Monday, September 14, 2009

Polishing Off the Novel

Born in Montreal, author and dungeon master Meg Westley teaches communications at the University of Waterloo and the Stratford Chefs School. She has also held positions as public school board trustee, stage manager, director and dramaturge. Passionate about education, politics and theatre, Meg writes in a variety of genres: fantasy novels, plays for children, horror stories, academic articles and opinion pieces. Her first novel, the fantasy thriller Goddess Fire, will be released in November. Meg lives in Stratford, Ontario with her husband; they have two sons.

Everyone in the world has a novel inside them, just waiting for the right moment to emerge. I'm not sure why this is such a common notion. We don't think we have musical compositions or paintings or poems inside us, but we all feel pretty sure we have novels a-waiting.

Before I started writing seriously, my life partner and I had a running joke.

"What are you up to today?" one would ask.

The other would respond: "Oh you know, shopping, a couple of meetings, taking the cat to the vet. And I thought I'd just polish off the novel."

We don't joke quite that way anymore. Now that I have polished off a novel, we treat the idea more seriously.

I've heard there are more people writing novels today than ever before, and fewer, proportionally, being published. I suspect more people are writing partly because tossing off a novel doesn't seem all that difficult. I mean, we've all read lots of novels, right? We know how to put sentences together, and we have creative ideas and life experience, so it's just a matter of putting in the time, right?

Wrong - as anyone who's ever tried to write a novel knows all too well. I know lots of writers (and more and more of them are getting published, which is superb!) None of them find writing easy. All of them put tons of time into it, many while working full time and raising families.

For me the obstacle to getting out my inner novel out was that I had so story to tell. I reckoned I could write a pretty fluid sentence and I even had a decent ear for dialogue, but I couldn't think of a plot to save my life.

Or so I thought. In the end, the plot was easy. I play a fair bit of Dungeons and Dragons; I'd designed worlds and complicated plots for the game. Eventually I decided to turn one of my "dungeons" into a novel. Ten years later, I am delighted to announce that my novel Goddess Fire is now in print!

Ten years? For a fantasy novel?

Yes. I wrote the first draft in about a year and I was pretty damned chuffed with myself. The people in my local writing group liked it a lot. We met every week in the basement of our public library and gave each other feedback on our writing. Chapter by painful chapter I exposed Goddess Fire (then called Beneath the Vleth) to their critical eyes. They thought it rocked! I figured I was on my way to fame and fortune. I probably even started sending out synopses and query letters to agents and publishers. That was my first wake up call. No one was remotely interested in my fiery little fantasy.

A member of the group suggested I join a full novel critique group online. I leapt at the opportunity. The "owner " of the group rejected me peremptorily. I reeled in shock when she described my writing as clichéd. It was my second wake-up call. She suggested I try a less professional online group, which did not vet applicants, to polish my writing. After plunging into the depths of despair for a couple of weeks, I took her advice.

Online writing groups are a fascinating phenomena and an absolutely invaluable resource for any writer, no matter how experienced. It is terrifying to expose your work to a group of strangers. As a result, many people resist the idea of joining such a group. But it's their loss. Eventually every writer hopes to have millions of readers, many of whom will be brutally critical. If you receive the negative feedback early, you have the option of addressing the problem, which will likely improve not only the novel, but also your chances of getting it published. If you hide your work away, hoping to perfect it privately, you may never get it polished.

Of course not all critiques are illuminating or supportive. Some are slapdash, some are downright mean, some are completely off the mark (e.g. the romance writer who really wants your mystery to be a romance and gears all her advice towards this end.) You need a thick skin to be able to absorb and evaluate the comments you receive. You also need a thick skin to survive the innumerable rejections you'll get on your quest to get published, so why not develop it in a critique group?

At first I found many comments depressed the hell out of me. I wanted to throw the MS in the garbage. But I realized people were investing in my process and giving me very helpful advice. I learned to sift through the comments; if several people had similar reactions, I took their responses to heart and revised accordingly. If only one person objected to a certain element, I weighed their words and if they rang true, I acted upon them. If not, I ignored the advice. I also grew to trust certain critics' opinions more than others. I sought these people out and critiqued their work like mad, hoping they would return the favour. Almost invariably they did.

It took over a year to submit my MS, one chapter a week, to the Internet Writing Workshop Then it took another year for me to make the revisions people had suggested. I really learned to write during this time, as critics raised issues I'd never even thought of, like POV and use of adjectives and adverbs, etc. etc.

I sent out my novel again. It was rejected again. I joined another online group, a full novel critique group called Deadly Prose

This time critics read the entire novel, and again they had masses of suggestions, most of which I adopted. I cut 40,000 words, added subplots, new scenes, character motivation, etc.

The published novel bears little resemblance to the first draft, largely because of the tremendously helpful feedback I received from people I have never met. They are no longer strangers, though. Over the years I have made many friendships with people in the online writers community, people whose generosity, thoughtfulness and support I hold very dear. Joylene is one of them!

If you'd like to read the result of my labors, Goddess Fire can be ordered direct from the publisher and is available for pre-order from Amazon. To find out more about the book, watch the trailer: or check out the material on my website.

Meg Westley
Meg came to writing in acircuitous manner. Like many, she always dreamed of being a writer and filled drawers with dreadful angst-ridden poetry during her (almost endless) university years, but she never thought she had the talent or determination to write a novel. While working on her PhD, she became an avid Dungeons and Dragons player and then a Dungeon Master. Meg adored the game and created a number of very complex campaigns for a small group of (mostly female) friends. When asked to describe the game, she'd say "It's like living a novel - you play a character in a story." And then she'd describe some of the plots and worlds she created and increasingly people would gape at her and say, "You've done all the plot and character work - just so three or four people can play a game? Why don't you write a novel?" So she did.


  1. You've had a fascinating life up to this point, Meg. Can't imagine anything but success coming your way. You've certainly worked hard enough for it. Best of luck with Goddess of Fire. Have a blast marketing.

  2. I can't tell you how many times, since I've been writing, that people come to me and say, "Oh, I'm going to write a book, too." "Going" is the keyword here. They either want me to write it for them, or they want me to "use my connections" for them.

    I've used online critique groups for my middle grade novel, Guardian. Can't tell you how utterly valuable the groups have been. I truly believe my book wouldn't have been picked up for publication without their input.

  3. Me too, Katie. I finally had to be blunt and say "Just start writing, the rest will fall into place."

    But I'm still amazed at how many people want me to make it easier for them, by telling them how to do it, doing their research, reading their rough drafts. I feel rather indignant until a faint memory surfaces of some lowly writer called Joylene, begging some published writer if they will ... and ... and ...!

    lol. Today, when someone says, "I'm going to write a book, but could you help?" I smile and say, "Wish I could, but I'm swamped. Why don't you just start, then when you think you've finished, call back and I'll give you a list of online writers groups."

    The strange thing, so far nobody's returned for the list.

  4. I've had several people tell me they've written a "fiction novel" (first clue they haven't a clue) yet when I pin them down it turns out it's all in their head. "It's written," they insist, "it will only take a couple of weeks to get it written down."

    It's always impressive to see a published work where the author took the time to learn the craft, to write the best possible book. Wishing you a lifetime of sales, Meg!

  5. lol, Pat, I know what you mean. I think what really hit home was after my novel Dead Witness came out, people I knew started asking me if I wanted to write their story. This was after they told me they had no idea I could write. haha. One fellow said, "So this is why we never see you out and about."

  6. Thanks, Joylene, you brought us a great interview here. I bet a lot of readers will be interested to learn how it feels to write and learn to write.

  7. thank you, David. I know there's lots more I could learn from Meg. Maybe if I ask nicely, she'll come back.

  8. Great article, Joylene. And thanks, Meg. You can't imagine how encouraging it is to hear about the struggles of a published author. It gives the rest of us so much hope.

  9. Very intelligent article. I'd love to hear more about Meg and her work. I checked her webpage out, but she hasn't posted anything for several months.

    Don't be shy, Meg.

  10. Thanks Denise and Charline. I'm hoping Meg will come back and visit us again. I agree, I think her take on polishing off the novel is something we all need to know.

  11. Thanks, everyone, for reading my blog and for your supportive comments! Although it took many years (I'm not sure how many - which must be a clue!) it was pretty amazing to finally hold the published version of Goddess Fire in may hands.

    It can be done! Now we'll just see if I can sell a few copies :)

    And yes, I intend to post on my own blog again imminently.

  12. Great post, ladies. very well done. A great look at just what it takes to be a successful published novelist.

  13. Just FYI - I have a new post to my own blog. Thanks for the prod, folks!


Thank you for visiting my blog. Please come in and sit for while. We will talk about writing. We will share our dreams. Then I will serve tea and cookies. Home made and Gluten Free.