Anyone who’s written anything of considerable length – whether it’s a novel or a report for a class in college – knows that it’s a solitary pursuit. In fact, if you ask most writers what they like least about their craft, it will likely be the hours and hours they must spend by themselves to get the job done.
It’s this part that pro writers like to clarify for writing “civilians” when talk turns to the “glamor” of being a writer.
Really, sitting in a room (or coffee shop or cabin in the mountains or oceanside cottage) all alone, typing made up stuff into a computer is, at its core, actually pretty damn pathetic. Really, who would choose to do this? Especially when there’s absolutely no guarantee that it will ever pay off in any sort of fame or financial success, it seems like the work of a person with genuine social issues. After all, didn’t the Unabomber live like this?
But if we’re lucky, we writers aren’t completely alone in the process. Regardless of whether you’re a beginning writer or someone who has been successful at it for years, it’s important to have someone you can turn to whose opinion you respect to give you honest, non-judgmental feedback on your projects.
For some, this comes with a critique group, which is frequently a group of fellow writers who regularly gather to pass around their work and get opinions from others. It’s a fine idea and pitched as a perfect way for writers to workshop works in progress to see if they’re headed in the wrong direction or if there are massive holes that need to be filled.
I have to be honest – I’ve never been a part of a critique group per se, and I’ll tell you why: Sometimes there are folks who just don’t get it. You know the type (and, come to think of it, maybe you are the type). They seem to be fans of every genre but the one you’re writing in. Or, they ask questions about your piece that aren’t immediately relevant to the criticism you seek. Or, they’re jealous and will take every opportunity to tell you that you suck. The worst critique groups are filled with these types of people.
The best, though, have none of them and are full of open-minded, thoughtful individuals genuinely who appreciate the genre you write in and are focused on trying to help you make your story a hundred times better. And I’m sure there have been many fantasy stories written about the fabulous mythical land in which these groups exist.
If the critique group thing isn’t for you, consider what I’ve found to be an immense amount of help – my very own bar stool development editor. We’re lucky at Codorus Press to have possibly the greatest example of this “writing advisor” in the form of Tom Joyce. Tom worked alongside me, Codorus shaman Wayne Lockwood and Codorus author Mike Argento during our time together at the York Daily Record, and early on displayed an uncanny ability to home in on what makes a story good. (Read Tom’s blog, Chamber of the Bizarre, for more of his insights).
Part of what makes him so valuable to the Codorus team is that he’s an excellent storyteller himself (you’ll get to find out just how excellent when Codorus comes out with his novel The Freak Foundation Operative’s Report in late 2012/early 2013). His skills come from both his history as a voracious reader and a dedicated reporter and copy editor.
We in Codorus Press are also fortunate that we come from the newspaper business, where honest and forthright criticism is something you learn to accept and dish out fairly quickly. There’s no room for angst-driven whining about an element of a news story being “from your soul” or part of a larger effort to offer a metaphor about the futility of human pursuits in the vast nothingness of our universe.
That kind of talk will not only get you mocked openly by your peers, but very likely thrown out the door and kicked down the street until you enroll in a Masters of Fine Arts program and stop bothering people with real jobs and looming deadlines.
Newspaper folks simply don’t have time to plumb the depths of their souls when someone says, “Deadline is in 15 minutes and your story is two inches too long. Make it fit or I’m going to cut it.” So Tom respected that I had a skin grown thick from dealing with editors and reporters and knew that I could handle his thoughts without being a crybaby.
When Tom was working his development editor mojo on Immaculate Deception, for instance, it usually went like this: He would read a chapter of the manuscript. A few nights later, we would meet with our newspaper friends and colleagues for after-deadline drinks. When everyone else had departed or the crowd had significantly diminished, he would settle in over his second (or third) pint and, in his inimitable style, cover point-by-point any issues he found with story, character, plot, theme and continuity.
We would discuss what he thought the particular issues were. Then we would trade ideas – basically just a “what if?” session. Our goal was to work within the bounds of the story but make it better than it was, rather than suggestion something that would alter the entire narrative and require extensive additional exposition or character development. Then I would take his thoughts and recommendations, merge them with what I was trying to achieve and apply them – or not. The point is that they were always worthy of considering and never off-point.
His perspective was particularly helpful to me in nailing down an overarching theme of the narrative that I hadn’t even realized was there – that of real estate development run amok. It’s what resulted in the main character losing his job as a reporter and – thanks to Tom’s input – eventually is revealed as the underlying motivation for the story’s antagonist.
And because he is Tom – friend, colleague and fellow fan of many of the same genre titles – we had a shared language and reference points to use in our discussions. He was also familiar enough with my work and my personality to not be surprised by some of the other themes *cough*sex*cough* that ran through the novel. Try throwing your over-the-top adult material into a critique group full of grandmas who just want to write a family history for their grandkids and see what that gets you.
So if you find that your experiences with critique groups just aren’t working for you, I’d suggest perhaps finding one person among the group who does seem to get you, take him or her out for a beer, and set up a regular story workshopping session over a pint or two. It might prove to be far less painless (at least thanks to the beer) and a whole lot more productive.