Using OP’s Suggestions For Your Book

Your book is both good and original. But the part that is good is not original, and the part that is original is not good.

–Samuel Johnson

If you want to write a book that is both good and original, the right critique group will help you. My previous post answered novelist Pam Chun’s question about critique groups, but Pam, author of When Strange Gods Call, had another question about them: How do you decide if the group has workable ideas for your book?

The short answer: Trust your instincts. If you think the ideas will strengthen your manuscript, try them. If they consistently don’t help you, you’re in the wrong group.

Your Book as a Frigate

Emily Dickinson was right: A book is a frigate. It’s hammered together with thousands of pieces of wood. Changing a piece at one end of it may affect the other end of the ship and make it less seaworthy. An editor once said to me that a good writer always knows when an editor is right. But the more effort an idea will take, the surer you want to be about its effectiveness. Thinking through how an idea will affect the rest of your ship will help you decide if it’s worth pursuing.

The more effort trying an idea will take, the more reluctant you may be to try it. Yet you may not realize the value of the idea until you do, because its value may not be the idea itself but what it leads to. One of the joys of writing is discovery: trying something that sparks a new idea that illuminates or transforms your work. If you don’t let your ship explore the high seas of creativity, you won’t discover the treasures your imagination has waiting for you to find. Let the spirit of play inspire you to explore new possibilities.

Getting Past Sweat Equity

The more you’ve done on your manuscript, the more committed you may feel to it, although your sweat equity may make you less able to judge its value. How far along you are with your manuscript, how many drafts you’ve already done, your patience, and your determination are also factors that may influence your decision to try an idea.

Jacqueline Susann did each draft of her novels on different colored paper. But computers make it easy to experiment and to keep track of your drafts by just numbering them in your header. It also simplifies making use of a previous version if you decide it’s stronger.

You will spend your life trying things, not all of which will work. You must trust your instincts and your common sense. Ultimately, it’s your book, you must decide how best to write it and whose advice to follow. As you mature as a writer, you will become better able to decide whether to set sail for parts unknown.

Three Ways to Keep Making Your Group More Effective

  • In the rapidly evolving world of publishing, you have to keep learning if you want to keep earning. You want to belong to a group whose members are committed to keeping themselves and each other up to date on industry news and trends.
  • Have an annual get-together or retreat in a new setting to discuss how to improve the group.
  • Some writers don’t like to read while they’re writing, because they’re afraid of being influenced by other authors. But one way to increase the value of your group is to make it a reading group as well. Discussing what writers can learn from favorite books and successful authors will improve your work and your ability to help others.

Talking about books—about writing and publishing as well as books the group discusses–can be a good way of auditioning each other before starting a group. It will give you a sense of

  • how compatible members’ tastes are with yours
  • how perceptive they are
  • their ability to help you hone your craft
  • their commitment to learning and growing as writers

A critique group will enable you to be a better, more knowledgeable writer. It will also be a source of enduring relationships. For the sake of your craft and career, join or start one as soon as you have something to share.

Three Cheers for Critique Groups!

When I want to read a good book, I write one.

–Author Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

If you want to write a good book, a critique group will help you. A client, novelist Pam Chun, author of the prize-winning novel The Money Dragon, asked two excellent questions about critique groups that I’ll try to answer in this post and the next one.

First question: How do you know when a critique group is good for you?

The short answer: If you’re receiving feedback and ideas that you can use, learning about craft, and enjoying the process, the group is working.

More than ever, you need feedback on your work to make sure it’s as strong as it needs to be in today’s demanding marketplace. This is equally true whether you want to sell your book or self-publish it, so you won’t have the help of a staff editor. A critique group gives you the chance to learn from what you tell others and they tell you.

Whether you join a group or start one, at first, it’s an experiment. You get a feeling for how best to work together. Effective groups are self-sustaining. They last decades. Groups that don’t deliver for members lose them. Members will not always show up. Not all members will stay with the group. You may have to try more than one group to find the right one for you.

A Working Marriage

Like your relationship with an agent or editor, your relationships with members is a working marriage that has personal and professional aspects to it. You want to enjoy each other’s company, but you also have to be able to help each other. There are three aspects to this:

  • Having members with knowledge, experience, perceptiveness, and creativity
  • Combining truth with charity, starting with virtues of the work being discussed
  • Being reliable about fulfilling one’s responsibilities to the group

Members can

  • offset the solitude of writing
  • be a source of encouragement
  • forge lasting friendships
  • provide information about agents, publishers, promotion, and the industry.

But the relationships between members may also interfere with their ability to tell each other the truth about their work. So members have to balance friendship and objectivity.

Joining or Starting a Group

How carefully your group is organized will help determine how well it will help you. You can do it any way you and other members wish, but you do have to agree on 

  • the kinds of books you discuss
  • the feedback members need such as word choice, plot, character, setting, and structure; the subjectivity of members’ reactions to your work will help you appreciate the conflicting responses your book will generate
  • the criteria for joining: writing experience, the quality of a writing sample, personality, accepting members on a trial basis
  • when, where, and how often you meet
  • the size of the group; some groups have forty members, but the smaller your group, the more often you have the chance to get feedback
  • how the group works:

             * how much of a member’s work you discuss at one meeting

             * how much time you devote to each member’s work

             * how many members’ work you discuss at one meeting

  • how to handle refreshments
  • whether everyone receives a copy of what’s to be critiqued in advance at the previous meeting or it’s emailed so members can mark it up
  • health issues such as smoking and allergies
  • finding a coordinator if you need one
  • how to say no to those not yet ready to join
  • when and how to suggest someone will be better served by another group

Besides giving members feedback on their work as they write, members also have to read completed manuscripts for form and content to help make sure they’re rejection-proof.

In the next post, I’ll give you three ideas that will make your critique group more effective.

I look forward to your questions, especially those I can answer! Meanwhile, keep at it and happy hunting for the critique group you need.

Writing Like a Reader

A Dave Coverly cartoon in Parade showed an editor holding a manuscript, sitting across a desk from a writer and saying: “We love all the words in your manuscript, but we were wondering if you could maybe put them in a completely different order.”

Isn’t arranging the right words in the right order the essence of writing? The craving to create beauty, meaning, and order is part of what makes us human. But one person’s order is another person’s chaos.

Dick Cavett once had the surrealist painter Salvador Dali on his prime-time interview show. Dali answered Cavett’s questions with simple words. But they were strung together in a way that made them incomprehensible. He talked like a man from another planet with an English vocabulary. To get your words in the right order, follow these three steps:

  • Read like writer.

Be a devoted fan of the kind of book you’re writing by reading as many of them as you can. Your favorite books inspire you to write and enable you to establish criteria for your books. But you also need to read like a writer: to read between the lines. Analyze what combination of content, structure, and writing makes them effective. Look for what they don’t contain that might present opportunities for you.

  • Write like a reader.

Write with a book buyer’s mindset. Balance what you want to write with what book buyers want to read. As a fan of books like yours, would you be excited enough about your book to buy it, despite all of the past, present, and future competition it will face?

  • Let your early readers assure you your work is ready to submit.

As the proud parent of a bouncing new proposal or manuscript, you’re going to be too close to your work to judge it objectively. You need a community of early readers to tell you it’s ready to submit. Being in a critique group to get feedback as you write is helpful, but you also need feedback on the finished document before you submit it.

When your book is published, you want to be confident that, with the help of your readers, you and your book are primed for prime time.