Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Online Critique Groups I: The Internet Writing Workshop

Having completed the first draft of my novel Goddess Fire, then titled Beneath the Vleth (try saying that five times fast and you'll know why I changed the title), I wanted feedback on the novel as a whole. A new member of my local writers group suggested I try an online full novel critique group to which she belonged. Excited, I checked it out and submitted a writing sample. The owner rejected me, describing my writing as clichéd (to my horror!) She recommended I join the IWW (the Internet Writing Workshop http://www.internetwritingworkshop.org/) novel chapter critique group, which required no application. Once I'd recovered from the blow to my ego, I did.

This time I got plenty of ferocious criticism. At the time, the Novels group of IWW had ninety members. It took me a while to figure out how to negotiate, let alone get the most out of, this group. Everyone posts everything to a list-serve and members must contribute at least twice a month. Contributions consist of submissions or critiques. Anyone can choose to critique anything they like. At first, it seemed like a terrible mishmash. I read posts and, at first, critiqued people whose writing appealed to me. Then I got into correspondence with a woman whose writing I admired who also provided meaty critiques to others. She explained that the key to obtaining quality critiques was to critique the work of strong critiquers and hope they would return the favour. I changed gears and instead of reading submissions, I avidly pored over the critiques. Then I selected people whose crits had depth, and started critiquing their work, modeling my crits on the best of theirs.

It worked like a dream. I soon had half a dozen people who critiqued everything I submitted and I faithfully followed their novels. Occasionally I critiqued other people's work too, and I received sporadic critiques from people I did not know. When they proved helpful, I'd return the favour. It was a huge amount of work, but a tremendous learning experience. It is ever so much easier to detect flaws in someone else's writing than your own, and as you become accustomed to eliminating adjectives and passive constructions when reading someone else's work, you start to monitor such tendencies in your own.

Members of this group provided me with incredibly in-depth critiques. Some rewrote virtually every sentence and suggested changes to plot and character that appalled me. But I learned to create story goals for my characters, to build in conflict and reversal, to ground my fantasy in absolute logic and to show rather than telling. I rewrote whole scenes, dramatically altered my characters, created subplots and developed a world that made consistent sense.

The plot of Goddess Fire in its published form is not dramatically different from that of the first draft. Plot seems to be my forte, which is somewhat ironic given that I used to fear I'd never be able to come up with a story. (I attribute my plotting strengths entirely to my Dungeons and Dragons experience, where plot is everything.) However, the way in which the plot is conveyed, the character's motivations, the twists and turns, chapter structures and actual writing changed enormously, due to the invaluable advice I received on IWW.

In my last post, I said face-to-face groups tend to be more social than online ones. Although it's true that one tends to chat more in groups that meet physically, I developed some real friendships through off-list communication with my regular group of critiquers at IWW. When we received particularly harsh crits, we could express our outrage through private emails. Over time, we also shared aspects of our personal lives, often in relation to our writing or our attempts to get published. Again, I found the writers I met through IWW tremendously supportive. Many of them also had very helpful first-hand experience of publishers and agents and the process of marketing one's work.

I did receive some brutal critiques, some unwarranted and, in my unbiased opinion, stupid, but others very insightful - tough and discouraging, but bang on. So I went back to the drawing board. With this group, I also submitted chapters weekly. As I learned more, I would rewrite the chapter before submitting it, knowing they'd be all over me for "telling" or failing to provide sufficient motivation or overwriting or ending a chapter without a hook. It proved to be terrific discipline. Once I pressed the send button, I'd hover by my computer waiting for critiques. At first, I revised as soon as I received the crits, but eventually I started saving the ones that made sense to me - and once I'd received crits on every chapter in the novel, I spent several months working through the critiques and writing my third draft. In the process, I added several scenes and still cut about 40,000 words (all those adjectives, passive constructions, repetitions etc.)

I sent out queries and synopses (oh dreaded items!) to agents and publishers and, with a sense of déjà vu, watched the rejections pour in. This time, I received some positive feedback: requests for the whole MS, encouraging feedback on the book, but no offers to publish. I let it sit for a few months, working on a new novel, and then decided I really did need a full novel critique group to help me wrestle the book into publishable shape. I was not prepared to shelve this one. I believed in it, many others believed in it, and I had to run it through the critiquing mill one last time.

A friend at IWW suggested I try a different full novel critique group, so I did - embarking on the final leg of what fortunately proved to be a successful journey.

More on that in my next post.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Writing Critique Groups

In my last post, I explored the similarities and differences between designing a D&D adventure and writing a book. My novel Goddess Fire is based on a dungeon I created for two high-level players, but it took years to transform the dungeon into a novel. I had a sound grasp of the plot, characters, settings and themes, but I had little real understanding of the craft of writing.

I doubt I would ever have become a writer had I not joined a critique group. I can't recommend such groups highly enough, especially for beginning writers, although all writers benefit from them. While it may be a frightening prospect to expose your humble and private attempts at writing to the eyes of critical strangers, it is a far less risky venture than submitting your creations to the ruthless scrutiny of agents and publishers. And if you do find the courage to join a writers group, you can improve your writing immeasurably.

Writers, especially writers willing to devote their precious time to helping others, are rarely harsh. More important, they provide feedback that can help you polish and refine your work before you try to get it published. In many groups, you obtain a variety of feedback. If several people think your protagonist lacks sparkle, it's a pretty sure sign you need to rethink the characterization. If one person doesn't like your dialogue, but everyone else does, you may not want to make changes.

Right at the time when I'd decided to attempt writing a novel, an ad appeared in my local paper, inviting writers interested in joining a critique group to a meeting at the public library. Feeling the stars had aligned, I printed out a sample of my writing - the prologue to my partially conceived novel and the only bit of fiction I'd written in years - and marched off to the meeting. So did about twenty other people; I knew none of them.

The gentleman who'd posted the ad was an accomplished writer with considerable experience of writing groups. Recognizing that a group of twenty was unmanageable, he organized us into two groups - one interested in fiction writing, the other in poetry. I joined the fiction group. We agreed to meet once a week and bring copies of our work - no more than 10 pages at a time - to read and discuss. Within a very short time, the group whittled down to about seven people, mostly unpublished. Instead of reading our pieces aloud (which took a lot of time) we sent them to each other by email in advance, so we could read each other's work and arrive at the meeting prepared to comment. Each week, some people submitted and others did not, but we all tried to keep up with the reading and critiquing. We had really only one rule: authors could not argue or defend their work, only listen.

I wrote my first novel one chapter a week, completing each in time to get feedback at the next meeting. I work well to deadlines, and this was no exception. Without the structure posed by the group, I might never have finished that book. No one else in the group wrote (or even read) fantasy, but they waxed enthusiastic, which boosted my confidence.

A face-to-face writers' group can seem more daunting than an online group because the participants are right there and you see their facial expressions as they comment. In theory, this might be more than a fragile writer could bear. In my experience, writers are kinder and more supportive in that context for precisely the same reasons. There is also a social element largely lacking in online groups. I became quite good friends with most members of that first group. We go to each other's book launches and still keep in touch, although I left the group several years ago. As a starting point, it was invaluable, providing me with stimulus and support when I needed it most.

The quality of critiquing in any writers' group depends, of course, on the membership. A small, local group may provide focus, encouragement and a welcome opportunity to converse with people who share similar interests. However, it is less likely to attract serious writers than an online group, which can have dozens or even hundreds of members from all over the world, many of whom are published. The constituency of my local group changed over time. People left and others joined. Some wrote so well I felt like an ignorant hack; others produced much less impressive work. Some were incisive critics, others offered only vague feedback.

Still I learned a great deal. I was shocked at how little I really knew about fiction writing. I'd never thought about character point of view. A happy head-hopper, I felt dismayed when someone pointed this out as a fault. Another member of the group circled all my adjectives and adverbs, and I fretted for weeks about whether, and then how, to eliminate them. One session, I arrived feeling pumped. I'd submitted what I felt was a particularly inspired, luminous piece of writing, full of symbolism and depth. Some of the group liked it, but one member told me it didn't quite work. Crushed, I admitted that it was one of my favourite bits. He said, "Ah well, that's a danger sign. Whenever I become very attached to a particular passage of writing, I know it will have to go." I've found this true time after time. Now, when I feel that little rush of "Yes, That's it!" I know almost right away that the section in question will end up on the chopping block. And it usually does.

I completed my fledgling novel, The Villost Diamond, but I still had an awful lot to learn. This became obvious when I sent out my supposedly final draft and received a flood of rejection letters. I spent a lot of time revising and polishing, but in the end decided the story itself was too quirky to fly as a first novel. I embarked on another.

My writing had improved; the group loved the new book. But I'd also grown a bit suspicious of this praise. My confidence had grown, and so had my determination to finally see my work in print. I needed tough critical feedback. It was time to move on. I turned to online writers' groups.

To be continued…