It’s Not the Critic Who Counts…

So begins the famous and stirring quote by Theodore Roosevelt, which goes on to praise “the doer of deeds” over the one who “points out where the strong man stumbles.”  I certainly agree with TR when it comes to uninvited criticism, but what about the case when you seek it out?

In a writing critique group, Teddy, everyone intentionally takes turns being the doer of deeds and pointing out where he stumbles.   More than any other method I’ve used to improve my writing, participation in a critique group has been the most effective.  I’ve subscribed to writing magazines, attended writing conferences, read books about writing, and gone to writing classes.  Note that each of those other venues features a writing professional, an expert with some stature as an author.  How is it that a critique group formed spontaneously from a group of rank amateurs, without any money changing hands, can be superior to the other methods?

I don’t know that answer, and it may not be true for you.  Certainly one can have a bad experience with a critique group and get soured on the whole idea.  But if you live in a populated area, or are willing to travel to one, it can be easy to start up another group.  Perhaps that new one will suit you better.

In a later post I’ll discuss various critique group arrangements and rules, but for now I’d like to concentrate on what you bring to it and what you get out of it.  What you bring to it are: (1) your written stories or chapters, (2) an open mind and a thick skin willing to receive well-meaning criticism about your work, and (3) a willingness to provide good critiques of other people’s work.

Notice I didn’t say anything about bringing money.  Most critique groups are free, or nearly so.  I’m amazed at what you can get people to do for free.  Among fellow amateur writers, if you’re willing to critique their work, they’re willing to critique yours.  It’s said you get what you pay for, so maybe each individual critique is not as comprehensive or as accurate as if a professional had done it, but you’ll be getting more than one—generally you’ll get critiqued by every other member of the group.  The combined thoughts of the group (even when some thoughts contradict) will come close to the quality of a professional’s critique.

I’ve listed the things you bring to the group.  What do you get out of it?  (1) Taken in combination, you get well-meaning written reactions from a group of readers to your work.  Some of these criticisms will sting, but remember that these people are criticizing your work, not you.  Their only interest is in helping you get published.  Wouldn’t you rather hear the sad truth from a group of friends than realize it later after enduring many dozens of rejections?  (2) You get the supportive urging of a group to write more.  It’s strange how the looming date of the next critique group meeting can serve as the prompting force making you churn out some text.  (3) You get the benefit of learning from others about the business side of writing.  Depending on the expertise of the group and the time available, talk often turns to experiences they’ve had with agents, editors, submitting stories, their website, the conference or workshop someone just attended, etc.  (4) You get the invigorating and energizing atmosphere of just being among fellow writers, people going through the same private agonies and ecstasies, people who get it.  Most of us don’t enjoy that atmosphere at home, unless you happen to live with a group of writers.  (5) Over time, you’ll find you grow as a writer, and as a critic of other people’s writing.  While editing your own work in preparation for the group meeting, you’ll find yourself making corrections you just know the critique group would have recommended.

When I first joined a critique group, I thought the objective was to wean myself of the need to be in the group.  After all, I imagined, the world’s greatest writers aren’t in critique groups, are they?  Now I’m not so sure.  It’s hard for me to imagine being a writer and not being in a critique group.

One final thought.  There’s an aspect of critique groups that I find intellectually appealing. These groups form spontaneously; they are essentially self-generating.  Order emerges somehow from what were, at one time, several writers working in isolation.  Out of nothing at all comes shared wisdom and shared growth.  That creative magic of critique groups is, to me, akin to the writing process itself.  Maybe, President Roosevelt, it is the critic who counts, too.

Tell me what you think about writing critique groups.  In the meantime, with limitless gratitude to my own group, I remain—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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The Worst Click

You’re a beginning writer and you’ve been writing and rewriting your manuscript.  For some reason, the actual product doesn’t match in grandeur the masterpiece you had in your head when you started.  The process of assembling the actual words, herding them together in some sort of order, made the whole resulting story seem more juvenile than you intended.  Not juvenile as in ‘written for juveniles to read,’ but ‘written by a juvenile who nearly failed English.’

You could go through and edit your creation one more time in hopes that greatness will finally emerge, but you’ve done that already repeatedly and it hasn’t worked.  It’s doubtful if one more edit will accomplish much.  Besides, you’re getting a little sick of the thing.  Your muse has flitted off, interested in different and ever newer pursuits.

Somewhere you’d heard that even the best writers let a manuscript sit for a time—a few weeks or even months—and then come back to it, able to look with a fresher eye.  In your case that’s not an option, since today’s the deadline for the anthology for which you’re aiming.  Or maybe you already did let the work sit for a while but it didn’t result in a better manuscript, just further loss of interest in the story.  In either case, this opus isn’t going to get any better than it is right now.

So you sit staring at the monitor, looking at an e-mail you’ve written to the editor.  The e-mail has your story attached—oh, you triple-checked that.  The file with the story is in the format preferred by the editor, again triple-checked.  The e-mail is short and upbeat.  Everything is ready.  All you have to do is click the ‘send’ button and your first-ever story will be on its way to an actual editor.

So what gives?  Why the delay?  It’s a single mouse click, for crying out loud.  What happened to that boldness you felt when you couldn’t wait to charge in and start writing the story?  Where’s that reckless abandon with which you stayed up until three in the morning last month to pound out the first draft of the final scene, typing “The End” in weary triumph?  What’s happened to reduce that bravely audacious writer to a quivering mass of doubt, consumed with fear at the sight of a Send button?

What if, you keep thinking, the editor doesn’t like it?  What if it’s the worst piece of tripe the editor has ever read?  It would be bad to receive a rejection, but devastating if the editor replied with something like, “It was enough for me to endure your opening paragraph, and how I wish I could have that precious time back.  I have many enemies, but none so vile that I would force them to read a single sentence of your work.  Not only am I rejecting your story, but I beg you, for the good of humanity, to take up another hobby—any other hobby.”

It’s that and a thousand similar scenarios that keep your finger poised above, but never quite clicking, the mouse button that would send your first story on its way.  I’ll write about dealing with rejections in a future blog post, but in this case you’re rejecting the story yourself before you even send it in.

Would it help if I told you that every writer goes through that the first time?  What if I said that no self-respecting editor ever sends a rejection full of personal put-downs like you imagined?  How about if I told you it’s only this first submission that causes such angst, that all the rest are far easier?

Since you face an irrational fear, one of your own making, there’s no works-every-time cure I can offer.  However, I suggest you dig deep inside yourself.  Remember when you started this quest?  You wanted to find out if you could be a writer, if you have what it takes.  This little moment of truth is part of the process, part of the writing game.

Chances are this submission will result in rejection, but that won’t deter the writer within you.  Oh, no, that inner writer will instead be spurred on, intent to do better next time.  That would-be (no, will-be!) author inside you laughs at rejections, even prints them out and saves them as badges of honor.  That confident scribbler within you knows that one day the act of submitting stories will be routine.  And on that day you’ll look back on this first moment of indecision and laugh.

So click ‘send,’ brave writer!  Hold your creation—your baby—aloft so the world can see.  You can do it.  I did, and survived.  As always, write to me here if you have some reaction to this post.  Now well past that first, worst click, I call myself—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Just Short Stories? No Novels?

Should an aspiring fiction writer start with novels or short stories?  Don’t look to this blog entry for a concrete recommendation for your situation.  I can only tell you the path I took and my reasons for choosing it.  For you, success could well lie on a different path.

When phrased as an either/or choice – novels or short stories – the question itself is too limiting.  There are a variety of other avenues for the creative writer of prose, including flash fiction, novellas, podcasting, television and movie scriptwriting, and playwriting.  I’m sure I’ve left out some options and many more possibilities remain to be discovered, or forgotten ones rediscovered.  Some writer will have to be the pioneer who leads these expeditions.  Why not you?

While serving aboard a submarine many years ago, I thought of an idea for a story.  So grand was this story idea, I was certain it would make me both famous and rich.  To truly capture this story, only the novel format would do.  I was sure my tale would seize the attention of the country and even the world.  I could already see myself resigning my commission in the Navy, doing the talk show circuit, and traveling to book signings.

Though chock full of enthusiasm and energy, I was less well supplied with writing experience.  I’d heard all the arguments for starting with short stories, of course.  But such well-meaning advice could be safely ignored.  It simply didn’t apply to my case, I was sure.  Undeterred by these considerations, I set to work.

Actually writing the novel proved harder than I’d counted on, which surprised me at the time for some reason.  There was a lot to think about, with plots and subplots, characters, settings, even a theme.  How to keep it all straight?  Confident that my future fans would patiently await the great opus, I struggled on.

The struggle filled some time, like two decades or more.  At the end of that period I found I’d created a manuscript of which even my desk drawer was—and still is–ashamed.  To this day, the desk’s immune system occasionally rejects it and I have to gather up the pages, force them back in, and nail the drawer shut again.

In truth I had more to show from all the work than just an unpublishable manuscript.  Without knowing it, I’d been honing my skills in a harmless way, practicing the craft and making all my early mistakes.

Abandoning that first novel, I started another.  But doubts had set in about whether I was cut out for this.  A novel is a daunting task and a significant investment of time with very uncertain payoff, particularly for the beginning fiction writer.  It’s easy for discouragement to build up and eventually overwhelm enthusiasm.

I then read The Mammoth Book of New Jules Verne Adventures, edited by Mike Ashley and Eric Brown, published by Carroll and Graf in 2005.  It’s a marvelous collection of short stories inspired by Jules Verne, all written by modern authors.  As a Jules Verne fan, the book inspired me.  I wrote my own short story, a work that would have fit well in that collection, or would if they decided to put out a second anthology in a similar vein.  That story, “The Steam Elephant,” appeared in Steampunk Tales issue #5.

That started me off writing more.  There are several reasons why I’ve enjoyed my switch to short stories.  I can churn out many more of them per year.  They keep my ever-fickle muse interested and focused.  It’s easier to test out different genres.  Short stories represent a good method for further growth as a writer while getting the positive feedback of more frequent acceptances.

At some point I’ll return to the novel length story.  The average non-writer doesn’t regard an author as serious until she or he has published a novel.  Certainly the pay for a published novel is greater as well.  Who knows, one of these days I may dust off the two novels I started, rewrite them, and send them out for consideration.  If you’re engaged in writing a novel equally as good, perhaps I’ll join you on the talk show circuit!  Until then, I’ll remain a short story writer, and—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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Shortcut to Greatness?

When we watch magicians perform, we’re smart enough to know there’s no real magic involved.  We know there’s a perfectly logical trick.  In fact, we’re sure if that magician would only reveal the trick to us, we could do the act too.  Magicians guard each trick with great care so that knowledge of how they do it doesn’t spoil the show.

Think it’s the same with writing?  What if we could beseech a great author to teach us his tricks, reveal the secrets she’s been concealing?  “Make me a best-selling author, too,” we’d say, “I don’t care if it takes all day!”

I’m not a best-selling author (yet), so for all I know they are withholding the secrets from us, hoarding their tricks and special knowledge, unwilling to spill the beans and open themselves up to a little more competition.

If those no-good, stuck-up top shelf authors really are keeping secrets from us, then they’re not only guilty of that, but of lying as well.  Writer after writer has claimed there are no secrets, other than hours and hours of practice.  Writers as diverse as Isaac Asimov, Janet Evanovich, Stephen King, and Tom Clancy all say there are no shortcuts, no simple tricks, and no keyboard sleight-of-hand moves that will make you a great writer.  W. Somerset Maugham said, “there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”  Apparently the number of rules is three, though, so that’s progress.

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell claims the secret to genius-level greatness in any field is a combination of luck and a lot of time spent practicing.  How much time?  Gladwell says around ten thousand hours.  Yes, ten thousand. That’s a lot more than the solid afternoon we were hoping to devote to it.  More like fourteen months, continuously, without sleeping.  If all you can spare is two hours a day for your writing, then you’ll need nearly fourteen years to achieve greatness.

At this point, you may be yearning for some easier path.  What about writing courses, writing conferences, workshops, how-to books, critique groups, and the online versions of these?  I’ll give my perspective, having tried many of them.  I think all of these aids have value, some more than others.  In particular, I believe critique groups have been the most beneficial for me.  However, it’s important to embark on each one with the right attitude, the correct level of expectation.

If you pay for a conference, a how-to book, etc. thinking you’ll emerge out the other end as a pro market author, I suggest you ratchet down your hopes a few settings.  Each of these venues is fine to partake on an occasional basis to learn different viewpoints, refresh knowledge you might have forgotten, etc.  But make you a superstar author?  Doubtful.  Not impossible, just improbable.

There are expenses involved with each of the venues, too.  On the other hand, the long hours of lonely practice are nearly free, except for the amount of time spent.  I urge you not to fall into the trap of thinking that just because the last writing course (or workshop, etc.) you took didn’t result in instant success, surely the next one will.  Now that I think of it, I’ve never heard of a Great Author attributing his or her achievements to a how-to book or a conference, or any of those things.  Many of them do talk about reading a lot, especially reading the classics.  But they all say there is no substitute for writing, writing all the time, writing constantly.

So maybe one day some successful author will take you down a winding staircase into a hidden hideaway, enter the little-known combination into the locks, swing wide the series of creaking vault doors, and open the chest containing the secrets to easy writing greatness.  If you know those secrets, e-mail me here.  Until that day, I suggest practice.  But what do I know?  I’m just…

Poseidon’s Scribe

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