So this is the year. You are finally going to do it. You’re going to write a…no, you are going to finish that novel. How many of you have a bazillion ideas whirling around your gray matter at all times? How many of you have at least a half a bazillion ideas started and left unfinished? They are lurking in your documents, smoking and picking on the short stories. Maybe even writing gang tags on your recycle bin. The Unfinished are a miserable lot. Their lives began with such hope and promise, but then they were abandoned without so much as a good-bye. We are their deadbeat parents, promising that this weekend we’re going to spend quality time with them. But, we don’t. Why? Most of us are skilled at making babies, but we fail big time when it comes to being good parents capable of nurturing an embryonic idea to a successful novel.
Like “parenting,” we writers need to learn certain skills and gain good habits. We aren’t magically mystically born knowing this stuff. This is why I get such a bee in my bonnet when writers won’t say with pride, “I am a writer.” No aspiring. Aspiring writers aren’t responsible parents. They are the “Deadbeat Book-Daddy” of the writing world. They hang out with their writing when it is convenient and fun, and fail to stick it through when stuff gets hard. They don’t invest time, money, and resources into nurturing their work and maturing it into something they can be proud of and brag about.
My novel graduated today. She will be published this summer. Oh, I never thought I would see that day. *sniff, sniff*
And I am not busting your chops. I have a fair amount of Unfinished lurking in my computer too. They hang out with the spam cookies and send me e-mail about my inheritance in Ghana. But, I love them. They are mine. Some will one day be able to go to reform school. Others? Yeah…..we just won’t talk about them. They drool and say Baby Ruth a lot.
No one is going to fault any of us for making bad babies in our ignorance. My blog lessons, however, are here to educate you about how to take an idea and then lay a plan to grow it into a thing of beauty.
We have spent two months talking about structure. If you are new to the blog and want to write a novel, I highly recommend you go back and read the Structure Series so you have the tools to sally forth with the rest of the class.
Part of why ideas get started then abandoned is that writers really don’t get instruction about how to do this novel-writing thing. We believe we are born to write and for some reason that we should already know what we are doing. In our pride, we take off writing, then wake up one day and realize that we have painted ourselves into a corner. This is the point where most of us will do one of two things. Some of us will just give up and wait for the Inspiration Fairy to visit us in our dreams with all the answers. Others of us (yes, I have done both) will at this point (normally 30,000 words in) whip out the Literary Bond-O putty and slather that crap on until we have a “finished” novel that is so complex we don’t even understand it. Why? Because we had to create a secret government conspiracy, an evil twin for our evil twin and a rip in the space-time continuum all to explain why our protag wasn’t where she needed to be on page 100.
Here is the blunt truth. You need to be taught your craft. We all do. People with natural musical ability don’t feel they are “cheating” if they learn how to read music or take voice coaching. And I know all your family will believe that writing is easy, because, yes, even a chimpanzee can make a sentence.
All right. Enough of that.
So, no more Deadbeat Book-Daddy, and hello Responsible Writer Parent. Today we are going to talk about ways your novel can be hijacked, despite your best intentions. Many of you, in an effort to be a Responsible Novel Parent will go out and join a critique group. Excellent…but beware. I am going to explain how traditional critique groups can hijack your dream of being a novelist. But, I will also tell you how to side-step these problems and use the critique group to its maximum advantage.
This is my opinion, so take it for what it is. I’m right –ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Seriously. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose. When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.
In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean Prisoners of Vietnam. You will learn to spot passive voice. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.
The problem with traditional critique groups is that they lack the ability to properly judge the quality of a novel. Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults.
Traditional critique groups can hurt you in the following ways.
Get you in a habit of over-explaining—In a traditional critique group, those sitting at the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.” Well, duh, of course they are lost. They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.
Book-by-Committee—Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a book-by-committee, also known as Franken-novel.
False sense of security—We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review. How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.
Also make sure this group is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words.
Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.
Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you.
Modify the content you bring to critique. Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed last week). Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.
Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist dumb or the stuff of greatness?
Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.
This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. They can offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words.
Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Cassandra is in the meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw.
I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show you why you are in a writing group. Is it because you really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like me? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I had to check my ego at the door when I started WWBC. Now I couldn’t hide. My ideas and story took a beating…but produced a final synopsis/outline that was brilliant (mostly because of my brilliant writer peers).
Being a Responsible Novel Parent can be tough on the ego. We have to face up to our “kid’s” problems and then look for ways to fix them. This means admitting we don’t know everything and being humble enough to look for genuine outside help. Does our “kid” have Novel ADD and go off on a zillion bunny trails? Does our “kid” have Story Autism? It’s in its own little world and not connecting with outsiders? Novel Development Issues are not a sentence for our “kid” to be one of “The Unfinished.” Concept Critique will help diagnose these developmental issues, and then give you ways to solve them so your novel can have an excellent life and be a “kid” any writer parent would be proud to claim…and brag about…a lot.
What are your biggest “Novel Parenting” issues? Problems? Concerns? What do you feel about critique groups? Are they helpful or do more harm than good? Do you guys have ideas for other ways you could re-tool a traditional critique group to be able to better see the big picture? I love hearing from you guys.
Until next time…
Give yourself the gift of success so you can ROCK 2011. My best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books. Put that gift card you got for Christmas to good use, .