I’ve been scribbling furiously and typing to the point of renewed carpal tunnel syndrome for the last three years in an attempt to put my ideas into novel-length words. The tally? Two finished, two in various states of disrepair and a sequel being sketched out ‘for later.’ One full manuscript made its way to an agent, the other full – my first – is so completely incoherent and massively wordy that I’m going to have to disassemble it and start over. In between are two blogs and several short stories, several contests (one where I placed!), several reviews and rants.
Fiction writing is different from editorial writing, business letter writing, poetry, text writing and writing stormy missives to your Congressmen. It’s different from writing love letters to your spouse and chiding email to your children. Fiction writing is a strange and wonderful animal all to itself.
I dropped out of college, so I was unable to obtain a sheepskin for my forays into English/journalism/art. I went to college during the mid ‘70s, so I’m not sure how much book learning I remember. I’m the first to admit that I am clueless, but I’m a quick study.
In my quest to finish my novel explorations, I’ve learned a few things. The one BIG thing any fiction writer is needs a supportive critique system. I don’t care if you are a well-known and well-published author — a fresh pair of eyes often lends a perspective the writer may be unable or unwilling to view. There are Rules for Writing (of which I was oblivious). Of course, after immersing myself in rules, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and learned at a workshop how to break the rules.
At some point, the aspiring author is going to want to get out of her pajamas, leave her cave and set about finding legitimate critique for her work. It happened to me.
Critique will point out more than spelling errors or problems with grammar or misplaced punctuation. (I don’t know about you, but I cannot proofread my own work.) A thorough critique will outline structural deficiencies, like problems with time line or story line, overuse of certain words or – God forbid – the dreaded cliche.
Do NOT make the mistake of giving your work for critique to family members or friends who are less than brutally honest. Of course, your mom is going to love your work and thinks your book will be on the New York Times best seller list for a year. Duh! You may want to utilize friends and families as readers in order to determine that your work will or will not put them to sleep. However, for the purposes of critique, find professional help.
For a long time, I relied on online friends who share my same passion for writing. They have pointed out the obvious flaws in my work, and led me to the library for reading material on writing the right way.
Online writing friends may be in the midst of their own manuscripts – and if they are like me, they are world-class procrastinators – so the fledgling writer may have to pursue other outlets for critique. When it comes to writing web sites, be sure you read the Terms of Service and be wary of any critique service that charges a fee. There are plenty of writing web sites that do not charge a fee. The big names include ReviewFuse, Romance Divas or The Next Big Writer, to list a few. I was also invited to a small Ning group (Writers Collaborate), and there are more out there.
The downside to online groups is that many other writers join to get critique as well. I am not well-versed in critiquing work other than for the obvious misspelling or simple sentence structure. The only other thing I can add is “I like where this is going and want to know more.” While a hook is important, some writers want an in-depth deconstruction.
I am a busy woman and can’t commit to creative writing classes, but I have always been interested in finding help in the flesh. I was recently invited to a small, in-person critique group of some members of the Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America. I am the fourth person. In such a small group, it’s far easier to communicate ideas than it is in a larger forum. The other women, most of whom don’t necessarily write romance, are helpful and one was an English teacher in a past life.
As with any relationship, if your group offers unhelpful criticism – and that does happen – it may be time to find another group. A writer needs to feel safe and that any points made are not done out of meanness or spite. On the other hand, if you truly want to better your work, a certain amount of outside perspective will be necessary.
My quick tips:
1. Don’t take it personally. Your critique partner isn’t trying to make you cry, he/she is trying to help you.
2. Try revising the trouble spot in a few different ways, instead of plowing through with the first thought in your head. You may find the second or third (or eighth) idea is the real gem.
3. Really listen to the suggestions. You’ll learn a lot and it will improve your writing.
4. Put your work away when you feel overloaded and come back to it later. It will look strangely different once it’s been marinating for a few days/weeks/months.
5. Finally, don’t lose your voice in the edit. Your voice is your most important asset. There may be occasions where you feel the critique is not valid. If the words work, listen to your head. If we all followed the rules and all wrote the same, it would be a pretty dreary world.