Let the Games Begin

Helga’s Post #39

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Bags are packed, loins are girded, critiques are printed. We are ready.

Well, not everybody quite at the same level, but we’ll better be by Sunday morning when critiques start in earnest. The morning after we meet for a bonding dinner somewhere in the picturesque village of Whistler. Before the games begin in the heart of the former Olympics site.

Coincidence?

Maybe. Or maybe a subliminal choice of venue. A signal of our aplomb and commitment as writers preparing to get published.

To make the process random and fair we drew names from a hat. Paula will be the first in the hot seat starting Sunday après pancakes or whatever. I will be the last. Not sure if that’s in Paula’s favour or not. Or in mine. What we haven’t done yet is determine who is first in the line-up of GIVING their critique. (Think about it. This could be a sticky wicket.)

We allow one day of critique for each of five manuscripts. Not only one-way communication, but dialogue. Opportunity for the writer to ask specific questions that may not have been covered in the critiques.

Genres and writing styles of the five novels are as varied as their authors’ personalities: A colourful palette of suspense, mystery, fantasy, Y-A and some in-betweens that straddle more than one genre. I tried to visualize all the different characters from our novels in one room. A hilarious exercise!

Because of the sheer diversity of our novels, the entire event is incredibly dynamic. In the last month we each had to read and critique four manuscripts. And critique them in an objective manner, regardless of whether these novels are in the genre of our own preferences. Or in a writing style that’s not a favourite. Believe me, it takes an Olympian effort of self-discipline and constraint (Is it surprising that we have chosen Whistler?) and the main ingredient (as Joe said in his latest post), an open mind. Challenging as it sounds, it turned out I have learned more during this process than during writers’ conferences and workshops galore. It never ceases to amaze me how I can spot problems in other people’s writing, but continue to make the same mistakes in my own manuscript.

But it has also been an intense and challenging lifestyle during this last month. Not the healthiest one I admit, because it meant spending most of my non-sleeping hours sitting and staring at the computer screen. Not something I aspire to repeat anytime soon.

That process is behind us now. We are planning for lots of fresh air and outdoor activities in between the hard work. And yes, having fun ranks high on the agenda.

(To be continued from our idyllic retreat in the village of Whistler)

The other side of the critique

EPSON scanner imageJoe’s Post #39 — As some of you know, way, way back, before cell phones, before computer spell-checkers, before I could even type, I wrote my first book at the wise age of 9. Invasion of the Mole People.  Blue construction paper cover.  Twenty handwritten pages.  Jam smears on a few pages.  Eleven illustrations.   All bad.  My parents loved it.  My teachers loved it.  My friends loved it.

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I thought this would be what it would be like to be a writer. Everyone reading my work would love it. They would praise how clever I was and give me candy.

Sadly, years and years and years later, when I took my first real novel to my first real critique group, I thought it would be the same. With even more candy.

It was not.

Back then (and, truth be told, for years to come,) I thought everything I wrote was gold. I thought every word I put on paper was a gem, to be admired and preserved for future generations.

Turns out, I was wrong.

My first lesson was that I write pretty well. I still do. I can create interesting characters. I can make people laugh. I can even make them cry. I can write a novel in 5 months (hell, I did one, poorly, in a week.) But what I still need to learn is how to tell a great story and by that I mean write a great NOVEL.

You’d think the two were the same, right? Good writer equals good novelist? Nope. Turns out you can have one without other.

It’s a complex task putting together a great novel. There’s a flow and balance you have to learn, there are arcs of character and theme, there’s magic, that undefinable quality that some books have. You have to do so much right to build an amazing story.

The second lesson I learned is that I will miss stuff. Simple things like calling the dog Sambuka on page 12 and Buttsniffer on pg 45. Or misspelling hangar for the entire novel. Or thinking I’ve told the readers something when I deleted it or lost it due to cutting and pasting (things I still do to this day!)

The other lesson I learned early on is that I have to change my expectations on what a group can do for me. It’s not about telling me how amazing I am, though please don’t let that stop anyone, but rather about what works and what doesn’t. What did I get right and what did I get wrong?

But the critquers, as good as they may be, won’t get everything right, either. Some love thrillers, some romance, some literary memoirs. Like me, when I critique, I bring what I LIKE in a novel. So it becomes a balance of listening to what people have to say and running that through your own mind. Does this make sense for my novel? Does it make it better? It may not be a romance but can I add something more romantic? It may not be a thriller but can I have thrilling moments? It may not be a literay novel but for the love of god, can I at least have one insight into the human condition?

In other words, I learned to go in with an open mind. It is not my baby that people are critiquing, it is a shoe. I made the shoe, I may even like the shoe but it’s a shoe so I will do whatever I need to do to make the shoe the best shoe I can do.

candySo, this weekend we’ll begin the critiquing of our novels. I, for one, look forward to hearing what people thought and how I could possibly make it even more awesome.

Though I still hope there’s still candy.