Personal

My Critique Group is Awesome (or, “Why Critique Groups are Crucial for Success”)

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I’ve been meeting with a critique group for a little over a year.

At first, I was petrified by the idea of making myself so vulnerable. What if they didn’t like me? What if they didn’t like my work? I knew I had to break out of my shell, that I had to start meeting other writers if I was ever going to improve my craft and get to a point where I could publish my work. But I was terrified of rejection, and a few months passed before I finally found the courage to join a group and put myself out there.

It was the best decision I ever made.

I met some amazing writers and I learned a lot, not just about my fiction but also about the industry. One of my projects, a middle grade fantasy whose first draft is now in the hands of an editor, suffered from serious flaws that would have rendered it unpublishable. In just a few months, my group identified most of these problems and was there for me when I needed help figuring out how to fix them.

We gather around a table once a week and share up to ten pages of our work.

A volunteer reads each story out loud so that the writer has an opportunity to experience his or her words in a different way. When the reading is done, we go around the circle to discuss what we thought the writer did well and what we thought the writer could improve.

They help me identify and eliminate inconsistencies and contradictions. They help me resolve difficult plot and character problems that I’m either too inexperienced or too frustrated to solve. They recognize what I do well, but are also blunt and honest, and are never afraid to (charitably) point out the numerous ways in which I fail.

Sometimes I agree with their assessments and sometimes I don’t; art is inherently subjective.

But I always take what they have to say seriously and value their feedback. Knowing how my group receives my work gives me a better idea of how my audience will receive my work when it’s published. If the majority have issues with what I’ve written, I know I need to go back and take a closer look.

They rein me in when I get carried away. They encourage me to be bold. We support each other, inspire each other, teach each other, help each other to grow.

As an author, I’ve learned more in the year I’ve been with them than in all the other years I’ve been writing on my own.

If you’re an artist of any stripe, I implore you to get together with others in your field. You’ll find support. You’ll find insight. Most importantly, you’ll make fantastic friends and you’ll become better, not just as an artist but as a human being.

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What Am I Working On?

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I’ve been blogging once a week for half a year now. In that time, I’ve written about all sorts of things. But I rarely talk about my projects.

One reason is that I don’t want to come off as salesy or spammy. Though my blog does exist in part to help me build an audience for my work, I want that to be the by-product of what I hope are meaningful thought-provoking articles and stories that resonate with hearts and enrich my readers.

Another reason is that I don’t have a whole lot to show for myself, not yet anyway. There’s my short story, The Sign, but that’s pretty much it. Though I’ve been writing in some form or another since at least the third grade, it wasn’t until early 2013 that I began to take it seriously, and writing good books (and then publishing them) takes an insanely long time.

But I’ve decided I owe you some kind of update, if for no other reason than to let you know that yes, I am writing and yes, there are books on the way, even if it’s going to take me a while to get them to you. I’m not ready to reveal detailed information about titles, plot or characters, but I do want to give you a brief taste of things to come.

1. Middle Grade Fantasy

In March, 2013, shortly after I published The Sign, I began work on a middle grade fantasy about a boy who accidentally makes his sister disappear. The funny thing is that my target audience has always been adults; I never set out to write a book for kids.

It started as a simple novella. I had the idea while I was out for a walk. It wasn’t until after I’d completed the first draft and started showing it to my critique group that I realized I’d unwittingly stumbled onto a children’s book. In the process, I discovered that writing for kids is a delight, and I’ve since decided that, no matter how difficult it is to write for more than one audience, I want to make books for children as well as for adults.

Books are often difficult to write. It doesn’t matter how powerful an idea is or how inspired you might feel. Most of the time, writing is hard. There are of course those moments of pure unadulterated joy that every writer lives for, when the story flows out of you like a babbling stream, and your only job is to sit there and catch as much of it as you can before it stops. But as a serious writer who’s committed to creating stories come Hell or high water, I’ve discovered how rare those moments are. But writing this one was a dream. I sat down each night to one fiery burst of ideas after another. I usually have to outline at least some of the books I set out to write, but this one was completely off the cuff. It simply came to me, a wandering orphaned idea in need of form and expression. I completed the first draft in two months.

I’ve since been revising like crazy. I’ve gone through every chapter of the book with my critique group, have had my first round of beta readers provide me with their detailed thoughts and have almost completed my final initial revisions. Once that’s done, the manuscript goes off to a developmental editor for further refinement. I’m still deciding if I’m going to query agents and try to get this published traditionally or if I’m going to self-publish. Either way, I hope it won’t be too much longer before you start reading about the experiences of characters who’ve become very dear to me.

I actually plan to make this a series, because the characters and the story grew so large that to confine them to just a single book would be a crime. I’m excited to see how this story will evolve in the next few years.

2. Dark Fantasy Novel for Adults

I started this one in July, 2013, a little while after completing my middle grade fantasy.

Inspired by films like “The Neverending Story” and “Stranger than Fiction,” this book chronicles the life of an isolated and socially anxious writer with an unusual gift, whose stories are more than they appear to be at first glance. This tale, which is as much a symbolic reflection on the nature of art and writing as it is a modern fantasy, is very dark, and is intended for an adult audience.

The initial draft is only about 20% complete. It’s a full-length novel, and I anticipate that it’ll be a little while longer before it’s done. That’s fine with me, as I’m happy to let it ferment slowly over time. I care deeply about this story and want to take the time to tell it right.

3. Other Novellas and Short Stories

While alternating between the two above-mentioned projects, I’ve indulged in a few unrelated novellas and short stories. It’s difficult working on the same two projects day in and day out. Exploring fresh original ideas allows me the breath of fresh air that I so desperately need. Unlike the two books above, which I may try to sell to a traditional publishing house through an agent, these I plan to publish myself, since the traditional market for short fiction seems to have dried up.

That’s it.

I don’t mean that this is all that I plan to write (I’ll create stories until the day I die.) But that’s a pretty complete rundown of what I’m working on right now. I hope to have the middle grade fantasy out in a year or two (but don’t quote me on that, particularly if I do get it traditionally published, which would make it subject to someone else’s schedule instead of my own), and the dark fantasy a year or two after that. Along the way, expect more short stories and novellas.

Want to keep up with what I’m doing?

Then you should seriously consider joining my mailing list 🙂

I only plan to send out an email once a month to keep people abreast of what’s going on with my writing, to share the occasional piece of flash fiction that you won’t find anywhere else and to let you know when I publish something new. I want to connect with my readers and to make new friends. Highly personal emails that people can directly reply to is the best way I can think of to do that. If you change your mind later, it’s easy to unsubscribe.

As a thank you for caring enough about what I’m doing to sign up, I’ll send you a free copy of my short story The Sign.

You can sign up by clicking here.

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Getting Up and Trying Again

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Last week was really rough. I fell way behind on my reading and writing. I stopped interacting with people. I just kind of shut down and logged out of the world for a few days.

My dream for some time has been to be a full-time writer. In the past year, I’ve slowly built up a presence online, have shared the little finished work that I have with those who were interested, have made some good friends and have made some significant progress on my novels and short stories. But last week, something happened.

I suddenly got depressed and listless. I took a long look at all the hard work that’s required just for me to maintain what I’ve already created, then took another long look at all the work I have left to do before I ever come close to reaching my goals, and for a few days I just gave up. I stopped reading. I stopped writing. Everything that I’m passionate about came to a sudden grinding halt.

I want to blame this on the fact that I have a full-time career as a backend web developer that demands 40+ hours each week. I want to blame this on the fact that I’m tired when I come home, that the last thing I want to do is work for another couple of hours each night before I go to bed, only to repeat the cycle once more. I want to blame this on the fact that putting in 15-20 hours each week just isn’t enough, that to do my writing justice I need more time. But in the end, those are all just excuses.

I gave up because I chose to despair instead of working even harder to prove to myself that writing is what I really want to do. I made bad choices. There’s nothing I can say in my defense. In fact, I should be counting my blessings, because I have a job that finances what I love in my off hours and a roof over my head, because there are so many people out there who don’t even have jobs, or who work 60-80 hours each week and even then barely manage to make ends meet.

Fortunately, for every bad choice, there’s always an opportunity for another good choice. Even if you’ve spent your entire life turning left, you can always choose to turn right instead. This is my right turn. This is my choice to jump back into the game.

The fact is that writing is my passion. It’s what I was born to do. I can’t see myself doing anything else. If work gets tough and I have to put in extra hours, if I have to push through the pain and find time to write even when my body cries out for sleep, that just means I have an opportunity to prove to myself and to others how much I really want this. And someday, when I find success (whether great or small), I can look back on what I accomplished in spite of the pain and appreciate it all the more.

For a very select few, the winners of life’s lottery, things come easy. But those people rarely accomplish anything great, because they don’t know how to appreciate what’s been handed to them. They don’t realize how precious their finite lives here on Earth are, because they’ve never had to worry about it being taken away from them. I’ve decided I don’t want to win the lottery. I want to earn whatever success I can find, because only then can I appreciate it; only then can I take what I’ve worked hard for and know how to turn it into something even better.

I would appreciate any prayers (if you believe in prayer) and well wishes you choose to send my way. I can’t do this without God, and I also can’t do this without you, my loyal readers. It’s in large part because of you that I find the courage to articulate the stories that are written in the depths of my heart. Without you, none of what I’ve built so far would be possible.

I’ll keep writing, and hopefully you’ll keep reading and we can continue on this long and fruitful journey together.

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