Aug 31, 2011

The Art of Critique

After speaking with a friend tonight, I was left wondering just how many new writers know how to give and receive a critique. Since I've been told I have a different outlook on critiques, I'm gonna share! Starting with the assumption you've obtained a CP and are looking for a way to proceed. As always, your mileage may vary, but these are the basic concepts used in my art classes and writing exchanges.

For the Critiqued:
1. Prioritize what you want your CP to focus on. When you're first starting writing, hearing all the things you have yet to master is a fast route to overwhelmed quitting. Focus on a couple things for one critique. If you want your CP read for the story, not grammar or mechanics, say this at the outset. "My priorities for this critique are: conflict and characterization." This will focus your combined abilities to help you improve. If you don't know what needs improvement, ask her to focus on the biggest one or two things she thinks most need addressing.
2. It's going to sting a little. Not as bad as you probably think, but we're all invested in our writing. It smarts a little to even consider there could possibly be something even slightly wrong with your masterpiece. Try to take a step back from that feeling and just listen. It's probably better if you have to ruminate on the information for a while before you want to talk about it. Take a day, take a few, and try to remember that you're part of a team invested in honing your mad skills. Team effort.
3. Do not argue with your CP. Your first instinct will be to explain. Resist this urge. You wouldn't have that chance with a reader. You can ask her to clarify, but don't debate it. If she notes something amiss, get all the information you can about it, and then go read that bit again and decide for yourself if there is anything you can do to improve whatever it is she highlighted. Ex: If she's confused by something, could you/should you clarify it?
4. If you simply want to be told how awesome your story is, critique is not for you. Expect to hear something you don't want to hear, but remember: when you have techniques directly applied to your writing, they become a lot easier to understand. You can tell me terms and definitions until I go deaf, if you don't show me those terms in action, I won't be able to implement them. If you want praise without direction, ask your mom, your best friend, or your southern-belle cousin April May June to read for you.
5. Thank your critiquer. Critiquing takes time and effort, thanking them and returning the favor(if possible) is the right thing to do.
6. Watch this. No, really. Ira Glass on Storytelling.

For the Critiquer:
1. Start with the good. There are always good things to say about a story. Your CP needs to know what is working well. It's not even an ego thing, although it does soften the inevitable sting. You can be great at something and not know it. If you let her know she's fantastic portraying emotion, she can start worrying about info dump issues instead.
2. Don't take the smorgasbord approach unless asked to do so. Read for what your partner asks. If you both know she has issues with plot structure, but right now she's trying to work out the kinks in her characterization, you focus on the characters. The structure will eventually get its time in the spotlight when she's ready. Writing is a marathon, not a sprint. Start with the big picture stuff. Later, you can(and should) break it down to the gritty details. Save the show-down over semi-colons for later.
3. Use tact. Phrase suggestions in a positive way and direct them to the words, not the one writing them.  Don't say a sentence sucks or that it's wrong. Say you're getting lost in the wording and did she think it could be better to ... Make it about the words and your confusion. It might be semantics, but it helps maintain good, productive conversations while the sting is still throbbing a bit.
4. Your CP has her own voice, don't try to replace it with yours. If there isn't something technically wrong with something, resist the urge to point out how you'd have done it differently. It's her story and her voice is as much a part of the story as the characters.

 For Both:
1. The first time working together, exchange stories at the same time. Later on, you'll probably have different writing schedules and be ready to have something read at different times. But to start off you should both be equally vested in giving and receiving critique. This way, you'll know exactly how worried you are that you'll upset her, and that she is equally worried about your feelings. Remember that feeling every time you exchange pages, it will keep you kind and build trust.
2. This is not a race. Everyone starts with a different skill set. Everyone starts with different goals. Everyone has a different road to travel. Ideally, no matter who sells first, you should both get your names published in the same book: the cover and the dedication page. Team effort, team reward.

Aug 26, 2011

Proactive Characters

I've decided I have a problem making sure my characters lead the charge. I tend to come up with interesting scenarios, interesting characters, and then just expect that whatever is needed to make the story happen will naturally be there. And then when I try to think of scenes required to tell the story, nothing happens. I get no scenes.

This happened with versions 1 and 2 of my submitted Medical, working title: Inconvenient Virtues. It wasn't until I realized I needed the heroine to have an immediate, tangible goal(not just an overarching goal) that the scenes started to materialize for me. Taking her from reactive to proactive gave me all my major scenes inside of three minutes. Once that first domino to fall, the others fell accordingly. Easily.

I knew this going into the current WIP. It was at the foremost of my mind when I was trying to pre-measure all my needed ingredients(character motivations, inciting incident, etc), and I thought I had it. I wrote the first scene and it was catchy enough, but it didn't lead me to any other scenes. Yesterday, while not thinking about it, had a lightbulb moment -- she still was not leading the charge. That realization knocked over that first domino and 20 more scenes materialized in the space of a handful of minutes. So, today I feel really excited about the writing. I have my roadmap(cards) prepped, and it's just a matter of building and writing the scenes. The fun part.

The advice to make your characters proactive has been given to me numerous times before. I even have read it in a few craft books. But I'm having trouble recognizing I when I haven't done that(before banging my head on the wall about why it's not working). I guess I should be happy that the realization took 3 days this time instead of 8 months. That's gotta be improvement, but I'm still dismayed that although making her proactive was at the top of my list of things to do before I started writing, I somehow managed to mistake her long-term goals for short-term goals again.

Does anyone else have this problem?

Aug 25, 2011

Being different and damning the consequences.

 "Oh I may be going down, but I'll take in flames over burning out." -- Uncharted -- Sara Bareilles

Hats off to Serenity Woods for helping me overcome my bout of too-off-the-wall-itis. Her notes from Romance Writers of New Zealand conference shored up my decision to barge ahead with the story idea. Specifically the bit where in her notes on Lucy Gilmour's chat (paraphrasing her notes) 'Be unique! Take on controversial topics. Twist themes!'

Soothes the worry about the decision I'd already made to steamroll ahead. 

Aug 19, 2011

New Voices -- 2011

It's that time of year again, and I'm both excited and terrified. The closer it comes to story upload date, the more I dread it.

Last year at this time, I was just starting out in my effort to give writing a serious shot. I'd had one tiny victory, so I was feeling confident as only a newbie can. I was 100% stoked to upload my chapter. Everyone would love it, right? Naturally, it was going to be awesome. I had an awesome story. I had awesome characters(still last year's thoughts). I was totally going to make the first cut.

Except I didn't. Okay, regroup. This is okay. I'm going to make that callback list for sure! Wrong again. Hmm, maybe I'm doing this wrong...

I know, I'll get a couple craft books. That will square me right up. More questions emerged. I'll take an official, pay-lots-of-money, several-month writing class. This will teach me(and it did) lots of things I'm doing wrong. I'll write, and rewrite, and rewrite. Read more craft books.

One year later, I've probably read 30 craft books, of which 20-or-so I own. I've joined RWA, national and local chapter. I've got a writing group. I've been to a couple writing conferences/seminars. I've got an awesome Critique Partner. I have written approximately 120K words (on one story), and submitted it. I've learned a lot, and I've invested a lot of time and money in doing so.

Which brings me back around to my terror. I desperately want to enter, and I will do so, but this year I've lost my newbie-confidence. Instead of being certain my idea is great, I oscillate between certainty that the idea is golden, and even sharper certainty that it will be universally reviled. How's that for being a walking contradiction?

The other thing that scares me is that somehow I've started to think of this single contest as some kind of validation. If I make one list, or get X-amount of positive feedback, or whatever... that it will prove this year and the associated $$ will have been a wise investment. And, of course, when it doesn't, will that mean I've wasted my time?

There are writers who have been doing this for years and are in the same boat, and a year in I'm already asking these questions. No idea what that means, but I do feel a bit like a whiner even expressing these feelings.

I'll definitely enter, come hell or high water(though if both come, I make no promises). And I am excited to do so. Despite my terror. I am trying to manage my reasons for entering.
  • I find participation in these large-scale events invigorating. They remind me why I love to write when I'm struggling with self-doubt.
  • Someone has to win, and sticking with the contest through the whole process will allow me to learn, first hand, what it is about different entries that garners attention. What did they do right? How can I implement this?
  • It is genuinely fun to read all the different entries, especially when I may not otherwise approach a particular subgenre.
  • May possibly gain some insight as to whether my story hooks are too off-the-wall(which I am actually very worried about).

Going to have to stop worrying about all this and actually write the damned book soon! Like... now.