Each summer the Speculative Fiction Group on Agent Query Connect holds a posting/critiquing marathon. It's an intensive 12 weeks of feedback and opportunity. People post 1-2 chapters per week and everyone else reads and critiques them. In this way, submitters can get a good assessment of what works in their chapters and what doesn't from writers who read and write in their genres. It's also a private forum so work posted isn't open to the masses on the internet and doesn't stay on permanently. All in all, it's exhausting, fun, and a pretty positive environment.
This week marks the halfway point for this year's session. I'd thought I'd take some time today (begging your indulgence) to look back through the feedback I've given and seen, and share some of what I've learned from critiquing this year.
The list of individual critiques from the past aside, after three years of the marathon I know my critiquing skills have grown sharper and less subjective. This year I've had a strong bent toward finding plot holes and points that need clarifying. Which is a good thing because a couple of my current manuscripts will need me to see from that standpoint when I look at them again in the autumn.
Most submitters have gotten through 6 chapters by now; the opening chunk of their novels. How are these openings standing up from a technical point of view? What things have I seen or watched out for when reading these openings?
The Watch List:
1. The first chapter or two of the novel introduces the reader to the protagonist and sometimes the antagonist of the novel. We need to connect with the protagonist quickly in order to care about them and the problems that are stacked up (or stacking up) against them. Physical descriptions don't spark sympathy. Super-angsty voices don't spark sympathy either, especially when there are no redeeming characteristics there to balance the character's inner pain. The reader needs to care about the protagonist or have a strong moment of sympathy with them to want to read the rest of the story.
2. I've seen two camps: openings that overdo voice and openings that have no voice at all. I think with all the online emphasis about voice some writers try too hard. And it's obvious. You don't have to pack a wallop in your first chapter or smack your reader between the eyes. It's kind of like those movies that rely too much on special effects and blowing things up in order to dazzle an audience.
On the flip side are the kind of openings you see from inexperienced or too-eager-to-be-read writers. I think there must be a natural tendency to fill up a rough draft's first chapters with backstory, description, and all those neat details that do better in an outline, summary, or story-building journals. Most of us start out that way. With all of these backstage props sitting out there's little room for voice or plot.
3. Places where all the time invested into building tension suddenly fall on their faces. It happens. The story starts out with engaging characters, intriguing stakes, and even mystery. It builds for the first two or three chapters and then there is the plop. All of a sudden we have a "calm" moment in the action where nothing new is learned, no inner journey is made to compensate for the break from the outer, and often details are rehashed. Breaks from the action are good; reader's need breathers, especially if a story is fast-paced and something of an adrenaline rush; but those breaks still need to move the story forward.
Picture the story as a river, we've just come through some rapids and maybe pitched over a waterfall and now we're in a deep, calm stretch. Don't steer your boat into a lazy eddy or whirlpool, continue to paddle forward. Don't stop at the bank to have a picnic or go exploring or some other tangent unnecessary to the journey. Keep the reader headed down that river.
4. Consistency. This is a big one. Be consistent in your details but also in your plotting. One thing leads to another. Action--reaction or consequence. They must make sense. Contrivances and convenient props are things you try to get away with at your peril. Readers aren't stupid and they'll see these things as lazy writing. I've already blogged here about this issue.
5. Research. The freedom that comes from writing speculative fiction; any subgenre of fantasy in particular; doesn't mean a writer is free from all research. To make a story creditable and the happenings believable we often must delve into the dusty realm of research along with everyone else.
Say someone gets hurt, what are the true consequences/dangers of this injury? How will it affect that character from performing until they are healed? If medical attention is required, who has the knowledge to help? What are the available resources? How do you use them?
Or say you're writing in a completely made-up world but there are cultural elements similar to that of the real world whether in the present day or in history, know how those elements really worked before playing around with them.
Using creatures common to your genre? Do you know how these creatures have been used before? With creatures it's good to know what has been done and how they've been reincarnated in various stories before developing your own interpretation.
Readers and fans will know when you fake it. Not all of them maybe, but why give any of them a chance to put your story down and say "Yeah, right!" or "This person doesn't know what they're writing about."
6. Too much of a good thing. Whether it be a detailed play-by-play of a fight scene; every look, gesture, or hidden meaning in the eyes of a pair of lovers or a stalker; how something scientifically works or is invented; all the methods and nuances of learning magic; the political fabric of your world; etc. Often, I've found, these are things that the writer really gets into and has a personal interest in. Good stuff. But too much becomes an info dump and bogs down the story. Stick to the essentials and those details that move the story along or have some personal impact on the characters.
Six opening issues to reflect the six week mark. I'm guilty of some of these too. Come autumn, I will be able to examine my writing with a sharper eye and apply the proverbial red pencil where problems are. I'm looking forward to learning more during the second half of the marathon. I don't write much, if at all, during the summer because of the marathon, but you can be sure I'm learning heaps more than if I'd taken a class or worked alone those months. I sincerely admire and in some cases have a sense of awe at the writers who are submitting this year. Massive talent, even though every submission has had strengths and weaknesses.
*Submitters can jump in at any given week. So if you have a completed and ready to be shopped manuscript and would like to run it by a group of great beta readers, pop on over to Agent Query Connect and join the Speculative Fiction Group. (Speculative fiction writers only. Fantasy, science-fiction, horror, paranormal, etc.)