Friday, June 10, 2011
Does it take a village to write a novel?
When I started my first novel, I felt very alone and unsure. I'd written screenplays before, but I'd never plowed through an entire first draft of a mystery novel. I had a hard time figuring out what was working and what I was doing wrong. But I managed to get through the book, make revisions, even though it took me quite a long time, and end up with something that looked and smelled like a novel. I thought it was ready to go out to agents and editors, so I sent out some queries. When I was rejected everywhere, I knew it was time to go back and look at my first attempt. Luckily that's when I joined Sisters in Crime and met my critique group.
We were just four altogether, two published (Marilyn Wallace and Triss Stein) and two unpublished (Jane Olson and me -- and then later Mary Darby joined us). We all lived in Brooklyn and alternated going to each other's houses/apartments. We slowly got to know each other and trust each other. We enjoyed reading everyone's writing and that made it so much easier. And I began to learn how to critique my own work. They showed me where my story was too spare, where it was too much back story and I began to figure out how I could improve it. With them, I wrote a second book (much more quickly this time) and it became my first book POSED FOR MURDER. The book won the St. Martin's/Malice Domestic Best Traditional Mystery Competition, and was published by St. Martin's Minotaur.
When I left Brooklyn, I sadly left my critique group behind. They became my friends. When Marilyn died of breast cancer, we did the Race for the Cure in her honor. I miss them all. But they have kindly looked at final drafts and given me feedback on what they think isn't working since I moved away. It's tremendously helpful to me, and I like continuing the connection.
I teach writing now at the University of Virginia and a local writing center, and part of my class is spent teaching people how to give a good and helpful critique of other's work and most importantly their own. Reading work that isn't perfect and polished and trying to identify its problems helps you see those problems in your own work. And there are very few students in my classes who haven't benefited from the tough love and shown improvement.
Don't get me wrong: I've been in terrible critique groups before. I was once in a screenwriting group with a bitter guy whose criticism got so nasty it caused me to quit writing for 6 months. Not good at all. But the fact is, if you intend to publish a book, someone is going to be reading your work sometime. And I would prefer to have a friend or trusted reader let me know when I royally screw up than my editor. Or someone who picked up my book in a store. So I continue to depend on the kindness and generosity of other writers as I continue to work on my craft.