Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the category “Fantasy”

The Magic Never Grows Old

This is actually the eighth time that I am on the cusp of a book being published. This count includes a couple of self-published books that were picked up by Three Clover Press and repackaged with new covers, titles, and an extensive round of edits. A face-lift and open heart surgery never felt so good! But today I am as excited as I was the first time, and the second, and the third… You get the point. Sometime in the next two weeks, Ashbar, sequel to The First Decree, and the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award YA category, At The Walls Of Galbrieth, will be officially released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar front cover I wonder how it is for the big fish? When those A-list authors have their 20th, 30th, or 40th novel released, are they just as excited? Yes, I’m thinking of you, Terry BrooksGeorge R.R. Martin, J.K Rowling, Terry Goodkind. Are these authors and others coolly not checking their email every hour for the official notice from their publishers? Do they accidentally type their name into the Amazon.com search engine and browse down the list of books on their author’s name? I am, of course, way to cool to be checking every hour, myself. In order to be productive at work and give my sons the attention they deserve, I have set reminders for four times a day – I’m awake for eighteen, I figure that’s too compulsive! I have not yet held my review copy – it is on the way, I am promised, though this might have been a desperate ploy to shut me up (can’t blame them) – I remember each time it happened with almost the clarity of holding my newborn sons. The books, I have to admit, were not as slimy or noisy. I am currently 50,000 words into writing a fantasy novel for adults that I hope will be a series alongside the Wycaan Masters. I believe authors who keep two series running (Terry Brooks is my role model), then both series’ remain fresh. But I have promised to start the editing process for Book 4 (actually started with my writer’s group over the summer) before sending it off to Tourmaline’s wizards) so that they receive it by the end of 2013.

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Where it all began: Writing Book 1 with sons in an ancient Redwood forest.

The process is ongoing. Each magical, landmark moment: finishing writing the last page, sending the book to the editor, seeing the cover for the first time, receiving the review copy… these are all just stages in a journey to build not only a world, but a dynasty – a multi-generational world with a history of its own.

But that never stops these special moments of holding a real copy of your book for the first time being magical – and it never should.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Possessed By The Muse

After last week’s Eat, Pray, Love, Write post, I realized I had written something similar a while ago. It does suggest a (pathological) pattern, but the first step to healing is to recognize the problem and share with a few hundred on-line friends. No, don’t worry, I’m not subconsciously crying out for an intervention – I have too many stories to write!. Here is the earlier post: 

The scene might be the same in any house mid-week, early evening.

Your partner is rushing to make dinner, still in his/her office clothes. Ten- year-old son is irritable, primarily because he prefers to play wall ball than eat his lunch at um … lunch break…and is now grumpy and starving. He has even pointed out that the First Lady wants him to exercise more (you just lost my vote in 2020 Ms. Obama! Tell him to eat that sandwich we made him). Older son is drowning in homework and needs help. Unfortunately it is not math where he ends up explaining it to a perplexed calculator-wielding father – it is English and father is the fastest typist in the house.

imagesFrom deep within this maelstrom, hassled wife turns around from steaming cooking pots and sees an unset, messy dinner table, a swivel chair, and a writer’s desk. The writer, sitting in said chair, is distinctly facing the wrong direction, pounding his keyboard with a vengeance that clearly indicates he is not helping older son with homework.

Suddenly, she can’t help herself. Forgetting the wooden spoon in her hand (writers notice these details especially when the spoon is being flailed in said writer’s direction), she towers over the writer, hands on hips:

“You’re writing? Now? Man, you’re just possessed!”

When my extremely patient and understanding wife flips out with something like this, it does makes one ponder the extremity of the situation.

The problem is that after a stressful few months, I had a week off over the Christmas break, and kind angels put up our family in beautiful, snowbound Tahoe, 10,000 feet high in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Already on crutches from a knee operation, I was never going to cut the crisp, fresh snow on virgin slopes (I don’t even when not on crutches – at best I tumble down a 100 feet nursery slope, make sure there are photos, and then slink off for laced hot chocolate).

images-1But here, if only for a few days, I couldn’t help myself. The laptop comes on and a few snow-bound scenes of a new book somehow appear.

Possessed? Moi? Five months and 103.000 words later, despite an intense period at work and many other obligations, I type the final period, click the save command, and stare at the epilogue. Rough first draft of Wycaan Master Book 4 is completed.

Written mainly between 7.00-8.45 am and after the boys go to bed on weekdays, and a couple of hours on the weekend, or random pieces written during odd times. Waiting at the dentist, on the mass-transit BART commuting home, in San Francisco, Washington DC, Ventura, St. Louis, San Diego, and at too many airports.

images-3Possessed? Nah. Possessed would be finishing Book 4 and starting to write scenes of Book 5. Possessed. Out-of-control. Crazy.

I just wrote a few pages, mainly plot threads that I want to develop, characters that need to grow and confront their pasts. There is a bit of world-building with oceans and…

Starting Book Five might just be considered grounds for divorce, need to involve Family and Children Services, or a good psychologist (preferably one who is as much a fan of Tolkien as of Freud). 

Starting Book Five? “Now? Man, you’re just possessed!”

Fair point.

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Alon Shalev is the author of the 2013 Eric Hoffer YA Book Award winner, At The Walls of Galbrieth, Wycaan Master Book 1 and The First Decree, both released by Tourmaline Books. Ashbar – Book 3 – is due for release in October 2013. Shalev is also the author of three social justice-themed novels including Unwanted Heroes. He swears there is a connection. More at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@elfwriter).

Elves, Dwarves and Political Activists

“You can’t be serious!” she exclaimed, wrinkling her nose as though I had just made a pass at her, or uttered a politically incorrect sentiment. “You write about elves and dwarves running from one end of the world to another killing each other and making long speeches? I thought you were a serious writer.”

In honesty, she had not seen me for a few years, and even then, knew me in the context of my more political work environment. To her credit, she recovered and apologized, and I was able to refrain from pouring my drink into her lap. It was, after all, a good scotch.

images-2-1Friend or not, intentional or not, it still hurt. I thought I had passed this stage, smoothly presenting myself as ‘an author who writes in two genres’. I have practiced my opening line and it is now delivered with confidence.

I am involved in social justice causes. Even in my short eight years living in the US, I have built a fair resume of involvement. I have taken students almost every year to New Orleans, not only to help rebuild a community, physically and emotionally, but to bear witness so that the millennials will not make the mistakes my generation did. I have been involved in various campaigns here and abroad.  I know my local food bank well. Hey, you never had a black President before I came to the US! 

But yes, I love to lose myself in Middle Earth, Alaegasia, Westeros and, dare I add it to the list: Odessiya. It’s a nice break from the intensive campus environment to deal with stubborn dwarves and idealistic elves. While closeted in an urban concrete jungle, I can escape on a horse and gallop through ancient forests, over great ice plains, and to quaff an ale or puff a pipe (without the health risks) with good friends, all from a computer screen or ebook reader.

hobbits-in-pub The San Francisco Bay Area is intensely populated by a variety of the human species often identified by salt-and-pepper haired, wrinkled, colorful attire, and provocative bumper stickers. These aging ideologues have rich resumes of demonstrating against wars, civil rights. Watergate, and more recently, more wars, gay rights, and gun control.

While there are many who have fallen by the wayside, succumbing to burnout, those who have maintained their energy to keep demonstrating and fighting for what is right, all seem to have a secret place they go to recharge, relax, and to return energized to help create a better world to live in. It might be literature, meditation, family, friends, food, nature … it doesn’t matter. As a friend once said: Fixing the world is a marathon, not a sprint.

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Yeah, I write about elves and dwarves doing brave acts and striving for justice and honor. Sure I write about battles and loves, about friendships and magic, about the power of nature and good fighting evil.

It energizes me and often provides clarity and vision. And if I do occasionally wonder what Seanchai or Shayth might do about gun control or why some people are denied the rights and opportunities their neighbors have, well that’s because fantasy is not quite as far-fetched and detached from reality as my shocked friend might think.

God created the world in six days and on the seventh s/he rested…and may well have deservedly read Lord of the Rings.

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Here’s to whatever it takes for each of us to continue the journey we’ve chosen!

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Alon Shalev writes social justice-themed novels and YA epic fantasy. He swears there is a connection. In celebration of the upcoming launch of Ashbar, the third in the Wycaan Master series, Tourmaline Books are offering for August only,  the 2013 Eric Hoffer Book Award for YA - At The Walls Of Galbrieth – for 99 cents (kindle only).

Other Side of the Street

“Oh you can’t write in more than one genre. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

The man was lecturing me at a recent holiday social event. He is himself an author, not famous, but has several detective novels out. Despite my noble attempts to argue with him, his words have haunted me.

Followers of this blog know that I have three social justice-themed novels published and more on the way. I have written a sequel to Unwanted Heroes and have a framework for a third book involving many of the same characters and also based in San Francisco, the city I find so rich in novel fodder!

Heroes Low Res Finished Cover 11.18

But I am also excited to be writing Young Adult Epic Fantasy. Over the past three years I have written three novels – a series – and the first was just published with Tourmaline Books. 

While I see a lot in common between epic fantasy and more activist literature, in terms of imbuing certain values, I have to admit that I often feel embarrassed revealing to someone who knows me through my social justice-themed novels and Left Coast Voices that I also write YA epic fantasy.

Wycaan Master 1 Just Front Cover

I tried to explain to the man that I maintain separate blogs (elfwriter.com) and twitter accounts (@elfwriter) and that my target audiences for both are very separate – actually I am not the only one who enjoys more than one genre – but he would not hear of it.

I am very proud of my social justice-themed novels. When I give talks I begin by stating that I write novels that highlight social injustices with everyday characters who discover they can help create a better world. 

I am passionate about this and it is what has kept me writing not only the four novels I have completed, but also nearly 800 blog posts in just over two years. I know I am not alone. It is why you read this blog and why I have 19,000 twitter followers.

But I love my epic fantasy books as well. It began as a project together with my sons (I would read a new novel to them on each of our annual summer camping trips. Snuggling in my tent or sitting around the campfire have become definitive memories for all of us. Seeing my eldest cradle the first copy of At The Walls Of Galbrieth with such pride was priceless).

DSCN0193But it has become more than just a family project. As I have met more fantasy fans through the social media I mentioned, I have discovered a rich and wonderfully warm group of people. And if some are a bit quirky, well, I love it.

Writing Young Adult affords an opportunity to share values I believe important with a different age group and if I play a small part in helping create the next generation of book readers, then I am also very proud of my work.

And I will continue to write in both genres for as long as I feel inspired to do so.

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Alon Shalev is the author of three social justice-themed novels: Unwanted Heroes, The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

The $0.99 Dilemma

I have a YA epic fantasy novel (I know, not exactly social justice -themed, but I have tried to drop a few values among the swords and magic) that will hopefully be published before the end of the year.

Give that is my first foray into the world of fantasy, it has been recommended that I offer the ebook for $0.99. I would receive only a 35% royalty rather than the standard 70%. The idea is that the first book is so cheap – Less than that cup of coffee you’re holding. And it doesn’t cool off as you read your way through – that genre readers will take a risk on an unknown fantasy author. The quality of the book will hopefully hook a sold readership that will buy subsequent novels in the series (there are already two more written and a fourth on the way).

It makes economic sense. I have invested my own money in a professional editor and an artist who is designing the cover. Otherwise, it is my time and the sweat of my loyal friends at the Berkeley Writers Group. There are hardly any costs involved after the initial set up – website overheads, promotion etc. – but no trees are being felled, replaced, distributed, returned and pulped.

As a consumer, I have found myself dismissing any fiction ebook over $10 on principle, and used to be skeptical about a book under $5, assuming the author might not be ‘good enough’ to sell his/her book at a respectable price. The latter assumption has been somewhat modified since reading a number of excellent books for less than a fiver.

Jeff Rivera wrote an interesting article: Writers: Making a Living Off of Kindle?. He intervieweJ. A. Konrath, the author of the Jack Daniels detective series. Mr. Konrath is making a living primarily from his ebooks and is justifiably proud of it. He points out that he is making more from his digital books than his tree books.

Mr. Konrath sells his latest novels electronically for $2.99. With Amazon’s royalty system, he will make $2.04 off each book. He sells his older novels for $1.99. The idea behind this is that people will probably hear of his latest and read that first. After enjoying the book, they can go in and order 5 for $10. They are now packed for their vacation! Even if they order them one at a time, his books are at the price level of an impulse purchase for most people.

But I am having a hard time offering up my baby for $0.99. It seems almost disrespectful to the characters after all I put them through. The book is 95,000 words long, has been critiqued, edited, have its cover professionally designed and undergone a manicure and pedi.

But this is where the businessman/woman comes in, where the agent steps back and sees the big picture. If this is the first in a series of exciting books that a large following will invest in and root for the characters, then there should be no barriers to the reader taking a chance with the first book.

So here are three questions that, if you are so inclined, I would appreciate you answering in the comments:

1) What is your first thought when you see that a book that caught your eye is priced at $0.99?

2) What is the highest price you would pay for an ebook from an author you have never read?

3) What is the highest price you would pay for any work of fiction in ebook format?

I appreciate your guidance. Happy to hear any feedback on the topic. For more on my foray into the world of fantasy, I blog weekly at elfwriter.com and tweet with the same handle.

Have a great weekend.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Can Fantasy Be A Vehicle For Social Change?

I believe passionately that writers of fiction can ply their craft to help effect positive social change and offer a platform for values and principles. The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale both reflect this and I have a series of books focusing on social issues in the US (all based in San Francisco) beginning with Unwanted Heroes which will be released by Three Clover Press later this year and highlight the way we treat war veterans and the homeless.

I was delighted when Kaitlyn Cole from Online Universities shared a list that their faculty had put together entitled: 50 Best Novels For Political Junkies.

Kaitlyn wrote: “True story: Some of the best political novels aren’t explicitly about politics. Yes, some of the books on this list deal directly with governments and politicians, with laws and the ways they’re made or abused, and with the peril and promise inherent in every governing body. But some of them use adventure, parable, or satire to subtly explore our political system with a depth that wouldn’t be possible any other way.”

Great point and relevant to those of us who write political fiction. But how about fantasy? Is there room to use our elves and dwarves to promote social injustices or causes? 

Over the last three summers I was blessed with the amazing experience of writing three fantasy novels together with now 13-year-old son. While I have read a few fantasy novels, I had no idea about the “rules” of the genre.

Writing with my son, however, compelled me to include moral issues such as racism, dictatorship and freedom, as well as the values of friendship and inclusiveness. I was writing for my son and there are plenty of swords, quests, elves, dwarves etc., but as I watched him read and listened to his feedback, I waited for his comments about such issues and derived huge satisfaction when he brought up issues.

In setting my goals for an exercise at Author Salon, I wrote:

“I have seen the impact of the Harry Potter series and Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series on my son and his friends. I want to help shape the landscape of the next generation’s imagination and maybe even the society they strive to create.”

 My lack of knowledge regarding fantasy leads me to ask the question: Can fantasy offer a vehicle to discuss political and social injustice? I would love to hear your answers.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Turn Write At The Next Junction

Family vacations are always special for my little clan. Once a year, we pack up our considerable collection of camping gear and head to the mountains, lakes and redwoods. Without Internet and electricity, we have no choice but to hike, fish, and enjoy beautiful Northern California and Oregon, and each other. This year there were two highlights. We all followed my eldest’s passion for archery and it has hopefully become a family hobby.

Two years ago. I wrote the first Wycaan Master book together with my eldest son. I have blogged about this previously. Last year, I wrote the second book before we went away and each night, we sat around the campfire or snuggled in my tent as I read to them a few chapters at a time.

This year, we followed suit, reading the third book of the series. Everyday I waited with anticipation to read and treasured their responses. As the books have become more intricate, my youngest (now 9 years old) sometimes had a hard time following and peppered me with questions, often later that night when he was supposed to sleep, or the next day in the middle of another activity.

Now I know that family are not supposed to be considered as impartial critics. In truth, they had a lot of constructive criticism and suggestions, most of which I adopted. But I cannot imagine enjoying the level of engagement that they experienced and expressed from anyone else.

Back in the Bay Area and it is time to make major decisions. There is time as I outsource the books for some professional editing, but I am considering alternative options to publish the series.

A fascinating conversation with a representative at a publishing house with a long history of epic fantasy titles has left me wondering how long to walk the traditional path. She told me that they spent considerable time discussing the option of signing me even though they had previously made a business decision to stop publishing in this genre. It just doesn’t make business sense in the current economic climate, she told me. It has nothing to do with the quality of your work.

I feel a degree of frustration as I have been watching other fantasy authors and their respectable and consistent ranking on Amazon.com. Daniel Arenson, who is the author of the Requiem series and others, announced the following at the end of June:

“100,000 books sold. Bloody hell. You bought 100,000 of these silly books about dragons, swords, and spells. You’re nuts. But THANK YOU, readers. It’s been a crazy ride.”

I have no doubt that Mr. Arenson worked extremely hard to get to this significant landmark. He wrote great books and went out and did it by himself.

I congratulate him…and wonder.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

8 Lessons For Authors From The Hunger Games

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie but plan to, you might want to skip today’s blog post.

There have been a number of articles gleaning lessons from the Hunger Games for their preferred audience. Apparently, everyone is getting protective about having the original idea and the others not giving credit to them. So let’s get that behind us: I had the idea for this post after reading David Berkowitz‘s article for a fundraising magazine.  Thank you, David.

For those of you from another planet, “The Hunger Games,” is an amazing high-concept story about a post-apocalyptic society that annually sacrifices twenty-three teenagers as a way of reminding everyone who is in power.

1) Define Your Goals: Set A Few Simple Tasks: It took Katniss (the heroine) a while to decide what she needed to do in order to win (kill the others). Her mentor gave her clear first steps – get away from the Cornucopia, find water and shelter – which in turn gave her confidence and momentum. 

2) Know What You Are Writing: Heroine Katniss is the archer. Her cohort Peeta could pin Hulk Hogan. Figure out what your strengths are and play to them.

3) Know Your Target Audience And Find Them:  Cinna, is a one of the most enjoyable characters in both book and movie. He is Katniss’ and Peeta’s stylist, responsible for ensuring that the crowd sit up and notice them. Together with Haymitch, their district’s adviser, they come up with a strategy to earn not only the support of the people, but also the all-important sponsors (media outlet or publishers for authors). What is important is that they stick to the strategy and maintain a consistent message.

4) Find Your Own Platform, And Get Comfortable With It: Katniss soon learned that the forest was her friend, using the stealth methods she had honed hunting. Likewise, she was both good and familiar with the bow as her weapon.

As authors, we often join every social media and adopt every tactic, essentially not doing much in any category. Choose a platform – blog, Facebook, etc. and consistently work through it. If you decide to go via bookstores, be consistent and follow up with every bookstore before, during and after an event.

5) Be Generous – There Is Something To Karma: Katniss had endured a tough childhood and carried the obvious scars. She was stubborn, a rebel, and uncooperative with her advisor and most everyone else. But she cared about others and this eventually paid off. Three other tributes saved her life because of this.

We are not competing with other authors. People aren’t choosing between their books and ours. Help others, share your experience, be generous with your time. People remember who stood by them and supported them. They will be there for you.

6) The Rules Change: The organizers freely change the rules in the Huger Games to suit their own goals. There is nothing fair or just, they simply want to achieve their own goals. Be ready to change tactics. If you are only selling books out the back of your car (still works for me!), and not on the Internet, you haven’t been paying attention.

7) Choose and Trust a Mentor: Haymitch, the advisor to Katniss and Peeta, was the only other citizen from their district to survive and win the Hunger Games. As a rude, obnoxious recluse who is also an alcoholic, he doesn’t really inspire.  But he made it and knows his stuff. Find a mentor and stick with them.

8) The Odds Are Never In Your Favor: so get over it. There is no guarantees for success.  It is not quite as bad as the Hunger Games where there are no second or third chances. Read a lot. Learn from others’ mistakes, learn from yours, and okay: may the odds be ever in your favor.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

 

I Didn’t Make The Cut

I’m bummed. This week 50 writers saw their manuscripts advance to the Semi-Final stage of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award – YA category. My humble offering – Wycaan Master – was not one of them. It reached the Quarter-Final, ahead of a few thousand others, but…

In an odd sense of timing, I will finish reading the 95,000 word epic fantasy story to my writer’s group. They stuck with me over the past 18 months though none (until the last couple of months) read or are interested in fantasy. Thank you – Berkeley Writers Group.

Either you think epic fantasy is alive and thriving (Tolkien, Terry Brooks, R.A. Salvatore etc.,) or you think the only fantasy that sells is high concept – Harry Potter, The Hunger Games…

It is hard writing in two genres – social justice-themed novels reflect my lifestyle and values. Young-adult fantasy was inspired by a writing project with my preteen son and has been a lot of fun. But they serve two separate target audiences and I maintain a seperate blog and twitter account (both under the elfwriter name).

I have to admit, I’ve arrived at a junction. I have not only sweated over a first YA fantasy manuscript, but completed a second, and am 30,000 words into a third. It is  a series and I must admit: I’m kind of hooked on it.

I want to see how my young heroes (and villains – who I am also quite attached to) grow. Will the races of Odessiya unite? What is the Emperor’s secret power that enables him to keep winning? Will shy Seanchai and his guide, Ilana, ever hook up?

As a reader becomes hooked on a series and feels compelled to read through to the end, I have discovered that so can an author become ensnared. It might well be an issue of not writing an outline and having faith in the story evolving, but I need to discover what happens in the world I’ve created.

Even if I didn’t make the cut.

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Criticizing Critique Groups

I’ve recently read two interviews/articles with authors who were negative or detrimental about writers or critique groups. Neither would have fazed me, but having read both at one sitting, well, it irked.

I have facilitated the Berkeley Writer’s Group for more than five years now. There is a core group and a larger transitional crowd who join for a period of time. It is a working group – if you are looking for a social meeting, this is not for you.

Usually, 8-10 individuals will read, receiving 15 minutes to share about 1,200 words (if fiction), or a few poems, article etc. Before they read, they can ask for feedback on a specific aspect and we also write comments on the manuscript copies that they distribute. When they finish reading they shut up and listen unless asked a question (this is the hardest part!). We try to be constructive but honest and there are occasionally bruised egos.

For the past 6 months, I have been reading my YA epic fantasy: Wycaan Master / At the Walls of Galbrieth (I still can’t decide between the two). No one in the group (until a woman recently joined us) were fans of fantasy and, given that they had helped me with two social-justice themed novels, were not happy with my change of direction.

As I near the end of the manuscript, I feel a great appreciation for the group. Certainly, it has not been easy and there are times that I would love to be sharing with people who understand the genre, but there is something incredibly refreshing in their comments, as readers who can look down from 10,000 feet, with perspective.

I recently mentioned that I have changed the teacher figure. He was very much a hybrid of Obi-Wan Kenobi, Brom and Gandalf and my group found him formal and predictable. The agent who is coaching me also commented on this and urged me to turn the character on his head.

He transformed and became a funny and unpredictable woman. She aged, but still had the strength and energy necessary; it just didn’t always come easy. I feel this has had a fundamental impact on my novel, particularly where there is often a middle sag, and added a richer layer, while also distinguishing the book from comparables in the genre.

This, and much more, came from people who, while not experts, care about their craft and also about mine. They are not a replacement for the professional editor, but s/he will receive a cleaner manuscript and I will have a richer story.

I often hear from people who speak derogatory about writer’s groups. Usually, they have had a bad experience or two, and so their attitude is understandable. But a good writer’s group is about mutual support, not fluffing or shattering someone’s ego, but it is above all a group communicating in a very honest and artistic way.

And we do it all face-to-face, with no screen in between. A last bastion of a dying culture?

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Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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