Tag Archives: Writer Resources

Improving Your Critique

I’ve spent the last week-and-a-half or so critiquing a friend’s ms. It’s a sf story that deals with what are basically superheroes—called Changelings in his setting. I won’t go any further than that because it’s not my story and it’s not published. And the plot isn’t the point of this post anyway (though I don’t mind giving it a shameless plug).

The point is that I’ve spent quite a while feeling like I wasn’t doing much good in my writing group. I mean, I’ve been bringing stuff to read, but my own comments and critiques haven’t felt all that insightful to me.

Now I think I know why.

Sometimes, when you’re in a group setting, you tend to let others do the work for you. It’s not always intentional—I know it wasn’t on my part—but the end results are the same: you’re not contributing as well as you can. Part of it is group dynamics. In the case of my writing group, the fact there are so many others there with valid opinions makes me think maybe mine isn’t so important.

But if I take the time to look around, to really see what’s going on, it shouldn’t be too hard to realize one thing: we all have something unique to offer. Sure, maybe we’ll all zero in on the more obvious flaws in a fellow writer’s work, even if that flaw is only a typo. But there are other observations that are unique to each personality, and that includes me.

I’ve had comments on my own stories that were things I doubt I’d have thought of in a million years—and yet they were probably obvious to whoever made the comment. They’re unique comments not necessarily shared by the group. I won’t say I’ve always agreed with them—you can’t please all the people all the time—but I’ve rarely rejected any of them out of hand.

But when someone hands you a copy of their story and you’re sitting there at the computer by yourself, you’ve got no one to rely on to make the observations you should be making yourself. It’s all on you, even if you know they’ve handed copies to other people. You’re not sitting in a group with those other people. You don’t know what they’re going to see and what they’re not. Sure, to a small extent you might bypass some problem because you figure they’ll point it out as well. But on the whole, you know you’ve got to pull your own weight so you’re not wasting your time, at the very least.

This is something I discovered anew while critiquing my friend’s ms. It’s been some time since I’ve critiqued on an individual basis—and I’d have to say that pretty much all those other occasions have been my daughter’s work—and I’d forgotten how to do it, I guess. Or, at least, let other members of the writers group pull the load for me. Most of my thinking was just as I stated: with all these people here (and so many of them published, and very good writers to boot), what could I possibly have to offer?

Well, a lot, it turns out.

And I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. I just mean that I have a unique viewpoint and believe that, by this stage in my writing journey, I have some experience to offer as well. Some knowledge of how things are.

So if you’re in a group and feel the same way—whatever the reason—try going back and either critiquing one of your old works, or find someone who’ll let you go through their ms. Like, me, I think you’ll relearn how to do this thing and help someone else out—and yourself in the process.

Later,
Gil

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Writing as a Business

Though I haven’t taken anything like a scientific poll on this—I wouldn’t have the foggiest notion of how to do that—it seems to me there is a general consensus among writers that there are two things we all dislike, maybe even hate: writing synopses and doing self-promotion.

Hating the synopsis is understandable: we didn’t get into creative writing to do product description, and that’s what a synopsis is. We have to take our wonderful story, with all its twists, turns, character development, wonderful prose (at least in our opinion), and nuance, and turn it into this soulless piece of writing and hope a total stranger will actually find something redeeming in it. When we think every single redeeming thing about it has to be taken out for the stupid synopsis.

Sure, there are writers out there who like writing a synopsis, or at least don’t hate it like so many of us do, but they’re probably the exceptions. Most of us hate what it makes our stories look like, and, for me at least, it seems as if it actually decreases the chance that an agent/editor will actually bite. How can he or she actually exhibit an interest in this thing? It’s got nothing going for it this way.

We forget that the agents/editors who want a synopsis are aware of this, that, somehow, they take this into account. I’m not sure if I could sit around all day looking at dry, boring synopses. But, I have to say I’ve read a few well-written synopses that made me want to get all the juicy details that are in the actual story. A good synopsis is like a good newspaper headline: it has just enough details to tease the reader into wanting to know the rest of the story.

And let’s face it: the synopsis is an unavoidable part of the business. Not every agent/editor wants one. In fact, I’d have to say most of the agents I’ve submitted to (I haven’t submitted directly to any editors) only want a query with a one- or two-paragraph plug, rather than a synopsis. Synopses are becoming almost as rare as the first-fifty-pages rule that used to be the industry norm. I know of only one agency, Ethan Ellenberg, that still wants a full fifty pages. Most that want a ms want three or five. One—I can’t remember the name off the top of my head—wanted the first three chapters.

So, while we hate synopses, they’re not the general rule that self-promotion is.

We’ve been having once-a-month marketing classes in my writing group on the last Thursday of the month. Last time, one of the members asked something like this: “If we have to do all this, getting Facebook accounts, and LinkedIn accounts, writing blogs, how in the world did authors like Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee make it? Did they have to do all this?”

No, Isaac Asimov and Harper Lee did not have to do all this. Besides the obvious fact that there was no Internet to do it on, back in their day, the publishers handled promotion. They set up the book signing tours, they approached the book stores, arranged for the ads, all that stuff. They were set up to do it, and could almost manufacture the next bestselling author.

Things are different now. Publishers expect the author to do self-promotion. They’re already putting a lot of money out there upfront, risking a lot of cash on you as an unknown. If you want to be the next (insert name of favorite bestselling author here), you have to get there largely on your own. You need a blog. A Facebook page. A website. A LinkedIn account. You gotta get out there and comment on other people’s blogs as a subtle way of putting your name in front of people. You gotta learn to play the Amazon promotion machine—assuming you have a book on Kindle—in order to make people buy your book by, strange as it may sound, giving away copies.

And the sad irony is, if you do all this and manage to reach bestseller status, the key to the kingdom will be handed to you. All of sudden, your publisher will start promoting you on their dime. Why? Well, Stephen King has often complained that his critics say he could publish his laundry list and it would be a bestseller. That fact that they’re probably right bugs him, and I can’t say I blame him. You reach that point, you gotta wonder if they’re buying your writing or your name on the cover.

And the publisher doesn’t care. As long as you’re selling books, who cares why customers are forking over their hard-earned moolah for your books? You’re a bestseller. As long as you retain that status, the money they’ll spend on promoting your book is well worth the return they’ll get.

The irony is that, now that you’ve reached the point where you don’t need them doing all this marketing for you, they’re falling all over themselves to do it.

Where the hell were they when you were trying to get your debut novel off the ground? Why didn’t they put this kind of effort into getting you established? I did all the ground work to get this thing off the ground, and now you want to stand around with your hand out?

It’s enough to piss you off.

Most of us are raised to be humble. You don’t front yourself. You elevate friends and family members, while downplaying yourself. And, besides, who has time to do all this marketing crap? I’m a writer, not an ad man. Let the marketing department take care of that stuff. I’ll sign some books, sure, but if I’m updating my Facebook page and writing blogs, when do I have time for my book?

All legitimate questions, but here’s the rub: how many other professions spend the bulk of their time doing their actual job? How many other jobs entail attending endless, seemingly meaningless meetings and web-conferences? How many times, in your line of work, have you attended the so-called productivity meeting, the one that makes you wonder how important it’s gotta be if you’re stopping production in order for you to attend.

Much as we hate it, writing is a business. You are that business.

Compare it to musicians. How many times a day do you hear that little promo piece on your local radio station that features a famous artist saying that this is so-and-so and you’re listening to such-and-such radio station? That’s not just promo for the station. It also keeps the artist’s name out there, on your consciousness. You hear it and you might just think, I hope that means they’re going to play the new song now.

It seems like an insurmountable task, especially when you consider you still have your day job to contend with, not to mention family life and other day-to-day problems. Your budget’s already tight, and you have to fork over money for a website? What’s up with that?

There’s an old axiom: You have to spend money to make money.

I don’t particularly look forward to doing all this. I’ve had a blog for a couple years now, I guess, and a Facebook page for about as long. I just opened a LinkedIn account this week. Haven’t had a chance to do much more than finish the profile and, with my schedule, all this will take longer than I’d like. I also have to save up the money for a website from what little I make selling plasma. And, I’m going to make a concerted effort to write more short stories and get them published online and in local anthologies.

These are the kinds of things you gotta do if you want readers outside of family and friends to see your work. If you want your work out there and known, you have to make yourself known first. No one else is gonna do it for you. Yes, fellow writers will help as much as they can, but you have to return the favor.

Writing is a business, and that means we gotta become business people. Yes, it’s the antithesis of writing. Writing is creative, fulfilling. Business sucks your soul out, or that’s how it feels to me.

Just keep your eye on the goal: a book on the shelf of your favorite bookstore, the opportunity to log onto Amazon just to see your book there.

Writing is a business. You gotta make it your business to be good at it.

Later,

Gil

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Living With Your Inner Editor

That title sounds kinda Zen, doesn’t it?

I don’t really mean it that way, though. This isn’t gonna be some Reader’s Digest Condensed Version of (insert name of favorite/most reviled self-help/New Age/religious book here). I’m not gonna ask for contributions to save pygmy orphans in Australia or anything. Remember: this blog is about observations and lessons learned in the writing life. In this case, I’m not sure how many “lessons” I’ll be able to impart or even guarantee that anything you read here will work for you. As always, consult your doctor before beginning this or any other program of its type.

As writers, we all live with our inner editor, that part of us that screams, “Use this word, not that!” at us. Or, “No, you idiot, it sounds better this way.” And the worst, “This story is stupid. Stop wasting your time on it.”

Mine likes that first criticism best. I go along, writing my little heart out, and he jumps up out of his chair and pontificates on the way I choose words. He goes on at great length, at times, most times, on the virtues of one word over another. The result of this is that, when I go back and edit, I can see sentences where I changed my mind on words or, his second favorite, phrases, partway through and didn’t get all the changes made on first draft. Well, you know, that’s okay. That’s what edits are for, right?

You can imagine my relief when, during a critique of her YA novel (which I believe is titled something like The Doc is in, Take 2, but that might be a working title), I caught instances of my daughter doing the same thing. I had to laugh. It was easy to recognize what had happened, and I could even see, or at least guess, what the original sentence was before she edited herself midstream. And, of course, I was laughing with her, not at her.

Speaking of my daughter, the way her inner editor manifests most visibly is in that last statement I made above: “This story is stupid. Stop wasting your time on it.” I’m not trying to embarrass her or force her to do anything she doesn’t want to, but I know she has one story in particular, called All the Same, that she says will never see the light of day. Now, while I’ll agree it’s probably not up to par with her YA novel, it’s still good.

Maybe she looks at it the way I look at some of my early novels, too. I have two and a half fantasy novels about a bounty hunter that I view as learning experiences. They gave me the confidence to know I can not just start a novel, but finish it as well. But, at roughly 60,000 words each, they’re short, especially for fantasies, and while the stories are okay, I doubt very seriously I’ll ever try to publish them. They’d need extensive rewriting, and I’m not sure if I’d be up to it now.

My inner editor also argues with some things, and I can’t say I always disagree with him.

When it comes to critiques, learning to deal with them (I’ve written about it elsewhere) isn’t always easy. You have to learn to take the criticism in the spirit it’s offered and not take offense. It’s not easy, and not everyone can do it. You put your heart and soul into this story, after all, and here’s all these people nitpicking it to shreds, or so it seems. One of the ways I’ve learned to deal with it is by using the democratic method: if more than one person thinks it’s a problem, then I’d probably better do something about it. Then there are those whose opinion I trust almost implicitly, and I’ll make their recommended changes pretty much without question.

But as picky as my inner editor can be about individual words, there are some even he thinks should remain, or at least doesn’t quite understand the need to eliminate them from our writing vocabulary.

One of these is the word now. The argument, these days, against using this word is that you’re writing in past tense and there’s no place for it in past tense. Outside dialogue, of course. Most rules are off when it comes to dialogue.

Let me give you an example (it’s off the top of my head, so bear with me here): He’d never had to consider it that way, but now he did.

Obviously, that sentence is written in past tense. It’s the tense most novels use, even though there’s a fad going on right now where a lot of them are in present tense. But that’s a whole ’nother subject for a whole ’nother day. Doesn’t matter what our character is considering. Like I said, I made it up off the top of my head, rather than searching through mine or someone else’s work for an example.

But here’s the thing: in my mind, that sentence is relative. No, I’m not getting into the Theory of Relativity here. What I’m saying is, if I’m supposed to be writing so deep into my character’s POV that I eliminate phrases like “He thought” and “He saw,” then why is the word now off-limits? Because, if I’m in his POV, he’s thinking that he now has to consider this new possibility, where he hasn’t before. To me, it’s a line of delineation, a way of differentiating between the story’s present and its past.

Despite being a writer, I’m not all that hip to the parts of a sentence or any of the other things you learn in high school English (assuming you manage to stay awake, that is). I’ve learned a lot of my writing through osmosis, as it were. I know when something sounds right, and I know when to make it sound wrong to get your attention. I don’t mean that arrogantly, and I ain’t sayin’ I do it right all the time. Me know me messes up. Or, as W said in one of the debates he had with Al Bore—er, Gore (I always get that wrong, for some reason), “I’ve been known to mangle a syl-able or two.” I’m not sure how to write that so you get the way he deliberately mispronounced the word syllable. The point is, I can’t even remember the proper name for how we write, but I think it’s past perfect tense. I just call it past tense.

But, okay, we’re writing in past tense. For the character, though, it’s the present. That’s why I tend to think of this writing as being in the past present tense. Yes, technically, it’s past tense. But it’s the present for the characters and, in a way, for the reader. So, in my mind, that means it’s perfectly legitimate to make a statement like I did: He’d never had to consider it that way, but now he did.

Another one is suddenly. I’m not sure what the theory is here. The only real explanation I’ve ever heard is things don’t happen suddenly.

Bullshit.

Excuse my American.

Anyone who’s had some idiot jump out of a closet at them knows damn well things can happen quite suddenly. And sometimes with embarrassing results. I think part of the argument here is that, by saying something happened suddenly, I’m being lazy. In other words, I should be more specific: it happened abruptly. Or unexpectedly. Something like that. But please oh please don’t try to tell me things don’t happen suddenly, ’cause they damn well do. I’ve had ’em happen to me.

Then there are those who go gerund hunting. Or, should I say, those who are going gerund hunting. They’re gerund exorcists. You’re supposed to get rid of every –ing word you possibly can. Well, more and more I understand keeping them to a minimum, but there is also what I think of as the poetic turning of a phrase. Not to mention my writing voice. In this case, I’ll use an example from my own writing:

Ed was waiting for me in the parking lot at County, leaned up against a black Dodge Charger with blacked-out windows.

Now, I will entertain arguments from you that I used the word black redundantly. I remember this sentence because it came up in a recent reading group meeting and because I’m still trying to decide the most effective way to reword those two occurrences of the word black. But those words aren’t the subject here, so let’s not worry about them right now.

This is the opening sentence for a chapter. It’s designed to be what I think is called in media res, which means I’m dropping you in the middle of the action, rather than leading up to it with some long, boring intro or loving description of the setting. It’s bam! and Ed’s waiting for Lyle.

In the original sentence, the word leaned was leaning. I changed it with great reluctance, and still might change it back. Why? Cuz it sounds frickin’ awkward the way it is, that’s why. I really, really dislike that he’s leaned up against the Charger. Makes it sound like he’s a leaf rake. In my mind, if something is leaned, that’s an action that was performed on it, hence the leaf rake analogy: He leaned the leaf rake against the wall. To me, that means he leaned it there, then walked off and left it till he needs it again. It’s an action performed against an inanimate object.

Ed ain’t inanimate. He’s a police detective, and he’s by-God leaning up against that damned car. He put himself there. No one left him there and walked off until they needed him again.

Man, we can’t kill all our gerunds. What’ll happened to the ecosystem if we do?

I have a theory about these examples (and others that are like them): somebody, somewhere, went to a writing conference. Some editor/agent no one’s ever heard of, outside of the conference organizers, perhaps, gets up and makes his little speech. And, along the way, he mentions that he doesn’t like to see gerunds. Or the word suddenly. Or states that there can’t be a now in past tense.

Suddenly, the attendees are thinking that this is now the industry standard. Next thing you know, they’re coming back to their writing group, telling everyone else that, suddenly, things like this are now off-limits. Don’t use ’em. They’ll put you on the black list, label you a communist, and you’ll never work in this city again.

Okay. So I’m exaggerating things a bit. And I realize they’re trying to help make me a better writer, that I can take everything they say and throw it out the window. I don’t do that, believe you me. I carefully consider everything I hear in my group. There are published writers there, after all. They’ve cut and pruned and refined and somebody somewhere liked their scribbling enough to put a contract in their face.

I should be so lucky.

It’s what we all want. But we have to listen, at times, to that inner editor. He’s the guy who knows our voice best. Yeah, there are times when you gotta tell him to get in, sit down, shut up and hang on, ’cause you’re driving this puppy.

But sometimes his BS meter goes off and you should listen. If you want that formal voice, get rid of now and suddenly and kill all your gerunds, leaving their bloody carcasses lying all over the place. But if you’re reaching for something less formal, more everyday—as I am—you gotta go with what feels right, baby.

Even if that means that, suddenly, you’re doing something right now.

You gotta live with your inner editor like you live with that noisy neighbor: sometimes you just gotta groove to the music he’s playing too loud, even if you don’t like Slayer or Metallica. Just live. Exist in the moment.

Kumbaya, my lord.

Later,

Gil

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