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 Within a very short time, the group whittled down to about seven people, mostly unpublished.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…

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