Fired up by the my first short story sale, I decided it was time to join a writers group. The first online one I found was the AHWA Crit Group and one of the names on the mailing list seemed a bit familiar. Turned out one of the other writers was on the TOC of that anthology as well! Talk about a small world! Thus, I met Alan Baxter.
Alan wears many hats. From prolific short story writer, with credits in some Australia’s most prestigious anthologies of recent times, to a leading exponent of social media, he also podcasts and has self published an excellent book on writing fight scenes. I really don’t know how he finds the time, to be honest! But, that makes me all the more grateful that he found the time share this article on the importance of working with others.
Beware – Harsh truth approaching: We are not good enough.
None of us are. Sure, we can get good. Good enough to be published, in fact. We can continually get better, assuming we have that desire and constantly work at our craft, which we all should. But, on our own, in our little bubbles of imagination and twisted ideas, we’re not good enough. We need to be better than we’re capable of being on our own. For that, we need the unbiased, critical eyes of others.
It’s fine to stay in a self-contained cave of writing and slowly improve, but I would suggest that even if a person does manage to train themselves up to heights of great achievement and score really sweet publications, those stories could still be better with the help of critical input.
As writers, we work alone. It’s part of the job and it’s one of the things I love about it. I also love the community I’ve gathered around myself over the years, online and in real life. This would be a thankless endeavour without them, because for every success, there are many failures. And it’s with all those failures that the doubt creeps in. And that’s where we need our writerly friends.
But those friends are so much more than that. They make us better writers at other times, with their invaluable participation in our work. I have a handful of talented writer friends who are happy to read and critique my work. I’m happy to return the favour. It’s how our world goes around. I’m actually very lucky in that the majority of writerly friends happy to critique my work are far better scribes than I.
As the writer we’re far too close to the thing to be objective. We’ve invested our time, imagination and effort into creating it. We’ve extruded the guts of it from the labyrinthine depths of our subconscious and regurgitated it into being. Up to a point we can be critical of our own work. We can put the first draft away for a while to let it fester, then pull it out again and read it with fresh eyes. The longer you’ve been doing this, the better you get at spotting flaws and being honest with yourself. We can turn a first draft into a pretty decent final draft. But we’re still not objective enough and it’s not really a final draft at all.
I’ve recently had a novelette published by The Red Penny Papers, called The Darkest Shade Of Grey. It’s a story of which I’m very proud. When I originally wrote it, I knew I had something pretty solid on my hands. I spent a long time and many edits making it into the best story I could. I think I would probably have found publication with it in that form. But I wanted it to be as good as it could possibly be, not just as good as I could make it on my own. So I sent it to a very talented and generous friend. He ripped the shit out of that story. First off, he complimented me on a good yarn. Then he listed all the problems he had with it and all the things he thought could be better or handled differently.
I manned up, took his advice and set to work. I chiselled off the rough edges, polished the smeared surfaces. There is no doubt that the story is way better now than it was. Sure, I might have got it published before, but now it’s not only published, but also a story I’m really bloody proud of, because I know it’s about as good as it can be. That’s not me boasting, that’s me thanking my friend for his input and knowing it made a huge difference. (Besides, where would we be in this game without at least a little self-confidence? We’d never submit anything anywhere without it.)
Another example. I wrote a short story recently that I was really pleased with. I spent a while going over it, polishing it, getting it just right. I sent it out into the world, happy with what I’d achieved. And it came back. And again. And again. The rejections stacked up. It’s cool, I’m used to that. Every writer is. We have hides that make rhino skin look like tissue paper and a solid fuck-you-attitude that keeps us working in the face of constant rejection. It’s the only way to work in this game. After all, it’s not necessarily the story – it could be the editor just doesn’t dig that vibe, or the publication ran something a bit similar recently, or the publisher’s sore at the world and takes it out on a good story. That last one is unlikely, but anything’s possible.
But once something has been bounced a few times in a row, you can start to see the common denominator. It’s the story, schmuck. It ain’t good enough. Or perhaps it is good enough, but it’s just not fully cooked yet.
So I went to my friends seeking help. I got the story back thoroughly critiqued and I listened to the advice. It was good advice. Flaws I hadn’t picked up, things in the story that needed to work differently, character inconsistencies I would never have seen.
One of the problems was really harsh – the whole story had grown from a killer closing line. I came up with the final line, something I really wanted to use to finish, and the whole story grew out of that. My reader pointed out that the final line didn’t work. The story had outgrown its seed of conception and that line had to go. I wailed and raged, but I knew they were right. The line was cut. I killed the fuck out that particular darling. There’s no room for pussies in this caper. The story has sold to P S Publishing and comes out at the end of the year. I couldn’t be happier.
I could have lowered my sights and would probably have sold that story somewhere, but I wanted to sell it somewhere good, where people read and appreciate fine work. I wanted it to be as good as it could be. I don’t just want to be published, I want to be good.
The moral of the story? We need our friends. We need beta-readers, critiques, flensing knives flashing in the cold light of dawn. And we must listen to these people.
Hopefully it gets to the point where our writing is good enough that we can usually get something to a standard editors want to buy and then they do that last bit of flense and polish. A good editor will see the gem in the rough diamond and draw it out. But they don’t have time for much. It behoves us to make our work shine as brightly as it possibly can.
In essence: fresh eyes, beta readers, honest critique, listen to advice and kill your darlings. You know, the usual shit. It’s been said before, and it will be said again. But it needs to be repeated.
Alan Baxter is a British-Australian author living on the south coast of NSW, Australia. He writes dark fantasy, sci-fi and horror, rides a motorcycle and loves his dog. He also teaches Kung Fu. His contemporary dark fantasy novels, RealmShift and MageSign, are out through Gryphonwood Press, and his short fiction has appeared in a variety of journals and anthologies in Australia, the US, the UK and France, including the Year’s Best Australian Fantasy & Horror. Alan is also a freelance writer, penning reviews, feature articles and opinion. He’s a contributing editor and co-founder at Thirteen O’Clock, Australian Dark Fiction News & Reviews, and co-hosts Thrillercast, a thriller and genre fiction podcast. Read extracts from his novels, a novella and short stories at his website – www.alanbaxteronline.com – and feel free to tell him what you think. About anything.