Source: www.gdanki.pl, Gdansk City Hall
When I began writing The Pirates' Reckoning, I had taken a couple of classes; one from author Carolyn J. Rose, and one from author, Lilith Saintcrow. The problem was that I didn't "get it." I didn't understand what they were saying was wrong with the first few pages I had written. I tried to fix it. I rewrote it dozens of times. After a while, I decided to move on with my book. I could always go back and rewrite the first few pages again.
By the time I joined a critique group, I had about seventy pages written. We'd meet about once a month and read four pages. The group got out their red pens and they'd tell me all the things that didn't make sense, word choice problems ("Melanie, your book takes place in 1805. The word, 'voyeur' is not that old. You cannot use it."), suggestions on making dialog stronger and so on.
It was gruesome. But I continued writing and reading it aloud. Finally, after I'd written well over one hundred fifty pages, I read page sixty to sixty-five aloud. When I finished one of the group put her pen down, folded her hands and gazed directly into my eyes.
"Melanie, what is it about your protagonist that we should like? I feel no connection with her. I don't particularly like her and therefore I don't care about her."
The others at the table stared down at their pens, picked lint off their sleeves or fixed their gazes on a crack in the plaster. No one defended her. If no one liked her after sixty-five pages, then no one would continue reading.
Here is my interview with myself:
Whoa....was that difficult to hear?
Did you give up?
Did you start another book?
Did you continue writing?
Yes. It is what I do, even if it is dismal. I worked on short short stories.
Did you drop out of that critique group?
Goodness no. What courage it took to tell me the truth. These were the very people I needed if I wanted to improve. Well, okay, so the truth is...I considered it.
What happened to The Pirates' Reckoning?
The characters plagued me. They picked at me. They usurped my thoughts. They stole my ability to write anything else. The longer I tried to ignore them, the more vocal they became. You've done well over a year of research to be able to write about a woman on a Royal Navy ship, they said, now write the dang book.
So what did you do?
I went to the beach. I painted the living room. I thought about my attempts to knit and decided never to try it again. I scuffed my feet as I walked for the next six months.
I began to rewrite it. I took it from third person to first person. A few of the things Lilith and Carolyn had tried to pound into my head came knocking again, just outside my memory. Just outside my ability. By the time I rewrote sixty pages, I decided to take Carolyn's Novel Writing Boot-camp again, as a remedial course. Things made more sense the second time.
Did your critique group see a difference?
I didn't read it to them. I read other things to them, the short stories, articles. I got an article published because of their fabulous critique. But meeting only once a month and reading four pages wasn't enough. Although it broke my heart, I dropped out of the first group with the stipulation that I really wanted to keep in touch. We see each other at the monthly Vancouver Writer's Mixer. They will always have my love and affection.
After finishing Carolyn's second class, a group of us formed a new critique group. This group wanted to meet once a week, and we each read seven or eight pages a week. We were all about the same level when we got out of the class and we have all learned together. All of us have finished at least one book and we even welcomed an additional member of the group who is going gang-busters on her historical fiction.
You think changing to first person made it a better book?
I think I'm used to writing first person. I felt myself get closer to the protagonist. I'm there in the scene when I'm writing it. After writing a scene late into the night where the ship is tossed about in a storm, I actually suffered motion sickness when I went to bed.
But taking the remedial class really helped, too.
Does the new group like your protagonist now?
They say they do. And my beta readers smile when they talk about her.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Phfffft. I'm sure they have better advice they could give me. But, having said that, as Lilith said, writing is like playing the piano. Very few can do it well without taking lessons and lots of practice.
One last question, why is your kitchen such a mess if you don't cook?
That's actually smoke damage from the fires I started when I used to cook.
Thank you for the interview. I think your book is great.
Thank you. It was nice being interviewed by you.
Editor's note: We are watching Melanie Sherman very closely to see if the self interview is something we should worry about.