Friday, December 28, 2012

Critiquing, part 1: Dishing it out

Critique partners are an incredibly valuable thing to have. Getting some input from a reader is essential to improving your work. At the same time, learning how to analyze the work of others can actually also help you see your own mistakes. It's common practice to swap work with others so each person gets a chance to give and receive feedback. For this post, I'm going to focus on how to critique someone else's work. [Part 2 covers how to take it, Part 3 covers fact vs. opinion]

To start with, try to give people the kind of feedback they want. That doesn't mean go easy on them, it means to focus on the areas that they want feedback on. Are they looking for a big picture review? Plot and pacing? Or do they want a line by line edit, getting into the particulars of grammar and sentence construction? When you're reviewing a work, especially a draft, it probably needs improvement in many areas. But each of us has our own system for revising and should know what we want to focus on first (though that might be everything for some folks). Giving accurate feedback on something that isn't important to them (at the moment) is far less useful than it will be when they're ready to hear it. So ask for guidance and listen to what they say.

So if you have something to focus on, how do you go about critiquing it? The first thing I recommend is to start by just reading as a reader. Don't critique, just read and keep going without thinking too much or writing anything down. That's how readers read. They don't stop and take notes, they don't pour over commas and adjective choices. A full read through will leave you with an overall impression that is most realistic and important to color everything else you will say.

You see, writers know more about writing than your average reader (at least we like to think we do). We know 'the rules'. Don't repeat words, don't over-write, don't head-hop, don't use adverbs, etc., etc., etc. But the rules are not really rules - they're guidelines. The only rule is don't bore the reader. If the reader likes repeated words with lots of adverbs and colorful prose, then that's fine. If it works, it works. That's why it's best to start as a reader and read all the way through. If, at the end, you enjoyed it, then it worked. That needs to be noted before you start pointing out all the rules that were broken. If you start picking things apart as you go you will never see the big picture, which is ultimately more important than the little details.

Once you have that impression, keep it in mind as you critique. If you notice something that violates a rule, stop to consider if it really hurts the story or if it works in this instance. Sometimes it's hard to decide and I'll just point it out as something to be aware of. The rule about rules is that you are only allowed to break them if you know that you're doing it and you're doing it because it works better for the story.

Another thing to be aware of as a writer is style. We all have our own and it's unlikely that whoever's work your reading is going to match your style. That's okay. Let them have their own. Don't critique something just because you would write it differently. Stop to make sure that you're pointing out something that doesn't work, something that, as a reader, is hard to follow or doesn't flow. And I think it works best if you point out the error without always trying to correct it. Just say it doesn't work for you, maybe explain why, but let the author come up with a fix. If you try to rewrite it for them it will cloud the issue and also meet with more resistance (though giving an occasional example to show what you mean can be very useful).

On that note, how you give feedback can be as important as what you have to say. As someone who's been a teacher for over twenty years (non-writing related), I've learned that the way you phrase something makes a world of difference on how effective the message is received. A critique should include criticism. The point of the exercise is to improve the writing, so you should be pointing out things that you think can and should be improved. There are ways to do that without being negative.

One standard technique is referred to as a criticism sandwich. Start by saying something positive. After all, we want to reinforce the things that are good. It also gets the receiver into a better state to listen to the criticism. Then you can mention what needs to be improved or changed. You finish it off with another positive. It's simple but effective.

Of course, different people have different tolerances for criticism. Some people can take more direct feedback and some are looking for more encouragement. This is something you can ask upfront at the same time you ask what to focus on. But regardless of how blunt someone says they want you to be, it's still necessary to include positive feedback. Without it they won't know what they're doing correctly and so they won't know how to change their parts that need changing. At the end of the day, we all want to know that we are good in at least some small way.

I find that it works best to give a general assessment regardless of what type of feedback they're looking for. That's a good spot to remember the criticism sandwich. Then it's normally expected (and most useful) to include some specifics within the work itself. Comments within the work can be about the details themselves, or you can just highlight a sentence or paragraph that relates to your general comments. Either way, it is helpful for an author to see exactly where something needs to be changed or improved, so giving something concrete for them to lay their eyes on is always good to do. On that note, don't forget to include some praise in the comments. You don't need a sandwich for every thought, but it's very valuable (and supportive) to also be able to see the specific things that do work as you're reading over a critique.

In the end, remember that the critique is about them, the author. Focus on what they want and how you can best help them achieve that. Don't try to change the story into how you'd write it, don't try to show how much you know about grammar, don't say empty positives that have no meaning. Try to read as a reader and give feedback as a writer, be supportive and constructive and focus on trying to help. If you're lucky, your critiquers will do the same for you (Part 2 on taking criticism is HERE).

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Absolute Write Blog Chain - End of the World

The Mayan Apocalypse has come and gone. The Fiscal Cliff is still looming. The ocean levels are rising, species are going extinct at ever faster rates, giant asteroids are flying right past. The world is always about to end, but here we still are.

The theme for this month's Absolute Write Blog Chain is the end of the world. Read the rest of the gang's take on the theme by following the links below. Since I don't actually think the world is ending, I thought I'd take a look at why so many other people seem to think it is (or hope it is, or at least write about it happening).

The end of days is a popular theme in stories, and clearly captures the imagination of the public. From Ragnarok to Revelation to Armageddon, cultures have been talking about how things will end since the beginning. I think it's a projection of humanity onto the physical universe. We all die, therefore the world must die at some point as well. When we look at the world dying we can abstract from our own mortality and view death as something less personal and in a way less frightening. It goes back to the idea that we like to be scared in theory while still feeling safe in reality.

The end of the world is also a very dramatic landscape. However it's going to end, it will definitely create conflict. Most stories include the idea that somehow we might be able to prevent it. That if we try hard enough, are smart enough or pure of heart, that the hero can ultimately find a way to save us all. We like to believe that perhaps we, ourselves, will be able to cheat death. That we can indeed live on for a perpetual future. A happy thought.

Imminent doom is also a great way to introduce tension into a story, a tension that reaches every character. We learn more about people when they're put under pressure, it condenses the time it takes for transformation to happen. In short, it creates a crucible that reduces people to their core. That's a great thing for a story, and the ability to cover large arcs in a short time is a boon for writers. So we'll continue to see the end of the world in any of its many forms being used as literary devices. And we'll enjoy the vicarious thrill as we sit safe in our homes and watch the storm blowing outside the window.

Me, myself, I believe the world will end. It's literally just a matter of time. If nothing else, the sun will expand and swallow our planet in a few billion years. More likely, an asteroid strike large enough to wipe out life as we know it will hit our planet before then. I expect I'll be long gone before anything of the like happens. Humanity will hopefully have spread and will survive. But I'm sure it will be very exciting for those who try to live through it. Good luck to y'all.

Participants and posts:
orion_mk3: (link to post)
dolores haze - (link to post)
randi.lee - (link to post)
writingismypassion - (link to post)
bmadsen - (link to post)
Ralph Pines - (link to post)
AllieKat - (link to post)
MsLaylaCakes - (link to post)
katci13 - (link to post)
Angyl78 - (link to post)
pyrosama - (link to post)
Araenvo - (link to post)
CJ Michaels - (link to post)
SuzanneSeese - (link to post)
gell214 - (link to post)
SRHowen - (link to post)
meowzbark - (link to post)
Aheïla - (link to post)

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Physicality - Print on Demand

I dipped my toe into the self-publishing world by putting out a few novellas as electronic books. It seemed like a good format for the stories, and it was pretty easy to get things ready for electronic publication. It was also free, which is nice when you're starting out and trying to learn as you go. Smashwords made everything quite easy - their formatting guide is very well done and works to get a document ready for conversion to any ebook format.

But having an electronic book out there is not quite the same as having a physical book. Let's face it, even as the world is embracing ebook readers, we all want to see our name on an actual book that sits on a real bookshelf.

Self-printing, however, used to be an expensive proposition. Printing up a few copies was inordinately costly, and if you printed in quantities large enough to get the cost of a single book down to reasonable levels then you were stuck with thousands of books that you might never sell. It was a risky endeavor.

But Print-On-Demand (POD) has changed that. Printing has become inexpensive enough to do in small quantities. Several different companies exist that allow you to create a book but each copy is printed only when it's ordered. And the costs are comparable to books published by the rest of the industry.

I've been looking at the POD options for a while and decided to give it a test run. I chose Amazon's CreateSpace because I already have my ebooks on Amazon and because it's cheap and easy. Lulu is another very popular service and there are more.

I plan to eventually publish the novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo, but it still has lots of editing to do before it's ready. So I decided to compile the three novellas I already have out there into a single book. The main purpose was to go through the whole process to see what it's like. Here's how it went.

I started with Word documents that were formatted cleanly for ebook conversion. I downloaded the template from CreateSpace for the size book I wanted (I went with 5x8 since it's a relatively short book). Then I just copied and pasted from my document into the template. It was easy enough to create the document, but the little details proved trickier.

One of the first things that's necessary is to eliminate widows and orphans. These are single lines that get separated from a paragraph by a page break - ending up alone at the top or bottom. They just don't look right and they interrupt the flow of reading. Luckily Word has a feature that eliminates them for you by adjusting the line count on the page. You have to go into the settings to change it, but easy enough.

click picture for larger version
Another thing that proved tricky was getting the headers and footers to work. You want your name at the top of the page with the title on the facing page. You need page numbers as well. The tricky part is that you don't want them on the first page of a chapter. Ultimately I had to go into the document and make each chapter a new section so you could control the headers and footers within the section and keep the first page clean.

And it's nice to have something a little special at the start of a chapter. A common way to do that is with Drop Caps - an extra large first letter, maybe even in a different font. It took a little playing around to figure out what I wanted and then a little work to get them at the start of every single chapter.

In all it took a good day of working and playing to get the text to look like I wanted it. The cover design is a whole other beast, but it's pretty straight forward graphic design. In the end, I think I ended up with a book that looks like a book. CreateSpace has a great preview online that really lets you see what the printed edition will look like, but I wanted to hold the thing in my hands and really see it up close so I ordered some proof copies (around $3.50/each).

The proofs arrived in three days. I now have a my first book - ever! The cover printed a little dark, they're a couple pages that I need to adjust slightly, but overall it would look perfectly at home in the local bookstore. Ultimately that's the plan, but for now it will be holding a special place on my bookshelf and those lucky enough to receive a copy for Christmas. I'm confident that when I'm ready to publish my next novel, I'll be doing it with POD in addition to ebook. The physical world and the electronic.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jumping the tracks

With my NaNo novel written, and my other WIP finished just before November, I'm now in total edit and revise mode. Let me tell ya, I don't like it. What I like most about writing is the act of creation. Coming up with a story, imbuing life in characters, figuring out where it all goes. Then the writing of the idea - putting words down on paper that flesh out and complete my stories. That's all good. The polishing and refining - not so much.

I know that editing is an essential part of writing. I know that my rough drafts are just that: rough. I do want to make them better. Lack of desire is not the problem. I can even see my own mistakes. I often read things and realize that they don't work. I have no emotional attachment to them and don't care if they get chopped to bits. But I find it incredibly hard to actually make changes.

I think the problem is that once I write something it gets set in my mind. That's just the way it is. It's really hard for me to picture anything different. It's like when they switched from Dick York to Dick Sargent on Bewitched. Sargent did a fine job, maybe even better job, but York was in your head. [curious to see who gets this reference - it's actually way before even my time :-)]

It's not just ideas but individual words that stick in my brain. When I'm writing I can come up with a variety of ways to say something and pull out the thesaurus to get just the right description. But once it's down on paper, my mind blanks on changing it. It is what it is.

So how do I overcome this? I've found a couple things that help. First, it's often easier for someone else to derail you (that's a good thing in this situation). Have a critique partner that throws out a new idea, or even just a specific reason why the current one isn't right. It gets your brain going in a new direction. Even if you don't do exactly what they suggest it can get the creative juices flowing.

What if you don't get any suggestion of where to go, just the knowledge that you're heading down the wrong track? That's harder. For me it takes a lot of brainstorming. A lot of sitting and thinking - or better yet, walking and thinking. I throw a lot of random thoughts out and most of them are worse. But if I keep trying I generally find something that fits. There's that eureka moment when you land on a new track and the path is clear. Then I get to start writing again, creating something new and different. And that's the fun part.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

You Got the Look

I got tagged by Tamara over at One Magic Bean Buyer in the 'you got the look' meme. The idea is to post a section from your WIP that contains the word look. You should take a look at Tamara's blog to check our her excerpt from her book Veil-Walker. Good, quick read.

I've been putting up a lot of excerpts from my NaNo project 'A Dauther's Revenge: A Necessary Evil Tale' and I realize that they have been pretty dark. Well, it's a dark book. Right there in the title. So, for a little change, I thought I'd pull out a passage that I think is kinda sweet. It's fairly early in the story and a rare time that things go well for Tarya...

“Dammit, girl.” He spits on the ground. “I ain’t no orphanage.” He looks over the yard to where Mani is counting supplies as the men transfer them between wagons for delivery tomorrow. “But if I throw you to the wolves I’ll never hear the end of it from the boy. We both know he’s sweet on you but you’re not looking to become a peddler’s wife, are you? You’ve been keeping him at a distance instead of twisting him on your finger, and I appreciate that.”

I didn’t think he noticed Mani’s crush, much less my attempts to let the boy down easy. I shouldn’t be surprised – he knows everything that goes on in his caravan. “No, I’m staying here. You don’t have to worry about me, sir. I’ll take care of myself.” I say it like I believe it.

“Who said I worried. I just don’t want to listen to that heart-broke boy all the way across back to Wan.” He spits again to show he means it. “Let’s talk to Boss. Maybe he’ll let you stay in the barn for a spell. You could teach those stable boys of his a thing or two about tending horses.”

Nathon takes me inside the building to meet the proprietor. He’s simply called ‘Boss’ and he perches himself behind the bar of the common room, looking over the crowd like a farmer surveying his field. The people inside are all his, workers and patrons alike. He’s in command here and everyone knows it. Nathon walks me up to the bar and pulls Boss over with a nod of his head. 

“All settled in Nathon? Looking to take your room?” Boss eyes me sideways as he asks the question, like he’s surprised in Nathon’s choice but is far too astute to actually question it. 

“No, not just yet. I actually be having an offer to make you. A bargain, really.” Nathon nods to me. “This here is Tarya. She’s been serving as cook and caretaker on the road. She’s also mighty handy with the steeds. I wish I could keep her with us but she’s of a mind to stay and see the city a while. I figure if you were to give her a job at least I would have the chance to hire her back when she figures out what low wages you pay your serfs.” 

Boss gives him an appraising look. “You trying to pass your slackers off on me again? I got all the help I need; why’d I want another babe suckling at my teat?”

“Because a pretty lass always brings in more men to the tavern and ones that work hard are as rare as gold. Let me tell you about this girl…”

And I'm going to pass on the 'look' to a few other friendly bloggers I know. Please drop by their sites and let's see what they've been up to:

Shannon Knight
Christina Jean Michaels @ The Muse of My Imagination
Aimee L. Salter @ Seeking the Write Life