In 1994, I published my first story. For some time before that, I had been encouraged by family and friends to start submitting my fiction to literary journals. At that time my girls were twelve and nine years old and I worked full time as a paid by the hour residential carpenter. Naturally, I was reluctant to take their advice. Hesitant and fearful of rejection, I finally gave in and submitted to the Potomac Review, at the time a local lit mag I had been reading. The editor, Eli Flam, wrote me a most kind reply saying he was interested in the story, but it needed a little work. Turned out to be a lot of work, but at that stage of my writing I was unaware what a lot of work meant. I learned from Eli that a “lot of work” simply meant editing. However, I had already edited or read (not the same) the story what seemed like a hundred times. Over the years I have found self-editing to be most difficult. The problem is familiarity. The writer knows his story too well and rereading and re-editing often leads to a clear and easily understood narrative that the author is absolutely sure will be the next great…whatever.
Eli made full use of his editorial prowess on my story and when he sent it back to me, I read through and wondered why I hadn’t seen such blatant flaws. Lesson learned-don’t rely on yourself, your wife, your mother or your best friend to advise you what will strengthen your narrative. Get a set of fresh eyes.
As a creative writer, especially a fiction writer, when absorbed in my work, I often find myself wearing blinders as to what makes the narrative successful. What’s necessary? What’s not? What needs repeating and what does not? The mix of many fundamentals makes the story shine, but what’s a good mix? Is the right person telling the story? Whose story is it? The whens, the wheres, the whys, the hows and the whos. Are the answers to all the questions on the page or lingering in your mind.
As we progress in skills, we explore, trying to understand how the parts fit together to make a whole, how the gears of the machine mesh together just right for our readers to fully understand the intentions of our narratives and to extract a glimpse of the human condition. We right about life but we make it up and it must be convincing or what’s the point.
Don’t misunderstand where I am going with this. Sometimes we don’t have the benefit of extra eyes. My wife is my first reader. She was a schoolteacher, an English major in college and a stickler for correct usage. However, she’s not crazy about any of the topics I choose to write about-mainly, she wants to like my characters and she likes happy endings. Having your wife be your greatest fan is not much risk, it is not what we creative types call ‘putting it out there”. So, I conclude one extra set of eyes is never enough. Join a group.
At the time, I was taking as many non-academic classes as I could fit in my busy schedule concerning the art of fiction writing. I read books on writing, I wrote on weekends and at night. I pounded nails forty hours a week and I regularly attended workshop style classes at a local venue named simply The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I don’t recall exactly what workshop it was, but not long after its conclusion I received an invitation to form a group of six writers, three males, three females. The invite was from a fellow workshopper and she indicated she invited what she considered to be the most promising writers to form the group. I do remember we all were working hard at learning how to write a quality short story.
Our first meeting had me filled with anxiety, after all, I was no writer, I wasn’t even willing to admit to anyone that it was my dream avocation. However, I forced myself as I have done many times since to step out of my comfort zone and put my mettle to the test.
I can now say, the experience has been the backbone of my progress as a writer. We met first in 1998 and are still meeting, one evening a month to review and critique our works in progress. We number seven now and all have had success in the publishing end of fiction. The writer’s in my group have books and essays and short stories published many times over. Some of us are now teachers and mentors. Others are editors. We come from different walks of life. Four of the founders of our group remain. We aren’t pals or drinking buddies. We are professional writers putting eyes on our peers work to help them strengthen their narratives. It’s not easy, but the benefits are beyond description.