I’ve been a part of a local writing support group for a couple of years. We meet regularly for word war sessions, discussing what we’re working on, generally keeping each other motivated to keep going and keep learning. That kind of support is fantastic and invaluable, not least because everyone was so welcoming to me while I was still a fanfic-only writer. They’ve been fab while I found my feet with original fiction and I love having the group there.
At the end of last year, a couple of members decided to set up a subgroup for exchanging work and critiquing it. They’d been exchanging work between each other for a while, but it’s good to have more than one voice looking at what you’re doing.
At the moment, there are five of us. We’re all different, I suspect we all write different things, and that means we’re all looking at different aspects of a story. Each month, two members submit work (we even have a rota), and everyone reads and critiques it. We meet on the first Tuesday of the month to discuss the works and send our notes and annotated manuscripts to the writers after.
Tuesday night was the first meeting. My work wasn’t up for discussion, because I’m a chicken and didn’t want to go first. I’ve got what I like to call Fanfic Writer Impostor Syndrome, where I’m constantly second-guessing whether I’m actually good enough to be measured against anyone else. I know that I’m not a bad fic writer, but am I any good at original fic? I don’t know!
The first thing I learned is this: I’m not totally out-classed. Yes, they’re good, but my work isn’t going to stick out like a sore thumb of badness. Phew!
I thought that was the only thing I’d learn. It’s not my work being critiqued, right? How much could I learn from seeing people’s work being taken apart?
It was like a crash course in how to critique. It was awesome. I realised afterwards that, for one of the stories, I’d barely looked past the surface. There were so many things that I hadn’t thought about and hadn’t noticed. I’d been more critical of the other one, and I know why, but even in that one, there were still a lot of issues that I’d merrily brushed past. This is where years of training myself not to see a lot of the flaws in fic counted against me. There’s a culture of not criticising and not being judgmental in fic circles, for a dozen and one reasons that are all valid in that community, but it had influenced how I was reading the works I was supposed to be criticising.
Hopefully, I’ll be able to go deeper and analyse better next month, because there are going to be things I’m thinking about and questioning that I hadn’t even considered.
The session also made me think about my own writing. Hearing about what people are looking for and thinking made me reexamine aspects of my work, particularly around consistency of characterisation and motivation. This is an area that I’m very aware is my weakness: fanfic can teach a lot about plotting, pacing, worldbuilding, and writing relationships, but you’re mainly working with existing characters. It’s important to stay in character and be consistent, tie motivation into existing (or newly created) backstory, but creating new characters isn’t something we do much. Most readers want stories about their favourites, not new people the author created, so we don’t get much practice at applying this to our own characters.
Next month, it’s my turn. The two pieces this month were the opening chapters of novels. I could do that, or I could get the group to read a short story that I can feel isn’t working, but I can’t express why it’s not working. If I can understand why it’s not working, I can fix it. So although I have chapters that I could send in, I think it’ll be the short story that gets the treatment.
I was feeling incredibly nervous about having my work critiqued like this, but after listening to what was said that night, I’m surprising myself by feeling really excited about it instead. Do your worst, guys. Put the whole thing under a microscope and pick it apart. Knowing why it’s not working is going to help me level up at last. I can’t wait!