Writers as book club members: Is it even possible?

When we first moved to rural Pennsylvania three years ago, a few well-meaning folks suggested I join a book club to get to know like-minded people.
I thought about it … for about two minutes.
While I would greatly enjoy the wine (What’s a book club without wine?) and the socialization, I know I would be a lousy and annoying member.
I cannot think of a novel I have read in at least the past two decades without an edge of criticism, and it’s not the kind of criticism other readers would want to hear.
It’s sentence structure.
It’s word choices.
It’s how well and with how much artistry the author has suspended my disbelief.
It’s logical flow of plot and voice.
It’s pacing.
It’s whether the facts are right (because, yes, a good author strives for accuracy even in fiction).
While other members reach for deeper meaning, I can imagine myself reaching for a red pen.
So my question is this: Am alone in this?
Can writers succeed as book club members?
Or should we just skip the criticism and stick with the wine?
Do you, as a writer belong to a book club, or do your book club have a writer as a member?

Criticism: tough love for the ego

An acquaintance once asked me to critique the first chapter of her work in progress.
I didn’t know her very well and I was unfamiliar with her writing history, but I figured she had only recently contracted the writing bug because her work was so raw.
So I decided to tread carefully.
I started with all the good stuff.
I piled it on.
Then, I began to point out sections that confused me.
I had barely begun when she stopped me and began to explain. She explained not because she believed her words would elicit more advice or solutions to the problems within the work. She spoke up because she decided that, like everyone else, I “just didn’t get it.”
She would have to move on.
I was stunned.
She’ll never make it.
Not with that attitude.
In college (both in undergraduate and graduate school), we were not allowed to speak while our work was critiqued. For a good 45 minutes, we’d have to sit there jotting notes and biting our lips while six or seven other people tore our work apart and analyzed it bit by little bit.
Sometimes I had to bite so hard it bled.
I doesn’t matter what we intend to say with our words.
Readers can’t stop, pick up the phone and ask authors what they meant.
The writing must convey the message all by itself and the critique I received in those workshops was invaluable.
It toughened my skin.
The rewrites that followed taught me how to sort through it all.
How to ignore some criticism and embrace that of others.
And, most important, I learned to recruit readers who would be tough on me.
I might not always agree, but I’ll take what I can get.
When people offer criticism, it’s like they’re giving away money.
Some people gives us just a penny or two.
Others give us gold.
But why would we reject the pennies? We don’t have to spend them, but it doesn’t hurt to accept them and, when we gather enough pennies, we just might find that they are more valuable when combined than we once thought.
But, then again, we need to be careful that we don’t waste too much time gathering pennies.
Don’t request critiques from people who will simply be enthralled by the fact that we can write at all. Seek out the gold, the readers who read critically and, therefore, are most likely to offer constructive feedback.
It becomes less painful when we think of the work as a joint project, one in which the person giving critique is invested. The work has been created. Now it needs fine-tuning. Sharpening. The critiquer can sometimes see the flaws that we cannot see because we are too immersed.
The critiquer, or beta reader, offers perspective.
I feel sorry for that woman whose chapter I read.
She will likely waste plenty of time seeking out readers who agree with her.
With each honest critique she rejects, her dream of publication will become less and less vivid.
It’s a waste.
But it’s also a choice.
A choice that requires strength of character, humility and confidence all rolled together.
We all have it within us.
But, if we want to be successful, we cannot let ego rule.

Twilight: why even literary snobs are in the author’s debt

I did not want to read it.
I am not a fan of romance.
And I generally dislike the paranormal stuff.
I have a backlog of books I’d prefer to immerse myself in.
But the intrigue finally got to me.
I had to know how one book could could enrage so many writers and, at the same time, convert thousands, at least, of people who had not picked up a book in decades into passionate readers.
So when a friend offered me a copy of Twilight, I couldn’t resist.
And I was surprised.
Very surprised.
The answer to Stephenie Meyer’s success is simple, but it is also quite complicated.
It’s not the writing that makes Twilight a best seller. It is a combination of psychology, seductive descriptions, simple language and skilled storytelling. And that combination is too perfect to argue that Stephenie Meyer simply got lucky.
Let’s start with the psychology.
Like any good romance writer, Meyer’ chooses a girl who believes herself to be ordinary, who has never even had a date, who is so much like so many of us, especially when we were in high school.
She takes this girl and makes her the object of a highly desirable man’s obsession. She gives every ordinary girl or woman out there hope. She feeds her fantasies. She helps her feel good about herself and feel good about her potential self.
Next, she draws vivid and fascinating portraits of these vampires.
I want to watch them walk. I want to breath their scents. I want to experience their powerful arms, their speed, their bodies in sunlight. I want to watch them play baseball.
They are spectacular and original.
Somehow, Stephenie Meyers makes me want that.
Add to that the seduction. The way Edward touches Isabella is almost pornographic.
It’s hard to remember that they do nothing more than kiss. I want to find out what happens to them. Does it work? Does she become a vampire?
The plot and it’s pacing are enough to pull me through.
Otherwise, I have to admit, the writing is pretty lousy.
If I had to read that a character’s eyes, face or expression was “unreadable” one more time, I think I might have burned that book. I quickly grew tired of lengthy descriptions of Isabella’s every mundane move. Do I really need to watch her climb each and every stair? Brush her teeth? Pee?
Over and over again?
And how quickly her characters leap to rage. I could never be friends with these people. There is no warning, no build-up. One wrong word or move and they clench their fists, turn purple and refuse to speak to each other.
Seconds later, they are best buddies again, of course.
This lack of emotional transition is the mark of an impatient writer. Someone who is too lazy, too unobservant or too lacking in literary talent to get it right. I found it unforgivable. So unforgivable that, despite the awesome vampires, I could not like this novel.
But, I’m not her market.
I’m not important and that’s okay.
The elements of writing that I find annoying in Twilight are among those that make the language accessible for nonreaders or hurried readers. I don’t want to be told how someone feels. I want to be shown. I want to feel myself growing angry with the character, or calmer or happier.
More readers than not don’t want to work that hard.
From Twilight, they want two things: seduction and action.
The rest is irrelevant.
But, as a writer, there are two things I get from Twilight: more people who are turned onto books, people who might start off with Twilight, but then, later, become more sophisticated readers; and more money for the publishing industry, money that allows editors to take chances on novels like mine own.
So, how can I complain? How can any writer complain? How can anyone deny Stephenie Meyer the right to her success?
I felt it in the beginning, before I read Twilight, before I formed informed opinions of my own.
Her critics–the hard-core unyielding critics who accuse her of single-handedly triggering the demise of literature–are jealous.
Their complaints are, as I suspected, sour grapes.

Know the source

Originally posted Feb. 5, 2009

I have learned a great deal from the folks on the forums of Absolutewrite.com, but a recent thread bothered me. Someone had written an intriguing query letter and had posted it in the “Share Your Work” forum, hoping for advice on improvements.
The responses came quickly: other writers confidently tearing it to shreds.
After the first few replies, some voices of reason began to emerge, published authors or those with agent contracts who suggested that the writer simply polish a few sentences and go for it. It really was good. It just needed a little tweak here and there.
I can only hope that the original poster read beyond those first few replies.
The lesson: know your sources.
The Internet is flooded with forums, blogs and private groups for writers. Absolute Write is one of the good ones. If ever I actually sell a book, I will make a donation. Those folks saved me from doing such crazy things as paying fees to agents, sending silly query letters or signing with publishers that are nothing more than self-publishing companies in disguise.
But every forum has its less-than-credible members and it is important to take advice from their members with a healthy dose of cynicism. Helpful writers will be in tune with your needs and your goals. They will ask questions. They will give answers with confidence, but not with arrogant confidence. They will make you feel good about their replies even if they’ve just suggested that you are going down entirely the wrong path.
I belong to another online writing group that is private. I have found wonderful advice and support there from women who face similar obstacles with their writing, but one fellow writer stood out among the rest. Her advice was often loudly written and left me shaking my head. She always punctuated her harsh words with her experience as a published author.
So I bought her novel (It was out of print, so I had to buy it from a used book dealer.). Her book was awful. The publisher went out of business long ago. When I Googled them both, I found that they had worked together previously. The publisher was likely a friend.
Worse yet, the copy I purchased had been autographed, a gift to a person who had helped her with her research.
Now, when I see her responses, I skip them.
I know the source.

Readers are the best critics

Originally posted Dec. 31, 2008

When I finally completed my novel, I took the next appropriate step. I sent copies of the manuscript to nine or ten willing readers and then paid an editor to review it for style, grammar and content.
The readers were great.
The editor was a mistake.
He did an excellent job copy editing and he gave me some useful advice, but I hired him because he was a friend. That is where I went wrong. I should have done my research first.
Now, I love criticism—brutally honest, constructive criticism. Those writers who can’t take and appreciate criticism shouldn’t attempt to make a career of writing for public consumption.
And the criticism I received from the readers was excellent. It resulted in the elimination of two characters, a few changes in the minor plots and many, many smoother transitions.
The editor’s criticism led to a faster pace in the earlier chapters and the correction of several errors that had slipped past me. But his content advice, his take on the novel as a whole, was problematic.
If I had not had 11 years of journalism experience and a master’s degree worth of workshop experience, I might have done one of two things: I might have cried and given up, or I might have taken all his recommendations to heart and ended up with a novel that was a Grisham rip-off.
As it turns out, he is a huge fan of Grisham and doesn’t much like literary fiction. My novel does move rather fast, especially through the courtroom scenes. But I am not Grisham and I don’t want to be (Well, I wouldn’t mind his paycheck.).
My style is what it is. The book is an historical novel that is primarily literary fiction, but with a bit of mystery and suspense.
In my years of workshopping and in my experience as a freelance editor, I have had to work with many genres that I find somewhat unappealing. I’ve had to get past my prejudices. I have had to edit or critique the work within its genre.
He couldn’t and, in fairness to him, I never asked.
So here is my point.
I was careful when I selected my readers. I should have been careful when I selected my editor. I should have hired someone who came recommended by other fiction writers and who reviewed the work primarily for copy errors.
I should have simply let the readers do the rest.
The reality is that the readers are the market. They are the people we should be writing for, not the editors, not the fellow writers. Teaching them to critique is easy. Simply give them a few questions to ask themselves when they are done and request that they mark places in the manuscript where they have either stumbled or flown through.
So hire a copy editor. But instead of hiring a content editor or a “book doctor,” contract with a book club. Offer to pay for lunch one day if they will agree to read your manuscript and fill out a questionnaire after.
That’s what I should have done.