Wednesday, July 25, 2012

New Story Rush

This week I’ve been fortunate enough to have two new story ideas take over.

One’s been percolating for awhile, and I finally got around to working on it this week. As I talked about in Story Stew, I find the longer I wait to write something, the better it is when I actually sit down and write. My unconscious mind has worked it over pretty good by then and at least in the case of this story, there’s a lot of territory to mine.

The other story was more spur of the moment. I read a recent article, and bam! Plot bunny.

And of course, this is all on top of the novel I’m revising and the other two short stories I’ve been tinkering with. Not to mention more projects in the queue.

It never ends. And that’s what makes being a writer awesome.

I’m sure my excitement with these two new stories will fade, but for now, I’m enjoying the rush.

Happy writing this week!

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Managing Critique

I’m a firm believer in the benefits of critique—regardless of what shape they take.

Since getting serious about writing, I’ve experienced a wide range of critiquing styles and formats:

Reading Work Aloud – On one end of the spectrum, there’s things like open mic nights where tepid applause or catcalls tells you how well you did. I’ve done this once, and although I didn’t crash and burn, I don’t want to repeat the experience. On the other end, I’ve been in groups where you read a predetermined number of pages aloud and then discuss them. Great for problem scenes or seeing if your story or chapter opener hooks readers.

Exchanging Work – I’ve done where an agreed upon number of pages (up to 10 pages, up to 1 chapter, first 50 etc.) are exchanged in advanced and then discussed in small groups. Great for fostering local connections and looking at stories more in-depth. I’ve also exchanged full and partial manuscripts with critique partners and other trusted readers, marking up the text and making micro and macro level comments. It’s a lot of work but it allows you to evaluate a work as a whole, and as we all know, good readers are priceless.

Contests – There’s a wide variety of these for both short and long form work. Things like Miss Snark’s First Victim provide a forum for novel openers to see if readers are hooked. Query contests also abound on blogs. Plus there are a wide variety of contests sponsored through local and national writing organizations. Contests can provide you with feedback if you are in a place were you don’t have a trusted reader in your corner, but beware contest fees as not all contests are created equal.

Then there’s writing workshops like Taos Toolbox, where a lot of feedback comes your way all at once.

And that can be overwhelming. Strike that. It is overwhelming.

So how do you incorporate it all?

Well, when I have the opportunity to collect feedback from a variety of sources all at once, I like to focus on macro-level issues first.

These are general vibes my CPs and trusted readers get from my story or, in the case of the critiques from Taos, what stands out most in my mind as people went around the table and told me what was wrong with my stories.

Based on those things, I do a revision pass. That way I’m proactively working through what I perceive as problems with my story.

Only after I’ve done my initial revisions do I go back through the more detailed individual crits. That way I find I’m less reactive to individual comments that can often lead to changes in my story that serve the critiquer, not necessarily the manuscript as a whole.

Granted this process won’t work for every project, but I like to use this model whenever I can. Besides, by tackling the “big” issues first, because usually by the time you get to the smaller nits, many of them have already been fixed or eliminated.

There’s also some caveats to critiquing more generally.

As Kristine Kathryn Rusch pointed out in her post Perfection:
Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.
So remember, just because someone says there is a problem with your story, figure out if it’s because they’ve been asked to find a problem or if there really is something wrong.

It’s also worth noting that not all critiquing advice is equal. Some people may not understand your vision for your story or be unable to divorce themselves from what they would do in your stead.

Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump in Technique versus Vision explains:
If you ask me to give you feedback on a story, my job is to talk to you about your technique, but it is not to suggest you move in a different direction. I am not going to ask you to compromise your vision. You know what you want to do.

Worse, why would I pass judgment on your vision? I can say, "Your piece isn't very good." Unpacked, that should mean that you are vague, or your characters are underdeveloped. There should be things I can do to help you with technique. But I shouldn't be thinking that your piece isn't very good because I don't like it. Because it's not my thing. Because it's not my sub-genre. That's besides the point. I should be focusing on your technique, not telling you to like what I like.
Another great resource for figuring out how to incorporate feedback comes from How to Tackle Critique Notes from Writer Unboxed.

What other tips and tricks have you learned from your own critique experiences?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Asking For More

What struck me most about my Taos Toolbox experience, I think, was how straightforward the lectures were. That’s not to say I didn’t learn more in-depth tricks or benefit from discussing different story elements over an intense two weeks—I did and it helped crystallize a lot of concepts for me.

But I do think you reach a certain point with craft, where there’s really nothing more to say. You either know it and use it, or you don’t. We all know we need that balance between character, plot, and emotion. And we have scenes and grammar to fashion our stories. But at a certain point, it simply comes down to doing.

At Taos, I learned that I’m doing many right things in my writing, at a high level. I also learned that I need to be doing more of it. At the individual story level and across stories. As I was told in my consultation at the end of the workshop (paraphrasing), “You can write. You need to stretch yourself and see what hits.” In other words, I know the basics, even beyond, and it’s time to stop being precious about my individual projects and start producing.

Wait, you want more from me?

As guest Daniel Abraham told us, “Publishing is a casino,” and you never hit the jackpot if you aren’t showing up everyday plugging quarters into the slots.

Time for the big girl pants.

That’s a scary thought. I feel a little like Dorothy in that I’ve realized I’ve been able to write all along. But if that were true, I’d like to think I’d be a bit further along in my writing journey. So there must be something else I’m missing, some missing piece of the puzzle.

I do think part of it comes back to output. I’m not a fast writer. I like to stew over my stories ideas and get lost in the different worlds. I’ve gotten faster at writing in the last year and a half, and I’ve been pushing myself to get there, but still other writers can write three short stories in the time it takes me to write one.

I also don’t move onto new projects quickly enough. I like to tinker, I like to figure out how to make my stories the best they can be, and sometimes that means I’m holding onto a sinking ship expecting to be rescued when really I should have taken that life raft and be onto something new. But if I don’t care about my work, how can I expect editors/agents/readers to?

Kristine Kathryn Rusch had a recent post on “Perfection” -- it’s worth a full read, but I want to focus on something she said:
Keep writing, keep learning, keep improving. But for god’s sake, don’t look backwards. Those books are done.

How do you know when a manuscript is done? That’s trickier. I think you should trust the process, fix the nits, and move to the next book. Writing is a subconscious art, not a conscious one. You heard your first story before you could speak, so your subconscious knows a lot more about writing than your conscious brain ever will.

Trust that.

Many writers don’t believe what I just wrote, and that’s fine. You need to define it for yourself. Set a limit on revisions, set a limit on drafts, set a time limit. (My book must be done in August, no matter what.) Then release your book on the unsuspecting public.

The book will never be perfect.
And that’s another hard thing for me. I want to write a perfect story. I want each of my stories to be perfect. And I work hard to revise them, chasing after some nebulous concept of perfection, when maybe I should be sending them out and moving on to the next story.

Of course, an exception to Rusch’s position is Andrew Porter, who wrote “Looking Back” for the latest Glimmer Train bulletin. An extensive revision of one of his older stories has gone onto being his most successful, wining him the Pushcart. He says:
I think most writers have a tendency to discount their early work, especially those pieces that were written when they were first starting out, when they were just figuring out how to write a short story in the first place.

In some cases, we're probably right to discount those early efforts. I know, for me, there's a certain cringe factor involved. Sometimes simply remembering the basic premise of one of those early stories is enough to make me shake my head and vow never to look back. Still, I've recently begun to wonder whether my own tendency to always look forward—to always believe that my best work lies before me, that the fiction I wrote five years ago isn't nearly as good as the fiction I'm writing today—doesn't prevent me from recognizing the potential value in some of those old unpublished stories that are just sitting there on my hard drive or collecting dust in a folder.
So writers should always be moving on to the next project, except when they shouldn’t. Hmm.

So what makes the difference? Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump may have stumbled upon the answer in her post-workshop post on Technique versus Vision (also worth a full read). In it, she talks about how workshops can teach technique, but they can’t teach vision, and how the critique process can muddy the two.
I'm going to work my ass off regarding technique. what if my vision is different? Different can be the next thing. If I find myself doubting my technique, I should. I can fix that. If I find myself doubting my vision, that's the end of the story. That's the death knoll for my writing, right there.
So maybe it’s not about writing lots just to write lots or revising things to death because you can’t bear to send something out less than perfect. Maybe it’s about finding your vision and finding ways to bring that vision to life. And if your older stories have solid vision, it’s about updating them craft-wise as your skills as a writer develop. That’s not stepping back; that’s bringing them to life.

I like to think I have vision with my stories. Now it’s just about making them come to life.

I guess no one ever said this whole writing thing was easy.

Happy writing!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Recursive Plotting with Guest L. Blankenship

Today I’m pleased to bring you a guest post from L. Blankenship of Notes from the Jovian Frontier. Not only is she an awesome critique partner, but she also contributes to Unicorn Bell and Science in my Fiction. Enjoy!

First, a thank-you to Bluestocking, my awesome CP, for letting me guest blog here to promote my Kickstarter project! Details for that at the bottom.

Recursive Plotting:
I've been working on a six-part, gritty fantasy romance for some time now. As popular as multi-volume fantasy stories are, they're not so easy to write. Some of that is because of plotting. A six-book series has all the same plotting problems that a one-shot book does -- only with the added size and weight of a lot more words.

There are many ways to break down plots into stages. Here's the one I use: inciting incident, first plot point, other plot points, climax, resolution. You can further group these into a three-act structure or apply other methods of plotting if you want. For now, I just want to focus on the inciting incident.

The inciting incident is that event which sets off the whole story. It sets things in motion. Some call it the point of no return -- because of this incident, something must be done. Something will happen. Because of the inciting incident, the first plot point happens. Because of that first plot point... and so on, building toward the climax.

The first part of my novel has an inciting incident: my protagonist, Kate, is given an early graduation into the duties of a physician and told to attend to a small party heading into the mountains on a mission that nobody seems to want to explain.

 Something must be done: the authority figures in her life have laid this on her, and being a bright young student she wants to live up to their expectations. The rest of the plot hinges on this one event happening, or Kate would have just stayed home and kept studying.

To step back, this is Part I out of six. and while each individual Part contains a plot structure of its own, the series as a whole also contains a plot structure. Writ large, as it were. The series has an inciting incident, first plot point, other plot points, a climax and a resolution.

Part I is, as a whole, the inciting incident for the other five parts. It sets a larger plot structure in motion and because of this, certain things must happen. Certain things must be resolved by these characters. Part II is, as a whole, the first plot point. This larger plot will build its way up to a climax and resolution in Part VI. Though, as I said, each Part will still contain all the plot stages to support what happens within that Part.

In short, plotting is recursive. (This makes my nerdy little heart smile.)

Shameless Plugging:

I'm running a Kickstarter project to fund the professional editing, proofreading, and cover artwork for my gritty fantasy romance, Disciple, Part I: For Want of a Piglet. There will be six parts in total, published over the course of the next few years.

I'm pre-selling e-books, paperbacks, offering promotional bookmarks, and more at various pledge levels (ranging from $1 - $100). Check out the project page for my book trailer, budget, and production schedule. is a fundraising platform for all sorts of creative projects. Artists post a profile of their project and offer rewards in exchange for pledged money. The pledges are not collected unless the artist's funding goal is reached within a set period of time. If the goal is reached, the artist receives the money, carries out the project and distributes the rewards promised. It's a fascinating site and easy to lose time in!

I've had the privilege to read the first three parts of Disciple, and can't wait to see the rest of the series. If you like strong heroines, unique magic systems, and realistic medieval detail, both action and character, these books are for you. 

Be sure to check out the first chapter here

And please consider donating as a little as a dollar to help L. get these books into the world. Thanks, and happy writing!

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