I got invited to join my first SF/F writer’s group after attending a workshop at a Baycon many years ago. I was so excited! I had taken creative writing classes in college, and I had been part of a mixed-genre writer’s critique group for a couple of years. This was the first group dedicated to speculative fiction. They would understand me, at last! It had a couple of professionally published authors, along with novices like me. I had high hopes, back then, that with a little spit and polish my manuscript would be rescued from the slush pile, and I’d be the next Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Well…My manuscript needed a little more than spit and polish. It had some serious problems. It wasn’t so much the writing itself. I had a pretty good handle on all the mechanical things like pacing, description, dialogue, and so forth. Some tweaks to world building, okay.
Where the whole thing fell apart was my grasp of the main characters’ emotions. Writer’s group became more like therapy sessions for me. I sat and listened to everything that was wrong with my character’s behavior week after week. It was hard not to take it personally. To hear them read aloud excerpts and laugh, I cringed and could not believe I wrote that badly. My heroine was a bitch. My hero was an asshole, a creep, and a stalker. My villain was ridiculous. Clearly my intentions were not coming across on the page.
Like many novice writers, I started to get defensive. I went to the Number One Cop-Out position, which is to say, “That’s just my character’s personality. There’s nothing I can do about it.” And week after week, my characters got dragged through the ringer as my writer’s group got more and more frustrated.
One day, a pro writer in the group sent out a global email to me and cc: to everybody. (I shall refer to this fellow as K. for anonymity’s sake.) It was a very long message in very strong language with lots of F words and such. But it was not a rambling attack like most of what you see on the internet. It was a detailed, well-constructed essay with lots of specific examples and analysis. It made total sense. I read it and somehow a light bulb went on in my head. I wish I had saved it, because that was the kick in the pants I needed.
Of what I recall, K. informed me that my characters come from my own mind. They are not independent entities acting in a dream world where I am merely the spectator. I realized at that moment that all the advice in writing books was wrong. It was a mistake to let the characters behave according to their own will, for the sake of making them seem real. My characters are not real. They are created in my head, and I have control of them. It is my job to keep track of inconsistency and the flow of action/reaction. As the author, every word on the page is my responsibility.
After K. sent out that email, the others in the group got very worried about me. One woman (I shall refer to her as B.) called me on the phone and asked, “Are you okay? Are you going to quit writing?” I just laughed, no. I surprised everyone by being glad for the tough love. Maybe I didn’t know how to fix the problem right away, but for the first time I understood the problem.
Moral of the story? Critique groups helped me grow as a writer but only when I moved beyond simply taking the punches and listened to the message.
About Denise Robarge Tanaka
Denise is a lifelong writer of magical beings and creator of fantastic worlds. Her debut novel, Touch, is being published by Phantasm Books of Assent Publishing towards the end of the year.