Professional Critiques – We Need Them

We’re all “jonesing” for it. At the same time, we’re terrified of what might come of it. Hope? Elation? Crushing disappointment?

A professional, agent or editor, provides a critique of those first few pages of your book. Most of the time, you do not receive glowing reviews but there are, typically, a mixture of positive and negative opinions. Incorporating that feedback into edits or restructuring of your book can be crucial to your future success. Agents and publishing editors know their stuff! We need to listen…most of the time.

Writers’ conferences, programs, or retreats often offer an opportunity to meet with a professional in the publishing world who will critique a small selection of your work. This service is not free; it’s usually part of your registration fee. But, if we don’t think our future is worth a legitimate and reasonable investment then we’ll miss out on opportunities to learn and network.

I’ll never forget the look on one agent’s face, at a writers’ workshop, when we met for 5 minutes to discuss the first few pages of my sci-fi fantasy book (in process at the time). She noted a particular section and, as she spoke, her face scrunched up and she grimaced as though she smelled something very NASTY. From that moment on, I took everything she said as poppycock, to put it mildly.

She may have had some very insightful suggestions for me, but my mind was closed and I almost immediately forgot everything she said…and threw away the hard copy with her notes. That was probably not very smart of me, but I had no confidence in someone who showed me so little consideration.

Another time, at a writers’ convention, an agent reviewed those very same pages (edited to be sure, but not because of the other reviewer) I received relatively positive feedback and was asked to supply the first three chapters for further review. Woohoo! I could hardly wait to get home and put the chapters in the mail. In the end, she informed me that her company was not interested in my book at that time, but encouraged me to continue writing and feel free to submit another query later. I still have that letter – and a few others.

In the beginning, disappointment can be an overriding emotion – and may last minutes, hours, days even; but if you go any longer than that you really need to find something else to do with your time. Rejection, and handling it constructively, is a big part of writing. We must take what we learn and produce better work because of it.

I’m attending another writing event this week, a webinar, which will result not only in me learning something about improving my work, but also with an agent’s review of the first 750 words of a new book I’m writing. That’s not much real estate to catch someone’s attention. But, it can be a testament to how much I have learned over the years…

A couple of resources for conference dates and locations:

Poets & Writers, Conferences and Residencies 

Association or Writers and Writing Programs

Hold the Backstory to a Minimum

Once you deliver that commanding first sentence or paragraph, you still have the challenge of keeping your readers’ interest. You can’t let them down, either by ignoring that lead-in or by totally reversing the tone the beginning has invoked. Neither can you distract them from the current action by breaking into a history lesson – also known as the dreaded exposition.

Many writers, myself included, make the mistake early in our writing careers of trying to squeeze entire decades of a character’s history into a few paragraphs all at once. That can get very boring for readers. We’ve taken away many surprises they could have discovered on their own, one surprise at a time.

You should definitely know your backstories for all main characters, good guys and bad guys. How else can you build even the vaguest of plots? Exactly what you do describe on those next pages depends, in large part, on what your book is about, as well as the tone you have already set.

Crime fiction may require building suspicion or doubt about the protagonist; or just plain describing the murder victim – again, not with the entire backstory in one basket. Action adventure may call for some tricky encounter with the bad guys or bad creatures. It may call for a description of packing a survival kit.

If you have set an ominous tone, stick to menace or threat. If your opening began with humor, weave that humor into your text – whether that is cynical, slapstick, or dark humor.

Let most of the backstory reveal itself as a result of character interactions in those first few chapters. Spread the backstory over actions, dialogs, introspection. And that is not easy.

I don’t pretend to be an expert – I’m still struggling to master the art. But here are some resources that may help you out.

How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly  by Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

Joseph Campbell, an Inspiration to Creative Writers

Writers are, typically, curious beings, so we find inspiration in many places, people, television, movies, books, history, even newspapers. For me, one of the most profound sources is Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, first published in 1949. I purchased my latest copy a few months ago (not sure how I lost the first one I had) at a used book store. I also own several other books by Campbell. I can’t help myself.

As described on the Joseph Campbell Foundation Web site, Campbell was a traveler, professor, editor, writer, public speaker, philosopher, and, more importantly, the bridge between myths and our own lives. For The Hero With A Thousand Faces, he won the National Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Contributions to Creative Literature. And there were many more awards to follow through the years.

Ever heard the phrase, “follow your bliss?” That was Joseph Campbell. Do you know where George Lucas’ inspiration for Star Wars came from? That was The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell.

He was brought into the spotlight in 1988, after his death in 1987, through the PBS program, Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth with Bill Moyers. (I’ve got the DVD!)

I have always loved reading myths, Greek, Roman, Native American, Irish; but it wasn’t until I started reading Joseph Campbell that I realized why these narratives so resonated with me. Campbell’s description of the “monomyth” (a word he borrowed from James Joyce after contributing to A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake: Unlocking James Joyce’s Masterwork), is a universal pattern that is the essence of, and common to, heroic tales in every culture.

And those tales continue today through creative writing, whether we write mysteries, science fiction, romance, fantasy adventure – all influenced by myth and inspired by Joseph Campbell’s need to know, understand, and share the art of “following your bliss.”

Need a Little Push Past Your Writer’s Block?

We all reach that point at least once, if not several times, during our writing project where we come up blank. Sometimes just standing up and walking around or stretching does the trick. Other times, a few hours away doing something completely different helps clear your mind. Occasionally, moving on to a different scene helps you go back to the stalled point with a new idea. Then there are the times when you just can’t move forward at all.

Next time you’re stuck, try one of the writing tricks that have worked for me in the past – that is, when I am most disciplined.

  • Flash Fiction Fun – (my favorite) Open a dictionary, newspaper, or other book to a random page, close your eyes and then place your finger anywhere on the page. Write down the word under (or nearest) your finger. Repeat this process three more times and then write a complete fiction piece in 2 – 6 sentences, no more than 100 words, and no holds barred. You may be surprised at the result and you should definitely find your path back to your project.
  • Writing Prompt – Go online and search for “writing prompts.” Search results will provide scores of sites with truly useful ideas to kick start your creative process. The two best sources, in my opinion, are Writers Digest and Poets & Writers. Complete the exercise, even two, then go back to your project.
  • Brainstorm Intervention – Call a few friends together and summarize your problem. If they’re not familiar with your current project, have someone read the page right before your progress stopped. Then for the next 5 minutes have them call out ideas for your next move – even outrageous suggestions. Take the idea that least fits your plotline and write a page on it before you take up the idea that most fits your plotline and then go back to your project.

Most important, have fun and don’t give up.

When Does Editing Stop and Calling It Done Begin?

This is one of the biggest problems for many authors when completing a creative writing project.

I make several editing passes just for grammar (delete all those unnecessary “-ly” words; change passive verbs to action verbs), consistency (oops – the age I refer to on page 10 doesn’t match the age mentioned on page 124), and format (I created a style for chapter title, why didn’t I use it here?).

For those of us without a professional editor, we also follow the editing by friends and fellow aspiring authors routine. When the fourth go-round results in something like the following exchange we should probably let our friends off the hook.

“Looks good to go.”

“Did you see that edit on page 38?”

“Um…”

“You know, the one where I completely changed the description.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s fine.”

“So it’s definitely better than the first one?”

“I don’t remember exactly what the first one said.”

“Then how can you say this one is better?”

“Because it didn’t jump off of the page and stab me in the eye!”

Then there’s the editing for perfection passes, typically done by the author alone. We (okay, read “I”) find ourselves modifying SOMETHING everything 10-15 pages or so, just because a conversation, a tone, a description, even a character,  isn’t flawless. And, isn’t that an exercise in futility? In my opinion, perfection on every page just is not achievable in the art of creative fiction. If that’s what we strive for, then we all lose.

Perfection is found in the truth of the character arc, the precision with which you have built your world. Perfection is found in the rightness of the conflict resolution of your storyline – and that includes all the strengths and weaknesses, the imperfections of your characters.

Truth, precision, rightness…when you find that, you are DONE.

Enjoy the Discovery in Writing – and Seek Direction When You Need It

While struggling to make my protagonist believable and to strengthen my plot, I often find myself going back to books I purchased long ago. One book on my go-to list is Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s JourneyMythic Structure for Writers. Going back to reread chapters can get you through your stalled out periods.

I was introduced to this book several years ago by someone in a writers’ group – best recommendation ever. Understanding the archetypes, either as additional characters in your story or as different aspects of the main character, helps you create a multi-dimensional protagonist, or hero, as identified in this book. I choose the dimensions I feel will best highlight my character’s personality and how he or she deals with, and grows as a result of, conflict.

The diagrams are a nice quick reference – AFTER you have read the appropriate chapters. I use them to spot check my progress in my plot and to make sure I’ve hit the highlights of the character growth arc.

Don’t get me wrong, this book doesn’t provide a shortcut or blueprint for writing, although some people may think so. The author’s epilogue (I own the 2nd edition) stresses that very strongly. Vogler states, “The needs of the story dictate its structure.”

He encourages the writer to NOT to follow the guidelines in the book too rigidly. “The joy of a journey is not reading or following a map, but exploring unknown places and wandering off the map now and then.”

If you have a strong storyline and you absolutely know who your protagonist is, go for it. Have faith in yourself and enjoy the discovery!

When the Climactic Scene Isn’t Quite Right

I’ve been working on this novel for a couple of years now…yes, years. (I let my day job and the DVR get the better of me most days.) I have completed everything but that climactic scene. I just can’t get it right.

All fiction writers find themselves in the same predicament at one time or another. I’ve long since given up on perfection – just not in my game plan. BUT, each scene has to feel right – feel true to my characters’ journey through the storyline.

I’ve built up the tension through several chapters. The “big battle” comes at just the right time and all main characters have their roles to play. My protagonist must be pushed to her limits, must battle internal self doubt and false confidence as well as the external threats, both physical and mental, of the antagonist.

I’ve written the scene, at least in part, four times already. Each time I found something wrong with it, not enough emotional turmoil, not enough spectacle, too many characters involved, it occurs in the wrong location, and so on. Something is just not RIGHT.

I’ve sought inspiration from books of all genres, and many were, indeed, inspiring. Oddly enough, though, I must admit that history, science, and paranormal studies in the form of books and TV shows (love that DVR) have provided quite a bit of fuel this past week for my desperate brain.

I think I’m on to something now. The plan for lunch time all this week is to work on that scene. And I’m going to get it right. Eventually.