I think the light went on for me in the 1980s when I started submitting short stories to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s fantasy magazine and empire. At first I received standard form rejections. Then she’d pen a small suggestion. The last rejection I received from her was a very long, hand-written critique which ended by saying, “Stop trying to impress me, Lorina.” And she went on to say that I could write; I just needed to do it from the heart. I sold her my next story, Smile of the Goddess.
I also studied a lot of writing, and read articles in Writer’s Digest, articles I went on to use later in life when teaching creative writing through the local continuing education program. Orson Scott Card’s book on character and viewpoint is an excellent book for anyone starting out.
Mostly, I’d have to say, examine the authors you enjoy reading. Start asking yourself why a particular story or passage resonates with you. Is it emotional? If so, how did the author set about writing something that would touch that personal experience of yours? Is it the words themselves? If so, examine how the writer crafted the passage. Is it the environment? If so, examine how the writer made real that environment.
Workshops, well, I think it takes a certain character-type to find workshops of use, whether online or a retreat. I’ve been part of several and mostly found them a dismal, frustrating experience. But that’s because I’m probably just a wee bit too anti-social and jealously guard my privacy and solitude.
I formed a critique circle back in the 80s in the area I lived. Mostly writers would make tremendously useful comments like, “Oh, that’s such a wonderful story,” and of course I’d wade in, pen slashing, saying, no, this word, this phrase is redundant. This is clumsy. I think you could have used less exposition here and more action (show don’t tell). Too many passive verbs. Too many adjectives; try choosing one, precise word over several. I think you’ve started your story at the wrong point, and all this back-story you’ve presented up front could have been filtered in through dialogue.
Needless to say people didn’t like me much. Mind you, out of that group came Barbara Kyle who now teaches writing at the University of Toronto, and continues to write historical novels.
For a brief (one week) period I was part of an SF&F group out of Toronto, loosely affiliated with Michael Skeet and Rob Sawyer. But I met with such resentment and foolish comment with regard to my application story that I didn’t bother to return, which was met with more resentment.
And I did do three of the six week alleged boot camp of SF&F, Clarion, which then ran a workshop at Michigan State University in East Lansing. By the end of the third week I’d had enough of adolescent frat-house commentary and writing that I packed my bags and left. And, yep, once again met with resentment and anger.
Do you see a pattern here?
So I pretty much decided to go it on my own, write my stories in a closet and shove them out under the door in the hope someone on the other side might find them compelling enough to actually read, dare I hope, even enjoy.
Were all those workshops a waste of time? I used to think so, but in retrospect I think not. It helped me to realize I don’t write stories that are hugely commercial and likely won’t find a broad audience. It also taught me that my stories tend to evoke strong emotion, and when I started examining the critiques I’d received there was little by way of common thread. Mostly it was nit-picking. But I did read carefully for those common threads, realized the story had a flaw, and I revised carefully to correct that flaw.
From that, and from some very excellent teachers I had as a kid (who very much believed in cultivating inquiring minds), I learned to remove myself from my work and examine with a critical eye.
Are workshops and books on writing useful or a waste of time? I think it depends on the person. For one person they’re going to be a tremendous boon. For another, like me, a complete waste of time. Just as in life, I don’t think there’s any one hard and fast rule.