Though my blog's primary purpose is updating readers about my novel's progress, I like to deviate from time-to-time with insights from other writers and discussions about the craft. The past (almost three!) years of writing has been enlightening, and since the beginning, one of the most important tools to my growth as a writer has been Scribophile.com.
Writing is a solitary pursuit, and for an ENFJ like me, particularly difficult in that respect. I enjoy the social aspect of storytelling. Comic and writing conventions featuring popular stories like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or, more recently, Avatar, are awesome because they incorporate the celebration of story. What excites me most about my story is the possibility that it will unite people, that people will be so fascinated with it that they want to talk about it, laugh about it, shake their fists at me over it.
To that end, Scribophile has been a laboratory in which to test this aspect of storytelling. It's much more than a place for me to get jollies (uhh, compliments), though. It has facilitated my growth as a storyteller like no other writing community.
I started writing poetry in 2004 because I was fawning over a girl, had no way to express said fawning, and found the most natural release to be getting my thoughts out on paper. In retrospect, I know I've always been a storyteller. My imagination is constantly wandering into stories when I should be doing homework, listening to what other people are saying to me in conversation, driving. This girl was simply the spark that ignited what had long been inside me.
At some point I realized I wasn't half bad at poetry, so I took creative writing courses in community college. The creative writing courses weren't very helpful because I ended up submitting a lot of pieces I had already written, the classes were typically 20+ students, and they were not organized in such a manner that anyone was getting any viable criticism. The thing I most learned in my creative writing courses was how to critique.
Around this time, I started a deviantART.com (dA) account. I was excited to share my work with others and hopefully get feedback. Here-and-there I would get some commentary on my poetry. Typically, the commentary went something like this:
Wow, great peace [sic]! I really liked [one quote]. Keep up the good work :)
It's nice to be appreciated, but even back in my dA days, I was unsatisfied by this sort of scattered, depth-less praise and perfunctory commentary. I recall receiving one negative criticism in all my time there, and it was by a writer who thought it much more efficient to berate me for writing a lame-o phrase ("pained agony;" I see now what he was saying) rather than explain to me why the phrase did not work. Because he was obnoxious and uninterested in being helpful, I insulated myself to the viable criticism, and only after years did I see that, yes, the phrase should have been changed. The issue was not the content of his criticism, but the tactless and malicious delivery.
Most importantly about dA for me as a writer was how scattered the comments were. Because dA is such a monstrously large site, featuring every imaginable type of art, writers tend to get lost. It's a lot easier for someone to say, "great photo!" than it is for them to sit back, grab a cup of coffee, and really read a piece of amateur writing. I felt lost on dA, and that's when I happened upon another site, Lemonfingers.com (LF).
What initially attracted me to LF was that it was a community solely for writers. The advertisement for the site said something along the lines of,
Are you tired of getting no criticism on dA? Do you want to be read and critiqued by other writers who understand your artistic medium? Lemonfingers.com is the place for you, then.
After submitting my work and creating a personal profile on LF, I began engaging with other writers. Being a writer-friendly site, I received more feedback and actually developed a few relationships with other writers. The main problem with LF, though, was that it suffered from the same kind of lackluster critiquing that plagued dA. There was no system in place that encouraged writers to do anything other than submit a crap-ton of work, sit back, and hope the comments would roll in. I tried to remedy this by reading and critiquing others' work in-depth, but by-and-large, only a few people were willing to say anything more than,
Wow, great peace [sic]! I really liked [one quote]. Keep up the good work :)
And even those who did go beyond the "play nice" platitudes did not often say anything helpful so much as flattering or encouraging. I often felt like I was the only person who wanted to improve and not simply have my ego stroked.
I eventually had several pieces featured as "the best of Lemonfingers." While 20-year-old me was honored by this, it didn't really cure the site's real plague of having no internal system to encourage serious critique.
Still desiring a community of writers who would engage in constructive criticism, I found my way to Writerscafe.org (WC).
Writerscafe has to its credit several advantages not present on dA and LF. It was a community solely for writers, so work wasn't overshadowed by amazing professional photography (dA). The community was much larger and more active than LF's, which never made it to more than ~1,500 members. The site had internal "ranking" and "award" systems that "scored" people by how much their critiques were "liked," or how many new writers they "welcomed" by critiquing their early works.
Despite these innovations, WC failed on several important fronts. First, there was no limit to how much work could be submitted, so it suffered from an overabundance of unread writing. Second, the "ranking" system had only to do with your reputation; it did not affect your ability to post work, and for those who didn't care about ranking, it offered zero encouragement to read more. Third, and most importantly, was the community.
The community on WC was a mixed bag for me. From a small group of consistent readers, I received the most in-depth and constructive criticism to date. These people were actually willing to read and comment at length, offering actual insight that helped me improve.
The problem was with the bulk of the community, which consisted of cliquey people reminiscent of high school. I recall thinking to myself at one point, "I see ____ is one of the top rated writers on the site. I'm sure ____ has some great writing which I can critique, and ____ will return the favor to me and have some insightful things to say." So I read ____'s work and left a lengthy critique. I was not as impressed with ____'s work as I assumed I would have been. There were definitely a few gems, but the work was rough around the edges and needed further crafting. Though I was direct with my opinion, I did my best to be tactful and constructive. I have always operated under the assumption that tactful and constructive criticism is beneficial. I give it to others, and I expect it of others. I don't want to be patted on the back, but I also don't want to be made to feel like scum.
A few days after I submitted my critique to ____, I received a response from her on one of my poems. The critique started off innocent enough, but about three sentences in it became apparent that she was being sarcastic. In a couple hundred words, she demeaned my work and character as a writer and notified me that I was not worth her time. She wondered how I could dare criticize her work, since she was clearly one of the site's best writers.
I was okay writing long, thoughtful critiques for people who never bothered to return the favor (which happened a lot on dA, LF and WC), let alone thank me. But when I spent an hour of my life reading, analyzing and responding to another person's art, the last thing I expected was being told what a jerk I was for trying to help. The story above is only one example of what occurred several times on WC, and it was at that point that I decided enough was enough. My small group of readers had moved on from the site, and I had no interest in wasting my time on a clique of sour people with crappy attitudes only interested in being told how wonderful they were.
After that, I all but removed myself from the site, leaving up a piece or two of my strongest poetry for interested readers. My profile on the site proclaimed that if people didn't want to have their writing critiqued, it should be taken off of a critiquing website. Also, people should not be surprised if they get wet after jumping into swimming pools.
I had long abandoned WC, only visiting once or twice a year to check my inbox, when I saw an ad for Scribophile. Admittedly, I was burned out on online writing communities from all my lackluster experiences, but I was intrigued by Scribophile's claim to be a community not just for writers, but for serious writers. I always thought of myself as a serious writer who could never find a niche on an internet full of people playing literary patty-cake. I had a story brewing in my mind and knew I would need the insights of serious writers to create something that would not only publishable, but successful.
So I logged on to the site and created a profile. Truly, it was more of a thoughtless gesture than anything else. I was in my first semester of seminary and taking sixteen credits. I wasn't intending to get invested without ample evidence that the investment would be worth my time.
The first thing that helped me see that Scribophile was place for serious writers was that you could not even post a work until you critiqued several works by existing members. I would later read a forum post by the site's proprietor, Alex Cabal, stating that many would-be Scribbers (what we call members of the site) leave the site after they learn, gasp, that they have to contribute to the community before they can get something out of it.
This intrigued me, so I put my shoulders back and went into my first critique, pulling out all the stops and writing over 1,000 words. After I clicked "submit," I held my breath, wondering at what sort of response I would receive. I was pleasantly surprised (relieved, really) when I was thanked by the author for offering up my time and energy by reading and critiquing their work. Several other critics "liked" my critique, notifying me that I had done a service to the writer and to the community by engaging so authentically in another person's work.
From that moment I was hooked.
What I have learned from Scribophile is that good work is hard work. If you want to help someone improve in their life, you have to be willing to get real with them, dig into the trenches, get muddy. It takes time, tact, effort. But when you're a part of a community of people who have the same values and goals as you do, you are always rewarded for good work. Scribophile is a great site because there is a big sign on the front door notifying everyone, "Serious writers only, please." The in-site "karma" system (the system awards "karma points" for writing critiques and requires the same to post work), while a big turn-off to people who have no interest in contributing to the betterment of others, is both challenging and encouraging to the truly serious. Scribophile works because the mechanics of the site itself facilitate the community the site owner intended to build. The result is a writer's sanctuary on the internet, a community of diverse people from all walks of life who write and help one another write.
Scribophile is not perfect, but the site owner is constantly improving by implementing new features to help streamline the experience and facilitate community interaction and growth. Like any successful, ongoing endeavor, the site is adaptable.
Writers cannot reap the full benefits of site membership without having a paid account, and even after obtaining a paid account, it's on the writer's shoulders to critique others' work and earn sufficient karma to post additional writing. For someone just starting out on the site or someone who does poetry and short fiction, the two submission policy for unpaid members is not much of a burden. But for those writing expansive work encompassing many chapters, it often becomes difficult to find readers who understand your story's full context. The only real solution is to either pay for a month's subscription, or develop E-Mail contacts with members through the site. I have done both, and can honestly say that I was not disappointed in either instance. The money I spent on my Scribophile premium membership was an investment. Serious writers will understand that success takes sacrifice; to make money, you have to spend money.
I wish I would have discovered Scribophile the day it was founded; it may have saved me a lot of trouble. Then again, the trial-and-error process through three previous communities has solidified in me that all of us Scribbers have found something worthwhile - and we're not leaving any time soon.