Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Receiving Manuscript Feedback

Last week I wrote about giving feedback. This week I'd like to talk about receiving it. We're flipping the coin, putting on the other pair of shoes, and have the First Aide Kit on hand.

I've said it before, writing is a personal process. But to be a published writer, you have to develop a thick hide to criticism and feedback. There isn't a single soul on this planet past, present, or even future, who is immune to both C & F. Like it or not, you'll get it. People love to talk and they love sharing their opinions, it's part of being human. No matter what stage of the game you're at, with regards to writing and publishing, you'll need and receive C & F.

Asking someone else to read your manuscript can be terrifying. I know. I tremble every time I send something out. We want our work to please our beta readers. Inwardly we're hoping for a wow factor. In some cases, we're also hoping to find out what is still wrong with the story--you know, that bit you can't quite put your finger on. The first step is, of course, to ask someone to read your story.

I don't recommend petitioning your favorite authors, big industry names, or even writer friends up to their elbows in revisions, contracts, or other duties that go with publication. You put these people in a delicate position. Those being critiqued can accuse these beta readers of stealing ideas, of being a jerk (just because they didn't love the story or the writing), or expect them to jump through hoops in order to get the petitioner a book deal. These professionals have enough on their plate already without having to cater to the whims and needs of the unpublished.

*If you know someone who's already in the publishing game and they offer to read your work (on their own initiative) that's an entirely different case.

We'd all love to have professionals help us skip a few corners and get our foot in the door. Most times, this won't happen. So where do you go to look for C & F help? Writers groups, conferences, conventions, online writing forums, and such. There's no shortage of places, you merely need to take the time to find one that suits you and dive in.

One suggestion I strongly feel should be a cardinal rule when it comes to C & F is if you want people to read your work, you need to be willing to read theirs. I've heard writers complain they aren't experts on C & F. You won't get any experience if you don't try. It's a cop-out excuse. Someone else is going to spend hours pouring over your baby, for free. Offer to do the same. We learn a lot by critiquing (see last Tues. post.)

Another good and fast guideline is to seek out more than one or two critiques. You aren't hiring industry professionals but fellow writers. These writers will give you what you need but in subjective doses. The more of these doses you get the more you'll discover patterns in the feedback. The areas that really need work will be apparent to most readers. Similar C & F from several beta readers is a red flag to you as the writer.

Remember that your beta readers are not the supreme authority over your story. They have subjective needs and wants as readers. Maybe they are really into paranormal but your story is straight up fantasy. Or maybe they hate certain settings, expressions, or plot devices. Sometimes beta readers are still new at the whole C & F process and tend to let their subjective voices try to change your story to how they would do it. Know how to spot this kind of feedback, don't think meanly of the givers, and ignore it.

Don't let your beta readers kill your voice. Don't let them rewrite the story for you. Don't be alarmed if one or two people absolutely hate your book.

But—watch the numbers. If several people hate your book, maybe it's doesn't have wide-market appeal or you are so green at writing you're boring them to death. If several people have issues with that scene about unicorns eating watermelon at a tea party while they discuss forest politics, maybe you need to take another look at it and see why those issues come up. If several people are noting grammar, spelling, and punctuation errors you need to pay attention to that too. Likewise with wrong word choice or unclear writing.

Over time you'll get a feel for whose advice you need and want and who's you don't. Some of my favorite beta readers are the ones that rip my stories to shreds to help me achieve clarity and plot progression. Some of my least favorite (whom I don't ask to read again) are those who clearly hate the genre I write in so why torture them or me with subjectivity issues?

Avoid the inclination to hate a beta reader that is harsh on you for the right reasons. Oh, we hate to think they're right. We scream, pull our hair, or shout at the computer for awhile. When we've calmed down and look at our story again we see it through new eyes and gosh darn it, that strict beta reader hit the nail on the head with their critique. Keep in mind that people usually want to read your work to help you out. Why would someone volunteer to spend hours of time and effort reading your unpolished work if their intentions weren't to help you?

Don't take C & F personally. This is where the thick hide comes in handy. When writing a story, throw your heart and soul into it. When receiving feedback, step completely out of your story and treat it objectively--even like a stranger. C & F is not aimed at you as a person. (Now I know that you do meet the occasional troll in some online communities that never has a nice word to say about anyone or anything but you seldom run into these trolls if you solicit a beta reader to look at your work in private or in a controlled setting.) Please don't think for a moment that you are worth nothing if everyone tells you to go back to the storyboard. You are worth something. The story just needs more time and hard work to match you.

I see all too often writers who give up after one or two bad critiques. Some writers outright refuse to take any C & F because they expected only praise. Usually this is the mark of laziness, acute self-doubt, or delusions of grandeur. You are going to have your eyes opened, painfully sometimes. Criticism tends to come in huge doses while praise is fleeting. Most people who sit down to write a story for the first time can expect not to publish that book. They're new at the game. They haven't done the leg work or gained the experience in order to produce a marketable book. It's the sad truth about writing that the general public doesn't tend to focus on or hear.

The trick is to take that C & F and learn from it. You haven't failed. Truly. You can now move forward and use your new knowledge to up your game. Don't give up if storytelling is really in your blood. If you wake up every day thinking about writing, you are a writer. Finding out that your baby isn't ready to be shopped is discouraging. Go ahead and rant, rave, or cry. This is a normal part of the process. Don't give in to self-doubt. Gag that little voice in the back of your head that says you'll never be a writer. If you want it bad enough, you'll do what it takes to get there. Ignore timetables, the Cinderella stories about other writers, and don't compare your progress to anyone else's. Learn and get back to work.

Beware C & F that tells you nothing constructive. Even the pros need editors and beta readers. If the people you've chosen to read your work do nothing but praise, it's time to find new beta readers. Writers need to stretch and grow. There is no arrival point. Search out other writers who will help you grow. Also, don't get addicted to praise. Don't be a dog under the table begging for scraps in order to be happy. Praise can deceive; lull you into a false sense of accomplishment and security. Revel in the snatches of praise you do get but don't let it go to your head.

Receiving C & F is a delicate thing. Be professional about it, even if you're a newbie. Don't argue back with your beta readers, don't go online and bash them, and don't smear their stories in revenge. Sometimes the initial feedback stings. Put it away for a day or two. Pull it out when you've calmed down and look at it again. Another cardinal rule should be: if you're emotional don't do anything. Take a break from writing and do something else you love. Let the feedback simmer and cool.

From personal experience, some of the harshest feedback I've gotten over the years has tended to make a better writer out of me. I've had to rewrite, revise, completely cut out, and even blow-up stories. I look at those early drafts compared to what I have these days and I smile. I'm forever indebted to the people who beta read for me and who have taught me so much about writing and about my own writing process. Sure, the negative reviews still smart, but I know how to deal with them now.

Knowledge is power, people. Don't deprive yourself. Seek out feedback, think hard about it, edit and revise, and learn.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday Thoughts

I'm on vacation this weekend so no fun linkage this week.

If I could have one wish for this next week, it's that we all take the time to relax from the fuss and stress of keeping up online appearances and remember the importance of being a writer first and foremost. Write something you want to read this week, something you'll love. Indulge yourself. Don't worry about the other eyes that might see it. Turn off the internal editor. Take some time for just you and your writing. Don't blog about it, don't tweet about it, do something personal. Get in tune with that something special—that exciting piece of imagination only found within you.

Have a great weekend everyone. We're transitioning from spring to summer, take some time to enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Critiquing Dilemma

If you write books you should read books.

If you want to learn to edit better and have your eyes opened to some major flaws in your own stories, you should offer to critique other writers' manuscripts. There's only so much you can learn from books on writing and workshops. Taking time to evaluate someone else's manuscript bridges so much more. It puts you in the editor's seat as well as the reader's.

Finding other writers to exchange work with isn't hard. The dilemma comes in the how to critique for others. What if you're faced with a story you subjectively don't care about? What if you find a rough draft in front of you? What if you can't find anything to edit?

The first thing I recommend remembering is that you are doing the other writer a favor. They need your feedback. They live for the praise but they also need to hear where the problems lie. They want their manuscript to be saleable, to feel confident in sending it out on submission. By reading the work of others and taking the time to analyze it, you'll also be building your editing skills which will help when you revise.

Some guidelines to consider when critiquing:
1) Subdue your subjectivity. It'll still be there and is the essence of you as a reader, but when critiquing for someone else you are trying to help that person out. It's not your job to tell that writer their ideas stink or that they shouldn't write about the subject matter they've chosen. If the subject matter isn't your cup of tea, you can always decline before reading the manuscript or make the focus of your critique the technical aspects. Aim to help the other writer, not attack them.

2) You are not the supreme authority over anyone else's manuscript. You will read and critique the story and then give it back to the writer. That writer may be getting other feedback as well. In the end, it will be the writer's call what feedback to accept and what to decline. Don't get frustrated if you see a later draft and find you were completely ignored. The reasons for this are manifold and I'll write a blog post about them later on.

3) Be on the lookout for the positive as well as the negative. The errors are easy to spot. Don't forget to point out all of the things that please you about the story or the treatment. Writers need to know what they are doing right so they don't start second-guessing themselves.

4) Make sure your criticism is constructive not destructive. Keep sight of your role, a helper. You want to see the other writer succeed. If you come across a place that is confusing or a glaring plot hole make sure you point it out in a way that doesn't say "Boy, you're an idiot." Make suggestions to get the other writer's brainstorming gears turning, but don't expect them to sign you on as the producer of their book.

5) Resist the temptation to rewrite for the other writer. Don't do it. I don't mean switching around a word or two to show better flow. I mean taking whole paragraphs or passages and putting them into your voice. Respect the voice of the writer you are critiquing, even if it's not your style at all. If they need to rewrite something for clarity, point it out, then let them take care of it. They need the growth here, don't deprive them.

6) Be honest. Another big temptation is to gloss over your concerns and give the other writer a friendly pat on the head. Sweet crits are not helpful crits. The writer can get that from their loved ones or friends who know nothing about story construction. If what you've read truly amazes you and you can't find fault with it, point out why. Let the other writer know what you admire about their style or characterizations. Show them that while you don't have anything negative to point out, that you still took the time to really analyze their story. If what you see before you needs the jaws of life, don't be a coward. Point out where the story lost you and recommend major surgery.

Avoid name-calling, derogatory remarks, and the tendency to tear down the other writer. Writing is a personal thing. Feedback shouldn't be. Writers aren't to take feedback personally, and critics shouldn't dish it out in a personal way.

7) Keep in the back of your mind some kind of alert button that can go off when you come across anything that reflects your own weaknesses. Maybe you weren't aware that you over-described your protag's attraction for the new kid at school until you see someone else gush on and on and on. Maybe reading all those dialogue tags will alert you to places in your own story that you need to work on. Maybe you'll see the way another writer handles foreshadowing and mystery in a plot and you'll realize that is something you need to work on.

8) Critiquing takes time, a lot of time. Know what your schedule and patience can handle. If you have a lot of other writers wanting to suck up that time, have the courage to say no if you honestly can't take on another critique. Don't sacrifice all of your writing time. Be sure to keep some for yourself.

Questions, comments, other critiquing pointers you'd like to share? Please do.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Saturday Link Special #7

First off, I'd like to say how humbled and grateful I feel for the huge notice the blog got this week. Thanks to those who commented, read, or spread the word about the blog. I didn't feel like I was speaking into dead internet space. You all can't see the numbers but let's just say my heart stopped for a second when I looked at my stats. Thank you.

I'd also like to give a somewhat belated thank you to Cherie from Ready.Write. Go. and S.B. Poscente from Three Hours Too Soon for giving me The Irrisistibly Sweet Blog Award:

It looks good enough to eat, doesn't it? I'm going to be on the lookout for other bloggers to hand this one off to. Actually, I'm always on the prowl for good blogs. I may not always comment on your posts, but I'm reading. The highest compliment or blog award I can give is one of my weekly blog spotlights. I'm looking for blogs that not only post regularly but have helpful and good information for writers and readers. If you know of such a blog please send me an e-mail. I'm open to suggestions.

Now to the linkage for this week:

Let's start off with The Epic Post on Trends (YA & MG) by author/agent Mandy Hubbard. A very good post and another cry to writers to get on the MG bandwagon. Then for some tough love from author M.J. Rose over at the Huffington Post she writes about Things No One is Brave Enough to Tell Self-Published Authors.

On the topics of writing I have for your delectation:
Finding Oomph in your writing over at In the Jungle. Envisioning a Story from A Storyteller's Musings. Pushing your characters and Character Curve-Balls from Crossing the Helix. A great pause and check post on The Mid Point Shift over at It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Gets an Agent. Two great posts on show vs. tell  here and here from Kidlit.com.

Dealing with getting an agent and publishing, agent Jennifer Laughran posts about word count guidelines for children's, MG, and YA. And she posts about choosing an agent based on comparisons to the author's they represent.

Looking for something fun to do in a writerly way? Check out this great blog round robin over at Greenwoman or consider participating in a flash fiction contest over at Writer, Writer, Pants on Fire.

Keep the great blog posts coming everyone and thank you for being part of the online conversation about writing. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Blog Spotlight #9: Ready. Write. Go.

This week’s spotlight goes to Ready. Write. Go. It’s run by one of my fellow AQCers, Cherie. I have to say I’m very impressed with Cherie’s blog. She hit the ground running and has produced a blog worth reading every week. She hits the hard topics dealing with writing, the lighter topics of life and more writing, networks like crazy, and even puts up fun games and writing tidbits. So if you are in need of some new blog fare, check her out. And be sure to check out all of the other blogs she’s linked up to. I’ve found a handful to add to my own reading list.

Some gems from Cherie’s blog:

There are many more. Pay her a visit and browse around. Don’t be afraid to comment either. Cherie’s friendly and helpful.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Manuscript Disease Top 10 Symptoms

Continuing with the hard-hitting Tuesday posts this month, let's think about symptoms that show your story isn't ready to be shopped yet. Note, this doesn't necessarily mean you aren't ready for beta readers. As I said last week, don't give beta readers an early draft and never give an early draft to industry professionals. Not unless you've got a few published books under your belt already or are one of those rare closet finds. You know, the writers who have toiled alone for years and worked hard perfecting their craft to where an early draft from one of them comes out like draft number twenty from someone new at the game.

What are some signs that your story needs more editing and polish? (This list is aimed at genre fiction.)

#10—Word Count:
If you don't know the standard word count for the genre you are writing in, start looking that information up now.

If you do know the standard word count for your genre, adhere as closely to it as you can. Cut out unnecessary words, phrases, even scenes and chapters. Don’t think of yourself as the exception to the rule because you probably won’t be.

#9 Spelling and Grammar:
Contrary to a much beloved writing myth, editors and copyeditors still expect you to do your own editing. Editors and copyeditors still edit, but they aren't going to take something incoherent and make it gleam for you. Do you know how many other great stories are out there that they could be pushing through instead?

#8 Narrative Flow:
Read your manuscript out loud from beginning to end and make note of the places where you stumble over your own phrasing. Stilted exposition and dialogue reveal a lack of editing.

#7 Description:
Less is more in most cases. Reader skimming will commence if you go on too long about how someone looks, what they are wearing, the exact schematics of an invention or vehicle, what every aspect of a view or setting is, the exact play-by-play of a dance or martial arts match, etc.

Keep to the necessities, the details that matter to the actual story and characters. Maybe it's raining but your protag is only seeing the gap in the clouds where the sunshine is pouring through because that's what counts to your protag at that moment.

On the flip side, too little description also cripples a story. I've read a story or two where the writer devotes lots of descriptive energy into clothing, setting, or the dreamy boy across the classroom but when an action scene comes up the writer doesn't give me much to work with. In one case the writer had written down the action but I had no clue what the protag's setting was so it was hard to envision the scene.

#6 Tangents:
Things to look for:

You don't know how it happened. The story started in one direction and ended up far from where it was supposed to go.

Side characters overpower your main characters. Likewise side plot overpowers main plot.

World-building or scientific information butts into the narrative, demanding analysis but doesn't further the storyline or character growth. These are also known as info-dumps.

#5 Bad dialogue:
Things to look for:

Pleasantries like, "Hi, how are you doing?" "Fine, thank you. How are you?" "Oh, I'm fine." You get the point.

Double check to make sure you're not quoting a movie you've seen a zillion times, or any popular film for that matter. At least, don't pass off well known movie dialogue lines as originals in your story. I read a really fantastic story that only threw me in one spot. They used a line that had been overused in Star Wars. You want to keep the reader in your story world.

Look for places where dialogue is there merely for the sake of talking, rather than to further the story line.

Watch out not to info dump or talk to the reader through dialogue.

#4 Plot holes.:
Things to look for:

Transition gaps between key scenes.

What happened at Point B doesn't logically follow Point A. See this previous blogpost for an explanation.

A revelation, burst of character ability, or some other high moment toward the end of the story comes out of the blue. You're missing the build-up or foreshadowing. Maybe the whole journey.

The climax doesn’t resonate with the main conflict of the story.

The resolution or ending of the story is incredulous.

A lack of plot. You only want to write about a couple of characters and have them end up together. What happens between when they meet and when they end up forever in each other’s arms doesn’t matter much. Or—you have a superhero who gets their powers and beats up the bad guy at the climax but there is no training, awareness, or inner conflict to build up to this epic battle.

#3 Flat characters:
Within the story there are characters, they act, they react, they get the job done. End of story. Not really.

Things to look for:

2-D, cliched, or sterotyped characters. Whether they be the main characters or the side characters.

Real people (or creatures) are more than just appearance, words, and actions. What lies behind those words and actions? What is this person deep down? Why are they doing what they are doing? What do they believe? Why does the conflict matter to them? What makes them react the way they do?

#2 Non-sympathetic characters and storylines:
Not all stories are meant for the mainstream market and bestsellerdom. Some are niche situations and storylines which will have smaller audiences. And some storylines, only a handful of people are interested in reading about. Know your market and what to expect.

Look out for:

Depressing characters.

Characters that turn readers off rather than on. A constant goody-goody isn't as sympathetic as a charming klutz who means well, for instance. An abrasive character isn't as sympathetic as someone who relishes a good debate but respects the people they debate with.

#1 Lack of tension and conflict:
Things to look for:

Everything's rosy for the protag.

They can easily conquer every obstacle that dares to get in their way.

They go from success to success with little effort.

Scenes happen in order to showcase descriptive or other info dumps.

Too much drooling and not enough dueling, romantically speaking.

These are the top ten symptoms that I've run into when beta reading for other people and when I go back through and work on editing my own stories. They're all red flags that your manuscript isn't ready for industry professionals. You may still be ready for beta readers though. In some cases, you might have one or two of these red flags and not know it until your betas give you their feedback.

Know any other symptoms not in my top ten? Want to add more detail to any of the top ten? Mention them in the comments.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Saturday Link Special #6

Here we go:

For topics dealing with writing lets start with this excellent post on being your true and original writerly self. The Intern discusses what plot is and why you need one. Need help identifying passive voice vs. active voice? or want to be on guard for the 10 writing mistakes spell check doesn't catch? or feel like diving into the topic of dialogue tags?--Ready. Write. Go. is pulling the punches this week. Following up with my earlier post about voice, style, and treatment, I found this great post about character voices vs. obvious writer voice and why this is a problem. There is a subtle difference between the two which a writer should not confuse.

Querying and would like to download some agent advice for a handy reference? Visit Possibilities for Publication.

Literary Rambles had a spotlight on agent Vickie Motter of Andrea Hurst Literary Management. Find all the online links and info here. Ms. Motter is looking for: "new and previously published authors dedicated to continuously developing their craft and writing poignant nonfiction or marketable fiction.  She loves all things weird, fantastical, morbid, and romantic.  She’s always reading and looking for books that transport her to new lands and allow the imagination to run rampant.  She has a special love of unique plots, dark themes, strong characters, an engaging voice, and witty humor."

Another Secret Agent contest is about to launch over at Miss Snark's First Victim. If you have a completed and polished MG or YA manuscript (SF & F genres included), hurry over to find out the details. The window to enter is Monday, May 16.

And for fun, here's a song by popular YA artist Selena Gomez that fits very well with the topic of voice and celebrating your own uniqueness.

Have a great weekend everyone!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blog Spotlight #8: Dave Farland

Okay, well this week's recommended site isn't exactly a blog. For writers of Science Fiction and Fantasy especially, if you haven't discovered Dave Farland's newsletters, you're missing out. You can find Dave's website here and from there you can sign up to receive his newsletter straight to your inbox. Create a member account and opt in to receive the newsletter. He posts almost daily. He also has a writing forum, conference calls with big authors, and teaches at workshops and conferences. He's experienced in movie rights and even making films from stories, marketing, traditional and self-publishing, and has a no-nonsense approach to writing and publishing. He taught creative writing for years at the university level and rubs shoulders with a lot of big names in the business. He's a big name, himself.

Not that you have to take every word as strict rule or writing doctrine. Dave certainly has his own opinions about some things. But I've found his newsletters extremely helpful. The best part is they're free. You don't have to flesh out hundreds of dollars for this kind of advice, advice usually found in the classroom, a workshop, or a conference.

So if you're looking for some tips on craft, and a good dose on the publishing world, you should give Dave Farland a try.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Public Service Message Regarding Unpolished Manuscripts

When you go to a job interview, you don't wear your sweats and a T-shirt, you dress up in your best business attire. When you want to impress someone of the opposite sex, you practically knock yourself out doing things you know will please that person (or that you hope will.) So why do so many writers start distributing their stories underdressed and at their worst? Ignorance, overeagerness, or an uncontrollable neediness perhaps. Who knows?

I confess this behavior baffles and intrigues me. I see it a lot, so do other writers and industry professionals. Online writing forums draw crowds of these people. Publishers have had to come up with complicated maps, back doors, and secret passwords to keep the deluge out. Agents have auto-reject responses and interns to help fight off the storm of unpolished manuscripts.

Poor things.

I feel for the stories the most, yes indeed.

A story is an exciting creation and when someone gets a hold of a great story they are infused with that excitement. The problem is not getting carried away in this thrall of passion.

A writer bangs out a manuscript, and without a moment's pause, sends it out into the world, certain of fame, popularity, and fortune. Sometimes a writer's cooled down a mite, at least enough not to start pounding on publishers' doors. The writer heads to the nearest writing forum or local writing group and drops their freshly hewn baby in the midst of other writers and expects instant feedback or even editing from their peers.

Take a step back.

Yes, you have an exciting story. Yes, you do need constructive criticism and help from other writers. But wait--aren't they writers too? Don't they also have stories of their own? Maybe they have a life outside of writing--you know, a day job, or a family, or other responsibilities competing for their writing time. Sometimes the over-expectant writer gets hurt when no one offers to read their entire manuscript and fix it for them. Sometimes the over-expectant writer gets offended when people aren't praising that unrefined manuscript and demanding to see it in print. And most times, sad to say, the over-expectant writer has no intention of helping anyone else out in a like manner.

So do put this delicately *cough, cough* if you have any of these over-eager tendencies or recognize some of these aforementioned behaviors in your publishing strategy, you're acting like a selfish, lazy twerp. Ignorance is probably the core of your malady and with some not-so-gentle rebuffs from your peers you might shake the blinders from your eyes. Don't expect others to do your dirty work. Don't expect other writers to devote hours to your story, hours they could be working on their own--particularly if you're at a rough draft or early draft stage.

Now, some over-expectant writers do cool down even more from that first burst of godlike creativity. They have at least done a second or third draft on their manuscript. They might even offer to exchange manuscripts with another writer or two. Maybe. But they haven't cooled down enough. They throw their baby at literary agents and publishers. They think they're ready but the manuscript isn't. Not a bit. Shh...don't argue. I mean it.

These over-expectant writers have sent their manuscripts out unpolished and defected. Their grammar and spelling might be off. Maybe they have huge info-dumps or chunks of pointless backstory. Bloated word count is often the problem. Plot holes, flat characters, choppy style in parts, etc. I sympathize with your eagerness, but don't do this to your story. Please.

Your story needs a fighting chance. I don't care what visions of sugar-plums are dancing in your head. You may have your marketing strategy all figured out. You may have a website, a blog, a Facebook account, and a Twitter account already loudly tooting your horn. You may have cover art picked out, the font for the title, and the rough draft for the screenplay started. You may know who you want to direct the film version of your story and who the leads actors must be. It's all for nothing if your unpolished, rough draft of a story gets rejected everywhere because you jumped the gun.

Don't kill your story. It's the most important factor. So how do you give your story a fighting chance? Don't let your eagerness get in the way. Learn the craft of writing, read a lot, critique for other writers, edit, edit, edit, and polish even more. Make that baby of yours gleam! It's the story that's going to be your best marketing ploy, your best advertisement, your best ally. Feedback from other writers? Of course! Just remember it's a give and take and you want to build up long-lasting beta reader relationships with the right people. Don't turn them off because you asked them for feedback too soon and they are faced with huge line edits on a story that isn't their own.

But, but, what if it takes more than a month or two to do all of that? Let it take as long as it needs to take to make your story what it needs to be. Yes, some writers can zip off a book every few months, some writers take years, and many fall in between. Stop comparing yourself to everyone else--especially the writers you hear about in the news. You're not in a race. Your poor story gets one round, 99% of the time, to gain industry approval and if you kill that chance by being over-eager, you might as well light the bonfire under your manuscript after writing The End the first time.

No, I'm not a publisher or an agent. I'm a fellow writer. Most importantly, I'm a reader; a potential customer. I expect to open the cover of a book and find the meat inside satisfying and filling. Your story is what matters to readers, not your online persona, not how quickly you get the book deal. Readers care about content and delivery.

Whew, I'm glad I got that out. All these poor unpolished stories I've seen come and go through writing forums and my inbox have haunted me. My fellow writers have some solid, fantastic ideas. Please, let those ideas mature and sparkle. I'd like to see some of them in print, truly. I fear I might never see any of the too-soon-shopped stories on a bookstore's or library's shelves. The poor manuscripts didn't stand a chance. Their ambitious creators doomed them.

Thank you to all the writers who have chilled out and taken the time to perfect their stories. You make my job as a critic and reader a delight. I look forward to and have high expectations for your stories. I'm grateful some of these sweet-smelling, cutely dressed, and brilliant babies have come my way.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Saturday Fun

How are you all doing? Made it through another week? Have big plans this weekend? Maybe you're like me and you just want to kick back, relax and spend some time with the people who are most special in your life. I've had a crazy week filled with doctors appointments, surgeries, errands, and lots of work. So...instead of the usual internet related links (which will only keep you from your weekend a bit longer) I'd like to share something one of my sisters sent me:

Proofreading: A Lost Art
The following are actual titles to newspaper articles across the east coast of the United States:

·        Man Kills Self Before Shooting Wife and Daughter

·        Something Went Wrong in Jet Crash, Expert Says

·        Police Begin Campaign to Run Down Jaywalkers

·        Panda Mating Fails; Veterinarian Takes Over

·        Miners Refuse to Work after Death

·        Juvenile Court to Try Shooting Defendant

·        War Dims Hope for Peace

·        If Strike Isn't Settled Quickly, It May Last Awhile

·        Cold Wave Linked to Temperatures

·        Enfield (London) Couple Slain; Police Suspect Homicide

·        Red Tape Holds Up New Bridges

·        Man Struck By Lightning: Faces Battery Charge

·        New Study of Obesity Looks for Larger Test Group

·        Astronaut Takes Blame for Gas in Spacecraft

·        Kids Make Nutritious Snacks

·        Local High School Dropouts Cut in Half

·        Hospitals are Sued by 7 Foot Doctors

·        Typhoon Rips through Cemetery; Hundreds Dead

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Your Story, Your Spin

Voice: “Voice is the author's style, the quality that makes his or her writing unique, and which conveys the author's attitude, personality, and character; or, Voice is the characteristic speech and thought patterns of a first-person narrator; a persona.” –About.com

Style: “Style…is basically the way you write, as opposed to what you write about... It results from things like word choice, tone, and syntax. It's the voice readers "hear" when they read your work…To an editor, on the other hand, style refers to the mechanics of writing, i.e., grammar and punctuation…” –About.com

Treatment: Never heard of this one? Author Dave Farland puts it best: “The treatment is the way that you choose to tell your story. It’s your personal spin as an author, the unique way that you choose to tell a story. It includes many of the elements that you’ll learn about in writing classes in college—such things as the use of character voices, choices in metaphors, character voices, the tone of the story, and so on. It even includes all of the elements of your personal style, your personal word choices, your phrasing, the lilt of your own voice—things that you don’t even think about and perhaps cannot change.”

Voice, style, and treatment are all rolled together. It’s the essence of you as a storyteller. Finding your voice is an exciting journey. Your treatment of the story sets that story apart from all others because it’s the essence of you as a storyteller.

There are guidelines and rules of grammar, punctuation, even story structure. When someone breaks those rules we tend to attack in a bloodthirsty pack. Yes, sometimes we’re critiquing a newbie who doesn’t even know the rules yet. But--I wonder how often we make this assumption of someone we don't know well yet. Perhaps that person isn’t as green as we think. Perhaps what we are assuming and harping on is in fact that person’s treatment of the story. (The bloodhounds freeze mid-air.)

A post on critiquing and beta reading will be forthcoming this month, I promise.

Some writers have achieved notoriety and even their brand name based on their rule-breaking story treatments. But breaking a rule just to break it or to make a sensation isn’t what we’re supposed to strive for. In these aforementioned instances, we’re looking at a writer’s style. Don’t be a copycat for the sake of sensationalism. Don’t rule-break for the sake of trying to make a big splash. You betray your natural voice by doing so.

How do you find and recognize your own voice or style? Writers agonize over the question. They look for the magic incantation to give them instant voice. Your voice will be like you, individual, unique, and something not naturally duplicated. We can emulate other’s voices for practice. I’ve heard of writers who take the time to copy out of books in order to get a handle on that author’s voice and style as an exercise. Sometimes we find we echo the voice of a book we’ve just read or that influenced us a lot.

Your voice is your take on the world, your vision, your way of saying things. Don’t be afraid to be yourself, especially when you analyze feedback from readers. Critiques are good for writers. They show you where flaws and common problems lie in your manuscript. They show the unclear parts, the boring parts, the questions that rise, as well as the frustrations on the part of the reader. Sometimes there is a tendency to try to replace your words with words the reader would have chosen first, to alter dialogue or description to the style of the reader. And yes, sometimes punctuation and grammar become a stylistic issue.

I don’t profess to be an expert. I’m not going to nitpick over all the instances that could arise. I will say that you need to stay true to your voice. Stick with your words, your style (unless the word you picked is completely wrong. I once had a glaring typo using “taunt” for “taut” that needed fresh eyes to point it out to me.) Remember that reading is a highly subjective process. Some readers will embrace and love your style; others won’t find it to their liking.

And don’t confuse your treatment of the story for glaring errors such as plot holes, info dumps, and clich├ęd characterizations. There are some writers who take great offense to any feedback and sum it up to the reader’s failure to recognize their voice, when the issues pointed out had nothing to do with voice.

Keep guard on the voice in your head. What sounds good in the silence of the mind may not translate well through the vocal chords. Use your brain and your tongue to smooth out your words, to articulate the story treatment the way you want and need it to be.

Voice and style go through a maturing process over time. They alter and change with each new story you write, much like your increasing skills in the art of writing craft. Avoid the pitfalls of comparison. Voices shouldn’t be compared. Someone from Tallahassee will have a different treatment than someone from Boston, Shanghai, or Glasgow. Age, gender, culture, life experience, personal philosophy, and even religion will alter one voice from another. Some styles appeal to larger masses of people than others. Trying to make yourself into one of these when your not can kill a writing career.

What about agents and editors? What about booksellers, librarians, and other gatekeepers?  If one is to get published, one needs to produce the treatments They want. Subjectivity, the arm of Fate extended toward writers, is either one’s friend or enemy. Going through careful research when submitting work for publication helps. Recognizing that some treatments will not gain admittance should not deter a writer from writing. Not if you write because you must; if your love of storytelling overrides fame, money, and all the glories of being published. Yes, we’ve probably missed out on some fabulous voices. We’ve all scratched our heads and wondered at other voices that rocket to the top of the lists—voices we don’t care for.

At the end of the day it may be you alone with your manuscript, kicking back and enjoying a tale told in your style. If you’ve stayed true, the words will delight you, the story will carry you away from reality, and a deep sense of satisfaction will cover you like a quilt. There’s nothing wrong with that.

If the Subjective-Powers-That-Be love your voice, you’ll be on your way to publication and possible mass-acceptance.

The important thing is to cultivate and stay true to your voice and style. Enjoy the path to discovery, don’t fear the growth, and don’t try to be someone you’re not.

Bonus Fun:
Here's something zany and unique. The kids are telling the story while the adults act it out. Hilarious--enjoy!