Wednesday, August 27, 2014

What are You Reading?

Rhonda Browning White
I know you’ve heard it said before, “Good writers must read good books.” For most of us, this is a no-brainer. But do you realize how much what you read affects how you write? It’s true; the books and novels you read will directly impact your writing. Thus, it’s important for each of us, as writers, to read constantly and closely with the intention of improving our own writing. Author Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer is an excellent text on how to read with fresh eyes, to receive not only inspiration, but also instruction and technical assistance, from a great story.

What? But won’t reading with such concentration take the pleasure out of a story?

Of course not! In fact, with a little bit of effort, close reading (reading with attention to cunning plots, breathtaking sentences, suggestive detail, and other building blocks of writing) can make your reading experience more enjoyable than it has ever been. When we read a story with a keen eye on the way in which it was crafted, we learn how to apply those tricks to our own stories. Reading a powerful story in which we’ve examined every sentence—every word—seeking to understand why the author chose to use in the way she did, we can experience revelations, both about the story we are reading and about the way in which we chose our own words and phrases. We can discover new pleasures in selecting words for our own stories as we dive into the beautiful, bottomless pool of language discovery. Books and novels become our own private classrooms in which we study lessons in the art of writing. So, then, which classes shall we take?

I highly recommend starting at the top. No, this doesn’t mean we should forgo contemporary stories for Homer, Ovid and Shakespeare (though there’s much to be learned about plot and storytelling from classic literature). 

Begin with the bestseller lists. What makes those stories so popular and powerful within their genre? Read a few recent bestsellers similar to the story (or at least in the same genre that) you are writing. Find an author in your genre whose work moves you, and read everything they’ve written. Pay attention to what it is in their work that captures your attention, and try to mimic that style in your own writing. If you write mysteries, pick up this year’s edition of Best American Mysteries. (You can’t go wrong with any of the Best American series in your genre, whether it’s Best American Short Stories, Best American Essays, Best American Sports Stories, or any of their other excellent collections.) We often learn best from the books we most admire.

Study books on the craft of writing. You’ll hear our editors often tell you how important it is to continually study the craft—professional writers make a career out of studying writing and applying what they’ve learned to their own work. Personally, I read at least five or six books a year on writing craft. This week, I’m reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s Building Fiction. Next on my list is John Truby’s The Anatomy of a Story. Other texts I’ve read and to which I frequently return for advice and inspiration include The Art & Craft of the Short Story (good advice for many forms) by Rick DeMarinis, and what may be my all-time favorite, The Lie that Tells a Truth by John Dufresne.  

Medical students watch surgeons and copy their skills and techniques in the operating room. Dancers study the moves of famous choreographers and practice until their bodies ache from effort. Professional writers study the best authors, conscious of style, diction and sentence structure, and apply those construction details to their own work. 

Reading is what real writers do. What are you reading?

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How to Take a Critique

by Sherry Wilson
Taking a critique can sometimes be difficult for those of us who toil in private for a long time, churning out work and not really knowing how it will be valued by others. Giving up your work for critique is difficult, and receiving a critique with dignity can be challenging.

If your story is the subject of a live critique, you have a great advantage. You're going to receive immediate, honest feedback on your story. That is a privilege. It can also be hard to take. Most of us would like to bury our heads in the sand at this prospect.

I remember my first live critique. It was at a writer’s conference, and I was so nervous I’m surprised I didn’t pass out in the chair. Time was short so she concentrated on what would make the story better and she didn’t pull any punches. I felt like I’d been a few rounds in the ring by the time it was finished. It was probably the longest three minutes of my life.

It is difficult to take at first, but you do develop a thicker skin rather quickly. The most important rule to follow when receiving a critique of any kind, but especially with a live critique—do not argue.

As soon as the writer starts arguing with the person giving the feedback, all feedback stops. People will give you their opinion until you argue about it. Then they won’t bother anymore. As hard as it may be to take, you have to realize that what they are doing is a true gift. You cannot argue with readers once you have sold your work. They will interpret your story in their own way. You can’t control that. So you shouldn’t try to control the feedback from your audience either.

If the feedback is given in an on-line group, it is inevitable that you will receive an upsetting critique at some time or other. The distance of on-line relationships and the mood fluctuations of people will no doubt cause some to send off a hasty critique.

When this happens, do not write a note back arguing with the critique.

Really, don’t do it.

Let it sit for a day or two to gain a bit of distance and then re-read it.

Yes—re-read it.

You don’t have to agree with it. This is one person’s opinion, and that is all it is. But you might as well get something out of it.

So re-read the critique with an eye for what problems the person saw in the manuscript. You may not agree that these are problems, but you will see that there is a reason the person stopped there and made a comment. Perhaps they misinterpreted what you were trying to do. You may decide not do as they suggest, but you can see that you need to make your intentions clearer in that section.

Often, just the distance of a day will let you see that, while the critique might be a bit rude or brusque, there is something to be gleaned from it.

If you are paying a professional for a critique or an edit, you should find that the communication is professional and framed in a positive light. The editor should tell you what you’ve done right as well as point out any problems and give you suggestions on how to improve the story. But there is the occasional editor who will be more negative with his critique. If this happens, again, don’t argue.

If you don’t understand something, it’s perfectly fine to ask for further explanation.

If you can’t figure out why he made a certain comment, ask for clarification.

But don’t argue with him about it. You paid for the editor’s help and you want his opinion. You don’t have to agree with it.

In fact, receiving another critique from someone else can be a great help to you. It will show you which points really need to be changed and which are more a matter of personal taste.

If two individuals make the same point, you should look closer at their suggestions.

You need to develop a thick skin. That only comes from being subjected to critique repeatedly. Being able to use the critique to improve the work is the most important thing in making it. That is how you get better. The writer who gets published is the writer who perseveres.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tying Up Loose Ends

by Jessica Nelson
I woke up the other morning with an irresistible urge to watch Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. So I did.
I’m sitting there on the couch, singing along blissfully to one of my favorite animated movies, when I reach this scene.

Look familiar? If you can’t place it, it’s from the beginning of the song “Great Wide Somewhere,” right after Gaston proposes marriage to Belle.

I get to this scene, and the most seemingly random thought strikes me that I haven’t been able to shake ever since.

What ever happened to those farm animals?

Who took care of them while Belle was with the Beast, and Maurice was lost in the woods? When Belle and her father moved into the castle, did they sell the farm or bring their goats and chickens with them?

Like I said, seemingly random and probably unimportant—unless you’re a writer. Those animals are a loose end, an unresolved conflict. An astute reader—or in this case, viewer—will get to the end of the book and wonder about all those loose ends.

In writing, every word, every event, every character—even nameless farm animals—must somehow move the story forward. In this scene, are the animals necessary? They give Belle an audience for her lyrical ranting, but other than that, they serve no purpose—and they create a loose end.

We tend to add things to scenes to dress them up. Things that, at the time, make sense. However, we need to be careful we’re not accidentally adding a subplot that we have no intention of coming back to. When everything is said and done, and our precious paper-baby is all ready to go out into the world, we need to re-read every scene and make sure that everything in it serves a purpose and every conflict introduced is resolved.

Did you write a spy novel in which your character had to steal top-secret files for the CIA, then was chased all over the world before he finally realized he wanted nothing more than a quiet family life with the Arabian beauty who helped him allude the Russians out to kill him? Great! I’d love to read it. But one question: what happened to the files? Did he ever turn them in to his supervisor?

Did you open your paranormal romance with a girl walking home from a birthday celebration at a nightclub with her best friends before she was attacked by vampires? Again, I’d love to read it. But what about the best friends? Do they ever call her? Stop by her place to make sure she’s okay? Call the police when a week passes and no one has seen hide nor hair of her? If they don’t do any of those things, 1.) they are poor excuses for best friends, and 2.) they are a loose end.

If you’re feeling tangled up in loose ends, an editor is a wonderful ally to help you get untangled and tie your loose ends in perfect little bows.



Beauty and the Beast is an original Disney film. All characters from the movie belong to Disney. The image used was taken from Google Images.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Those Confusing Acronyms

by Charlotte Firbank-King

When editors work they make reams of comments and, coupled with deletions and format changes, it makes a manuscript look like an unmade jigsaw puzzle that the writer is expected to wade through and make sense of. To compound this we add acronyms that confuse the heck out of even the most determined and dedicated writer.

I’ve made a list of the ones I like to use:
MS – Manuscript
This is what we call a story that has not yet been polished or published.
POV – Point of view
POV is the character whose head the writer is in at any given time, the one seeing or experiencing what is being described by the author.
HH – head-hop
This is when the writer switches POV without leading into it. An example is when X character sees a pink moon rising, then in the next sentence have Y character thinks X is nuts because it’s clearly a pink bunny in the sky.
RUE – resist the urge to explain
When the author has conveyed through actions or words that the character is angry, for example, and they tack on something like, “he said in a rage.”
ID – Information drop
Writers have a tendency to use internal dialogue or flashbacks as a way to inform the reader of why a character is the way they are or why they find themselves in a certain situation. I will write a separate blog on this subject.
RUL – Resist the urge to lecture
Writers don’t give readers the respect of assuming they have a brain and, therefore, feel the need to explain everything in detail. It comes over as a lecture and will likely render the reader bored to death. I will also write a blog on this.
ATS – avoid thumbnail sketches
When internal or external dialogue is used to give the reader details about a character, thing or situation. “I love his black hair and blue eyes and the dimple in his chin is to die for, but he’s so screwed up. His mother beat him daily with a powder puff from the day he was born in 1988 in a hole under Westminster Abbey.” It’s similar to ID. I will also do a blog on this.
“graph or graf” – paragraph

This isn’t an acronym, but it’s commonly used slang that editors use for “paragraph.” It’s quicker and reduces some of the clutter in those sidebar comments.