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Sunday, April 6, 2008

Slitting Open Your Chest

No, this post is not a how-to for the darker aspects of fantasy fiction. This has to do with one of the writer's hardest tasks. Two weeks ago I handed out the prologue and first two chapters of Unholy Alliance to my critique group. And yesterday was D-day - the meeting where I would hear their first critique. Putting your work--your vision--your beloved characters and passionate prose--in front of others for the first time is a tough, but necessary part of the writing life.

Perhaps some writers' brains are capable of distinguishing the prose/characters/story the they intended to put down from the prose/characters/story they actually put down. Mine is not. I can write,

"He took chance on love"

and read it over fifty times never missing the "a" because my brain believes I wrote it. In the same way, I can write an action scene that plays perfectly in my head, but a reader will say, "Where the heck did those fifty cavalry men come from?" or "Weren't his eyes still closed when he shot that arrow?"

I need fresh eyes to look at my work and tell me what's confusing. What's missing. What they believe they have learned about the characters, the mystery, the world. I make the judgment as to whether they've learned what I want or experienced what I intend. Critique is a list of symptoms. The writer must diagnose the disease. It is not even the task of the critiquer to offer solutions, though sometimes I'll ask what might have worked better.

I am fortunate to have six excellent writers who read my work (and I read theirs as well, because you can learn just as much about writing from critiquing as from being critiqued.) I was a bit nervous about handing out these first chapters. When I handed out the first chapter of Flesh and Spirit, which I thought was much more polished than these, they hammered me for a number of problems - nicely, of course. So what was the verdict?
Overall, a great reception. Whew! Best: they enjoyed Portier's voice as narrator, and the developing relationship between my three investigators. They liked the magic, and the background of the conflict between science and magic, though there were clearly some places where I had left ambiguity. Does "blood-borne magic" imply that you have to prick your finger every time you work magic? No, no! It means "genetic" - inherited! And using actual blood in spellmaking is actually an important nastiness, because it can (and does) lead to all sorts of terrible crimes.

The biggest negative? Yes, I knew the short prologue, which is an introduction to our narrator and how he got involved in the mystery, would garner some negative reactions. It violates a couple of accepted standards for "openings." Will I change it? Not yet. I still think it might work. I'm anxious to hear from a member who was not there yesterday, to see if any comment jars me out of thinking I want to leave it as is.

Some authors disdain critique groups, saying that they don't believe in "writing by committee," and yet they will swear by their "first readers" who might be a wife or a good friend. Yet a first reader who does nothing but tell you how great a writer you are is just as useless as having a critique group that believes you should rewrite your story to please any or all of its members or accept 100% of their suggested line edits. A good first reader will give meaningful, useful critique. And a good critique group is just a set of good first readers. I value mine enormously.


Anonymous said...

The first time I read the line "He took chance on love," I just added in the a automatically. I probably would not be the best reader. (I am pretty good at finding plot holes though so my writing group didn't kick me out).

carolwriter said...

If you're lucky, the members of your critique group will bring varying skills to the read - which is another advantage over a single first reader.

Yep, just having someone say, "But why didn't the girl just _ _ _?" can be one of the most valuable questions.

Anonymous said...

hehe I'm prone to skimming, and when I really want to find out what happens next I tend to rush ahead, getting the feeling of the words instead of going into details (leaving that for re-reading later on if the story is particularly good), so I would definitely be one to miss the "a" in a phrase. But that makes me a pretty lenient reader for the most part, and probably a horrible critic. A critique group is a very practical idea though, but I guess it takes most people a certain amount of confidence and thick skin to be able to benefit from it.

I'm glad the writing is going well for you! It sounds like you're making great progress~ =)

Nature Nut /JJ Loch said...

Carol, great post and I have a grandstand seat watching the birth of UNHOLY ALLIANCE from the beginning of the edits from your blog. :D

My mind misses small words too, especially when I am tired. There aren't many hormones circulating to give me the needed umph sometimes. Chocolate is a great cure but sometimes I need a nap.

I looove critique partners. Have several of them with their unique insights guiding me through the craft. Have learned oodles and wouldn't be at this point without them. And they value my input.

Critique partners are also great when submission time rolls around. What support!!! We're sisters who have found each other through the guidance of the Master. The internet has widened His scope. :D We are having the time of our lives creating, exploring, celebrating, boosting our hopes, becoming published one by one.

It sounds like you have some GREAT cps.

Have a super day and I delight in the thought of reading ALL of your books.

Hugs, Nancy aka JJ...from Deidre's loop.

carolwriter said...

A good group can help you develop a thicker skin. It is SO easy to get defensive. (That's why it is good to make sure that the people in your group are serious writers, as well as serious and knowledgable readers.) You have to approach it as "I am not perfect. Like every writer I have blind spots." A good group forces you to climb out of the rut and look at your words with new eyes. They should leave you energized, excited to improve - even if the exact things they report are not what you end up fixing!

A poor group is the one that makes you never want to write again or tries to rewrite your work to their own image!

carolwriter said...

Hi Nancy and welcome! Yes, a good critique group can provide the "support" function as well as the "critique" function. Sometimes that has to develop over time. Sounds as if you've found a great bunch

ssas said...

I'm so fortunate to have my fellow editors as my front-line critters. But I do have a couple of other folks including a fellow writer from Ireland. They make up my writing posse, and without them, I'd get nothing accomplished.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

What you said! Every now and then I will read a published book and come across something that makes me say, "I'll bet that writer doesn't have a critique group." Usually it's something that strikes me as vastly implausible (If it's far futures, and he's never been on earth and he's not even human, how the heck would be know what netsuke was?")
No matter how unimportant it is to the plot, it's still not good to have something that makes the reader stop and say, "Hey! wait a minute!"

carolwriter said...

Some of the most interesting "wait a minute"s I've had to avoid are what I call "reverse anachronisms." (Maybe there's a real term.) These are usually technical developments/words/concepts that SEEM as if they are incorrect for my approximate time period/technology level, but in fact are correct. So many technical developments that we in the West associate with the Renaissance or later, might have existed in Chinese or Arab cultures centuries earlier. One example, plaster casts. In Restoration, when Alexander broke his leg, I had to consider whether to use a plaster cast. It was definitely available in Arab medicine of a similar time, but I worried that it would jump out at the reader who would assume it an anachronism.