Thursday, April 26, 2012

Leaving the Cocoon

larva noun: the active immature form of an insect, esp. one that differs greatly from the adult and forms the stage between egg and pupa

pupa: an insect in its inactive immature form between larva and adult

cocoon noun: 1) a silky case spun by the larvae of many insects for protection as pupae; 2) a similar structure made by other animals; 3) a covering that prevents the corrosion of metal equipment; 4) something that envelops or surrounds, esp. in a protective or comforting way

If we consider the idea for a novel as larva and the writing of it as pupa, I believe that for most writers we can extend the analogy to include the cocoon.

For most of us, it's a solitary endeavor. The outside world fades into the background as we enter the fictional universe of our own devising and experience the story through the characters. We may struggle, but the conflict is contained within the cocoon until that magic day arrives when it's done.

We stare at the blinking insertion point and realize that it's no longer demanding the next letter, word, sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter. So, is it ready for prime time? And for an indie writer, that means right now, because the process of creating the product is streamlined to the point that it's almost too easy.

And here, we abandon the analogy with the realization that what exists within the cocoon is not an adult, but something far less complete in terms of form and function. There's work left to do, and we have the choice of remaining within the isolated world at our writing desks or venturing into the threatening environment of a critique group.

I submit that the decision to participate is absolutely essential for most writers, and that a novel will seldom, if ever, reach its full potential without accepting the necessity to challenge ourselves by seeking the comments of other writers. For me, writing and revising a novel within the group experience has been well worth the commitment of time and effort required. Here are some observations from many years at the roundtable.

Groups have a communal personality. Like any social entity, they change over time.

Egos have to be left at home. Once a writer begins taking comments personally, benefit suffers.

Writers need a group compatible with their personality and interests. Depending on where you live, this can be impossible or relatively easy. No groups close by? Start one, and remember that in the world of the Internet, you don't have to write in a vacuum.

Roundtable discussions appear at first glance to be the heart of any group, when in reality the outside associations that develop provide the most benefit. Identifying a few writers in a larger group as critique buddies with whom you can trade material on a regular basis is an effective way to be reviewed more frequently.

Participation requires commitment to the idea that each of us learns by acting both as reviewers and being reviewed, because you will spend more time evaluating other writers' material than vice versa. In my experience, the benefits of reviewing flow from two distinctly different aspects of the roundtable.

First, everyone at the table has read the same submission. In almost every meeting, one or more members will comment on something I didn't notice. Each of these tidbits can become part of my craft, and the lessons learned have generally proven to be at least as valuable as being critiqued.

Second, reviewing manuscripts outside my personal reading and writing interests forces me out of my comfort zone. Unfamiliarity with the content and unique structural elements of another genre is no excuse for not doing my best to offer something worthy of another writer's consideration.

Roundtable comments fall into three basic categories:
  • Right on, you know it the minute you hear/read it.
  • Way off, you toss it out as being so far off base that it isn't worth considering
  •  In the middle somewhere, you take time to let it percolate, and over time determine how much of it you will incorporate. 
Roundtable comments also vary by how often you hear them:
  • Some are offered only once, receive no support from other members of the group, and are often the ones easiest to reject.
  • But one member can also see something no one else does, and it becomes an item you immediately accept as right on because it needs no supporting opinion.
  • Unanimous comments are hard to reject because if the group is good enough to stay with, widely held opinions carry the weight of authority that you have already accepted as beneficial by participating.
In summary:
  • Some writers are totally incompatible with any group.
  • No group is compatible with all writers who choose to participate in one.
  • Mutual-admiration-society (fluff) groups are worthless.
  • If you choose to participate, leave your ego at home, wear your thick skin to meetings, stick with it long enough to develop a comment filter that works for you, and do your best to give and receive with equal dedication to the collaborative effort.

 Most of you will be glad you did.

 Tosh McIntosh is the author of Pilot Error and the upcoming Wings on my Words: Tales from the Writer's Desk, Words on My Wing: Tales from the Cockpit, and Red Line, second in the Pilot Error series.