After completing my first manuscript in 2014, I joined a writer’s group via MeetUp.com. A book by public speaker and writer, Brian Tracy, motivated me to find a writer’s group in order to learn from other writers. That’s not a bad idea at all. However, I learned that many fellow writers can’t turn off the competition switch. Objectivity is a fantasy. They will constantly compare their writing to yours. They will snub your entire story, stating there are unnecessary characters and plot holes before reading your entire manuscript to know what characters are essential or not; what plot elements are necessary or unnecessary. This is done to protect themselves. To make themselves feel more secure about their work.
The above behavior reminds me of a story Robert Kiyosaki, author of Rich Dad Poor Dad, shared about a fellow writer at a conference he went to. He offered her help with marketing. She was an excellent writer, just not a good saleswoman. She had trouble getting her book exposure. Well, she snubbed Robert. She saw his writing as inferior compared to hers and wouldn’t take advice from him. While at the same time, Robert Kiyosaki has sold millions of copies of his books.
“I’m not a best-writing author, I’m a best-selling author.” – Robert Kiyosaki
Think about the above scenario. Have you met people in your writer’s group (assuming you’re in one) who act as if they have you all figured out? As if they know the limits of your potential? As if they are superior to you? If yes to any or all of those statements, get out of that negative environment. The problem is not solely with critiques from group members, it’s about the prejudgment that blinds them from giving you an objective critique.
The woman in the scenario above knew of Robert’s success and riches, but she already made her judgments about him as a writer. She was educated as a writer; he was an ex-military guy who went into business. She was a true writer; he was just a rich guy who managed to put some thoughts together in a book. She couldn’t look beyond these prejudices of him to learn that there are more ways to reach and please an audience than her way. In adhering to her prejudice and the overly-common human instinct to preserve one’s self-esteem, she missed an opportunity to acquire knowledge from a master of marketing.
What’s the point of this babbling I’m doing? This: if you’re seeking participation in a writer’s group, just be choosy. Find a group with emotionally mature writers who read a lot. Believe it or not, a lot of writers say they don’t have time to read. Some even say that books written by other people just don’t entertain them; as if only they know how to put a story together. If you hear that from a fellow writer, don’t share your work with them. That’s the definition of closed-minded.
Anyway, back to what I was saying, if you find emotionally mature writers who actually read a lot, you’ll find that those writers may be more objective and open to allowing your story unfold before for example; deciding if such and such character is superfluous, or if a specific scene isn’t needed. Honestly, if someone has read not even 10% of your story, how the hell are they gonna know if a character or scene is unnecessary? The arrogance! I’m sure most writers who have done at least some studying on the craft of commercial fiction, know that each scene must move the story forward and each character should in some way matter to the plot. Finishing a book is enough of a hill to climb, so don’t assume that a writer threw in something unnecessary to make extra work for him/herself.
Ever read a mystery that ended something like this: “Oh, my, the butler did it! He killed the dinner guests.”
This is one of those classic Clue moments when the least likely character turns out to be the main antagonist. This is when the reader realizes that it was a good thing that the author mentioned the butler’s strange, anti-social behavior throughout the book, right? Turns out the character wasn’t superfluous at all. That, my friends, is why a reader should allow a story to play out and let the author do his/her thing. In the above scenario, if the butler’s antisocial personality was not mentioned, (when some impatient readers may have interpreted it as unnecessary) then the big reveal of the butler being the killer could make the reader feel cheated; like the writer copped out and threw it in there to end the story.
One danger of critique groups is that when you’re working with people at the same level as you, a group discussion may feel like the blind leading the blind. Some members may have particular pet peeves or even bad judgment when it comes to offering feedback. – Jane Friedman on critique groups in ‘How to Publish Your Book’
This brings me to the topic of diversity. I didn’t grow up in a middle-class neighborhood and go to the bookstore with my mommy who read stories to me at night when I was a child. I didn’t go straight to college out of school. I was a loner through all of high school. I joined the military to get out my aggression, and I started writing to get out more aggression. If you think you know where my story is going, you’re mistaken, like all my other beta readers. Let the story unfold before you make judgments. This is why diversity in the workplace, the entertainment industry, and elsewhere creates new, different content. Don’t assume you know everything about a story 10 pages in, or with my stories, 10 chapters in. I hate predictability and I hate cliches, my job is to take you on a journey, not bore you.
Lazy readers jump to conclusions about plots while only a thimbleful into a story. I’ve read too many books that have surprised me, or had some hidden gem within it, for me to just assume I know all about a story without barely getting into the plot. Again, the arrogance.
I’ve obviously experienced the above listed, not just at a writer’s group, but also in my college learning lab. The funny thing is that the professor who worked at the lab said that he didn’t read much, didn’t have time to. He also said that he had been working on his book for years and still had not finished. Was he a good candidate to get advice from? Probably not, but this was my first year on my manuscript, The Warrior from Monde, so I was open to any advice.
I won’t deny that I learned some useful information from both of the writer’s groups I’ve been a part of, and also from my professor. However, I could have learned much of that information directly from the source: industry experts, like Jane Friedman, listed above. I’m currently still part of a writer’s group. I found my place among writers who can be honest but not competitive. We all write for different reasons and we all are writing different stories. We understand that, and we do our best to help each other. Once you find a good writer’s group, it’s best to hold on and stay in contact. It’s hard enough finding the emotional maturity and open-mindedness that work best for these groups. I’m sure I’m missing more tips and thoughts on this, but I’ll leave it at that.
Readers, if you’re out there, how about you? Tell me about your critique group experiences.