My First Writers’ Workshop

September 26, 2017 | By | 1 Reply More

Frankly, I was scared to go. School was decades behind me and I had a successful career as a magazine editor. Why put myself out there with a work of fiction I’d been fussing over for years?

On the other hand, I had been fussing over that story for years on my own with no idea of where it was headed. What was it—a novel, a novella, a long short story? So I researched writers’ workshops and chose one that seemed serious and professional—the Iowa Writers’ Workshop Summer Program. I had no idea what to expect when I boarded a plane bound for IOW—Iowa City Municipal Airport—two runways surrounded by farm fields at an elevation of 668 feet.

Hedging my bets, I signed up for a weekend workshop that lasted two days and a weeklong one that went for six. I figured if one was a bomb, the other should make up for it. On the way to the first workshop I darted into one of the many cute shops in Iowa City and bought myself a lovely white cotton dress made in India.

For those who’ve never attended one, here’s how workshops go. We were to submit up to about 20 pages of any work ahead of time, then read each others’ work, and make notes in the margins or at the end. Our instructions were to say what each work was about, what its intention was (intention in this case was what was the story or excerpt about), how it met that intention, and where it could be improved for the reader. This sounded altogether positive so I was hopeful not to be humiliated in front of the other writers. Or, God forbid, the teachers who all had more than enough degrees, publishing credentials and writing awards to cow a newcomer like me. So I squared my shoulders and took my classroom type plastic seat in the weekend workshop. To this day I can’t remember the teacher’s name, anyone in that class, or what was said about my work. I do remember feeling encouraged enough to face the six-day class with hope and excitement. Also my new dress was a hit.

Even so, with apologies to Mr. Dickens, this turned out to be the best of workshops and the worst of workshops.

My entry was workshopped on the third day, putting me in the midway position. I’d heard others’ submissions critiqued by the class and the teacher who used the comments about each piece as an opportunity to discuss some element of writing and to refer back to the book we’d been assigned prior to arrival.

This process opened me to a new way of thinking, one with endless horizons. In that six  days we discussed short stories or novel excerpts by such writers as Milan Kundera, Denis Johnson, Alice Munroe, Eudora Welty, Grace Paley, Flannery O’Connor and others included as examples of writing lessons in the book, Creating FictionA Writer’s Companion, now out of print but still available at

When the class turned to my fifteen pages (we were not allowed to speak or answer any criticism or praise until everyone else had spoken) I put on my bravest face and waited. Everything went well until it was the turn of an ad exec from Chicago. He really ripped into what I had submitted. What I will always remember is him saying, “This is about a child. Who wants to read anything about a child?” I remember feeling this crushing weight in my chest and my fingers turning cold to numb. The class moved on from him and the teacher again went to the board, using my piece this time, to expand on a writing lesson.

I had begun my story with an epigraph which the teacher liked. He made suggestions for when and how to use epigraphs in fiction. Mine was:

When we are very young, dreams seem to us as real as life;

When we grow old, life seems to us a dream remembered.

When I had my private session with the teacher, and he handed me my piece marked up with his notes, the first word he’d written was “transportive.” He praised the writing and the theme, and gave me all sorts of helpful advice to use as I continued with what would turn out to be a middle grade novella and my first published book.

That evening at a local restaurant two of my class members told me that the teacher had taken my ad exec nemesis aside and ripped him apart for what he’d said in class. On the last day, we workshopped his piece. It was a about a ten-year-old girl who runs away from home.


As a literary device, irony is a contrast or incongruity between expectations for a situation and what is reality.

LB Gschwandtner is the author of four adult novels, one middle grade novel, and one collection of quirky short stories. She has attended numerous fiction writing workshops and studied with Wally Lamb, Lary Bloom, Suzanne Levine, Fred Leebron and Bob Bausch in the US.
She has won writing awards and been published in literary digests and magazines. She currently lives on a tidal creek in Virginia with her husband of forty-five years, with whom she cofounded the multimedia company Selling Power Inc. LB has been the editor of Selling Power magazine for more than thirty years. She and her husband have three adult daughters and two grandchildren.
Her latest novel The Other New Girl offers a fresh new take on the literary prep school genre, following two new girls at a Quaker prep school and the drama that ensues when one of them mysteriously disappears.
About The Other New Girl
During her first week at coed Quaker prep Foxhall School, sassy Susannah Greenwood, one of two girls who’ve entered as sophomores, gets pulled into the cool girls’ clique. While the school is instructing her in the moral and ethical tenets of the Quaker faith, the cool girls allow her to enter their world beyond the rule book.
But in trying to find a balance between idealistic faith and the reality of a competitive system, Susannah runs afoul of the school’s most authoritarian dean and befriends the only other new sophomore, a brainy, socially inept outcast. Then her new friend runs away after being shamed by the dean, and Susannah finds herself caught between the two forces of loyalty and authority:
Should she cooperate with the unforgiving, and now vulnerable dean, who, with her job on the line, is pleading for information from Susannah about her runaway friend? Or should she keep the secret she’s sworn to protect?
Buy the book HERE

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, How To and Tips

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  1. Charlotte says:

    What a bizarre man. Perhaps he felt you were “competition.” Workshops are a mixed bag because of this kind of thing. You really have to have a thick skin and take it all with a barrel of salt.

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