Writer. Adventurer. Currently working on The Dreamless City, a series of steampunk novels and short stories.
I took the plunge in the last month and joined a local critique group to get some feedback about my works-in-progress. My inner critic and I have been spending lots of time together, so I was ready for some external reviews. Upon reflection about my experience, I realized it was both similar to my expectations as well as very different.
I left four-month-old Ace with the babysitter for the evening. While my brain knows that I’m not tied to my baby boy, my heart was feeling guilty about not being there for him, even if it was just for a few more hours than normal.
The meeting time for the group was “don’t show up before 6:45, we start at 7:00. Manuscripts are read in order of arrival.” So despite dropping Alex off, negotiating monsoonal rains, and driving to a new destination, I arrive at 6:50 and am mortified to learn that a dozen people have already arrived before me.
There are no introductions; almost no one says hi to me. While I’m a big girl and fairly outgoing, this is intimidating. I wonder if I have stumbled out of the Land of Southern Hospitality and into New Jersey by mistake. I sit down, wave across the table at the one person I know, then the readings get started.
I sit from 7:00 to 9:30. I had planned to leave by 9:00 at the latest, but I wait, hoping I can read my first five pages. Eventually, I have to leave, knowing that I am late to pick up Ace and that my husband is sending texts inquiring about my estimated time of arrival.
So how did my first writing group experience go? I listened to other people read their five pages, most of which were terribly depressing. Characters were dying or being carted off to prison, others surviving earthquakes or enduring humiliating situations. I wonder if these writers will even understand where I am coming from with my steampunk fiction that has the levity of a space opera.
And I didn’t get to read. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. It take me an hour to pick up Ace and get home. I’m exhausted, Ace is clingy, and I’m wondering if this writing group thing is a good idea.
With some trepidation I decide to go back two weeks later for the next meeting. I figure that it can’t get any worse, so I put on my big girl panties and show up at 6:45. Everyone is getting out of their cars as I roll up and park. Obviously I’m going to need to show up at 6:30 and hang out, holding my place in line if I want to read each time.
My husband is keeping both Ace and Sweetpea this evening. Again, while my head knows that it is healthy for me to do something besides work and family stuff, my heart is feeling guilty for abandoning my family. I’m probably not in the best frame of mind as I arrive.
The group is a bit more friendly now that I’m not a complete stranger. Apparently showing up again counts for something. There’s a bit of small talk, then it is time to get started. The group leader says that I can go first since I didn’t get to read last time. It’s considerate of them, and I experience a moment of warm fuzzies.
The pleasant feelings evaporate quickly as I realize that I now have to read my manuscript. My mouth gets horribly dry, and for a moment I forget how to talk. I stare at the page, then the words spill out in a rush. I’m so nervous that I can’t hear myself speaking, so I have no idea if I am talking too slow or too fast.
I stumble a couple of times over awkward phrasing, making a note to clean those up, as well as finding a few more typos. It amazes me how there are always more typos to find. The advice about reading your work aloud is true; it helped me see my manuscript in a new way and find areas that need fixing.
Then it is over, and the other writers start commenting. They remark on some point of view errors and that they would like more sensory details. There are some suggestions about the diction of the dialogue being inconsistent
I’m feeling good until someone at the end of the table asks, “Is this steampunk?”
“Yes, it has goggles in it,” I say as nonchalantly as possible. Crap, they didn’t get my story at all.
“What exactly is steampunk?” another writer asks. My stomach starts to feel queasy in response to this question. Oh dear…
I explain what steampunk is to the best of my ability without using any SF or Fantasy references, mentioning the anachronistic or alternative power sources, the Victorian sensibilities, and the punk rebellion against established institutions. Once again, I feel like I have everyone on the same page as me. I should not have counted my coglights before they were lit.
“What is the setting? Is this set in London in the 1800s?” a third writer asks. This is a problem. My story already has a page of set up before we get to the action. If I have to also explain right off the bat that this is in Rivenloss, a completely made up world that has nothing to do with England, I’ll have a couple more paragraphs for readers to slog through. I’m not sure how to overcome this.
“Can you explain what cogs and coglights are?” someone else adds while I’m still considering how to introduce the larger setting more effectively. At this point I bite my tongue. It is common in SF and Fantasy for an author to mention a widget, show how it is used, then not explain it in detail until later (or sometime never if it was window dressing and not story relevant). I had not considered defining these items explicitly. People are being polite, but I can tell they don’t read my genre of fiction. I want to ask if they feel that explanation is necessary, but I get the sense they would say yes, so I shut my mouth before I ruin their goodwill.
I collect the written copies of my manuscript, which have useful comments about repetition of words, grammar issues, and more typos. I put them in my folder and wait for the next reader to begin speaking.
Was this useful for strengthening my prose, finding typos, and overall polishing up my manuscript? Yes, I received some valuable feedback.
Was it helpful in considering the storyline, especially considering how it stacks up to the rest of the genre? Probably not so much. Someone mentioned that people would call the police if a guy tried to kiss a girl he just met. In a lighthearted fantasy story like mine, I think concerns like this are often waived unless the menace element is played up beforehand, but it is possible that I’m mistaken. What do you think?
Will I keep going back? Yes, but I will consider what manuscript I bring and why I want feedback. I need to look other places to see if elements like sky pirates are a good idea (and yes, they are always a good idea). For diving into the nitty gritty to get my work ready for publishing, I think this could be a positive experience.
What have your experiences been with writing and critique groups? Do you feel like they help your writing, and if so, how?