The Best Writing Advice Ellen Datlow Ever Gave Me

It was the only advice she ever gave me, and it was really freaking simple.

She said, join a critique group.

That’s it. Nothing else. Join a critique group.

It’s not like she knew me or anything. I was a random newbie who had been writing for years in private and sent her a story in the hopes of seeing it appear on the website she was editing for at the time. The story was rejected, but I decided to use the personal email provided on the website and send her a note asking why.

Totally the wrong protocol. That’s how new I was, by the way. Note to new writers–never, ever write to an editor that has rejected you asking him or her to explain why. It’s rude. And most people are not as nice as Ellen Datlow and will not remember you kindly for it.

So anyway, she told me the truth, which was that it hadn’t been good enough to make it to her desk to read, so she had no idea why it was rejected. But she told me that her foolproof advice for a new writer was to join a critique group and learn from others. She even recommended one. The Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. It was the best one out there, as far as she was concerned.

That was 14 years ago. Joining the OWW was the best decision I ever made. Everything I learned about how to write, every contact I made, every thing I learned about agents and the publishing industry and how to navigate both, I learned there.

It wasn’t easy. It was a lot of work. I took some hard hits. And joining a workshop doesn’t work for everyone, as Stephen King will tell you. As good as the experience was for me, there were people who left all the time because they felt like they weren’t getting much out of it. Back in those days, Del Ray was the sponsor, so it was free. Now you pay a nominal fee, but if you are willing to review for others–which is frankly the BEST way to learn–you will get way more out of it than it will ever cost you.

There are other groups, of course. Critters is another good one. And everyone knows about Wattpad and Book Country. You can even start your own face-to-face group. I can’t guarantee you it will be a successful venture. Hell, you may end up hating everyone you meet and leave in  a huff.

But I can tell you it’s worth the risk to be a better writer. To get feedback from someone who knows what you’re going through. Someone who feels the same way you do about telling stories. Someone who won’t pull any punches, and someone who will encourage you all the way. Every writing friend I have, I found in my critique group.

And if nothing else, you will know if you’ve got the stomach for this.

Because I’m telling you now, if you’re in this as a hobby, that’s fine. But if you want to tell your stories to others; if you burn inside with the desire to show the world the dreams that come to you in the dead of night; if envy eats you up inside every time you see a new publishing deal announced; if you’re willing to risk sanity, pride and bad habits right down to the bitter end, then it’s a writer’s life for you.

And a group of friends who will tell you the truth and love you and your story babies the entire time is a great place to start.

Stay thirsty, my friends.

5 comments

    1. Most definitely. Last time I spoke to Ms. Datlow was right after 9/11. I was worried she might have been hurt. Turns out her office looked out on the Towers, but she was fine. Of course, she probably doesn’t remember any of this. We just exchanged a couple of emails and it was ages ago, but small things can really matter to a life sometimes.

  1. When I started getting serious about writing, there was no such thing as a face to face peer group in Trinidad. So I jumped at the online group. It was amazing to suddenly have perfect strangers be so in tune with you. Try it. It might be just what you need. And the first month at the OWW is free!

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