Peer review and workshopping novels

Posted on January 26, 2015 by

imageWriting is, to a great degree, learned through trial and error. But errors can be hard to identify – especially as a writer starts to be pretty good at the basics. Once things start to go subtly wrong with a person’s work, it becomes obvious there’s no single right answer as to how to fix a given challenge within a manuscript.
Part of the answer, of course, is to find a group of peers with good reading skills and the same need to have outside eyes laid on their work. People with goodwill, a story in progress, and an understanding that half of critiquing is about helping the author fix their work and the other half is about cultivating your own critical sense so you can better address your own.
With short story critique groups, there’s a rhythm that can work quite well: new writers submit a story to a workshop, everyone critiques it, and then everyone goes home to hopefully rewrite the piece before sending it to market. When they return, it’s generally with another piece. There’s a fresh start. This is how Clarion and Odyssey and a number of other workshops are configured. (There’s an article in Wired about the SF workshops this week, by the way. I found it a bit shallow, and the comments thread may make you blind with rage, but some of the actual interview responses are interesting.)
With novel workshops, the logistics get much trickier. If you submit your first three chapters, and get a bunch of feedback, do you then revise those chapters? If you do, do you submit them again to make sure they’re working? If they’re not, do you revise and resubmit them again? That’s just an ornate way of never getting the book finished.
On the other hand, it can feel very weird to submit chapter one, get feedback, try then to use that feedback to write a better chapter two. (Next you submit that, and try to use the next round of feedback to inform chapters three and four.) This gets your novel done–and I am a huge fan of done! But drawback can be that if you are truly improving your craft as you go, the last chapters of the book may be significantly better-written than the opening ones. This leaves you to discover, four or five hundred pages later, whether you’re up to the task of revising. You are drafting better, which is great, but can you raise something you wrote six months ago to the level of what you’re creating now?
Additionally, the plunge-forward system doesn’t address any huge structural changes you decide to make along the way. When you turn the guy who was formerly the love interest into the main character’s brother, around about chapter five, the question arises again… do you go back and tweak this before moving forward?
Okay, so what if you got a dozen writers together and they all managed to submit a completed novel draft on the same day… make it November 30th. You could then set some kind of reading period–one book every two or three weeks–and trade off so that each participant was getting one critique during each round. But how to get a dozen writers to all finish their book on the same day? I chose November 30th because it’s the end of Nanowrimo, but most Nanowrimo projects would require considerable massaging before they were workshop-ready.
There are other logistical challenges with novel-in-progress workshops, but these are some of the things I’m mulling right now.
Has any of you been in a novel group that worked? How was it structured?

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