The Elevator Speech
American Fork’s chapter of the League of Utah Writers (LUW) meets twice monthly, on the second and fourth Tuesdays of the month, at 6:00 p.m. We meet in the American Fork Library, in the smaller of the two conference rooms near the east entrance. The chapter itself is just a few months old, and new members are always welcome.
There’s a Facebook group, Good AF Writers. Take the name as a fact or an aspiration, as you choose.
I’m told that different LUW chapters run their meetings differently. In our meetings, those who bring writing for critique read from it aloud for several minutes, then circulate a sign-up sheet. Anyone who wants to read more and provide an oral and written critique at the next meeting supplies a name and an e-mail address. The author sends out the piece, usually in a Word doc, at least a week before the next meeting. We limit the length of that to about 2,500 words – lately down from 5,000 words – to reduce the workload for critics. (You can always bring in the next chunk next time.)
We who signed up as critics then read and reread your piece, offer a brief oral critique (generally not more than several minutes) at the next meeting – assuming you’re there – then send the Word doc back to you with any markup and comments we may have added. Sometimes you get a lot, sometimes you get a little.
We start meetings on time. Depending on how many readers and critiques we have at a meeting, we might be done before 7:30 p.m., or not until our scheduled ending at 8:00 p.m. Then, optionally, there’s food. (See below.)
There’s no cost for admission, but most of us regulars end up joining LUW (the state organization), which gives us member pricing for contests and conferences. I just joined last month – it’s $25 per year for non-students or $5 for students – so I haven’t figured out the rest of the benefits yet.
For Me? For You?
Two kinds of people attend. Or rather, the people who come have two motives, according to our leader and organizer, Tim Tarbet of Highland.
The ones who just want to be heard come once and are never seen again. That’s okay. If it’s not their thing, it’s not their thing.
The ones who want to improve their writing come back. I’ve been attending regularly since the group’s second meeting, early this year. I learned of it from a newspaper report of the first meeting. (I was pleased to have missed that photo op.)
We’ve had writers from virtually every city in north Utah County, and our ages span several decades. Even serious teenage writers are welcome; we know you’re out there.
The genres in which you write don’t matter; all are welcome. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve ever published anything. It doesn’t even matter whether any given piece of your writing is carefully polished already or just a new idea you dashed off on the train today – as long as it’s readable and well enough developed that a critique might be helpful.
What matters is how seriously you want to improve as a writer, and how serious you are about improving what you’ve been writing.
To the Death! No, to the Pain!
It’s a critique group. We read and critique each other’s writing. It’s not a cakewalk, but, my heading notwithstanding, it shouldn’t be exquisitely painful. (I just have to quote The Princess Bride every few days, or my world slips off its axis.)
Here’s the test: Do you welcome critique? Or do you think submitting to it is an unnatural act fit only for classrooms – which you gleefully put behind you years ago (or you hope to very soon)?
I suppose the second test is, are you willing to help others? That makes you a better writer too.
You could say that our critique group isn’t for the faint-hearted. But that’s hardly news. Writing itself is like that. We’re not mean, but we are candid about what works for us in your writing and what doesn’t. We try to help.
At the end of our meetings, we’re still friends. To prove it, we go out for Mexican food together – Dutch treat, of course.
Now that I think about it, some of the sauces at El Mexiquense could cause pain — or numb it. One of them reliably does not. We’ll tell you which one, if you come.
I wasn’t kidding: If you’re serious about your writing, and about helping others with theirs, we don’t care how old or young you are. We don’t care what you write, as long as you write. (If you bring gory or erotic material, we want you to warn the room before you read, in case anyone wants to leave for a few minutes. So far, I haven’t heard any of either.)
But perhaps you’re still wondering whether you’ll fit in, either because of who you are, or how much or little you’ve written, or what you write.
That last concern is the easiest to address. Most of us are writing fiction, exclusively or otherwise. There’s a lot of fantasy and futuristic dystopia among the readings, and some paranormal things pop up now and then. Some write for young adults or middle schoolers. I prefer to write contemporary, realistic fiction, with no vampires, zombies, werewolves, wizards, castles, princes, or princesses – but I will read and critique almost anything, regardless of genre.
Here’s the thing. It’s helpful to read and critique outside one’s own genres. Language and content overlap, and even the differences can be instructive. If you’re writing fantasy, for example, you’ll get different critiques from those who read and write fantasy and those who don’t. Or you may learn something about character development in your Gothic novel by reading or hearing critiques of a dystopian short story set in the distant future.
I may have no idea whether your main character is a tired cliché in your genre – someone else can pick that up – but I can tell you where the first three paragraphs bog down, and help you fix them and bring them to life.
I’ve never been a woman – except once for the theater – but I can tell you that a certain male character’s response to a certain provocation doesn’t ring emotionally true – or even plausible – to me.
I know little of medieval weapons, so I can’t help you much with that battle scene. But I can help you make that politician’s speech sound authentically shallow or profound, whichever you wish.
In my critiques, detailed or otherwise, I’ll help how I can, no matter the genre – and I’ll tell you what is working for me. Something always is, and it’s usually more than isn’t.
If you’re writing non-fiction, a lot of us have more experience at that than at fiction. Some of us do it professionally, and most of us can find a way to help. If nothing else, writers make thoughtful readers.
And don’t be intimidated by the word “professional” there. A retired, well-credentialed journalist frequents the group. Some – not I – studied creative writing in college. I’ve worked as a speech writer, an editor, a college writing teacher, and a few other things that involve writing. I’ve even had a few lines carved in stone, not far from where we meet. But none of this matters as much as you think.
I won’t say experience doesn’t help – it does – but you have experience too, and I don’t write with my resume. I write with a mind and a heart and a laptop that have never before written this new thing I’m trying to create, whatever it is. I write knowing that great writing rarely starts great, and that almost anything I write will benefit from conscientious readers’ critiques. Such an attitude is common in the group.
It’s Not LSD. It’s Safe to Try.
Writing is a usually a joy for me. So is rewriting, weird as that may sound. So is helping someone else make her good writing better and her excellent writing soar. But all of it is real work. I know that, and I respect it in others. There’s a lot of that going around.
And we all know that the only way to get experience is to get experience.
So join us for a few weeks and see if it works for you. You’ll find we do our best to be both candid and kind. If it works out for you, wonderful. If it doesn’t, we’ll be too busy writing, reading, and exchanging critiques to miss you very much. (I say that so you won’t worry that you’ll hurt our feelings, if you decide it’s not for you.)
Or, if you’re still wavering, stay tuned. I’ll be back soon to give you a more detailed sense of how the reading and critiquing go.