Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Skinny: Giving Criticism/Critique

At some point most us find ourselves involved in a critique exchange with other writers in order to try and improve our craft. There are many things to be learned from a writers group (either local or online) or critique forum or even a single beta reader or writing partner. One of the most difficult is how to provide useful critique.

Here are a few hints on how to make the most of your critique giving experience.

1) Writers are People Too
It's easy to get busy with the machete and cut up someone's story - highlighting every typo, pointing out every clumsy sentence, tearing apart every plot inconsistency - but the first rule of critting should always be "respect your fellow writer." It doesn't do anyone any good to tear someone to shreds (no matter how awful their story may be). Chances are the other writer's feelings will be so hurt they won't be able to see the validity of what you're trying to point out. Think about how you would feel if someone shredded your WIP and try and show a little sensitivity in your response to ANY piece you critique.

2) Honesty is the Best Policy
Having just pointed out that sensitivity is important, we mustn't forget that false praise will do just as much damage as a scathing critique. Telling someone that you love their story when, in fact, you don't or when it has numerous flaws is destructive. There is nothing wrong with being honest (as long as you're being polite) and though it can sting a bit, it will make everyone a better writer in the long run.

3) If You Have to Apologize...
I see critiques online all the time that start out with "This may come off as harsh". Here's the deal. If you have to apologize for how you're saying something you probably shouldn't be saying it. (Again, see point #1.) It is possible to put even the most stringent critique in palatable terms. If, however, you phrase your critique like an asshole... you're doing it wrong.

4) Sandwiches are Yummy
Every one has probably heard of a "critique sandwich". This is the practice of starting off with something you like about a story, then dealing with the less likeable or problem stuff, then finishing with another compliment or good area of the writing. Some critters think this approach wastes time because it's the "you should fix this" parts of the critique that will actually help the writer in question improve. While I agree that knowing what doesn't work is usually more valuable than knowing what does, that doesn't make it pointless to share a few of the things you like about a story. Everyone needs a encouragement at least some of the time. And, there are very few stories which have so much wrong that there isn't something you can comment on in a positive light. Remember points 1 and 2: balance your criticism with your praise.

5) Be Specific
I sometimes get a "hit and run" crit. That is, someone jumps in, says a few things and then vanishes. And that's okay, except that usually they make general statements like "The pacing felt off." and then they're gone. If you see an overarching issue (like pacing) make sure you provide a few examples of where the pacing felt off. You don't have to quote/highlight every instance, but give the writer something to look at and evaluate.

6) Start Small
Giving critique is a learned skill (just like writing). You won't get better at it if you don't do it. (And some writers don't like to engage in criticism or critique because... whatever. But you can learn a lot about how to write better by analyzing other writer's work.) That said, it's okay to start small. You don't have to give an in-depth critique to every story you look at. You don't have to be incredibly insightful. Start by finding one thing you like and one thing you dislike in the stories you're reading to critique. Remember my first five points and write an honest response. As you get more comfortable, start to respond in more detail. Before long you'll be confident and capable of giving detailed critique even on long and well-written pieces.

7) Don't Waste Your Time
Lastly, if you don't like horror/romance/mystery/speculative fiction, don't waste time trying to critique a horror/romance/mystery/speculative fiction piece. I run across a fair number of "I read your story but I don't like paranormal romance so I didn't like this" critiques. That's not a critique. That's a waste of time. Both for the reader making the comment and for the writer. Bear in mind, I'm not suggesting you shouldn't try reading "outside your comfort zone". I read stuff in genres I don't read or write on a regular basis. But "I don't like your genre" is not a useful critique.

There you have it. The skinny on how to give a critique. Not so difficult is it?

So, what have you read today?

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The Basics: Conflict

If you've been writing for even a few days you'll have noticed how difficult it is to get the opening of your story/novel right. In fact, aside from writing a satisfying ending to your story/novel it's probably one of the most difficult components of the entire story arc.

If you're the type to seek help from other writers you will have probably gotten this comment: What you need is conflict. Sometimes this may be accurate. Other times someone may simply be parroting a common piece of story-writing wisdom – successful stories need conflict.

The big issue is that word “conflict” which is frequently misinterpreted to mean explosions/death/kidnapping/alien invasion/discovery of magic/etc. But not every story needs explosions/death/kidnapping/alien invasions/discovery of magic in order to be successful or interesting. A good story does, however, need conflict. Or, as I like to think of it, “something going wrong”.

It could be something relatively inane. The Blue Sword starts out with orange juice and boredom, but the heart of the opening chapter is still “something going wrong”. In fact, every story I like has “something going wrong” and an Main Character trying to overcome the problems created by that “something”. Usually, in trying to solve the problem of “something going wrong” that MC causes more things to go wrong and winds up with more problems to solve and challenges to overcome.

That is conflict.
Something going wrong.
Simple, yes?

So, what have you written today?

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Letting Go of Perfect: The Skinny on Writing a Rough Draft and Finishing It

A few years ago I was working at a TV station. One day another employee stopped me in the hallway and the following conversation ensued.

DUDE: Hey. I saw you the other day while you were at a red light. I waved and yelled at you but you didn't answer.

ME: Really? Where?

DUDE: Down on Main Street. By the Mexican food place.

ME: Oh. Sorry. When I'm driving I tend to be... ignorant.

Needless to say, that was not the word I was looking for. I meant oblivious. So, I just turned red and hurried off to do something else as soon as I realized I sounded like an idiot. (Ignorant, indeed.) That's the problem with talking to people – you only get one chance to find the right word.

When you're writing, it's a whole different story. And here's where we get to the point of today's post.

Rough drafts or, as some prefer to call them, first drafts are no good at all if you don't finish them. I can't tell you how many unfinished first drafts I have lodge in my virtual trunk. (Actually a computer folder labeled “Shyte”.) There they sit, lovely beginnings that serve me no purpose because in order to do anything further they must first be FINISHED.

Learning to finish a draft is hard. Here's how I handle the ingrained writer's instinct to make every word perfect the first time through. (An admirable goal, I might add, but usually counter-productive.)

First, I recite the following mantra.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Then I write.
When I find myself searching for an obscure synonym for “black” I repeat line three of the mantra, type in “black” and keep going.
When I start analyzing whether I really want to use a gerund or should I change the sentence structure to improve flow I repeat line four of the mantra, type my gerund riddled sentence and keep going.
When I start wondering if I've gotten any email/if there's fresh coffee/whether this story sucks, I repeat line one, turn off the internet connection, promise myself a cup of coffee after I reach the end, clonk my inner critic over the head and keep going. (Are you seeing a pattern here, yet?)
When I write “he ran” and realize that's totally not the right word for the situation, I repeat line two of the mantra, tell myself “I'll fix it in post” and keep going.

What about plot holes?” you say. “What if I decide I want my story to take place in Rwanda instead of Scotland? What if I don't know the scientific term for iron?”

I have a nifty system for that too.
For anything plot related I use these [ ] brackets. [I write a note, right in the middle of the story with a summary of a scene I'm not ready to write yet, a note to move the location of the story, or even just a note that says FIX THIS LATER! and put the square brackets around it for easy reference.] (One writer I know changes the font color on sections he thinks need work as he's writing to make them easy to spot during editing.)
For anything research related I use these < > brackets. Usually things like <Insert proper scientific term here> or <Find street name>.
Then I keep going.

It is a difficult skill to learn, letting your mistakes lie there until it's time to edit. But in the end, one of the most common differences between “aspiring” authors and published authors is the ability to FINISH A STORY.

When you write a rough draft it is okay for it to be utter crap. That's why we call them “rough” drafts. They can be awkward and have pieces missing and subplots dangling and poorly researched settings. Because all of that can be fixed during editing. But if the story ain't done, you won't have anything to edit.

So, repeat after me.

Some words are better than no words.
A bad word is better than no words.
A simple word is better than an incorrect fancy word.
Poorly structured words are better than no words.

Now. What have you written today?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Basics: Story Structure - Beginning

You may have heard that a novel is not subject to the guidelines of the three act structure because “it isn't a play”. I could go into a long explanation about the development of three act structure prior to the printing press and if books had been in mass production at the time it might be called something different. But I think it's best to keep it simple.

The foundation of three act structure is this: every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, if any story that doesn't have a beginning, middle and end is probably not a story at all but a different type of prose I like to call “unfinished”. That, I think, should be an argument for another day.

Much of the confusion surrounding three act structure comes from a lack of understanding about what exactly a “beginning”, “middle” or “end” looks like. So, lets break it down, starting with: The Beginning.

It is easy to assume that the beginning of a story is also the beginning of the main character's life. Or, at the very least, the moment they wake up on the day you decide to start chronicling his/her life. In a few cases this might be true.

More accurately, the beginning of a story is the point at which (or immediately before) the main character encounters a challenge that cannot be ignored but must be resolved – either through overcoming the challenge or succumbing to it. This is commonly termed the “inciting incident”. Some stories require you to provide context for the inciting incident, but in general you want to start as close to the moment the MC's life changes forever as you possibly can.

In some cases the “challenge” may be presented as a goal which the MC must achieve by overcoming obstacles. It must still be something that cannot be ignored. In other words, the challenge or goal must be something that has a direct impact on the MC's life.

A few common inciting incidents:
Boy meets girl/girl meets boy and falls in love but the girl/boy is out of his/her league or engaged to someone else or going out of the country the following day.
Something goes terribly wrong – this covers just about any story about alien invasions, horror, mystery, natural disaster.
An average Joe stumbles onto a conspiracy/learns that magic is real/learns the world isn't real/etc.
Someone is killed as payback and the Main Character swears revenge.

Notice how most inciting incidents also give us an idea of where the plot leads? Remember, a good inciting incident is a challenge that cannot be ignored but must be resolved. It is a goal that drives the story. (And yes, this is still true even for character driven stories.)

In general, the beginning of the story should present the reader with your Main Character. It should give us some insight into his/her current circumstance. It should introduce a challenge or goal for him/her to overcome/achieve.

If your beginning includes those basic elements, you are well on your way to finishing a good story.

So, what have you written today?

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Rejections: Form VS Personal

Most of the rejections you receive will be form letters. It is important to remember that just because a rejection is a “form” it doesn't mean your story is bad. Nor does it mean the editor is a heartless meanie who can't be bothered to send you a personal note. Form rejections are a necessary part of the business.

Sometimes you'll be fortunate enough to get a personal rejection. These usually offer specific reasons on why a story wasn't accepted and, on occasion, may offer advice about how to improve the story. But, although personal rejections may be more encouraging than form rejections, in the end they both mean no.

The worst thing you can do is let rejections of any kind discourage you from continuing to seek publication.

So, what have you submitted today?

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Rejections: The Skinny on How to Handle the Inevitable

If you're seeking publication, at some point you will have to deal with rejections. And no matter how much you do to prepare for a rejection, some of them will hurt. Maybe because it was a publication you really wanted to be part of. Or maybe you thought a particular was a perfect match for an anthology. Or maybe because you feel like you're running out of good markets to try. Or you just had a bad day.

Any number of things can make a rejection hit a nerve, but there are steps you can take to dull the sting.

  1. Have a Plan – before I send a story to a first market I like to have the second (and usually the third, fourth and fifth) market lined up. This keeps me focused on the business at hand – selling a story, instead of bogging down in doubt over whether a story is any good or overanalyzing if it's a good fit for a particular publication.
  2. Don't Take It Personally – I know it's difficult, but there is nothing to be gained by getting bent over a rejection. There are plenty of novice writers who like to think editors are evil dream-crushers, but that's just silly. Badmouthing an editor who sent a form rejection (or even a personal one) only makes you look like an asshat. And even if you keep your ill-will to yourself, fuming over a rejection is just a waste of time. Time that would be better spent resubbing the rejected story and working on new ones.
  3. Keep it in Perspective – this is hard until you make your first sale or have your first acceptance, but I find it's easier to keep going if I keep the rejections in perspective. While it's true that the number of rejections you receive is NOT predictive, I like to count how many rejections I have in relation to acceptances. Although the ratio is nothing more than one number compared to another, it helps keep everything in perspective.
  4. Take a Break – no matter how much I try to stay focused on the idea that writing is work and rejections are a part of that work, I still get bummed out sometimes. That's okay. Usually when I start feeling overwhelmed by the rejections popping up in my email-box, I take a break for a day. I read a good book or chill out listening to a favorite album or cook a special dinner. Even when you don't take rejections personally, they get discouraging. It's important to remember to do things that keep you in a positive frame of mind.

No matter how long you've been writing and seeking publication, rejections still suck. But after a while they start to be just another part of the job.

So, what have you submitted today?

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Rejections: The Skinny on When to Edit/Revise

One cool thing about improving as a writer is that you'll start getting personal rejections instead of form letters. But personal rejections are more likely to give you a specific reason why an editor (or slush reader) rejected a story. Some times that can be a good thing. Other times you may find yourself falling into the “edit/revise” trap.

Any time a story is rejected it's always tempting to take another swing at it with the editing machete or send it to a different beta reader in hopes of finding something that needs “fixing.” The best piece of advice I can give on the matter is: DON'T.

This isn't to say that I've not gone back over stories after getting several rejections and tweaked or rewritten sections in order to improve them. Sometimes after you gain a little distance from a particular piece of work you do realize it could use a little more polishing. But you should never EVER think that just because something has been rejected that it's not good enough. Especially if it's the first rejection. Or the second. Probably not even the fifth.

Here's why. We all know that luck plays a huge role in getting an acceptance – that perfect timing that gets your story in front of the right editor on the right day – and just because one editor decides they don't want a story, doesn't mean the next guy (or gal) won't want either. Even when the first editor tells you exactly why they didn't want it. If you had enough confidence in your story to send it out to the first market, then send it to the second. And the third. And the fourth.

Back in the spring I wrote a short story called Insomnia. I sent it to a market I thought would be a great fit. After a while I got a rejection. A personal rejection that explained that while they liked the idea they felt there was no conflict in the first 2/3s of the story and it read like the beginning of a longer story rather than an actual story. I will admit I was tempted to try and rework it, add more conflict to the front half. But when I thought about it, I already believed the front half had enough conflict and it was a complete story. That's why I'd sent it out in the first place.

So, I sent it to Daily Science Fiction. And they bought it.

A rejection – form or personal – is NOT the best indicator of when to revise a story. YOU ARE. If you think it needs more work, then work on it. If you think it's good, then keep submitting it.

I've pulled stories out of rotation to try and clean them up further and some of them have been vastly improved. Others were just a waste of my time because they DIDN'T NEED FIXING.

Sure, we writerly folk can be a little delusional some times, but we are still the best judge of when our stories are as good as they can be. There's nothing wrong with reworking something, but don't waste time adding or removing commas or subplots or a half-scene that adds a little humor to an otherwise bloody story just because you got a rejection or six.

So, what have you written today?