As a writer, I’m stuck in that in-between place. No, not that place between “beginner” and “published.” That’s a hurdle I finally cleared, and it was a great relief to achieve my first publication a few months back.
No, I’ve made it to another kind of “stuck.” I’ve had something published, so I know it’s not the case that everything I write is rubbish, and everyone can see it but me. I’ve participated in workshops, intensives, and critique groups, had my work read by everyone from beginners, to peers at roughly my own level, to more established authors. Along the way I’ve received suggestions, some of which I’ve found valuable, some of it less so. The thing is, the majority of the critique you receive, even when it comes from someone in a position of authority, amounts to basically, “if I was writing this, I would’ve done some things differently.”
It would be so much easier if someone said, for example, “Your prose is top-notch in terms of the style and flavor of your voice. You just need to square away your handling of plot, get better at structure, and you’ll be all set.” Or maybe just, “Your stories are great in terms of character and dialog, and you just need to amp up the drama and make things more compelling.”
The thing is, you rarely get “big picture” critiques like that. Instead, you get specific nuts and bolts stuff like, “You used the word ‘disintegrate’ three times in a single paragraph here. Try to change one or two of them to different words.” Or else, clarification stuff like, “At the top of page 3 when she tells him to come inside and go to sleep, it seemed like she was angrier all of a sudden than before, and I didn’t get why.”
I understand that magazine editors don’t have time to respond to submissions, even the ones that are “almost there.” A writer has to sort of read between the lines even to figure out that they’re “almost there,” when they start getting rejected by head editors instead of slush readers. It leaves me in a frustrating place, though. It’s not that I’m deluded into thinking I can’t get better. I’m still working at it, writing every day, and I have no doubt I’ll be better in six months than I am now.
There’s this sense that if I had a better idea specifically what I need to work on, I could get where I’m going a little more directly. I can see how people in this situation get drawn into MFA programs. I feel like I could use a part-time “coach,” or someone to give a wide-angle appraisal of where I’m at, and what I should work on.
One thing I’ve done recently is purchase a “critique service” from a somewhat established writer, editor and blogger. He’ll read a certain number of pages of short story manuscript and offer feedback. I’m not certain what to expect, but I hope this will result in a more tailored response than what I received in the other group workshops I’ve done. You know, more than just line edits, and a vague “good job” at the end. I’ve seen several writers and editors offer this kind of service before, but this is the first time I’ve tried it. We’ll see.