When I first came to Australia in 1976 I moved straight from Rochester, a major city in upstate New York, to Broken Hill, New South Wales – a mining town in the middle of the outback. (Talk about culture shock!)
The house we rented had no indoor toilet and one morning as I made my first trek out to the ‘dunny’ I came upon an amazing sight. There on the path was the biggest spider I had ever seen (a Huntsman with a leg-span as big as a dinner plate) grappling with the biggest wasp I’d ever seen. The battle was both ferocious and frightening and I stood transfixed. (Until our cat came along and ate them both.)
I’ve since learned that that wasp is a native parasitic species. Unlike others of its kind, it lives alone instead of in communal nests. After mating, the female finds a big juicy spider, paralyses it with her sting and carries it to a pre-dug burrow. She shoves the spider deep inside, lays a single egg on her victim and seals the hole.
Another species of parasitic wasp builds a kind of maternity ward – a series of tiny mud chambers joined in a row which I often find stuck to an outside wall of our house. Once when I cut one open, I found a different spider sealed in each chamber, each with its own wasp egg attached. (Goo!)
It struck me years later that this species could well have been the inspiration for the creature in Aliens. At the very least the existence of such real life ‘monsters’ lends believability to their fictional counterparts.
There really is nothing an author could create in a story that is stranger than the life that already exists on this planet.
Aside from giving me feedback on my work, my crit group helps me in other ways and we enjoy sharing other writing-related activities.
One way my partners sometimes help me is when I’m feeling discouraged about my writing. At a meeting I might say to the group, ‘I’m feeling my writing is really terrible and I’m not getting any better. Can you tell me something you think I do well or some way you feel my writing has improved?’ They are always happy to oblige and I leave the meeting feeling much better.
Another thing I like to do once a year or so is to ask my partners for an objective assessment of my writing in general. Maybe it’s the teacher in me, but I like getting regular updates on my progress and no-one knows how my writing has evolved better than my crit partners.
If you were going to do this as a group, you could set aside an entire meeting (the first or last of the year seems most appropriate) in which every member would present a thoughtful supportive assessment of the others’ writing – that person’s current strengths and weaknesses, and how their writing has improved.
If all partners take part in this it can be a help with critiquing throughout the year. Defining and discussing each members’ writing weaknesses helps others in the group focus on those areas when doing their critiques.
Another way my crit partners help me is when I run into a problem with my plot. The trick to getting the best help here is to clearly explain your problem and present your partners with a specific question. (If my character does X in the second chapter how can he do Y in the 10th?)
These brainstorming sessions are often my group’s most animated discussions as everyone feeds off the ideas of others. Plus I'm capitalizing on the combined knowledge all of them have outside of writing.
By far the most fun things I do with my crit partners is writing retreats. Three times a year the four of us go away to a remote setting, often with other writer friends, and spend an entire week doing nothing but writing. Talk about a creative shot in the arm!
Who said writing was a lonely activity?
My husband and I have been in America since early July, staying with family on Cape Cod, MA and visiting friends throughout New England. With our return to Australia less than one week away I find myself growing nostalgic, especially with the changing season.
Growing up in the U.S. northeast, autumn was always my favorite time of year. The weather makes me feel so alive – cool crisp breezes, warm sun, the sky an electric shade of cobalt and filled with plumes of fair-weather clouds.
But there’s something else. Something in the air I can’t define. I think if I were blind I’d still know when autumn came in New England. Even without seeing the pumpkins on every doorsteps, the mums in every garden, the leaves flitting down like so many frenzied monarch butterflies.
As I set out for my walk this morning I found myself inhaling deeply, eager to breath in the rich blend of damp earth and fallen leaves overlaid with a hint of wood smoke. There probably isn’t an apple tree for miles but I swear I could smell one!
And is it also my imagination or do the leaves sound different than they did all summer? It’s possible I suppose since they’re losing moisture, becoming more brittle as they change color. I’ve already noticed the rain sounds different here than in Australia, a fact I can only put down to the leaves of deciduous trees being softer and more delicate than those of eucalypts.
Autumn is bittersweet, my Dad used to say and as I savor my final days in New England I have to agree. Summer is ending but with a grande finale of color and sensation equal to any Fourth of July fireworks.
A part of me wishes I could stay to see Christmas in the snow. To linger in this place where my parents were born and are now laid to rest. But I have children in another place and it’s time to go.
Till next time New England…
Following on from last time, this post deals with the inner dynamics of a successful crit group.
Once you’ve found partners you feel you can work with, your goal will be to keep everyone happy. Respect is the key and it’s a two-way street. Below are some things to consider when exchanging your work.
On presenting your work to others:
#1 Use correct formatting
If someone takes the time to critique your work you owe it to them to make it as easy to read as possible. Always use standard submission formatting: double-spaced, Times New Roman, 1.5-inch margins, pages numbered, title and author name in the header. Handwritten scrawl, single-spaced print, and work with no indents or punctuation is not only hard to read, it leaves little room for your partners to write their comments. If you aim to be published, it's good to get in the habit of formatting your work to industry standards.
#2 Present work as error-free as possible
No-one expects your work to be perfect but to get the most from your partners always give them your best efforts. At the very least spell-check and read through your work to catch whatever typos you can. Never hand over something you know has mistakes in it as you’ll just be wasting everyone’s time.
The one exception is if you’re having trouble with some element of the writing and want your partners’ thoughts on how to fix it. In this case it’s best to mention the problem when you give them the piece so they know what to focus on when reading it.
Similarly, don’t hand over work you know you’re about to make major revisions to. Nothing is more frustrating than to spend hours thoughtfully considering someone’s work only to have them say, ‘Oh, I changed all that,’ when you give them your comments.
#3 Specify what feedback you want
Wherever possible help your partners by giving them specific questions or points to focus on when reading your work. Examples might include:
Are my characters behaving believably in this scene?
Is my story’s main conflict enough to sustain it through 400 pages?
Does my dialogue sound realistic?
How is the pacing in this chapter? Did I slow things down with too much backstory?
Inexperienced critics and those less confident will find this helpful and you'll have a much better chance of getting what you need from them.
#4 Consider all feedback
If someone takes the time to review your work, show respect for their efforts by at least listening to their comments. If you instantly dismiss every point your partners make they could end up wondering why they bothered.
Even if you don’t agree with a point your partner is making, listen, nod and acknowledge you’ll think about. Ask questions certainly but don’t argue or feel you need to justify your way of doing it. And even if you disagree with everything a partner says, always thank them for their time.
Believing your partners are on your side and want only to help you improve your writing makes hearing negative feedback easier. However, sensing that someone is making a comment just to show they know more than you definitely puts a different slant on things.
If you find yourself growing defensive or consistently dismissing everything your partners say about your work, you need to consider one of two things: (a) they aren’t the right partners for you, or (b) you aren’t ready to be critiqued.
#5 Don’t feel you have to make changes suggested
On the flip side of the above, never feel you have to make all, or even any, of the changes your partners suggest. With early drafts of a work your partners might not have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to say. Allow yourself the freedom to explore a certain path before abandoning it and never feel pressured by others to do so. In any case it’s your story and if a suggestion doesn’t feel right, just don’t do it.
On the other hand, if all your partners have the same criticism of the same point, you need to give some serious thought to why it isn’t working for them.
#6 Feedback on feedback
Every now and then, tell your partners which of their comments and areas of focus proved most helpful to you in revising your work. Knowing the kind of feedback you find most valuable will help them become more efficient at their job.
#7 Going elsewhere
When your story is reaching its final revisions it sometimes helps to give it to someone outside your critiquing group. Seek feedback from non-writers especially. Writers can get hung up on craft and miss the big picture. A reader, especially one who reads in your genre, can tell you simply if the story is working.
Notes on giving feedback to others:
#1: Know when to leave someone else’s work alone
This has to be one of the hardest things about critiquing! As Oscar Wilde put it: ‘There is no energy so great as the urge to rewrite someone else’s work.’
If you value your partners as creative individuals avoid the temptation to tinker with their work simply to rephrase it in your own words. Most new and developing writers are still struggling to find their voice. Part of your role as their crit partner should be to encourage them to discover it. (i.e. - their voice, not yours.)
#2: Find something good on every page.
This isn’t always easy and not because the writing’s awful, in fact it’s usually the opposite. Mistakes leap out at you and are easier to see, but when the writing’s good you simply become immersed in the story.
If you find the latter happening it’s important to try and determine exactly how the author accomplished it. Writers learn as much, if not more, from knowing what they’re doing right as from hearing their mistakes. Plus it helps you as a writer to clearly identify the elements of effective writing in use.
#3: Don’t overwhelm the author with comments.
When I first started writing I once gave a short story to a writer friend whose work I respected. A week later she returned my pages absolutely covered in red ink. All her comments were sincere and valid yet I ended up shoving the piece in a drawer and never went back to it. As a beginner I just couldn’t get past all that red!
No matter how encouraging you are and how positively you phrase your remarks, making too many corrections at once is discouraging for any writer. If you’re faced with a piece of writing that has so many things wrong with it you don’t know where to begin, the safest thing to do is a broad-strokes critique. At most choose one or two finer points to comment on and leave the rest for another time.
#4: Vary your feedback according to what stage the work is at.
This is mainly to save yourself time and effort. If someone hands you a rough first draft, stick to mainly broad-stroke comments: Is the conflict apparent? Are the characters well motivated? Is the point of view clear? There’s no point doing a detailed line edit on work that will likely be changed in revision.
#5 Trust your judgment
If you’re new to critiquing and haven't a clue what to say to someone about their work, try getting hold of a judge’s score sheet from one of the many writing organizations that hold annual competitions. These sheets contain basic questions on plot, craft and style (much like the questions contained in this post) that help judges evaluate entries.
But even if you don’t have a score sheet and know little about the craft of writing, if you read books you'll be able to give your partners valuable feedback purely from a reader's point of view: Does the story engage you? Do you like the characters? Were any parts confusing to you?
Next time - part 3: Other fun things to do with your crit group.
I’ve been part of an active critiquing group for the last 14 years. I can’t tell you how much my partners have helped me. Here are just some of the many benefits my group provides me:
Fresh pairs of eyes to catch the mistakes I will always miss no matter how many times I check my work!
Feedback on whether what I’m trying to say is actually coming across on the page
Ideas and inspiration regarding my plots
Brainstorming and problem solving when I hit a snag
Encouragement when I’m feeling down
A kick in the butt when I’m being lazy
A passion shared to make writing less lonely
Crit groups can definitely have a downside and I consider myself lucky to have found a good one. The longer I do it, the more I realize that critiquing is an art and even with the best intentions feedback can do more harm than good.
The following are points to consider if you’re thinking of joining or forming a crit group:
#1 Be Ready
If you’re just starting out with writing don’t be in a hurry to join a crit group. Give yourself time to gain confidence and solidify your author voice. Experiment with all types of writing – journaling, short story, essay, blogging, poetry, etc. The good news is if you’re an avid reader you’ll have already picked up a lot about the craft of writing that will naturally find its way into your own work.
When you do feel ready to take the plunge…
#2 Choose your critiquing partners carefully.
Like any important relationship you need to be able to trust your partners. Creativity is a fragile thing and your confidence as a writer can be damaged by thoughtless or harsh criticism.
Wherever possible ‘test drive’ a group before committing to it. Even better, form your own by hand picking writers you trust and respect and who seem on the same wavelength as you.
Start by approaching some fellow writers and asking if they’ll look at a few pages of your work. Once you’ve gotten a bit of feedback identify the people who make you feel good about your writing and the ones who make you want to give up.
This doesn’t mean to seek out only people who tell you your work is great. Just find the ones who give you feedback in a way that will keep you fired up about writing. Like great teachers, good crit partners are hard to find but well worth searching for.
#3: Choose partners who write in the same genre you do. (Or not.)
Some fiction genres – mystery, fantasy, and romance in particular – have specific reader expectations. People who write and/or read these genres will be most familiar with their unique requirements and best able to tell you if you’re fulfilling them. On the other hand having partners who write in different genres means you’ll be getting a variety of perspectives on your work.
#4: Keep It Small
Because my crit group only has 4 members, I’m not overwhelmed by masses of conflicting feedback on my work. It also means I can devote more time and thought to my partners’ work without cutting into my own writing time. Another big plus of a small group is it reduces the risk of meetings turning into talk-fests.
#5 Choose partners with the same level of commitment you have.
If you’re serious about writing and improving your skills, seek out people who feel the same. People committed to showing up to meetings, thoughtfully reading the work of others, encouraging them, helping them stay focused on their goals and who are equally keen to improve their own skills, both as a writer and a critic. Passion is contagious but so is apathy. Surround yourself with passionate people and ride the wave of your group’s collective enthusiasm.
# 6 Choose partners with similar writing goals
If you’re just after feedback on your writing this issue isn’t a must. But if your aim is to be published, you’ll be doing other things in addition writing. Having partners who share your dream of publication means you can help each other keep an eye out for publishers, write query letters, practice pitches, compose synopsis, and even attend conferences together.
# 7 Protect Your Muse
Once you’ve joined a critiquing group continually monitor if you’re getting what you need from its members. A good crit group should be the wind beneath your creative wings, encouraging you to believe in yourself, take creative risks and move past rejections. If you constantly come away from meetings feeling discouraged and depressed it’s time to look elsewhere for support. Avoid like the plague:
people who give only negative feedback and never say what’s good about your work
people who try to rewrite your work in their own words
people who criticize just to show how much they know or make themselves look superior
anyone with low standards who thinks ‘close enough is good enough’
Next post: Critiquing Groups, part 2: Giving and Receiving Feedback
Since 2005 I’ve kept notes on every novel I read. As a writer struggling to learn the craft I thought it would help to study the techniques of other authors. I made notes on the things I liked and wanted to emulate in my own work, and also what I didn’t like and wanted to avoid.
I’ve never posted these on Amazon or Goodreads as they’re not so much reviews as analysis purely for my own education. However since I’ve devoted this blog to the writing process it seems a good place to finally share them.
For starters, here are my notes on the book I just finished: Trust Your Eyes by Linwood Barclay.
Barclay’s opening paragraph is subtly tantalizing, ending with the phrase, ‘…it turned out this was going to be the day.’
I much prefer this to the desperate attempts many suspense authors make to hook their reader with some shocking over-the-top opening scene. (The unnamed victim being stalked and/or murdered by the unnamed killer would have to be the most over used hook in the genre. I don’t know this person – why should I care?)
The rest of Barclay’s first chapter is simply a man walking down a street in NY taking in the sights. His slightly odd slant on what he’s seeing is enough to keep me interested. (That’s all it takes. No blood, no screaming, just an interesting character in an intriguing situation.)
It isn’t till near the end of the chapter, when the character looks up and sees someone being murdered in a window that the hook is set.
At it’s core Trust Your Eyes is basically the Witness plot (see blog post on Recycling Plots). Barclay gives the plot an original twist by having the protagonist’s mentally disabled brother as the witness – he sees something on the internet, the killers find out and come to silence them.
There are two main plot threads, one following protagonist Ray who’s trying to decide what to do with his brother Thomas after the death of their father who looked after him. The other following the criminals steps to eliminate all witnesses to their crime.
For most of the story the two brothers carry on oblivious to the danger they’re in and this works well to build tension. Through their interactions, both with each other and an old high school friend, Julie, we get to know and care about them. So when we see what the killers are doing to other witnesses and know the same fate awaits the brothers, it has much greater impact.
The story was good in itself but the twist at the end really made it something special. Just when I’d come to believe certain things about the characters, Barclay turned those beliefs on their head.
The ending also gave me an interesting insight into the book’s targeted readership. It seemed to me that if the story had ended without the final chapter it would target more readers of women’s fiction, perhaps even romantic suspense. But Barclay’s last chapter changes everything giving the story a much more disturbing resonant finish more suited to readers of hard core thrillers.
Interesting how that single chapter could change the whole market focus of the book.
A question writers are often asked is 'where do you get your ideas from?' For me ideas come from anything I see or experience that intrigues me enough to ask 'what-if':
What if a woman saved a man's life and then learned he was a serial killer?
What if a woman who'd lost her son had to save a homeless boy from killers?
What-if's are seeds that stories grow from. I get what-if's from many sources - dreams, news stories, interesting facts, people I meet, overheard snippets of conversations, personal experience, even films or books that didn't go the way I wanted them to. All I need is some kind of spark that catches my attention and makes me wonder.
Whenever an idea comes to me, no matter how small or fragmentary, I write it in one of the notebooks I keep. Even partially-formed ideas can sometimes coalesce with others to form useable plots.
(I never trust myself to remember ideas. I know from bitter experience I won't; at least not with the vision and energy I got when they first came to me. Every time I read through my notebooks I find things I completely forgot putting there!)
Sometimes what-if's come with a ready-made story attached to them. More often I have to explore an idea to see what's there. Here's how the process generally works for me:
When I'm ready to start a new novel, I pull out my Ideas notebooks and read through them. As I do this a number of what-if's usually leap out at me. If one of them grabs me and won't let go, my decision is easy - I take that idea and move to the next step of developing it. Often however I can't choose between several ideas and have to go through the process with all of them.
I start by getting a few cheap notebooks - one for each idea I want to develop - and for the next few weeks my writing day consists of the following:
1. Seated in my comfy plotting chair, I open one notebook and freewrite on the idea by hand until I run out of steam.
This is literally stream-of-consciousness writing, I'm just wandering with no direction. I write down anything and everything that comes to me. Why did this idea catch my attention? Who might the story be about? What do they want? Who or what stands in their way?
Before long I start getting flashes of images, conversations or dramatic scenes that the story might contain. Paying no attention to where they'll appear in the story, I record these ideas, which generally give rise to more.
When I've exhausted my thoughts on one plot I take a break, then switch to the next notebook and do the same with that idea.
I work this way because of something I long ago learned about myself - ideas always come to me AS I'm writing. (I think because I'm hyperactive my thoughts are always racing and I have trouble focusing. Forcing myself to write out my thoughts slows them down and gives me a better chance to consider them.)
2. The next day (or next writing session) I read through my freewrites of the session before and underline the parts I like. Starting with these pieces of the plot I freewrite again, adding more bits as they come to me. If I don't like anything from my last day's freewrite I go back to the beginning and freewrite on my original what-if.
After several weeks, these freewriting sessions usually yield the synopsis of a story. For me the synopsis is 'telling' the story - it's a general overview of what will happen and the people involved. Once I have this, I then move on to 'showing' the story by creating my scene-by-scene outline. (See entries: Why I Outline and How I Outline)
The hardest thing about this initial exploration process is convincing myself I'm actually working. Freewriting feels too easy to me. If I'm having fun it can't be work!
I have to keep reminding myself that play is a vital part of the creative process. My instinct is always to try and take control of the story's direction, but in this early development stage that's not what I want.
I have to trust my subconscious (or higher self or wherever creative thought comes from) and let go of the reins. In this formative stage my goal is to simply remain silent and listen to the story seeking to emerge.
Halfway through the year (already!) and I need to remind myself of some things, so a fresh crop of pin-ups has appeared on the board above my writing desk:
Stop worrying about things you have no control over and focus on the ones you do: writing every day, pushing yourself to find better, more original ideas, conducting yourself in a professional manner, believing all that you want is possible.
Take complete control of your thoughts. Know exactly what you want and allow yourself to imagine nothing else. The instant doubt starts to whisper in your ear – silence it! It’s your head, you don’t have to listen.
Don’t expect to be excited by your plot until you’ve filled it with characters you love.
And just for fun…
Some of the world’s greatest feats were accomplished by people too dumb to know that what they were trying to do was impossible. Doug Carson
Only a mediocre writer is always at his best. Somerset Maugham
The chances of a project reaching fruition is inversely proportionate to the amount of time you spend talking about it.
And lastly...on a yellowed scrap of paper, covered over by more recent pin-ups, I found this one dated December 1990:
Feeling discouraged or depressed about failures is a luxury you can’t afford. If you aren’t succeeding in what you set out to do, you just aren’t working hard enough. It’s not a question of intelligence or talent. If you think you’re working hard now, then do more. If you really want something, it’s worth the effort. And if you have to work twice as hard as someone else to accomplish the same thing then so be it. Fairness has nothing to do with it!!
I’m reading an interesting book at the moment called BOUNCE by Matthew Syed about master athletes. I’m not a sports person by any stretch but I like reading books about people achieving their goals.
The chapter in BOUNCE I found most interesting from a writer’s point of view was the one on choking. Choking starts with an athlete’s intense desire to succeed. (Choking never happens when you’re playing a casual game in your back yard; it’s always at the most important event of the season, possibly of your entire career.)
The athlete is usually stunned when they choke. After all those hours of analysis and practice, how could things go so horribly wrong? Syed explains:
In striving to master an advanced motor skill (a tennis serve or golf swing, for example), athletes break the movement down into parts (what their wrist is doing, what their shoulders are doing, how they’re standing, etc), focus on each part individually, then slowly put them all together into one fluid movement.
During this process the skill is gradually transformed in the brain from ‘explicit’ to ‘implicit’ memory. In other words it goes from being something you have to think about to an action that is automatic.
The difference between these two types of memory becomes apparent when one person tries teach another how to drive a manual car. For anyone who’s learned the skill the movements are automatic. But in order to explain them to someone else you have to break things down again. Essentially you have to set aside your learned (implicit) memory of the skill and experience being a beginner again.
So what happens when an athlete chokes? It all comes down to that intense desire to succeed, the pressure the person puts on themselves. The more important a match or game is to the player, the greater their tendency to want to be in complete control. But in seeking to control their every movement, the athlete disengages from his implicit memory and returns to the clumsy realm of the beginner.
In reading this, it seemed to me that the equivalent for a writer is writer’s block. And it’s brought about by the exact same thing. When a project becomes too important, when the goal of publication grows too big in our minds, we tend to focus on the craft, the rules of writing, rather than the story we want to tell.
In our intense desire to write ‘well’ we set aside whatever mastery we may have already acquired and once again become self-conscious beginners. Our voices ‘choked’.
At least this has been my own experience. And the reason I try to write my first draft fast, and save the editing until it’s done. A difficult challenge for any control freak!
I'm absolutely thrilled to announce that my debut novel, RUN TO ME, has made the finals of this year's Daphne du Maurier Awards for excellence in Mystery/Suspense!
This award is run annually by the Kiss of Death Mystery/Suspense chapter of Romance Writers of America and is named for the English mystery writer, Daphne du Maurier, author of Rebecca, Jamaica Inn and The Birds which were made into films by Alfred Hitchcock.
Congratulations to Gretchen Archer, Allison Brennan, Rosie Genova and Hank Phillippi Ryan - the other four finalists in the Mainstream category. Winners will be announced on July 24th at the Awards Ceremony of the RWA Conference in San Antonio Texas.