Writing 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?
This year’s reading. If I finished it, it was at least good. If it has an asterisk after it, it was great.
1. Echopraxia, by Peter Watts*
2. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America by Gilbert King
3. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013, edited by Tim Folger and Siddhartha Mukherjee
4. All Heads Turn when the Hunt Goes By, John Farris
- Touchstone, by Laurie R. King
- The Madonna and the Starship, by James Morrow
- Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell
- Horns: A Novel, by Joe Hill*
- The Door in the Mountain, by Caitlin Sweet*
- A Taste Fur Murder, by Dixie Lyle
- The Golden Princess: A Novel of the Change, by S.M. Stirling*
- The Secret Place, by Tana French*
- The Lesser Dead, by Christopher Buehlman*
- Last Plane to Heaven by Jay Lake*
- Last Song Before Night, by Ilana C. Myer
16. N0S4A2, by Joe Hill
17. The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of those who survived the Great American Dustbowl, by Timothy Egan*
18. The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014, edited by Tim Folger and Deborah Blum*
19. The Great Influenza, by John M. Barry*
20. Nobody’s Home, by Tim Powers
21. We Will All Go Down Together, by Gemma Files (As of this morning, I’m two stories away from being finished with this.)*
Plus some, but not all, of the stories
“Hard Stars,” by Brendan DuBois
“Something going Around,” by Harry Turtledove
“Solstice Cakes,” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman,
“The Faery Handbag,” by Kelly Link
“Strange Attractors” by S.B. Divya
The guest editor for this year’s Best American Science and Nature Writing was Deborah Blum and her picks were outstanding. I particularly loved Barbara Kingsolver’s “Where it Begins,” which is about knitting and the turn of the seasons and many other lovely things. I had some great conversations sparked by Maryn McKenna’s “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future.”
“TV as Birth Control,” by Fred Pearce blew my mind… but, really, so did most of Blum’s choices. It’s an outstanding collection. Here’s the table of contents.
As the links show, a lot of the articles can be found online. If you’re feeling inclined to sample, go for it.
Science reporters are close cousins to SF writers. Both professions involve looking at the state of the world today and extrapolating, from the data, to where we may be headed. This is an anthology about ocean rise and plagues of fire ants, about genetically engineered oranges, about our right to die with dignity, whether we’re entitled to privacy protection from potential genetic relatives who may find us using commercially available DNA tests, and what we lose and gain by reading on screens instead of paper.
Inspiration for stories, cause for alarm and the seeds of intense, chewy discussions fair jump off every single page. Pick it up – you won’t be sorry.
Way back when I asked all of you to assign me some blog topics, Erica Redshift asked what I thought of the generally accepted wisdom that men read fewer books written by women. She’s at the beginning of her writing journey, and is, understandably, outraged to think that putting a woman’s name on her book might trim her potential audience.
I had her send me a few of the things she’s been reading on the subject, for context:
Want to be a Successful Writer? Be a Man! (from Jezebel).
Poetactics on women using male pseudonyms.
From Me, You and Books, an attempt to explain why. And Hannah, on W&N, on the same subject.
I’ve struggled for an embarrassingly long time with the question of how to reply. Preferential sexism among my readership is not something I give a lot of thought to in my day to day, or when I’m actually writing something. And yet… I can’t pretend I’ve never given it any thought. I have an idea that I have more female readers than male, but some of my most vocal and enthusiastic fans are guys. (You know who you are, I hope. I treasure you bigtime.)
I can certainly remember my first editor at Tor saying Indigo Springs was, unequivocally, “a girl book.”
It was only at my most recent appearance, in Bellevue Washington, that a number of twenty-something women–people I didn’t know, that is–turned out because they already knew who I was and loved my books.
When I chose to go with my initials as a byline, it was the Eighties. Part of my thinking was definitely about having a gender-neutral name. But some of that ties into my own gender identity, which isn’t exactly cisgendered female. There’s no James Tiptree, though, hiding behind that mysterious A.M.: I’m out and about on the Internet. Everyone who cares to knows who I am: it’s all there, probably, except my blood type.
Maybe I don’t think about it much, but I was on the founding Motherboard of Broad Universe, an organization that describes itself thusly:
We are a nonprofit international organization of women and men dedicated to celebrating and promoting the work of women writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
I don’t have a great problem with publishers identifying the target audience for my fiction and trying to market to the marketing at the people most likely to buy it. My publisher does a pretty great job of this, in my opinion. As for who reads my books, who loves my books… that’s entirely out of my hands. I write them. I certainly try to make them cool and lovable.
If someone isn’t into my stuff, I’m great with that. Everyone should seek out fiction they love, right?
So the real question, for a female writer starting out, I think, is “Will this tell against me? If so, what can I do about it?”
I think the answers are the same as they’ve ever been: a) write the best stuff you can; b) Represent. Whether it’s by joining Broad Universe, blogging to support the writers you love, or even just telling someone at a party that Ilana C. Myer has a novel coming out next year and it’s amazing, OMG. Or mentoring talented younger writers, and maybe keeping an eye peeled for people who might fall through the cracks because of gender, or race, or physical ability, or abundant social awkwardness, or whatever, y’know?
Celebrate the good guys. If you take on bad guys, pick your fights carefully, and avoid sticking knives, metaphorical or literal, into your peers’ backs.
Basic human stuff, in other words.
(Erica, I’m sorry this took so long. I kept thinking if I revisited the draft of this essay every week or so, I’d come to some profound insight or another. It did spark some things, but nothing that quite fit into this essay.)
So, everyone, what are you reading these days?
Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead has been out for about a month now, and if you like your horror horrible (as opposed to romantic, edgy, or cuddlesome) I cannot recommend it enough. Here’s my review at Tor.com, in which I try to say more than “oohh, oooh, squee, squee!”
This week I am reading fourteen student novel openings and a book that won’t be out until 2015. Sneak peeks are one of the perks of the job, and I’m looking forward to telling you about this one closer to its release date.