Crit Confusion

I’ve been working on a lot of critiques in preparation for a writing workshop next month, so I’ve kind of got criticism on the brain right now. I generally find critiques to be hugely helpful. I sure as hell have my blind spots when writing, which makes good crit partners invaluable for pointing out the things I’ve missed, be they plot holes, muddled character motivations, inconsistencies, or what have you.

The hard part for some writers is figuring out what criticism to take. You can’t—or shouldn’t, rather—try to address every single comment you receive. Fiction is a largely subjective thing, so inevitably, people are going to have different opinions. Try to incorporate all of their comments and you’re going to end up with a serious headache and a hot mess of a story.

So which comments do you address?

When I was attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop, Michael A. Burstein was one of our guest lecturers, and in reference to critiques, he paraphrased the Talmud: “If one person calls you a donkey, pay him no heed. If two people call you a donkey, buy a saddle.” In other words, if one person has an issue with your story but no one else does and you’re happy with it, then leave it alone. But if multiple people all point out the same issue, then that’s something you should probably address.

Unfortunately, there are also those head-desk inducing times when you get conflicting opinions. Half the people in the room were blown away by your twist ending while the other half thought the story was too predictable. Four people think the story’s well paced, four others think it moves too slowly, while yet four others think it speeds along too quickly. Or worse yet, everyone agrees that the story doesn’t quite work, but they all have a completely different opinion as to why.

That’s when things get tricksy. There’s no scientifically proven method or magic spell for figuring it all out. The best I can do is offer up some things to keep in mind:

1) What people say the problem is may not actually be the problem. Ending doesn’t work? It could be that your ending is fine; you just didn’t set it up properly, so it’s the beginning that needs to be tweaked.

2) Give the story, the critiques, and yourself some temporal distance. Writers are only human, so often your initial reaction to receiving a critique is going to be a bit raw—you just handed people your baby, and they’re telling you it has three eyes and a missing ear. I usually set critiques aside for at least a couple days, often longer. When I come back them, my reaction is less defensive and emotional, and I’m therefore able to look at the comments more objectively.

3) Not everyone is going to be in your target audience. If you’ve written a story about albino goat herders and there’s someone in the critique group who absolutely detests stories about albino goat herders, then there’s probably not much you can do to make the story work for that person. Don’t automatically discount all of their feedback by any means; there might be something useful there. But, there will probably also be comments that you can safely ignore since this simply isn’t the reader you’re hoping to please.

4) Inevitably, there will be someone who critiques your work in the most dickish way possible. I’ve been fortunate enough not to run into too many of them, but they’re out there. Luckily, the dickishness means that you can generally ignore about 90% of what they say since it’s usually unconstructive feedback along the lines of, “Your story sucks.” Still, occasionally you’ll find a good point or two buried in the I-am-a-sad-tiny-person-who-needs-to-feel-superior snark that is a dickish critique.

5) Always remember that it’s your story. Be grateful for critiques, but don’t feel obligated to address every single comment. Even a perfectly valid point might be best discarded if it turns the story into something other than the one you want to write.

6) When in doubt, trust your gut.

Barbara A. Barnett is an avid rejection letter collector (aka writer), musician, orchestra librarian, coffee addict, wine lover, bad movie mocker, and all-round geek. You can learn more about her and her work at www.babarnett.com.

The Deadline: Set It and Don’t Forget It

Set-it-and-forget-it

 

I just joined a book club. One of my main motivations to do so was because I already owned all the requisite books, but they’d just been sitting on my shelves, some for years. Life is busy, and I found many reasons and excuses to put off leisure time reading. But I just finished the first book for the first meeting, and it felt like a real accomplishment!

I know, I know. It’s just a book. But it still felt good. And I know that the reason I actually finished it was because I’d have to discuss it at the meeting. In other words, I had a deadline.

Sometimes, we need a little outside pressure to get things done, even if they’re things we want to do and love to do (like reading a fun book, or writing a fun book). As nearly all writers know, it’s very easy to say “I’ve got such a great story in my head! I’m going to write it someday!” And of course, someday never comes.

So don’t write someday. Write every day. Write on Tuesday. Write 500 words this Wednesday. Do it again on Thursday. Maybe on your lunch break. Keep doing that. Make it real. Make it banal. Make it a habit. By setting specific goals, you remove the misty someday from your work and you, well, get to work. Set a reasonable deadline and stick to it.

And here’s the second part of the plan: you make your deadline by making yourself accountable. How?

  • Make your goal public.
  • Post your daily word count on your blog or Twitter or wherever.
  • Tell your writing group what your goal is, and ask them to follow up when the deadline hits.
  • Don’t have a writing group? Find a writing buddy online through a group or a forum.
  • Participate in NaNoWriMo or something like it.

Choose whatever method works, and do it. Remember, your accountability buddies don’t have to read what you write. They just have to be the voices saying “Send me that file so I can see your word count” or “Remember when you said you we’re submitting that piece by the 30th? Well, it’s the 30th. Where did you submit it?”

The public nature of this exchange should be enough to spur you to get moving on your project. (If you still blow deadlines, raise the stakes. Miss a deadline? Pay your writing buddy $5, pay for your group’s monthly coffee tab, etc. Make it hurt…within your means, of course.)

Working to a deadline can make us dreamy, creative types nervous. Don’t you have to wait for inspiration?

No. No, you don’t.

The Muse is not a fairy to be coaxed from the aether with manna or honey or freshly-squoze brambleberry juice. The Muse is a sly ferret to be chased down and force-fed espresso until she chatters out all her inspiration into your brain and your laptop. Remind your muse that no one gets paid until you publish, and the clock’s ticking.

The deadline is your ally. Use it.

Now go write.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

 

 

 

The Stories We Tell Ourselves

“We’re all made of stories. When they finally put us underground, the stories are what will go on. Not forever, perhaps, but for a time. It’s a kind of immortality, I suppose, bounded by limits, it’s true, but then so’s everything.”

–Charles de Lint

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how telling stories goes far beyond the entertainment factor—though make no mistake; that’s plenty important. A story’s only as good as its ability to keep the reader/listener engaged—and how we often forget that no stories are told in a vacuum. Those oh, so “original” ideas we have? Our characters’ “obvious” and “realistic” actions and thought patterns? All shaped by the culture we live in. If you’re American, no matter how thoughtful you are, American values are going to come through, from the characters’ decisions to the very structure of the story itself. And of course, in the messages, like the idea that the will of the individual is more important than the will of the many.

Other cultures would lead to other messages and values. It’s inevitable.

Maya Angelou’s album (courtesy of Wikipedia)

Stories, then, are ultimately how we define ourselves and others. And the more exposure we have to experiences outside our own, the more we can figure out who we are apart from the narratives already given to us.

Plus, guys and ladies and those beyond the binary, why do we read? Because it’s just amazing to be able to read books and have adventures in all kinds of situations and through all kinds of eyes.

We all know of (newly deceased) poetess and civil rights visionary Maya Angelou, but how many of us were familiar with her past, including that she used to be a sex worker? Or a nightclub singer? Or even a cable car conductor? Most of have no clue about that, because it doesn’t fit the story people want to tell about her, even though those parts of her life helped shape the person she became. Because our society had decided what is “appropriate” for us to know—based on unquestioned societal values and norms.

YA author Marie Lu with her WNDB button (courtesy of the WNDB Tumblr)

But one thing we can do to honor Maya and ourselves is to start reading books from cultures different from ours—even subcultures within the greater umbrella of our own country, like the African American or Indian American experience—and examine the values we take for granted. It’s a way to better choose what messages we are actually putting into our work—and to choose which version of a story we’re going to accept.

So I want to point you, dear readers, toward a very important and related campaign: #WeNeedDiverseBooks. Spearheaded by Ellen Oh, author of the Korean-inspired YA fantasy trilogy The Dragon King Chronicles, and a group of diverse authors and book bloggers, this campaign has been raising awareness of the different books out there, the ones that rarely get any air time but deserve to be read as much as any other title. WNDB just had a panel at this past weekend’s Book Expo America BookCon in response to all of BookCon’s authors being white. (Oh, and a cat. We can’t forget the cat.) Here’s the panel. Hope you’ll give it a listen.

http://weneeddiversebooks.tumblr.com/post/87586495592/bookcon-panel

Then I’d urge all of you to scroll through the WNDB Tumblr and buy or check out books you hadn’t heard of, books about people not just like you. And then consider how the values and actions of those characters might differ from the ones you consider standard/expected. And then see how that affects your writing. I will bet it can only get better.

“That’s nice,” you say, “but I just want a good book. I don’t care about all this do-gooder, eat-your-vegetables stuff. Reading’s supposed to be fun.”

Well, guess what? I totally agree! Don’t forget that reading diversely means you get a whole slew of awesome books to read through—it’s like stumbling upon a candy store full of goodies you’ve never tried, but without the ensuing tummy ache. After all, the best books, no matter who wrote them or who they’re about, are at their heart good stories. So go forth and consume, consume, consume!

Brain – Mental Ass Kickings = More Productive Writer

For my last post, I babbled about where I write. When pondering what topic to tackle next, one of my fellow Sirens suggested I could continue the sequence and address the question of how I write. That’s an easy one: I just start typing.

Well, ok, maybe not that easy. I get an idea first, and then I start typing.

But seriously, there’s more nuance to it than that. I could get into how I approach theme and plot and character and structure and blah blah blah. Those things are important, and I recommend giving them some thought, but I only just finished a masters degree program like a week ago, so the last thing I feel like doing right now is engaging in an intellectual analysis of, well, anything. My brain is tired. And that got me thinking, which totally doesn’t help with the brain tiredness, but did lead to a realization:

I got my masters degree to help me write.

No, it wasn’t a writing program. My shiny new degree is a masters in library and information science (MLIS). So how the hell does that help me as a writer? Well, it goes like this:

Once upon a time, I worked in development (aka fundraising) for non-profits, primarily as a grant writer. While I liked many of the people and the organizations I worked for, the work itself made me miserable. Fundraising and my personality type were not a good fit. And writing grant proposals all day often left me too mentally exhausted for fiction writing, and that just made me more miserable.

Also once upon a time, I briefly escaped from fundraising for two years to work on a cataloging project for a music library—a temporarily funded project, alas, or else I would have loved to have stayed there. I enjoyed the job, and it didn’t sap all of my writing energy. I cranked out my first-ever novel draft on my lunch breaks. But trying to find another library job after that usually resulted in one of three problems: 1) the job required an MLIS, which I didn’t have; 2) if the job didn’t require an MLIS, I was deemed overqualified (“Don’t you think you’ll be bored?” was an actual question at one interview); or 3) they looked at my resume and went, “Ooo, you have grant writing experience! We could use a grant writer!”

So after wavering about it for several years, I finally dove in and got my MLIS. On the down side, working toward the degree meant three years of more mental exhaustion and getting even less fiction writing done. But now that I’m done, I think the upside is going to prove worth it: I work in an orchestra library now. I enjoy my job, I work with interesting people, and every day I get to listen to amazing musicians. But most importantly, the type of work I’m doing doesn’t drain my fiction writing energy the way grant writing did. Many days I come home energized instead.

So my takeaway from all this babbling is this: how you write isn’t always about getting words down. Sometimes it’s about looking at other aspects of your life and figuring out if there are changes you can make that will improve your ability to get those words down. For me, that involved a short-term sacrifice of writing time so that, later down the road, I could dive back into fiction without regularly beating the crap out of my mental well being. I’ve only been done with grad school all of a week at this point, granted, but if my summer breaks were any indication, my brain is going to be a lot more cooperative during my writing time now that it isn’t getting its ass kicked on a daily basis.

Transparency: the other side of exposure

A few weeks ago, I wrote a bit about writing for exposure, i.e. writing for free. That’s an issue every writer will have to deal with at some point, and the answer won’t be the same for everyone. This post is about a related issue: transparency.

Image

What does that mean? If you’re a writer selling your work to magazines or other markets, even if you get paid, you probably also chose the market because of the audience you’ll presumably reach.

Too often, though, writers have very little information about the circulation or influence of any particular market. Which is funny, because advertisers demand that sort of information. And if you’re selling stories—guess what?—each thing you write is an advert for your work.

A well-known professional magazine may list circulation numbers…somewhere. But most online “magazines” (let’s face it, they’re really just websites) do not disclose this in a transparent way. Let’s look at a few speculative fiction magazines, shall we?

That source of Unquestionably Correct Info, Wikipedia, tells me that Analog Science Fiction & Fact had a circulation of just over 25,000 in 2011 (the most recent year listed there). The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction had a monthly circulation of 14,500 in 2011. But go to the actual websites, and you’ll learn nothing. Smaller markets (Strange Horizons, for example) list no information about readership, either. By the way, I’m only citing these titles at random. Virtually all the magazines follow similar rules of not-telling.

You might look at proxy measurements like Twitter follows, FB likes, or ad prices to guess how visible a market is. You could ask the editors or the advertising rep, too, if you’re curious. But in an ideal world, these figures would be available without having to dig. I’d like to see this type of information listed on Duotrope and similar services. Maybe it’s in the massive Writers’ Markets books? I don’t know…it’s been years since I wanted to leaf through those tomes.

In general, I encourage writers to think about this issue because even if you get paid a professional rate (which can be as little as 5 or 6 cents/word), you are still very likely going to be making less than minimum wage for the time it takes to write a story. Therefore, looking for additional benefits like exposure is smart business practice.

Questions writers should ask before selling a story:

1 How many people will read this?

  • What’s the official circulation of the magazine/market?
  • How many hits does the median blog post on a website get?
  • How many unique visitors does a website or online magazine get?
  • How many copies of an ebook or issue of a magazine are downloaded?

2 How will the magazine promote my work?

  • Will they tweet links? How often?
  • Email subscribers? (If so, how many recipients open the email?)
  • Post on Reddit or similar site?

3 How will citing the market support future work?

  • Will you be proud to list this publishing credit on your CV/resume/bio?
  • Will the name be recognized by others?
  • Will a publishing credit here open doors elsewhere?

None of these questions are simple. But with ever fewer opportunities to make anything resembling a real payday for a story, the smart writer needs to consider all the potential benefits that a publication can offer. Writers create the supply that these markets are selling. As writers, we deserver to know exactly what that means in terms of numbers. Yes, we’re all artists and blah blah blah. But art is only effective if it’s seen.

Jocelyn Koehler writes science fiction and fantasy. Learn more and find links to her published work at her personal blog, Team Blood.

 

 

 

Frozen – How to Beat the Blank Page!

What do you do when you sit down in front of that blank piece of paper, blank screen, or partially complete manuscript and you have nothing, I mean NOTHING to say? Let’s face it, this is an experience we’ve all had as writers, especially fiction writers. Whether you’re just starting a story or smack in the middle of it, we’ve all frozen up.

shutterstock_63759181And after the freezing comes the fear:

  • Is this story wrong?
  • Will I ever have a good idea again?
  • Do I just suck as a writer?

After years of writing, I’ve found the source of my deep freeze usually stems from two areas:

1. Am I missing something I need to know about my world?

  • This applies both to realistic and fantastic fiction, though your approach to answering that question may differ. For example, in a recent, non-speculative fiction novel, I had to write a scene about a man who was having a heart attack. The story was set in modern day, but characters had neither a working cell phone nor a landline telephone. I had a number of characters on the scene, one who was trained in CPR. My story got stuck rather quickly because I needed some basic information: (a) how long could a person be under CPR before being reasonably revived (b) how long a person could perform CPR without succumbing to exhaustion (c) how far the runner would need to go in order to find someone with a working cell-phone? A bit of research into the terrain and the intricacies of CPR and I was good to go!
  • The same thing can apply more deeply. For example, is your magical system unclear? What do people eat in your world, what are the obligations of a host to a guest, how long does it take to travel from village A to B and etc. Sometimes the answer is just learning more about your world, whatever it is. The danger of this, of course, is spending the next two weeks playing the research game. So how do you escape this trap? For me, I always ask myself, what is the minimum I need to know to write the scene? Get specific. For example, I need to know what the obligation of a host is to a particular guest, but only insofar as it’s relevant to the scene at hand. I can fill in the rest later, should it become relevant. The more important a detail is to your story, the more you need to fill it in, but if it’s a minor thing, don’t spend more than a ten or fifteen minutes looking/making it up.

So how do get yourself unfrozen when faced with a world building problem? Here is my favorite site for developing my world: Patricia Wrede’s Fantasy Worldbuilding Questions. It is VERY detailed, and I don’t start with doing everything here, but I try to touch on the high points as I like to have a fair amount of worldbuilding done before I start writing. I also find that these questions apply just as well to science fiction as to fantasy worlds.

LINK: http://www.sfwa.org/2009/08/fantasy-worldbuilding-questions/

2. Am I missing something I need to know about a character in the scene?

  • Main character: Is there something important that I don’t “know” about my main character that I need to know in order to start this story/write this scene? Do I know enough about this person’s past in order to understand her present? Do I have a good feel for her voice?
  • Supporting Characters: Is there something I need to know about non-main character in the scene? I especially love to ask this of minor characters. What’s the butler’s story? How about that kid in the corner shining shoes? The fool? The family dog? The most important question for me about minor characters is “what do they want?” Either that or, “what is their secret”. Both of these are fun. Even something as simple as the man serving wine wants to get back to the kitchen and see his  boyfriend gives me some idea of how he’s acting in the scene. His boyfriend is the main character’s brother makes things even more fun.

So how do you learn more about your characters? For me, the best method for finding out what I’m missing is to do a character journal. If it’s a main character, I’ve generally done a character journal either before I start the book or at least somewhere in Chapter 1. But for minor characters, I may not know anything about them at all. So my first step is to look at each minor character and ask myself, “What are you doing in this scene? Why are you here?” and most importantly, “What do you want?” or “what is your secret?” Usually my instincts for this are pretty good, and it only takes 1-2 characters for me to find out who the important (seemingly unimportant) person in the scene is. Once I know who this person is, what they want, and what they’re hiding, the scene usually gets unstuck rather quickly and it’s full speed ahead!

My favorite resource for character journaling is in Alice Orr’s book No More Rejections. I’ve used the character journaling techniques in this book for over a decade and they’ve work for me. What I like about her approach is that you answer the question in the first person and there are many questions like, “I think my best feature is ____” which allows you to really get into the psychology of how the character feels about herself as opposed to merely a physical list of traits. I’ve applied this approach to character lists I’ve found for free online, but hers is the best, in my opinion.

LINK: http://www.amazon.com/No-More-Rejections-Secrets-Manuscript/dp/1582972850/

So that’s my approach, first I check my world, and then I check my characters. What do you do to get unstuck? Feel free to post in the comments below.

The “Rules” of Trilogies–Do They Exist?

Recently in the world of young adult literature, a couple highly hyped trilogies came to an end. Their concluding installments had been eagerly anticipated online, as fans hypothesized about and debated what might happen. How would the books’ respective authors bring these sweeping tales to a proper close?

Then the books came out, and reviews began pouring in. Some readers were delighted, others horrified, and still others found themselves somewhere in the middle. But what I found interesting was the often-repeated sentiment that trilogies have rules, and both authors had broken the rules—and thus betrayed the readers.

This group of readers pointed out that the first book of a trilogy traditionally introduces the main characters and establishes the stakes that will have to be addressed in the rest of the trilogy, including just what’s being fought for. The second book dives further into the problem and the challenges the characters face (as well as the growth that results), often heightening those stakes. The third volume showcases the climax and ends with a satisfying resolution, tying up most, if not all, plot threads.

 

Because both the books I’m referring to are new releases, and I don’t want to spoil anyone, I’m not going to refer to titles. Instead, I’ll paraphrase what happens and how this deviates from the expectations listed above. Let’s call the books A and B, shall we?

In Book A’s trilogy, the author had told the story through a first-person point of view and of course had the narrator endure some big trials and challenges. The stakes for her grew ever higher—to the point that in Book A, she chooses to sacrifice her life. In other words, the author killed off the main character, leaving behind her love interest (and telling the rest of the book from his point of view).

Some readers thought this was a very brave decision and felt true to the story and the protagonist’s arc, and they thought the cost of the protagonist’s self-sacrifice gave the trilogy its emotional resonance. Many others were infuriated, claiming the author had broken the rules of a trilogy. The main character, the one we’re rooting for, they said, is supposed to survive to the end. If you’ve killed off the main character, you’ve killed off any purpose to the three books leading up to her death, and by extension, you’ve cheated the reader, who invested time and money in those books.

In Book B’s trilogy, the existence of magic is revealed here on Earth, and then through a twist of storytelling, we’re shown that there is another world, too, from which the magic comes. The main character is actually part of a great war between races in that other world. In book two, we’re introduced to the war’s participants and shown the stakes—made greater especially because some of those participants want to bring their war to Earth. Also, a new character is shown to be pursuing one of our main characters. But in Book B, those two subplots and others are quickly and easily resolved in order to make way for new characters and an even greater revelation about the scope and nature of the universe. The battles yet to come must necessarily be left up the readers’ imagination; there’s just no room for them in this volume.

 

Again, some readers thought the inclusion of new characters and an even bigger scope (though it would never be addressed in that particular trilogy) was fantastic. They couldn’t praise the author’s sense of worldbuilding and imagination enough. Others felt the book had deviated wildly from the course promised in the first volume, and they often didn’t care about the new characters and felt their presence took screen time away from the characters they did care about. They also mentioned being unsatisfied by the introduction of new plot elements that will never be resolved and the dropping of high-stakes plot threads.

But at the end of the day, readers don’t determine a trilogy’s course. The author does. So who’s right, if anyone?

Let us know what you think: Do trilogies have rules? Do authors have implicit agreements with their readers? When you pick up book one of a trilogy, do you expect the author to follow a familiar trajectory, if not a formula? Has the author failed if not? Can you think of any trilogies where going against the expectations made the book better?