Tag Archives: critique group

The Writer’s Cross: Why Writers Need Community

It’s a crazy dark day, the kind we get in Portland in the winter where you have to keep the lights on in the house all day because of the thick gray haze blanketing the world.

It can get into your skin.

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So on this rainy day, I’m pondering about musings. And about how most things in life come down to who you are. What you do with the things life hands you.

Have you noticed?

Take this very post. This way of expressing it. It’s all learned, or more accurately, cobbled together—the language, the choppy sentence structure, the straightforward, hopeful-yet-artfully-detached tone that hopes you’ll read but not presume I care too much. It’s all been stitched into the patchwork I call my writing voice. And I’m just trying to use all I have.

Sure you’ve noticed: it’s those who seem to be using all they have in life that inspire us to be more, to do more. I’m no different. I’ve been impressed by those responding at full tilt to the impulses we recognize and feel but don’t always express so freely and fluently.

This is why a lot of us get into writing. Which is great and perfectly reasonable and good. I think the Inspirer takes what he can get.

But it isn’t long after getting “the call” a writer begins to realize what they’re in for.

And things start to get dark.

Waking Up Dead

Maybe the realization hits them the first night they stay up too late, the blackness outside turning a bluer tinge as they clack away on the keys, inspiration burning off all sense of time and space between them and the inner flash of light.

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They’re a bit nervous at first, but too excited to notice. That is until the kids get up and have to eat and be driven to school before the forty-seven-thousandth trip to the office where the day will really get underway. And the sharpness of the revelation will dissipate in a sour cup of weak coffee, and nodding off in the meeting, and the bothersome business of shuffling around with the other mortals assigned their related cases of self-imposed misery, equally ignorant that they’re the cause of their own lethargy and atrophy.

Scared? The word doesn’t begin to describe it.

How, they think. How am I going to get out of this hole I’m in? They look around at the papers and small office items and think about it—the big leap they know is coming. I should be more grateful to have a job, they think. But last night happened. And now it’s only too obvious they’re no longer their own.

Some voice has woken them up and the memory of it won’t let them go back to sleep.

So what do they do? What should a fresh-faced writer do when they realize they can’t deny the truth any longer? How will they find the strength and courage to commit to the work that will slurp up their margin time, not to mention their family time and sleep time as well?

How do writers remain faithful to the vision they were given?

The Persistent Question

I’ve thought long and hard about this question. As a kid in high-school, I thought the best thing to do was find a mentor, someone who could help me learn to speak the words I felt so strongly, so overpoweringly. My own call came sometime in my sophomore year, though it would be many years before I took it seriously enough to write anything real. In college, I thought books and knowledge would teach me the secret to writing longevity. I figured the books were themselves how other writers had stayed the course, the force of their singular brilliance compelling existence out of finite inevitability.

Like Gallagher.

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When I became an editor for WaterBrook of Random House, I hoped an intense publishing job would force diamonds out as I navigated acquisitions and profit and loss statements, and slush piles and pitches to the execs in the big boardroom.

And each step helped. But none brought what I needed most.

It wasn’t until breaking down again for the forty-seven-thousandth time that I realized what I was missing. What I’d always been missing. It wasn’t an unusual feeling, this ache of emptiness inside. I’d always attributed it to what Maya Angelou said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” I figured it was an inevitable burden, something given by God for me to carry. My writer’s cross.

But this time, crying out to God, I felt the slightest shift. I felt it change. It was something I knew as head knowledge but had never felt, like so much of my life in church I’d experienced through frosted glass windows, unaffected, unmoved. Something pierced my heart and I heard: This is what it feels like to be a writer alone.

And in my typical fashion, I resisted it. I protested. No, this isn’t that bad. People are suffering way worse than this feeling. What about those on the street or those trapped in sex slavery or the abandoned orphans who grow up never knowing a parents’ love? They’re far worse off.

And as usual God didn’t argue with me. But the feeling remained.

It felt like a kind of death. A knowledge of being cut off and nothing you can do about it. It’s a familiar feeling—we’re all ultimately alone and no one stops living for our death. It all goes on without us. But writers struggle to go places others don’t or haven’t yet, places others shun.

And this is why I believe the thing we writers need most is people. People who, like us, go to places others don’t. The places we’re compelled to go even when we don’t know why.

 

Carriers of Our Cross

We need the people who won’t ask questions. People who will simply nod, knowing it won’t be easy. But not people to try and talk us out of going.

People for whom such a thing would never enter their minds.

People who know we have to go. People who will carry us when we can’t get there ourselves.

Samwise knew.

There are some people who know something important lies that way, something not unnecessary, something difficult to define but no less real and terrifying. People who know no one can go for us. And we can’t go another way because the road is this way.

And we need these people because the normal, sane people, the people who value things like security and stability and maintaining a respectful distance from the unanswerable questions of life, they know we’ve got it all wrong. And they like telling us we should believe that more. It’s in their eyes if not their words.

They’d have us revoke our allegiances and accept the forced servitude and live safe behind the glass. They’d have us recant and abandon the cause, and give up the fight because isn’t it nicer just to live and accept the easier way? But we were born to write. 

We can argue all day if their way is the way of Jesus, the meek way of receiving the moderate blessings of a simple, quiet life. But if somebody says you can’t do something what are they saying but to squash God’s dream for you?

Maybe it’s them who don’t get it. Maybe for us, the way of Jesus is the way of the cross.

And without the community of like-minded explorers to pick us up when we stumble, to wipe our brows and understand our cause if not our destination, we would not make it.

The friends who’ll give up time, money, prestige and sleep so we can seek this strange, exciting adventure, these are the people who protect the dream and make new books live. And we owe them far more than we can ever repay.

Life, jobs, others will tell us to turn from this way. They say it’s not worth it.

But we will not turn. We are writers. We go the way others will not. And we will meet our fate together.

Have you thanked your community today?

 

The Power of Critique

So critique groups. Good or bad?

It's like asking if publishing is good or if a book is good. Of course the answer's yes and no. Like everything else. It always depends on the people in them.

And just like everything else, what you get out of them is largely dependent on what you bring to them. Know someone who didn't like The Shack? Maybe their theology caused them to bring something different to it than someone without that filter. The same people are now angry at Rob Bell for Love Wins even though it's nothing Don Miller didn't say before, a little differently, maybe less pointedly in Blue Like Jazz.

But after I experienced disillusionment as a 19-year-old kid, I wondered if disappointment with God is a universal, that necessary moment when your eyes open and your innocence falls away and you know that God is not always going to save you from the worst attrocities life may bring. Everyone gets to learn this eventually. Even believers and the faithful. Life happens. And the point is to recognize that even still, God is always good.

So I believe it's a "writer fundamental" that what I'm able to bring to my writing is largely dependent on my willingness to accept that life will bring pain. And this is not bad, not to be fought off, but embraced as the gift it is. Fear of pain is instinctual, elemental–those who deny it, deny the very thrust of existence. But facing the fear of that pain, peacefully but forcefully, is at least one essential benefit a good critique group can offer.

This week, I'm working with one of my favorite future authors who's writing a genre western romance (what? That's not strange–one of my favorite books is Redeeming Love. Okay, maybe it's strange). I've encouraged her to trust her abilities, to let herself feel the fear of failure and to courageously believe in her inevitable success anyway. At the OCCWF conference a couple weeks ago, author Simon Tolkien claimed that a big part of his grandfather's success was because he had spent years studying language–words, their meanings and origins–and this allowed him to know how his characters spoke and how that defined them. 

I'd argue that this is what every author has to do–study words, learn, and respect that training. And a good critique group encourages a healthy respect for the symbols of words, their meanings, listening for where your "translation" is inaccurate or not revelatory enough.

Does this involve fear? Yes. But can you face it with courage?

Some authors discredit critiques, which is understandable. It's nearly impossible to find a good group that understands what critiques are and consistently applies their full attention and effort to it. It's often hopelessly idealistic to believe you can find an honest, dedicated, knowledgable group of writers who can regularly meet to thoroughly discuss your work. Especially within 30 miles of you.

Maybe they don't have to be within 30 miles.

A professional editor knows how to fix the things that need fixing. And a good critique group can point those things out. Where it's slow, redundant, and even not fully developed yet, a critiquer who's well-read, knows you, and appreciates the process of writing (through having done it themselves and having read the best books on craft) is worth a fortune. Professional agents are good readers as well, though until you've risen in stature a bit, you won't likely be told what isn't working. You need someone you can trust, who gets both what you're trying to do and what you need to do to pull it off and get peple talking. This could cost you a bit out of pocket. But that's why I started YWG and it's proving that just like a great book, what's truly valuable doesn't have to cost what it's really worth. Is it worth it to you? I don't know. It's not perfect and there's work involved. But I do think it's worth it to check it out–there's no charge to read the critiques.

Pro authors know early feedback is the best "promotional" money you can spend. But what can't a good critique do? It can't replace the need for a copy editor who will look for grammar mistakes, misspellings, wrong words, weak constructions, inconsistent elements like Suzy being 9 on page 4 and 12 on page 37. Critique groups shouldn't waste time on the minor things until the big things have been addressed. So authors, do not skip this step or you will suffer the consequences. If you're a good student of language, you'll save money when it comes time to hire a copyeditor. 

But just like the earlier stages, this one can be painful. It's hard to give up the pieces of ourselves that are holding us back. We fight for our ignorance and call it personality, style, artistic license. Most often, it's plain prideful stupidity. Sure, readers will accept your incomplete sentences. Even love them. But respect the refinement process. It's not just making your book better, it's making you better as well. And that's the big point.

The artist who demands he has nothing to learn soon finds he has nothing to say.

A powerful critique group is about growth, a shared journey of trust, fear, empathy, hope, and faith. It's powerful because it's built on relationships over rules, on embracing acceptance and peace amidst the striving for what's better. I have been in a few of them in my lifetime, and I can promise you the people you learn to write with will remain lifelong friends.

It's about being your vulnerable, wart-covered self and finding it accepted and improved. And as a bonus, you get to discover the true meaning of gratitude.

One of my critique partners, Rob Stennett has a book releasing today called Homemade Haunting. (I know. I'm a lucky dude.) Rob is a one-of-a-kind genius with character comedy and this time he mixed it into a thriller and asked "If evil is real, what happens when someone doesn't have the only true weapon against it?" If you think it was easy to blend comedy with such a serious subject, you're dreaming. But Rob figured it out and critiques played a hand in that. I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you if you asked. Anyway, get the book (it's only $10), read it and ask yourself how many people it really takes to finish a great book.

Does Your Writers Group Provide These 3 Essentials Every Writer Needs?

Welcome back, everyone. Hope you had a fabulous Easter.

Being a book editor is such a strange job. It has enormous up sides: not requiring me to, say, buy a lot of expensive equipment or be out in extreme elements. I don't have to dig through anything too revolting. At least not physically. But still, it has its challenges.

Chief among those is the fact that everyone I meet wants to publish. And this varies in intensity, often marked by dilated pupils and shortness of breath when I mention what I do, who I've worked for, authors I've helped. In most settings, I try not to mention it because chances are if the person has thought about writing at any point in their life, a little bell labeled "My-Golden-Ticket-to-Published-Author" goes off in their heads. And its particular frequency has a way of pushing the conversation past the more important matters like writing, editing, networking, etc.

Even the best writers need a lot of help ignoring this pesky bell. Especially if they spend any time online.

But once in a while I meet someone who wants to be an editor and I always get excited because I've always wanted to help more authors than I have time for. It's no easy thing sometimes to help authors say what they mean, prove we're worth listening to and that they're not, in fact, full card-carrying citizens of crazyland.

My advice to future editors is this: 3 things. Creating great books (and authors) always starts with the same 3 things, and they all derive from the question, Will this book absolutely force people to share it?

The big challenge with being an editor is that you get to be the one to ask how exactly it will do that. It's a difficult question for authors to accept, let alone answer. But if you can get them to face the question, the rest isn't all that hard. Help an author keep answering that question through every stage of the book process, and eventually what they'll get is an exceptional book.

Will this writing compel sharing? Does this edit improve the chances of sharing? Is this a brand that fills a desperate need or want? And is there someone who would be naturally inclined to enjoy it?

And while good editors can provide help in at least two of the three essential categories, a good writers group can help in all three:

1. Motivation.

The first essential element in birthing a book that can change lives is a heart that's fully engaged. Writers who are most productive need daily encouragement and inspiration to continue the hard work of showing up, sticking with it, and continually developing the vision. This is a critical step that's missing in most of the courses I've seen. Each week, I want to send you a new motivational message to inspire you to write what matters most.

2. Education.

Writers need to engage in every step of the book process as though it's the most important step there is. From writing to editing to branding, networking and publishing, the reason a book doesn't sell is a breakdown in one of those areas. And unless authors have a strong understanding of their story and their essential difference, the book won't rise as well as it might have. First, authors need to know how to write words that work better than the rest, and like any creative endeavor, this takes training and practice over time. Each step should build on the last, with solid guidance in editing, building a brand, networking, and choosing best publishing options.

3. Connection.

The final element that's sorely missing for writers today is connection to a larger, engaged community. The trick with books is getting critical feedback on your best efforts at each step to ensure you're on the mark. And when it comes time to release your message, the best way is organically–by letting people put it to use. You don't sell great books, they sell themselves because they're so remarkable. They solve huge problems and inspire people to change. If I was a fancy marketer, I'd call this the Authentic Approach Advantage or something, but it's basically what happens naturally  when you stay focused on helping people all along the way through your own development.

To encourage authors to finish well and excel my new plan is to focus on an online writers group. I'll still help authors individually, but much of it will be through the website. For those who signed up over Easter weekend, I'm grateful for your trust, and I'd like to extend the $10-first-week offer for your entire first month. Anyone else who would like to check it out, your first month will be $10 as well. Who knows, if it gets going well, I may extend that price indefinitely.

I'm learning how to run a website as I go, but I'm still just an editor and my goals for these three categories haven't changed. So if you want to see if YWG can help you produce an exceptional book, I encourage you to come by and see the different kind of community we've just gotten going.

Thanks for reading–I'm always open to any ideas you have for making it better. See you over there!