April 18, 2004
The Loneliness of the Niche Genre Writer

Finding the perfect writers’ workshop is like finding the right therapist, and for some of the same reasons. So when you find the right fit, with writers whose professional expertise you respect and whom you can comfortably trust, you’ll do just about anything to preserve it. Even moving the workshop online.

When Kim Ablon Whitney was working on her M.F.A. degree at Emerson, she found that ideal, nurturing workshop.

“We trust each other as readers and as writers,” Whitney says of her five-member group. “We workshop each others’ works in progress and we also definitely offer each other lots of moral support and try to help each other in any way possible in terms of sharing contacts, marketing ideas, etc.”

And, because they all worked in a niche genre, young adult novels, they shared common themes and concerns. The group worked so well that, after the members finished their degrees, they wanted to continue, even though that meant shifting the workshop from their living rooms to their computers.

“Two members moved out of town, so we started the online group in order to keep the group going,” says Whitney, whose first novel, See You Down the Road, won the 2001 Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators Judy Blume/Work-in-Progress Grant for a Contemporary Young Adult Novel and the 2002 PEN New England Children’s Book Caucus Discovery Award.

The online workshop was its own work in progress. At first each writer just submitted comments on a work directly to its author. But they soon missed the give-and-take quality of an in-person discussion, so they began using an online tracking function where each person could offer and view comments. Whitney notes it’s still second-best to sitting around a table. But she’s discovered an unexpected benefit, the flexibility of reading submissions and making comments on her own time schedule, as long as she does it within the specified time.

Why go to such lengths for a workshop? For one thing, because it provides community in a lonely business. For another, because a workshop can help you be a better writer and a more perceptive reader. The risky downside is exposing unfinished work to critical review. And, as Whitney says, writers are filled with doubts.

“We’re always wondering if the story is interesting, if we’re telling it the right way. Writing a novel is a long process and it helps to have the encouragement of people saying, ‘I’m enjoying this.’“

Criticism never feels good, but it hurts less among colleagues you’ve grown to trust and respect. Whitney says she may disagree with a comment on her work, “but then a day later, I’ll think, ‘well, yes, they’re right.’”

But she also feels there is another reason workshops are so important to writers right now: they can do what most editors no longer do, help shape a manuscript. Editors and publishers and agents are too busy these days to do the kind of nurturing that writers of earlier generations often relied on. They expect to receive a manuscript that is as close to ready as possible.

“Maybe workshops are taking the place of what the writer-editor relationship used to be.”
Guess that’s what friends--and fellow writers--are for.

What We’re Reading Now: Kim Ablon Whitney is reading Mrs. Kimble by Jennifer Haigh (cq). I’ve just finished Eva Moves the Furniture, a novel by Margot Livesey, which feels like a magical intersection between the world filled with daily details and the unexplainable mysteries we are presented with. What are you reading now? Let me know at citytype@globe.com.

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©2004 Ellen Steinbaum

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