Writing Craft

Live the Dream in 2013

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Carroll County News

In my last column, I suggested you make 2013 the year of the dream.

I gave you a recipe: Your life plus 3 things equals progress! No longer will you feel that vague sadness, as the years pass and you don’t follow your passion. Three things. I discuss these from a writing standpoint, but they are applicable to any creative endeavor.

The first is Craft. Learn the techniques of your art. I suggested ways to do that in the December 5 issue, available on line.

This week, the second ingredient of the recipe for success: Community.

We need accountability. A date to show up with some real writing. We organize our lives around deadlines, so if we don’t have a writing appointment, writing gets crowded off our radar. A vague “I’ll to do that when I get time,” will never happen. I procrastinated twenty years; I know.

The second reason writers need Community is for good readers. Everything out of my head is brilliant or trash, depending on my mood. I can’t see when the scene is confusing–it’s always clear to me. I can’t tell when the characters are vague–I can see them fine. I can’t tell when the action lags–I’m always spellbound.

A good reader can tell you all that and more. But friends and family want you to be happy. “Gosh Mom, that’s great,” is fun to hear, but worthless in terms of improving your writing.

Also, family and friends don’t have the vocabulary. They can’t say: This character is ill-defined. There’s a problem with the narrative arc. The proportion is off. The pacing is wrong. Only another writer can tell you that because only another writer has the vocabulary.

So where is this magical Community? The most useful writing communities meet regularly to comment on members’ work. They are called critiquing groups, though I don’t like that term. Sometimes they’re called Peer Reviews, since we’re all in the same boat: writers trying to get better.

But, there can be problems. Here are some I’ve witnessed:

* The manuscript is attacked because of the ideological position it assumes.

* One person dominates the group and takes it off track.

* The writer is defensive and wastes time explaining why the comments are wrong.

* Everyone gets along great and all they want to do is chat.

When members realize that the meetings are not useful, they begin to drop out.

Here are my suggestions to keep a critiquing group true to its mission that each member improves his writing.

* Determine that you talk about nothing but writing. Schedule a social time after the meeting, if you want.

* Have a moderator who will enforce #1.

* Don’t read passages aloud. Send work before the meeting. Members should be serious about helping each other and read one another’s work carefully. Set a maximum page limit.

* Consider the stage of the piece: Generative, draft, or editing. Often, we nitpick commas when we should be discussing plot.

* Your role in serving the writer is to report your reaction to the work. Not tell him how to fix it.

* Read as a reader. Pretend you got the work at the library. Where do you get confused or bored? How do you feel toward the characters? Are their motivations clear to you?

* The writer should not reply until all remarks have been made, and then only briefly. When your book is published, you won’t accompany each one to explain what you meant. The book must stand alone and say what you mean. If it doesn’t, don’t blame your readers.

* Comment on the writing alone. Not the ideology expressed. Not the genre. If you write literary fiction, don’t be snobbish toward your writing brother’s werewolf story. Help him make it a great werewolf story.

It’s a terrific learning exercise to study another’s writing. It helps us stay continually aware of the many elements of craft to be mastered.

Find community in a critiquing group. There are several already established, and we have several in the Community Writing Program. Just contact me for more information at or 479 292-3665. Craft, Community, and next time, the third element of living the dream in 2013.