Friday, January 29, 2010

Interesting Agent Stats

Here is a link to Nathan Bransford's post yesterday. He is a well-known and very successful agent who always has an outstanding blog I like to follow. I found his post as well as many of the comments and questions insightful, so I thought I would make you aware of it if you were not already.  I was especially encouraged by the fact that about 30% of his queries are potentially publishable (of course, some with more work than others). So keep writing!

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Critiquing the Critiquer

So I've been wanting to join a critique group for a while, but had not been able to find one. Well, I finally met some people through my League of Utah Writers chapter that were also interested, so we started a group. Last night was our first time meeting, which went really well and was quite enjoyable.

There are a lot of bloggers out there who write about finding a critique group (including Natalie Whipple's great suggestions at Between Fact and Fiction). But although I have heard it discussed in workshops/presentations/classes, I have not found many bloggers responding to how to react once you have a group. This is what I would like to address today based upon my own experiences.

1.  Put in what you expect to get. Commit to give as much effort into each of your group member's writing what you want them to put into yours. My group meets face-to-face more frequently than I am able to commit to right now. However, I have openly told them to please continue to send me their drafts, and I will still respond electronically even if I cannot meet in person. As I did not want to take advantage of them or be selfish with their time, I asked them if they wanted me to send my pages regularly, or only the weeks that I felt I could be there. They all told me to continue to send my drafts to them even if I could not make the meeting.

2.  Find out what the writer thinks is his/her weakness. If at all possible, ask the writer what feedback they want before you even start reading. One group member last night said he would like some help converting a nine-page story into a six-page story in order to meet some submission requirements. So, of course I looked for more than just that, but I was able to focus in on words/phrases/sentences that he could either eliminate or combine. As a result, my critique was more helpful and directed toward what he was trying to accomplish with that particular revision.

3.  Find something positive. I am a firm believer that there is value in virtually everything that is written. There is a lesson/information to be learned, or some way to apply the literature. Individuals' writing drafts are no different. Always point out the positive things in their work, even if it is simply a perfect word or phrase. It gives the writer more confidence that they can do something correctly, and their writing is worth improving. There is always something to be built upon.

4. Don't be afraid to be honest. Straight fluff and happiness is not going to help a writer.  But you also have to balance that with kindness. If all you ever express is something like, "This is crap," you will destroy the writer's confidence. Instead approach it with "This didn't work for me. Here's something you could consider that might work better." I had a difficult time naming something specific that was positive in one particular excerpt I read for last night. It was not that it was not good; on the contrary, it was a great storyline and premise. There was one fundamental flaw that made the whole thing difficult for me to work with. I told the author that the biggest concern I had with the piece was that the character's fundamental personality shift was not believable in the characterization he established at the beginning. As I talked to him about it, he confirmed that my assumption for the shift was accurate, and I don't think he realized my assumption was not completely obvious already. I gave him a couple of suggestions of how he could fix it, which would need no more than a sentence added, but that sentence was crucial. After this conversation, he seemed to be glad to see that perspective, and equally glad that the way to correct it was so simple as well.

5.  Focus on one or two big things. Especially with a novice writer, you may occasionally feel like you get a draft that has so many problems you don't know where to start. First of all, mark up your copy with what you want. But when you actually talk to them, focus on one or two major things. Really, there are only two times when you should focus on grammar: a) if it is a huge, glaring mistake that repeats itself over and over, and b) if they say it is a final draft or that is what they want you to focus on. Chances are, they are going to remember what you say and take it into consideration a lot more than they will what you write anyway. If the other problems you saw are not resolved in future drafts, use those times to bring them up. Otherwise, if you try to tell them every single problem that is wrong, one thing is guaranteed - the writer will be as overwhelmed as you were when you received the draft, and all their creativity and desire will be stifled. And do really you want to be the one who made the next bestselling author stop writing? 

6.  Don't forget the "why." Let's be honest with ourselves; critiquing is a subjective activity, and there is no way to get around it. Sometimes what I like is not the same thing someone else likes, and vice versa. Equally, sometimes what I "get" or what "works" for me is not the same as what someone else, especially an author, meant. So if you qualify your criticism with why you feel the way you do about something, the author can at least understand your perspective. Then he/she can make a more informed decision about if they want to take your advice or leave it. 

7.  Leave ownership to the author. In conjunction with the guideline above, always remember that you are not the author. You can make as many suggestions as you would like, but ultimately, the author has the right to decide if he/she will accept what you offered. Do not be offended if the author decides to ignore what you have suggested. For example, in my draft I had a phrase that talked about only smelling the smells of smoke and cold. One critiquer made corrections to say "smoke in the cold." I appreciate his comment, but I will not be changing it because it does not say what I want it to say. When it is cold outside, there is a distinctive scent of the cold, and that is what I was trying to express.

8.  Know when to be quiet. With the above-mentioned story that gave me a difficult time, there were some other issues I wanted to point out, but I also did not want to make my review purely negative. So I said nothing. If the issues still exist in a future draft, I'll bring them up then, but I wanted to be sensitive to the writer's feelings. Also, if a writer decides not to accept your criticism, you may ask if they did that intentionally or just forgot, but if it was intentional, do not insist. Again, refer to guideline #7. Conversely, as a critiquee, accept the criticism that comes your way, even if you do not agree with it. Do not argue with the critiquer; remember they are just trying to help you. Instead, thank them and keep in mind guideline #7.

9.  Know when to leave. We all have different personalities. Just look at our choices of friends and acquaintances. We click with some people and not with others. I'm lucky enough to be in a group where I think I will work just fine with all the members, but that is not always the case. If a group is not working for you, find or start a new one. Or you may outgrow a group's benefit and need something else. If either of those are the cases, walk away. You are doing yourself no good, nor your group members. I tried to start a critique group a year or two ago, but no one else seemed as committed to it, and I was the only one who consistently showed up. Finally, I gave up and walked away. Now I have a new group that I think will be much better for me.

This guidelines have been gleaned from various resources and personal experience, but I know they work. Even last night, one group member mentioned to me that I have excellent insights. I tell you this not to brag, but to let you know that with the right focus and effort, any person can be a successful critiquer. The only other thing to remember is to also be a successful critiquee. And the last bit of advice I can give on that is to remember that your group members are trying to make your writing better; it is not a personal attack at you. (And for those rare times when it is a personal attack, find another group!).

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Celebrate with Me!

So I achieved a great milestone yesterday: I actually finished my first draft of my current novel.  I don't know if it's fully sunk in yet because I don't seem as excited as I think I "should" be.  Don't get me wrong - I am so glad it is done, but I'm also not finished with it yet.

Maybe that's the thing.  Maybe I'm dreading the next part.  This is a novel I really want to pursue publishing with, but I know that is going to be a lot of work.  And what I'm dreading most is what it needs the most: cutting.

My biggest weakness when it comes to writing is cutting.  Remember all those length requirements you had on your essays in school?  Yeah, I never had even a twinge of a problem meeting them.  In fact I usually had a harder time staying within the upper limit requested. 

I have a really hard time knowing what is essential, crucial information, and what is fluff.  I don't know what I can reasonably get rid of and not sacrifice my story; or (heaven forbid) what might actually make it better.  I really need a good, critical reader who is willing to read through it and say, "This is useless, but this is good."  Unfortunately, I don't have the money to pay someone who does that professionally on a regular basis (though I am joining a critique group, so I'm hoping they will help).

But today celebrate with me because I have a good first draft.  Now I just need to focus and teach myself how to make it great!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

New Year's Resolutions

So I've never really understood the purpose of New Year's Resolutions because I believe you should be trying to improve yourself all the time, not just once a year. And if you set a new goal, and then fall out of the habit of something, you should try to re-establish the habit relatively soon rather than wait months for the new year to roll around.

However, in keeping with other people's traditions, I have listed my "New Year's Resolutions" below. Mostly, they are just things I want to improve upon that happen to coincide with the new year. Some of them you'll care about, and some of them will interest you very little. But (at least for me) you seem to work more diligently to keep your goals when you write them down because now you are "accountable" for them.

1. To start off with a couple of obvious ones, I will write more consistently on my novels/stories/other ideas. I was in a pretty good daily habit for 6 or 8 weeks, then unexpected life hit and it all went out the window. But I am happy to say that I have been doing much better the last week or two.

2. I will maintain my blog better. Again, when life hit, all my writing suffered. I was pleased to find a few of you were worried I fell off the face of the earth - which means I actually have a couple of people who follow my blog. Right now my goal is to post at least weekly. I have a hard time doing more than that because I am still new to this and have a difficult time thinking of topics.

3. I will exercise 2 to 3 times a week. Of all my resolutions, this one will probably kill me the most. Anyone who knows me will say, "What do you need to exercise for?" Well, I am definitely not trying to lose weight, but I do need to maintain my health. Right now, I do practically nothing, especially since it is winter because I absolutely ABHOR the cold.  But my husband got me Wii Fit and another program, so I don't have an excuse anymore. And I'm hoping that they are something that my two-year-old can do with me too. Admittedly, this is a commitment I still need to actually start...

4. I will keep my daily "good thing" report. Again, a couple of months ago, anything writing-related fell apart. I was writing quite consistently every night about one good/fun/funny thing my son did that day. The idea was that when I had a rough day, I could go back and read about all the things that made being a stay-at-home Mom worth it. But I have not put in an entry for a couple of months, and I know there are a lot of things that I have missed during that time. I need to get back to those little quick reminders for myself and for my son.

So those are my goals for the next year. Feel free to check in with me every once in a while and see how I'm doing. Maybe that unexpected randomness will actually help keep me on track.