The shattered remnants of ego

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but there’s nothing like a good critique to squish the missteps. And, as is rapidly becoming a tradition, I got squished.

Oneiromancer was placed under the microscope on Monday night. My irregular manuscript-exchange group, AB-FAG – that’s Abingdon Fiction (Adult) Group to the uninitiated – met to deliver the verdict on my work. And, by and large, it was a hugely productive and beneficial meeting with the added bonus of beer. Now I have to gather up my notes and the shattered remnants of ego and work out where the hell to go from here.

The real benefit of such a group/meeting is to show the author things she can’t see herself. Writing is a balance: too much backstory or not enough? Too much telling or an overreliance on clumsy and flow-slowing body-language? Clarity in mythos-explanation or pages of info-dumpery? What is the novel lacking? What’s superfluous?

I don’t have all the answers; they’re not all handed to you on a plate. But there are some things upon which everyone agreed:

  • The opening is confusing and off-putting. There are too many POVs too soon
  • Likewise there are too many aliases, which make it hard to grasp character (although at least one reader likes this conceit, which is just bloody typical)
  • With one or two exceptions the characters are underdeveloped – partly a consequence of my attempt to write an ensemble piece rather than one with a single, definable protagonist. The consensus is that more backstory would help
  • The villains need to be villainouser, and their motives need to be made more explicit; that they’re not just invading/subjugating/killing etc for the sheer hell of it. Or, if they are, I need to make their wickedness wickeder
  • There is a lack of light to balance the grim darkness; the humour present takes the form of pitch black irony

I think all of these points are correct, although I can quibble a little. I don’t want none-more-evil bad guys; I want them to be the heroes in their own minds, not maniacal monsters. Humour? I don’t do that very well (although in my mind there’s more wit in this work than in any of my previous novels), but I see the need for more light to give the fears more shape. I don’t know how manage this right now but I’ll think on it.

These things I can do. They are, in the editory sense, fairly simple. It’s a case of adding or subtracting, rewriting some scenes and expanding others. Not necessarily easy but envisionable. But other suggestions provide me with more of a headache.

There is one particular scene which is horrible. It’s meant to be horrible; an ordeal for the reader which results in the death of a moderately minor character. It was intended to form the second pillar of my mid-novel climax, although the latter half of the novel just kept on rolling and so an action-scene now holds that position.

The Nasty Scene is, unsurprisingly, controversial. There are valid writerly-reasons for its inclusion. It’s part of that ‘grim irony’ thing I mentioned – the heroes’ actions directly caused it, although they don’t know that. It’s meant to be a shock and an emotional wrench. The question is whether it works. Whether it’ll put readers off. Whether killing that particular character is good or bad for the story.

Incidentally, there seemed to be a bit of a gender-divide here. The women in the group (mostly) hated it. The men had less of a problem. I’m not drawing any conclusions from the tiny sample-size – and it doesn’t actually help – but it makes me wonder.

I’m unsure what to do. A suggestion was to move it later in the story but that’ll wreck the skein of cause-and-effect. It was said that killing the character removes someone that has an important story-link that needs to be kept. I don’t know. I will mull.

Another suggestion was to move my inciting incident as far forward as possible; in essence to massively trim down the first hundred pages of the book. A good idea, but massively hard to execute. I want to get that in early too, but I wrote the story the way I did because I felt the information that came before was essential. Again, mulling is required.

So what do I do now? I think my first decision is to do nothing. I’m half-way through another edit of Australis, the second book in my Antarctica trilogy. I’m going to finish that before I move back to Oneiromancer. I will reread the notes that my betas gave me and, when Australis is back on one side I’ll print out the Oneiromancer manuscript and go over it with a metaphorical red-pen-and-hatchet and try and fix all these issues.

One thing is for sure: the novel will be better for the advice I’ve received. It’ll be richer, bolder and more devastating. The punch-in-the-gut moments will have more resonance. Explanations will flow more naturally and I’ll invite the readers deeper into my world. All because of a wise, warm and diverse team of advisors. If you’re a writer and you haven’t got this support I urge you to seek out contacts – a writing group either physical or online. It really is the best way to develop your craft.

As for me, if one day I can learn how to successfully incorporate humour I’ll be one to watch. But possibly from a great distance.

The third rule

The third rule:

Thou Shalt Join a Writing Group. And Thou Shalt Take Time to Find the Right Group for You. And Lo! Thine Words Shall Flow.

Ahem. Yes. The third rule is that you get feedback on your work before showing it to the people who matter.

It’s certainly possible to become a good – nay, great – writer on your own, in your room, beavering away in silence with only your MA in Creative Writing for company. The annals are littered with the names of the illustrious who’ve done such a thing – or many such things. And there’s no reason you can’t either. But take it from me, getting feedback on your work is a surefire way to get better quickly.

Writing groups seem, to my ignorant eyes, to be a fairly new phenomena, but the idea is as old as the hills. Wasn’t Frankenstein first performed in such a circle, sheltering huddled in an Alpine fastness? What was the Bloomsbury group but a way of exchanging ideas and feedback in a London ripe with zeitgeist? These examples – and I’m sure you can add more – can perhaps be seen as the prototypes from which a proliferation of groups have exploded in the last decade.

Seriously. Go on the internet. Type in ‘writing groups [name of town/region]’ and see what comes up. Even if you’re living in a cave in the Bora Bora mountains you’ll be able to find lots of groups that ‘meet’ online and all of whose interactions are carried out on the intraweb. You can barely escape the buggers. Don’t like the internet? Well, I’d be curious to know how you’re reading this, but anyway – just go into your nearest bookshop (indie for preference – they’re better about things like this) and ask. Simples.

When I first started writing seriously I joined a group based around people from my local Ottokar’s. That folded after a few months and I seriously considered joining a bigger one. But I didn’t. And that’s because I couldn’t really see what such a group could do for me. I bet that’s what you’re asking yourself now, isn’t it? Be honest. Why should I give my time to join a group when I already know how to write – when I’m at home with my craft?

It’s a fair question. And to some extent the answer depends on finding the right group for you. Because all these groups might be called something similar (the words ‘Writing Group’ is a clue), but the way they operate might be completely different. But here’s a quick outline of some of the things you can gain from joining:

Confidence

Technical advice

A reason for writing

Support

Contacts

Feedback on your work

Friends

A different perspective

A deeper understanding of ‘foreign’ genres

The Ottokar’s group I mentioned earlier mainly revolved around writing exercises – given out one meeting, reviewed the next. This was great fun, and in my memory I produced some really nice stuff – now sadly lost. But that’s not the best way to go about it, I think. A year and a half ago, when I moved to Abingdon, I joined the local group in part to give myself something to do in this curious little town. And in that year and a half my writing has improved greatly.

The format of the meetings is this: each fortnight we meet up in the proverbial church hall – pubs work well too – and any of us are free to bring an extract of our work; around 1,000 words. We then take it in turns to read this section, and then the rest of the group will provide feedback. And then we move to the next person.

The group is made up of eighteen people, and average attendance is somewhere from eight to twelve – the ideal number. Four or five people will read in a session. As with Fight Club, new members have to read .There are drawbacks, which I’ll get to later, but for now let me spell out the advantages.

First of all, feedback. Instant, unvarnished feedback on the section you’ve read. What works, what doesn’t. I still remember my first reading; I took the opening of Chivalry and saw it criticised for being too confusing, for not having a real sense of ‘here’. This can be painful. And the critics might, of course, be wrong. But it’s always a good idea to listen, to hear this, as they’re usually right.

Other readers are also excellent at picking out what you’re not good at, be it technical issues such as punctuation or formatting or aspects such as dialogue, It took me some time to realise that my dialogue was lacking, and since that was pointed out to me (twice) I knew I had to work harder on it. The result? Rapid (I hope) improvement.

It’s also incredibly good for you to give feedback to other people. This is a massively under-explored area, I feel. It’s really beneficial as a writer to look critically at the work of others, to see what’s working and what isn’t – and why that might be. It’s especially interesting to look at other genres or forms such as poetry and scriptwriting. I can’t overstress how helpful it is to push out of your comfort zone a little; even if you never write their yourself, to think about things in a whole different way can set you down roads you never knew existed.

I’m lucky to be in a group that’s good at balancing criticism with encouragement. It’s pointless to surround yourself with people who say everything is brilliant – that’s no help at all. Neither is it helpful to face a constant barrage of disparagement. Take your time, try out different groups, explore. You have to find a group that’s right for you, and that can take a little time. At this point I guess I’m supposed to say ‘if you don’t find one, set up your own’, but if you’re anything like me you won’t be bothered. So I won’t waste my breath.

The big disadvantage of the setup I’ve described? Well, if you’re a novel-writer you’re working with small extracts only. So, unless you read your whole work in bite-sized chunks, there’s no real feel for plot or character arcs. There’s no real answer for this – but there’re often people in the same position who’ll be willing to do novel-exchanges. And, if there are enough, you can form your own little spin-off ‘Fiction Action Group.’

And the Lord Spaketh: Go Forth and Multiply Thy Words. Take Communion With Thy Brethren in Letters, and All Shall Reap The Rewards.

Amen.

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Just a quick reminded that next week I’ll be hosting the finale of Marissa De Luna’s ‘blog tour.’ Her novel The Bittersweet Vine is being launched on Monday (28/10/13) in London. The previous instalments of her tour can be found, as she describes…

Stop 1 – The Coffee Stained Manuscript! (http://thecoffeestainedmanuscript.blogspot.com) That’s here. This is where it all started. My blog. The one which reveals all my writing highs and lows.  On 1st October 2013 I will be writing a post on my experiences between self publishing and traditional publishing!

Stop 2 – On the 7th October I will be making a stop at Jan Greenough’s blog Literary Teapot (http://literaryteapot.blogspot.co.uk) Jan Greenough is a professional author and editor who has co-authored and ghostwritten several books.  This post will feature a short author interview – part 1

Stop 3 – The 14th October will feature a post on creating memorable characters on the Abingdon Writers blog. I have given Abingdon Writers a big thank you in the acknowledgements for The Bittersweet Vine. As a writer if you don’t have many friends who write you will soon find out that not everyone is as passionate about writing as you are. Abingdon writers have kept me sane and have provided a great sounding board and critique for various chapters of The Bittersweet Vine.

Stop 4 – On the 21st October will see part 2 of the author interview on Luke Murphy’s blog.http://authorlukemurphy.com/blog/ You may have read about Luke’s story on The Coffee Stained Manuscript earlier this year on how he turned from Hockey player to author.

Stop 5 – The tour is coming to an end! on the 28th October I will be featuring a post on adding detail to your novel on Gabrielle Aquilina’s blog.http://gabrielleaquilina.blogspot.co.uk Gabby was one of the founding members of Abingdon Writers and is a talented writer and blogger! Her blog is always worth a visit as it’s full of her musings about writing and life with well organised tips on improving your writing and sending of submissions.

And finally… Stop 6 will feature the last part of the author interview on Robin Triggs blog, A writer’s Life on the 31st October.  Robin is another talented writer. I have read two of his manuscripts and can’t wait to read the third. The minute you read his blog – even if you don’t write – you will want to pick up a pen. Witty and insightful it’s a great read!

(Marissa’s words, not mine – thanks Marissa!)