Writing group experiences take 1 … science fiction is the go and ‘be prepared’

The writing group I joined had our first meeting last week. We meet bi-monthly for the rest of this year and the aim of participants is that they each write a novel in that time.

It was fascinating to actually meet face to face other writers who are writing in the same genre. Sherylyn and I both know other writers, but no genre writers. Most of the ones we know are writing either memoirs or literary fiction. The only other genre writers either of us have met are online. Not only that, the only writing group experience I have ever had is Critters, an online critiquing group for science fiction, fantasy and horror. I have always been impressed with Critters, and recommend it highly.

Before the session we had to send around a synopsis and a thousand words. I should have picked Barrain—after all, the whole reason for joining this group in the first place is to get Barrain finished so that I can move on to something else —but I thought we had to start something new. My first misapprehension.

The coordinator sent around some critiquing guidelines. This was fascinating in itself—one of the rules was ‘no physical violence’. I wasn’t sure what I had let myself in for. We didn’t get anything else, so I assumed that we would get instructions on the day. My second misapprehension.

The night before the workshop I reviewed the Critting guidelines. Maybe I should be prepared, I thought, and scribbled some hasty notes about each of the other works.

I am glad I did, because pretty much from the moment we arrived we were right into it, critiquing each other’s work.

The group was mixed, roughly half men and half women. Age ranged from 15 years old to mid-fifties. Writing group experience ranged from those who had no experience whatsoever, to me, who had online critiquing experience, to others with face to face writing group experience and still others who had been in this same group the previous year (working on the same novel).

Two-thirds of the novels were science fiction, which really surprised me. I expected more fantasy. I don’t know if this is a trend, just this group, or due to the fact that our coordinator was a published science fiction writer. Many of these novels were past first draft, and some of them had been extensively work-shopped prior. Not surprisingly, the work-shopped novels were generally more ‘finished’, or if you like, more professional (although they weren’t always the stories that appealed to me most).

We spent the whole day critiquing each other’s thousand words, and still ran an hour overtime to finish it.

You don’t have much time. Those who had attended workshops before came prepared, with printouts of each work and notes on the printout. Once they had finished their critique they then passed the notes on to the author. I like this, because you certainly don’t have time to cover all the points you might like to make.

A thousand words isn’t much, however, and it’s hard to critique in isolation. Most people gave the first thousand words of their novel. Even so, there were still a lot of comments like “I don’t understand what’s happening here” to stories where I was perfectly happy to wait to understand. After all, by their very nature science fiction and fantasy are a little ambiguous at the start. If you write something like:

The spritzer blew 20 klicks out. We had to cannibalise the recycler to repair it, which meant no clean clothes for the next five klicks, which meant that Jenna was furious and spent those five clicks in sub-mode, which meant that I got into trouble because she didn’t calibrate the drive before she went under. No-one likes to take the blame for their gem-partner so naturally I …

I don’t care what the spritzer is. I don’t even care that I don’t know how long or what a klick is. It’s a time or distance unit of some sort, and the time period it covers (or takes to cover) is definitely longer than a day. I don’t even care what sub-modes and gem-partners are yet. It’s science fiction and I expect that in time I will come to know what these things are, if I need to. All I need to get from this is a sense of whose story it is, what’s going to happen next and whether or not I want to read more.

This type of critique—”I don’t get what’s happening. I don’t know what a spritzer is. I don’t get a feel of the story because I can’t visualise it”—came up a lot.

The most valuable critiques were the most specific. “I got confused when you did not start a new paragraph for each new character’s speech,” type thing. I think that was because of the restricted idea we have of each others’ stories at present.

We agreed that a thousand words is the limit that anyone can send through to be critiqued. There is no way we could do any more. It can be any thousand words they want critiqued. Unfortunately, I am the only one who wants to see the rest of the novel. There was a collective ‘no’ when I suggested people send the whole novel up to the thousand words so we could at least get an idea of what had gone on in the story prior.

I’m not sure how much value it is critiquing just that one small part. We’ll wait and see. I know that I will present in sequence, whether or not I think something else needs work-shopping, simply because I can’t see the sense in pulling something out of the middle of the book without my critiquers knowing what has gone on before.

Overall, it was a good day and I learned a lot about critiquing face to face. It will be interesting to see what happens as we get to know the stories and the people better.

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