In the fall of 2007, I was invited to join a novel critique group hosted by local author, Sandra McDonald, who is well-known and respected in the fantasy and sci-fi genres. She’s also a wonderful and inspirational speaker as I’ve heard her speak a few times at various writing groups and conferences. Our critique group was rounded out by Dianne El, Nancy Quatrano (the latest addition to the Rogues Gallery Writers!), and Judy Weber; the four of us were helping to run the St. Augustine (Ancient City) Chapter for the Florida Writers Association at the time.
All four women had genre backgrounds and were working on murder mysteries. And there I sat with a gritty literary novel (Such A Dreamer) that was loaded with social commentary. But what I’ve come to learn over the years is that it really doesn’t matter what a writer’s background is, she or he will understand basic plot structure and character development. So even though these four women weren’t well-versed in the literary genre, they pointed out a major flaw early on.
The flaw being that none of them felt a connection to my lead character, Dane Whitmore. They didn’t, for the most part, feel sympathy for him either. In fact, Sandra, who certainly won’t sugar-coat a critique, went as far to say that she hated Dane, and had hoped that I was writing a murder mystery and that he would be my first victim. Now, some of you may think those are harsh words, but I’m telling you, that kind of honesty is what a writer needs from a critique group. If you’re looking for people to tell you how great your story or writing is, when it isn’t, you’re better off just sharing your writing with friends and family members, and probably shouldn’t think too seriously about being published.
Am I saying that you should listen to every comment or criticism from a critique group? Yes. Does that mean you need to apply everything you receive? No, of course not. The important thing is to look for trends. If Sandra hated Dane, but the other three loved him, I would be less inclined to think there was an issue. But in my case, they were 100% unanimous in their option of not caring for Dane after reading the first few chapters. And that’s a problem, a very serious problem.
What I determined based on this feedback is that the conversion from firstto third person did not work as is. In first person, people did feel a connection to Dane, because first person is a more intimate form of story-telling. Readers were brought straight into Dane’s mind. But when switched to third person, his thoughts turned into exposition and bogged down the narrative. So I needed to rewrite and make him connect with the reader through the use of action and dialogue instead.
But that was only part of the issue. The story starts off with Dane suffering, but nobody knows why. I was keeping that a secret upfront. The girls had asked me questions about that, what happened to Dane in the past to put him in such a bad state? I described a tragic event that had happened as part of Dane’s back story. Dianne would later point out that this event was Dane’s “inciting incident.” She recommended sharing this up front, as part of a prologue. I gave it a shot and shared it at one of our later critique meetings. Divulging the inciting incident in a prologue changed the group’s opinion of Dane drastically. (Thanks, Dianne!!)
Sandra still had an issue with the grittiness and harshness of my novel, but she admitted not being a big fan of the anti-hero. If you’ve read my writing or my post, Is Antihero the New Superhero?, you know that I am definitely a fan. And Dane is certainly an anti-hero.
Later, I had a conversation with Sandra, and I told her that I know my novel won’t be for everyone, but I believe it’s an important story to tell, and will only be believable if I keep it grounded in reality, including all the decadent details and the occasional–if not frequent in certain scenes–use of offensive language. She respected that and told me I had learned a valuable lesson—how to flex my writing muscles. In other words, I had enough conviction in my story to know when to say, No, this is the way my story must be told. She further went on to say that critiques are only suggestions, but no one can tell me how to write my story but me. Take what is useful (from critiques) and lose the rest. This advice goes for all writers.
After 7 and ½ years, I finally learned the best way to write my novel. At the same time, I only had a little over 50,000 words of a rough first draft written, not including all the scenes and even chapters I had discarded over the years due to abandoned subplots and/or secondary character changes; I probably have a novella length collection of abandoned material alone. Despite being over 50,000 words in, I still had a lot of story to tell.
In the spring of 2008, author/publisher/speaker/book coach, Rik Feeney came to speak at the Ancient City Chapter. His topic was “Writing a Book in 60 Days.” He wanted me to get word out to our members ahead of time, and see how many people would “sign up” to take the 60-day challenge. Including me, we had nearly 20 people signed up. Rik’s talk, which brought in a record number of 86 people to the chapter meeting, was incredible and very inspiring. I started a support group for the 60 day challenge and we ended with some incredible results. One man wrote an entire 80,000+ word novel during that period. I had hopes of finishing Dreamer, but ended with about an additional 29,000 words. A bit shy of my goal, but the challenge pushed me much further ahead than I had been prior to it. I still had plenty of story to tell, but I was much further along and already around the 80,000 word mark.
Around this time, Sandra needed to drop out of the critique group as her schedule got too busy, so the remaining four of us continued to meet on a monthly basis, sharing wonderful insights and suggestions on how to improve our novels. I stored all these critiques for my future rewrites.
In the summer of 2008, local author and historian, Karen Harvey, introduced me to Rabbi Samuel Cywiak, who wanted to have his Holocaust memoir (Flight From Fear) written. I was drawn to the project for a few reasons (some of those reasons and other details about the project can be found here.) After some discussions, we got along very well and agreed to work together. This, of course, would become a full-time project, so, once again, Such A Dreamer, was put on the back burner.
At the same time, my struggles to write Dreamer, helped me to write Flight From Fear. Since I had to write Fear in the first person voice of a humble Orthodox rabbi, the lessons I’d learned over the years helped me to do so in a believable way and help to make, in my opinion, a very special book for Rabbi Cywiak.
During the three years it took from the early interviews until we finally had Fear published the way we wanted, in its 2nd edition, I was also going through separation, multiple moves, divorce, financial woes, and unemployment. To be honest, Rabbi Cywiak’s project helped me to keep my mind on something other than my personal difficulties. It helped to keep me grounded and put things in perspective—I was writing a person’s Holocaust story, after all, what did I have to complain about? Also during that period, the Rogues Gallery Writers published our first collaboration, Writing is Easy, plus a mini e-book, More Writing is Easy, and started our first group novel, The Method Writers, which was just recently published (along with another mini e-book, Fictitious Fiction.)
This summer has been the first opportunity for me to resume work on Such A Dreamer in over four years. And I’m completely committed to finishing it and not taking on any other major writing projects until it’s done once and for all. Fortunately, it seems that Dreamer is more relevant today, than it would’ve been if published back in the early 2000’s.
This concludes my journey down literary lane. If you’re a struggled or aspiring writer, I hope my experiences will impart some kind of wisdom onto you, making your own writing journey a little less bumpy. I certainly recommend taking a creative writing class at some point. Even more important is for you to get involved in your local writing community and join a serious critique group. Share your work and welcome all feedback. But above all, as some of the great authors have said, make sure you write a lot, and read even more.
For updates on my writing projects and events, please visit my website.
And click here to check out my latest publication, The Method Writers.