It’s lonely and isolating work, this writing business. Usually we manufacture ideas in our heads with little input—or even interest—from others. We sit, day after day, poking at a keyboard, making words appear, weighing them, revising them, weighing them again.
Wondering if we’re coming anywhere near the dream we began with.
We do all this alone in a room, alone inside our own heads.
And then we gather the manuscript we’ve produced and send it into the world to be judged.
Too often to hear, “No.” “No.” “No.” “No.”
No exclamation point on the “No,” even. Just a solid, flat, impenetrable “No.” The editor either wants what we offer or she doesn’t. Discussion isn’t invited. Even worse, often these days the “no” comes in the form of silence.
Once more we weigh this piece we’ve created out of our very bone and sinew, perhaps revise again, send it out again.
Is it any wonder that writers need other writers.
Partly just to share our joys, our frustrations. But also for a reality check. Another writer can provide the objectivity that is impossible for us, alone in a room in front of a screen that gives back our words so impartially.
Another writer can even help us shape our work into something that is more likely to receive a “yes” out there in the world. But there are some things we have to keep in mind when we ask one another for help.
First, we need to be clear what we are asking for. If we know what our concerns are—too long? the reader’s attention caught fast enough? characters believable?—asking questions up front can be useful.
(Careful with that one, though. Some questions are best left until after a first reading so they don’t prejudice the reader into seeing a problem just because we asked.)
Sometimes we get back a response that is completely unexpected. When that happens to me, that surprising comment often gets put aside. But then I go on to find another reader or two. When I hear that unexpected reaction a second time, I’m ready and on board.
(My agent recently suggested a change in a novel he was about to send out that felt difficult and unnecessary to me. I said, “No.” Now the same suggestion has come from the editor, and I am, of course, instantly on board . . . and grateful to have heard it from my agent first.)
Second, consider the source. This is the kind of situation where writers’ critique groups are useful. We learn whose comments we most value by hearing them addressed to others’ manuscripts, because we are objective about others’ work. Then when the time comes for our own work to be discussed, we know who to listen to most deeply.
(And while other writers can usually give us the best value as critics, in my early writing years, I knew few—in the beginning no—other writers. But I still found discerning readers whose perspective I trusted.)
Finally, before we ask anyone to critique a manuscript, we need to examine our own hearts. Are we truly open to doing further work on this piece? Or are we at the point that all we want to hear is praise?
(There is nothing wrong with wanting appreciation for our work. We all need praise at every stage, of course, but sometimes we are still looking for guidance to dig back into a manuscript and sometimes we are ready to let it fly. When we reach that stage, the best we can do is to let our manuscript try its way in the world. If it doesn’t make it out there, we can we always return to our writer friends for another dose of reality.)
And if you’re reading this and feeling “Oh, I wish I had more of a community of writers around me,” here’s an idea. LoonSong, the small-community writers’ retreat that will be meeting in northern Minnesota from September 6th through the 10th, still has openings. And this year you can even opt to come a day early for extra writing and conversation time. I’ll be there.
Check it out at www.loonsong.org.
The best way I know to find those special soulmate writers who can forever afterwards be accessed through the internet is gatherings such as LoonSong.
And the best way I know to have a successful career is to open ourselves up to informed feedback . . . and to informed support.