Last week when I wrote about how to tell when your novel is done, I mentioned my critique group and their reactions to my manuscript. You may have noticed other authors talking about their groups or thanking them on the acknowledgements pages of their published books. And you may be thinking: I don’t have a group, I have no idea how to get one, and it’s lonely out here.
I hear you. Good critique groups are not easy to find, especially if you live out in the boonies like I do. If you happen to be in a college creative writing program or taking a workshop, you might have a chance to critique each other’s work, but that’s only a temporary fix, and these might not even be the people you want to have reading your work. The ideal critique group is long-lasting, local, and small enough that every writer gets the attention he or she needs, but big enough to offer varied opinions. The members share a similar level of skill and experience, and they understand what you’re trying to do with your writing. They stick to a regular schedule and a consistent process that works.
How do you find such a group? That’s where networking comes in. Most writers would rather just write. Too bad. There are many steps between the writer and reading world, and you need other people to get there. Here’s what you do:
* Join a local or regional writing organization. Here in Oregon, I belong to Willamette Writers and Writers on the Edge. We also have Oregon Writers Colony. In California, I belonged to the California Writers Club, which has branches all over the state. Most states have their own writing organizations. A quick Internet search will surely find you a group. You can find a great list of genre-specific groups at http://www.writersrelief.com/writers-associations-organizations.
* Go to writing events. Look for readings, open mics, workshops and conferences where you can meet other writers.
* Get involved. Join the board, volunteer, offer to bring cookies, read your work at the open mic, talk to people. Writers are inherently shy, but if you get yourself an official job to do, it’s a lot easier to meet people.
* Ask people about critique groups. Do they know of one that could use another member? Would they like to start one with you? If there’s a newsletter, submit a notice that you’re looking for a critique group. Our group was born one night before a Willamette Writers program when three of us were having dinner together and discovered we were all looking for a critique group. We set a date, started meeting, added a couple more members, and have been meeting every other Tuesday since then. When I lived in California, I was invited by a fellow member of California Writer’s Club to join her group.
Not every group succeeds. You may need to try different combinations of people. It helps if you’re all working on similar types of writing. In my group, we’re all doing novels or memoirs right now. Another group I know does nothing but poetry. And you need to set up a process. Where and when will you meet? Will you read passages out loud or distribute copies before the meeting? Our group sends up to 10 pages by email a few days before the meeting so members arrive having already read and marked up their copies. We go clockwise around the table giving our comments while the author listens and takes notes. We talk about what works and what doesn’t and about where the story is going. We discuss issues like flashbacks, point of view and plot. It’s painful when a friend says, “No, this section doesn’t work,” but it makes our work much stronger in the long run.
It’s not essential to meet in person. You can exchange critiques around the world by computer, adding comments and corrections with the “track changes” function in Word. You could even meet via Skype or Google Hangout. You can also join existing online critique sites such as the Critique Circle, where you earn critiques for your work by commenting on other members’ work. I belonged for a long time, and it was helpful. But there’s something about meeting face to face, working through the pages of your work together, that really does make it stronger.
We writers would like to think we don’t need anyone else. But we do. We cannot be objective about our own work, and we will never see it as a reader sees it. We need a critique group.
But of course there’s nothing to critique until you write it.
So now go write.
A member of my critique group has been struggling with his novel for months. Every two weeks, he’d bring us his pages, excited about the story he was telling, and we’d say, no, this doesn’t work. We couldn’t identify with the characters or put ourselves into the scenes. It read like a textbook, boring. Brave soul that he is, he never got angry or gave up but went home to try again.
At our last meeting, I suggested he open a new file and try something radical: Write a few pages in first person and present tense, as in “Suddenly I realize the gun is pointing straight at me” instead of “He realized the gun was pointing at him.” Oh my gosh, what a difference. Today’s pages are wonderful. I feel it, I see it, I am in the mind of his hero.
I like first-person writing. I think it makes it easier to slip into a character’s voice. But writing in first person doesn’t work for every situation. Often in fiction, you need the distance of writing as an observer. In first person, the narrator can only know what the character knows while the third-person narrator can know everything. In other kinds of writing, such as poetry, writing in first person can allow you to take on someone else’s voice, or it may lead you into verse that is too self-involved.
Nonfiction is a whole other thing when it comes to point of view. If you’re writing articles for a magazine, newspaper or website, you have to go with the publication’s style. If most of the articles are in first-person, yours should be, too. If not, the word “I” should not appear anywhere in your story.
Point of view is a huge subject I’m not going to cover in depth today. You can link on some of the sites listed below for details about POV. I’m just saying if your manuscript isn’t working, try changing point of view. It can make a huge difference.
As for present tense vs. past, it’s up to you. Past tense is the traditional way to go with fiction, but writing in present tense has become quite popular. It definitely helps the reader get into the scene and feel as if it’s happening right now. But it’s tricky to keep all your verb tenses in line. My nearly finished novel is in present tense, and I keep promising myself that I’ll go back to past tense with the next one. With poetry and creative nonfiction, you can go either way. If you’re writing articles, check what the publication does and do likewise.
Sometimes when we’re working on a writing project, we get locked into however we started it, feeling as if we’ve gone too far to change. But it’s never too late. Whichever way you’re doing it now, try a few pages the other way. It might make a huge difference.
Visit these sites to read more about Point of View:
Now (second person, present tense), go write.
We have approximately one million unique words in the English language. The number varies, depending on which expert you ask. The numbers for how many of those words we use also vary wildly, but they all come out to fewer than 10 percent. Of course, we have the words we understand and the words we speak or write. Our language is full of delightful words that I understand but never employ, words like famished, harbinger, porcelain, and scurrilous.
I find that like most people, I’m guilty of using the same words over and over. For example, “amazing” comes out of my mouth at least 20 times a day. Surely everything is not amazing. But I hear the word all around me, so I use it. I go for the excessive word. I’m not just hungry, I’m starving. I’m not just cold, I’m freezing.
We often mimic what our favorite TV characters say. “I know. Right?” “Seriously.” “Seriously?” We also imitate our friends and family, copying their favorite expressions and their favorite curses. That’s not a terrible thing. Using the same words helps us communicate. BUT if we’re writers, we need to go beyond repeating the same old words. I’m not saying we need to start writing in such a way that readers won’t understand what we’re talking about. God forbid. But we do need to stretch a bit, to vary our language and find those words that are the best fit for the circumstances.
I’m in the midst of fine-tuning my new novel. Last week, I found a tool that helped me identify words that I use excessively. It’s amazing. Oops, I said amazing again. How about ingenious? In Microsoft Word, go to the edit menu and click on replace. In the blank that says “find,” insert the word you’re looking for. In the “replace” blank, type ^&. Now click on “replace all.” It will give you a number without changing anything in your document. Magic, right?
In my manuscript, I found 94 uses of “really.” I wrote “car” 150 times and “phone” 115. I used “freakin’ far too many times and employed f— more than I like. My character speaks of “crying” or “tears” 74 times. I used “so” more than 400 times. Obviously I have some work to do.
We all have our pet words. Among the most overused are “amazing,” “awesome,” “great,” “quite,” “so,” and “then.” Many are qualifiers like “really” or “very” that can be deleted without hurting a thing. Others are lazy words, not quite the right word but the one that comes to mind first. When I write freezing, is it truly freezing? Are things turning to ice, or is it just cold? Is it chilly, nippy, crisp, biting, or piercing? Am I shivering? Do I have goose bumps? Are my feet going numb? Am I truly starving, as in going to die for lack of food, or did I just miss breakfast?
When you’re writing a first draft and the words are flowing, don’t stop to worry about making each word perfect and unique. If you’re not sure of the right word, mark it and keep going. But when the rush of words slows, go back and reconsider your words. Is there a better word, a more accurate word, a more colorful word, a more powerful word?
Remember what Mark Twain said. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”
If you must, consult a thesaurus, a book that gives you words that mean pretty much the same thing. I’ve got my yellowed old Roget’s Thesaurus paperback, but I’m finding it easier to consult thesaurus.com online. Plug in a word and see what you get. But don’t use a word if you don’t know what it means and always consider whether you need that word at all. Seriously.
Now go write.
The book I’m reading right now demonstrates everything novelists should NOT do. How I wish we were reading this in my critique group so we could help the author make it better. But it’s too late. She has already published it. I’m not going to even hint at the name of the author or the title of her book. I had read another of her books previously, and it had some of the same problems, but they weren’t so blatant.
If this book is so bad, why am I still reading it? Well, I kind of want to know what’s going to happen. Also, after the heavy books I’ve read recently, it’s easy on the brain.
What is the author doing wrong? Sigh. So many things that Theresa, Angelique, Bill, “Tough Shit” Dorothy and I would tear apart in our group.
Let’s start with the little things. When you’re writing dialogue, and the next line is someone else speaking or doing something, you start a new paragraph. Always. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten tripped up in this book, thinking one character is doing or saying something and it turns out to be the other.
You need to spell everything right and use correct grammar. That should be obvious, but I have found errors in almost every book I have read lately.
We have more than little nits to pick here. We have big bugaboos.
First, the characters. They are all cliches, people I have seen in countless books and movies before. We’ve got two brothers, one good, one evil, an Irish maid who is all “sure and begorra,” and young women who are prissy and helpless to the point I want to slap them. Yes, this takes place in the 1800s, but still, when our lead character bursts into tears or gets faint at a harsh word or the sight of a bare leg, Lord have mercy. I want to see real people who are so distinct I feel as if I know them. These people are just cardboard cutouts to me.
Our lead characters are not supposed to be helpless victims. I can’t get behind a woman who gets the vapors all the time and makes stupid decisions, ones that she wouldn’t make if she had a speck of common sense. We need heroes with some guts.
We also need to be realistic. People rarely meet and decide two weeks later that they’re ready to get married. The process of falling in love and being sure you want to be together for life takes longer; it’s more complicated than a few walks through the garden exchanging pleasantries.
Second, the author’s research appears shallow and obvious. I can just see how she looked up the era’s popular songs and books and plopped them into her story. Then she read a piece on a major event occurring at that time and happened to have her characters involved. You CAN use real events. It can be very effective, but here, it’s just obviously stuck in. Immerse yourself in your setting so thoroughly that the writing becomes natural and your readers feel as if they’re really there without having to force the connection.
Third, the book suffers from inconsistencies. If you say A at the beginning of the chapter, you need to stick with A or guide us into B. If your heroine was outside talking to someone a second ago, how can she be inside cooking dinner now unless you take us there? The readers can’t see what’s in your head unless you write it out for them.
Years ago, at a conference where I gave a talk on print-on-demand publishing, a famous agent told me he believes that authors who rush to self-publish their work often fail to do the last big revision, to give it the final polish that would come via the editor when you work with a traditional publishing house. It’s almost there, he said. If only they would give it a little more time. I think he’s right in many cases.
If you are going to publish your own work, that’s fine. I’ve done it several times. But hire a professional editor or at least run it through a critique group that can help you see the problems that you can’t see by yourself. Don’t hurry into print without being sure it’s as good as you can possibly make it. Don’t make the reader roll her eyes as she reads words that aren’t quite ready for prime time.