Tips from the crit group I

There’s a common claim that if you join a creative writing crit group, you get more out of critting other people than being critted.

I broadly agree with this. Firstly, there’s a level of precision I’ve developed from critting. It’s too easy for me to think: ‘My thing reads weird – I’ll move some stuff around – there, that reads better’.

In contrast, with other people’s work, I often have to think: ‘Your thing reads weird – why does it read weird? What’s actually going on there? Is that approach ever effective, and if so, what are other writers doing differently with it? (Bloody hell, do I do that?) How can I explain it to you?’

(Of course, now I need to take that precision back to my own editing, which is harder.)

Secondly, advice for other people’s work can be useful for your own. In that spirit, for my benefit, below are some (anonymised) top tips and thoughts from yesterday’s meeting. Thanks to my fellow attendees.

It’s sadly easy to get a ‘white box’ effect when you’ve not enough vivid/concise/telling details about a story’s setting, and a ‘blurry face’ effect for a 3rd person narrator. Both are disconcerting.

We connect with characters when they have goals and desires, because we have goals and desires. [Or do we? Do we connect with the desiring character because it’s actually a kind of idealisation, because we’re a messy bundles of contradictory, partially understood impulses? Are fictional stories selling us the myth of individual coherence, or (less cynically) are they ways of managing and exploring incoherence? (And does that vary between genres?) This discussion took me back to when I studied autobiography – there’s a big dispute about whether autobiography artificially smooths over the contradictions in a life, or is a way of articulating and honouring contradictions.]

Having a character eat their own arm is cool. 

Tell us what’s at stake. Then persuade us it’s actually stake-full. What makes something stake-y? You can state that the fate of the world is in the balance and it still might not have heft – what gives stakes weight?

You still need precision if you’re being messianic and grandiose.

Is it possible to combine the looming, unspeakable, obscure dread of much turn-of-the-century Gothic with the specificity of SciFi worldbuilding? [That was interesting to me because I’m reading Gothic Science Fiction eds. Wasson and Alder at the moment – very fun stuff.]

Use ‘modified’ to reduce the number of pedants distracted by your inaccuracy (e.g. ‘modified shoggoth’)

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