Monthly Archives: November 2011

Constructive Criticism

There’s no easy path to becoming a good writer, but if you’re willing to work really hard, you will eventually see results. One thing that can help you on your way is a good critique.

There’s a lot of different ideas to what constitutes a good critique, but here are some guidelines I try to stick by. I know that some groups read things on-the-fly, but or these guidelines, I’m going to stick to the format of my group, where notes on paper beforehand, and ideas are discussed in a group.

Don’t overload the author.  Just because you found tons of things that needed improvement doesn’t mean you should air them all in your critique group. Focus on those things you think are most important for the author to work on. Leave the not-so-important stuff on the sheet.

Don’t speak over the author’s head. I am in a drop-in group. Some authors are just beginning, and some authors are published. The critique that I give to someone who’s struggling with basic grammar is very different than what I give to a published author with a set style. With the beginner, I might talk about tense inconsistency. With the published author I might pick out things like pacing and cadence.

Don’t be the star of the show. Your opinions are not a special little snowflakes. Yes, you’ve been studying writing for years now. Yes, you studied under two Iowa MFAs, who used to smoke pot with Vonnegut. Still, try to show some reserve. Yes, if you think the author really needs to work on something, get your ideas out there, but don’t take up fifteen minutes of a half hour critique, slowly paging through your notes in case there was something you missed. They’ll see your notes later, and if you forgot it, it wasn’t that important anyway.

Take the conversation offline. If you think a topic is too complex for the sheet, and explaining it might take up too much time in the group, send the author an email beforehand. If the author has consistent issues with commas, don’t bore the pants off everyone by going over basic grammar–download the information and hand it to them or email them a link.

Don’t mistake your taste for bad writing or Genre happens. Unless you have a nearby group focused on a specific kind of story, chances are you’re going to have to deal with genres you don’t like. (For me it’s high fantasy,) So, get used to not liking everything you read. And, if you complain that dirigibles and horse-drawn carriages don’t make sense, and the two people in the group who’ve read steampunk say it’s genre-apprpriate, drop it.

Don’t cut to the bone. If anything, this is probably a corollary to the first two guidelines, but I think it’s important to state. Even the best, most open-minded writers have fragile egos. It’s part of the process. We want everyone to like us and to like our writing, which is basically the same thing. I know a good critique is a brutal critique. However, to me that means not pulling punches, not refusing to throw in the towel. Don’t hesitate to take someone past their comfort level, but don’t beat someone so bad they never want to come back for more. There will always be people ready to tell the author their writing sucks. Those people are agents and editors.

Some of these guidelines may seem contrary to what people learn in college courses, but a critique group isn’t a one semester writer’s workshop class. I work with authors  over months and years. Those that listen to their critiques seem to get better. Those that don’t seem to get worse.

Apples to Pickles

I’m always looking for a good way to punch up my writing or get over a patch where I am suck. One of my favorite ways to do this is by adding random elements. The side trips you take might not always be productive, but they are interesting, and if nothing else, they will keep you writing.

Lately, someone suggested that I start a special box of interesting words. Then I could draw words from the box whenever I got stuck and needed a quick prompt. She had a special box filled with hundreds of words that she had decorated by printing them with amusing fonts.

Being a lazy man, I did not want to print out hundreds of little slips of paper decorated with interesting fonts, but I did realize I had a card game, “In a Pickle,” which would be nearly as good.

“In a Pickle” and “Apples to Apples” are both party games, which you may already have in your home. For the purpose of this discussion, I’m not going to get into game-play mechanics, but the important part is that they both contain big stacks of cards with common nouns printed on them.

So, I split my “In a Pickle” cards into two piles and put one by my downstairs computer and one by where I like to use my laptop. I don’t always use them, I don’t always use the words I draw, but occasionally, I find useful information from one of the cards I draw.

You might even find you enjoy the party games. I don’t.

A Gem From Lorne Michaels

Lorne Michaels Photo by David Shankbone

Lorne Michaels

Recently, while reading Tina Fey’s Bossypants, I came across this wonderful quote.

The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready. The show goes on because it is 11:30.

–Lorne Michaels

I think it would be hard to argue that Saturday Night Live isn’t a success story. Even if you don’t like SNL’s comedy, I find it impressive that he’s still producing live sketch television in the 21st century. The number of spin-off movies alone would be enough to justify SNL’s existence. The number of mainstream actors who have emerged from the SNL crucible is hard to believe. This quote reminds us that despite all the great talents involved, they were working under tight time constraints and did not age their skits like wine.

With my book deal impending, I’ve been fighting against worries that I have not done enough with my book, which I’m told will be called Minion of Evil. Could I have given it one more rewrite? After all, I haven’t worked on it in over a year. I could do better now, couldn’t I?

Honestly, I think the resounding answer to both these questions is yes. I think it’s one of those things you’re not supposed to admit, but given more time, I could probably make my book even better. After all, I was working full time at my day job when I did the last revision. I was spending every free moment trying to finish a book that I had been working on for most of a year. By the time I edited the last five chapters, I was in a daze. I couldn’t focus beyond a paragraph at a time. I just wanted it to end.

So, after sending it to my small press editor and getting it approved, I worried that it wasn’t ready, that it wasn’t good enough. That some day, I would regret releasing such an amateurish novel.

Lorne Michaels’ quote above reminded me that done doesn’t mean perfect. It means the best you can do given the time you have. I could work and re-work Minion again and again,  hoping my Sisyphean effort would somehow produce great results. Instead, I have chosen  to push it out of the nest, or put it into the Nile of a raft made of reeds, or whatever metaphor you prefer. Hopefully, it’s the right decision, but there’s only one way to find out.

Scrivener for Windows – First Impressions

I am usually not one for using writing tools. I have learned to do really well in Microsoft Word. I have a system for revision and backup that I’m happy with, and I’ve seen some “revolutionary” writing tools really mess up other people’s manuscripts.

However, I’ve heard really good things about Scrivener, and since an introductory price of $36 would not break the bank. I decided to give it a shot. Just for the record, this isn’t a full review, this is just a collection of thoughts I had after downloading the program.

Windows installation went smoothly. I was able to activate the software on my laptop and desktop machine with no problem–Scrivener is licensed per user, not per machine.

The first thing you see when opening Scrivener is the option to create a project from a template. I created a “tutorial” project, and was greeted by a Scrivener document telling me how to make Scrivener documents. I looked at this for five minutes before getting bored.

It turns your writing into tasty little meatballs

I decided to start by importing a small project, an article I’m doing on Electronic Voice Phenomena I’m doing for ParABnormal magazine. Scrivener parsed my Word document perfectly. Then, I used Scrivener to break down the article into logical sections.

After that was done, I wanted to see how Scrivener put things back together again. First, I tried “Export” off the file menu. I don’t know what it does, because it consistently errors out on my three page composition. Next, I tried a custom compile. I was much happier with this feature. You can tell scrivener how to transition between your sections–everything from a like break to a page break with a new header, and includes several options for manuscript formatting, such a straitening quotation marks, and replacing the ellipses character with three periods. After a little finagling, I was able to re-compile the document to its original appearance.

I decided to move on to research. The research section allows you to create a type of note called “website.” So, I excitedly typed in one of my sources, expecting A) the web page would cache locally with all the graphics and formatting, or B) a link that would launch the local web browser. I got C) a paged of text rendered from the homepage of the website, which was mostly legal disclaimer and credits, with no pictures or formatting. Then I created a generic text note, named it “websites”, and pasted in the site address.

This pretty much covers my first hour with scrivener. I don’t know if I’ll keep at it or not, but after getting my feet wet, I think I’m ready to try some of the video tutorials on their site. Then, I actually have an article to finish. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up if I find anything interesting.

Participant

In an interview, when someone asked Lady Gaga what went through her mind the first time she heard her music on the radio, she said, “It’s about time.” This is much the way I feel about my first book sale.

Amidst the congratulations of friends and family, I can’t help but feel a little disappointed selling to a small press instead of a Harper Collins imprint. I’m not upset about the money or the fame, and I feel that the managing editor of my company is more accessible than Rupert Murdoch. Still, I don’t feel like I have taken a giant leap forward in my writing career. Rather, I feel like I have taken a small step.

On the other hand, maybe I’m being selfish in my disappointment. Sure, I don’t have a New York agent and $100,000, but I have a good editor who gets what I’m trying to do. I even got to give input on my cover art. And, unlike those going the self-publishing route, they’re paying me. Do I really have a right to feel down because I’m at a company that turns down 80% of their slush instead of 99%?

I suppose I have to remind myself that ultimately, the decision was mine. I do believe in the power and importance of small press, and in the digital age, I think they’re going to be more important than ever. I could have spent four more years honing my art and hoping to take things to the next level, and maybe I would, one day, see my work in print at a large house. But this way, I will have some nicely bound copies of my book and the chance to try my luck in the Kindle and Nook stores.

So what if a few dozen agents thought that either I wasn’t ready for the world or the world wasn’t ready for me? Maybe it’s time to let the world decide. If nothing else, I’m going to have an advance that will buy me a nice bottle of wine.

Columbia Crest H3 Merlot 2008

I haven’t written about a wine for a while, not because I haven’t been drinking them, but because I haven’t been drinking much that was new.

H3 or Horse Heaven Hills 2008 is a lush, smooth Merlot, well rounded for it’s age. The nose is mild with blackberries and a hint of something earthier. The texture is smooth and lush with no discernible hint of tannin. The blackberry/raspberry carries through, maybe adding a hint of cherry. The berry mix continues into the finish which is understated, but surprises with its longevity.

The most endearing quality of this wine is drinkabiliy. While it is not overly challenging, it holds a nice complexity which keeps my interest. It might not be a must-have, but it is definitely nice for a change.

Teeth

I’m sitting in my office, trying to focus on my work, but all I can think about is the dentist appointment I have coming in 2 hours.

I’ve become so obsessed with what’s about to happen with my teeth, that I’m listening to the Lady Gaga song “Teeth” to try to get it unstuck from my head.

The other thing passing through my head is, “What would my character be doing right now if he had a dentist appointment?” Whatever it is, I’m sure it would break the pacing.

However, there’s something to be said about environmental factors adding additional tension to characters. We all have tensions in our lives: bills to pay, an office bully, the sudden discovery of a meth lab in the garden shed. These types of tension can be much more real to a reader than the march of imminent death.

Until next time, and do try to floss.

Conventions

This weekend, I attended ICON, the Iowa Science Fiction convention organized by the Mindbridge organization.

I used to eschew Science Fiction conventions, believing them to be the havens of the stereotypical, unwashed fanboys. However, when I became a little more serious about my writing, I decided that I needed to at least check one out.

I’m not going to lie. There are fanboys, but a surprising few have hygiene issues. A much higher percentage have minor socialization issues, which can take a bit of getting used to.

However, in addition to under-socialized fanboys, you can talk to world-class authors. In the three years I’ve attended ICON, the guests of honor have been Jim C. Hines, Cory Doctorow, and Jane Yolen. In addition, I have attended panels with Glen Cook, Mickey Zucker Reichert, and Joe Haldeman. Mickey Zucker Reichart even taught a writing workshop, although we didn’t see eye to eye on humor, or sentence length, or using a conversational style, or in fact, pretty much anything at all. (Don’t get me wrong, she’s a super-smart lady, and she’s a dedicated teacher. She was just unprepared for what I spread across the page.)

In addition to getting to learn from, and bask in the presence of, famous authors, there is a nice opportunity for networking. After attending a few ICONs and DEMICONS (the Des Moines convention) I probably know a good number of the people running small presses in Iowa. “Knowing someone” is no substitute for having a good book, but it may be what makes someone take a second look at your undiscovered good book.