We've had a request from Sal asking how we structure our critiquing sessions at ROR.
I think one of the joys of ROR is that we are all in it for the love of the genre and the love of the craft of writing . We know that if someone makes a comment, it is because they genuinely want to help us improve our work.
We started the VISION group from scratch. For the first year we set a craft exercise each month. eg. Great Opening Lines. The writers went away, looked at their favourite authors' books, analysed what made a great opening line and wrote their own. Then they came to the meeting and read them out and we critiqued these. We asked, would we keep reading? Did it set up the story? etc (When I did a workshop with the Central Highlands Writing group on how to set up a writers' group, I prepared a year of writing exercises for them, and gave them this along with the Critque Rules).
Each VISION meeting we had a different Chairperson, who ran the meeting. (We gave people the chance to get to know the rules before asking them to be Chair).
1. Bring in enough printed copies to share one between 2 or circulate via email and people print their own.
(Why not have the writer read from their copy? Because your story is not meant to be read aloud, unless it is written for this purpose. So it needs to be read in someone's head. Also, having a printed copy, means your fellow writers can circle things and make notes. This is useful when they return your copies to you).
2. Critique the Work not the Person.
3. If a Writing Craft Exercise has been set critique the purpose of the exercise first, before you start on other things.
4. The person being critiqued is not allowed to say anything until the end. (You won't be there, standing behind the editor as they read your manuscript, able to say, But I really meant ...).
5. Begin by saying something good. (If others have gone ahead and you agree with them, say so and move on to something new) Tell the writer what worked for you, then tell them what didn't and why. Maybe make suggestions as to how you think the story could be tweaked. Finish with something positive. (We set out to make VISION a 'writing craft dedicated' but nurturing experience for everyone and I think we achieved this).
6. Remember, the input you get is valuable, take it on b0ard and use what you can but, ultimately, you have vision for your book/story.
So that was VISION. After we did writing craft exercises we moved on to short stories. We had 2 hours and would get through 2 - 3 stories, depending on length.
Length became an issue for Marianne and I. We felt we had pushed ourselves as far as we could with this format and we wanted to polish or novel length work. This was why we started ROR.
The Critique sessions at ROR are based on how we ran the short story critiquing sessions at VISION.
One person is nominated Chair for that session. The person being critiqued is not allowed to speak, except to answer a direct question, no elaborating. This person usually takes notes and the others will have written up a report on the manuscript. Because it is an entire novel there are many different facets to critique. For the first few RORs we had a template that we worked from to be sure we covered everything. This is a rough example.
Novel Length Critique
Overview (How we felt the book worked, marketability etc)
Tone and/or age appropriate (eg. age --if the book is for children 11-14, tone -- if the tone is right for the subgenre)
Structure (look at establishing the problem and characters in the first chapters, narrative pacing, satisfying resolution).
View Point (Look at any problems with VP. This is usually a beginning writer's problem, but sometimes an established writer will need to add or remove a VP to create narrative tension).
Charactersiation (Which characters are working, which ones aren't. What are their character arcs? What do they learn in the course of the book. Internal conflict, External conflict).
Logic Flaws in World Builiding and Plot (These two are tied in because we're writing spec fic. Even an Urban Fantasy is going to have world building because it is our world, one step removed. A flaw in world building will throw the reader out of the story).
Dialogue (Is it appropriate for the age/education of the characters)
Setting/visuals (Does ther eader feel as if they are really there? Can they see the place? Is it rich and inventive, or derivative?).
General, page by page comments.
Looking back at all this, I realise that I could write a post on each of these topics and still not do them justice.
At ROR each of us would have our say and then we'd break into general discussion, getting all enthusiastic and excited about the book. The person whose book had been critiqued would come away, their head spinning with ideas and a new perspective.
As we've been doing ROR since 2001 and we know each other well, we don't use quite so structured a critique now but it is a good starting place.
I hope this has helped you, Sal, and anyone else who is interested in improving their writing craft. If there are any areas you'd like me to elaborate on, let me know. I'm a nerd who loves the writing craft. I could talk about it for hours and bore everyone silly. It's lucky I have writing friends who share the same passion!
My friend Sarah (aka Callistra on Livejournal) emailed me today to ask for advice or tips for a new group looking to replicate the ROR experience. I know we've talked about how ROR works in the past but thought sharing what I sent to Sarah might be useful for other writers to think about.
Other RORettes, chime in with any bits I've forgotten or any extra advice you might have for a group looking to run their own ROR.
And we'd love to hear from any of you who run critting weekends differently... or anyone who has any further questions about the ROR experience
HOW ROR WORKS
We each email the complete ms of our novel to other members of the group 4-8 weeks before the weekend. We used to all print and post but that was kind of ridiculous - this way there are no postage costs and only those who want to crit off printed paper need do any printing.
We write up a crit for each ms, so we can give them to the author after the discussions session.
(our group currently has 8 members, though we haven't had all members in one place since before our 8th joined us. 5-6 is definitely more workable on our system, and once you get to 8 the biggest problem is accommodation - trying to find somewhere to house 8 single adults is hard!!! Most holiday houses with space advertised for 8 means couples and kids, so if you're not prepared to share double beds the options are smaller)
We all live in different states, so we only do ROR once ever 18 months or so, always somewhere different, with one member organising accommodation etc. We've done self catering and catered accom. Basically our needs have been whittled down to: *space for everyone to sleep (own rooms ideal but not always possible) *one open/shared space we can use for critting sessions *somewhere genuinely lovely to visit with walks, scenery and other soul-nourishing things *a kitchen for Dirk (this is recent addition to the list and trust me, it's worth it. If you don't need Dirk you may have other preferences for catering options)
For us the retreat is about sharing the crits but also about catching up and talking writing apart from family and work responsibilities - for some of us it's the one chance to do this in person in a whole year or more, so we concentrate on value. For this reason we often give ourselves more time than we might otherwise need.
We allow one day for every 2-3 manuscripts. Everyone is allotted a time and day (morning, early afternoon, late afternoon) and another member of the group as a moderator. Then we basically divide the weekend up between the crit sessions (which can last anything from 45 minutes to a couple of hours and can be quite intensive) and lots of downtime/relaxation time to balance out the intensity of the crits.
This is not to say that the crit sessions are painful or confrontational, we are very good friends and all stick to the rules of constructive criticism, but they can still be very full on.
Depending on how many days, how many mss and how many crit sessions there are, there is also time for people to write if that's what they want to do, but it's not a structured part of the weekend, or factored into the schedule. I wrote at the last one, but that was because I had a daily wordcount to hit - I wasn't working on the manuscript I had brought to the weekend, but the sequel.
Generally we find it can be of benefit to let crits sink in with some time to decide what changes need to be made (the more people giving feedback, sometimes the more contradictory the feedback can be!) which is one reason we don't have a writing aspect factored in. Also it would mean having to try to get the crits over with early in the weekend instead of spacing them out evenly.
This is the structure that works for us - we've talked dreamily about the idea of a week-long ROR which includes writing time, but few of us are at a place in our lives where that's a practical amount of time to be away from home. Also it works because we come from such disparate corners of Australia and we value time to TALK about writing and our lives above time to type in company with each other.
On the other hand I can see that if say we were all from the same state, we might experiment more with the format. I can see a ROR weekend and say a followup monthly/fortnightly writing session being a fantastic development.
When I opened my emails yesterday to find that Kris had passed away, I sat there whispering, No. No ...
I got to know Kris through the Vision writing group and EnVision, the week long intensive manuscript development workshop that I organised. Kris didn't let his severe handicapped prevent him from dreaming of being a writer and aiming for that goal. I was impressed by his intelligence and determination.
So, when Fantastic Queensland was looking for committee members, I thought of Kris. I approached him explaining that we needed someone with a good head on their shoulders. He grinned and said, 'That's about all I've got.' (He had a very dry sense of humour).
And he came on board, getting involved in the running of FQ's various projects as well as organising the web site. He spent several years as president of Vision writing group and, when the numbers dipped, he approached Marianne and I for tips on how to breathe new life into the group.
He came along to the workshops Marianne and I ran, turned up at launches, joined in the Aurealia Award celebrations and I missed him at this year's awards. So I emailed him, asking how he was. He never let on that he was battling ill health. When ever I posted to the Vision E-list I'd think of Kris, somewhere in the background, watching over us all, guiding the group.
That's why it was such a shock to hear that we'd lost him. Life is not fair, sometimes it is horribly unfair, but we have to battle on with what we have. I'm glad Kris was such an active part of the spec fic world up here in Brisbane. We'll be the poorer without him.
I love to hear about what other writers are using to inspire them visually (and aurally) in particular projects. Jennifer Crusie always creates a collage of inspirations for each book in progress which struck me as a great visual aid to keep you on point. I've never been organised enough to do that, and yet I always get the urge to make a quilt inspired by each book... heh, maybe someday.
I did enjoy Rowena's post on the visual images she used to inspire King Rolen's kin, though. My current project, the Creature Court trilogy I am writing for HarperCollins Voyager, is bursting with visual influences and inspirations, to the point where I am closer than I have ever been to making fabric art using some of the pictures.
The city of Rome is one of my biggest inspirations - it's one of the few genuinely old cities I've ever spent any time in, and having spent a month tramping around it looking at temples and statues for my doctoral thesis, it lodged itself firmly enough in my mind that I was able to transform it into a fantasy city that has weight to it in my head - with a few fairly recognisable landmarks and far too many liberties, using a real place to centre it made me believe in the city of Aufleur far more than any imaginary location I have devised before.
(also setting my books in a single city means I get to indulge in horseless fantasy, my favourite type)
The fashions of the 1920's are one of the most powerful influences - not only because of the look of many of the characters, but also because my heroine is a dressmaker and pretty much sees the world through clothes. The style of the city of Aufleur does not correspond exactly to any aspect of 1920's Europe, America or Australia, but I have tried to use as many evocative elements as I can to create a world that at least indulges in some of the lesser-used historical iconography. I've been using bits and pieces from the 1930's and 40's, Victoriana and Ancient Rome as well, but it's the 1920's that seals the 'look' of the characters to me and I have great hope that the publishers will agree when it comes to cover art time.
(plus, AWESOME FROCKS)
Then there are the creatures - I'm not the world's most enthusiastic animal lover (my daughter's daycare recently took the kids to a pet shop on an excursion and I freaked out she might want a pet, luckily she's robust and held out because um NO) but this whole story was sparked off by a little brown mouse I came upon unexpectedly in my writing room one day (halfway up the printer table leg, looking guilty as hell) and given that the story revolves around oh, shapechangers then it's kind of important that I get to grips with the animalistic side of my characters. I have been collecting old fashioned illustrations of the various animals featured in the books (woodcuts of werewolves are my favourite) and once spent an entire day looking at pictures of, yes, mice. It counts as work, okay!
I don't just use images to spark off inspiration and keep my head firmly in the city of Aufleur, though. I've been using music pretty heavily, collecting a writing soundtrack over the last several years which includes musicals (Moulin Rouge, Cabaret, Chicago), Berlin cabaret music, World War II songs (anything that makes me think of the Blitz is relevant!), and a lot of modern music which just conveys the right feel for characters or scenes.
My play list includes songs ranging from Cody Chestnutt's "Look Good in Leather" and Pony Up's "Dance For Me" to Grace Jones singing "Storm" and the amazing Ute Lemper singing anything she wants to. And um yes, it's getting so every single character has their own individual playlist...
The best benefit for me of using music is I can put on the earbuds and instantly be in the right mindset for my characters. While I love to collect images suitable for Aufleur, it's the music I reach for when I need an inspiration top-up. A year ago, I would have laughed at myself.
Richard Harland's new book WORLDSHAKER is going to be launched soon and it is already getting a really good reaction. I think of it as a very English sort of story. (not meaning that in a bad way, I thoroughly enjoyed the book when we read it in draft form at ROR).
This made me wonder, if there is a quintessential English style of story and a quintessential American style of story, is there a quintessential Australian story style?
You only have to look at Red Dwarf, to see English humour and world view at work. When the Americans tried to make their own version of Red Dwarf, they made Lister good looking. The humour lies in the fact that he can never win Christine Kachanski. Recently, I've been watching the UK series 'Being Human' about a werewolf, a vampire and a ghost living in a share house in Bristol ( I think). It is downbeat and funny, as well as poignant.
I'm worried that, if parallel importation goes ahead, Australians won't get the chance to develop their own quintessential style of story because the Australian publishing industry won't have the luxury of developing new writers and taking risks. You could argue that we should have already developed this. Maybe we have in some areas, I'm thinking of the movies, The Castle and The Dish, both really good movies, both very Australian.
What have you read recently that was quintessentially Australian inthe Spec Fic genre?
With so many editors not accepting anything but agented submissions, it gets hard for a new author to have their work seen. Luckily there are interesting agent blogs around where the aspiring author can do their research.
Here, Jessica from the BookEnds, LLC -- Literary Agency talks about approaching agents and the agent/author relationship.
We’ve often compared the author-agent relationship to a marriage and I don’t think this example is any different. When agreeing to form a partnership both author and agent are taking a leap of faith. You’ve done your research, asked your questions and the only thing left to do is jump in with the faith that the agent you’re jumping in with will follow through on the many promises she’s making. She’ll work hard to sell your book and stick by you through sales or no sales. She’ll be honest and encouraging and she’ll communicate when needed. Most important, she’ll respond to the emails and phone calls you’re making and give feedback on material you’ve sent in a timely manner.
But how do you approach that agent in the first place? This is where the Query Shark dismantles author query letters and tell you what works for them. You can send your latest query letter in and it might get critiqued.
With so much advice, how did authors manage before the internet?
Hi Lynne! Good to hear your thoughts on anthology publication. I think anyone who edits anthologies is the salt of the earth. No, the salt of the salt of the earth! So much hard work to bring other people's stories to general attention, while the anthologist herself fades into the background.
I was especially impressed by your decision to open the anthologies to all-comers - in the full realisation that that would mean a huge amount of time spent reading poor-to-average fiction. What a thing to subject your brain to! But you did it in the hope of finding the rare unexpected gem, the unpublished author who deserved publication, the story that might otherwise lie forever forgotten. There must be a tremendous inner satisfaction in the feeling that, yes, I helped unearth a real talent, I helped create that success. Like making the universe a slightly fairer place - you made it happen!
More power to you, I say! Three cheers, and three hundred more!
Lynne Jamneck is a South African writer, currently living in Wellington, New Zealand. She has published short fiction in various markets, including Jabberwocky Magazine, H.P. Lovecraft's Magazine of Horror, So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction and Spicy Slipstream Stories. For Lethe Press, she edited, selected and introduced the SF anthology, Periphery. She is currently studying toward a degree in English Literature and Religious Studies at the Victoria University of Wellington and writing her first speculative novel. She blogs at http://lynnejamneckdiaries.blogspot.com/
"The Voyage Out" by Gwyneth Jones (Periphery: Erotic Lesbian Futures edited by Lynne Jamneck) has been published in the 26th Year’s Best SF, edited by Gardner Dozois.
Now, cover images—most authors have no or very little control over what actually ends up on the cover of their books. Unless your first name is followed by something like King, or Rowling, the likelihood that you will not have final say over the cover of your book is always going to be there. I made sure to state in my editorial contract that I wanted to be directly involved in this aspect of the anthology. I do believe that a cover can make or break a book. People have short attention spans, and you need to hook them in. The cover is the first thing they see. Plain as that. So hook 'em.
Promoting is another important aspect of the post-publication period. Make sure you announce the release of your title on appropriate listservs and groups where you can connect with other like-minded readers and authors. Social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter can serve very well as promotional tools. And blog, blog, blog, always providing a link to the title listed on a space like Amazon, Barnes and Noble or your publisher for those eager to buy a copy.
Yes, it all sounds pretty technical and like a lot of slogging through massive amounts of words. And it is. But look—you're not going to be doing this sort of thing unless you like reading, right? And you're not going to do it to make money, either. (Trust me, you're not.) Hopefully, you've let yourself in for this little adventure because you're a little weird (at least, according to your "normal" friends) and you get a kick out of seeing thirteen-odd stories find one another in the space of two-hundred pages, the whole thing coming together to say something about that initial spark which set the project in motion originally. That's how I define a highlight. When you finally hold the finished product in your hand and it hits you that an idea in your head has become something physical, something concrete. Periphery ended up being short-listed for both a Lambda and Golden Crown Award this year, which is fantastic, and I think certainly a reflection on how much of a positive experience it was for me. Different editors work in diverse ways. I don't think there is a particular right or wrong way of going about it. As both a writer and an editor, for me personally I want to say something through editing as much as I do through writing. It's only the approach that changes.
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Tansy says: Thanks, Lynne! I'd love to know - since you were involved in choosing the cover - why you went for this piece of art and what it says to you, and about the book it belongs to. Anthologies are more and more becoming the preserve of the small and independent rather than mainstream 'big' presses - can anyone else cite some good examples of cover art matching the anthology to great effect? Or have any other happy/horrific cover art stories?
The ROR group was started in 2001 by Marianne and Rowena.
We meet every year or so to critique our manuscripts. We are united by a passion for the speculative fiction genre and the craft of writing. (And sharing good food and wine doesn't go amiss, either). www.ripping-ozzie-reads.com