Monday, May 9, 2011

On Writing, Part VI — A Community of Writers

Before you write that first crime fiction novel consider a few things. What follows is the sixth in a series of short articles about what you might want to consider as you put pen to paper or fingers on the keyboard.

I enjoyed the sixties (which I didn’t really experience until the seventies). I liked long hair, loose clothing and free love. I listened to the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Santana and Jimi Hendrix. I planted some marijuana seeds and still think kindly of vegetarians. But I could never get into the idea of communal living.

Years later, when a new boss took over the Nonprofit where I worked, many of us were asked to take “personality” tests. The results, they said, would help the new exec know us better and, therefore, how best we could all work together. (Heh, heh, heh) And indeed, we were rated on a whole list of personality traits. “Would you prefer to take long, solitary walks in the woods, or chat with folks around the campfire?” One of the measured categories was “independence.” There, I scored the highest marks possible. I admit I felt a little smug. I’ve always admired independence. (Apparently, I scored pretty low in the keep-your-job strategy category). I should have chosen the campfire. Not everyone shared the value I placed on self-sufficiency. Shortly, I was nudged out the door and headed, my independence in a box with my other belongings, in the only direction I could at my age — “advanced curmudgeondom.”

So it will surprise no one that those lovely ads in the back of the New Yorker inviting readers to join a community of writers in Squaw Valley do not speak to me. Squaw Valley maybe, but not a bunch of communing writers. I can sit in a loud, busy bar and write, occasionally looking up to see what’s going on. I can sit alone on a quiet park bench among the Eucalyptus and write. I can madly scribble notes while exiting a shower. But, for me, writing is not a team sport. Showering maybe. Writing, no.

In keeping with the theme and something about which you could have guessed correctly — I don’t have many writer friends. (I do have friends, really.) However, none of what I’ve said means you shouldn’t have writer friends, or attend writing workshops or have fun alternating chapters on a work in progress. Just as there are outliners and non-outliners, there are people who thrive in the company and through the inspiration of others. And if that process works for you, I think it’s a great idea — for you.

But I do have words of caution for both camps. First, if you are like me, you still need to find a critical someone or someones to read what you’ve written before you send it off to an agent or publisher. These critics don’t have to be writers. Their best trait would be brutal honesty. “This section of the book bored the hell out of me.” You don’t have to do what they tell you, but you need to consider their opinions carefully, seriously, honestly. If you are open and the comments ring even slightly true, consider a fix. No matter how independent we think we are, we cannot operate completely alone. If you’re part of the teamwork camp, you too must beware. Many people want to have written. They have been on the same story for ten years, reading a few pages aloud and talking endlessly about characterization and plot. If you want to be a writer you have to do more than just talk about it. You MUST write. And at some point, I’m convinced I’m correct: writing, even if it isn’t at first, eventually becomes a solitary experience.

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