I make no secret about the fact that I have written a bunch of pretty craptastic novels over the years. Strangely enough, it was using Reddit – notably the Fantasy Writers subreddit that allowed me to write something that didn’t make me want to shoot myself.
Among writers it’s sometimes even a badge of pride to have some weighty ‘drawer novels,’ early attempts that should never be allowed to see sunlight (and might well erupt into flame if they do). I consider my 1.5 million words of dead writing to be time well spent, however. But after I’d finished my 280k word magnum opus in 2014, and realised with a sinking heart that what I’d written was something akin to a literary apocalypse, I started on Blackwing. And from the off, she was a completely different beast.
Everything was different. My writing style was punchier, more fluid, deeper in voice. My plot was tighter, more refined, more sophisticated. The prophecies, the farmboys with great destinies were gone. The characters felt more real, like they had more than one side to their personality. The world and its inhabitants flowed more easily onto the page.
What had changed?
The answer is that Reddit had changed the way that I looked at writing. By 2015 I had spent about four years on r/fantasywriters critiquing about 4-5 pieces of writing each week. There are two things in my experience that allow you to improve as a writer. The first is to write your socks off. Just do a lot of writing. Like, a lot of writing, man. The second is to write out lengthy critiques of other people’s writing.
Most of what you read on a writer’s forum is not going to be up to publication standard because it’s draft work, and because most people asking for help or advice are still going to be plowing through their million words of drawer fillers. But that’s good for you, young author. You should want to read bad writing, not just good writing, because bad writing is where you really spot the flaws. You identify the slow starts, the cliches that you can’t stomach, the characters without depth, the errors in prose. Every published author, myself included, started off writing poorly (unless you’re some kind of wizard-god-author, and if you are then you probably aren’t reading my shitty blogs).
As you see these same errors over and over and over again, made repeatedly by eager authors, you suddenly make a realisation: these are the same errors that I’m making! I just couldn’t see them before, because it’s so easy to be blind to your own writing. Lack of self awareness and lack of criticality are some of the worst character traits to possess as an author.
Without my years spent hammering out thousand word critiques on Reddit, I don’t think that Blackwing would have reached the standard that it ultimately did, and I don’t think that I’d have an agent or publication. These days I don’t really have time to spend on critique, as I’m generally too busy writing my own stuff, but critiquing the work of others should be considered an essential part of your writing journey when you’re learning your craft. It’s rare that I see it recommended as such on writing advice forums.
People tend to think that being part of a writing group is good to get feedback on their own work. Writing groups are indeed an excellent idea. But writing group is good for yu not because you get feedback on your own work, but because participating makes you consider work critically.
Alas, you’ll no longer find me critiquing on Reddit due to how busy life has become, but if writing is what you’re all about, I’d still urge you to get onto an online critique forum and crack on.
Best of luck and see you in print.