Just about everyone thinks they have a book in them. You know, an inspiring rags-to-riches story or a juicy novel based on a long-buried family secret. But trying to convert an idea in your head into something that captures a publisher’s attention can prove to be a lot harder than most aspiring writers think. Not to mention, diversity isn’t exactly something the publishing industry is known for. According to research published by PEN America, 95 percent of American fiction books published between 1950 and 2018 were written by white authors.
Writer’s workshops can be a great source of inspiration and support during the writing process – and in some cases, they can even help you get your book on store shelves. And that is the goal, right? The Root caught up with Jeff Ourvan, founder of The WriteWorkshops, and some of his workshop participants to learn more about how these groups can provide a pathway to publishing.
The lawyer-turned-writing instructor and literary agent said he got into the game after running across several people with great ideas who needed help getting them on the page. “There are so many people with fantastic stories who don’t know how to put a long narrative together that works and keeps the readers engaged,” he said.
Ten years later, Ourvan said the workshops have been extremely successful, with nearly 40 published books coming out of the process. Several writers have even decided to bring their follow-up projects to the group. “They just really love the process and the camaraderie between the other writers,” he said.
Although Jeff is a white guy from New York, his participants represent just about every race and every part of the country. And because the workshops are virtual, some have even found their way to him from other corners of the world. And for the three Black writers we spoke with, the diversity of the groups and Jeff’s attention to detail have helped them develop in ways they never thought possible.
“I think Jeff’s skill is that he’s such a close reader and whatever little thing that is bothering you, he can zone in on it and help you to muddle through the problems,” said workshop participant Danielle Arceneaux. “He’s a very deep reader and can help you pinpoint the things that will bring your book alive. He doesn’t beat around the bush, but he’s very kind in his feedback.”
His feedback is constructive and intentional. Because at the end of the day, Ourvan wants to see all of his participants’ become published authors. So much so, that he curated an anthology of some of their works. “Our Magical Pandemic: Stories of Love and Whimsy in Lockdown” is a collection of original short stories centered around the COVID pandemic.
Ourvan says workshops can benefit any writer, regardless of experience or genre of choice. And he gave us a few tips for making the most of the experience.
Never Write Alone
Workshop participant Walter Pryor discovered Ourvan’s workshop after he found himself stuck trying to turn his grandmother’s extraordinary life into a book.
“My wife kept telling me I should write a book. I sat down and started writing, but I was stuck at only a couple of pages,” he said. “I couldn’t figure out how to turn it into a book. Then a friend recommended the writer’s workshop as a way to get me to read other writers’ work and find inspiration.”
According to Ourvan, having an objective group review your work can help you identify parts of your story that may need work and find ways to fix them.“Writing is a team sport. A lot of people don’t realize that. You need someone to look over your shoulder while you write, reading your first draft, commenting on how the narrative elements are working together,” he said. “When we write alone, we get so wrapped up in our story that sometimes things are in our head that don’t necessarily end up on the page.”
But Keep Your Circle Small
As you search for the workshop that’s right for you, Ourvan says smaller is better. “I like to keep the groups to no more than five people,” he says. That intimate setting, he adds, will get your work the attention it deserves and allow you to do a little networking in the process. “People have established lifelong friendships as well as successful writing careers. And for me, it’s a whole lot more rewarding than when I was a lawyer. I really like what I do here,” he said. And Walter Pryor agrees. “I absolutely love the group I started writing with. It felt like family to me,” he said. “And when people would leave the group to do their own thing, it almost felt like losing a family member.”
Honor Your Commitment
When it comes to a writer’s workshop, Ourvan says you only get out of it what you’re willing to put in. Writer Ashley Williams says the workshop has kept her accountable. The Bronx native, who works for the New York City Department of Education by day, says being a part of the group pushes her past those moments when she’d rather be doing anything else. “It keeps me writing every week and doing something productive towards my passion,” she said. “Just being part of this family motivates me. Even if I’m tired or stressed, it’s the thing I look forward to most during the week.” Williams, who writes primarily YA fiction, says her work in the schools inspires much of what she puts on the page.
Workshop participant Danielle Arceneaux agrees. “If you show up with a bad chapter, it can be improved upon. But if you don’t have any chapters, you’re at the same place you were before,” she said. “Even if it forces you to dash out something really quick, it’s still good because it moves you forward.”
Let Go Of Your Fear
Writing a book is a deeply personal experience, especially when you let readers into a part of your real life. So it can be difficult for some aspiring authors to put their work out into the world for others to read and critique.
But the writers we spoke with told us the workshops provide them with a safe space to share their work. “Jeff makes you feel so comfortable. After you finish each chapter, you flesh out all of the stuff and go through it again. You dig deeper into the nitty gritty in each chapter,” Williams said.
For Pryor, the workshop has helped him develop his skills as a writer. “The very first thing I submitted was horrible, but everyone was very supportive. Then Jeff asked me what I wanted to do and what I wanted to convey in my book. And as I went along, I learned how to show instead of tell and how to construct natural dialog and create a story arc within a chapter,” he said.
Trust The Process
If you think you’re going to crank out a bestseller overnight, think again. Ourvan stresses that the process can take time, if you want to get it right. “Writing a book is a lot like writing a symphony because there are so many elements that go into the project that have to work together,” he said. And while you may feel like giving up, the workshop writers agree that persistence pays.
Arceneaux, who joined the group in 2017, has finished two books in workshop. And her first novel, “Glory Be,” a murder mystery set in Lafayette, Louisiana is set to be published October 3 by Pegasus Crime.
For Williams, having her story published in Ourvan’s anthology has been one of the highlights of her experience. “The anthology is my first short story published anywhere, so that was a big deal. That was a story I wrote for fun,” she said.
And while she is still waiting for her book to picked up by a publisher, she remains hopeful.