Right after I first dipped my toes into the world of fiction, I was lucky enough to find a good writers’ group. I wasn’t all that serious back then, but a lot of writers who came to Scribes were. They pushed and prodded me into writing more than I’d intended and into sending things out when I was happy to toss them in a drawer. They forced me to grow.
They invited me to go to writers’ conferences with them, and that was a real eye-opener. Attending panels at a conference expanded my vision. Writing was a career for the authors who lectured us. They were professionals–writing was a business. I’d never seen it as that. They talked markets and publishers, bestsellers and mid-list fiction. They discussed how publishing was changing. Big publishers were gobbling up little publishers, and they warned that writers would feel the pinch. I listened and soaked it all up, but I didn’t see the big picture. I was too naive.
After I placed short stories in several anthologies and in Alfred Hitchcock’s mystery magazine and Ellery Queen, I was one of the writers on conference panels. And I felt outclassed again. I could talk “how to” for writing, but I still didn’t know much about selling and publishing. Even when it came to writing, there’s nothing more humbling than to have people raise their hands and ask questions when the answers, for me, were nebulous, at best, and when the writers on either side of me could prattle off answers faster than my brain could process them. At one mystery conference, I sat on a panel with Charlaine Harris and Carolyn Hart to discuss short story writing. I mean, really.
At home, at Scribes, some of the writers were so far ahead of me, I dreaded it when it was my turn to read at our meetings. We met, and still do, every second and fourth Wednesday from noon to two. Two writers and an alternate (who sometimes we get to, and sometimes we don’t–depending on how wound up we get over critiques when we go around the table) share their work with us. Each writer gets fifteen minutes to read. After the first reader finishes, we go around the table to discuss what we thought was really good about the piece and what might make it better. We stay supportive and positive, but we still lose people. And I understand that. It’s hard to listen to critiques.
We finally had to make a rule that the reader can’t comment on what people say until we’ve circled the entire table, and then it’s his/her turn to talk. We made that rule for a reason. First, most writers feel the need to explain why they wrote a scene the way they chose to. They can’t help it. They’re attached to the pages they wrote. They’re attached to the story, the characters, their baby. Even when we have almost all good things to say about it, the things we pick at rankle. It’s like having someone walk up to you and say, “Cute kid, except for that wart on his nose.” The flaw stands out. It makes writers defensive.
Even writers who SAY that they want lots of feedback, that they don’t want only praise, that they want us to FIND something that they can make better.. crumple for a bit. I love criticism. I want my friends to find my screw-ups before I print them. I’m fine when those comments are on paper, and I can read through the scribbles of red ink and consider them without pressure. But my first reaction, almost always, when the critique is vocial, is to get defensive. It feels more threatening somehow, major instead of minor. I’ve learned that about myself, but I’m not the only one. I watch it over and over again at Scribes. So now, I just listen and nod and thank people for their feedback, then go home and give myself a few days to filter it all. Then, I can appreciate what my writer friends were telling me. That doesn’t mean I always agree with them, but I’m glad they gave me something to consider.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot by listening to the critiques of my work and others’ at Scribes. I’ve watched people who fold under the feedback and never come back. And I’ve watched writers who listen to every single comment, then change their manuscript to try to please everyone. Some waffle so often, they never finish a book, or else they water it down so much, it’s a weak effort when it’s finished. It’s impossible to please everyone. If you do, something’s wrong. I’ve also watched writers who nod and then never change anything. Those writers are interesting. They dig in, tell us that they like their manuscript the way it is, and then write what they please. And sometimes, that works. Sometimes, it doesn’t. But it’s taught me that being defensive is all right, to a point. A writer needs to find balance. He needs to be flexible enough to listen to and consider criticism, but also to have the confidence to believe in himself.
Hope you’ve found your balance, and happy writing!