Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Push or Pull

What kind of writer are you? Someone who needs to be pushed to write? Or someone who would write no matter what, putting themselves out there, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps?

I’ve been both at different stages.

When you need a push to write:

To take the plunge—Maybe you had a teacher who inspired you, or a partner or family member who encouraged you to write. Or maybe you read something that was so amazing you wanted to write too. In any case, someone or something pushed you into the writing world.

To follow through—But writing can be a fickle process. Sometimes we get in funks where we can’t write or lose our confidence in our abilities. That’s when a nudge from a writing friend or taking steps to reinvigorate your creativity helps you keep going when the going gets tough.

To do what’s required—We can all hope we reach the point where contractual obligations and deadlines serve as the push to keep us writing.

When writing pulls you in:

Because you have a story to tell—Often we discover our love of writing because we have a story to tell, something that can only be expressed in words. And by taking that first step, you discover you have even more to say.

Because you’ve found your rhythm—Some days the writing comes easy. Those are good days, and they are earned because you’ve built up momentum in your story. Developing a writing routine can also help by giving your brain a set time when the words can pour forth.

Because you have goals you want to reach—And the only way to reach them is to keep writing. Sometimes that’s the only inspiration you need.

So at the end of the day, is your writing pulling you or pushing you?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Immaturity in Writing

In January, I started reading slush for Masque Books, a digital imprint of Prime Books. And so far it’s been a fascinating peek behind the publishing curtain.

I’ve seen my fair share of crazy fonts and strange formatting, but not nearly as much as I expected to based on the horror stories of the slush pile that get bandied about. What’s surprised me the most is the overall care that’s gone into the submissions. This doesn’t mean they’ve knocked my socks off, but rather that the average submission is much higher in quality than I expected—they’ve been literate, proofread if not perfect, and largely followed the submission guidelines.

That kind of attention to detail is encouraging to see, which is why it’s so heartbreaking to get to the actual story and know within two paragraphs, sometimes sooner, that it’s a no-go. And more often than not, the culprit is immature writing.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s a catch-all phrase that I use when I see a manuscript that has either sentence-level issues or a lack of sophistication with elements of craft (or both).

Sentence-Level Issues

This can be as simple as a poor grasp of grammar—improper punctuation, run-on sentences, etc. A mistake or two won’t make or break a submission. But they can add up, and when the errors are egregious, it’s that much harder to take a story seriously.

There are also more subtle signs of sentence-level issues. Things like wordiness, filtering, awkward phrasing. I’ve trained myself to write tight, to weed out inefficiencies in my text, to catch mistakes and edit out the awkwardness. When I see project where these kinds of things aren’t addressed, it makes me wonder just how far along the writer is in their journey. Is this their first project and they haven’t quite figured everything out? Or have they just not taken the time to refine their writing to make it the best it can be? I usually go with the former interpretation, and have to hope they won’t give up when they get their rejection, that they’ll keep writing, keep striving until they get their stories out into the world.

Bottom line, every word in your story subconsciously signals your ability as a storyteller to a reader. Sentence-level issues are the one thing you as a writer can control in a highly capricious business, so there’s no excuse not to learn them. And if you haven’t learned them, when I read your submission I assume that you are too immature a writer to competently tell me a story I’m interested in.

Elements of Craft Lack Sophistication

This is even more subjective, but in some ways more detrimental to a submission. Say an author has great descriptive powers, but cannot orchestrate an action scene to save their life. Or the voice of the protagonist is largely spot on, but infodumps and unrealistic dialogue grounds a story before it even gets started. Essentially, there is some aspect (or aspects) of the writer’s craft that screams inexperience, by virtue of it being poorly handled or weaker relative to other aspects of the work.

This isn’t always a fatal flaw—after all, a good editor will work with a writer to improve all aspects of a story. But the problems with craft must be surmountable. For example, a story where every paragraph tells the reader what to think instead of showing them or a clumsy inner monologue that sidelines action in every scene are too insidious to tackle. Other things like a lack of specificity or an overabundance of specificity could be fixable, but the story would have to be worth the effort.

This is where beta readers and critique partners and groups come in, because writers can be blind to their shortcomings.

Bottom line, you cannot afford to ignore the weaker parts of your craft and hope the rest will be strong enough to carry your story. If I see a big imbalance in your abilities as a writer or if the way you handle certain aspects of craft show your inexperience or lack of awareness of what’s acceptable, then I’m going to assume you haven’t matured as a writer and that your story isn’t ready for publication.

Harsh? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. I’ve only recommended two stories since I’ve started slushing, and those were both with big reservations.

So at the end of the day, remember: Writing stories is hard. Rejecting stories is easy.

It’s all too easy to find a reason to reject a story. You’re goal as a writer is to minimize those reasons for “easy” rejections (following guidelines, fine-tuning your prose, making strides with your craft). You want to make it difficult for me to say no. You want me to keep hoping if I turn the page, it will be worth it.

I want it to be worth it. And you can prove that to me by maturing as a writer. It won’t happen overnight. But if you keep writing, keep working, keep striving, you’ll get there. We all will. One day.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Collaborative Writing

Over the last few months, I’ve participated in a collaborative writing project with two of my writing friends.

It’s something I was initially hesitant doing. For one, the project is in a genre I don’t normally write in. For another, I wasn’t confident our writing styles would mesh. Plus, the time I spent on the project would inevitably take time away from my own work.

But I did it anyway, and as we’re polishing the initial draft, I can say it was largely a success. How did we keep it from devolving into a game of tug-of war?

Well, for starters, my emotional investment in this project was much lower to begin with. After all, I had to share this story with two other people. So my level of engagement was more in line with the collaborative writing I did in academia—I had a professional desire to get things done and do them well, but I was more than happy to put it aside at the end of the day. In other words, I viewed this as a job or an assignment, not my “art” (whatever that means).

That also meant I was accountable to the other writers I was working with. Excuses that I sometimes use to get out of working on my own projects didn’t fly in this case because I had two other people counting on me to write my portions of the story.

That level of detachment did make it harder to engage with the material initially, but as we got further along into the story, that became less of an issue. The detachment also meant I was also more open to compromise as we discussed the overall story arc and decided on character traits and plot points.

We also stuck to a schedule. We met every two weeks while drafting the story. We started with an initial brainstorming session where we roughed out the plot. Then we would assign each other scenes to write. We would exchange those scenes before the next session, review them, and make big-picture adjustments at the next meeting. Then the process would start all over again. The result was a full draft in less than four months.

It also helped that each writer was assigned a specific POV character, so we didn’t have to worry about handing off that character to someone else and the continuity issues that would stem from that.

Would I do it again? It depends. I learned a lot about my writing through this process and exposed myself to the drafting techniques of other writhers. And it's encouraging to know that such collaborations can be successful—provided there’s a good mesh of working styles. Plus it was a lot of fun too.

Doing it again would necessitate a time commitment I’m not eager to make at this stage right now. That doesn’t mean some future project won’t be worth the effort.

So if you are contemplating a collaborative writing project, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Find writers you trust.

This means you trust their creative instincts, you trust their ability to do the work, and (it has to be said) you trust they won’t dick you over in the end. It helps that I’ve known the two women I worked with for over a year through our local writing group. Not everyone starting a collaboration will have this option, but the point is to vet the other writers the best you can and go with your gut.

Treat it as a professional obligation.

This means you (and the other writers) need to be accountable to one another. Make goals, stick to a production schedule, brainstorm together—but remember to build in enough leeway so that you can help each other if the going gets tough. Respect each other’s work and each other’s time. Couch story development negotiations in terms of craft and structure, not you own selfish desires for how the story should turn out. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ and all that.

Remember that this is a learning opportunity.

Collaboration is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It’s also a rare one, because of the difficulties inherent in any collaboration. Use this time as chance to look under the hood at someone else’s writing process—you may glean a few nuggets of wisdom for your own writing. You may also surprise yourself at what you are capable of in the right set of circumstances.

Check out On the Art of Collaboration in Writing from Magical Words and Amie Kaufman’s Three Rules You Can’t Break for more insights into collaborative writing.
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