The Literal Truth about Workshops
I'm just back from the DARA conference (loved it!) near Dallas, where I gave a workshop Saturday called "How to Be Your Character's Worst Enemy," which basically consisted of a number of tips to ramp up tension and rev up a book's pacing by making your protagonists' lives tougher. It's the kind of workshop that asks participants to think about their works in progress and examine the possibility of adding an unexpected twist to toss their characters into an "impossible" situation just to see what surprising things they'll do. I like teaching the class because I can look into the participants' eyes and see them really thinking and because the techniques are as useful for veterans as they are for the rankest newbies.
Lots of nice folks came up to see me afterward, either to say thanks or ask questions, including one rather desperate-looking woman who seemed extremely concerned because she didn't know how she was going to fit all of my suggestions into her work in progress. All of my suggestions. Which made it clear to me that she'd taken what I meant as a brainstorming list to start everyone thinking as a literal prescription to make her manuscript salable.
The trouble is, there is no prescription, no fool-proof plan that always works (not even for the most successful authors) and the workshop attendee should never think of anyone's "how-I-dunnit" story as a road map, because it certainly won't be the one leading to your individual destination. Instead of taking each speaker as gospel, move through each conference as you would through a buffet line, picking at this truth or that and seeing if it tastes right for your work, your vision, your reality. Then choose the best and leave the rest behind.