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.

 

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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.

Playing With Words

If you haven’t noticed I love making up words; verbifying nouns, twisting nouns into adjectives, playing with language. I love it when other people do the same. One of the first poems I memorized was the Jabberwocky.  I love using made up words in sentences. Heck I’ll even take acronyms. Got a few of my own. AWADJ, anyone?

It comes by me naturally. For most of my childhood, I thought the word ‘rumphled’ was a real word. It was only after several heated debates over scrabble boards and (back then) much page riffling through both dictionaries and thesauruses (thesaurisie – like an octopus-dinosaur but with more tentacles) that we discovered that it wasn’t. It was a sad day.

But why such a heated debate? Because when my father or mother said it, usually as an admonishment, it described completely and irrevocably the state of our unmade bed. Not ruffled, for that suggested a dainty frill of an embellishment, not the pillow-mangled sheet-eskewness of our linens. No. Not even rumpled, as that implied something that had tumble-weeded through our nightmares to end at the foot of our bed in a tight ball; even though we discovered that indeed rumpled was the closest to the proper word. Not unfortunately rumbled with its implication that some kind of nocturnal gang war – once upon a time known as a rumble – thank you West Side Story – had broken out and our bed the sad unkempt and dismal casualty of said disagreement. Take that bed and all of your ilk, for daring to force me into slumber. Ha ha! Alas, no, again.

Our beds were rumphled; a hodpodgery [like a menagerie but with less animals and more attitude] of all that those words implied; frilled and tumbled and combated. Apropos, as we were uncommonly contemptuous of bedtime and as we shared beds and bedrooms, our rebellion was made evident in the after math with a veracious zest. So rumphled it was, until such a time as adulthood and orneriness dashed our eloquent dreams. Strangely it was also at the same time that our war against sleep hit a denouement. We lost many battles that day.

But perhaps that is why I write science fiction and fantasy. I get to create worlds. And how do you do that? With words. Names of people and places with just a hint of exotic other worldliness to transport you there. Procedures and their accompanying gizmos for processes that don’t even exist… yet. Yeah – I’m looking at you Star Trek and your flip phone.  Adversely, words can inspire. Ever hear an exotic name and wonder at the story of the person behind it – or in my case, just make one up? I know of some people who collect interesting names. That would be a great source for inspiration.

Then there are others who mash words together. Matt Galloway, the host of Metro Morning on CBC Radio One has coined two of my favorites. Dark o’clock – the ridiculously early hour he must wake up to get to work. Mizzle – when the mist is so thick it feels like it is rain drizzling on you. I am so going to look for an opportunity to use that one in a sentence and with the way the weather is right now, it’ll be sooner rather than later. Thanks, Matt, for the inspiration. Who knows, maybe that’ll be a common weather occurrence on some distant planet in one of my science fiction books. Hmmm…gets me thinking… See what I mean! Inspiration.

And so, I will continue to use rumphled, not only as an homage to my rambunctious family, but because, imaginary a word as it is, it holds its own unique and distinct flavour. So in the hopefully not too distant future, when you read a story of mine and come across the word rumphled in a sentence, know that it is not a typo, despite spell check pinging like the dickens.

Tolkien made up an entire language. Can’t I have just one word? For now…

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?

 

Springtime Poetry

Last post, I mentioned the April Poem A Day Challenge.

Here is something I’d like to share – a Haiku I wrote on day 7.

A Haiku is a 3 line poem comprised of lines that are made up of 5 syllables on line one, 7 syllables on line 2 and 5 syllables on line 3. Japanese in origin, the Haiku often has themes surrounding nature or the seasons and, rather than saying how the scene makes the writer feel, hopes to evoke an emotion through the imagery. I loved the challenge of the form.

To me, these types of shorter more compact poems feel like vignettes; still pictures rather than movies, moments in time, ethereal yet poignant.

Here’s my attempt.

Birds on bare branches

Voices in defiance raised

Implore summer skies

Hopefully all of us, birds included, won’t have to wait too long for the warmer weather.

Growth Mindset

Maybe it’s the impending spring but my mind is turning to new beginnings. Cleaning up the winter windblown debris collected against fences and the sleepy sluggish corners of our minds. Throwing open the once frost locked windows, finally thawed, to invite a breeze to sweep away the stale overheated air trapped inside homes and souls. Time for to-do lists with little check marks all crisp and decisive. For goals to be set. So, what if you set out to fail? I don’t mean that you’re setting yourself up to fail. No. I am asking you to give yourself permission to fail.

Have there always been things you wanted to try but thought, I’m not good at that, I don’t have any talent in that area, it’s not my strength so why waste the time… The reasons go on and on. Some might even make practical sense. I mean, in this day and age when time is a precious commodity, why waste it on something you aren’t good at? But how do you know you aren’t good at something if you don’t try it? And therein lies the crux of the problem. Fear of failure might be at the core of these reasons. And that is the biggest obstacle between a fixed and a growth mindset.

Carol Dweck, Ph.D. one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, talks about growth mindset in her book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Watch this Ted Talk or for more information check out her site. In her book, Dr. Dweck explores the concept of ‘not yet’ a way of measurement that does not focus on failure but on the process of learning, improving, bettering ourselves, evident in a growth mindset. Adversely, a fixed mindset prevents us from discovering previously unknown territory. It keeps us safe in the familiar, never risking venturing off the path. It gives us every reason to say no.

So if a growth mindset is a way to deal with the fear of failure, what can you do to go from a fixed mindset to a growth mindset? Here are the four main points from the book and a few quotes to perhaps help anchor them deeper in your mind.

Learn to recognize when you are holding onto a fixed mindset

  1. Becoming is better than being. Carol S Dweck
  2. Did I win? Did I lose? Those are the wrong questions. The correct question is: Did I make my best effort? Carol S Dweck

Recognize that you have a choice

  1. It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities. Albus Dumbledore
  2. Every time you are tempted to react in the same old way, ask if you want to be a prisoner of the past or a pioneer of the future. Deepak Chopra

Realign your thinking to a more growth mindset track

  1. Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new. Albert Einstein
  2. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. Wayne Gretzky

Take the growth mindset action

  1. Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself. George Bernard Shaw
  2. Success is the ability to go from one failure to another with no loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill

So, what will I attempt while exploring and hopefully developing a growth mindset?  Writers Digest is promoting a Poem a Day in April. This of course is not a random undertaking, but a focused effort to better my language skills. I will push myself, explore my gifts, and improve my skills. I will be disciplined and committed. I will be brave. But most importantly I will give myself permission to fail.

So, if you are a writer or someone who has always wanted to write, or someone who’s had that hidden, secret desire that you couldn’t voice, even to yourself, you might venture forth this April. Of course, it’s an opportunity to improve your writing, but maybe that’s not the point. At least not the only point. You might learn failure doesn’t kill you. It doesn’t define you. You can not only survive it but thrive because of it. So fail. Fail magnificently and beautifully. Fail and learn and grow.

Whatever you decide to try, perhaps a purposeful exercise in courting failure will help to deal with not just the fear of failure, but those moments in life when failure is all too real. Because failure is more than academic or theoretical or just a word on a page. It is not just an idea but at times a presence that is a formidable as a six walled room. Failure is that niggling little hand that plucks at your heart one string at a time, calling you to hear a strain you want to silence. It’s that finger that pokes you in the chest and says not you. It’s that fist that closes around your heart until you can’t move.

Maybe that’s when you need a growth mindset the most. To keep moving, one foot in front of the other. To tell yourself, hell, why not you. To remind yourself, it’s okay, maybe you aren’t there.

Not yet.

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.

Contemplations on NaNoWriMo

When’s the best time to start thinking about NaNoWriMo.

December 1st

Wha-wha-What???

No, seriously. If you want next years’ experience to be a success, I suggest you sit down and have a good hard think.

December 1st

Because that is the point when all the trials and tribulations are over, but the bitter tang of ire and frustration are still on your lips. When you can still smell the acrid ink and stale coffee. When fresh is the recriminations and tears. And that’s if you manage to win.

December 1st

Because, let’s face it, between now and next year there are all these months in which to do one of two things. Either, you work the trauma up in your mind to a point where just thinking about writing 50,000 words makes you want to run in the opposite direction, or you have adequately lobotomized yourself into thinking it’ll be a walk in the park, only to end up lost and on the wrong side of town. Save yourself either of these delusions. There’s a more constructive path available.

Whether you managed to eke out those 50,000 words or not, you have learned a lot going through this experience. What better time to take note of all the things you should have done, what didn’t go as smoothly as you’d  hoped, and to come up with an approach that ensures that they do the next time around.  Adversely now is also the time to pat yourself on the back. You’re going to want to remember all the smart moves you made that helped you along the way, so that you can recreate them next year.

Here are some suggestions you might consider, to make your next NaNoWriMo easy peezy lemon squeezy – well not exactly, but you know what I mean:

Use Tools

You’d think that a writer might not need to think about this. Tools however could be anything from a great writing software like Scrivener or yWriter that actually organizes your writing, to apps that organize your time. And time seems to be the biggest issue. As there is no tool that’s going to add two more hours to a day, the key is to use the available time more effectively.  Are you an AWADJ (Artist with a Day Job)? Maybe next year strategically schedule some vacation time. I take off every Monday in the month of November. Having those three days is a great way to get into the groove of writing and a much needed chance to catch up on all those low word count days.

Seek Help

Of course, you’re going to seek help from friends and family. They can be a great resource for not only emotional support but practical assistance with a busy schedule.  One of the great things about doing NaNoWriMo, however is there is a whole community out there doing the same thing, going through the same challenge, rising and falling and getting back up again. It is a community of writers who all have tips and tricks and different approaches to writing and the writing life. Some of their solutions might just work for you. But don’t wait for November. This community offers many solutions to help you prepare for, not just get through the challenge.

Get your Head in the Game

This is the hardest thing to do. Doubt, guilt, and fear can plague us. Those are often the things that pull us away from giving ourselves fully to NaNoWriMo. You have to decide whether or not you’re going to let them. Getting great suggestions from other writers and managing your writing time is important, but until you can feel positively invested in NaNoWriMo, you might be the biggest obstacle of all.

But hey, don’t sweat it. You’ve got a whole year to prepare.