Remember when you wrote a story just for the fun of it? If you ever felt that way, count your blessings. I know too many writers, mostly unpublished, who have turned the process into a discouraging ordeal.
They have critique groups that have heard their chapters (usually the first one) five or more times. I know writers who have been working on the same novel for twenty years. Some of them would say it took them so long because they had to learn how to write and how to tell a story. That’s true but there’s a point when you have to let go of that first novel. Instead, these writers take class after workshop after conference to the point their novels have been worked to death. Changing them does not always make them better. Critique groups can be very helpful (I belong to one myself) but sometimes the responses are bewildering and cause endless rewriting or even writing paralysis. There should have a label titled "Use with Caution."
The same happens with writing coaches. Each instructor has a different opinion about the manuscript. One says, “Make it more literary.” Another says, “It doesn’t have enough conflict” and another says, “Where is the emotion in it?” So the writer goes home, works on it and takes it back to the last instructor’s next workshop. He says, “This is melodramatic. If I have to read about one more chill creeping down a character’s spine…”
I have known writers who jump from workshop to workshop, run their manuscripts through critique groups and then pay a developmental editor several thousand dollars to read the same novel and offer advice, which usually is different from the other recommendations. I’m sure all the instructors, editors and members of critique groups mean well, but often one teacher’s advice contradicts another’s and more than once I’ve seen an instructor change a student’s voice to conform to his style of writing. Sadly, her natural voice was so much better.
Yes, a writer’s work usually improves over time but frequently it just changes. It moves horizontally but not vertically.
A writer friend went through a stack of critiques from her group and laid them aside.
“Did they help you?” I asked her.
“Because only two people agreed on anything.”
There were plenty of scribbles on the pages so it wasn’t as though she didn’t get a thorough critique.
“It was overwhelming,” she said. “After I read them, I just wanted to give up.”
But, wait. What happened to the joy of writing? Can a group do a better job of penning a novel than an individual? Don’t writers need lots of input to create a masterpiece?
Of course, you need to learn the craft. You need to read novels, analyze your favorite ones, take classes and workshops, put time into your manuscript, but you don’t need to take the fun out of creativity. You don’t need a critique group to read the same chapter over and over, especially if it’s a first draft. At some point, you need to trust yourself.
The writing business is subjective. You’ll never get everyone to agree on what your manuscript needs or doesn’t need.
Author Deb Caletti, a National Book Award finalist who spoke to one of my University of Washington classes, said you shouldn’t show your first draft to a critique group because it’s like planting fragile seedlings and then letting people stomp all over them before they’ve even had a chance to take root and grow. I agree with her.
Years ago, when I started writing fiction, I found two phrases that helped me. The first is “The journey is the destination.” I copied it onto a yellow paste-it note and stuck it on my computer. The second maxim is “Don’t look at your feet while dancing.”
Along the way, I lost those little pieces of wisdom. And I suffered for it. I’m copying them again and sticking them on my computer.