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For several years I was a member of one of the best writing forums I’ve ever seen on the Internet.  It was large enough to create synergy, but small enough to be personal and friendly.  I became a moderator of the forum, and then an administrator.

The experience just about ruined my writing.

When I first joined, the forum was relatively new.  The excitement was still there and the membership actively reviewed critiqued work as well as posted their work for review.  The forum had a 1 to 5 rating for work, so people would know what kind of critique the writer was looking for.  Someone who wanted a “1” review was looking for nothing more than encouragement to keep working on their story, and maybe one or two hints on something to review.  Someone who asked for a ‘5’ review wanted a heavy-duty, give-and-take critique, no holds barred!  These were people serious about getting their short story, novel, poem or essay published.

It worked well—for a time.

During my first year with the forum, I received a lot of good help and encouragement for one or two stories I was writing.  Some of the members had real talent in critiquing, which is harder than you think.  I revised some of the chapters with their suggestions in mind.  When I disagreed with the suggestions, it led to good discussion.

Heavy Lifting

Heavy lifting, that was the problem.  After the bloom had worn off, more and more of the reviewing fell to fewer and fewer people.  Those people were (mostly) called Moderators and Administrators.  The membership continued to grow, but more people posted simply to be seen and get a quick pat on the back.  They would “review” a piece that someone had requested a ‘4’ or ‘5’ level review with “hey, looks good to me!”  That was what they called paying back to the forum.

When I was asked to moderate two sub-forums, I felt more responsibility to review and encourage others.  Combined with the responsibilities of moderating, my own writing time suffered.  I vowed that I would take the time to write from some other activity in my life.  Still—heavy lifting.  There were a few of us doing the lifting, and a lot of people getting free rides.

The Life and Death of Forums

The forum was no longer fresh and new.  Both content and reviews weren’t up to scratch.  Membership began to lose interest, moving on to other things.  The forum lost that synergy that made it spark.  In an effort to bring some life back to the forum, the lead administrator began writing more content for the General forum—quick bites of information on entertaining subjects.  The moderators, those who were still around on an occasional basis, were encouraged to join in.  Some did, but any time they spent writing for the board was time they took away from their own work.

After a few months, I was asked to join the administrative team.  It would be a chance to help oversee changes in the forum and direct its future.  Since I wanted to see the board return to some of the spark it had when it was new, I accepted.  Quickly, I found that my role wasn’t so much as a member of a three-administrator team, but to serve as a buffer and sounding board between the board owner and her co-administrator, who locked horns and stomped off in huffs about every other week.

Naturally, in reading the board owner’s two page email complaints about the other administrator, and answering same, I got no substantial writing done.

Forum Meltdown

You knew it was coming, didn’t you?  In an effort to revive the forum, the administrators revamped it.  We gave it a new look.  We culled the membership and invited the best writers, the most active participants, the best reviewers, to join the new club.  It required weeks of work to develop the new board.  This was going to be a real critique forum!

So, what if you gave a party and no one came?  Well, they came, but nothing much happened except what had happened at the first board.  The synergy never returned to the revamped writing board.  The board owner, who had insisted that with the new board the administration would not spoon-feed the membership with new topics, games and original content, went mad to provide the membership with—you guessed it: original content, games and new topics.  For a time, we considered moving the board to another hosting facility.  I spent hours testing Invision Power Board, Vbulletin and Pro-boards.  The board owner never looked at the test boards I set up.

The board closed a few months later.  We couldn’t find a way to reengage the membership, the board owner encountered serious family problems, the second co-administrator did another vanishing act, and the third co-administrator (me) realized that far from helping with her writing, the forum was a weight that wasn’t getting any lighter.

In Retrospect…

…are writing forums a good idea anyway?  If you’re writing a long story or a novel, you post chapters at a time for critique.  Essentially, you’re asking reviewers to critique a work that isn’t in its final form.  You could receive great critiques on chapter three, and write something in chapter eight that means you have to substantially rewrite chapter three.  Published authors also warn writers not to talk about their work too much; there’s too much of a chance you’ll lose that excitement you have about a story if you talk about it.  Forum reviews might work for short stories, when you post the entire work for review, poems, non-fiction articles, but I’ve become wary about revealing too much of a long piece of work.  Sometimes you need encouragement and a pat on the back, but you have to be careful not to lose the spice that makes you want to write that long story or novel in the first place.

I was a member and then an administrator of a very good writing board.  I joined when it was on its upswing and I was there when it died.  The forum was as good as its membership, and the membership was very good in the first, early, days.  In some ways, it was a victim of its own success.  The quality of work and reviews drew more people to the forum, but too many of those were only interested in collecting raves on their own work, not participating in the review process.  Heavy lifting—that’s what a few of us were left to do.  The weight of that heavy lifting exposed other problems in the forum and, eventually, it closed.  The experience has left me with this belief:

When you write, you  have to be your own best reviewer.  There will come a time when you need to get other people to give you an independent critique, but in the beginning—you do your heavy lifting for yourself.

–30–

 

Note: This entry was inspired by a post on Digital Dame’s Filling Spaces blog, about the helium.com writing forum, and her comment about writing forums that a few people do all the heavy lifting. 

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I met my March goal–by the skin of my teeth.  Things became more interesting in the second chapter when I paused, looked it over, and went back to the start and re-wrote one of the main characters as the arrogant asshole he can sometimes be.  I’d started out with him calm and professional and that was, let’s face it, dull.  I’m going back through the chapters polishing them up.  The follow chapter is substantially written already.   It was one of the first parts of the story to be written.  It needs some heavy editing though.

I am also  contending with a large brown girl cat who keeps walking back and forth across the desk.  When she pauses, it’s right in front of the monitor.  A squeak tells me it’s time for dinner.  I’d really rather her uncle get on the desk.  He at least will settle down on the corner with his feet tucked under him and stare at me calmly and patiently.  I don’t want her brother up here because, at 23 pounds, he takes up more than his share of space.  He likes to sprawl…

Pen of the day:  Waterman Charleston (ivory)

Ink:  Waterman Blue-Black

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The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Seventy years ago, the Sternwood’s Packard was found washing around in the surf off Lido Pier. When the cops pulled the car out, they found the throttle was set half-way down. Inside the car–Owen Taylor, dead from the impact of a blunt instrument. Who killed the Sternwood’s chauffeur? Did Taylor, who loved the General’s nymphomaniac daughter Carmen, kill Arthur Geiger, a blackmailer who had incriminating photos of Carmen?

When Howard Hawks began filming Raymond Chandler’s crime noire masterpiece, The Big Sleep, he realized that the book never resolves the question of who killed Owen Taylor. Scriptwriter William Faulkner couldn’t figure it out either. The two of them must have poured through Chandler’s convoluted tale of corruption and greed searching for the answer. Finally, Hawks called Chandler. “Who killed Owen Taylor?” “Hell if I know,” Chandler replied.

Seventy years ago, Raymond Chandler penned one of the masterpieces of American detective fiction in three months.  With broad strokes he lined out the plot of a dying man who tries to buy his wastrel youngest daughter out of a jam; of his oldest daughter, smart but jaded, addicted to gambling; of Philip Marlowe, the honorable but world-weary detective who has to dig beneath what he’s told to find out the real mystery Sternwood has hired him to solve.  In the film Vivian Sternwood would be played by Lauren Bacall, in one of her greatest roles opposite Humphrey Bogart, the actor who brought Chandler’s Philip Marlowe to life.

So who killed Owen Taylor?  Eddie Mars, who ran a casino and had his fingers in half a dozen other illegal pies? Joe Brody, a small time hood playing in a game bigger than he could handle, or Carol Lundgren, Geiger’s gunman lover?  Does it matter?  Mysteries go unsolved every day.  In this respect, The Big Sleep mirrors real life.

There Raymond Chandler sits, late at night, hammering away at a typewriter creating possibly the best piece f American detective fiction ever written–in 90 days.  Handing it to his editor and maybe, with a shrug, remembering that Owen Taylor’s murder remained unsolved.  “Hell,  lots of murders don’t get solved,” Philip Marlowe might have said.

I fuss and quibble over a plot and a timeline, worrying about getting all the t’s crossed and the i’s dotted.  Frustrated, I put everything on index cards and start shuffling.  I wonder if Raymond Chandler ever shuffled index cards or worried about whether whether every block in the puzzled fitted together.  Somehow, I know he didn’t.  Raymond Chandler didn’t need no stinkin’ index cards, he just wrote, arriving at the conclusion like Philip Marlow finding a answer to a question that wasn’t asked (what General Sternwood really wanted from Marlowe wasn’t strong-arming Arthur Geiger, but finding out what happened to Rusty Regan) by a mixture of cunning and intuition.

But–that’s Raymond Chandler for you.  I just use index cards.

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Several posts ago, I wrote that I have a goal to complete two chapters on my thriller by the end of March. I’m happy–no thrilled–to say that I’m sure I’m going to make it. The last two weeks have seen a real turnaround in how I’m working on the story and how I feel about what I’ve written.

It started with–index cards. Just the lowly index card. Part of my problem was being uncertain about part of the plot and the time line of the story. I finished the first chapter in the two-chapter goal, looked at it, and thought. “It won’t work with the time line. I am going to have to friggin’ well dump this entire chapter.” This did not make me happy. Think of it–you spend two weeks bullying your way through a chapter only to say to yourself when you finish, “it won’t work!” I suffered a crisis of confidence. (Translation: I felt very grumpy.)

I’ve kept my outline and story notes in a notebook, specifically an Apica CD-15 notebook, along with legal pad sheets of dialog and ideas. It’s very linear. Written from one page to the next, it’s flat and set. I got a bunch of index cards (alas, I did not care whether they were fountain pen friendly or not…) and put one plot element on each card and then started shuffling. I worked with that for a weekend, and the plot line fell into place. Fortunately, the chapter I had written and thought I would have to dump also fell into place. Scenes and dialog started coming more easily, more naturally to me. I’ve found the groove for this story again.

I’ll make my goal by the end of the month. The chapters won’t be perfect, but I feel like they’ll be good solid first drafts. Even better, I’m looking at the following pieces with a lot more confidence now.

Oh, index card statistics: Rotring 600 w/medium nib and Mont Blanc Bordeaux ink. Waterman Expert II w/fine nib and Private Reserve Midnight Blues ink. Index cards–whatever probably 10 years old from Office Depot, yellowing and fading slightly. There was *some* feathering from the Rotring, who really, who the hell cares? It worked! ~chortle!~

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I have a goal: complete two chapters of a mystery/thriller I’m writing by the end of March.  Raymond Chandler and Ian Fleming could pen entire novels in three months, but they didn’t have my family to contend with, they didn’t have flu for a week, or the increased work load brought on by a declining economy.

It’s inevitable that whenever I ensconce myself in my little home office to write, that something (in the form of a husband usually) wanders in demanding instant attention and answers to critical questions.  Where’s the big flashlight?  (I don’t know, I never use it.) What’s this charge on the credit card statement? (This has to be answered now?).  Things would fine if I could answer the question and that was it, but no.  As sure as night follows day and Roma Ryan penned Orinoco Flow, hovering follows, a sense that we must converse on something else! 

It’s not that I don’t want to answer questions or converse, I just want to do it later!   J.K. Rowling was lucky that she was divorced when she started Harry Potter No. I.  If she had been married, she never would have gotten to No. 7.  One of my favorite authors is mystery writer Sue Grafton.  If you go to Sue’s website, you’ll find photographs of her office.  You look at those photos and just know that Sue is never bothered by family distractions, credit card chatter or requests to find tools that she never uses. 

I have a goal.  I’m sure I’m going to meet it, but being an amateur writer dealing with all the distractions of the family republic doesn’t make it easy.

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