Thursday, March 03, 2016

Guest Post: Ian Lewis on "The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do to Hone His or Her Craft"

Please welcome author Ian Lewis to the blog today.....

The Most Important Thing a Writer Can Do to Hone His or Her Craft
Serious writers have different goals. Some are looking to land a publishing contract, hoping they’ve written the next best seller. Some just want a creative outlet, unhampered by genre constraints. Others, like me, always seek to combine both. It’s that balance of industry validation and creative expression that few artists, regardless of medium, ever achieve. One either has to sacrifice art for pop-culture and commercialism, or accept obscurity and anonymity in whatever rich, imaginative world he or she invents.

There is one thing that binds all serious writers together, and that is the desire to hone their craft. In my experience, time spent reading other fiction, attending writing conferences, or reading books/articles about writing will never be as valuable as active participation in a critiquing group. Nowhere else will you find as much encouragement and motivation to keep writing. It’s the one thing that saved me as a writer.

It was circa 2007. I had given up writing for several years when I was approached by a friend to join her critiquing group. As luck would have it, I had the beginnings of my first novella, “The Camaro Murders,” simmering in my head, and so I was already thinking about writing again. What I found at the first meeting was eye opening.

Writing is such a solitary task that I assumed all writers toiled away on their own. Never for once did I consider there were others looking to help each other improve their writing skills, but I found myself in the company of such people. They were a diverse bunch, both in age and tastes in fiction. I found that their editorial strengths varied as well—and therein lays one of the major benefits of a critiquing group.

You can re-read your work fifty times and miss the obvious errors. However, when you have free editors at your disposal, the feedback will cover the gamut of grammar to character development. Each one of your “editors” will have his or her soapbox; one will needle you about comma usage (or lack thereof), another will mark-up your manuscript with word and phrasing suggestions. All feedback should be considered, especially when more than one person picks up on the same thing. That’s usually a sure sign that a revision is in order.

I kept attending the meetings and the creative juices never stopped flowing. At first, I only submitted short stories to the group. I had a grasp of the technical side of writing; it was the storytelling that I needed to develop. I took my lumps, but stuck with it until I saw “The Camaro Murders” through to completion. Because we met regularly and the feedback was constructive, I was able to get beyond the first few pages of a story, which is where many new writers find themselves stuck.

That’s the other huge benefit. A committed group will instill discipline in you, inspire you, and motivate you. With fellow writers in your midst who are committed to the craft, your own writing will take on new life because it’s no longer just an idea. It’s on paper, being read (albeit by a limited audience). That was a game-changer for me; my stories came to life by virtue of sharing them with the group.

Not long after this, Untreed Reads offered me a contract for “The Camaro Murders.” The story is a stark account of a small town murder from four points of view—one of them from beyond the grave. It never would’ve seen the light of day without the valuable feedback from the group.

Continued participation in the group reaped further dividends. “The Camaro Murders” led to “Lady in Flames,” the second novella in what is now a loose series featuring a ghostly character known as the Driver. I even forayed into Science Fiction with “Power in the Hands of One”—an homage to mecha anime such as Voltron and the Big O. Both novellas were also published by Untreed Reads.

Nearly a decade after joining the group, I’ve moved on to larger projects. I’ve completed a full length dystopian political thriller as well as a short novel that will serve as the third entry in the Driver series. I’m shopping both of them around right now in addition to writing the sequel to said thriller. I’m even doing some ghost-writing on the side. Despite the multiple fires I’ve got going, I still regularly attend my critiquing group. The return on investment is still invaluable.

I can’t encourage other writers enough to join a group. Inquire at your local library, or use your friend Google to find an existing group in your area. Some writers prefer smaller, more private groups with trusted friends. Whatever the case, get involved with other writers. If you want to start your own group, here are some guidelines that work well for ours:
1.      Meet regularly at the same place. (We meet on the third Saturday of every month at the local library).
2.      No more than five submissions will be reviewed at a session (given a 1 ½ to 2 hour session). Submissions six, seven, etc. roll over to the next month.
3.      Submissions are distributed via e-mail 1-2 weeks prior.
4.      Each member comes prepared with a marked-up manuscript of each submission, ready to share constructive feedback.
5.      Submissions are reviewed in the order they were submitted.
6.      Ideas, subject matter, and authors are not attacked; the writing is the only thing that can be critiqued. All feedback must be constructive.
7.      If the group is large enough, each person’s feedback may need to be timed (e.g. 1 minute per) to ensure you get through all of the submissions.
8.      The author of each submission gets time to respond to feedback after everyone has shared in turn.
9.      You must critique two consecutive times before being allowed to submit your own work. If you miss a month or two, you must critique twice again before submitting again. This encourages regular participation in the group instead of permitting people to drop in when they need something edited.

I hope you’ll consider joining a critiquing group if you don’t already belong to one. The beauty of membership is that you’re compelled to do the very thing that will make you a better a writer, and that is writing itself.

I still very much appreciate constructive feedback, even for my published works. Please leave a review if you’re compelled to read something of mine. Keep in mind that for the month of March, all eBooks at Untreed Reads will be on sale for 30% off. This includes all three of my releases with them and is a great opportunity to pick up some great new books for cheap. 

Ian Lewis ©2016
For more on Ian Lewis check out this interview and the links below:


Terry W. Ervin II said...

A critique group can be very useful in a writer's development.

However, not all writing groups are created equal, so selecting the a good one--one that will benefit the writer, is important, because participation is an investment in a limited resource. Time.

Even worse, a poor or ineffective crit group can damage a writer's progress/improvement.

Earl Staggs said...

Your feelings about a crit group are exactly like mine. I was fortunate to find a terrific one. Terry is right with his comments, too. If you find the right group, treasure it. If you land in a bad one, run for the hills.

Jude said...

I have to agree with everything you said, Ian. We meet once a month and the critique runs the gamut from grammar to organization to content. Each member has his/her own strength. I listen to what they say. I read what they write. I consider it all, and I have found that my writing has improved. It's eyes that see what you sometimes can't/won't see. I've been fortunate enough to find some great people to work with. A great side benefit is that I've made some wonderful new friends.

Anonymous said...

Ian, where do you guys meet? Haha. My novel writing group hasn't met in about six months. The library where we were meeting closed for renovations and instead of finding a new place to meet, the organizer simply shut down the group. Talk about a momentum killer. Meeting regularly is vital to attaining the type of group and type of feedback beneficial to everyone.