Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Thursday, February 26, 2009

A Good Critique Group

To me, my novel critique group has been a wonderful laboratory for experimenting with the craft of writing. Some of what I've learned has been from others pointing out strengths and weaknesses in my own prose. I've also learned a lot from the successes and failures of my fellow critiquers.

From Jake, I learned not to be a snob about grammar. A sentence fragment in exactly the right place can have tremendous impact. But the shorter the better. By the time I get to the end of reading a thirty or forty word sentence, I'm desperately searching for a verb. Not finding one, I retrace my steps to see what I missed. So keep fragments short.

Speaking of short, Jake's one-sentence paragraphs (even one word!) can become habit-forming.


He also introduced me to the works of Robert B. Parker, a great example when I've been struggling with dialog.

On the flip side, Jake reminds me not to fall in love with my novel to the point that, once it's written, I neglect all the other wild ideas flitting around in my head. Write the next novel, Jake!

Angie inspires me. She can literally draft a novel in a weekend orgy of typing. It may be rough as hell but there's that pile of pages full of ink, begging to be edited and polished into something great. Like former members Bob and Marie, she's written 2-3 books while I've been worrying over every comma and adverb in my own masterpiece.

She's also great at keeping the focus on a sympathetic protagonist instead of my jumping from POV to POV of all the wackos roaming my mind. She visualizes a character, pushes him into a pit of quicksand, and keeps jabbing his with a stick until he figures out how to save himself.

Angie also reminds me of the need to keep improving my craft. I can't depend on others to fix my spelling an grammar since I don't always have the luxury of waiting 2-4 weeks while a chapter, query letter or synopsis passes through the critique gauntlet.

Wes reminds me of King or Koontz, deftly slipping in a word or phrase that takes your breath away. There is so much power in the exact word picture at just the right moment. But it's hard for the solitary writer to know the difference between the sentence that enlivens an entire page, and one that jolts the reader out of the story. That's why we drive through blizzards in the winter and past beckoning golf courses in the summer, in search of constructive criticism.

Wes also shows me how important it is to anchor a story with sensory details. I understand his genre is not like a whodunit, western or romantic comedy, but some sort of New Age space-travel-but-not-really-sci-fi allegory. But sights and sounds, farts and freckles, idiosyncrasies and memories of your maiden aunt with garlic breath - these are things people can identify with, building rapport between readers and both the story and the hidden author. In my humble opinion, until we breathe life into some sensory images, we're merely throwing adjectives against a wall, hoping something will stick.

Nick, a landscape artist new to writing, is full of energy and enthusiasm about this new creative outlet. He reminds me how vital it is to nurture the wide-eyed child within each of us, keeping him at arm's length from that crabby old editor. We've got to give ourselves freedom to write crap, to follow our pens where they lead us, and to take risks. Some of that crap turns into pretty good, uh, lit once it's been worked on a bit, whereas there's not much you can do with a blank sheet of paper.

Ina continually reminds me of the awesome power of storytelling. You can talk all day about the importance of love, honor and respect for the traditions of your significant other, but Ina nails those concepts in her 200-word tale of a Jewish-Christian wedding at a hog farm.

At the same time, she demonstrates how vital interesting characters are to a story. In early drafts, the players are cardboard cut-outs, and it's fascinating to see how just a few words can add quirks, foibles and physical traits to a minor walk-on, making him a fleshed-out person about whom you could actually say, "I know that guy."

I've learned things from some of our drive-by critiquers as well. From the fellow who came once and vanished off the face of the earth, I learned the importance of finding the time to write, the time to edit, and the time to seek feedback.

A gal came once and ran screaming for the door, terrified by all those marks in the margins of her beloved creation. She reminded me of the reason I keep coming back - to get criticism. If I could achieve emotional distance and be able to recognize my mistakes and weaknesses, I wouldn't need the critique group.

But it's still a wonderful group, and I feel like there's a hole in my life when I'm forced to miss a session.

Next time: why Stuart isn't welcome back.