Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Different Strokes

by Stephanie Black

Yesterday, I finished the second draft of my work-in-progress, a contemporary suspense novel. This novel is more of a straight mystery than my previous novels, so I'll be dealing with the balancing issues involved in setting the stage for the revelation of the villain, while not making things too obvious. Nothing worse than having a reader say, "I had it figured out on page five."

I printed the book out and will now read it straight through, making notes on problems that I find. Reading a manuscript rapidly, start to finish, gives me a far different perspective than reading it a fragment at a time as I write it. For one thing, story events seem to happen much closer together. A read-through is vital for judging pacing and emotional consistency.

I’m excited about this book. It’s coming together, but there are still a lot of holes. I haven’t nailed some critical backstory, the characterization needs work, the writing could be a lot stronger, and so on. No one else has seen the manuscript yet. It’s not ready to debut on the critiquing scene.

In the same way that different writing methods work for different people, I think different critiquing methods work for different people. I hear a lot of praise for critique groups, and I think they’re awesome. But I don’t know if I could ever join a group where I’d be expected to bring pages from my work-in-progress each week and have them critiqued. For me, writing a novel is such an ever-changing process that if I tried to have my early work on a novel evaluated, it would probably go something like this:


Critiquer: I read your pages and, um, I’m a little confused. You started out with Sally being John’s sister’s friend, but then she’s actually John’s sister and there is no friend.

Me: I realized it would make a stronger, more tightly woven story if I eliminated the friend and gave her pivotal plot actions to the sister.

C: You might want to make chapter one reflect that.

Me: I’ll do it in the next draft.

C: Okay. Anyway, here I went through this scene line-by-line and marked where you used repetitive sentence structures. Also, you used too many adverbs and ellipses. Everything happened “ . . . quietly.”

Me: I’m actually planning to chuck that whole scene, because I realized writing it from the villain’s POV gives too much away.

C: I spent two hours critiquing that scene last night. I missed American Idol.

Me: Sorry.

C: Well . . . okay. Just a few more things. I found the character of Joe to be flat. He doesn’t seem to have any personality. I wrote a list of suggestions for ways to flesh out him out. For instance, you could—

Me: I replaced him with a potted plant in chapter ten.

C: I hate you.


Don’t misunderstand me. I desperately need outside feedback in order to write a good novel. My test readers have proven themselves invaluable in pointing out problems. But until I’ve woven the basic story—which will definitely take at least two full drafts—giving parts of my book to readers for critique would waste everyone’s time. For my current WIP, three is the magic number. After I complete draft three, I’ll send the book out for feedback and will pay careful attention to what my readers tell me.

So what kind of critiques work best for you?


24 Comments:

At 6/11/2008 1:08 PM, Anonymous William Morris said...

"I replaced him with a potted plant in chapter ten."

I was wondering why the potted plant is wearing a tie.

-----------

Something else to add to the equation: the kind of critiquers. Some critiquers are better used at different points in the process.

For example, I'm not very good at helping with line edits and backstory and beginnings. I'm (a little) better with pacing and dialog and endings.

 
At 6/11/2008 1:45 PM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I'd be happy to offer a non-professional critique on anything you'd like to send. =)

Otherwise, you can wait until the book comes out!

 
At 6/11/2008 1:52 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

Having been part of a critique group for nearly seven years, I can tell you that a weekly critique group will NOT tell you if your story as a whole is working out (at least not in the weekly meetings), but they will absolutely help your writing to improve.

They can show you where you overuse words, tighten your dialog, check motivations, work on strong descriptions, etc. The only way to tell you if the whole book works is to read from beginning to end, which we also do for each other.

But in my experience, a whole book read will tend to focus more on content and plot issues. When you are breezing though an entire novel, you often don't get the chance to point out the every sentence in paragraph three starts with "She", or that you got back heavy on page 132, or that you are overusing glance.

For me at least, I need to have people who see the forest and the trees.

 
At 6/11/2008 5:04 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Good point, William.

Jon, I may take you up on that!

Jeff, very true--both forest and trees are needed. My problem is that I'm not even ready to have the trees inspected until I've completed a few drafts!

 
At 6/11/2008 5:49 PM, Blogger Sue said...

I'm terrified of critiques and critique groups. I'm working on my first novel (well, the first novel that I actually intend to try to get published) and I know I'm going to have a hard time dealing with the criticism. I know it's essential, especially for a first-time author, but I'm dreading it.

 
At 6/11/2008 8:51 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Sue, I hear you! Criticism can be scary. But it can also be exciting (once that initial sting passes) as you see your work improving and know the novel will be far stronger for the feedback. And no matter how many novels you've published, it's still essential. Good luck on your novel!

 
At 6/11/2008 10:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a time to leave your writing group. It appears Stephanie has found it. If your goal is to improve your writing in general, the writing group is a good fit. The demands on a professional writer to deliver a manuscript into the impatient hands of her editor may dictate a more efficient and individual Stephanie-like approach.

A good writing instructor once said that though a writing group began as a benefit to your career it can become a destructive habit. For a given length of time, writing groups are helpful. Other writers contribute their critical faculties to your work. But a time comes when the benefits begin to diminish. If you continue attending long after you should leave the group you lose personal initiative and the reliance upon your own resources.

The length of a writers' career often depends upon how isolated and independent she remains. All ideas, concepts, learning of craft, and energy must come from her own ambition. She must not rely on anyone for help, encouragement, or the revitalization of flagging energies. Everyone will disappoint her, fail her. When she begins writing she needs the support, assurances, and critical feedback other writers can offer her. She needs to identify with other writers to feel like a writer. But if she is progressing into her career, there is a time when she can no longer learn from other writers and must begin learning from herself.

It is the writer's sensitivity and intelligence that limits the value of a writing group. Intuitively, and often unknowingly, writers accurately analyze each other. They learn the general preferences and personal appreciations of the group. Coupled with the writer's human weakness—a constant need for acceptance and congratulation—the writer becomes her own victim. She modifies and tampers with her writing to achieve group approval. When this begins to happen, the writer must leave the group.

A writer cannot be burdened with a need for this specialized approval. Other writers comprise only a minimal amount of the reading public. A sensible writer writes to be read by the vast public. She is not concerned about what other writers or critics think about her work. She writes for the millions, not the chosen few.

When the writer has taken all she can from what others have to offer, she must leave them. Otherwise, she is deliberately living a repetition because she is afraid to assume her individuality, her uniqueness.

Ly

P.S. Stephanie, what's the working title? And, can I have a peak at the third draft? I so want to have a look! Also, if you read this far, you're not only ambitious, you're insane.

 
At 6/11/2008 11:04 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Very thought-provoking and fascinating insights, Ly. Thank you.

My book doesn't have a working title yet, unless you count "novel4". I'll have to brainstorm and see if I can come up with something.

If I confessed that I sometimes use adverbs in dialog tags, would you still want to read my manuscript? :)

 
At 6/11/2008 11:12 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll edit out the tags for you. Its the least I could do.

Ly

 
At 6/11/2008 11:37 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Awww, that's so sweet.

 
At 6/12/2008 1:08 AM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

Anonymously,

You are entitled to your opinion--which you'd have whether I granted you permission or not. But I disagree completely. I see many, many writers who start to think they are so good they don't need feedback. And their writing shows it.

It's like saying a soccer player-for example--doesn't need a coach or other players to train with. Yes you can outgrow writers that are below your level. But the right group keeps you challenged, on your toes, and pushing yourself.

I don't know that I'll stay with my group for life. But if I leave it will be because of time or geography constraints. Not because I have outgrown a need for their feedback.

I can say with great confidence that I've read many successful authors and thought. Wow, this guy could really benefit from a couple of months with my group.

But then, of course, you knew I’d disagree with you, right?

 
At 6/12/2008 2:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yup. Disagreed.

Though I think we share common ground. The professional writer must take charge of her career. Individually. Uniquely. Independently. (Oh, how I loathe all those adverbs lined up one after another.)

Your writer's group is likely peopled with a number of seasoned professionals. They've reached a high degree of expertise in the writer's craft. They may share publishing success. They may even write in the same genre. It's hard to outgrow the critique benefits of experience. Members of your group likely bring to your work the cumulative critical acumen of years in the industry.

Rare is your group. Most are a collection of aspiring writers, recently published writers and sometimes non-writers whom we sometimes call editors:)

Ignoring feedback has little to do with bull-headedness. Pride goeth before the fall of even the finest authors. The length and quality of a writer's career depends, in part, upon how independent you become, not how arrogant you are. The two are easily confused. But they tend toward dramatically different results.

In the writing hobby there is room for the congenial sharing of social interaction, the communal support of congratulations. In the guiding steps of the writing profession you must walk alone. Only then will you achieve the individuality bread of independence.

In every writing career there are seasons when you must begin to rely on your own instincts. You stop, for a season, learning from other author’s and begin learning from yourself. From the well of other author's you drink deeply of the writing craft, learn new technique, appraise the benefits of attitudes toward the profession, weigh the value of differing styles, and sometimes even learn the basic elements of voice. But once you've had your fill, you must drink from your own glass.

If your search is a blessed one, you may find other author's from whose well you will draw again in time. You must be the master. And you must write for the vast audience of readers. Not for the chosen members of your group.

The writing group is a give and take, a careful balance. Take without giving and you become a leech, a pig eating from another's trough. Give without taking and your well, no matter how deep, will go dry. Before it does, you may decide the time has come to leave your group for a season. Otherwise, you deliberately live a repetition, too afraid to assume your individuality and your uniqueness which is the breading ground of your next big step.

Ly

 
At 6/12/2008 12:38 PM, Blogger Tristi Pinkston said...

To nose my way into this debate, I'd like to point out that a critique group doesn't have to be made up entirely of professionals. We're writing for the public, are we not? And don't we want to know what the public thinks of our writing? My group is comprised of people at many different levels of publishing experience, and every one of them contribute things I need to hear. Sometimes I need a more seasoned response, and sometimes I need a less experienced, and yet still intelligent, response. If I want to get a good sampling of public opinion, I want my group to be varied.

That said, Stephanie, I have been the author who changes things on their readers. :) So I related. Good luck with your draft and can't wait to read the book when it comes out!

 
At 6/12/2008 3:12 PM, Blogger Noble M Standing said...

I only slightly agree with Ly and only because of the fact that a writers support group in south east UT doesn't exist. Belive me I tried. I have had to step back and look at my work with a readers eye and an editors eye.

I had a ROCKING group in Tooele, and I still associate with them even if it is only by email and author lunches. I wish I could move all of them here. This is where I agree with Jeff and Tristi, I so wish I had someone to go to and say look at this, tell me.....

Moving has made me realize that I am on my own in lots of writing decisions, and because of geographical reasons will not have any sort of group soon. If anything, I have learned alot about myself as a writer.

I wonder LY if your previous group burned you somehow and your feelings stem from bitterness. Just a thought.

Michelle the lone writer..... :)

 
At 6/12/2008 3:39 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michelle:

There is a valuable role for a writer's group. Depending on the length of your career, it is usually of more value near the beginning. You've been forced from yours. That's unfortunate. There is also a time to make the conscious decision to leave the enjoyable social environs of your group and strike out on your. It isn't exile. It isn't hurt feelings. It has nothing to do with bitterness. It is not a social decision. It’s a professional one.

If the length of your career is long—not the length of your writing hobby, but the length of your career—then you will likely find that you must begin to learn from yourself. You may return to a group peopled with new or familiar faces, but you will return having found your individual voice. You may return to a stimulating collaborative effort with other professionals, or maybe attend an excellent conference, but you will have found the holy grail of uniqueness. You will have become a more seasoned author with much to give to those who are just starting out on their writing quest.

There is no doubt that authors, regardless of their experience, learn from each other. It’s a mutual lifting we call edification. But during the season when you’re away, when you leave your group and strike out on your own, the time you spend in your writing wilderness, may one day be referred to as your writing sanctification.

Frodo had a quest. You do too. All by yourself.

Ly

 
At 6/12/2008 4:48 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Michelle:

Another thing struck me as I considered your comment. It has very little to do with the topic of writers groups, and everything to do with the voice or your view point character.

In your comment you wrote:

"I wonder LY if your previous group burned you somehow and your feelings stem from bitterness."

When your viewpoint character begins making observations about the setting, the other characters that people the setting or the events that unfold in that setting, the reader ends up learning much more about the view point character than she ever learns about the setting, the other characters or the unfolding events.

The view point character describes the parts of the setting that are important to her and she describes them in a way that is unique to her. Not only does she view the other characters, she begins making judgments about them, about why they wear what they wear, why they drive what they drive, why they say what they say. And she views the events from her unique perspective. She may be describing the parish priest, but when the scene is over we know infinitely more about the view point character than we know about the priest.

That may be one reason readers are afraid to become writers, even in a forum like this. They don't post because, well, they’re afraid of revealing too much about themselves. Instead they’re content to keep silent their observations not because they don’t have anything worthy to contribute, but they fear the scrutiny. Fiction authors are often misunderstood. We have to vicariously portray the thoughts and actions of multiple characters. The more competent we become, the more we assume the identity of our characters. And the reader begins to associate our characters’ thoughts with ours. Sometimes we’re saints. Sometimes we’re sinner. Sometimes we’re monsters. Sometimes we’re romantics. And all we did was our job.

Which begs the question Michelle: Has your writer’s group burned you and made you bitter? 

Writing is such a fish bowl. Good luck swimming in cloudy waters.

Ly

 
At 6/12/2008 10:06 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Wow--what a debate!

While I understand where Ly is coming from, I'm in Jeff's camp (being as I'm in his group, I guess that's no surprise).

No matter how independent a writer tries to become, she CANNOT see all of the weaknesses (let alone all the strengths) in her own work. It's impossible. If you're the one that wrote it, you're too close to be objective. It was all in your head--isn't it all on the page thay way? Um, no.

That's why feedback (outside of your official editor) is crucial.

If Steven King and Amy Tan are still part of a critique group, then I figure I'm in good company.

In mine, we don't all write the same genre--not even close. But we stretch each other and push one another. My work is lightyears today from where it would have been without them, and I'm still improving all the time. The idea of putting out a book without them looking over it first makes me shudder. They've stopped me from looking like a fool many, many times.

I grant that my group is unusual, but it's worth its weight in gold.

 
At 6/13/2008 12:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Okay. I give. Writing groups are the best. Try one on. If it fits, buy it. Don't wear it out. Change the oil (if you write fantasy). Or, if you write romance, feed it lots of chocolate. Take care of it and it will take care of you. And when its worn out or used up, call "flying wrench". They make it hum like new. Work guaranteed for one year. Extended waranty available. Cash only. No adverbs.

Ly

 
At 6/13/2008 12:35 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

I think it comes down to the "different strokes" thing. All writers need feedback, but there's no rule that says we all need to get it in the same way. What works wonderfully for one writer might not work for another. We're all individuals and we all have different circumstances.

 
At 6/13/2008 2:24 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stephanie:

Yes, I see your point. But by seeing yours you may miss mine. The concept of “What works for you now” ignores the pressures of change that come with the passage of time. And it turns a blind eye to history and the path trod by maturing writers over the past few centuries.

In other words, what works for you ten years from now, may not be what works for you now. Its not wither groups are good or bad. And it really isn’t a discussion of wither feedback is helpful or not. The point isn’t even if feedback from sources other than an editor or writing group is good for some and not for others. The point I make has to do with the longevity of your career. As your work unfolds, as it matures, as it extends further into your sojourn on earth, do you tend to follow the path of other maturing authors? Do you begin to depend less and less on others and more and more on your individual, personal, unique inner feedback? If you start publishing in your twenties or thirties and you find yourself still writing novels in your fifties or sixties do you tend to do what others who find themselves writing for fifties year do? Will you strike out more on your own? Will you become more of an individual in your approach to writing?

None of us commenting on this subject right now are mature writers. We’ve been publishing for three, four, eight, ten, maybe twelve years. But once you extend to thirty and forty years in the saddle, you may find that you follow a trend among mature, long term, experienced, seasoned professionals. They tend to do it more and more on their own. It’s a natural evolution. It isn't about getting burned by your writer's group. It isn't about social or affiliation needs or feedback or different strokes for different folks.

When you've been writing for forty years your writing group becomes more of an association of professionals—people you can call on the phone and say hey, I've got this writing problem any suggestions? Instead of a group editing session, it’s a five minute pick your brain session over the phone or over lunch, interspersed with a discussion about the weather, the family and the ball game (or if you write romance, its about flowers, chocolates and the soaps).

The suggestion about leaving your writing group has little to do with feedback and everything to do with the natural progression of a writing career. As you mature you tend to need less and less group interaction, and more and more listening to your soul. Maybe it isn’t until you mature that you’re able or ready to listen to yourself. And there’s no doubt that you will b aided, from time to time, by the wise counsel from voices you trust. But the voice you begin to trust more is your own.

Mature writers tend to learn less and less from others, and depend more and more on the reserves of observation, experience and feedback built up over decades of professional writing. They drink from their own wells. And well they should. Not only have they stored up a reservoir that aides them in their pursuit, they have, after so long a time, usually found their unique voice.

May all of you be writing fifty years from now. May you be doing more and more of it from the wells of your own writing souls. And when you do need some feedback call Jeff or Annette, but don’t let them talk you into stopping by to meet with the whole group. There just isn’t enough room around their kitchen tables for that many rockers.

Ly

 
At 6/13/2008 3:39 PM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

Ly,
I see your point. But you admitted yourself that, by your definition, none of us are "mature writers," so I don't know how you're so sure that they've all moved on the way you describe.

As I mentioned before, Stephen King is still part of a critique group. He's been publishing for what, three or four decades? I assume you'd consider him "mature," but he still finds value in the critique process.

Yes, writers do evolve in their methods. But I'd like to hear it from the horse's mouth that they all change in the way you suggest. None of us can put forth that kind of evidence.

I don't lean on my group in the same ways I did eight years ago, but I still lean on them just as heavily--just in different ways.

 
At 6/13/2008 4:18 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

That's great Annette. I think Stephen Kind is a terrific writer. You’re wise to glean what you can from his experience.

In addition to the ideas I suggested about the maturation of a writing career is the idea of repetitive feedback. In your writing group you may be able to count on Jeff to catch some problem with characterization. In fact, you may depend on that from him and when he isn’t there you miss his feedback And you may be able to count on another member of the group for grammar. Then there's member number three who is great with dialogue. There's also a member of your group who does narration better than the best, another who is an expert with interior dialogue and yet one more who is the master of description. You count on them to help you in those areas. You depend on their feedback.

There are three red flags I raise as you monitor your writing career and the feedback you get from whatever source it comes. First make sure you're not depending on feedback to the exclusion of developing your own strengths in those areas.

Second, there are likely areas of writing for which no one in your writing group has a relative strength. You may be conscious of those writing problems but since no member of your group focuses their faculties on them, you may be letting them pass with little notice. You may even think you don’t need to worry about them since no one else did. There may also be writing problems or technical issues of which none of the members of your group are familiar—something that is beyond your collective experience. You may want to make sure you leave open the option to strike out and see the rest of the writing world.

Finally, feedback tends to be fairly repetitive when it comes from the same people. It tends to be colored by the same rose glasses through which the writer who critiques your work views your writing and the world. Be sure not to condemn your writing to a life of repetition. Writing in circles will produce the same novel twenty years from now as you wrote last year.

Monitor your career. Make adjustments as you see fit. And make sure you don't fall into any repetitive circumstances that could hinder the natural progression of your writing.

Good luck.

Ly

 
At 6/17/2008 12:11 PM, Blogger Heather Justesen said...

I joined a critique group after the lasted Storymaker's conference and am loving it. I live in a rural area and drive more than an hour every week to participate, but just in the past few months I've seen a difference in my writing, and I catch things I never would have noticed before.

While I may bring something to group that is the first draft of that scene, what I'm working on is well into it's fourth draft over all (possibly more, I forget how many versions I written since I started it a couple of years ago), so continuity isn't as big of an issue.

Except when I forget to take out the reference to Christmas music when I change the time line to spring.

It'll be a long time before I feel comfortable bringing a first draft to my group, but I've got enough half-finished stories that shouldn't be a problem. lol

At this point in time, this is absolutely where I need to be--I'll leave future decisions to the future.

 
At 6/17/2008 5:56 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I can't speak for when I have 30-40books published, but with 4 books out, I'm still asking for critiques. I'm in a weekly group that's excellent to make sure the story is working as I write it. Also when I jump genres, immeditate feedback from the critique group is priceless. When each book is done, I send it to a handful of readers (some in my critique group, some not) to make sure it works as a whole. Both methods coming together have so far maintained getting published. Also, it keeps me motivated--each night when I leave I feel determined to do better, write more, and keep up with the market.

Sometimes I pull a scene out of a book that I need help with--because I'm lousy at writing high-action and I know that so and so will be at critique and can help me.

Also, I rely them to make sure I NEVER get stuck in a rut.

Another aspect of a critique group is the responsibility for each member to stay well-read and current in the market.

I definitely think you should limit the NUMBER of people who read completely through your book or you'll never finish editing. Recently, I read a NY Times Bestselling author's book and thought it was over-written to the point of the natural writer's voice wasn't there. I jumped to the acknowledgements and sure enough, she thanked so many people for editing, that I realized it's possible to have too many chiefs in the kitchen.

 

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