Posts Tagged ‘Collaborating’


     

     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.

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     Collaborating on a writing project is vastly different from working by yourself.  It’s been said that no novel is ever written entirely by one person and that is true.  No matter how seasoned the writer, we all need to stop at some point and seek advice from others, and if nothing else, writers depend on other people for inspiration.  But all in all, writing is a pretty solitary venture; one that you suddenly realize has engulfed you for hours and sometimes days at a time, and only when the phone rings or someone stops by do you become aware of the time that has passed.  For the most part, I am okay with this.  I don’t mind spending time alone.  Even as a kid, I seemed to require substantial allotments of alone time, so this is nothing strenuous to me.

     So writing with someone, in terms of a 50/50 effort, is a unique experience.  First you have to be sure of the person you’re writing with.  It’s natural to become possessive of your work and overly sensitive to criticism, so the relationship between two writers of the same project needs to be professional.  As I write this, I am about 30,000 words into an alternating chapter-style collaboration with my friend and mentor Kim Williams-Justesen, author of My Brother the Dog, Love and Loathing, and the three-part series of Hey, Ranger! books for children.  So far, so good.  Kim was an integral component of my last (and first) full length novel (which is still in the hands of a literary agent I met at a writing conference – no word yet, although I did receive an e-mail from her saying she has received it and, due to the holidays, is a little behind schedule).  So when Kim introduced me to the idea of collaborating, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.  I still have a lot to learn and it felt like the next natural step.  I figured it would be an oppurtunity to work one on one, side by side, quite literally, with someone who has not only the education, but experience in the world of publishing. 

     The first thing we had to do was decide which story we wanted to tell.  We both have a vast mental backlog of pending storylines, so it was just a matter of choosing the one that we both felt would most equally utilize our strengths and most effectively blend our voices.  Our first choice was a Gothic-era supernatural thriller.  I made it clear very early on that whatever we wrote together would need to fall into the “creep-factor” category to some degree, as experience has shown me that this is where my style naturally flows.  She agreed and we began.

     I hit a brick wall right off.  I don’t know as much about the Gothic era as I thought, and this became embarrassingly apparent as soon as I sat down to write.  Unfortunately, even when you’re writing fiction, there must be truth in your story.  If it doesn’t feel like the truth, readers sense this and they do not like it one bit.  So we had two choices:  I could spend several months emerged in the world of Gothic history, or… we could write something else, something contemporary.  What it came down to was scheduling.  I had just sent my first manuscript to the agent and Kim was in the revision process of a finalized work, so neither of us were wanting to put off beginning this project for several months, as it is important, (due to the expected dozens of rejections a writer will acquire and the fact that most literary agents demand sole viewing rights to your book), to have more than one manuscript out there circulating at all times.

     So, we settled on what we currently refer to as “Project: Evil Heart,” a kind of he said/she said thriller that, thanks to me, has become more horror and gore than anything, hee hee.  This is the kind of story that I will not be urging my mother to read.  In fact, when I think about that, I cringe.  I have no doubt that Kim and I will both be clobbered by all kinds of criticism when it is complete.  But that is a risk we are both willing to take.

     One thing I didn’t expect when collaborating are all the little differences of understanding.  When my character walks into the same restaurant as Kim’s, it’s interesting to see how different it looks.  To a point, this works.  Our characters are very different from each other, so they are not going to see things the same way, however, there are certain facts that need to be in synch.  If the restaurant has dividers between booths, for example, this can’t change.  If the waiter is a blond guy, no unexplained dye job is going to satisfy the reader it’s the same dude.  This can become challenging.

    Another thing I naively overlooked is the amount of time she and I would spend together.  Our goal is to have this baby ready to be looked at by June 15th of 2011.  That gives us, as of today, just over three months.  We began in January and are just about to the half-way mark so we’re doing pretty good, but there isn’t a lot of time to dilly-dally.   So she and I meet twice a week and not a day goes by without several phone calls or e-mails on the topic.  Right now, Kim is in Las Vegas, and I am stuck on a plot problem.  I need to know if her character answers the phone when mine calls, and if not, why… so I am waiting for her reply to my e-mail and hoping I’m not disrupting her business out-of-state.  These are the challenges.  But I have no complaints.  Our egos are such that we can collaborate with our claws sheathed and our tongues civil.  We have yet to get into even one of the brawls I anticipated when we first began this (well, she did angrily hurl a sizable bag of gummy  bears at my head once, but that had nothing to do with writing… and I deserved it).

    Within the next chapter or two, our characters will meet face to face and this will multiply the time Kim and I spend together.  Then it will literally become a side-by-side enterprise, and it is my hope and belief that we will continue in the same vein of professionalism, respect and allowance of expression that we have thus far. 

     Also, this has been a strain on the people around us.  I am, for the most part, very lucky to be surrounded by a supportive and understanding network of friends and family.  There are those folks though, who take it personally and I don’t know what to say to them except, “I’m sorry.”  There just isn’t any way to do this without sacrificing a hell of a lot of my time.  Those who will understand and accept this, I suppose, are the true friends.  The others will inevitably fall away, bitterly perhaps, but I can’t control their responses.  That’s their bag. 

     Overall, I would say the pros far outweigh the cons.  This is, after all, everything I ever wanted.  Of course, it would be great to be published and that is my ultimate goal, but I try not to get wrapped up in that.  The real joy of this though, is the process, the creativity, the expression.  I need to understand the business side of this, sure, but ultimately, I would rather be at home, “bloodletting” as I’ve come to term it, than twiddling my thumbs waiting for an agent to call, or networking in some hotel somewhere at a writing conference.  But that is a different blog topic entirely.

     As for collaborating, I think it can be done… and well, under the right circumstances.  I am lucky to have had as much opportunity to learn and grow as both a writer and an individual as I have.  Aside from being my mentor and co-writer, Kim is also my friend.  It’s impossible after all, to spend this much time with a person without either loving or hating them to some degree.  It is my sincere hope that this relationship will continue for many years to come.  Not many people have the opportunities I have received. 

     I don’t take that for granted.