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And Another Thing...

Posted by Debbie Meldrum on May 3, 2014 at 10:40 PM Comments comments (0)

I learned aboutwriting from my critique group.


5. Listen to all the feedback.


Even if you disagree. Violently.


This can be a hard one--it is for me. But even if you don't agree with the feedback, you should listen. Because something didn't work for that person. It may be a style thing, which you don't want to change. But the thing is, what they may have given as the reason in the critique may not be the real cause of their discontent with your story.


I'm not saying that anyone is lying to you or purposely obfuscating. But sometimes a piece of a story doesn't gel for us, and we can't quite say why. So we might look at the things we can identify: sentence structure, pronouns,adverbs--anything to try and help the author.


So do yourself a favor and try to figure out what really went wrong. Remember that one reader in your group represents a lot more potential readers for your finished work. Do you really want to lose that many people for something that you could have fixed without giving up your personal style?



What I Learned About Writing From . . .

Posted by Debbie Meldrum on April 15, 2014 at 9:35 PM Comments comments (0)

Critique Groups

I have been a member of three different critique groupsover the past 12 or so years. Which, I hear, makes me pretty lucky. Somewriters bounce around a lot more than that. I met all the members of my second,Creek Writers Council, at the first one, Colorado Springs Fiction WritersGroup. Right now I’m working one on one with another person who was a member ofboth of my previous groups. Many lessons were picked up along the way. Here aresome of them.


1. If you have to explain it . . .


I've been on both sides of this one. A reader will say, "I don'tunderstand how George went from standing on a hill in Italy to hanging from a flagpole in Quebec." Once the writer starts explaining that, "Well,you see, he boarded a blimp in Tuscany, then he flew to Madrid where he hopped a train for Calais . . ." Yeah. But if it's not on the page, the reader doesn't know this. And you, as the writer, don't get to sit down with every reader to explain that. At least you hope not.


Jenny calls it "getting it on the page." What I see left off the page most often is setting. Where am I? What's it like there? How's the weather? All things that the writer has in his head when he's writing, but that he needs to show me as the reader.


I'm tried my best to overwrite my submissions. Most of my critique group found it easier to show where to cut than trying to figure out what was left out. I didn't always get there, but it was great exercise


2. Don't assume everyone knows what you do.


Not everyone has the same specialized knowledge. And the terms from that specialized area may not be easy to decode for someone not in the club.


Dancers, musicians, computer programmers, accountants, teachers, doctors, etc.all use terms that people outside of those realms may or may not know. Or it may mean something different to other specialties. A paradiddle in dance sounds like a paradiddle in drumming, but one is executed with the feet and the other with the hands.


This is a hard one, because once you learn something, it can be difficult to remember that you didn't always know it. This is where critique groups from diverse backgrounds are essential.


3. No two people read exactly alike.


Everyone approaches submissions in his own way. Some read straight through the first time, then go back and dissect. Some mark as they go and only read once. And each person has his own focus for critiques.


I've seen puns be a pet peeve for one reader and a delight for another. Some will add a comma to your sentence and others are just as likely to mark one out. I once had a woman tell me that I had a male character describe a room as only a woman would. The scene didn't bother the man in our group at all.


All of this can be really frustrating. But it is good practice for when your work goes out into the wider world. Get used to people misreading your work, your intention.


I'm learning to weed through the feedback so I can determine what to act on and what to leave as is. Notice I didn't say "ignore." I do listen to and read all feedback. I just don't always agree with all of it.


4. It's your work.


That's the biggest lesson from working with critique groups. Your work has to reflect you. Your voice. Your story. Your style.


We shook up how we ran the second critique group, because the original format was no longer working for some of us. It's not that it was wrong, just that we are at a different place in our writing. The strength of the group was tested and held. We discussed the issues and made a change that everyone could work with.

And even though we don't meet as a critique group any more, we're all still friends, which is huge. And we still read each other's work when asked.


I've learned that I need to speak up when something isn't working. Because of Lesson #3. It's my work, and I'm the one who needs to take responsibility for making it the best it can be.

With the help of my friends.



Pop Culture and Ghost Stories

Posted by Oliver on January 11, 2014 at 1:00 AM Comments comments (0)

If my writer friends and acquaintances reflect the opinions of the average writer at all then the average writer wants to write significant works. Significant, of course, has different levels: there are the writers who want to be the next Great Author like Hemingway or Kerouac and write "important" work that'll be taught in college some day. Some people want to be the next Chandler or Lovecraft and leave a memorable and milieu-inspiring impact on the world. Some want to be the next Gaiman or Moore (Alan or Christopher) and make money and have fans while maintaining a certain level of artistic integrity. No one wants to be Higgins, and almost no one wants to be Meyers. If asked why not them, the answer is often, "I'd love making their money, but I wouldn't want to compromise myself like that." While the instinct is commendable, there is a possibility that the context of the statement has not been fully understood.

I shall now invent a protowriter who shall represent all writers in abstract. I shall call him Mr. Slightly, for the name pleases me.

I have asked Mr. Slightly why he wishes to avoid association with teen vampire novels and harlequin romances. The reason he has given me today is this one:

"They're not literature, dude. That stuff's jus' pop culture shit."

Is that so, Mr. Slightly?

"Yeah, man. Too true."

What would you prefer writing instead?

"Important shit, like they used to write. They never used to write pop culture shit."

That is illuminating, Mr. Slightly. Mr. Slightly gave more reasons. He seems to think that pop culture is an unforgivably profit-driven. He also claims to think that the productions of pop culture are shallow reflections of the lowest common denominator that are designed to have a limited temporal appeal; he thinks that expressions of pop culture are inherently so topically specific that their relevence will swiftly die. These opinions have truth in them, but they're unfair to apply across the whole gradient of pop culture products.

I think that it's become unfair to pick on Jane Austen and Shakespeare on the subject of being sell-out commercial successes that did nothing but write inside a specific formula and deliver precisely what their audience wanted. It's true, though; these things can be looked up. I want to pull other ghosts forward to represent pop culture in history.

I'll pick on Charles Dickens.

Charles Dickens and his contemporaries never thought he would be significant. Dickens never sought to be significant. Dickens lived in a period of time when writers thought all significant things had been written. Faced with that paradigm, Dickens decided to do what he knew how to do well: spin a good yarn for a few bucks and bring some thoughtful entertainment to Britain. He did a great job too. As time has revealed, Dickens turned out to have a great faculty for clever and compelling depiction of character. He had an expert command over language, and he elected to utilize that by being as keen a mirror to the world as he could be. Without once pretending to need a grand heritage, Dickens carved himself a happy place in his lifetime by wielding his interest in the socioeconomic circumstances that happened to surround him and his skill with words. It could be argued that Dickens raised his craft higher than mere frivolity, but I'm quite confident that Dickens would have laughed off any suggestion that he would be taught in college in a couple hundred years.

I believe the lesson I would learn from Dickens is this: history chooses its heroes; we rarely choose the heroes of the future, no matter how emphatic we are about our heroes of the present. When they look back on us, we cannot know what college professors will look at with their pompous eye. All we can do is recognize our talents and the circumstances of our lives and do, as Dickens, the best we can with those things. "Pop" culture we tend to view as "low" culture, which is sometimes true, but in general "pop" (popular) culture simply reflects the times. It would behoove an intelligent artist to make an effort to understand his circumstances.

A Most Lethargic Urgency

Posted by Oliver on January 3, 2014 at 10:00 AM Comments comments (1)

Contradictions litter the writing life like lethal animals seem to litter all of Australia: they seem funny till you get close and realize that, if you don't understand them, they could kill you, but once you do understand them you can synthesize their venom into a powerful superpower inducing agent. We write for the masses, but we must do our writing alone. We have to understand our heritage while appeasing the gods of the now and hereafter. We must understand how our craft is art, and at the same time we have to apply technique and finesse to it. When we're doing the writing right, we're thinking and doing at least four or five contradictory things all at the same time.

One contradictory behavior I've been lately pondering has to do with maintaining energy levels while waiting. I've always thought about this non-verbally, but then the following happened, so now I'm writing about it. The following:

Me (on facebook/twitter): Dear people: I just submitted that werewolf story some of you have read to the contest I mentioned. Thanks for your feedback, pretties.

Jamie (the next day in person): Hey, I saw that thing you posted about sending that story to a contest. How'd it go? Did you win?

Me (after a thoughtful pause): Oh...I don't know yet. Thanks for asking. I should hear back from them in, like, four months. I'll tell you what they say.

Jamie: Cool. Well good luck.

The thought I had during that thoughtful pause was this: I take it for granted that I'll be waiting on this contest for several months, but Jamie--not a writer--took it for granted that I'd probably hear back reasonably quickly. It is, therefore, not the usual thing, except for writers, to wait a third of a year to hear back on one contest.

For writers, it really is common to wait that long for EVERYTHING. Writers make a regular practice of beginning something wonderful with all the childish glee due to it, but then resign themselves to (hopefully) cheerful naval-gazing and thumb twiddling for disproportionately long periods of time.

Would it not be charming if, for those periods of time, waiting could be our main engagement? We live in an era of hedonism. Filling idle hours runs the economy of the USA. I am, even now, halfway attentive to Pandora (a band called Enter the Haggis) and to a free online roleplaying game. If I didn't feel like concentrating then I'd probably be watching an episode of the X-Files at the same time. We all know, however, that doing nothing constructive while we wait is near to sacrilege.

I used to work in a cafe, and one of my uncool managers there had a saying: Maintain a simulated sense of urgency at all times. I always thought it was a dumb saying. In spite of disliking the saying and its source in the way most people dislike lukewarm steamed cabbage, I find myself repeating it to myself a remarkable amount of times. It turns out to be precisely the kind of advice the lazy creator in me needs so he can continue working. Years ago I started attempting to simulate a feeling of hurry; whenever I had downtime I got in the habit of reminding myself that my novel needed some attention, or I needed to look up that one grammar rule to make sure I was doing it right, or I needed to organize that stack of feedback so I could look over it soon. I started to do this without thinking about it too much, and now it's gotten to the point that I do it as a subconscious act.

As it would happen, one more thing has recently happened that's given this cycle of thought a fitting geometry. A more experienced and wise friend of mine commented on a different but still contest related facebook/twitter above:

Jan: The rule is... submit it, forget it. If you hear back and it's positive (accepted)... Great. If not, you won't have fretted about it, prior.

In saying that, Jan reminded me that I'd been doing it subconsciously too (partly by practice, partly by being a culivated airhead). It has proved of advantage.

As we all know, if only sometimes say, the process of writing has a significant emotional component. It requires as much exertion as any other discipline, more exertion than many other things. It is possible to become physically exhausted from writing, in general we have observed that writing primarily requires emotional energy. We all build and regain our emotional strength from a variety of places, of course. It would seem that all people receive energy from a sense of success.

To submit a finished work for judgment is a kind of success; we get a rush from that. To receive news of its solution is a kind of success, and we also receive a rush from that. In the interim the necessary challenge is to maintain emotional energy. In between, though, is a long spell of anticipation. If you find anticipation itself energizing all the better. I do, I know, but only when moderated by real life. My observation of real-life people makes it look as if anticipation tends to be too exciting to be a constant state. People lose focus while anticipating.

Our goal as writers is: share the stories. That implies the two step process of a) writing them and b) getting them out there. In turn, that implies a cycle of long droughts of self motivation punctuated by bursts of momentous excitement which hopefully aids in keeping energy over the next set of long droughts. It would seem that the successful author has mastered balancing this contradictory cycle.

Rejection Collection Challenge!

Posted by Jenny Maloney on July 1, 2013 at 7:35 AM Comments comments (1)

All right guys, we're officially six months down in 2013. Halfway there. 

Who has rejections? Lay 'em on me. 

I have, well, I have a lot. Which would be depressing except that there are a lot more personal rejections in the pile this year. A lot more saying "Please try us again." And some of them from some pretty damn awesome magazines. So, that's heartening. 

How's about you?

Non-Fiction Publication: Dog Attack

Posted by Ali on May 30, 2013 at 12:30 PM Comments comments (0)

About a year and a half ago, my dog and I were attacked during a walk. I wrote an article about it and it just went up on xoJane today. They have a format that features personal stories, they call them "It Happened To Me" and I felt like it'd be the perfect format for the story.


I'm excited to have it up, though, sadly, have noticed a few typos I didn't catch before submission. If you're going to click over, I'll warn you - it gets a bit gorey both in the text and in the included pictures.


If you click over, please take a minute to drop a note in the comments section of the article.

Demanding More From Your Reader

Posted by Jenny Maloney on April 22, 2013 at 8:40 AM Comments comments (0)

I like to assign myself projects. For example, this year I've assigned myself the task of reading 100 books. (I'm on #23, just so's ya know.) I often assign myself writing projects too -- a certain amount of words per day for a certain stretch of time. 

I've taken on the additional project this year: watch every single movie that has won an Academy Award for Best Picture. 

By a strange twist of fate, the first two movies I watched were both silent films. First I watched The Artist, one of the most recent winners. Next I watched the very first Oscar winner: Wings, starring America's original Sweetheart, Clara Bow.

These were not the first silent movies I'd seen. In a misplaced sense of gaining some historical-cultural clarity, I exposed myself to the hateful, racist, and anger-inducing Birth of a Nation. (For those of you who may not know, Nation is about how great the KKK is. Filled with white guys acting monkey-ish in blackface, and running around threatening to rape white women. It's really, really, really a despicable film. I didn't like white people for a while after that.)

Considering my inital exposure to the silent can imagine that I was a bit hesitant. My fears were assuaged.

The Artist is really artful and I appreciated the story, and with my current knowledge of silent films, felt like it should. Wings was a truly epic (read: long) foray into WWI dogfights. Both films were ambitious in their own ways -- The Artist for trying to recreate a style that hadn't been seen in almost a century and Wings for sheer scale in the 1920s. 

However, after every single silent film I've watched, I feel exhausted. My brain hurt. Initially I blamed this on the reading between scenes. 

Then I watched the special features section on The Artist. When asked "Why a silent film?" and I got my answer. The director, Michel Hazanvicius, replied that the genre demanded more from its viewer...something that didn't happen in contemporary films. Normally, we head out to the cinema, sit with our bag of popcorn and our overpriced sodas, and watch the big explosions. 

Silent films don't work that way. You have to watch. And not just to read the subtitles, that part is easy. You have to watch the faces, read the body language, and determine what the story is trying to say. That requires more focus from the person watching the action, and it's something we're not used to doing. At least, not in the movies. 

We're used to bringing a sense of attention to books.

But I would also argue that not all books require the same level of attention. There are authors like Mark Danielewski (House of Leaves) and Jonathon Safran Foer (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) who demand extraordinary levels of concentration in order to get the full story. Then there are books like the Oprah selects, which demand attention and a certain level of focus -- just not the graduate level of understanding that certain Cormac McCarthy titles command. Then there are bestsellers like Nora Roberts and Janet Evanovich who you can read almost in one sitting while making dinner for your family of four. 

A lot of writing advice sites/books/blogs recommend knowing who your reader is. Normally, the brushstrokes used to define these nebulous readers involves stuff like education level, gender, age, etc. These are demographics that are quick to nail down and pretty useful in general. 

Here are a few other questions to consider in later drafts:

1. Does your novel demand the reader pay attention?

The answer is obviously "Of COURSE!" But we're going to allow that, yes, the reader will be paying attention to your story and your words if they bothered to pick the book up. 

I'm talking about how much effort they have to put in to understand your story. House of Leaves, for example, demands the reader sort through a hundred pages of endnotes in order to solve the mystery. Like tackling a crime scene. That's asking a lot of a mom who is hauling her kids to soccer practice.

2. How much time should the reader invest in your novel?

Time is one of the most precious things any of us has. When a reader picks up a book, they're making a decision to leave their kids, their spouses, their friends, and other possibly pressing obligations. If they pick up your story, does it require them to set aside a day or two? A few hours? A couple months?  What are you trying to give them in exchange for their time?

3. Is the payoff for their attention worthwhile?

Let's say that you've written your magnum opus. You are the next Marcel Proust. Will the payoff of your story -- the beauty of it, the fun of it, the artistic struggle of it -- make the reader go "Damn! That was good."?

This is a very subjective question, but it's an important to keep in mind (for later drafts...if you worry about this during your early efforts you'll give up before you even start). But think about it. After all, we've all picked up a book, read through it to the end, put it down, and gone "Well, that's a couple days I'll never get back." 

You don't want to be that storyteller. Ask yourself whether you, as a reader, would be satisfied with the payoff you're offering. Don't quit until it's as good as you can make it. You're already asking a lot from a stranger.  

As far as the silent films go for 'reader satisfaction' for me:

The Artist: I appreciate the reasons it was made. And I appreciate how well it was made. They filmmakers made a movie to be proud of. I'm not 100% sure that the effort of watching it was worth it to me. I could tell where it was going and it went right where I thought it would. 

Birth of a Nation: This one made me want to break my television. I'm not kidding. I wanted to throw things and kill hateful people. It definitely got an emotional rise out of me...just not the one it intended. 

Wings: This is tough because it's like comparing Charles Dickens to today's authors -- I know that what Dickens accomplished was genius...but I'm just too familiar with the storytelling style. As a kid who cut her teeth on dogfights like those seen in Top Gun, the WWI retelling was just loooooong. But if I were around in 1927, I would've been blown away. 

On the Futon Pages: WWO #4

Posted by Ali on April 17, 2013 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

This is the spot where I spent a significant portion of the evening last night. I hunkered down with my laptop, a soft blanket, and my dog and spent some quality time reaching my goal for the week. I even passed it, just a little.


Last week's goal: Spend two hours working on the dragon story.

Actually accomplished: 2.5 hours on the dragon story.


It's a modest accomplishment, but I'm super pleased that I hit it. Sometimes it's all about the baby steps. More than the time goal, I'm pleased that I figured out what I want the main conflict to be. I've been fiddling with a string of options and writing, deleting, re-writing, deleting some more... as I've tried them on. Nothing really seemed right, until I tried on one more idea and it stuck. Now my heroine is off to the king's castle to have a frank chat with him about the problem of all these knights who keep trying to kill the dragon. We'll see if the idea is still sticky next week, or if I've changed my mind again and gone off in some other direction.


Goal for this week: Two hours working on the dragon story.


What about you?

Whatcha Workin' On? #3

Posted by Ali on April 10, 2013 at 8:20 PM Comments comments (2)

I've made progress on the dragon story, but it's not finished yet.  I'm working through plot structure and trying to figure out how I want to arrange the scaffolding.  Once I head in one direction, I decide that a different one would work better, or maybe that other one...  So, my progress has been circular rather than linear, but I'm getting there.


In other news, I ended up with a snow day on Tuesday, so I went on a bout of spring cleaning.  So, on the domestic front, I'm feeling pretty productive just now.  Lots of laundry done, even more laundry put away, things tidied, buttons re-sewn, three pairs of sunglasses re-discovered, a bathroom cleaned, and two bags full of old documents shredded.  Also, I did my taxes.  Not too shabby.


I'm taking a different approach this go around and setting my goal in terms of time, since this story is proving more labor intensive than I originally estimated.  This week, I'm going to spend at least two hours working on the dragon story.  If, by chance, it takes me less than two hours to wrap up the story, I'll move on to another project.


How about you?

Centering Creatively

Posted by Jenny Maloney on April 5, 2013 at 9:00 AM Comments comments (3)

WARNING: Lots of personal soul-searching in this post...but I swear, there's a point.


There are people who seem to be creative no matter what -- they knit, they draw, they act, they write, they sing (in public, outside of their showers!). I feel like I'm surrounded by these talented people. Every time I turn around, one of my friends is doing something neat and cool, like baking their own wedding cake while taking artful photographs of the whole process.


I've very often wanted to be like my friends. When Deb handed me a beautiful purple blanket that she'd knitted by hand for my baby girl, I wished I could do that. When Ali posts her photos, I wished I had even been remotely focused enough to learn to take artful pictures like her. Oliver sings (and just breathes creatively).


All of this was kind of a vague "Man, I wish..." until John started getting active in the local theatre scene.


First, a brief background:


It used to be, in my long-gone high-school years, that I was doing 4-5 plays a year. Rehearsing, performing, and doing all of the fun stuff that goes along with theatre. I did nothing else throughout high school. I barely did the school work. During my quarter-life crisis (which happened a little early) I had a meltdown that took me a while to get out of, and it was acting that took a hit.


Then I discovered writing. And I've gotten pretty darn good at the writing thing, if I do say so myself. I've done a shitload of practice. I've written a ton of words. Really, I'm obsessive about the written word. I love it. For the past decade or so, I've focused entirely on writing.


Then John auditioned and landed several parts with a couple really cool local theatre companies. And, after watching his work and watching the work of the people he was with...Well, the only way to put it is: I felt like something woke up.


So I auditioned. And I got a part.


For the past few weeks, I've been in rehearsals. And I Love It. I love figuring out what my character is thinking/feeling and how I should express that. I love throwing Tennessee Williams' words around (we're doing Streetcar Named Desire). I like moving physically again -- because I really haven't in a long time. Stuff if creaky, I won't lie, but I feel awake.


Now, here is where it gets tricky. For the past few weeks I've also been struggling with writing. Which is not good and not at all what I want.


The danger for me is that acting and writing scratch the same itch. Both are creative. Both involve telling stories. Both involve words. I'm afraid I don't have enough 'in the well' for both. I've been feeling drained.


But that's not true.


I've been reacting emotionally to a bunch of other things. My daughter got sick -- she suddenly turned lactose intolerant, which is a bad thing for a kid who eats and drinks milk products with everything -- and that was stressful. I had to adjust to a new schedule, because rehearsals do take up time. I felt guilty because I love going to rehearsal but that meant leaving my husband with the burden of carting the kids to baseball practice by himself. So the writing was gonna tank anyway.


And the story I'm working on is difficult. It's by far the hardest project I've taken on. There are lots of POVs, technical details that need to be done correctly, plus all the emotional elements that need to be worked in.


With all of these separate things going on, I know I need to get myself centered. I need some solid ground. I need some focus. I think I've figured out how to do that. And if you need to center yourself too, well, here's what I've been doing and hopefully some variation will work for you too:


Step 1: Let Whatever Needs to Happen, Happen

Sometimes, you just have to let what you're feeling get felt. Happy/sad/guilt/anger. You can only bottle-up for so long.


Yesterday = breakdown. And I just let it happen. I let myself tank. There was a lot of Ugly Girl Crying. (You know what that's like, right?)


Yes, I recommend the breakdown. If you feel it coming on, get to a safe place and just let that shit happen. You will feel a lot better.


Step 2: Talk it Out/Ask for Support

Creative endeavors are always so personal, so individual, that it can be hard sometimes to ask for help...and sometimes you just don't even know what help to ask for. One day it might be that you need reassurance. Another day you might need to be left alone. But, it's good to take time to figure out what you need, and then ask for it. 


Post-breakdown, I talked to Shane. He already knew my head wasn't necessarily straight. My guilt for asking so much of him was a very large element in my meltdown. He works full time, is trying to get his own writing done, and doesn't have much down time at all. And with rehearsals, I've been asking him to haul the kids around, make dinner, and do all the stuff I should be doing...and he's been doing it without question. If you look at it from a cost-benefit standpoint, it's a really unfair situation for him.


And he told me, very sincerely, that it was okay. He was okay with me doing what I wanted to do. His very real condition was that, if I wanted to keep auditioning and doing theatre stuff, I had to write. 


Step 3: Understand that Creativity Breeds Creativity

One of my big worries was that, if I did one creative thing, the other would suffer. I assumed that the creativity would draw from the same well. But I don't think that's true anymore. Now I'm pretty sure that if you have creative activities you love to do, they feed each other.


Deb's knitting? I'm sure that allows her the space-out time to work out plot points. And the completed physical project helps feed the need for done-ness that writers crave. Because, let's face it, writing projects can take a lot of emotional toll and they take time. You've got to wallow...which doesn't bode well for completion. With that sense of satisfaction filled somewhere else, it allows the right amount of time for deep writing.


Ali's photography? Allows her to look at the world from a different angle. She likes to get so up-close that the subject of her pictures becomes something new. I've noticed something similar in her writing.


John's theatre experience? His writing has gained a lot of structural integrity. Plays, by their nature, are really fast stories with complete beginnings/middles/ends. I can see the influence of that in his stories. I'm hoping that something similar will happen with my stories.


As for me, right now I'm learning a lot about crafting dialogue. There's something interesting with Tennessee Williams: You just automatically speak in a southern accent. There's no weird spellings or anything to indicate the accent. He's just structured the sentences so that it comes out, whether you want to or not. There's a lot to pick up.


So, if you're thinking that your creative attempts are too much, just understand that they are helping.


Right now, I'm just happy I've found things I love to do.