Tag Archives: critique groups

Bigger Isn’t Always Better

Whenever I talk to aspiring fiction writers who are just starting out, I always recommend that they begin by writing short stories.  There are several reasons for this.

Short stories allow a writer to experiment within a small package.  First person, or third? Past tense, or present? Ratio of dialog to narrative to description. High fantasy or science fiction or urban fantasy or romance or mystery?  Character or plot driven? Vignette or full story arc?  Short stories let you test yourself, practice, and improve in a shorter period of time. You can write a short story in a week, a day if you’re a fast writer. It takes most of us at least a few months to write a novel. During the same time you could try out a dozen ideas in short stories.

Writing short encourages you to make every word count. To know what the essence of the story is and not to wander.  It’s a great challenge to accept a very tight word limit, say 500 words, and tell a story within it.  When you do “graduate” to writing novels, you won’t be as profligate with your words.

You can hold the whole story in your mind.  With a novel you have plots and subplots, secondary characters and red herrings.  When you’re just beginning that’s a lot to juggle.  Make it easy on yourself. Start small.  Learn to juggle just a couple of balls before you try to keep half a dozen flaming torches in the air.

It’s easier to get good feedback on short stories.  You’re critique partners don’t have to wonder if you’re wandering off on a tangent or setting up something for later in the book as they might with a novel fragment — it’s all there.  They can tell you if you pulled it all together or if the story fell apart in act three.  And once you’ve got that feedback, it’s quicker to revise a short story.

You can learn most of this from writing novel chunks, but using the short story format encourages you to complete a whole thing, with a beginning, middle, and an end, not just a piece.  Storytellers need to know how to start, sustain, and finish their tales. It’s easier to start learning that with a single plot line instead of a sprawling epic.

For a while, the market for short stories was shrinking; only a few print magazines still bought them, and only in a few genres.  Now with people turning more and more to the internet for entertainment, there are an increasing number of markets online for short stories, some of which pay quite well.  You can even sell your stories yourself on Kindle and Smashwords if you’re so inclined.

On this last point, I’d like to digress a little.  There are some authors who suggest that you not spend too much time revising. Give it a light once over, then out the door it goes.  They publish their shorts on Smashwords and Kindle and feel that reader reviews are good teachers.  That’s true as far as it goes, but I can’t agree that this is the best start for beginning writers.

Every piece that goes out the door with your name on it is your ambassador.  It may be the first thing of yours that someone reads — and it could be the last. Every story should be the best you can make it right now,  within a reasonable amount of time. And that understanding comes with experience.  And that experience is something you can get from writing multiple short stories.

Yes, if you foul your name by self-publishing work that’s really not ready, you can always continue your career under a pen name. It’s not a fatal mistake. But I think waiting a bit to publish while you learn your craft will be time well spent.

Start by writing several short stories and see how your work improves.  Then you can decide if you want to go back and fix your first efforts, or trash ’em. Then push whatever survives out the door, and start another story.



Filed under writing

Critique Groups

Last time I wrote about hope, and how necessary it was to a writer.  Something that has made a tremendous difference to me over the years is belonging to a critique group.

I’ve been fortunate to be a member of four critique groups.  I organized the first one and it included my husband and three friends who were trying to break in.  That group taught me the first three lessons of CG’s.

1) Decide from the start how you want to run the thing.  In our case, we decided to use a relaxed version of the rules used at the Clarion writing workshops.  We handed out our chapters, read through them, then brought them back and read our comments aloud.  For the most part, we tried to keep our comment time as close to five minutes as possible, so we could a) get through in a reasonable time, and b) not seem like we were belaboring a point.  Authors were to listen and not interrupt or defend.

2) It’s best if you all are striving for the same thing.  In our case, we were all working toward professional publication.  None of us were writing for our own amusement or memoirs for our families.

3)  If one person says something, it’s one person’s opinion.  LISTEN!  (Especially if you don’t like what you’re hearing.)  Evaluate it.  Then take it or leave it.  If several people make the same observation, you should look long and hard at the problem area.

My second critique group, eventually named “Working Title” taught me four  more lessons:

4)  It’s good if all members of the group are familiar with the genres being written.  It’s not absolutely necessary, but it helps.  Science fiction, fantasy, and romance all have conventions specific to the genre.

5)  Mention the good things as well as the mistakes.  As Emma Bull said on a panel once, “If you don’t tell me what I did right, I may revise it out.”  Besides that, we all need encouragement.  As wonderful as writing is, this can at times be a soul killing business.  Put a smiley face on the page.  Give applause where it’s due.

6)  It’s good if the members are not too far apart in skill level.  I was blessed to receive guidance from others who were better writers than I was.  It accelerated my improvement considerably.  Fortunately they didn’t have to bend down too far to give me a hand up.  Even a rank beginner can read and say “this isn’t working for me,” even when they don’t know why.  But if the disparity is too great, the better writers aren’t getting the help they need.

7)  Keep it small.  More than six and it become unwieldy.  Four or five is better.  Three is doable, but almost too small.  You need a diversity of opinion (see #3 above).

The third group I joined, simultaneously for a while with the second and fourth groups, is the “Tanque Wordies.”  I’m still a member.  This group reads aloud instead of handing out pages at the previous meeting.  From this group I’ve learned:

8)  Read your work out loud.  You’ll hear things that your eye misses.  Repeated words, bad dialogue, etc.

I was in the fourth group for only about six months.  That group focused on writing romance, something I really wanted to be in.   It taught me a difficult lesson:

9)  Listen to your gut.  No matter how much you like the individual members of a group, it may not be the right one for you.  Depending on the problem, you may be able to talk it out.  If not, your best bet may be to leave graciously.

I’ve had (mostly) good luck, but some people don’t like critique groups.   There is a risk of being swayed away from your natural style.  But in my experience, if you find the right group it can help you grow, help you stay motivated, and keep you hopeful in between those elusive sales.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized