Monday is October 18th of my Cosmic Calendar Life

Tags

, ,

Writing is one of the few professions where staring off into space is part of the job description.

My mind invariably wanders to strange places, asks patently odd-ball questions, and searches for even odder answers. The “What if” game is one of my favorites, and is often the springboard to quirky offerings.

A writer’s mind journeys to places others do not often travel. How many people do you know contemplate what motivates a person to act the way they do, the myriad of possible reactions to a single action, act through a scene to clear up a character’s performance, or study the why’s of how things are and their origins?

These wanderings are a writer’s playground.

The other day my “staring into space” followed an unexpected path:

I thought of the Cosmic Calendar I heard about years ago. Like many tendrils slithering through my mind, I didn’t remember exactly what it was, only the name.

Research followed (as it invariably does), and I found that famed writer and scientist Carl Sagan popularized the Cosmic Calendar in his book, The Dragons of Eden, published in 1977, and on his TV series of the time, Cosmos.

It seems that some scientists also contemplate weird thoughts.

So, what is the Cosmic Calendar?

Sagan superimposed the chronology of the universe (beginning at 13.8 billion years ago) on a one year calendar; the graphic above shows a few main events. Interesting epochs were revealed—here’s a sampling of when events occurred according to Sagan’s calendar:

Jan. 1 –Big Bang (or creation, if you choose)
Mar. 16–Milky Way Galaxy formed
Sept. 2–Formation of solar system
Sept. 6–Oldest rocks known on earth
Dec. 25–Dinosaurs
Dec. 30–Dinosaur extinction; mammals take over.
Dec 31 (at 22:34 / 10:34 PM) — Primitive humans and stone tools (barely made it, eh?)
1.2 seconds ago–Columbus arrives in America.

Here comes my What if:

I determined a person’s life at 80 years (as a starting point). Dividing a 365 day year (I eliminated the ¼ day for simplicity) by 80 years (average lifespan), I found each “year” of one’s life equaled 4.5625 days on a person’s Cosmic Calendar.

Weird, huh?

Using this mathematical formula, I realized that my birthday (which I share with JK Rowling and Harry Potter) this year will be the October 18th of my Cosmic Life Calendar. Damn . . . or as some people would have said back in the 1970’s, “That’s cosmic, man.”

We are all born, we all die, and in between we live our Cosmic Calendar. Of course there is no guarantee any of us will see 80 years (both my parents passed at 72), but it’s a place to start, like a first draft ready to be edited or an outline forming the foundation of a novel idea.

Recently I perused a few of my writing folders (snippets, short story ideas, etc.) and saw decent entries I jotted down with the plan to return to and expand them into a complete idea. I sat back, stunned—some which I thought were penned a few months ago range back 3 years—12+ days on my Cosmic Calendar!

Understanding that I’m currently in the middle of October (nights are getting colder, old joints creaking a bit more), I again remind myself the importance of prioritizing not only my writing, but my life . . . which brings me to the conclusion of this post.

My daughter, Janiene, and son-in-law, Abraham, are visiting from out of town. Linda and I will be spending time with them today, utilizing a portion of our Cosmic Calendar with the all-important family. As a side note, today is June 22nd of Janiene’s Cosmic Calendar—Abraham is a few days further into the summer.

What is the date on your Calendar, and how will you spend it?

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Daring Do’s and Dangerous Dont’s

Tags

, , ,

As writers, we must stretch beyond our comfort zones, learn new aspects of the craft, implement the new knowledge, and rework sentences until they serenade our inner ear.

We must be Daring

Write something completely different from your norm: try dialogue using dialect without changin’ and wranglin’ the language; if you write macho-man sword-and-sandal pulp fiction, craft a tender romance where vulnerabilities keep a destined couple apart; romance writers can learn a great deal developing relationships in deep space.

Take sentences, the building blocks of prose, and twist them this way or that: beginning a sentence with a gerund can brighten necessary focus; articulating something in a sentence by setting it off with commas, like this, changes the entire tempo in the reader’s mind; experiment with colons and semi-colons, ellipsis . . . dashes even—each changes the pace and sentence focal point.

Have fun—it will prove profitable and time well spent.

Writing fantasy, many of my sentences flow long, use descriptive modifiers and parenthetical phrases, so I decided to write a story lacking those attributes—instead, short and pithy. The flash fiction story, “Boys ‘N Berries,” is now making the rounds. I learned a great many things during the process, some of which I will weave into future writings.

Beware the Dangerous Don’ts

All writers have reached a certain skill level. It’s impossible to know on what rung of the publishing ladder you now reside, or the untold number of rungs that lay before you.

Gee, Rick, thanks; that really helps (sigh).

There is a mystery to the writing craft no one can solve, a question all writers ask themselves, their agents (if lucky enough to have one), and their writing partners: How talented am I? Put another way, “Do I have what it takes?” The problem is the question itself.

Talent is weighed and diced into a million different pieces, and it depends on the audience, whether one or a thousand.

Talent and skill perception are arbitrary, and in the end, only an opinion.

The first Dangerous Don’t is asking the question in the first place. One could call it mental masturbation: editors and readers will determine your skill and the value of your stories. Your job is to write.

Write and your skill level improves, and thereby, you climb the talent ladder. How could it be any other way? The more you do something, the better you become—this is a natural progression.

The second (and nearly as important) Dangerous Don’t is attempting more than your capabilities.

I know, this post began by encouraging you to stretch and attempt writing in ways and types unfamiliar, and I stand by that.

Let me explain the concept of avoiding projects you are not yet capable of undertaking:

Most fiction writers begin writing short stories. The reason short stories are the first choice is because one can dash off a short story first draft in a few hours or a day compared to months (even years) it takes to create a 70,000 to 100,000 word novel.

A short story follows a single character (normally) and a pretty straight-line plot path. Even the simplest novel involves numerous characters, perhaps multiple POV’s, and a central plot underscored by any number of sub-plots depending on the complexity determined by the writer’s wishes.

This is daunting. My advice: don’t plunge into a fully developed novel until you have written a dozen or more short stories.

Writing short stories teaches brevity as every word must have a bearing on the character, plot, or theme—there is no space to meander from the chosen path like a novel can allow. (Some would say you should not “meander” in a novel either, but there is more room to take a side trail and make it pertinent to one of the novel’s plot paths).

Third Dangerous Don’t: don’t plunge into an idea without determining the costs

I have a novel idea deemed viable (see my post on determining writing projects) that is currently beyond both my skill and time requirements.

The story is a YA fantasy novel set in the ancient Mayan culture that thrived (and mysteriously disappeared) in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula.

Having started the preliminary research, and despite a semi-complete outline, I realize at this time, the project is beyond my means.

Working full-time, I do not have the resources required to immerse myself into the research and writing necessary to complete such a project. An excuse? No, a reality.

That does not mean I ignore the idea; the idea simmers in my subconscious, and on occasion I scratch the research surface and jot notes toward a future when I will delve into such a complex and research-heavy project. Understanding that now is not the time is as important as knowing when a story has percolated long enough so the idea can be successful.

The Fourth Dangerous Don’t

Banish the critic that resides in all of us. The critic is a tempter, brow-beater, and thug. My friend, Richard Weir, wrote a terrific post dealing with the problems writers face when allowing the critic a foothold that quickly metamorphoses into a stranglehold. You can find the post here.

Why are the four Don’ts dangerous?

Time is every writer’s adversary: each of the four Don’ts involve wasting precious time.

Calculate your strengths, your weaknesses, use your abilities in the best way possible, and write. Experimentation conjures its own reward, but don’t undertake a project that is beyond your current capabilities or time allowance; only heartache will follow.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Fear and Loathing of the Writer Self

Tags

,

The writer “me” wrestles with fear and loathing. The analytical “me” tells the writer “me” he’s an idiot and shut up. Both have valid points; I ignore them and write. One word after another, “enter” button to the next paragraph, there we go . . . .

The accumulative “we” are plagued with doubts, thrashed by rejection, and harried by the many duties required to be writers in the modern world: write, edit, post, respond, research, follow, send, wait, research some more, wait some more, all the while writing every day and dripping sweat onto our keyboards.

Writing is a wonderful thing.

One person appreciates what you agonized over, so who cares that no-good editor sent you a form rejection? Place that rejection in your collection-of-rejection file, send the story to the next market on your list—that reader might be the one to give your life’s work credence. Hope: Keep it, Embrace it.

Write

Only you can tell the stories you have to tell. Oh, sure, learn the craft, study published authors, every day add new knowledge to your masterpiece. That’s how it should be.

Write

It’s as simple as that. Not quite, eh? What’s the problem? Time and responsibilities got you down? Does “What do I Write About” haunt you? Vow to never grow stagnant. Create something outside your field of interest, your genre, and experiment.

You see, it does not matter what you write, only that you do. Writing is what matters, and the prose can be anything other than a grocery list.  Butt in the seat, fingers on the keyboard, thoughts transcribed in front of you. The crux of writing is writing. Can I be any clearer?

I understand it’s infinitely easier to sit on the porch sipping lemon aide, dreaming of being a writer and going to book signings, being lauded as the next great novelist.

I once dreamed of playing guitar. I never owned one, didn’t practice, took no courses to learn music.

At one point I wanted to be an artist, but I can’t draw a straight line with a ruler. I never practiced other than scratching out one-dimensional stick men.

Dreams, mists, nothing more.

Is that what writing is to you? I will be blunt: if that is your attitude, if washing your hair takes priority over ironing out a plot problem or further developing a character, you are not a fiction writer.

It’s okay to not be a writer, just as it’s okay to not be a chef.

For me, writing satisfies a yearning and passion—it nurtures my soul. It may not be for you, and that’s okay.

But if the passion boils in you, simmers in a constant stew of writing thoughts, discard the negative as you would an old toothbrush—no regrets. Then please, please reach out to the keyboard or pad of paper and write. Create your dreams, and then share them with the rest of us.

The fear and loathing may huddle in the shadows, but at least your dreams will be a tangible reality—nobody can take that away from you, and perhaps the next editor on your list will hoist your by-line for the world to see.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Writer’s Block is a Myth

Tags

, , ,

(To celebrate Knights of Writ’s 100th blog post, I offer this lie-buster)

Every week of every year writers compose articles and blogs about how to defeat the dreaded Writers Block. Each is a lie—Writer’s Block does not exist.

“Wait,” you cry out, “I’ve stared at the blank page for hours, paced the room, succumbed to a shot of Jack Daniels to loosen the thoughts. Nothing works.”

Before you scoff and click away—jettisoned to the next article entitled “Defeating Writer’s Block the Last Time,”—realize this: claiming Writer’s Block is only an excuse to not write.

You have bought the lie, and the price is a heavy burden indeed . . . inactivity.

Writer’s Block has grown to legendary status among writers (and by those composing articles to perpetrate the lie) and is a fodder field of articles entitled, “8 Ways to Guarantee You Don’t Get Writer’s Block,” or “10 Ways to Avoid Writer’s Block.” A recent Writer’s Digest Magazine published three articles under the umbrella heading, “Beating Writer’s Block.”

Although many articles about Writer’s Block contain nifty exercises or prompts to help creativity, their assumption is misplaced.

Why? Because writers have bought into the existence of the dragon.

The reason you feel gripped by Writer’s Block is simple—you have limited your options.

A well-known anecdote about Isaac Asimov explains how he had several typewriters in his office—this is in the 1940’s and 50’s before computers—each with a different writing project. When one did not shake his world, he went to another and worked. He explained the mind needs excitement and becomes weary when working day after day on the same subject.

Professional writers create whether or not they are “in the mood.” Does a doctor only operate when he’s in-the-mood, a lawyer defend when the mood suits them? Have you ever heard of a plumber’s block, or a longshoreman’s block, or a bartender’s block (heaven forbid!)? None exist; neither does Writer’s Block.

Writer’s Block is an imaginary entity we give credence. Perhaps it is our way of dealing with terror or maybe a self-worth issue. Although that may be the case, I usually find writers bemoan the “Block” when their work encompasses too few options.

So entranced and focused on a minimum of choices, a writer rolls over and over the same information, trying to fix the same problem, come up with the right idea, when all that’s needed is to let the subconscious sort it all out.

Writer’s Block is caused by an over-simplified expectation: you are ready to work on this particular project right now. Sorry, it doesn’t always work that way.

Often it does, and that’s when you stream through the story, fingers a blur, white spaced fill with squiggly black letters. Other times you have to take a deep breath, open a new folder, and work on a different project.

I have 5 books (3 fiction and 2 non-fiction) in varied degrees of completion, 5 times that many short stories, a dozen article ideas, 18 blog topics I wish to pursue—when I’m not tuned with a particular one, I find another.

I have a couple projects I work on most every day, but if I run into a wall for some reason, I have others to fall back to until I’m ready to re-tackle the primary item.

The point is this: writing every day is a given, and we must be ready to improvise and juggle when something goes awry, ie., when a specific piece of writing needs more simmer time.

This is a natural process, not a Block, writer or otherwise.

We must not give the Myth wings and let it carry away our sensibilities. It’s time to refuse to go along for the ride; instead, open another folder and work on a different project. In the end you will find you complete more, and in the process, improve your skills.

As a last word on the subject, I turn to Stephen King: “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just sit down and get to work.”

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

 

How To Determine If An Idea Warrants The Investment

Tags

, ,

An idea wakes you up. Stumbling to where a notebook and pen wait—no time for the computer to boot before the idea evaporates—you scrawl in a half-asleep daze.

Perhaps an idea pops into your head during a walk (or any of a thousand instances—why is it always when I’m in the shower?) and you scratch it out on anything handy. It’s not perfect, you know, just a seed of the “greatest damn idea you’ve ever had.”

Take a deep breath.

Ideas streak through your mind many times every day, but not all are worthy of a story or novel. It doesn’t matter; write them down anyway. Testing ideas to ensure they are worthy of the time needed to mold them into a completed project is the next crucial step. Not all ideas, no matter how great they at first appear, are worthy.

Writing projects take time. Validating an idea worthy of a novel, especially, can save months of gut-wrenching agony when you realize, at page 201, the story has no destination.

Due Diligence

My wife and I have owned and operated several businesses. We approached starting or purchasing a business with a set of tough questions geared to making the best decision based on information available at the time: This is referred to as Due Diligence.

Determining whether a writing project is worthy incorporates a similar Due Diligence process, which includes answering questions about the Costs, the Value, and the Expectations.

The Costs

The cost of writing is the approximate time required to complete a project. Unlike a business (whether online or brick-and-mortar) where tangibles exist—wages, taxes, equipment, travel time, rent, luring potential customers—writing has its own set of rules.

For me, a blog post takes between 2-4 hours; a short story may take a month or two; I calculate writing a novel at 1 year. Each of these approximates include several drafts and many edits.

The cost of writing invariably falls to time. How much time you set aside each day dictates output. 500 words a day equals 15,000 words a month—2 to 4 short stories (more if Flash Fiction), 8-12 blog posts, or 20% of a 75,000 word novel. Considering most writers have numerous projects in the works simultaneously, monthly completion is combined across varied projects.

Prioritizing the ideas comes when you have determined the worthiness of each project.

Value

Valuating a story or novel idea gets dicey. A great deal of thought is required to estimate if the seed idea is worth pursing to completion, not to mention the emotional upheaval caused when things don’t go right.

The idea must have great value to you, first and foremost. Taking an idea and transforming it into a full-fledged story will become an integral part of your life; you live with the characters, become them, anguish with them, and share in their joys. Many craft issues will also present themselves over the course of creation.

As best you can (and this is difficult), at this point remove emotion from the equation.

Secondly, the story must have value for your reader. Is the story unique? Are the characters’ lives intriguing and their goals reasonable to pursue?  Must the story be told?

Answering these questions enhances your decision of whether to proceed.

Expectation

Expectation starts with completing the story. Why else begin if you don’t plan to finish?

A caveat: No matter how much the Due Diligence convinces you to write a story, some languish in spite of your best efforts. At some point—hopefully not on page 201 of the novel—you realize the story has not gestated enough. That’s fine, and it’s okay to put it aside a while longer to allow your subconscious to figure out the rough spots. Regardless, the plan is to finish the story at some point. I have dozens of ideas awaiting my attention when my subconscious informs me the story is ready to continue.

If you plan to sell the story, whether to a magazine editor, agent, or publisher, is the idea fresh enough and the writing strong enough to withstand the scrutiny? This is a hazy gray area.

Less than perfect stories sell all the time, even dreadful stories make it past an editor’s icy glare. There is no accounting for taste, and that is true within the publishing world as anywhere else.

If your desire is to publish, especially in the traditional sense where somebody pays for your writing, several things can be done to improve your odds: beta readers, critique groups, a professional editing, etc.

Whether seeking the traditional path or self publishing, write the best you are able, compose a story only you can tell, and finish it. First Draft, editing, Second Draft, editing—repeat until the story satisfies the best you can do.

Some ideas demand to be written—they consume you. When this happens, forget the Due Diligence and write: evaluation can come later. When in the throes of the electric creative energy, get it down on paper. The story will not be complete at this point, but writing as much as possible makes the evaluation process easier, and in the long run is the best course of action.

No amount of planning guarantees success; too many variables can occur to derail even the greatest of ideas. But determining that an idea is worthy of the investment is the only way to tilt the pendulum in your favor.

In the end, you must believe in the idea with every fiber. Yes, there will be roadblocks, setbacks, and push-backs, and only your complete confidence in the idea will enable you to leap past the many hurdles toward your goal.

If there are no hurdles in your life, you are not running the race.

When the story or novel is the best you can do at this point in your career, send it to an editor or agent. A Writer writes, an author submits.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

3 Disparaging and Harmful Writing Trends

Tags

, ,

Copywriting (writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing) has seeped into the mainstream, and its frequency is harming literature.

Inaccurate and blatantly false information repeated enough times often becomes “truth.” Urban legends are examples, as are quotes attributed to the wrong person. Bad grammar can be added to the list.

Last year I wrote a series of posts on Don’t Believe What THEY Say about writing rules and when to break them. The main thrust was that if a writer knows the rules, and has good reason, the “rules” become “guidelines” and can effectively be ignored. Has Good Reason remains the crucial point.

The First Trend: Many Get it Wrong, Period.

Lately I have noticed the “period”—and comma, for that matter—is not getting the respect it deserves, often an afterthought rather than fulfilling its basic function. This type of punctuation is unfortunately becoming commonplace:

Dan said, “I don’t know anything about it”.

The period must be within the quote for clarity, not outside as a forgotten cousin.

From a blog post:

Do not ask for permission. In other words, do not say anything like “it seems to me”, “in my opinion”.

Instead of disregarding the above examples as written by inexperienced or amateur writers, what follows is an article’s opening paragraph from a trusted and long-standing professional publication.

Newsweek Mon, Jun 5 5:00 AM PDT

The countries have accused Qatar of embracing “multiple terrorist and sectarian groups”. Qatar has called this move “unjustified”, claiming the accusations have “no basis in fact”.

Are there no editors at Newsweek? The three errors—each the same type—are glaring examples of poor punctuation, and thereby, bad writing. In each case, the writing is easily corrected by placing the comma or period within the quotations.

Why does it matter? “Oh, Rick,” you say, “you’re just a Grammar Nazi.” I don’t think so.

Whenever writing stops the reader, credibility is harmed, both to the writer and the topic.

From Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Typographical usage dictates that the comma be inside the marks . . .”

The example the “Little Book” uses:

“The Fish,” “Poetry,” and “The Monkeys” are in Marianne Moore’s Selected Poems.

Clarity for the reader is paramount; without clarity, readers turn away from the writing. A reader prematurely leaving our stories is not what we want.

Second Trend: Even Favorite Authors Disappoint

Jim Butcher is a favorite fantasy writer and best-selling author; his Alera series is a fine example of multi-viewpoint epic fantasy—some of his concepts border on genius.

Yet, his recent writing has left me underwhelmed. Although the story itself piques my interest by its uniqueness, and much of the characterization is finely tuned, poor grammar has halted my reading several times—writing that “stops” a reader, thereby pulling them from the illusion of disbelief, is salt poured on an open wound.

The use of exclamation points from The Aeronaut’s Windlass:

“Creedy!” Grimm called as he made his way over the mist-shrouded gangplank from the airship dock in the Fleet shipyard atop Spire Albion, and onto Predator. “With me!”

Captain on deck!” called Kettle, down in the hold. “Mister Creedy to the deck!”

When a character “calls” or “yells” or “screams,” an exclamation point is, well, pointless: one or the other is correct, though I would declare using four exclamation points—twice coupled with “called”—in four sentences effectively detracts from the importance of the story’s action.

There’s also the problem of five prepositional phrases strung together (over, from, in, atop, onto) in a single sentence, but I won’t delve into that here.

Whether lazy writing or poor editing, or perhaps both as the book was rushed to publication, there are no excuses for ineffectual grammar that stops the reader.

More on using exclamation points here:

Third Trend: Fragments Without Purpose

A recent headline:

Henry Cavill has the cutest giant dog and we. must. pet.

I know writers who love and frequently use fragments. Fragments are effective tools when the writer wants to emphasize a particular point or speed a story’s pace, and is especially telling when used within dialogue.

Taking the last part of the prior sentence, writing as, “. . . and is especially telling when. used. within. dialogue,” is simply poor writing.

Don’t do it.

Don’t do it is more effective than don’t. do. it.

Strive to be a better writer than what passes for current trends.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Critique Meat

Tags

, ,

The critique goal is to improve your writing and editing skills; the fall-out is helping another writer do the same.

As writers, we understand noun and pronoun usage, plot movement, character arc, overstating, under-explaining, but they are at times hard to gauge in our own stories. Am I telling the reader what they need to know, or too much? Enough description or does the particular paragraph border on purple prose? How and when should I emphasize an important point to make sure readers do not miss it?

These are the more difficult things to know. Readers will pick up on different nuances depending on their skill (and yours), and some will be missed. So be it—I do not recommend writing to the lowest common denominator. Still, we writers must be cognizant of the reader with each word choice, every sentence, and the order delivered.

James’s critique of my novel surprised me in what he noticed, and alternatively, a couple items he missed . . . or did he? Will a foreshadowing seed hinted in the early part of the book bear fruit when he arrives at the fulfillment? Some items remain to be seen. Just because he did not mention a particular hint does not mean the seed did not get filed away to sprout at a future time in the novel. I wait to see if I succeeded or vagueness undermined me.

Critiquing involves a slew of issues (contextual, logistical, rational), but the most helpful is the sentence and phrasing missteps a fellow writer will see that the creator missed—the “Meat” of improving your writing.

The following items from his critique point to the common things we know as writers but still miss when editing our own writing. I will comment as necessary. James pointing out the flaws magnifies the need for me to improve my editing skills—again, one of the main reasons for finding an honest critique partner.

Readers can and do put aside some logistical issues demonstrated by readers who have “studied” the Harry Potter books—what they won’t forgive is poor writing.

What follows are examples of poor writing James found in my manuscript: some work as originally written, others need improvement, and others are just bad.

Examples

Set-up: Aban is my protagonist’s mount. At this point my MC is taking a seriously injured comrade to a healer.

Example: Aban dashed, smooth and sure through the narrow pass, across the bridge to Nychelle’s Gate where sentries yelled for him to stop, closed gates forcing him to do so.

James’ comment: This would carry a little more urgency broken up. eg., “Aban dashed through the narrow pass and across the bridge. The gates were closed. Sentries yelled for them to stop.”

Urgency is an important ingredient.

Next sentence: The gate swung outward.

James’ comment: Needs a small beat there. “There was a pause (tension), then the gate swung outward.”

Tension is good.

Example: “Tristyn’s allegiance is critical to any success of defeating the King.”

James’ comment: omit “any success of.”

Yes, cut unnecessary words.

Example: “Winter will be upon us, and we need to get a base camp to work from.”

James’ comment: Omit “to get.”

Again, cut unnecessary words. I might even shorten it further and remove to work from.

Example: Her face grew hopeful, he thought. “We should travel together.”

James’ comment: Filtering. Just “her face grew hopeful” tells us that he is thinking it.

Overwriting, check; one of my flaws where special attention is needed. This is a good reminder.

Example: The trainer turned when he rode up, and Aban slowed to a gentle stop beside her. He nodded in greeting.

James’ comment: Name who nodded (the MC). The last “he” was Aban.

My take: Actually, the last “he” referenced my MC, but there remains ambiguity as to who nodded.

Correct noun-pronoun mix-up.

The listed examples involve inferior phraseology, items that can and should—for the most part—be corrected. There are more. Some are embarrassing.

Letting others read your writing opens a chest of concerns and fears. These are normal emotions, ones you can use in your own writing to enliven characters into the minds and hearts of your reader. Study the feelings, the how’s and why’s, the circumstances causing the emotions to better understand yourself and others—and just as important, the people living in your stories.

Writing is growing, and as creators we must continue to learn and improve. Critiquing is a good tool to help on the path of becoming a better writer. I encourage you to find a critique partner, and together, both of you can evolve into the writers you are meant to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

 

 

The Art of Critique: Foundation

Tags

, ,

Since last week’s post, James and I returned our critiques to their rightful owners.

Again, I learned a great deal about my writing—and how to improve it—from James’s astute observations. Specific lessons will come in a future post: first, it’s important to lay the foundation and explain the processes which have proven most effective both to the writer and the one critiquing.

Expectations

A critique is not a review. Whereas a review explores the general sense of a story or novel, a critique concentrates on the inner workings, the how’s and why’s a particular piece works or not. Consider it this way:

You want to sell your family vehicle, so you pen a description:

1971 VW Camper Van, sleeps 4, a lot of storage, roof rack, kitchenette table.

That’s the review—general and vague.

The critique may go something like this, with pictures:

1971 VW Camper Van, only 10k on rebuilt engine, runs great, new battery and alternator, recently tuned up with oil change, 5 like-new tires, tow hitch.

In the literary sense, a review deals with the reviewer’s opinion if you should read the story or novel, whereas a critique considers the “particulars,” the nuts and bolts of prose and purpose.

The job of the critique is not the same as that of an editor, though there may exist an overlap. Nor is a critique what you would ask of a Beta Reader—more like the reviewer mentioned earlier, except without the goal to convince an audience either way.

A critique is not criticism, even though each is derived from the same root word: criticism is most often thought to be negative (though not necessarily), whereas a critique is affected by an attitude of assistance.

The creator may “feel” items pointed out are negative, but should refrain from an emotional attachment. Instead, face suggestions within an analytical framework—the point of critiquing (like self-editing) and being critiqued, deals with the separation of the two mindsets. It takes practice to improve.

Nonetheless, know this at the outset: being critiqued is rejection’s first cousin.

Critiques hurt. At times it resembles having your heart broken, complete with phases of embarrassment, anger, confusion, and doubt. The pain eases in time, and if we learn from the experience, we can become better writers, better lovers and partners, and the pain is substantiated by improved future endeavors.

James Scott Bell, when referencing how to handle rejection, says to put on the Rhino Skin. Don’t allow the pain to conquer the will to write, to improve, to reach the maximum level of your abilities. By donning the Rhino Skin, you give yourself a gift—the ability to learn.

Approach

Honesty is key: gentle, never harsh. Praise where a description works or a good bit of characterization helps influence the protagonist’s motives and goals; conversely, correcting poor grammar, a disruptive verb tense, or pointing out a viewpoint switch is part of the critiquing purpose, and thoughtful suggestions assist the writer.

When I get a portion of James’s novel, I read it through to get the story flow. Only brief notes about plot questions initially concern me.

Secondly I go through the entire manuscript word-by-word, line-by-line, correcting grammatical and contextual errors. This process is the meat and potatoes of the critique, and the phase taking the most time. I estimate to properly critique 30,000 words takes between 4-6 hours.

It is time well spent.

The third stage incorporates both the first two by editing individual notes I made to guarantee suggestions are clear and concise, and that I am not nit-picking.

Not nit-picking is a matter of attitude, one that needs to be approached with care. Remember that in the same way you agonize over word choice and syntax in your writing, so does the person whose story you are helping improve. Here I would add that it’s unwise to critique a first draft, that too-raw version.

When I finish the three phases of the critique, I write a synopsis of what worked and what didn’t as a whole. Rather than pointing out each passive verb, I highlight a few in the manuscript and then comment in the synopsis what I viewed as an overuse of passive voice (or repeated phrases, words, etc.). In this way, I concentrate on problems of tension (or lack thereof), awkward phraseology, or the use of nouns and pronouns to improve the story’s readability.

Writing, and therefore critiquing, requires discipline and a focus on the rules of the craft, but each writer has their own style and voice. As the one performing the critique, take care to not attack the intended voice.

A critiques’ purpose is to help the writer improve; there is no place for ego or the black and white of right and wrong. You will not correct all the things mentioned in your manuscript, nor will they.

You have undertaken this task to help the writer concentrate on what you perceive as shortcomings—phrases that stopped you or did not seem consistent with the rest of the prose— and to improve your own editing skills.

A word of caution: Do not undertake to critique a writing style or genre you are unfamiliar with; this does an injustice to the writer, and you want more for them.

Next post will detail a few specific suggestions James made to my manuscript.

See you on the next page,

Rick

As promised, here are a few links to critique groups.

http://sff.onlinewritingworkshop.com
http://www.fantasy-writers.org/
http://www.critiquecircle.com/
http://www.writing-world.com/links/critique.shtml

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

Critiquing Another Writer Will Improve Your Skills

Tags

,

Critiquing another writer is a fabulous tool to improve your own prose. In order to embrace the responsibility of assisting another (and likewise releasing your creation to someone you do not know well), you must step from the solitary cave where all writers do their best work. The experience, though at times numbing, can be a great benefit for a number of reasons.

Writers tend to make similar mistakes and exhibit the same flaws and weaknesses; seeing errors in other’s writing illuminates some of those same mistakes in your own.

Critiquing, like self-editing, requires a different mind-set than creation, a sterner attitude requiring development and conscious attention to detail.

Talking with dozens of writers about “judging” another writer’s work (an inaccurate description, by the way) the topic is one task many dread, and thereby avoid, often because of fear they lack the skill or don’t want to hurt feelings. Understandable, yes, but like most writers’ fears—rejection, question of being good enough, etc.—overcoming them pays huge dividends. Simply, critiquing another enables you to better edit your own writing.

Whereas creation is fueled by a driving emotion, critiquing (editing) is powered by the analytical portion of the brain. Learning to better critique another transforms self-editing from agonizing to productive as you prime your brain to look for certain aspects—verb tense, active vs. passive, viewpoint switches, logistical inconsistencies, and a host of others—to repair your own creation.

Writer’s Groups and Clubs can be counter-productive, but at times can be helpful—it’s a matter of attitude. Whether within a group or matched to an individual, there should be a spirit of cooperation with one-upmanship banished to the cold outdoors.

When in one writer’s group—in which we exchanged short stories to be critiqued—another writer pointed out a market for my story I had not considered: that story, “The Accomplice,” sold to Women’s World for $500, but more importantly, a by-line in a magazine with several million readers. I am forever grateful to the fellow writer who encouraged me to submit the story.

Here, though, I want to focus on one-on-one critiquing, and finding a suitable counterpart is imperative. I was fortunate in that regard.

James and I met while walking our dogs at the local park. Soon into our conversation we discovered we are both writers. James writes speculative fiction, so do I; his novel is completed, as is mine; we both wrote from multi-viewpoints, third person past tense; both our main protagonists are immortal. The writing god’s lightning rod struck us both—too much to be coincidence.

One of those instances when the palm of fate’s hand smacks you upside the head.

Before long we agreed to read each others novels. A bit more talk and we decided to critique with the goal to improve our tales, and thus, make them more marketable in our particular sub-genres—his novel is a sci-fi/steampunk, mine is heroic fantasy.

The process began roughly six months ago. We met several times at a local pub to discuss, among other things, our hopes and expectations the budding relationship would unveil.

We discussed the overall process, and after some thoughtful and respectful debate, decided on a line-by-line edit. We also decided to pay close attention to character, plot development, inconsistencies, and general problem areas.

Currently I am critiquing his first 5 chapters, and he holds the second quarter of my novel.

The relationship has been profitable on multiple levels, though not in a monetary way—yet.

I have stated it before: No Writer is an Island. That has once again been proven during the critiquing process.

James and I have far different styles and voices (mine is more flowing with descriptive language—per my selected genre–and James’s is short and pithy with a great deal of action), but it matters little. There are, after all, many ways to tell a story.

Next post will describe the many lessons I’ve learned during our critique efforts, and a few pointers on how to be more effective when working with other writers. I’ll also add links to online critique groups.

The process is all about improving, remember, both your writing and others, so step from your cave and reach out—your courage will make you stronger.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.

When Life Gets in The Way

Tags

,

My wife’s recent and serious medical issues caused a downshift to writing. Time slipped away between caring for Linda, our animals (including proxy ownership of a rescue puppy), preparing meals, and the Eight Hour Grind of earning wages.

Reminded by a friend of the John Lennon quote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans,” I did what I could, wrote in scraps of time when opportunity presented itself, because, after all, I must write to ward off the insanity threatening to creep in and devour me.

(Interestingly, during my research, I learned the John Lennon quote is not his at all, but first appeared in the January, 1957, Reader’s Digest Quotable Quotes section, penned by Allen Saunders:

“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
—Publishers Syndicate).

Sitting down and concentrating on creation proved a luxury beyond my means. I still made notes, jotted down ideas for future writing and posts, but the ability to complete a piece of writing (even a story scene) evaded me beyond the regretfully inconsistent Knights of Writ posts. Although meager in number this year (medical issues started on New Year’s Eve), I am grateful for the Blog and the many followers who helped keep me going.

Lack of writing is not and was not Writer’s Block, which does not exist (more on this in a future post), but time restraints, pure and simple.

I believe in daily writing goals, be it 500 words or an uninterrupted hour: daily is the operative word. But sometimes life gets in the way.

Regardless of what life throws at you, write when time allots, whether five minutes, a half hour, or 90 seconds to jot a note or observation. And don’t beat yourself up. Regardless of the time you have (or the lack), keep the writing wheels greased, no matter how meager. When the maelstrom abates, you will be prepared, and the mind will not have become a rusty and neglected tool.

While besieged by life, note the feelings bombarding you (anger, despair, helplessness, confusion, etc.) as they are fodder for your characters—your emotions are the best source to enhance the readers’ experience with the people you create.

My mind remained active throughout the ordeal, dodging back and forth between preparing Linda’s medications and observing emotions to imbue into a character. During showers, entire scenes played through my mind, hints of character’s subdued emotions and secrets. Despite not writing at the moment of inspiration, which I encourage whenever possible, even now, weeks later, the impressions are cemented into my subconscious, huddling there for future use. This is as it should be.

As to Linda’s current health, she rebounded with great vigor—as I write, she is gardening—and her condition is now a matter of maintenance. For that I am grateful, and though worrisome while in the throes of tests, doctors, and still more tests, the events and emotions are available for future writing. After all, for writers,

Life is what happens between writing it down.

And now, excuse me while I draw forth one of those too-close-to-home emotions and pour it onto an unsuspecting character. I wonder how they will react?

See you on the next page,

Rick

Sign up to follow Knights of Writ — Fiction Musings, and receive all future posts in your email. SHARE with fellow writers, and as always, comments are encouraged and highly appreciated.