I Learned More Than Just Writing Tips From My Critique Group

I submitted my short story, The Ravenous Flock, to http://critters.org/ on 7/8/2012, where it sat in the queue. On Wednesday, 8/1/2012, it was released to their community of over 15,000 members. Later that week on a Saturday morning, I received my first 3 critiques. Verdict: It was worth the wait!

I learned some valuable lessons about my writing that I can now consciously pay attention to so that I can avoid them in the future. Some of which were just bad habits that had been formed long ago that had never been brought to my attention. For example, pay attention to the punctuation on this sample sentence: A dangerous voice spoke to him, weighted in a thick accent, “You will tell your king what I have done here this day, or I will come to reclaim your life.”

There should be a period after the word “accent” instead of a comma because it is actually a sentence and not a dialogue tag. This was an error that I had made a couple of times – an old habit that simply stayed below the radar of my critical eye. But the ability to learn things about your writing that you weren’t conscious of before is invaluable! The line by line corrections/suggestions that I received are immensely useful and will aid me in my next revision.

Another bad habit of mine shows in this sentence: The weight was lifted from his chest and Grindor began to hack and cough between his sporadic breaths. Did Grindor actually hack and cough? Or did he only begin to hack and cough? Words like “began” don’t help when trying to describe the actions in the scene and should be removed.

Lastly, I had some POV shifts that jarred the reader. Occassionally, the narrator switched from the point-of-view of Grindor to Ocamyr. I think I was trying to have an omnipresent narrator, but since the narrator spent so much time describing everything from Grindor’s perspective, it was odd to suddenly be in the mind of Ocamyr. These shifts in POV will be addressed and corrected so that the reader’s perspective of the events are all described through the eyes of Grindor.

I believe that by incorporating these edits and reworking the ending a little bit will strengthen my short story and prepare it for submission to magazines. Had I not taken the time to receive critique on my work, I may never have learned these flaws in my writing until it was too late. Having patience as a writer is a virtue. Take a moment and let that sink in. Maintaining one’s patience while on the cusp of achieving career-making milestones is difficult beyond measure. If a magazine purchases the rights to publish my short story, then I can join SFWA as an associate member. These two small events are what agents and publishers like to see on a submission and will get my foot in the door in this industry. Selling this short story could be the deciding factor as to whether my novel sees the light of day. So deciding to delay submitting it to magazines and patiently await for critique was unimaginably tortuous on the mind, but my desire to have the best chance of success for my short story overcame it all.

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Become More Active, Join A Critique Group

As I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier posts, reading is essential to being a good writer. (Do you think there ever was a successful band that didn’t listen to other music?) So to continue to improve your “chops” in addition to reading, you should become a reviewer. Either join Goodreads.com and write lengthy reviews of the books you have read, or join a Critique group (I did both). However, the critique group will improve your analytic skill, and open your eyes. You will learn to know good writing when you see it because you are not reading final drafts that have undergone professional editing.

Critters Writer’s Workshop (critters.org) is a free online sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writing critique group. While it is free, they mandate your participation. If you are not actively submitting critiques to other author’s short stories or chapters, then they will delete your membership. On top of that, they have “pro” members, such as SFWA Chapter Presidents and Nebula Award winner Ken Liu. They were established in 1995 and have over 15,000 members and are still growing.

Being that it is online can cause some uneasiness. “What if my original work gets stolen?” you might ask. They are huge advocates of the Copyright law. It is posted heavily, and there hasn’t been any problems with that yet. FYI, the protections afforded to you under the U.S. Copyright law apply as soon as you put something original on paper, so your work is already protected and there is no need to file with the USPTO. Your alternate choice is to join local in-person critique groups, but you usually have to have something to share in front of the group (which you might not always have) and they critique you on the spot. The benefit of this being online is that I can take my time with my review before I send it in.

Critters allows you to submit your entire novel too, and members can elect to become part of a dedicated reading group for your novel. The point is, they have a really good system, and I highly recommend joining if you write in the fiction genres aforementioned.

As an active member of Critters Writer’s Workshop, I had the pleasure to submit my completed fantasy short story: The Ravenous Flock. I wrote it to a fair length of 5,000 words, which I believe is optimal for submitting to magazines (which they state on their websites), though most short stories that I have read and reviewed are around 7,500 words. Once submitted, you get added to the queue (unless you are “pro” then you go to the front of the line). The queue is so long that it usually results in your manuscript being read 3-4 weeks from when you had submitted it. (Not bad). When I receive feedback, I’ll post my opinion of how helpful or not helpful this process was.

I’ll leave you with this final note: Short Stories are a different beast. Mark Twain once said, “I don’t have time to write you a short letter, so I’ll write you a long one instead.” Terry Brooks also said, “Writing a short story was one of the hardest things he had ever done. He would rather have a 500 page project any day.” So when I read one of Ken Liu’s short stories on Critters.org and saw it was only 750 words, I was impressed. Then I began reading it…. it had a never ending comma… the whole 3 paragraph story was one sentence. I felt beyond inadequate; I felt unworthy… and it really opened my eyes. And I hope all new writers have the opportunity to experience the same. So go join a critique group!