Being part of an on-line writing group for several years has provided many benefits. But with the positives come a few negatives.
Over a period of time, one learns to recognize each reader’s style of critiquing and approach to writing fiction/non-fiction. I’ve discovered that, usually, all of our critiques collectively add up to one excellent response. Each person brings a different angle, a new take on the material. Some focus on character development more than story arc. Others seek deeper meanings in the piece and how they are revealed by imagery, metaphor, etc. And there’s usually someone who is good with punctuation or grammar or style. Rarely are comments duplicated, and, if they are, then they add weight to whatever is being discussed. So while responses can be predictable at times, they also are dependable.
I’m always astonished by the ways in which these multiple readings push me into deepening my revision process. I don’t submit anything that hasn’t gone through multiple (and I mean MULTIPLE) revisions. By the time the piece reaches my readers, it has been examined from every angle and I can’t find anything more to change. It’s a surprise, then, when the comments start dribbling in, and I learn all of the things I’ve missed or overlooked in my own editing process. Without those extra eyes and minds, my work would remain incomplete rather than being enriched by the perspectives these readers bring.
Okay, the Negatives:
Some readers are not sophisticated in their literary knowledge. Therefore, they often don’t get it if the writer is experimenting, trying out new approaches to the genre. I’ve learned to recognize who these individuals are in my group and to read their comments discriminately, recognizing their limitations.
In a similar vein, most of the critiquers have been through a writing program and bring some of the problematic, standardized workshop advice that can limit rather than liberate a story. Show and don’t tell is one approach. In certain instances, it’s valid and helpful counsel. But at its worst, it becomes a blanket response to all writing, the reader not taking into account when the narrative is more attuned to the character’s inner state than what is happening externally. Creating “scenes” also can fall into this trap. Sometimes a scene can vitalize a fading passage and dramatize what’s happening, bringing conflict and tension into the piece. Other times, it’s not appropriate.
The greatest negative for me is when a writer sends off a really early draft that he/she hasn’t taken the time to hone him/herself. It’s essentially a freewrite containing all of the original grammar and punctuation errors, the assumption being that the messier the better—the more “emotional” or “authentic.” It’s not. It’s simply a very early draft that is difficult to read because of all the surface errors. Then I feel the writer is putting the responsibility on me to rescue this effort and do the actual writing. I don’t want to deal with early drafts because they are usually in the exploratory stage and haven’t really congealed yet. The writer hasn’t discovered the heart of the story and is relying on his/her readers to do this hard work for him/her. I resent being used in this way. But I also feel that responding too soon to an exploratory draft inhibits the writing itself, shutting down rather than opening up possibilities.
The positives clearly outweigh the negatives. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have remained with this group for so long. Not only do I learn from the responses to my own submissions, but I also get insight by reading comments on other members’ work.
Pen-L Press will be publishing my novel Fling in 2015. A wildly comic romp on mothers, daughters, art, and death, the book should appeal to a broad range of readers. While the main characters are middle-aged and older, their zest for life would draw readers of all ages, male or female, attracting the youthful adventurer in most people. Though women may identify more readily with Feather and Bubbles’ daughter and mother struggles, the heart of the book is how they approach their aging selves and are open to new experiences. Since art and imagination are key to this narrative, artists of all ages would find something to enjoy. And because the book crosses many borders (Scotland, Canada, the U.S., and Mexico), it also can’t be limited to a specific age group, social class, gender, or region.
My first fan letter for Fling came from an 80 year-old woman who lives in the tiny village of Christina Lake, B.C. My son, who also lives there, had given her my manuscript to read. She said, “I just wanted to express to you how very much I enjoyed your writing. I started it and didn’t stop till I had read it all. I very much like your style and your subtle humor. Thank you for a most enjoyable read. I can’t understand why it hasn’t been scooped up by some publisher. But I know that it will be. In my estimation I know that it is excellent literary work. I am a voracious reader and have been since grade 4. I remember my first book was Tom Sawyer and I have never stopped since then. I go through 4 to 5 books a week. We are so fortunate here at the Lake now. The Library staff in Grand Forks come out here every Wednesday. I have become very fond of the young lady who comes out. She provides me with all the award winning books and orders others for me. Again I want to express to you how very much I enjoyed your manuscript. Have patience my dear….it will be published to wide acclaim I am so sure.” —Joan Fornelli.
Here is a synopsis:
Feather, an aging hippie, returns to her Calgary home to help her mother, Bubbles, celebrate her 90th birthday. Bubbles has received mail from the dead letter office in Mexico City, asking her to pick up her mother’s ashes, left there seventy years earlier and only now surfacing. Bubbles’ mother, Scottish by birth, had died in Mexico in the late 1920s after taking off with a married man and abandoning her husband and kids.
A woman with a mission, and still vigorous, Bubbles convinces a reluctant Feather to take her to Mexico so she can recover the ashes and give her mother a proper burial. Both women have recently shed husbands and have a secondary agenda: they’d like a little action. And they get it.
Alternating narratives weave together Feather and Bubbles’ odyssey with their colorful Scottish ancestors, creating a family tapestry. The “now” thread presents the two women as they travel south from Canada to San Francisco and then Mexico, covering a span of about six months. “Now” and “then” merge in Mexico when Bubbles’ long-dead mother, grandmother, and grandfather turn up, enlivening the narrative with their antics.
In Mexico, the land where reality and magic co-exist, Feather gets a new sense of her mother. The Indian villagers mistake Bubbles for a well-known rain goddess, praying for her to bring rain so their land will thrive again. Feather, who’s been seeking “The Goddess” for years, eventually realizes what she’s overlooked.
Meanwhile, Bubbles’ quest for her mother’s ashes (and a new man) has increased her zest for life. A shrewd business woman (she’s raised chickens, sold her crafts, taken in bizarre boarders, and has a sure-fire system for winning at bingo and lotteries), she’s certain she’s found the fountain of youth at a mineral springs outside San Miguel de Allende; she’s determined to bottle the water and sell it.
But gambling is her first love, and unlike most women her age, fun-loving Bubbles takes risks, believing she’s immortal. Unlike her daughter, Bubbles doesn’t hold back in any way, eating heartily, lusting after strangers, her youthful spirit and innocence convincing readers that they’ve found the fountain of youth themselves in this character. At ninety, she comes into her own, coming to age, proving it’s never too late to fulfill one’s dreams.
Fling, a meditation on death, mothers and daughters, and art, suggests that the fountain of youth is the imagination, and this is what they all discover in Mexico. It’s what Bubbles wants to bottle, but she doesn’t need to. She embodies it. The whole family does.