Team Writer, Assemble!
Okay, I’m a sucker for super-hero movies, so when I recently saw the trailer for the new Avengers movie, I admittedly got a little giddy. I can’t help it. It’s the nerd in me. (Side note—Chronicle was very well done. Made me think of what Heroes could have been, if it didn’t blatantly rip off every major story line from the X-men). But it got me thinking about the process of writing (no real shocker there, lots of things do that).
You don’t have to read much pass the acknowledgement section of any novel to realize that writing is not a solitary sport. The production of a novel is seldom the accumulated efforts of one person. Perhaps its an editor or an agent, a publisher or a contributor—any given novel is more indicative of several hours of work from many different people. Of course, the writer is the one who dumps hundreds of hours of work into the pages, but that doesn’t minimize the contributions others make to the prose. Even Hemmingway sent his stuff off to Fitzgerald to look over.
When I first studied fiction in college, I wrote all of my stories by myself. No one saw them until I handed them in to my workshop. Those workshops were seldom fun. While a few students liked what I had to offer, others clearly pointed out the areas that were rough, that could have been smoothed if I had a careful set of eyes (other than my own) go over them before handing the story in for a grade.
By the time I made it to grad school, I’d made enough friends who’d earned my trust to serve as my readers. I still maintain several of those friendships today.
If you’re just getting in to writing, I’ve a few suggestions to get you started. The first is this: take a writing class. It might be at your local college, or a community center. While you can teach yourself a lot about writing fiction through other means—blogs, podcasts, books on the craft, etc., there’s a certain lack of personal response to your writing. For example, I learned a lot about writing from Stephen King’s On Writing, but Stephen’s never looked at one of my books (that I know of). He’s never sent me a letter detailing the specific traps I’ve fallen into. It’s up to me to take his advice and look my work over and hope that I notice the places I’ve stumbled.
Make a writing friend. Even if they’re not as gifted as King, they’ll at least be able to bring an outsider’s perspective to your craft, which is what you need. Don’t rely on friends or family (who may not be writers). They tend to love you too much to tell you the truth.
Go to a writers conference. There’s no better way to make friends in the industry. These are professionals who earn money to write—which is where most writers want to be. Pay for a professional review/edit if you have to.
Keep at it. Start a writers group if you have to. Find a few people that you trust to be honest and fair, and let them be your alpha readers. As you write the book (or story), they give you criticism that can help shape the pages to come. Make others your beta readers—that is, those who read the finished product and give you feedback on story arc, grammar, punctuation, consistency errors and the like.
Thank them. They should know how much you appreciate them. One of the best ways to do that is to review some of their work. They’re giving their time to you, you can give some of yours to them. I’ve traded work with several friends over the years, even co-wrote a book with one. I have numerous beta readers and two alpha readers. I make sure to return the favor when I can by reviewing their work. Then we meet for coffee. It’s a great excuse for some Starbucks.
Don’t over-do it. You don’t need 900 alpha readers and 1,000 beta readers, or even 100 editors. That’s too many opinions. Keep the numbers low, and make sure you trust the opinion of those you ask to help you as a writer.