Critiquing the Pros? Oh yeah.

This week, I gave a critique on CC for the first time in close to a month.  It was the greatest moment of my day.

This author handled themselves with confidence and grace, balancing action and emotion, suspense and humor (lots of humor), and overall clean, crisp writing.  Sure, there were a few errors – typos, minor craft problems – but overall, this story was a pure joy to read.

As I concluded my critique, I made a point of saying, “I’ve critiqued close to 50 stories here on CC – and yours is one of the best I’ve seen.”

Of course, then I was curious.  How many critiques had I actually given since I started on CC?  I went back and counted.  One, two, three… forty-nine, fifty, fifty-one… sixty-nine, seventy.  I’ve given seventy critiques.  Wowzer.  Perhaps that’s why I’m now suffering from CSCS.  What’s that, you ask?

Critiqing the Pros

Well, check out this Poll that was on CC recently.  I found it fascinating because it addresses a phenomenon I’d discovered a few months ago.

I’m calling it Can’t Stop Crit-ing Syndrome. That’s CSCS for short.  If you are actively writing, editing, or critiquing, you are in danger of getting this.  Unfortunately, there is no known cure, but there are things you can do to address the symptoms.  First, let’s look at what some of the symptoms are:

* Flinching when you catch a typo in a published book

* Groaning when a published author breaks a “rule” for no reason (ie, when they info-dump, use passive voice, or forget a comma)

* Automatically correcting your friends’ and family’s grammar, despite the fact that your own grammar isn’t always perfect

* Not being able to read articles in the Washington Post Magazine anymore without wanting to yell at the author, because OH MY GOSH, DONT YOU KNOW WHAT A RUN-ON SENTENCE IS?

* Looking at a sign in a store that says “Get You’re Flowers Here” and asking to speak to the manager

While there is no official cure for CSCS, there are some suggestions for those suffering from it.  These include:

* Zoning out when around people who frequently misuse grammar

* Focusing on what magazine writers did well, not what they messed up on

* Not forcing yourself to labor through books with so many issues that you get yourself worked up

* Telling yourself that not everyone can be as good at English as you

Despite these negative symptoms that can sometimes inhibit your reading (and living) enjoyment, it can be helpful to look at the few positives that come with CSCS:

* Editing your own work is easier – I mean harder – I mean you catch more of your own mistakes

* If you suffer from long-term CSCS, you may even get to the point where you make less mistakes in your rough-drafts, because the thought of seeing those mistakes in your own writing is enough to make you poke your eyes out

* You become a better critique-er for other peoples’ stories – at least I hope

Do you, too, suffer from CSCS?  Leave me a comment and let me know I’m not the only one.

Plot Thoughts

This post is actually NOT about Camp Nanowrimo.  (Well, not directly.)  Surprise!

When I started writing, I was a die-hard pantser.

Writing was like reading a book: I never knew what the characters were going to do, or say, or be.  If one of them died halfway through, great!  If they felt like meandering through a forest for eight pages, great!  There were no restrictions to where my imagination would take me.  And when I had that bizarre inspiration in the middle of the night, it would fit perfectly into the thing I called a plot.

Sure, I had some idea where the story was going (eventually), but it was allowed to take detours or scenic routes.

No more.

no more

I’m doing re-writes.  And I’m finally wrestling this monster called Plot under control.  It’s going down, kicking and screaming (and biting, too).  But it’s going down.

I know where my story starts now.  I know what the turning point is.  I’ve created conflict in the beginning (that was previously nonexistent).  I know about the conflict in the middle and the climax and the resolution.

Okay, so it still doesn’t fit into the magical Seven Points of Plotstuff (aka the Dan Wells Story Structure, as referenced today on one of my favorite blogs, Am I Doing This Right?)  or the Circus Tent for Instant Plotting (as referenced here on another of my favorite blogs, Crackin’ the WIP).

Actually, now that I look at the Dan Wells Thingy, maybe the Inciting Incident would be when Star meets Irsong and Emmella… and Plot Point 1 would be when she gets the Item… and then Pinch 1 when they find out he’s evil and they flee… and then… Plot Point 2… then…

Hey!  My plot actually matches that pretty well!  *Applauds myself*

The point to all this?  I really enjoyed being a pantser.  It gave me incredible freedom.  But going back and re-writing while knowing where I’m going is pretty cool too.  I loved the feeling I got while writing yesterday.  It was pure Oh-my-gosh-I-love-the-plot-and-this-conflict-is-beautiful-and-my-story-is-amazing-and-I-could-publish-this-someday.

Will I pants my next novel?  No idea.  Will I at least attempt an outline for it?  Probably.  Will I always be a pantser at heart?  I’m 99% sure the answer is yes.

Toothbrush Rewrites

You’ve heard me rave about Critique Circle.  I was on the website today and this caught my eye:

Toothbrush Editing

That sums up my life right now.  My novel is written — finished.  And now it looms before me like a filthy basement floor.  That the cats have puked on and the dog has tracked mud on (at least I hope it’s mud) and is that a dead spider?  Here sits this inexperienced author feeling like she’s armed with nothing but a toothbrush.  Kinda like this:armed with a screwdriverI mean, come on!  Some bleach would be nice!  Or at least a pair of latex gloves?

What?  OH!  That’s right!  CAMP NANOWRIMO is just around the corner!!!  YAY!!!

tom smiling gifSo today I compiled my Camp NaNo Survival Kit.

Laptop (with Scrivener)

Itunes (with all the LOTR music)

Notebook with a mess of notes about my story (maybe I should straighten out those notes)

The Emotion Thesarus

Slippers

Fuzzy Tardis blanket

Coffee

A stash of apples (to gnaw on when I hit plot holes)

A (bigger) stash of chocolate (to devour when I can’t get out of plot holes)

Favorite gel pens and a bunch of colored pencils… cause, hey, sometimes you need to put ideas down on actual paper

This April, armed with my determination, my inexperience, and a toothbrush/screwdriver, I will finally begin thorough re-writes.  Basement floor, here we come.

ahhhhhh!

The Power of Critiques

Sometimes, turning a good story into a great one is as easy as getting a critique.  As easy and as hard.  Critiques are powerful tools, not to be taken lightly.

The things I’ve been taught by critiques — too many to count.  How to slay passive voice.  How to deepen POV.  What parts of my writing really stink.  Practical ways to show instead of tell.  Grammar refreshers.  Awkward sentences to fix.  Places that lag.  Generally, how to write better.  Sometimes it hurts, but it’s always good.

I love Critique Circle because each chapter I put up gets 2-4 (or sometimes more) critiques from people who all have different backgrounds, experience, expertise, and things they look for.

For a while, I even had a “crit partner”.  We got to the point where we knew each other’s stories well, and knew each other a bit, so that we could yell at each other when we messed up.  I loved it because he wouldn’t let me get away with things.  He’d say, Beth, I know you can do better than this.  Now go fix it.  And he loved it because I was meticulous at catching his grammar errors and making sure his story improved.

Critiques have taught me so much of what I know about writing.  And you know what?  They’ve put fuel in my tank to keep writing and keep improving.  People that enjoyed a chapter of my story.  People saying “I want to read more.”  Those are lifelines to an author.  People saying, “You know what, I wish I could write dialogue like you.”  And even sometimes, “This totally stinks, but keep you head up and keep writing anyways.”

Now, there is a hidden, sometimes overlooked value in critiques: what you learn by giving them.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been giving a crit and said, OOoooh, that’s a vile thing to do.  Wait…. wait, I do that too.  Oh crud.  So then I can go fix it.  ANNND, it’s trained me to be a much more meticulous proofreader of my own writing.  And every piece of writing I come across.

WARNING: being a writer and giving critiques may make you paranoid about all writing.  You may be reading magazine articles, published books, children’s stories, etc, and feel the need to critique them.  I know I certainly do.  But the pros of Critiques far outweigh the risks.  🙂

Don’t Forget the Conflict

magnet

Based off of a blog post I wrote for the CC blog a while ago.  I thought it was an important enough topic that I should post it here also.

When was the last time you stayed up half the night to finish reading a book?  Why?

It’s every author’s dream that their book would be so good that readers, editors, and agents wouldn’t be able to put it down.  How do we do this? Suspense. If readers are made of metal, then suspense is the magnet that pulls them to the page. But how exactly does one go about creating suspense or conflict in a story?

First, we need to make sure there’s something standing in the way of our main protagonist. It seems fairly obvious, but I’ve read many stories (and written some too) where the protagonist was just having a happy-go-lucky adventure with no antagonist and nothing working against the MC. So we need to be sure that our overall story has a main thing standing in the way of the MC’s goals. I’ve heard it said that there is an inverse ratio between the character’s happiness and the happiness of the readers – so limit the amount of time that your MC spends in a happy, safe environment.

Second, we must make sure that each chapter has suspense. Even if we have created the coolest scene, the sharpest dialogue, and the most realistic characters, unless there is suspense, there is nothing pulling the reader to the page. Every chapter should contain something, either small or large, that goes against the protagonist, and that could turn out one way or another. Keep readers guessing! It’s unanswered conflict that pulls in the reader’s attention.

There needs to be conflict in nearly every scene in your MS. If you find your characters living happy lives, then go in and wreak havoc. Turn peaceful conversation into a misunderstanding. Flip a nice gathering into a high-tension situation.

I’m writing a fantasy story where my MC receives a warm welcome in an Elvish city and is asked to a dance.  I was going to have it be all happy conversation and lovely gowns. But then I thought, what if my MC is terrified of going to the dance? What if my MC has never danced before and is scared of making a fool of herself? What if she gets into a fight at the dance? What if she doesn’t have anything to wear? What if, what if?
Suddenly it went from a cool scene to a magnetic scene. Even if the small changes didn’t effect the outcome of the whole story, they helped make the lead-up to the dance more suspenseful.

If you go through each plot, each chapter, each scene, and add distrust, confusion, and chaos… well, then you will have a terrific story. Or at least a magnetic one.

Scrivener: download complete

scrivener logoYesterday I took the leap of faith and downloaded the free trial of Scrivener.  I’ve gotten to the point where I’m doing serious edits on my MS and I figured it was time to check this program out and see if it could help!  I was pleasantly surprised with all of the cool features and gadgets it has.

For those of you who don’t know, Scrivener is “a powerful content-generation tool for writers that allows you to concentrate on composing and structuring long and difficult documents.” After fooling around with it a fair amount today, I decided I’d list some pros and cons (thus far) of Scrivener.

PRO: It is just as cool as the website makes it out to be — maybe even cooler.

CON: I can never remember how to spell / pronounce it.  Scri – ven – er.  Scree – vhon – noir.  S-C-R-I-V… oh whatever.

PRO: I love how it is organized.  Within your MS folder, you have separate folders for each chapter, and within each chapter folder, you have a text file thingy for each scene.  What does that mean?  It is really easy to move a scene from one chapter to another — just drag & drop, and BAM!  Moved to another chapter.

CON: If you’re importing an already-written MS (like I was), it might take you a few minutes to figure out how get your scenes and chapters organized.  Luckily, there is an “import and split” feature that will break up your scenes for you automatically.  All I had to do then was add in the folders for the chapters.

Scriv Scene Break

PRO: Once you’ve done that, it allows you to edit all your scenes & chapters together.  When editing the text, it will give you a single dotted line for a scene break (see pic at left) and a double dotted line for a chapter break.

CON: I got nothing for this one!

Cork Board - Labled Note Cards

 

PRO: There is an amazing “corkboard” feature that allows you to play around with virtual index cards.  Each “scene” file you create automatically has an index card that is linked to it.  Say you are looking at a chapter’s corkboard.  If you move around the index cards in that chapter, Scrivener will reorder your MS’s scenes to match what you did with your index cards.  Not happy?  Just drag the index cards back.  Or re-order your scenes with the navigator (“binder”) on the left.  Basically, re-ordering your scenes is just a drag-and-drop away.

And look! You can label your index cards “first draft”, “revised draft”, “done”, and the like.  You can also take notes on the index cards that won’t appear in your MS.

Scriv Glitch

CON: Scrivener does occasionally glitch on my mildly old computer when I try to view my enormously large document and ask it to do something complicated, such as zoom in.

PRO: There are a lot of awesome things you can do, like editing while in split-screen or full-screen mode.

Full Screen Mode
Full Screen Mode
Split Screen -- corkboard on the left, document editing on the right.
Split Screen — corkboard on the left, document editing on the right.

CON: If you’re like me, you might spend a few hours playing with all the features, instead of doing something more important, like, say, homework or actually working on your MS.

PRO: You can download a free 30 day trial from the website!  http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php  — AND that’s 30 days of actual USE.  If you use it twice a week, you can have it for fifteen weeks.

CON: After that, it does actually cost money.  It’s not super expensive though — just $40.

PRO: In the course of an afternoon, I have this thing up and running, with my MS all organized and ready to be edited in a fun, easy-to-navigate environment.

Note: There are a TON more features that I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of — name generator, built-in dictionary, outlining program, formatting, research management, and so much more.  Their website does a pretty good job of advertising for themselves, so check that out if you want the details of everything Scrivener can do.

So.  Who all out there uses Scrivener?  What are your favorite features?  Drop me a comment and let me know!

Thoughts While Editing — aka, DID I REALLY WRITE THAT?

Woah.  Did I really write that?

The most common thing I think while reading through my story.  And it can go one of two ways.

Option #1: Woah, Did I really write that?  That’s terrible!  I must kill it!

Or, Option #2:  WOAH!  Did I really write that?  That’s incredible!  I had no idea I was that good!

There is very little in between.

My “editing” process has begun with a general read-through of my MS, and I’m taking notes on it as I go, highlighting things that need work, adding notes such as KILL THIS! or Deepen POV or What? She would never do that.  I’m nearly done, and my MS has gained a lot of color and a lot of notes flying everywhere.  And I’ve done a lot of thinking the two thoughts above.

You see, when I started out, I really. Could. Not. Write.

And as I wrote more (and had it critted) I got better!  And now I can see how awful my MS is in a lot of places, especially at the beginning of the story.  The first six chapters or so were brutal to read.  And then in about chapter 7, I thought for the first time, woah.  Did I actually write that?  ‘Cause that’s not half bad.  Actually, that’s pretty good.  And then — AND THEN!!!!  About two chapters later, I nearly made myself cry.  (In a good way!  A character died and I wrote it really well.)  And it was amazing.  My whole brain went this is why I’m a writer!  (Not because I enjoy crying… but I love the feeling when you’ve written something well enough that it merits that reaction from anyone — even myself!)

The scenes like that give me the courage and perseverance to slog through the scenes where I think Option #1… and hopefully after a few re-writes, I can think option #2 for every scene in my book.