The Launch of Studious Wordsmiths Workshops!

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As you might be able to tell from my lack of posts, this year has been an absolute whirlwind.  Seems like between work travel, personal travel, online writing classes, and my role responding to the recent Refugio Incident oil spill in Goleta, CA, I’ve barely had time to breathe.

And yet, glutton for punishment that I am, I finally pulled the trigger on a project I’ve been considering for a few years now.  That project is a series of workshops to help writers explore and practice the various skills used in fiction writing.

I love teaching, and as time passes I find I love it even more. From wildlife skills workshops to the activities for the little kids I used to work with, it’s all fun.  I flatter myself that I’m analytical enough to break down topics in helpful ways and organized enough to present it well.  Paired with the sheer amount of instructional content on writing that I’ve consumed – why not try to help other writers?

That said, I don’t like the idea of telling people “the correct” way to write.  In fact, I think far too much of the teaching available out there is overly prescriptive rather than developmental (excellent exceptions being the courses I took this year with Cat Rambo and at The Brainery – if you have the means and the time, highly recommended).  Besides, I’m still working on my own skills.

Thus was born the Studious Wordsmiths Workshops.

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Focused on discussion rather than lecture and filled with practice exercises to encourage exploration, my hope is that these workshops will help participants find what works for them and their stories.  This is how I practice (minus the discussion aspects), this is the kind of class I wish I could take, and I hope the techniques will be useful to others as well.

So if you’re in Davis, California and this sounds interesting, stop on by!

The “Why” Behind the Words

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This post is supposed to be about why I wrote my Pitch Wars novel*.  Which requires I have some sort of answer about why I wrote my Pitch Wars novel.  And it can’t be my instinctive answer, which is “Because I did.”  It has to be a real answer.

This is going to require some thought – and if I have to suffer through a bout of thinking, then you do too.

So.

Why write CLIFF WITH NO EDGE?  Why write about an awesome inventor chick who can manipulate both machinery and magic?  Why write about the dark place her poor (but well-intentioned) choices took her, and her struggle to escape?  Or about a city cut into a dead volcano and plagued by a predatory forest?

“Because that’s freaking awesome” is not a good enough answer.  Other people think about awesome stuff without writing a book.  But I’m going to save the entertainment factor as part of the answer, because I wouldn’t have bothered finishing the thing if I hadn’t thought it was awesome.

OK, new approach…

Why write a book at all?  For that matter, why didn’t I stop after the first one?  Why go through all the critiques and revisions and rejections when I’m perfectly aware that there’s a strong possibility the only people who read my book will be my critique group and my dad?  Why write at all?

My adorable new kitten Atlas, who crawled out from under a loading dock when his eyes were barely open.  I spent most of September hand-feeding him.  He is now fat and good at scampering!

My adorable new kitten Atlas, who crawled out from under a loading dock when his eyes were barely open. I spent most of September hand-feeding him. He is now fat and good at scampering!

I could just play with my chinchillas and new kitten, watching Sherlock over and over.  It’s not like I sit around all day and need to write to feel productive.  I have a day job I’m passionate about, one I don’t foresee giving up even if the writing thing works out exceedingly well.  There are other things I could do that bring me joy that also come with a lot less of the pain (see “critiques and revisions and rejections”).

Good point, subconscious.

The easy answer is that I can’t not.  I write because I do.  Discussion over!  But because it’s the easy answer, it’s also inaccurate.  I’ve gone without writing before, for days, months, even a couple fallow years between college and the beginning of my wildlife rehabilitation career.  But so far, I always come back to it.

Other people’s reasons don’t fit.  I don’t have tragic and/or scarring life experiences I work out and share with others through writing.  My stories aren’t committed to advancing a particular agenda, though of course they tend to reflect my beliefs about the world at some level.  Writing is not my only chance at a happy career.  Sometimes I experience a thrill when I read words that are set in a particularly pleasing order, but I’m not chasing a love of the words themselves.

I guess the truth is that, like many writers, I get something from the act of writing.  Something addictive.  Even when it’s hard and frustrating it’s still worthwhile, but the why is intangible to me.  The book “The Midnight Disease” talks about brain chemistry, psychology, and writing, and turns out there may be some very good brain-chemistry reasons writers write.  Maybe that’s the whole of it.

But I don’t think so.  What I get out of the process itself is only another piece of the puzzle, or else I wouldn’t worry about showing my work to other people.  Thus far, we’ve only talked about me – and that’s terribly rude.

In my opinion, a story is incomplete until it is heard.  Readers close the loop the writer initiates.

I’m a reader too, have been since a very young age.  That feeling of immersion, when I sink so deeply into a world that I feel like I’m walking through fog as I feed the cat or brush my teeth, is one of the most precious parts of the reading experience for me.  And then when you finish a book that resonated with you – you’re left grasping for more, feeling like you’ve come so far and lived so long, knowing that somehow the entire world shifted while you were reading and you’re not sure you know exactly how yet…  Incredible.  It’s a kind of binding, that level of communication – beautiful, and deeply human.

Another gratuitous picture of Atlas.

Another gratuitous picture of Atlas.

I want to do that for people.  In order to do that, I have to write books.  I have to try my hardest every time, and put something of myself into each one.  And that, I think, is why I wrote CLIFF WITH NO EDGE.

If you’d like to read about why other Pitch War mentees and alternates wrote their Pitch War submissions, click on the links at the bottom of this post.  I’ve read some of them already, and there are some fantastic stories.  I promise you won’t be disappointed!


*In case you missed it, I was chosen as Whitney Fletcher’s alternate mentee for a contest called Pitch Wars back in September.  I am extremely grateful for Whitney’s help refining my query, writing my short pitch, and editing my novel’s early chapters.  He has been awesome to work with, and without his insight I wouldn’t be nearly as excited and hopeful as I start pitching CLIFF WITH NO EDGE directly to agents this month.  If you have a novel at or nearing the query stage, I cannot recommend Brenda Drake’s contests (including Pitch Wars) strongly enough.  Brenda is so supportive and giving, and her contests are focused on giving fledgling writers that extra push to improve and grow (as opposed to some other contests, which can be a bit… unethical).  Anyway, a huge thanks to both Whitney and Brenda for this opportunity!!


Anchor – A Ghost Story!

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At this week’s meeting, my local writing group did something a little different.  Instead of our usual critique session, we sat around and told scary (or scaryish) stories inspired by a collection of Halloween-themed prompts.  It’s always great to practice giving readings, and there’s a different energy when you actually tell a story out loud – plus, my group is all kinds of fun and talented!

I thought I’d share my contribution here, as a little seasonal treat.  So without further ado, let’s dive in!


Anchor

My beloved guards the open door, and I cannot escape.  Her gown pulses like gills, wafting scents of salt and decay through the room.  Her hair waves like kelp, wet and clumped.  Glimpses of bruises, of creosote stitches on the skin beneath.  Where are her eyes behind those dark locks?  I think they once sheltered me, their color – sunlight on polished walnut.  I think they bathed me in warmth, sang through my body.

I sit on our wedding bed, facing her, sheets twisted about me like chains.  Only a moment ago – a year ago? – we held each other, the sheets a sweeter binding.  Or was it a lie?

In her left hand, her grandmother’s knife.  Sheathed so I cannot see the blade.  She holds the hawthorn hilt to me, pallid fingers around the fractured leather and speckled brass of the sheath.  I could take it from her.

The window is open behind me, but it is always black there.  Since she fell.  Since she jumped.  Was pulled.  Pushed.

A pewter birdcage dangles from her right hand, too small for any bird.  There is no light to reflect off it, and yet it gleams like starlight on old bones.  So though I should not be able to see what is trapped within, it glistens as it moves.  Sallow like spoiled cream and whelked with engorged crimson veins.  Iris of blue, like the delphiniums she grew in her mother’s garden.  Like the cornflowers I picked when I should have been mending the rotted fence on the Henderson’s land.  The weeds she should have laughed at, but instead wore like gems.

The pupil is a deep, still pool.  Fixed on me, always.  I fall into its sunken depths when I stare too long.

I have waited into timelessness, but she will not approach or fade away.

“Come here,” I say, my broken voice drenched in years.  Still my words are laced with church bells and kisses.

She does not move.  No matter how I call, she does not move.  Eventually there are no more bells.  There are no more kisses.

“Leave me!” I shout, yet she remains stagnant.  I rage until I am empty of words, of threats.

I let my feet to the floor and the sheets shrivel away.  I charge toward her, but I might be a breeze for all I faze her.  Still she stands and the eye rolls to watch me and the gnarled hawthorn hilt calls to my hand.

I take it in my hatred.  In my rage.  In my love.  My fingers clutch and the hawthorn bites into my palm.  The blade shines like moonlight on a leaping trout and flickers out, sheathed in my beloved’s heart.  Dark water flows from the wound, seeping between my toes, gathering around my ankles.  I sink with her, pushing her hair from her face, frantic for a last glimpse of sunlight on polished walnut.

The sun has set when I find her eyes, though her tears flow, mixing with the water cradling her head.  Her hair and gown billow out, waving in the currents, brushing and tangling about my waist.

Her lips move, and I tilt my ear to them, leaning against the flood coming through the open door.

“Look away,” she breathes, and sinks into the depths.

Chill fingers dive into my ears and press against my eyes.  I cannot feel her in my arms.

“Never,” I say, as water fills my mouth and freezes my tongue.  Never.

A Long-Awaited Announcement

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I’ve made a story sale!

Two actually.

If you follow me on social media, you may have already heard the news – a while back I made my first story sale to Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine.  My science fiction story “First Strike” will be appearing in Issue #60 – and I’m also the subject of a new author spotlight, so y’all can read a little essay about the history of this story.  It’s a special one for me, not just because it sold first, but because… well, you’ll just have to read the essay!

You’ll also be able to read my science fiction short story “The Long, Slow War” in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine this September.

The good news just keeps on rolling, as I’ve finished the latest version of Cliff with No Edge!  A small fleet of readers are looking it over as we speak, and I’ll be spending the month of September on the final tweak and polish.  The plan is to have it out and circulating among my carefully selected agents by October.

In the meantime, I’m trucking along and trying not to obsess.  There’s still Book Two to work on and some new short stories that need some fiddling.  So I’ll get back to it, and let you all get back to your (hopefully wonderful) weekends!

Evolution of a Discovery Writer’s Story

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Discovery Writer, Gardener, Pantser… Whatever you decide to call us, I fall pretty firmly into the camp of writers who don’t plan their stories before they start writing them.  Sure, there’s some mental “steeping” required before I can jump in the deep end, but that’s pretty mystical, even to me.  And in my quest to better my fiction, I’ve learned to ask certain structural questions early on (at the moment, I’m a fan of Dan Well’s 7-Point Story Structure).  But it’s always a bit of a struggle for me, and I’m much more comfortable imposing structure after I’ve written the bones of the story.  Too much too early generally results in an unfinished story.

Since I don’t think things through beforehand, I end up doing a lot by instinct and only assessing the “why” after the fact.  In the moment, I only know it feels wrong.  That means I have to be willing to change my story, sometimes drastically, based on gut feeling alone.

I know a lot of writers who get very attached to what they have written, to the point that any change is painful.  I’ve always had a bit of trouble understanding that point of view – much more painful, in my experience, to know there’s something wrong without knowing how to fix it.  Changing things is the easy part; deciding what to change and how – that’s where things get dicey.

This week, I experienced a particularly vivid example of this.  I thought I’d share, on the off chance it is helpful or interesting to others.

It all began at a write-in I had with my new California writing buddies.  We were using some of my many (and sadly under-used) story prompt tools.  First up, Story Cubes, and I had to put together three images off the dice and use them to start a story.  I got a padlock, arrows pointing in different directions, and a teepee.  Here’s what I came up with in the following fifteen minutes (please have pity on me and overlook any poor quality in the following samples, I didn’t want spend time editing scenelets I’m not going to use):

They left me, tied to a stake and blindfolded.

I stood there while they packed up the tents and loaded the horses.  There were no words loud enough to hear, only mutters as dry as the approaching winds.  They passed by me as they left, I know by the spittle drying on my body.

I think the heat on my skin is from the sun, but I am afraid it is the warning of the winds.

I twist my body from side to side, work my wrists until they are so raw the pain doesn’t fade.  The wood scrapes across my back, but I think that it moves a little.  Or perhaps I only wish it moves.

My fingers swell.  My sweat rolls off me, it feels like ants crawling on my skin.  It may be ants, climbing me to take of my moisture, to eat of my salt before taking my flesh.

When the air begins to move around me, I know my time has passed.  Even sweat does not stand against such heat, and my skin is dry, dry, dry.  My lips are gritty with the carried dust, and I sag against my bonds.

The winds come.  First eddies of searing air around my feet, blistering.  Then waves beating against me, and then a cyclone, ripping the flesh from my body in hair-thin strips as the infinitesimal motes of dust tear through me.

I have no water in my body with which to weep, so my painful sobs are dry.

When the rope releases and I fall forward, at first I think it is the storm which has worn the rope through.  I am glad to die free, at least.  But I would rather not remove the blindfold, or expose more of myself to the ripping wind.

“Geroff yer arse!” A man screams, and his hand closes around my arm and yanks me upright.

This is not the vocabulary of the wind demons who drag sinners to hell.  And it is definitely not the words of the Sheltering Mother.

I get off my arse.

Not bad, but I have no idea where this is going.  Perhaps I’ll figure that out later.  That’s OK though, because we’re moving on to another prompt.  This one out of a book.  “Start a story with the following line: What I’m saying now is a lie.”

What I’m saying now is a lie.

I was never tied to a stake and left behind to die in a dust storm.  The skin never flew from my bones like moths from an old sweater.  I never breathed air so thick it might have been earth.

And that was certainly not when I met my husband.

No, my husband was given to me by my grandmother, who made the match.  He drank with my father, and painted the barn for my mother.  My husband and I have always lived in a house built of plaster and lathe.

He is certainly not kin of the wind-demons.

But since I am lying to you anyway, I will tell you what I want to tell you.

When I was young, I caught lizards with a boy who had hair the color of the noon sun.  We played in the mesquite roughs, where the branches twist like snakes striking.  We overturned rocks to find the scorpions and tarantulas and centipedes underneath.  We lay and shivered on the bristly stiff grass at dusk and watched the bats flutter overhead.  He fed me leaf-ladles of dust and twigs and told me it was soup.  I scrubbed river mud in his hair and told him it was a potion to make him tall and wise.

I saw the sun-haired boy for the last time the day Mama and Gran brought me into the house to tame my wildness.  They put me into the bedroom and tied my window-shutters closed with strips of muslin.  They put heavy rocks in front of the door, twice as big as I was.

They tell me it took twelve days for me to quiet.  Six days without food and another six days without water (they had been pouring water through a hole in the wall).  And when they finally dared open the door, I was a girl and my hair was antelope-brown.  They will not tell me what color it was before that, but I like to think it was dark like a moonless night.  Or perhaps black like the shiny body of a widow-making spider.

I ate bread soaked with water and let them wash my body with water and lye-soap.  Mama says they washed the mesquite dust away and found me.  Gran says they combed my hair with a dry thistle, and shook loose the demons that had lodged there.  Papa says I was a pretty little girl after I got cleaned up.  Gramps says I was always pretty.

From that day, they kept me inside the house of plaster and lathe, and taught me things I would need to know.

I learned to spin, weave, and sew by making my new clothes with Gran.  When she was not looking, I would skew the weft or knot the thread to create a roughness, and I would run my finger over it to feel the bark again.  My mother taught me to cook, and I remember leaning close to the fire to breathe its heat into my lungs, so like the summer sun in the roughs.  They did not let me help boil the soap or gather the eggs.  They did not take me across town to worship the Sheltering Mother on Firstdays.  But I was allowed to beat the rugs on the stoop if one of them stood with me.

All right!  I like that.  I spent the rest of the night moving this particular story forward.  But later, when I came back to it at home, especially when I started to look at the ending, I realized it still wasn’t right.  I used all sorts of visual details, but it’s still all summary, no scene.  Everything is distant, and the voice just didn’t feel quite right for this particular character.  Plus, the start is gimmicky, and probably needs to be cut.

So, perhaps back to close first person?

I do not remember anything before Gran opened the door to my bedroom.  All was darkness and wind, and then that iron latch rattled.  A little pale light streamed into the room, framing three bodies in the doorway.  Then I could see that it was not dark, that light seeped through the cracks between the closed shutters and through several hand-sized holes in the walls.

Gran shuffled toward me over the uneven wood-slat floor, nudging chunks of plaster and torn strips of lathe out of her way with her silver-fitted cane.  I looked down, the only escape left to me now that my body would not move.

She reached me and cleared the floor in front of me.  Then she knelt, awkward and with many popping joints.  She reached forward and brushed my hair out of my face, dislodging a cloud of plaster dust and a rain of wood sticks.  She lifted my chin with her cool, paper-dry hand and studied my face with a gaze full of intent.  Then she held a tin canteen out to me, and my tongue cracked for want of water.

I reached for it, but stopped.  My fingers were more splinter than skin, prickly like dried cactus.

Gran tsked and lifted the canteen to my lips herself.  I drank as much as she would let me, messily, water sliding out of the corners of my lips and down my throat.  She took the canteen away too soon, and I licked desperately at the moisture my tongue could reach, heedless of the taste of dirt and plaster.

Ugh. No.  I feel like I lost the mood and tone I liked so much in the last iteration.  Plus, this particular point of view is going to make it tough later on, especially since Gran’s intentions are so important to the story.  And the voice still isn’t right.  The girl sounds far too normal.

After a little pondering, I decided to try an omniscient point of view.  Maybe I could have some scenes, recapture a bit of tall tale tone, and depict the girl as properly mysterious.  Maybe.  I usually don’t like reading or writing omniscient, but it can be done.  It’s just a question of whether I can pull it off.

After twelve days, Granny Higby opened the door.  No one can say what was in there before that prairie sage fell to the floor and that iron latch rattled.  But afterward, there was only a girl.

They say the room was so shambled they didn’t see the girl at first among the chunks of lathe and plaster.  They say the floor rolled like the foothills, with some slats bowed upward and some bent down.  They say every surface – walls, floor, ceiling; everything except the door and the closed shutters –  bore deep rents, as if from a panther’s claws.  But even with all that dust, they say it still smelled of hot grass under sun-bleached skies.  Like heat-lightning and dust devils.

Granny Higby went in with no hesitation.  She went slow, using her iron-topped cane to knock the debris out of her path.  Higby Senior watched from the doorway next to his daughter-in-law, who covered her face with her apron rather than see Granny torn apart.

But the girl just sat there on the slatted wood floor in the center of the room, hair gray with plaster dust and hands more splinter than skin.  Like a dead cactus – that bad.  She kept her eyes lowered to the floor, as was proper for a young lady.  But the very first thing Granny did was tilt that girl’s chin up with her chill, papery old hands and look into her eyes.

What Granny saw must have pleased her, because the very next thing she did was pull her tin flask.  “Take it child.  You must be powerful thirsty,” she said.  Ma and Senior didn’t even see the flask change hands, but there it was, sucked empty and dropped on the floor.  The clatter of it shocked Ma back behind her apron.

“Now, now,” Granny said sternly.  “Pick that up for me, dear, and hand it back next time.  My bones are too weathered to be chasing my things about on the floor.”

The gall of that shocked Ma into looking, despite the danger of any manner of blood and guts.  Her knuckles were white to match the fabric she clutched so tightly, but she watched as the girl picked up the flask and handed it back to Granny, meek as anything.  That’s when Ma started to see the potential Granny had been telling her about for twelve days.  She hadn’t been able to hear the truth beyond the hair-prickling screeches and bone-shattering crashes, but she caught an echo of it just then.

So that’s the version I’m working on now, and I’m liking it so far.  We’ll see how it works for the full story and what others think.  Who knows, I might end up back at one of the other versions.  As my first-ever intentional attempt at omniscient, I’m sure I’ll end up going through a pretty hefty revision.  But at the moment, it feels right, and the words are flowing.

Anyone Interested in Beta Reading?

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This month, I’ve finally gathered up enough energy to get back into my revision of Cliff with No Edge, and I’m just flying through! I’m pretty confident I’ll have it ready for beta readers by the first week of October. Very exciting!

But that also means I better send out a call and start compiling my list of willing test subjects readers. And you, lucky friend who just happens to be within my social media sphere, qualify! If you have any interest, please read on for more details.

Here’s how it works:

Beta readers agree to read the nearly-finished draft of my novel and give me comments to help improve it. There are no special requirements – beta readers need only be people who like to read and who want to help me improve my book.

I will send out a list of questions along with the book. These questions are there to answer specific questions I have about the reading experience. They aren’t meant to limit your feedback in any way. They are more of a tool to help you think critically about specific aspects of the book (think third grade book report: “what character was your favorite, and why?”)

The book will be provided in a Word document so that you can use the “track changes” and “comments” functions if you so desire. If you want a different format, I can probably swing it, just let me know. If you don’t know how to use “track changes” or “comments,” I can probably show you!

Beta readers get to read my book before it is completely finished. That means I love them most of all my friends, but it also means they’ll have to read a pre-publication-quality book with errors and problems. They have to promise to point out these problems and errors with complete honesty. They also have to promise they will still love me even after seeing “the” misspelled for the fourth time.

Speaking of misspellings, although I will always appreciate every word of feedback I receive, there is no need for beta readers to get too down and dirty with my prose (grammar, spelling, punctuation). Final polish & copy editing is a whole separate ball game, and happens after I have made all the content changes for the book (why spend tons of time on a section I might cut?). At the same time, I promise that I have been over the draft several times already, and it should not be painful or unintelligible.
A couple notes on content: Cliff with No Edge is an adventure fantasy, and has magic, action scenes, and a different world and culture. It also deals with some heavy subjects. There is violence, both in the “fight scene” sense and the domestic violence sense. It is not, in my opinion, overly graphic, but if you are sensitive to these topics, it may not be for you. Check out the “sneak peek” section for an idea of the intensity level.

I hereby set this deadline: I will finish and send my book to beta readers by October 5. This means that beta readers will have 6-8 weeks (think end of November) to read and respond about the book. In December, I will begin the next revision. That means I will appreciate and read late feedback, but it will be less useful to me depending how far into the revision I am.

If you would like to be added to my beta reader list, just let me know! I can never have too many opinions at this stage, so the more the merrier. Message me, tweet me, post on my wall, leave a note in the comments section, whatever. I will need your name and email address to send you the file. If you have expressed interest to me in person, I didn’t have a list then, so I probably don’t remember – sorry!

Thank you all for your wonderful support!

Critique Tips Part 2 – The Snowflake Effect

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Welcome back for the second installment of critique tips! In this series of posts, I’m sharing some insight derived from my own critiquing experiences. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read my previous post on this subject – but if not, I invite you to check it out.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The Snowflake Effect
Let’s be honest. When we turn something in to be critiqued, we all secretly hope our readers will return with nothing but praise. Academically, rationally, realistically, we know that’s not what will happen. We probably know enough to at least say that we don’t want that. Being intent on improvement and serious about developing our professionalism tends to strengthen our understanding of the value (and necessity) of a solid critique.

But we love what we’ve written, and somewhere in our hearts we long to be told that it’s perfect and we’re special snowflakes. Or pretty ponies, or glimmering unicorns, or whatever term your kindergarten teacher used. When we hear that it usually takes decades to break into publishing, we can’t help but think “not for me!” We’d rather identify ourselves with those exceptionally talented/lucky/special people who sold their first book for a trillion dollars. Who wouldn’t, right?

But depending on how well you squash that tendency, actually hearing people criticize your work can be anything from disappointing to devastating. Maybe you get defensive, maybe you get depressed. There’s a whole gamut of negative reactions that can appear when we believe people are dumping on our manuscripts (and by extension, ourselves and our dreams). When we’re in this state, what we hear isn’t helpful feedback and we can’t use it effectively.

Critiquee:

This is mainly up to you to solve. I can (and will) suggest some things that can help externally. If you try them, you probably won’t be labeled as the difficult person in the group. But to actually approach critiques with a grounded, stable attitude – the kind of attitude that will let your writing grow from the offered criticism – you’ve got to want it.

It’s like learning to be confident. It isn’t about what other people say or do – it is about your reaction to it. You can change your own reactions/actions, you have no control whatsoever over other people. Taking a critique well is a sign of maturity and professionalism. Ask yourself: “How much do I want to be taken seriously as a mature, professional writer?” If that’s what you want, criticism can’t crush you. You also can’t dismiss it out of hand.

Learning to value yourself and your work in the right way is something you have to live in order to learn. I’m not qualified to teach you that. But I suspect that this is one of those situations where “faking it” can sometimes help you make it.

I suggest that if you feel strongly at all, whether it is Hulk-like defensive mechanisms or overwhelming hurt, you say nothing. In fact, I subscribe to the say nothing school of critique-receiving anyway, strong emotional involvement or not. It’s too raw. Take notes, sure. Listen carefully. You may ask for clarification, but not if you’re using it to argue – you know the difference!

Then go away from it. Don’t come back until you can do so calmly (sometimes that means I let things sit in a drawer for a couple months). When you’ve got some distance, you’ll be able to analyze people’s comments more effectively.

This does not mean put it away forever! Don’t use this as an excuse to let your stories die from neglect. If you have a tendency to lose confidence after critique, give yourself a time limit. Put it on your calendar – in two months, force yourself to revisit that story. You’ll find that when you read it through again, it’s better than you remember. At the same time, you’ll probably suddenly agree with some of the comments your critiquers made.

If this is a real problem for you, try submitting something you either 1) don’t care much about or 2) haven’t polished up yet. I find it is much harder to look for feedback on something you thought was done.

Remember – you actually are a special snowflake. We are all a unique combination of skills, talents, and willpower. That means you are worthwhile, your work is worthwhile, and you can and should demand that your critique sessions remain respectful.

It also means that you are learning, just like everyone else, and you don’t get to magically skip all the time and effort it takes to write well. Give yourself permission to make mistakes (see perfectionism), and then take a few deep breaths. You don’t need to be defensive or scared. You asked for help, the people giving you feedback are doing their best to help you – take it in that spirit, and then use it to succeed.

Critiquer:

In critique groups, the snowflake effect tends to manifest externally as a defensive, argumentative response to feedback. Obviously, there are many other ways it can affect the writer personally, but they have a lot more to do with how a person feels about themselves, their work, and their success. You are much less likely to be in a position to notice – much less respond to – these other manifestations. So for critiquers, it is all about the defensive writer.

Honestly, this isn’t up to you to solve. You offered up your feedback in the best spirit of helpfulness, honesty, and humility. You did your best to word your critique as kindly and clearly as possible. You would have been completely blown away to receive a critique of that quality on your last story.

Maybe that’s a little much. But you tried. You certainly didn’t intend any offense, and you really believe in the comments you gave. You honestly want to see the critiquee’s story succeed. Good. That’s all any of us can do.*

So in reality, no – you can’t solve this problem. But you can keep from feeding into it. It doesn’t have to be a big dispute, it doesn’t have to leave you (or anyone else in the group) with negative feelings.

Because you care about the critiquee and his/her story, and because you take pride in doing a good job, it is easy to get emotionally caught up. Maybe you feel guilty, resentful, or frustrated when a critiquee wants to argue or dismiss what you have to say. Maybe they dared to call you “wrong.” Ouch.

Disengage. Don’t respond. Be the bigger person. However you want to put it – just let it go. You don’t need to defend yourself. I’m not saying not to clarify a point or participate in some other totally valid form of interaction. I’m simply saying that it isn’t your piece – it isn’t your responsibility. Their manuscript is their problem! If you have been kind and clear (please don’t read this as license to be harsh or cruel), let it go.

They heard you; they have your written notes. If they’re being defensive in the moment, they still might take your advice once they’ve had a chance to process it. And if they don’t – again, not your problem. Maybe they have a completely different vision for their work than you do, maybe they just don’t want to be awesome. It doesn’t matter to you – there is literally nothing at stake for you here.

If you want to take it a step further, try to understand why they might react that way. If you’ve ever put up a manuscript for critique, you’ve probably felt what they’re feeling. You’ve probably received feedback that is waaay off the mark (at least in your opinion). You’ve probably worried that your work is crap, or dreamed of becoming an instant bestseller and resented those who insisted on pulling you back to reality. Remember those feelings, stir up that empathy, and use it to resist your argumentative instincts. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.

*By the way, if you don’t feel this way, if you don’t want other people’s work to succeed, then examine why you are involved in critique at all. This is a destructive place to come from, and you probably are not doing anyone – others or yourself – any good.

July Already?!

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You see that interrobang in the title? Yeah, that’s right. I’m a little shocked to realize my last post was back in May.

Not that I’m a reliable poster, I never really intended to be, but still. That’s a long break! Especially when I left you with a promise for other posts in the critiquing series. That’s actually part of why I haven’t posted. Those posts require research, thought, and revision, and I’ve not been up to tackling that.

It’s been a weird month. I have gotten very little accomplished. I stalled out on my Cliff rewrites. I didn’t feel like I had anything worth saying via social media. I struggled to keep up with and attend crit group. I didn’t do much of anything writing-related, actually.

I could blame work – summers there are nuts, and kind of suck the energy from me – but that would be a cop out. I could blame the nice weather and my obsessive tendency, which recently latched on to my garden (hey, I could post on that!) – but that isn’t right either. And I could blame King’s Mark, as the launch sucked me back in time and broke my concentration.

Nope.

I just stopped and started wandering around. I just read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which talked a lot about fear. Maybe I was letting my fears surrounding the current project get in the way. I have high hopes for Cliff, and other people seem to share those hopes, and that’s a little intimidating. Or maybe I lost balance for a while, focusing on some recent personal/job-related difficulties overwhelm me. Probably both.

But now I’m going to get back on the horse.

Critique Tips – Perfectionism & Voice

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In a writer’s life, critiques are as unavoidable as death and taxes. And like death and taxes, feedback and editorial remarks are often a source of stress, fear, and general unpleasantness. But there’s no absolutely no reason this should be so.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that critiques are the single most useful learning tool available to a writer. Not only that, but the ability to give and take feedback seems to be a hallmark of the serious writer. So it would be beneficial to learn how to deal with giving and receiving feedback – and I think I can contribute to that conversation.

In this and the next few posts, I’ll be sharing a few things I’ve learned from my own critiquing experiences*. Hopefully you find something useful. Let’s get started!

Perfectionism

I feel pretty confident stating that perfectionism is problematic whenever it shows up, no matter the circumstance.  It is born of fear and ego – a fear of rejection that presses you to pursue unreasonable standards, and to project a facade when meeting those standards proves impossible.  Perfectionism can sometimes push you to excel, but more often it freezes you in place, makes things feel hopeless, torpedos your self-confidence.  I know this because I battle with perfectionism all the time.

In writing, perfectionism can keep you from submitting or finishing a story.  It can prevent you from even starting.  When seeking feedback on your stories, perfectionism can be the root of guilt, fear, and poor productivity.  It can prevent you from seeing the good in your stories and stunt your growth as a writer.  When the impossible standards of perfectionism extend to judging other writers’ work, they can result in harsh critiques that do more harm than good.

Critiquee: 

Bringing what you think is a perfect story to a critique group is a waste of time.  Praise is not what you want.  It isn’t helpful.  You aren’t trying to impress them.  You want to get their feedback early enough in the process that you will be able to use it to strengthen the story.  That means don’t bring a final draft.  At the same time, it is hard to see beyond grammatical and awkward sentences to the story beyond.  It is considerate and good form to bring a story you’ve cleaned up enough to be readable.

Recognize that your critiquers are there to support you.  They are writers in the same position you are, probably with many of the same hang-ups.   Let yourself be vulnerable by showing things a little earlier than you are comfortable with, and you might be surprised by the new ideas that can be sparked by the conversations about an unfinished piece.  Learn to have confidence that you can fix anything – it helps me to keep in mind that I have as many drafts as I want to fix things.

Last, there are people out there who are not interested in other people’s success.  There are also people you will not mesh with, whose critiques (even with the best of intentions behind them) are honestly unhelpful or destructive (note that I do not mean they give you their honest, sometimes-negative opinions).  You are justified in putting distance between yourself and these people.  There is no point in maintaining a critique partnership that does not help you to grow as a writer.

Critiquer:

If you are a perfectionist, it is easy to get frustrated with pieces that do not meet your personal standards.  But you aren’t reading for pleasure.  There are going to be things wrong in the piece, that’s the whole point.  Trust that the writer will be able to use what you’ve given them to bring their story up to scratch (and even if they don’t, it isn’t your story).  Be patient with the errors you find, even if the errors repeat over and over again.  We all have blind spots, and sometimes we need them pointed out many times.

In addition, think carefully about how you phrase things.  If you have a penchant for harsh self-speak (argh, this sucks, I suck, I’ll never get published), then it is likely to come out in your comments on other people’s work.  Honest is necessary, harsh is not.  It has helped me to learn to view my comments as opinions and suggestions, not rules or corrections.

The Voices in Our Heads

The problem with writers giving critiques is that we’ve all got loud voices in our heads.  When I read a phrase that I would have constructed differently, even if it is technically correct, I’m trained to rearrange it to what is most pleasing to me.  That’s my voice, or my predilection for certain words and phrasings and story structures.  I spend a great deal of time cultivating my voice, because it is one of the few things that belongs uniquely to me.  I like it, depend on it, and trust it above all else.

It is really hard to ignore, even when it is comparing apples to oranges, measuring someone else’s work.

Critiquer:Try to recognize that the story you are reading is distinct from your own writing.  Consciously admitting that is important.  It is going to make it easier to let go when the author makes choices you wouldn’t.

That doesn’t mean you don’t say what you’re thinking, point out the option you saw, talk about the thing that rubbed you the wrong way.  If you can separate out a problem that is bigger than your opinion, do so – grammar, spelling, punctuation, character development, plot, etc.  If you can’t, point it out anyway – the critee can decide if he/she agrees.  But try to remember that if it isn’t some solid rule of the English language (and sometimes even if it is), right and wrong don’t enter into it.  And as always, don’t stake your happiness on whether or not they take your advice.

Critiquee: Yes, you have your own voice.  Trying too hard to write to other people’s tastes will probably result in stiff, derivative prose.  But it is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing rephrasing suggestions or vague notes like “awkward” in the name of voice.  Your voice requires development, just like every other aspect of writing – it doesn’t spring forth fully-formed and gleaming with glory.  If you are too inflexible, you won’t learn what does and doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, it is really difficult to see these things in the moment.  There have been instances when I am so unaware of how the words play outside my head that I pig-headedly ignore the excellent advice of my excellent critique group – only to flinch at the awkwardness during a later reading.

Time and multiple critiquers will help.  Give yourself plenty of time between writing and rewriting so that some of the puppy-love can wear off.  When you do sort through your notes, pay close attention if multiple people comment on the same thing or you have a strong negative reaction (I find when I read a comment and immediately want to scream WRONG! it is either abhorrent to my soul or absolutely spot-on).  Consider every note seriously.  You might still reject them, but at least you took some of the emotion out of the decision, and that’s usually the best you can do.

If you do find your text devolving as you work in suggestions from other people, you might need to give yourself permission to disagree.  You have to have confidence in yourself and your words, enough to know whether a comment rings true to you or not.  Sure, you run the risk of making the “wrong” decision – but this is art!  It cannot be designed by committee, and it will not be yours until you learn to take risks.

*I want to send a special thank-you to my current writing group, the Cloud City Wordslingers. I am extraordinarily lucky to be a part of a group with such talented and dedicated writers. My work would suffer enormously without their feedback.  And if they were the only critiquing experience I had, these posts would probably not exist!

An Overdue Update

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Well, howdy!

It has been quite some time since I’ve given you all an update! Partially this is because I’ve been a slacker. But really, I’ve been juggling several projects, so maybe I won’t beat myself up too badly for the hiatus. Hopefully once I tell you a bit about what I’ve been up to, you’ll forgive me as well.

First off, an update on King’s Mark. I have chosen a release date! King’s Mark will be available at an e-bookstore near you on May 15th, 2013. I’ve finished my line-edit, and am letting the very last scene addition mellow before its final polish. In short, King’s Mark will be the absolute best I can make it, and I’ll be ready to share it with you all in less than a month!

Cliff With No Edge has also had a good couple of months. I’m about 1/3 of the way through my cleaned draft, and I’ve begun feeding it through the Wordslingers for my first round of feedback. Since we only meet every other week, it will take a couple months to go through them, but I expect to have Cliff in the hands of my beta readers by late summer. In addition, I took my first few chapters to Norwescon, and got some really encouraging feedback while I was there – cannot tell you how exciting that was 🙂

And last, I’ve cleaned up three short stories over the last 3 months, which is a lot (for me). They are now traipsing from magazine to magazine, trying to find a home. At least one of them has made it through the first round of readers – though it still has 2 more levels to get through before I’d get an actual acceptance.

I don’t know if this sounds like a lot or not… I know in reality it is. A lot of the credit goes to a tracking program I heard about from I Should Be Writing, a podcast by Mur Lafferty. It is called the “Magic Spreadsheet,” and it is truly magical to those of us who are motivated by pretend points. Since I started using the spreadsheet in late January, I’ve racked up approximately 80,000 words, either new or edited. To give you some context, in 2012, I wrote just over 80,000 words total. So I’m pretty proud of that.

Of course, amidst all this writing, real life continues.  Spring has sprung, prompting a return to five 8-hour workdays and all the baby squirrels I can feed. I’ve had family visits, and trainings, and trial SCUBA courses, and the flu.

So I promise, I’ve been working hard for you over these past few months – don’t let the lack of blog entries deceive you!