My intention was to find a writing group to join sometime this year. It was still sitting there on my list of Owl and Zebra goals when I was thrilled to find myself, one evening last spring, in a conversation with a new acquaintance about a burgeoning writing group which would happily include me, if I wanted it to. Score! It took a few months for the leader to get the thing off the ground (Bonus: the leader was not me, but a successful magazine editor), but we eventually got together over appropriately pretentious coffee (with the option of alcohol or tea) and made plans for our first real meet. That meet was set for the night before I left for vacation in October, and I volunteered the first one hundred pages of The Family Elephant’s Jewels for critique.
Now, I have not been in many writing groups. They pretty much all bunched up around my early college years, when I thought I was going to major in literature and was winkling my way into the writing community and onto the staff of the literary journal, newspaper, and yearbook. I had a very rough time with the director of all these groups (or would, eventually) and the community itself was very small, which led to some redundancies. But I have thrown a poem out there to be bled, before. And I’ve published a novel. And I’ve done twelve-step programs. And I’ve preached. And I’ve blogged. So I know what vulnerable is like.
But I have never had a novel critiqued, live. (My first novel was edited by a group of first readers (and an editor) who communicated with me by computer.)
First off, I arrived fashionably late (completely on purpose) to find the most punctual group of writers I have ever met all sitting around, waiting for our pizza. Then, we each went around and gave an account of our most recent writing exploits complete with current goals. (There are five of us, by the way.) Very smart. Then, we dove in. Or I should say, they dove in. On email, I had given a brief request for the type of criticism I would like (big-picture story issues, POV, etc.) and we had decided (I think) that the writer-on-trial did not have to stay mute. I congratulated myself on how poised I was: inclining my head and looking people in the eye; jotting pages of notes in my beat-up, hard-bound sketch book; remaining mute on issues I disagreed with on principal or emotionally; piping up with witty jokes about my own characters.
But really, the experience was all about my gracious hosts. They were kind, but not soft. They were questioning, but not excusing. And oh my goodness isn’t it the best experience to hear other people talk about your characters and your events like they’re real people and it’s a real thing? It’s one of my favorite parts about writing, akin to watching someone enjoy your child. When the group began and ended our session clearly hating one of my characters (Toby) and creating ways for him to come to his demise, it was richly rewarding.
Here is some other clearly awesome advice that I received:
Think of ushering a reader through a novel, like a video game. With each engaging and memorable thing you do, you get a gold coin. With each challenging thing you do, you lose them. So before challenging the reader (being mysterious, using a literary device, going descriptive, etc.), you have to ask yourself, “Do I have enough gold coins to play this out?”
Creating reader emotion about a character is like a battery which you can then plug in to other scenes that need more power to charge them. Do you need the reader on board with an idea? Pit a hated character against it.
Shorten my sentences.
Don’t make the readers figure out when and where and who.
Watch point of view and time changes.
And Toby is a jerk. He has to go.