Posts Tagged critique
So a couple of weeks ago, we discussed critique groups then I saw something shiny and forgot to post the second part of the discussion. ::head desk:: Anyway, in Part One, I posited the question: Can a critique group do more harm than good? In my opinion? YES. Traditional critique groups can have severe limitations, and, if a writer doesn’t understand this and adjust accordingly, then she can do irreparable damage to her WIP and even her career. As a note before anyone gets huffy. Just because something is limited does not mean it is bad. Critique groups, especially GOOD critique groups are worth their weight in gold. But just like my car has limitations–I cannot traverse lakes with it–critique groups are limited as well. Yet, when we understand the limitations, then we can adjust accordingly.
As a quick refresher, traditional critique groups:
Lack Proper Perspective
Since most traditional critique groups only hear/read a small section of pages at a time, there is no way they can tell if there are major plot problems in a manuscript. Many writers hit the slush pile because their plot has catastrophic flaws. Pretty prose does not a novel make.
Agents are overworked as it is. They can love our writing voice, but they don’t have the time to teach us our craft. As professionals, we should have the basics down when we query and it is rude and amateurish to expect an agent will fix everything for us. Not their job. They can fix some surface stuff, but not the deep structure flaws that cause many queries to land in the slush pile.
I have met countless writers who didn’t properly understand the antagonist or even narrative structure. They thought their WIP was ready to query because people in critique “loved their writing style.” Just because we have command of our native language doesn’t mean we have the skill set to write a 60-100,000 word novel.
Critique groups don’t have the perceptual distance to spot the big problems. So just understand this from the get-go and all is fine. But make sure your plot is critiqued before you query. Also, understand that the group is limited then take critique with a grain of salt. If someone says, “but this spot didn’t have enough action” and you know that those ten pages were part of a sequel and NOT a scene, then you know you don’t need to punch up the pace. Write good books, not 150 individual sections to keep people at critique happy.
Other Problems with Traditional Critique Groups
Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of over-explaining.
Because the group can’t see the big picture, they can inject things like, “But how did Gertrude end up in Disney World with a flame thrower?” Well, of course they don’t understand why Gertrude is setting The Seven Dwarfs ablaze. They haven’t been at critique for three weeks, so they missed the part about a hell-mouth being located under Cinderella’s castle. Why do you think Disney got the land so cheap? And all these years you just thought it was because it was a swamp!
When people at critique say things like this, just hold your ground and give permission for some folks to be lost.
Traditional critique groups are notorious for the Book-By-Committee.
We have to stand strong here. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you must learn to stand your ground with suggestions. I have seen writers have a lovely writing voice literally hen-pecked out of them by people at critique. Just take critique for what it is and accept the good and ignore the bad.
Traditional critique groups can get us in a habit of perfectionism.
The world does not reward perfection. It rewards those who get things done. No one ever had a runaway success with half of the world’s perfect novel. Lean to be a finisher.
Traditional critique groups can give a false sense of security.
Again, pretty prose does not a novel make. Is voice important? YES! But voice alone is not a novel. We have to make sure our structure is not a disaster area, and this is where traditional critique groups run into trouble. But today, I will give you guys a way to work within the limitations.
How can I get solid critique of my plot?
Beta readers are good for critiquing at plot. If you can, find a pal who loves to read and ask for her to read your novel. She can tell you if your book was great, boring, confusing, or made her want to gouge out her own eyes. Just make sure you allow your beta reader permission to be honest, even when it hurts.
Beyond the Beta Reader
But beta readers, especially GOOD beta readers are hard to find. A MAJOR limitation to beta readers? We have to finish the book before we get critique.
In my opinion, life is short. Why waste it writing books with fatally flawed plots? This is why I started WWBC (my critique group). I didn’t want to waste months writing a book that had a flawed skeleton. I don’t like having revisions from hell. I prefer to dedicate my time to books that actually stand a chance of being published.
Introducing Concept Critique
If you can’t find a non-traditional critique group or a good beta reader, then just modify the content you bring to critique. This is part of what we do in my writing group WWBC. We employ what I call Concept Critique. We do things a bit differently, but I have modified our methods to work for you.
Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed in Part Eight of my Structure Series). Or, for those pantsers, go back and use cards to show the scenes of the WIP you’ve written. Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.
If we are finished with a novel and it is solid and ready for critique, we should be able to say what our entire book is about in ONE sentence. (If you need help learning how to do this, then check out the above link about log-lines).
We should also be able to clearly see scenes and sequels in our WIP. Detailing our finished WIP scene-by-scene for concept critique is a far better use of time than taking a year to get line-edit on a potentially flawed WIP.
Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist a mustache-twirler or the stuff of greatness?
Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.
This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. And, since they have an idea of the BIG picture, their advice will be a lot better. They might even be able to offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words. Or, if you have already written the novel, you will have a better idea how to tackle revisions.
Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write/revise that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Gertrude is torching Cinderella’s castle.
Time to Get Real Honest…
I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show us why we are really in a writing group. Is it because we really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like I used to be? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I could believe the standard lies many of us tell ourselves when we are unpublished.
I just haven’t found the right agent.
Oh, it’s because my novel is a mix of genres.
New York just doesn’t publish any good writing anymore.
I hear vampires are hot and they are only taking vampire books.
Vampires are passe and they are only taking books with trained ferrets.
When I started WWBC I had to check my ego at the door. Now I couldn’t hide behind my glorious prose. If someone beat the hell out of my synopsis, there was nowhere to hide. I couldn’t use the Standard Issue Line of Writer Denial–-Well, they just haven’t read the rest of my novel. If they had, they wouldn’t say that.
If we really long to be successfully published, then we need to hear the truth. As I like to say, Excellence begins with honesty. If we are attending a group only to hear how every word we write is a golden nugget of joy, we aren’t going to grow.
What are some of the problems you’ve had with critique groups? How did you overcome them? Any suggestions? Opinions?
I LOVE hearing from you!
And to prove it and show my love, for the month of February, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of February I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
I also hope you pick up copies of my best-selling books We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media and Are You There, Blog? It’s Me, Writer . Both books are ON SALE for $4.99!!!! And both are recommended by the hottest agents and biggest authors in the biz. My methods teach you how to make building your author platform FUN. Build a platform and still have time left to write great books.
So this is the year. You are finally going to do it. You’re going to write a…no, you are going to finish that novel. How many of you have a bazillion ideas whirling around your gray matter at all times? How many of you have at least a half a bazillion ideas started and left unfinished? They are lurking in your documents, smoking and picking on the short stories. Maybe even writing gang tags on your recycle bin. The Unfinished are a miserable lot. Their lives began with such hope and promise, but then they were abandoned without so much as a good-bye. We are their deadbeat parents, promising that this weekend we’re going to spend quality time with them. But, we don’t. Why? Most of us are skilled at making babies, but we fail big time when it comes to being good parents capable of nurturing an embryonic idea to a successful novel.
Like “parenting,” we writers need to learn certain skills and gain good habits. We aren’t magically mystically born knowing this stuff. This is why I get such a bee in my bonnet when writers won’t say with pride, “I am a writer.” No aspiring. Aspiring writers aren’t responsible parents. They are the “Deadbeat Book-Daddy” of the writing world. They hang out with their writing when it is convenient and fun, and fail to stick it through when stuff gets hard. They don’t invest time, money, and resources into nurturing their work and maturing it into something they can be proud of and brag about.
My novel graduated today. She will be published this summer. Oh, I never thought I would see that day. *sniff, sniff*
And I am not busting your chops. I have a fair amount of Unfinished lurking in my computer too. They hang out with the spam cookies and send me e-mail about my inheritance in Ghana. But, I love them. They are mine. Some will one day be able to go to reform school. Others? Yeah…..we just won’t talk about them. They drool and say Baby Ruth a lot.
No one is going to fault any of us for making bad babies in our ignorance. My blog lessons, however, are here to educate you about how to take an idea and then lay a plan to grow it into a thing of beauty.
We have spent two months talking about structure. If you are new to the blog and want to write a novel, I highly recommend you go back and read the Structure Series so you have the tools to sally forth with the rest of the class.
Part of why ideas get started then abandoned is that writers really don’t get instruction about how to do this novel-writing thing. We believe we are born to write and for some reason that we should already know what we are doing. In our pride, we take off writing, then wake up one day and realize that we have painted ourselves into a corner. This is the point where most of us will do one of two things. Some of us will just give up and wait for the Inspiration Fairy to visit us in our dreams with all the answers. Others of us (yes, I have done both) will at this point (normally 30,000 words in) whip out the Literary Bond-O putty and slather that crap on until we have a “finished” novel that is so complex we don’t even understand it. Why? Because we had to create a secret government conspiracy, an evil twin for our evil twin and a rip in the space-time continuum all to explain why our protag wasn’t where she needed to be on page 100.
Here is the blunt truth. You need to be taught your craft. We all do. People with natural musical ability don’t feel they are “cheating” if they learn how to read music or take voice coaching. And I know all your family will believe that writing is easy, because, yes, even a chimpanzee can make a sentence.
All right. Enough of that.
So, no more Deadbeat Book-Daddy, and hello Responsible Writer Parent. Today we are going to talk about ways your novel can be hijacked, despite your best intentions. Many of you, in an effort to be a Responsible Novel Parent will go out and join a critique group. Excellent…but beware. I am going to explain how traditional critique groups can hijack your dream of being a novelist. But, I will also tell you how to side-step these problems and use the critique group to its maximum advantage.
This is my opinion, so take it for what it is. I’m right –ha ha ha ha ha ha.
Seriously. Traditional critique groups have some strengths. First and foremost, they can clean up a new writer’s prose. When we turned in that high school paper with 60 glorious metaphors on page one, we got an A. Why? Because our teacher’s goal was to teach us how to use a metaphor properly. Her job was not to train us for publication in New York.
In a good traditional critique group you will learn that POV does not mean Prisoners of Vietnam. You will learn to spot passive voice. You will hopefully learn self-discipline in that you need to attend regularly and contribute. You will forge friendships and a support network.
The problem with traditional critique groups is that they lack the ability to properly judge the quality of a novel. Once a week reading fifteen pages only cleans up shoddy prose. Traditional critique groups are looking at a work the size of a skyscraper with a magnifying glass. They lack the perceptual distance to see flaws. A novel can have perfect prose page to page and yet have catastrophic faults.
Traditional critique groups can hurt you in the following ways.
Get you in a habit of over-explaining—In a traditional critique group, those sitting at the table can’t see the big picture. It is hard to pick up a story on page 86 and understand what is going on. Our fellow writers care about us and believe if they don’t say something that they aren’t helping. Thus, they will say things akin to, “But how did Cassandra end up in a meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw? I’m lost.” Well, duh, of course they are lost. They have missed the last three weeks and haven’t been keeping up with the story. So learn to resist the urge to over-explain in your prose. Your job is to write a great novel…not 600 individual sections your critique group can follow.
Book-by-Committee—Not everyone’s opinion is equally valid. If you are like me and lean to the people-pleasing side, you can get in a nasty habit of trying to please your critique group at the expense of the big picture. Learn discernment and how to stick to your guns, or you will end up with a book-by-committee, also known as Franken-novel.
False sense of security—We must always be looking for ways to have our work critiqued by professionals who are willing to be blunt and who possess the skill set to see our errors. Don’t join a writing critique group simply because they say they are a writing critique group. Look at their credentials. How many traditionally published authors has the group produced? I’m not picking on self-publishing, but self-publishing doesn’t have the same rigorous peer review. How many people in the group are career writers, authors, or editors? Gathering together because we love writing is always a great idea, but if the group is solely comprised of hopeful unpubbed writers, the critique will be limited. Limited is fine, so long as we make sure to reach beyond our group for additional critique.
Also make sure this group is producing successful novelists. I began Warrior Writer Boot Camp because my old group of six years produced many successful articles, short stories and NF, but they had never produced a successfully published novel. I knew I had to create a different critique format capable of critiquing a leviathan work of 100,000 words.
Some writers naturally understand structure, and so they do fine in the traditional setting. I didn’t naturally understand structure, and my novel ended up on so many bunny trails I needed a pack of plot-sniffing dogs and a GPS to find my original idea. If you are the same, then make sure you take traditional critique for what it is…critique of prose. You might need to find or start another group on your own dedicated to looking at the big picture.
Or…be creative. If you can’t go to the mountain, make the mountain come to you.
Modify the content you bring to critique. Instead of bringing the first fifteen pages of your novel, write a fifteen page synopsis based off what you did when you were plotting with the index cards (discussed last week). Every scene card had a one-sentence summary, so writing a synopsis now should be a piece of cake. Write your one-sentence log-line at the top so they can critique that too, and also so they can make sure your synopsis supports the log-line.
Let your brilliant writer friends chime in on what they think of your story as a whole. Is it contrived? Is it convoluted? Boring? Does this synopsis sound like a book they are dying to read? Can they tell who the antagonist is? Is your antagonist dumb or the stuff of greatness?
Once you have your novel as a whole critiqued, take it to the next step. The next week take Act One and write a fifteen page synopsis of what happens in Act One. Get critique. Clean it up. Then, take Act Two and Act Three and do the same. Write fifteen page synopses about what happens in each act. Then take it to the next step. Break your act into scenes and write a summary of what happens in each scene.
This way you are cleaning up your concept. You are going beyond the prose. Your fellow writers NOW can help you by brainstorming better ways to build your mousetrap. They can offer insight into how to fix the idea before you invest the next year writing a book that is doomed from day one because the original idea needed to be fortified before it could support 60-100,000 words.
Once you have solid critique on all these summaries, take off and write that novel. Now it will be way easier because you know where you are going. Also, because your writer friends helped in the planning phase, they will be better trained to see flaws once they critique your final product. They will know why Cassandra is in the meat locker wearing Under-Roos and wielding a chainsaw.
I am going to warn you. This method will test your mettle. In traditional critique, we can hide behind our pretty prose. Concept Critique means laying our baby out there bare bones, warts and all. This will show you why you are in a writing group. Is it because you really want to succeed at this writing thing? Or, are you like me? I wrote really awesome prose and I got to hear every week how wonderful I was (even though the big picture was fatally flawed). I had to check my ego at the door when I started WWBC. Now I couldn’t hide. My ideas and story took a beating…but produced a final synopsis/outline that was brilliant (mostly because of my brilliant writer peers).
Being a Responsible Novel Parent can be tough on the ego. We have to face up to our “kid’s” problems and then look for ways to fix them. This means admitting we don’t know everything and being humble enough to look for genuine outside help. Does our “kid” have Novel ADD and go off on a zillion bunny trails? Does our “kid” have Story Autism? It’s in its own little world and not connecting with outsiders? Novel Development Issues are not a sentence for our “kid” to be one of “The Unfinished.” Concept Critique will help diagnose these developmental issues, and then give you ways to solve them so your novel can have an excellent life and be a “kid” any writer parent would be proud to claim…and brag about…a lot.
What are your biggest “Novel Parenting” issues? Problems? Concerns? What do you feel about critique groups? Are they helpful or do more harm than good? Do you guys have ideas for other ways you could re-tool a traditional critique group to be able to better see the big picture? I love hearing from you guys.
Until next time…
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Today is Free-for-All Friday, so it’s my choice for topics. Today I am going to do something a tad unusual. A book review. Now I don’t get asked to do a lot of these. I think it has something to do with my reputation preceding me. When you earn nicknames like “The Shredder” and “The Death Star,” you generally don’t have writers lining up around the block to hand over their baby. Fair enough. I do tend to be picky. Almost ten years as an editor has made me more than a little odd, and I do find it tough to read fiction without my Inner Red Pen tagging along. But I am a HUGE fan of Jody’s blog, so I figured I’d show some writer support and read her book. Boy am I glad I did!
I enjoy fiction and usually read a few chapters a day. I take the good and the bad. But, every once in a while, I am blessed with a rare opportunity to remember my life before the red pen, to recall how it felt to be a reader held captive by a story. This past Sunday, I cracked open Jody Hedlund’s The Preacher’s Bride. It’s a Christian Romance and really not the genre I ever read in my spare time. I figured out on page one that likely there wouldn’t be a single autopsy, explosion or car chase. But, the funny thing is that even though this book was so far from what I normally would read for pleasure, it caught me on the first page and didn’t let go until I had finished.
I sat glued to my couch all day. I would say, “Okay, I’ll just finish this chapter, and then I’ll get up.” Yeah, well I did that all the way to the end of the book. I read from 10:00 Sunday morning until 9:00 that night. Just to give some perspective, that has happened only 3 times in 8 years, and I generally read at least a book a week. Jody is a master of tightening the noose of conflict and suspense. Readers will love The Preacher’s Bride for the story, and writers should love her for the lessons her story can teach all of us about writing great fiction.
Jody’s novel breathes new life into the pages of history. The Preacher’s Bride is set in England right before the Puritans will be forced to leave for America to escape persecution. Jody drops the reader right into this historical setting and makes it once more alive and real, filled with real people with real lives and real problems. This love story is surrounded by death, disease, persecution, loss and hardship. Thus, when love does emerge, it is like the lone bud that struggles through the winter snows to remind us that life is good and right and worth fighting for.
Jody’s characters are rich, vibrant, and distinct. Her protagonists are wonderfully imperfect and multi-dimensional. I love how this story glorifies so many of the character traits that modern society overlooks—being a hard worker, having a heart for service, and genuinely giving to others. The heroine isn’t supermodel beautiful, but has tremendous qualities of the heart that make her beautiful, and better still, identifiable. The hero is flawed and real and noble. What’s the best of all is that Jody’s antagonists are deliciously wicked and create gripping conflict throughout. This is a romance with substance and grit that will leave you breathless. Jody does a brilliant job of layering conflict in a way that never allows the reader to grow too comfortable.
I highly, highly recommend this book, no matter what genre you normally read. The Preacher’s Bride is a page-turning treat that will make you laugh, cry and cheer. Great stories are great stories, plain and simple. Like all great stories, The Preacher’s Bride will leave you feeling encouraged and inspired, and we all could use more of that .
Welcome to our third week discussing great novel beginnings. Why are we devoting so much time to the beginning of a novel? Because the first pages are the most critical. Today I am going to let you see the first 20 pages through the eyes of an agent or editor. Novel Diagnostics 101. The doctor is in the house.
I mean no disrespect in what I am about to say. I am not against self-publishing and that is a whole other subject entirely. But, what I will say is that there are too many authors who dismiss why agents are rejecting them and run off to self-publish instead of fixing why their manuscript was rejected. Agents know that a writer only has a few pages to hook a reader. That’s the first thing. But agents also know that the first 20 pages are a fairly accurate reflection of the entire book.
I don’t like being called a book doctor. I rarely will ever edit an entire book. I guess I am more of a diagnostician. Why? Doctors fix the problems and diagnosticians just figure out what the problems ARE. So again, why are beginnings imporant? Because I generally can ”diagnose” every bad habit and writer weakness in ten pages or less. I never need more than 50 pages (and neither do agents and other editors). Why? Well, think of it this way. Does your doctor need to crack open your chest to know you have a bum ticker? No. He pays attention to symptoms to diagnose the larger problem. He takes your blood pressure and asks standardized questions. If he gets enough of the same kind of answer, he can tell you likely have a heart problem. Most of the time, the tests and EKGs are merely to gain more detail, but generally to confirm most of what the doc already knows.
The first pages of your novel are frequently the same. So let’s explore some common problems with beginnings and look to the problems that they can foreshadow in the rest of the work.
The beginning of the novel starts the reader off with lengthy history or world-building. The author pores on and on about details of a city or civilization all to “set up” the story.
In my experience, this is often the hallmark of a writer who is weak when it comes to characters. How can I tell? He begins with his strength…lots of intricate details about a painstakingly crafted world. Although not set in stone, generally, if the author dumps a huge chunk of information at the start of the book, then he is likely to use this tactic throughout. This type of beginning tells me that author is not yet strong enough to blend information into the narrative in a way that it doesn’t disrupt the story. The narrative then becomes like riding in a car with someone who relies on hitting the brakes to modulate speed. The story likely will just get flowing…and then the writer will stop to give an information dump.
Also, readers like to read fiction for stories. They read the encyclopedia for information.
Book Starts Right in the Middle of the Action
The beginning of the novel starts us off with the protagonist (we think) hanging over a shark tank and surrounded by ninjas. There are world-shattering stakes and we are only on page 2.
This shows me that the writer could be weak in a number of areas. First, she may not be clear what the overall story problem is, so she is beginning with a “gimmick” to hook the reader in that she is unsure the overall story problem will. Secondly, this alerts me that the writer is weak in her understanding of scene and sequel novel structure.
Scenes are structured: Goal-> conflict -> disaster
So when a writer begins her book with Biff hanging over a shark tank surrounded by ninjas, two major steps in a scene have been skipped. Also, if you go back to my earlier blog, normal world also serves an important function. Thus when a writer totally skips some fairly vital parts and thrusts us straight into disaster, I already know the author will likely rely on melodrama from this point on. Why? Because that was how she began her book.
Book Begins with Internalization
Fiction is driven by conflict. Period. Writing might be therapeutic, but it isn’t therapy. When a writer begins with a character thinking and internalizing that is another huge warning flag of a number of problems.
Do you need internalization in a novel? Yes! But it has its place. Most internalization will be part of what is known as the sequel. Sequels transpire as a direct reaction to a scene. When a writer begins the novel with the sequel, that is a huge warning that, again, the writer is weak when it comes to structure. There is a definite purpose for reflection, but kicking off the action is not one of them.
Also, beginning with the protagonist “thinking” is very self-indulgent. Why do I as the reader care about this person’s feelings or thoughts about anything? I don’t know this character. The only people who listen attentively to the thoughts, feelings, and disappointments of total strangers are shrinks, and they are being paid well to do so.
Now, give us (the reader) time to know your character and become interested in her and then we will care. But, starting right out of the gate with a character waxing rhapsodic is like having some stranger in the checkout line start telling you about her nasty divorce. It’s just weird.
Also, like people who tell you about their abusive alcoholic father the first 30 seconds after you’ve met them, they likely will keep this trend of rudely dumping too much personal information. When the protagonist begins with all this thinking and more thinking…and more thinking, it is probably a bad sign for the future. Just sayin’.
Book Begins with a Flashback
Yeah…flashbacks are a whole other blog, but lets’ just say that most of the time they are not necessary. We do not need to know why a certain character did this or that or why a bad guy went bad. Again, that’s for therapy. Did we really need to know why Hannibal Lecter started eating people for Silence of the Lambs to be an AWESOME book AND movie? Now I know that there was a later explication of this….but it was an entirely different story (and one that really didn’t do well, I might mention). We didn’t stop the hunt for Wild Bill to go on and on about how Hannibal’s family was slaughtered in the war and the bad guys ate his sister…and it worked!
Flashbacks often alert me that the writer needs time to grow. She hasn’t yet developed the skill to blend background details with the current conflict in a way that supports the story. I’ll give you a great example. Watch the new J.J. Abrams Star Trek. We find out exactly how Dr. Leonard McCoy gets his nickname…one line. “Wife got the whole planet in the divorce. All I got left is my bones.” The audience didn’t have to have a flashback to get that McCoy’s divorce was really bad. That is a great example of a writer seamlessly blending character back story.
Flashbacks, used too often, give the reader the feel of being trapped with a sixteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. Just get going forward, then the car (story) dies and rolls backward.
There are two really great books I highly recommend if you want to work on your beginnings (and even learn to fix the problems that bad beginnings foreshadow). Hooked by Les Edgerton and Scene and Sequel buy Jack Bickham.
Many authors are being rejected by the first 20 pages, and because most agents are overworked, they don’t have time to explain to each and every rejected author what they saw. Thus, too many writers are reworking and reworking their beginning and not really seeing that their weak beginning is a symptom of larger issues. It is the pounding headache and dizziness that spells out “heart condition.” You can take all the asprin you want for the headache, but it won’t fix what is really wrong. Hopefully, though, today I gave you some helpful insight into what an editor (or an agent) really sees so you can roll up your sleeves and get to what’s truly going on. All the best!
Until next time….
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Almost any of us who decided one day to get serious about our writing, read Stephen King’s On Writing. Great book, if you haven’t read it. But one thing King tells us we writers must be willing to do, is that we must be willing to, “Kill the little darlings.”
Now, King was not the first to give this advice. He actually got the idea from Faulkner, but I guess we just took it more seriously when King said it…because now the darlings would die by a hatchet, be buried in a cursed Indian filing cabinet where they would come back as really bad novels.
…oops, I digress.
Little darlings are those favorite bits of prose, description, dialogue or even characters that really add nothing to the forward momentum or development of the plot.
To be a great writer, you would be wise to learn to look honestly at all little darlings. Why? Because they are usually masking critical flaws in the overall plot. Today we will address two especially nefarious writing hazards that like to lurk below the wittiest dialogue and most breathtaking description:
Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict
These two related booby-traps are often hidden beneath our little darlings (clever dialogue, beautiful description, etc). That is probably why Stephen King recommended we kill them. Yes, kill them dead. No burying them in the Pet Semetary, also known as “revision.” Killing means killing….as in delete forever. Or at least cut them cleanly from the story and hide in a Word folder to give yourself time to grieve and move on with the real novel. Yet too many times we hang on to those favorite characters or bits of dialogue, reworking them and hoping we can make them fit…at the expense of the rest of the story.
Th-they come back….but *shivers* they are…different.
Let me explain why it is important to let go.
Hazard #1—Mistaking Melodrama for Drama
Drama is created when a writer has good characterization that meets with good conflict. Good characterization is what breathes life into black letters on a white page, creating “people” who are sometimes more real to us than their flesh and blood counterparts. The problem is that characterization is a skill that has to be learned, usually from a lot of mistakes. Yet, time and time again, I see writers—as NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer would say—moving deck chairs around on the Titanic. In a last ditch attempt to spare a darling, a writer describes the character more, or gives more info dump or more internal thought, or more back story, yet never manages to accomplish true characterization. So, when something really bad happens, we the reader just don’t care.
Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way.
Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead. The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Four mangled cars lay in ruins, surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.
You look into that same oncoming lane and two of the cars you recognize. They belong to friends you were supposed to meet for dinner.
Before you cared…now you are connected.
That is how good characterization makes the difference. If you open your story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, you are taking a risk. We will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes us have to close the book and get tissue.
Yet, I have had to pry many, many darlings like these away from desperate writers “parents” unwilling to take the scenes off of life support. They wrote opening scenes of car accidents and hospitals and death and child abduction so vivid they couldn’t read their own work without tearing up. The problem, however, was this…no one but them cared. They hadn’t done enough development of the story to make the readers just as vested as they were. And, because they were so determined to keep these gut-wrenching scenes, they never dug in and did the real work that would have made the audience cry too.
Hazard #2—Mistaking Complexity for Conflict
Complexity is easily mistaken for conflict. I witness this pitfall in most new novels. In fact, back in April at the DFW Writer’s Workshop Conference, I had an opportunity to talk to a lot of new and hopeful writers in between classes I was teaching. I would ask them what their book was about and the conversation would sound a bit like this:
What’s your book about?
Well, it is about a girl and she doesn’t know she has powers and she’s half fairy and she has to find out who she is. And there’s a guy and he’s a vampire and he’s actually the son of an arch-mage who slept with a sorceress who put a curse on their world. But she is in high school and there is this boy who she thinks she loves and…
Huh? Okay. Who is the antagonist?
What is her goal?
Um. To find out who she is?
These conversations actually made me chuckle because now I know what Bob Mayer felt like the day he met me . My first novel was so complex, I don’t even think I fully understood it.
But back to the conference. Most writers wanted to land an agent, yet, out of everyone I talked to, only two could state what their novel was about in three sentences or less. The tragic part is that most of the novels did not have a genuine conflict lock. Protagonist wants this. Antagonist wants that. What they each want is destined to lock in conflict. Great tactic taught by Bob Mayer in his Novel Writer’s Toolkit.
It is my opinion that all these writers, deep down, knew they were missing the backbone to their story—CONFLICT. I think they sensed it on a sub-conscious level and that is why their plots grew more and more and more complicated. They were trying to fix a structural issue with Bondo putty and duct tape and then hoping no one would notice.
The problem is, complexity is not conflict.
You can create an interstellar conspiracy, birth an entirely new underground spy network, resurrect a dead sibling who in reality was sold off at birth, or even start the Second Civil War to cover up the space alien invasion…but it ain’t conflict. Conflict is biblical, and never changes. It most often revolves around the Seven Deadly Sins in conflict with the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Interstellar war, guerilla attacks, or evil twins coming back to life can be the BACKDROP for conflict, but alone are not conflict. And, yes, I learned this lesson the hard way.
Little darlings are often birthed from us getting too complex. We frequently get too complex when we are trying to b.s. our way through something we don’t understand and hope works itself out. Um, it won’t. Tried it. Just painted myself into a corner. But we get complex to hide our errors and then we risk falling so in love with our own cleverness—the subplots, the twist endings, the evil twin—that we can sabotage our entire story.
I sincerely believe these little darlings are like fluffy beds of leaves covering pungee pits of writing death. Be truthful. Are your “flowers” part of a garden or covering a grave? We put our craftiest work into buttressing our errors, so I would highly recommend taking a critical look at the favorite parts of your manuscript and then get real honest about why they’re there.
And then kill them dead and bury your pets for real.
Until next time…
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Just Do It.
In my opinion, Nike coined one of the most brilliant marketing slogans of all time. Simple, poignant, and true.
I have run critique groups for a lot of years and known more than my fair share of aspiring writers. It is always such a joy to be a witness to success, to see books in print that I have been blessed enough to follow from the original idea to bookstore shelves. Strangely enough, even in critique groups the 5% rule holds fast. Though I haven’t taken a true statistical analysis, I would estimate that only about 5% of those who walk through the door wanting help with a novel actually succeed in becoming published authors.
Why is that?
Is it because the odds of becoming a best-selling author are only slightly better than being mauled by a polar bear and a grizzly bear in the same day? Possibly. Is it because Americans are reading less than ever, awaiting the day we can download directly to our brain? Maybe. Is it because the publishing industry would rather gamble on scratch-off tickets than new unpublished authors? Perhaps.
The funny thing is, I would say that the number one reason most of these aspiring novelists are not published is that they simply never finished the book. They are like all those eager souls who hit the gym January 2nd of every year, just to burn out and quit by March 3rd. They have 4 different novels going at any given time that never seem to get more than a quarter finished. These writers are waiting for the perfect story or the newest computer with a better operating system with the built-in voice-activated coffee machine or for their kids to get older or…
Yeah. You get the idea.
I will grant that sometimes there are good reasons for lack of follow through. The three biggest culprits?
- Flawed novel structure
- A good idea but the idea was not developed enough to make a good story.
- No basic conflict lock (refer to #1)
In fact, I started Warrior Writer Boot Camp (based off Bob Mayer’s teachings) in part, to remedy these novel killers. Writers who attend the Boot Camp are in for a rough ride. It is not for the faint of heart. Why? Our goal was to take what Bob teaches in his workshops and then create an environment where authors could develop his principles and then be held accountable to follow through. We took the normal critique group to the next level. Sort of like going from jogging on the treadmill to hiring a personal trainer whose sole mission is to kick your tush and push you beyond your limits. WWBC is the place where ideas, arcs, plot outlines and characters are run through the wringer before writers ever type a single word of the actual novel.
Like working with a personal trainer, in WWBC (or any good critique group) one has to expect a degree of discomfort and even pain. No one likes hearing that their original idea sucks or their characters are trite or their plot is annoying coincidence driven by author manipulation. It hurts. Sometimes it hurts a lot. And a lot of times it hurts so much that it is easy to want to quit, which some people do.
…but for those who endure, victory awaits.
Just Do It.
Whether we choose to attend a critique group or even write solo, we still have to do the work. No matter how perfect the plot or how original the idea, we still have to write the book. And I know it is tough not to read this and groan. All of us know what we need to do. Yet, how is it then that we so easily can be our own worst enemies?
Since I try to blend practical tips into every blog, here are some ways to keep on keeping on.
1. Grant Permission to be Imperfect—Perfectionism is a noble trait taken to the extreme which can serve as an excuse for mediocrity and a mask for fear. Perfectionists tend to be self-saboteurs (I would know nothing about this). We nit-pick over every single detail, often at the expense of the big picture. Perfection is noble, so it makes a great shield. I mean, we just don’t believe in churning out shoddy half-ass work, right? Um…maybe. Or maybe we have a fear of failure, or even a fear of success. So long as nothing is ever complete, we never have to face our demons and can happily fritter away our days perfecting our scenes and dialogue.
Here’s the deal. No one ever published half of a perfect book.
2. Give Baby Steps a Chance—All or nothing thinking, a close relative of perfectionism, can tank the best projects. It is so easy to fall into this trap of, If we can’t do X, then we do nothing at all. Baby Steps are still steps. It’s like the question, “How do you eat a whale? One bite at a time.” Small steps, over time, with consistency add up. It’s sort of like working out. We can choose to show up January 2nd at 5 a.m. and work out three hours, but that is a formula to end up sore, injured and burned out.
So often when I go to the gym I am so tired I want to die (for personal and professional reasons, I have to go to the gym at 4 a.m. if I want to work out at all). I used to be the person who went hell bent for leather, only to end up sick or injured. So a year and a half ago I made a key change in my attitude. Now when I go to the gym I tell myself, “All I have to do is ten minutes walking on the treadmill. Ten minutes. If I still feel tired, horrible, sick, fatigued, disenchanted, etc. I can stop, go home, and climb back into bed. In a year and a half I have only stopped twice. Usually all I need is to push past that initial wall and then I am off like a rocket.
Same with writing. Make small goals. “I will write 15 minutes.” “I will write 100 words.” Sometimes all we need is a little momentum. Can’t rev the motor if we never turn the key.
3. Establish Accountability—Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, in part, on this accountability principle. So often in my critique group, I feel like I should stand up and say, “Hi, my name is Kristen, and I’m a writer. It has been 3 days since I last blew off my word goal for the day.” Maybe at WWBC we should give tokens to those of us who pull through day after day and week after week changing our habits and attitudes a little bit at a time. I am in no way making fun of what AA does. I think they have it right. Bad habits and addictions take small steps geared toward changing overall character. We are the sum of our collective habits. Having a system of accountability is key to lasting change and to establishing productive, healthy patterns.
At WWBC each member makes goals for the week in front of the group. It can be a word count goal, a research goal or even a craft goal. My advice? Join a good critique group. Find a writing partner. Or even join groups like #writegoal or #amwriting on Twitter. Take Bob Mayer’s on-line classes (www.bobmayer.org). It’s amazing how much harder we work when we know our peers are watching and holding us to task.
So this next week? Just Do It, and then do it again, and again, and again…and we’ll see you at the finish line.
Until next time…
Critique has been a popular topic this month and has generated a lot of feedback and questions. Today I am going to debunk some myths about critique.
When I posted “Critique—If You Can’t Stand the Heat, then Get Out of the Kitchen,” some interesting commentary surfaced, but a lion’s share seemed to revolve around the nefarious breed of critic who apparently is so powerful, he or she has the power to crush a writer’s dreams. Like other creatures of the night, it was alleged that the Malus Critiqueus not only could give bad advice, but also apparently had the power to drain ambition and creative power like a succubus, leaving a hollowed out husk of what used to be an aspiring author who now cannot even bear to open Word.
Give me a break.
I will still stand by my assertion, All critique is useful. Just not all of it is valuable.
***A Note of Importance for All, but Especially New Authors
Before continuing, I would like to point out that good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.
A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.
Think of your time in critique like going to the gym. The goal is the happy medium. If after exercising you need ice and prompt medical attention? That is bad. If you don’t so much as break a sweat? You are wasting your time. A good critique is like a good workout. You want to walk away sore. It means you are pushing your limits, and therefore growing and getting stronger.
With that clarified, on to myth-busting…
Myth #1 Malus Critiqueus exists.
Um…no. No such thing. There is no Malus Critiqueus…but there are some people who happen to just be jerks. They were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps. And here is a dose of reality….fully expect to find at least one of these folk in a writing group. Why wouldn’t you? Come on! Think about it. Most of us work or have worked day jobs. Didn’t there seem to be some sort of a hidden @$$hole quota? Like HR was tucked away in their offices watching a panel of hidden cameras?
Hmmm. All the folk over in accounting seem to be getting along. How about hiring that guy with that special talent for making people feel like an idiot? You know, the one who we can count on to make everyone dread coming into work. That guy.
Now Critique Jerk can take the fun out of a meeting, but always remember….he has the right to be wrong. But, better still, you have the right to be RIGHT.
Myth #2—Critique Jerks should be avoided.
Jerks are everywhere. And they are like an allergen. They get under our skin and make us puff up and wheeze and wish we were dead. But, the best way to get over this kind of severe reaction? Small exposures. Build an immunity. This person’s comments may make us want to scream and shout and carry an automatic weapon, but it isn’t going to get any easier. Also, since a lot of critique groups/writing groups are open to the public, it will be next to impossible to keep the Critique Jerk out—and you can count on this guy to have perfect attendance. So what can you do? You cannot control Critique Jerk, but you can refuse to add fuel to his fires. Just refuse to engage him and focus on the only thing within your control—your reaction.
Myth #3 Critique Jerks will eventually go away.
No, they just change form. Mean people do not disappear simply because we get published. If anything, they multiply in number and escalate in intensity. This is what Critique Jerks prepare us for.
There are actually people out there with nothing better to do than write hateful notes to authors. Bob could tell you some stories. Writers are also in a profession that is very public and open to the world for evisceration. Book reviewers can be brutal enough, but now with the wide-open world of the Internet, any twerp’s opinion can be up for public display….permanently.
A couple of months ago, I went to a friend’s book signing, and she was nearly in tears after some random person left a hateful review on Amazon. It didn’t matter that there were 42 other positive reviews. This one nasty human being managed to suck all the joy out of what should have been a really wonderful day. But, to give credit, my friend did hold it together very well. She exhibited true grace under fire…the sort of composure that, for most of us, does not come naturally. It is developed.
So you may think the jerk in your writing group serves no purpose, but he does. He is there to rub and rub and rub and rub on you….until you build a callous. Publishing is brutal, and the thicker our skin, the better the chances we survive and thrive.
Critics (critiquers), in my opinion, only have the power we give them. As authors, there is a certain amount of responsibility we shoulder, and it is unwise to hand the keys to the kingdom to others. Professionals understand that knowledge is power. They actively read and educate themselves every day in order to arm and prepare against the onslaught of negativity and bad advice.
And not to be a smart-aleck, but how far can anyone’s bad advice really lead us astray without our own consent?
All writers should have a basic command of the English language. Don’t laugh. There are some great story-tellers who wouldn’t know a dangling participle if it bit them on the leg. That said, if punctuation and grammar are weaknesses, then it would be wise to read more books on these subjects. Eats, Shoot & Leaves (Lynne Truss), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Grammar & Style (Laurie E. Rozakis, Ph.D. D. Rozakis), The Elements of Style (Strunk & White).
If you are a grammar Nazi, but story structure is a weakness, then look for books on the craft of writing. The Novel Writers Toolkit (Bob Mayer), The Writer’s Journey (Christopher Vogler),On Writing (Stephen King), Bird by Bird (Anne Lamott), Hooked (Les Edgerton), etc.
Go to writing conferences and instead of hitting every class on landing an agent, go to some of the classes that teach about the craft. Listen to experts.
Again, knowledge is power. Knowledge will help refine one’s ability to discern good advice from bad advice. The more education one has, the harder it is to be misled. To rely solely on the feedback of one critic or even a critique group is, at best, foolishness. And if we are too lazy to read books, and blogs, and articles, and do all the things professionals do…then we deserve what we get.
Myth #5 Critique Jerks can steal our dreams.
Malus Critiqueus is the Boogeyman of the writing world, an urban legend. No person should have the power to take away your passion. Bob Mayer tells this story in his workshops, but it is a perfect illustration.
A young man received a violin when he was a boy, and started to play. He practiced and practiced and actually got quite good.
One day, he heard a great violin master was coming to his town, so the young man decided to play for the master and get his feedback.
The master agreed to see him and the young man played his violin as hard and as well as he could. When he was finished, he asked the master how he did and the master replied, “Not enough passion.” And turned and left.
The young man was crushed. He put his violin away and never played it again.
A few years later, the same master returned to the town, and the young man saw him at a party. The young man approached him and said, “Master, the last time you were here, I played for you. You said I did not have enough passion.”
“So what did you do?”
“Well, I stopped playing the violin.”
The master replied, “I say that to everyone. In your case, I guess I was right.”
There are all sorts of ways to find a good critique group—fellow writers, the Internet, the public library, local chapters of RWA. But, in my opinion, the worst sort of critique group (or critique partner) is one that holds our hand and does not challenge us to grow. In fact, the only thing worse is the group or person who charges us money to have our hands held. Again, think of the gym analogy. We want a good personal trainer. The pill that promises us instant weight-loss and a six-pack abs with no sweat, no effort, and no discomfort is probably a scam.
Critique groups or editors who promise a pain-free experience aren’t doing us any favors. NY is not going to baby our feelings. There are too many other talented authors out there who have the skin of a rhinoceros, who can take the truth on the chin and keep on chugging. With this said, though, critique should also be productive. If you feel like throwing yourself off something very high after every critique…it is probably time to look for another group.
The best critique partner or group challenges you, but also helps keep the fires of your passion burning bright.
But the person who succeeds will sometimes get there with luck. Most of the time, though, she gets there because she never, ever, ever, ever, ever gives up…no matter what anyone says.
Happy writing! Until next time…