… And how to do it right.
I was once told that you should never take your writing to another writer to get a critique because they will not be able to be objective. Other writers will read your work and try to rewrite it in their own style. This little piece of advice appeared to be proven true to me when I gave my dad a bit of something I’d written and he tore it to shreds. (My dad is also a writer) The piece was a Historical Romance. He told me that my writing was good but I spent too much time focusing on the relationship between the hero and heroine and not enough time on the plot. … Yeah, he had no idea what he was talking about.
I also once took a creative writing class in college. Let me tell you, a whole lot of mud was slung and a whole lot of knives and scissors were brought out. That class was all about tearing babies apart. I was pretty much scarred for life and turned off of writers groups.
Until I found the RIGHT writers group.
I’m lucky enough to have two Writers who are also coworkers at my day job, J.R. Tague and Jessica Bunsick. We meet (try to meet) regularly to talk about writing and our works in progress. We’ve gone to conferences and workshops together. We get out there and do stuff as writers together. And guess what? It’s awesome. We’re there for each other, we understand what each of us is going through, and we keep each other motivated.
And that, my friends, is why it’s essential to be a part of a writers group.
Writing is a difficult to impossible pursuit. It requires long hours of brain-melting, unpaid work. Isolated work. Writing is the exercise of taking a mental crowbar and forcing vast, intricate worlds out of your brain. It’s not something that should be undertaken alone. It’s too easy to give up and accept defeat if you try it on your own. When you have a support group of like-minded lunatics you have a place to go for moral support and encouragement.
Just the other day J.R. Tague came wandering over to my desk and sighed the phrase “Okay, I have a problem and I need your help.” Now normally if someone where to say this to me I would be looking for my emergency medical cards or a hotline of some sort. But this is another writer we’re talking about. She proceeded to tell me about how her protagonist had agreed to do something for the shifty government in the world she’d created and how now that he (the protagonist) was back in the forest she (Tague) didn’t know what he would do. We sat there for a good 20 minutes (don’t tell our boss) volleying ideas about what could happen in the forest, where the plot could go, and what would happen if there was a hermit who lived on a hill who had the answers to all of the mysteries of the world. Okay, well, that was my suggestion and she just laughed at it. But who knows!
I think the chat-session was useful. Heaven only knows the number of times I’ve walked over to her desk and proceeded to spew complete, unconnected nonsense, only to have her throw out a few “what if’s” that put me back on track. Neither of us every tell the other person what to do or how to write their story, we just bounce ideas off of each other to see what sticks and what has us laughing to the point where our other non-Writer coworkers look at us like we’ve had too much sugar.
Having a writers group is also a seriously good way to keep yourself writing. I wasn’t necessarily going to do NaNoWriMo … but they made me. The result is that I’m writing something that may or may not ever see the light of day, but I’m writing. And so are they. I tend to write volumes, so 50,000 words in 30 days is nothing to me. They don’t write like that and are both amazed that they’ve gotten so much accomplished so fast. In fact, Jessica is way ahead of the rest of us in terms of word count right now. We keep each other going. We push each other and are pushed, and supported, I might add, in return.
So. Do we swap manuscripts and read them and mark them up and go over them with a fine-tooth comb and tell each other all the things we’ve done wrong and how we think they should be fixed? Um … we started out that way sort of. We swapped chapters and things in the beginning and gave our feedback. But at one of the workshops we attended together recently the speaker, Jonathan Mayberry, stated that writers probably shouldn’t form critique groups per se, but rather writers groups where writing is discussed but not picked apart.
I think this is what my writers group has done by default. We do a lot more talking about our writing than we do critiquing it. Besides, we’re all novelists and the only effective way to critique an entire novel is to do full-fledged novel swaps. And since none of us have the time to write and to read it works better for us to discuss things in general terms.
In my humble opinion, a good writers group needs to function like a good parenting group. You get together to talk about your babies, to discuss where they are going, what they are doing, and the problems they have. You look for outside, expert sources and discuss the ideas they present. You can offer suggestions and exchange ideas about the babies, but in the end you can’t tell anyone how to raise their children or write their books. Both child-rearing and writing are a intensely personalized processes with a right and wrong way that varies depending on the circumstances.
Writers groups should be support groups. Your Writing Buddies should be the people you go to when you have a problem, or when you have a success. These are the people you should feel comfortable calling in the middle of the night when the baby has a fever and you don’t know what to do. You should want to go to them when things get hard, when you’re stuck and want to throw your computer out the window and burn every hard copy of your manuscript. Save the scissors and pitch-forks for your beta-readers and editors. Your writers group should be where you go for help, not critique.
Oh, your writers group should also be the people you go to Cheesecake Factory with to “talk about writing” while stuffing your face with cheesecake. Just saying.
So are you a part of a writers group? Do you have any fabulous tips or tricks to share with the rest of us?