Reading and Writing in C’Ville Again

Charlottesville doesn’t seem to be finished with me yet. In a matter of days, the entire universe has conspired to get me back up here for a little while, so I have to believe there’s a reason.

Whatever purpose the universe has, I’ll use this time to take advantage of the wonderful community of writers I have here to get some feedback on a couple of stories I’ve been struggling with. So beware, my writing friends, manuscripts are on the way.

Writing groups and trusted readers are a valuable part of any writers’ life. I have a group of readers who know my work and I know theirs and I would trust any of them to give me a tough but constructive critique. They make me work harder to get at the truth, they make me a better writer. (well, except they can’t seem to get me to stop using comma-splices.) If you’re ever lucky enough to find readers like that, hang on to them. They are rarer than you might think.

When I first started getting serious about my writing, I took a workshop with students with a wide range of experience and skill levels. While there were many wonderful writers in that class, there were some who had no business commenting on other writers’ work. They just weren’t ready. I probably wasn’t ready myself. But many of the comments from a select few were vague, confusing, or downright idiotic.

My favorite was a guy who was deeply offended by a story of mine in which a woman sets fire to an art gallery showing her ex-boyfriend’s photography. Instead of making suggestions about the writing or the structure or even the plot, he fixated on the fact that arson is illegal, and therefore I shouldn’t let my main character be an arsonist. Now, as far as I’m concerned, I can have my characters do whatever I please if it feels right for them. Not right for me, and not right for anyone else. Right for the character. Besides, IT’S FICTION! If you are so bothered by my character’s illegal act, just imagine she’s arrested when the story ends. “Because it’s against the law” is not effective critiquing any more than “because I said so” is effective parenting.

Finding the right readers is not easy. Don’t be afraid to walk out of a group if it’s not right for you. And don’t feel compelled to let just anyone read your stories. It’s like giving birth and holding up your baby on a street corner and yelling, “So, what do you think?” You want to know from the doctors and nurses if the baby is healthy, but don’t ask all the bums on the street how they like him. You don’t need to hear that they’re just not connecting with him or that something is wrong with his head, but nobody’s quite sure what.

Once you do find readers you trust, listen to them. You don’t have to do everything they say, but do pay attention. If more than one reader tells you, for instance, that you use way too many comma-splices, you might want to take them seriously. Then again, they’re your own damned commas, you can splice them if you want.

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