OK, I am not making this up: one minute ago, today July 16, at about 10:15 AM, I climbed into my comfortable writing chair, here in my dorm room at UAA intending to write this week’s blog on the subject of giving advice to newer writers who ask me to read there work. I had just typed in the title, “Will You Read My Manuscript For Me?” when my cell phone rang, showing a strange number from an unfamiliar area code. I swear to God, it was a former student asking me to critique her novel in progress.
I’m here in a dorm room on campus because I’ve spent the week serving on the faculty of the Master’s of Fine Art’s degree program offered by the University of Alaska Anchorage. It is our third annual intensive residency. If you are not familiar with a low residency program see Andromeda’s recent entries on the subject. In a nutshell, it works like this: grad students seeking a MFA degree in creative writing come from all over the country and spend two weeks each summer on campus attending daily classes and lectures and workshops, and nightly readings by faculty and guest authors. Over the winter each student works with a faculty mentor via e-mail or other electronic means. In other words, it is my job to give advice to new writers.
But that phone call came from a person I haven’t seen in a few years, an acquaintance from the town of Homer, where I live. This sort of thing happens to writers all the time. This is not a complaint. Not at all. It is flattering to think that someone values your opinion on writing –presumably because she has read and liked something you’ve written. It’s like a dinner guest asking for your eggplant parmesan recipe.
They are saying, taste my eggplant dish and tell me what you think it needs. Or, “What is your recipe for writing the kind of book you wrote?” Here in the MFA program, the advice-giving is very structured, codified: students are required to submit so many pages per semester, and the mentor is expected to respond in a reasonable amount of time… and so forth. It is a contract. Although we mentors all learn a great deal in the process ourselves, the actual advice-giving is, by necessity, mostly a one way street. At the end of the three years, the student should be able to offer professional advice to others too. We take this seriously.
But, what I‘d like to talk about and hopefully encourage is an exchange of opinions and advice about writing not just between published authors and their college students but between and among all writers, however experienced. Creative writing classes and programs are only one model of the learning process, and not for everyone. But a writing group is something everybody should have for both altruistic reasons and selfish ones too. Think of it this way: you want to exchange recipes and cooking tips with friends who love to cook because not only will their tips make you a better chef, but you will end up eating their cooking too and you want to be as good as it can be. You should share your writing advice with friends for the same reasons: to improve your own and because you want them to write delicious books. Every writer should have a group of peers who willingly share their recipes. Giving advice, getting advice, and knowing when to ignore advice are essential parts of becoming a professional writer.
Here are some admittedly brief suggestions about sharing writing advice with friends.
1. On choosing your writing friends
Conventional wisdom would seem to dictate that you surround yourself with far better writers than yourself, in order to drain as much brilliance off them as you can. But, although it is important to read the great masters of the canon and good books of all kinds (I say, “Read the best books you can stomach”) you can sometimes benefit more from struggling through a friend’s craft problems than by reading nothing but the near perfect prose of geniuses (medical students can’t learn much from healthy people). And there is something reassuring about sharing ideas that make sense to you: sharing your insights with another writer who has not yet mastered that particular element of the craft. Also, you will often be surprised to find that a friend who may be a very new and raw writer is an extremely sophisticated and wise reader. Welcome the input of every single reader you can get –however skilled or unskilled a writer that person may be.
2. On giving advice.
Never turn down a chance to edit or critique another writer’s work. (The acquaintance who called me just as I sat down to write this, handed me her flash drive last night at my public reading here on campus; I will get back to her with comments in a month or so.) Remember the old adage: the best way to learn something is by teaching it to someone else. Beware, however. It is relatively relaxing and enjoyable to edit a friend’s story (compared to wrestling with your own writer’s block for example), because you have nothing invested in that story. On the other hand, you risk everything, with every sentence of your own work (hence the writer’s block). Helping your friends can become a convenient excuse not to work on your own writing. I could write a book about that subject, but I’m too busy at the moment.
There is no space here to spell out guidelines for editing and critiquing other people’s work. That’s a whole ‘nother thing, as they say. But, briefly, be gentle with your friend and her feelings, but unmerciful with the manuscript. That is a hard thing to do. A couple days ago I brought into a class some samples of what professional magazine editors had done to my manuscripts to get them into shape to publish them. The pages were crisscrossed with red pencil marks. The editors had slashed out unneeded word, sentences, sometimes whole paragraphs. Then I asked my students to take a page from something they had written. I told them to black out the name on the page. I shuffled the unnamed pages and handed them back randomly, asking them to each imagine being an editor about to publish the piece, and to edit the page. There was an awful lot of silent slashing going on for the next few minutes. The students were startled, even horrified to realize how brutal they became when they did not know whose page they were editing. They’ve only been together here on campus or a week, and already they are hesitant to crush their new friends’ feelings. That’s good. No one wants that. But out there in the larger world, the world of publishing, most of the editors, agents and other gatekeepers who decide whether your work lives in public (that’s where “publishing” comes from) or dies in the rejection pile, do not know you.
So, be uncommonly nice to your writing group members every day in every way you can. Life is short and you need as many friends as you can get. But do not be foolishly kind to their manuscripts. You will not be doing your friends any favors with that.
3. Ignoring advice.
Last month at the Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference , bestselling novelist Karen Joy Fowler got up to read from her historical novel Sarah Canary. She explained that the story, set in the nineteenth century in Puget Sound, is a traditional drama, but with the narrative constantly interrupted by long passages of historical fact. One reviewer called it a combination novel and history lesson. Karen told the audience at Alice’s Champagne Palace in Homer that she was going to read one of those historical, factual sections. Then she stopped and smiled and said, “My writing group was unanimous in the opinion that these interruptions killed the flow of the story. They said that I should get rid of all of them. I chose to ignore that advice. “
That takes a lot of nerve, and for Karen Joy Fowler, it paid off with a successful book. On the other hand, a number of years ago a someone asked me to look her novel manuscript. I suggested a major change in point of view for very specific reasons. Upon getting my advice the author dispiritedly said, “That’s exactly what Nat Sobel told me too. But I I’m not going to do all that rewriting.” I asked if she meant Nat Sobel of the Sobel and Weber Literary Agency– Richard Russo’s agent and a major player in the publishing world. She said, yes. I was astounded. I mean, when your local small town writing instructor tells you he thinks your novel should be completely re-written, it’s one thing to decline that advice. But when your local small town writing instructor AND Nat Sobel, a huge literary agent both tell you to do exactly the same thing for exactly the same reasons, it is more than a coincidence. You might consider that they could be right. In the long run, that writer kept looking for someone to tell her it was fine the way it was –she probably still is. I understand. We all want to hear the same thing when we give someone our work: “Don’t change a word.”
My advice is, don’t trust anyone who tells you that.
Richard Chiappone, a recipient of the Robert Traver Award, is the author of the story collection Water of an Undetermined Depth. His writing has appeared in anthologies and national publications including Playboy, the Sun, and Gray’s Sporting Journal. His story, Raccoon, was made into an award winning short film, and his work has been featured on BBC Radio. A thirty-year Alaskan, Chiappone lives with his wife, Lin, and several Siamese cats on a steelhead river near Anchor Point, the westernmost point on the contiguous highway system of North America. He teaches writing for the University of Alaska and serves on the faculty of the annual Kachemak Bay Writers’ Conference in the town of Homer.