Last night, the writing group I belong to, the Kenosha Writer’s Guild, had one of its regularly scheduled extended critique meetings. I submitted an excerpt from the novel I’ve been working on. In the excerpt, there’s an early morning scene in a hospital where the main character encounters a new, minor character that I introduce with the following sentence:
At that point, one of the nurses, a thirtyish woman with thick glasses and black hair all tied up in a bun named Amy, walked past in the hallway.
Forget for a moment that the sentence’s first clause, “At that point,” adds nothing and serves no purpose. The main problem with the sentence is that I named the bun, and not the woman.
This was pointed out to me by one of my fellow writer’s group members at last night’s meeting. We had a good laugh at my expense, and although I was slightly embarrassed, I wasn’t surprised.
I’d read through the piece many times before the meeting, and made a lot of corrections. But for some reason, glaring as it might be, I never saw the bun named Amy. This is consistent with my experience, that no matter how diligent I might think I am in self-editing, I always miss things. This hasn’t been true for only my creative writing, it was also true when years ago, in a previous life as a computer programmer, I’d always miss bugs in the code I was writing or testing. There is a natural inclination in both forms of writing to glance over what you aren’t worried about, those little pieces of housework that are simple and unambiguous, and focus on the more complex content, the parts where you put in more work.
For what it’s worth, given that it’s coming from the author of a bun named Amy, my advice to other amateur writers out there is to join a writing group as soon as possible. Not only does a writing group provide you with a mechanism to have your work reviewed by fresh eyes, more importantly, it gets you away from your desk and out with people who share your passion, who understand what it is to be driven to tell stories.
A couple of years ago, I was at a big weekend writers’ conference in a hotel in downtown Madison. One night, I was in the hotel bar, where I met a couple of other writers. One was a quiet young guy in jeans and a black t-shirt, in about his mid-twenties, who’d written a sci-fi/fantasy novel. The other guy was a sharply dressed lawyer by day who’d self-published three crime novels by night. The lawyer asked us what we thought about writing groups. The young guy responded that he had no opinion, that he’d never belonged to one. I started to explain that I found mine to be extremely valuable, when he interrupted me.
“I think they’re a complete waste of time,” he said.
“Why’s that?” I asked, as if I had any reason to believe he wouldn’t tell me if I didn’t.
“Because all they do,” he said, “is tell you how great you are. I need more than that.” He then proceeded to spend the next two hours telling me how great he is, pontificating on everything writerly, from rules about dialogue to why the big time agencies and publishing houses were too screwed up to recognize his greatness. At some point, the younger guy somehow escaped, as I looked up from my beer to his empty chair, while lawyer-writer guy droned on and on and on.
Finally, the guy shut his mouth long enough to take a sip from his goblet of wine, and I was able to excuse myself and go back to my room. The guy was a pompous ass and a fatuous bore, but a part of me understood what he said about writing groups. They can be too nice. They can be too busy being supportive when what you might need is some harsh and blunt criticism.
But then I thought about it, and I realized how wrong the douchebag was. The thing with writing groups, at least my writing group, is that you get different levels of writers writing in wide and diverse genres and styles, not to mention skill levels. You get so many different perspectives. The only common denominator is a love of and shared passion for writing. It’s people who have full lives with work and family, but are still driven by the need to express themselves, to put something down.
Critiques tend to be respectful because most of the members respect one another, and respect the investment of time and emotion that goes into creation of each piece. It’s the creation of art at its most basic and pure level: nobody is getting paid for their work, and each member is driven to write what they write by something that’s moved them. They may be inspired by a specific artist or genre, or by events in their lives, or any number of things. The point is, nobody forced them to write what they choose to write, or to even write in the first place. The quality of their output is secondary – that they’ve been moved to put something down is worthy of admiration and respect.
Learning to understand this is the main reason to join a writing group. Once understood, you realize that you are not alone, that maybe this strange thing you have inside isn’t as unusual as you thought it was. Once you learn to respect these things in others, you start to respect it in yourself. This is after all why we write – to better understand not only the world around us, but to better understand ourselves, who we are. This not only helps us make sense of the world, it makes us better – better readers, better writers, better people.