So. Writers’ workshops. Blessing – or curse?

Let’s face it, when you’re about to start, and you can see fellow writers metaphorically sharpening their scalpels, it does feel a bit like a scene from Gladiator.

You know. ‘Morituri te salutant‘ – ‘Those who are about to die salute you!’

And yes, I’ve had sessions like that. Where something I’d sweated over, something I thought was my best effort yet, got royally shredded by my peers.

But – in the long run – that was all to the good. Because stuff which got that treatment needed shredding. Or I wouldn’t have learned anything.

My experience with workshops began at Oxford, when Diana Reed wanted stories for the SF group magazine SFinx. But several members were highly active in SF fandom, so those meetings quickly drew in writers from elsewhere. And in due course many of us joined a group with the somewhat high-faluting name of ‘Pieria’.

(For the record, the Pierian Spring in Greek mythology was the source of knowledge of art and science. ‘Nuff said…)

The goal of all group members was to achieve publication. And – in many if not most cases – that’s exactly what we did achieve.

In theory, at least, shorter stories could be read aloud at the meeting, while longer stories were supposed to be circulated in advance. In practice quite a lot of longer stories got read aloud…

Feedback was usually firm but fair – and always constructive. Even when a particularly complex or overwritten piece found its way to the meeting, we could usually find something helpful to say about it. (And then the knives came out…!)

But as well as providing mutual support and encouragement, those sessions were a form of networking. We got to meet people who read and heard our work. Who enjoyed our company. And who looked out for us in a fiercely competitive world.

During my time at Pieria I got to meet the amazing Richard Evans, who would have loved to publish my Viking age novel, Thorgrim Berserk’s Saga – but didn’t. (He did publish a children’s story I wrote for a collection called Peter Davison’s Book of Alien Monsters.) I also got to meet John Jarrold, who happily published my next solo novel, The Dragon in the Stone. (And gave me some brilliant editorial guidance along the way.) But our company reads like a who’s who of British fantasy and SF, including Rob Holdstock (who wrote a delightful caricature of the group in one of his early potboilers), Dave Langford (now an elder statesman of UK fandom), Ian Watson, Garry Kilworth, Chris Evans, and my best mate from university, Mike Scott Rohan – with whom I was to write two published novels and much more besides.

And my verdict? Writers’ workshops – for me – were an unalloyed blessing. They sharpened my skills, inspired me to greater and more focused effort, and even helped me find the people who would finally bring my work to publication.

The trick – now – was to write something good enough to achieve that…