darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
What's the best and worst criticism you've ever received? And how did you assimilate it?

I'm thinking mostly of feedback on writing, but I'm interested in experiences of any kind of critique you may have received on any kind of activity.

Here's why: In September I'll become a certified Story Grid Editor. There's a big discussion among Story Grid course-mates about how to make sure the client is ready for the editorial work.

Well, receiving feedback is a skill, and I want to write a little book or cheat-sheet for prospective clients to help them build that skill. I've managed to acquire it, but I don't know how I did it.
  • Do you have the skill?
  • How did you get it?
  • Was there a particular turning point?
  • Or do you avoid critique altogether? If so, why? And is there any ideal situation under which you'd be open to it?
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
Beta-reader notes on the final draft of Restraint have started coming in. This is the most nerve-wracking process!

The feedback so far is excellent: constructive, knowledgeable, and detailed. Nobody so far hates the novel. But the silences! Do the non-responders dislike it too much to comment? Were they too bored to finish? Are they too nice to say so?

It's impossible to get my ego out of the way. These people are doing me a huge favor and I don't want to press them, but only the fact that I have acrylic nails is keeping me from biting those nails off.
darkemeralds: Jared Padalecki in Regency attire (Restraint Tristan)
I finished my final draft of Restraint on Thursday and sent it out yesterday to four champion fellow writers willing to read it for structure, pacing, flow, and logic. That's a big, big job.

I expect to get suggestions back for further small changes, and of course I spotted typos the instant I hit the send button. I could undoubtedly still shave a few words for style, or add a sentence here or there to fill out a minor plot point, but the novel--this novel--is finished. Any big changes at this point would be making it into a different novel.

It's a little weird, cleaning up all the files, closing all the research tabs, shutting down the gigantic spreadsheet called "Engineering Restraint" after more than two years of rewrites. The prospect of starting a new project is daunting.

But I'm starting. I'm thinking about the new political situation, and how it's my responsibility to write for the Resistance in some way. Not a dystopian Hunger-Games-ish thing--that's not who I am as a writer--but somehow a weaving of resistance into the fabric of the historical novel I'm already researching.
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
Happy New Year to the few, the strong, the loyal who are still here at Dreamwidth.

2016, like 2015, has been about my homemade MFA program in creative writing. My "thesis"--which was due on December 31st and should be done this week--is a publishable final draft of Restraint. I expect 2017 to be about writing, too.

My program of study has revolved primarily around story structure and editing. As I approach the finish line, here's a roundup of the changes my studies have wrought:
  • Word count: Fanfic 230,000, Profic 145,000.
  • Character names changed: 15
  • Characters cut: 2
  • Subplots cut: also 2
  • Subplots added: 1
  • Scenes cut: I've lost track. A lot.
  • Scenes added: about 10
  • Average sentence length: Fanfic 16 words, Profic 14 words
  • Reading ease score: Fanfic 69, Profic 72 (higher is easier)
  • Number of drafts to get here: 8
Here's a rough and improvised heat map of the restructured novel, scene by scene. Green bars are scenes that end positive; red, negative. Height of bar approximates scene intensity:

a bar graph with green bars rising above the centerline and red bars descending below it, representing scene-by-scene valence shifts in the novel Restraint

Three fellow writers have volunteered to read and comment on the final draft. Assuming they find no major failings, I'll polish it up and start sending it out in March.

In other writing news, I'm taking Shawn Coyne's Story Grid Workshop in New York City in February. It'll be three days with the story structure master and 25 other writers who are ready to go pro. Since Restraint will be finished by then, I'll be applying what I learn there--and everything I've learned in my Homemade MFA Program--to my next novel, which is currently in the proto-outline stage.
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
The biggest difference, I'm finding, between a novel-length fanfic and a publishable novel isn't that you have to change the characters' names and give them different haircolors (though there is that).

The biggest difference is that you're writing for strangers.

Telling the story to strangers )
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
Robert McKee: Story: Style, Structure, Substance...
Christopher Vogler: The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
Shawn Coyne: The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know
John Yorke: Into the Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story
Larry Brooks: Story Physics and Story Engineering and Story Fix Larry Brooks

Lately I've been wooed into the left-brained world of editors and screenwriters writing about story structure. Studying these books (blogs, podcasts, presentations...) has helped me see my work's real flaws.

But because I'm more analytical than creative myself, I'm in danger of over-engineering my novel to fit a Grid, a set of Tent Poles, or a Hero's Journey. It's getting hard to tell whether I'm improving my story or ruining it.

A metaphor keeps springing to mind from a craft I'm more proficient in: sewing.

Crimson velvet and chiffon ruffles )
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
The second meeting of the Super Hardcore Editing Group left me a bit wrung out. The work is intense and so are the people doing it. A lot of brainpower goes into those two hours--so much brainpower, in fact, that I was worthless for anything except Twitter and grocery shopping until six hours had gone by.

We spend little to no time on our prose. Two of our four members don't even have much prose yet. Just outlines. Tent Poles (PDF). We've spent 90% of our meeting time so far digging deep into each other's story summaries, trying to place those poles accurately so that the fabric of the story can be stretched taut over them.

I'm struggling with the middle of my novel. Apparently this is a common problem. The beginning of a story tends to be clear in a first draft and not that hard to spiff up in further drafts. The final act is typically pretty clear too--it's often obvious from the very moment Inspiration plants the story seed in your mind.

But my middle 50%--that is, everything between my First Plot Point (the event that introduces my conflict and drives my protagonists on their path) and the Second Plot Point (the last bit of new information, which drives the story to resolution) is a complete rat's nest tangle of loose ends, extra characters, scenes with no arc or direction...a mess.

A roadmap out of the mess is beginning to emerge thanks to the Sheggers. But boy does my brain hurt.
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
Now playing in my Audible library: Elizabeth Gilbert's Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

Liz (I call her Liz) says a whole bunch of the things Steven Pressfield said in his wonderful The War of Art, but I vastly prefer the way she says them. Pressfield uses a lot of sports and war metaphors that don't resonate much with me. Liz, as you might expect from the author of a book called Eat, Pray, Love, has a more spiritual and nurturing approach.

But they both talk about creativity and fear, and they both have a primarily writerly bias, so they're both inspiring to me in their ways.

Liz, more than Pressfield, focuses on creative self-expression no matter what. She specifically does not talk about "winning". Her anecdotes don't end in, "and then she won a Pulitzer," but rather in, "and then she was happy".

Both of them embrace a concept of inspiration as a real, living thing, existing independently outside of us, and interacting with us. I like that. For Pressfield it's the Muse; for Liz, "ideas". Pressfield sidles up to the metaphysical in a slightly embarrassed way, whereas Liz has it right in her book title: Magic.

Big Magic is read (wonderfully) by the author. It runs about five hours. It's fantastic for me as a writer. I'd think it would be inspiring to anyone who makes anything for any purpose.
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
In my quest to level up in my writing, I set out blindly last summer to revise my novel.

My friend Sue lobbed inspiration at me in the form of The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, and I began to see myself as a Warrior for Art. It was a thrilling time, overcoming Resistance, writing every day for four hours, and going outdoors in the early evenings after a hard session, with the deliciously overtaxed brain of the Real Writer.

Though I was fixing small things in my novel, I sensed I wasn't really making progress. But I was inspired and hopeful enough to give a large sum of money to a professional editor, who, I believed, would guide me to the next level. Alas, the professional editor couldn't, or wouldn't, My hopes--not to mention my pride--went down the drain with my money.

It was a sad time. One of my nieces, always kind and inquiring, asked me one day, "How's the writing coming?" and I said, "Oh, I've given up. I'm not calling myself a writer at all anymore."

It was a low point in my writing life. )
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
Brilliant critique group today! Everyone's submissions showed evidence of real story-structuring and genuine improvement.

The ladies all approved of my heavily revised Restraint Chapter 1, and while that was nice, what I really loved was that we all knew why it was better. Not just, Wow I like this, but Wow, this really moves, it has an arc, I can feel his conflict, I love the turning-point, I want to know what happens next.

Even the "I hate Jane Austen" contingent admitted that when the story is working, the language doesn't get in her way. I was so happy! I've been really tempted in the past to disregard her comments on the grounds that "she's just not my target audience," but I've learned that in an editing group, the "target audience" concept isn't valid. If a reader of normal intelligence looks at my chapter with open-minded intent to follow along, and then can't follow along, it's my fault, not theirs, even if they would never voluntarily read this kind of thing in their leisure time.

I've completed second-draft level restructuring on Chapters 1 through 5. Only...35 or so more to go, and then it'll be ready for a third draft.
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
Tuesday critique group keeps getting better! We have now left copy-editing behind, and everyone is pumped up about making real, structural improvements to their work.

The beauty of a weekly group with the same people is that we all commit our pet faults over and over, so I get to see Faults A, B, and C* every Monday, and every Tuesday, I get to dig deep and find constructive suggestions for fixing them. And every Wednesday, when I go back to my own writing, those faults leap off my page at me, like whoa, I didn't realize I was doing that!--and I now have an idea of how to fix them.

And in this way, little by little, I'm learning to fix the faults before I commit them! Like, not committing them in the first place, almost!

I never realized before how valuable a writing group could be, but it's turning out to be priceless.

*Here are the some popular recurrent problems I've learned to see so far, thanks to this group:

Pulling punches: can't bear to be so mean to your characters. A comfort after every hurt. People agree. Things Are Nice. This is a beautiful place. Please don't fight. (I am so GUILTY of this!)

Swallowed the SHOW DON'T TELL pill which is a beginner pill that should be spat back out as soon as possible: dares not tell us a character is surprised; instead bends over backwards to describe surprised facial expressions and body postures. AKA The Eyebrow Problem. (I err in the opposite direction.)

Telling the Truth Instead of Telling a Story: "but they need to eat! This restaurant scene makes perfect sense" in the middle of an action arc. AKA "shoe leather", "stage directions", and "macro lens". (Still struggling with this one every day. I suspect it will only go away completely in third drafts.)
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
One member of my ladylike critique group submitted a good, solid kidnapping scene for our review this week, but it wasn't as exciting as it should have been.

Thanks to the Global Story Goggles I've been learning to use, I was able to see what was wrong and give a brilliant-if-I-do-say-so structural edit, to which everyone--including the author--went "Ooooh!"

Little boats )
darkemeralds: Jensen Ackles in Regency Attire (Restraint John)
I'm tearing up the world with this Story Grid method! It's amazing.

Fully 43 scenes lacked Conflict, Arc, Turning Point, Stakes, and/or Plot Purpose. Some can be fixed, but a whole bunch are deadwood. No matter how much I've loved each of their conflict-free little faces, they're on the chopping block.

Now that the deadwood is off my mental radar, the real heart and bones of the novel have started to emerge. It went something like this:

ME: I've written a gay Regency romance with one major flaw: it doesn't have a happy ending.

STORYGRID: No you haven't. You've written a historical social drama that doesn't require a happy ending. Its major flaws arise from your misconception about its genre.

ME: But...but...it's all about love!

STORYGRID: No it's not. It's about self-expression, honor, and keeping your place in society.

ME: Well, but my Antagonist, the ex-boyfriend, is motivated by jealousy and greed, just like a romance antagonist.

STORYGRID: No, your Antagonist, Society, is motivated by its desperate need to maintain the status quo, just like a Social Drama Antagonist. It gives the weapon of blackmail to its unwitting accomplice, the ex-BF, who is nothing more than Society's bitch. Society needs to be rid of him just as surely as it needs to destroy the Protagonists.

ME: But my Protagonist wants love, just like in any romance!

STORYGRID: No. Your Protagonist wants to surrender to his sexuality but he needs to, ahem, Restrain himself. He wants to flout Society's rules, but he needs the goods that social conformity provides. He wants Tristan because he needs guidance and structure and cover to be his true self.

ME: Oh! I get it! And Tristan needs to prove he's a real legitimate grown-up nobleman, so he takes on the role of John's protector.

STORYGRID: And it just happens that true love arises from that, but look at the tragedy that comes with it.

ME: Wow.

STORYGRID: Do you still think you were ever writing a Regency Romance?

Me: *tiny voice* Nope.

STORYGRID: *dusts hands together*. Okay. Get back to work.
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
Until I came along, my new critique group was just four nice ladies copy-editing each other's draft chapters.

Well, I've been languishing for years on that turd-polishing plateau, and fixing a troubled novel doesn't happen there. Sure, that's where I put in my 10,000 hours learning to wield the language, but I should have moved on ages ago. This critique group wasn't helping, and I was ready to quit.

Two weeks ago I found a path to my next level. It appeared in Shawn Coyne's The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know*.

Coyne's highly analytical method comes from 25 years as a developmental editor at big New York publishers. He's giving away his trade secrets now because even if you get a book contract at Random House, there are no developmental editors left there. It's a DIY game.

Infrared Writing Goggles )
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
I've just joined a writers' critique group. I don't think it's a great fit for me, but before I go shopping for something different, I thought I'd ask here.

Have you ever been part of a critique group? How about other writing groups (like beta partners, writers' organizations--places where you work on your writing "out loud" as it were, with other people)? What kinds of writerly interactions have helped you become a better writer? Finish something? Polish something? Has a critique group been valuable to you? In what way? Or in what way did it fail expectations?

I'd love to hear about it.

Critique groups )
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
I was battering my brains against a writing problem this afternoon when there came a knock at my door. Rescue!

It was a former coworker, just passing by, and we ended up in an absorbing two-hour conversation about life in Stumptown, and wonky city politics, and the neighborhood we have in common. It refreshed my mind wonderfully. I felt smart and connected at the end of it, instead of adrift and lame.

What if, I thought: What if, in my story that's refusing to take shape, I insert a sudden and unexpected knock on the door? What if someone the protagonist hasn't seen for ages drops by? What if that person drops by with a gun?? Oooh...

What if the protagonist opens the door and there's nobody there, but there's a letter on the mat. "I saw what you did that day..." Or a package: the bloody shirt, the stolen heirloom, a hank of hair, the exculpatory proof...

What if the protagonist is high on opium and the apparition standing at the door is a hallucination dispensing mystical advice that turns out to be deadly? Or shows him the future--accurately?

What if I'm actually writing a fantasy and there's no opium and the being isn't a hallucination at all? What if it's an angel?

What if I open my door and it's the Angel of Storytelling, here to help me bring this sucker in for a landing? That would be cool.
darkemeralds: Photo of fingers on a computer keyboard. (Writing)
Anyone want to study an amazing writing technique with me?

Every bit of writing training I've ever been exposed to has defined "good writing" as clean prose, strong characterization, dramatic conflict, lively dialogue, concise description, etc., etc., etc.

But apart from "It should have a beginning, a middle and an end," I've never had story structure broken down and explained--or even mentioned. I've never consciously observed it in my reading. I didn't really know it existed. It's been all flesh, no bones.

Larry Brooks lays out the bones, and once you see them, you can't unsee them.

Story Engineering )

A lot of writers and editors no doubt intuit their way to this structure, but I'm done groping around in the dark. This guy has handed me the keys to the room where all the light switches are, and I want to share them. I need a critique/study partner or two to work the method with and get better at applying it.

So who's interested in learning more?
darkemeralds: Baby picture of DarkEm with title 'Interstellar Losers Club' and caption 'Proud Member' (Proud Member)
[personal profile] lycomingst pinged me yesterday to inquire after my continued existence--very kind!--and caused me to face the ridiculously wide gap in my posting history around here.

I continue to exist. )

So, yes. Still existing. Chipping away at this thing called life. How's everyone doing?
darkemeralds: Dark Emeralds in red glasses (Default)
"Writers, you need this book."

That was the tweet from my friend Sue last Monday morning. Ordinarily, "Yeah, yeah, whatever" would be my response, because I have never gotten anything of out of books for writers.

But last Monday was different. )

It's like a fucking miracle.

Writers, you need this book.
darkemeralds: Jensen Ackles in Regency Attire (Restraint John)
Yesterday evening I went to a lecture at the Oregon Astrological Association* and then, because it felt like my day was just getting started, stayed up reading and goofing around till 4:00 a.m.

Of course, today I didn't wake up till almost 1:00 in the afternoon, and only a good hard stare at my phone told me that it was Saturday.

I've written 5000 words of backstory for two secondary characters who need work in the Restraint rewrite (Uncle Martin and Mr Braithwaite--I really wanted to find out how they met). This has meant revisiting old research into the Napoleonic Wars, George IV, Brighton, and smuggling on the Channel coast.

In other words, I'm basically just goofing around and enjoying myself.

Who here uses Scrivener? Can anyone describe to me what its advantages are? Other writers wax fannish over it, but I'm frankly finding it unintuitive and more frustrating than exciting. I'm limited to the Linux version, which may be hobbled compared to the IOS and Windows versions, but before I give it up, I'd like to know what I'm failing to appreciate.

And now it's 2:00 a.m. Almost bedtime. :D

*The subject was the Tea Party and the GOP, and it was fascinating.

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