My mother, bless her heart, is under the impression that writers just scribble or type out the words and poof! — we’re all done. I wish! I’ve never, ever heard of a book being accepted as is by a reputable publisher, and that is a very good thing. As a writer, I am too close to the work to judge it objectively, never mind the spelling and grammar errors that come out when you’re focused on just getting the story written down. One of the best pieces of advice I can give to new writers is to seek out supportive, respectful criticism from other writers.
The key words there are supportive and respectful. I have heard a number of horror stories about critique groups. My own weekly group is a huge blessing. It includes writers at all levels of experience and in a range of genres from romance to science fiction to thrillers to horror. Some of us write books, some write poetry and some write plays or screenplays. The main thing is that we all demand well-written stories with vivid characters that draw us in and keep us begging for more. Without this group’s encouragement, I would never have had the nerve to enter the contest that led to my first sale.
Equally important are rules of conduct that limit criticism to the writing. Our primary goal as a group is to help each other become better writers. If you join a critique group that praises or dismisses anyone’s writing based on how well or poorly they conform to a set of religious or political views, move on! The same goes if they treat you differently based on your genre. Or if they think there is something wrong with you because you want to write a book that people can buy in grocery stores. (This is one of my goals as a writer, so I will admit to some bias here.)
I’ve also heard stories where new writers are condescended to by those who have been in a group longer. This is not okay. Most published authors I have been in contact with, either personally or through correspondence, have answered questions and provided advice when I asked, and even when I didn’t. Those who were unable to help still took the time out of their schedules to offer encouragement and good wishes. If these women (and men) can treat strangers nicely, so can Madame Poobah of the Local Community Writers Circle.
Of course, supportive and respectful apply to the ‘critique-ee’ as well. If you are submitting your work to other people so they can exclaim that it is the most innovative piece of fiction since Western Civilization crawled out of the Dark Ages, probably you’re not going to have a positive experience. (Yeah, we have folks show up with that attitude from time to time. They don’t last long.) ‘Critique’ and ‘criticize’ are related. You’re asking people to tell you where the weak spots are in your WIP. Don’t be surprised or offended when they actually do that. If you get comments from five different people complaining about the same paragraph, that’s a pretty good indication that you should reconsider it, but it’s unlikely that they’re conspiring to drive you away.
Be patient if someone suggests you take your story in a direction that you don’t want to go. There is no law that says you have to follow every piece of criticism you get. Ultimately, you are responsible for what you write. Smile, say thank you and move on.
And yes, you should thank someone who has taken time to listen to or read your work and given you their advice. Even if you don’t agree with them. Even if someone has given all negative comments, or you think they’re being nit-picky over teeny tiny details. I’ve slept on criticism I’ve disagreed with and found it valid the next day. When something isn’t working my weekly group lets me know. They’re not brutal, but once you’ve been there long enough for your skin to thicken, they’re blunt. And I love it when people nit-pick — it means there are no major problems that week!
As long as I’m discussing critiques, what are some of the best or worst scenes you’ve read in a book? Or what kind of scenes do you love or loathe? As writers have any of you ever found some embarrassing mistakes in your manuscript — or worse, in your book? (Like the two paragraphs where I use the word ‘wrist’ four or five times. Or one of my first readings where everything was ‘scandalous’. Luckily for all of you, I abandoned that story!)