Monday, February 25, 2008

To Critter or Not to Critter…Continued

First of all, my apologies for the long gap in postings! I was felled by the flu last week and could just about manage the short post I put up. Any more complex thinking was a lost cause, even when I was back at work on Thursday (!), and I spent this last weekend playing catchup from some other things and trying to get in some more vestiges of rest to send the last bits of this nagging virus packing. Right now, I’m still dealing with the remnants of a cough and a rough throat—which is no fun for a singer. So we’re (the royal we, don’t you know) about a week away or so from being back 100% in the saddle. However, we are also feeling substantially more awake enough to ponder the second part of our post on critting and how to get a good crit out of this literary life. Once again, with the caveat that YMMV, here are a few thoughts on what makes a good critique—and a good critiquer. First of all, we need to draw a couple of lines between what a critiquer does versus what an editor, or coach, or writing “guidance” guru does. Some places may overlap, but the differences are important enough that it pays to keep some key ones in mind: 1. If you find yourself doing a lot of line-editing in the work, try to back off a bit. It’s hard to do, especially for those of us who are compulsive editors anyway…but that (unfortunately) is just the point. Technically, critiquing is feedback, not hands-on editing. If you find yourself crossing out extensive chunks of text, for example, or wanting to cut whole pages, make a note of it for the author, but don’t feel you need or have a duty to go through and make a substantive edit out of your critiquing process. Same with marking punctuation, restructuring sentences, etc. Unless the writer has specifically requested this, don’t correct everything. Scribble the name of a good grammar book or two in the margin, and let her do her own mechanics. 2. That being said, there’s nothing wrong with pointing out several overarching tendencies, even marking several pages’ worth of instances if necessary, to get a writer’s attention on certain things. Case in point: I have an absolute infatuation with the words “just” and “even.” (The latter must from that old Christmas carol about King Wenceslas…but I digress.) Thanks to my crit partner (bless her heart :-)) marking every one of them early on, I’ve since learned to go through before I send stuff to her and do a massive search-and-destroy on most of those wonderful words. And I do still like them. Trust me on this. One or two, here and there, are okay. Using “just” three or more times in one paragraph (which I have), however, is—er—a bit of overkill. (I almost said “just a little overkill.” See, I told you I was hooked.) 3. If you don’t like a character, feel free to say so. Give the author specifics on why you don’t like or believe in a character, and you might get a surprise: maybe she’s trying to make that person a “bad guy,” and she’s just not made him “bad enough” so you recognize that fact! On the other hand, once again, it’s not part of your job as critiquer to “rewrite” or “recast” the character yourself. Give suggestions on motivation, on action/reaction, on emotional integrity or the lack of same…but if you want to keep on the side of critiquing rather than “redoing the book,” don’t go too much farther than that. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do for a writer is to let her know she needs to go deeper into characterization, and let her find out how. 4. The same thing goes for setting and other details; if you don’t like them, you’re free to say so, but also, do your best to divorce your dislike—or ignorance—of a certain locale, era, or such from the critiquing of the actual writing. If you truly feel you can’t give the work the fair reading it deserves, be it out of personal prejudice or plain ignorance, it’s okay to excuse yourself. The writer will thank you more for your frankness at that point than she would if you tried to soldier on and ended up having to have things “explained” or “clarified” to you later! But once again, there’s a fine line we walk: the difference between not liking a particular setting, era, occupation for hero/heroine, etc., and telling a writer she can’t use such-and-such a place, occupation, era, scenario, or the like. You may be sincerely trying to help by telling a writer she “can’t” write something and sell it in a given market—but you may, in fact, be wrong on that. We’re all given so many “can’ts,” especially about genre fiction, that sound like gospel…and then someone comes along who doesn’t know any better, writes a horking good book using two or three of those “can’ts,” and no one bats an eye. In this, as in so many other areas—particularly in mainstream fiction—story trumps pretty much everything else. Even in genre fiction, with its tighter formulas, authors are constantly looking for ways to kick the sides out of the box, and editors are constantly looking for a way to encourage them to do so while still selling to their target audience. So try not to dissuade someone from using some element in their story just because you don’t particularly like it. Someone else may love the thing to death and buy it for a million dollars—and then, your pontifications won’t be considered knowledgeable or even thoughtful editorial advice so much as a stunning example of yet another person who “didn’t get it.” You don’t want to be in that story…so try your best to stay out of the “prohibition” business. One prohibition, however, is a good one to remember…and that’s what we’ll close with today as a final thought on your role as critiquer: 5. Refuse to be drawn into a discussion of whether a writer “has talent” or not. Think you’re not going to be asked this? Think again. I don’t think I’ve gone through more than a handful of critiques in which that question isn’t put forth as part of what the writer wants as feedback…and you should never answer it. Period. Not because you can’t tell; you usually can. (!) Sometimes you can even make a reasonable guess that the asker does not have “what it takes” to make it as a writer. But, flattering as it may be to be consulted about this mythical thing called “talent,” don’t fall for the flattery. Neither answer is a good one. If you say yes, there are always a certain number of writers who will take that as carte blanche to do nothing to develop their work or clean up their basic mistakes: “My writing teacher says I have real talent, so I don’t want to stifle it with a bunch of stupid rules.” If you say no—even if you have really, really, really good reasons for saying no—some people say you risk crushing a writer’s hopes. I wouldn’t go that far. Writers themselves decide what feedback to take, they decide whether to go any farther than they already are, and they decide when to quit; anyone who tries to pin those decisions on the word of another person is fooling herself. But that won’t stop her from accusing you of destroying her ego, stopping her dead, trashing her dreams, etc.—and who needs that nonsense? Certainly not someone who’s only trying to help. So keep the help craft-centered, keep it as close as you can to giving the writer a few landmarks and a roadmap, keep it focused as much as possible on making the work salable, and you’ll be giving good critiquing…without being abused and/or put into the shoes of an editor, a confessor, or a mother. All of those people have their places; you as critiquer are none of them. Play the role correctly and not only will you have given out some solid help to your fellow writers, but you’ll have energy and time left over to spend on your own work! …which leads us to the other side of the coin: what you, as a writer, should be getting from a critique…what your role is in the creative exchange…and how to know if you’re getting good advice. We’ll tackle that one next time! Stay tuned, Janny

Thursday, February 21, 2008

You Don't Have to be in a Lecture Hall to have Class.

There are lots of people who've wondered over the years what a Hokie is...
I think we have our answer.

A Hokie is class. Pure class.

Pray for healing at NIU!


Friday, February 15, 2008

To Crit or Not To Crit…That Is the Question

It’s been suggested of late that I take some time to wax poetic (since it’s lousy weather for waxing a car) about how to find a good critique partner. (Like I know?) :-) But, since I can never resist a challenge—with the caveat that YMMV—let’s explore this question. First, it’s worth mulling for a moment over the value of critique sessions, by anyone, to anyone. I’ve been in multiple writers’ workshops on critiquing where, inevitably, a multi-pubbed (and practically canonized) author stands up and blows everyone out of the water by saying, “Nobody sees my work but my editor. I write it, and she looks at it, and that’s it.” To which the room oohs and aahs and thinks, “Well, when I get to be as good a writer as she is, that’ll be all I’ll need, too.” If you look at this through the jaded glasses of those of us who’ve been at this for awhile, you figure that that’s what the multi-pubbed author wants you to think—both about her and about yourself. It both keeps you down in those trenches with the unwashed multitude (thereby reinforcing her exalted status) and—sometimes with malice aforethought—practically guarantees that you’ll never move beyond said unwashed multitude. It paints a rosy picture of a future in which every word from your keyboard will be so anointed, so ding-dang perfect, that the most your breathless editor will want to change may be a comma placement or three before sending it right on to glory, fame, honor, and great reviews (not to mention vast riches). It’d be great if things actually worked that way. (!) Too bad they don’t. Unfortunately, to the extent that you believe in and act on—or maybe more accurately, fail to act on—that rosy picture the author paints, it can stall you out for years…which is good for aforementioned author (because it removes her competition), but not so good for you. On the other hand, most of us know of at least one instance when a critique did almost irreparable harm; it was malicious, or sarcastic, or “witty” at the expense of our stories or even ourselves, and it left us thinking that that author’s secretiveness was actually the beginning of wisdom. But even if our experiences have fallen on the middle of the continuum, the question can still touch a nerve. Maybe we haven’t been fatally wounded by a critique, but we’ve been bruised, frustrated, annoyed, or ignored—the classic example is an author asking for one or two specific things from a critique, and getting everything but what she asked for. These kinds of time-wasters aren’t fatal, but, like a million tiny mosquitoes, each takes a little writer’s blood out of us. At best, they make us wonder if anyone really knows how to help us, and at worst, they make us doubt our own talent. So what’s the answer? From my side of the fence, the first author’s lucky. If she truly has never had to subject her work to any critiquing other than an editor’s or maybe an agent’s, she’s hit a rare combination of elements that few of us achieve. Some of the authors who operated this way in the past were just horking good writers; most came into their editors’ offices when editors still edited work, were able and willing to develop authors, and therefore could take the time to file all the rough edges off work that “wasn’t quite there yet.” Now, with editors being stripped of most of that ability by the constraints of “lean” industry and marketing mania, most of us—even if we’re horking good writers—can and will benefit from a “third eye”(or lots of them!) before we send things to an editor’s desk. But what kind of eye, or collection of eyes, will do us the most good? Years ago, I treasured the input of my RWA chapter, which critiqued as a whole, and as part of every meeting—something that few RWA chapters, much less other writers’ groups, did. When I described our procedure, however, most people outside our group were horrified by it. The thought of reading your own stuff, out loud, on the spot, to live people—at least a dozen of them at a time, and sometimes as many as thirty—struck them as needless torture, not to mention opening an author up to potentially hopeless confusion. “How do you know who to believe?” they’d wail. “How do you know what suggestions to take? Doesn’t everyone have a different opinion? How do you know which is right?” Well, of course everyone has a different opinion…but that’s part of the value of it. You get a wide spectrum from lots of different perspectives. And that’s why you ask them to write on the manuscript, and that’s why you take all that feedback home and look it over when you’re calmed down and can weigh each comment for its value. Let me also add that this process wasn’t a free-for-all: we had rules of critiquing, which a good manuscript chairperson insisted on enforcing; we had time limits; and we always went in with the idea that a writer was free to take any feedback or leave it. So it was not nearly the bloodbath that these people apparently pictured when I said “group critique.” I found it especially ironic that some of the same people who were put off by the notion of what we did had their own (tiny) groups where things were much closer to a free-for-all or bloodbath than our structured system…and where they got personal to boot. I’ll never forget the way one person in a small group put it: “We can say to each other, ‘This stuff sucks,’ and it’s okay, because we all know each other.” To which I said, “Saying ‘This stuff sucks’ is never okay. I don’t care how well you know each other. And I wouldn’t be a part of any group that allowed that kind of thing.” The bottom line? For whatever reasons, our system worked extraordinarily well. Our RWA chapter had so many members sell their first books after running them through our process that we gained an excellent reputation in the business. At one point, mentioning that you were a member of RWA Chapter #14—and that parts of your book had been vetted by the group—in your query letter was almost as good as having an agent vouch for your work. Valuable? You bet. So, understandably, over the years, I’ve come down on the side of “Yes, be a member of a critiquing group if you can, and the larger, the better. It will make you a better writer faster than anything else you can imagine.” But then, a weird turn in the road happened—both philosophically and geographically—and I ended up leaving RWA entirely…which meant that for all practical purposes, I no longer had a steady critique group source. Now, I’ve shifted paradigms and gone to the other extreme: one crit partner who basically is the only person who sees my work. I’m uneasy about this on one level, since I have notoriously bad luck with writer friendships…but it seems to be working so far. Knock on any wood you have available. So what makes a good critiquing situation? Having run the gamut, I can think of a number of factors that contribute to a profitable endeavor—and some “red flags” to note, and deal with, lest they sabotage your work, your self-esteem, or your relationships with other writers. We’ll talk specifics in our next post… Stay tuned! Janny

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Story So Far

When we last left off our idea-generating exercise (see November 29), it’d been remarkably fruitful. Frankly, after having completely run out of ideas, feeling like the well was dry, etc., for a long time, the euphoria of kicking out the sides of the box went straight to my head. Which was a good place for it to go, me being the cerebral-type (as opposed to SOTP) writer that I am! That’s the good news; the not so good news is…the execution of said ideas is harder than “getting” them ever is, and especially in this case. So it’s only right that at this point in time, a couple of months later, I take some stock and assess the status of this idea blast. I have, in fact, completely revamped an old book and turned it on its head—at least in my head. I’ve written the new synopsis and have done some bursts of writing of actual text…but it’s coming in bursts, not in organized, methodical fashion. It’s written in a voice I hardly recognize as my own, one way different from even the language and treatment I give aforementioned Book of My Heart. This is mind-boggling on many level—and scary to boot. More on that in a bit. I am in the process of coming up with three delightfully ditzy possibilities for heroines for future books, each with a special “gift” of her own that I can put into a “woo woo” story. So far I’m to the “name” stage with them, and mulling in my mind what can be each heroine’s particular gift and raison d’ĂȘtre. That is going way slower than I anticipated. I have begun to mull a synopsis for “completing” a story that will spring from a short-short I’ve already written, but thought would be a great “root” in itself for another book…but only begun it, as this item is connected with the three ditzy possibilities listed above. I have hatched a totally different character idea from the first book, which will take a spinoff book that was going nowhere and set it on its head, as least as far as remaking a character into something he wasn’t before. He’ll have infinitely more possibilities and need of “redemption” in his own story later, but that’s on a far back burner at the moment. I did come up with a crazy fantasy/parallel universe idea that I won’t be using myself, unless the author I suggested it to declines to do so—which’ll mean I could then morph it into something “woo woo” but not fantasy, but still have a horking good story beginning. The author I proposed it to said it sounded like something I could write better than he could—which I don’t believe! But, at any rate, this idea is on hold for the moment. It’s only the vaguest scenario, and it’s an idea whose time has not yet come. I did just about bounce off the walls writing a new synop and 12 pages of the first story listed above, “wrote” the next two to three chapters verbally (i.e., worked them out in the car while driving to and from choir), and thought I had the fourth one ready to start, and just merely had to transfer them to the keyboard. That’s when things got interesting. Because, you see, what I “wrote” in the car, I did transcribe to a point. But only to a point. Suddenly, the characters began bantering, and the careful direction I was going to take the dialogue flew out the window. In its place were sparks of a different kind, material that came out of my fingers so fast I was typing like the wind. (And I normally type obscenely fast to begin with, so you can imagine how fast this was.) In word count terms, I wrote 2000 words in one day without feeling it—something that would have normally taken me 10-12 hours before, but took me less than half that time this go ‘round. Then, I ran the stuff by my crit partner…and stopped cold. For two weeks. Then three. And I felt an awful insecurity start to creep over me, a pernicious fear that the “same old thing was going to happen again”—I’d have a great start, then run dry. And, in fact, for days and days in there, I was dry. I had no idea what to write next; I knew where I wanted my characters to be, but I had no faith that they were even my characters anymore, much less how to get them there. I was at least partly convinced that what I had written was dreck, that it was going to all have to be redone so I was “telling the story right.” I didn’t know how to get these people to rein in and behave, how to get the book back into my “real voice” again…and so I didn’t write for awhile. I wasn’t even in the mood to do it. And then, just as I was beginning to go into a major funk and think about quitting entirely… The muse came back. As capriciously as she left, she returned, cup of tea in hand, and said, “Let’s get back to this.” That’s the only way I can explain it—because for no other reason I could ascertain, and with nothing else having changed, I suddenly got in the mood to do some more on the book. I even housecleaned in two evenings, rather than three, because I knew I was going to be writing at the end of the week and I wanted to leave lots of time “free” to do that in. And that’s how I sat down on Saturday afternoon and literally, in the space of less than three hours, wrote nine pages. Or…about 2000 words. In three hours. Now, I’m still not sure if this is any good. I’m still not sure this book is written in “my voice.” But it might be written in something else even better…in that the characters are literally taking over this thing, in a way characters haven’t taken over anything I’ve written in years. I still feel like what I’m doing is nothing more than having fun, not writing a book. I still feel that it’s self-indulgent, that it’s just “playing.” Or at least I did, until I went back and reread what I did…and discovered that through this magical banter the characters are doing, the story is getting told a whole ‘nuther way. A way I hadn’t imagined it was going to be told. And that is scary to the max. Because I truly don’t know if it’s going to work. I’m going to run this new material past my crit partner sooner rather than later, and let her tell me what she thinks. I know what I think already. I’m not even sure it’s me writing this anymore. And I don’t know when the next “burst” will happen…but somehow, now, I’m beginning to think I don’t need to worry about it. Somehow, as frightening as this is, I’m beginning to think that this book will write itself, in its own time, at its own pace, and in creative bursts that get done precisely what needs to be done at the stage it’s ready to be written. Just looking at what I’ve written trying to explain this creative process looks completely off the wall to me. Maybe flying off the walls is exactly what I need to do. Maybe this is truly breaking me out of the box…and teaching me to write in a whole new way. And the only way I’m going to know if that’s true is by sitting by and watching it happen. But you talk about frightening? So that’s part II of the idea-generation experiment…so far. Not what I expected in the least. Not at all like anything I’ve done in recent years. But it may turn out to be the best I’ve ever done. Thoughts? Janny