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Workshopping, Part 2: The Writer

Last week I posted a list of workshopping dos and don’ts for the people reading the work in question. This week’s topic is dos and don’ts for the writer whose work is being critiqued.

Do:

  1. Bring a copy for yourself. Unless you know it word-for-word from the first page to the last, having a copy of your work in front of you can help you keep up with what your reviewers are saying.
  2. Take notes. Even if you’re not sure you like an idea, even if you think you disagree with what someone says isn’t working, mark it down–circle it in your copy, draw arrows, label things, and mark down questions that need answering. You almost certainly won’t end up using every suggestion that you receive during workshop, but it’s helpful to be able to go back over all the suggestions later and give each one careful thought.
  3. Ask questions. Questions are not only for the reviewers! Maybe you don’t understand a point that someone’s trying to make, or maybe you didn’t realize an issue before and now want ideas for resolving it. Ask your reviewers to clarify their meaning. Ask them if they have any suggestions for fixing an issue that’s been brought to light. Just because it’s your work doesn’t mean you have all the answers, and that’s okay.
  4. Listen and be polite. If you don’t agree with someone, don’t turn it into an argument. Just try to see where they’re coming from and mark down their opinion. You don’t have to work off it when you’re revising later; just respect it.

Don’t:

  1. Take things personally. Unless a reviewer is making personal attacks on you rather than critiquing your work, there’s no need to blow up over things. Maybe you won’t agree with all the “problems” the reviewers see with your work, and that’s okay. You don’t have to. But don’t see their problems with the story structure as problems with you.
  2. Spend the whole time talking. Ask questions when you have them, by all means, but a workshop spent entirely explaining yourself or gushing about your inspiration or whatever won’t do you any good.
  3. Be arrogant. Look, the point of workshopping is to help you improve your draft. If all you’re going to do the whole time is explain to everyone why the problems they perceive are not, in fact, problems, then why are you here?

This list can be boiled down to one rule: Remember why you’re here. Unless you were somehow forced into a situation where you’re required to workshop (i.e., you’re a creative writing major), you’re here for help. You’re here because your piece is not as good as it could be, and you want the extra eyeballs to look over it and get it there.

Remember: Workshopping is not for finished pieces. If you’re unprepared to have people tell you that your piece is not perfect, don’t bring it to workshop.

Look for more in our Workshopping series in the next few weeks!

Related articles:

Workshopping, Part 1: The Critiquer

Workshopping

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Workshopping, Part 1: The Critiquer

Workshopping! One of the banes of writers. We write a draft, and then we put it out there for people to see, baring our project and our thin-skinned artist’s ego to the world. And then we’re expected (or at least it’s polite) to review someone else’s piece in return.

It’s particularly on my mind right now because we’re finally to the point of workshopping in our novel-writing class now.

So for the next couple weeks, I’m going to do a series on workshopping. Today is a list of “dos and don’ts” for reviewers.

Do:

  1. Express thoughts on both what’s working and not working in the piece. The writer needs to know what could use improvement, yes, but also talking about good things helps temper the feeling of criticism. Plus it’s often easier to keep doing things that are working in the piece than to get rid of bad things. I like to do a review sandwich: Talk about some good things, then move on to things that need improvement, and then finish up with more good things.
  2. Be detailed. Rather than just saying, “This isn’t working,” explain what isn’t working and why. Is it a line of dialogue that seems clunky or out of character? A bit of prose that was awkwardly worded or confusing? Does a description seem to drag on? Details about what isn’t working (or what is) help the writer improve more than a simple “This is no good.”
  3. Keep it about the writing. You’re here to critique the piece, not the person.
  4. Keep calm. We writers can be a dramatic bunch, which probably comes of a) writing dramatic stuff and b) procrastinating online all the time, which can make us even more dramatic because we’re both freaking out about not having enough time to write (our fault for procrastinating) and we’ve been busy fangirling on Tumblr with other dramatic people. Plus we put a lot of work and revision into our writing. So some of us can get snippy during workshops, especially when you’re pointing out things you don’t like. If this happens, keep calm. The writer might act belligerent and argue against every one of your suggestions, but there’s always the possibility that your sensible demeanor and reminders that you’re just trying to help will calm them back down.

Don’t:

  1. Be mean. It’s possible to tell the writer what could use improvement without being a jerk about it. Rather than “This sucks,” you can say something along the lines of, “I’m not sure this is working.” Then proceed to explain why it’s not working. (Refer to Do #2.)
  2. Be vague. Simply telling someone “I hate it” or “I love it” is not helpful. I like praise as much as the next person, but I’d rather have a tough critic who gives me details about what’s not working and why than someone who loves the story but can’t do anything more than sing generic praises of it.
  3. Make it about the writer. Even if the piece is politically charged and your opinions are radically different from the writer’s, leave the writer as a person out of it. Don’t assume anything about the writer based on the piece (even if your assumptions might be right). If need be, talk about the narrator (even of a poem or nonfiction piece) as if she is a separate entity from the writer. That makes it more likely that you can focus on the good and bad points of the writing, not the writer’s personality.

Keep an eye out for “Workshopping, Part 2: The Writer,” coming next week!

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The Hardest Part

There are a lot of things about writing that are difficult. Whether you’re battling with a character who doesn’t want to do as you tell them, or curling up and crying because your twenty subplots are screwing up your main plot, sometimes writing can offer enough problems to make anyone throw their hands in the air and call it quits.

At least for a few hours, because any writer knows it just drags you back in no matter how hard you try to stay away.

Anyhow. There’s one thing about writing I find more of a challenge than anything else. Plotting? No problem. World-building? I can manage that. Character creation? Leave it to me. Drafting? Yeah, just let me use Write or Die and I’ll write as if my life depends on it*.

But eventually someone is going to ask you what your book is called. And that’s where I find the biggest challenge: coming up with titles.

A title is the summation of your book. A brief glimpse into a piece anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 (or more) words long…and you only have a few words to cover it. And hopefully to drag your audience into your work, because I think we all know a book is more likely to be picked up if there’s an appealing title.

And how the heck are you supposed to do that?

I have a few ideas, things that work for me. Or sort of work, anyway. There are some books that just seem impossible to title no matter how you go about it.

Idea #1: Look in your genre. Obviously you want your title to fit your genre, or someone might look at it and think it’s something it isn’t. Consider the following—can you identify the genres just by the titles? (The answers are at the bottom of the post!)

Paper Towns

Daughter of Smoke and Bone

Hunting Fear

The Trench

You shouldn’t be copying anyone else’s title, mostly since theirs won’t fit your book and you don’t want to copy anyway…do you? But you can definitely take inspiration from others, and see what does and doesn’t work.

Idea #2: You know exactly what your book is about, right? You know your characters and your setting and all of those tiny little things that are important to the story? If not you might have bigger problems than naming the thing, so let’s assume you do know those.

Now start thinking about all of those things—and anything else relevant to your book—and make some lists. Just free-write. Maybe you’ll end up with something that could be a perfect title. My own example is my novel Weeping. The main character’s most important possession is a violin by the name of Weeping, and the love interest’s name can translate into the same word. It only made sense.

Idea #3: Ask your beta readers! Odds are they won’t give you your final, perfect title, but they can probably give you some inspiration. They’re coming with an outside view, and they can identify what seems to be the most important thing in your work. Or the most important things. Maybe they’ll point out something you never wuold have noticed because you’re too close to the work—forest for the trees and all that.

Or hey, maybe you don’t find titles as difficult as I do. In that case, I envy you. But if titles torment you, hopefully I’ve given you some kind of idea for coming up with the best possible name for your work.

*And if you’re using Write or Die on Kamikaze mode, your life might not depend on writing, but the lives of your words do.

Answers from idea #1:

Paper Towns is a young adult contemporary novel by John Green

Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a young adult fantasy novel by Laini Taylor

Hunting Fear is an adult suspense novel by Kay Hooper

The Trench is an adult sci-fi novel by Steve Alten

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Novel-Writing Class

About half of our usual group is taking a novel-writing class together this semester. It’s nice, being in a writing class with friends whom you know and trust, friends who have a history of reviewing your work. It makes the prospect of having sixteen classmates and a professor tear a chunk of your novel to shreds slightly less terrifying.

Me, every day of my life. *hides in conveniently located hole in the ground*

I love writing classes. Not for the substance, although obviously I find that helpful and interesting. What I love is what my creative writing professor back at community college told us to expect.

“You’re all writers,” he said on the first day of class. “Other people don’t get that, but everyone in here does. You’re going to become really close as a class, just wait.”

And he was right. For the first couple weeks we sat around silently reading or writing before he entered the room and started class, but one day I started talking to a classmate across the room. When other people came into the room, they joined the conversation. And by the time our professor showed up, we were all talking like we were old friends.

The only difference in our current class is that our novel-writing professor seems a little weirded out about the things we discuss. I feel bad for him, though, because no matter how animated our conversation before class, the moment he starts asking us questions about what Suzanne Collins did well in “The Hunger Games,” all he gets is awkward silence.

(That’s probably just because our age group is not really the target audience for “The Hunger Games,” and although it’s technically well-done we have a lot of complaints about it. Sorry, tributes.)

I love this spontaneous feeling of community, born of the mutual weirdness most writers possess, but the class itself scares me. I started off deciding I would rework a novel that has already been through several years, much brainstorming, and three drafts. It’s had the most work done, after all, and it could use a good workshop.

But I’m writing a story on Tumblr at the same time, just to get myself writing a page every day, and it’s really weird to switch back and forth between two different stories each day. I mean, the oft-redrafted novel is a very modern urban fantasy with a multitude of characters and messed-up personal relationships and stuff like that, but the Tumblr novel is more like old-school fantasy (think “The Hobbit” or “The Chronicles of Narnia”); it’s got a lot of description and a lot of semicolons, and it’s very experimental (for me).

Actually, probably not success. I also use conjunctions. But so did the writers of yore.

I finally figured out a system that worked pretty well for exactly three days: Write a page of the Tumblr story as early in the day as I could, and spend the rest of the day working on the novel for class.

The Tumblr story’s been going very well this way, but the other story… Every time I wrote three pages, I decided those three pages were absolute shite and rewrote them. Then I’d add three more pages, but those three pages turned out to be shite and needed rewriting too.

It was exhausting. I was essentially writing two drafts of a single novel at the same time.

So I decided last night to shelve the rewrite for now and focus solely on the Tumblr novel. I’ll use that for class, though I’m a little worried that my confidence in it will be obliterated by the workshop on March 14 and I won’t feel up to finishing it.

But that’s exactly why it’s on Tumblr. If it’s on the Internet, where people can see it, I’m more likely to keep going. After all, that’s why experts say you should tell people about your New Year’s resolutions: You’re more likely to keep them if you’re accountable to someone other than yourself.

And I have a fan on Tumblr. Just one. But I think that’s enough to keep me going.

Not today, God of Not Writing. Today I will write. Later. But seriously, it WILL happen today.

 

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Bringing Chracters to Life on the Page

Everyone knows the characters are not the only object writers need to thoroughly create, but for today, it’s what I want to talk about. A story is nothing without its characters. The plot might be amazing and the description of the cabin in the woods might be astonishing, but if you have an unbelievable character, well, then everything falls apart. A character needs to have a purpose– a point in a story that can change an entire event based on his/her action and the only way to do that is to make the character believable. They need to be real.

One way to create a believable character is to use a technique I learned from Jane Bradley called “direct experience.” For example, use language that appeals to the five senses. To clarify, take a character that bites into a sour apple. The writer should describe the bite—the juice, the flow, the taste—in a way that the reader’s taste buds activate and a sensational memory of them biting into a sour apple would trigger when they read your description. Whether people want to admit it or not, when people read good writing, a sensual clock ticks inside their head reminding them of the experience their reading and how it connects to their own. If the writer can successfully make that experience the similar, the character becomes more believable. In another words, and I’m sure everyone who writes is tired of this cliché, show don’t tell, but come on, it’s true.

The most important thing is to remember that characters are the same as people and because of that, they live in both external and internal worlds. Jane Bradley, once again, gives a great example of this. When a student, or you, sit at your desk and listen to your professor speak, do our minds not sometimes go off on a tangent wondering about what we’re doing after class, or how pretty that little “thang” is when a girl (or dude) goes walking by. Basically, your characters need “realism” and “experience” in matters. By realism I mean that all of us have memories of something – good and bad – and you should use those experiences to your advantage in order to create a more believable character. However, you can’t just simply do this. As a writer, it is your job to successfully intertwine both the external and internal worlds.

And I’ll leave the rest to C.S Lewis:

Image

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Show V. Tell…Again?

We’ve all been told, a million times, to show and not tell. And we’ve all heard explanation after explanation as to what that’s really supposed to mean. Of course this is helpful, but, for myself at least, I’ve always liked nice, concrete examples to help me really get into the meat of a concept like this. Sure, you can read books, and you can listen to people talk, but there’s something that’s much more effective about finding someone who does what you want to do, well, and learning from them.

And that’s why I’m glad to share a story that I’ve had the pleasure of stumbling upon recently: His Face All Red, by Emily Carroll.

This comic is one of those rare stories that gives me that wonderful, uneasy feeling that sticks with me. It’s been almost a week since I first read the story and I’ve thought about it at least once every day since. That impresses me.

Read it. Take the time. It’s incredibly short. Like, eight pages. But give it a look and take the time to feel the punch of it.

Now just imagine if she had spelled all of that out? If she had explained every little detail inside of the round-faced brother’s head. It would feel flat. There wouldn’t be that enchanting, intangible creepiness that makes the story so enjoyable.
Now, this is a comic. So, how can we translate this into our writing, into straight-up prose? I suppose the answer might, in the details, be different for each of us. I need to feel comfortable imagining a scene before I can write it. So, showing, for me, is a matter of describing what I might see rather than explaining what’s happening. Though, at the same time, I have friends who feel more comfortable when they can shoot from the hip. That is, writing and letting a scene unfold impromptu.

This, I’m less comfortable with, but I feel like the same ideas might apply. Imagine you are creating a comic. Imagine you’re working visually, and really try to make those vital details pop. Does the way a character dresses tell us something about who they are? Does the way they carry themselves? Do they have nervous habits? Really try to picture those details, to see how your characters might act if you were to see them in real life, and let us view those actions or qualities through your eyes.

The important thing here is: what works for you? Seriously. I want to know. Leave it in the comments.

Now, I want to wrap-up with a little homework. Take a step outside of your comfort zone, find an example that really touches you, and just take some time to get to know it. Try to figure out why it makes you feel the way you do. And then hold it up next to your own work. See if you can’t add or subtract something to evoke a similar level of emotion. Try to make yourself laugh, or cry, or shiver and want to hide.  Try to pull out those feelings, and then step back, get super critical (read: stop patting yourself on the back), and see why that happened.
And, again, share your results in the comments! It’ll be fun.

Some extra links, for your enjoyment:
CoffeeGhost.net, A nice break-down of His Face All Red:

http://coffeeghost.net/2012/06/18/a-demonstration-of-show-dont-tell-with-emily-carrolls-his-face-all-red/

Brick by Brick, by Stephen McCranie:

http://doodlealley.com/2011/10/19/brick-by-brick/

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Clank, clank, clank, clank, …. WHEEE!

I’m sitting in an imaginary roller-coaster car as it is being pulled up that first long hill.  In my mind’s ear, I can hear the clacking of the wheels on the track; in my mind’s eye I see the wide open sky above me as I reach the top of that first drop; my stomach feels the pull of G-forces as we slow, curve over, and start racing down.

ZOMG!  What have I gotten myself into?!

It’s the first of November, the beginning of National Novel Writing Month.  It’s that month where we specifically try to write fifty thousand new words.  Only 1667 words a day  —  every day, day in and day out, for thirty days.  No excuses, no slacking off.

And no prizes or rewards, either.  Just the satisfaction of knowing that you can discipline yourself to sit down and write on schedule.

I’ve been puttering along on one novel for nearly two decades.  I’ve got a couple of short stories in fitful progress, and notes and outlines for a half-dozen more.  I’ve got plenty of ideas, a sweet little laptop to record them into, the entire Internet as my research library, and all the other trappings I could ever think I need or want to become a writer.

I only need to do some writing.  Like maybe 1667 words a day  —  every day.  What separates me from imagining I’m a writer, and actually being one, is just writing all these stories out.  And this is the month when I run out of excuses.

Wish us all luck!  And lots of words….

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