Thursday, July 3, 2008

A Big Step For Writers

Critiques are tough to take at the best of times. Think back to the first time you showed your writing to someone. I’ll bet it was a day that you dropped things, had an upset stomach and spent a fair bit of time saying to people, “I’m fine. Really. Just some bad salmon.”

I’ve had conversations with writers who have held off showing their work to people for years since it was just too daunting. Every writer has a different experience when sharing their work for the first time. Some writers talk of how well their work was received and that the critic barely had anything negative to say, if at all. These are likely writers who have showed their work to a family member or friend. Talk to those same people after they have had a stranger’s eyes on their words and you’re sure to get a different tale.

We all have to start somewhere and why shouldn’t it be somewhere safe? Writing is a solitary activity and we only have our own eyes, heart and mind to use when judging our work. It’s a tremendously difficult step to take outside of that comfort zone; mom, dad, brother, sister or even Uncle Joe, are accessible and let’s face it, a safe bet for positive feedback. Again, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Positive is good, especially at the outset of a person’s writing life. It builds confidence which is much needed fuel on a writer’s journey.

Where a problem begins to surface is when that writer sticks to their safe zone for a long period of time. I’m wondering if all that positive feedback is what convinced them to try their hand at serious writing? If all you hear is how great you are then who wouldn’t take a shot at a novel? Therein lies the problem. It’s not that the writer is bad, it’s that the writer is ill prepared for the honesty to come.

The length of time spent showing work to loved ones directly correlates to how personally and negatively that writer is likely to take feedback from someone outside of their safe harbour.

There are those writers who realize that the ‘all positive’ feedback from loved ones is getting them nowhere. They feel as though they’re not growing or getting better at the craft. Though slightly more prepared for the onslaught of edits, they too, feel a crush of insecurity from the honesty of strangers.

However you get to that place, it is a writing-life changing experience; you are not as good as mom said you were and your stories aren’t as great as Uncle Joe led you to believe. It can be devastating. But, it is so important to cross that threshold. What’s more, carefully choose the direction of that step. Writers, though all in the boat together, can still help sink it with a well placed barb. Who knows why some critics are so mean and harsh. Ultimately, all they accomplish is to hurt and shatter dreams. Keep your eyes peeled for these kinds of people – they are useless and will never help you grow as a writer.

So, where does one turn for critiques? There are several choices. One of the best places to find feedback is in a writing group, either online or a one that meets face-to-face on a regular basis. With everything, there are risks, not to life and limb, but a risk of getting the same kind of feedback one gets from their safe zone critics.

It’s as difficult to give feedback as it is to receive. Add to that delivering the message in person and you get a lot of writing groups that turn into a love fest. You’re bound to hear things like, “It was wonderful,” and, “Your work is great.” It can happen just as easily in an online group. For some reason, it is difficult for people to find fault with another member’s writing. Meanwhile, you still don’t know how to improve your work and get better at your craft.

The opposite is also possible, where a member of the writing group is far too harsh or is trying to push their way of writing on other members. For instance, you’ve written a novel with a blonde, female, well-to-do protagonist and without reason, the critic is telling you to make it a red-headed, poor male. There are critics that are far too harsh and only stand to discourage. There is never a reason to name-call, or run down another writer. It’s online groups that are more likely to have members treating others harshly – easy to do when you’re protected by distance and no chance of meeting the other members. Watch carefully for these types of critics.

A good writing group is made up of people all working toward a common goal - getting better at the craft of writing. Even better, find a well established group with writers performing at different ability levels. Entering a group of all first-time, never-showed-their-work-to-anyone writers, won’t help you improve beyond your current level. Taking criticism from writers at a higher level is an eye-opening experience and will have you progressing in the craft.

Check at local bookstores and libraries, as well as online for writing groups in your area. You’ll want to tap the world wide web for writing groups online. Join the group and take it for a test drive to see how it feels. Don’t be afraid to walk away if it isn’t what you want.

Here are a few things to keep in mind when navigating through a group for the first time.

Be prepared to do your part. If you give a weak, I liked it, you’re great, kind of critique, don’t be surprised when you receive few critiques or none at all. You will get as good as you give, so put some thought and effort into helping your fellow writers and they’ll be far more enthusiastic about helping you.

Be willing to accept criticism. Ask yourself if you are ready to have someone tell you what you are doing wrong. If you think your work is above criticism, then don’t ask for feedback. I’ve given feedback and had people tell me that I just didn’t get it, but their friends did. Well, your friends don’t want to hurt your feelings and are telling you what you want to hear. A writing group is filled with people who will tell you what you need to hear to get better. Are you ready for that?

Accept criticism with grace. It still astounds me when writers argue with someone who has given them a critique. If a critic says a paragraph of description confused them, don’t argue because you can’t tell them what they feel or think. Plus, you cannot be there when someone is reading your work to explain what didn’t work so, don’t even attempt it with every critique. If someone thought the pace was slow, it was slow to them. Accept it and move forward.

There is never a need to be hurtful. Keep critiques clean and respectful. Calling someone names is not only juvenile, it’s unprofessional. Besides, the person you upset today may one day be in a position to offer you help and writers have a great memory. Also, simply say thank you to anyone who has taken the time to critique your work because you’re lucky to have them. Always remember that you are in control of your work and can use their suggestions or not. I take every suggestion seriously and weigh the merits of using them or not, then I do what is best for the work.

Feel free to add any comments regarding writing groups as I’m sure there is far more information to consider than what I’ve provided here.

I belong to the OWG (online writers group) associated with Kelley Armstrong’s Forum. It has been invaluable to me and I hope every writer out there looking for a group will have as much success finding one as I did. Best of luck.

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