Rumination

I have come out of the fog – not a fog in any kind of momentous navel-gazing brood spiral, mind you, but I have had the need to think, and in so doing, ventured into the foggy domains of my mind. At least that is what it felt like. I needed to figure stuff out, contemplate on options, chew on problems. And chew I did.

I can’t believe it’s been three months since my last post. I had big plans. My last post was about the pressure to be outside and as if the gods had wanted to make me a fool – not a hard job – I hardly did any of the usual outdoorsy things I do do. Yes, plans were made, but just as easily broken.  Which, truth be told, are always my kind of plans – those that are flexible and have no problem fragmenting into other plans. So I and my significant other did not get out and about. Not physically.

Instead, I wandered in the wilderness of my thoughts. I rambled through my stories, trying to discover the best path. I took serpentine perambulations, and trekked on rocky trails, all in an effort to find my way. Frankly, I was feeling lost with my writing. And, sure, I could have stayed in one place, like they tell you to do in wilderness training, but as I have as of yet failed to adequately train my stories to rush St. Bernard-like into author-rescue-mode, I didn’t think that a wise choice. After all, I could have been waiting out there twiddling my thumbs for a long time. I had to get myself out.

When the student is ready, the teacher will present themselves. These words have echoed through many parts of my life as of late and heeding the call, I enrolled in a class, sought guidance and information online and advice from my friends. I think of myself as a lifelong student. But the thing about learning, being a student, accumulating information, is the need to digest it all. Thus, to ruminate. Amazing that the definition of this means all at once to chew repeatedly for an extended period, and to go over in the mind repeatedly and often causally or slowly.

You may know about Nanowrimo, that upcoming yearly online event where writers commit to a 50,000 word first draft. It is a great way to challenge yourself and an easy way to gauge your success. You write, you count, you keep track, you get to 50,000 and you win. But other parts of writing are not so straight ahead. How does one quantify or qualify rumination? When someone asks, what you are doing and you say thinking, it’s hard not to flinch at your answer. What does that even mean? Sometimes thinking can come off like you’re just wasting time.

Now to be fair, my thinking also entails making notes and reading and then striking things out and then re-reading and reading some more as I bounce all over my work [or works] in progress. It also means studying and researching and trying to find solutions or other ways of looking at a problem. It can mean jumping from one thing to another to give my mind a break, going from a big problem to a smaller one and then back again. But ultimately, it is thinking and it is hard to calibrate the value of that work. Not until the end. And sometimes all you’ve learned at the end is the way you were thinking about the problem was all wrong so now you’ve got to try another tack.

Word count is a palpable method to monitor your progress, and come November you bet I’ll be counting. But story generation, plotting and editing for me, at least at this stage in my writing, calls for a more contemplative approach and keeping track of word count feels like a pointless exercise. So I’m trying not to have guilt about what might be perceived as wasted time. From an outsider, sure, it doesn’t look like you’re doing much but ‘butt in chair’ is ever one of the golden rules of writing. As long as I’m in that chair, pouring concentrated (see how I did that?) energy into my art, that counts. In the words of Albert Einstein – creativity is the residue of time wasted.

Shall I explore rumination further? Give you something to bite into? Well, without chewing on, chewing through, chewing into that food for thought, you cannot get closer to solving the problem. Or perhaps I should say solving the problem in a manner that can be replicated, something you might be able to recreate the next time. So let the word rumination play on your tongue. It is so much more active a word than thinking.

Next time someone asks what you’re doing as you stare off into space, or at your screen or at the page, say you’re ruminating. Because sometimes you just have to bite into a problem.

 

Advertisements

Counting Words

I’ve been getting the word a day from Merriam Webster and am shocked at all the words I haven’t been using in my day to day. My recent favourites –  skosh, concatenate and torpedo not because I’m particularly violent but because it comes from the latin torpere, meaning to be sluggish or numb and I was amazed to learn that. I mean how the heck did that happen? How do you get something that zooms through the water to blast away your enemies from something that means sluggish? I know, right – That’s a head-scratcher.

As artists, whether we take it into account or ignore it all together – the business end of art, exists. For writers, one of the components of that is word count. There are rules. When is a novel really a novella? When does flash fiction become a short story? How do you determine the suitable word count for certain age groups, or genres? And readers have expectations.  Anyone wanting to have a cozy read on vacation, may torpedo the idea of a 480 page tome, but for some Epic Fantasy readers, bring it on.

So word count is not something to dismiss lightly. And if that is your concern you should head over to Writer’s Digest. They’ve got it laid out for you – well don’t go right now because I’d really like you to read the rest of my blog and you’re here anyway and that post isn’t going anywhere… But there you have it: a reliable source. So why did I start my post with talk about the dictionary? I’m getting to that.

I remember a heated conversation about word count during a critique group session, and I said – it’s not about word count. It’s about making your words count. I was being both sincere and flippant. In reality, for every rule about word count there are outstanding books, ones that everyone knows, ones that sit smugly on bestseller lists, ones that naysayers, debating the validity of said heretofore standardized word count, will present to argue the point – and frankly – they ain’t wrong. So while Writer’s Digest is an invaluable source of information for writers and I would never question their authorit-ae, sometimes our emphasis is on the wrong syllable – if you get my drift. So it bears repeating.

It’s not about the word count. It’s about making your words count.

Yes, I like to make up words, but I also respect the value of the ones already available. I noticed that getting the word-a-day into my email, made me think about and even play with words more often than I did in the past.  Then, actually using these new words, helped to plant them more firmly into my vocabulary.

Let me add a skosh more on the subject of making words count. Word choice is key. Let’s take ‘walk’ for example. Walk is such a vanilla word. But if you thesaurus it up, you get all manner of choices.

He walked slowly towards the car.
He trudged towards the car.

In my example, not only have I reduced the word count by one, I have described the action of the character more specifically. You can imagine the character trudging, perhaps with exhaustion or despair. Walking slowly, on the other hand, could imply so many things as to become almost meaningless.

So how to begin? Did I mention Merriam Webster? Dictionaries and Thesauruses; obvious tools. Make them evident, conspicuous, obnoxiously available in whatever form you desire. Pop helpful links right up there on your favorites bar. Do the same for the Urban Dictionary because… hilarious, for one. And two, you never know what’s going to inspire you to think outside the box. I’ve already been able to use Resting Murder Face in conversation. Yay, me!

Now, if you’ll excuse me – I have to go write some flash fiction using the word concatenate.

Storyboards: Teeny, Tiny Index Cards

In a previous blog I talked about using story-boarding to revise. Story-boarding, however, is probably better known as a plotting tool.

Story-boarding is a literal translation: you create your story by writing each scene on a 3×5 index card and laying it out on a wall or board in the order that works for your story. If you’ve ever watched the special features or extras on a DVD, especially those for HBO shows, you might be treated to a visit to the writers room. That is that magical place where the writers sit in communion with the muse and wait for her to sprinkle them with pixie dust and voila, an amazing story is born, full-fledged, fleshed out and fabulous. Uh… no. Nope. That’s not how it works. Not at all. But you do get to see how they work their storyboards and you should.

So how do you use story boarding?  Much the same way as the show-runners do, expect you’re alone and you don’t have a writers room, but if you’re lucky an office on the main floor of your home, or if you’re not so lucky a desk in the basement, or if beggars can’t be choosers, the dining room table ’cause everyone eats dinner in front of the TV watching HBO anyway. Now in the case of the office, maybe you’ve got it set up so you have space to actually put up those little index cards. You can also use the floor, if you’ve got it free. Or if not, you can get creative using a blanket and safety pins, or one of those huge craft paper rolls. But if none of these work, you can try Scrivener and its virtual storyboard called the cork-board, or yWriter and its storyboard feature.

The premise to story-boarding, whether you use actual cards or virtual ones, is the same. You want to write down key information for each scene so that you can adequately see your story. And remember you’ve got a space that’s 3×5 inches or 8×13 cm. But no matter which measurement you use we can all agree that that’s a small space. And don’t go writing so small that you give yourself irreparable eye strain. That’s not going to work. You need to get enough on the card so that you can grasp, at a glance, how each scene moves the story forward. And that’s the key isn’t it. Because it isn’t enough just to write down what happens in a scene; you need to know how what happens is important to the story. And here’s where a few choice words can come in handy on such a small piece of cardboard.

And So Technique

When you start writing especially in fantasy and science fiction, the options are endless. But with that comes the danger of running off on tangents and stringing together random scatterings of events that, although might be cool, lack cohesion to the basic story-line. By writing and so on your index card you focus on the thread that’s pulling you, and hopefully your reader, through your story. And so or and therefore, illustrates cause and effect; how the moments flow naturally or better yet believably into each other. This method also offers some much appreciated distance from which to view your story; especially those epic tomes that these genres often generate.

A great post to read, is this one from Query Tracker.

Try Fail or the Yes, but / No, and Method

Stories are about conflict; without that there’s no story. One of the best ways to examine this, is to use your story-boarding to see how your conflict unfolds. Each scene should have a conflict crucial to the story. At each of those moments the question is; will the hero succeed or fail? Yes or no? The kicker is, to each of these answers there is a further complication or setback that propels the character and the reader into the next scene. Yes, they succeed, but their situation gets more complicated. No, they don’t succeed, and there are further setbacks. See how that works? Using this on an index card forces you, not only to examine the progression of your story but the pacing and tension. Remember the ‘yes, and’ only comes before ‘they lived happily ever after’.

Brandon Sanderson talks about this technique  – ‘nuff said’ – like I’m going to say it better than Brandon Sanderson – just check out the video.

You can also take fifteen minutes to check out Writing Excuses with more on the subject.

GMC

G = Goal. (What does the main character want?)

M = Motivation. (Why does she want it?)

C = Conflict. (What’s in the way?)

There are two types of GMC: internal and external. By focusing on these points on an index card you are not only working through plot but character and using both elements to drive the story. Now you might look at that and say – but isn’t the GMC going to be the same for the entire story – isn’t that, in fact, the story? Sure, but in each scene it’s going to manifest itself in different ways. yWriter has a tab that is a variation on this theme, using Goal, Conflict, Outcome / Reaction, Dilemma, Choice to analyze a scene. By exploring the GMC of your character in each of your scenes, you’ll have a much more engaging story.

Several writers discuss this technique on their blogs. Though I can’t remember how I glommed onto it, a name that keeps popping up is Debra Dixon’s book – Goal, Motivation & Conflict.  A great article that delves into the importance of your characters’ goals is this one from Writer Unboxed.

Story Grid – 5 Elements of a Scene

According to Shawn Coyne, the creator of the Story Grid, every scene should have the following: an inciting incident, a progressive complication, a crisis, a climax and a resolution. If that isn’t a checklist, I don’t know what is. So to break it down, and I’m quoting a little bit here from the story grid: an inciting incident is an event that knocks things off balance. A progressive complication is an event that makes things even worse. A crisis acts as a question: what’s the main character going to do now. The climax is the main character making the decision to act and try and solve the problem. The resolution is the outcome of that decision and the action taken. Answering these for each scene on an index card would be a great use of that small space and an effective way to storyboard.

At the StoryGrid Shawn Coyne goes in deep with this and uses examples for the podcast, A Deeper Dive into the Five Commandments of Storytelling.

So, whether on the computer or the wall, story-boarding can be used to see the big picture, check your tension and pacing, and make sure your character or scenes are engaging. Here’s a little bit of fun with the nursery rhyme, Mary Had a Little Lamb – hopefully you all know it.

Story Grid Plot GMC
inciting incident /

AND SO

Mary had a lamb that followed her everywhere GOAL – the lamb wants to be with Mary

MOTIVATION – because Mary loves it so

progressive complication It followed her to school and disrupted the classroom  
crisis What’s Mary going to do about it?  
Climax /

AND SO

Nothing  
resolution The teacher has to put the lamb outside CONFLICT – the teacher does not want the children distracted
Is the action successful?

Yes, but /

No, and

Does that stop the disruption? TRY/FAIL

Yes, but  –

The lamb is waiting  outside which excites the kids all over again

Okay – so that’s sort of a hot mess, but I can already see plot holes and where building up the motivation of the characters might enrich the story. So if this could work on a nursery rhyme, think what it could do for a story.

You’ll find plenty of assistance on using Scrivener; learning how to change the look of the cork-board and adjust the fonts and all that. Here are just a couple from the Write Practice and Simply Scrivener. And don’t forget to check out You Tube to see Scrivener in action. Ultimately, however, a tool is only as effective as your ability to use it.

When plotting, using those teeny, tiny index cards, you might try any of the methods I’ve mentioned. Approaching your story-boarding with an appreciation of the components of a scene and how scenes make a story, will get you closer to creating a strong framework for your first draft. And isn’t that the goal?

 

Time Crunches and Opportunities

Did I tell you I live by two axioms. Well not just two … oh you know the rest.

There is never enough time in the day.

Things always take longer than you think.

But this blog post is not about making the time to take advantage of opportunity. No. This is about, when time is limited, seeing that limitation as an opportunity.

I am fortunate enough to have a somewhat predictable ebb and flow to my busy times. The word, somewhat, being of course open to a very loose interpretation. But I can look at my year and reasonably predict when my time will get taken over by atypical onerous duties I have no control over.  The rest of the time, however my schedule gets eaten by the usual predators; household, family and job. Still these demands are by and large, reasonable. I have made certain lifestyle choices that allow this, choices that I know, having had some intense conversations about it, others are not keen to make. To each his own. Everything costs: time, money, sanity, soul. Pick what is important and what you are prepared to pay and pay it. Did I say I love axioms? Or maybe I just have too much time on my hands. Not likely.

My previous blog was all about managing the time you’ve got. Key elements are:

  • Plan, but schedule wiggle room – allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

  • Discipline not to act, is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

  • Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

  • Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

My biggest fear is having time crunches pull me off track completely. I know. I know. I’m the one all about forgiveness and being easy on yourself… yadayadayada… But I worry that it will be so much harder to get back on the path again. So I try not to stray. That might sound a little exhausting and maybe a little unrealistic. Remember I myself wondered how anyone can keep the pedal to the metal indefinitely, but just because I’m going doesn’t mean I’m going at the same speed, all the time. This busy season I was determined to not stress myself out, but also not let myself down regarding my art.

I explored two challenges this past month. One was a version of NaNoWriMo, called Camp NaNoWriMo that happens in April and July. As you may or may not be aware, National Novel Writing Month occurs in November during which, writers attempt to write a 50,000 word first draft. The cool thing about Camp NaNoWriMo is you create your own parameters for success. Want to write an outline for a new novel or revise a draft, or create a world bible for your new fantasy story? This is your chance. You can use word count or even hours worked as parameters and you decide what constitutes ‘winning’.

I chose hours and committed to 2 hours a day of working on a draft of my current WIP [work in progress]. I did not get nearly as far as I wanted. Ah, axiom number two. How disdainfully you rear your head. I did however succeed with my hours. So, good on me. And again, was I religious about the two hours per day? No. My weekends carried the majority of the load, however even those few minutes during the week helped to keep me chugging along and feeling positive about my progress, slow as it was.  I could have so easily let my manuscript hit the back burner for the month and really been totally justified, but come May, the ole jalopy was going to sputter and steam and give me all kinds of grief getting back on the road. This May not only did I not lose momentum, I was rearing to go.

The second thing I did was the Writer’s Digest Poem a Day Challenge. More writing, I hear you scream at the screen. More?!!! What are you nuts? Now hear me out. While I have been working on short stories, my primary focus has been novels. You know novels – huge gargantuan undertakings, a kin to pushing boulders up hills? Yes. Novels. Poems I thought would be much smaller boulders and might offer a sense of completion far quicker than novels. So, challenge accepted. And completed! Yes, I did a poem a day, every day [except for one day – but I made up for it the next] for the entire month of April. Oh, it isn’t good poetry but it is poetry – some of it, atrocious, some of it, meh, some of it, not half bad. I also used the time to get to some lyrics for songs I have been meaning to finish. [Have I mentioned I’m also a musician – I know, I know – I’m a sucker for punishment]

As an AWADJ time management is crucial. Sometimes though, a crunch is inevitable. Instead of getting squeezed maybe try these [sorry – totally did not mean to rhyme – darn you poetry challenge]:

  • Look for inspiration; activities to galvanize action, challenges that will gently but firmly kick you in the butt to keep you going

  • Focus your efforts: work smaller projects to enhance specific skill-sets

  • Set time limits: narrowing your parameters can give you a manageable quantifier, while committing to a month allows you to get in the flow, make up time, if things get extra crunchy, and create distance from larger projects

  • Embrace change: adopt a flexible mindset to make use of, or create opportunities.

Art doesn’t have to be spelled ‘ART’. It can be ‘art’. A little bit is better than none. Besides, you can make excuses, or you can make art. Which will it be?

Time Management

I live by two axioms. Well not just two but for the purposes of this article we’ll say two. One: there is never enough time in the day. Two: things always take longer than you think.  So how do we get to everything we want to, in the limited time we have. That is a question I think we all struggle with.

You might have noticed recently, I have not been posting as frequently as I have been in the past. That’s because I’ve been going through that holy-crap-is-that-really-the- time- where-the-hell- did-the-day-go time of my year.  We all have these. Some may believe it’s their every day.  If so, my hats off to anyone who can keep that pace up, without end in sight. I do wonder however how long anyone can realistically do that and if that is even good for you – but that’s a conversation for another day.

As an AWADJ, justifying an activity that may appear frivolous to the average person, that you also don’t get immediately paid to do, allows for a lot of doubt and self-recrimination to seep into the mindset of an ‘Artist with a Day Job’. So time management has even deeper meaning and regarding your efforts, significant consequences.  Regardless of whether you’re an AWADJ or just someone with a lot of demands on your time, I think we can all agree that life is busy. So how do we manage our time effectively?

Planning

You can’t know what you’re dealing with until you take stock. It isn’t hard to take a calendar and fill out every little slot. You might even feel a sense of relief. Look. There’s all the proof you need for that stretched like a worn rubber band feeling plaguing your every waking hour.  But what you’re really doing is trying to get a handle on your schedule, not fill it.

Have you ever scheduled appointments only to realize later that you didn’t account for the time it would take you to get there? Maybe that seems an obvious mistake. What about the time it may take to come up with a solution to a problem. This is an act of creation. Creation can’t be rushed. It’s one thing not to take into consideration google maps or your gps, but how can you account for your ‘thinking’ time. That’s why leaving ‘down-time’ in your schedule is very important. Yes you’ll need to recharge and relax but you also need time to reflect.  Time to reflect without your schedule pushing you to act may allow you to catch errors before they become obstacles to getting things done.

Plan but schedule wiggle room. Allowing an easy pace to your activities will not only help quell the stress, but may allow you to accomplish more.

Discipline

I write this word and I know what you’re thinking. Yes. I must have the discipline to get done all I say I will, to stick to the plan, to stay on schedule. Sure but you know what’s even harder than that? The discipline to be able to set aside interruptions not on the schedule. To prioritize is all well and good but if you succumb the first time some unforeseen issue shows up to rob your time, your plans will quickly fall apart.

That’s not to say that things won’t come up. And if you’ve built in wiggle room you may have the resources of energy to react. That’s not the only issue however. You might be tempted to sacrifice recreation time activities or down-time crucial to that recharging we need. The wisdom you have to learn is when to adjust and when not to. It might be a hard lesson and one that can only be done through trial and error, but to start with, you need the discipline not to get swayed the minute an ‘emergency’ pops up.

Discipline not to act is just as important as the discipline to stay on track.

Flexibility

Look at the schedule from a distance, the big picture. Day to day time management is important; all those steps be they big or small count on the journey. But if an hour a day of writing is what you are shooting for it doesn’t have to be each day. Think weekly if that works better into your schedule. The goal is to get to what you need to do, but in making long–term progress, allow for variation in both the allotment of time and how it is distributed.

Dissect your activities. There may be some that demand a good two hour stretch, while others can be negotiated into smaller chunks. Understanding what those are goes a long way to utilizing your time. And again, don’t discount the need for relaxing, recharging and reflecting. It may not feel like you are doing anything, but you may be surprized at how those three ‘r’s can help you get things done.

Flexibility depends on knowing the demands of your individual activities – seeing the micro and macro and being able to adjust what can be accomplished in the time allotted.

Forgiveness

You are going to stumble. Plan and be disciplined all you can but bank on being human. Life happens. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Control what you can, manage what can be managed and then take the rest of it as it comes. Yes you can look back and say would have, could have, should have, but regret really isn’t very helpful, unless you can use it to learn something useful going forward.

Forgiveness is not making excuses – it’s acknowledging the limitations inherent in our lives.

Artistic endeavours rest completely on the shoulders of the artist. So time management is a skill as necessary as the most rudimentary skills your art demands. After all, if you don’t make the time to get to your art, it isn’t going to get done. It’s as simple as that.

The Big Picture

When one starts on a story, it is usually birthed from a kernel of an idea; a scene, a bit of dialogue, an interesting character, a world concept. But by the end of the first draft, that seed has sprouted. It might be easy to say it has grown into a tree, but you may find yourself in a forest, wondering lost without a path, unable to see the forest for the trees.

I’ve mentioned critique groups and beta readers and how helpful they are. Turning to them to get perspective when you are lost, seems a natural choice. The issue with this in regards to critique groups is their vision is narrowed to about a chapter at a time, with gaps in between readings. And while they can certainly tell if the moment is ringing true for the scene, they may not be able to tell me if it is doing so for the story. And while beta readers may be able to give you general feedback, they may not be able to pinpoint those specific elements of the story that aren’t working, let alone give you suggestions how to fix them. The truth is, no matter who you try to get help from, whose opinion you seek, there may be limitations to what they can do for you, because, after all, this is your story. Your vision. But then again, isn’t that the problem?

Sometimes you’re so close to your story, you can’t get an accurate look at it. So, how can you make sure all the dots are connected. How do you check that the puzzle pieces are fitting neatly into each other.  How do you pull back far enough to be able to see your story for what it is. How indeed.

Visual Organizing with Story-Boarding

Perhaps you need to see everything laid out in front of you before you can sort it. Story boarding with index cards might work for you. Index cards are great because they force you to condense the concept of a scene into that small space, but also allows for notes to be made.  Write out your story, one scene per index card, and lay them out in order on the floor or on a wall. Now you can evaluate the effectiveness of your story. You might find that certain chapters need to be rearranged. Perhaps you might need to introduce a character earlier in the story.  Maybe the middle lags because there’s not enough tension. Plot holes, inconsistencies, structure issues should be clearer from this view.

Don’t have sufficient wall or floor space? Scrivener  has a virtual cork board that allows you all the benefits to laying your cards out, without worrying that someone’s going to come along and kick them out of order. Another great piece of software is yWriter, a free writing program that allows you to make notes about your scenes and move them around with ease. Though it doesn’t offer the cork board feature, it still is great for keeping track of all the moving parts that is a novel. Either way, whether on paper or the screen, condensing your scenes, is one way to get a handle on the big picture.

Elevate your View with Mapping

Mind maps are ways to visually represent ideas and concepts and their connectivity. It can help to wrangle all aspects of your story into a picture that you can easily view. With it you can track, check and test the way your novel is ‘mapping’ out. You can do it by hand, but there is software that can help with this – again, just google it.  By creating a diagram of your story, made up of the plot, its characters, and any other key elements, you can see how they all interact. This birds-eye view offers the opportunity to tell if the parts are supporting the story.

A Guided Outlook with Spreadsheets

Weather you call them spreadsheets, checklist or tables, organizing your story and the elements of your story into this format allows you to make sure you are accomplishing what you want in each scene. There are many you can find online – just google scene tracker or plot spreadsheets or create your own template. Essentially, your plot is laid out in outline form and you assess its efficiency using certain values, deeply probing how your scene functions in the grand scheme of your story. The simplest approach you might take is the yes, but / no, and’ technique which Brandon Sanderson discusses at about the fifty minute mark [but seriously you should just watch the whole lecture because really who are you kidding – it’s Brandon Sanderson] or the ‘and so’ method which is a take on the cause and effect approach to plotting. And while these are plotting techniques, they can also be used to make sure your story is still on track.

If you’ve been reading my blog, you’ll know I’m a big fan of The Story Grid. Editor Shawn Coyne uses a tool called the Story Grid Spreadsheet to help analyze the effectiveness of your scenes. In his own words, your spreadsheet will pinpoint exactly where you nailed your best moments and where you need to do more work. Not only where to do the work, but how to do it. If you are curious, check out the spreadsheet for The Silence of the Lambs. As you can see this spreadsheet is quite extensive, really challenging you to dig deep into a scene. But whether you start complex or simple you are looking for something that can offer you a big picture view while seeing the inner workings. And what is that big picture?

Theme as Your Guiding Light.

Gaining perspective can be the hardest part of creative endeavours. You know the old writers ode – kill your darlings. When I first heard this I didn’t know what that meant. In subsequent years, I have found many interpretations. Delete any passages that sound too authorial because you aren’t being true to the voice of the story. Condense characters; if they’re too similar, do you really need them all. Lose the scene: it may work on its own, but is it pushing the story forward. Still, it’s hard to pull back far enough to see which passages, which character and which scenes are the ones to stay, and which are the ones to go.  I find that keeping my theme in mind helps to view these two key issues at the same time; the story as a whole and the parts that it is made up of. So the question becomes, is this scene doing all the things it should to further the plot, engage the reader and the like but also, in some way shining a light on the theme.

By testing the elements of your story against your theme, you might be able to nurture the root of your idea, cultivate all the branches that support the plot and produce a great story.  Your story.

Critique Groups and Beta Readers

At some point in your writing journey, you’re going to need someone else to read your work. And I’m not talking about agents or publishers or editors. I’m not even talking about your mom or dad or your second cousin twice removed. I’m talking about beta readers and or critique partners.

In my mind I sort of separate these two categories, though I’m sure others would disagree. The biggest distinction for me is that critique partners, often found in a critique group, are other writers, while beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers themselves. Both are helpful though in taking your stories from drafts to publishable novels. And while you can pay a professional editor, you might benefit from taking it first to a critique group.

A critique group are fellow writers who will read and critique your pages for you

The parameters of these groups can vary. Some choose to remain genre specific. The benefit to this is you have other writers familiar with the conventions of your genre. You also have discussions about well-known writers and can reference their work for easy examples. Sometimes it’s just fun to geek out and have someone actually get your weird Firefly reference. On the other hand, having other genre writers read your work, a mystery writer reading an epic fantasy, say, might allow for unexpected and mind-expanding insights into your work. If you write poetry or short-stories, the form may be a more important distinction than the genre in regards to the critiques. Again in this situation you have other writers familiar with the specific needs and parameters that the form requires and are able to read your work with this in mind.

Some established group have scheduled weekly sessions. This can be the needed kick in the butt to write and submit (lather, rinse, repeat) on a regular basis. These groups often have very specific rules of conduct with word count limitations and procedures on how to conduct the actual critique. There are some groups that require the author to remain silent during the critiques or only to ask a few questions of clarification. Others are a bit more loose.

The advantage to having an established group of writers is they are in it for the long haul and able to give valuable feedback on novel size work. The only down side might be the time it might take to get through an average 80,000 word story, as turns are rotated among the members. So depending on how many members are submitting and the diligence of the meet-ups, your novel may take a year [or several] to finish. Usually keeping the group between 5 and 7 members allows for the occasional and understandable absenteeism while maintaining a useful amount of feedback on your work.

Critiques are on a quid pro quo basis; you read and critique chapters or scenes from their work and they do the same for you. Having another writer catch your grammar and punctuation gaffs, point out your inconsistencies and notify you of structure speed wobbles, are just a few of the obvious benefits to a writer.  But if you go into it only thinking of the feed back you are getting, you are missing out on the opportunity to improve your ability to critique. This is an important skill to have and one that can make you a better editor of your own work. Besides which, if your critique partners aren’t feeling as if they are getting a fair exchange, you might find yourself with less and less people interested in spending the time on your own work.

Critique meet-ups operate more on a members-drop-in sort of approach

Meet-ups tend to be monthly scheduled open door affairs. Attendance is come when you want and writers wait their turn to read their pieces and are given feedback on the spot. This works for writers who may have difficulty committing to a schedule or are only dipping their toe into the writing world or perhaps only need feedback on short pieces or scenes from novels. Usually these groups are quite big and are a great place to meet many other writers and to hear a variety of styles and genres and in turn stretch your critiquing abilities. Sharing industry news and views and networking is another advantage. It might also be a great place to meet like-minded writers in order to create a smaller dedicated critique group.

Online critique groups are virtual communities

This is a great opportunity to get a lot of feedback on your work. Online could work for writers who have not been able to find writers in their immediate city or town. Online communities are often arranged by genre, again with the benefits that garners. Although from first-hand experience I find that meeting face to face and the subsequent conversations that erupt over the critiques is extremely valuable both as a writer and a critic, one can’t underestimate the value of feedback from multiple writers actively involved in an online community. Not that it is a guarantee, but often these writers are a little more comfortable navigating the internet and may offer valuable direction there for a newbie. In order to manage these large groups, some communities have strict rules of conduct and mandatory critiquing before you can submit. This can manage those that want something for nothing, but not gage effectiveness of critiques. You might have to weed through several to find feedback you can use.

That of course is the key element to whatever critique group you become involved in; feedback. As writers, we want to make sure our story is coming across and the only way to do that is to have the story read. Having said that, once you feel as if you are getting down to that publishable novel, you might need to find yourself some Beta Readers.

Beta Readers

Beta readers is another term used for critique partners, but in my mind, I think of them as your genre guinea pigs. They are those die-hard genre fans that have a lot of reading under their belt and while they might not write themselves, know a well-constructed story when they are reading it. They might not be able to give you all the help a fellow writer might be able to give, using all that writerly jargon, but they will be reading the story as a reader reads it. And after all, isn’t that who we are writing it for?

It might be a good idea to give a beta reader an entire draft, maybe even (dare I say it?) a paper copy, allowing them to make notes in the margins as they go. These notes can be as simple or complex as they are capable of giving. Even a comment on the likeability of a character or when they get board or felt like skipping a part, or when the gravitational pull of a small satellite doesn’t jive with the spacecraft trajectory, can give a writer great feedback on what they need to look at in the next draft. Did I mention genre? Make use of their love and appreciation of it; which means don’t give a military sci/fi fan a romance novel, unless something big gets blown up and not just a relationship. Also, make sure your novel has already been extensively revised and copy-edited and is definitely not a first draft. Respect the reader and their time. After all, they are doing this, usually, for free.

Critique groups and beta readers are easy things to find out about. There are several articles that you might find helpful. I suggest you start with this article from Writer’s Digest. It explores the whole critique group concept. A must for writers venturing out for the first time, it is also a touch point for those who have been at it for a while. Another one to check out is this one from Jane Friedman‘s website. There, Brooke McIntyre of Inked Voices invites you to evaluate where you are as a writer/critic, shares what to expect, and offers suggestions on how to go about becoming involved in a critique group. And because I try to be balanced in my view, here is an article from Kristen Lamb that might make you more aware of some of the pitfalls.

Not all critique groups and beta readers are created equal. You may have to go through considerable trial and error to find ones that work for you; offering feedback that you can use, in a manner you can digest. You’ll want to be challenged to improve but not so overwhelmed you quit writing. Remember, you’ll be part of a community. You’ll need one that is a good fit with your personality and writing style.

Know that it is worth it. All you need to do is check out the acknowledgements page of your favourite book. That author had a community around them. They didn’t do it alone. Why should you have to?

Better Beginnings

At this time of year my thoughts turn to beginnings.

Beginnings are hard. There. I’ve said it. Stated it right up front. Right from… well… the beginning.

And if you’re a writer who has decided that this is the year you are going to start that novel you might know what I mean. You might be sitting there staring at a blank page or more likely a blank screen and wondering shouldn’t this be easier than this? Well, the answer is no. Beginnings are hard because they have a lot to accomplish in not a lot of time.

Beginnings promise.

When a reader starts in on a story, they enter into an unwritten contract with the writer. The writer says come along with me. I’m going to take you somewhere. The tricky thing is the reader doesn’t want the writer to come right out and tell them where they’re going. Where’s the fun in that? Why would the reader keep reading? The writer is going to hint. The writer is going to with tone, and imagery, with sentence structure and form, illustrate that promise. At the same time, the promise is full of expectations that, if not significantly met will disappoint a reader.

Beginnings are hard because you make a promise without saying exactly what it is, but hinting enough that the reader is trusting that it is a promise they are going to appreciate, and that you are going to keep.

Beginnings introduce.

When a reader starts to read, they want to know the main character. They want to know what he or she is like, what makes them tick, what they want, what they’re afraid of. They want to care; to be engaged in the main character’s story. The reader wants to know what the story is about; what is the theme. They don’t however want you to tell them these things. They want to be shown why they should care, why they should invest the time and energy to read what you’ve written.

Beginnings are hard because while the reader wants to know about the main character and their story more importantly, they want to want to know.

Beginnings entice.

Whether through exciting action or intriguing mystery, witty dialogue or engrossing setting, the reader is compelled to turn that first page. But you only give them just enough. A reader wants to be teased into reading. The reader wants their curiosity piqued. You give away just enough to have a question form in the reader’s mind. The final kicker is you must determine what that just enough is.

Beginnings are hard because there is no one way to entice a reader to read on. There is no paint by number or magic formula, no ‘cool button’ that you can press.  Doubt me? Do a little digging. For every ‘rule’ you want to hold tight to, for every ‘don’t’ you avoid, for every example of a successful beginning, another, doing seemingly the same thing, falls flat.

How do we accomplish a beginning that is promising, engaging and compelling? Frankly, that is the main cause of much hair pulling and bad language on my part. One thing I’ve discovered is that to work on your beginning, you need to have a whole story. You need to know what your story is about.  Yes, to write an effective beginning, you may need to know how your story ends.

Great. And here you are staring at a glaringly blank page one and I’m telling you to write a whole novel so that you can write page one. Thanks. For nothing. But hey, doesn’t that put the whole stymied page one issue in perspective? Think about it this way; you have a whole novel to help you figure out what your beginning is.

Written your novel and still need some help with your beginning? Read other writers’ beginnings and analyze which ones you think work. The more you can recognize a good beginning in another’s stories, the better chance you have of analyzing whether yours is working or not. A great website that does just that is Writer Unboxed with Ray Rhamey’s Flog the Pro blogs. Check out his site for a checklist that you can use to help guide you toward a better beginning.

Good luck and happy writing.

Persistence

At this time of year, thoughts turn to resolutions. My response? To consider persistence hunting.

Persistence hunting is a theory that explains the technique of using running, walking and tracking to pursue prey. This earliest form of hunting goes hand in hand with our evolution from tree climbers to endurance runners. Running down our prey, until the antelope or some other fleet quadruped dropped from exhaustion, is how we managed to feed our developing big brains with the necessary proteins.  Of all the animals, man is best equipped for persistence hunting. Apparently, our bodies are made for it.

Interesting thoughts, no? But, you say as you read this, why should that matter to us? Aren’t we more developed, more advanced, more sophisticated than primitive man? Short answer? No. Not really. Our brains have certainly advanced, and in so doing we have the wonderful tools, gadgets and some might say toys we have invented. We can’t deny however, that the human body hasn’t changed all that much. And why should it? Didn’t it, along with our beautiful brain, raise us to be the dominant species of the planet? Hasn’t it done for us? Shouldn’t we do for it?

And while one may feel that there is a considerable amount of ‘persistence hunting’ in our daily lives, whether that be for missing socks, misplaced tools or the occasional lost thought, it is not the same. We spend an inordinate amount of time on our collective backsides. This, we are not made for. Don’t believe me? You don’t have to look very hard to find statistics on this. Better still, remember how you stiffened up after that long car trip or the soreness at the base of the spine after too much binge watching? Even as I type this, I am suddenly and disturbingly becoming aware of the poor posture, that I am no doubt going to pay for later today. Yep. I can certainly speak for myself. I can spend a lot of time in front of various screens. My mind may be racing a mile a minute, but my body… not so much.

Once more we turn to face a new year, keen on getting healthy, exercising and eating better. Perhaps what we should really be thinking about is how we can improve our mindset. Remembering that we are the culmination of a complicated evolution of the human species due in part to persistence hunting, might help. And persistence might be the key element.

That persistent nature, that dogged resolve, plus our unique biology, had us chasing our prey across the plains.  Perhaps that effort, not just the added protein in our diet, was the opportunity for growth and improvement that our species needed. So looking forward, perhaps the resolution should be to be more persistent. The hunters didn’t give up the hunt after the first fifteen minutes or fifteen miles. They didn’t say well we haven’t caught anything, so we may as well give up. Had they done that, you could imagine where the human race would have been.  Still at the starting line.

So when you fall short of your resolution, as we so inevitably do, remember it is about persistence. Be in it for the long haul. Don’t give up after setbacks; see them as opportunities to exercise persistence. And until we evolve past the need for bodies and can safely store our brains in jars and speak telepathically, or upload our consciousness to live virtually, riding neon cycles through the ether, we may want to get up off of that chair every now and then. It could be the first step, literally and figuratively toward better health.

EQ – The Holidays – and You

What would it take to successfully get you through the looming holiday season. The perfect gift? The best turkey? The ability to be in two places at the same time? Instead of looking for outer solutions (or impossible ones) what about inner ones. Exploring your EQ might just give you the skills you need. Emotional quotient or EQ is a term used to gage one’s emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence covers key aspects in personal and inter-person skills. Just the thing you might need to foster healthy happy relationships. And isn’t that what the holidays should be about?

So what exactly are the characteristics of emotional intelligence?

Self-Awareness

In the heat of the moment are you capable of determining what has set your blood to boil? Can you pin-point the reasons behind feelings of frustration or anxiety?  Are you able to step back and analyze what you are feeling and why you are feeling it?  This is often the most emotionally charged time of the year. We are fraught with worry and anticipation about plans to come and burdened with an over-packed Louis Vuitton set of baggage from our past. Being able to sort through your jumble of emotions and accurately evaluate the feelings you are experiencing may help you to deal with them in a more constructive manner.

Self-Regulation

Are you able to stay in control when you are angry or jealous? Do you become overwhelmed, caught up in your intense emotions, or can you pause and think before you react? The ability to self-manage your emotions means that you are not at their mercy. For instance, instead of lashing out at your significant other because they haven’t wrapped the presents yet, can you acknowledge that you might actually be feeling frustration and inadequacy that yet again here’s another Christmas and you are overwhelmed?  At this time of year when the pressure comes from so many angles, it’s important to work toward equilibrium for your sanity and for the sanity of everyone around you.

Motivation

Do you easily get stalled or de-railed? Are you filled with anxiety when tasked with something new? Can you step back and see a set-back as momentary, a problem as an opportunity and a challenge as a chance for personal growth? Can you stay focused on the goal through the difficulties? Keeping motivated for the long-haul, and deferring immediate results for long-term success is another indicator of emotional intelligence. The last point may be the most important one to keep in mind in the next few weeks of holiday shopping. You might try reminding yourself that, though that sweater looks really great on you, it pales in comparison to the peace of mind you’ll get paying off all your bills come January.

Empathy

Do people say you are a good listener? Perceptive? Understanding? If you engage in active listening and observe body language well, you are on your way to honing your empathetic abilities. These skills enable you to get out of your head and into the heart of the person in front of you. Being able to imagine, understand and empathize with other’s feelings is a fundamental people skill and an important step toward emotional intelligence. And at this time of year, here’s an opportunity to see if you’ve been paying attention to the people in your life. After all, the present you’re buying isn’t for you. It’s for someone else. Being empathetic and getting someone a gift that speaks only to them is the greatest sign that you truly care.

Social Skills

The previous four elements culminate nicely in the final category of social management. If one can recognize the emotions in themselves, and regulate them, that person becomes more appealing, approachable, and amenable to others. If they can see your positive outlook and motivation, you can better inspire. If you can recognize the emotions in others, being empathetic to their situation, you can better relate. Strong social skills of rapport, effective communication and developing trust are all signs of emotional intelligence. These, hopefully, can lead to better relationships with loved ones throughout the rest of the year.

By these indicators, the development of your emotional intelligence would go a long way to making you a happier and more productive person in all facets of your life, but especially at this time of year, when you might need it the most.

Want to take steps towards being more emotionally intelligent? Perhaps start here at MindTools. You might have noticed it over on my blog roll. They have a great quiz to test your EQ.

Or get yourself (or perhaps someone who you think might benefit) the book by Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence. Check out his site for more information.

I’m wishing you all peace and joy!