Critical Awareness

Tsunami of CrapNANOWRIMO is here, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. It is an endeavor in which folks attempt to complete 50K words of writing (a short novel) in the month of November. I applaud the initiative. Writers write. To be bluntly obvious, that’s what makes us writers.

If you have aspirations of being a professional author, the best way to find out if you have what it takes is…wait for it…by writing.

And, in my humble opinion, the best way to learn is not just to write, but to actually finish something.

Sadly, NANOWRIMO is typically followed by the December Deluge, also affectionately known as the Tsunami of Crap, in which large numbers of people publish the content that they’ve written in November. Completing something does not mean it’s ready to be published.

And, if you’re new to the craft, let’s face it, do you really think that your very first effort is professional quality? Really? I mean, my first stories were dreck. Quite frankly, they’ll never see the light of day. Nor should they. Other writers, such as Stephen King in his book, On Writing, have said the same thing.

Which brings me to the topic of Critical Awareness, which I define as the ability to evaluate the quality of your own story as a saleable product. Unsurprisingly, this is a learned skill, just like anything else. It’s also something that writers, on the whole, are notoriously bad at. After all, it’s hard to be objective about something that you’re so close to, that you’ve spent so much time sweating over.

It turns out that Critical Awareness is a skill. Like any other skill, you have to work to develop it. Here are some techniques to help you develop the capability to evaluate your own work:

  1. Time: Let the story sit for a month or two, while you get involved with a new project. Come back and read the story again when you’ve acquired enough distance from it to be suitably objective. This is one of my key tactics; I’m never in a hurry to publish my stories.

  2. Regular Critiques: Let others critique the work while you’re developing it. Writing groups are great for this. Most groups provide opportunities to review chapters in ongoing works. A good group can help you gain insights into your story, such as inconsistencies, worldbuilding gotchas, characterization problems, etc.

  3. Beta Readers: Beta readers can read a finished work and point out flaws in the work. Unlike critique groups, which typically review individual chapters on a periodic basis, beta readers review the entire story. This can help provide insight into structural problems, plotting problems, pacing issues, etc.

A note on the people who do critiques or Beta reads… You need people with some writing background who are willing to tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear. Your mother is probably not a good choice. Just sayin’.

Writing is creative, but publishing is a business. Finishing a story is good, but deciding to publish should be based on a clear evaluation of a work’s prospects in the marketplace. Will it sell? Will it enhance, or detract from, the author brand you’re trying to establish? Critical Awareness is a crucial skill for success in the business.

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Hourlings at Work: A Dynamic Writing Group

Hourlings At WorkIn 2014, I became a charter member of the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, a spin-off from a more general-focused writing group. With weekly meetings every Sunday morning, the group has been like bootcamp for the SF/Fantasy writers associated with the group, including myself.

Participating on Meetup as the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers, the group is more informally known as “The Hourlings.” This is the name under which the organization has published two anthologies, with a third on the way. The name is a bit of a takeoff on the “Inklings,” a legendary writing group in England that included J.R.R Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and others.

To demonstrate how the group has progressed, I’ve compiled a list of all the publications that the members have made available for sale on Amazon since 2013. I’m pleased to add that I am amongst that writers who have begun releasing work to the public.

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Reliquary: Coming Soon

Reliquary - An Anthology of Stories about RelicsSigh. I have a story called “Road Trip” in the upcoming anthology, Reliquary. The anthology publication has been delayed until November; it had originally been targeted for May. The anthology is edited by S. C. Megale and is being produced by my primary writing group, the Loudoun Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. Unsurprisingly, I’m also involved in the production end of things (mostly the ebook production).

I chalk most of the delays up to: 1) the cat herding necessary to get all of the stories in, 2) the complexity of the work (100K words with full wraparound cover, fancy typography, sophisticated interior design, illustrations, etc.), 3) the learning curve the production team had to climb for both the print and ebook editions, 4) two, yes, two rounds of copyedits, and 5) learning the hard way why contracts are necessary.

On the other hand, the proofs look absolutely stunning.

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2014 Writing Group Stats

OK, I can’t help it. My computer science background means that I’m a numbers guy. On top of that, I’ve always been taught that you can only improve what you can measure. In 2014, I tracked my attendance at my two writing groups, as well as my submission percentage, i.e. – how often I submitted content to the groups to be critiqued.

Here are my statistics:

Writing Group First Meeting Attended Submissions Sub % Stories
Loudoun County Writers Group 3/24/14 36 15 42% 5
Loudoun SF Critique Group 6/8/14 26  8 31% 3
    62 23 37% 8

So let’s break this down a bit. I attended 62 meetings. Each meeting is two hours. In addition, there are sometimes post-meeting discussions or lunches that are just as valuable, creatively speaking, as the meetings. On average, let’s add an hour per meeting for the “extra stuff.” Each meeting requires roughly two hours of work to critique the weekly submissions. That adds up to 310 hours over the year.

That doesn’t account for writing time, of course. I had 23 submissions averaging around 2000 words each. Let’s call that four hours per submission, which we’ll round up to a hundred hours. So, we’re up to 410 hours. This still doesn’t account for blogging, content that’s been written but not yet submitted, content revisions, background research, etc.

When all is said in done, it’s likely that I spent more than 600 hours last year writing, logging, critiquing, networking and otherwise honing my craft. This is what I believe is required in order to ascend to the professional level of writing to which I aspire.

The next challenge, of course, is to actually make money.

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