This week was the Meachem Writers’ Workshop. A friend told me about it and since it’s free, I signed up. In fact, I also submitted, which means that my work was going to be critiqued.
I went to some of the readings—poetry. Not just any poetry, but esoteric, literary poetry. At that point, I began to get nervous. You see, I submitted the first two chapters of my newest novel, which is not literary. It’s called genre fiction, specifically a murder mystery.
Often there’s “no love lost between the literary writers and the genre writers.” I was convinced my writing was going to be reamed. Then I read an agent’s post of what not to do in the first page of your novel. I did it. I wanted to delete the first two chapters and start over. But it was too late. With a heavy heart, I dragged myself to the crit session. I steeled my backbone and prayed I would be gracious and not tear-up. (Sometimes crit sessions can be nasty.)
My novel came very early in the session. The structure went like this. You present your novel, then you shut your mouth and aren’t allowed to say a word, all the other writers makes comments on your work (they’ve read it before), then the leader (published professional) makes final critiques, after which you’re allowed to ask questions to clarify, then they’re allowed to ask questions. This is fairly standard procedure.
My name was called. With a gulp, I said, “Well, my novel’s a murder mystery.” The workshop leader said, with what sounded to my nervous ears like sarcasm, “Obviously.” (A dead body shows up at the end of chapter one so this makes sense.) Now I thought, “Crap. He hates my work. Let’s just get this over with.” So I finished up with something along the lines of, “The main character finds the body of her friend, doesn’t want to get involved, forces herself to get involved and solves the case.” At this point, the leader could have said, “Tell us something we don’t already know.” But he didn’t.
The first crit was nice. She like the chapters and wanted to read the book. Phew. That was a softball. The next crit started off with a line saying that he thought one of the characters seemed Native American. I thought, “What? That’s totally out of left field.” Then the workshop leader interrupted. I put more steel in my backbone and put on my I-can-handle-this face. He asked, “Is this your first draft?” I nodded, thinking, “At least, that can be my excuse.” Then he said, “In these pages, every word is exactly where it needs to be. Not one is out-of-place. It is very smooth. And the voice is very strong. The only critique I have is about the dead body. I used to be a trial attorney and worked criminal law—your body should be more deteriorated and the gun used should be a .22.”
The only reason I didn’t have to pick myself up off the floor was that I’d steeled my spine so much earlier. After this pronouncement, the session became a love fest. I was even asked to read a few paragraphs for some high school students who were observing, and then my word choices were explained to them by their mentor.
This would all be wonderful, except for one thing. I almost deleted those nearly perfect chapters (which I honestly don’t think are all that perfect). It’s kind of scary to discover that I’m really bad at judging my own work. In fact the only reason I haven’t altered the first two chapters even after the Meachem is that I promised Cal I wouldn’t.