Tuesday, November 12, 2013

To Pants or to Plan? That is the Question...

What kind of writer are you? Are you a write-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writer? Or are you a plan-every-single-detail kind of writer? In reality, most people sit somewhere in the middle.

My personality is such that I am an organizer...much to my husband's chagrin sometimes. I'm getting better at not getting so uptight when the flow doesn't go according to plan, but I still find I need to schedule things or they don't happen. When it comes to my writing, however, I've found I have to let both aspects participate to get the best product possible.

Because of the advantages and disadvantages of both "pantsing" and "planning," a combination of the two approaches works best for me. From bad experience, I have found that if I don't at least plan the major plot points along my storyline, my story is unfocused, which means it requires A LOT more work in revision. I don't have a clear character arc, which makes my character inconsistent; nor do I have a clear plot arc, which means I have to cut a lot of events which are really boring to the reader (no matter how cool I think they are). My character arc in particular really suffers because there's no clear development of understanding in my character; instead, she bounces all over the place.

But if I plan every single detail, I lose a lot of the excitement of writing. It becomes an exercise rather than a creative process. So I have to let loose a little too. For me, that means I know that my character starts at Point A, and will eventually hit Point B, but I don't really know how or when she'll get there. That process is where my character gets to reveal herself to me a bit more. (Points in the story continuum, for me, are usually critical events for the development of the plot and/or character.) I'm still fascinated by the times when I am writing a conversation, and I get to the end of the conversation, and my character has made a discovery or understood something completely differently than what I thought she would. Those moments are always fun because the scenario has come alive, and I think the progression of events is more realistic and natural to the character.

The other day, however, I basically "pantsed" a whole story, which I never do. I had a basic concept, essentially the climax. But I had no idea how to turn it into an actual story. For weeks I cogitated on it, but the most I could get was a snippet of an opening scene. Really just an image. I went to a write-in where I had to write something for a set period of time. I didn't have anything really to work on at the moment, so I started the story. I wrote that opening scene and then followed the logical progression of events. As I wrote, the whole story unfolded before me perfectly. No matter how much I had tried to plan, I really just needed to write.

So try something new. If you're a pantser, try to plan a story. If you're a planner, try to pants one. It doesn't have to be anything long; but you just might find a combination of the two that actually works better for your writing process.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Nontraditional Spin on "The Belly of the Whale"

My critique/blogging group has decided to focus on the various steps in the hero's journey.

I'll be honest -- I know very little about the hero's journey. I'm not much of an epic fantasy writer/reader, though I've become more familiar with the classics over the years. And I'm more focused on writing a good story than following a specific formula.

However, there is one step that sorta intrigues me. My take on it may not be exactly accurate, but perhaps it will be refreshing for you to see a different perspective.

I'm talking about "The Belly of the Whale."

Campbell, the Hero's Journey Oracle, defines this step as:
The hero, instead of conquering or conciliating the power of the threshold, is swallowed into the unknown and would appear to have died...Instead of passing outward, beyond the confines of the visible world, the hero goes inward, to be born again. The disappearance corresponds to the passing of a worshipper into a temple—where he is to be quickened by the recollection of who and what he is, namely dust and ashes unless immortal....That is why the approaches and entrances to temples are flanked and defended by colossal gargoyles: dragons, lions, devil-slayers with drawn swords, resentful dwarfs, winged bulls. The devotee at the moment of entry into a temple undergoes a metamorphosis.
This particular step is near the beginning of our hero's journey in Campbell's formula, the point where the hero can no longer turn back. According to changingminds.org, entering the Belly is basically the point in which the hero first enters the dangerous lands.  Based upon this definition, "The Belly of the Whale" must be toward the beginning of the story.

But the phrasing that is fascinating to me is "the hero goes inward, to be born again" and he "undergoes a metamorphosis." I don't know about you, but to me that sounds like an epiphany moment. And at least in my experience, that rarely happens at the beginning. Even in Harry Potter, this epiphany moment happens almost literal to Campbell's description at the end where Harry "appear[s] to have died," "metamorphos[es]" and is "born again," ultimately defeating Voldemort.

Even the step's title story of Jonah and Whale has the epiphany at the "end" of the story. After Jonah repents from his disobedience of God, he is spit out on the shore by the whale, then preaches repentance and converts the people. But realistically, who remembers the last part of the story? Relatively few. Everyone remembers him being swallowed by the whale as he tries to escape God, repenting, and then the whale spitting him out. The rest of the story is the falling action, which ties up the loose ends, but as far as story is concerned, we don't particularly care.

And so it goes with almost everything we read.

To me, the "Belly of the Whale" is analogous to the climax, the epiphany, or is at least an ongoing thing throughout the whole story. In epic fantasy, the focus is on the external adventure, the journey. But that is not the case for many stories. Many stories are more about the internal and emotional journey. It doesn't happen once at the beginning and then we're done. If that were the case, we'd be bored with these stories because we read many of them to watch the character grow into a better (or sometimes worse) person. This is particularly true in YA and MG.

As I stated at the beginning, however, I may be completely misunderstanding this step in the hero's journey. However, perhaps looking at the overall idea in an unfamiliar way may spark some new ideas in you.

My advice: leave a bit of "belly" for the end.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Making Setting Work For You

Establishing when and/or where a story takes place is necessary to any story. Certain stories don't (or can't, i.e. flash fiction) need much space to describe the setting. But some amount is necessary in order for a reader to feel grounded in the story. It is impossible for your reader to "get" your story without at least a minimal sense of where they are.

For most of us, that means taking a paragraph or two to describe the scene that our characters find themselves in. However, I learned a principle from Clint Johnson that I strive to follow. He terms it "triple-duty writing," and it basically means that every word you write illuminates something about your character, plot, and setting. It's extremely difficult to do all the time, but he has a great presentation with hands-on applications to help you get a feel for how to do it.

His techniques combined with other things I've learned from conferences and craft books have changed how I look at setting. I filter everything through my POV character and their current state of mind. The setting description is going to change based upon the mood, plot, action, etc. For example, if one character is feeling uplifted, s/he may notice the beautiful colors reflecting off the clouds in the sunset. If a different character who is angry sees the exact same sunset, s/he instead may notice the impending storm in those same, dark clouds. Or even the opposite: s/he may still notice the colors but only because it is giving him/her a headache. What aspects of the setting you describe -- and how your character responds to it -- is a great way to emphasize your character's mood or frame of mind.

Also consider what is happening in your story as you describe your setting. Think action sequence. If a character is racing down a hallway, running from the bad guys who are shooting at him/her, there is a sense of urgency that will prevent the character from seeing details. S/He will not see how many doors are in the hallway, or what colors they are, or the ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling. S/He will notice that he/she tried several doors that were all locked until finally one halfway down on the left was open. That's all the setting your character has time for.

I have to laugh, and give some credit to, action movies. They all have the obligatory, tender "reconciliation" scene before the big, end, "we're-all-gonna-die" battle. I've never been in a life-or-death situation, but sometimes these scenes seem rather out of character for the actors and storyline, which is what I laugh about.  (Most recently, I think of A Good Day to Die Hard.)  However, to their credit, the directors never put these scenes in the middle of the actual action, but instead in the calm before the storm. Or if they do put it during the action, it's always comical because we intrinsically know that such a scene would never happen at that moment.

But that's the hard thing about writing: everything intrinsic has to become extrinsic.

But writing through your character's POV doesn't mean you can entirely forget your reader either. For example, I had a member in my critique group submit a chapter of his novel which takes place in a courtroom. After reading a few pages, it was obvious this was not the earthly courtroom that I had envisioned. I suggested to him to still mention it was a courtroom, then describe the things that were different from what I would expect. That prevents him from describing everything, but still keeps me grounded in the logic of the story.

The great writers always use setting to their advantage. I dare you to read any classic work wherein the setting is just a placeholder and isn't actually adding to the story. I think you'd find it difficult to find such a book. I recently re-read The Pearl by John Steinbeck, and I was impressed with his master storytelling for so many different reasons. One of these reasons included his use of setting. A couple of times throughout the story, he almost seems to step outside of the story to describe "stuff" around the character. But I quickly realized these moments served a greater purpose: they reflected the thoughts/feelings of the characters, or they paralleled the storyline. One such scene describes the little fish being devoured by the larger, more carnivorous fish. This scene perfectly reflected the actions of the story at that moment.

So if you want to step beyond being a mediocre, or even good writer, start making your setting work for you. Don't think of it as just another thing to add in to your story, but rather figure out how it can enhance your story.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Intensive Revision -- and What I Gained From It

I've been intensively revising some stories the past month in order to submit them to various contest. I just finished (hopefully) the last one yesterday. It was interesting to me that the intensive, short-term focus on making things "better" actually taught me a lot about myself as a writer.  

The best part is, now my future "first drafts" will be that much better.

Below are some of the pitfalls (and advice) of writing in general, and my writing specifically, that I can now avoid.
  • Value of Critique Groups -- My group's advice on both of my stories was invaluable. I wrote a flash fiction story (1000 wds or less), and it was my first attempt at such a thing. I was pretty happy with the story, and my first time meeting with my critique group gave me some pretty positive feedback. Of course there were things here and there that needed tweaking, but overall, it was mostly "done." One member of my group, who writes quite a bit of flash fiction, wasn't there, however, and I really wanted his feedback. He liked the story overall, but not really the organization. I had a couple of flashbacks, which I think were fairly easy to follow, but still, not the best tactic for a super short story. However, I couldn't picture the story any other way and maintain its focus. This particular group member told me to write chronologically, but that would mess with some of the elements of the story, so I still didn't get it. But he spelled out exactly, scene by scene, how my story should flow, and it made total sense. I rearranged my story exactly how he suggested, and I think it made for a better story.
  • Ideas Come from the Strangest Places -- I think I've already told you about my Spa story and where that idea came from, but here's a quick recap. I was reading a short story that was a zombie story (though they weren't ever called that). The research facility in the story was inside a private spa within the abandoned royal castle. At the end of the story, the zombies come to the spa to worship Rasputin, who has been resurrected. Thus, an evil spa. My story is vastly different, but that was the beginning. The premise of my flash fiction story came from an unexpected place. My husband and I were reading a book about the science of spirituality called Fingerprints of God. A reporter was gleaning through all the current research to either prove - or disprove - the existence of God. (Ultimately, she did neither.) One study put each member of a couple in separate rooms. One member focused all their love and attention in their thoughts to the other member, and the other member was supposed to indicate if they felt anything. (Of course it was all randomized so it was scientific.) There definitely seemed to be some sort of connection within the couple.  Thus the idea of all things being "attached" to each other was born, and I just needed a very arrogant character who invented a device to read these attachments. 
  • Word Length Isn't Everything -- As I'm sure you've figured out by now if you read my blog very often, I am very verbose. There is a reason why I'm a novelist, and not a short story writer. I can't do stories. I have too much to say and not enough space to say it in. But I'm dabbling in stories just for fun, and also to make my novels tighter, and therefore better. The contest I was submitting my flash story to had a word limit of 1000 words. Some flash contests require 750 or even 500 or less. I was really grateful for that extra bit of cushion. My story ended up around 760, and I feel like it is fairly complete. Another story I started writing for the same contest was just a short story with a word limit of 6000 words. I blew past that and still had lots to write. I liked the story, but felt discouraged because I had no way to revise it enough and still make it good. A group member suggested I submit it to a different contest that has a word length limit of 17,000. Once I finished the first draft, I was around 12,300 -- well under my limit. That luxury of space was freeing. I still tried to tighten, and shorten the story, but I didn't have to do it because of word count. And here's the important thing I learned from that: sometimes I found sentences that could be shortened by choosing a different wording, but it would change the meaning or be out of character. Since I wasn't so concerned about word limit, I could focus more on believability of the story and choose to keep things a few words longer because it fit my context better. Word length definitely is not everything.  I ended up just under 12,000 words.
  • Filter Words are Useless -- I have a whole bunch of filter words that are useless. Filter words are those words that add distance between you and your reader. In practical terms, they just add a bunch of unnecessary verbage to your sentences. My most common filter words? "Began/Started to..." "It seemed..." "He/She saw..." Unless it's crucial to focus on the literal beginning of something, then just say what is happening. "It seemed" implies that what is "seemingly" happening really isn't, but most of the time it actually is. So get rid of "seemed." And "looked/saw" is already implied when you are accurately writing from a character's POV.
  • Contractions are Natural -- I don't know if it's years of training in academic writing before seriously pursuing creative writing, but for some reason I tend to have a more formal tone in my stories. That means I spell a lot of things out rather than using more natural contractions. This is something my critique group calls me on all the time. But this more intensive revision in a relatively short period of time really slapped me in the face with how many times I had to fix it. I think I "read" the contraction, but I don't write it. 
It seems to me that nothing quite puts your writing abilities in perspective as doing an extreme revision (like from first draft to final) in a relatively short period of time. It's a lot easier to see the mistakes you make over and over and over, and therefore it's a lot easier to know which mistakes to avoid the first time around on the next writing.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Knowing Your Characters

Depending on which theorist you listen to, there are only 6, 7, 10, or 20 basic plots for every story. But regardless of the number, the message is clear: there are a limited number of stories to tell. You don't believe me? Look at all the fairy tales. Basically they all follow this plot: a girl (usually a princess) gets in trouble, and a handsome young man (usually a prince) helps her out. But we still like to read the stories of Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Mulan. So why do we keep reading (and writing) the same stories over and over?

The characters.

We want to get to know these people and how they act -- and react -- to the world around them. That is what makes a story unique and interesting. We wonder how Sleeping Beauty's curse will destroy, or save, the kingdom. We want to know what Snow White will do when she is told to run and hide rather than be killed. And how will Cinderella exact revenge on her wicked stepmother? Or Mulan save her family's honor?

So if characters are THE crucial element to your story, how do make them so fascinating that your readers will want to finish your story and beg for more?

Become your characters.

This is a lot easier said than done, but here are a few tricks I have learned that help me get to know my characters:

  • Model your characters after someone you know. If your character shares at least one personality trait in common with you or a close family member or friend, it becomes much easier to anticipate how that character will believably respond in a situation.
  • Know more about your character than your reader ever will. Kirt Hickman has a great list of information to know about your character in his book Revising Fiction, including their religious attitudes, political perspectives, sexual orientation, education, family background, and countless other things to consider. Depending on the story I am telling, some of these categories become more important than others, but family relationships (or the lack thereof) are consistently significant. So much of our personality and perspective of life comes from our family background.
  • Constantly step into your character's shoes. Constantly check to make sure you are writing from your character's perspective as opposed to your own. As you write, you should always be asking yourself: "My character's personality is X. How would an X-person react?" For example, in a novel I am working on, I have a character who is rather intelligent, but not very confident, and a bit shy. She does not have low self-esteem, however. It's a subtle difference, but an important one, because as the story progresses, the influence of something else causes her to act the exact opposite of how she would normally. Rather, she is very brazen and brash. In this particular story, I have to frequently think about how a shy character would act/react, as well as a forward person, in order to make the dichotomy clear.
  • Have a basic understanding of human psychology. Knowing how people tend to react in certain situations, or the range of possible reactions, helps you make your character more believable as a real person. And it helps you find where your own personal experiences sometimes differ from the general experience.
  • Have a critique group/friend. Have other people read through your story and comment on if your character is believable, interesting, and realistic. Often others will see problems and successes that we don't see ourselves.
  • Daydream (or night dream) about your character. I often find my time in the shower or car becomes a great opportunity to run through various story scenarios to find the one that seems most logical and natural. As a result, when I sit down to write the scene, I have most of the significant details already worked out. And when your character starts invading your dreams and talking on his/her own in your head, then you realize that you really know your character. And that character will be more realistic -- and interesting -- on the printed page.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A-Muse-ing

I'm one of those weird writers who doesn't have a bajillion ideas that I'm trying to narrow down to a single workable one. Instead I usually have one idea that I force into a workable one because I have nothing else to choose from, and then when I'm finished with that one, I don't know what else to do.

But I'm getting better at hearing the suggestions of my Muse.

Since I went to LTUE in February, I've been experimenting with a few things, and I've found my inspiration has come more readily since.  So here's what I've learned works for me and my Muse:


  1. Let your Muse know you are open for business. Contrary to popular belief, inspiration doesn't just "happen."  I've found I have to actively look for ideas, or at least be openly receptive to them, before they start to flow.  
  2. Acknowledge your Muse's advice.  Big and small ideas come to me fairly regularly now, but if I don't write them down, they leave just as easily.  I have a "seedbook" of ideas where I store those thoughts.  Then I can always go back and review them.  Also, research shows that even just the act of writing things down helps you remember them better.
  3. Stroke your Muses's ego.  Sometimes you have to record the small ideas that may (or may not) be no more than a line or phrase in a future story someday before your Muse will grace you with bigger ideas.
  4. Your Muse doesn't sleep, so why should you?  Many of my best stories come from dreams that I have.  Often I have to re-work the stories into a sensical (not necessarily logical) plot line, but those stories usually have the most potential, too.  For me, that's where my full novels have originated from.
  5. Piggyback on your Muse's other clients.  Ever read something and thought, "I don't like that ending" or "Why didn't he write it this way?" If so, go write it yourself.  Or even the small passing comments or descriptions in a story can spark a completely unrelated idea.  For example, I read a horror story that was set in a hundred-year-old, broken-down royal spa.  The setting itself didn't have much to do with the specific plot or direction of the story, but it struck a chord in me.  Now I'm writing a 30-page short story that has a working title of "Soul-Sucking Spa."  Intrigued?  (On a side note, titles can be a great source of inspiration for your own story, particularly if you are unfamiliar with the original work.)
Try new things, explore yourself and your writing.  Be open to letting your Muse dictate how she wants to share your relationship.  You'll be much happier and feel much more fulfilled if you do.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Which Point of View is Best for Your Story?

Today's blog post is a bit of a how-to guide. There are so many decisions to make in writing, and which point of view (POV) to choose is no exception. Rather than spend my time defining everything, check out this five-minute YouTube video, which is rather entertaining and quite informative if you don't know the basic concepts.

Instead, I'm going to try and explore the effects each POV choice creates. These come from my research, various conferences from which I've gleaned info, and a lot of my own experience.
  • First Person: This seems to be the POV of choice for a majority of YA fiction. I think the reason is because it makes your character more relatable. By seeing everything from one character's perspective, you really understand your character. Since YA has a strong focus on growth and development of the main character, this is a particularly effective technique. First person can be used anywhere, but it creates a more intimate tone, kind of like a "private club" between the narrator and the reader. As noted by The Writer's Craft, it can also allow for unseen twists and turns in the story. Warning: your narrator is necessarily going to be biased, but that isn't always a bad thing.
  • Second Person: Rare in formal writing. More often used in impersonal writing, such as letters, emails, memos, notes, etc. Second person narrative can be seen in technical writing, like manuals and instructions which use the "imperative" form of a sentence (understood "you;" i.e. Go feed the dog vs (You) Go feed the dog), or even advertising. We used to have a genre of "Choose-Your-Own-Adventure" books which necessarily used the second person format, but I haven't seen those around for a long time. Warning: Journalists are taught to never write in second-person because it automatically alienates some readers. For example, "Have you ever ridden a donkey to work?" No, I haven't, so why should I read any more? Food for thought.
  • Third Person: It seems that most literature that is not YA is written in third person. This gives a more distanced view of the story, but that doesn't mean a cold one. I have seen several stories that use this POV specifically so the author can switch from one character to another. This is especially useful in complex suspense/mystery stories where different perspectives have to be used in order to fully comprehend the plot. Warning: If switching between character POVs, be careful and clear whose head you are writing in. Use line breaks or chapter breaks, and make sure you name your character right away.
Now some of the "Perspectives" associated with POV. There are three options that span a range.
  • Objective: This POV is complete with observations, but absolutely no thoughts or feelings related to those observations. It is often compared to a camera capturing every detail, but the camera is unable to comment upon those details. It does not show up very often because it is so tricky to master. It is frequently used in moralistic stories to add distance between the reader and the writer, so the writer doesn't sound "preachy." An example would be "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson. You get to make your own judgments on the story at the end. Warning: Exceptionally difficult to master this technique to keep your audience interested in the story when you cannot make any commentary about the story. You must also give enough physical clues to guide them to the conclusion you want them to make, but can't give subliminal messages. Hard, hard, hard.
  • Limited: This is by far the most common POV perspective. Even in stories where we switch back and forth between characters, we are limited to that individual character's perspective. This means we always have the thoughts and feelings of only one character at a time, while we see the actions of any other characters. The POV character can guess at the emotions and thoughts of other characters, but remember, it is always just a guess. Warning: This will always be biased based upon the perceptions of the POV character, but that can add effective tension, or even dramatic irony in some cases, to the story.
  • Omniscient: In this POV, no actual participating character tells the story. Instead it is a godlike figure which may or may not even be named. This narrator knows the thoughts and feelings of every character in the story. The narrator can choose which commentary to include in the actual story, but it is a very delicate balance. It seems to me that the interest level in the story would be difficult to maintain because there is no inherent suspense when you know everything about the story. Warning: It can be easy to confuse your reader when you are constantly switching between character POVs as you give their thoughts and feelings in the story.
Whew. We made it. So now what?

Now you get to decide what is going to work best for your story. Consider what kinds of effects you want to capture. My YA novels are written in first-person because I, as the writer, become more intimate with them and can tell a better, more complete story. My short stories, which are more adult in nature, tend to be third-person and somewhat more plot-, or "moment"-driven, rather than growth- and development-driven like my novels.

So do you want your readers to relate closely to and empathize with your main character? Then perhaps you may want to choose first-person (which is inherently limited in nature). Do you have a more moralistic story to tell? Then maybe third-person objective is the one for you. Or does your story require multiple characters to complete its full concept? Then perhaps third-person limited will work best.

And if you're still unsure, play around with them a bit. Write the same scene or two from different POVs to discover which one flows easiest and best captivates the story you want to tell because that will overall be your best choice.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Overcoming (Writing) Adversity

I attended the LTUE (Life, the Universe, and Everything) Symposium for the first time this year. This is a three-day workshop focused around speculative fiction (fantasy, sci fi, horror, paranormal, etc.), but still has a lot of really good general writing information. I don't traditionally write spec fiction, but this conference inspired me to dabble in it a bit.

Whenever you go to writing conferences, you get a lot of great advice, instruction, and information. LTUE was no exception. I'll share more of that info with you as the weeks progress. But perhaps the most helpful panel for me was the very first one I attended called Overcoming Adversity.

As you all know, my life is busy, and finding or making time to write is very difficult. I am a part-time teacher (which, since it's teaching, that means nearly full-time), mom of a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, Stampin' Up Demonstrator, wife, and homemaker. My kids are young enough they need fairly constant availability, so I can only write when they are not around. Evenings are the only time I get to spend with my hubby (once the kids go to bed), and I am so NOT a morning person. So I went looking for some direction.

I got some good answers, but mostly I got reassurance and encouragement. Exactly what I needed.

The panel consisted of four or five authors whom I would consider successful. They have each traditionally published at least one book; many of them have published several. Most of them were women with relatively young children as well, so I related to that, but they also had other family and health concerns, which added adversity into their writing lives.

The best question asked at the panel was, "Do you always write through adversity? And if so, how?" Every panel member said, "No." I perked right up. Suddenly, I wasn't alone. People who were successful didn't write "at least 15 minutes every day," like every other presentation at every other conference tells me I should be doing. That meant there was hope yet for me.

The panel members said they give themselves permission not to write some days, especially when other priorities take precedence (like family). One member said that she gives herself permission not to write, but she knows she also feels better about her life and herself if she will only write for 15 minutes. One member said that due to health issues, some days she physically cannot write. One member is well into his advanced years and just published his first book because he had to provide a living for his family.

Ah, reassurance, indeed. I can do it, even with my crazy schedule. I just can't give up and must keep working at the pace I am able.  Even if I can't write every single day for an hour or two, I can still write and eventually achieve success.

But, I am sure you also want to know what other answers or suggestions I got out of this panel:

  • Try a "weekly" writing schedule rather than a daily one.  This is what I am trying based upon one panel member making an off-hand comment that the only time she has to write is when she goes to the library twice a week while her youngest is in preschool.
  • Balance your life and make sure your family is first in your priorities.
  • The people we help and serve give us stories to write, so don't neglect them.  
  • When you can't write consistently, keep a consistent writing journal, so you have your ideas gathered to work with when you can return to writing. This is what one panel member did while caring for an ailing parent.
  • Writer shorter pieces to see success while still working on the longer ones.  This is more of an impression that came through various panels and discussions throughout the whole symposium, and something I'm going to experiment with myself.
  • Measure success by the things you can control, not the things you can't.  (Easier said than done.)
  • Writing can help -- or hinder -- our ability to solve our problems.
  • When you get really stuck, walk away and try something else for a while.
  • Follow Pablo Picasso's advice: "Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working."
  • Don't give up.
That last one is my favorite: "Don't give up." The process may be slow and long, like mine, but you'll get there eventually. Just give yourself permission to get there at your pace and in your own way.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Announcement: The Writers' Ramble

I have an exciting announcement! My critique group has finally made our group blog live.  It is called The Writers' Ramble.  Go check it out.

You can read the description for yourself, but basically we will write a blog post on the same topic each month, then The Writers' Ramble gives a brief synopsis of each post with a link.

So you can now check out all the wicked awesome people who are willing to put up with my crap and help me polish into gold...or at least bronze.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why a Serious Writer Needs a Serious Critiquer

We've all heard the buzz about critique groups, alpha groups, beta groups, peer review groups, and any other term you can think of to describe such an organization. But sometimes we forget to stop and think about "why" we need such a group and instead just add it to our list of Things to Do in Order to Be Successful. So let's look at some of the whys.

First of all, there is one crucial detail that all these titled groups have in common: other readers.

Did you realize the answer was that simple? Other readers.That is what makes an effective writer.  We've all had the experience of somehow getting stuck in our own minds. We missed stupid, easy spelling or grammatical mistakes; the scene in our head didn't make it to our paper; instead of a riveting conversation, we produced daily, boring drivel. But of course, since it is our own writing, we don't see those flaws. It is, after all, our baby, our darling, our perfect little angel, and by the way, how dare you claim something is wrong with it?

I have had those experiences, as I'm sure many of you had. A fellow writer approached me once to read through his novel. After taking the time to critique it and talk to him about it, it was soon obvious when he argued every one of my points that he really didn't want a critique; he wanted a "good job." It was a bit of a shame because he is exceptionally creative, much more so than I am. (I know, shocking, isn't it?) But until he is willing to consider criticism, his writing will be nothing more than mediocre.

"Good jobs," though they feel good, get you NOWHERE. So, a serious writer needs to accept a serious critique. But that's the real fear, isn't it? If this darling, this beloved, this precious creation of your own making has a flaw, it somehow is a reflection upon your own creative capabilities.

I say, Bah!

Which one of us can honestly say we are perfect in every single thing we do? And even the things we are really good at, are we equally good at every aspect? For example, even a professional basketball player is "known" for certain things. He has a great three-point shot, or always drives in for the lay-up, or has an awesome free throw average, or rebounds like a maniac. But never (or at least very rarely) do we praise a player for being amazing at everything, although they are obviously above average in all things. So why should writing be any different? (For a discussion of why writing is the only art that is perceived as "effortless" visit Kelly Lindberg's blog.)

And that, my friends, is why a serious writer needs a serious critiquer. It is terrifying to turn that baby over to the sitter for the first time and wonder what shape the house (not to mention the child) will be in when you get home. And it is equally as difficult (if not more so) to turn over that story to the red-pen marker. They say you have to develop a tough skin in this business, and that's the truth. How much easier is it to practice with friends you trust than that ultimate critic with no time for anything but bluntness -- the editor? There have been times when my critique groups have told me the blunt truth that I didn't want to hear, and I fumed and fussed about it for a couple of days, justifying that they were wrong; they didn't know my story; they just didn't understand. And then after those couple of days, I'd throw my hands up and sigh in resignation because I knew they were right.

And I learned the real purpose of a critique group.

Critiquers are readers. If my critiquers don't "get it," or can't believe it, or fill-in-your-own-problem here, then at least a large chunk of my readers wouldn't either. And it's a lot easier to take criticism from your private critiquers than it is from harsh public critics.

Part of my title includes the need for a "Serious Critiquer." This means NOT your mom/dad/spouse (sometimes)/best friend/co-worker, etc., and for two very specific reasons.

          Reason #1 -- You'll get a "good job," which is about it, and as we established above, that isn't helpful.
          Reason #2 -- They are not qualified to help you fix the problems.

We've already adequately discussed Reason #1, so let's spend just a moment on Reason #2. How often have you read/viewed/experienced something that you didn't particularly like or felt was mediocre, but you couldn't express why you felt that way? This is like your general, lay reader. When you don't write well, your readers don't feel satisfied but they can't really express what their disappointment is. A critique group contains people who are somewhat trained in writing and can better find and express where the problems are and how to fix them. An ideal group has a mix of strengths, weaknesses, expertise, and experience that help balance, support, and ultimately improve each other. It's that simple; they can see -- and express -- what you can't.

We could go on for pages more, but we'll save that for future posts. For now, just realize that if you want to be serious about your writing, be serious about seeking criticism. Ultimately, it makes you a better writer (and, in many ways, a better person).