Monday, April 22, 2013

Deliberate Choices -- Guest Post with L. Blankenship

Today, I'm pleased to host fantasy author L. Blankenship on the blog today. You may recall in my interview with her last fall, that she has two (!) successful Kickstarters under her belt, and Part II of her hard fantasy romance Disciple is now available. If you love adventure and romance in a fully textured world with realistic characters, look no further. And be sure check out below for links to a Goodreads giveaway!

Deliberate Choices by L. Blankenship
I did make some deliberate choices, in writing Disciple, about the kind of story I wanted to write. I'm of the opinion that plot, character, and world-building are tightly linked and should be allowed to grow organically -- but I did put a few restrictions on that growth.

Some look like simple things, like not wanting to use the tag "s/he thought" on a thought. Or "I thought," in my first-person narrator's case. It's just so clunkily obvious, or ought to be, that I committed to not using it at all.

Which sounds simple, but I found myself rewriting a lot of sentences before the habit settled in.

There was something deeper I wanted to do, in Disciple: I wanted a good, solid fight. It seems to me that many fantasy stories go to great lengths to stack the deck against the protagonists. They're poor, they're helpless, they're emotionally damaged, they're completely unprepared for the challenges they face. It's Bambi vs. Godzilla.

It's meant to ramp up the tension. It's meant to make the eventual success -- and whatever losses along the way -- all the more savory.

I wanted to see competent, well prepared protagonists go into a tough fight, take hard losses, get their asses kicked a couple times, and claw their way to winning. There seem to be plenty of stories about finding that Magic Thingy or tapping the Cosmic Can of Whup-ass to help Bambi beat Godzilla. Why write another one?

I wanted this to be a fair fight because evenly matched opponents make for an interesting game. I'm not much of a sports fan, but I know the Superbowl isn't much fun when one team dominates the other from the first kickoff. The games you stick around for are the ones that teeter back and forth to the final minutes.

So both sides of the war, in Disciple, came in with stacked decks. They'd made strategic choices, ahead of time, because war was inevitable and they'd be idiots to not prepare to the hilt. Both sides take risks. Both sides take losses. When I sat down to write Disciple, Part VI and finish the story, I wasn't sure exactly how the last few minutes of the Superbowl would play out. 

Which sure held my interest.

Back cover of Disciple, Part II

The prince first kissed Kate Carpenter for fear of missing the chance if they didn’t survive the journey home through the monster-prowled mountains.

Now that kiss seems like a fever dream. It’s back to work for her, back to the fellow physicians jealous of her talents and the sneers of an infirmary director who wants her shipped off to some tiny village. Kate means to be on the front lines to save lives. She’s worked too hard to overcome her past to let them deny her the chance to serve her homeland when the enemy’s army reaches their kingdom.

The grand jousting tournament is a chance to prove she can manage combat wounded, and at the royal Solstice banquet Kate means to prove she isn’t an ignorant peasant girl anymore.

But the prince’s kiss still haunts her. Their paths keep crossing, and the easy familiarity they earned on the journey home is a welcome escape from their duties. It’s a small slip from chatting to kisses.

This is no time to be distracted by romance -- a vast and powerful empire is coming to slaughter anyone standing between them and the kingdom’s magical fount.

Kate ought to break both their hearts, for duty’s sake.

Disciple, Part II on sale now
along with Disciple, Part I

Disciple, Part III coming in late 2013
Disciple is complete in six parts and will make a lovely doorstop
when all 400k words have been published.

Goodreads links:


Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Pros of Professional Development

While the blogosphere is a fantastic resource—rife with informative posts on craft, publishing, and other aspects of the writing life—it can get overwhelming and, at times, repetitive. Not that repetition can’t be helpful in crystallizing some aspects of craft. But too much, and my brain starts saying I’ve heard this before and I tune out.

When that happens, the act of learning, of actively improving, becomes passive. For this writer, that means I start to feel complacent. Not a good place to be.

I had been feeling this way recently—after all it’s been just under a year since I attended Taos Toolbox—so when I saw my local SCBWI chapter was hosting a NY agent for an all-day workshop, I signed up, hoping to be reinvigorated.

I was nervous as I always am when owning my writer persona in an unfamiliar environment with (gasp!) strangers. For the morning session, the agent presented an overview of essential craft elements for children’s books. Then the afternoon was all about the business side of things. It was a very informative session, and unfortunately I signed a waiver that doesn’t let me get any more specific than that.

The workshop would haven been tremendously helpful for me a year or three ago. As it was, I’d say didn’t learn anything “new.” Instead, I learned the relative importance this agent placed on different aspects of craft and business. Much of the content I had been exposed to before, though not as systematically all at once. Hand in hand with the workshop, I paid for an optional critique that didn’t uncover any fatal deficiencies in my writing. So at this point you may be wondering what I actually got out of a wasted Saturday and a c-note.

1. It’s Worth Checking In Sometimes

It is entirely possible to reach a point with your craft where you simply don’t need all the handholding you once did to stay productive. The writing is going well, you’re in the zone, this one’s going to sell, and so on. And that’s all great. But when you’re holed up in your cave, sometimes you can lose sight of what your writing really needs.

By attending a workshop like I did or engaging in some form of professional development to put you and your work out there, you have the opportunity to evaluate your writing through someone else’s eyes. On the business side of things, the publishing world is changing so rapidly every day, you can’t afford to not pay attention to opportunities to help put all the changes into perspective.

2. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Knowing You’re On the Right Track

You remember that critique I got? It let me know my opening for a new project was on the right track. That is invaluable. Looking back at where I was with past projects and knowing they wouldn’t have received this kind of feedback at this stage, shows just how much I’ve improved. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect, doesn’t mean there aren’t things I can do to strengthen my story. But it’s now a question of calibration, not wholesale revision. And that’s a huge difference (and a huge confidence boost).

3. Professional Organizations Provide Superior Opportunities

Now, this assertion is grounded in my personal experience. I’ve tried a lot of different things, including:

-Local, grassroots style writing groups like those you find through or your local alt-weekly. You can find some good individuals, but too often the group includes people who don’t know what they’re doing or have a different focus (say self-publishing when you have your eye on the Big 6).

-Classes at the local community college or university. Again, you might find some serious individuals, but many of these people are just testing the waters and haven’t screwed up the courage to take the plunge. The teachers at this level can also be suspect in their ability to teach or inspire. Note, I am not talking about MFA programs and the like.

-Regionally-focused writing organizations. The ones near you may be different, but the one closest to me serves as a catch-all for writers not represented by other organizations. Mine has a lot of writers writing memoir and literary fiction, and their classes and workshops cater to hobbyists and beginners.

-Residential workshops like Taos Toolbox. Expensive, but being surrounded by a dedicated group of peers, and being instructed by individuals who have lived through publishing’s ups and downs is priceless.

-Local chapters of national writers groups like RWA or SCBWI. These organizations are far more likely to have classes and workshops for the intermediate and seasoned writer.

I can say with absolute certainty that you get folks who are a lot more serious about learning their craft at organizations and workshops with a targeted focus like genre. Not one of the thirty people in the workshop I attended had stars in their eyes that they’d be the next JK Rowling. Everyone was aware of the years of hard work and the smart choices it takes to succeed in publishing.

Now, I’ve held off joining any of the membership organizations. Partly because it’s another cost in a field with too little money for writers as it is. Partly because I was a little too in love with the idea of the “lone writer” for a long time. And partly because I felt I had to “prove” myself in a genre before I could presume to join an organization dedicated to it. Imposter syndrome, much?

But now? I’m in a place where I’m reasonably confident in my abilities as a writer. I’m also very cognizant of what I don’t know as I contemplate what’s next for me. That’s where the support of a national organization becomes invaluable. I’m still debating which one is best for my career long term, but I can no longer ignore the benefits they can provide.

What about you? Have you had a recent professional development experience? How did it go?

Happy writing!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Rough Crit

Criticism is hard to take sometimes. But if you are actively seeking it out, there’s no better way to improve and hone your craft in my opinion. It means you take your work seriously and want to grow as a writer.

It also means you are guaranteed a rough crit session from time to time. So here are some tips for how to survive an in-person critique when it seems like your colleagues or fellow workshoppers are out to get you.

During the session:

1) Don’t get defensive

I repeat: Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive leads all too easily to getting angry, which can lead to things being said that cannot be unsaid.

If you find your hackles rising, find a way to channel that feeling into something productive. Me? I’m a notetaker. I write down all the bad things someone raises about my work during critique sessions. Even the things I don’t agree with. Something about the process of notetaking adds a crucial bit of separation between me and what’s being said, allowing me to compartmentalize the negative stuff and move on.

2) Don’t try to justify

We’ve all been in that situation where a writer says something like, “Well, what I was trying to do in that scene…” or “My intentions were…” et cetera. This often leads to a lengthy monologue where the writer explains why the story is the way it is, refuting every issue raised during the session along the way.

This is a waste of everyone’s time. If you try to justify what you wrote—preferring your words to a reader’s honest reactions—you’re basically saying your critiquers’ reactions to your story don’t matter. Which begs the question why you are soliciting critiques in the first place.

Note that this does not mean you can't ask someone for clarification about why they felt the way they did about your work. You can. But be wary if you find yourself protesting too much.


3) Don’t take your bad crit out on others

I’ve been in roundtable critique sessions where a writer responds to a harsh crit by being harsh in turn out of spite—not raising legitimate issues with the work under consideration. Don’t be that person.

If you can’t be civil in the aftermath of a rough crit, excuse yourself, take a time out, do whatever it is you need to do to find balance. It may not seem that way when your critiquers are tearing apart your work, but they are trying to help you. Don’t do something that will jeopardize their future good will.


After the session:

1) Give yourself some time

If you aren’t ready to dive into the negative feedback, that’s okay. Read a book, work on another project, do whatever it is you need to do to be in the proper headspace for processing feedback.

Taos Toolbox had a very large critique component. I deliberately refrained from looking at what my colleagues had to say about my work until I got home. Why? Because I knew if I looked at the written feedback it would distract me from my main goal of the workshop: making real connections with fellow writers. I didn’t want my interactions tainted by the critiques—that’s the one who got too heavy-handed with their line edits or that’s the one who hated my MC—instead of getting to know them on a more personal level. It also gave me time for their suggestions to sink in, and when I got home, I was more open to making changes.


2) Understand who is giving you feedback

In other words, not all critiquers are created equal. Just because someone writes a lot or well doesn’t mean they automatically give good feedback. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t have a lot of publishing credentials doesn’t mean they won’t have any insights into your work.

Some things to ask yourself when weighing feedback:

How much experience does this person have with critiquing?
Do they write in my genre?
Do I like their style/storytelling abilities?
Are they a writerly type to avoid? – Inexperience, ignorance, and ego can all be problematic


3) Understand what you are getting feedback on

You’d think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Whatever you submit or send in, right? Here’s the thing. You know, consciously or unconsciously, what kinds of questions you have about your story. And whether you ask for specific feedback or not, the issues your critiquers raise can surprise you.

There’s nothing worse than expecting macro-level feedback and getting your story put through a line editing meat grinder. Or expecting help to polish a final draft, only to have your story premise dissected. That’s not to say those things can’t be helpful—usually they are. But if you aren’t expecting it, those kinds of crits can be devastating.

So double-check your critique expectations. If there’s a large deviation between the feedback you expected and what you actually got, ask yourself the following:

Did I specify my critique expectations? 

Sometimes it is as simple as saying your story is an early or a final draft—often that will cue the critiquer to respond accordingly. Other times, you may need a second opinion on a problematic element (say structure or characterization). You want to make sure you tell your critiquers that. It may not help—they could forget or get distracted by another aspect of your story, but at least you know you tried to get the right kind of feedback for your story.

Did I inadvertently trigger one of my critiquer’s hot-button issues? 

People will respond in unexpected ways to your work. If you hand an atheist a Christian romance, well, that could lead to a very interesting critique. People with different worldviews and life experiences are great to have in a writing group—but those very differences can lead to surprising results in practice as well.

It usually comes down to knowing the people you are exchanging work with. As someone who’s spent a lot of time reading and writing romance, I can be very critical of those scenes. One of my writing friends is an interior designer, and often her comments pick apart descriptions of interior spaces and architecture. Similarly, scientists get cranky when you fudge scientific details or resort to handwaving in speculative works.

So if a critiquer is overly sensitive to an aspect of your story, ask yourself why. Usually it is because they have firsthand knowledge or expertise on a particular subject. Instead of getting defensive, use their knowledge to strengthen your work.


I hope this post results in less stressful and more useful critique sessions. For more on this subject, check out 5 Ways to Get Good Revision Notes.

Happy writing!

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