by John Towler
In the late 70’s and early 80’s, there was no greater thrill for my brothers and I than getting the latest issues of MAD, Cracked, Spiderman and Superman. We each started our own handwritten satire publications to entertain each other, and spun off from those were our own series of superhero comics. I was about ten years old.
I used creative writing in a variety of ways, including school projects, homemade birthday cards and my first forays into short stories. Creative energy was never lacking, but proper training to use that energy did not come along until I took college level coursework. Reading over one’s early work is a trip down Dreary Lane. As a novice you unwittingly violate all the rules of writing a thousand times over. Only in retrospect do you appreciate the reason writing, with all its diversity and originality, has some universal structures that should be honored.
One of the most developmentally important college courses I took was was playwriting. It was a year-long program (one semester of beginner/intermediate, one of advanced) which taught me valuable writing principles. The most enduring lesson was learning to trust dialog. Writers sometimes struggle with trust issues with their audience. Will the reader picture the character’s expression? Will the reader understand the emotion? Will the reader imagine the correct action, be it a whimsical flourish of the hand or a fist pounding a table top? Some of these things we must describe, but some are implicit in the character’s dialog. Circumstance may frequently be relied upon to dictate tone. Allowing your reader to understand through inference rather than blatant explanation involves them in your story to a much greater degree.
After my formal education, the three most significant influences on my growth as a writer came from participation in an active writer’s forum, a terrific writing group and my role as an editor at Every Day Fiction.
Back in the mid-2000’s I joined the Writer’s Digest online forum. We had a mix of novice and experienced writers in the WD Forum and writers were welcome to post their work for critique. There were some brutal, sometimes cruel assessments, of the work offered for review, but after sorting through the snide and sadistic remarks, you could find plenty of helpful commentary to improve your piece. Growing a thick skin was a side benefit of throwing your fiction into the mix and the clever participant could learn from other writer’s mistakes, improving their own craft at other’s expense.
The “Nudge Nudge Collective” was the name of our writing group. There were six of us and everyone had experienced some publishing success. We lasted through about seven or eight of each other’s novels, picking them apart chapter by chapter, paragraph by paragraph, line by line, word by word. It was intense, emotional at time, but unlike the forum experience, it was utterly devoid of snark or nastiness. Tough love? Yes. But when everyone is operating from a place of honesty, it makes the toughest critique easier to handle.
Finally as an editor with Every Day Fiction I worked with a core group of insightful people who could ferret out the strengths and weaknesses of a story with remarkable accuracy. EDF editors provide some of the best feedback in the business, and so from my colleagues’ comments I came to learn not only the finer points of fiction writing, but also that intangible quality of what “works” in a story and what does not.
I’ll close by noting I’ve read a number of how-to books, from Stephen King’s On Writing to Jordan Rosenfeld’s Make a Scene. They are helpful for tips, learning useful habits, and developing your own critical eye, but there is nothing more useful than finding beta readers who will give you honest, detailed feedback about your work.