Novels simply do not get written (well) without help

I’ve stolen this title from the subject line of an email from a writer whose work I recently edited for a contest entry. She is a talented, resilient woman, the kind of writer I enjoy working with because we share the goal of polishing a piece of writing to a high shine without sacrificing the voice or intent.  The kind of writer who does not have a stroke, weep, or go straight to her list of email contacts and delete me after she opens the file I’ve edited. The “track changes” function is a great tool for critiquing, but can be visually overwhelming for the writer who opens their returned document. What do we do with all that criticism? First of all, expect that some of it is positive, that a good number of the comment “balloons” says things like:  perfect! love this line! nailed it!  But it’s the questions in the other balloons that were your reason for soliciting feedback in the first place.

I know writers who have never taken courses, never participated in writing groups, don’t hang out with other writers. Occasionally, though, they take a manuscript in to a writer-in-residence for a free consult, or pay someone through a  manuscript critiquing service (writers’ guilds and unions, some writing organizations offer these) and get all the feedback they need in that way. Other writers have a select few (sometimes one) writer or editor they trust for a final reading of manuscripts before they send them out.  I’m sure there are writers who succeed without ever seeking help with their work before they send it out. Whatever suits personality, process and budget.

When I first became serious about writing I tried everything; took courses, hooked up with writing groups, visited writers-in-residence, and was fortunate to find mentors who were in tune with what I wrote and why I write.  I’ve heard nightmarish stories about writers whose experiences in courses and groups, even one-on-one consultations, were humiliating and totally de-railed them from doing something they loved. Eventually, most people recover from such experiences and carry on—we seem ridiculously programmed to fly in the face of criticism and rejection and for that I am grateful.

All of this is a long prelude to some pieces of advice that I was given along the way and have worked for me.

  1. Know the person whose help you’re seeking. It’s so easy, these days, to find samples of a writer’s work, and information about who they are and where they’ve come from. Use a search engine, and simply ask around. It might be interesting to discuss your work with someone who comes from a totally different tradition and sensibility, but chances are there are better fits for both of you.
  2. Writing groups have their own dynamic. If you feel the feedback you’re getting is either hyper-critical (lack of respect  for  intent and voice) or blandly encouraging (support group rather than close readers) leave.  Groups often have a shelf-life and even those that start out well and send everyone home buoyant from early meetings, can turn toxic, or become more focussed on socializing than writing. The latter is fine, if you have the time, but if you’re serious about wanting feedback, leave.
  3. Don’t look for advice too early. If you start talking about a story before you write it, chances are good that it will evaporate in the telling. Know the story and own it—you might benefit from hearing someone’s suggestions about how you could tell the story, but there’s always the possibility that they’re really telling you how they would write it.  I like the idea of writing groups where the writers bring their questions (usually a specific number – two or three), and that’s all that the readers are allowed to address.  I also like writing workshops that are quite tightly facilitated and each piece is used to look at elements of fiction (or poetry or non-fiction, whatever the case) rather than getting wound up in the particular and personal.

I agree with Michele, that novels simply do not get written (well) without help. The stories about diamonds-in-the-rough being plucked out of slush piles and polished to best-seller perfection by passionate editors can pretty much be shelved with the fairy tales. If we are lucky enough to get an editor at a magazine or publishing house to read our work, it had better read as though it’s print-ready.  There will certainly be edits ahead, but the manuscript should inspire the confidence that the author is up to the challenge.

Take courses, attend summer programs, seek out writers-in-residence, use manuscript services, cobble together writing groups from the like-minded you meet.  But choose carefully, and be aware that if none of these work for you, you may be one of those writers who does best following your own instincts.

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