Category Archives: Writers Groups

Blessed Betrayal?

On a social media site this week, a fellow writer started a new discussion thread:

What is the most valuable piece of advice you’ve received? Mine is a quote from from Peter deVries: “I only write when I’m inspired, and I see to it that I’m inspired every morning at 9 o’clock.”

The answer that sprang to mind wasn’t a famous quote or advice from a famous author, but something said about fifteen years ago by a writer who encouraged many others toward publication while she herself remained obscure: “So what?” and “Who cares?”

The best advice I’ve received wasn’t intended as advice, but as an offhand, snarky question: “So what?”

So what if Character X did thus and so? Why should the reader care?

That question revolutionized my storytelling.

I’m still learning all the time, and my drafts can be sloppy, meandering affairs, but when it comes time to edit the mess and turn it into something worth reading, “So what?” is a constant guide. It helps me determine what stays and what goes. It helps me revise dialogue from bland to tense, or turn an otherwise dull “just going from point A to point B” passage into a suspenseful journey.

In the end, because I’ve already asked the question of every scene, conversation, event, and plot thread, my hope is that no reader picks up my work, shrugs, and says, “So what?”

I don’t know where she is, the writer who tossed the casual question, or even if she still walks the earth, but she came along at the right moment in my life, when I struggled to return to writing after many years of literary muteness. For a few years after our chance meeting, she welcomed me into her inner circle, and many of us learned so much and were so encouraged that we took her word as gospel.

Then something happened — I don’t really know what — that changed everything. Maybe someone misunderstood something said or written. Maybe there was a power struggle, like children vying for a parent’s attention or approval. Maybe the teacher saw the students leaping past her, succeeding where she had not. Maybe we started questioning some of the advice and thinking more independently.

Whatever the reason, the kinship broke, and some of us were cast outside the circle.

We were angry, hurt, confused, but fledgelings might feel the same. The warm nest is no longer home. They must fly alone.

So we did. Alone together. And we succeeded. We won contests. We published our work.

That tight little group of survivors has broken once again. One married and moved away. One divorced and is selling her house. I moved to another state to help family. Another remains right where she always was, but is surpassing us all with her publishing achievements.

Still, some of the best advice we ever received was from the one who embraced us then betrayed us, and that, too, became a blessing.

So what?

The question ever remains: Had we stayed in the embrace, would we ever have left to become the writers we are now?

Word Safari: Pith Helmet and Thick Skin Required

Ol’ Will said that all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players. Perhaps all the world’s a safari, and we’re either the hunter or the hunted.

Ever been to a writers meeting? Belong to a writers group? Attended a critique at a writers retreat? Ever present your work for others to rip apart?

If so, brave you!

Writers can encourage one another, help one another, or we can turn on the weak, the wounded, even the strong, and attack them as if we were piranha and they were the blood-rich flesh in the water.

Like any other group (actors, politicians, the local PTA), we writers have our personalities and pettiness: people who squash others on the way to the top; people who have all the talent but are too timid to use it; people who hone their skills and step boldly into the light — only to get shot down because now the enemy can see them.

So, why bother? Why put our work out there for the world to annihilate? Isn’t that a lot like putting an infant in front of a tiger? Perhaps.

But why not live dangerously? After all, if the hero has nothing to fight against, has nothing to overcome, what’s the point?

We can take all the writing classes available, read all the books we can, but until we write, we are not writers. Until we let someone read our work, how will we ever know how strong we are, as people and as writers?

I remember the first critique my writing ever received, and it wasn’t pretty. I had to read a story in front of the class, and I was the only one laughing at the jokes. I was a determined 10-year-old, however, and I was not going to quit just ’cause some unimaginative fifth-graders didn’t like my story. So there! Receiving honest feedback was not something I did well.

Even now, decades later, critiques can still sting. I may not like the fact that a story has weaknesses, but a true friend will point out those weaknesses so they may be corrected. Like iodine to a wound, it may hurt but it is only meant for good.

But beware frustrated writers who suspect everyone else is better than they are. These writers are rarely happy for anyone else’s successes. They carry verbal elephant guns loaded with enough ammunition to take down entire herds of ideas.french-pith_lrg

BANG! They don’t like the style.

BANG! They hate the setting.

BANG! The subject is boring.

BANG! They’ve never liked that genre.

Nothing pleases them, they have little or nothing useful to offer, and they leave carnage in their wake. I’ve seen talented writers fall prey to their traps and never rise again.

When you do decide to set off into the wilds in search of the elusive critique partner perfect for you, wear a pith helmet sturdy enough to keep your thoughts encouraged, slather on enough sunblock to protect you from scathing words, and carry clear-lensed binoculars calibrated to let you see the truth in spite of all the verbiage. Wisdom comes with time; there will be pitfalls on the path, and you will suffer injury sometimes, but you won’t find the help you need if you never venture out of the Land Rover.

The best stories are born of adversity.

Crazy how we need to take our own advice. In my former writing group, I really needed to be reminded of this. One writer was working on her next manuscript, and although everyone else brought new material in need of a critique or a polish, she absorbed most of the attention. I stopped bringing anything for the group to read, because they didn’t “do” fantasy or science fiction.

However, I do have a small circle of readers — friends and family — who give honest feedback. Took me a while to train ’em to not be so delicate, but we have a pretty good give-and-take now, and they catch a lot of my errors, for which I am grateful beyond words.

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The above was posted several years ago on a different blog. I revised and updated it for this site, and below are a few responses from fellow writers to that original version. Their remarks add to the discussion, and might be of use to the readers today.

DP — “I don’t know what to say. I am at a loss for words. I have a full bottle of Iodine and nothing to pour it on. I now reflect on how upset I got at some of those critique groups who couldn’t see the genius in my verbiage, and realize after re-reading it after a long hiatus how right they were. Very salient post.”

AF — “I get this totally, on several levels. I’ve been a part of far too many writer’s groups filled with people who rarely get any writing done, that or as you say, the “writers” critique with no idea what they’re talking abou…so why do I go? Well the short answer is, I don’t anymore. Like you, I have a few friends that I trust, who read my stuff, and we have an agreement that I’ll read theirs as well…and we go on that a’ way. Works much better than listening to people talk about what they want to write (though they never actual get anything on paper) and then trusting that lot with my manuscripts? No way…”

KB — “I’ve considered ditching any form of round-table-style group,but I can’t seem to totally absent myself from the one to which I’ve belonged for several years. I like these people, but it’s frustrating that they’re more than happy to take my help but won’t give time to my work.

“As for people talking about what they’re going to write, but producing little in the way of actual writing, I’ve been in those groups, too, and had the same reaction: Why put my hard work in the hands of people who won’t do the hard work themselves?”

When Your Writing Isn’t Loved

What do we do when our work is denigrated in some way?

Do we believe enough in our own skill, in our own stories, to keep writing despite our detractors?

Recently, someone asked an editor I know to review his book which is slated for publication by the end of this year. Here’s their e-mail exchange, edited for brevity and to keep the conversation on-point:

Editor: “Gotta be honest: I’m having a hard time coming up with diplomatic feedback at this point, so I’m just going to be straight-up. As much as I was intrigued by the premise of the book, I don’t believe the novel itself is living up to its potential…Sorry to be so negative. I really want to like this book, but I can’t finish it. The reader side of me is disappointed, but the editor side is in agony.”

Author: “I apreciate your honesty. That is what I wanted…You are the first to give a completely negative or even mostly negative review. I asked for brutal honesty and that is what I am getting…I believe what you have said, yet it does not surprise me that Im still getting positive reviews. There are plenty of best selling authors who speaking from a literary point of view should not have passed 10th grade English. If my novel sells well I will likely fall into that category…

“The script writer for the TV show Grimm is one of the 12 reviewing the novel…I sent the novel off to alot of people before the publisher ever saw it including the guy who wrote all of the dialogue for the games: Middle Earth1, Middle Earth 2, and  Shadows of Mordor. He loved it and so did the other people. I would not have let it get this far if I had been told anything like this by any of the dozens of people who have already read it. I am sorry that you did not enjoy it.”

Editor: “I have no illusions about you being happy with my response…and I understand that it’s late in the process for any revisions to be made. I’m glad that you’ve received so many positive reviews. That’s always encouraging…

“Like you, I have no formal training. All mine is the result of simply being a writer for over thirty years. Despite other reviewers’ doctorates, television experience, video game expertise, etcetera, I have nearly two decades as an editor in this field, and can only speak as I find.

“I wish you well in your endeavors.”

What would you do if you were the author in this situation? Would you harbor resentment to the editor? Blow him off and listen only to the positive reviews? Or would you halt the presses and look once more at the manuscript?

Until last year, I belonged for several years to a small, productive writers group. We met more regularly than some of us wrote, but we were all pretty prolific, considering life intrusions and such.

A fellow writer almost physically flinched whenever it was my turn for the group to read/critique my pages. While praising me afterward, or outside of the critique session, this person squirmed in her chair, sighed loudly, and repeatedly declared, “But I don’t understand.”

It’s as if a mental roadblock was instantly constructed, and nothing I wrote would ever be clear enough for this particular reader.

Of course, in the interest of clarity and of doing my job as a storyteller, I would go back and check my sentence structure, setting, character details, dialogue, etcetera.

Turns out, it wasn’t the writing, but the genre, to which she objected.

Nothing fantasy or science fiction-y would ever penetrate her roadblock. This person was not interested and therefore refused to open the mind wide enough to allow for a story set anywhere but in the solid present. No other worlds. Just this one.

I could not trust that writer with my work. It would not receive proper criticism.

A friend has very nicely told me on a few occasions that many of my ideas have already been done. That’s almost more deflating than all the “I don’t understand” writer’s wincing and fidgeting! After all, when one’s imagination seems no more creative or original than coming up with stuff that’s already been done, what is left to the writer but the underlying, unspoken understanding that perhaps it’s best if he just stops writing, especially if he can’t contribute something new.

Another writer once told me this:

“I read somewhere that there only like 32 stories in the world and that all stories are simply the individual author’s spin on those 32 stories…I also read that Shakespeare never wrote an original story, that all his plays were based on pre-existing tales.

Truth is, it’s all been done. But the way you do it will be different than anyone else. And better than most.”

vck

What would you do? Would you keep writing?

Would you loudly defend your work? Or would you quietly close your notebook and put away your pen, and look around for some other outlet for your creativity?

My newest endeavors have yet to be seen by eyes other than mine; I learned long ago that a story shown too soon may succumb to exposure and die before being truly born. I may talk about it a little, but it will not be trotted out before the world until the story is able to stand on its own feet and face the critics with me.