Thursday, May 29, 2014

When is a Story Ready for Critique?

The last post focused on the usefulness of giving critiques, but what about getting critiques?

On its most basic level, preparing a story for critique provides me with both an informal deadline and a great intermediate milestone for a work in progress.

If all goes according to plan, getting a story critiqued is one of the last rungs on the ladder to completing it and sending it out for publication. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always come out that way.

So, how do I know when something is ready for critique?

I don’t submit first drafts to critique. In fact, I don’t show my first drafts to anyone. I need the security of “only my eyes will ever see this mess” in order to write bravely and take chances. The second draft is all about the big picture, major character adjustments, and fixing obvious plot holes. In the third draft, I clean things up and attend to style paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence.

At this point, I’ve arrived at the place where I feel I’ve taken the story as far as I can by myself. This is when comments from others feel most useful. Sometimes, I know there is some aspect that isn’t quite working, or some element that is out of balance, but I can’t figure out how to fix it. This is where a nice range of comments can really help me get unstuck.

I usually feel that the story is close to being finished, and I’m itching to wrap this project up and get on to the next one. Of course, sometimes my story isn’t close at all. See my post: Story Fail, Critique Win. Yeah, it’s disappointing. Writing stories requires a certain amount of ego, like when an actor takes a part; I really have to commit emotionally to the story I’m working on. It’s tough to find out that I’m farther from the finish line than I thought, especially when there isn’t always a clear fix.

Writing a good story is complicated, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. A good set of critiques will not give you a single solution but many. It can be frustrating. Sussing out several opinions and ideas about a broken story is hard work. But finding a way forward and revising it is also a creative act; one that has led me to take my stories to places I hadn’t imagined at first.

And that’s a good thing.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Yes, I’ll Bang the Drum for the Library…

"For Rebecca and Sylvia, the new library can't come soon enough!"
A woman walks in to a library in her old gardening shirt, after taking the dog for a sweaty walk and picking up her kid from school. Why? Because that’s what she does every Thursday.

On this particular Thursday, a lovely reporter was there, and asked her for her thoughts about the awesome-sauce new library being built down the road. What can the woman do but fluff her hair and turn to the guy with the hulking camera on his shoulder.

So there’s my sound bite and there’s my 9-year-old browsing the shelves at the Austin Public Library. Of course, for the rest of the afternoon I was distracted by all the ridiculously articulate bon mots I could have said if I’d only known that I’d be talking about libraries on camera that day.
Going to the library has been a part of my life, well, all my life. I’ve blogged about my own mother taking me to the library. After college, I got my Library Science degree and worked as a librarian in New York City for several years. As a parent, a reader, and a writer I find the library invaluable. When I was interviewed, I didn’t know what angle the story would be taking, and I’m glad I got to be the one of the voices cheering for the new library.
Now that I’ve seen the story, let’s be clear: I am all for transparency and realistic planning. According to the story, the original estimate for the library was 125 million. If that number had been in the bond in 2006, then the current price tag of 120 million would have been under budget. It was wrong to misrepresent the amount this project would cost in the bond, no matter the intentions.
That said, can we stop measuring our tax expenditures on cultural institutions in terms of cops and firefighters? It’s a false comparison or at least a facile one. It's definitely a tired old argument. Yes, money is tight and needs to be allocated carefully, but for any self-respecting city this is not an either or equation. I mean we expect both emergency services AND libraries, right? Why shouldn’t we have a library as nice as the one in Seattle or San Diego?

I believe all the arts are worthy of some portion of our tax dollars. I believe a free and open public library that offers books, materials, electronic access, databases, classes, meeting rooms, and yes, even a coffee shop is a cornerstone of our democracy. Above and beyond all of that, there is just something relaxing about walking into a building full of books. 
Well, relaxing until the reporter and her cameraman show up! 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Workshops, Critique Groups, and What Works for You

OK, my writers' group doesn't look exactly like this... Dance of Apollo with the Nine Muses by Baldassarre Peruzzi
If you are a writer and are planning to attend Austin’s own ArmadilloCon Convention, this is your heads up that the deadline to submit work and sign up for their excellent Writers’ Workshop is fast approaching. Get your 5,000 word diamond in the rough together and submitted by June 15, 2014!  I have participated in this workshop the past few years and found it to be both inspiring and useful: well worth the price of admission (which, by the way, also gets you into the con).

For those of us who don’t have the time or the funds to go for the big name workshops like Clarion or Odyssey, know that many local cons run writers’ workshops that will give you a chance to read and critique other people's work and get a critique of your own project.

I’ve blogged about the usefulness of critique before. For me, it is invaluable to get someone else’s eyes on my work at some stage in the process. Also, since I enjoy the chance to socialize with other writers, my regular in-person critique group keeps my daily writing routine from feeling too cloistered. 

I also use the Online Writing Workshop. OWW charges an annual subscription fee, which, I feel, inspires a greater level of commitment and participation. And, in the end, better crits. The site is well run, and I’ve made connections with writers from all over the world trading crits there.

Over the past couple years I’ve built an informal schedule for regularly critiquing and getting my own work critiqued. This has helped me grow as a writer in several ways:

  1. Informal deadlines – Slugtribe meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. I try to bring something in every 4 to 6 weeks. If a piece takes longer to get to a critique-able stage, I can just move that deadline out another two weeks. Still, having a meeting to go to gives me something to shoot for when I’m planning my daily writing.
  2. Regular face-to-face critiquing – Learning to articulate what is and is not working in a piece of writing has taught me more about writing than anything else. Having to think on the fly (at Slugtribe we read the work at the meeting) and put my ideas into words hones a different kind of assessment skill. Hearing what other people in the room think of the same piece of writing is also illuminating!
  3. Regular written critiques – With the online option, I can read a story over twice, make notes in the margins, and then put my thoughts into written form in a more coherent way. I try to put something up online every couple months, too. If, after a Slugtribe critique, I’ve made major changes to a story, I’ll submit the revised version to OWW to get fresh eyes on it. Other times, I’ll submit something new for a critique on the first or third week of the month.
  4. Making connections with other writers – I’ve met lots of other writers in all stages of development. We commiserate about the writing life, and trade tips and techniques about anything from punctuation to how to fit our writing in around kids and significant others.

Wherever you live, check out the resources around you. There may already be a critique group meeting at your local library.  If so, sit in on a few sessions and see if their style suits you. If it doesn’t you can always start your own group. There are also several other online options Lit Reactor is another subscription based site for writers. Critters critique group is free and can be a good place to start (though I found the critiques there varied pretty wildly as far as quality).

The important thing is to find the groups and people and schedule that works for you. You’re looking for a support system that inspires you to write and finish more material. 

In person or online, remember that it’s you who’s auditioning the group, not the other way around. While there is no perfect group (as they are all made up of humans after all), find or create a network that supports you and keeps you moving forward.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Element of Surprise, Revelation, and Epiphany

Like this? Get the tee-shirt here.
The other night at my critique group, I was thinking about what we writers are trying to accomplish when we withhold information. 

On more than one occasion, when our group has discussed the opening section of a story or an early chapter, there’ll be a general consensus that it isn’t working. Either there seems to be a piece of critical information that is alluded to but never revealed or, less specifically, it’s just not engaging. In the later example, usually the characters are motivated, but we don’t know why or the conditions of their motivations seem trivial.

When these problems come up in discussion, the answer from the writer is almost always along the lines of, “Oh, there’s this shatteringly brilliant piece of information that will be revealed in the NEXT section or chapter or whatever.” So, you know, just hang on because it’s going to be AMAZING! The problem is, no matter how cool the world of your story is or how fascinating your characters, people won’t keep reading on the good faith that something great is going to happen somewhere down the line. 

Now, for a certain kind of story the withholding and revelation of a crucial bit of information is what it is all about. Let’s call it a “twist story.” For me, twist stories are more closely related to jokes and riddles. These can be fantastic stories and they have a long history in the genre. The Twilight Zone made a cottage industry of producing them. But, writer beware, their success in the past, make them tricky to pull off today. TheTurkey City Lexicon even has a bullet point on the topic, titled “The Jar of Tang,” referencing a Twilight Zone episode. Check it out to see the Lexicon’s explanation of the difference between a story conceit and an idea. 

More often with the stories I’ve read and critiqued, it’s clear that the writer is not attempting to write a twist story. If you're not writing a twist story, then it’s worth your time to think about how to use the facts of your story to best effect. *

Suspense and revelation 

Many good stories often (more often than you might think, once you go looking) tell you right at the beginning what’s going to happen. Turns out revealing information is often just the thing we need to get them emotionally hooked into the story.

I’ll let Hitchcock, the master of suspense, lay it out for you:
"There is a distinct difference between suspense and surprise, and yet many pictures continually confuse the two. I'll explain what I mean. We are now having a very innocent little chat. Let's suppose that there is a bomb underneath this table between us. Nothing happens, and then all of a sudden, Boom! There is an explosion. The public is surprised, but prior to this surprise, it has seen an absolutely ordinary scene, of no special consequence. "Now, let us take a suspense situation. The bomb is underneath the table and the public knows it, probably because they have seen the anarchist place it there. The public is aware the bomb is going to explode at one o'clock and there is a clock in the decor. The public can see that it is a quarter to one. In these conditions, the same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: "You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode! "In the first case we have given the public fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the explosion. In the second we have provided them with fifteen minutes of suspense. The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed."
What Hitchcock is talking about here is dramatic irony. This is when the audience or the reader is privy to information that the characters don’t have. Writers from the ancient Greek playwrights to Stephen King have used this tool, because it is such a great way to generate tension and emotion. 

It’s true that readers read on because they want to know more. This can be a trap when a writer thinks that they can build suspense by withholding crucial facts relating to the plot and characters. When I’m reading stories (that are not “twist” stories), it’s not the WHAT that holds my attention, but the HOW and the WHY.

Revelation and Epiphany

To take things a step further, there is also the idea of revelation and what James Joyce called epiphany. Joyce recorded surprising moments that, 
"[S]eemed to have heightened significance and to be surrounded with a kind of magical aura."
To me, epiphany in writing is a kind of alchemy where an unexpected moment or image creates an emotional response. These are the stories that take the idea of revelation beyond the surface facts of the plot to engineer a shift in perception for the reader. These rare gems make me see the world a little differently after I’ve read them.

"He did not want to play. He wanted to meet in the real world the unsubstantial image which his soul so constantly beheld. He did not know where to seek it or how, but a premonition which led him on told him that this image would, without any overt act of his, encounter him. They would meet quietly as if they had known each other and had made their tryst, perhaps at one of the gates or in some more secret place. They would be alone, surrounded by darkness and silence: and in that moment of supreme tenderness he would be transfigured." 
– James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artistas a Young Man

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Hugos: or, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup.

See more vintage Soviet propaganda art here.

I don’t really want to write this post. In fact, I was determined not to contribute to the annual bitchfest about how messed up the Hugo Awards are. Yet, here we are. As a relative newbie to the politics within the genre in general, and Hugos in particular, I’m approaching the whole topic with more than a little trepidation.

So many people have written so
much already about this year’s 
Hugos.  If you want to know more,
a good place to start would
 be this already massive
Last year, I went to my first WorldCon in San Antonio. I voted for the Hugo Awards, attended the awards ceremony, and enjoyed it immensely. The whole experience was also an eye-opening introduction to the kind of internal politics that go along with one of the genre’s biggest literary awards. I’m not talking about politics-politics here. I’m talking about the kind of hanky panky that surrounds any prize for something as difficult to judge as a piece of writing.

The discussions around the genre’s big prizes are just a blip in the background noise of internal politics specific to science fiction and fantasy writers. There are also ongoing debates about gender, race, privilege, and yes, politics. Because much of this discussion happens on the Internet it comes with a healthy dose of trolling and vitriol. But hey, that’s the sea we swim in. Still, it's all good. Debating tough topics is the kind of boots on the ground problem solving that allows groups who have a common interest, but are not necessarily like-minded, to evolve and stay relevant to their constituents.

Then an interested party sent me this Washington Post article from the Volokh blog titled “The Politics of Science Fiction,” and asked me what I thought. As I struggled to frame the whole brouhaha in a way that would make sense so someone who hasn’t spent any time in the genre trenches, I realized I was more annoyed with the element of this that has nothing to do with genre. This post wasn’t about the politics of science fiction; it was about using science fiction to say something political.
Basically, it looks like there was some logrolling
on the nominations ballot by some folks. Let’s 
just say the folks in question are not political 
moderates. Let’s just say one of the people on 
the ballot has some rather odious opinions. *
What I have run out of patience with, are the relentless voices crying in the wilderness (and I see it on both extremes of the political spectrum). People whose message is so important they feel justified co-opting – well – anything and everything they can get their hands on. Day in and day out, these people saddle up on their political hobbyhorses, and grab every news item, personal anecdote, and event for their cause.

I believe the Hugos were created to recognize great writing in our genre, and no matter how broken the system may be, trying to bend it into a tool to promote a political agenda belittles an already troubled award. I refuse to let these players – both the ones inside and outside the genre – hijack the Hugos as another example in an argument that, in the end, is both simplistic and lazy.

The Hugos have been around for 75 years and will be for many more. It is just one of many literary awards the genre gives out every year. I think, like Scalzi, I’ll play the hand I’m dealt. I’ll read ** and vote according to the merits of the works on the ballot. Through it all, I’ll keep putting my own words down on paper, because there are worlds to be built, characters to create and love, meaning to be searched for, because for me, it’s about the work.

Every year the Hugos come and go, in the end its the work that endures.

* That doesn’t mean his writing promulgates his views. I will read the whole packet and vote for the best piece of writing regardless of the author’s beliefs.

** I won’t be reading the Wheel of Time series because, well, I just can’t read a billion pages before the end of July.