The WIP and the writing group

This week’s musings (a day late, sorry) surround feedback on novel manuscripts — as in how to get the most out of it. I don’t know about other writers, but I rather like to share my work. I’m not necessarily talking about a critical appraisal here, I’m talking about just having it read. In fact, I’m quite likely to inflict the opening chapters on unsuspecting friends (as in, “here” <proffers print-out> “read this now“), just so I’m not all alone in my head. (And it also means I can blather on about the plot or events-to-come over brunch and they’ll know what I’m talking about.)

But what about more critical feedback? This is why we belong to writers groups, after all. Sure, many of them become friends, but writers group members are the ones who will slap you for too much exposition (or too little), probe the intricacies of character, and assess aspects like pace and tension. They also tend to know more about the publishing industry, and have a better grip on whether you’re writing something you will potentially be able to sell.

So the question is: when is the best time to show your novel WIP to your writing group?

There are a few different strategies you can adopt: complete the entire novel before begging a few people to read it in entirety for holistic feedback; complete the novel but submit openings and/or problem sections for more intense critique; or get your writing group to workshop chapters along the way.

I have been a little wary in the past of having chapters critiqued along the way. This mainly stems back to when I was a complete novice, writing a ‘novel’ in total ignorance of storycraft, and didn’t have the faintest idea where I was going with it. As a result, when I presented isolated chapters to my then-writers group, I found after a while that the comments from my peers (few of whom, in hindsight, really knew what they were talking about) were impacting the direction of the story.

There’s also the challenge that it can be hard on people to workshop chapters in isolation. They may forget (or miss) earlier chapters, plus they have to consider everything in the context of, not only what is past, but what is yet to come. It requires a different approach to workshopping short stories.

For these reasons I’ve long thought it best to workshop novels in larger chunks (or entirety) if possible.

But . . . The advantage of gaining feedback on chapters along the way is that any logic, plot or structural flaws can be picked up before too much effort is expended. Such early feedback can save a lot of time and help ensure a greater quality first draft. (Unless you are experienced and competant enough to hit the mark every time.)

For my latest WIP I have therefore decided to make the most of my most awesome writers group (SuperNOVA) and have them read chapters as I go along. This time I have a strong idea of where I am going and what I am trying to do, so any comments I receive can be interpreted in light of my known end-goal, rather than serving to fling me off-track. The feedback will tell me whether I am achieving what I intend or unwittingly giving the wrong impression — and will potentially inject some cool new ideas as well.

Just recently I had feedback on the opening chapter, and it was interesting to hear what is working and where some adjustment is required. Luckily for me, comments were fairly consistent across the group, so it’s clear what I need to fix — and it isn’t anything too major. And now I’ve dipped my toe in the water, I intend to submit a greater chunk next time. That will be the real litmus test of whether the novel gets off to a good start . . . or not.

I think this is going to really help me stay on track. In any case, I like the idea of having readers with me on the journey.

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