This is one of the guest blogs I posted on the Night Bazaar a few weeks ago. That’s a great place where writers getting published by Night Shade Books get to hang out and riff on all kinds of fun writerly stuff. If you haven’t dropped by, you should–never telling what kind of gypsy treasures you might turn up there! Anyway, the topic for this week was whether you depend on a lot of feedback as you work, or fly solo for the most part. Enjoy. . .
Some writing is collaborative in nature–sitcoms, some movie scripts, plenty of nonfiction. But writing fiction, with few notable exceptions, is generally a solo effort. You cloister yourself and labor away in solitude, trying to take some idea that is beautiful, sublime, terrifying, or fantastic in your head, and translate it into words on a page that capture the essence of what spawned them. Sometimes you fail at this; sometimes you fail a lot. And it’s all on you—you can’t point the finger or blame a poor working relationship with another writer. When you bomb, it’s a poor working relationship with yourself or your ideas. And boy, that’s no kind of fun to face.
Ultimately, though, if you keep after it and revise long enough, you’ll create something you feel pretty good about. Even if it isn’t perfect, it’s solid. You think. But you’re still so close to the writing, sometimes it’s hard to tell. And that’s when it can be really worthwhile to show the work to someone else, to get validation or confirmation that what you’ve produced isn’t complete drivel.
In college and grad school, I participated in a lot of fiction workshops (some might say too many!). You can learn some really good habits in them, but some pretty lousy ones, too.
In theory, a workshop is full of smart, savvy, sensitive students who provide constructive criticism in a safe environment. In practice? Well, it doesn’t always play out that way. Some writers are incapable of providing anything less than barbed, nasty feedback, and while most professors won’t tolerate that crap, I’ve been in some classes where they not only ignored said nasty asshats, but thought it would be a fun social experiment to actively encourage the writers in the class to act out their worse possible instincts. If a bloodbath ensues, hey, good times!
It can be hard to separate yourself from your work. After all, you wholly invested yourself—to you, both the process and the end product couldn’t be more personal. But at the end of the day, readers are just judging what’s on the page. Not your intentions, hopes, or the demons you wrestled with to find the words, only the words, and whether they’re the right ones or not.
In most workshops, you have a gag order while the rest of the group discusses your piece. So it can be really tough to sit back in silence and listen to the group hash out their opinions of the work, particularly when they are ripping it to shreds. You want to spring to its defense, provided context, or call them all asshats. So, you either develop thick skin in response to stinging criticism, or you end up a wailing neurotic mess. I’ve seen the latter happen. It ain’t pretty.
Thick skin is good. That’s one thing most workshops teach you. And with any luck, if you do enough of them, you also develop the ability to objectively critique your own work.
By analyzing someone else’s work each week (and not just from a lit. crit. angle, but looking over the nuts and bolts shop stuff) a writer begins to develop a critical apparatus. You identify problems and solutions in the text, think about the myriad of choices the writer made throughout, and how different choices might have improved the story.
And as you refine those skills, if you are receptive to what others in the group say about your own work, you also get a decent antennae for what works or fails in your own stories, what your own strengths and weaknesses are.
But therein lies another of the potential pitfalls of writer’s groups. Sometimes, ten people will have ten wildly divergent opinions about your story. Even if those readers are collegial and not snarky, that doesn’t guarantee they will provide coherent or useful commentary. Some days, you walk away thinking, “Well. . . apparently my story is fantastic, melodramatic, overripe, truncated, brimming with authentic sounding dialogue, corny as hell, too long, too short, with a beautiful-heinous-mediocre title. Thanks for that.”
Trying to appease everyone in a writer’s group is usually impossible, and sometimes dangerous to the work itself. You dilute your ideas, soften all the edges to avoid offending anyone at all, or end up with a Frankenstein monster of a story with disparate parts and bad skin tone.
The trick is discerning what feedback is really applicable to your stuff, and what works for you. And that goes back to defining your own ability to self-critique or recognize the wheat from the chaff.
Since leaving school, I haven’t done the writer group thing. When I’ve needed/wanted another opinion, I’ve usually asked a select writer buddy or two to review my work. Only one beta reader actually read the manuscript of Scourge of the Betrayer from start to finish before I started shopping it around.
However, as I recently wrote in another post, that might not have been a good thing. No matter how much you trust your own judgment, you can still miss problems inherent in the text that jump off the page to other readers. It’s easy to think that just because writing is solitary that you have to go it alone in the whole endeavor or can only depend on yourself.
Getting feedback, wherever you find it, can be really useful and instructive. Sometimes even lone wolves need to hang around the pack for a little bit, even if they end up running back into the wild on their own after a good group howl.