Selecting Workshops

Writing workshops can be the best part of a nascent writing career. You get to know other new writers who understand your starry-eyed ramblings and your labored explanations of your book. You meet working writers, glean their wisdom, and sometimes hang out with publishing professionals! You can work on a pitch, or a piece that is workshopped in a critique group, and receive invaluable feedback.

Yet all those perks can also make the workshop awful. A vicious, badly moderated critique group can leave you in tears. If a publishing professional doesn’t articulate themselves well, you could get your heart broken and see your work as unsaleable. (Note: nothing is truly unsaleable in publishing.)

So how do you pick one?

Because there are quite a lot!

(That list isn’t even comprehensive, but it’s a good place to start.)

I have been involved with three local workshops near my home in Bellingham, Washington: the Clarion West Summer Workshop, the Chuckanut Writers Conference, and the Cascade Writers Three-Day Workshop.

They’re very different. Chuckanut is huge, with a lot of A-list writers who have penned bestsellers. It takes up most of a community college and a couple of meeting rooms at a bookstore. Chuckanut is also likely to be aimed at a beginning writer or a writer mostly focused on craft. Programming shows that the majority of classes are about particular elements of craft and sometimes resemble literary discussions like what one would see in a lit class.

Cascade is smaller, cheaper, more intimate, and packed with writers who have sold books recently. Cascade is also, as you can tell by looking at the guests, entirely science fiction-focused, while Chuckanut reaches across genres. Cascade has fewer than fifty people and thus greater access to working agents and editors, so it is a great bet for people trying to break in with a finished science fiction manuscript.

Clarion West is one of the most famous workshops in science fiction. Unlike the others, which last three days, it lasts *gasp* six weeks. Each week is dedicated to writing one short story, and is taught by major writers. And it’s big news. It has local parties, ancillary one-day workshops, special guests, and it’s actually pretty cheap for six weeks of room and board and teaching. But it’s clearly the most expensive in associated costs, because you’ll be taking six weeks off work.

Which one?

There are three factors to take into account: 1) your goals as a writer, 2) the time you have available, and 3) the cost.

In the case of 1, a semi-pro writer with a published manuscript might benefit from something like Cascade: small, with face-to-face groups. It’s small enough to get face time with working publishing professionals and will only require three days off work, depending on travel.

If you’re just struggling to finish a project, something the size of Chuckanut might be a better bet for the wide array of craft topics.

And if you’re determined to hone your craft, to be the best writer you can be, and to level up, Clarion West, or its cousins Clarion San Diego and Odyssey, could be great. This is especially true if you are unemployed, or have the summer off—and more so if you can score one of their scholarships. (If not, Viable Paradise, at one week, and Taos Toolbox, at two, are pretty good by-audition-only options.)

You’ll notice that none of those workshops are particularly focused on self-publishing. There are good conferences for that—the 20 Books to 50k symposium springs to mind—but as I haven’t delved into that realm, I can’t speak to it. You do have to be careful with the number of services being sold to self-publishers. Always remember, in self-pub, the advice of Smashwords founder Mark Coker: “In the self-pub gold rush, more money will be made in author services than book sales.”

Self-published books succeed for the same reasons traditionally published books do. They’re good, and they have a solid marketing push. Anyone selling you a no-fail money method and promising you the moon… *insert sound of oily snake.*

It may be that your money could be better spent on a professional editor. In that case, establish their bona fides just like you would with a conference. Your editor should be working in the field, ideally a working publishing writer who has some experience with publications or an editor who has worked with a major house. Absolute Write has a good section of listed editors.

But there are major pointers for conferences. A good conference doesn’t just mean good craft. It means you’ll make good friends. As I said, you’ll sit down with people and share in their stories and their loves and talk books and shared writer frustrations.

Whatever conference you end up at, bright-eyed, coffee-loaded, with a fresh notebook in hand…have fun! Grab a drink, coffee, or lunch with other writers. Go to the game nights, the write-ins, and the restaurant next door. Participate in the open mic (but don’t go over your time). The conference will bless your craft, but the friends will bless your whole life.

Further reading: 30 Fantastic Writers Conferences For Authors, Bloggers & Freelancers

Spencer Ellsworth

Spencer Ellsworth has been writing since he learned how. He is the author of The Great Faerie Strike, out in August 2019 from Broken Eye Books, and the Starfire Trilogy of space opera novels from Tor. He lives in Bellingham, WA, with his wife and three children, writes, edits and works at a small tribal college, and would really like a war mammoth if you’ve got one lying around.