In the movie, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Harrison Ford is tasked with locating the authentic Holy Grail from a crowded cave filled with imitations. “Choose wisely,” he is counseled by the knight standing beside him. “While the true Grail will bring you life, the false Grail will take it from you.” The knight then glances at a skeleton nearby and adds, “He chose…poorly.”
That’s good advice.
It applies not only to the dangerous deeds surrounding recovering rare artifacts while nefarious foes trail closely behind, it also applies to many more practical aspects of life. For writers, one choice that should be carefully considered is that of a writer’s group. There are countless stories of how an early work, in the wrong hands, can mean a great deal of discouragement and heartache. It can even derail a project indefinitely.
While attending a family wedding this summer, I met a woman who had just finished a draft of a novel, historical fiction, that she had labored over for some time. She had traveled to do the appropriate research, invested a great deal of time deciding how the story should unfold, and persevered until she typed the words ‘The End.’
And then she handed it over to someone she knew.
This man quickly tore her story apart and did so in such a way that it crushed her. She didn’t have the energy to go back to the story and now doubted herself and what she had created. The manuscript sat untouched. The man may have had good intentions or he may have been a self-centered ass. I can’t claim that knowledge. All I could see was the result. Here was a woman with multiple degrees, substantial talent and passion, and now she had put the book aside, seeing the novel as a failure.
We talked though her concerns and it was clear her novel was interesting and unique. My job, I felt, at that point, was to let her know it was completely okay to ignore his ‘advice’ and to trust herself in this process. That can be a tough thing when writers are just starting out in the world. So many are looking for expert advice, that perfect formula to publication, that magic bullet–to the point where we drown out our own voice as the price paid for such counsel. Don’t do it. Don’t trade your vision for someone else’s.
That’s not to say that writers shouldn’t take advice on how to improve a story. Each writer should certainly seek review. What I am saying is that you should choose those people VERY carefully, especially in the beginning stages when you are so emotionally tied to your work and are in a more delicate state. So, find support for your work and get feedback, but be selective as to whom you allow into your inner circle.
I feel that our group, Austin Mystery Writers, is a true treasure in that each one of us sincerely wants the others to succeed. We offer critiques, suggestions and opinions regarding each work in progress, but we do it in a way that is respectful and helpful. We will debate ideas, ask questions and then decide how to use that input. Sometimes we apply it to our stories and sometimes we ignore it. The choice is ours and is supported by the others at the table.
A critique group can be an important part of a writer’s life and I encourage each writer to find her own small trusted tribe to give feedback. Yes, you need to have some thick skin because your project needs work. It falls down in places and you need others to point those areas out so you can address them and improve the story. The key is to be deliberate as to who will be part of your inner circle, especially in the early stages. They will help toughen your hide, to take criticism graciously and to use it for its best purpose. They won’t tear your work down to feed their own egos. Instead, they will chip away at the weak spots so you your story’s foundation will be stronger.
And if you choose poorly, don’t be afraid to start over and choose again. Trust yourself to find your tribe. Because you will.