World Building Part 2: Religion

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To be clear, this world building series is in no particular order. Except you may want to read World Building Part 1: Basics before moving on to any other category.

I also want to say in a teeny tiny disclaimer that I’m not reflecting my own beliefs, but possibilities and examples only for the sake of world building. It’s very common for fictional worlds to be of different beliefs from their creators. I’m also not a theologian nor hold any degree on religious works, and whilst I honestly do some googling to make sure that I’m correct in the use of my examples, feel free to (respectfully) correct me if I’m mistaken and I’ll change accordingly.

Today’s topic is religion! Whether your character believes in it or not, something you need to determine is the religion around them. In our own history religion has seriously shaped the world we live in. The crusades, genocides, and many civil wars have been due to a conflict of religious beliefs. You can, as in real life, have several branches of religion worshiping the same god in different ways. Here’s a bullet list of things to consider. Below are clarifications of each with suggestions. And yes, this is ridiculously fleshed out. As I mentioned (I think?) in WBP1 I’ll eventually make a printable PDF of each section to fill out. Worksheets are fun! Right? Right!? Of course they are. Shh.

Moving on!

  • How Many Gods?
  • Names & Responsibilities
  • Living/Dead or Present/Absent?
  • Faith or Scientific/Physical Based?
  • Opposition
  • Hierarchy of Deities
  • Dimensions/Planes
  • Symbolism
  • Avatars/Prophets
  • Creation 
  • Hierarchy of Worshipers
  • Religious Houses/Temples/Shrines
  • Branches
  • Worship/Ritual
  • Texts
  • Language
  • Races
  • Heretics

How many gods?

You have varying degrees to choose from: Atheism, Monotheism, & Polytheism. Respectively they mean: no god, one god, and multiple gods. There are of course many definitions of religion, but these are the main three. If you feel like focusing on something more specific, feel free! This is your world! You need to decide if there is religion at all, and after that how many deities you plan to have in your world.

If you choose Atheism, there is still work to be done. A world without religion would be missing many of these items, and what rituals your populace has should be based in science as opposed to a higher power. There is also a possibility of hero worship with Atheism, paragons of your society who have achieved something great. Not worship in the sense of a deity, but possibly what the hero says is law or other repercussions (like the Dwarves in Dragon Age). It’s of course always an option to ignore it completely. However, I will point out that Buddhism is an example of a religion without a divine being.

If you choose Monotheism I think it’s best to go overboard with the details. Be very careful in choosing a name as well. It needs to be strong and usually capitalized. The pronoun of said god (he/she/they) is usually prevalent as well, but hey, you could always have fun and switch around based on the beliefs of different sects! Odds are a patriarchal society will use “He” and a matriarchal will use “She” and a society of equality might use “They”.

If you choose Polytheism you best get a binder. I’m serious. Unless you choose to have less than five gods, then a folder should suffice. If you have thirty gods or three gods, be sure to fill out the details. If you’re not using them now, you might later. Planting the seed for future stories is never a bad thing. You could briefly mention in chapter 3 of book 1 a god’s fury decimated an entire city, and new characters could discover the city’s remains in book 4. You can of course always have major gods, then minor gods. To be honest though, I still fill out details on minor gods as well. If you don’t want to go too in depth for minor gods, feel free to leave things blank and fill them out as you go or its convenient to your story.

Names & Responsibilities

What I mean by responsibilities is the god’s domain. You could have one god, who’s burdened with all things, or several gods burdened with different tasks. A goddess of death.  A god of love. A goddess of war or a god for each element. Determine what aspects your world worships. If you have more than one culture, remember to have your deities reflected in that. Even if the entire planet has the same religion, there will be different views on what the god does. In some cultures a goddess of fertility, is the goddess of love in another, and so on. I suggest first, if you’re doing Polytheism, to make a list of tasks you feel a god would have direct control over like the examples listed above. Then you can move on to naming.

For names there are many things to consider when picking one out. What culture is your deity associated with? Those will reflect in the name. If you’re making an elven god, you’ll want that name to sound the same as your elves. Are they like LOTR elves? If so, it should be a consonant heavy name that is soft on the lips. Do you have gruff dwarves worshiping this god? Make it vowel heavy and guttural to reflect common dwarven society. Similar to picking out your world name, you’ll want something unique but easy to pronounce. If you go with Monotheism, spend a lot of time on your name. Create a name bank, you don’t have to settle on one and stick with it from the beginning. Use real world languages for inspiration. Want a god of pancakes? Try using Google translate and go down the language list. You can always tweak what you come up with later. You can also use baby name websites and books for some inspiration, especially if you want a name to mean something specific. Once you have your name bank, say them all out loud. Determine the pronunciation of your names in advance and spell it out phonetically for your own reference.

Living/Dead or Present/Absent?

Is your deity living or dead? Are they an interactive deity or do they simply watch from above (or below!)? An important decision is to determine how involved your god(s) is in your new world and their interactions with those who live there. More detail about said interactions are fleshed out below.

Faith or Scientific/Physical based?

As I mentioned earlier, if you’re focusing on Atheism there is still room for hero worship if you chose. There could even be a worship of science. As far as Monotheism and Polytheism goes, you could still have hero worship and science worship included, just in a different application. For faith based religions might be a religion where it has been millennium since the last physical evidence, if any, of a deity’s presence. If you’re opting for Polytheism, this, or none of the other issues, must apply across the board. You can place any number of your deities in any category. Perhaps a new god has risen because they are present in the flesh as opposed to the gods of old who haven’t been heard from in centuries.

So has your deity, or deities, been directly heard from recently? No? To put it into the most generic terms possible, it would be faith based. If your god(s) has been heard from directly, you could say physical or scientific in that there is tangible proof of their recent existence. Also, keep in mind that new religions will pop up as time goes on. What drives the creation, or revealing, of a new religion is entirely up to you.

Opposition

Usually there is a balance. For every God, there is the Devil. For every Rama, there is a Ravana. Not always, but usually, an opposition. If you have a god of death, there could be a god of life. Even if you’re leaning toward Atheism and Monotheism, there is room for opposition of the positive forces that drive your society. It’s not a necessary requirement, but it makes for interesting mythology in establishing the beginnings of a culture’s movement, enlightening, and so on.

Hierarchy of Deities

If you have only one deity, this isn’t much of an issue. You just have the one. With Atheism, this is based entirely off of the current structure you have in place. In the event you have a hero worship structure, it’s time to determine if there is a hierarchy to those heroes. Are some more dominant than others? If so, why? Same with Polytheism. Who are the most prominent gods? Who are major gods? Minor gods? I think in this you would include demi-gods, and in a paragon worshiping society you could include the direct line of descendants from those heroes.

Dimensions/Planes

Of existence, is what I mean. Is there a Heaven? A Hell? Where do these gods live? Do people get to spend eternity with them? Or are they shipped off somewhere else upon death? Are there palaces and gardens? Huts? Space? Can you get there physically? Do you have to die to reach these places?

Symbolism

For each prominent god, it doesn’t hurt to have a symbol representing them. If you have a paragon, it could be a symbol representing their last name or a coat of arms. Real life examples are the Lancaster red rose and the York white rose, or even the red and white rose of the Tudors to represent the joining of the two prominent houses. In religion, you have the eye of Ra and the cross for Christianity. Look at what your god(s) represents and try to fit the symbol with it. You can always choose something at random and have fun building an origin story from there. You could have a red alligator represent the goddess of travel and fill in a mythology to go with it later (actually, that sounds fun I might steal that…from myself).

Avatars/Prophets

First, avatars. They are essentially the physical embodiment or representation of a deity. Usually and for the most. Or at least, the way I understand it. There is no limit to how many avatars a deity has. For example, Vishnu has two avatars: Rama and Krishna. An avatar can be exactly as the deity, or completely opposite to meet their playful spirit. I think as far as avatars are concerned, it is one of the few topics I think Atheism is exempt from, but don’t skip ahead just yet, I have ideas about prophets on that. Just skip to the next paragraph. Anyway, think of the reasons your deity would use an avatar. Avatars can be recognizable by the majority of the populace, or a disguise for the deity to use to go out on the town and have some fun without worry. It depends on the level of interaction your god has with society. If they don’t interact at all, odds are they don’t have many avatars. If they’re one who helps (or hinders) with everyday life, they might have dozens.

Prophets and avatars can, at times, be viewed as one in the same. When I’m talking prophets, in this particular case, I mean regular born women and men of society who rise to the needs of their deity. Or vice versa! A prophet could be someone whose deeds awaken an old goddess and she does good for the world again. A prophet could give a god purpose and be responsible for the reawakening of an entire religion. I think this same line of thought could be used for the paragon system of Atheism as well. A person could bring to light the deeds of a hero that went unnoticed and raise that hero (living or dead) to a paragon status.

Creation Story

This is pretty straightforward. How was your world created? How did it come to be? Is the reality of creation in tune with what religion says? How do they differ? Each religion will have a variation of how the world and its inhabitants came to be. Some may be similar, and realistically some new religions may steal from older religions.

Hierarchy of Worshipers

Once you have all of the goodies of your gods down, time to determine the culture of those who worship them! Or of those who don’t. There is always a why. There is always a why as to why someone does, and doesn’t worship a deity. Something to remember.

By hierarchy, I mean the structuring of the human or non-deity followers of your religion. If there is none, then have none! Otherwise, you have priests, head priestesses, monks, acolytes, initiates, and so on. What positions does your religion have? Elders? Pastors and flocks? Determine what titles are in your religion, and you have these varying with your different gods, and then determine their place. Who’s in charge? Who has the final say? Is there a different position for decision making and spiritual guidance? Is it a council or one person? Does the highest position claim a direct line with the deity? Determine the roles, for each and every one.

Religious Houses/Temples/Shrines

Now to determine the physical aspect of your religion. Are there specific times of worship? Sunrise and sunset? Is it an individual ritual in their home? If so, is there a small shrine in the home? Is there a temple or church? Does a specific figurehead lead the ritual, or is it put upon a different person each time? How often does it occur? Is it the same thing over and over, or is it a different thing each day? A lot of questions I know, but these details can affect your character’s day to day life. It can affect your character’s love/hate for religion which can affect their decisions. For example, if they were raised happily in a temple, an affinity for religious houses could hinder their progress for development later on.

Branches

As in the real world, it’s realistic to think there are varying sects of religion. Even in the Atheist paragon society, there could be variation in hero worship. One group could claim the paragon meant to cleanse water only for the wealthy, and the others claim the paragon wanted clean drinking water for the whole of society. One branch of a fertility deity could claim that if you eat an all egg diet while trying to conceive is the only way to go while the other claims you mustn’t eat any eggs. The conflict between branches of religion can make for enriched cultural rifts. An example, is Protestants Vs Catholics during the reign of Henry VIII. Both worshiped Christ and believed in the same God, but burned each other for conflicting beliefs of baptism, communion, and reading of the bible (a few examples).

Worship

This is where you go into ritual detail. How do your worshipers pray? Do they pray at all? Are there pendants, or other physical depictions of your god’s symbols they keep on their person to draw strength from? This is largely influenced by the environment of the holy houses, or lack thereof, but not entirely. Are there holidays? How does this affect marriage? Births? Rights? In patriarchal religions, men have all the rights from birth. As men also lead in most rituals. In a matriarchal it would be the other way around. Really look at your paragons and gods to determine this process. Some gods may prefer to be worshiped or on the minds of their followers at all times. Some may only want to be called upon in dire circumstances, or not at all. With that line of thought, how much do your deities interact with worshipers during said rituals if at all? What do your worshipers wear? Do they speak in their native language? Or a specific language (for example, Latin for Catholicism)?

Texts

Religious books! I mean, long story short, that’s what I mean. Are there any texts that have inspired religion? For example, the Quran or the Holy Bible. If there is a text, is it truly accurate or has it been manipulated to serve the purposes of those who wield it? How did it come to be? Is there more than one? Is it condensed into one large book like the examples above? If so, are there any apocrypha? If there are, why were those excluded and why were the others included?  Also, the text is where the rules are commonly laid out. If these rules are broken, well, you know how that goes.

Language

Whilst I touched briefly on this in worship, I have language listed separately because it can affect more than praying. The text could only be in a particular language (such as pre-protestant England all religious texts were in Latin) and even a source of conflict as the example given. Is there one preferred language? Are there purists who will only worship in that language? Do those in charge speak and preach in only that language, thereby discouraging outsiders?

Races/Regions/Cultures

All of these aspects can affect religion in any way you could think of. It’s a little difficult to go into detail because there is just, so much depth to all three of these topics. So, what I’ll say is to keep these in mind when structuring your religion. I’ll offer instead a couple of examples. If you have a secluded group of villages who have no interaction with the rest of the world, they won’t worship the same deities as those in a metropolis. In a region where the main commerce is wine, the group of farmers who produce it may not have conflicts with the use of alcohol, even if there is traces of conflict in their religion.

Heretics/Extremists/Apostates/Heathens

Last but not least; your extremists, and pretty much crazy people who make your religion look bad. These are the small, and yes, to be extremist it is a small, group of people who stand out for their erratic behavior. These are the followers of your deities who generally don’t understand the basic concepts of their religion and take what they want from it and twist it to their own needs and desires. This doesn’t have to be serious, by the way. You could have an evil god and there is a sect of extremists who run around helping people instead, but do it in the name of said god so they can be left alone. So, in all religions there are the outsiders. In some cases, a person who isn’t a heretic will be labeled as such for going against the flow, which makes for good conflict in a story.

Heretics and heathens are disbelievers. Apostates have left the religion in pursuit of another belief system. Any of these can be antagonist/protagonists for your story.

Until Next Time!

I hope that long (sorry!) read was in depth and by the end you have a moderately fleshed out religion planned out for your new world. Even if you haven’t written a thing down, mull it over in your head and think about it.

This is all I could think of off the top of my head, but if I have more to add I will do so at a later date. I probably won’t get a PDF out until I’ve finished the world building series, but when I do I’ll do a blog post with all the goodies linked. :3

World Building Part 1: Basics

Added 3/1/2016 World Building Part 3: Nation Creation

Added 3/14/2016 World Building Part 4: Government

Added 3/22/2016 World Building Part 5: Calendar

Added 4/4/2016 World Building Part 6: Map Making

Added 4/18/2016 World Building Part 7: Culture

Added 06/13/2016 World Building Part 8: Floor Plans & Architecture

Added 10/24/2016 World Building Part 9: Creatures

Added 11/21/2016 World Building Part 10: Science!

Added 12/12/2016 World Building Part 11: Medicine

Added 01/09/2016 World Building Part 12: Names

*Edit*: I would like to recommend you read Robert’s comment below for even more ideas on fleshing out religious interaction with government and other variables that affect culture. 

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World Building Part 1: Basics

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I’m feeling very ambitious! I’ve decided to start a World Building series over the next couple of months. Not to say I won’t take a break to blog about something else now and then, but I think it’ll be fun. I love world building, and I feel confident that I have some decent advice to give. As I continue this series I’ll be coming back and posting links to all of the pages so eventually as it finishes you can start on this page and click ahead to any interested sections after. To begin!

Today I’m going to go over the most basic things you need to decide for your world. At this stage, it’s mostly about looking at your options and choosing more than actual building. What you’re doing is eliminating so that you can hone in on exact details later.

It’s All In The Details

A quick thing to go over, is that I personally find the most successful worlds are the ones drenched in detail. Writers who have files and companion guides for themselves with things that are never revealed to the reader in the novel. That being said, you have to introduce these things at a learning pace. If you overwhelm your reader with too much information too quickly, it’ll be lost on them or discourage them entirely from reading on.

Use The Real World For Inspiration

I refer to the real world quite often when looking for some inspiration for mythology and religion, as well as customs and attire. Our own reality is vast. I do not mean plagiarism or taking ideas from other artists. I mean looking to Tudor England for dresses, or Feudal Japan for laws. Take that inspiration and add your own twist. For example, the Song of Ice & Fire series is based on the War of Roses.

What Comes First?

Your story and your character. Your story is the ultimate guide for your world, at least in my opinion. You carve your world around your story and characters. It’s easier to fill in the blanks than you think. What I’ve found is I have my stories first and build the world around them, but as that world fills up around the stories, it springs more inspiration for offshoots of other characters as a result of that world building. The world becomes a continuous story itself from which to draw your muse. If you want to build your world first, no one is going to stop you! I however, find it easier to build my world around the story and characters first.

Names

Next on the agenda is naming your world! This is harder than it seems. You want a name that’s unique but not difficult to say or pronounce. Look to successful stories in other worlds; Middle Earth, Tamriel, Pern, etc. I went through a slew of names before I settled on Alperin™. Next, do a google search to be sure it isn’t already being used in that manner. Copyright infringement aside, you don’t want your work to be mixed up with someone else’s. Have fun with it, and even poll your friends and reluctant family to see what’s most popular.

Basic World Theme

Take a look at your story, and find a common theme or element. Is it horror? Is it adventure? Is it romance? Is it Gothic or cheery? Your world can be any of the above, or all three! Our own world has every theme imaginable, but in the beginning you want to keep things simplified. Mine is a fantasy in a Gothic backdrop, but that’s not to say there aren’t sunny beaches and dry deserts. I started with a Gothic fantasy in mind and went from there. So initially the setting was rainy and dank, with grays and muted colors, which lead me to think of cultural reasons for why that is so. Why do the characters mostly wear black or grey? And so on.

The Ripple Technique

I totally made that term up (to my knowledge) and I’ll do my best to explain. Your story starts in one place, or maybe two or three. As I world build, I begin with the place my story begins and extend detail outward from there. If your story starts in a city, begin with that. Name your city, decide its size, determine precincts and districts. Is it ruled by a mayor? A council? The first things to establish are name, size, and law. You could even begin with just the neighborhood. Does your story start on a farm? What does the farm grow? What is the geography? How is the weather pattern? Is a lack of rain the cause of problems? Why is that particular crop common to the region? And expand outward. It’s okay to world build as your story goes and as you need it. Don’t start off planning an entire continent or world, start small and it’s less overwhelming. If your story starts in the back of a wagon, build out from the wagon. If it starts in a bedroom, build out from the room to the house, from the house to the neighborhood/yard.

Write Everything Down! 

Keep track of all the places you have so far. Your world, towns, cities. Places even mentioned by other characters and why. Where are these places, in relation to your story? If you mention a river in chapter 1 and then say the same place is surrounded by dry plains in chapter 5, it’s an inconsistency. I don’t like inconsistencies. XD If you name a government, or a neighborhood, write it down! If you declare there are mountains to the east, write it down! Eventually you can draw out a basic map to refer to.

Next Time On…

These are very basic and vague tips to get you started, if they were more than vague I would be sitting here for hours. However, fear not! I’m going to continue this World Building series in all of its glory in weeks to come! I have at least nine more blogs planned going over these aspects in immense detail. I think this is actually going to be fun, for me at least. 😀

Added 2/22/2016 World Building Part 2: Religion

Added 3/01/2016 World Building Part 3: Nation Creation

Added 3/14/2016 World Building Part 4: Government

Added 3/22/2016 World Building Part 5: Calendar

Added 4/4/2016 World Building Part 6: Map Making

Added 4/18/2016 World Building Part 7: Culture

Added 6/13/2016 World Building Part 8: Floor Plans & Architecture

Added 10/24/2016 World Building Part 9: Creatures

Added 11/21/2016 World Building Part 10: Science!

Added 12/12/2016 World Building Part 11: Medicine

Added 01/09/2016 World Building Part 12: Names

The Terrifying Elation of Success

I hate disappointing people.

With the publish date of DB:C looming ahead (March/April), my anxieties of success and failure are culminating. I know this isn’t unique, but I can’t decide which I’m most afraid of. Failure is obvious. I don’t want to disappear into obscurity. My ultimate goal is for people to escape and find comfort in the worlds I’ve offered them. I want to ignite the feeling within a reader that was first sparked within myself while reading some of my favorite stories throughout my entire life. This world has been mulling around in my brain for as long as I can remember, expanding and growing with me. I don’t want people to reject it, because they would be rejecting me and what I find beautiful.

Do I really think everyone has to love my book? Of course not. Never, but I just hope that at least one person is inspired. I hope that one person’s day is brighter. I hope that one person thinks of Alperin as they close their eyes to go to sleep and maybe visit for a while in their dreams. I guess that is asking for a lot and I’m reflecting my own reactions to fantastical tales.

Success, however, is even more frightening. As I mentioned earlier, I hate disappointing people. If my first book is super successful and the masses adore it, nothing else I do will compare. Or it’ll feel that way at least. Expectations will rise with each new publication and the pressure will be enormous. I imagine that’s how some authors felt who broke into the public eye. The literary darlings on whom the majority of a populace, or subculture, hangs on their every written word. I think it would block me, maybe? Or does it empower?

That’s another fear, however. What if I get too big for my britches? (I’m from the south, deal with my sayings.) I don’t want to get to a point where I think I can do no wrong and my writing suffers for it. I think vanity and lack of insight of one’s own imperfections can stunt imagination. Or worse yet, mutate it into something unrecognizable.

Then of course will be the group of people who hate my work and let everyone know it. Then on top of them the other group of people who just pretend to hate anything popular for shock value. With all of the lovers come the haters. I don’t like hate. And I don’t like disappointing people. I don’t want to fail, and I don’t want to succeed. I think this is why, despite the fact that I’ve written several books since I was a teen (well, books that are novel length), I never had the cajones to query or publish. I hate rejection, who doesn’t? I hate rejection almost as much as I hate falling short of others’ expectations.

I would never dare assume that I would be successful. In fact I have a tendency to nay say myself to a point of irritation. I’m terribly insecure. I go into everything assuming I’ll fail, and when I don’t I’m pleasantly surprised. When I do, I was already prepared for it. That’s not a good outlook on life, I know. I’m not sure how to approach this, to be honest. I’m not sure if I should go in thinking the best and possibly be disappointed or go in thinking the worst and possibly be surprised.

I know this particular blog wasn’t super advisory or helpful, but as promised at the beginning this blog is also about my thought process while approaching publication. I felt this is an important (and rather driving) aspect of it. However, I must try and do my best. Whatever the positive/negative consequences.

Much Ado About Critiquing

Whether you’re about to query a big publishing house, pitch to a smaller house, or especially self-publish, you need your work critiqued.

The good old gauntlet (a term I’m fond of as it brings back D&D memories).

Today I want to go over the dos and don’ts of critiquing, whether you’re receiving or giving. I think there are certain rules of etiquette that must be taken into account when dealing with other people in any situation.

When Being Critiqued

I think these rules can apply whether you’re being critiqued by a group or an individual (paid or a really nice friend who does it for free).

Do thank them. This one may seem obvious, but it can be hard to remember to thank someone for ripping your precious work apart. If you’re in a critique group, remember that those people took time out of their day to read over and put thought into what they read. If you’ve paid someone to edit/critique your work, you would thank them as anyone else who does a service. You want to be able to hire them again.

Don’t defend your work. This is so, hard, to do. It really is. Your story, your novel, your work is your baby. I totally get it, I really do, but when someone is taking the time to give you constructive criticism, don’t defend everything. Don’t interrupt them to defend everything. If you’re going to defend and not listen, then don’t waste their time asking for a critique. Some things can be defended, such as a statement (like World War I does in fact begin with an assassination in 1914). Rarely, however, is it appropriate to defend your work. When being critiqued, unless asked a direct question, it’s good to let the person go through their notes and finish their say. This is ideal especially in a group setting when you have limited time. When one interrupts consistently to defend, it can drag out the time a critique takes. Instead, take notes of what they say and what you really feel must be explained and address it all in one go once they’re finished. I mean really must be explained, and if it must be explained,  odds are you’re leaving something vital out and you need to look over what you’ve written anyway.

Do remember that you don’t have to make every change that’s suggested. Advice is take it or leave it. However, that being said, if more than one person brings something up, it’s best to have another look at it and consider changing.

Don’t take it personally. Sometimes people get confused by the differences between constructive criticism and unhelpful mean spirited criticism. What I mean is, I’ve had people tell me mean things pertaining to myself rather than my writing, but in turn I’ve had people I know didn’t like me personally give amazing feedback for my work. Even if they mean it personally, it doesn’t mean you have to take it. So don’t. Don’t let it bother you. It’s easier said than done, and very hard to remember when they’re attacking you rather than your piece, but also remember that if someone is laying heavy into your piece they’re not attacking you personally. They may dislike your character, or feel that some of your actions are unbelievable, but that doesn’t mean they think the same of you. If you feel that someone is concentrating on yourself rather than your writing, you can do many actions to avoid this in the future. You can thank them for their time and not give them anything else to critique. Just as you don’t want to waste their time if you won’t accept their criticism, you also don’t want to waste your own time if they’re not constructive.

Don’t ever take in a first draft. I touched on this a bit in my blog about manuscripts. Whether you’re passing off your manuscript to a professional editor or to a group of friends in a critique group, never bring them the first rough draft. It’s really inconsiderate. I know it’s exciting, you really want someone to look at your newest creation! Well, they won’t notice how exciting it is for all the of typos, grammatical errors, and spelling inconsistencies. Not to mention fragmented and run-on sentences topped off with way too many adverbs. It’s hard to see the forest for the trees when it comes to first drafts. Do yourself, and everyone else, a favor and give it at least two or three read throughs before handing it off to someone else. I know that there are some editors and critique groups who won’t even look at a first draft for this reason. When you’re having to stop and correct the most basic of mistakes, you can’t get a feel for flow or plot or character development. Don’t just rely on spell and grammar check in word either, they can only catch so much. If you’re not willing to spend the time on your own writing to make sure it’s ready to be critiqued, why should you expect other people to?

Don’t give your work for someone else to critique only for the purpose of inflating your ego. Is this really a problem? Yes. Yes it is. These points, as you can probably tell, mostly pertain to critique groups or writing groups in particular (though I think most of these can be applied to professional editors as well) and there’s a reason for that. These are points that I learned throughout my years of attending a local writer’s group. I’m sorry to say, I ran into a few individuals who were guilty of this very thing. It’s wonderful when someone has something nice to say about your work, especially if it’s a specific scene or character, but you’re there for a purpose and that is to find the faults in your work. You’re there to discover not only what works but what doesn’t. Better to hear it from a friend/editor than read it on reviews I always say. Long story short, one person was so bad I stopped reading their work almost entirely and only found small things to praise her. She wasn’t interested in constructive criticism and made it clear that she wasn’t. She defended absolutely everything and never changed anything either. She was only there to receive praise for her mediocre (sorry, but it was, and why? because she never took any advice and believed she had no room to grow) writing. I decided not to waste my time with her work anymore.

If You’re Critiquing Someone Else

Do be professional. Don’t use negative unhelpful wording such as, “This part is stupid.” Instead, approach the problem rather than just be negative about it. “I really felt that Matt’s sister could have reacted more angrily. She just found out that her brother died and I think her grief would be more pronounced.”

Do give alternatives. What I mean by this is, if at all possible try to give helpful suggestions rather than pointing out the fault. Sometimes it’s written that way because they can’t imagine it any other. Example, “I noticed here that you said ‘he heard a knock at the door’. Maybe instead of using heard, you could say ‘a loud knock shook the door'”. Sometimes you just know something is wrong and you don’t know why, but even saying “I don’t know why, it just bothers me” is better than nothing. If something makes you pause while reading, go back and consider why that is.

Don’t just circle typos and other easy errors. You can certainly include those in your critique, but it’s not particularly helpful. If you absolutely can’t find anything else wrong, then be sure to tell them what a great read it was! If you can’t find anything that doesn’t work, then point out all the things that do, which is equally helpful.

Don’t point out grammatical/other errors and not explain why. I have a particular example to explain what I mean by this. Once I brought in a short story many years ago, and one person in our group circled all of the words ending in “ly”. That was all she did. Nothing else to say, and to be honest I suspected she hadn’t read it. I asked her why, which I felt was reasonable. I wanted to know what was wrong with those words so I could avoid them in the future if they were such a no no. She couldn’t tell me, just that “they’re wrong”. It wasn’t helpful and quite frustrating. When I got home I looked it up and found the explanation. So in a way, it was helpful because now I know to use “ly” sparingly and the reason for it (see what I did there?), but something to keep in mind is that not everyone would take that initiative. If you point out an error such as that, be sure to look up the rules for why it’s incorrect and make a note. I think that’s the most helpful thing you can do, and you’ll perhaps educate yourself on the matter while you’re at it.

Do be honest if you haven’t read it. Pertaining a bit to the above, if you haven’t had the time to read through someone’s work be honest about it. I don’t think skimming through two minutes before does them any favors. Just circling typos or “ly” words to make it appear that you’ve read through it aren’t helping, because as I said, if you truly find no other mistakes you still have the responsibility to point out the good and things that are working.

Don’t be completely negative. No matter what you read, I can promise you’ll find something redeeming. It’s not often you come across something so awful that you can’t find at least one good thing about it. When critiquing, I always like to end on a positive note (kind of like how I’ll do on this blog XD). Find the good and point it out. Was there a character you liked? Point them out. Was there a certain turn of phrase? Point it out! Don’t just focus on the negative, because as much as we need to hear what needs fixing, we also need to hear what’s working so we can bring more of that to the table. Your goal isn’t to knock someone down so much they want to give up, everyone should walk away from the experience wanting to pull up their bootstraps and try even harder. If all you hear is the negative, it’s very discouraging and that is not what this is all about. You have to find the balance between encouraging change and improvement while being positive.

Do remember to have fun with your like minded peers! This of course pertains to a group. Remember why you’re there: to have fun, get feedback, and to even socialize with people on the same spectrum as you. Whether you write different genres or not shouldn’t matter, writing is a creative process that you have in common. Yes! Even nonfiction!

I’m sure this post came across as a little preachy, and my personal experiences belonging to a wonderful (yet sometimes challenging) critique group is the reason for it. I have witnessed (and unfortunately done a few) every single thing I listed today. You will clash with people, no doubt. You may argue with them (at least phones now can help settle those relatively fast), but in the end you’re all there for each other. Strong friendships form and you can all bond over outside influences. Don’t write off anyone, and don’t let anyone else write you off. Some of my closest and strongest friendships were formed in our little critique group, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.