Category Archives: Writing Clubs

Writing Tips 3 (Your Slow Writer)

The end is here: my not-so-pro tips of how to write well for 2015. Part 1 discusses my thoughts as a reader while part 2 is a contemplation about how language study and writing practice overlap.

Fear not, in this final (and world-rocking) post, I’m going to espouse on what I discovered with my writer hat on this year.

Part 3: The Writer.

Plan your project based on your life as it is. 

In the arts (and sometimes teaching), everyone is an expert. Even your uncle, aunt and rarely seen Facebook friend from high school has an opinion about what makes a great author. They’ve all got ideas about how much you should write, how much you should read, what ‘evidence-based’ activities you should undertake to spur on your creativity.

Plus, there are professional writers’ opinions. People who have ‘made’ it and sit at home while spraying fountains of words on their adoring fans. They’ve all got their TIME-TESTEDtm advice. Write 2,000 words a day. 3,000. Don’t call yourself a true author until you’re doing  60 crunches while spitting hot prose to a stenographer. “Don’t even compare yourself to me,” a stray-author might say. “Or pat yourself on the back until you’re churning out 67 books a year.”

Let me brag a little too: I’ve produced 8 books (50,000 – 100,000 words each) and 3 novellas (20,000 – 40,000 words a piece) plus too many short stories to remember. I have two out in the public sphere. This discrepancy between published and unpublished is probably not good for my career. Hell, some of those have even been re-written from scratch. For example, one of my novels was so bad that I wrote it again (another 80,000 words), but only count it as one in my quota.

So I don’t know everything the cosmos has to say about production and work ethic, but sometimes I can make it happen. Thank you very much straw-person author. And what I believe is that there’s so much pressure on aspiring writers to meet some subjective standard of production.

2,500 words a day is a fine goal, if you’re a full-time author. (Although, even they often struggle with it.) Or if you’re single and are taking it easy on a redundancy payout. Or if you’re not studying a foreign language. Or if you’re not moving to another country, starting another job, or working extra (unpaid) hours for your ‘vocation’.

Some person out there, in the void, might argue I’m rationalising why I don’t have time to write. Or why I haven’t written that much this year. That’s fine, I am lazy. I struggle with motivation to do more than one serious thing in my free time. I either study or I write. Right now I’m studying Japanese, and working, and married.

Yet, I still sometimes encounter wagging fingers about how if I want to be a ‘serious’ author then I need to produce more. Usually by those who don’t have a job (nor understand that work doesn’t end at 5 for most teachers), and are not in a relationship. They raise their fist to the heavens and give you pat speeches about how you have to tick all the appropriate boxes to consider yourself a certain kind of author.

Maybe you’ve ran into that person on your writing journey? I don’t know. I hope you never do, but just in case, here’s the thing: I like being married. It’s more important to me than a chance at success in the future.

I like my job. It’s not the greatest workplace in the world, it doesn’t pay oodles of cash, but it’s not terrible. I keeps me from living on the street because I don’t come from an upper-middle class family where they’ll subsidise my life so I can ‘become who was born to be’. Also, I want to look after my wife. (Who doesn’t?) That means a job, it means money, it means paying bills and smiling at difficult customers.

So these are things that are real, and they take time. Whoever you are, your life is also full of choices. Full of decisions. You can be an asshole to your loved ones and focus only on your career. (Some published writers are.) You can put yourself first and skimp on your responsibilities at your job. Perhaps you’ll get lucky and everyone will understand; they’ll put up with your shit until you become enough of a success to quit. Maybe even your first book will be a hit and the strain you put on everyone else won’t be that much, who knows? Life is random.

For the rest of us though, we make small and difficult day-to-day choices. We want to be a full-time author but there are so many other things which we need to balance. So many other tasks that need to be completed if we hope to keep our life in harmony.

So, here’s a not-so-pro tip from someone with 8 books hanging from his belt: choose a project that fits your time schedule. Think about how much time you actually have to write. Can you produce one story a month? A novella a year? Three books in three months?

People want consistent output. Something that’s regular and expected. Think about what you can deliver consistently to your audience and then design a writing project around that. You don’t have to write novels. Or novellas. Or short stories. You just have to produce consistently to an expected schedule. No matter how slow or fast you are, consistency is what wins fans and readers over. It even soothes debt collectors.

If you do that, and are a professional, you’re an author. A serious one. It doesn’t matter what any other jackass on the internet says (including this one).

Be a professional

Hey, customers are hard work. Remember when you were a kid and disliked school? Or your job? And how you wanted to join the circus, become a famous TV personality, or start your own Norwegian jazz and salsa band?

Remember how close you came?

Being an author can be a little like that. The author lifestyle can be the rockstar dream for those comfortable in a shirt and jeans. Think about it. Thousands of people praising your novel and telling you how special you are. Filled up panels where you’re asked penetrating questions and hold forth on complicated topics. Where people listen in rapt attention as you speak out your wisdom to the ages. A place where you are respected, not for your looks or slow smile, but your innate personality and knowledge.

Just me thinking that?

In this bubble you are free to be that special, amazing, and wonderful person you could be if all those other people weren’t keeping you down. Weren’t negging you out. If you didn’t have to bend backwards to meet stupid demands / needs / ideas of your boss / senior staff/ customers.

FREEDOM!

Bullshit.

Writing is no different than any other professional endeavour. Everyone has an opinion about your skill set. Whether or not they publish it online (so you can see it), or talk about it with their friends around a coffee table, they have an opinion. Sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes they tell it to you, and sometimes they are writing for their friends / readers and you just happen to stumble onto it when you’re slightly tipsy at 4:00am in the morning.

Whether you like it or not, you’re a professional. People are willing to pay you money for your skills. You need to treat them with respect (even if they don’t deserve it). It doesn’t mean you have to change for them. It doesn’t mean you have to write for them. What it does mean is that you need to handle them in a way that shows you understand what they’re saying and are (kind of) grateful for their input.

And like most professionals, you’ll have to tell a few lies to make your customers happy. Say that you did love their comment about your missing comma on page 9. Or how you are appreciative for them publishing a snarky article comparing your book to a Hitler / Justin Bieber mashup. It’s okay though, lies are our business. After all, that’s what storytelling is, isn’t it?

Everything is practice

Sometimes when I commune with the universe on top of a mountain while stroking a goat’s beard, I think about boxes. What is the purpose of the metaphysical genre box we built between fiction and non-fiction writing? Or between essays and short stories?

Are we not attempting the same thing? To communicate an idea in a palatable way to the audience? To find a way to sneak past their defences and lodge our own flag in their brain space? Isn’t that our job? To be the greatest advertiser ever known to humankind?

Probably.

Think of a book review and a book blurb. What’s the diference? Both are trying to effectively communicate to the reader what they will discover inside of a novel. A 5-star review should be (almost) the same as its blurb. If someone reads your reviews of another’s novels, they should come away with several things:

  1. What the book’s about.
  2. Does it achieve its goal of entertaining the reader?
  3. What the reader (you) thought of the work.

That’s it. Point 1 is exactly the same as a blurb (kind of, without the marketing gimmicks). So each time you write a review, you are practicing for your own blurbs.

Essays are the same. They expressions of your ideas put into words. They increase your vocabulary, give you a chance to find out how to engage readers and practice editing skills.

Everything you write is practice. Every interaction online with a friend. Every blog post about your day, every email to a friend is a chance to hone your writing skills. Think about how you can say something differently, think about how you can switch up your styles so your friend isn’t just honour bound to read the email but loves getting them.

Don’t waste these opportunities because there are so many. They’ll help you hone your style, develop the rhythm of your prose and expand your toolbox to contain a variety of screw and driver sizes.

Then, finally, when you come to your novel — you won’t have to start from scratch. You won’t have to reteach yourself things you’ve let go rusty over the years. They’ll be honed and the words will pour out onto the page in a torrent.

Maybe. Or perhaps you’ll hide under the covers like I do and play The Witcher 3 in the dark. Both are okay options because it’s your life. Live it. 😉

Picture:

Young girl sitting on a bench writing in her diary (C) andreaxt. Used under standard license from Dollar Photo Club. 

Where Things Are

So, it’s been a long, quiet summer. A long, quiet spring. A long, quiet year.

This is the point where I stand up and declare … a new book is out! Buy now! But, alas, that’s not what this post is about.

You may not know this, but I write under pseudonym. Kenneth A. Mugi is not my real name. It’s a play on my last name in Japanese with my grandfather’s first name slipped in. I used it (instead of my own) because I wrote a semi-autobiographical story in The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer. I needed the protection an alias provided. I didn’t think about it much beyond that in all honesty.

I wasn’t in this for the cash. I was in this for the rage. Not the rage of being an indie author, but because I was enraged. I was mad at work, mad at life, and I took that fury and wrote. I write when I’m angry. I write when I’m spitting sinister soliloquies under the night sky. I take the darkness churning in my soul and use it to scream words until I can tie my imagination down in paper form.

Back then I wrote because … I could. Before The Tragic Demise of a Game Developer, I’d written 3 novels and an anthology of short stories during my time at uni. Before the internet revolution happened, before there was a place to market them. So I knew I could do it, hell, I’d already done it.

Let’s not mince words though, they were awful. Eye destroying, burnt out crap which would’ve been mocked in the slush pile. Someone has a copy of them somewhere, I feel sorry for them. I wish to avert their eyes and promise I’ll get better. That I am better.

So I wrote and edited in a rage, and my job didn’t change. So I wrote some more. I wrote a supernatural YA. Got a good review for it too. (Thanks Midu.) I wrote the sequel and didn’t like it. My wife (who is my before-market critic) didn’t like it either. So it got shelved. I wrote a high-fantasy novel.

In total, I probably wrote around 240,000 words or something that year. I honestly don’t know know how much because some of the edits were extensive and I don’t add edits in my word counts.

Despite my delusions that I would get rich and swim in greenbacks (things that I knew were delusions), I didn’t think any of it through. I was a mad rapper with a corner block and a voice that hollered.

Yet, I joined a writer’s group soon after that because … I met the President of a writer’s group during the course of my job and she was … really nice. Amazingly nice. You don’t meet people that nice very often. And she was kind and invited me.

So I went. And I took my bag of anxiety with me.  And I met people. Let’s say most of them were nice. Let’s say a couple of them were nice at the start, but turned into something else at the end. Let’s say that overall, despite some really not great experiences with (only) a couple of people there, I had a pretty good time overall. I still do. I still love my writer’s group.

Will do it again. Heart them all, even the two I had conflicts with.

The thing is … and this is the thing … when you write for no reason, when you invest your time and energy in something to escape your demons, some people don’t understand that. They’ve got their goals, they’ve got their ambitions and their targets. They have all these plans, and you’re not… you’re not playing the same game. And if you have any skill (which in my case is debatable), somehow they don’t know what to do with you. It’s as if you’re a mercenary who heads into a combat but doesn’t ask for coin when payment is due.

That kind of action is stupid to them. They need to help you. They need to put you on a path. The righteous path, the path laid with silver. That path filled with gold.

Except, I was on a path. I didn’t know it then, but I was on a path out of my inner hell and they were trying to turn me around. They wanted me to trudge back to the demon dog and steal its purse.

They almost got there, and who knows, maybe it would’ve been for the best.  Maybe I’d be rich now. The problem is / was I’m stubborn. I know this. I’m stubborn because I’m cynical and I’m cynical because the world is shrouded in fog.  People even more so. Self-awareness about this doesn’t excuse me, it just means that I know part of myself and I live with it. Like I live with all the demons screaming in my mind. The thing is when you tell someone that X is part of you, you need them to believe you.

You are asking them to draw lines around the activities they want you to undertake and when they don’t, when they continue to push you against your will, you give in and let that cold core become you.

You get mad, you get angry, you get furious and yell at the stars in the heavens because you’ve opened your heart to them so that they don’t accidently put in a situation which could push you to your breaking point. And if you’re like me, then in these hours you write.

The seas of tumult become nothing more than words etched through the lines of the cosmos. You see nothing, you hear nothing but the faint whispering of the fantasy land. When you sweep your net into the sea of ideas, it comes back full. Nanowrimo? Fuck that shit. Finish it in a week.

I wrote the first draft of The Salvation of Yellow in 7 days. I wrote a 50,000 novel in 3 weeks while working a 16-hour-a-day job and with only 3 hours of sleep a day.

Because I was mad. Because I was going to tear through the universe and put my foot down God’s throat.

And when that same someone decided to be an asshole to me because, y’know, they didn’t uphold their end of a bargain they’d made with me, and I was being pulled apart by the cosmos, I just gave up. I dismantled everything I had to do with them and drifted.

The thing is … I’m still drifting. Sure, I finished The Salvation of Yellow, but that was mostly due to latent fury. I’m not consumed with a tinge of red now, I’m here. I’m being more careful with my triggers, I’m keeping my barriers higher and my vigilance keener. I’ve learned. Perhaps.

Yet the problem is that in this “good” state, a state where I can live, I don’t write. I don’t edit. I don’t need to run and hide and trundle into fantasies. I work on practical things. The things that have to be done.

Right now I live in Japan and if you’ve read any of my acknowledgements you’ve probably figured out that my wife is Japanese. It’s likely we’ll be here for a while. Perhaps forever which means I need to work on my (dismal) Japanese. That’s a more important life goal than creating novels which may or may not succeed.

Being a good teacher (the profession I earn my dollars from) is another excellent practical goal. Practical, cynical. Me.

Losing weight, spending time with my wife: all important things. Reading books, playing video games: all good things.

And the Kenneth A. Mugi name, it doesn’t quite work. It does, but it doesn’t. I don’t want to write under my name. I think there’s a narcissistic danger in that. Yet, I do want to write and Kenneth A. Mugi is great, but he needs to be separate from the genres I create.

With that in mind, I launched an experiment based on the idea that a traditional, white male name would obtain more sales. Actually, the idea that a white name would obtain more sales. And, I’ve got to say, they were right.

I released the same novel: The Salvation of Yellow, under two different names and with two different titles.

Alexa Robertson: Borrowed Gods

William J. Grant: The God Thief

They didn’t do well, not by a long stretch, but The God Thief outsold Borrowed Gods by about 2:1. And Borrowed Gods outsold The Salvation of Yellow by about 3:1.

To whatever side of the debate you’re on that data can mean a lot of things. What it does mean, however, is that I need to switch things up. I need to make some changes.

As such, here’s what’s going to happen:

  1. Kenneth A. Mugi will be used for stories based on my biography. Tales set in real life. It will also be used for short stories with my writing group because … why change now?
  2. Alexa Robertson will become my Y.A. / contemporary issue persona. I’m not sure what I’ll write under her, but eventually He was a hero will be re-released under her name.
  3. William J. Grant will be the sci-fi fantasy guy. I’ll start transferring all the fantasy titles under him soon. For the next few months though, I’ll keep my little experiment going and see what the results turn up.

Also, I’m going to go black for a while. Not on this site, but in regards to novel and novellas being published. I want to have a series of works to release within a certain time window. A novella a month or something like that. I doubt this will lead to increased sales and writerly freedom, but I want to do it right. I want to take a few extra months and have everything prepared for a tight launch.

Why? Why am I telling you all this? Simply because it’s unlikely I’m going to get angry again. Those days are over and I have to be realistic: this is who I am, this is who’ve always been. And this is what I can bring to the writing world. I wish it was more, but my hands are small and my skills meagre.

A big thank you to Midu (if you’re reading this) who took a chance on my works and reviewed them. I didn’t expect such good reviews (although I hoped for them), but I got them and they helped give me the confidence to continue.  Thanks.

A big shout out goes to Allan Walsh as well. Like his site, enjoy his journey. He’s a great guy and gives great feedback.

Also, a big thank you to the 99% of the writing crew I roll with and still roll with. You’re beyond awesome, stay sweet.

Trahern

(Kenneth A. Mugi)

P.S: The good news? I’ve created some bad-ass covers over the years. Check them out:

(All stock images are licensed from Dollar Photo Club. Copyright of their respective creators. Stock images were purchased under the Standard Royalty License Agreement and modified by myself.)

Darkest-Depths Borrowed Gods V1 -- Alexa Robertson

The God Thief V2 The Cowardice of Green V4 Mid The Salvation of Yellow V3 He was a hero - iPod Cover I am a hero - iPad Promotion SERA V4

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hyper on the Low

The shirt flickered like dead static. Blue, grey, green, grey, yellow, grey it went. It jumped and stopped — as if holding its breath — and then proceeded to shake and jitter.

Alex pulled the fabric away from his muscular toso and stared at the light emanating from the cloth. His v-shaped jaw quivered as he continued to gaze at the spectrum of colours. “I’m not one of them,” he said to the silhouette of a person hiding in the shadows of basement.

“Who are you?” growled a distorted voice. The sound of metal gears scraping against each other filled the space and drowned out the noise of the rattling pipes on the walls. “Who are you?”

“I’m…I’m more than that. I’m more than GamerGate, I’m a soul.” Alex’s body started to shake and he inhaled sharply as if he had become cold. “I care. I believe games are all things. Meant for all people.”

“Fifteen days ago you read the banned list,” the voice said. “In violation of its terms you played twenty-one pieces of patriarchal programming. You promoted a culture that silences the voices of the void. For those crimes, you are being banished.”

Alex slumped onto the ground and rocked backward and forwards. He cradled his torso in his arms and stared at his skin as it started to flicker. “You can’t do this to us, we’ve, we’ve got rights too.”

The silhouette stepped out the dimly lit corner. The person was a woman — not slim, but not overweight. She had a healthy frame with long brown hair and hazelnut eyes.  Her blue jeans and low-cut singlet made her look normal, almost. Half of her face, the right side, was missing and had been replaced with metal and gears. As her jaw lowered, metal screeched against itself.

“Oh, I know about those rights,” she said. “I count them sometimes. I notch them on my externals, I slice them into my skin when I remember the pretty gamer boys who made one too many grabs for my breasts. ‘Don’t…wear…hyper-colour…t-shirts. One absolute rule. One.  Not like the thousands we have. “

“I’l change. I promise I won’t laugh at the list anymore. I won’t mock it, help me. I’ll hire more women for my team, I know they can be good coders too.”

“The patriarchy never changes,” she said taking the lantern off the ceiling. “The patriarchy never dies. Only the voices of the void do not heed its call.” She leaned down and lifted Alex’s chin up, his face reflecting in her polished metal. “And I am one of those voices.”

With a singular motion, she brought the lantern down on his head and the static was consumed by the dark.

Critiquing and Professional Responsibility — Yours? Theirs?

At some point in a writer’s journey (perhaps your journey) there will come a time when they need to do critiques. Perhaps this is for their writer’s group, or a friend, or even a beta read. At first, it seems simple: help a fellow author out. Give them a little bit of feedback, help them adjust what needs fixing, and together, with pens united, this fate-bound pair will drive into the sunset tossing money into the air.

Critiquing, however, is hard.

Yes, everyone can do it. Yes, everyone can give their thoughts (and often do) on that freshly printed manuscript a novelist has just created. Like speaking, writing and drawing, anyone can do it. How well, unfortunately, is another narrative entirely.

As a professional trainer / teacher / educator, I’ve seen a lot of checklists designed for when you give feedback. As an author, I’ve seen even more (non-free) workshops. Although I agree with them in principle, I think they distract from the main point of the task — to help someone get better. You can give the best advice (haven’t we all?) and still have it fall on deaf ears. Sometimes what an author needs isn’t more constructive criticism, but the same assessment delivered in a different manner. In a way they can bite down and swallow the (occasionally) bitter pill they’ve received.

So, for your reading (and Tuesday morning) pleasure, please find my top tips for having your feedback listened to.

Be Professional — Treat the Work as if  You’ve been Paid to Review It

Sometimes, heaven help us, we come across that truly awful work. The ‘it makes my eyes bleed’ and ‘it is destroying my brain’ story that we thought had gone extinct with the Flying Cow of Narusus. “How,” we ask ourselves, “did this person think they could write? Do they think I can perform miracles?”

Other times, there’s that truly offensive piece that’s so misogynistic, racist and flat-out primordial — we punch a wall while reading it. We wish to burn it with fire and roll the ashes down our arm.

I experienced both of these types of works at my old writer’s group. A couple of times I even critiqued a piece despite knowing my suggestions (and the three hours of work I put into them) would probably be ignored by the author. None of these experiences were pleasant.

Occasionally, a group member would throw down a work and declare, “I couldn’t finish it. It was too hard. It was so bad.”

Once, I lost it at some poor writer. The tale he’d written was all of those things above rolled into one, and when it came to my turn to speak, I let loose with my deep tones and shaky palms.

I’m still embarrassed about it.

Unfortunately, these responses don’t help anybody. Telling someone they’re useless / sexist / stupid may make us feel good, but they don’t improve their writing. If we’re lucky, they won’t come back. They’ll take the hint and find some other place. They’ll also share how badly they were treated at ‘Group X’ with their new cohorts. The writing world is small, and the news will make its rounds. Hell, they might even pen the next bestseller, wouldn’t that be awkward?

What if they don’t though? What if they stay? It means we’ve wasted an opportunity to improve their work, to stop them from submitting mediocre pieces and move them into the ranks of the good and then fabulous. It also means we may have lost the opportunity to actually engage with them about their prose.

I don’t think I need to tell you how difficult it is to accept feedback from someone you don’t like. ‘Oh, yelling guy doesn’t like my story? Thinks it’s cliched? Surprise, surprise.’ Or worse, they create another narrative to protect themselves, ‘They’re saying that because they’re jealous. My work is just too good for them to understand.’

Now we’ve set up a situation where very few people can move them towards better writing. We’ve made it harder for them to accept what they need to hear, and we’re stuck with their inadequate work (in our opinion) until the end of time.

Yes, it’s voluntary. Yes, you’re doing it just so other people can give you feedback about yours. But, think how you would react if someone tossed your work in the bin or couldn’t give a flying sheep about it?

You need to treat it like you’re a professional. Think about them as customers instead of ‘my writing group’. Even though you’re giving them negative news, they should still be satisfied with the experience. Tell yourself that they can complain, and that complaint could cost you your job.

After all, if we have a career in writing we’ll have to learn how to tactfully praise books we dislike (because they’re popular), give feedback to readers about their fan-fic (good and bad), plus talk to real, 100% customers. These skills are transferrable, why not learn them in a (relatively) safe environment?

Praise, Criticise and Thank Them for the Opportunity

No work is so bad that there isn’t some good in it. I’m constantly bewildered at how many people forget to discuss the positives of the piece they’ve read. Yes, reading that awful tripe about their toe hurt you, but that doesn’t mean you get to hurt them back. Remember,  you volunteered for this.

Start with praise. Always. Tell them you loved the description of the fungus. It ickled you in ways you can’t quite explain, then move onto the critique.

In fact, my rule of thumb is the more someone says they ‘can take any criticism’, the less they actually can. Yes, they sit there and they listen, but then they ignore what you say. Or they don’t hear what you’re saying at all. I’ve seen this in workplaces, in student assessments and in writer’s groups.

This cannot be stated enough: start with praise. An ego-stroking never hurts anyone. And flattery will get you on the Serenity. Then slide in with one or two major points to improve on. No more. No fancy checklists. There’s some research that indicates if we work on our weakest points, everything else improves. If we work on our strongest, we stay static.

So they only need the one or two big issues that they will actively engage with. If they just do that, everything else will lift as well. Two things seem possible, six makes you want to toss your hands in the air and go, “Well, I’ll just write it again then. Thanks asshole.”

Afterwards, follow with some more positive. Give them a reason to improve, tell them you’re looking forward to their next piece. Make them feel you believe in them.

I would say 90% of people I’ve met in writer’s groups (and teachers) want their comrades to improve. They wish them all the best. However, sometimes they forget to emphasis this. They forget to say what they know out loud, and this can cause doubt in the other person’s mind.

Like all relationships, affirming that you want to be there and listening to them doesn’t hurt. It helps them overcome their anxieties and fears when submitting, when dealing with the challenges of finding out their work is not up to the standard they wished to be. Building that confidence, that trust, is more important (in my mind) than any single critique.

Finally, thank them for the opportunity. Authors are notorious for being a little anti-establishment, on the cusp of iconoclastic and kind of unique — so don’t become an authority figure in their lives. You don’t want a rebellion against your ideas because you probably won’t have enough power to squash it (unless you’re published or Cormack McCarthy), you simply want them to listen.

After all, it’s a big risk to have a work critiqued. They’ve trusted you to give good feedback. Thank them for that opportunity because, honestly, they have given you a chance. A chance to improve your own editing skills, to see other ideas in the writing world, and to figure out what you like and despise.

Be Humble

Let me be straight with you, like a line, there is no one who has the inside dope on the publishing industry. If you look at the best-selling novels of the past 100 years, you’ll find one thing: they’re very different.

Some are excellent — well written, powerful stories that will blow your mind. Others are mediocre, some are even low quality. Their themes and characters vary wildly and vividly. The prose deployed is simple and complex. Sometimes it is repetitious, in other instances it flows.

No one, and I mean no one, has a lock on what’s going to be ‘big’ next year. Or in ten years.

We can sit here and debate about the literary value of some of the best-selling works all day, but you know what?  I don’t care. I’d rather have my feet propped up by millions of dollars and be labelled a ‘hack’ than be sitting in a coffee shop with an unpublished manuscript that everyone I know says is Pan’s gift to the world.

You do not have the key insight into the writing craft. You do not know what will become successful or published.

Admit this in your critique. Admit certain genres make you queasy. Admit your prejudices and your limitations as a writer. Use the phrases ‘in my opinion’ or ‘I think’. Tell the writer you could be wrong.

Why?

Simply, you want them to improve; not improve because you said so. I’ve met one too many writers / students / teachers who think they’ve  become so skilled that only their opinion matters. So much so that when someone doesn’t do what they say, they get upset. Then they tell the offending author how wrong they are, and do half-hearted critiques after that.

Making someone feel small may give a person an ego boost, but it doesn’t help anyone improve. An author who brags about their knowledge and skills may intimidate people and make them go ‘ooh’, but it can also trigger feelings of jealousy, resentment and anger. “They think they’re so special,” the other writers may go. “They think they’re so talented.”

Remember, we’re not dealing with the work in a critique, we’re dealing with the person behind it. They need to get better, and to get that way, they need to not reject an idea out of hand.

If I’m dealing with a particularly thorny issue, I usually admit that I had this problem too. Or, I’m still working on it. (Both true statements). I want them to feel it’s not a big deal. It’s ok to make this mistake, they’re not alone.

It’s easier to accept an idea (or a negative thing) if you don’t feel someone is judging you. (And, if you’ve ever read some of my earlier works, you’d know that I can’t pass judgement on anybody. They were straight from the literary squalors of terrible.)

Why do this?

Because it means next month, I read slightly better fiction. Always a bonus. It’s a win-win and that’s all I’m interested in.

If In Doubt, Ask a Question

Finally, my greatest trick as an assessor / critiquing human is to ask a question. It comes back to that authority figure, if I tell them what to do — they weigh how much skill I have, whether or not they like me, where I sit on the hierarchal ladder of the writing world — before deciding to listen or not. I’m asking them to buckle and bend their will to do what I say.

Asking a question, however, makes them answer. It makes them arrive at their own conclusions about the issues in their work.  Essentially, it engages them and makes them query what they might’ve overlooked.

This is especially important if our writing journeys differ. There is no ‘ultimate’ path. There never has been. My long-term goal is to help them improve their work, not turn them into a clone of me. Not have them have the same goals as me.

If I want to write commercial, pulp stories, that’s fine. But if June wants to compose sweet, sweet literary droplets…that’s her choice. I simply need to help her find the right questions for her to ask about her work so she can interrogate her own pieces and find out what it’s doing to readers.

Put another way, telling someone what to do shuts down the options for them. Asking them a question reveals those moonlit trails we often read about in the prestigious magazines.

But you know what? These are simply my opinions. What about yours? Head to the comments and tell me if you agree or think I’m a bulbous, pumpkin head on fire.

Should you join a writer’s group?

I was going to write this EXPLOSIVE post about WRITER’S CLUBS (TM) and blow your mind with its powerful and prescient advice. Except I realised that I hated those kinds of articles because they’re just subjective points of view passing themselves off as empirical analysis. And also, most of what you read about how to be a successful writer is BS anyways.

So here are some ideas, just small things, you might want to consider before you dash off and sign up with a ragtag band of authors hell-bent on changing the world by getting rich.

ONE: Why are you joining a writing group?

I’m a cynical person. There’s no way around it. If I sat you down and asked the question, “Why are you joining a writing group?” I can almost guarantee that you would say, “To get better Kenneth. That’s why I’d go.”

You’d say that because it’s socially acceptable. Except some people go to a writing club to socialise. Others go to hang around authors. There are those who are looking to quickly increase the number of contacts they have in the writing industry (because they are brilliant and are just waiting to be discovered!). Then there are those who go because they want a cheer squad, and randoms who seek encouragement. Occasionally those with writer’s block wander in as well.

Yes, some people go to improve. I do. A lot of the people at my club do. The question is: Why are you joining one? Have a deep, honest think about it because there are many different types of writing clubs and you need to find one which meets your specific needs.

TWO: Are you good enough to join? Are you good enough to have your work critiqued?

Yes, I know, you’re very talented writer. I’m sure you are.

The only problem is I don’t believe in talent. I believe (like Ta-Neishi Coates does) that writing is a technical skill. To become “talented” you work at it. Regularly, often and you put in those 10,000 hours.

Being critiqued and reviewed at a writer’s club should be about finding those mistakes you can’t see. Getting fresh eyes to drill down on your style and hone it a little better. If you know you’re writing is full of errors, why not fix them yourself? Why do you feel the need to force strangers (or friends) to read fiction which is horrible because you can’t be bothered to learn how to edit?

More importantly, you need to be good enough to evaluate others works. If you don’t bring enough background and substance, how are you going to be able to provide quality feedback to others? Yes, writer’s group is about learning — but it can’t all be from one person while everyone sponges. That’s not a group, that’s an energy sucking hydra.

Which leads us to:

THREE: Are you emotionally mature enough to be critiqued?

The best people I know are self-depreciating about their skills. They say they’re not as good as they could be, they’re barely OK. Forget great. Alright?

However, they also know they need criticism to get better. They know it sucks, but they have accepted the fact that their work isn’t as good as it could be and they’re going to find out what’s wrong with it. They are prepared to have their soul destroyed.

It took me years to become comfortable with other people giving feedback on my writing. I knew it could be improved, but I liked living with the delusion of how brilliant I was. I didn’t want to to give that up. However, I also knew that if I asked for feedback, I had to be ready for the bad and the good.

So I didn’t go.

Some people want to be critiqued but on their terms. You can be. It’s called not submitting it for critique. You can self-evaluate, study on-line and learn through Google. No one’s stopping you.

But if you’re going to head to a writer’s club and be critiqued, you need to be ready to take it in your stride. You don’t get to put conditions on the evaluation or how someone will view your work. People are giving up their time (their limited time) to help you so you can get better. If you’re going to get mad or upset, don’t go.

Bringing us to:

FOUR: Will you change what you’ve been told?

It’s one thing to put together a piece of work which will be evaluated and make you the centre of attention for ten minutes; it’s another to go home and massage out all the crinkles in the coldness of your study.

No, I’m not saying you have to implement everything… but unless you’re “that one-in-a-million” author who is perfect, there’s going to be something you need to massage out of your style. Maybe it’s a word choice, maybe it’s a lack of tension or maybe it’s just putting the stakes in. The only thing you can guarantee is that it’ll be there and when they find it, you’ll feel like someone took your soul out and burned it on a stake. With a pig. On top of another pig.

There’s nothing more frustrating for people who have given up their time to help you (because you’ve admitted that you want help when asking for a critique) and then coming back each and every month with the same feedback. It makes them frustrated because they feel like they’re wasting their time, it makes you upset because they keep banging on about the same things (and why can’t they get what you’re saying anyways? It’s so clear!), and it’s just plain rude.

FIVE: Will you put in the hours?

Being a part of a writer’s club is a commitment. You need to critique works, go to meetings and keep on writing. Not just writing for submissions, but also other projects. You should be putting in 10 – 20 hours a week P/T on your writing. For every one point they suggest you improve on, I would say you’d need to spend at least 10 hours working on it.

Which means if they give you four areas to improve, that’s 40 hours of writing you should do before you even think about submitting another piece. Otherwise the same areas are just going to keep popping up in everything you hand to them.

SIX: Are you able to not submit but still attend?

Are you driven enough to keep working on your writing goals without submitting every month? Or do you need that constant, regular feedback to make yourself feel good about putting some words in a particular order?

Writing, in my experience, has to grow beyond the feedback loop if you want to get good at it. You have to be driven to want to get better (either at home or in a group setting) and you have to know punching words into a computer is for you. Writing (and art) is hard, cruel and evil. It smacks you around when you least expect it, forces a series of typos in the wrong space when you finally get your proof back, and humiliates you in totally unique ways each and every day. Are you willing to go through all of that without hearing, “You’re good! You’re great! Let’s all Celebrate”?

Needy people are difficult to keep working with. Publishers don’t like them, friends can get irritated with constant dependance.

Ask yourself this: Do you need the writing group to keep writing? Or is the writing group just one part of your writing journey?

And my number one rule after you start going: How can I make life easier for the other members of my writer’s club? What can I do to make my submissions better and more enjoyable for them? (So, that’s two rules, but what the hey?)