting my first book through critiques. And I have to say that I think it’s vital to do the section by section approach for your first book instead of the whole book at once. That way you can find out what your weaknesses are and by the time you’re writing your second book, you’ll know yourself a lot better.

    But there were a lot of flaws with that method that frustrated me, so for our second books, we’re doing one person’s whole book at once. I’m amazed at the difference! I’m able to enjoy the stories so much more and see so many things with a clearer vision such as plot, characters, mood, etc. This method doesn’t work for everyone – I think it depends on how you work creatively. I, myself, can’t write while critiquing along the way. It wrecks my creativity and vision. (My first book was finished and edited before I started running it through a crit group.) But another lady in my group wrote fantastically, having her work critiqued as she went.

    I’m glad to hear this is working well for someone else. I was worried I was doing my writing a disfavor by discontinuing line by line edits. We’ll have to keep in touch to see if it’s still going well for both of us. Thanks! And thanks for hanging out and commenting on my blog! You’re awesome!

  10. I think it’s awesome that you have people to share your work with at all. I haven’t been able to find people to actually meet with. Glad it’s working so superbly for you!

  11. Our ECW group did 10 pages. Did you do a book a month? Big picture sounds better than chapter edits to me, except you’ve gotta do those sometime. I thought I was coming to read challenge #2. There’s still time. I’m number 52. I also have a chocolate follower contest.

    • It generally takes us a couple months to critique each book. When we finish working through them all, we’ll go back to monthly meetings. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll be sure to check out your challenge entry and your chocolate follower contest.

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