Some writers have writing workshops and critique groups and they swear by them. Others (Stephen King comes to mind), prefer to share the first “shareable” incarnations of their manuscript with friends, neighbours, spouses, etc. In general terms, I don’t necessarily think one approach is better than the other. I just know what works for me. And what didn’t.
What did not work
Workshops. And gawd knows I attended my share–kinda comes with the territory of being enrolled in a Creative Writing program.
Now, this is just my personal perspective and I’m in absolutley no way knocking off their value. I’m not even saying that I didn’t get anything out of a workshop environment. In fact, if my inclinations had been more literary, I probably would have benefited a lot more. But what I wanted (even if at the time I didn’t know it), was a reader’s perspective. An educated reader’s perspective, to be more exact. I wanted to know what worked and what didn’t, what made someone want to keep reading and what stalled the story or was wordy or annoying or preachy or inconsistent with character voice and development.
And I wanted all this from an audience perspective, not from a colleague’s perspective. I didn’t want writers who were as aspiring as I was to read with a fine comb at hand, looking for things to say that may or may not benefit the story and story-telling. I didn’t want praise for my flowery language or criticism for attempting to write genre in a place where literary reigned undisputed. I wanted to know if my stories were a fun or engaging read. And if not, why not.
Well, I hardly ever got that from a workshop. In fact, I found myself altering my writing style to try a fit in with what was generally expected. Big mistake. At the end of the day, I was not cutting it with the literary crew and I was no longer cutting it with myself. I had allowed something to interfere with what had been my reason to go into Creative Writing in the first place: The sheer joy of telling a story and feeling the flow of words and the way characters start to become alive.
But I was young and impressionable, so I tried to be what I was not.
I did learn useful stuff from two particular workshop leaders, who were wise and modest enough to focus on craft, rather than on how convoluted symbolism arguably makes up for a story that lacks plot altogether.
(No, I’m not bitter. Really. I actually do enjoy the odd bit of literary fiction to this day. I always need to read something else right after, though–kind of like chasing rich, delicious Spanish coffee with something sweet and fluffy to balance out the taste buds…)
What [so far] seems to be working
Pick a select group of friends, relatives and/or acquaintances, based on their honesty, their background and, most importantly, their reading habits.
Of late, I’ve chosen to write Young Adult fiction. (When I say “of late,” I mean that’s what I’m currently working on, following an idea and draft first started a couple of years ago). So, other than Wonderful Husband, whose honesty and opinion as a writer himself I really value, I’ve selected mostly YA readers as members of my First Readers Club. Sure, there’s the good friend who has a background in film and whose insights on dialogue are proving invaluable, or the other close friend with a PhD in education, who is used to dealing with young people day in and day out.
But for the most part, members of my six-person First Readers Club are YA readers. Like myself, these guys know the genre, they enjoy it, they go out of their way to read it. And they can in all honesty say, “yeah, I dig this. I would’ve totally picked it up in the store to start with” or, “you know, that part where Main Character’s friends do X is really not very believable because Y and Z… And what about XX?” Or whatever. Sometimes they might even come up with easy fixes I just have been unable to see because I’m too close to the work.
In other words, this approach seems to be working for me so far. Of course, I’ve yet to receive feedback from two out of the First Six, but what I’ve seen so far seems to make sense to me. Seems to be the kind of feedback my current project can actually benefit from.
I am, after all, writing for readers, not writers. Or for the reader in the writers, and not the other way round. And while all writers should be readers, not all readers are writers.