How a Critique Group Exposed My Secret Flaws
This is Part 6 of an ongoing mini-series chronicling the “story of a story”: Daniel’s work-in-progress, a swordpunk novel.
Part 1: What to Do with a Story Idea That Won’t Give Up on You? »
Part 2: When Your “Perfect” Story Falls Flat »
Part 3: Growing a Story from the Spine Out »
Part 4: Story World Maps: Worthwhile or a Waste of Time? »
Part 5: Unforeseen Endings & Other Gifts of a Flexible Novel Outline »
My swordpunk novel is finally complete and with my agent! Hopefully it will sell. But it wouldn’t have come this far without the constant input of my beta readers (thank you, Braden and Rachel!) as well as my Wednesday night critique group (thank you, Alphanauts!).
This story has haunted me for two and a half decades; In the Shadow of the Wise is the fifth novel I’ve written around the core idea. It’s a five-POV (point of view) science-fantasy that runs 162,000 words while mixing first- and third-person narration. It also tries to establish a new sub-genre of science fiction, a genre I like to call ‘swordpunk’ because of its eclectic mixture of medieval culture and cybernetic elements like cyborgs and artificial intelligence.
All of which means that I desperately needed help revising the manuscript. Novels may be written in isolation, but they can only be properly revised with the help of outside perspectives. And I had no idea whether my various convention-stretching ideas were working—or even original. (Not to mention the characters, prose, story structure, voice, continuity, pacing, conflict and theme all needed help!)
In May of 2015 the Alphanauts started reading a chapter every Wednesday night. This is fast, but the novel still took fifteen months to work through. At times, reading my prose aloud was painful. What had seemed to work in the solitude of my office suddenly felt dry and pointless. Sections that had surprised me when I was writing them now seemed predictable. In the spotlight of scrutiny, everything meant to be shiny appeared dull.
The Alphanauts, I should point out, are older, long-time “OYANers” who live in the area. They know how to give robust critiques, and their familiarity with each other makes them comfortable expressing conflicting opinions. It’s no exaggeration that our Wednesday night meetings often involve raised voices and hurdled objects. (It hasn’t come to fisticuffs yet, but hey, there’s still time.)
In short, the ‘Nauts are always willing (indeed, eager might be a better word) to tell each other where their stories fail. In my case they are also generous. Fifteen months is a long time to give to someone else’s novel.
I don’t have space to chronicle all the ways Shadow was failing before the ‘Nauts shredded it. Suffice it to say that its most egregious shortcomings were weaknesses I would never have caught on my own.
One flaw in particular is worth mentioning. Apparently I have a tendency to pedantry. And not the soft, forgivable sort of pedantry that clutters academic writing with excessive and unnecessary details. No, my particular brand of pedantry has a smug quality to it, a habit of dismissing certain viewpoints when expressed in the lives of opposition characters and themes.
This revelation surprised me. I don’t think of myself as pedantic or dismissive. I don’t see myself as close-minded. But then, who does? All of us want to believe the private fiction that we are enlightened and above condescension.
It isn’t true. At least in my case. My own words—the words of my novel—proved this, but only when brought into the light of group discussion. I simply wasn’t trying hard enough to express the possible validity of things I disagree with. It’s not hard to knock over straw men—a truth I understood quite well. What I didn’t understand was how to recognize the straw men I’d created.
Shadow needed me to rethink its villain. It needed me to rethink the culture I’d created on the colony world of Rhega. Most of all, it needed me to rethink why its characters stood against the very things I hold to be true. I had to find beauty in the places I’d intended to be ugly, and ugliness in the things I meant to be beautiful.
As I teach in The One Year Adventure Novel, you don’t convince readers of a theme by placing it behind protective glass. You have to do the opposite. Expose it to every possible challenge and trial. Try to knock it over with a battering ram. Set off dynamite at its base. Blast it with fire and meteors and government auditors.
For this process you need opposing ideals that are represented fairly and completely. This is what Shadow needed, and it’s what I tried to do.
If the novel ever sells it will be thanks in part to my agent. But perhaps the most important factor will have been those weekly meetings in which a small group of friends came together to expose my secret flaws.
Have you ever had my experience of finding out you have a writing flaw you never expected? How did it impact your story?
Daniel Schwabauer, MA, is the creator of The One Year Adventure Novel and Cover Story Writing creative writing courses. His professional work includes stage plays, radio scripts, short stories, newspaper columns, comic books and scripting for the PBS animated series Auto-B-Good. His young adult novels, Runt the Brave and Runt the Hunted, have received numerous awards, including the 2005 Ben Franklin Award for Best New Voice in Children’s Literature and the 2008 Eric Hoffer Award. His third book, The Curse of the Seer, released in the summer of 2015.
Thank you for sharing this with us, Mr. S. 🙂
A problem I consistently came across with my closest friend and critic (my sister :P) was that my charries tended to be too serious and / or boring. What I learned as I talked with her about how to better develop them, I realized that I was formulating my primary good guys to be what I wanted to be ~ perfect. 🙁
“All I’m asking for is TOTAL PERFECTION.” ~ Lord Business [The Lego Movie]
What I realized was that I didn’t want my charries to be too “weird” because they reflect me, and if they’re rejected I would be, too. 🙁
Another way God presented it to me is that I was trying to control my characters like they were puppets on strings. He was telling me to “Cut the strings and let them walk on their own.”
I have since tried to let them walk on their own, even when I don’t know how to “handle” the more demonstrative of the personalities. 🙂