Thinking of writing that book that has been buzzing in your head, but don't know where to start? Start by searching the Internet for "Writing your first book." If you use Google, you'll find around 49,300,000 hits, some of which may even be useful. There is a big market for helping new writers. Perhaps not a very big market for new writers themselves, but helping new writers is big, big business.
You may come across the suggestion to join a writers group in your area. A writer's group can be important in developing a beginning writer's skills simply by allowing a new writer to mingle with people who are familiar with typical beginner's problems. Helping writers of all ages and genres is a basic premise of most writer's groups. Many are listed in the Arts and Entertainment section of your Sunday newspaper, and Internet searches show most writers groups as well. Most public libraries can usually point you to a local writers group.
Writers groups vary in their format, with some groups welcoming all writing genres while others are strictly for poetry or novels or non-fiction narrative. Don't expect in-depth discussion of your historical fiction novel at a poetry writers group. Writers groups usually welcome new writers with enthusiasm and understanding, they are glad to see you taking that first step. I have been asked what the difference is between a writer and an author, and while the differences may be arguable, to me an author is the visionary or creator of the idea to be conveyed while the writer is the conveyor of that thought or concept to print. It follows that most authors are writers. I've been told that authors have published books. I argue many books by celebrity authors are actually written by ghost writers. It doesn't matter to me. A writer may do journals, blogs, newspaper columns, or magazine articles or any other form of written communication. A writer is someone who puts words into print to convey thought.
While you will welcomed by a writers group, do not expect them to pat you, a newcomer, on the head and lead you by the hand down the road to literary stardom. Don't expect a group of writers, almost all of whom have other day jobs, to dedicate their priceless time at a writers group meeting just for you, at least not more than once. Almost everyone in a writers group will help a new writer as best they can, from writing and editing, to proofreading and suggestions about publication. A new member may even find a mentor who will take them under their wing. However, if you are looking for free editing for your book or novel, you're wasting their time and yours as well.
- Writers groups are not a substitute for English class
- An effective writers group is a symbiotic relationship between its members.
William K. Zinsser, in the Introduction to the 7th edition of his revised and updated "On Writing Well" writes:"My concerns as a teacher have also shifted. I'm more interested in the intangibles that produce good writing – confidence, enjoyment, intention, integrity – and I've written new chapters on those values."
New writers are often cloaked by intimidation or insecurities as they venture into an unfamiliar world that glaringly exposes their shortcomings and lack of experience. A good writers group will help define the writing process and help develop the mechanical and technical skills that allows new writers to express themselves while understanding most writers do not have a Bachelor's Degree in English or creative writing.
- Writers groups are not a substitute for professional counseling.
Question 1: Why do you want to write?
Are you looking for something to do in place of having a life? Believe me, if you become addicted to writing, you won't have a life. Are you telling a story? A personal memoir or an autobiography? Are you planning on making a fortune writing? Well, good luck, I know hundreds of writers but only a few who can call it a profession.
Question number 2: Whom are you writing for?
Who is your target audience? If you are writing an autobiography, which is the usual genre for new writers, there are only two possibilities to determine who will read your looming masterpiece:
- You are already famous and people know you by name and image
- You are like the rest of us
The best advice for new writers is to finish your autobiography and put it on a thumb-drive. Put it away until you're famous and can update it. Now sit down and write for fun, write because you enjoy writing. Write because you have a story to tell, you know the one you just made up. Then bring it to a writers group and read it out loud in front of people you don't know. Unreasonable? Yes, you may want at least a warm, comfortable feeling with the group before exposing your soul, but when you do read in front of a writers group:
- Read only enough to make them want to hear more.
Many writers will at one time or another inadvertently revert to writing about personal experiences. The memories are often painful and unexpectedly personal. Writing is often cathartic, especially for new writers. While an insensitive writer's group might dampen a new writer's candid honesty, most members understand the self-discovery process. Shared experiences can become part of the camaraderie of a writers group, but don't overdo it. Constant repetition of personal problems is a sure way to shut off a receptive group of listeners anywhere, much less a writers group.
I have watched people join our writer's group and grow beyond their expectations, and conversely, I've seen talented writers drop by the wayside, discouraged or disappointed with their work. Many new writers take critique of their writing as criticism, and unfortunately, depending on the critiquer, sometimes it is. A new writer must be thick-skinned when submitting work for critiquing, but at the same time be open to change if the criticism is valid. Being poorly critiqued has probably discouraged more aspiring authors than any other single factor. Most critiques I've read are given in good faith, meant to improve the caliber of the work under review.
Unfortunately, critiques are a direct reflection of the talents and skills of the critiquer. I've seen great writing attacked because the critiquer was repulsed by the subject. It is often hard for those who aren't professional editors to separate the stimulus to an emotional response from the writing that triggered it. Often religious or political viewpoints become the focus of the critique instead of the writing itself. Novels in the sexual realms tend to be fire-starters. I can only imagine what kind of responses E L James would have gotten with her Fifty Shades of Grey from most writers groups. On the other hand, the book, in my opinion, could have used the help of a good writers group. Sir Salman Rusdie said about the book: "I've never read anything so badly written that got published." I doubt James would have abandoned her book because of a bad writers group critique, but good critique could have definitely have helped the quality of her writing. The fine line is critiquing the quality of the writing itself as opposed reacting to the emotionally charged nature of the subject.
First, you need to understand:
- You can't please all readers
Sometimes critiques are ego based, or subconsciously prejudiced and those are deadly to a new writer. I can read anonymous critiques from members of our group and tell who wrote it by the style of the critique. Alan Sherman wrote a parody of Peter and the Wolf, performed by the Boston Pops Symphony Orchestra, and one line from the work has stuck with me since I heard it almost fifty years ago: "A camel is a horse designed by a committee." That's exactly what happens when several critiques vary in their assessment of a given work. The poor writer being critiqued doesn't know which way to go, or, which path to follow to gain acceptance with the group. I was once critiqued for using too many adjectives in a manuscript while another critiquer said the same article was bland and needed better descriptions. I know one writer who attends several writers groups, and much to his dismay, can't satisfy any two of them with any one piece of writing. One group felt a narrative he wrote was flippant, distasteful, childish, while the other group thoroughly enjoyed the same piece of work. Some people just don't like ice cream.
- Writers groups are basically mutual admiration societies
Don't let your speaking style detract from your writing. If you sound like you're reading the telephone book when you are reading Steinbeck out loud, get someone else to read your material to the group. We have a regular member who is in demand to read other people's work. We call her the "Voice of FM," and her interpretation and inflection when reading makes even the aforementioned telephone book a pleasure to listen to. I recently read a member's final proof and was astounded to find myself intrigued by the book that I had a hard time following during the readings. I realized then that every reader embeds their own images and emotions on the written material, quite different from having it interpreted for you by a reader who flavors it by the way they speak. So, once again, don't expect an audience to cheer your first attempt at explaining how you helped develop nuclear fission if you, like me, read out loud like Elmer Fudd. Get a good speaker, or hand out enough printed copies for everyone so your audience can read for themselves.
I've attended writers groups that follow a specific reading and critiquing format almost religiously, often intent on developing writers in a competitive environment such as winning awards for the group members. Other groups tend to mix up the readings with presentations from outside guests, from published authors to publishers and editors while critiquing is done separately from the meetings. Comments are almost always called for after a reading so a writer has immediate feedback on their work. Every group is different in its makeup and purpose and rarely are there any fees associated with writers groups. If the group you visit doesn't offer the education or experiences you are looking for, try another group. We have members who routinely drive thirty miles one way to attend our meetings, while active authors who live in the neighborhood prefer a different format and attend other groups in the area.
I have one piece of advice for new writers: It is your story and you are the one telling it! Write it your way and let your writing reflect your heart and your soul if necessary. You are the artist and this is your medium. I like my own writing, I can read it for hours and I'm sure you can read your own writing for hours as well. Bring it to the next writer's group meeting, well, 500 words of it at least, and see if others hear it as you meant it. Don't be discouraged if the group you meet doesn't like your writing. Take the criticism and find another group and see if they accept your style and content. Our group likes vanilla, pistachio, chocolate, and just about every other flavor of ice cream, but every once in a while, someone is looking for upside-down cake instead.