Thursday, February 25, 2010

The long-form critique

I wrote my first "novel" when I joined National Novel Writing Month in 2006. The challenge was to write fifty-thousand words in the thirty days of November. Somehow, despite work and family and holiday interruptions, I made it. Before December first arrived, I passed the 50K mark, but I had not completed my story. After a short break for the holidays, however, I returned to my manuscript and finished it the following February to the cheers of friends and family. It was awful, but the first draft was done. Then I set it aside.

Since then I participated in NaNoWriMo three more times, "winning" all but once. But I never went back to that first Nano-novel. Well, that's not exactly true. I edited and rewrote several of the early chapters and brought them to my writers group for a critique. I honed and sharpened until I was reasonably happy with them, but I never got past about chapter five . . . until now.

This year, my writers group has started a new sub-group: our long-form critique group. We review up to one-hundred pages from two authors each month. Every member of the subgroup is expected to give each submission a careful, close edit, looking not just for word choice and quality of description, but for character growth, story arc, use of setting, consistency of voice, and the myriad other things that distinguish a manuscript from a publishable work.

It is a grueling process both for the reviewer and the reviewed. The reviewer knows that he or she must focus intently to understand what is working in the manuscript, and try to find suggestions for how to fix what is not. The person whose work is under review needs to sit for an hour and a half and listen to how far short their wonderful gift to literature still falls, and how much work they still have to do.

And they hear it all. "I don't like your main character." "People don't talk that way." "I wouldn't have read past page ten if I didn't have to." These are real comments from our first two months of long-form meetings. We lay it all out: the scary, blunt, harsh-sounding, and--we hope--helpful comments. One who has been through it looks at those of us who have not and says simply, "Be afraid. Be very afraid!"

March is my month to go. I have dusted off that first Nano-novel, and am trying to edit it past the first five chapters. Believe me, beyond here, there be dragons. Since one of the time-honored tenets of NaNoWriMo is to "turn off your internal editor" and write with all your might, an awful lot of bad writing sneaks into those fifty-thousand words.

So February has been MyNoEdMo--My Novel Editing Month. Working under the deadline of March 1 to submit my one-hundred pages has me editing with all my might. And while I look forward to getting some feedback, and learning what more I need to do to make it a marketable piece of fiction, I would be kidding you if I didn't admit that I am very afraid.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

How wonderful to be part of a writers group!

It is a truth universally acknowledged . . . that writing is a solitary activity. But does that mean it has to be lonely?

I think most authors would agree that at times it must. But we also need a little help from our friends. In my case, much of that help comes from my family; my husband, daughter, and brother are all writers. But as wonderful as these people are, they love me, so when I ask their opinion of a passage, they are unlikely to tell me it stinks.

My writers group is not always so diplomatic. I was struggling with the opening for my new Gracie McIntyre mystery. For some reason, I find that to be one of the hardest parts of the novel to get right. I had written and scrapped several attempts, and finally had a chapter that I thought would do the trick . . . until I took it to a meeting of the Bethlehem Writers Group.

"It's death, Carol!" one member said.

Really? Death?

Okay, it's a mystery, but that wasn't quite what I was going for. I was hoping for a great hook, or perhaps a chapter with a lot of potential. But no. It was just plain bad.

I had to laugh. That particular member never pulls her punches, but if my skin is too thin to handle that, then perhaps I'm in the wrong business. And isn't it better that I found out then?

I scrapped that chapter, of course, and took a completely new tack, starting the novel in a different place altogether. No one who reads the book will ever know how bad it might have been. Of course, if it had stayed that bad, no one would read the book at all!

So thank you members of the Bethlehem Writers Group for your support, your insight, your editorial judgment . . . and even your bluntness!