A few years ago I learned that my local Barnes and Noble had a monthly writers group come and meet on Mondays to discuss writing. The first month I didn’t bring anything of my own, I just came to see what the group was like. I was immediately sure I would like this group because almost everyone who did read was reading science fiction or fantasy. And I love science fiction and fantasy. I knew I was going to come the next month if only to find out what happened in the stories they were reading.
After about three months, I decided to bring in a story of my own. I believe I brought an excerpt from a fantasy story I was working on. I got some great feedback, so the following month I brought a couple of HTML articles I wanted to clean up. Since that time I’ve been attending fairly regularly (except when I’m late for a deadline!) and I always enjoy the interplay, the stories, and the discussion. The group isn’t just science fiction/fantasy either. There are two or three people besides me who bring in non-fiction. There is a really interesting novel set in the 60s and at least two YA or children’s books.
It’s Made Me a Better Reader…And a Worse One
I find this group really interesting for how it’s made me evaluate books as I read them. I am starting to really understand, in many cases, why a certain plot element worked well or failed miserably, and a lot of that is due to the writing group. Before this group I would have read a story and thought “ugh, I didn’t like that” or “wow, that was amazing!” but that would have been it. But now I can give you more concrete reasons for those opinions.
And I realized this while reading an article by Jack McDevitt Twelve Blunders—How Aspiring Writers Get It Wrong. As I read through the blunders, I could think of a story I’d written and not brought to my writing group or sometimes a story from the group that made one of these mistakes.
I’m not going to tell you all the mistakes Mr. McDevitt lists, you can read his article yourself. But there were a few that really struck me:
#3 Ask for Criticism and Go Home Angry When You Get It.
This one is critical to understand if you’re going to join a writing group. My group is made up of some really great people with really interesting ideas, but it’s a group meant for criticism and if you can’t take criticism you probably will be going home angry if you come.
Part of the reason I waited several months was to see both how the group criticizes (you can be mean or you can be constructive, I didn’t want to hang with a group of meanies). But I also watched how the best authors in the group handled that criticism. And when I brought my first disaster, err I mean work in for them to read I concentrated on being like them. Some of the things I tried to do:
- Listen to the feedback without reacting to it. Even if I thought they were insane and my character had to be a flying unicorn monkey or the entire story’s integrity was shot, I just listened. If I was getting especially upset, I would write down notes about what they were saying on my paper.What was interesting about this was that when I got home every time I read their comments or read my notes a few days later and by-gum, they had a point! I might still keep the flying monkey unicorn, but I could see their point now about how silly that sounded.
- Don’t get angry. This is a lot harder for me with my fiction because I let so few people read it that when someone criticizes it, I feel like they are rubbing my skin with gritty sandpaper. But even with my non-fiction I’m most likely to react in anger first even if the feedback is along the lines of “You had a typo on page 3, line 7.”To deal with the anger, I kept telling myself “you don’t have to change anything” and sometimes “they are a stupid head!” over and over. Like with the first point, I often found that the things they were telling me were actually really good advice or I could modify them to work as good advice, if I could just get past the feeling that they were sandpapering my skin away.
- Ask questions. One of the awesome authors in this group suggested that when you ask for feedback you have a list of questions to ask. (If you’re wondering, I’m talking about DT Sanders, if you haven’t read any of his books you should go try one now. Gift of Change is a great space opera and The Outrider Chronicles is perfect for D&D fans and sword and sorcery fans out there. I’m waiting for Stealing Symbols and Souls to come out. That’s urban fantasy with a really cool magic system.) That has helped me get some great feedback even out of people who are more inclined to respond “I liked it” to a 40,000 word novel they just finished reading.
#9 Make It Hard on the Reader II: Introduce Characters Who Don’t Really Do Anything.
This is one I think a lot of new writers (and existing ones) do a lot. I find myself thinking “what’s the point?” of a character or even a prop, I realize that that character or prop item should be dropped. Because my writing group is so SciFi oriented, I see a lot more extraneous props than characters, but I think the rule still applies. If the item is important enough to be mentioned and given a name then that named thing should be important to the plot later on. Otherwise, I don’t care that the barrista’s name was Dave and there was a boofle-blaster lying on the couch. If Dave isn’t going to show up later and blow away my flying unicorn monkey with the boofle-blaster, then they should be left unnamed.
Anton Chekhov said it better than I ever could:
“Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
#10 X. Demonstrate How Much We Know: In the Info Dump.
This is the one that I think most world builders (SciFi and Fantasy authors in particular) can be guilty of, but it can happen with any type of story. You as the author do a shit-ton of research on how muskets were made and the use of gun powder in the late middle ages for your story set back then. And then you just have a short paragraph about your main character nearly blowing his hand off the first time he shot one? That is so unsatisfying. What’s more satisfying is to write a treatise on gun powder use in pre-Victorian England.
But while this might be satisfying for you, the author, it is boooooooooooorrrrrrrrrinng for me the reader. I don’t care. No, really, I don’t care.
But on the other hand, you do need to show that you have at least a basic understanding of the subject. For instance, in a SciFi novel if you have your characters bouncing around between solar systems in 2 hour hops, you might want to at least acknowledge that this is currently considered impossible by giving your star drive a name. McDevitt does this with the Armstrong drive which is replaced by the Quantum drive. This tells me the reader that McDevitt knows the physics of light speed, but it also tells me that I don’t need to worry about it. As the Doctor might say “it’s wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey stuff.”
So Now I’m a Better Reader
I can read through a book that I hated and really clarify what I didn’t like about the book. And I can look at the way a good book is moving and understand what the author is doing to keep me interested, even as I’m staying interested.
But the drawback is that I don’t get as immersed as I used to in books. I find myself thinking more about what the writer is doing, even in the really good books, and less about the characters.
Some days I want that back. But maybe I just haven’t read the right book lately.