How do you grow as a writer?
You need feedback. Preferably from someone who isn't related to you or a friend; someone, who'll be (brutally) honest about your writing. But where can you find people to read your stuff?
You can pay someone, of course, but there are lots of writing workshops out there that work on the principle of 'you read mine and I'll read yours.' How useful this is depends entirely on your critique partners and how good you are at taking criticism. I know it hurts: reading a critique can feel like someone slipped an ice-cube down your shirt, and after wriggling and contorting to get it out, you experience a moment of relief until you see that they've got a whole bucketful of them, and that was just the first one. Sometimes it's more like he or she threw a bucket of ice-water on you. But you get over the shock in a moment. Then you shiver, dry off, and send a nice thank-you note, because you asked for this, remember?
And you know what? It's totally worth it. Every one of my pieces that has gone through this process benefitted from it immensely.
I have personal experience with three workshops.
The first one is Critters. This is my favorite. It's a free online workshop with a huge pool of potential critique partners from all over the world. It works on the principle that you need to do a certain amount of critiques to submit your work. This is great, because it motivates people to do the critiques. I've received about five to ten critiques for my stories, and that's more than enough to spot major issues. I've also been amazed at the quality of the critiques: it's mainly really, really high. The site is password protected, so this doesn't count as publishing your work. I do about two critiques per week, and this has helped me perhaps even more than the the critiques of my own stuff; you learn a lot from doing the critiques and reading other people's thoughts on the same piece. (All critiques are posted on the site the following week.)
I'm also part of Finnish e-mail critique group of five people. This works well most of the time, but sometimes the critiques are late or somebody hasn't gotten around to writing anything for their turn, which is kind of a bummer.
I also took a few classes through Writer's Digest University, and found them quite helpful, especially the grammar course. Both of the sci-fi themed courses were good, but you might want to check that there's at least four or five participants to get the most out of the peer critiques. The upside of these courses: you have published authors as instructors; they know what they're talking about. The downside: the courses aren't cheap, a couple of hundred bucks a pop.
Another thing I tried was a writing course at our local community college. It was mostly literary writers, so most of them weren't that familiar with genre stuff, although everyone was very nice and not at all disparaging. The course consisted mostly of writing assignments and critiques, and we didn't really go into learning how to write that much. The vibe was very much 'rules? There are no rules to writing' and 'feel the mighty Muse-Force, young Padawan writer.' The exercises were one page per session and the final assignment was a story of five pages. I don't know about you, but most of my stuff is at least twice that. The course cost a bit, about sixty euros, but that was for six months, so no biggie.
One of my stories is up at Critters this week, and it's also my turn to send a story to my Finnish critique group, so I might be in for a rough week. But here I am; I've got my towel and the house is stocked with chocolate, so go on, I can take it, ice-chips and all.
What do you think? To workshop or not to workshop?