Category Archives: Making Progress as a Writer

Sit Down and Shut Up

I admit it. I’m a slacker. I have no discipline in my life. It practically takes an act of Congress to get me to do my dishes. I’d rather sit around and spend my days swimming through a sea of imagination. Whether reading books, watching movies, or daydreaming, I’m not big on the real world, and as I live alone, I don’t have anyone around to tell me I can’t. But, that doesn’t help me get the stories in my head out. It doesn’t help me get to the next level.

Oh, I could just wait for inspiration, or that terrible urgent need that comes along that makes me write because, if I don’t, my head will explode. That happens, but not often enough to produce any complete story with any speed. I have friends who do that. Who complain that they can’t finish anything because they had “writers block” or they’re living with world-builder’s disease.

My particular demons aren’t original. I get knocked down often by periodic depression. I get mired in the difficulties of trying to construct a plot from the myriad wonderful moments I’ve concocted in my head and often like a complete failure. I forget how much I love writing. But I’ve learned the best thing for it is to keep plodding along. Even when I’m not feeling it. Even when I’d rather be reading that new book I bought. Even when I know the scene I’m writing is complete crap and will probably get cut in the next revision. It doesn’t matter. Every crappy line is one step closer to the good stuff. Every cliche is one sentence out of the sludge that keeps me down.

I’ve said it before on this site, and I will probably say it again and again. The only way to truly defeat the nagging doubts, the distracting delays, the fear that the story will never be ready, or whatever the current issue that keeps the story locked away where no one can read it, is to plant my butt in the chair and keep writing.

So, whenever I get a little lost or down or frustrated, I remind myself that no one is making me write. If I’m having trouble, it’s my own damn fault. I might feel as if writing, when I’m especially inspired, is a need rather than a want, but like the doubts that eventually creep in, that’s really just in my head. Thus, it’s up to me to get over whatever is holding me back. It’s a heady and terrifying thing to think about. It’s also easy to forget.

But even when I do forget, eventually, my inner critic slaps me in face and shouts at me to sit down, shut up, and write. This ridiculous story isn’t going to write itself.

 

 

Finding Courage in a Harsh World

Many stories, from mystery to science fiction and fantasy have inspired and awed me. But my road to writing has been a tough and painful one. It wasn’t so much inspiration I needed as the courage to overcome an environment that discouraged reading, let alone writing for a living. One author gave me that courage.

Imagine growing up in a family where reading was never encouraged and was viewed as being lazy. Where farm chores and homework were the priorities. My father occasionally read westerns and Archie comics and then only after we were in bed. My mother just read recipes. Now, imagine the frustrations of a child whose imagination is so taken by the Dick_and_Janerich worlds in books that she wants to write but must suppress that desire and limit it only to school assignments.

What did I love to read? I still remember Dick and Jane’s antics in the grade one picture books – “See Dick run. Run Dick run!’ – those first words excited my tiny heart and showed me the power of words on paper. Then came rhyming and Dr. Seuss filled my world – “One fish two fish, red fish blue fish’. nancy drewBy grades five and six, I was sneak reading the mysteries of Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys on the bus ride home – a book a day. Somewhere in junior high school, I discovered science fiction, fell in love with it and then got into trouble with teachers because my imagination and verbosity were greater than assignments demanded. When I took a degree in English and drama, I had relatives who shunned me for years.

Perhaps I should have quit then and for a few years life took over and I almost did. But I always dabbled and always loved reading. So, what changed? What gave me the courage to write and to overcome all the discouraging influences? Where did I find the confidence to achieve my goal of mastering and communicating in my second language? Oh yes, English isn’t my first language and throughout my life, I’ve had a desire to master it and rarely feel I have. Yet, one book, one writer gave me the courage to pursue my dream wholly – to throw myself into it with a modicum of hope to succeed. I owe my courage to J.K. Rowling.

Harry_Potter_and_the_Philosopher's_StoneWhen I read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, I thought that if she could do it, so could I!”. Her life story, her courage to write and her perseverance to find a publisher were the inspiration I needed. Since then, I’ve written many wild tales. I can write! My childhood desire to engage in worlds so far removed from reality, to master their voices and breathe life into them in words not my own has blossomed!

Which authors inspire me today? They all do as do the readers who buy their books. Everyone who has the courage to pen their imaginations, to give life to new worlds and voices, and to all our readers who encourage us, I give you my heartfelt thanks.

Cheers and happy writing (and reading too)!

Critiques Gone Bad – Critiques Part 3

Explosion gone badIn Part 1, I talked about why we write and why receiving a critique can be so difficult and in Part 2 we discussed what a critique is.

I’ve seen critiques gone bad – so bad that when the author tried to incorporate everyone’s suggestions, he ruined his own story and in another instance, the writer gave up writing for a while. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right group of people or even one person, who understands that observations and comments that help strengthen your work do not need to include wholesale shredding,

So, how to avoid a critique disaster?

What you can do to prepare yourself:

1) The most important thing for you, the author, to remember is that the critique helps you to switch hats – from the creative to the editorial. Remember that creative ALWAYS needs editorial and creative is usually scared to death of editorial. That is why some authors put their stories away for a while before embarking on the editorial journey – to give their creative sides time away from the work so that they can approach the revision and editing process more objectively.

2) Submit your best work and understand what type of critique you are looking for: a reader’s critique, a line by line critique or both? A reader’s critique is one in which the reader tells you what is working and what isn’t, where she was engaged and what threw her out of the story. The points listed at the end of this article can help guide the reader on what to look for. A line by line critique happens when all the other elements of the story are working well and the manuscript is is reviewed for consistency in language, metaphors, grammar, excess wording, etc. Generally, good critiquers will not give you a line by line critique unless they know this is more than a first draft. They can tell that by how strongly your story holds together in terms of plot, consistency, style, character and setting. Only then will they focus on line-by-line edits to polish the story.

2) Understand that some people can’t help but shred, rewrite and go beyond what is asked for. Take what you need and leave the rest but for goodness sake, don’t take it personally! Have confidence in your work and move on. Know that you can’t and don’t have to use everyone’s suggestions.

3) Know you may disagree with someone’s comments but do not take issue or become defensive. Instead become curious as to why they made those comments. Was there a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of some sort? If so, the reason for the comments may need to be addressed. Sometimes a person’s comments may simply be wrong. They may offer bad or unwelcome suggestions or see problems where they don’t exist or miss existing problems. Ultimately, you must choose the feedback that works for you.

4) Understand who is critiquing. Not everyone may be familiar with the nuances of the genre you are writing in or the age level you are targeting and that may pose problems. Short story writers and novelists may have different views on pacing, description, speed of character or plot development. You need to understand the person who is responding to your work to give their comments appropriate context.explosion 2

5) Above all, be respectful and gracious. This person took time from their other activities to help you.

What you can do to prepare others:

1) Tell them what stage this is in. First draft? Final draft needing polishing before submission? This should include information about the intended market such as Writers of the Future submission, YA novel, adult historical fantasy, etc.

2) Be clear about what you are looking for – first draft I always ask for a reader’s critique. What is working? What keeps you in the story? What isn’t working? What throws you out? Do the character’s actions ring true?

3) It’s good to tell others where you have concerns. For example, 1) I’ve rewritten the beginning several times and am not happy with it. What’s working or not working? Is this the right place to start the story? 2) Does the science make sense? Is the world I’ve created consistent and credible?

Here are some points used by writers and in critique groups that I belong to. Use them to help focus the questions you want answered, or if you’re looking at someone’s work, use them as guidelines of things to look for. Some will use this as a template, while others may only touch upon pertinent points.

General impressions: An overview of what worked and what didn’t; critiquer’s theory of theme, premise & plot summary; first impressions on title, emotional response, stumbles, questions and expectations; if the story is satisfying; and how well does the title work?

Plot:
It the problem clearly stated?
Is there a full story arc?
Does the opening/hook work?
Is there rising action & a climax?
Is the resolution complete?
Did something change?
Are there plot holes?
Does each scene work?
Is there appropriate revelation throughout the story?

Consistency:
Are there places where suspension of disbelief fails?
Is the internal logic consistent?
Does the narrative flow with proper pacing, rhythm?
Is there sufficient conflict (of all types)?

Style:
Is the style of writing appropriate?
Is an appropriate narrative tone used?
Is dialogue stilted or otherwise out-of-place?
Is there a proper balance of narrative and dialogue?
Is there appropriate narrative tension?
Is Point of View consistent? The best choice or mix?
Is tense consistent?

Character:
Sufficiently developed & distinct?fireworks
Do they speak with distinct voices?
Do they change?
Do they have believable motivations & behaviors?
Are there too many characters?
Do they have appropriate names?
Do they have strengths & weaknesses?
Are the interesting?
Is at least one character sympathetic?

Setting:
Is it complete or full of holes?
If a character, is it fully developed?

Technique summary:
Are there technical problems? (its vs it’s?)

Remember that the purpose of the critique is to help us polish the gem of our story until it sparkles in its brilliance. So, keep your eye on the prize, have confidence in what you’re doing, revise, polish and above all, submit your work!

Are You Bored or Burned Out by Your Story?

You’re tired of writing the short story before you’ve even finished it. You’re 40,000 words into the novel and are falling asleep at the keyboard. You’ve worked hard on your world building, done the research done your character profiles and have the main elements of your plot chart, the writing should come easily but it doesn’t.

Don’t panic! The inability to write because your work doesn’t feel interesting at this moment doesn’t mean that you’re a bad writer. It means that you’re stuck and that you need to answer one simple question to get through this:

Are you bored or are you burned out?

Burn out happens when we’ve been at it too long – our brains need a rest from processing information and creating a work of art. Writing takes lots of energy – physical, creative and emotional. That’s when you need to give yourself a break But sometimes when you’re feeling bored it’s your brain’s way of telling you that information is missing. I had that experience when I was doing the world building and background work for my new series. I had had so much fun world building and I wanted to write the novel so I could share it. No matter how hard I tried, it wouldn’t happen. Three times I started the beginning and each time I set it aside. It wasn’t fun anymore. I grew bored. So, I let it rest and when I reviewed my research, I realized that I hadn’t thought through a critical element. My brain, in the form of boredom and frustration, was telling me that I was missing something.

Sometimes I write three to ten pages of background material (important but boring stuff) because I need to get grounded in the setting and characters. Once I’ve done that, then the story begins. So, write, write and write some more. It’s not boredom per se that you’re experiencing, it’s simply that you’re going through the first step of needing to become part of that world, to unclutter your brain by getting information and relationships out of your head.

What happens when you’re genuinely bored with what you’re writing? When you’re sick of the plot and the characters? When it’s not exciting anymore and it feels like work and not fun?

Sometimes, it’s not fun and when that’s the case we need to simply write our way through it until it becomes fun. There may be technical reasons why this is so but many times those aren’t apparent until we’ve finished the novel and are revising it. So don’t stop writing. Write through the scene or section and get to the fun part!

Feeling bored may be the result of not getting to the interesting parts of the story. You’re missing mood, emotion, action and reaction because there’s too much inconsequential description, the reader isn’t an idiot and doesn’t need that level of detail, it reads like a technical manual, and yes, it’s simply boring writing! So in this case, the problem may not be with you but with what you’re writing. Again, get it out of your system, then write the real story.

But what if you’re bored because you’re derailed and don’t even know it? Check your plot chart. Write out chapter summaries or summarize your scenes in point form. Ask yourself: where does the story begin and what is the disaster in the opening quarter that compels my charter to act? What is the story goal? What is the climax? What is happening to the protagonist between the middle and the end which makes it challenging for him to achieve his goals? It may be that somewhere in the swampy middle that you need to increase action and tension, up the stakes in order to make things dicier for your character and more exciting for yourself. This solution also works if you’re bored because your characters and plot feel boring.

Boredom may mean that you need a break. We get tired – it happens. Do something different for a bit: write a short story or a poem; paint the fence; go to a movie; bake something – give your brain a break and do something fun! Beware though that you aren’t using boredom as an excuse to procrastinate – that it’s an excuse to do the fun things and not write! If that’s the case, the surest way to quell boredom is by applying the BICFOK cure – Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard.

Yawn! I’m not bored – I simply need a nap!