Sorry everyone, I owe you all a Nickel’s Worth

image Much like the “perfect storm” that led to my pole-dancing fail earlier this week, I’m about to perform another face-plant — in literary terms at least (which is kind of good because, to be honest, I don’t think my nose could take another actual face-plant.) The good news is that an NPR affiliate in Eugene, Ore., radio station KLCC, wants to interview me about the book. A radio spot is a perfect venue for me because, well… C’mon, you’ve seen what I look like! This means doing some preparation before Monday morning.

And by “preparation,” I mean for the interview. Not my face; that would take more than a weekend.

It’s true I could prep on Saturday or Sunday, but I have a rule I try not to break:

Don’t eat after 8 p.m.

Because that rule has really become more of a “guideline,” I also have another rule, which is that weekends are for my family. And while I think of you as my family, none of you are in close enough proximity to throw a basketball at my head if I miss your eighth-grade tournament this weekend. Not to mention the fact that, even if you did throw a basketball at my head, most of you are too big for me to spank — at least in terms of dispensing any actual corrective behavior.

So I hope you’ll understand if, before getting to work on today’s newspaper deadline, I use these first couple of hours to prep for Monday’s interview. I have no intention of making this a habit; My Nickel’s Worth on Writing will return next Friday. Unless it means getting a spanking…

In all seriousness — I thank you for understanding.

In the meantime, I’m posting a past NWOW in response to a couple of emails I received this week asking about the pros and cons of writers’ groups. The short answer: Make sure they have good wine.

Here’s the long answer….

image I have been involved in a few writers’ groups over the years, from Atlanta, Ga. to Portland, Ore. I also have several blogger friends who are heavily involved in their local writers groups. They receive constructive feedback and continued support from their fellow writers on a regular basis. Clearly, collaborating openly with other writers on a regular basis is beneficial. Especially if everyone pitches in for appetizers and alcohol.

That said, I have to say my experience with writers groups — based on the five or six I have attended over the years — has been hit-and-miss. Each time, I went in with an open mind, hoping for a true exchange of ideas and constructive feedback.

And on three different occasions, I found myself sneaking out the back door on my hands and knees under a veil of cigarette and pipe smoke. In each of those instances, one or more of the following members were present:

1) The Be Honest, But Only If It Means I’m Brilliant member: This person always arrives early so they can explain their brilliance ahead of time, thus ensuring everyone agrees with their brilliance before they read their passage — which is usually five to 10 pages beyond the allotted amount. But who cares when it’s that brilliant! Once this person is finished reading, they sit back with satisfaction and look into the confused expression of their listeners and ask, “Please be honest — what did you think?” They don’t ask this question because they really want to hear constructive criticism; they ask because they are expecting praise. Nothing more. They don’t want collaboration; they want validation. These writers will never expand their skill because they are more concerned with rationalizing their brilliance than they are with learning how to wield the tools needed to actually be brilliant. Plus they usually drink all the wine.

2) The I’d Rather Offer Excuses For My Writing Than Set Expectations member: These writers are the first to criticize their work, usually upon arrival. Though they have the least amount of pages to read aloud, it takes twice as long because they also offer a running commentary on why it’s terrible — sort of like Mystery Science Theater 3000, with the author sitting in the front row pointing out how the space ship looks more like a flying bed pan. In the same way being blind to your shortcomings is detrimental to your growth as a writer, so is having an instinctive need to make sure you point out your faults before anyone else can. Again, like the “Brilliant” writer, the “Excuses” writer stops growing because they are so busy being the first to identify their failures that they completely overlook those times when their work is actually pretty brilliant. Plus, they almost always drop something into the cheese dip.

3) The Everyone’s Writing Is Super Fantastic member: For obvious reasons, this person is the “Brilliant” writer’s favorite member of the group. That’s because whether you are reading a passage from Steinbeck or the ingredients from a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, this person will say things like, “Marvelous,” or “Look at my goosebumps,” or “Someone get my agent,” when in fact what they are really thinking is “I should probably get more wine before that blowhard who thinks he’s so brilliant drinks it all.” The “Super Fantastic” writer tends to see writing as a social activity. They take praise and criticism equally well because, let’s face it: they don’t take either very seriously. Plus, since the Bunko group disbanded, they’re just glad to have a place to go on Sunday nights.

And lastly,

4) The My Completed Manuscript Means I’m Better member: In most cases, this member’s 1,100-page manuscript has been complete for at least three years — which, coincidently, happens to be how long it’s been since they started the group. This member has yet to submit their manuscript to anyone and is forever in the “final draft” phase because actually submitting it would mean risking rejection. They are content with their on-going identity as the group’s potential best selling author. In truth, this writer’s growth stopped the moment the final key was tapped on their novel. Plus, they never have their own highlighter.

So, does this mean I don’t encourage joining a writers’ group? Not at all. As I said in the beginning, collaborating with — and seeking feedback from — fellow writers can be a terrific experience that not only fosters your development as a writer, but weaves a support network for yourself and others.

But if you join a group and recognize one or more of the members I’ve mentioned, remember to stay low.

At least until you’re outside.

(Ned Hickson is a syndicated columnist with News Media Corporation. His first book, Humor at the Speed of Life, is available from Port Hole Publications, or Barnes & Noble.)

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Ned's Blog

I was a journalist, humor columnist, writer and editor at Siuslaw News for 23 years. The next chapter in my own writer’s journey is helping other writers prepare their manuscript for the road ahead. I'm married to the perfect woman, have four great kids, and a tenuous grip on my sanity...

37 thoughts on “Sorry everyone, I owe you all a Nickel’s Worth”

  1. can i be in your super secret writers group? i promise to not be in group 1-2 or 3 as i work my way to writing a manuscript..i just have to decide on a topic…so it may take a few years to get started…

      1. ohhhh so it’s a super secret hide and seek, writers group! perfect..I assume we shall also be using invisible ink or Lakota coding?

  2. This is very good advice, Ned. I went to a couple of writer’s groups in the past and, in one of them, got chastised for not wanting to write science-fiction. I’ve tried. I suck at it. I love reading sci-fi but it wasn’t my writing forte. I didn’t go back to the group.

    1. Thanks, Eva! Not going back was undoubtedly a good move on your part. Who knows what would’ve happened if they decided to go with erotic historical detective instead…

  3. I dithered with the idea of joining a writers’ group and figured they’d all be so middle-class, repressed and English or wacky, dope-smoking hippies that I just couldn’t face it. That and combined with your description of types 1-4 means I will keep my writing to myself until my best-seller hits the shelves – lol

  4. Great post, Ned. I’m still trying to convince myself that I actually am a writer, and I’ve always been leery of Writers’ Groups–these descriptions you provide solidify my fears:) And now you have me picturing myself throwing a basketball at your head.

  5. I can’t imagine joining a writer’s group. There’s so much writing that I don’t really like. And it’s sort of a “backwards golden-rule” thing–I don’t respond really well to criticism of my writing, so I don’t really want to criticize others’ writing, even if they actually ask for it. Unless they’re a famous author, that is, in which they’re fair game.
    Maybe it’s a “forwards golden rule” thing; logic’s not really my thing.
    I’m sure you’ll do well on Monday.

  6. I’ve never joined a writer’s group because, well, let’s face it – I’m disabled & it’s hard to get around. But I am a bit of a Grammar Nazi & I will offer my opinions on others’ writing. I try to be kind with my comments & I always welcome criticism on my own writing (which, lately, has been few & far between) as long as it is constructive. For instance, if I overused a word in a page I would want someone to point it out so I can make my writing better. This is how I govern the way I comment on someone else’s writing. I try to look at the writing as a whole – can I appreciate what they were saying?; are there grammatical issues detracting from what they’ve written? Sometimes an interesting piece can be hard to read because of typos, spelling errors, etc.

    1. I think that is the right approach to giving and accepting feedback for writing. Unfortunately, those in the few writing groups I attended didn’t understand that concept and really just wanted a stage. Those kinds of writers will never grow. I was that kind of writer in high school, until two teachers (Mrs.Fillers in the 8th grade and Mr.Danielson my freshman year) set me straight. I will always be thankful for them. Plus Mrs. Fillers was really pretty, which didn’t hurt my attention span!

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