Once a week my writing buddies and I meet at a coffee shop and ignore each other, yet the time spent seated across the table from one another, separated by laptops and headphones, is quite productive.
Today we varied the routine by engaging in conversation for an hour before sinking inside our private worlds. Laurie and I recently read an excerpt from Valerie’s Middle grade novel-in-progress and we both offered advice. Note: I am intentionally vague in describing Valerie’s project to avoid spoilers because someday many of you will read this book.
First, I pointed out what Valerie thought was the inciting incident- an act of violence- is not where the story starts. The story begins when 12 year old Hank discovers his boss was the victim of a robbery and shares this information with his friend Rivet. By relaying the incident, the gears get set in motion for Rivet, a lover of cheap detective novels, to attempt to solve the crime. I also suggested she have Hank witness the robbery.
Valerie gasped. “Oh my god, you’re right!” Now Valerie is tasked with revising chapter One, cutting chapters Two and Three, and moving chapter Four to the forefront.
Laurie ups the ante by suggesting that, not only does Hank witness the crime, but he locks eyes with one of the perps as the three bandits make a hasty exit and that hank knows the guy. Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! Ding! The stakes jumped up tenfold.
We writers are often so close to our own work we miss the obvious: what the tale is really about. Eventually after numerous drafts we may discover this on our own, yet we can shortcut that by showing the draft to a trusted reader. So how do we choose a reader?
Choose someone you trust. Valerie, Laurie and I all write under the umbrella of Children’s Literature, but I write Contemporary YA, Valerie writes historical MG and Laurie writes for early readers, so it’s not likely we’ll steal one another’s ideas.
Choose a writer who reads a lot of the genre in which you write. Someone who writes adult horror fiction isn’t likely to be versed enough in middle grade historical works.
Find a partner (or two) who writes as well or better than you. Your good friend tackling his/her first short story is too green to offer in depth criticism.
Choose someone who will praise as well as criticize. Professional jealousy (or unprofessional vanity) is rare, but it happens. I participated in a week long workshop where one man had nothing good to say about anyone else’s work. He also reminded us, on several occasions, about his numerous publications, which turned out to be in pulp magazines such as True Story. When his turn for critique came his story was no better than any of ours, but he didn’t take criticism well.
Take a workshop with strangers. Sometimes you and your critique partners know each too well and you need a fresh voice. I learn more about my own mistakes by looking at those made by others in a workshop and how these strangers react to my work.
To sum up, take Stephen King’s advice from On Writing “Write with the door closed, revise with the door open.”