Sunday, May 28, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 6: Time for a Spit Shine


We’re two weeks from the June 11 deadline to submit a short story or the first chapter of a novel and sign up for the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Believe it or not, two weeks is plenty of time to create a brand spanking new piece for a writing workshop. If you’re diving in from scratch, clear some time in your schedule, buy some extra coffee beans, and peruse the earlier boot camp posts in this series. Take what you need and write like the wind!

Regardless of when you start writing, we’re not talking about a shining piece of perfection here. What you want to bring is something in decent shape that will give the pros and your fellow critique partners an idea of where you are as a writer. In my opinion perfection is overrated. Strive for it, sure. We all do, and we’re all destined to fall just short – welcome to the creative life. I know it’s scary to turn in something that you can see is flawed or has some issue you just can’t resolve, but the worst that will happen is that your critique partners will point it out. If you’re lucky, you will also receive useful solutions for your story in particular and gain new skills for your writing in general.

If you’ve been following along with my (patented) boot camp schedule you should have a middle revision of a story that, while it still might have some rough edges, has all the necessary parts and culminates in some kind of climactic moment. Either your protagonist DOES something or s/he DECIDES something, and this action or decision carries an actual and/or emotional consequence – preferably both.

Honestly, with two weeks to go there is plenty of time to cycle through middle revision territory a couple more times until you are really happy with the shape and emotional impact of your story or chapter, but I know how good it can be to finish ahead of schedule so let’s talk about the final proofing and polishing.

A few words about grammar.
Grammar isn’t really a final revision task as your grasp of grammar affects every stage of the writing process, but this read though is a good time to really attend to word choice and sentence structure.

Don’t feel bad if you find grammar intimidating. I did for years. Really, if I can get a working mastery of grammar, anyone can! I didn’t get great grammar instruction in middle school, and after that I was on my own. Only after returning to writing as an adult did I take my grammar education into my OWN hands. Now grammar is no longer a nebulous topic where I worry that I’m going to somehow screw up every sentence I write. Once I got a toehold, I have found grammar to be an enduring source of fascination. Like clay to the sculptor, exotic musical keys to the pianist, words and sentences are a writer’s medium.

That said, if you think you know everything there is to know about grammar – check yourself. The English language is constantly evolving – including grammar. Being completely prescriptive about grammatical rules (current or past) will limit your writing, too.

There are many wonderful sources for learning grammar out there, and Strunk & White isn’t one of them. For me its twee style, brevity, confusing advice, and contradictory examples were just more of the same ineffective instruction that got me so deep in the hole during my school years. Here’s a far more eloquent and thorough take down of S&W.
"The book's toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can't help it, because they don't know how to identify what they condemn.... They know a few terms, like "subject" and "verb" and "phrase," but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write."
If you feel you need a grammar refresher, here are some resources. Start small, commit to spending 10 or 15 minutes a day, and focus on one element at a time.
For specific questions, check out the Perdue Owl grammar site
Put the Grammar App or the Grammar Up app on your phone,
Listen to The Grammar Girl or the the BBC's 6 Minute Grammar podcasts.

As you go over your writing, just remember it’s all about Clarity: 
  • Think about the essential meaning of each sentence.
  • In description, use specific, telling details.
  • Focus on precision of language.
  • Check the usage of any tricky words and make sure you’re using them correctly.
  • For style, try to replace linking and helping verbs with action verbs. 


Look for common errors like their/there/they’re or its/its. I read my draft aloud again, “un-contracting” every contraction, and I almost always find one or two slip-ups.


There. All polished up and ready to go. Right? Next week I’ll talk about knowing when a piece is finished. Seems a simple enough question, but when your trying to become a better writer, it can be hard to know when to stop trying to improve a piece and let it go.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 5: Give it a Rest!

Noon: Rest from Work by Vincent van Gogh
Three weeks to go before the June 11 deadline to submit work and sign up for the AmradilloCon Writing Workshop. There is still time to go through the entire boot camp program from the first post and create a short story or novel chapter in order to participate. Consider blocking off a few chunks in your schedule if you can, take a vacation day from work, or bargain with your family for some “away” time and create your own mini writer’s retreat.

If you’ve been following along with the program so far you’ll have a rough draft in hand that has the essential elements of characterization, plot, and worldbuilding in place. Now it’s time to give it a rest. I firmly believe revising my own work effectively depends on my ability to see it with new eyes. One of the best ways to do this is to put it aside for a while. If no deadlines are involved, I find a week or two to be ideal, but even putting something down for 24 hours can be immensely helpful.

In this post, I’m going to talk about both resting and your next revision. Because, as I mentioned before, there’s no rule against submitting your work early!

For me looking away from my current writing project is just as important as the time I spend focused on it. If, like me, you have a few pieces in various stages of completion resting one piece means that you can turn your attention to a different one for a while. If you don’t have anything else on deck, then spend a day or two with your reading. If you’re working on a short story, pull up some short stories online (see the fiction links in my sidebar for a start). If you’re working on a novel chapter, read the first chapters of the novels in your bookcase or at your local library or go to Amazon and preview a bunch of first chapters.

Resting, in this case is, more like what happens when bread dough “rests.” After activating the yeast and kneading the dough a baker covers it and lets it rest. But a lot is happening under that kitchen towel. While the baker is attending to other things, the yeast ferments, the dough expands and the final loaf’s signature flavor and texture are formed. When the baker returns to the dough, it is something different. For writing the transformation takes place in your head. Your subconscious is always percolating themes and ideas and this process doesn’t stop during revision. Time away from your piece can give you space to solidify what is important about this story and what elements might need to be enhanced or minimized in order to refine it.

After you’ve given your piece a rest, read through it again. If you feel that everything is roughly in place then it’s time to start refining your piece with a more granular revision. (If, on your read through you find a logic problem or plot hole, go ahead and excise or plaster in some words or a scene before you go on to the next step – all of these revision stages can be repeated as needed.) If you’re ready to refine what you have, here are some things to focus on:

Transitions
These are the breaks between scenes, changes in location, point of view, or gaps in time in the story. An extra space, a short line of asterisks, or a transitional sentence can mark these changes. Generally, I find that too many transitional separators are often a sign that the story (especially one limited to 5,000 words) is perhaps trying to paint on too large of a canvas. If you have a lot of disjointed scenes, consider scaling your story down, e.g. by narrowing the amount of time it covers or number of characters. When I write a first draft, I can be pretty lazy about writing transitions between scenes, this draft is where I write those sentences that link adjacent scenes together. If you are looking to write a story that is more conceptual or is set in a vast time scale you can use alternative forms. For example, when I wanted to write about all of the different ways we think about time, I did it as a list story.

Paragraphs
Once you’re happy with the way your story flows from one scene to another, turn your attention to your paragraphs. A good paragraph, like a good story, will have a beginning, middle, and end. It should progress to a tiny resolution of it’s own. At times, for impact, you might want to have a one sentence or one word paragraph.

Dialogue
Is tricky, because in fiction dialogue is not the same as natural speech, which is often rambling and circular. Dialogue has to accomplish something while looking like it isn’t, to be intentional without appearing intentional. Dialogue often moves the plot, but it really shines by revealing character. Employing dialect can work, but it is often more effective to think in terms of individual habits of speech. Actors often do this when creating character, think of how Lumbergh in Office Space almost always starts off with a long, irritating “Yeah.” Try to give your main characters unique speech patterns and check that all the dialogue is accomplishing something, either moving the plot forward or revealing character (preferably a little of both).

As you’re refining your piece the ultimate goal is to focus it both structurally and for emotional impact. You’ll be surprised how much you can dial up the conflict and drama of by making small adjustments at this point.

Next week we’ll talk about the final polish, and working at the sentence level for clarity and grace. There’ll be a bit about dun DUN dun! Grammar.


If you have any questions, put them in the comments and I’ll address those too!




NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!
Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.

This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!

Sunday, May 14, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 4: What have you got?

We’re About a month out from the June 11 deadline to turn in your work and sign up for the Armadillocon Writing Workshop (of course you can turn in your piece early – hahaha! No, seriously, the door’s open). If you’ve been following this boot camp program you should have a messy zero draft in hand. (If you just found this, it’s not too late to catch up. Scroll back to boot camps one and two for gathering and developing ideas, and week three for writing your zero draft.)

NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!
Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.
This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!

This week it’s time to set aside your writer’s hat and start revising. But when it comes to revising you’ll need more than one hat. I’ll call this first hat the big picture hat. This is where you need to assess just what exactly you’ve got.

Sometimes our stories are buried beneath our conscious thought. If you wrote your first draft free and fast, new story elements or characters may have emerged or changed direction on you. Instead of forcing things back into your original plan, this is an opportunity to see what this draft has to say to you.

This is big picture editing. Start by simply reading through the mess and listen for the piece’s beating heart. What are the things your characters believe in? Fight for? What is won or lost? Try not to be distracted by scene details or sloppy sentences. Resist the urge to do any housekeeping at this point. Try to get a bead on the essence of the story, the thing that will guide your revisions.

Now that you’ve read your draft for you, it’s time to pick up your pen (or put your document into revision mode) and read through it with your readers in mind. Is your story coherent or are there places where you might lose your reader logically or emotionally? This first revision is where it’s easiest to make big structural changes. Move the furniture around, write new material, change a character’s motivation, age, gender if you need to, try different dialogue.

Oscar Wilde's handwritten manuscript 
page of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Mostly, I’m drawing with my red pen here, circling text to be moved, crossing out chunks, writing brief notes for new scenes or dialogue. Here are some things to think about:

Plot:
Is there a beginning, middle and end to the story? Does the protagonist change in some way? Do they succeed or fail at something? Do they have a goal or desire? Did the characters get side tracked? If so and if the story lost its focus you can either redirect the characters to your original idea or explore the alternate story that the sidetrack suggests. It can be helpful to write a brief reverse outline here. Make a list of each thing that happens to see if you have cause-and-effect chain of events running through your story.

Pacing:
May be wonky at this point. Frankly, pacing can be tricky in shorter forms. Five thousand words can go by in a flash, so check for long stretches of description or rambling characterizations. Try to keep things concise and make sure events are progressing in a way that increases the tension (i.e. keep tightening the thumb screws on the protagonist).

Clarity:
Are there logic holes or missing steps in the chain of events that will confuse the reader? Are there places where you can adjust the description or characterization that will make the ending resonate more powerfully? In theater, early rehearsals are devoted to blocking out the actors’ stage movements. Think in terms of blocking. Make sure it’s clear to your reader where your character is in the room/woods/spaceship/etc., and in relation to other characters.

With scribbled up draft in hand or on screen, you are ready for your first big rewrite. You’re not shooting for perfection here, just improvement. Try to improve the overall shape of the story, dial up the conflict if you need to, refine the characters and their desires. You can rinse and repeat this process throughout the week. Hell, if the zero draft isn’t cooperating, you have time to start over from scratch. Maybe there’s some moment within your first try at a story that branches off, intrigues you, go ahead and see where that one leads you. Your goal is to come out of the week with something rough but cohesive, something with all the moving parts in the right places.

All of this advice holds for an older piece that you want to refurbish. Except that what you have may be more polished, and it might be harder for you to scrap big sections, rearrange or take the story in a new direction. If so, this is the week you kill your darlings. No matter how beautiful your sentences, how shapely your paragraphs, if the story isn’t working it’s going to have to change and probably change into something very different than your original idea. Sometimes I feel better if I keep the stuff I amputate in a folder with the idea of using these scraps in something new someday.


Next week will be a rest/catch up week. I will also talk about revising for style and grace (that other editor’s hat) for writers who may want to fast track and get their story in early.


Sunday, May 7, 2017

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Bootcamp Week 3: Time to Write Your Zero Draft!

Francis Bacon's Studio is a mess. Read about artists making a mess here.
We’re now five weeks away from the June 11 deadline to enroll and submit your short story to the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. You’ve, gathered ideas from the world around you (and from what you’ve been reading and watching). Maybe you’ve pulled out an old story or novel chapter that isn’t working yet. You’ve spent a little time developing one or two of these ideas by noodling out some scenarios or creating some characters or both.

Now it’s time to commit and write a Zero draft.

Technically this is your “first” draft, but even the thought of creating a first draft can be daunting, especially if you have a strong vision of what you want the story to become. Personally, my zero drafts are abominations; a mess of ugly writing where the only thing I’ve succeeded at was mangling the idea. (TBH, sometimes I will get a story that just rolls off my fingers in pretty good shape, but those are gifts, and it seems more useful to talk about what it takes to create a story the hard way.)

This zero draft is the one that nobody but you gets to see. I don’t outline my short stories, but I usually have a little collection of notes, a few random lines of dialogue, and an idea of the beginning, middle, and end. With that in hand, I sit down and try to write the story through to the end. Try to lock your critical mind away in a box and just write. Try to write, if not fast, then with deliberate speed. Try not to look back. I try to write at least 1,000 words in a day. If you’re pushing ahead, not stopping to edit or polish anything, you’ll be surprised how quickly you can lay down 1,000 words. I often write more. Since I’m not editing at this stage, if a scene really isn’t working, I’ll just write a different version of the scene or write a different scene altogether. For the zero draft, don’t be afraid to write scenes that may not make it into your final draft. The next day when you return to the work, you can weigh both scenes and move forward from the one that works.

Creating something new is messy, so give yourself permission to make a mess. Keep moving forward writing as fast as you comfortably can. Often the first few paragraphs are a kind of throat clearing, don’t worry you can cut it later. In the meantime, clear away. Keep looking for a way into the story. If you can’t find a door, look for a window and climb in. My first paragraphs often have more to do with these flailing attempts at entry, and I almost always cut them in revision. Resist the temptation to polish your opening lines and paragraphs before you move on. Just try to keep the basic story in focus and keep pushing the narrative forward.

The trick here, especially with short fiction, is to scale your story to the word count limit. Mostly this is something that comes with practice. Writers from Bradbury to Jay Lake made a practice of writing a short story a week. Check out Charlie Jane Anders' great post about writing prolifically.

For now, just keep your cast of characters limited to two to four “speaking parts,” and focus on one life-changing event or revelatory moment for the protagonist. You can also try Vylar Kaftan’s super cool short story formula.

All of the above will work for both short stories and novel chapters – first chapters, especially, should be a tight, dramatic unit of storytelling.

If you can sit down for an hour a day, you should be able to generate a zero draft of a short story or novel chapter in a week or less. Think more about the general size of the story as opposed to the specific word count limit at this stage. Shoot to tell the story in 3,000 and 6,000 words, as the final word count will change in revision.

Don’t forget to keep reading short stories and novels. Pay attention to how the stories or chapters are structured.

OK. Pick up your pens and get out your keyboards and write your zero draft!