When I began writing my first novel just out of grad school (a forever-unpublished, thinly veiled fictional account of my own family drama), I shared my writing with no one. I had just come off a year of spending every day with a close-knit group of writers who appreciated and respected each other’s work. There were weekend writing get-a-ways, full day marathons of reading, critiquing, discussing, and eating (lots of eating). It was, by far, the best writing year of my life. When I moved back to the U.S. from England, I was starting over. My one other American friend on the course remained in England after our program ended, and though we all kept in close contact through email, the constant back-and-forth of writing critique was over. I found myself entering into a novel, the longest piece of fiction I’ve ever done, and writing it in a vacuum.
The writing, as you can imagine, suffered. When I finally finished the thing after about a year of second and third-guessing myself, I gave it to three close friends to read (two still living in England) and received back friendly commentary but not enough of the important, critical feedback I so desperately needed. It was wrong, I knew that. I wanted someone to tell me that it was wrong, and then tell me what was wrong with it. Because, in truth, I was exhausted by it. I had spent every day for a year involved with it, with no breathing room, no feedback to keep me on track. It meandered. It went off on tangents and didn’t complete plot lines. But my friends couldn’t give me the feedback I wanted, because what I presented them needed too much. For my part, I couldn’t see my way out of it. Some days I loved it, some days I wanted to throw it out of the window. (Okay, most days I wanted to throw it out of the window.)
Three years later, I’m completing a second novel that I am much happier about. This summer I will attend a residency program at Art Farm in Nebraska, where I’ll hopefully spend the two weeks completing a solid, final (or at least close to final) edit. This time, unlike my last novel, I don’t feel totally apathetic and completely overwhelmed by the thought of editing it. And this is for one very clear reason: I’ve had feedback along the way.
When I first started tinkering around with the short pieces that would turn into my current novel, I enrolled in Rittenhouse Writer’s Workshop, run by James Rahn. I was one of eight writers in the group and had the opportunity to workshop my writing twice. Both times I presented pieces that I’d hoped to include in my novel. The feedback I received, as well as the constant reviewing of others’ work (perhaps just as important) was a tremendous boost to get me started. I left the eight-weeks feeling confident in my abilities to undertake this new project, a feeling I never had with my first one.
From that group began a friendship between myself and another writer. We both took an interest and respect in each other’s work, and were both in the early stages of (what we hoped would be) novels. We began meeting monthly to review sections of the others’ work, offering valuable critique and asking questions to ensure each writer remained on track. Now a year into this relationship, I can’t even fathom what my novel would look like without my friend’s regular, honest feedback. She reeled me in when I was going off the rails. She complimented the writing she loved (this is just as important, as any writer will tell you). She asked the right questions and pushed me to think critically about my characters, my plot, and the over-arcing theme of my story. Likewise, I pointed out some difficult language, some holes in plot, and some areas where her writing became choppy instead of its regular flow.
This fall, I became a part of Backyard Writers, a group of 12 or so writers ages 25-40 all in similar writing places, some with MFAs, some without, all with an interest in good writing. I workshop my stuff less often, but there’s always an opportunity for it, and it has become even more important for me to read and offer feedback to other writers in the group. Again, I cannot stress this enough. Being able to offer honest, helpful critique will in turn give you the opportunity to look at your own work with a more critical eye. You’ll recognize what works and what needs work, and how to make the appropriate changes to get there. This group has introduced me to other writing communities in the city, including The Head & The Hand Press, an awesome independent publisher located right here in Philadelphia, as well as Apiary Magazine, an equally awesome Philly-based literary magazine. Head & Hand runs weekly writer’s workshops and offers quiet places to write, as well as tons of other events to energize a writing practice or just meet other writers.
If you’re new to a place, or, as was my case, your writing friends live somewhere else, don’t become intimidated. Instead, do some research. Chances are, there are a lot others like you (there are writers in every city / suburb / rural area).
Find another writer (or a group) whose work you respect and can offer helpful feedback. This is important. Chances are, if you don’t like their writing, or it’s not your style, (think genre to literary, sci-fi to YA) you will ignore their feedback, and in turn not be able to offer them the valuable critique they deserve.
Set deadlines for yourself, and do your best to meet them. This doesn’t mean you need to create a perfect draft. But if you tell yourself you want this section done by this date, try to meet that goal. The best way to do this is by having someone regularly reading your work, to ensure that you do meet the deadline you set for yourself.
Remember, everywhere you go, there will always be writers looking for a community. Become a part of one, or help start one. We all know writing isn’t the easiest profession to undertake. Let’s help each other remember why we started doing it in the first place.