Why Your Critique Group Can't Help With Your Novel's Biggest Problem
Anne R. Allen
I was contacted recently by a newbie writer who said he'd polished every scene in his WIP many times—and his critique group said it was great and ready to go—but he still had the feeling something was wrong.
I certainly could relate. I spent nearly a decade polishing scenes in my first novel—which I later realized was unpublishable.
Because what I'd written wasn't a novel. It was a series of episodes. Unfortunately, a lot of us tend to do this when we're starting out.
This is especially likely if you edit with the help of a critique group, where we present our work in short bits. A group is great for polishing your scenes, but not your novel's structure.
And those of us who grew up in the early television era—before the days of full-season story arcs—may be even more susceptible to the problem.
So I told my newbie friend it helps to ask yourself a few questions if your WIP doesn't seem "quite right".
1) Does the plot build from one inciting incident to an inevitable climax?
Your hero can't just slay a new dragon in each chapter. He needs to live in constant danger from the Big Momma Dragon whose loot he stole in order to save the princess who is being held captive in the far-away tower of doom.
2) Can any scene be removed without affecting that climax?
If your hero stops on the way for a great comic relief scene in a tavern with a bunch of drunken Orcs, he can't just observe how funny they are. He needs to be in danger from the dragon perched on the roof, while he's trying to steal back the dragon-loot the Orcs stole in the last chapter.
Yeah, I know that's your critique group's favorite chapter, but if it's not contributing to the plot, it's got to go.
3) Do you have an antagonist?
It's amazing how many first novelists leave this bit out. Those serially-slain dragons won't cut it. You've got to have that one Big Momma Dragon who thwarts our hero for the whole book. The "Big Momma" doesn't have to be a person or a monster. It can be a political system, an addiction, or even a weather pattern—as in "the Perfect Storm." What's important is that it keeps up the antagonism for the whole book.
You need a Big Momma Dragon who won't let up and can't be slain by ordinary means. And gets meaner and more dangerous as her little dragons get vanquished.
Some of you may say, "oh, but my main character is the antagonist: he's his own worst enemy". That means you have a literary novel, so make sure the prose is Pulitzer Prize-worthy gorgeous.
4) Do you have one over-arching plot that drives the story forward?
Some new novelists will discover what they've written is more like an outline for a book series than a single novel. If you find that the problem presented in chapter one gets solved by chapter 10, and then a new problem is dealt with in the next ten chapters, maybe you've got the bones of a series, and what you need is to flesh out chapters 1-10 with more character development or maybe a subplot, and voilà! You've got the first book in a series. Congratulations!
Obviously, it helps if you start the novel with some of the above things in mind before you begin, but even if you don't, you can often see a structure problem if you step away from the manuscript and re-examine it later with fresh eyeballs.
Here's what I advised my friend.
Here's what I advised my friend.
Put the book in a drawer and walk away. Close the file and don't look at it for two months. Go read a book in your genre. Then read another. Then read some books on story structure.
Robert McKee's STORY--although it specifically addresses screenplays--is the structure Bible. A more contemporary book on screenwriting that can also help the novelist is Save the Cat. An oldie but goodie is James N. Frey's HOW TO WRITE A DAMN GOOD NOVEL.
Then start a new book or story. Do not open that file for the whole two months.
When you get back to that old WIP, ask yourself those questions again, and I'll bet you'll see a solution.
No Place Like Home
A Camilla Randall Mystery
The uber-rich editor of Home decorating magazine loses everything, including her Ponzi-schemer husband, when their luxury wine-country home mysteriously goes up in flames. But that's just the beginning of Doria's problems.
Homeless, destitute, presumed dead and branded a criminal, the once-proud Doria has a crash course in how the other half lives.
Meanwhile, reluctant sleuth Camilla Randall is facing homelessness and destitution too, as Doria's husband's schemes unravel and take down innocent bystanders along the way.
When the mysterious Mr X. turns up at Camilla's bookstore expressing concern for the local homeless, Camilla is smitten. By now one might think once smitten, twice shy, but for Camilla, the search for love is a constant triumph of hope over experience.
As ever, Anne R. Allen weaves a unique blend of crazy characters [Mistress Nightshade, anybody?], crazy situations [would you believe a Colombian drugs cartel?] and laugh-out-loud one-liners that all somehow come together and make perfect sense at the end.
Oh, and did we mention the Wizard of Oz?
|Author Anne Allen|
SHERWOOD, LTD, currently free on SW and Kobo, is inspired by Anne's own mis-adventures with her first publishers.
Anne lives on the beautiful Central Coast of CA, near San Luis Obispo—the town Oprah called the "happiest town in the US." In a former life, she was an actress, stage director and the artistic director of the Patio Playhouse in Escondido, CA.