Drowning Brisbane, or, why I love my writing buddies

watermarks in cosmos 57: art by joe whyte, story by jason nahrung

In 2007, I wrote a short story in which Brisbane had been inundated by risen sea levels, and where the poor squat in flooded high rises under the threat of solar irradiation while the rich survive high and dry in air conditioned comfort. But the yarn wasn’t working. Hence it’s home in the folder for unfinished yarns.

This year, I dredged that story up, ditched some unnecessary scenes and then … It still wasn’t working. So I flung it to my writing group, Supernova, who identified structural and prose problems, chiefly a plot element that wasn’t working, ill-defined characters, great puddles of lazy prose. It was, as I admitted shamefacedly as I asked them to help me fix this broken thing, a setting in need of a story.

cosmos 57 magazineSo I ran the changes and … It still wasn’t working.

Luckily, a few pals (Rob, Kate and Mark, to give credit where it’s due) from my former Queensland writing group were down for a writerly getaway and I ran the rewrite past them and Kirstyn (again). As previously, I didn’t take all the advice from everyone, some of it just didn’t fit, but some of it was gold. Pure gold.

I realised what the story was and who it was about. Structure emerged from the fog.

With the Android Lust album Crater Vol.1 on repeat, I added the detail to breathe some life into a formerly pallid world — detail is king — and, hooray, the story, now called ‘Watermarks’, has sold, to this month’s Cosmos magazine, issue 57. That sensational artwork above, for the cover page for the story, is by Melbourne-based Joe Whyte. (I’m now a fan. It’s the use of light, I think. Seriously, check this out!)

To have a group of like-minded writers able to tease at a story and make constructive suggestions, to brainstorm with, is just so valuable. I love my writing buddies.

And the good thing is, in writing this story, I’ve realised just how huge its world is. There’s more to come — I just hope it doesn’t take another seven years.

Up the critique without a paddle

texas chainsaw massacreTo be critiqued or not to be critiqued: that is the question.

Or at least, it has been lately: two of my crit group have blogged on the subject. Lamellae offers a five-post selection of pros and cons; Ellen Gregory ponders the ramifications of a recent going-over of the first chapter of a new work in progress.

It’s a bold move, submitting such raw copy to a crit group. After all, the group is looking for problems, and damn but they will find them! The question is, how relevant are they for a still unformed work? The issue for the writer is, what are they looking for from the critique — world building and character weaknesses, perhaps? Does this feel like the right place to start this story? The worst thing is to allow the feedback to derail the work (unless, of course, it’s really that dire; sometimes, you need someone to tell you to ditch stuff, even stuff you love, because it just doesn’t fit — ah, my darlings, dead on the cutting room floor). All those drops of red blood, I mean ink, coming from the marked-up pages aren’t necessarily a death sentence. But yeah, watch your adverbs as you progress, sort out that character’s motivations, make the magic system a bit more transparent … take those informed opinions on board and you might save yourself a bucket-load of rewriting later.

A crit group is invaluable, to my mind, as long as it is a group of peers who will, constructively and respectfully, push you to be the best storyteller you can be. It’s easier if that respect extends to the genres in which you work; my experience in workshops with mixed genres has not been as fruitful as those where everyone came in with a base understanding of how the supernatural ‘works’, or at least were open to the concept. In much the same way that I struggled to care about the minutiae of X and Y’s relationship: when does something happen? Mind you, the uninitiated can be great for spotting logic holes and areas that have been glossed over because of an assumption of what the reader will already know the tropes.

There’s a skill in not only giving critique but receiving it. Thick skin helps. A preparedness to take on board the advice, in hand with an instinct to know what is relevant and what isn’t. Different critiquers have different strengths: some are great at logic and story, others at character and motivation, others again at grammar. A group with a mix of strengths is very handy for getting that story as tight as it can be.

The simple fact is, that the author is, more often than not, a terrible editor of their own work. They know the story, but not necessarily the one that’s on the page. They have blind spots, to both story and to prose. There are two tricks for better self-editing: one is to read the work aloud, the other is to print it out in different fonts for each edit. Both help to highlight poor construction and break down the haze of familiarity. I always edit on paper, once I’m at that stage.

And I rely on my crit group to save me from myself. And hope that, in return, I can also offer some useful advice. Politely, constructively and respectfully.