Thursday, September 27, 2007

I Beg to Differ

by Heather Moore

This week I’m reading The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes by Jack M. Bickham. I love his advice, and I love the frank way he delivers it. But today, I read the chapter called “Don’t Take It to the Club Meeting,” and ever since it’s been bothering me.

Bickham essentially warns fledging writers to stay away from writing clubs where one reads his/her work aloud, then listens to advice by the other attendees. Bickham says not to waste your time at a club meeting because “they won’t be honest; they usually don’t know what they’re doing anyway.”

I won’t discount that in some clubs, or in some club attendees, this may be the case. But I’ve also met many unpublished writers who have never let anyone read their work. Not even their mother (although that may be a good thing).

For the writer who is too timid to let their friends or family read their work, a non-personal writing club may be the answer—until relationships with professional writers can be established or funds can be spent on professional editing.

Bickham also advises working with a professional writer coach. This can be very costly, and unless you have a great friendship with another author, it will be difficult to get professional feedback on what you’ve written without paying for it. (Another reason our Monday Mania blog is so valuable.)

When I go to my critique group, I sit around a table with six or seven other people—all from different backgrounds, all in various stages of publishing. I walk away from each session with a better understanding of the direction I need to take in my writing. One person’s strength is description, another’s conflict, a third, motivation. This adds up to a rather complete edit, and by the time I go through the critique process with my group, I feel I’ve received the best of the best.

If my critique group hadn’t taken a chance on me, I probably wouldn’t be where I am today. Out of the seven original members, only four were published. Now all of us are--multiple times over.

In the same chapter, Bickham also discredits writing contests that offer judge’s feedback. “The comments and advice from judges can vary as widely—and wildly—as the comments from the club meeting floor after a reading.” Of course, this is true, and I’ve seen it myself. But until I started submitting short stories to local writing contests, I had no idea if my writing even matched up to anyone else’s. The judge’s feedback was invaluable to me at the time. Sure, it’s subjective. Just as any agent or editor will be when you’re submitting. Just as a professional writing coach or editor is subjective.

But how are you to start at the beginning if there is no beginning place to start? I believe that the average fiction writer didn’t major in English Literature in college, he didn’t have a fantastic mentor, and he may not have access to professional writers now. He has to start from scratch.

I started from scratch. I googled writers groups, found the League of Utah Writers, and started attending their meetings. I signed up for a couple of night classes on publishing and creative writing. I entered a few local writing contests. Eventually I found a critique group, I attended writer’s conferences, entered more contests, read books on writing . . . I learned the craft from the ground up.

Attending a writers club may not be for everyone, but I believe it will benefit you. If you don't grow from it, find another one. And when it ceases helping you, move on. Entering writing contests may not impress a big-time editor or agent, but it will give you an idea if your writing stacks up . . . if your plot is interesting . . . if you are developing those characters . . . if you are growing your craft.

And that's the most important thing you can do, published or not, is find avenues to improve your writing.


Karlene said...

A bad writers group is unbearable, but the good ones are worth their weight in gold.

Annette Lyon said...

Differ, differ, differ.

I see his point, but I can also say that I wouldn't be where I am today w/out my critique group. (And no, we're never just roses to one another--we really do tell it like it is!) Like Karlene said, stay away from bad ones, but cling to the good ones.

Josi said...

The first 'critique' I attended was at the League of Utah Writers. I made some comments about another authors work, and they explained to me why I was wrong. Someone else made comments on my work that didnt' make sense because I was writing a romance--that they admitted they didn't like. I went home frustrated. It was a couple years before I found my first writing group with some other authors. a year later I started one in my community. for me, the people in my group made all the difference. I know them, I trust them, and I trust they won't hate me if I tell them something doesn't work. But there are lousy ones out there, that's for sure.

Tamra Norton said...

I've loved being part of a critique group. I think it's has been helpful that we all write in the same genre--middle-grade fiction. Also, our group has functioned best when there are only 3 or 4 of us. When you get too big, you end up investing a LOT of time reading/critiquing other people's work and have a hard time getting to your own.

Julie Wright said...

If I lived near anywhere where I could attend a writer's critique group, I'd definitely join. I differ as well. Why would he assume a writing coach's subjective opinion to be better than a group of people. I say give a writing group a chance. If it works for you stick with it, if not, feel free to back out and find a different one.