Well, I’m a software engineer by day, father and husband by night, and occasionally I write stories. I’d been a pretty serious writer as a kid, but sorta fell out of it in college as life got in the way. Then, just a few years before my daughter was born, I guess the bug bit me and I got serious again. I used to attend a face-to-face writer’s group in high school, but didn’t think I had time to commit to such a thing anymore … but there was this newfangled thing called the Internet, and I thought, “Well, I wonder if there are any literary-minded people on there?”
So I went looking, and what do you know! I joined a few writing groups on Yahoo, and that was ultimately where I ran across Mark. I think he had joined other groups in a fishing expedition to find members for his own, and I followed him over to critical_writing.
That was by far the best critique group I’d ever come across on the Internet. In the years I spent there, I think I grew more as a writer than at any time since. And I got to read some amazing work by some amazing people.
How did you find Mark’s writing initially? Any favourites?
The first piece of Mark’s I ever read was “During the Dance.” It’s one of those pieces that, if you haven’t read it, you should. The thing that struck me immediately was how passionate and memorable it was.
One of the best things about sharing writing on the Internet, I’ve found, is that you come across some real gems now and again. It’s like finding the perfect book on the shelf of an old second-hand bookstore, except better, since you realize, as you’re reading, that you may well be among only a handful of people who have ever experienced this particular story. There have been a few others.
I recall with particular fondness a story I ran across on Critters about the dead coming back to “life” as plants in a garden. Grandma Rose pushes back up through the ground one spring just long enough to seduce her son-in-law in a quietly serene and vegetative way. (If you’re out there and you recognize this piece, or you’re the author, please let me know — I’d love to find out what became of it. It was such a perfect piece!)
I also remember a piece on Mark’s crit group about a portable breathalyzer and the terrible shenanigans that ensued when a bunch of party-goers got too wound up in “testing” themselves and their ability to tolerate alcohol. It was one of those pieces that, at first blush, sort of seemed terrible in a weirdly alluring way, and I’ve never been able to get it out of my head since. I hope that piece found a good home, too.
Then there was “During the Dance.” This is one of those rare pieces that I discovered on a crit group that I DO know where it ended up, and now I can point at it for friends and family and tell them, “This! Read this! It will change your life! And then buy everything else this guy has written while you’re at it….”
What did you think when you first read Prince of Thorns?
I read PoT in what you might call its pre-manuscript stage as a series of posts on critical_writing. It’s one of the first long-pieces I’ve ever stuck through on a critique group. It became very, very hard to critique after a while, because it sucked me in. I’d try to stop myself from reading ahead so as to give Mark my cold impressions, but his writing has a way of pulling you along.
I wouldn’t say that PoT is Mark’s best work. I think I tend to prefer his short work for its elegant simplicity, though I do have to say he’s done some extraordinary things in King and Emperor (which may have something to do with how he’s “borrowed” material for those novels from some of his earlier short work. Really … if you’ve never read Mark’s short work, you’re short-changing yourself!)
What PoT had going for it, though, was that it was different, it was raw, and it was genuine. It has a lot of Mark behind it. Not in the character of Jorg (though Mark had been known to swing his moderator axe with reckless abandon in keeping his critique group troll free) but in the overall tone and mood of the story. The Broken Empire has a depth to it that seemed unique among the other long works I’d seen from Mark on his crit group.
How does a critic group work?
Anywhere from well to poorly, depending on the group dynamic.
The main thing about a critique group is that it’s generally composed of a bunch of egos who want to hear how good their writing is. It’s herding cats to get them to say anything good about anyone else’s stuff, let alone actually read it. And a lot of critique groups fall into the trap of letting this kind of ego-centrism slide. People offer up only minimal efforts toward helping others. They blow smoke and issue praise for unpraiseworthy things. You go into it hoping for something edifying and fulfilling, and come out feeling strangely dirty.
It’s really hard to get a critique group to work *right,* and I think it took a personality like Mark to make critical_writing to work as well as it did. It takes merciless enforcement of participation and reciprocation rules. You need someone no-nonsense to ensure that people are giving as well as they get. And it also takes a membership with at least a handful of people who are willing to dedicate themselves to making things work.
I’d been in a lot of crappy crit groups before I found Mark’s. And, to be fair, maybe this is mostly just me. The thing I was looking for is something I don’t suspect most people are looking for. Some people really do just want to be affirmed, or to affirm others unconditionally, or to talk about writing and reading in a low-pressure, high-affirmation environment. I wanted something more workshop-y. I wanted someone to tell me exactly how and why my writing sucked, and how I could make it better. Mark and the folks at critical_writing did that for me, and gave me a place where it was okay for me to do the same to others. We taught each other. We gave each other honest, unflinching opinions.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that most, if not all of the people I remember the most from that group have gone on to sell their work, at least in small markets. It’s absolutely no surprise to me that Mark has become as successful as he has. I don’t know anyone who deserves it more.
How can people benefit from joining one?
See above re: honest and constructive criticism. That alone is worth the price of admission. But I think the real value in having your work honestly and (let’s face it) brutally critiqued is that it prepares you for the experience of actually trying to sell your work, and the inevitable rejection you’ll encounter. Writers have to have thick skins, as editors have notoriously fickle tastes and sharp tongues.
So in addition to just honing the craft of writing through hearing what does and doesn’t work, you learn how to take criticism and channel it into self-improvement.
The second highly-underrated thing a critique group will teach you is how to read a piece critically and identify the things it does right and the things it does wrong. This is something I think a lot of people who first join crit groups undervalue severely. I know that I grew more as a writer not by being critiqued, but by critiquing others. By really thinking deeply about my reactions to another writer’s piece, I learned how to anticipate others’ reactions to my own.
They say to write, you must read … but it goes deeper than that. To write well, you must read critically.
Any advice you can give to aspiring writers?
Read critically. Think about why stories do and don’t work for you. Think about what makes them memorable. Think about things like hooks and tension first.
Too many new writers like to take their time setting the scene, establishing the plot, building the world, etc. They point to their favorite authors and say, “Well, this guy is famous, and this is how he writes, with 6000 pages worth of description about this character’s collection of hats, and what he had for breakfast, and what the balls of lint under his bed look like….”
What they overlook is that this is the kind of thing a writer writes *after* he is famous. This is what she writes after she has legions of fans clamoring for more of what they already love. This is the relationship between writer and reader in full bloom … but focusing on this exclusively misses the entire stage of wooing that comes before. You have to fall in love before you can get married, and this is as true in writing as it is in divorce proceedings.
Anyway … consider Prince of Thorns as it relates to its successors in terms of length. It’s a pretty slim book. Now look at early GRRM novels versus his latest unwieldy epic. Look at early Heinlein and Asimov versus their later stuff. Once you’re established, you can get away with a lot. You stop having editors tell you “cut this and cut that … nobody will ever want to read about all your character’s hats!” These are the kinds of things critique groups will tell you, too, incidentally. “I got bored here … you should cut all of this up until about page 100. That’s where the story starts getting good.”
This is what you need to do as a new author. You need to sell your work in its leanest, sexiest form. You need to buy it a gym membership, pluck its eyebrows, have it watch its diet, comb its hair, shower daily and avoid Axe products. Once you make your breakthrough sale and the honeymoon period is over, you can start letting the substance of your work hang out more.
Having run an online magazine with a huge slush pile – do you feel that reading large numbers of such short stories changes your tastes, possibly putting them at odds with those of most readers who read far less short fiction (which has been filtered for quality)?
I’ve always loved short fiction. I read a lot of “Best Of” anthologies. My experience of reading short fiction on critique groups was sort of enlightening, in that I found, as described above, a lot of really memorable works that for some reason couldn’t seem to find the light of day. There is a lot of really good short fiction out there, unpublished. There’s some bad fiction, too. There’s mediocre fiction, but, really, I think the general level of quality would surprise most readers. Which is why I went into my (admittedly short-lived) publication project. I wanted to do something to get more of that good fiction out into the light of day.
Reading slush does change you a little bit in that it makes you rather jaded and quick to judge. You start seeing patterns in things that signal to you whether this is or isn’t the kind of piece you’re likely to enjoy. Under deadline pressure, this becomes pernicious. You maybe start to judge too quickly, and sometimes you miss the clever pieces that set up certain patterns early with the intent of subverting them. These are the kinds of stories I enjoy most in vetted anthologies, but that I found very difficult to identify easily while wading through the slush pile. They’re the kind of thing I think you can get away with more easily as an established author, since your recognizable name serves as a signal to both the editor and the reader to give the piece a little longer to develop — they can trust you’re up to something clever in a way they might not trust an unknown name.
I rejected some pieces I felt pretty bad about, because they were good pieces, just maybe too clever for their own good. They weren’t the kinds of things I could see myself trusting as a reader, browsing cold on an unknown site with an unknown author’s name.
I think, though, that if an average reader could find the time and the opportunity to read more unpublished fiction, he or she would be pleasantly surprised at just how much good stuff there is out there.
I want a story that will grab me and stick with me. Writing something memorable in 300 words is a tall order. I want something that doesn’t waste time or words, that gets straight to a point and hammers it home. I’m looking for something that will haunt me.
I’m also looking for something non-obvious. I suspect we’re going to get a lot of liars holding a lot of keys to one thing or another. I’d be really jazzed if I found at least a few stories that take this in a direction I genuinely didn’t expect.
by Agnes Meszaros