critique groups


Counting Words

The novel I’m writing (my sixth) is proving to be a bit of a struggle. In my memory, writing the other five was a silky-smooth process, in which I effortlessly spun out an endless stream of words whenever I sat down at the desk.

Well, it probably wasn’t like that. When I concentrate, I remember plenty of occasions when I sat there, staring at the giant rubber plant (now in a better world), trying to shape another scene.

But this time around, “flow” simply isn’t the word. Scraping, beating, cobbling, hewing — those are the words that come to mind. I’m getting blisters on my imagination.

Part of the problem is that this time, I’m fixated on wordcount. I’ve decided I want to end up with a first draft of 90,000 to 100,000 words, of which I may delete 10,000 to 20,000. Having too many words feels better than too few. It’s as though writing is a weird kind of sculpture — first I hew out a block of stone, and then I reduce it to its final shape. I don’t want to limit myself with a block that’s too small to start with.

I wondered if this warped the process. Instead of letting the plot unfurl organically, I set myself a goal to crank out a minimum of 6,000 words to present at the monthly meetings of my longtime critique group. Before that, I wasn’t writing at all, letting days go by while I played the procrastination game of waiting for the perfect day or moment. Now, with this self-imposed deadline, I’ve been diligently beavering away for five months, and technically am one third of the way through the first draft.

While this approach is getting me to produce, I’m wondering if I’m just churning out crap of which 98 per cent will have to be rewritten. In other words, if I’m just faking it. Okay, the critiquers seem to think the work has potential, but I haven’t reached a point where they can really see the shape of the finished novel. Which is a problem in itself. Or, maybe not — at least the plot isn’t predictable.

This leads to the question of whether it’s better to write too much and cut out a lot in rewrites, or too little and have to flesh out and add stuff. I’ve always taken the more is better approach, and now that the thing is finally coming to life, I intend to press on and test that idea later.

So, back to the quarry…


Images courtesy of Pixabay



Critique Group or Beta Readers?

With all the self-publishing going on right now, and the consequent tutting about “floods of unedited crap” being inflicted on potential readers, we writers are obligated to expose our creations to eyes and minds other than our own before turning them loose.

For years, I have relied on a critique group of three or four other writers. We meet monthly to comment on 10,000 word sections from our novels. It works fairly well, but not perfectly.

The main problem is the gap of several weeks between meetings. Granted, we read each piece quite closely, on the alert for details that few casual readers would notice (unless their effect is such that the reader finds the book confusing, which is why we agonize over them), but in the weeks between reading sessions, continuity is broken. In meetings, we critiquers often take each other to task for inexplicable and confusing references to incidents and characters that appeared earlier in the novel. Invariably, we suggest recaps or explanatory hints that would not be needed for someone who sits down and reads the whole book over the period of a month, instead of 10,000 words (about 30 pages). Discussing these situations can be a waste of time and (in my case) a source of annoyance, as I have a tendency to argue. (Yes, but it wouldn’t be confusing if you were a normal reader… blah, blah, blah). Even without these diversions, working through a novel of 100,000 words takes many months.

Another problem with critique groups is that, inevitably, their membership changes. People leave. Other people join. The optimal size for such a group, in my opinion, is four people. That number produces a variety of opinions without burdening each member with too much reading every month. But incorporating a new member can be tricky. Suppose the rest of the group is 3/4 of the way through someone’s novel. The new member comes in without the context provided by having read the first 75%, which necessarily colours their comments. It’s too much to expect that they take the time to read the opus from the beginning, so aids such as detailed synopses and timelines may be necessary. Although helpful, these are no substitute for the atmosphere and nuances acquired by reading the entire work.

Critique groups are at their best when dealing with short stories or possibly discrete parts of longer works. A single scene, for example, may be presented for critique of specific details. Is the dialogue realistic? Does the scene convey a feeling of horror? Does this work better in present or past tense? That sort of thing. For novels, beta readers may be a better option.

Beta readers, for those unfamiliar with the term, are people who read an entire manuscript in “real time” and convey their impressions and suggestions to the writer. They should be people accustomed to reading, but not friends or family members of the writer. Members of writers’ societies, or for that matter, of critique groups, may be ideal beta readers. At least three readers would be optimal; any comments made by all three would definitely be worth following up on.

The main problem with beta readers is finding them. People are busy, busy, busy. Here young writers may be at an advantage. By middle age, everyone is locked into ironbound schedules. A manuscript swap — you read mine and I’ll read yours — can work, but if you want to swap with three different people, it’s an intense reading commitment. Or you do three swaps one after the other — which, like the critique group, can take months.

Good, Fast, Cheap.  Pick two. In writing, as in so many other things, this is the dismal truth.

Writing the Synopsis

I know at least one writer who thinks that writing a synopsis of her novel is a form of torture.  The trouble is, though, that writing synopses is one of the things writers need to do in order to bring their works to the attention of the greater world. Most publishers and agents request a synopsis as part of a submission package, along with the first few chapters of a novel and a covering letter.

It’s important to emphasize that a synopsis is not the same as the “blurb” found on the back or inside the front cover of a published novel (or in the brief description of an ebook). The blurb is a teaser, intended to provoke a potential reader’s interest and turn him or her into an actual reader or (most important) a purchaser of the work.

A synopsis, on the other hand, is intended to summarize the novel for someone who will engage with it in a role different from that of an ordinary reader — an agent or publisher who must decide whether or not to represent or publish the work, or a member of a critique group who needs a context for the excerpt from the middle of a novel they are expected to read closely and critique. The synopsis must lay out the entire plot and present the main characters, the setting and the flavour of the novel.

A synopsis a distillation of a novel. Distillation can be a tricky operation, and so is writing the synopsis. For one thing, there does not seem to be a universally agreed upon length — I have seen anything from one to twenty pages recommended. Knowing the current preference for brevity in everything from covering letters to novels themselves, I would say the shorter the better — one or two single-spaced pages, 500 to 1,000 words. If a detailed synopsis is specified, something longer would be in order — up to 5,000 words, perhaps.

Novels with complicated plots, multiple narrators and symbolic overtones are perforce more difficult to summarize than those with simple, linear plots and few or no subplots. Authors of complex works may benefit by writing two or more synopses, each with a different degree of detail — sort of like zooming in on the novel and presenting more details each time. That way you end up with a synopsis for every situation in which one may be needed. In fact, it’s good to have a whole range of descriptions of your work, from a single sentence to a jacket blurb to synopses of varying lengths.

Still, it’s tricky. You can’t write the synopsis in the same voice that you wrote the novel, but you don’t want to present it in such a detached way that all the life is sucked out of it, turning it into a dried specimen. Some writers may do well to write their synopses at leisure, in the interval between novels, when there isn’t much creative ferment going on. Others may do better under pressure, when an agent or editor has expressed interest in a face to face meeting at a writers’ conference, and you want to get your offering into their hands before that interest cools. For those who really hate synopsis-writing, it might be an idea to ask a fellow writer who has read the work in question to draft a synopsis of it. That gives the author of the work something with which to get started.

Critique groups are good venues for testing synopses and blurbs. When you join a group, or a new member joins your group, a synopsis is a good instrument to introduce a novel. Ask for comments or suggestions on your synopsis as well as on the real work. Since synopses are short, they are easy to read and comment on. My critique group has just had a flurry of synopsis writing. In fact, I’m about to send one to the group myself, for the first volume of my forthcoming novel, Islands of the Gulf. Having written several synopses, I can say with confidence that it does get easier with practice.

Revision is Endless

Once you’ve written something, especially something long, like a 150,000+ word novel, you have a preoccupation that can last the rest of your life, if you let it. Now that books have become ebooks, there is no reason to stop revising, tinkering, polishing and embellishing, even after the thing is published. In the past, once a book was printed, that pretty well put an end to revision, unless there was a good reason at some point to produce a second edition. That makes sense for certain kinds of non-fiction, but rarely in the case of fiction. Now the whole concept of “edition” is becoming obsolete.

I can upload a new version of my novel to Smashwords any time I want. Should I discover an irritating typo in the text, or have a brilliant idea that improves the plot, I can make corrections, insert a new scene or even do a major rewrite. Out with the old text, in with the new. Yes, in effect there is a new edition, but if only the new text exists (outside of my own computer) it’s not exactly the same as in the world of print.

Just because something is possible, however, doesn’t mean that it’s the thing to do. There comes a time when further tinkering with a piece of work no longer improves it. If you get a great new idea, write a great new work, rather than trying to make the old work into a new one.

A rational approach to revision might be as follows:  ask several people to read your opus in manuscript. If you belong to a writers’ group, you may find readers there. In any case, it’s best to ask people whom you know to be readers. Non-readers probably won’t give you the kind of feedback you need. Family members and friends? Only if they will give you objective opinions, and only if that won’t compromise your relationship afterward.

The comments most worthy of your attention are those made by more than one of your readers. If all or most of them agree that a character needs more development, that a scene does not contribute to the plot, or that your dialogue is weak, those are probably valid criticisms that you should address by rewriting. Then take the rewritten sections back to your readers.

A group of readers also delivers a diversity of comments. Some pick up on lurking typos or grammatical problems, others pounce on continuity problems, still others focus on character motivations. This is another helpful aspect of asking a group to read your work, since it’s unlikely that any individual will note all those details.

Then there’s the question of “professional” editing. Some writers declare that no one should dare to send works to publishers or agents, or self-publish them, without first having them “professionally edited.” I don’t necessarily agree with this opinion. I think it depends. Some writers are perfectly capable of editing their own works, especially in conjunction with thoughtful critiques by a group of capable readers. More particularly, before rushing out to find an editor, consider that anyone can call themselves an editor. There is no testing and approving body for editors analogous to a college of physicians and surgeons. Presumably, editors make their reputations through the results of their work, which suggests that a certain amount of research and investigation is in order before you fork over your cash (which can be considerable for editing a novel — hundreds or even thousands of dollars). Second, know what you expect from the editor — an overhaul of the entire work from concept to plot to characters and scenes, or merely a thorough read-through to pick up typographic and spelling mistakes and other minor flaws. Finally, bear in mind that paying an editor to review and revise your work is no guarantee of success (i.e. acceptance). Decide in advance what you are going to do after the editor is finished — revise their revisions?

This posting is prompted by the fact that I am right now in the midst of a revision of my second novel, Islands of the Gulf, which is the sequel to The Friendship of Mortals. Once I have worked through it with input from my novelists’ critique group, my intention is to make it available on Smashwords, by the end of 2011, I hope.

However you undertake revision of a piece of writing, do it with an end in mind. When that end is reached, declare the work finished and move on.

Critical Support

I didn’t know about writers’ critique groups until four years after I started writing, by which time I had written a novel and accumulated a growing file of rejection letters from agents and publishers. I was also deeply into my second novel, a sequel to the first. As I began to suspect that the road to publication was not going to be a smooth and easy one, I decided I needed a support group.

After one or two false starts, I connected with a writers’ group that looked promising. It met once a month and seemed to have a healthy and diverse membership. In addition to the monthly meetings, most of which featured a speaker, a benefit of membership was access to critique groups — for poetry, creative nonfiction and a newly-formed fiction group, which met twice monthly in members’ homes. I joined with enthusiasm and arrived at my first meeting with the first 25 pages of the novel I was working on.

After that first meeting in the fall of 2004, the group grew from six members to more than 20, split to form three or four new groups and changed its venue from members’ homes to a room above a pub to a coffee shop. When I finally parted company from it a couple of months ago, there was only one other member besides myself who had been there since 2004.

Now I belong to a newly-formed short story group (not sure why, since I’m not partial to writing short fiction) and a novelists’ group that started up after the schism of the original fiction group. One thing I realized over the years was that novels and longer short stories are not as well served by open critique groups as are stories of 3,000 words or less, that can be thoroughly discussed in the course of a single meeting. That original group had a shifting membership right from the start. People would be there for two or three meetings and never be seen again. Others would be there some days but not others. Someone who joined the group only to be faced with Chapter 7 of a novel was not likely to be as enthused (or as effective) in critiquing it as someone who had read the preceding six chapters.

Eventually, several of us with novels in the works decided to form our own closed group. It meets once a month, but the pieces that each member submits are far longer than those permitted in the original group — between 10,000 and 25,000 words, rather than 3,000-5,000. This is why we have restricted our membership to four or five; it would simply be impossible to read and critique too many lengthy pieces. In the two years since its formation, the group has read and critiqued five novels in entirety (two of them mine) and is at present working on three others.

As well as a stable and committed membership, a critique group needs a few other characteristics to be effective. The first is a critiquing style that matches all its members’ expectations. People who want brutally frank opinions aren’t going to be happy in a group that shies away from the negative and calls every offering “wonderful.” Conversely, a writer with a fragile ego had better avoid groups with a taste for the literary jugular. The same goes for genre — hard-boiled thrillers aren’t likely to get helpful critiques from a group of romance writers (although you never know).

Critiquing aside, a group of this sort has another function — as a support group for its members. Let’s face it — most of us who come to writing as an avocation later in life aren’t likely to make it to the bestseller lists. Many of us will never be published or will end up being our own publishers. The other writers with whom we form connections, whom we see at  meeting after meeting as the years go by, whose works we read and come to know almost as well as our own — these folks may very well be the nucleus of our readership, or even our entire readership. The great thing is that it’s a readership that reads closely with attention to plot, character and style, and tells the author what it thinks — a literary circle and “friends of the work.”

Writing Short, Writing Long

I decided to post the occasional short story here (new Short Stories page), and that got me thinking about writing short fiction as opposed to novels.

I began writing in 2000 with a novel (The Friendship of Mortals). In fact, I was compelled to write it, something I still don’t understand. The characters (Herbert West and the narrator, Charles Milburn) came alive in my imagination to the point that the novel almost wrote itself. With many of the scenes I felt as though I was transcribing rather than creating the dialogue. The hardest thing was to realize the plot and fill in the action between those compelling scenes.

When I joined a critique group a few years later, it became evident that novels do not lend themselves well to review by such groups. It takes too long. If you contribute 3,000 words once per month, it would take 30 months to work through a 90,000 word novel. During that time, the membership of the group changes. People who join the group well into your novel can’t critique it the way someone would who has read it from the beginning.

Short stories are much better fodder for the critique group. Moreover, writers who are shopping a novel around to publishers are often advised to get some short stories published first. So I’ve written a few, even though I had little inclination to do so. To me they were an “ought to,” like eating broccoli, while novel writing was a “want to,” like chocolate. Writing stories was work, work, work. Writing novels was magic.

Some writers are simply not meant to write short fiction. Look at artists — for the most part, they choose a medium and stick with it.  Someone who paints big, splashy canvases or murals isn’t likely to do miniature portraits, and that’s OK. A sculptor who prefers to work with metal doesn’t feel guilty for ignoring stone.

My rule now is not to write anything, long or short, unless it wants to be written.

A few of my short stories have been published in Island Writer, the literary magazine of the Victoria Writers’ Society. But I thought I would make a few of the others available here. Critiques are welcome. It will be interesting to see if there are different reactions to stories I think of as written from the head versus those that were written from the heart.