Joining another writing group is always hazardous to my health. New people. New opinions. Are they versed in the foundation of storytelling? The only way is to jump in and find out. I'm already part of an ongoing workshop, and for one writer, we finished his book and hopefully helped him revise it to the point where he'll get an agent.
So why am I looking into another one?
To say that the first pages have to catch the eye of a literary agent is putting it lightly. Those pages are the most important because if the words don't capture the readers' mind with a master hypnotist's touch, then they'll never venture further down the rabbit hole and revel in the delicious story that you've weaved from the fabric of your imagination.
I decided to attend a session with the group and see how they work. Sitting down in a conference room in a restaurant, I gazed at about eight storytellers who varied from beginner to published. The task was that they would read their pages, and we would lay some knowledge, critique.
The first set of pages described a father trying to fight this monster. And this monster was too powerful and killed his wife and kids. They were nameless. Faceless. Characterless.
After he finished reading, he asked, "Was it too violent?"
"You're asking the wrong question," I decided to answer. "You could kill a million people [in your story], but if I don't care about them, then the violence doesn't matter." I wasn't sure he understood, so I continued, "But if you rooted me to one character and killed her, then I'd cry."
Again, not much of a reaction. So I sat back, while someone threw in their comments.
Another writer read the first chapter of her fantasy. From my perspective, she had put a lot of elements of her world within the first pages without explanation or reasoning. When building a world the reader will need to know why certain fantasy elements are being shown. Otherwise, why show them? The reasoning doesn't have to be there when the fantasy element is introduced, but it should be soon after the introduction. But when too many of these elements are shoved into the first pages without knowing why they're there, readers are then tasked to remember all of these elements. And that's hard. It's like learning a foreign language, and you have to remember 100 new words without knowing the definitions. Good luck.
A third weaver of fables read his short story. This was interesting because he was a man writing from the perspective of a woman, a difficult task. This was a treasure hunting adventure to be unfolded through her eyes. As he read, it took a few paragraphs to establish her point of view, like "She felt the cool breeze." Afterward he didn't reveal her thoughts, emotions, sensations as the adventure moved forward until the end of the story. It's like getting on a train for a fun ride, but unbeknownst to us, the ride had ended.
I'm not sure how advanced these writers are. And I can't tell you how advanced I am. I'm my own harshest critic. But when I noticed basic problems from rooting, world building, to point of view, I wonder if I should read my first pages. Can I trust their critiques?
But the purpose of reading my first pages was to see if I could capture their imaginations and not necessarily how good my mechanics are, since I had worked through them with my writing coach. So I chanced reading my first chapter.
My initial expectation was, "Holy shit! Yo shit is some good'n tootin' writin'"
What actually happened was...
I think part of the issue is the format of this writing group. In my current workshop, we send each other pages to be reviewed over a week's time. That way we can read and reread, think about the pages, and provide a thoughtful line by line critique. The new format: a writer would read their work to us, and we're listening to these pages for the first time while critiquing. I'm a dude. I don't multitask. Often, I was rereading as others were giving their comments so I could give some coherent advice.
However, I did get some good responses and suggestions and have tightened my first pages. What helped me the most was giving my suggestions on the fly. Spotting these basic writing issues helped me realize that I had learned something from my writing coach. I never doubted that, but I've always wondered to what degree. And passing what I've learned only helps cement those lessons for me.