Friday, November 4, 2011

How to Deliver (and Receive) a Difficult Critique

So, by popular demand, I've decided to tackle this topic. Again, I'm not an expert by any means. And I'll admit, that while I try to present my critiques in a professional manner, I may slip up on my own rules from time to time. But here are some things I feel critters should and shouldn't do, especially when delivering or receiving a particularly harsh critique.

First, the delivery.

1. Watch your word choice. There are some words that come out of critters' mouths that make me cringe every time I hear them. One of them is "bad." "Bad," to me, translates to "unfixable," and that's not something I ever want to say to someone I'm critiquing. Because nothing is irreparable. It might take starting over to fix something, but it can be fixed. Better to say that something "could use work," or "doesn't work for me," or "in my opinion." It is all subjective, and while the entire group might agree that something isn't working, it's still just our collective opinion.

2. Also watch for flippancy. This is one that I know I need to work on some myself. It can get easy to forget the feelings of your crit group friends when you've been together for years and joke around all the time. You might have a member who always takes joking well, but he/she had a bad day. Or maybe this was a scene he spent hours on and thought he finally had right, only for you to tear it apart and make a wisecrack about it. Which brings me to number three . . .

3. Make eye contact and watch the recipient's facial expressions. If someone looks like he/she is getting upset, ease off. Remind the person that it's just your opinion and it's not personal. Perhaps apologize for being too flippant.

4. Share the pain. When I catch someone making a mistake that I often make myself, I'll share that. If it's something my agent has pinged me for, I'll share that, too, and also share how much effort and pain it cost me to fix it. Misery loves company, and it's nice to remember we're all on the same path together.

Now, on receiving a difficult crit.

1. Never, ever get defensive. Let the critter have his/her say. I think I do pretty well with this, though I'm sure I slip up from time to time. We all want to jump in and say, "But it's so clear. It says so, right THERE!" But to that critter, it wasn't. Now, maybe the critter missed something. But more likely, it's not clear. And so I follow . . .

2. THE THREE STRIKE RULE! I did not make this up, but I can't remember where I heard it first. I think I picked it up at a writers conference. Regardless, I follow the three strike rule. In other words, if one critter says there's a problem, I'll look at it. If two find the same problem, I'll consider it more carefully. But if three or more critters see the same issue, I can be pretty darn sure there's something wrong.

3. Consider everyone's opinion, regardless of where they are on the path to publication. Not every member of my group has the same amount of experience when it comes to writing and critiquing, and sometimes they know something is wrong but don't know how to pinpoint it. It doesn't matter. Your readers won't all be highly experienced writers, either, but if they are bored or confused, they will put down your book just as fast.

4. Admit mistakes. Very often one of my critters will point out a poorly written line and as soon as he/she starts to read it out loud, I'll want to hide under the table. This is similar to the "don't get defensive" rule, but it creates an even greater atmosphere of congeniality when people come out and say, "Yes, I did write like crap there. Good catch."

5. Last, but I think most important--Thank everyone! Whether you agree with a crit or not, your critters took time and effort away from their own lives, their own writing, to try to help you with yours. They may not know how to phrase things, and maybe they make some of the mistakes I've suggested above, but we all put work into our crits, and some are better at presenting them than others. By all means, you don't have to take everyone's advice, but nod and smile and say you'll think about it and thank them.

And that's it! Sounds easy, right? Not so easy when you've rewritten the same scene six times and that one critter says it still isn't working for him. But really, we're not in competition with each other. We all want to see each other succeed. Heck, if one of us succeeds, he/she may open the door for others to follow.

Happy writing!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The List

Some people have a "bucket list" of things they want to do/accomplish within their lifetimes, and of course, I have a mental one of those as well. Some of the items on it include getting published, traveling the world, speaking at writing conferences.

But I have a second list, and this one features famous people who've influenced me in some way. I want to meet/interact with these people, even if it's only for a brief time, like a greeting or a handshake, because these people shaped my worldview, gave me pleasure through their entertainment or writing, unconsciously contributed to characters I've created. And I want to thank them.

I created the list back in college. A few names fell off as they passed away or their public personae changed into people I no longer admired. Many got checked off as I met them.

I've always had this uncanny knack for running into or arranging to run into famous people. Starting at age fourteen when I ended up in a restaurant one table away from Michael Jackson, I've bumped into an unusually large number of famous people.

The best is when they turn out to be just as nice as you always imagined they would be. The worst is when they are egotistical, rude, or have hit such heights that they don't even have time to acknowledge their fans.

Anyway, the reason I'm writing this now is that I've only got about four people left on my list (though more will likely be added as time passes). Recently, I got to rub elbows with Sir Patrick Stewart, and I am pleased to announce that he was kind and gracious.

Others who met my expectations or went beyond them include Lucy Lawless, Renee O'Connor, George Takei, Armin Shimerman, Tim Russ, Mark Hamill, Davy Jones, Tanya Huff, Elizabeth Moon, Linnea Sinclair, Ann Aguirre, and several more writers and performers.

I won't list those who treated their fans poorly.

So, four to go. Anyone know where I might run into Sam Neill, Harrison Ford, Anne McCaffrey, or Dick Van Dyke? :-)

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Building Character

A topic that has come up in my classroom as well as my writing group lately is how one creates a believable, well-rounded character. Now, granted, I'm not the "end all and be all" in writing, so take my suggestions with a grain of salt, but I'd like to think my characters have depth and dimension, and here's how I go about creating them.

First off, in my opinion, a writer should know far, far more about his or her characters than the mere information that makes it into the finished manuscript. This knowledge adds layers to a character's personality and actions. It gives the character reasons and motivations for what she does.

Far too often, I read a character in a work in progress that does things seemingly randomly. Usually this happens because the AUTHOR needs for it to happen, and not because it is something that character would normally do based on what we know of the character so far. It doesn't work. If I can't accept a character's action, I can't accept that character. Either the action needs to change, or the author needs to include the character's motivations for doing the action.

Think of it like being a method actor. The actor is performing a part in a play that might show only a small slice of a character's life, but the actor might create background for that character in his head so that his emotions ring true when he portrays the character on stage. He tries to expeience what that character has experienced, tries to live the way that character might have lived. It needs to be THAT REAL to the audience.

It needs to be THAT REAL to the reader.

In my manuscript, we might not meet my protagonist until she is twenty-four years old. But I know that character's childhood inside and out. I know her childhood fears and joys, her desires, even details like her favorite colors and foods. Again, these facts might never make the final draft, but hints of them will. Subconsciously, if you know these details, they will find their way into the writing. The character might think back on these fears and desires when faced with something similar as an adult. It gives the character depth.

Now, granted, sometimes I take this character development to extremes. When I'm really into the writing, I will try to think like my protagonist, respond as she does, view the world as she might view it. Writing assassin characters, I can't sit in a restaurant with my back to the door without feeling like I have a target painted between my shoulderblades. I always try to go for the corner seat, much to the amusement of my husband and anyone else who happens to be dining with us.

Another component to good characters is what they say. Speak your character's dialogue out loud. Does it ring true? Does it sound like something a real person might say? Or is it stilted or out of voice for that character? Is it too intellectual in word choice? Too limited?

I recite most of my dialogue out loud to myself before it ever makes it onto the page. Often I'll repeat the same line three or four different ways before I get it the way I want it, the way that character should really sound.

Some writers keep index cards or files on each character. Others do what I do. Whatever method you choose, be consistent and true to your characters' personalities. Characters should be as multifaceted as any person you meet on the street.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Why did YOU join a crit group?

I'm a big fan of crit groups for writing. I strongly encourage writers of all ability levels to belong to one. However, it needs to be the RIGHT one.

My group is awesome! We're a collection of writers at a variety of stages in the process, all with the goal of eventual traditional publication, all with different strengths and weaknesses, different areas of expertise, and different preferences and backgrounds. For example, we have a pair of teachers, several with extensive knowledge of the sciences, a former member of the military, an engineer, and so forth. My contribution tends to be character development and grammar/punctuation, another's is choreography and plot holes, and another is finding errors in our science/engineering elements (many of us write science fiction). None of us are afraid to tell each other where the problems in our writing lie, and though we will sometimes "negotiate" for our points, we all take criticism very well.

But we weren't always that way. We had to build the group to this level. We had to weed out those who weren't serious enough, those who got hurt feelings every time they were critiqued, those who just wanted to be told how awesome they were. Well, actually, they weeded themselves out. It takes about two meetings and one critique for someone to realize he/she isn't ready for our level of feedback and our somewhat fanatical drive towards getting published.

Now anyone can have a rough day, and a harsh critique can really get a person down . . . for a day or two. But the members of my group go home, shake it off, and come back gunning to be better, often with a piece of writing that takes it to the next level.

Which brings me to my title question. Why do some of these people join a crit group in the first place? Crit, meaning critique, meaning there will likely be criticism involved.

Our group president is very up front with new people. We are a serious crit group. We tell it like it is. We try to be polite about it, but if something is wrong with the writing, we will tell you. And if a piece needs to be scrapped and started from scratch because it has fundamental errors at the plot's core or the character's development, even a whole novel you wrote before joining us, we'll tell you that, too. Then we'll make suggestions on how you can fix it.

And people still come, and are shocked when their work isn't perfect the first time they show it to us. Um, if you thought your work was perfect, why did you join a critique group? Why aren't you sending it out to agents and editors? Or did you just jump in to get praise?

I've talked to people from other groups who complain about members who give any negative feedback at all, as this is "discouraging." They don't want to be told they aren't good enough, but if they were good enough right now, they wouldn't need a critique group. That's the point!

And quite frankly, if you can't take constructive criticism from a group of your peers, you are NOT ready to query agents and editors who will care a whole lot less about your feelings and send you enough rejection letters by mail and email that if you printed copies of them all, you could wallpaper your living room. They won't tell you how to get better. They won't say their comments with a smile. Most won't even use your name. They don't have time for that kind of hand-holding.

So the new question becomes, do you want to be published, or do you just want to play at being a writer? Because writers revise and rewrite and start over from scratch even fifty pages in, and consider everyone's opinion and choose the ones that make sense to them to fix. They listen to those farther along the path than they are. Heck, I hang on every word that comes out of my mentors' mouths. I have two friends who are published authors who give me feedback, in addition to my wonderful group, and if they tell me something is wrong, then 99% of the time, there's something wrong. And I try to fix it. Because I want to get better.

That's why I joined a crit group.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Convention Goers Beware

This past weekend I had the mixed experience of attending a science fiction convention. On the positive side, there were several stars there whom I'd wanted to meet for a long time. I got to chat with them, have my picture taken, get autographs. Everything ran very smoothly. Organization was well done. However, I'm not naming the convention or the stars present because of the rather major negative side to my experience:

THE WRITERS TRACK (insert horror movie theme music here)

First of all, out of all the authors they brought in to present to new writers, only one of them was traditionally published. The rest had self-published their books, or gone the route of print on demand. Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with those options, if that's the route you want to take. However, I feel it would have served new writers much better to see a more balanced group of presenters. Often, new writers don't know the difference between these tracks to publication. All options should be presented.

Now for the presenters themselves. Most were polite, nice, well-spoken, personable. While their path to publication does not mirror mine, I had no problem listening to their viewpoints.

Until the last guy.

A man claiming to be "an agent, consultant, and book reviewer" gave a talk on advice for new writers. (We looked him up. He's an "agent" who works for a self-publishing house. That does not fit with my definition of agent.) But that wasn't the biggest issue. His method of showing new writers what mistakes to avoid was to READ EMAILS FROM HIS FORMER CLIENTS, point out their mistakes, NAME THEM, show us the covers of their books, tell us how STUPID these people were (because they didn't listen to every bit of advice he gave them.)

Holy poop!

I certainly wouldn't want to be this guy's "client." I sincerely wonder if his former clients know he badmouths them by name at every convention and conference he attends. It doesn't get more unprofessional than this, in my opinion.

He then went on to ask several people in the room where they were in the writing process. After hearing that my husband and I had legitimate agents, he pretty much ignored us. Go figure. But he zoomed in on this poor new writer in the back who had just begun his first novel.

Our presenter suggested this new writer should hire him as a consultant. He pushed strongly for self-publishing, citing that "if you go with traditional publishing, it will be years before your book gets in print." Yes, that's true. What he didn't mention is that if your book does get into print the traditional way, the publisher pays the author. The author doesn't pay the publisher.

I thought he might redeem himself a bit when he mentioned that agents were a good thing, and to never hire an agent who charges money before selling your book. But then he added that agents who charge reading fees are okay, and one might expect to pay $45 to each agent queried in order for that agent to read the manuscript and make a decision on representing it.

Um, no. Good agents do not charge reading fees.

My writers group sat there, somewhat stunned, trying to remain professional and not verbally rip this man to shreds. I truly had to bite my tongue. Maybe I should have spoken up, but someday I'd like to present myself at conferences like these and promote traditional publishing, so I didn't want to alienate anyone.

But I'm putting my thoughts here, for anyone who might read them. Watch out for this sort of thing at conventions and conferences. Look up the presenters' credentials before taking anything they say to heart. Listen to how they treat others and realize that the clients they are badmouthing could include you if you decide to work with someone like that.

At the end, he had the audacity to ask me and my husband if we'd learned anything.

"Oh, yes," we both said. "We learned a lot."

Yep, we learned that new writers should avoid people like this guy.

Monday, October 3, 2011

100 Year Starship Conference

I like to think of myself as a pretty intelligent person. However, this past weekend I spent my time with hundreds of people who made me feel like a complete moron.

Yep, I attended one day of the 100 Year Starship Conference.

What is it, you may ask?

Sadly, I'm not entirely sure. The basic premise seemed to be that scientists from a variety of backgrounds would come together to present their ideas on what it would take to create and support an interstellar exploration mission within the next hundred years.

I poked my head into several different lectures going on throughout the conference, covering topics in a range from societal views on why mankind should take to the stars, to potential propulsion systems, to estimated costs of creating an interstellar capable vehicle. Cool, right?

Well, it would have been, if I could have understood half of what they were saying.

And, perhaps, I didn't understand much because the conference wasn't intended for me. Most of the attendees were scientists. But it was free and open to the public, which would seem to imply that the public should be able to understand the discussions--that, perhaps, the presenters should be presenting in terms that the above-averagely educated public should understand, and not only those with doctorates.

Now, to be entirely fair, I spoke to other attendees who told me that not all the presentations were incomprehensible to someone without a physics degree. Some, I hear, were quite entertaining, thought-provoking, and creative. I just happened into the one where the screen at the front was displaying complex formulas for achieving near-light speeds, and another where the presenter kept her head down the entire time, reading straight from her notes.

Interstellar travel is a concept that excites me, that fires my imagination as a writer of science fiction. If achieved, it opens all sorts of possibilities for the future of mankind. I feel guilty for complaining about a free conference. After all, no one made me attend. And the concept is fantastic. But organizations like this one are going to need the people like me for support, funding, a positive public opinion, political backing. So, we need to better understand what they are working on.

They did make some strides towards that goal. They brought in a number of successful writers of science fiction to present panels on their views of interstellar travel. I attended one of these, featuring one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Bear. During the panel presentation, the authors helped make some connections between those working in the scientific fields, and those who loved the concepts but may have lacked the science backgrounds. They brought up the human factor of interstellar travel, what it would be like from a psychological standpoint, how it would affect the evolution of the human race. I came away with several great ideas for future stories.

So, no, the conference was not a waste of time. What I understood, I enjoyed. I just wish my brochure had come with a Universal Translator.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Agent for the Hubby!

Yes, I know I promised more Backspace details, but I've been away on a trip and without internet access. And while traveling, the hubby GOT AN AGENT! And not just any agent, but the fabulous Cameron McClure of The Donald Maass Agency. So, we are now agent cousins (writers represented by the same agency but not the same agent.) I'm so thrilled for him. Now he can suffer with me through revisions and the submission process. :-)

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Back to Backspace--Day One

About a year and a half ago I won a scholarship to the Backspace Conference. It was a phenomenal conference with lots of agent/writer interaction and personal attention. This year, my husband won the same scholarship. How cool is that?!

We just got back from New York this morning. Physically, I'm exhausted. Mentally, I'm recharged and ready to storm into a summer of writing. This would be a very long post if i tried to describe the whole experience, so I'm breaking it into days.

We got in very late Wednesday night. Thursday morning, bright and early, the conference began. (Why do they always have to start these things so early?) We attended panels on "What Agents Want" and "Query Letters That Work." Then, I went off to read while the hubby attended the workshop on query letters. By the time that ended, he had two requests for partials from the agents conducting the workshop. We had lunch with some other very nice writers of young adult and middle grade fiction. Then he went back to the opening pages workshop and I read some more. After this came the mixer where we chatted with agents and writers. It's all done in a very comfortable atmosphere, everyone mingling and exchanging experiences and advice. Next came an agent panel on "The Wow Factor." In other words, what makes an agent say, "Wow!" while reading your manuscript or query. At the end, my husband went up to speak with one of the agents and got another request for his material.

We then had a two hour break, so we headed off to The Donald Maass Literary Agency. My agent, Amy Boggs, had said I could come by and see the agency and chat. It was very nice, and more orderly than I imagined it would be. Lots of books, but no piles of manuscripts and letters. Everything is electronic these days. I also got to meet agent Stacia Decker and Donald Maass himself, and he welcomed me very warmly.

Back to the hotel where I hung out while Joe attended another workshop. And then we hit the bar. Now, let me say up front, I don't drink. One glass of wine is quite enough for me. But most of the networking at writers conferences goes on in the bar, and the lobby if the bar is overflowing. Best trick is to order something nonalcoholic that looks like a real drink. Stick a stirrer stick in anything and it looks like the real thing. Otherwise, you might say something really stupid in front of a future agent or editor.

We found a group of writers and chatted for several hours about writing, querying, etc. I don't generally tell people I have an agent unless I'm asked directly about it, or if my husband is bragging on me. I just sit and listen to all the "advice" writers give other writers about how to land an agent. I will offer my own suggestions, but I don't say I already have one, mainly because I get amused when people tell me that I'm going about it all wrong. As long as everyone is nice about it, I keep my secret. If someone really gets aggressive or rude, though, I (or my husband) will casually mention that I'm already represented. If someone is really obnoxious or condescending, he'll toss in there that I had seven offers of representation, and we get to watch their eyes pop. That doesn't happen too often, though. Almost everyone we met at this conference was polite, friendly, and eager to soak up any advice anyone could give about this very long and difficult process, and also willing to acknowledge that there is no one secret method or path to getting an agent.

And so ended day one.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Moving Right Along

I love writing. I hate revising. Not to say I won't do it. I will. And I'll give it my best effort. I just don't enjoy it the way I enjoy creating new words. I think most writers feel the same way, although I have met a few who embrace and love revising.

Must be something wrong with them. :-)

Anyway, got my revision suggestions back from my new agent. I was, understandably, a little nervous. I mean, I knew she loved the book, or she wouldn't have offered to represent it. And she'd said she wanted minimal changes. But I worried that once she'd reread it with a closer eye (and no competitive deadline hanging over her head) that she'd find all kinds of things that needed fixing.

So I opened the email with some trepidation to find . . . one suggestion. That's right. One. And it was the same one she'd suggested in our initial conversations about the book. I take this as a tremendous compliment.

In addition, she offered several great ideas on how I might accomplish what she was looking for in that one suggestion. I guess I shouldn't have worried so much.

Now let's hope the changes meet her expectations.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

New Agent a Good Influence

I've only been represented by Amy Boggs a couple of weeks, and she's already proving to be a good influence on my writing habits. One of the tasks assigned to me was an outline of where the VICIOUS CIRCLE series is headed in its sequel. I had some vague ideas to that effect, but nothing definite. This forced me to get my thoughts in order.

So, I spent the weekend preparing a rough synopsis of book two, currently titled DARK ADDICTION. Between my general notions and the hubby's brilliant input, I think I've pulled together a pretty good plot. We'll see how well it holds up after Amy and a future editor make changes to book one, but at least it's a starting point. It even served to provide a guide toward book three in what I'm thinking will be a three-book story arc.

I will say, it's weird getting back into that particular protagonist's head after so much time has passed. I rather missed writing her, actually. Cor is dark and sarcastic, but with a definite sensitive side. However, given the amount of torture I'm about to put her through, she would kill me if we ever met on the street.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

New Representation!!!!!

Yes, it has been a very long time since I blogged. That's because I was dedicating every minute of free time to the Great Agent Hunt, also fondly known as GAH!!!!

I will say, I did things quite a bit differently this time. I had two manuscripts ready, so I tried to gauge agent personalities and send the right one to the right person.

I also queried a lot more widely. Instead of sticking to those representing science fiction and fantasy, I also queried agents who handled "general" and "commercial" fiction. Surprisingly, I got a lot of requests from those areas.

After I got the first offer of representation, I also decided to nudge agents who already had my partials and fulls. But in addition, I nudged those with only queries from me. This generated a firestorm of sorts, nine full requests in one day, and many more over the course of the next several days. I also received a large number of thank-you notes from agents who appreciated being "kept in the loop" even though they only had my query letter. Apparently, this sort of notification isn't normally done, but some agents have backlogs of emails, and I gathered that they are frequently disappointed if they finally get to a query letter, only to make a request and find out the writer has already accepted representation elsewhere.

The next thing I knew, I had SEVEN offers of representation, all from wonderful agents. Each night brought a different CALL. I ate little, and slept less while I agonized over making the right decision.

Some were boutique agencies. Others were major, long-established agencies in New York. Every single one of them had something positive to offer. I asked questions, spoke with their clients, did anything I could to narrow down my choices. I called friends and family members who were patient while I brainstormed my decision-making process out loud to them.

After much deliberation, I selected the fabulous Amy Boggs of The Donald Maass Literary Agency. Many, many of my favorite authors are represented by them. I am honored to be part of the Maass Agency family.