Serial effects

Karalee’s Post #44

I love to write in the mystery thriller genre and many of my story ideas seem to center around serial killers and toying with weird reasons that make them do what they do. It probably helps that I have a medical background and a few psychology courses under my belt.

 A couple of years ago my son had a serious bike accident  and loosened and lost teeth as well as a lot of facial skin. Consequently today I found myself sitting in the dental surgeons office while my son had his four wisdom teeth extracted and scar tissue on his top lip removed. It didn’t feel strange at all when I began to think about how my son got to this point in his young life and how we are dealing with the repercussions of his injuries and how to prevent further difficulties. In other words, what should we do to deal with the serial effects of his structural foundation?

You see, some of my son’s difficulty is due to having an under-bite, which means that his lower jaw is longer than his top jaw. Therefore when he flew forward off his bike his lower jaw hit the tarmac hard, and with no protection from his teeth coming together properly, a bottom tooth was knocked out and two top teeth loosened. It was inevitable that contusions, lacerations, and skin loss occurred as his soft skin scraped along the rough road surface, but his structural flaw means that he’s still prone in the future to jaw joint pain and over-wearing of his teeth.

At the present he is left with soft tissue and dental damage that needs further repair. We could work on these issues, but he would still be left with a structural flaw. So, do we leave it and see what happens, or go into preventative mode and align his teeth and jaws and his jaw joint (the TMJ)?

Our choice is prevention.

Today was the first step, then it’s braces for a year followed by jaw surgery (apparently it’s not as bad as the braces) after which the structural flaw will be corrected and he can live happily ever after.

Again, with my serial thought process in action, I started to think about how I  develop my own characters and the flaws they have and the repercussions of them. It is a daunting task and one that I delve into, but not quite deep enough to prevent me going off on tangents that are often time consuming in my writing process and have unintended side-effects that really don’t work well with my story (like a bike accident eventually leading to jaw surgery).  

Prevention is the key to avoiding long and painful re-writes. An exercise that would be beneficial to me is that when I give a character a flaw, or a mannerism, or a distinctive physical characteristic I should:

  • jot down a few scenarios and see how the character would react and determine if that is what I want. Are the characteristics realistic?
  • see if the character is able to change the way I intend over the course of the story (and into another story if it is a series and I have a few ideas floating about).
  • modify my characters at this foundation level before it is too late and the serial effects of one incident leads down a path of no return that then will require a major intervention to repair.

Of course Donald Maass’s book ‘Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook’ is another option.

breakout novel workbook

Happy writing.

Focus on action

Karalee’s Post #40

Somewhere along the line I remember learning that it takes about 30 repetitions  (don’t quote me on the exact number) to get information from your short-term memory into your long-term memory. It seems to have taken me at least that many reps to become familiar and more comfortable with developing my craft of writing.

Paula has said at many critique sessions to try and write like you are making a movie; your story is a screenplay.

Movies are a series of motions, some faster than others, but characters should be contributing something important to the storyline. Having your characters in motion is paramount, but like Silk also has highlighted, your character’s emotions are also a major part of the success of a scene. And that means understanding the characters, which means knowing something about their back story too.

Back story is my nemesis. In movies back story can be introduced up front in a scene before the main movie begins, or in a full scene flashback during the movie, or in quick flash backs in the middle of a present scene. For me, looking at back story in this way gives me different ways to introduce it in my writing too.

Little WomenTo me there couldn’t be a better compliment to a story I write if readers not only want to stay up all night reading, but also want to BE one of my characters. I’m sure this magic has happened to all of us. In my teens  I would have given almost anything to be Jo March in Little Women, and I bet many people would like to live in James Bond’s shoes for awhile if only to use the latest gadgets.

In my re-write I’m going to concentrate on writing like a screenplay and like Helga said, cut anything that can’t be seen or heard.

A blog I highly recommend that highlights utilizing cinematic technique in fiction writing is: http://www.livewritethrive.com/category/shoot-your-novel/. Some of the topics covered are: 

  • Show, don’t tell-but how?
  • It’s all about the angle
  • Using camera technique for big impact
  • Novelists need to be film editors too
  • String shots together to make dynamic scenes
  • An intro to stationary camera shots
  • Establishing shots that reveal character
  • Just enough sensory detail to set the stage
  • Wrapping up a look at establishing shots
  • Calling the shots in screenplays
  • Close-up and personal–one stationary camera shot
  • Using close-up shots to give sensory detail
  • Full shot for full effect
  • And many more.

Happy re-writing to all my 5Writers.

Make them suffer

art-suffering

Joe’s Post #42 – That was my mantra at the writer’s retreat. “Make your heroes suffer.” Make it hard for them.  Or, as Silk put it, torture them.

But here’s the thing. Like my fellow writers have said, that can lead to melodrama and pointless infliction of disasters upon the hero. Lemme give you an example.

We have our main character, Joe, a heroic sounding fellow, who gets hit by a car on the way to work. That’s suffering, right? While he’s lying there, his arm broken and the bone sticking through his skin (yuck!), someone comes and takes his iphone, his collection of vintage Star Wars figures (NOT TOYS!!!) and his shoes for some reason, then kicks him in the nuts. Ouch. More suffering. But wait, the ambulance arrives but skids on a patch of ice and runs over his legs, then crashes into a telephone pole that falls not to the left of him, not to the right of him, but bang, wham, right onto his chest, and before poor old Joe can say holy sh*t, wtf is happening, a bomb explodes and he’s riddled with shrapnel and while he’s screaming in agony, the last thing he sees is a meteor heading straight for him.

perilsSuffering? Sure. I guess. But would you want to read this? Maybe Jerry Bruckheimer would, but it’s just a pile of bad crap happening to heroic Joe. That’s not a story. That’s not what I meant by making him suffer.

Suffering is so much more. It’s about making the impossible choices. Which child would you save and which one would you let die? What are the consequences of the choices made and how can they affect the character? It’s about personal stakes and how can things matter to the hero?

Or, something simpler. Our heroic Cop-Joe walks into a bar looking to find a serial killer. He says, “hey, I need to know something,” and the bartender says, “sure, you need to know about the guy who came in her last night, all covered in blood wearing a name tag that said, ‘Hi, my name’s Bob Bobbington’ and oh he dropped his wallet so here’s his address and an NRA card that says he owns an AR-15 and he’s written on the back of the card that he’s booby-trapped the door with explosives.” To which Joe says, “Thanks, I was looking for directions to the bathroom but whatever.”

Who wants to read a scene like that? It’s way, way too easy for our hero. To make that scene harder for him, what if it’s an old bar he used to visit but now he’s a cop and not welcome there? What if the bartender doesn’t actually want to talk to him? What if the bartender lies? What if the bar is full of bikers or rabid Harry Potter fans who think Cop-Joe looks like Voldemort? Oh the possibilities.

Suffering should be less about random occurrences that plop on the character’s head like bird poo. They should be born of the actions the hero takes and the personal choices that are made, but also born of the wants/desires/hopes/fears of those the hero encounters, the obstacles faced and overcome (or not). The poor bugger doesn’t have to suffer on every page, but the harder it is for the character to reach his goal, the more the choices have consequences which may make things EVEN HARDER, the more the scene, the chapter, the story can sizzle.

At least for me.

As I start my rewrite, I know there are places where I can make the choices harder, make my stakes more personal, make my character suffer as much by their own hand as much as anything.

Oh, I have a few scenes in my book that are like that. One character ends up destroying what she set out to save. Another has to make a terrible sacrifice at the end.

But oh, I can do so much better.

And I will.

Pages Rewritten: 15

Queries this Week: 1

Rejections: 1

Cool Movies Seen: 2 (See The Heat, freaking hilarious. See Man of Steel, but go knowing it’s not the greatest movie ever made.)

Writers, what are the stakes when you torture your characters?

Karalee’s Post #39

Silk posed the question “Why do we torture our heroes?”

Everyone in our group wrote a manuscript that did just that, but some were much better than others. Myself, I tortured poor Karla until she appeared a victim. Other 5Writers tortured their characters with moral dilemmas, and other characters went on quests with an extraordinary amount of adventure that demanded that they rise to challenges at such an extent that there was no time for the reader to breathe in the middle. We all went to the extreme, exposing our inner writer’s mind to our group to see what worked and what didn’t.

Over the last week I’ve reflected on the input from my fellow 5Writers. I purposely set out to have my main protagonist have a history of fears, experiences, and a cultural background that would effect her reactions in her job as a detective and challenge her to rise above them. Alas, I failed.

Why?

1. I had the villain so smart that I didn’t have my detective working the way she should have to reveal her fears and flaws that would demand her to make difficult decisions. Ultimately these decisions would have made her grow and change.

2. I didn’t make my protagonist’s personal stakes clear. I need to choose one or two challenges for my protagonist and have her work through these and not address everything in her life in one book! In other words, I can make my life as a writer easier by being less complicated. The KISS principle would serve me well.

My mind has been busy while I’ve weeded my garden and looked after the family. I’ve asked myself, what are the stakes writers challenge their characters with? To me there are three kinds:

  • Physical: life and death, get from A to B before C happens, perform an seemingly insurmountable feat, or even hold back doing something that he/she would normally do
  • Emotional:  overcoming fear, weaknesses, prejudices, pain, anxieties
  • Moral issues: never do harm to others, stealing, trust issues, honesty issues, society beliefs, religious/spiritual beliefs

That said, I need to start my rewrite by immersing myself both in my villain’s and my protagonist’s heads again (read bios thoroughly and make changes) and choose the stakes that are best reflected in my story. And ideally, the decisions my protagonist and antagonist make would also reflect the story theme.

Then back to the outline and rework the story.

I do remember in a previous post that I said that I enjoy revisions. It’s a good thing since this rewrite demands plot and character changes.

Beyond a doubt I have great faith that my characters will rise to their challenges.

Happy rewrites.

Critique fallout

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Joe’s Post #41 — I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m still processing all that I heard at the Writer’s Retreat.

But as I think about solutions to the issues raised, I wanted to get back to reading for fun, again.

Not as easy as you’d think. It’s a switch from being all left-brained and analytical to right-brained and creative and locked into the pure pleasure of reading.

I couldn’t quite get there and so, while I read David Baldacci, I thought back on what happened at the critique retreat. Baldacci has at least one scene with people talking in a coffee shop.

Didn’t we all ding each other for such scenes?

We did.

But here’s the lesson I learned. There are things that could be fixed to make a better story and things that really HAVE to be fixed. If Baldacci was a new writer, he might well have to rethink a coffee scene, but he’s not and here’s what he does with the coffee scene. There is vital, critical information that the character HAS TO know. There is a chance that they are being watched. And both men come to the meeting armed.

So, does this have to be fixed? No. The reason a coffee scene might not work is lack of tension. Two characters sipping a non-fat, no whip, double-shot dolce cinnamon latte with extra sprinkles and discussing the weather or back-story or nothing that really drives the story forward lacks tension. But add hidden guns, a meeting that HAS to take place and villains tracking them and the coffee scene becomes something else.

imagesCAMVB2MASure it could be fixed. But it doesn’t HAVE to be fixed?

Perhaps he thought it did.

So he made it something more than just a coffee scene.

But therein lies the problem. Can we see in our own novels what HAS TO be fixed vs what could be fixed? Even after a critique. Many suggestions are given. Some contradictory.

It therefore falls back to the writer. To not only hear what’s being said but understand why it’s being said. “I hate coffee scenes” may well be translated into “there is no conflict or tension in that scene.”

Easy, right?

No.

My guess is I have about half a dozen things that HAVE TO be fixed. The rest are things that I will look at and ask myself, does this make the story better? Does it make my characters stronger? Does it increase pacing? Etc.

Because, for me, even if I can make my story even a little bit better, I have to do it.

It has to be the best I can possibly do.

It’s what I owe my readers.

Nothing is in stone until the book is published

critique exhaustion

Karalee’s Post #38 — Last week was completely exhausting for me. I wish I had the innate ability to analyze the written word and organize my thoughts like other fellow 5 writers, but I do struggle with this. When I read I get stopped at much the same places as others, but to put the finger on why is still difficult for me. Hey, I grew up simply reading a book and enjoying the story, and truth be told that’s what I still enjoy doing and do best. Undoubtedly listening to other’s critiques is always a huge learning experience for me as well. That means that the whole day was important for me, not only adding my critique into the mix.

And what I wouldn’t give to have the gift of the gab too.

As for my book’s critique, I’m letting the suggestions and comments percolate this week. Ideas and changes are circulating in my brain like a lion around its prey before the chase begins. It’s interfering with my domestic chores and trying to have some family time and down time, but I love it! Maybe I’ll make this my new definition for what makes me a writer.

And that’s what is so cool about this process. Nothing is written in stone until the book is published. I can change names, back story, the beginning, middle and end. Personality changes are as easy as deleting my character sketch and adding a new bent. The difficult part comes when those changes need to be consistently followed through in the story line. Thankfully not all of the above needs changing.

I think I can speak for all of us in that one of the major assets of last week was the brainstorming after the critiques were finished. Five minds are definitely better than one.

Nothing like 5 writers critiquing 5 novels after more than 5 months of plotting and character development drafted into a  story line close to one’s heart.

And we all agree that each and every one of our story lines are compelling.

Next week I’m on to my rewriting process. My changes will warrant readdressing my outline and some back story modifications, which of course means following them throughout the manuscript.

All said, I can’t wait for the day that my writing will be in stone! For me that is the major carrot keeping me on this path.

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.

Critiquing creative spirits

whistler

Credit: Randy Lincks photo.

Silk’s Post #36 — After all these months of sweat over our manuscripts, we now have our critiquing retreat scheduled for June. Or as I’ve been calling it, Critter Week. With our lofty goal of getting all our 5 novels published (and why aim for less?), it’s appropriate that we’ll be meeting high in the coastal mountains at Whistler, BC.

Perhaps I should re-tag it the 5 Writers Critter Summit.

We convened at Joe’s house last week for a pre-retreat planning session. I was impressed with the nutritionally-balanced sustenance Joe provided, including some kind of sugar-dusted pastry things filled with chocolate, a very upscale cheese plate, and some cucumbers sliced so artistically it would have made Martha Stewart proud. He sliced them himself. I watched him. (End of colourful backstory.)

After we sorted out what our room arrangements would be for four women, one man and a dog, the conversation naturally turned to critique etiquette. It’s one thing to subject a chapter or two to the scrutiny of critters (during our monthly critique sessions, we were submitting 30 pages at a time), but quite another to submit your whole book to be picked apart … the book you’ve just spent nine months gestating, like a baby (in the analogy shared by Helga’s and Karalee’s recent posts).

Yes, there’s a bit of critique anxiety in the air. Look, it’s hard for creative spirits to take criticism. We writers share our thin-skin DNA with visual artists, filmmakers, designers, actors, musicians, in fact all manner of creative types. Creative people take big emotional risks by exposing their innermost thoughts, insights and feelings to the world in works of art that we hope will entertain, enlighten and move our audience.

When they applaud, they validate our art and empower us. When they boo, they crush our fragile egos.

Okay, creatives, don’t get your knickers in a twist over the “fragile egos” comment. If you bristle at that, it only demonstrates that you’re not really ready for honest criticism yet. But let me clarify. In my humble opinion (and with absolutely no professional credentials in the field of psychology), all human beings have fragile egos.

The difference with creatives is that, in order to make art that aims to have an emotional effect on other people, we put our own egos on the line and subject ourselves to the judgement of others. You can’t build a fortress around your soul when you’re creating art meant for the public. There’s a reason for the “tortured artist” stereotype. There’s also a reason for the “starving artist” stereotype, and one of the objectives of our 5 Writers group is to help each other avoid any hint of either torture or starvation.

Isn’t it every writer’s goal to be recognized, appreciated and financially rewarded? Well, there’s just one little step we all need to get through to make that possible. We have to be damn good. (Sigh.) So, yes, we’re back to the subject of critiquing (and critique anxiety), remembering it has one simple purpose: to make our books damn good.

spark

Credit: iStock licensed photo.

So, how to critique creative spirits in a manner that reveals their writing weaknesses and stimulates them write a better book, without sapping their confidence and killing their all-important creative spark?

Truthfully, this is an awesome responsibility. It requires honesty with diplomacy. We have to  be detailed enough to provide meaningful criticism without being picky or petty or prescriptive or sarcastic or dismissive. Critters need to explain why the strong parts work as thoughtfully as why the weak parts fail. We have to be forthright in our judgements about those things subject to legitimate critique (like character, plot, and pace), while withholding judgement about things that aren’t “on the table” (like choice of genre).

And, ultimately, we have to try to see the book we’re critiquing through the eyes of an agent, an editor, and a reader … a book that was written by an author who has become a friend and a confidant. This isn’t easy. But it’s necessary.

Since I have previously finished only one first draft of a full length novel and only a partial first draft in our 5 Writers challenge, I’d have to be considered the “junior” member of our group (at my age, you have to love being a “junior” anything). However, when it comes to critiquing creatives I have decades of related experience. And in the task ahead, I know I’m going to have to tap into every lesson learned.

Way back in time when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, as a junior graphic designer and copywriter, I once got fired from a great job at a design agency for being too headstrong. Speaking of fragile egos, I was devastated. Tears were shed. Souls were searched. In the end, instead of turning to something safer, like rodeo riding or nuclear physics, I went into business for myself. I vowed, Scarlett O’Hara style, never to work for anyone again.

It took what seemed like forever, working from the smallest home office in the world, to build up my own agency. In a few years I hired my first employee, and a few years later I had a dozen, including some of the best creative talent in the marketplace. Now I was a creative director, not just a designer and writer, and had to learn a whole new skill set: critiquing, coaching, and leading talented people who each had their own great ideas, their own vulnerable egos, and the chops to easily walk out the door and find a good job somewhere else. The path was not without pitfalls, but a truckload of creative awards and many continuing happy relationships with creative colleagues to this day demonstrate that I must have learned some lessons over time.

Apart from my never-ending attempt to master the discipline of “people skills” – a cosmos filled with both shining stars and black holes – one of the most important of those lessons was to recognize that the job of the creative director is to encourage originality (what’s the big idea?), while seeing the work from the point of view of the target market (does it resonate?), and presenting it in a way that will sell it (can it get past the gatekeeper, aka the client?).

In my new career as a writer (and critter), these principles still hold true. A “damn good” book has to be fresh and authentic. An original “voice” is gold. It has to have audience appeal (which also means the writer has to have a keen sense of who that audience will be). It has to move people in some way, have an effect. And it has to get past the gatekeepers – in the book world, these are agents, editors and publishers – or it simply won’t be sold.

Yes, okay, I know it isn’t the whole story. I’m leaving aside the gigantic subject of self-publishing, which will perhaps be a subject for another day.

I’m also leaving aside the suspicion, harboured by many unpublished writers and unfortunately supported by at least anecdotal evidence, that getting published is more like winning a lottery than achieving a level of excellence deserving of recognition. It’s true. Life isn’t fair. One of the other things I learned as a creative director is that you can put your heart and soul into a creative pitch, have the best idea in the universe, execute it brilliantly, seem to wow the client, and yet fail to win the account for all kinds of frivolous reasons. The fix was in beforehand, maybe over a game of golf. Or the client’s wife doesn’t like green, and you made the logo green. Or someone’s nephew works for the other agency. Or somebody didn’t like somebody’s tie/politics/joke/handshake. Or (dare I say it?) because the client just made a terrible mistake. We’ve all heard of manuscripts shot down in the first five pages for reasons that sound just as ridiculous.

But, as critters, it’s beyond our power to make life fair.

So our challenge at the 5 Writers Critter Summit is simple but not easy. Help each other write/re-write damn good books with the “right stuff” to have a fighting chance of getting published. And offer our critiques in a manner that brightens, rather than dampens, each writer’s creative spark.

Like advice about how to write, there is a great deal of useful information out there about how to critique. Yes, it can be a learned skill to a great degree. But, like writing itself, in the end it’s an art.

A very private affair

 Helga’s Post # 33 – It’s hard to blog after the sad news of Jay Lake’s illness, as Joe did yesterday. That story should make us all put the foot on the brake and remember what’s important.

We all, writers, readers, friends, wish Jay well. And we will follow him on his journey by reading every word he writes and shares with us on his blog.

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My post today is short because I am struggling to finish as much of my novel as I can manage before the deadline. No socializing, no errands until next Wednesday. Nose to the grindstone. Four more days to showdown. In four days all will be revealed at our critique group meeting where we share our final submissions. Five manuscripts, five new novels brought into the world since last September.

So this is my last blog before our meeting. Next time I hope to report something more detailed. As I mentioned earlier, I am behind schedule. No excuses, other than life gets in the way, to use an utterly overused phrase.

But writing is personal. It’s possibly the most intimate activity (okay, minus one) in which Homo sapiens are able to engage. What can be more intimate than putting your innermost core into words to be shared with the world. It’s also one of the most daring and courageous undertakings we can commit to. It’s every bit as daring as stripping naked and walking through Times Square during rush hour (not that anyone would notice).

And for some of us writers, that comes easy (not the stripping, but what do I know). For others, the more private ones, it’s more of a struggle. I count myself in the last group. Maybe it goes far back, to age fourteen, when I found out my mother had snooped in my diary. And it wasn’t even an ordinary diary. It had a lock and key. A lock that, known to everybody but me, could be picked with a paper clip. Funny, how little things in life stick with you and shape you.

How does this relate to our critique group’s 5 months challenge?

Deadlines for finishing novels has its advantages, but it doesn’t work equally well for everybody. There are a multitude of variables why it does for some and not for others. Some people are outliners, some write organically. Some just get the story down, grammar and style be damned, while others enjoy quality writing as they create the story from the start. (And get to regret it later when they have to dump their darlings during the rewrite).

Writing is hugely personal. Because it’s so creative, it’s a challenge for many to write to a specific formula and deadline. The famous ‘square peg’ syndrome. Yet, it’s precisely that which gets writers motivated and cajoled into racing to the finish line.

It’s somewhat of an oxymoron: Creativity needs space to roam freely, without borders and fences so it can flourish, yet it might never reach its goal, or produce a finished manuscript without the discipline of deadlines and rules.

Aren’t we writers a persnickety species.

And for all you moms out there, and those who ever wanted to be one,

Happy Mothers Day!

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When writers need an uplift

Karalee’s Post #32

I did something for myself this weekend and registered for a Writer’s Digest University course called ‘The Agent One-on-One: Your First Ten Pages Boot Camp.

Now why would I do this right at crunch time before our writer’s group final FINAL deadline of May 15, 2013? It certainly isn’t because I’ve finished and have time to twiddle my thumbs. It’s because I needed it and it felt right.

I needed a break from:

  • being inside my head in a fictitious world for too long and starting to emulate my protagonist in my real life. Who wants a cop for a mom, a  wife, or a friend, especially a fictitious one that needs to run to the Internet to study up on proper protocol? Although, I must confess to being a great shot with guns in the little experience I’ve had, and if my husband bought me a RCMP uniform I might wear it for him…. 
  • worrying that my writing isn’t good enough. Although I may sound brave and confident about my writing, and brag that living on a sailboat depressed with three kids and a husband surviving storms and night crossings is easier than finding an agent, I’m not too sure….
  • being anxious about meeting the deadline with a complete manuscript ready for my group to critique. I might make it, I might not, but the most important thing is to have a story I’m loving and having it come together. I must say that I am loving the process and I do think I have a story worth publishing. It may take a little longer to get to The End, but hey, Helga and I edit as we go, so our rewrites should be less. Right? Maybe?
  • I’m  VIP member so I got 10% off. Hey, it all helps.
  • cleaning house sucks. I needed a break from routine.

This weekend break came at the right time and my confidence is boosted. Not only do I now know beyond a doubt that I can sign in to an on-line course and download seminars and connect to forums even with my computer-technical-savvy husband out of town on a business trip, I also got great feedback on my first 10 pages! (That does deserve an exclamation mark.)

Did I say great?

I was assigned to have Gina Panettieri, President of Talcott Notch Literary Services to read my first 10 pages that I had to submit by 10 a.m. EST  on Saturday.  Within 24 hours  comments were to be sent back. I won’t expand on the comments here in detail as it would interfere with my writer’s groups’ critiques, but I’ll overview them.

Gina sent my comments in the standard Writer’s Digest format:

  1. Strengths. In  general both my pace and character development were strong and and the reader would want to keep reading. (This deserves many exclamation marks, but I will refrain myself.)
  2. Issues. It’s best not to use the Hells Angels gang since publishers probably won’t embrace it. Use a fictitious gang name. (easy fix) The first scenario with my villain  needs to be tighter (less risk to be caught) and a minor character needs to act more in character. (another quick fix) And lastly, my dialogue in a couple of places could be less repetitive. (another quick fix) And that was it! I was over-the-moon-happy that there weren’t major flaws that would have me rewriting my entire plot line.
  3. Next Steps. Basically fixing the above issues.

The best news is, that at the end of Gina’s comments she wrote:

  • You’re off to a great start! I look forward to seeing your revisions and working more with your pages! Gina

Did you see the word ‘great’ in there? Not just good or interesting, but great! Complete with two exclamation marks too?

Now that in itself is enough to get me pumped about my writing and jumping back in my head and embrace having my protagonist and villain take over my life again.

But the workshop isn’t over yet. On Sunday between 1:00 and 4:00 EST all the agents at the workshop were available on Blackboard to answer any questions about our 10 pages or about other writing issues such as what publishers are looking for, etc.

Then after the forum, I had until 10 p.m. EST Sunday to resubmit my first 10 pages with all my fixes for Gina to re-read.

I will hear back by Friday, May 3rd. If Gina or any of the other agents are interested in my writing and the premise of my book, they can request for me to send them more pages. 

Who knows what will happen, but the weekend was what I needed to keep my enthusiasm keen.

Not only did it feel good, it was good!

Happy writing.