Now, don’t get me wrong, writers groups are very helpful. The two experiences I had with groups were more like learning experiences that helped me understand what I needed (stronger critiquing). They also showed me some of the “competition” that I was up against, and the caliber of writing that agents/publishers must see on a daily basis. A quick caveat—I never saw myself as a better writer than any of the other writers in the group, after all; I still felt like a newborn, out of place in this new industry. My writers group experiences taught me a lot about the do’s and the do nots, and in ways that hadn’t occurred to me before. I highly recommend attending a group, both for the novice and veteran writer.
After my fist group meeting, Lisa emailed me and asked if I’d like to meet with her instead of going to the meeting. Just to give you some background, Lisa was an editor for over 15 years, has over 8 books published, and her daughter is a NY Times best selling author. I was more than surprised by her email. I thought to myself, “Self…what the hell can you possibly bring to the table?”
There is a learning curve in every profession. A certain type of groove you fall into as you get the hang of your job, learning the idiosyncrasies and nuances of your trade that can only be learned by practicing that trade. In my line of work in the military, I got to shoot a lot of weapons, and I got to shoot them a lot. Especially my rifle. When I first started shooting, I had to recall the steps in my mind—relax, acquire target, breathe, aim, squeeze. But the more I shot, the more I got the hang of my weapon, how to squeeze the trigger, and how it fired. I always told my soldiers that you had to squeeze a trigger like you squeezed a woman’s breast (an analogy I told everyone regardless of gender)—gentle, firm, and with a mountain of confidence. That may seem like some good advice, and reading that may even give you a little more confidence the next time you fire a weapon. But no amount of written advice and admonitions will ever be able to familiarize you with any given weapon. For that you actually have to shoot that weapon. Analogously there is no difference between having to learn your weapon, and having to learn writing.
Lisa was instrumental in helping through that initial learning curve. She helped turn me from a stilted and overly dramatic writer, oblivious to cliches and the effects of overly flowered prose (exactly what you can expect form an imagination that always starts with, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”), to a more polished, professional writer. I knew I was starting to “get the hang of writing and storytelling” when spoilers no longer concerned me. In fact, I wanted to know the spoilers because I wanted to know the story. Spoilers are the more sensational aspects of a story that elicit the most emotional response, but a spoiler doesn’t make a story. In fact, the spoiler is the result of a lot of buildup. If the story up to the spoiler sucks, then the spoiler will suck. If the writing is excellent…the spoiler can still suck, but at least the story won’t necessarily be ruined. For many people, the spoiler is aptly named, and revealing it can leave many people feeling cheated. But for me…I enjoy the story, the try/fail sequence, identifying tropes, recognizing conflicts and understanding their role in progressing the story, etc. To me, a story is like a pie, and each ingredient is an aspect of the story. In stories we have conflicts, plot sequences, and spoilers; in pies we have flour, sugar, and fruit. What makes a pie delicious is how all the ingredients come together as a whole, rather than a single the quality of a single ingredient. I enjoy stories like I enjoy pie.
Lisa is shorter than me by at least 4 inches, about 80 lbs lighter (I’m not that fat), and 25 years my senior. Yet, there I was, the burly and bearded veteran who had spent two years in combat, staring at the entrance to Borders—an ancient relic from a time when bookstores roamed street corners, offering their paged wares to literary addicts across the nation—almost too intimidated to cross the threshold.
She was honest. I needed a lot of work, which I knew, but having a professional express those words is qualitatively more impactful than wen a friend or family member tells you. Having a professional tell you that you possess an innate talent for the craft can be equally impactful, which is what Lisa expressed to me.
I can’t quite remember too many details from our meeting, but I do remember the ride home, feeling as though my days spent stumbling down Writer’s Way were numbered. I had earned the respect of a professional, and had gained a mentor willing to take me under her wing.
I’ve carried my dream of becoming a published author since I was eleven, after I’d written my first kid’s story. But that night, after leaving Borders, I knew that my dream could become a reality.