Dont Take It to the Club Meeting

Usually its a mistake to seek advice from other amateurs at writers' clubs. I don't think it's a good idea to ask family or friends to read and "criticize" your manuscript, either.

If you want to share your work with your spouse or a close friend, that's fine. But to ask a club member, relative or friend for criticism is mostly a waste of time for at least two reasons: they won't be honest; they usually don't know what they're doing anyway.

Of course your writer's club may have a much-published professional as a member. If you can get advice from that person, it might be a fine thing. But most writers' clubs are filled almost entirely with unpublished writers, or those whose minor newspaper credits don't qualify them to judge your copy.

I have nothing against clubs of writers. I belong to a couple myself and sometimes attend meetings. They provide companionship, a place to meet others involved in the same kind of fascinating work, sometimes sources of market and other information, and new friends.

Far too many of them, however, encourage members to read their copy aloud for group dissection and discussion. This is always a waste of time. Reading your copy aloud is not the normal "delivery system" for a story. It's written to be read in print, not read aloud by the author.

Also, whether you read your copy aloud to club members or circulate copies to them, your club audience is in no way a normal audience of the kind you want to please. There are people here who have failed and are bitter. There are others here to show off. There are others who are here for a chance to pontificate. There are know-it-alls and know-nothings. If your work is good, many of them will be jealous. If your work is bad, few, if any, of them will know how to point out your mistakes in a constructive manner.

There are not likely to be any honest critical responses to your work. Club members generally try to be as gentle and positive as family members. A few, perhaps in reaction, crucify every member. In neither case do you get anything like an objective reaction.

Further, to be blunt about it, most writing club members have no idea what makes a good story. There's no conceivable way they can give you more than a groping, subjective reaction.

Remember, too, that many such club members get competitive and want to "shine" during the discussion period. They may say anything just so they can get on their feet and have their moment in the spotlight.

Finally, it has been my observation that no two writer's club "experts"-i. e., regular critics who seldom if ever publish anything of their own -ever agree on anything about writing. So if more than one advises you, you're going to get conflicting advice that's only more confusing than none at all.

The following is an amalgam of reports I've heard from students who took work to a writer's club. I can't say that any single person had all of these things happen to them, but I've known a couple of writers who took work to several meetings in succession and almost went through the full list that follows:

At the first meeting, somebody sniggered while she read her copy.

At the second, someone else cried while she read other pages.

At the third, the vice president said the ending of the story reminded her of Chekov; she pronounced it "great"

At the fourth meeting, after studying the revised story, someone suggested sharply trimming the dialogue; someone else stood up and said the story needed more dialogue.

At the fifth meeting-well, perhaps you get the idea.

And so it goes. Writers' clubs are fine organizations for many reasons, and sometimes they bring in professionals for lectures, which can be helpful. But as dearly as I love these clubs, and as many needs as I can see they fill for members, my advice remains the same: don't read for them; you'll get nothing out of it, and you might end up more confused.

The writing competitions often sponsored by writing clubs or coalitions, often in conjunction with annual conferences, are also dangerous for the serious writer, in my jaundiced opinion.

You know how these work. Three judges are (secretly) recruited for various contest categories such as short story, novel, chapter and so on. You prepare your entry pages with no hint of your identity, and an official removes your identifying entry form, codes it and your manuscript with a matching ID number, and then passes your entry along to the judges, who read, rank, and comment in turn. After the smoke clears, you may win a first, second or third prize, or honorable mention, in your category. There may be a small cash prize involved. Even if you don't win, you at least get back the written comments of the judges.

Presumably these comments help you improve your work.

Maybe sometimes they do. But in my experience, which is not narrow, the comments and advice from judges can vary as widely-and wildly-as comments from the club meeting floor after a reading. One judge will tell you to build up your scenes, and the next will tell you to cut them. One will praise your descriptive passages, and the next will suggest cutting them. One will wax poetic about how wonderful your plot is, and the next may say she couldn't find a plot at all.

In earlier and more innocent years I helped judge a number of fiction contests myself. Like all judges, I put an incredible amount of time into the job, and tried my level best to be both critical and helpful. But there is a nasty little secret about writing anonymous comments and suggestions to an anonymous writer out there somewhere: In most cases, the advice cannot possibly fix the problem.

Why should that be so? Because problems in writing fiction-tactics, planning, plotting, characterization, structure and the like - all tie together in the finished product. For example, a harrowing scene simply cannot be written about a dull and unrealized character. Sparkling dialogue may be written, but it means nothing if it does not somehow advance the plot. Plot cannot be discussed without some discussion of building backstory, and probably hidden story as well. Everything relates to everything else. Style is a subject requiring a course by itself for its proper examination.

Now consider the judge. Most novels he will look at during the average contest have quite a lot wrong with them. The problems interrelate. As much as he may like some fragments of the manuscript, chances are it would take him 25, 000 words to begin to outline everything he sees wrong.

There are two major problems with this. First, he doesn't have time to write 25, 000 words. Second, if he did, the resulting critique would probably seem so cruel and destructive to the writer that harm would be done to her.

Therefore, the judge scrawls a few paragraphs that he hopes may be in the critical ballpark, and even help. But it's a weak, limping attempt, and always falls short. And without face-to-face discussion, even the best advice may be misunderstood.

Strangely, however, some writers desperate for any recognition can sometimes get hooked on contests. Tragically, they start substituting contest recognition for real-world commercial sales. Contests and readings are nice amateur activities. For some writers they represent the ultimate, and there's nothing wrong with that. But I assume your goals are more ambitious - the national, paid markets. In that case, any satisfaction you might get from a club contest showing would only threaten to lower the fire in your belly-your resolve to show your work in the only place it really matters, the professional marketplace.

Join and attend meetings of a writer's club if you wish, by all means. But leave your story home.

Believe me. At some point, when you have broken into the professional ranks, you will start getting advice of a far different sort: the advice of an editor who knows what she is doing-and who has a checkbook in her hand. That's when you listen most attentively.

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