Get out your pitchforks and torches because Franken-novel is coming for us all! If you don’t know what a Franken-novel is or how one is created, you need to get over to writer Kristen Lamb’s website and read her post on writing groups. It’s painful, because sometimes Truth is Pain.
I’ve always said that writing groups aren’t so great for novelists, and Lamb goes into the reasons why that’s the case. “Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass,” she says. No matter how good the writing, it means nothing if the structure isn’t sound. And it’s almost impossible to see the structure when all you get is 15 or so pages at a time, sometimes several weeks apart. The only way to judge a novel is to read the whole thing, as you’d normally read a book. Writing groups just can’t do that.
Or can they?
Submitting an outline or beginning-to-end synopsis would definitely help. A reader needs to follow the arc of the story and the character development, how the writer plans to get from the beginning to the end. (Hint: Writers groups have no “spoilers.” Everything should be up for discussion.)
A novel lives or dies by a strong structure.
If the structure isn’t made clear, the group has only the prose to go on. You end up with comments such as: “I think you need to tell what the heroine looks like.” No publisher ever bought a book because the protagonist has red hair. And good prose, read chapter-by-chapter, covers up many a structural flaw. All the group gets to see is good writing, not any fatal structural flaws.
Lamb’s tried-and-true solution to this is finding one or more trusted beta readers, who can read the whole thing and be honest. Another way is to simply submit the entire synopsis, and ask the group if this book seems to flow smoothly from beginning to end, or if they see plot holes or snags. Tell them you’re not interested in the pretty prose — just the structure.
Another problem Lamb notes is Perfectionism. She cites writers who have been working and reworking and “perfecting” the same unfinished book for years. The world does not reward perfect novels, she says, “it rewards finished novels.”
Something’s wrong if you’ve been working on the same few chapters for years, and have yet to finish a first draft. Let it go. Keep the parts that might make a short story or the germ of another book, or send it on an all-expenses-paid trip to the recycling bin.
Worse is revising — sometimes endlessly — according to the group comments, rather than relying on your own instincts and vision for your book. You end up with a Book-By-Committee. In other words: A Franken-novel.
What can a writing group do for you? Plenty, if you’re a poet or short-story writer. But if you’re a novelist, you need to help your group devise a better way to work with the longer form.
And never discount the comfort of being in the company of other writers. This is an isolated and lonely profession, even if you have friends and family around. They may be sympathetic or supportive, but other writers understand.
Lamb, the founder of Warrior Writer Boot Camp, always has practical and sometimes gloves-off advice for writers. Her blog on writing groups is at: https://warriorwriters.wordpress.com/2012/01/16/can-critique-groups-do-more-harm-than-good/