Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Posting/Critiquing Marathon Part 2: In Conclusion, What I’ve Learned

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.

Most submitters have gotten through their first 10-12 chapters by now. I admit, due to outside constraints I had to duck out of the last three weeks but here’s what I have learned from the second half of the marathon:

The Watch List:
  1. Sagging middles. I can’t emphasize this enough—the middle is the most important part of the story. This is where everything happens, where the growth occurs, and where the journey takes place. Sure you need an enticing beginning and a satisfying ending but without a strong middle the book is sunk.
  2. Whirlpools. This is where a writer keeps cycling the same type of events or bringing back characters that were eliminated. It’s boring, frustrating, and the reader quickly grows disillusioned. Forward motion died off. I don’t know if this is due to the comfort zone of the writer, where they feel they pulled off one thing well so why try something else? Or in other cases, the characters keep rehashing the same facts, details, and arguments. It’s like the writer didn’t have enough story to fill out a book or got lost somewhere from A-Z.
  3. Plot plunges. The first chapters of a story were strong, the obstacles clearly defined, and the protagonist(s) chugged steadily ahead toward their goals. Then all at once, the story isn’t so interesting. It’s not that the goals have died or the obstacles disappeared, but everything feels stagnant. In these cases, the writer has stopped introducing new, fun, or dangerous elements. They’re playing with the exact same clay they started out with. Or there is a lack of growth and opposition for the characters.

For the most part, to beware putting all of your punch and energy into the beginning and ending alone. I found this to be a huge red flag. This is where writing with an outline during the editing and revising process is so valuable. Write the first draft or two by the seat of your pants if you like but then when you’re ready to really roll up your sleeves and pound the molten metal that is your story into something polished and refined, you need an outline. Take a step back and look at the broad picture of your story and how each event works.

The other big thing I’ve learned all over again is the importance of beta readers, particularly beta readers who also write. Those fresh pairs of eyes strip away our blinders and can show us what is working and what isn’t. Also the importance of finding beta readers that work well with you. Anyone can beta read but that doesn’t mean they’ll like your genre, your writing style, or even the story itself. Know what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer and look for beta readers who can help you in those weak places. Say punctuation is your bane; find someone who can juggle commas, hyphens, and semicolons in their sleep. If sentence structure, clarity, or passivity is a problem, look for a beta reader who’s a grammarian. If your story takes place in a specific time period or setting it doesn’t hurt to ask someone who’s an expert on that time or setting to read through to make sure your research paid off. If you want someone to be very frank with you as to whether your story is making sense, whether characters or events are believable, plot holes abound…you get the idea. Look for honest readers who know what they are talking about. If you find that a reader does nothing but snark on everything you write without pointing out anything you do correctly, don’t continue with that person. If someone hates your genre or type of story, maybe let them read a different project later on.

The scope of writing submitted this year in the marathon went all across the speculative board. There was something for nearly every reader. The talent ranged all over the chart too with everyone sharing their strengths and weaknesses. The most beautiful part was seeing some writers who continually received lengthy feedback on their writing swallow their pride (if any) and work hard to make their writing stronger. You could see them improve and develop as the weeks went by. I’m in awe of these people. They didn’t give up. They didn’t classify the feedback as subjective and ignore it. These are writers who I expect to see on bookstore and library shelves one day.


  1. As a participant in your marathon, I want to stop by your blog and thank you here for the effort you put into the marathon. I, for one, did miss your input at the end of the marathon. :-(

    I too learned a lot by participating and agree with all you've said here. Story First. Pride must take a backseat if you want to participate in a big critique group. For me I had to stay positive because my critiques fell off towards the end. However, those that were giving fantastic feedback stayed with me, and I need to send them some thank you notes.

    Great post, thanks for making it all possible.

  2. Thanks for being in the marathon this year, Dean. So glad you found it helpful and thank you for critiquing in return and keeping tabs on who needed critiques for those last few weeks.