If you'd made it to CapClave, you would know what AQATWA means. Also, you'd have seen John Scalzi and Nick Mamatas, who were great GOHs. Sorry we missed you, wodcdre.
So, for you AQ fans, here's the big news: I have started writing book five. I've now written about 4200 words. This includes the first chapter, and a prologue. Prologues are always iffy things. I may or may not include it in the final draft. I am thinking about posting it here as a teaser or an outtake. I'll revisit that once I've gotten further into the novel and have a more solid idea of where it's going and how well the prologue fits into it.
Right now, my outline is still a collection of things I want to happen and a final outcome, without a real coherent narrative to connect it all together. Writing the prologue and the first chapter were easy, because I had those entire scenes already played out in my head. The next chapter or two will probably be pretty easy too, because I also know what's going to happen there. After that, hopefully I will have figured out how to get where I want to go next.
AQATWA will be similar in structure to previous Alexandra Quick novels in that I intend for it to take place over a period of about a year. However, in other respects it will be quite a departure, as probably very little of it will be taking place at Charmbridge Academy.
Anyway, after spending the last few months obsessed with my OF novel, it's kind of nice to "relax" back into fan fiction, where although I still hold myself to a high standard, I am not so worried about whether or not I have an audience and whether anyone will ever read what I'm writing.
So how's that original fiction going?
My SF novel is more or less complete, at about 90K words. And I am at the tweaking and (relatively) minor revising stage. I do not think I am going to be making any large structural changes or adding or removing large chunks at this point. My ability to read and reread a chapter and edit and edit and edit and edit again is inexhaustible. No matter how many times I look at a paragraph, I can think of a new way to improve it. So can critiquers (see below). So while I'm still tweaking a bit, and I still have a few people reading the entire draft, I am at this point basically waiting for more comments, then opening the manuscript and making changes if I think the suggestions are good ones, but I am not doing additional work on my own.
I'm going to let it sit for a couple of months, collect as much feedback as I can get in that time, then reread it and see if I see anything differently. This means one more round of revising. And then, hands off, start querying. We shall see how that goes.
I have more OF novel ideas that I want to work on. So my medium-term writing plans are to finish AQATWA, then start on another OF novel.
So, I promised to write at more length about critique groups. I have now participated in several online sites to get critiques of my novel by impartial third parties.
I've never done a writing workshop or a face-to-face writers' group. A lot of people like these, and I've thought about trying to find one in my area. The problem is, they seem geared toward people who are constantly writing and always have new stuff to show and get critiqued. I am pretty much only ever working on one novel at a time, whether it's fan fiction or original fiction. And I always write my entire novel before I start showing it to beta-readers, so the idea of passing around a rough draft of a chapter of a book I haven't even finished just does not make sense to me, though apparently that works for other people.
So, all of my experiences are online, which has its own advantages and disadvantages.
How it works
The basic mechanics of all the critique groups available online are pretty similar. Basically, you are expected to actively critique other stories in exchange for having your story critiqued. There is usually some sort of mechanism for regulating the quid pro quo: you are allowed to submit a piece for critique for every X critiques you write, etc. They try to regulate people who game the system (e.g., writing short, generic "critiques" that don't really say anything useful in order to get their own pieces up). It's not always perfect, but generally you get what you put into it. Some people find regular critique partners who exchange their entire manuscripts, others just keep putting individual chapters up and taking whatever comments they get from whoever chooses to read it.
Usually the sites host a combination of short stories and entire novels. Getting a novel critiqued is a bit more of a challenge. You can post a chapter at a time and get a lot of useful feedback that way, but that's at a fine-grained level. A really thorough critique of a novel requires that someone actually read the entire novel, and obviously, it's harder to find people who will make that kind of investment.
For example, comments like "This doesn't make sense" or "I think this should be explained in more detail" or "This scene seems unnecessary" may or may not be valid based on a reading of a chapter in isolation. Something might make perfect sense three chapters later. A scene that foreshadows something that happens at the end of the book may seem pointless if you read it by itself. Getting comments like this requires trying to figure out if it really is something that is broken right there in that chapter, or something that the critiquer couldn't see because they didn't read through to the end. Likewise, when you are reading one chapter from a novel, it takes some skill and guesswork to comment on whether something that seemed unclear or pointless to you might make more sense if you read the whole book.
The fan fiction mindset
Getting writing that you want to publish critiqued is quite different from getting beta-readers for fan fiction. Usually your fanfic beta-readers already like your work and are invested in what you are writing. That doesn't prevent them from being critical and nitpicky (thank you, tealterror0 and swissmarg!), but there is a big difference between someone who is predisposed to liking what you wrote and wanting to help you make it better, and someone who is going to tell you flat-out whether what you wrote is something they'd care to read in an actual book. Likewise, the culture of fan fiction is different: "concrit" is sometimes controversial. There are authors who genuinely welcome it (like me), there are many other authors who say they welcome it but become quite upset if they actually get non-positive comments, and then there are authors who do not want concrit at all and consider any negative comments to be rude. (Which is fair enough if you are writing purely for your own enjoyment and posting it to your own journal for your fans, but not really appropriate, IMO, if you're posting it on a public site where feedback is actively encouraged.)
In fan fiction, reviews are, for the most part, "rewards" for the author, a sort of coin you give in appreciation. This doesn't preclude reviews from being negative, sometimes even nasty, but those are the exception to the rule.
I have seen a bit of the fan fiction mindset leak into public critique sites for fiction writers. Not all fan fiction writers have pro ambitions, and not all aspiring pro authors have written fan fiction, but there's a large overlap, so a lot of the writers you see submitting and critiquing on crit groups are (a) young, and (b) from a fan fiction background. They are sometimes quite shocked when they are used to the easy praise that comes from writing fanfic and suddenly they're getting comments on writing that has never been held up to a professional standard, from people whose intent is not to thank them for sharing their writing.
Now, it should be noted that most critique groups do have rules defining what constructive criticism means. You are generally expected to be civil and keep in mind that the intent is to help the author, so just saying "This sucks, learn to use a spellchecker" is not helpful (even if it's true). Sites vary in their tolerance of "harsh" critiques, but because people vary in the thickness of their skins and their willingness to hear criticism, you are usually encouraged (or required) to couch everything in terms of your reaction to the piece (i.e., use lots of "in my opinion" and "I feel that....", etc.) and avoid making absolute statements like "This doesn't work" or "This will get your submission rejected because an agent will stop reading right here."
Even within these constraints, some people are harsher than others. I tend toward the harsh end of the scale, though I do try to use the "shit sandwich" approach (i.e., tell them something nice about their piece, even if all you can say is something very vague like "You have a very interesting premise"), followed by the gut-ripping evisceration, followed by something nice (like "I think if you work on your grammatical issues, this could be a very fun story to read").
Most of the critiques I got have been quite constructive, and usually useful. I did find, though, that there is a certain type of critiquer who reciprocates in kind, meaning if you write a negative critique of their work, they will write a negative critique of yours, and if you write a positive critique of their work, they write a very positive critique of yours. Needless to say, this isn't very helpful when you are trying to figure out how honest and objective their comments are.
Besides my encounter with the special snowflake I referred to earlier, I had another critiquer who was very polite and outwardly encouraging (in a "constructively critical") kind of way, but I began to realize that she was reviewing me and only me, after I'd written a rather negative critique of one of her chapters, and her critiques were always bubbly and high-minded statements that I was absolutely not ready for publication and I haven't found my voice yet and I have just started on my writing journey and I should read more widely and all the other people who are telling me that they really liked my writing are just impressed by my technical command of grammar and punctuation and missing how sterile and uninteresting and unoriginal my story is blah blah blah...
And, since I don't want to be that Special Snowflake author who only listens to the positive comments, I would read everything she wrote and consider it very seriously and then try to figure out if she was right and being more objective and gimlet-eyed than the people who had more positive things to say, or if my suspicion that she was being passive-aggressive was closer to the mark. I was able to glean some useful information from her critiques, as she did point out a few concrete issues that, on consideration, I decided were valid. But I had to ultimately shrug off the rest of what she said, since if I were to take everything she said at face value, I would have to scrap my manuscript and start over (pretty much what she was suggesting). Time will tell if she was right or not.
Ask three critiquers, get five opinions
A good rule of thumb when listening to critiques is that one person saying "I don't like this" is just an opinion, two people saying the same thing means you probably have a problem, three people means there is definitely something wrong, even if you can't see it.
Trying to be too open to critiques is as bad as closing your mind to them. It can be easy to fall into the trap of letting every new critique send you scrambling to that chapter to try to "fix" what's wrong. Many writers end up caught in a perpetual loop of writing and rewriting in a futile attempt to satisfy every single critiquer, when sometimes you get directly contradictory critiques. Being on several sites gave me more practice learning to sort out what rang true for me and what I could probably chalk up to that critiquer's tastes, which might be different from mine. Sometimes one person would comment on a particular sentence and I'd think, "Yes, he's right" and immediately change it, and other times I'd go "WTF? You want me to do what?"
I had scenes that one person thought were overwritten, and another person thought needed more expansion. One person told me they thought a character was unnecessary in a scene, another wanted to see more of that character. One person would love a particular line, another suggested I delete it.
Some of my regular critiquers send me copious notes on suggested edits. Some are great, some I just say "Nah" to. I always feel a little guilty, like I hope they don't read the final draft and see all the advice I ignored and think that I didn't value their opinions. I have one critiquer who has very definite opinions not just on how certain characters should behave, but on how I should construct my paragraphs. I have resigned myself to the fact that this person will give me a lot of useful observations, along with repeated insistence that I fix certain "flaws" that I don't think are flaws. Another person always wants me to expand on the characters' thoughts and explain their motivations, in ways that to me read like way too much internal monologue and telling rather than showing.
Then there are the critiques that say "I don't remember who this person is, you should give us a reminder," when that person was introduced three paragraphs earlier, or who ask "Wait, what is happening here, I don't understand what's going on?" and I read and reread and think "But... but... it's right there!"
It's as hard to fight the impulse to think "What, are you not paying attention?" as it is to fight the assumption that every person who says they don't understand something means that you need to rewrite it so they don't miss it.
And every time I choose not to take a critiquer's advice, I worry that they're right and I'm wrong and the manuscript will suffer for it.
The most helpful critiques come from people who read your entire manuscript. And those, as I said, are the hardest to find. (I have so far had two people read my entire novel, and two others who are in the process of reading and commenting on it.) Finding good critiquers who are perceptive and intelligent and strike just the right balance of constructive criticism and not hating your work? Gold. (Because, honestly, if someone just outright hates what you write - and some will - even if they are intelligent and trying to be helpful, there is only so much useful advice you can get from someone for whom no amount of rewriting would make them like your work.)
Anyway, I am still getting a trickle of comments from individual critiquers, but I have mostly let the novel settle into its semi-final form. Time to let it lay fallow and work on AQATWA.