Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Constructive Critiquing: Giving a Critique

Last week we talked about how to receive a critique without wanting to crawl under a rock. This week, we're looking at the other side. How do you give a constructive critique?

First off, what do I mean by constructive? To me, a constructive critique is helpful to the writer by pointing out places where the story can be stronger, plus noting what the writer has done well. A good critique honestly evaluates the strengths and opportunities of a story. A sign you've given a great critique is when the writer thanks you afterward, especially if they say the critique makes them feel better about how they can make their story even better.

Providing an honest critique that results in a writer wanting to hug you or buy you a drink afterward (yes, I've had this happen!) is a high bar indeed. But there are a few tips to keep in mind for a healthy critiquer/critiquee relationship.

First off, remember that you're not just pointing out what doesn't work in a story. To provide an honest evaluation, make sure to note what the author has done well. Sure, if you're slogging through the first two pages about the weather and they have no relationship to the story, it's important to let the writer know that you had trouble getting into the narrative at that point. But if the action picked up afterward, be sure to let them know the moment you were engaged, and why. If, after the weather interlude, they created a character who instantly drew your sympathy, tell them!

When you are pointing out areas that need to be strengthened, be sure to communicate that in a kind and helpful way. Stating, "This part sucks," is both unhelpful and unkind. Why didn't that part of the story work for you? Making "I" statements is useful here. "I had trouble following who was speaking in this section," is a statement that's both specific and helpful.

You can gain a lot of useful knowledge that strengthens your own work by evaluating the flow and style of others' stories. But remember that the critique is not a competition. Especially if this is someone you've swapped manuscripts with, keep in mind you're not comparing their story against yours, to determine whose is "better". You've both agreed to provide insights as both a reader and fellow writer. Ideally, both of you will come away feeling like you have a clear path to make your story stronger, and an enthusiasm to take on the needed changes.

Both before you make your first comment, and at the end of the story, as you're reviewing what you've written, take a breath. Keep in mind the vulnerability this other person has shown you by trusting you to help them with their work. Do your comments respect that vulnerability?

When have you been challenged to provide a critique that's both honest and kind? How did you manage it? Did you ever feel like you gave a poor critique?

Happy writing!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Constructive Critiquing: Receiving a Critique

One of the hardest parts of writing for many authors, especially ones who are new to sharing their work, is receiving critiques. Even that word--critique. It sounds harsh and unforgiving, like a schoolmarm with the world's tightest pinned-up hair bun, pronouncing her judgment upon you and finding you wanting.

As Nita Sweeney put it, receiving criticism of your writing can feel like a contact sport. When you're putting out your work for the first time, there can be a lot of vulnerability involved. I've described it as strutting nude in front of strangers, turning around, and saying, "Huh? Huh? What do you think?" For some writers, it's too much. A stinging critique can keep them away from pen or keyboard for months, even years.

But with the right mindset, and the right group of people providing feedback for your work (a topic which I'll address in a later post), receiving a critique doesn't have to feel like having a molar pulled. Here are a couple of points to keep in mind.

First off, when you're receiving a crit from an editor, writing partner, beta reader, or whoever, before you look at it, take a few deep breaths. Remember this: your work is separate from your value as a human being. Regardless of what this person has to tell you about your story, you're still a wonderful, valuable person with many fine qualities. Yes, this might sound silly, but the harshest critiques of my work early on left me feeling like I had no right to keep sucking in air, let alone thinking I could write a story. But that's bull. You're still a good person.

Second, remember the purpose of the critique. Ideally another person has taken the time to review your work and help you learn how you can make this story the best it can be. But tone doesn't always come through on the page. Maybe you had ten pages that were tightly written and captivating, but  because the reviewer didn't find a problem and wanted to keep reading, they didn't comment on all the good stuff. They only noted the stopping points. This character acted unreasonably, or the pacing was slow there. And even when a reader notes what you did well, it's in our nature to only hear the worst criticisms. But a critique is not a personal judgment. It's an outsider's take on how to make your work its best.

Note above, I said "ideally". In some cases it may not be true that a critiquer has your best interests at heart. If someone with an axe to grind reads your work, they may make cutting comments. And sometimes, a well-meaning reader may not know the basics of a constructive critique (again, a topic I'll address in the future). In these cases, when you get an unhelpful, even hurtful, critique, remember that this is one person's take. And if that person is out to cut you down, are you going to let it work? Are you going to let them have that type of control over your reaction? When someone's a weenie, do your best to thank them for their time and not react negatively to their face, and especially not online. If they're truly out to hurt you, they want you to get mad and feel defeated. Also, if they're really unhelpful, think hard about if it would be helpful to show that individual your work again.

On the other hand, when someone does make a valid point about where your story needs strengthening, it's easy to say, "They're just jealous and out to get me!" My general rule is, assume good intent. Even if they are down and dirty haters, you can't get in their heads and know that. Take what you can from a critique, rewrite your story, move on, and learn who you can trust with your work.

What advice do you have for accepting criticism?

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tuesday news!

I have two big pieces of news to announce:

1) At long, long last, Super Sargasso is now available on Amazon for the Kindle! If you prefer, you can still buy it on Smashwords in various formats as well.

2) On my editorial site, along with content and copy editing, I am now also providing ebook formatting services. Check my Services page for pricing and details.

As I mentioned last week, this month I am all wrapped up in Camp Nanowrimo. And for the first time in my Nano history, at the end of Week One, I am still on par with my word count! Of course, Camp has the very un-Nano rule that you can set your own word count for the month. Since I always crashed and burned when I was up against 50K, for this month, my goal is 30,000 words.

I also changed my game plan by going in with next to no outline. And the skeleton of the one I had before I started has already strayed multiple times from its original form, in the most unexpected and delightful ways. This month, I'm letting go and discovering the story as it comes out. And it's a great feeling!

How are you shaking things up this month?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Tip Tuesday: The Power of Groups

Nanowrimo, once limited to the dreary month of November, now gives writers three opportunities a year to unleash a creative writing frenzy in a group setting (officially). In addition to the original worldwide event, writers can also participate in Camp Nanowrimo, in April and July. I'll be participating with the same fantastic group I worked with last July, starting tomorrow.

Working with a group can be great to stimulate creativity and word count, for a few reasons:

1) Inspiration. Especially when I'm working with writers who are more productive and successful than me (as is the case with my group), I'm inspired by watching their word counts climb day after day.

2) Focus. Setting aside a limited time period to accomplish a lofty goal takes away the wishy-washiness of "maybe" getting around to writing. When I'm committed to a group all working toward that goal, the focus is increased. Plus, I've told all these people I'm going to finish, which leads to point 3:

3) Peer pressure. Everyone else is doing it, and doing it successfully. Now they're watching me, and I've made promises.

If you're looking for some writing motivation, it's not too late to join Camp Nanowrimo and find a writing cabin for the month of April. Good luck, and good writing!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Good characters create story

The other day I reached a sticking point on my work in progress, and couldn't figure out where I'd gone wrong. I'd sketched out my scenes with end goals in mind, and had my hero navigating through the obstacles one by one. Here was my outline with the events neatly laid out. Here were the words on the page, sitting there like dead fish and boring the hell out of me.

That's when I realized I'd committed a mortal sin of writing. My character, the one who the story is supposed to be about, wasn't making the story. He was sitting lifeless in a contrived stew of events. No wonder I was bored!

Chuck Wendig has written a couple good articles about character agency. Per Wendig, agency is "a demonstration of the character's ability to make decisions and affect the story." In other words, story isn't an external factor that happens to characters. Good characters make the story, through their actions, reactions, strengths, and weaknesses.

The most frustrating part of my block was that I had created a rich character with lots of struggles, both internal and external, and tons of investment in the central conflict. And nothing of that was coming out on the page. He was sitting inside this cardboard structure of events, watching, his own actions having no effect whatsoever. He could have gone off on a vision quest in the middle of the scene, and the story would have stayed the same.

I broke my block by doing some free writing. Why was my character essential to the events happening in story? (Hint: up to this point, he wasn't.) How could I rewrite the scene so that it was more difficult for my character? What would his true, unique reactions be to these events? How would they change the outcome of the scene?

Turns out, introducing a different character who made his life harder would be a better way to go. It would bring out the parts of him that had been hiding under a pile of dreck, and bring life to the story again. So that's what I'm working on today.

Next time you run into a wall, where events seem to be spooling out without your character having an effect, take a step back. Get to the essence of who that character is. Now, spin the scene. What events would make this scene harder for this particular person? List some possibilities. Go with the strongest one, and try a hundred words in that direction. If that's working, try a hundred more.

Did this exercise work for you? How do you bring life to your characters and story when you get stuck?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tip Tuesday: Integrating Dialogue and Action

Recently a writer asked how to make his dialogue more interesting. He found having characters speaking, interspersed with "he said" and "she said", felt repetitive. Yet these dialogue tags are necessary for a couple of reasons. They show us who is speaking and provide a break in the narrative. While ideally dialogue tags are supposed to be invisible (the eye runs over "he said" and "she said"), just like any other overused convention, they can become tiresome to the reader.

But effective dialogue does much more than delineate the speaker. How can you balance the need to know who’s talking when, without the text becoming boring?

Let's look at an exchange that uses only dialogue and simple tags:

"Did you talk to Gino?" asked Starla.
"Naw, haven't seen him yet," said Cinnamon.
"Better watch out. He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad," said Starla.
"Right now I have bigger problems to worry about," said Cinnamon.

What does this exchange tell us? Two individuals named Starla and Cinnamon are talking about a man named Gino, who wants his money. But a lot of information is missing. Where are they? What's happening? Also, the identical structure of each paragraph (dialogue followed by "said [name]" or asked [name]") becomes wearing on the eye. And there's no action, just static dialogue. Boring.

Here's that exchange with more information worked in. Notice also how additional cues are used to show who's speaking:

Starla leaned over the old coot's chest, reaching her arms around to the bar on either side of him. She shook her shoulders lazily. Tuesday lunch was the worst shift, and Denise was a jerk for sticking her and Cinnamon with it. So petty.

The gin-soaked geezer was paying attention to her assets, not her mouth, so she might as well discuss business. She called over her shoulder, "Did you talk to Gino?"

"Naw, haven't seen him yet." Cinnamon craned her neck around to face Starla.  She waved her backside at the twenty-something bling factory on the neighboring stool, her long legs stretched out in front of him.

"Better watch out," said Starla. "He's on the rampage. Wants his money bad." The geezer exhaled his martini breath at her and reached out a shaking hand. Why did they ever think that was a good idea? She slapped it away.

The fellow with the bling opened his wallet then turned it upside down and shook it, shrugging. Cinnamon rolled her eyes. "Right now I have bigger problems to worry about."

Now we have a much more complete picture. The addition of action (Starla leaned, reaching, shook her shoulders) provides movement to the scene. Starla and Cinnamon’s actions also show us that they’re at work, and the nature of their profession. From the visual cues (the bar on either side of him, the neighboring stool), we see the setting. And sensory details (exhaled his martini breath) pull us further in.

We also get a sense of the characters’ attitudes toward their work and current clientele. Starla shakes her shoulders lazily. Cinnamon rolls her eyes at the guy who’s stiffing her.

By including Starla’s thoughts, we also establish that she’s our point of view character. (Denise was a jerk. So petty. Why did they ever think that was a good idea?)

The shift in action makes it clear who’s speaking throughout. In place of a typical dialogue tag, in paragraph two, Starla calls over her shoulder. This adds more action. All this, and “said” only appears once!

Note that you can go overboard with description in dialogue. Depending on the pacing of the scene, sometimes a few quick exchanges with no interspersed action can work. But if you feel like you're watching a ping-pong match when your characters speak in long, uninterrupted blocks, try and break it up.
Dynamic dialogue incorporates action, setting, thought, sensory details, and more to create a rich reading experience. Next time you’re hung up on “said” and “asked”, look for ways to work in these elements.

How do you add vibrancy to your dialogue? Where do you get tripped up? If you have a question about writing you’d like me to answer, shoot me an email at faithvanhorne [at] gmail [dot] com. Thanks for reading!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Who is Burning Man for? Everyone who's interested

"Radical Inclusion: Anyone may be a part of Burning Man. We welcome and respect the stranger. No prerequisites exist for participation in our community." --From the Ten Principles of Burning Man

I'll preface this post by saying that I've never been the "the Big Burn" in Black Rock City. I attended my first regional, Scorched Nuts, last year, and found it an eye-opening, awe-inspiring experience. Attending the burn by my lonesome, and never having so much as camped on my own before, I was frightened I'd screw it all up, die in the woods, and be a general inconvenience to "real" burners who had to put up with me.

Instead, the friendliest, craziest, most accepting group of people imaginable greeted me with hugs and offers of help and advice. I did my best to return their kindness and gift others in any way I could find: helping set up structures, handing out clementines and chocolate, teaching Tai Chi. I left with a sense of bonding and community, and the knowledge that I could manage not to kill myself in nature for four days. (Yeah, I know that's not much for some people, but it's quite a bit for me.)

I loved it so much that I returned to the same site in October for a first-time burn called The Mosaic Experiment, and brought a virgin burner along with me. He, too, found community there, and returned for Scorched Nuts this year with a new crew.

This month marks the one-year anniversary of my mom's death. In that time, I've gotten closer with my sister as we've grieved together and sought to form a new relationship, as grown-up siblings. At our family reunion this year, the last place I saw my mom alive last year, my sister tearfully told me she'd like to come with me to Mosaic Experiment in October, if she's able.

I was thrilled. My sister's never seen anything like it, and I hope I'm able to share the experience with her.

But when a friend asked if I was planning on bringing anyone this year, I mentioned with excitement how I hoped to bring my sister. My friend, having met my sister one time for a few hours, suggested she might not be "burner material", and I'd be better off leaving her at home.

There have been a number of articles lately about who burner culture is "for". Certainly there's a public perception of who goes (or, in some people's minds, should go) to burns, and I hew closer to that image than my sister. But she has a huge side to her that my friend, in his brief acquaintance with her, hasn't seen.

She's radically self-reliant. Her family hunts and handles the meat themselves. She cans, is incredibly handy, and has been camping since long before my baby steps into the outdoors last year. If there's anyone I'd trust to depend on in the wild, it's her. She embraces immediacy and shines wherever she goes. If ever there was a burn-worthy soul (as if anyone must be deemed worthy) it's her.

So, fuck perceptions of who should be at a burn. I don't know if my sister will be able to make it, but I sure hope so. The magic of burns isn't limited to one type of person, regardless what outside appearances say.