The verdict

Before the verdict.

Before the verdict.

Silk’s Post #41 — I sat in the straight-backed chair at the head of the table, facing the panel. The hot seat. Four jurors sat before me, two on each side, laptops open and coffee cups steaming. Four faces smiled back at me as I made some forgettable opening statement.

Don’t worry, their expressions telegraphed. This won’t hurt a bit. Uh huh. I’ve heard that one before.

I knew I was starting from behind, with my paltry 100 pages of manuscript. It should have been closer to 400. Sitting before a jury of my peers, I knew I was already guilty on one count: Writing Without Due Care and Attention to a Deadline. As I yielded the floor to my colleagues, I sat up a little straighter, steeling myself for the additional charges that might be added.

Illegal Use of Backstory, maybe.

Violation of the First Five Pages Hook Requirement.

Contributing to the Corruption of a Plotline.

Arrested Character Development.

Failure to Signal Emotions.

Or the worst of all, Author Voice Intrusion. 

It was going to be a long day. I looked longingly at the bowl of candy bars.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: after.

Candy bowl: after.

Here’s what it can sound like when you’re trying to follow a verbal critique: “On page 18” … (I scroll to find page 18, miss page 18 and find myself on page 34) … “blah blah blah your character’s acting like a nitwit blah blah blah” … (I finally find page 18) … “and then on page 72” … (scroll, scroll, scroll) … “blah blah blah brilliant dialogue, well done blah blah blah.”

You really have to be on your toes, and I began flat-footed.

The jury.

The jury.

But I got my rhythm. Listen, don’t scroll, that’s the secret. Listen, don’t defend. Listen, don’t read, don’t write, don’t explain, don’t try to atone for your sins. Now, no one can listen to a discussion of their work and fail to react at all, but I tried (with partial success) to keep open ears and a closed mouth. An inveterate note-taker, I didn’t even take notes. I wanted to look the jury in the face and listen to their unspoken words, the ones behind their eyes.

When you’re being critiqued, the impulse to interrupt with “Yes, but …” is almost irresistible. I admit, I did occasionally try to acquit myself. But the object of getting a first draft critiqued is not to convince the jury your manuscript is already perfect as written. No first draft is perfect. As Papa Hemingway so delicately put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

No, the object of getting critiqued is to get some clues about how to make the second draft  better. Hopefully, much better. And faster than if you rattle around in your own head for weeks trying to decide which of your treasured characters to dump, or where to actually open the first scene, or how to turn 15 flabby pages into 5 tight pages, or where you can painlessly weave in the arcane details needed to understand your plot.

The problem with first drafts, especially for us unpublished writers, is that we grow attached to them. We love them for their strengths and tolerate their weaknesses. An honest critique – delivered with good will and intelligence by someone whose opinion we value – helps get us unattached. Able to see it through other eyes.

In advance of our “critter summit” at Whistler, BC, we all blogged about the challenges of critiquing. We researched critiquing advice in books, on websites, on blogs. We developed a template for organizing our comments. But, like all communication, the critique process is a two-way encounter: a speaker and a listener. And the best critique in the world will not help the writer who lacks listening skills.

That’s why I was watching the eyes of my 5writers colleagues as they delivered their verdicts. We’re friends. When we declare each other guilty of a writing offence, we try not to inflict too much pain. So I was watching for supplementary, unspoken input: signs of pulled punches, frustration, or, worst of all, pity. And for unvoiced agreement (or disagreement) around the table while each juror made his or her statement: heads nodding, heads shaking, eyes rolling.

What I realized – what we all realized in our 5-day retreat – was that after a couple of years of practice we have actually become pretty damn skilled critiquers (if I do say so myself, and I do). For all five books, for almost every major observation both positive and negative, there was a high degree of agreement around the table. Every juror viewed the work through a slightly different lens, and often had a different suggestion for solving a problem, but as a group we were virtually unanimous in identifying the key strengths and weaknesses of each manuscript.

We’re learning. And not only from the critiques we receive, but also from critiquing others’ work. And hearing everyone else’s critiques. And then discussing them. And then brainstorming ideas to help get a writer “unstuck” with a plot or character difficulty. And then taking advice on board and going back to the keyboard to craft our own solutions in our own voices. We’re learning.

In my own case, the verdict was clear and this was my sentence:

  • Smarten up my protagonist so she never sounds witless or allows herself to be used to serve the plot at the author’s whim.
  • Make sure the protagonist is consistently driven by priorities. Mystery and jeopardy first. Everything else second.
  • Rewrite the whole story in first person.
  • Introduce the villain earlier.
  • Extract all undue writer cleverness that takes the reader out of the story.
  • Tear down and rebuild one major character and his relationship with the protagonist.
  • Resequence some of the plot points to make the beats work better.
  • Keep the characters in motion. Don’t let them sit around.
  • When I scare the bejesus out of the protagonist, make sure she shows it.

I was thrilled with this sentence, as much for what isn’t in it as for the rewrite direction it gives. I wasn’t convicted of serious backstory violations, for instance. That’s progress, for me. I only got dinged for minor author voice misdemeanours, except for my plot-driving-character felonies. And almost all my characters were unanimously acquitted, with the exception of a couple who were released after time served and will be replaced. Even my protagonist got away with a stern lecture, shown leniency as a spirited but sometimes confused youth. (However, she is expected to keep her nose clean from now on.)

I’m wildly grateful to my 5writers colleagues who spent hours reading my partial first draft, deliberating the verdict, and giving me a sentence that will rehabilitate my book and help give it new life.

I will begin serving my sentence tomorrow. It’ll be a piece of pie. I hope.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

An elevated level of critiques

5writers-whistler

Silk’s Post #40 — Hey, here we are! The 5 Writers’ big Whistler Mountain adventure has begun. Don’t we look like happy tourists? This was our first night, Saturday. We’re going out to dinner. We just drank a bottle of wine. No one has been critiqued yet. No wonder we look so happy.

helga-and-paulaAnd are we ever prepared.

We have nutritious, healthy snacks, courtesy of Helga and Karalee. The fridge in our suite is filled with wholesome raw veggies, fruit, hummus, cheeses and sparkling water. Just in case we wear ourselves out talking and really need some vitamins, minerals and fibre.

We have delicious, unhealthy snacks, courtesy of Paula and Silk. A gigantic bowl of candy looms on the table, just in case a recently-critiqued writer needs a high-calorie hug after a hard day on the hotseat. And we have a homemade apple pie from Silk’s orchard, ready to be baked as a last-night reward for our bravery.writer-treats

We have champagne for a wind-up toast courtesy of Joe, and the loyal and uncritical companionship of our critique week pooch, Vegas.

We have our critiques and margin notes written, printed out and ready to go. Mostly. Well, some of us do. There’s a rumour that one of the critiques runs to 44 pages, which is more than 10% of the length of the novel itself.

Oh, yes. We are sooo prepared.

Today, Sunday, was our first critique day. Paula the Lionhearted was the first to step up and offer herself for judgement. Not that she actually did that willingly. We drew straws. But still, you have to give her full credit for showing up, all dressed in orange (a courageous colour), and sticking it out all day without ever locking herself in the bathroom. She’ll be telling you about her special day in her post tomorrow.

Tomorrow is my day for rotten tomatoes. I take courage from the fact that Shakespeare himself (or at least the long-suffering actors performing his plays) apparently had all manner of no-longer-edible foodstuffs pitched at them onstage, as was the jolly practice during Elizabethan times. Having no one else to push into the footlights in my stead, I will be forced to play myself tomorrow. I look forward to raiding the candy dish afterwards.

One thing we have already learned, and are happy to share with all our writer friends and followers: if you want to elevate your critiquing, one sure approach is to simply increase your altitude. Pack your laptops and get thee to a mountain retreat, where you can breathe in the clean, evergreen-scented air and commune with nature.

Brilliant.

whistler-balcony

Attention to details

treeKaralee’s Post #19

Writers are supposed to be observant, right? Sometimes I wonder if I have what it takes since I tend to sail through life without really paying attention to details in detail. For instance, I’ve run in Pacific Spirit Park for years with my girlfriends. When a snowstorm last December brought down over 200 trees I didn’t “see” that a bridge railing had been knocked off until I noticed the section had been replaced. The new wood caught my eye, not the gaping hole I’d already run by a few times.

But then many of us don’t pay attention to details. How many of us have had a haircut and our significant other doesn’t even notice? Or a house you walked by for years is knocked down and a new one is going up and you can’t remember what the old one looked like?

I’ve discovered that this ability to not “see” what is actually there is given the term inattentional blindness (or sometimes called attentional blindness). Remember the person in a gorilla suit that walked across the basketball court mid-game and was not seen? (The study at Harvard University by Daniel Simons and Christopher Chabris

Our brain can only take in so much detail at once. Also, I think many of us look at the world in the big picture way and not the “pay attention to all the little details” way. But then at other times smaller details can conjure up “the big picture” in great detail.

For example, when we walk into a house and a turkey is cooking in the oven I would guarantee (for those of us that celebrate with turkey) that an image comes to mind beyond the mere vision of a turkey in the oven. We may think of what else is included in the special meal, who will be there, what music will be playing, etc., etc.

Take another example. When we are driving, if a firetruck and then an ambulance goes by we may wonder what has happened, and our minds may envision an accident with injured people and road closures and such. And for those with medical training (I’m a physiotherapist), we may think about the injuries in more detail, bringing helicopters in to medi-vac patients to the hospital, surgeons at the ready, blood everywhere, etc.

If you think about it, no matter what these smaller details make us think of, they are based on past experience. All of us can envision acute in-depth details without the actual landscape physically in front of us.

Thus, the magic of writing and using sensory details. Can one word be worth a thousand images?

I came across an article called Do You Think Like Sherlock Holmes? by Maria Konnikova. I found it fascinating how Conan Doyle has been able to build Holmes’s character with such ‘relentless mental energy’ that he pays attention to all the details (and thus solves the crime.) The secret is that Holmes both sees and observes, which apparently is central to mindfulness.

So, as authors, if we practice mindfulness it may help improve our problem solving skills, enhance our imagination, give more depth to our writing, and improve our productivity. I know that when I write a scene I “see” it in more detail than I normally notice the world around me. What about you?

Apple pie Right now my productivity feels like this picture.

I am creating a great story, albeit not flushed in full detail yet and probably won’t be by the deadline (the proverbial optimist speaking). The beginning and middle have been set up well, but I may need to scramble to The End and fill in more connections later.

To me this is already a successful project: new story, new characters, new setting and a new style of writing. To others, it will depend on your measure of success.

And by Feb 5th I need to learn to compile in Scrivener,  the great writing software I’m still learning to use.

Oh, and in case you missed it, did you see the squirrel happily eating in the tree in my top picture?

Priorities and the 80 Rule

Joe’s Post #15

life-balanceBalancing life and work can always be challenging. Balancing life and work and writing, even more so.

However, there’s a few times where writing or work simply has to, or at least should, take a backseat to life. That’s Christmas time for sure. Maybe a birthday or two. Maybe while on an epic vacation.

I have no regrets at all spending all of the last few days with friends and family. Did I get any writing done? No. At least not on my novel. (I honestly hadn’t even planned to get any writing done, so in one way, I achieved my goal!)

But here’s the thing. I call it the 80 rule.

dec 2012 620When I’m 80 years old and sitting on my porch, glaring at all those young’uns with their new fangled music and jeans so far down their legs they are now basically shoes, and I think back to things I regret, one of them will NOT be spending Christmas with my nieces and nephews, or driving over to see my friends and playing games with them and their children, or having coffee with people I love. That’s quality time to me, more important than doing the dishes, more important that checking my emails, more important than writing, even if I’m under deadline.

So writing, work, dishes, that freshly dropped poo in the backyard, they can all wait a bit. I have living to do.

% of Book Rewritten: 0%

Number of Turkey Dinners: 0 (I know, right?)

Pies: 0 (Another astonishing development)

Number of pounds gained from amazing non-turkey dinners: 1 (actually this is more amazing considering I was shoveling food into my face for about 48 hours straight.)

Shaking the hook

Silk’s Post #11 — My subconscious tried to rescue me from writing purgatory this weekend. It happened in a rest stop just south of the Canada-US border on Interstate 5, about an hour before the dreary November day gave up and went dark.

But let’s back up a bit. We had exactly one week between the time we got our renewed passports and the time we needed to be back home today (Sunday) to fit in an overdue family visit in Lodi, California. US Thanksgiving seemed like the perfect occasion to visit with David’s 91-year-old mother and a number of other assorted relatives.

Through a process of reasoning that now escapes me, we decided to drive. Two days of driving south, three days of ping-ponging around multiple households and jerry-rigging a paper-plate turkey dinner in Mom’s tiny senior’s apartment, and two days of driving back north.

The first thing I packed was my computer, along with assorted files and the ever-present books on writing. I’d make the best of it. Maybe I could write in the shotgun seat while David drove. Maybe I could write in the evenings. Or early in the mornings.

Don’t worry, I won’t go into details about this trip. I bet you’ve done one very like it yourself.  Every moment was filled with conversation, transportation, or mastication (a disturbing percentage of the latter at fast food restaurants). I didn’t write in the car. I didn’t write in the evenings. I didn’t write in the mornings.

But inside, I was thrashing with anxiety. My writing pals have pages flying out of their printers like … well, like flying pages. (You can see what I’ve been reduced to, writing a sentence like that). Lord love a duck, Joe has 200 of them (pages, that is)! My book loomed over my head like a Seattle raincloud. Each night it followed me into my dreams the moment I dropped my head on another strange pillow. As important as the trip was, I was chafing to get home where I could settle down alone and churn out some heavy wordage.

Sunday (today) was to be my Brand New Day. The start of a dedicated writing schedule with renewed enthusiasm. No more travel until the new year. A daunting list of ‘must do’ obligations mostly checked off. I was full of eager anticipation (or possibly panic).

Now let’s return to that roadside rest – the last one before the Peace Arch crossing, where Canadian shoppers have a time-honoured tradition of stopping to discard packaging that identifies the new stuff in their trunks as ‘imports’. We didn’t buy anything, but we had to stop to dig out our passports, which were in my computer bag.

The computer bag that was … omigod … NOT in the car.

Gulp.

A frantic call to the motor inn where we had stayed Friday night. Had anyone turned in a black bag, maybe in the breakfast lounge? Yes. Is there a laptop in it? Yes. How about a couple of passports? Yes.

I started to breathe again.

We didn’t even discuss what to do next. (In fact, there was a distinctly chilly silence in the car that lasted several hours). There was zero choice involved. At three o’clock yesterday afternoon we turned south and headed back to the place we’d left at eight o’clock the same morning: Eugene, Oregon. And my Sunday? It would now be reduced to a re-run of Saturday in a butt-numbing version of the “Groundhog Day” time warp.

One whole day scratched off the calendar, 14 hours of driving, and a lot of gas guzzled – all because I was subconsciously trying to shake the writing hook.

Oh, I could blame my not-quite-as-sharp-as-before memory. Write it off to a seniors’ moment. But that would be too logical, too easy. Incidents that defy explanation, that just leave you shaking your head, that make you cringe just to think about them … these incidents BEG for interpretation. If no deep and enduring meaning can be found, perhaps at least an interesting neurosis or a hidden fear might be unearthed.

There’s an old adage that when you inadvertently leave a personal item behind somewhere, it’s because you secretly want to go back to that place. I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s one of those things that sounds ‘truthy’, and besides it’s a handy way to excuse yourself and compliment your host at the same time when you leave your hat at a friend’s house after a wine-drenched dinner party.

On the other hand, it could be that you secretly don’t really want that hat.

So, did I subconsciously leave my book behind in Eugene? Leave behind the growing angst of the galloping calendar and the blank white pages? Try to shake the hook that writing has sunk into me?

I didn’t fully appreciate, when I bit at that shiny lure, how sharply the hook would bite me back. Writing reels me in, plays with me, then lets me run free as though I’m not on the line. But the tug always comes again, hauling me back, painfully sometimes. Maybe I secretly long for the time when I could just stare blissfully at a sunset without thinking how I’d recreate the experience in words (without backstory, adverbs or too much tell tell tell).

But it’s too late for all that. I’m caught now. If my subconscious thinks it can shake the writing hook by sneakily leaving the dreaded computer 350 miles down the road, it has another think coming. So, this week’s stats:

Miles driven in the service of writing: 700

Words written this week: I’d rather not talk about it

Pies eaten: one slice of Thanksgiving pecan pie with ice cream

Who ate my pages?

Joe’s Post #9

Total number of pages written: 165

Total number of pages it seemed like I’d written: 22,341

Total queries sent out on Desert Rains: 5

Total queries on all other novels sent out: 0

Total pies sent to me by Silk: 0

Pies Eaten this week: 1/8 (a hot apple pie with ice cream)

Update:

Funny thing, it really did seem like I wrote a lot more pages this week. After my meltdown, I wrote each day except Sunday (when I tend to watch football and yell at the TV a lot.) I even managed to write some pretty decent scenes, if I can be a judge of such things, and discovered a few interesting things about my character and world I hadn’t thought about when I planned the book.

So, it wasn’t a bad week, at least time-wise. So why so few pages?

I had to think on this. It’s not a bad count. Up 40 from last week. I’m happy with the direction of the story. Not a lot of rewriting was done. Not a lot of staring at the screen and wondering, what now, dammit, what now?

Yet if you’d asked me before I looked at the count, I would have said closer to 60. Maybe 70.

It comes down to one thing. I live in a fantasy world.

One of the challenges with writing to a deadline is that it’s easy to forget you’re trying to write a good story and not just pound out some pages. This week, I spent time making sure my scenes were full of action, zippy dialogue, rich, fresh details, lush descriptions, and, yes, even emotion. That meant, as odd as this may sound, that I lived in that world for quite a bit this week, especially when I sat down to write. I made sure I was completely there, saw every pine needle, smelled the sap leaking from the trees, felt the wet loam under my feet and the wind blow my red hair constantly in my face. And by being THERE, by living in that world, I took more time to relay the experience. Simply as that.

Result: Better writing. Less pages. Quality over quantity.

I’m ok with that.

Pie chart confessions

Silk’s Post #9 — Since I spilled my guts on the subject of War last night (unintentially proving how easily I’m diverted off the track of my still-gestating story), I’ll keep this Monday morning post short and sweet.

Yes, I confess to the habitual sin of not putting my novel at the top of my list every morning. Oh, it’s always there in my to-do’s. But it’s always in the ‘as soon as’ category. As soon as I finish my paid writing for Client X. As soon as I finish my volunteer writing for Organization Y. As soon as I get at least the worst clumps of cat hair off the floor. As soon as I get back from the gym.  As soon as I call my friends who just got whacked by Hurricane Sandy. As soon as I pay the bills. As soon as I take that slip for blood work to the lab, the one that’s been sitting on my counter for three weeks. As soon as I do something edible with the fresh apples from our orchard, now starting to wither in a basket in the basement.

I know! I’ll make some pies for the freezer.

Characters created to date: 12

Backstory concocted: probably too much

Locations researched and described: 6

Plot figured out: beginning, middle, end

Outline completed: 0% – I’ve determined I’m a NOP

Scenes envisioned: not enough to get to the middle

Scenes written: 1

Pies eaten this week: 0

Pies made this week: 12

Today I’m going to go bake and eat some pie. As soon as I get a couple thousand words written.