Friday, January 20, 2012

Friday's Focus: Is a Critique Group Really Necessary?

Whether you take writing classes in college, nightschool, online, or from a private instructional course, almost from the first word you write you are going to be told, "Join a critique group." At the least, have a critique partner.

Of course, you are also admonished that this critique partner or partners should never be friends or family members, or even co-workers, because all they are going to do is tell you how wonderful your writing is. You need to have people who are objective, and willing to point out errors as well as the good things you write.

This is all well and good IF you can find a ready-made critique group to work with, AND if you find you fit well into that group. But it's not as easy as it seems. I joined one group when I first started taking the ICL courses, and left after little more than one month. There were 9 women in the group...and that's way too many...and everyone was supposed to submit something to be critiqued each week. That meant that you had 8 other stories to critique, as well as have something ready yourself every single week. It left no time for my own writing with respect to doing ICL assignments, and to say nothing about having time for the rest of my life!

The second group I joined was made up of 4 women, who did nothing but vehemently criticize each other's work, and tell them what terrible writers they were. These 4 were friends who'd been together for some time. Friends? I left that group the seond week.

The third group was my own. I went online to every writers' forum I could find, and asked for people to form an online critique group. The first group was 6 women, including myself, and 5 of us have been together for the last 5 years. One finally left several months ago, due to other responsibilities, we now have 2 new members, and we all work very well together.

So why have a critique group? What do they do for an individual writer, or what should they do? The first thing, and possibly the most important, is to show support for one another. Writing is a lonely profession if you are in it to become a published author, and it's almost necessary to have people who know and understand what you go through. Families often don't. They often think of your writing as a hobby, and "when are you going to quit that and do something more productive?"

Another reason is to have someone point out any inconsistencies you might have, in terms of days, dates, time of year, where one character is at a specific time so that you don't put him, a couple of chapters or scenes later, somewhere else. Unless you are a very organized writer ( which I'm not), it's easy to forget little things like times or days when you have written something in one chapter, and then have to go back to that later on in your story. My partners have caught me on those things so many times, and it saved me so much time and effort.

Then there is the ever-present voice! Our voice has to be consistent throughout the story. Dialogue is one area where a lot of writers get messed up. In my first novel, one of my main characters spoke perfect English...'perfect' in the sense that she never used contractions, such as "I don't", "you haven't", and so on. It was always "I do not," "You have not,"etc.,  and I was fine until about 2/3 of the way through the story. Then in one whole chapter, she was using contractions in her dialogue. A dumb mistake on my part, but my critique partners caught that immediately!

Pointing out holes in your plot is another area where critique partners are necessary. Sometimes we get so caught up in our own words, as well as the anxiety about getting that darn story finally finished, that we leave big holes in our plot. For example, in the last chapter or two, do you ever find one of your main characters suddenly spouting off a lot of dialogue that is nothing more than an information dump? He or she is giving the reader information, through dialogue, that should have come up earlier, or been accounted for through scenes and action. As the author, you've just realized that you didn't explain an incident, so now the MC has to do so.

Or how about those last two secondary, rather minor characters that you introduced in Chapter 5, who've suddenly disappeared but without any reason or explanation? They were there, they had dialogue and action, but now there's no trace of them at the end of the story. What, they just evaporated into the atmosphere?

Then there's that mystery you've been dying to write. Your MCs stumble upon a dead man in a car on a secluded street, and this leads them into a fantasy maze of death, destruction, and terror before they finally find their way through the maze, solve all the crimes and problems, and return to their normal lives. EXCEPT! Who was the man in the car, who killed him, and why was he the key to this new fantasy world with all the problems? If you haven't explained that, it is a huge hole in your plot.

The point is: critique partners are very valuable entities for all writers. Granted, sometimes it takes awhile to find just the right group, but once you do, they can save your bacon on more than one occasion! No writer should ever presume that we don't need someone to oversee our work, to provide help and guidance along the way, to keep our voice, our characterizations, our dialogue, and so on, on the straight and narrow. We need new eyes, fresh ideas, and certainly objective and honest criticism about our work. Obviously, in the long run, our work is our work, and we need to take from our critiques only that which we feel will add to our story. But, also in the long run, we need the accountability that a critique group gives us.

Until next time,
That's a wrap.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Tuesday's Thoughts: Suspension of Disbelief

We all know what the literary term "suspension of disbelief" means, right? But did you know that the term as I wrote it lacks one important word? "Willing." Yes, that is the important word: it is not the suspension of disbelief, it is the willing suspension of disbelief.

Let's go back to the origin of that term. Most people, writers, screenwriters, playwriters alike, believe the term was coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, when he wrote his biographical sketches of his literary life. And who is Samual Taylor Coleridge?

Coleridge was born in 1772, died in 1834, and was perhaps one of the most influential poets and literary giants of all time. He and his good friend, William Wordsworth, found the Romantic Movement in England. Coleridge's greatest works are the "conversational poems,"The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan."

When he wrote Biographia Literaria, which were sketches and opinions of his own literary life, he coined many literary words and phrases, among them the willing suspension of disbelief. Here is the statement in his work which, supposedly, originated that term:

"In this idea originated the plan of the "Lyrical Ballads," in which it was agreed that my endeavors be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith."

Frankly, I had to read that statement over several times to figure out what he was trying to say. I think what he was getting at was that as people read his work, or watched the plays during his time, they had to be able to believe what they were reading or watching, and in order to do this, they had to set aside their own knowledge and perception of what was real for the duration of the book or the play. And he termed this ability the willing suspension of disbelief.

The willing suspension of disbelief is one of the most important narrative functions in books, plays, movies, and TV. Without it, no story, no matter the format, would ever be successful. This suggests that every person of every age has the ability to suspend disbelief: that must be true, because don't we see it every day with our children? They read ( or are read to) fantasies and fairy tales, they read about puppies who talk and bunnies who dress up in human clothes. Yet they know their own puppy doesn't talk to them, and the bunnies who eat up Mom's early spring garden aren't dressed up. They believe because they want to believe. And so do we, as adults.

As writers, it doesn't matter if we write fantasies, science fiction, historical fiction, mysteries, contemporary stories, or what; it doesn't matter if we make up whole new worlds or create gigantic steel spiders bent on inhabiting our planet or merely write about today's teens undergoing the horrors of drug and physical/ sexual abuse, our stories have to have that elusive ingredient that makes the reader willing to suspend his/her disbelief in what is on that page, and accept for the moment that real life is as it is written. As to what that ingredient is, each and every writer must find it for himself/herself.

We have to create a compelling plot, strong, believable characters, realistic conflicts, dialogue that rings true for each character, and a climax and resolution that reflects all of the above and is consistent with the plot. It is only then that our readers are willing to suspend their disbelief in what they know is real, and what they know cannot possibly happen as they are reading it, and still hang in there to the end, hoping for a good read and plausible ending.

If we don't give all of this to them, in every story we write, they are not going to be willing to suspend their disbelief, and our writing careers will be over.

By the way, Coleridge is NOT the first person to use the phrase "suspension of disbelief." Aristotle, who lived between 384 and 322 BC, wrote a book called Poetics, in which he says:

The plot is an arrangement of events derived from an unbroken chain of cause and effect. The beginning, middle, and end must have causal connections comprising a holistic whole to ensure audiences do not suffer from a suspension of disbelief or become disengaged from the plot.

How's that for being around a long time?

Until next time,
That's a wrap.