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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What Good Writing Is

I had the pleasure of reading On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King over the weekend and it really slapped me awake. It is a highly recommended read for any and all aspiring fiction authors. In my writing, I had to overcome one large hurdle to change my style and now I’ve found that I need to overcome another. So, as I perform some last minute revisions to my manuscript, I thought I would offer up some of the advice that Stephen King had provided (this is a summary of only a select few of his points and the examples are my own).

1) Show, don’t tell. This was my first obstacle that I had to overcome, however this weakness in my writing was brought to my attention by my most trusted friends early on, and I was able to adapt to reveal information to the reader in a more scenic way. I’ve encountered a lot of this in my readings on Critters Writer’s Workshop, so it does warrant mentioning. Telling is required, but only up to a point. Mr. King emphasizes the fact that you should always show the reader, rather than tell the reader.

Example of tell: The hag makes a foul and putrid mead that many rumor to taste like swine’s piss.

Example of show: Eric watched as the hag swirled her broomstick to stir the bubbling stew that filled her bathtub. She threw in a honeycomb speckled with dead bees into the mixture. The hag bent low to retrieve a stein from the mudded floor as she pat her pet pig. She dipped the stein into the bath and scooped up some fluid.

“Here’s your mead,” she said as she plopped the iron stein onto the counter.

2) Adverbs are the devil. Anything that ends in -ly should be removed. This is my second hurdle that I am now addressing in my manuscript. Adverbs are a clear sign of a new writer. It’s lazy. Describing scenes and actions without them promotes and fosters more detailed writing. Mr. King emphasizes that they should especially never be used to describe how a character says something. “He or She said” is all that is required.

Example: “I love you,” he said passionately.

Alternate Example: The candle light shone in his eyes as he held her hands in his. “I love you,” he said.

3) No fluff. No Redundancies. Often times simple scenes can be over explained, or you describe the obvious. Plain and simple, Mr. King’s recommendation is to follow this formula to tighten up your writing. It increases pace and matures your work.

2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

4) Don’t stop reading, and don’t stop writing. Getting better at the craft requires both. There has never been a successful author that doesn’t have the time to read. Additionally, Mr. King suggests setting a goal for yourself: Set aside a block of time each day and try to write at least 1,000 words a day. Sticking to a regimented schedule is important, even if you don’t meet that goal every day.

How to Write a Bio for New Authors

First time authors like myself have it a little tougher when it comes to writing a biography. It’s common knowledge that literary agents want to see previous publishing credit in your query letters as part of your bio. In fact, in my searches I have come across a few literary agents that do not accept unsolicited queries from unpublished authors. I’ve seen others that ask for a cover letter that lists all published works. I know most of my blogs have been about the topic of a query letter, but this one will focus on what should be the last paragraph of your query. So what should a new author say in the bio-section of his query letter?

In the world of the publishing industry, an author’s “bio” is actually a resume. It’s not who you are, it’s what you’ve done. Only if you have some life-experience that relates to your novel will you find that who you are is actually important. For instance, if you are writing a London murder mystery, and you happen to live in London all your life, then it gives credit toward your writing. For writers like me that love world building, there is nothing about my life that is relevant to a literary agent. I could say that I love all aspects of fantasy (books, movies, video games, board games, table-top games, RPGs), but none of that is what they want to hear.

Other acceptable and reputable credentials to add are that you are a member of RWA or SFWA, but those Writer’s Associations don’t just let anyone in. You have to have previously published works or short stories to qualify for membership. I searched for writer’s associations that do not have such high standards for membership and joined one or two, but then it seems that they just aren’t “resume-worthy”. I have also read that it is recommended to mention that you have joined a writer’s critique club. If you do, I highly suggest you join one that meets in person, my experience with an online club has been less than impressive. . . but I guess you get out what you put in. . . I just made a vow to myself to become a more active member! =)

Lastly, there is formal education. But if you didn’t go to college for creative writing or some sort of English major, it’s deemed irrelevant and doesn’t warrant mentioning in your bio. Also in my readings of how to craft a bio, adding that you partook in a writing workshop is not noteworthy either.

So as a new author what should be said? Or what can be said? Nothing. The conventional wisdom is to just focus on the story and wow them with your musings. They understand that new authors are out there and have great stories to tell. So just don’t send up any red flags in your query, don’t stress the fact that you are new, don’t add irrelevant info about yourself. But in an effort to rise above and distinguish myself from the slush pile, I can tell you what my plan is: I’m going to write a short story, set in my world, and work on getting it published in a magazine and/or enter it in a contest. There are a lot of contests for short stories out there. http://www.be-a-better-writer.com/creative-writing-contests.html But I will blog about this later.