The Under Ground Writing Project

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Originallity: If Possible, Should You Even Care?

Posted by Oliver on January 27, 2015 at 2:55 PM Comments comments (1)

A friend of mine reads avidly; good on to her. She reads only nonfiction; in itself, that isn’t bad. She explains why she only reads nonfiction with this question: aren’t you afraid that what you write will end up looking like what you read? She explains that reading all nonfiction avoids this difficulty.


I see her point. If I read too much of one author or too much in one style I notice myself making choices veering in favor of the intellectual drag caused by such things. I go ellipsis crazy if I read too much Harry Potter…. If I read too many comic books, I get glib, impractical, and overdramatic! When I read Cormac McCarthy I killed everyone—just for the violence (I’m not sure I understood what McCarthy was going for). It’s a legitimate thought, in a way. I haven’t yet solidified what I’d call my “voice” in writing, but I’m getting there, and I would hate to see the confounding of the limited progress I’ve made by the invasion of other whisperings.


My friend, though, didn’t mean by her comment only that she worried about copying styles. She worried about advertently or inadvertently copying story structures and plots and premises. I mean, yeah, I can see the problem with that. You don’t want to spend all your time reading Jane Austen then set out to write a gritty crime noir novel only to realize that quirky young do not make for very good hard-boiled private investigators, and that you should have been writing about murders instead of ladies falling in and out of love with stoical rich gentleman. It is a reasonable point.


That said, I’ve never experienced that it was much of a danger. I said above that I very nearly have an idea about my “voice.” I developed it by self-examination, study, and by mimicry. I always get this story wrong, so I won’t tell it, but look up the method Benjamin Franklin used to teach himself to write. He did it by copying other essays, and he copied a lot of essays. If you read his stuff—and I have—then you discover that he’s a damn good writer, and he’s extremely unique. He sounds like himself and not like anyone else. Sure, he didn’t write fiction. It ought to be very close to the same kind of discipline. If what we’re examining here is the idea that reading things like what you write might have the issue of overwhelming your way of writing, then Benjamin Franklin’s a great example. I intentionally muck about with the writing styles of authors I like. I’ll copy things they say word for word, because some things they say strike me so deeply that I want to understand what happened. It’s an incredible learning tool to get into the head of people who know better how to do what you’re doing than you do. You figure stuff out.


As far as structure goes, I don’t see that it’s possible to avoid accidentally copying the types of stories that other people tell. I study story structure a lot. I have been for most of my life. After my study, I get closer and closer to realizing that…well, formula is good. There are two kinds of “stories” people tell. The first kind is the kind that does, in fact, fit somewhat neatly into one of those basic categories we sometimes hear about—i.e. man vs. man, man vs. society, man vs. self, etc.. The second kind is the kind that doesn’t fit into any of those categories. The second kind is what we call experimental fiction. Maybe someone will discover a new plot type. (Man vs. computer? No, that’s man vs. nature if you think about it. Man vs. progress? That’s man vs. society. Man vs. psychotic alternate self? Maybe—maybe—a mix between man vs. self and man vs. man.) Usually what happens with the second type is that it veers into obtuse blah and either people don’t like it very much, or people don’t remember it very well. No, see, “cliché” structure is inevitable. It is not, however, in any way bad. We don’t read stories because of their original structure. We read them because of their original perspective. I mean to say, it could be argued that Dr. Doolittle and Jurassic Park are the same story—man vs. nature—but we remember them totally differently. It’s not inevitable to have an original perspective, but most people do.


Plus, like, back when I was doing a lot of baking, I’d copy the voice of cookbooks. So, yeah, like you run the risk of copying any voice and structure you read, fiction or no.


Last point: It’s infinitely educational to have an idea what’s out there in the genre you’re writing. If you haven’t got an idea about that, you run an equal risk of inadvertently copying someone else. I often experience an excellent idea then watch someone else make a movie about it.


I don’t feel like it’s a good idea to tell people write and wrong things to read. I am curious, though, if I’m unique in my interest to copy other writers in order to learn. How ‘bout it, then?

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?



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.

Writer's Blah, Part 3

Posted by Ali on February 7, 2013 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

This post is going to wrap up a series on writer's blah, aka, writer's block. This is my sum-uption post and it has some links in case you're sick of hearing what I have to say about all of this and want to see if other people are smarter than me. (They are. Some of them.)

I started out with a block, and ended up with a completed story. It's roughly inspired by the Duchess of Bathory (beware before you Google, it's a grisly story) and the working title is "The Virgin Problem."

Working through my writer's block has helped me realize that the root cause of my wall was, as explained in Writer's Block: The 12-Step Cure, trying too hard to be a genius. I was having a hard time, because I was putting so much pressure on myself to BE BRILLIANT! The key solution, as outlined in the post, was to let go of the pressure. #1 in the list: #1: Don’t be married to results. It's not about writing something that will astonish and amaze your readers, it's just about writing something. If, at the end, it's not something you'd publicly claim, then that's fine. Call it a warm up and move on.

For TVP, I was stuck on plot, so I started mentally listed possible "what happens next?" ideas, along with "what's the worst that can happen? ideas. Then, I picked a combo and went with it. Maybe there was a more clever way to do it, but the main thing was, something happened next.

There are some good tips over at the Grammar Girl website in Overcoming Writer's Block. One of the tips I like a lot, and often use, is #7: If you are blocked in your usual writing place, try a new place. I call this Out of the House Pages. You can get bonus points if you go someplace else and write using media you don't usually use - i.e. write longhand instead of bringing your laptop. For TVP, I ended up writing 80% of it while sitting on someone else's couch.

I also really like Grammar Girl's #9: Get someone to ask you questions about your story. This happens a lot in our critique group, and it's great. One of the questions that comes up from time to time is, "Why today?" It's an infuriating, but important question. Why is today the day the character professes his unrequited love? He's kept it a secret for three years, why is this specific day different from all the others? This question also speaks to the idea of the inciting event. You need one, even in a short story.

Writer's Digest has a great article, 10 Creative Ways to Beat Writer's Block, that has some great ideas. My favorites, at the moment, are #4: Creating an Atmosphere and #5 Enriching Your Descriptions. When I have a solid idea, these are two areas where I'm not as strong. I get caught up in this happens, then this, then this... and I speed through. More than one person has said my style reminds them of TV/movie writing because there are a lot of things that actors and a stage would fill in that I've left incomplete. Filling in these things is something I'm continuously trying to improve on.

Interestingly, I find that when I'm goofing around and I'm working on a writing prompt that starts from atmosphere, or describing something specific, the more I delve into that process, the more readily a story evolves from it. For me, when I start describing a secret high-stakes poker game, I start wondering about things. Who plays a game like this? Why does it have to be secret? How high are the stakes? Money's boring, but if the loser dies... and so it goes. The story behind the setting starts to evolve.

Another tip, not specifically nabbed from a website, is to write an explanation of your story to yourself. When you get stuck, write yourself a letter explaining your goals/vision for the story. This is a way of thinking out what you're doing and the more you explain it, the easier it is to figure out your snags. Let's say you want to have your character experience a loss. By spelling out your intentions, it can lead you where you need to go.

"Dear self, I'm trying to figure out what Susie needs to lose. She has to experience a loss so she'll be in the right state of mind to pick a fight with Bob over something minor. They need to have the fight, because that leads to the climax. If her loss is too major, then Bob's going to be sympathetic instead of combative, so that won't work. So, I can't have Susie's mother die. Or her dog. Okay, no death at all. But, it can't be too minor, either..."

Now, my final link for you is 13 Famous Writers on Overcoming Writer's Block. The collection is very cool and diverse. Also, it has Neil Gaiman in it!

*If you completely disagree with any of this advice, or think I've missed something vital, I'd love to hear it! Seriously, leave a comment. (Alternately, if you think I'm brilliant and have just solved all of your writer's block problems, that's cool too.) If you've ever overcome writer's block, please tell us how.

Writer's Blah, Part 2

Posted by Ali on January 30, 2013 at 7:00 PM Comments comments (1)

Last week, I wrote about having trouble writing, (I forget, is that irony?). Jenny and John both had some answers for my question: How do you get over the blah?


Riffing on Jenny


Jenny had some good ideas, like setting arbitrary constraints for the story, writing out of order, and hopping between stories to focus on what was most interesting to me at the time.


Let's talk about the arbitrary constraints first. It may seem silly to mandate that one of your characters must be a gorilla and that each scene must end with someone saying, "banana." However, the nice thing about constraints is that it allows you to play. Since certain things are now set ahead of time, you have to be a bit more creative to make those things fit.


Writing out of order is an excellent piece of advice. When I was in college, I did this all the time. I'd start with a concept, paragraph, or quote that was fully formed in my head and, by starting where it was easy, I gained momentum/warmed up. Generally, that paragraph I started with led me to another idea, which reminded me of this other thought, and soon I had a few pages written.


When I was teaching freshman composition, I had conversation with a student that went something like this:


Student: Miss E. I'm stuck with this paper.

Me: What's giving you trouble?

Student: I can't figure out what I wan to say in my introduction.

Me: Do you know what you want to say in the rest of the paper?

Student: Yeah, but I just don't know how to start it.

Me: That's fine. Don't worry about the intro right now. Start in the middle. Come back to the intro later.

Student: I can do that?!


When I saw her the next time, I asked her if the new approach had helped. She was almost done with her rough draft. She was so surprised that you don't have to write the first things first that when I gave her permission to start wherever, it freed her up immensely.


I just fully realized, in writing this post, that this is something that is so clear and already something I do with non-fiction, but I rarely follow this advice with fiction. Oops.


Riffing on John


John also had some good ideas about getting back to the basics of story craft, focusing on a deadline, and sticking with one story at a time. Note how this last recommendation directly contradicts Jenny's.


Working on the basics is always a good idea, whether you're a beginner or a seasoned pro. As with athletes, surgeons, or anyone else, the goal of perfecting the basics isn't really to practice until you get it right, it's to practice until you can't get it wrong. I don't care who you are, if you can't make us feel invested in your main character(s), your story/novel is not a success, no matter how fancy your language or surprising your plot twists.


The back to basics advice was also the same thing I was telling myself. I was getting tied in knots about plot, so I took a step back and spent some time thinking about basic plot construction. People have to do stuff. And, when you're trying to decide what to make people do, an excellent place to start is by thinking about bad choices. This is the "What could go wrong?" question. Answering it is a good way to come up with an idea of how to worsen the conflict, give a character something they need to overcome, create motivation for an action, add a bit of liveliness, or simply figure out what happens next.


On the deadline note, John and the crew know me well enough to know that I'm stubborn and have a competitive streak. We have, from time to time, engaged in contests based on "Who can write the most words in the next two weeks?" This dynamic isn't what works best for everyone, but it is super productive for me. It's a clear, measurable goal. When I'm focused on a concrete deadline, it takes some of the pressure off of trying to make it perfect. If it has to be done tomorrow, it's more important for it to be done than perfect. There will be time to go back later and make it pretty.


So, what happened with my blah? On Sunday I walked into the meeting with copies of the completed story inspired by the Duchess of Bathory. John made some smart remark about how his submission was a page longer, but since our formatting was different, I pointed out that my submission has almost 1,000 more words, so if it's a contest, I win. Just saying.


But wait, there's more writer's blah to come! Tune in next week as I hash out some more strategies for getting past the wall and give you helpful links from around the web.

Baking at Altitude

Posted by Ali on January 16, 2013 at 6:50 PM Comments comments (0)

When you live at high alititude, this is how baking works:

You find a recipe, you know the one, Death by Chocolate brownies, or Make Your Tastebuds Explode with Joy cheesecake, and you're in a baking mood, so off you go. You measure the ingredients with care, mix them with love, pour the mix into the baking dish, and pop that bad boy into the oven.

Some time later, the timer tells you that your lovely dessert is ready. Except, it isn't. The middle is still all jiggly. Your recipe probably says something about probing the confection with a toothpick or a knife to check for doneness. When you draw back your probe, it's covered in goo. That's not right.

Back in the oven it goes. You let it go for another ten minutes, surely that will do the trick. You check. No luck. Ten more minutes... and so the cycle repeats until, finally, the gooey middle has set and your knife comes back clean. As it turns out, all the waiting was worth it. Those brownies are To Die For!


Sometimes, that's writing. Or, rather, pre-writing. A while back, I got an idea. It started with a woman who has no face. Every day, she has to draw herself a face, or else she won't have one. I liked this idea, except it wasn't a story. What does the woman want? What's the conflict? I wanted something with life or death stakes, no subtle literary stuff here.


I know how my mind works, so I held on to this idea, but I tossed it to the back of my mind, a.k.a. the oven. Every now and again, I pulled it out and did a bit of what iffing, trying on different scenarios. Each time, the knife came out gooey. Back in the oven it went until, finally, the batter set and I realized the woman with no face was a hitman and the conflict was a job she didn't want to do, but failing to kill the assigned person meant she was in danger herself. Pretty standard issue stuff, but it fits.


Now the idea is baked. There's still some finishing touches to do - a bit of frosting here and there - but I feel like I can start writing the story now. The idea is ready to eat.

The Master Calendar

Posted by Jenny Maloney on January 7, 2013 at 8:50 AM Comments comments (1)

'Tis that time of year again: the beginning of the year. The slate is clean, waiting to be filled. As January 1st rolled around, I pretty much knew what I wanted to do this year: write two full rough drafts of new novels, revise the novel I just finished, and at least start a third book. As I was pondering how I would do this, I came across this little tidbit from Putting Your Passion Into Print by Arielle Ecksut and David Henry Sterry:

"Buy or make yourself a big one-year calendar. You will need to be able to change and modify it. A lot. A big white erasable board and colored erasable markers could be just the ticket. Or maybe a big blackboard with many hues of chalk...Mark your start date and your deadline. Then determine your various interim deadlines...Lay it all out for yourself very clearly. In number of words. In number of pages." ~Putting Your Passion Into Print

This calendar thing - which so obvious, right? - was a brilliant idea. I highly, highly recommend it. 

Three things about the Master Calendar in general, and then I'll tell you about what I did with it.

First, if you're already a published author with deadlines screaming over your head and you've got conferences to go to and marketing things to plan (I have to build a whole website?!!!!) Be sure to put that stuff in first. If you're a working person with a career sure to mark your work days and times. Give real life the priority, so you can make a more realistic timeframe for your work.  

Second, plan your calendar as if you were planning for someone else. This is very important. If you're anything like me or any of the other hundred writers I know, your writer-eyes are bigger than your writing-stomach. I have a nasty habit of overestimating my abilities and then, later, I wonder why the hell I'm so tired and still short of my goal. Burning yourself out is not a good thing. Don't do it.

But, whenever I hear another writer saying "I'll be able to finish X in such-a-such time" I always think to myself - "Oh yeah, bub? Double that time frame and I'll buy into it." Generally I'm right about the other writer's timeline but woefully, woefully, Oh! Full of Woe-ly wrong about my own timeline. With my Master Calendar, I decided to pretend I was an advisor to another writer. 

The third thing to keep in mind with the Master Calendar, is to be sure that you have the whole year in front of you and make sure the marks are eraseable. This is so that, should you miss a writing day, because you're sick, or you have to work the day-job unexpectedly, or a book signing took too long because the crowds were lining up outside the door and you had to stay out all night long signing your way into a handcramp, you can adjust your word count and goal on the back end. You can also see how one day - or a week - will affect your overall goals. 

Now, here's how I determined what I'd do for 2013: 

My Goal #1: Finish rough draft of one novel. After NaNoWriMo, and the subsequently exhausting first three weeks of December - where I was writing an average of 2000 words a day instead of the 1667 per day - I decided I needed to keep the pace more comfortable. 1000 words on the days when the kiddos are in school seems quite doable. 

From that determination, I decided I wanted the novel to be around 100K. A decent size adult book. With that in mind, I blocked out the days that I would write and how many words I would hit. 

Surprise, surprise. It was going to take longer than my original thinking indicated. (Mid-Febraury, right? Yeah. Not so much.) But taking a litte longer to finish is not a bad thing, I've come to realize. These things take as long as they take. When they say "slow and steady" wins the race...they're right.

My Goal #2: Revise the middle-grade novel I just finished last month.  According to my handy-dandy calendar - and factoring in various UGWP schedules - I determined it will take about 8 months for the group to read and mark up the book. That means (since I submitted it starting last month) I will have a fully marked manuscript around late summerish 2013. 

One of my own failings is that I never leave myself enough time to do a good revision. I read somewhere that it's a good idea to match revision time to first-draft time. Meaning, if it took three months to write the first draft, it should take you at least three months to do a good revision. (Sorry, does take longer to write a 200,000 word novel. If it takes a year to write, it'll probably take a year to revise.) 

With both of these figures in mind, I plotted out on my Master Calendary about how long it would take to do a good revision and I gave myself a word count pace (which is trickier with revision because some sections will need two or three days worth of work, another section might only need five minutes). Total: 3 months. 

My Goal #3: Write a rough draft of another new novel. Following my Master Calendar so far, Goals #1 and #2 will be accomplished. But #3 and #4 are kinda hosed. I won't have time (realistically) to finish a second whole novel. If I follow my own advice, I will only be halfway through another 100K novel by December 2013. Which means I won't have time to start a third book.

You might think I'd be bummed about having to throw out two goals - but you'd be incorrect. I now have three very solid goals that I feel more confident about completing: A full rough draft, a full revision, and 50K words into a new project. That's a pretty good project load for one year. And I feel confident about being able to hit those goals, which is much better than feeling overwhelmed before I even put finger-to-keyboard.

Plus, there's always 2014.

How do you guys figure out your projects? Do you just start and see how long it takes you? Do you set goals for yourself? Why or why not? 

Seven Steps to Surviving a Novel Critique

Posted by Ali on November 8, 2012 at 6:35 PM Comments comments (0)

So, you're about to get your novel critiqued by a big group of people. Take a deep breath and chill out, it's going to be fine. No, really, I promise. The first thing to keep in mind is that a novel is long and you have a lot of people offering feedback. Add the two up and that means you're going to get a LOT of criticism. Don't be scared. Embrace this. Because the only reason you're getting the criticism is because your writing group actually cares about making your novel better. With that in mind, here's my practical how-to for navigating a big critique.


1. Take notes. Your lovely critiquers have written lots of comments on your draft that you can review later. When someone's talking, sometimes they can explain something better with a hand gesture than they can in text. Then, you write it down in a way that makes sense in your own brain for when you go back later.


Also, writing notes is a way to process feedback without having to deal with it right that second. You're recording, so you can go back later and sort out what you think of that feedback. (Since I'm a visual person, this also helped me "see" the themes in comments, which helped me with the #2 on this list.)


2. Look for areas of consensus. You're going to get lots of diversity in the feedback you receive. One of the important things is to focus on the biggies. In my critique, some people thought the main character was too abrasive. Others thought she needed to be tougher. On the surface, this seems contradictory. However, the bigger theme was that I needed to flesh out her motivations. If I do this well, then people in both feedback camps will be more satisfied because she'll be a stronger character, which is the root of the problem.


3. Keep it big picture. Look, you're working on a novel. You need to get the macro issues fixed first. Your writing group is going to do their best to be super helpful. So, you're going to get feedback on everything from plot, to character, to line edits. Whew! That can be overwhelming. The thing is, once you dig into revision, you have to skip the line edits for now and start with the foundation.


When you revise to strengthen plot and character, you're going to make a lot of large scale changes. A new chapter gets added, another chapter gets deleted, this character now does X instead of Y, and, by the way, the climactic fight scene is now set on a yacht instead of a museum.


As all of these things get changed, they're going to change the smaller scale things like word choice, descriptions, and typos. Right now, the feedback that addresses the macro issues is more important than the comments about smaller scale problems.


4. Prioritize feedback. In any writing group, there are some critiquers who think more in line with what you're trying to convey. It's okay to give those critiques a little more weight. When someone's saying, "Here's what I suggest to fix your structure," and you're thinking, "Yes! I need to fix my structure and that solution totally makes sense to me!" go ahead and underline & highlight that comment.


5. Find time to clarify. At the end of the group critique, you should have a chance to ask your group a few questions. This is not the time to argue with feedback. However, by now might have a couple of questions that the feedback brought up. Maybe you're already toying with some of the changes you might make.


It's okay say something like this to your group, "I was trying to show the character's deep seated fear of monkeys, but it seems that wasn't clear. Do you have suggstions on how I can bring that out?" Or, you can say something like, "Based on what you've said, I thought I might make the character a detective instead of a librarian. Do you think that would work?" Use the gang as a sounding board and you'll get a pretty quick feel for if your planned changes would be a good fix.


Just remember, this is not the time to say, "You're all a bunch of idiots because you obviously missed that the main character is actually a computer with artificial intelligence."


6. Give yourself some decompression time. If your experience is anything like mine, you'll walk out of the room with your head spinning. You've just gotten oodles of information thrown at you. You may want to jump right into revision to fix everything right now. Don't do this.


Your brain needs some time to filter. You want to let a few weeks go by and see what sticks in the front of your mind. Chances are, the suggestions that stay fresh are the suggestions you should start with. It will also give you some time to align the feedback with what you really want to do with the novel. Yeah, the idea of rewriting the novel to make it into a space opera may sound cool, but if the story you really want to tell is a comedic murder mystery, the two aren't really going to mesh.


The other reason to let it sit is that it allows you to get over the initial emotional rush of the critique. A little bit of time means you can tackle revision in a more objective head space. You're no longer in panic mode, and you can be more thoughtful about how you're going to dig in.


7. (Optional, but highly recommended) Treat yourself to something nice. Go ahead and be extra nice to yourself. You have just opened yourself up and made yourself super vulnerable. Also, you've finished the rough draft of a whole novel. Celebrate that. It's not a perfect novel yet, but now you're armed with a lot of ways to make it better. So, go ahead and take yourself out to dinner some place you like. You've earned it.

Cowboy Up

Posted by Ali on October 3, 2012 at 9:35 AM Comments comments (0)

I recently came across a cool article by Joel Gascoigne titled 5 Realizations That Helped Me Write Regularly. He's talking about ways to stop stalling and start writing and he makes some good points about how, and why, to JUST DO IT.


I'm still pondering the point:


3. We should fear not publishing articles, rather than fearing the bad outcomes of putting something out there


It sticks in my head especially given the timing and my goal to get three rejections before the end of the year. I've been wasting time trying to figure out what perfect story to submit, what to write new to submit, etc. etc. and I haven't been spending enough time actually submitting. Why? Because, for all that it's my goal to get rejected, I'm experiencing some fear.



But, maybe I'm looking at it all wrong. Instead of fearing rejection (fearing not being good enough), I should fear not making the attempt. What does it say about the quality of my writing if I don't think I'm good enough to risk rejection for the sake of getting it out there? Hrm... Time to cowboy up, for sure.


New goal: By the end of this week, I will have submitted to at least three markets.

Thanks, But This Isn't For Us

Posted by Ali on September 19, 2012 at 8:00 PM Comments comments (0)

Jessica Page Morrell's book, Thanks, But This Isn't For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Rejected, had me interested as soon as I saw the title.  Tough love writing advice?  Sign me up.

The overall tone is part compassionate, bigger part rant.  Morell is primarily an editor by trade and I can envision her sitting at her computer, typing emphatically and with a frown, occassionally pausing to mutter, "Ugh, I hate it when they do that."

Scattered throughout are comments you just know come from repeated experience dealing with other people's egos, like, "You need to see yoursef as a skilled laborer, not an artiste who awakes each morning wondering how best to flirt with your muse.  This means you write with a fully loaded toolbox of craft and habits and understanding" (34-35).

And, in keeping with the tough tone, it seems that toolbox should include a pair of pliers:  "Thus your first job as a fiction writer is to imagine yourself as a sadist, a torturer par excellence who dreams up ways to taunt, torment, test, and ruin your protagonist" (63). Here she's talking about writers who are reluctant to make their character face hardship and why that's bad.  Hello!  Conflict drives stories!

I found myself nodding in a number of places.  I also found myself skimming a few, too.  There are definitely good bits in the book, like the sections titled "Deal Breakers" where she makes it clear that if an editor sees this in your submission, it's highly likely to get tossed.  Do not pass GO, do not collect $200.

However, there are times where she doesn't fully explain her thoughts, expecting that the reader will intuit what she means.  If you're a practiced writer (and reader of rough drafts), you'll get it.  If you're not, you may be left scratching your head.

On the whole, it's an alright book.  I found myself making notes as I went, jotting things I should tighten/tweak in my novel draft.  It didn't change my life, but I'm finding it a useful tool and it appeals to my snarky side.

Have any of you read a writing book lately?  How'd that go?  Do any of you refer to writing books as a revision tool?

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