Category Archives: writing

Five Thoughts on Critiques

stockvault-notebook-and-pen136687Once my aunt asked me with novel writing if there’s some hard and fast objective way to tell if you as a writer are “good” or have “reached a professional level” before submitting to publishers. I had to answer that honestly I didn’t think there was, because writing, as an artform, is one of those nebulous things where what is “good” writing and what is “bad” is always going to be debated, even among professionals. It doesn’t mean there isn’t that line somewhere between brilliant and utter garbage, it’s just everyone’s going to have a different opinion about where various books lie along it.

She was a bit dismayed when I was trying to explain that the main way most writers improve and judge their writing is through peer critiques (sometimes professional paid critiques, but there are no standards for becoming one so I feel they often come out the same). Basically you’re asking someone else’s subjective opinion on your writing. No matter how many degrees they have or books they’ve published, ultimately they could still be wrong and completely miss the genius of your idea. Yet, on the other hand, if you completely ignore everyone’s advice you’ll never improve as an author. You’ll be ignoring important suggestions that can actually improve your writing. As the author, sometimes you’re just too close to your work to see your own flaws.

I’ve found five rules for myself to help me balance keeping my vision for my writing with accepting and using critiques.

1) Ask for a wide range of feedback 

There’s a lot of readers out there, and a broad range overall opinions about a story in revision can be extremely valuable. Perhaps most of the feedback won’t actually be helpful, but it will highlight the range of reactions the final book will get. Try to get some target readers who are into the genre that the book fits into as well. For me, that means children, since I write children’s fiction. While these readers won’t be able to offer me line edits or detailed feedback, knowing when they get confused or bored while reading is invaluable. I also need feedback from parents and teachers, since those are the people who buy the book ultimately. Pretty much, I’ve found a reader reaction from anyone, even if I don’t use any of their suggestions, is valuable, because it gives me a greater perspective on my work.

2) Always give a positive thank you, even if the crit is pretty much useless

This person took the time to read your writing. It’s a gift and the professional thing is to say thank you. If the person offered something you found helpful, list what it was specifically and the thank you will mean more to them. What if the crit was rude or demeaning or the person was lazy and only read a couple of paragraphs before telling you how horrible they thought they were? Well, there’s no need to be enthusiastic I suppose in that case, but I still think a thank you is in order, even if it’s a one sentence email that says: Thank you for taking the time to read part of my story.

First, why sink to their level. Take the moral high ground and thank everyone. Secondly, it’ll effect your reputation and professionalism as an author if you get into arguments with people who read your work. You don’t have to ever ask that person again to read your writing, you can just move on. Obviously if a crit makes you too furious to say thank you, it’s better to say nothing than get in a fight, but in general it’s best to manage at least a polite sentence. It’s also better not to mention if you ultimately decide to disregard the person’s advice entirely. You’re going to ignore a lot of advice that’s not right for you and your story, but there’s no reason to rub it in people’s faces. It’s ultimately your work and the critiquer ought to know that, but no reason to stir things up unless you’re genuinely asking them to further explain their suggestions.

Furthermore, I believe in thanking paid editors as well. Yes, I’ve hired them for a service, but editing means putting a lot of thought and soul into making suggestions and these people work very hard for us. Even in that case while I might debate an issue with a paid editor to try to explain what I’m doing better so the person can fit their suggestions to it, a big thank you for their hard work is the right thing to do along with paying the bill. If a paid editor really doesn’t see the vision of a story correctly, then you thank them (and of course pay them) for their time anyway and find a different editor for the story, but there’s no reason you can’t be professional about it.

3) Keep the heart of your story in mind while looking at critiques

The biggest danger of taking advice from others is that sometimes your unique intention for a story can get buried. So, before looking at critiques I find it best to either list or at the very least make clear in my mind what’s most important about the story to me. What am I saying ultimately? What are my major themes? What is my character arc? What aspects of my world are non-negotiable to me? What is my voice/tone for the story?  This helps me to recognize which advice might strengthen those aspects and which while perfectly fine for someone else’s story, doesn’t fit mine.

Sometimes hard critique comments create quite a big inner debate. When half my readers found my main character unlikable in one of my books, I really had to take a long difficult look at what aspects of my main character’s personality were important to me. Was what was making her unlikable so important to me that I had  to keep it? I ended up keeping some of her personality traits but changing others in order to create a character more people could relate to, but still one who kept my central vision of her internal journey across the book.

4) Lean on a few people who really understand the vision/heart of the story

Once I have a wide range of feedback, I often turn to just a few people who gave me the advice that felt best for further critiques on the novel. A story will naturally resonate with some people over others and when I can see a critiquer really understood my story, that leads me to turn to them again with revisions, if they’re interested. Once I’ve gotten a wide view of opinions, I find no more than 3-5 beta readers is usually best for honing late stages of revision. Too many opinions later on tends to muddy both my focus and that of the book. I know some people use that same group of people and only that same group for all their novels, but I’ve found each book finds its own group of core people who love it in particular and that’s not always the same people.

5) Critique other people and give the sort of critiques you want to receive

I feel like giving critiques has been as important to me as receiving them. For one thing, this is the best and biggest thank you that you can give other writers when they critique your work–returning the favor. Second, you have more distance from other people’s work. By articulating what works and doesn’t work for you in someone else’s work helps you later recognize what works and doesn’t work in your own. I’ve learned a great deal about revision through critiquing other people’s work. It also helps you learn to be diplomatic when explaining what you feel doesn’t work in a way that’s helpful and constructive, so you can better understand how to take criticism when you receive it.

I feel as a published author now, critiques are just as important to me as when I was first starting. Perhaps writing isn’t a peer reviewed, bar exam sort of profession, but I do feel critiques ground and clarify my work and allow me to reach my full potential as an author.

The Writing Life: What Nine Years of Nano has Taught Me

2013-WinnerOkay, so I didn’t mean to disappear on the blog for a month, but as many of you know, I do Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month) every November. The challenge, for any of you who have yet to hear about Nanowrimo, is to write 50,000 words in 30 days.  Some people worry that it produces a lot of bad, haphazard writing, which I can’t deny, but it’s also produced a lot of brilliant writing as well. The best part is the camaraderie and meeting up with people during the month for word sprints, parties, and generally having lots of people to discuss the joys and frustrations of writing with. I always enjoy ending off the year with Nanowrimo. My first year I’d never finished a book before. I wanted to find the courage and willpower to write a complete finished novel. I found all that and more. However, writing my ninth Nanowrimo was vastly different than writing my first. I’ve learned a lot these nine years, and I keep learning new things. Here’s a few of them:

I really can do it.

I was unsure of myself the first couple of years, afraid I wouldn’t make it. After nine years it’s pretty obvious I can write 50k in a month. It’s even pretty obvious I can write 100k in a month as I did two novels some years. 150k however was a fail. I think my best has been 120k. Knowing I can make it, that when I’m really motivated I can crank out words, means that now I focus on what kind of writing I want to get. Do I want a solid first draft of something? Do I want to have a bunch of fun writing a silly or personal project? Do I want to freewrite my way through exploring and fleshing out a new idea for development? My third nano novel sold after only minor revisions, while my sixth was a completely mess of fragmented scenes that kept contradicting each other as I tried to figure out where the story was headed. Self doubts plague me when submitting a novel places that it isn’t ready or as good as I believe it is, but drafting a novel isn’t about the doubts. It’s about sitting down and doing the hard work of writing.

Resistance has meaning.

This little saying was something I first read in “Writing on Both Sides of the Brain” and Nano has taught me it’s very true. Every year is different in how “easy” or “hard” Nanowrimo is. There doesn’t seem to be any way to tell ahead of time which books will practically write themselves and which will be like pulling teeth. Sometimes I breeze through it. Sometimes every word is written in blood. Sometimes a few scenes flow and others are awful. Sometimes it’s so bad I have to give up and switch projects. The first couple times the novel turned out hard I got angry and tried to force it out. I almost no prewriting on my second Nano book and the idea was only a month old, and yet it wrote itself rather quickly (never mind I thought it was awful by the time I got through it). So why weren’t these other ideas moving?

Fighting resistance never worked though. I had to learn to read it. Sometimes it meant the event I was trying to make happen wasn’t right, or that something earlier in the book needed restructuring. Sometimes it meant I was too stressed about real life, and needed to solve other problems before I could clear up my mind to be creative. Sometimes it meant I needed to delve deeper into world building or characterization that needed further development. And yes, sometimes it meant I was writing the wrong project entirely and needed to switch. Each novel has to be taken where its at when it comes to a screeching halt and the question asked, why? What’s stopping me from writing the next scene? Once I find the answer to that, things will flow again.

Distance provides perspective.

When writing slowly it’s tempting to keep agonizing over each bit of a story and worry about how good or bad it is. During Nano, when every word is needed for that word count there’s nothing to do but keep onward. Or if I rewrite a scene, I keep both versions in the document rather than take the hit to my word count. Every year about the fourth week of Nano, like clockwork, I detest the project. I decide it’s truly awful and nothing I’ve written is worth anything, but force myself to get quota anyway. Then as soon as I win, I drop it and swear I’m never looking at that piece of garbage again.

Later when I reread it, a month or two or even a year after Nano, I’m surprised to discover each time I was overly harsh. That while its not perfect, there’s some good stuff in there. Because of Nano I’ve written several books I was convinced were horrible, books I might have otherwise left unfinished or unwritten. My second Nano book which I think I hated the most is the book my critique partners tend to mention the most as their favorite of my books. I’ve learned to be fond of it and certainly would never call it awful now, even if I still do think its a bit sentimental of a story.

Interacting with other writers is important to me.

Writing is often a very solitary pursuit.  I had a couple small critique groups online before I tried Nanowrimo (that’s where I heard about it) but I’d never had the pleasure of meeting other writers in person. I was the only person I knew at that time in my regular life who was trying to be a writer.  My first time at a Nano gathering, I met a whole room full of writers. We talk about our ideas, our love of writing, and I was totally hooked. Meeting other writers is fantastic. I didn’t keep in touch with any of them, but I have gone to Nano meet-ups ever since and enjoyed them fully. I’ve also expanded how I interact with other writers online, and now most of the year writing is a community activity for me. I race with writing partners almost daily, while I have other critique partners that I exchange books with several times a year. Many of my real life friends I made through writing and we get together to either brainstorm plot trade work. There’s a real synergy that happens when working with other people that brings everyone’s projects, no matter what stage they’re in, to a higher level. I can’t imagine to going back to writing and editing alone.

So, as Nanowrimo has drawn to a close, with yet another year, I’ve locked up my “awful” attempt at something new and creative to incubate, plan my party with the great group of writers I’ve met this month in Salem, and lay out my list of project for the new year with renewed vigor. I think editing last year’s nano (Much Ado About Villains) moves to the top of the list. After all, there’s a lot of good stuff in here.

The Writing Life: A rant on teen angst

Cut out the whining, Korra, please!
Cut out the whining, Korra, please!

Yesterday I had a very good time watching the latest two episodes of “The Legend of Korra,” which was a bit depressing, because these last two episodes were a flashback to a completely different set of past characters–and so much better than the current characters.  I think it mostly comes down to the fact that Korra as a character has pretty much turned into Anakin Skywalker, whining about how life’s no fair, no one lets her do anything despite having massive glowy powers.  She has succumbed to the disease of overdone teen angst, one of my least favorite writing mistakes.

Master of angst, no one can be quite so annoying as Annie here.
Master of angst, no one can be quite so annoying as Annie here.

On the other hand, the flashback to the first avatar these last two episodes showed a decisive, if flawed character, who took his hardships in life from starving and injustice, to banishment, as a challenge.  He makes Korra look like the spoiled brat she is this season (and somewhat last season), and highlights one of my biggest problems with the current YA genre.  Who do people think whiny angsty main characters are what teenagers want to read about?

I get the impression that people feel like because as adults they find their teenagers whiny about subjects like life being no fair, not getting allowed to do stuff, and people holding them back, that they will relate to characters who do this. That idea is stupid. I recall being a teenager (it wasn’t so long ago) and have siblings who still are.  Neither I nor they ever cared for whiny people, even if we might have had a sulky bout ourselves once in a while. People do this constantly like Anakin Skywalker, Harry Potter in book 5, and now Korra are really really really annoying. You want to slap them, but don’t, grit your teeth and remind yourself high school eventually will end and you won’t be trapped with such people.

Someone needs to take the CAPSLOCK key off Harry book 5!
Someone needs to take the CAPSLOCK key off Harry book 5!

If a YA character must angst, give me a real reason for that angst. People dying, the world ending, important stuff. Yes, if something horrible happens, we want to see emotion, but that doesn’t mean whining. Most teenagers are not actually whiny people, in fact, the only people they whine at, are their parents, and that’s a natural process of wanting to separate from home. This part of the process is painful on both sides and not entertaining, and not the best way to write fiction. Instead, show a young, heroic, well-meaning but flawed character, who works hard and has a strong set of values. Have a main character with strong opinions that sometimes clash with the strong opinions of their parents or teachers, but stand up for themselves in honest discussion over those opinions and try to express themselves in an authentic way. Most teenagers could also fit this description and would find a heck of a lot more to relate to in a character like that.

Someone you might enjoy an actual conversation with and not want to smack.
Someone you might enjoy an actual conversation with and not want to smack.

In the meantime, I’m going to keep watching Korra since there’s lots of good stuff about the show and the character and hope against hope someone in production will put an end to the angsting and let her be likable.

The Writing Life: Story Puzzles

puzzle 2I rather enjoy puzzles.  I like them a bit of a challenge, but not too challenging.  500 to 750 pieces is about right, usually brightly colored with lots of interesting things going on in the picture.  There’s a satisfaction to fitting each piece exactly where it goes. To seeing the picture slowly come to life.  To picking up each piece and looking at the juicy bright colors, the hint of the picture, to wonder exactly where it goes or what it is, and see how as soon as it goes in its place, the lines and colors expand to have a new meaning in the context of the pieces around it.

But sometimes I end up with a puzzle that’s harder than I like.  Usually this happens because I shop for all my puzzles second hand (who wants to pay ten bucks for a puzzle when you can get it for one dollar or so at a second hand store).  Which means I’m far more interested in finding pictures I like than paying attention to other details like the size of the puzzle.  While I know 1000 piece puzzles (especially in limited colors) try my patience, I end up falling in love with the picture as something I just really have to try.  Dragon puzzles are especially bad for hooking me like this.  I am not sure why all dragon puzzles seem to have to be in the 1000 piece range.

So, I start out hopeful, thinking, perhaps this won’t be so bad. It is a very splendid dragon, after all.  And at some point am reduced to the frustrating and tedious process of filling in large areas of indeterminate color completely by shape.  Which means trying a piece in ever possible opening until it either fits or gets set aside for later, once the edges are more filled in.  It’s long and frustrating and means the puzzle ends up taking weeks instead of a day or two. I get bored and have to do it in short bursts.  And I mutter to myself about if the dragon is really worth it.  I enjoy the sense of accomplishment when I finish it, but still!

Usually by the time I see yet another dragon puzzle though I’ve forgotten all about this and just have to get it. Sigh. And it happens all over again.

puzzle 1My novels though, bear a striking resemblance to puzzles.  There’s a lot of pieces, they’re supposed to fit together into a coherent whole.  Some of those pieces are delightful and interesting, some of them indeterminate and difficult to place.

Unfortunately my current novel feels more like an 1000 piece puzzle, or maybe a 1500 or 2000 piece one.  And worse, unlike a puzzle, there’s more than one way to put a novel together, it’s just a lot of those ways are bad.  I suspect on most of my books I don’t wait for all those pieces to fit perfectly together, instead I cram them into fitting, particularly all those pieces of sky and background, because they’re too boring to get just right.

Except this novel, it’s one of those magnificent dragon puzzles, I think. I think it has a picture that’s breathtaking, if only I can get it together.  And so I’m reduced to trying each piece, blindly by shape, to see if it fits.  Taking each scene and writing it, rewriting it, rewriting it again.  I think I will have written at least 250,000 words for a 75,000 word book by the end of it, maybe more.  But this is one puzzle, I really want to get right.

A Disastrous Give Away

DisasterCoverKindle_IntOr I hope it will be. I’m out of town this week, at a conference. I didn’t have time to get a blog post together properly before I left, but promise to get one up when I get back on Monday like usual.  While I’m gone, I have a free promotion going for “A Recipe for Disaster” to use up its select time (I’m planning to get it up on Smashwords when it’s done with Select this round).  So, if you don’t have an e-copy, now’s your final chance to pick one up free.

I hope in a couple of months to be releasing some new stuff too, a middle grade chapter book “Captain Pit Bull and the Calico Avengers” and “Home-Schooled Villainy” another Dark Lord Academy short.  I’m still working on edits, but the recent cover proof I saw for Calico Avengers has me excited about it.  I’m guessing it’ll be another October release (seems I tend to end up with my book releases in October for some reason).

And I am still working on the villainous sequel, as soon as it unsticks itself in revisions and gets moving again.  Hopefully more news on that soon as far as a release date schedule once I nail down the final number of chapters and order the art.

Oh Rats! Where Kink comes from

KinkOften writers are asked where their ideas come from. Mine come from all over.  Usually bits and pieces of things get put together and develop into a character or plot over time.  Today I’m going to explore where one of my characters came from: Kink the pet rat in “A Recipe for Disaster.”

As a kid, I thought rats were both cool and a bit scary.  They were dangerous in the wild, animals that carried plague, that might hurt or possibly even kill a cat who was hunting them.  I remember vividly both the description of a rat fight that almost killed the cat main character in “The Abandoned” and the scene in “Lady and the Tramp” where the evil rat climbs into the baby’s room and Tramp saves the day, killing it.  Then the infamous Cluny the Scourge was the villain of “Redwall” and my brother and I quickly got into all things Redwall.

When I heard some people kept rats as pets, I could hardly believe it.  Then some friends of ours turned out to have a rat.  It was a rather large creature, and we were warned it bit people.  My brother and I eyed it carefully as its own let it climb around and weren’t sure what the allure was.  There my attitude stayed until in high school Japanese class.

One year in high school (I think it was my sophomore year) one of the other students in the class wanted to do a rat breeding genetic’s project for biology.  The catch was, the biology teacher wouldn’t allow him to keep the rats in the biology classroom and his parents weren’t interested in allowing them at home.  Instead of picking a new and easier project, this resourceful student somehow talked the Japanese teacher (who was far too nice to be teaching high school in general) into allowing him to keep all the rats in that classroom instead.

Now, what happened regularly in Japanese class was the class talked the teacher out of class.  Into anime movies, into long rambling discussions, into making our own cheese home video movies, into potluck gatherings, “study time” that involved doing homework for other classes and socializing a lot with each other.  The rats added a new activity–playing with rats all class long.  Which happened often.

I learned a lot about rats.  That they were often fun and pleasant to hold, play with, and let run around.  About how they needed to be handled almost every day or they went wild and started biting.  About rat sex, babies, and their development. I even learned about mice and animal fostering, when a kid in the class accidentally killed a mother mouse and saved the babies and brought them to class and added them to one of the nests of the baby rats (mostly that rats are awesome as pets while mice are terrible).  I ended up very pro-pet-rat through the whole thing.

Even better, one of my friends in college got himself a rat–he named her Agnes.  We used to practice for church music together and often I ended up playing with Agnes.  Agnes was older, more handled than the young breeding rats, and had much more freedom over a longer period of time.  This allowed me to see the full extent of how mischievous rats are–always into everything.  Without 30 kids taking turns holding her, Agnes wasn’t much into holding. She liked to climb inside pant legs and shirt sleeves, she liked to hide in the couch, she liked to steal objects.  Agnes is who I thought of when I started considering an animal familiar for Cal in “A Recipe for Disaster.”  It’s been years, but I still remember her quite well.

I’m not sure I want to ever own a rat myself, but I am sure that I find rats both wild and domesticated fascinating as well as the wide range of attitudes about them, and that I want to write about them and all the different reactions people have to them.  I doubt “A Recipe for Disaster” will be my last exploration on the topic either.

Camp, summer giveaway, and a new blog

2013 Nano bannerThe hot weather has finally arrived.  It feels like summer now that it’s July, and just in time for camp–several kinds.  First up, Camp Nanowrimo, the summer version of November’s event.  My writing group (local one) was up for it, so I decided to jump in and be a camp rebel and work on editing/finishing two Dark Lord Academy works, “Homeschooled Villainy” (a second DLA short story) and “Much Ado About Villains” (the long awaited sequel).  I’m behind schedule, so camp is just the thing to get me going.

Day two, and at least I’m on track with the word count.  Plus, I need to finish a day early, because on the 31st I’m going to a different camp, the Portland, Oregon Summer Conference my mother and siblings have attended for years.  I went last year, and I’m excited to go this year and get together with all the people I met last year.2013 Nano banner2

Also, I have had my Dark Lord Academy spin-off novel “A Recipe for Disaster” just on kindle select.  Mostly because I hadn’t gotten it formatted yet for the other formats and was going to do some free promotions while getting that done.  Well, with the moves and general chaos, my book went for another 3 months in select, which, alright, works fine, since I hadn’t had time to reformat it for the other platforms… but then I forgot the promotion days too! Sigh.

So, now it’s on for a third term, I have schedule them ahead of time so they aren’t forgotten–in fact, during my second summer camp, July 31st – August 4th.  That way I can have something going on while I’m gone, right? I’ll remind everyone once we get there.  Then on September 7th, this time I really am going to get the formatting done and put the book up on Nook, Kobo, and Smashwords.  As we get closer to it, I’ll announce that again too.  So much to do!

And finally, in preparation for a website reorganization and migration in October (I have to switch providers) I’m reviving one of my other blogs Interior Writer.  This one is for writing reflections and spirituality and a bit more personal, while I’m going to transition my author site to focus more on the books themselves, characters, world building, villains, and author news as I rework it.  I don’t quite have the evil master plan settled, but thought I’d get this older writing blog up and running again.  While if you’re not into spirituality, this might not be your sort of thing, I plan to keep up this blog for now as well, until I get the new site put together.

From the Dreaded One’s Desk: Horde on the Move

Dreaded One The Most Evil Dreaded One dug through the pile of laundry.  “Someone is going to pay for this!”  She growled, throwing laundry everywhere.

The minions by the door ducked.  “I’ve heard unmatched socks are all the fashion rage, your dreadfulness,” one of them suggested.

“And you could just wear your pajama pants to work,” the other one said, dodging a pair of pants.

“Next you’ll be telling me dirty underwear is trendy.”  The Dreaded Author aimed, fired, and made two direct hits with a couple pairs of aforementioned clothing items.

The head transportation minion leaned into the doorway.  “It’s time to go, your awfulness!  We must fine the new evil lair!”

“I don’t know what’s so exciting about that,” muttered the Dreaded One.  “I just moved into this parental basement four months ago.”  Seizing the prize of clean underwear and two almost matching socks, the Dreaded one slammed the door on the minions.

Forty-five minutes later found the Dreaded One looking over a shabby apartment.

“As you can see, this tower apartment offers an airy living room and a great view of the park.” The rental agency minion swept a clawed hand grandly across the room.

The Dreaded One crossed her arms and glared a fiery red glare across the room. “And the bedrooms are the size of postage stamps. Next!”

“Well…”  The minion waved his hand, sending them teleporting to the next one.  “What about this one?  It’s dark and dank, just like an evil lair should be.”

The Dreaded One creaked down the stairs to eye the half-basement bedrooms. “It’s the prisoners, not the Dark Lord who live in a dungeon! Next!”

Poof!  “This one is newly renovated.  Three bedrooms, huge living room, two car garage–”

“What’s that?” The Dreaded One eyed the slightly roach-shaped objects at the bottom of the toilet.

The minion flushed it.  “Oh, I guess the bugs keep getting in when I keep the door open… showing this house far too much…”

The Dreaded One marched back to the kitchen, unimpressed.  She peered in the sink, opened, the cupboards… nothing.  Then she opened the fridge.  A cockroach waved its antenna at her, slowly, probably since he was chilled.  “I don’t think so!”

Many apartments later, the Dreaded One was losing her patience.  “No upstairs garrets with no ventilation or air conditioning, no houses the size of a pickle jar, no kitchen linoleum that has more wrinkles than a grandmother, and no basement should smell better than the rest of the house!”  The Dreaded One roared, flexing her claws.

“Fine fine.” The rental agency minion held up his hands.  “You’ll just love this one!”

Poof!

The Dreaded One sniffed suspiciously.  “Doesn’t it smell rather like smoke?”

“Oh, no!  These older apartments just smell a bit musty.”

The Dreaded One sniffed again.  “Definitely smoke.”

“That’s impossible.  We–”

The Dreaded One jabbed a claw and muttered a spell.  With a scream, the minion went up in flames. “Told you it was smoke.”  The Dreaded One sauntered out of the apartment to the waiting hoard.  “Forget agencies.  We’ll pick the next best castle we see and conquer it!  Muahahahaha!”

The minions scrambled after her.  “Um, Your Evilness, shouldn’t we pack first?”

“Or what about the laundry?”

“Did you forget all the weapons are carefully packed up in storage?”

“We simply cannot attack until we’re moved into a new Evil Lair, Your Awfulness,” instead the Second-in-Command Minion.  “It just isn’t done.”

“Fine,” the Dreaded One snarled, feeling distinctly trapped and hating moving with a passion. ” Where was that one with the view of the apartment getto out the window on one side and the parking lot on the other? We can set fire to things while we move.  That should improve the view.”

Hopefully it wouldn’t take too long.  The list of backlogged character in need of torture was painfully long.

The Writing Life: Just the Right Idea

YoungSimbaOften as a writer I find myself slowed up on a project because I’m looking for just the right idea to fill it out.  The thing is, I don’t want just any old idea, I have plenty of ideas for the sake of having ideas. I’m never short on overall ideas for novels or other projects I might do.  But when it comes to writing the particular project right in front of me, while I might have a general sense of it, I find I’m looking for not just any idea to bring it together but the perfect idea–one that will bring together logic, theme, and the mood of the piece, that will not just fill it out but take the project to a whole new level.

It’s not that I have no ideas, but that none of the ones I have quite fit.  Sometimes there’s clear reasons why it’s not really right for the project, but lots of times the problem is more nebulous. It doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t excite me or inspire me. It seems a little cliche or lackluster. Usually when other writers tell me they’re stuck or have writer’s block, this is what they’re looking for as well–the perfect, stunning, shiny solution to whatever snag the project has.

I have a few strategies for trying to find that illusive bit of inspiration.

Ruminating

Sitting and thinking, picturing each idea I have for solving the problem in my head, or each direction for the project, I can delve into my creative reserve and search for a connection and angle that will make the project shine.  Note, this is NOT surfing the net or watching a show or playing a video game.  All those just postpone searching for the solution.  Ruminating is just thinking, more like meditating, on the project, using the mind and imagination.

Long Walks

This is my favorite solution, because I tend to be too restless and distracted just ruminating.   I slip into surfing the net or reading a book or some other procrastination task.  When walking the body is working, but the mind is relatively free to mull over the project, especially at a natural park with a long hiking trail.  I prefer trails that are challenging but not too steep (it’s distracting to be out of breath) and away from traffic.  The physical activity keeps me focused while not interfering with mulling over the project. I get my best ideas while walking.

Driving or showering can work the same way, but I find waiting in line or in a waiting room for appointments is more difficult.  There’s more distractions and usually I’m impatient to get to whatever I’m waiting for.

Trying the Wrong Idea

Since writing itself also stimulates creativity, sometimes I can freewrite myself out of my situation.  I usually open a new document making this version of the project unofficial and lower pressure.  It’s not “real.”  Then I pick an idea/direction that is interesting but that I’m not satisfied with, and try writing it anyway as the unofficial draft version.  Sometimes after a couple hundred words I’ll find the idea has morphed into something I like a lot better than the original concept.

Tap the Synergy of Others

If none of the rest of this works, sometimes I’ll bring other people into my creative debate.  Talking over the idea in a group or with a close friend who enjoys talking about story ideas can kick loose new ideas.  Sometimes just the process of articulating the story to someone else will clarify what it is I need or want out of it and why it’s not flowing.  I make sure when using other people to respectfully thank them for all their ideas, even when most of them are not ones I’m interested in using, and to remember to have a good time and let the discussion turn to joking. Later, I can mull over what they’ve said and decide if it’s worth trying or not.

Work on Another Project

Sometimes the only course is to give a project space until that perfect idea comes along, but the trouble with procrastination activities like reading, internet, or movies is they rarely bring me a solution, more postpone and distract me.  It gets harder to work if my habit of working/writing is disrupted. By picking another project that’s also important, I’m keeping my creativity active.  Sometimes while working on the other project, I’ll sudden have something occur to me that will be pretty close to that perfect idea to fix the first one.

The Writing Life: 8 ways my writing has changed since 2007

The view from my hotel window today... gotta love a liminal lifestyle.
The view from my hotel window today… gotta love a liminal lifestyle.

In May I made it my project to rewrite one of my first novels, a rewrite that was almost entirely a narrative rewrite.  The story itself has long been clear in my mind, but I’d let the project rest for six years after getting distracted by finishing (and publishing) other novels.

Returning to it caught me by surprise.  I’d changed a lot as a writer in the last six years, in ways I hadn’t realized.  In part because I’d been seriously writing for at least that long before writing the book, and had at the time rather plateaued as a writer.  I felt in 2007 that my craft was solid and that it was more my plotting and characterization that needed work, and thus that was my focus more than the craft itself.

It turns out I had a lot farther to go.  The writing so didn’t match my current style, that it was easier to rewrite the whole thing than edit. I feel very good about the result.  After I had all 75k rewritten (and down from an original 80k), I realized I had a pile of unused crits from the 2007 version, so I opened them up and started going through them, chapter by chapter to make sure I’d covered those changes and plot holes.

Looking at both the text and the comments I discovered several overall themes in how my writing has shifted.  Here are the 8 biggest early writer’s mistakes I made with the 2007 draft:

1) Passive Description — While people banter around terms like “passive voice” and “show don’t tell” I often find that people don’t actually understand what these mean.  Often frustrated with people poking perfectly necessary be verbs or inappropriate placed people insisted I needed to show more, I tended to ignore this advice.  However, time has proven some specific passive areas in my older writing that I’ve since changed, in particular, qualifying all my description with “he/she heard” or “he/she saw” etc.

Sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell are great to add to the story, but when the POV is clearly already in the main character’s head, it’s unnecessary and passive to keep qualifying it’s the MC who’s doing the sensing.  “The army charged forward” is better than “He saw the army charging forward” and so on. I constantly was rewording things into just describing and when I put the MC into it, I put him in with his physical and emotional reactions instead.

2) Boring Verbs — Similar to passive voice, it isn’t so much that these words are passive, it’s more that they’re dull.   My biggest culprits were looked and turned.  They’re fine and necessary verbs, but were overused.  Now when I write, I rarely use them because I naturally find more interesting things to communicate what I mean.  I slow down, picture the scene, and try to put more creative voice into the action.

3) Word Echoes — Both of these first two issues result in word echoes, or the repetition of a word close to itself in the text, but I found a great problem with echoes all through the novel in the older draft.  In action scenes words like forward, towards, and moment were chronically overused.  Battle scenes had too many slashes or blocks, and sometimes a more unusual word would get used a couple times in a chapter, which while that isn’t a problem with common one, you’re going to notice something like discombobulated if its used more than once a chapter.

4) Grammatical Echoes — This is where the structure of the sentences are too similar too close together, rather than the words used.  While some people are very anti-adverb, for example, rather than simply cutting all the adverbs, I think it’s more important to look at how they’re used and if they are creating a grammatical echo. Two places adverbs do this most are on dialog tags, and when they’re at the beginning of a sentence followed by a comma.

But there’s a lot of ways that sentence structure can get echoed.  The adverbs just jump out in beginner’s work. Now as an author I naturally seem to track what sort of structure I’m using and vary it, back in 2007 I did not.  It changes the entire rhythm of the narration.

5) Abrupt Transitions — I was rather surprised in places to find very little transition from one scene to the next.  One paragraph they’d be debating their plans, the next they’d be half a day’s travel from camp.  In several places I added material, fleshing out the scene, while in others I cut back scenes and had formal breaks.  Which is better depends on the style and flow of the novel, and the circumstances of the scenes.  It’s something I have a much stronger sense for these days.

6) Chapter Header/Footer Info-dumps — A lot of my chapter breaks were used to forward the novel in time.  In my 2007 draft I often had the first few paragraphs or last few paragraphs of a chapter highlight everything that happened during the time gap.  I didn’t want my readers confused, which is a great goal, but it made for less than snappy opening or closing paragraphs.

In some places I worked in this information slowly throughout the scene, but in many of them, I simply didn’t tell the reader what happened, just made it clear time had passed.  It surprised me to find a lot of the information I felt was essential originally actually wasn’t.  Did we really need to know they hadn’t yet had dinner that night?  Or that it was a 5 hour walk to the swamps?  I could just show them being tired and hungry and leave the specifics to people’s imaginations. This helped me control the novel’s ballooning word count. It’s supposed to be a middle grade novel! It’s still a bit long, but I hope to lose even more words on my next pass.

7) Lack of Scenification — While we think of novels being broken up into chapters, a scene is a much more important basic unit.  A scene has a beginning, an arc, an end, a place and time in which something happens.  I’m sure much better definitions are out there, but what I noticed was that some chapters didn’t actually have defined scenes, or large sections that didn’t properly have them.  Or that in others, scenes weren’t fully scenes, glossing over things a scene ought to have.

First, there were transitional chapters that sort of dipped in and out of the action, a couple of sentences of dialog, a few direct thoughts, a handful of actions, interspersed with a lot of narration.  I had to pick what actual scenes I wanted and develop them fully.

Then there were character focused scenes that dissolved into what I call “talking heads” or “telephone conversations.” These scenes were focused on people talking to each other and the MC’s reactions to that, that all sense of setting tended to dissolve.  The few actions involved were looking or turning to people, nodding, smiling, frowning, and tended to be repetitive.

In my rewrites I tended to pick something active people were doing while talking.  Eating dinner, packing their bags, or walking through a specific sort of terrain.  This gives far more interesting actions to frame the conversations, and in the few instances where people really were just standing around talking, I tried to bring out body language and have people touch each other. I’ve seen this technique overdone before, with the details being distracting, but there’s a balance between that and being pure informational.

On the other hand, sometimes my action scenes dissolved into just action.  I wouldn’t have enough dialog or interior emotion/thoughts to keep the character aspect engaged in a proper arc.  No scene should be all characterization or all action.

8) Overly Detailed Action — Going into the edit, I remembered that this draft suffered in the battle scenes in particular from too much detail. We don’t need to see exactly how the MC kills his enemies in epic Iliad style.  Battle moves needed to be carefully paced between overall narration of the battle so that readers got the sense of the action without getting bored.  The novel did need this, but what surprised me even more was how many other scenes also suffered from overly detailed action.

I remember rather clearly my eighth grade English teacher lecturing us on what she called a “bed to bed” narrative: the idea being you start with the person getting up in the morning and detail everything they do in order until they go to bed at night.  I thought in 2007 that I was only including the important details in my story, yet so many times people entering and leaving rooms, picking up and setting down objects, or turning or looking (again) at people in conversations were exactly the sort of nit-picky details I didn’t need.

Details can add a sense of being there, but only the right details.  The fact someone hands the character a plate with two golden sausages that smell deliciously tantalizing is a good picky detail.  That the MC picked one up, ate it, swallowed, then picked up a second one and ate it, and set the plate down, less so.  Apparently I’ve learned a lot about balancing that in the last six years.

I’m excited and proud to discover everything I’ve learned and all the ways I’ve grown, but the experience does make wonder–what will I be listing six years from now?  I will fascinated to find out, but I really hope this novel is finally published by then and it’ll be on some other project!