Wednesday, November 23, 2022

The hazards of "how to"

 I read Charlotte's Tuesday post with interest, remembering the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly of my critiquing experiences. Some of my memories made me cringe, as it was me being the ugly one.

I've been writing all my life, since I was six and could first print words. For most of it I've been self-taught, like Charlotte. Words and stories poured out of me, and I had little regard for style or perfection. At one point in my early twenties I had some time off and decided to sign up for a creative writing class. This was small-group, workshop-style, and we submitted a chapter or short story to the group for critiquing the next week. Most of us were beginners, and we were given no guidance from the instructor on the do's and don'ts of good critiquing.

The result was a bit of a blood bath. Stories were ripped to shreds, sometimes for the sake of sounding clever or more skilled than the writer. I confess I too was guilty of this. It's so much easier to see what's wrong with a piece than what's right. Much easier than making useful suggestions. And when suggestions were made, they were along the lines of " I think you should.."  or "this is how I would write the story", with little regard for the fact it wasn't their story. After one particularly brutal blood bath (on an admittedly cliched and shallow piece of writing), the young man never came back to class. That memory bothers me still. We are all sensitive at our core - it's what makes us capable of the empathy and imagination needed to write in the first place. No matter how bad the piece is, we have poured our hearts into it and it is a part of us. 

That should never be so carelessly crushed.

That group put me off writing courses and critiquing groups for years. I continued to be self-taught. In fact, I was completely turned off by those who claimed to have found the secret to writing the perfect novel. All those "how to" books and talks that promised success if you follow these rules. A confession - I've never been fond of rules. Tell me this is the way you should do something, and I'm heading in the opposite direction. I've always wanted to do my own thing. So I soldiered on, reading about writing, reading great writers, gradually getting a sense about what worked and didn't.

Luckily for me, somewhere around my mid-century mark, when I started to think more seriously aboutgetting published, I did join a critiquing group of fellow beginner crime writers. We were all feeling our way and by then were mature enough to understand the sensitive task we were being trusted with. The first couple of groups had its ups and downs, and with their help I got my first couple of books published. We learned to set rules for feedback, to focus our comments constructively, and to avoid rewriting the story our way (mostly).

I later found my way to my present critiquing group, the Ladies Killing Circle, with whom I have stayed ever since. At this point we are more friends than a critiquing group. We yak about writing, pitch plot ideas, and may or may not read each other's work before we send it off. I almost always ask for a read-through once I have polished a book to the best I can make it. They act as my beta readers, finding flagrant flaws and questionable characterizations before the book lands on the editor's desk. They are my best friends and after nearly a quarter century, I trust them to handle my words with care. If you can find this kind of group, cherish it!

I believe everyone has to find the way to write a novel that works for them. Not everyone outlines, not everyone does character backstories, and to shoehorn yourself into an inappropriate approach that doesn't give you the room to breathe and discover, dooms you to failure. 

That said, I have found articles or workshops on specific topics useful. Articles on understanding POV, creating setting, or capturing dialogue can be enormously helpful to strengthening your writing, and we always hope to get better and better. I've even written some myself.

But the best way to approach them is to think of them as signposts rather than traffic signals. Not "right turn only" or "wrong way", but "consider this" or "if you do this, it has that effect."

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