Tuesday, July 31, 2012

pay to write?

Not all writers groups are created equal...

I live in a metro-area with about 2.5 million residents. We have two long-standing writing organizations, let's call them Group1 and Group2. Group1 originated over thirty years ago, I believe as a chapter of Romance Writers of America and has well over two hundred members. Group2 originated in 1997 as "an independent creative writing center operated by working writers and university-level teachers of writing" and also has at least a couple hundred members. Obviously, the two groups have a lot of members in common but they have a lot of differences as well. Group1 is run on an all-volunteer basis and focuses on novel-length genre fiction. Group2 pays its teachers and focuses on pretty much everything except novel-length genre fiction; this means poetry, short stories, literary fiction, etc. A lot of the teachers and students associated with Group2 have M.F.A.s.

I have been a member of Group1 for at least thirteen years continuously and have volunteered at various events. My (free!) critique groups have been invaluable over the years. The writers I've met in Group1--some of whom have many excellent genre novels published by New York publishers or smaller houses--have been extremely supportive. Through Group1 I've gotten to pitch various novels to literary agents and editors (for free! because I volunteered at the events). I can't recommend this group enough.

I have been a member of Group2 sporadically over the last ten years. I admit I'm about to let my current membership lapse. I decided my major dissatisfaction with the group is: you have to "pay" to be a writer in this group. Every critique session or workshop costs $$$ and this is after you've already paid your yearly dues! Some of you are no doubt thinking: 'But their teachers have MFAs!' Unfortunately, few of these teachers have written anything I've ever heard of. I myself have an MFA and I can tell you the critique I get via Group2's paid teachers is no better than the free critique I get from my Group1 peers. In fact, it pretty much breaks my heart to see my fellow students paying hundreds of dollars for two chapters of critique per semester in Group2. :( They're not making any progress.

So here's my advice for what it's worth: You should be in a writers group that supports you and doesn't make you pay to write. Writing is, and should be, free.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Begin with telling

Some of my writer friends and I have been discussing novel beginnings. Over the years, fiction has gone through certain trends and conventions. I thought the current convention was to emphasize showing more than telling. Out of curiosity, I went ahead and looked at the beginnings of some of my favorite novels. Incidentally, these are all very successful series.
  • In my business, we not only understand chaos theory, we totally abide by it. Chaos happens. Always plan for speed.

    Either the Djinn was putting me on, which would be seriously unfunny, or the spell was coming from Elsewhere. I hoped not an Elsewhere that began with the letter Hell.--Ill Wind Rachel Caine.

  • I heard the mailman approach my office door, half an hour earlier than usual. He didn't sound right. His footsteps fell more heavily, jauntily, and he whistled. A new guy. He whistled his way to my office door, then fell silent for a moment. Then he laughed.--Storm Front Jim Butcher
  • There are some men who enter a woman's life and screw it up forever. Joseph Morelli did this to me--not forever, but periodically.--One for the Money Janet Evanovich
  • I'd been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.--Dead Until Dark Charlaine Harris
Oh dear. In this brief unscientific survey of hugely successful novels, 100% start with telling. I can take a hint. :)

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

facts in fiction

I've been having some interesting discussions with some of my writer friends. We apparently have some differences of opinion. (But isn't that part of what makes life interesting?) To boil their argument down to one idea, they say in fiction: anything goes. I don't agree.

Obviously, everything in fiction is made up; it is fiction after all. I enjoy speculative fiction, in particular, and it always has made-up stuff in it. For example, we cannot travel at faster than the speed of light. This is not a technical barrier; this is a law of nature. It is impossible to travel faster than the speed of light. So, when a novel has this: it's totally fine. Readers suspend their disbelief.

However, I strongly believe there are only so many disbelief-suspensions allowed in a novel. When authors write about facts, they need to get them right. For example, if an author says the War of 1812 was fought between the U.S.A. and Mexico, I say, "No." (If the novel is an alternate history, this could work.) If an author writes humans have 12 pairs of chromosomes, I say, "No." (Unless it's some kind of super-duper weird mutation.) You get the idea.

Some people call this external consistency. The fictional world should be consistent with reality--unless noted (see speed of light, above). There are other kinds of consistency in fiction: genre consistency. The fictional world should behave like other works in its genre--unless noted. Any fictional characters, settings, concepts, etc. borrowed from other works need to behave as they do in those works. And there's also internal consistency. Any fictional world should be consistent with itself. Characters, settings, concepts, etc. established in a fictional world need to continue to function and exist as they did previously--unless noted. IMHO, writers need to utilize all three kinds of consistency.

What do you think?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

torturing your characters

A common piece of advice for writers is: torture your characters. I thought I was pretty good but I'm reading a novel right now that puts my efforts to shame: Thin Air by Rachel Caine.

It starts out very dramatically:
There were worse things than being naked, freezing and alone in a forest. For instance, there was being naked, freezing, not alone, and not sure of who the hell you were. And having people depending on you.

But the plot developments are practically killing me. I don't want to give too much away and, frankly, I haven't finished it yet, but Caine has killed off Joanne's daughter (who is now 'haunting' her!) and put Joanne together with a horrific human psychopath who previously tortured her--and her sister. To make things worse, Joanne has lost all her memories, her whole identity. Making Joanne forget the psychopath so that she's nice to him after he tortured her extensively with sharp, pointy objects is pretty much the creepiest stuff I've ever read. Ugh!

I'm in awe of Ms. Caine. I couldn't even imagine such stuff much less torture my characters with it. I like my characters! I don't want to put them through worse than hell.
But... I should.

What do you think? Can a writer torture a character too much?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

showing versus telling

It's curious but there seem to be different "levels" in the art of writing. As kids we all start out telling stories. Think about those scary stories told around the campfire: "...and then the couple slammed the gas pedal and zoomed out of the woods. But when they got home they found a hook hanging on the door handle."

When a person has been writing for a while and started to go to workshops and critiques they're taught they should show, not tell in their writing. One of the excellent Seton Hill University Writing Popular Fiction teachers, Maria V. Snyder has a really nice discussion of Show Vs. Tell on her website. According to Maria, there are five techniques a fiction writer can use to avoid telling the reader:

  • Using Point of View (POV)
  • Using dialogue
  • Using all the senses
  • Using picture nouns and action verbs
  • Writing in scenes
Go read the article; it's great. I'll wait.
Wasn't that good? I agree with Maria that it is extremely important to show the story in fiction. This is because fiction is the only medium in which the reader becomes the character(s). And you can't do that without showing.

However, once you learn the writing rules, once you learn how to show, I think it's okay to do a little telling.
Some of my critique partners disagree. They say you should never tell. I think they're still stuck on the "Show, don't tell." rule.

What do you think?