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.


  1. Interesting stuff

  2. Fascinating to watch another writer's journey. Keep it coming, Meg. Meanwhile, I'm presenting you with the Sunshine Award. You can pick it up at my blog. Cheers.

  3. Thanks Joylene. WOW.A sunshine award. I'll go et it (if I can figure out how...)