We’ve discussed before – I think – the absolute necessity for getting out of your head, now and then, and talking to real people, or at least those projections of real people that are various email and chat programs.
Even if you have a real job – but particularly if you don’t – writing will warp you. If you’re not in touch with other writers on a regular basis, you’ll find yourself wondering if you invented your family and friends and marveling at that amazing creation: your very cranky boss.
At least if you get together with other writers, you can argue about who wrote the cranky boss and – very important – why someone keeps writing editors that reject you.
More importantly, though, particularly in the beginning, it is important to get together with other writers and critique each other’s work.
But Sarah, you say – yes, you, the gentleman third from the left on the fifth row. Did you bring enough candy for everyone? – “My mother/Aunt Mimi/cat loves my work. Why do I need to expose myself to the critique of strangers that happen to be writers?”
Because your mother/Aunt Mimi/cat (and why is your cat talking to you? Worse, why have you taught your cat to read? You do realize if she gets hold of a work on mind-control and hypnosis we’re done as a species, right?) might not be playing favorites. They might be brutally honest with you. However unless one of them is a writer, professional editor, or somehow involved in reading a lot of the type of work you write (your cat? REALLY?)_they might spot something is wrong, but not be able to tell you what. Or even worse, depending on where you are, not be able to tell you how to optimize your work (ie. They’ll assume because it’s readable it’s good enough to be published) or assume it’s the worst thing ever written because there’s a mistake or two (i.e. “Don’t quit your day job, you have five punctuation mistakes!”) Meanwhile, someone striving to learn the craft, even if at the same level or not much advanced than you can help, because they might have discovered a way to solve something that’s bothering you. Yeah, you’ll do a lot of sharing of ignorance, but if you’re persistent and work hard, eventually you’ll stumble in the right direction.
There are many ways to find a writers group: call your local library; join RWA or the association best suited to your writing (RWA takes unpublished members. With other associations it varies) and ask about a local critique group; hang a sign on your window (be careful it doesn’t sound like a ransom note. They might think the cat is holding you hostage); and as a last resort, form one. (An ad on Craigslist might do that.)
Once you find a writers’ group, you must make sure it’s a good one. I will not mention any of the normal precautions when meeting strangers. (Meet in a public place first; have some common sense; don’t accept candy; don’t tell them your cat can read, etc.)
Instead, I will deal with: The Top Ten Signs that your Writers’ Group is Toxic.
10 - The dilettante group: You’re the only person in the group who writes. The others come for the cheese, the dominoes or to look at your talking cat. They might be lovely folks, but if you stick around you’ll also become one of those writers in name only. Come for the cookies, find another critique group.
9 - The generalist group: There’s someone who writes romance, two elderly ladies who write erotica, a punk rocker who writes biblical adventure, a gentleman who is writing his memoirs from the Korean war and those cute chicks who drawvampire picture books. No one is writing your interest which is – let’s say – fantasy. This means either they compliment you on coming up with this cool concept: elves! Or they tell you this can’t be fantasy, it doesn’t sound a thing like Harry Potter. (Or Tolkien.) RUN. Run very fast. If you stay you’ll find yourself having to include paragraphs on how and why your magical spell works. A fantasy editor will think you’re insane.
8 - The Personality Cult Group: There is one writer who is published – weirdly, usually this means one short story in a small press magazine ten years ago – and who therefore holds the key to all your future careers. In her mind, at least (and possibly her cat’s mind.) what she says sets the tone for what everyone thinks about your story. Worse, what she says is the “truth” engraved in stone and brought down from the mountain. This might be fine, if she is an icon in the field you hope to break into or if the person is understanding and empathetic enough to be able to guide you (and that usually only works in the beginning. Later, you’ll need more specific critique.) But if you’re writing SF and she writes for Ladies Home Journal and she thinks there is ONE right way to write, you will have a problem.
7 - The Clique: These people have been together since the time of dinosaurs. Instead of studying published works/the market/field blogs/etc, they have decided it’s much easier and greater fun to develop their own rules of good writing. These range from the loony “you can not use words of different derivation together.” to the otherworldly “No book with a character named Stephen can get sold in today’s market.” to the deceptively reasonable-sounding “No one will buy a novel over 100 k words.” If you stay there, you’ll join the clique. This would be okay, except their rules have nothing to do with what publishers want and will distort your style. If you stay a while, then leave, they’ll hate you. Meet, greet, drink the coffee and RUN.
6 - The Worshipers: Similar to the Cult of Personality, except the worshiped one is not a member of the group but some great writing teacher long departed. The difference between someone like me, who recommends a writer of how-to-write books like Dwight Swain, and a worshiper is that I don’t ask you things like “did you read what he says on page seven?” Unless you agree with them that this teacher is the be all end all of writing technique and that you want to write just like that, don’t bother. If you choose to stay, memorize the scriptures. And pray that this writing teacher IS the right guide to what publishing houses want right now.
5 - The Haters: face it, they’re just not that into you. It’s not even your writing. Conversations stop when you enter the room. They ask you when you stopped beating your cat. And of course, they hate everything you ever wrote. Give it up. Basic human chemistry is needed too.
4 - The Flounderers: they’re worse than your cat at critiquing. “I feel you’re just wrong here. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe it’s this other thing. Have you considered writing about cats?” If you can’t figure out what they’re saying and they can’t explain it, maybe you should consider finding a group that speaks your language.
3 - The Feuders: You’ve just joined the writing group where half the members are Montagues and the Capulets and you find your critiques being judged on the basis of which group you’re aligning yourself with. Beware any less than complimentary critiques or even praise if given to the wrong person. There will be revenge. Do I need to tell you to get out?
2 - The Concerned Ones: They’ll follow you outside after the meeting and give you “advice” strictly for your own good, of course. It will be stuff like, “You’ll never get published until you fix your commas.” The person giving the advice will have no more credits than you. But it’s their way of claiming superiority. They’re notorious for not giving their “help” in front of the rest of the group. If they’ve been in the group very long, don’t stay. If you’re both new, hope the concerned one leaves first. If not, you leave.
1 - The Flatterers: Everything you write is gold. Gosh, wow, oh, heavens, you’re even better than your cat. And your Aunt Mimi doesn’t love you enough. Would you like the comfy chair? Is that cushion what you needed? Have a cookie. We just love you. You’re so talented.
I’m not going to tell you to run. I mean, we all need a pat in the back now and then. But tell them you’re busy and can only come once a month (do you want to get fat from all the cookies?) Then find someone who will give you a good critique.
Questions? Suggestions? Additions? (What did your cat say?)