If I had to guess, I would say I first started writing at about age six. I wrote more than I read. Although I am proud of a few pieces from my youth, it’s safe to say that most of what I wrote before the age of eighteen would probably be in circulation, purely as a form of blackmail. Regardless, I continued the craft and while writing in a box, I started to think I was pretty good.
A box, you ask? It’s what writers often do. They write in a box. They hide it, polish it, rework it, stow it away, and keep it safe from prying eyes. Back then I wrote with the notion that one day those pieces would be so perfect that it wouldn’t matter if someone saw them because an agent will have already found me and will have launched my writing out for the whole world to see. Seldom is this ever the case. You see, in order for anything to get into motion with your writing, you obviously can’t write in a box if you plan on getting it out there for everyone to see.
I would in fact imagine that most writers don’t allow their ideas to get out there for one of two reasons: because writing is satisfying enough in and of itself, or, because they fear failure. We hear of famous writers who published their first book at age twenty, or someone who went from working in real state to writing bestselling thrillers. It happens but if it seems easy, it’s only because you read about their success first. The truth is, most have put themselves out there long before ever becoming established professionals. Chances are that most writers weren’t “discovered” by an agent. Discovery of this type happens to some but so does the lottery, both of which you’ll probably die waiting for if you choose that path. There’s also the posthumously famous route, but as its title implies, you’ll die waiting for that one as well. RIP John Keats. Anyway, let’s dig into some of the ways to get out of this box.
One option is to have someone you know, read your writing. This isn’t a bad first start in getting your feet wet, but I wouldn’t recommend wading too long in this pool. Loved ones and close friend’s feedback is often quite helpful but it will only take you so far.
Find your writing community whatever the case may be. I remember in high school I was in a creative writing course and there were times when we got to read our pieces in front of the whole class. This was instant feedback and it was both exhilarating and frightening at the same time. I also wrote for the school newspaper and although the response wasn’t quite the same, I would hear from people I didn’t necessarily know well, give me feedback that was often positive. At that time as well, I had entered my works into high school writing contests and received advice from judges and sometimes I even placed. These were all small feats but it was this fire, that kept me going.
While attending college, I lost my writing community that was so easy to come by in high school, and while I continued to develop my craft, I found myself going back into the box. I had multiple projects going on at once, some short stories which I had finished but other bigger pieces, manuscripts, which never saw an end. After finally completing my first manuscript I developed a small group of beta readers comprised of people I knew. Aside from high school, this was the first time other people had read what I wrote. While helpful, I still didn’t get a sense that it was exactly what I needed.
I had one connection in North Carolina with a writer named, Richard M. Coffman. He said something that stuck with me to this day, which was essentially that, you’re never going to think your own shit stinks. While I understood what he meant, I didn’t believe my writing was gold. But what I came to realize was that it wasn’t so much coming to grips with something being bad or not working but more that I was unable to see the faults of my writing through my own lens. He also gave me some of the best advice at that time, which was to join a writing critique group.
Here’s where, as a writer, I was forced out of my box. When you have multiple people reading your stuff on a regular basis, they will catch things you never saw even after a hundred read-throughs. They will interpret things in ways you never imagined. Sometimes the interpretation will be so far off from what you were intending that a total re-write is in store. But I would say that it goes beyond their critique of your work, as you too have to critique their work as well. In turn, you see things that writers don’t see in their own work. While reading their pieces, you hear things in your head, like dialogue, which doesn’t ring true. This process of returning the favor helps you develop your own writing, as it’s sometimes easier to play editor on someone else’s work.
When you have a group of about ten people, you automatically have diversity. Each one, whether the distinction is age, race, sex, education, work, or just simply that they write in a different genre, enriches the experience. Each group member brings to the table a different expertise. I have found that this experience has allowed me to develop what I call the “group conscience”. This “group conscience” pokes at you when your fingers are tickling the keyboard, with such thoughts as, “Is that something so and so would say?” or, “I’m having trouble with choreography here,” or, “How does this drive the story?”
With outside perspective, criticism and feedback, you are able to chip away at your own weaknesses while building skills in other areas. There will be times were your writing critique group will have no trouble telling you that your shit stinks, which will allow you to build a thick skin, something you need as a writer. Their criticisms, while not fun, ground you back to reality and if you’re willing to listen with an open mind, allow you to get stronger.
Writing critique groups not only get you out of your box but also force you to write with a deadline. It’s easy to lapse into not writing which is the worst thing you can do as a writer. A day of not writing turns into a week, then a month, before you know it, you’re so far removed from your project, you forgot what you were writing about. With these writing critique groups, you’re on a schedule were you will need to submit a piece of work, which can mean a chunk of four to five thousand words at a time, and guess what? Deadlines with blood thirsty readers, chomping at the bit to give you feedback, keep you out of the box as well.
Publication is another thing to strive for. I wouldn’t qualify this as the final step as all of these things should just be a part of your regular regimen. Even attempting to publish and being rejected is good. Yes, you read that right, rejection is good. It’s going to happen and maybe even if your shit doesn’t stink. It very well could be that after nine times of being rejected, the tenth time is the charm that gets your work published. You can think smaller too, newspaper publications, short story competitions, or blogging. All of these things help you stay out of that box.
If you find yourself writing in a box, ask yourself why? There are way too many resources out there, to be stuck in this predicament. With the internet, you have the needed resources to connect with people who can critique your work. Social networking can link you with people who can give you tips or who may have connections. The internet is also a great place to find writing critique groups that are around your area. Human to human interaction is of course the clearest way to get feedback as a lot can be lost in translation through online means. Within your hometown or perhaps close by, there are often free workshops with experts that give lectures or conduct writing exercises. You can also enter your work into competitions, which will yet again have a deadline and sometimes, if your work is selected, an open forum where you get to read to a group of unknowns and get that instant feedback.
So go on, be bold, step out of that box.
How about you, what do you do to stay out of your box?