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A Bountiful Garden of Words

I enjoy helping writers.

I really do. When I first started out, social media wasn't like it is now. You couldn't type "writing tips" into a Google Search Engine and receive hundreds of sites to find information on how to write better and smarter. In fact, even online courses didn't exist like they do now. I took a mail correspondence writing course. I had to wait weeks for new instruction after handing in an assignment.

With the inception of the Internet came online courses. Instruction was much quicker. But still, it was an impersonal way to learn (although because of the class, I created a story that was ultimately picked up by a literary magazine). I took a Masters class at SUNY Brockport, but with small children afoot, my time to devote to it was limited and the expense did not justify the experience.

When I started teaching writing as a community education course, quite a few adult students signed up to take my classes. I was able to give personal touches to the lessons. Students learned not just from me, but from each other. I loved sharing what I'd painstakingly learned through courses and the many "how-to-write" books I purchased. Seeing the mistakes others made in their writing and applying the lessons to my own work helped me become a better writer.

Since then, editors have helped me with the spit-and-polish, and my former literary agent helped me see "big picture" obstacles. What I've learned over the last thirty years has been invaluable. And I love that I'm still learning to become a better writer, thanks to my critique groups and all the author blogs I peruse.

So why is critiquing someone's work so hard for me?

Often, people I don't even know will ask me to look at their work. They'll show up at my workshop, or speak to me after I've given a presentation at a conference, or even ask through a friend if I will look at their writing. What they want me to do is tell them how fantastic it is. Encourage them to head right out and find an agent or editor, stat! Help them feel like they are taking the right path.

Unfortunately, 90% of them need to do three things:

1) Read more (especially the genre they're writing in)

2) Take classes on grammar/sentence structure/punctuation

3) Study how to write a story

Writing is complicated. It takes hard work to learn how to do it right. Wanna-be writers need to understand point-of-view, past and present tense, character and story arcs, symbolism and metaphor, conflict and tension, three-act structures, characterization and description, plot lines, subplots, denouement, and the importance of a well-written first page. And that's just the beginning.

Most beginners' first stories suck sour green tomatoes

Mine included. I have actually cringed reading my first attempts. Of course, my first stories were written at age five or six. But I'm talking about the ones I wrote as an adult. Stories I wrote after reading thousands of novels, and yet still didn't know how to punctuate after dialog. (Thank goodness for that correspondence course showing me the error of my ways.) The truth is, there is natural storytelling ability, but there is also the manner in which a story is told. And guess what? 75% of those 90% that come to me with stories not yet ready for publication don't have well-written work. And yet, people are ready to run to an agent, manuscript in hand, swearing it's the best story ever told.

But no. It isn't. Really. And I don't want to have to tell you this.

When I have to let someone know that they have a ways to go in learning how to write a good story, it's as if an angel loses its wings. It's like kicking a fuzzy puppy. Stepping on a gorgeous butterfly. (I had a dream like that recently. It's a horrible feeling, trust me.) I don't want to bring pain to someone's life. I want everyone to be happy-happy joy-joy!

But if I don't tell people the truth, they can't grow as writers

The reason why people say "in order to be a writer, you need a thick skin" is because the only way to learn is to make mistakes. It's like being handed a piano when you've never played an instrument before. You might be able to pick out some notes if you've listened to music for a long time and have a good ear for it (natural ability), but you probably won't be a concert pianist anytime soon. You need to learn the notes, and then how the notes work together. Then, study and practice. And even if you feel you've improved by leaps and bounds, it still might not be good enough once you audition for a spot. You might fail several times, until someone recognizes the natural talent in you and takes you under their wing or until you decide it's not worth going for anymore, and you throw out your keyboard. (That works both with instruments and computers!)

If giving up isn't an option for you (and really, why should it be?), then you'll have to hear the negative along with the positive. And it's a yucky feeling to hear the negative feedback. It might make you roll into a little ball on the couch and bawl your eyes out (been there, done that). But if you keep working on the craft, you'll begin to hear more positive than negative feedback. (Although there will always be that one person who's being a jerk because of their own little unhappy life...but I digress...)

So if you ask me to help you write...

You'd better expect the hear my honest opinion. And I do say opinion, since all art is so subjective. But when getting work critiqued, opinions are the life blood of an artist. Who is going to purchase your product? Who will read your story? Other people. And every person has an opinion. Every. Person.

Listen, in the last few years, I've turned down looking over other peoples' stories for free. It takes a lot of time. I could be writing my own. I could be making money. I could be taking a luxurious bubble bath and watching Ellen reruns. More than a few times (I'd say most times), I've given my advice and the person has walked off without barely a thank you for my time. Sometimes (usually) unhappily. Maybe they don't believe me when I say they need to do more work on it. Maybe they've been told by friends and family that they "did a great job, honey!" Or maybe they don't understand how hard it is to let someone down, even gently, and that finding the right words can be stressful. Maybe they don't understand that helping can sometimes mean hurting.

But I have been on the other side, too. If someone hadn't told me my work sucked sour green tomatoes, I wouldn't be where I am now. In the middle of a lush vegetable garden, working hard to create the most tasty, bountiful crops.

Even Green Thumbs are made and not born.

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