Writing Update: New Projects and Wishing for a Rapid-Response Critique

...More (virtual) red ink...

…More (virtual) red ink…

If you visit my blog more than once every other week or so (my blog stats do not convince me that there are more than maybe a few of you who do, if any), then you may have noticed some activity on the blog’s sidebar; namely: a new project in the Writing Project Progress Update block.

The new project is code-titled “Story of K”, and I’m writing it for a specific market.  (On spec, of course. I wasn’t invited to submit anything. As such, my expectations for it’s future at said market are at a realistically low level; which is not to say I’m not excited and hopeful.)  The market for which I’m writing it has a hard upper-limit of 6,000 words for submissions.  My personal goal was to keep it under 5,000 words.  I overshot both, with a finished first draft of 7,500 words – which I completed in about two weeks.

I actually managed to trim that to 6,400 words on my first edit pass for the second draft.  I’m reading through it again already and I’ve trimmed it further still.

But… as we speak, I still have another 200 words to cut to get it under 6,000 words.  Each consecutive word to cut gets harder and harder to find.

The deadline for this market is the end of August – that is to say, days away.

If there are any of you out there still reading this – and possessed of sufficient bandwidth over the next couple days – who might have a desire to read and critique a story with a very short turn-around, I’d be most grateful.  That’s my fantasy, anyway.  I don’t actually expect any of you out there to have the time to sign on… especially as I’m still in a “can’t make any promises” state about offering return critiques.

So that’s what’s going on.  Naturally, because of this, forward movement on the novel has taken a temporary back-seat.  Likely after I”m done with this I’ll return to revising my other short-story project so I can try to do something with that, too.  Then back to the novel.  For now: the looming question is will I get this downsized enough in time? Stay tuned.


Image Source: “Editing” by Nic McPhee CC-BY-SA (additional photo edits by myself)

Writing Progress: Week Ending July 28, 2012

On the upside… at least I didn’t write nothing:

Book of M:

  • Background Notes Wordcount: 0 words
  • First Draft Wordcount: 271 words

Grand Total: 271 words

There’s a lot of work left to do on the Home Project Phase III, to be sure.  But last week Dear Wife and I were feeling stretched pretty thin, I think.  So I did end up spending some time writing – writing may be work, but these days it’s my primary leisure activity.  That exhaustion continued, but potential writing time was eaten up by working on Home Project stuff through the exhaustion, or collapsing in front of the Olympics, and such.

With the little time I did spend writing, I probably could have written more, if I had been writing new material.  Instead, the weeks of non-writing allowed Editor-Head to kick into gear, and I started thinking about some of the plot holes and problems I’d left in the current draft.  So I was patching holes (and incrementing some of what I’ve written up from First Draft to Second Draft).   That involves more re-reading, finding the best spots to patch holes, adding new material to form the patch and sometimes deleting material that’s incompatible with the patch.

I know I shouldn’t be editing at this stage.  But I feel better about continuing knowing that I’ve fixed some obvious problems with the first draft.

Incidental to this, I’ve been thinking about drafting in a more general sense.   I don’t have a ton of history of completed material to consider in how my drafting process works, or if I have a process in the first place.  But I’m imagining this novel going this way:

  1. Start with the first draft – getting the raw words of the story on the page.
  2. Next comes the author-driven plot-hole clean-up.
  3. The third draft would ostensibly come after an Alpha read, and involve consideration of Alpha reader comments focused especially on the further clean-up of plot holes, story flow, pacing, characterization and other grand-scale details.
  4. The fourth draft, in my mind, would be focused on my use of language; which I believe is in need of some serious polish. This is where I intend to focus on my authorial style, waxing hopefully more poetic and lyrical where possible and where desireable.

After that, who knows?  If I were a lucky writer, I’d have a group of willing Beta readers ready to take a crack at it, who can comment further on my language, story, pacing, etc. to help me gauge how successful my fixes in drafts 3 and 4 were.  But I’m not anticipating that being the case.  As a relatively poor contributor of critiques for my fellow writers (whether of the Alpha or Beta variety), I don’t really feel as though it’s fair for me to keep going back to the well for this.   Not if I’m not able to give as good as I can get.  And right now… I don’t think that I can.  (In fact, in terms of pure fairness, I don’t think I can honestly ask for Alpha readers, so the proposed Third Draft above is a bit of a reach.)  On the plus side?  It’s certainly a feasible idea, however remote, that by the time I’m actually done with my first and second drafts that I’ll be in a better position to supply critiques as well as consume them.

But that’s where my thoughts are as I tinker around second-drafting some parts of “Book of M”.

So how was your week in writing?

Giving Criticism

It’s been a while since I was trying to track down a few folks to give the story I’ve been working on a read and get back some useful criticism to help me improve the story.  I only ever got two readers, but the feedback they gave was pretty useful.  I’m still working through the story, trying to revise the story.  There hasn’t been much noticeable progress this week – what with the project overload going on in class and it being that time of month at work.  Rewriting and revising can be hard work, and it takes a real attention to detail.  It’s attention I just haven’t been able to give my story this week.

And then, almost two weeks ago, now, I get a message from an old high school friend asking if I’d mind giving her YA fantasy manuscript a read and critique.  (As a side note: I’d completely left her out of my mental list of “People I know who are trying to write a fantasy or science fiction novel.  For the record, that list now counts to five, including myself and not including online-only acquaintances.  If even one of us makes it in the traditional publishing world, we’ll be in good and rare company.)  Of course, given my own recent interest in finding reviewers for my short story, I couldn’t very well say “no“.  That’d be a bit unsportsmanlike and a bit hypocritical of me.  That said, I didn’t have a lot of free time between class and work and what-all else is going on in my life.  So, I told her that sure, I could do that, if she didn’t mind the long wait it would take.

So, it’s been nearly two weeks, and I’ve read part of what she sent me to critique.  I’ll spare you the details of my critique – a critique is really a private matter between a reader and a writer (or, if you’re in a writers’ or critiquers’ group, a private matter between the members of the group), and besides which, I’ve only read a very little as yet.  Still, I thought this would be a good time to comment on the protocols of giving criticism, such as I know them (which is not to say that these are universal rules, but this is how I look at criticism).

My first rule, and I expect this from those who critique my own work as well as this being the standard to which I hold my own critiques, is to lead with the positive.  Admittedly, this is a hard rule to follow.  Some stories really are without any merit.  Even so, leading with a positive comment is one of the best ways for the critique to actually take hold in the mind of the writer.  In fact, this rule holds true for all kinds of criticism and review in all walks of life, whether you’re a boss doing a review of your employees, or a parent teaching a child. Starting with a positive, uplifting comment preps the mind of the reviewee to accept the criticism that’s coming.

(Now this doesn’t apply to reviews by professional critics meant for a general audience.  That’s information meant to help a consumer make an informed choice.  I.e. if a movie really sucks, I’d like to know before I spend my hard-earned dollar and a couple hours on it.)

The second thing to keep in mind is this: a reviewer needs to separate the work from the writer.  This is an even harder thing to do than the first rule.  In a recent “Daily Kick” by author David Farland, he had this to say:

Critique the story, not the person. Don’t assume that a character in a story is the author’s mouthpiece. Very often, as authors, we write from the point of view of people who, quite frankly, we find loathsome, particularly when we’re dramatizing problems in society that we dislike.

But this is a problem that runs both ways.  I myself have never taken part of a critique group where strangers gathered to critique one another’s work.  So, in my experience, most of my reviewers have friends and family.  The common thread in reviews from friends and family is that they often avoid any direct criticism, and are filled instead with generalized platitudes.  This is primarily because they don’t want to offend the friend-or-family-member who happens to be an aspiring writer.  It’s well-meaning, but it’s ineffective.  I learned when I was a little younger to make sure I was upfront about what I wanted and needed in a critique.  Any well-adjusted writer or aspiring writer can accept an honest critique of his or her work, even when it’s negative, or else he soon learns to if he’s going to continue writing.  Likewise a reviewer will judge a work on its merits, not on either a pre-existing relationship with the author, nor on preconceived notions about the author.

Which brings me to my final guideline for critiquing: A critique needs to point out the weaknesses in a story and the places where it can be improved, or else it’s of no value to the author.  Ultimately, it’s up to the author to figure out how to address the problems or how to fix it.  But it’s because the author recognizes that he or she wants to improve the story – and that ergo there must be room for improvement – or else he wouldn’t have shopped for a review in the first place!  When I’m writing, my end-goal is to get published.  And for that means I want my work to be as free of weaknesses and shortcomings as possible.  That means grammatical errors, stylistic errors, story, plot, characterization, dialog: the whole gamut.  All of these things are fair game, and I want to know if I miss the mark in any of those areas.

It’s not really possible to write a “perfect”‘ story.  Each reader is going to bring his or her own prejudices and preferences.  Not every story is meant to reach and satisfy every audience, and each audience will have different demands and needs in the stories they want to be told.  But with a good critique, we as writers can learn the things that we need to know to make sure we craft the best tale we possibly can and one that, ultimately, satisfies our first and primary audience: ourselves.

Happy writing.

Short Story Update

I haven’t talked much about my current writing project, of late.  I’d put the short story aside for a while in hopes that I’d get one more critique on it before starting in on major revisions in earnest.  Well, late last week I got that critique in.  So, three total critiques (that is, two critiques plus my wife) isn’t many to go on, but I’ve noticed the emergence of a couple consistent themes. 

Both non-wife reviewers remarked heavily on the world the story takes place on, with generally positive comments in regards to that.  The first reviewer, a friend of mine, explained that he thought there was a lot of unexplored potential in the world I’d set up.  It seemed to me he liked the idea of it, but that I didn’t take it to as deep a level as he’d have liked.  The second reviewer commented that the world was his favorite part of the story, contrasting that with the action at in the final few pages of the story where I spring out all the plot twists.

Frankly, this sentiment was surprising to me.  I didn’t consider that the world I had created was exceptionally original.  It was really the result of a pretty simple formula.  All of my cool ideas, I thought, were in the plot twists I built around this fairly simple central premise.  In fact, I guess, that was my first reviewer’s point: he saw through to the simplicity of the formula, and felt that there was more unexplored depth in that formula than I was using in the story.  Combined with the second reviewer’s contention that the focus of the story ought to be shifted toward this, that suggests that maybe I do need to spend more time developing the world of the story.

But at almost 10,000 words, this piece is already past the length limit of most of the online markets, which effectively cuts them out of my market for this story.  That salability limitation has me a little worried.  I’d planned on the reviews and critiques helping me to cut out some 500 to 1,000 words.  But to follow the advice of my two reviewers, I’m likely going to have to add word count (even if I’m simultaneously taking out stuff that becomes redundant or duplicative).   It’s an interesting challenge.

My first reviewer also mentioned specific weaknesses in characterization and dialog, which I’d mentioned before.  Added to that are the second reviewer’s comments: that there is a minor plot hole that I need to patch, that some of the plot twists near the very end of the story seem a little tacked on and possibly extraneous, that they (the twists) get a little confusing to follow, that one major plot point remains unresolved at the end, and that it all (the conclusion) happens very fast after a fairly leisurely set-up.

So, that’s a bit to chew on.

I only have the two reviews, besides my wife’s comments, so I take them very seriously.  And I’ve been thinking hard about what the common themes are, and how I can address the problems mentioned by both.  For instance, I wonder if the second reviewer’s suggestion that the story focus more on its world is perhaps related to my first reviewer’s comment on the weak characterization.  If the main character of the story, through who’s eyes we interact with this world, doesn’t capture the reader’s interest or keep them emotionally invested, then the twists at the end, which are based on that character’s limited perception, will lack any emotional impact or story-telling value.  It’s also possible that the twists make a dull thud because they aren’t foreshadowed enough.  And considering the number of twists (there are four, by my count) it’s quite probable that I need to take more time to unravel them.  Still, it’s hard to know if I’m on the right track here.  Ultimately I guess I have to go with my gut in how to tell the best story I can.

So, here’s my plan on how I’m going to revise this story.

  1. Strengthen Characterization – I have to create some reason for the reader to become emotionally invested in the main character.  That’s a tall order.  One way to do that, which I’ve been reading about recently (particularly in Dave Farland’s “Daily Kick in the Pants”, incidentally, which you can sign up for on his site, if you’re interested) is to give the character internal conflicts and a duality.  My problem is my main character’s primary internal conflict is essentially resolved before the start of the story, as it’s part of the central premise of the story.   So, I have to give him a current conflict, something that drives him and makes him relatable.
  2. Improve the Foreshadowing – I’d worked hard to try to make sure that the plot twists at the end are logically consistent with the world and story I’d set up.  But it’s pretty clear I didn’t quite get the effect I was intending.  If I’d done my job right, the final twists would be less confusing and more emotionally resonant.  Part of the extra foreshadowing I will have to do will likely have to tie back to the stronger characterization.
  3. Flesh Out the World – The common theme from the two reviews really is that I need to spend more time fleshing out the world the story takes place in.  Suggestions from the first reviewer include more consideration of the ramifications of the central premise of the story. 
  4. Tighten up the Dialog – There are a few spots, in particular, where I realize the story would benefit from me reading the dialog aloud to myself, to hear what it sounds like.  I imagine that I should be able to hear where the speech rhythm is off, or where I word things in ways that most normal people wouldn’t, when speaking.
  5. Revisit the Final Act – Here’s where my challenge really lies.  The first reviewer liked the twists, but felt they lacked the emotional impact they could have had.  The second  reviewer disliked the twists, possibly because they had no emotional impact for him and were just too confusing, or possibly because he just didn’t like them, and was expecting a different sort of conclusion.  I personally kind of feel like the twists are pretty central to the main theme of the story, so I’m banking on the idea that the reason the second reviewer didn’t like them was the former, rather than the latter.  To make it a little less confusing, I’m going to have to give the final act a little more room to unwind itself, and give the main character a little more time to stop and think about “What It All Means©” before rushing like a freight train toward the final conclusion.
  6. Fill the Plot Hole – It’s a fairly minor plot hole, but it ought to be filled.  It revolves around why a character takes one action instead of another, perhaps more logical action at a certain point in the story.  There ought to be some reason why he doesn’t take the ostensibly more logical action.
  7. Resolve the Unresolved – I think it’s okay to leave a few loose threads in a story (or at least, it’s actually kind of important in a novel), but in a short story, to leave such a major thread unresolved is perhaps not a good idea.  Mainly, this thread went unresolved because I’d been indecisive as to what, precisely, actually happened.  I’m okay with ambiguity, but I was frankly nervous about resolving this thread because doing so, and deciding what happened on this particular thread, would entail a lot of extra work, potentially making the story longer.

 I have other options to consider as well.  If the world of this story is really as interesting as both reviewers suggest, it makes me wonder if it’s one that ought to be revisited.  If so, can I do only a tiny little bit of fleshing out here, then do more fleshing out in a follow-up story?  I hadn’t previously considered it because the story resolves with a certain amount of finality.  And no matter how interesting the world, I don’t know that I could return to it unless I had an equally compelling story to tell that happened to be set in it.  I guess it’s a matter of… we’ll just have to see.

I have my work cut out for me… Happy writing!

Quote: Writers Write

It’s time for another edition of Writing Quotes.  This week’s quote comes from novelist and short-story writer Sinclair Lewis

It is impossible to discourage the real writers – they don’t give a damn what you say, they’re going to write.

~ Sinclair Lewis

That’s the truth of it, of course.  The old childhood rhyme goes: “Sticks & Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”  The rhyme is only a half-truth, but for those of us who write, our familiarity with words makes us stronger, because no matter what words are flung our way we can channel those and write them down.  The writers who succeed, ultimately, are those who can bear the criticism and critique, who can accept it, and grow and improve.  And keep writing.

I do wish I wrote more, but I have never been more than momentarily discouraged bad negative critiques or criticism.  Ultimately, I have always taken those in and told myself: “nevermind; you can still learn more, you can do better.”  Ultimately, the criticism does make us better.

So, happy writing!