Category Archives: Starting a Career

Three’s Company, But Six is a Crowd

Writing critique groups are like blogs. They both tend to start with vows of seriousness and dedication. They launch with vigor and excitement, but eventually slow and become work. Life gets complicated (as it always does) and priorities change. First one deadline is missed. Then two. Then all of them. Most often, people in the group wander away, and unless there is a constant flow of new blood, the collective falls apart. Though plentiful, most fail within a year.

However, decay and disbandment are not inevitable, just common. I’ve contributed to half a dozen blogs or critique groups over the years. Only two have continued to this day. First is the Fictorians. Second is my current critique group, which has been going strong for over two years and has helped us all grow as authors. So, what makes these two groups successful, whereas the others failed?

The key factor, I think, is ensuring the group is the right size for what it is trying to accomplish. Groups that are too small may fail to meet their goals because the work overwhelms the members. There are simply not enough people to carry the load. Another common pitfall that I’ve observed is the tendency of small groups to synchronize into a group think. There needs to be enough diversity of thought and experience to keep things interesting and productive. So why then not take a “the more, the merrier” approach? Wouldn’t a group open to the public be preferable?

Frankly not, in my experience. It’s a matter of the time and reliability of the individuals involved. Nobody’s time is infinite, so any meeting that is too large must inevitably splinter into smaller groups to allow for practical critique. Secondly, large groups inherently diffuse personal responsibility. Why, after all, does any one member need to meet their writing goals for the week or read the other members’ submissions? Surely someone else will do it. Finally, the larger the group, the more likely there will be conflicts of personality that sour the tone of the meetings. Writers put ourselves on display in our fiction. We must trust those we turn to for critique or we will not be open to their help.

Take as an example my first two critique groups. With seven and eight members respectively, reading everyone else’s submissions became a chore and seriously impinged on my writing time. The critique we offered was often superficial and therefore not terribly useful. The second major problem that killed these groups was that we were never able to meet face to face. We tried to use a private forum to bridge the gap, but that medium destroyed accountability and it wasn’t long before people stopped posting.

My current critique group calls ourselves “the League” and consists of three members. Though we may seem too small, our size makes us flexible and familiar. Though we live in different cities, we meet face to face each week via video conferencing. When one of us has something come up on the normal meeting date, we can usually find an alternative time. This maintains accountability, which has been my only reason for making keyboard time some weeks. Because we are friends, we trust and value one another. We understand each other well enough to know what our fellow authors are thinking and can therefore offer deep, constructive criticism. Furthermore, we are comfortable enough with one another to engage in productive conflict, pushing each other to be better.

Also key to the success of the League is that we have been able to adapt the group to our changing needs. We started by performing weekly writing challenges. At that point, we three needed something to get us writing consistently, and it worked. For a time. After a few months, we all grew bored and frustrated, yearning to get to actual fiction. We three are novelists at heart, after all, and 1,000 word challenges weren’t promoting our goals of becoming published authors. So one meeting we discussed the problem and decided to change our focus to be prewriting new books in tandem.

For a while, this vein worked for us. However, we eventually found ourselves bogged down and struggling with making consistent progress. Another discussion led us to take David Farland’s Story Puzzle class as a trio. The class was fantastic, but even better because we took it together.

We all received extremely positive feedback from Dave on our assignments. NOT because we were particularly brilliant, but rather because we discussed his lessons and workshopped the exercises before sending them to him. I firmly believe that we three got more out of the class because we took it with friends.

My critique group has found a size and a strategy that works for us. Though every writing journey is unique, none of us is in it alone. I would highly encourage any aspiring author to find a group of like minds to help them take their craft to the next level. Like writing itself, critique groups require dedication, time, trust, and most of all the ability to grow and change.

New Beginnings from Old Endings

Whenever I begin a new writing project, I know I’m building on what I’ve learned from previous projects. Having written non-fiction for over two decades, and fiction for a few years now, I’ve come to recognize certain patterns in my writing habits that have been formed—both consciously and unconsciously—by my previous efforts. All my new beginnings follow a long chain of old endings.

In simple terms, it’s the learning process. My articles and book chapters, my short stories and novellas, all contained both successes and failures: things that worked, things that didn’t. Yet each one taught me something that I could take into the next project. The failures, if I’m honest, are the better teachers. That’s where the real learning is done. And the failures don’t need to be epic. Simple mistakes, recognized for what they are, show me what to do differently next time.

For example, my first professional fiction sale (a short story to an anthology), contained a fairly subtle yet significant example of floating viewpoint: “head hopping,” as it’s better known (where the point of view suddenly switches from one character to another without any cue to the reader that it’s happening). In my case, I was too inexperienced at the time to recognize what I had done, and it was subtle enough that the editor himself didn’t notice it until his second or third pass. (It was a scene in a séance, wherein I jumped blithely between the main character, a man trying to contact the dead, to the old woman who was leading him though the ritual.)

When the editor caught it and pointed it out to me, I was sufficiently mortified (another classic newbie move—overreaction!). But I also learned why head hopping was a problem, how it can disrupt the flow and pull the reader out of the story. I have been careful not to make the same mistake again. (Don’t misunderstand: many very good authors head hop through their characters all the time, and do it well. But not me, not then.)

The point: it was a learning experience. One that I wouldn’t have made had I not given that project my very best efforts, and made a sale to a good editor who then helped me improve the story. Because even my best at any given time will have shortcomings. Only by pushing myself will I make mistakes I can really learn from them. These are the good mistakes. The “new mistakes,” I now call them, stealing a line from the Shakira Zootopia song “Try Everything.”

Speaking of stealing, the best illustration I know of the process of making these “new mistakes” comes from one of my favorite books, Steal Like an Artist, by Austin Kleon. I think it speaks for itself:

(Image source: tumblr.austinkleon.com/post/102479069106. Note that Kleon himself stole this from Maureen McHugh!)

It’s a great illustration from a great book. Notice, however, that implicit in the “life of a project” is that we must complete our projects. For fiction writers, this is the equivalent of Heinlein’s second rule of writing: finish what you start. That’s the best way to learn. Even the epic fails, the stillborn ones destined for the scrap heap, teach us something … even if it’s just the extent of our current shortcomings.

But finish. Learn what you can. Then start something new.

Starting a new year is a lot like starting a new story. We can look back on the successes and failures of the ones we’ve finished, figure out what we’ve learned, and then begin a new one with a little more confidence.

Here’s to 2017—may it be full of new beginnings built on old endings.

Steve Ruskin has been a university professor, a mountain bike guide, and a number of things in between. In addition to fiction (most recently the sci-fi novella A Deal with the Devil’s Brokerhe has written for academic and popular audiences in publications ranging from the American Journal of Physics to the Rocky Mountain NewsVisit steveruskin.com.

A Change of Perspective, And A Change of Course

When I first started writing it was back in the “good old days”. By that I mean it was about twenty years ago when the only paths to publishing was 1) to get an agent that could get you a good contract with one of the big boys in New York or 2) self-publish through a vanity press (at exorbitant prices) and accept all the shame that went with it.

(Seriously, it was just like this. Except without the nudity…and the rotten fruit.)

Thanks to the indie publishing pioneers that hasn’t been the case for some time but it was hard for me to rid the stigma from my mind. I know. You’d think that the second word of an easier and more profitable path came my way I’d be all over it. Not so. Working at a bookstore for so long pretty much…I hate to use the word indoctrinated but that’s pretty much what it was. When I first started working there I was told by multiple people that self-published books were poorly written books; no self respecting author would ever go that route…etc. Hearing that for a decade, including the first years of the indie-publishing movement, made it impossible for me to see it any other way. It wasn’t until I met and befriended some indie authors, and heard them talk about their successes and struggles that I finally saw how the industry had changed.

Those of you who paid attention to the title have probably figured out that this was my change of perspective. So what was my change of course? Four years ago I was still dead set on getting an agent. Now? I have no intention of querying a single one. Why? Because I’m self-publishing my first novel through the company that I will found. Yeah, that’s quite the 180 but I feel good about it. I feel that this is the right path; and thanks to my indie friends, I have a really good idea of what I need to do. Despite the stress I’m as calm and composed as Cersei before she dropped the smock and walked the walk. Granted that means that at some point I’ll be cold and shaking, wondering “why did I ever think this was a good idea” and that’s okay. It’s all going to be great!

First steps

Beginnings are a mix of excitement and fear for me. The beginning of something is the point where all the options are open and all the possibilities still on the table. New book, new house, new job. Whatever the ‘new’ thing is, that first moment is filled with options. Then you start making choices, and with each choice you set yourself down a path. Doors open, doors close. The wide open space becomes more linear.

As they say, watch that first step- -it’s a doozy.

I find myself at several of those first steps as we enter 2017, each of them filled with that same mixture I described above. For starters, I am having my work professionally edited for the first time. I am about three years into writing and have submitted a few short stories to magazines but this is the first time I have let a professional see my novel length work. We’re two weeks into the manuscript being in his hands and he hasn’t sent me that email I always imagine at 3am – you know the one that says “Dave, you really shouldn’t be doing this.” When the sun’s up I know that email is not coming, but 3am is a different story.

Never having been through this before, it will be opening a world of new possibilities when I double click that attachment and open up his edits. I’m sure my ego will take a few hits during the process, but I’m also sure there’s opportunity there for me to become a much better writer. Within a few weeks I’ll have his edits back and I will be starting another new beginning: my first real novel revision.

In the interim, I’m standing at another first step: the start of a new story. I need to keep working as there is no value in me twiddling my thumbs while waiting for those edits to come back. Thus I’m starting my prep work on a new novel in a new world, thinking about all those blank spaces and faces that will take shape in the weeks to come. That’s always a very fun part of the process for me.

The most important threshold I’m crossing though is one of intent. Prior to this year, the focus of my work was primarily about building my skills as a writer. I chose projects more for the growth opportunities they afforded than any publishing potential they might have. I was looking for exercises and challenges, ways that I could find my voice and build my writer’s muscles. In short, I’ve been working out.

This year is about putting those muscles to work. My primary goal for the next twelve months is to be working on stories that I intend to publish in some way. I also now will be choosing my projects based on how likely they are to achieve that goal for me. For example, the more traditional fantasy novel might get the nod over that more experimental novella I’ve been tinkering with. I still won’t work on anything that doesn’t excite me but as I have an embarrassment of riches where story ideas are concerned, it’s now important I choose the ones that are the best use of my time.

What have I learned from this reflection of beginnings? I suppose that they are the thresholds we cross that unlock the opportunities for us in the future. You have to start with that blank page or first day of the new project if you are ever to reach the end, when all the choices have been made and questions have been answered.

Then you begin again.

See you next time!