The Beginning Writer


The Beginning Writer: Interacting (Part 1 of 3)

© Will Greenway 2000
 

Aside from the occasional hermit, most people are social creatures—writers are no exception. Our hobbies are something we do in our leisure time. While we might derive some enjoyment being sequestered with our muses pounding away at a keyboard—there is another less-explored part of writing we tend to enjoy far more. That part is simply talking shop. When I say talking shop, it goes to a whole host of peripheral pursuits related to writing, whether it is improving skills, getting inspiration, or simply learning more about the writing phenomenon and the artists.

Few are the writers who are not also readers. The natural place to look for "shop talk" is in articles written about writing. A lot can be gleaned from written advice. It has the advantage of organization and permanence. If there's something you don't remember or understand you can go back and peruse the material again.

Advice on advice

Nobody has all the answers. Writing is not an exact science, there is no formula or absolute "right" way—no matter how much I (or any other advisor) might suggest that there is. Each person is different—you are different. As such, what works for me, might not work for you or have the same results. Does that make reading about writing pointless? No. What it means is that you have to collaborate with the advisor to help you improve. A great deal of what I do in the Dynamic Fiction and Dynamic Writing material is to analyze what writing and story is. I take it apart and a label things and show how they relate to one another in hopes that you will find those elements in your own material. To get anything out of it, you must make that mental engagement. This is not just with my material, but with any written advice.

When coming to a thesis on writing improvement treat it and everything else you have read / heard / experienced as an aggregate. What helped you in the past may well continue to help you forever. Some things are universal, but are said many ways. The now almost cliche, 'show don't tell' admonishment. Old and tattered as it is... if you adhere to nothing else as a fiction writer, sticking to that alone will make you significantly better than the average hack.

A lot of what I write is not new though I may try to put a different spin on it. That doesn't make it less valid. Reiterated concepts are a sign of a generally accepted truth. Does that make it law? No. The ultimate arbitor of truth or baloney is always you. Your responsibility is to weigh the merit of each idea and hang onto the concepts that make the most sense to you.

The key thing is to remain objective. To be honest, my left-brained approach to writing really bugs some writers. They hate having it reduced almost to a math equation. I can only shrug. One of the keys to success in any endeavor is consistency. Can you think of a better way to be successful in writing than to distill the critical elements down to what is essentially a checklist for self evaluation? That checklist is a litmus test that when passed, makes your writing more consistent and hopefully more successful. At least, that's the idea behind it all, elsewise this wouldn't be here for you to read.

Like I have a plan in teaching you, look for the plan in other literature about writing. Its pertenence really boils down to the plan (if any). My mechanism puts a lot of responsibility on you. I count on you to think analytically as well as creatively. The success or failure of my approach and its worth to you is whether or not that "split thinking" is a reasonable and attainable accomplishment. When reading another author's advise consider what their grand scheme is (if it is apparent or elucidated). Is it reasonable? Is it something you can and will be able to put into to action? That is your raw barometer for how valid those ideas are in the context of helping you.

Everything can help you if you think of it the right way—even the rankest tripe. If you can see the sham or the fallacy for what it is, you can have your laugh and move on. You've still gleaned something—even if its never to read something from that person again.

In summary on the issue of writing advice:

  • No-one is an absolute authority. I don't care if he/she has published more books than god. Writing is subjective and each person is unique, so no advice is truly universal.

  • All advice/admonishment should be aggregate. No advice should be considered in a vacuum. Each material's merit should be judged based on how it corellates with you and other authorities on the subject.

  • What's the plan? Does the advice have a "big picture" in mind?

  • Everything can help. Keep an open mind, the usefulness of any knowledge hinges on the context you put it in.

Written writing advice is the natural medium for a writer to learn. However, it has the distinct disadvantage of not being interactive. If your particular question is not answered then you are left frustrated.

So, if you want better answers about writing, where do you go? Naturally, to other writers and preferrably authors. Where can that experience be had? There are three main ways: through mail and online, through conferences and seminars, and through critique groups or writer circles.

Mail and Online Writer interaction

We want to socialize—we really do. Typically, it's a matter of geography—there's simply nobody close. More often, we simply don't know what resources are available.

One resource that you might have encountered are the various teach-by-mail writing seminars offered by groups like Longridge Writers Group. With the advent of the internet, this practice has diminished dramatically. Some still exist however. In the case of Longridge, and the others I recall, they give you a fancy writing test (that you always pass) and offer all kinds of written advice material (at a cost of course). They have study groups where you trade scripts with others and there is some limited guidance and advice. The most intriguing thing that they offer is a "writing coach" someone who will read your material and provide feedback. This is not really a plug for them. I see "graduates" of the Longridge school of writing, most of them tend to be romance writers—judge that for yourself. As to Longridge itself, I find them to be rather high pressure and predatory. There are many hidden costs that make their "support" an issue of diminishing returns. I first encountered them almost twenty-five years ago when I foolishly filled out one of their writing tests and sent it in. I received junk mail from them at least once a year up until few years ago. I found what they offered to be 'pricey' (even then) and passed on it. They have since graduated to the net and continue their activities online. Considering the expense associated with them, there are better and more interactive resources.

This, unfortunately, brings us to the topic of the scam. I didn't say Longridge was a scam—but even then, fledgling that I was—it felt like a scam to me. I have no evidence to suggest that they are (except some minor rants on the net by others who felt ripped off). The important point is, we writers do get desperate for contact with other writers. Not just contact, but approval. We want people to read our stuff and like it.

I'm sad to say that there are some shady people in the business, ranging from false teaching institutions, to agents and editors.

Beware the shill in agent's clothing

Top of the list of things to watch out for are agents who are actually shills for editing services. The scam works like this: You submit your work to presumably reputable agent x. Mister (or missus) X responds with a gushing letter about your potential but the script simply isn't ready to go to a publisher. They say that if your script were 'cleaned up' that they could represent it. If you like they have the name of a good editor who will work with you to fix your script.

Yes, SOME of these are legitimate. MOST are not. I was nearly sucked into this once. In my encounter with it, the editing was going to run three dollars a page for what amounted to proof-reading. Not actual feedback. In actuality, three per page isn't bad (if the editor is really good) but I had her do a single chapter (which ran $30) and it was simply sub-par line-editing. I got better edits from my local read-and-critique group for half the price (more on those later).

The kicker is even if you get sucked in on the edits and do it. The agent never does anything with it. They just string you along. I've heard people getting taken on this vile practice MANY times. In some cases, high pressure sales with edits that cost as much as $10000! For goodness sake, for a little more a person could self publish with a sizeable print run!

Always,always—ALWAYS, check the credentials of the agents before you solicit them. Be VERY suspicious if they refer you to an 'editing service'. Often times they get kickbacks for referrals, or in some instances the editor works for them or in one case I heard about, IS the agent under a pseudonym.

Before soliciting an agent do some research. If an agent charges a fee, it makes them suspect. Some make you pay for postage and duplication, but the good ones won't squawk if you provide the duplicates if they are on the up-and-up. A good online resource is the Preditors and Editors website. They have lists of agents and organizations that engage in questionable practices.

Interaction on the Net

The internet is a great tool for writers, and there are some great anonymous resources that are great at overcoming a writer's geographical and financial limitations for interacting with their peers.

One of the organizations I will plug is the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. This is one of the best organized, staffed, and run writing workshops out there. The site is sponsored by a major publisher and they regularly run contests and skim popular works for representation and publishing.

The downside to this obviously is it IS a genre based workshop. I must warn that it is NOT for the thin-skinned or faint of heart. People will read your stuff though, and many will give you decent reviews. In some cases, they will be brutally honest. That can sting. Especially if you are not used to having someone go through your script and tear it apart paragraph by paragraph.

The OWWSFFH does charge a nominal fee (see the chart below), they do however give you a month's free access to try it out. If you are a productive writer with a thick skin you will get your money's worth. Be prepared to work, because it's a points system. You get to submit on a ratio, meaning you have to read and critique other works in order to submit your own. It is a great learning experience, especially if you've never critiqued other people's material. When you start analyzing other writing—especially things that bother or irritate you—it starts to make you aware of it in your own writing. That alone is valuable.

I met some writing buddies on OWW who I eventually traded books with outside the workshop format. You will find people who connect with what you are trying to do and others that are totally off your wave-length. You will find writing out there that is so awesome it humbles you, and other stuff that makes you realize how good you are!

I highly recommend this experience to genre people who read this. Non-genre people would still get something from it but if you don't read SFF&H you might not enjoy it enough to stick with it and get the full benefit of what they offer.

OWWSFFH has a comparison chart on their site that is simply too good not to lift for purposes of listing some other writing courses and workshops that are available. So, credit to OWWSFFH for the following chart:

Name Length Cost Cost/week SF&F Focus?
Online Writing Workshop for SF, F & H One year $49 94 cents Nothing but.
What you get: Submit three pieces at a time for critique; review to learn; Editors' Choice reviews by pros in the field; writers’ discussion groups; resources, tips and advice
Writingclasses.com
(Gotham Writer's Workshop)
10 weeks $395 $39.50 One class on SF & F
What you get: Individual classes on specialized topics: fiction writing, novel writing, etc. Some include exercises, lectures, critique of one work

Writersonline workshops.com
(Writer's Digest)

6-15 weeks $179.00-$579.00
$22.37-$38.60 No
What you get: Individual biweekly classes on specialized topics: fiction fundamentals, novel writing, etc.
Coffee House for Writers 4 weeks $80 $20 No
What you get: Individual classes on specialized topics: creativity, story structure, etc.
trAce Online Writers' Workshop
(trAce Online Writing School)
4 weeks to 1 year $64 to $982 $16 to $18.88 No
What you get: Access to general writing workshop, with various leaders (focus changes according to leader)
trAce Online Writing School 9 weeks $273 $30.33 No
What you get: Nine weeks of online instruction
Rabbit Hill Writer's Studio 10 weeks $150 $10 No
What you get: E-mail list and scheduled chats
Writers Village University 1 week-1 year $10/mo, or $59/yr w/$20 reg. fee $2.31 or $1.52 One class on SF & F
What you get: Short classes on specific writing topics: dialogue, characterization, etc. Most are 3-6 weeks. Ongoing workshops.
Zoetrope All-Story Ongoing Free to submit; $395 for workshop $0 for submission; or $39.50 No
What you get: Slushpile for magazine; submission requires critiques of others; work. Paid 10-week workshops offered in conjunction with Writingclasses.com
Forward Motion Ongoing Free $0 Sort of
What you get: Message boards, critique area, chat, classes
Critters Ongoing Free $0 Yes
What you get: Mailing list system for submitting and critiqung other's work; approx. one-month waiting list to submit; must remain active

The last organization on the table is critters, I was part of the core membership when this thing first started and went through its growing pains of jumping from server to server. Critters is much more informal and doesn't cost anything. The system is based on an email digest. That's one thing, if you don't like a lot of email this can be taxing because every message sent to the list comes to you. If it's still like before, you can get digests of all the activity—but it's less spontaneous that way. I haven't been on critters in some time so I have to feign ignorance as to how it is now. It used to be very supportive and just a place to send questions into space and get answers back It was a lot like being in a club—people got to know one another. We'd throw stories out and feedback would be posted. It was just a nice homey community. The feedback was less tough and the list people were good folks. Now that they are around 5000 members, that may have changed. If none of the other offerings appeal, I'd check it out if you're willing to wade through all the email. It is free after all. Critters also has some great community links. I'd recommend clicking through that material just for the edification.

One not on the OWWSFFH list is called "My Writer Buddy" (http://www.writerbuddy.com). This is a new one that I haven't participated in. It's based on a forum system. There were murmurings that this site might be having financial difficulties. From appearances of just looking around it seems to be a reasonably organized feedback forum with links to email critique circles.

One thing I have to add that encompasses all these resources is that if you are looking to improve your skills you must be prepared to invest the time and energy. In nearly every instance, you must put something in to get something out. In some cases, it's money. Don't be fooled into thinking you will get more from the places that charge more. In writing, you learn by doing. I guarantee if you critique three scripts a week, and write or revise one every two, you will likely learn more at OWWSFFH than in six weeks of a $300+ structured lecture class. To top it off you spent less than $6 at OWWSFFH for that same span of time. My only regret is they don't offer a non-genre version of their service.

By the same token you can read about writing (as witty as I am) until the sun stands still and you won't be a better writer until you spend time writing. That means not only creating, but making mistakes, and then fixing them. It's repetition, self discipline, and conditioning. That's why workshopping, where others read your material and critique it is so HUGE. FEW people can be truly subjective about their material. You can train yourself to self edit and self critique but it takes a while. The workshopping process gets you going in the right direction quickly. If you submit week after week, pretty soon your favorite workshop members begin to sit on your shoulders while you work and carp at you. While this may not seem all that attractive, the improvements in your work are dividends more than worth a few extra voices in your head. In the third part of the interaction segment I will go into all the gory details about workshops.

Back to online resources. Here's three major points:

  • Be mindful of the site/board attitude. Some sites segregate areas, parts for the serious goal-oriented folks, and others for people simply looking to rub elbows. If the segregation isn't clear, make your intent clear (without being rude) as to whether you are there to work or socialize. Different people take writing more or less seriously. Some people take themselves and their time VERY seriously. Flames are likely to result if you fail to make this distinction.
  • Make your experience and credentials clear, qualify your position, and restrict comments to the universal aspects of writing. In message postings and email correspondance don't pretend to be an authority if you're not. Error on the side of caution and qualify what you say. Be mindful of feelings. Especially since in may be your ego in THEIR hands next. Be clear and concise on your position. If you don't ordinarily read the kind of material you are commenting on, be sure to preface what you say with the fact you are not familiar with the conventions of the genre. No matter what genres you read, you are qualified to comment on ANYTHING—PROVIDED you restrain your commentary to structure and mechanics. NEVER EVER address material content or subject. If your philosophy and that of subject writer clash—so be it... either keep it mum or just don't do critique for that person. If you don't read science fiction, I guarantee the writer will get absolutely nothing from your remarks about how implausible you find space and alien cultures to be. Now, he WILL get something out of it if you say that you think more work needs to be done to aide in your suspension of disbelief. To reiterate, with genres you don't read, keep your criticism to plot, story, character and any mechanical (syntax) problems you might encounter.
  • Focus on the positive. If you phrase your feedback in terms of positives it will be better received. Example: I find your character, Diana, totally unbelievable. This is borderline insulting and doesn't tell the author what would fix the problem. Instead try something like: The character of Diana would be better and more believable if she had a clearer motivation and her responses were toned down. The second feedback is more specific, less antagonistic, and suggests how to fix the problem. The more helpful you are, the better received you will be and the more likely it is others are going to help you.

Those three things are the start. I advise reading some material about good critiquing ettiquette. Most sites have this material. A place to start is Amy Sterling Casil's Hardcore Critique Guidelines. She has a good overview of all the things to look for when reviewing material. I will go back to this in the third and longest section of the interacting segment.

If it sounds like I'm really pushing this kind of writer improvement—let's be clear—I am. In an era of rapidly diminishing personal time, and rapidly increasing interconnectivity, online communities just make sense. They are the next best thing to live interaction. For those with geographic limitations they make even more sense. For those who are shy or just not sure of themselves it's a way to explore without over exposing yourself.

This kind of interaction is made for writers really because the primary means of communication is through writing. There are pitfalls of course; predators, scams, and just plain poor advice. Still, common sense, and thick skin, and a tight grip on your wallet will steer you clear of most of the problems. In all, the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks.

We looked at the anonymous level of writer interaction. Perhaps one of the most detailed mediums with many strengths and some weaknesses. With a wide variety of courses and workshops, there's plenty of resources to turn to when you need a helping hand. In the next segment, we'll deal with seminars and conferences—the distant and not-so-distant sources of personal writer interaction.