After the last two posts about critique groups (needing one and finding one), I want to stress a couple of important points, especially for writers new to the craft or those still chasing publication.
Writing Tip for Today: What’s the difference between excellent writing and excellent reading?
Nothing and Everything
First, excellent reading is almost always excellent writing. We can name great writers with great stories, and rightfully so—think JK Rowling, Stephen King, Steinbeck, Hemingway. These writers not only produce remarkable and memorable stories, their writing is also tight and creative in ways that work. Yet for all the wonderful writers out there, a few mediocre or even poorly written books can wow the reading public. And some super-wonderful writers fail to catch the imagination. What’s going on? I’ve always told my students that the one-two combo of great writing/reading is always preferable. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code has been slammed by writers as poor writing—but his books took the reading world by storm. Same is true of Fifty Shades of Gray. If a mediocre or poor writer has an outstanding story, the story will override the readers’ aversion to the bad craft and they’ll gobble up the fabulous story. Sadly, the reverse isn’t true. The best writer with no story often can’t command the same level of readership. Story trumps technique. The moral here is, don’t be swayed too much by pretty writing if the story is weak or clichéd. As Maass says in Writing the Breakout Novel, “(The breakout novel) flows together in ways that seem destined to be.”
Too Many Cooks
Another concern for critique groups is whether a writer can parse out the suggestions he/she wants to try or agrees with and jettison the rest. As my author friend Randall Platt warns, “Too many cooks can spoil the broth.” If you get many conflicting ways to “fix” your writing, how can you decide what to use (and lose the rest)? I’ve had this problem before. One day a mentor said, “Linda, you’re like the man who got on his donkey and rode off in all directions.” The comment helped me be more discriminating in what feedback I used in revisions. If you join a group where there is a wide range of opinion, that’s probably better than a Mutual Admiration Society. Yet you are the writer. Be willing to weigh your choices in revision. Ask yourself how the story improves if you apply suggestions. Look for places where you can be clearer in communicating your ideas. Take responsibility for your ideas and don’t revise only to appease your fellow group members. That said, if you’re a newbie and you get feedback from a more experienced writer, don’t throw it out right away. Be willing to try out different suggestions until you find one you like.
To Change or Not to Change?
Finally, feedback is just that—feedback. It’s really OK to try ideas and it’s also OK to put things back the way they were before. I’ve worked with writers who keep changing their stories to meet group expectations, only to end up with something that looks a lot like the original. One writer complained, “I’ve changed the story because of this objection or that one to the point where I barely recognize the idea. And then the group urged me to revise in ways that are the same as what I started with.” It can feel maddening to receive so many suggestions to change your work. I tend to think, well maybe this is what editors are looking for. But as I rewrite to fit the critique, I lose the creative spark and my work falls flat. If you’re new, learn the craft from experienced (and published!) writers if you can. As you gain your own experience, resist the urge to listen to too many cooks. Don’t be afraid to fail (we all do—in writing we fail a lot!) and learn to trust your instincts through lots of practice and lots of reading. In critique groups, take what you can use and lose the rest. With these things in mind, here’s hoping your story is great writing and great reading.