Monthly Archives: July 2012

How to Start a World-Class, Kick-Ass Writers’ Group

Writers need critique. All of us, even professionals. And the only people who can give us good critique are other writers (and editors, but unless you know a tame one, you want the ms. in good shape before they see it).

Forget about the opinions of friends and family; as Paul Park says, ‘like’ isn’t useful feedback for a writer. What you need to know about your story or novel is what’s working and what isn’t. Why and how to fix it are icing on the cake.

When in 2006 my wife and I moved to the tiny Greek island of Skópelos*, I left my East Bay crit group 6,000 miles behind. How was I going to get that vital feedback now?

There are two kinds of critique groups: the face-to-face kind that typically meets weekly, monthly, etc., and the distributed kind where business is conducted online. The former works very well if you live within range of a half-dozen or so other writers. One big advantage of the face-to-face group is the social aspect. Writing is a lonely business and a peculiar one, and hanging out with like-minded people is both enjoyable and nurturing—assuming that you have a good, cohesive group, which is by no means always the case. Living as I now was on an island of 5,000 Greeks and no writers, especially of SF and F, I was going to have to go online.

I’d looked into Critters, probably the largest, best-structured, and longest-established online group, and it wasn’t for me. I’ve known lots of people in Critters, and though some report good experiences, everyone agrees it’s very hit-and-miss. The group is huge and the spread of talent and personalities likewise; there also seemed to be a good deal of cumbersome structure and protocols. I wanted something both more intimate and more responsive. I was going to have to set something up myself.

Like any social group, a writer’s group is a product of the personalities which compose it, perhaps amplified. Most crit groups I’ve seen or heard of are to some degree dysfunctional. The biggest problem areas are typically flakiness, ego and temperament issues, and lack of structure and direction. Beyond avoiding those pitfalls, I also believe the ideal group size is between six and eight members: any less than six (six means a writer gets five critiques) and you risk too narrow a spread of opinion; more than eight, the group becomes unwieldy. I also felt it was important to have a group of writers at roughly the same level of craft and skill as myself, which I defined as intermediate or semi-pro.

But an online group is very different to a face-to-face one in that weekly or monthly meetings aren’t practical or even sensible. So the tricky thing—beyond finding the right six or seven writers—was going to be setting up a system that was balanced and fair to everyone, so that everyone received timely critiques when they needed one. Some writers are more prolific than others; some may produce a short a month, others a novel once a year or less. How was I going to structure this?

Trust, I thought. Put that right up front and center. Since flakiness and unreliability are the bane of most writers’ groups, I’d make mutual trust and support, loyalty to the group, the core tenet and build outwards from that. Like the Marines Corps’ Semper Fi, my group would be composed of people who never let one another down. Our loyalty to one another would be like a blood oath. To underscore that, I’d call the group, Written in Blood.

Thus afire with this new ideal, I banged out a draft of what would become the group’s constitution. (For those interested, I’ve posted the entire manifesto on the Written in Blood page of this blog). The key points were (and still are):

  • The group is open to writers of Science Fiction, Fantasy, and allied subgenres only
  • Each member’s commitment to the group shall be absolute in return for absolute commitment from every other member.
  • The group convenes at short notice anytime a member has a story ready for critique.
  •  Egos and politics must be checked at the door  .
  • Criteria for membership are either professional publication credits or numerous semi-pro publications, though exceptions may be made.
  • The group runs on democratic lines whenever possible, but as founder I have final say on all matters.

But, absolute commitment? How the heck do you ensure that works? People get busy, stuff happens. And I was proposing a group that commits to a five-day turnaround of any story up to 15k words in a five-day period and twenty-one days for novels up to 100k.

Easy. You make it the central principle, inviolable and (except for extreme circumstances, see detail on the Written in Blood page of this blog) non-negotiable. Do that, and people who are less than a hundred percent serious likely will balk at it and not even apply. But commit to us, I was saying, and we promise to commit to you. It’s Written in Blood.

Once I’d got the manifesto written, I contacted my SF/F author friend Juliette Wade; she liked the idea and became our first member. Next, I contacted Traci (T.L.) Morganfield, from my Clarion West 2002 class, and Keyan Bowes, who was in the same East Bay crit group as Juliette and myself. Juliette proposed budding YA Fantasy author Janice Hardy, and Traci brought in fellow Aztec Fantasy writer Aliette de Bodard. We had one unpleasant hiccup with a male author I’d brought in, which ended quickly with me booting him when he turned nasty and spiteful towards one of our members—you can not allow that in any group: it’s poison. Finally, in the course of the next year or so, we brought our total to eight with Doug Sharp and Genevieve Williams, both ex- Clarion West.

Five years since its founding, Written in Blood has produced and critiqued scores of short stories**, around twenty novels; half of us have agents and all have one or more books or short stories in print. Most amazing of all, there has been zero turnaround in membership, and only three or four instances of crits not being delivered on time, and with strong extenuating circumstances. In short, a successful, high-functioning, kickass writers’ group. All of us have become good friends, and learned an immense amount from each other. And though I feel at times like a dullard when I compare my abilities to some of these people and wonder why they put up with me, I’m immensely proud to be a part of this group.

If you think this kind of structure may work for you, by all means peruse the WiB constitution I’ve posted and feel free to borrow or improve on it (though I do ask that you acknowledge and respect my copyright, per attached Creative Commons notice).

A couple more items. First, be very selective in who you allow in. Next, it’s very useful to set up a private group on Yahoo!, Zetaboards, or some similar free service. This gives you a place to upload files for sharing as well providing a group listserve. We’ve also found it helpful to have a ‘crit wrap’, i.e., a group discussion period of a day or two via email once the current crittee has received all their critiques and wants to ask further questions or discuss specific points, as well as generally thanking everyone.

However you decide to go about it, if you’re serious about your writing, I very strongly encourage to find or create a good critique group; you would also do well to look up the many articles and blog posts available on giving and receiving critique. Good critique can make the difference between failure and success, between having your work in print or languishing in a drawer. What your Mum or your spouse say about your work may give you the warm fuzzies, but it’s unlikely to help you; what a good writer tells you is beyond worth.

*    The full, tragicomic story of our year in Skópelos is told in my book, ‘Aegean Dream’.

**  As well as an anthology of member stories, ‘Eight Against Reality’.

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Slushpile and Editor Mind

My third career trajectory (the first two were decorative painting and CAD design, with a smattering of copyediting over the years) has been a decidedly odd one.

I started out writing Science Fiction, and a few years later found myself writing a nonfiction memoir (‘Aegean Dream’) which is enjoying a reasonable success; I took a three-year detour into publishing and editing ‘Eight Against Reality’ and the Panverse series, anthologies which were generally well-received; and now,  back to writing, I’m at the tail end of revision on a novel, an essentially mainstream thriller barely tinged with the fantastic. I’m also doing some occasional reviews at Tangent Online.

There and back again.

Before taking up the editor’s red pen myself, I had the fortune to meet and learn from the great, multiple-award winning editor Gardner Dozois during the week he was our guest instructor at Clarion West in 2002. What perhaps impressed me most about his attitude to editing was the sheer integrity and poise he brought to the task: when Gardner considered or discussed a piece of work, all that mattered was the work, nothing else.

When I put out the anthology call for Panverse One in May of 2009, opening the floodgates on the groaning  novella-dam, my slushpile was soon overflowing with hefty manuscripts, and they kept coming. And since I’ve always railed against slow response times, I’d stated right up front on our guidelines page that I’d always respond to subs within 30 days.

It could have been ugly.

The slushpile is a challenge to an editor’s very survival. If you don’t stay on top of it, it very quickly gets out of control, and might easily eat your brain. I determined to stay on top of it from Day One.

Now, though I’m only speaking from my own limited experience (close to 500 novella submissions in three years), I suspect that most editors and first readers operate in a very similar manner—they have to. Here’s what you need to know to give you the best chance of selling that story.

Let’s assume that, on opening the envelope or file, the editor finds no threats or insults in the your cover letter, and hopefully no synopsis or brags about the story. Let’s further assume that you’ve followed the submission guidelines. Very good.

The first glance at your story is going to be a tough one—the editor, whiskers twitching, is looking for a reason to bounce it. The reason an editor does this is so that they can focus their attention on those stories that deserve it and not waste time on the also-rans. In my own experience with Panverse, I found that only about ten percent of submissions need to be read beyond the first few paragraphs, and maybe only half of those to the end. Poor prose skills, muddled thinking, third-hand ideas, a gift for tedium, or simply the absence of anything interesting—all these, if present, will jump out at the editor in the first paragraph or two and earn you a swift rejection.

“You didn’t give the story a chance!” screams the writer. “Things really start happening on page such-and-such!” Well, tough. If the story doesn’t grab the reader at the very beginning and hold them to the end, the story ain’t working. Period. But bear in mind that holding a reader’s attention doesn’t necessarily mean a breathless, action-packed opening. An intriguing character or situation will often work; sometimes, the writer’s voice alone will carry it (see my March 25th blog post, Openings). The point is that unless you give the reader a reason to keep going, they won’t. And editors are just very experienced and analytical readers.

If the beginning looks promising, the editor may skip ahead a few pages before committing to a full read. Often a story that begins well quickly emerges as dull, or with fatal flaws in plot logic or world building; sometimes the premise is unlikely; the author may have a tin ear for dialogue or, knowing the genre only from TV or movies, is aping Star Wars or channeling the most tired sort of Sword and Sorcery, and has made no effort at owning his or her world. Bounce.

In the happy event your story works, the next consideration is whether it’s publication-ready or needs minor revision. One of my goals at Panverse was to publish new authors, so I asked for minor fixes and—in a couple of instances—substantial rewrites—on several stories. Not all editors will do that unless, maybe, (i) they really like a story, and (ii) they believe, based on what they’ve seen, that the writer possess the craft skills to fix the issues.

Another thing editors often say and which I now grasp to be true is that they often don’t know in advance what they want until they see it. This can get tricky when the editor is faced with a well-written and highly publishable story that they like a lot. It can get trickier still because an anthology, unlike a novel, is a moving target: each story the editor accepts shapes the whole, so that as the slots fill up, the balance between the individual stories in an anthology becomes a factor in the editor’s mind. With magazines, the editor may well select stories for individual issues around some loose theme or design. Most of this is out of your hands, but a High Fantasy story is never going to find a home at Analog, however good it is.

Nor are editors perfect. In reviewing stories at Tangent Online, I’ve more than once come across stories in pro-level magazines that are fatally flawed in plot logic, story arc, etc., and wondered what the editor was thinking. It’s possible that sometimes an editor might like one aspect of a story so much that they entirely miss, or even ignore, a major issue. Editors are human. But next time you read a story and think, “My God! this is crap! I could do better than that!” …well, you might just be right.

Finally, when editors say that they really want to find a nugget of gold in the slushpile, they’re not just trying to make you feel warm and fuzzy. Sending an author, especially a new author, an acceptance, or asking for a rewrite and having the story come back with its issues resolved and in great shape, is a golden moment: as a writer myself, I know how that author feels; I can promise you that if editors appear hard at the front end of the process, it’s so they can reward those authors who really merit it, and give readers stories that will make them remember that author’s name.

A few extra tips:

Read a publication’s guidelines. This is so important, yet a blinding number of writers who submit stories clearly don’t.

Cover letters. With a story (as opposed to a novel), these are essentially useless, and synopses are downright irritating. The best covers are brief, polite and to the point, just a line or two including the name of the story, maybe that it’s unpublished, and a closing line. No cover at all is fine. Publication credits? Keep them very brief, but know they don’t influence the editor one whit—pros get rejected all the time. In fact, nothing you put in a cover, except maybe a seven-figure check, will improve your chances of acceptance; but it’s possible to annoy an editor a good deal with a rambling, boastful, or fawning cover.

Here’s a checklist you may find useful; if you can honestly answer yes to every item, you’ve got a far better chance than most of getting a sale.

  • Does your story meet the publication’s subject guidelines?
  • Have you observed their formatting requirements?
  • Have you proofed your work carefully? (Don’t rely on spellcheck!)
  • Is your cover letter short and businesslike?
  • Does the opening contain a hook?
  • Is your world or setting fresh and interesting?
  • Are you giving enough setting description to avoid the dreaded ‘white room’ syndrome?
  • Do you open with story rather than backstory?
  • Have you cut all unnecessary backstory?
  • Are you infodumping?
  • Is there enough setting description in each scene to ground the reader?
  • Is there credible and sufficient character motivation to drive the plot?
  • Are your characters somewhat proactive? Are their goals and motivations clear?
  • Do the stakes start high and rise as the story progresses?
  • Does the antagonist get the breaks while the protagonist has to use their wits and fight for every inch?
  • Are you engaging all the reader’s senses?
  • Does each line of dialogue advance the plot, reveal character, impart information, or (even better) do several of these things? Does it sound like the speech of a real person?
  • Does each scene serve a purpose?
  • Is the ending satisfying? Does it resolve the primary conflict?

To conclude, the only sure way of breaking out of the slushpile is to keep writing. The craft of fiction, like any other, needs to be learned, and for most of us it takes years of practice before a reasonable competency is achieved. Even King and Bradbury, Cherryh and Gaiman, Liu and de Bodard had to learn their craft.

Next week I’ll talk about critique groups, and how to make them work for you and avoid their pitfalls.

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On Freedom

Today being Independence Day (which I, as a Brit, and a lifelong monarchist, refer to as The Day of Blackest Infamy and Betrayal) it seems appropriate to write about freedom.

For all its faults, the US still scores high in this regard. As someone who’s traveled a good deal and lived in other countries, I have some solid points for comparison here. The First and Second Amendments—the Rights to Free Speech, Religion, Free Press, and to Assemble and Petition the Government; and the Right to Bear Arms—are pretty much unparalleled. I can also attest, from direct experience, that anyone who wants to go into business for themselves is rather more free to do so in this country than almost anywhere else in the world. Even in the current dire economic circumstances, anyone with a little skill and ingenuity coupled with the will to work can make it here, and for all my own dithering and mistakes, this country’s been very good to me in that regard.

That said, could Americans’ freedoms be improved upon? Hell, yes.

Many years ago, when I still lived in Santa Cruz, I received a parking ticket. On examining it, I was astonished by the number of codes, i.e., regulations which, if broken, would get you a ticket. If memory serves me well, there were over ninety of them.

Or take alcohol. I understand not letting kids drink, but why on Earth shouldn’t responsible adults be allowed to share a beer or a bottle of wine on a beach or in a public park in California? I also never understood why a passenger in a car shouldn’t be allowed to sip a beer, since there are solid laws already in place to cover the driver’s need for sobriety. And the restrictions on buying alcohol are becoming outrageously intrusive. Self-checkout in supermarkets, which has always required a store employee’s direct approval, now forces that employee to check your ID and log your date of birth along with the sale—why? And, worse, where does this end?

Tobacco, now. I don’t smoke, but I fully support the freedom of others to do so. I understand the issues with bars, restaurants, aeroplanes, and similar closed spaces; but there are towns in California, such as where I live in Concord, where you can’t smoke in the street or in parks; and an increasing number of condominiums and housing complexes are banning people smoking not just outdoors but in their own homes. Apart from being heavy-handed, coercive, and undemocratic, this, folks, is just plain stupid.

Then there are the questionable licencing requirements for many professions, among them manicurists and hairdressers. In my old trade as a decorative artist, I was required to be licenced as a painting contractor. However, in most cases the onerous (and expensive) courses a licence applicant is required to take, and the tests they’re required to pass, have very little to do with establishing quality and competence but everything to do with generating revenue both for local authorities and a whole parasitic infrastructure of schools. So with the unhappy example of manicurists, although I agree that someone using blades and sharp objects around people should understand safety and hygiene issues, let’s look at the California course requirements here:

Cosmetologist = 1600 hours

Barber = 1500 hours

Esthetician = 600 hours

Electrologist = 600 hours

Manicurist = 400 hours

… and note that a manicurist isn’t allowed to wax your eyebrows.

And God help you if you’re a licenced professional in one state and want to move to another, because in most cases, there’s no reciprocity. You have to start all over again.

This, friends, is just wrong. All of it.

To my way of thinking, when laws stop honest, competent people making a living at something that isn’t, say, medicine or the Law, without having to pony up thousands of dollars and take a year or two out of their lives, something is very wrong indeed.

I understand municipalities’ needs to raise taxes, but I can’t condone doing so by limiting people’s ability to make a living and by strangling individual freedoms. In my own past case as a decorative artist working alone, why did I have to pass a certification that pretty much exclusively concerned itself with employment law, wages and withholding, employee insurances, and the rest? Since as an artist I mostly fell through the cracks, I was unlicenced for years, and I can’t begin to tell you how many times I was hired to correct or even wholly redo jobs that licenced contractors had botched.

How long until they require artists to be licenced?

Of course, these laws are typically enacted under pressure from various interest groups, or under the wooly-headed idea that they protect the public or the licencee. Bullshit; road-to-hell paving, etc.  In the vast majority of cases they exist to generate revenue and to keep lawyers busy.

The solution? Well, I side wholly with the ideal Libertarian (though not the Conservative Libertarian), and these would be my immediate thoughts:

1. Protect the Right To Do Dumb Things That Don’t Hurt Others (Ha!).

2. Apply a unitary, Federal standard (no chance).

3. Limit litigation (not going to happen).

4. Get rid of all unenforceable laws (yeah, right!).

5. Do away with 90% of the laws on the statutes; repeat until you arrive at something close to the Ten Commandments (definitely not going to happen).

Hey, we can dream, can’t we? And despite all the inanities I’ve listed, it’s still a free country, or at least far more so than most. Count your blessings.

Happy Fourth!

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