Monday, December 13, 2010

Check Your Pride At The Door!

If you've ever interviewed an author or been interviewed, a common question is something along these lines..."If you knew then what you know now...what advice would you give to an aspiring author?"
Since announcing the news of my publishing contract, I've already done a couple of author interviews. The whole concept is still kind of weird to me. I'm not sure I'm in any position to be giving writerly advice. Encouragement, sure, but advice that people might actually listen to and follow? Nah. But then I thought, wait a second. Why not? I've been at this writing thing a long time. I've learned a lot. And I'm still learning. I don't have all the answers, but I do believe I've unearthed just a pinch of wisdom along the way. So why not share it?
If it helps you, great. If it doesn't, well, I'm no James Scott Bell, okay?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post called So You Want To Be A Writer. One my first points in that deluge of information was this:

* If you want to be a writer you must must MUST be willing to learn. *

So let's talk about that. What exactly do you need to learn? What do you already know? Can you really learn to be a good writer? Isn't it something you're born with?
Well, yes. And no.

My own personal belief is that if you have any inclination whatsoever to sit down and write an 80-100 thousand word novel (roughly 390 pages), you're entitled to claim that you're a writer. And you also got the crazy gene.
However, if you know that crafting a story and bringing characters to life is something you were born to do because you can't not do it, then chances are pretty high that you're probably doing exactly what you're meant to be doing.
And you are a writer.
That being said, wanting to write and being able to write publishable material are two entirely different things.
I've always wanted to write. I loved the way my characters came to life on the page. Writing came easily for me. And, way back when, I had the nerve to think I was pretty good at it.
(This is where the title of this post comes in - check your pride at the door).

Here's an excerpt from a manuscript I wrote about a hundred years ago:

In the early evening of an idyllic summer, a small boy played in his yard. He was having enormous fun with his best friend, throwing a ball for him and then having to chase after the dog to retrieve it. On the long porch of the old farmhouse, two rocking-chairs moved back and forth with lazy creaks, their occupants chatting amicably together. A young man in his early thirties and a middle-aged woman. The mouth-watering smells of apple-pie just out of the oven and the delicious stew they had enjoyed for dinner drifted outside from the kitchen. The two of them could hear the sound of somebody typing furiously on a keyboard in one of the upstairs rooms. Every now and then there would be a pause. Sometimes the pauses were long, sometimes short, but then the tapping would begin again.
Every night now it was this way. She would have dinner with them and then head back in to hole herself up in the old study until it was the boy's bedtime, then she would come out to take him upstairs and tuck him into bed.
The woman who sat in one of the rockers now glanced at her watch and frowned. It was getting late. Granted, it was holiday time and there was no school for him in the morning, but she had always believed in children going to bed early. The tap-tapping continued and the woman stood up with a frown, calling to the young boy. He came up onto the porch at once, laughing and out of breath. Grinning, he threw himself on the man in the rocker. With a delighted chuckle, the man stood up and swung the child over his shoulders, carrying him inside like a sack of potatoes.

There are so many things wrong here that I won't even begin to tear this apart. You're lucky I spared you the dialogue or you'd have whiplash from all the head-hopping. It's laughable. What's funnier is that I was actually submitting stuff like this to publishers at that time.
In my own defense, I really didn't know what I was doing. Couldn't tell though, right? Ahem.
Well, I wasn't in a critique group. I didn't belong to a writers group. All I knew was that I wanted to write, and could write, and I thought I was pretty good at it. I can't be too hard on myself because truly, I didn't have the tools needed to improve and grow.

This is where the learning comes in. Yes, I believe you have to have some inherent talent, but, like most things in life, this talent will only be wasted if you're not willing to take instruction from others who've been at this a lot longer than you have. So yes, I also believe you can learn how to write well.
One thing that makes me cringe is hearing someone who claims to want to be a writer, tell me that they don't belong to a critique group. "Oh, I'm not ready for that yet."
Then, my friend, you're not ready to be a writer.
It is absolutely the most hardest thing to do, putting your work out there in front of strangers and letting them rip it apart...I mean...offer wonderful feedback. Depending on who they are, you're probably going to get some tough criticism, hear things you don't want to hear, perhaps don't even agree with. But I look at it this way - I'd much rather have my work ripped apart by a critique partner than an editor who will never want to see another word associated with my name, ever again.

So, join that writers group you've been thinking about. Get plugged in. Put yourself in a critique group. But, please research carefully before you make any commitments. If you're not sure where you fit on the ladder of writing experience, sometimes it's helpful to get a paid critique of your work. Many published authors and freelance editors offer services like this. At the risk of sounding like a snot, if you're just starting out, you don't want to join forces with someone who knows even less than you do. Most writers groups like ACFW are good about organizing their critique groups according to where you are in your writing journey, so you'll probably find a good fit sooner or later. I've been pretty fortunate in my experience, although at the moment I'm not in a group, but I have been in some good ones.
Once you find the place you fit - be realistic.
You are [probably] not God's gift to the writing community. You can be teachable. You can teach.
You can learn.
And - you will apply advice given.
That's a tough one and probably worthy of an entire post to itself, so I'll just say this. Nothing irritates me more than spending time on a critique only to have it come back the next week with the same mistakes glaring at me from the page. I'm not talking about things like voice and tone, but grammar, passive writing, the he said she said stuff. This is where being in a larger group can be helpful. If two or more people have noted the same things in your manuscript, they're not all nuts.
Check your pride at the door and make some changes. You'll be glad you did.
It took me years to learn this, by the way, years.
These are just a few of my thoughts on critique groups and why they're necessary. We all have to start somewhere, the first step is acknowledging that there is room for improvement.
So what about you? Are you in a critique group? How's it working out for you?


Bonnie R. Paulson said...

What an encouraging post! I love my crit groups, but I'm always looking for more! Is that terrible? I feel like the more I learn, the more I have to learn. UGH. Exhausting!
By the way, brave! putting that excerpt up. I don't think I'm that brave!

Have a good day Cathy!

Catherine West said...

Thanks, Bonnie! I'm able to post the excerpt because I know I don't write like that anymore. I will be the first to admit it's bad. That's why I needed to join a good writer's group and find critique partners who could help me improve. Yes, it is a never-ending journey of learning!

Laura Maylene said...

Good for you for realizing that yes, you DO have helpful advice to offer writers!

I wrote an entire post about my writing group addiction. I've been in a lot of groups of the years. Some of the experiences have been fabulous, and others have been, um, less than fabulous. I think critique groups are really important, but it can take a long time and a lot of work and patience to find the right one.

Heather said...

I am in a critique group and I love it. They've taught me so much and I've come so far with their help. A mentor helps a lot too though those are harder to find. I recommend new writers seek out great workshops or retreats where they can find an author mentor.

Katie Ganshert said...

Excellent advice. If I posted a snippet from one of my first novels, we could all slap our knees and laugh really loud. I thought I was pretty darn good back then too.

You can definitely learn to be a better writer. I'm living proof. That "gene" is just the desire. If the desire's there, then it can happen.

Great stuff, Cathy!

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

Hard lesson to learn, but such an important one!

Seth said...

Very informative...I myself as some designs on writing of my experiences. Thanks for the tips!

Karen Lange said...

Good post. I like the idea of checking pride at the door. It's so much easier that way:) There's so much to learn; I'm thankful for great resources everywhere we turn.

Thanks for stopping by and following my blog. Nice to meet you!

Heather Sunseri said...

I always joke with my husband that I'm not a fan of constructive criticism when it comes to my work, but, as writers, we have to learn to accept it and use it to improve, don't we?

And I'm a big believer that anyone meant to write is 100% capable of learning to write well. I know I've learned like crazy since I first started writing. And I have a couple of critique partners that have helped me AND I hired a freelance editor who took my writing to a whole new level. That was well worth the cost.