Thursday, March 29, 2012

Critique groups

I'm a huge fan of critique groups. Writers benefit from having other experienced eyes and minds on their work-in-progress. (I do know several successful authors who disagree, however.) As an example, at my last meeting, two (male) critiquers called me on my male protagonist's behavior; they basically said he was too feminine. This was great feedback! I macho-ed up the character and it is better. :) Sadly, my long-time critique group is in a state of flux. I've been in the group around ten years, so it's not surprising things are changing. One writer has a bunch of books out and has been spending her time on marketing and publicity instead of critiquing (imagine that!). And others have various family and health issues. So, we tried to liven up the group by recruiting a new member. Hopefully, that works.

I've also been visiting/investigating various other groups in the area. It's amazing how diverse they are. One group doesn't let people submit their work until they've been attending regularly for months. One group only lets multi-published authors in. Some groups don't allow homework (you read and critique on the spot), some groups have lots of homework. The bottom line here is: if you're interested in finding a critique group, you may have to try out a few different ones to find a good fit.

But let's back up a bit. If you don't have a critique group, how do you find one? Many libraries have in-person critique groups. The internet has a ton of groups. I've heard good things about Critters Workshop, but they do focus on speculative fiction. I know the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers have a good on-line critique group. When considering a group, things to consider include: Are the meeting times and locations convenient? Are they experienced in your genre? Is the amount of homework reasonable? Are the comments you receive helpful? Are your personalities reasonably compatible? Is your writing better as a result of their input? Your-question-here.

Good luck!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Writing is hard

Over the last several years, I've been trying to learn how to write awesome short stories. The main thing I've gleaned over the years is: writing is hard. :) But, IMHO, here are some things a story should have to approach awesome:
  • No major grammar or spelling issues.
  • Dialogue tags can only be said/says or asked/asks. I'm not kidding.
  • You must have a protagonist with some kind of external problem who acts to remedy said problem. He/she/it does not have to be successful, but they have to ACT. Note: this is the external plot.
  • Your protagonist must also have some kind of internal emotional motivation that you convey to the reader. The events of the story should change this in some way (although a lack of change can work--as long as it's deliberate.) This is the character arc. Note: the internal character arc and the external plot need to be inter-woven. Note, too, the author's job is to manipulate the readers' emotions. Your primary tool here are the emotions of the characters.
  • Your opening (this means the first 250 words) should address your story problem. In other words, your opening is your set up.
  • Your opening (this means the first 250 words) should speak to your ending. Generally, this will be an echo of the same theme, or the theme's opposite. As an example, if your opening shows the reader thousands of clones, the ending should show how the protagonist is just one of many (defeat) OR he is special, one-in-a-million (victory).
  • You should be able to summarize the story's big idea or theme in one simple sentence. I'll come back to this below.
  • You should consider utilizing a symbol in your story to make it richer and illuminate the theme. If I was going to give this list a symbol, it would be some kind of light. :)
  • You should use similes and metaphors in your descriptions.
  • Your suggestion here?

A story I learned a lot from is Connie Willis' "The Last of the Winnebagos." (That's another tip: study awesome stories.) This story takes place in a dystopian future where a virus has killed off all dogs and the Humane Society has extensive police powers. Ostensively, the story is about a Winnebago hitting a jackal on the highway, a photojournalist trying to get some pictures and the Humane Society investigating the jackal's death. But what it's really about is the journalist sacrificing someTHING he loves dearly to save another human.

What do you think? What does an awesome story need?

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Ah, spring is in the air. Birds are chirping, squirrels are frolicking, flowers are starting to bloom. As Lord Alfred Tennyson said, "in the spring a young man's fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love." And a young writer's fancy turns to thoughts of writing romance?

Don't let this beautiful time of year distract you from your writing goals. One of the Seton Hill University Professors, Nicole Peeler, has a good blog post over at Pens Fatales: Time Strategies. Professor Peeler says, "The key to being a writer who actually finishes a book is not genius, or inspiration, or even talent. The key to finishing a book is one simple equation:
Butt + Chair + Writing Time² = Book."

I couldn't agree with her sentiments more, as I posted earlier: BICHOK. This stands for butt in chair, hands on keyboard.
The number one contributor to writing success is: Writing!

So, that's what I'm going to go do. Good luck doing the same. :)

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


Fiction genres can be slippery. Supposedly there's a new genre called slipstream. According to wikipedia, "Slipstream is a kind of fantastic or non-realistic fiction that crosses conventional genre boundaries between science fiction/fantasy and mainstream literary fiction."

Slipstream has actually been around since at least 1989 when Bruce Sterling first discussed it: "Slipstream" in CATSCAN 5. He said, ...this is a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility. We could call this kind of fiction Novels of Postmodern Sensibility, but that looks pretty bad on a category rack, and requires an acronym besides; so for the sake of convenience and argument, we will call these books "slipstream." And "Slipstream" is a parody of "mainstream," and nobody calls mainstream "mainstream" except for us skiffy trolls. Read the article, it's interesting.

The reason I bring this up is "The Wall Street Journal" discussed slipstream in a book review from the end of last year: "The Future of Science Fiction" by Tom Shippey. I'm all for TWSJ discussing science fiction in any context. :) According to Shippey, "literary authors have started "slipstreaming"—to borrow Bruce Sterling's term—writing books with sci-fi scenarios." and he gives various examples including works by Iain Banks, Cormac McCarthy, Margaret Atwood. Shippey makes some good points:What slipstreamers seem to like in sci-fi is the scenarios, usually utopian or dystopian. Yet what's missing in Ms. Atwood's own speculative fictions is what sci-fi fans really like: explanation and analysis. Sci-fi futures need to show not just when and what but also how.

IMHO, trying to differentiate between "slipstream" and "Sci-fi" or whatever else you want to call it, is pretty much splitting hairs. Authors can call their work what they want. And if it helps them sell books, all the better.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

fiction creating reality?

Could fiction create reality?
In terms of subject matter, fiction has long addressed the nature of reality. Science fiction has often examined reality and turned it on its head. Author Philip K. Dick was famous for this. He said, "In my writing I even question the universe; I wonder out loud if it is real, and I wonder out loud if all of us are real." He referred to himself as a "fictionalizing philosopher." Charles Platt says of Dick's work: "Everything is a matter of perception. The ground is liable to shift under your feet. A protagonist may find himself living out another person's dream, or he may enter a drug-induced state that actually makes better sense than the real world, or he may cross into a different universe completely."

Possibly taking this idea further, Alfred Bester attempts to utilize synesthesia in his novel The Stars My Destination. (Synesthesia is a neurological condition in which cognitive and/or sensory pathways get crossed, e.g. a sound is heard in response to visual stimulus.) Bester conveys synesthesia to the reader via unusual graphic images of text--almost giving the reader synesthesia in the process.

Fiction has been created that enables the reader to be even more active. I'm thinking of those Choose Your Own Adventure Stories in which the reader gets to make decisions at plot points. In recent years technology has enabled us to go further with this concept via software-driven Interactive Fiction.

This leads me to my point: I read a story recently that was written in an unusual way about an unusual reality. It occurred to me that perhaps it was the culmination of the ideas outlined above. Instead of showing an atypical reality, perhaps this story actually creates a new reality since the reader has to keep re-evaluating everything. It was mind-boggling and my description isn't doing it justice.

All this prompts me to wonder: How far could we go with fiction? What do you think?

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

In media res

I just finished a long novel so I've been catching up on my short story reading. And wow, these shorts are all starting with a bang. In fancy literary jargon we call this in media res, which is Latin for "into the middle of things." I'd go so far as to say, all the first lines are bang! pow! dramatic. I'd heard literary conventions were shifting to take into account our decreasing attention span and these stories definitely bear that out. So, artists of the short story: take note.

An interesting related issue is: how soon in a novel does the author have to hit the reader over the head with excitement? Should it be the first line? The first paragraph? Or do we have at least until the end of the first chapter? Of course, this does vary by genre. (Literary novels never have to have anything exciting happen. :) Ha. I kid the literary authors.) A few years ago, I would have said we had until the end of the first chapter. But now, with the increased pressure to sell books I'm thinking a bang! pow! novel first line is not a bad idea.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Kill your darlings

All of us writers have heard the phrase: Kill your darlings. This originated with British author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch who wrote in his 1916 publication “On the Art of Writing,”: Whenever you feel an impulse to perpetrate a piece of exceptionally fine writing, obey it—whole-heartedly—and delete it before sending your manuscript to press. Murder your darlings.

Many writers have espoused the concept over the years, including possibly the most successful writer, Stephen King. He says in “On Writing,”: Mostly when I think of pacing, I go back to Elmore Leonard, who explained it so perfectly by saying he just left out the boring parts. This suggest cutting to speed the pace, and that’s what most of us end up having to do (kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings).... And a little later he says, It’s always easier to kill someone else’s darlings than it is to kill your own.

You know where I'm going with this... I have a writer friend who insists on keeping the same bits of prose in every draft of her novel even though they don't work. But I can only make suggestions, ultimately it's her decision, as it should be.

We all do it. So, if you ever see another writer (like me!) clutching some darlings to their heart, refusing to let go of them: Tell them! And if someone tells you... Listen.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Your Paradigm

I've been reading a novel lately that's set in the post-apocalyptic future and everyone is fighting to-the-death for food. I'm approaching the climax of the book; it's going to be a final epic battle, and frankly, I don't think a whole lot of people are going to survive. :( To be honest, this isn't totally to my taste. Interestingly, I've met this author and he's a very nice guy, happily married, and financially secure.

My critique partners write a variety of different things but IMHO each individual author does tend towards writing dark (everybody dies) or light (everybody laughs) books in general. I definitely fall on the light end of the spectrum. That's not to say people never die in my books but when they do it's rare and the survivors feel bad about it and mourn the dead.

Which leads me to my point, writing shows and tells so much about the author, whether we intend it to or not. I think writing indirectly illuminates the author's paradigm. I could be totally wrong about this, but I think people write books that are the opposite of their worldview. The author in my critique group that writes the gloomiest, doomiest novels is happily married, well-off, with a great husband and kids. The author in my critique group that writes the lightest novels (okay, it's me) tends to agree with the teachings of Thomas Hobbes: " in the state of nature is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short." When I read and write I want to laugh. I want to be uplifted. I want to experience a better place, a world where we can all live up to our potential. I want to imagine...

How about you? Do you write your paradigm or the opposite of your paradigm?