Sunday, March 24, 2013

Writing Method #8: Mind-mapping

 Writing Method #8: Mind-mapping

     I first learned about the concept of mind-mapping when I was working on my second master's degree (this one in Education and Educational Administration) back a few years ago. I was surprised that such a good, unique concept had never been a part of my English education (BA or MA) because I think it is a fantastic fit for writers of both essays and fiction writing.  I don't know if I could tout it as the best method for a fledgling novel writing because it is a bit existential but I do think it is a great alternative for established writers compared to the Outline methods I've highlighted here in earlier posts (Outline, Draft in 30 Days plan, etc.)

     A Mind-map can be a fun thing to create and the visual impact of it can really bring a writer back into a story. The concept is to start off with a main topic and write it in the middle of the page, then draw a circle around it and from that circle draw several lines moving outward, as if you are drawing a sun.  Personally, one of the things I really like about the mind-map is that it employs, in fact it encourages, the use of multiple colors and even drawings to progress.  I think that anything that promotes fun as a part of the process is certainly worth a look. 

     Expanding then on the lines shooting out from the sun (described above) are the main topics or plot points.  Off of each of these are numerous sub-topics or sub-plot points.  Here is an example:

General Mind-map sample

      The best way to incorporate mind-mapping into novel (or short story) writing would be to use separate mind-maps for plot points and character interactions. In the past, I have successfully used mind-maps to straighten out family dynamics in mystery novels with convoluted character relationships.  Unlike the simplistic sample above, lines can double-back and intersect, creating a family tree of sorts for your characters. Such as:

Character Mind-map

     I have found that it is often easiest to draw up mind-maps on paper.  However, for those who prefer to keep everything on the computer, there are several software programs out there to help create mind-maps.

Computer generated mind-map
     Apart from the fun of drawing up mind-maps, these creative templates can be useful to writers of all genres and of all ages. I've used this concept successfully when teaching young children as well as teaching university students in college English classes. What do you think? Have you ever mind-mapped before?  Would you consider it in the future?


Saturday, March 23, 2013

Writing Method #7: 30 Day Draft

Writing Method #7: 30 Day Draft

     After chronicling the major writing methods out there (Linear, Snowflake, Kiser, Marshall Plan, Outlines, and Note-cards), I feel I covered most of them. But yesterday, I came across a book I bought back in 2005, called, "First Draft in 30 Days" by Karen S. Wiesner and I feel an examination of the subject fits in well in this series.  I won't go into as much detail in this blog as I did the others in the series because I don't want to infringe on the copyright of this author or her book, but I did want to address the notion of writing the entire first draft of a novel in 30 days.

     A friend and I were discussing procrastination and how long it takes to write a book sometimes when, as author, you take your time pushing out 1000 words a day, so when I first read the title of the book I envisioned that it was about actually writing the whole book in 30 days and the concept of writing an entire novel draft in just 30 days is something I find a bit mind-boggling. That is, after all, 2166 words a day to get 65,000 (a normal draft amount) done in 30 days. As someone who struggles to do 1000 a day (2000-3000 a day on a weekend), I think if I had to bang out 2166 or more every day after work, I would start to just write gibberish to make my word count. No, on second thought, it wouldn't be gibberish, but it wouldn't be stunning or moving the plot forward in any considerable way. So I was intrigued to see what Wiesner writes in "First Draft in 30 Days."

     Upon reading, I see that Wiesner doesn't advocate actually writing the book itself in 30 days, but writing the outline and character sketches in 30 days. That's a different concept than the title alluded to, for me, but I continued reading.  Wiesner starts out describing the goals she plans to visit. In a nutshell, it's:

1.)   Write the preliminary outline in 6 days;
2.)   Research the project in 7 days;
3.)   Write the story evolution in 2 days. Story evolution is described as outlining the main conflict and the story goals and completing character sketches;
4.)   Spend 9 days formatting the above outlines;
5.)   Spend 4 days evaluating the outlines;
6.)   Spend 2 days revising the outlines.

     In all, this pattern seems like a mix of general Outlining and the Snowflake or Marshall Plans.  I perceive a major limitation as being, as I've droned on about before, now that you've spend 30 days outlining the piece, you have 30 less days at your disposal to actually write it.  I do like that the outlining system Wiesner describes is more compact than others I've reviewed so that is a plus.

     One positive note that stood out to me from this book is the concept of brain-storming by creating mini-movies in the mind.  This resonated with me because all of my books and short stories (and proposed books and short stories) play out first in my mind like a movie, so I think this is a useful plot device. I also liked Wiesner's suggestions for overcoming writer's block.  She presents a series of 26 ideas, ten of which particularly appealed to me.  Two of them are to make a soundtrack for the current project and then to exercise or take a walk while listening to that soundtrack.  Interesting concept and I think it can help with creativity.  I, for one, hate to sit still for too long so moving about while listening to a "soundtrack" for the project in question seems like a fun, motivational concept.

     In the end, I would count this method as a variation on the Outline method I covered earlier, but I think the writer's block suggestion are a fun section of this book to peruse and consider.  Have you read it?  Did it work for you?

Friday, March 15, 2013

Writing Method #6: Note Cards and Sticky Notes

Writing Method #6: Note Cards and Sticky Notes

     In the last entry in my series on writing methods, I discussed Outlining, which flowed well with my preferred Linear method.  I've never used note cards as a writing method in themselves. That is entirely because I have obsessive compulsive tendencies and my fear is that if I relied on note cards, I could lose them. In days gone by, note cards were the top writer's tool.  Before the advent of computers, note cards were a step above just keeping a simple writer's notebook, because unlike a notebook, they could be shifted and moved to rearrange scenes and there was always room to add new scenes just by shuffling a new card in.

     I know of a few authors who have branched out from note cards to sticky notes. In this variation on the note card method, authors write out scenes and plot points on sticky notes and then arrange them on a larger surface, such as a wall, table top, or poster board, in a manner I refer to as story boarding. Since the sticky notes are, well, sticky, they stay in place and don't shift or blow around like a regular note card and they can be repositioned at will.

     What should be written on each note card or sticky note? Most writers who favor these methods use a new card for each main scene or plot point, much as someone using the Outline Method (  ) would use a new line for each new point.

     1.  Start with a note card for each chapter idea;
     2.  Add in a new note card for each scene within the chapter;
     3.  Give each character his or her own note card, when introduced for the first time;
     4.  Flag pivotal plot points or surprises by adding a star or sticker to certain note cards.

     Since I'm always thinking of ways to organize things even further, I would suggest that someone interested in using note cards to plan a novel, consider keeping them in a slotted photo album (you know, one of those with the little sleeves, two or three to a page, for the insertion of photographs) where they are easy to see and easy to move around, but not as easy to misplace. 

     On a plus side, note cards are easy to carry, easy to organize, and easy to discard, if necessary. My issue with this method is the transitional nature of it. I don't like so many moving parts that I can so easily misplace. Technology has been so nice as to find a solution for that, however.  There are several types of software on the market that create virtual note card systems for writers. Scrivener is one I've used personally as a software and, while it has a note card feature, I didn't find it as interactive as I would have thought was ideal. Others out there that I have not tried include: Mindola's Supernotecard, Text Block Writer, and Writer's Block. There is a lot I can say about name originality here but I'll let that one go. There is also a lot more I can say about novel writing software pros and cons, but I will leave that for another post in another series.

     Do you use note cards or sticky notes?  How do they work for you?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Writing Method #5: Outlining

Writing Method #5: Outlining

     Now I have to admit that I am a huge fan of outlining. I've never outlined an entire novel but I have outlined just about everything else in life. Like everyone else out there, I first learned outlining in elementary school and, since I went to an awesome Catholic School (I loved it there), I learned the proper way to outline. Later in life (well, high school and college), I used to shudder when I'd see people crafting sloppy, incomplete outlines. I've now moved past that (thankfully) and can come to accept the benefits of outlining without it having to be perfect.  The correct pattern of an outline is to have at least two items in every category and at least two categories per section.  For example:


     There should be no A, if you don't plan to have a B, etc.  So how does this method of basic writing, an excellent model for essay writing, apply to writing a novel?  First off, it's a faster, cleaner way of putting your ideas on paper, but I'm sure most writers already know that.  So what's the real benefit?  It's a good model for seeing how the story flows, how the main scenes follow one another.  The thing I like best about it is the ability to move scenes up and down as the story ebbs and flows. It's also extremely easy to interject new scenes as you progress.

     This is a style most suitable for those writers who only want to put general thoughts on paper, not for those who desire a more all-consuming novel writing approach, such as the Snowflake ( or Marshall ( methods.

     How would a sample novel outline flow?  A sample would look like:

   I. Section One:  The Set-Up

        A. Chapter One: Lucy arrives in town to attend her sister's wedding

        B. Chapter Two: The problems between Lucy and Martha come to a head when the groom disappears

        C. Chapter Three: The police arrive; Lucy gets involved

        D. Chapter Four: Aunt Jenn goes missing; Lucy starts her own investigation

        E. Chapter Five: The police investigator suspects Lucy; Lucy finds a major clue.

     Once the above is accomplished, it's now easy to go back and flesh out the next layer of the story, such as:

       E. Chapter Five: The police investigator suspects Lucy; Lucy finds a major clue.
           1. Detective Smith walks into the kitchen and finds Lucy in the knife drawer;
           2. Lucy discovers a shard of red glass in the knife drawer after Smith leaves.

     You get the picture....

    My enthusiasm for outlining is tied, of course, to my preference for a more Linear style of novel writing (as I captured in #1 in my series: Outlining helps keep ideas together and allows for movement of the story ideas up and down.  However, as I wrote earlier, I never outlined an entire novel all the way through but I have used it successfully in short story writing.  Have you used outlining while writing a novel?  How did it work out for you?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Methods of Writing #4: Marshall Plan

 Methods of Writing #4: The Marshall Plan 

   In my last three posts, I've explored some writing methods such as Linear, Snowflake, and Kiser. Tonight, I wanted to take a few minutes to explore the well-known Marshall Plan.  I know many writers who swear by the Marshall Plan. I haven't used it myself.  As I said, I'm not a big fan of the formulaic methods but I have to admit that, on the surface, the Marshall has promise.

    To go off on a tangent for a second, I love anything that feels like homework so I do like the fact that there is a workbook to go along with the instruction book.  I know, I know, how weird is that?  So the idea that there is a workbook is intriguing to me. However, I still feel that if I spend time filling in the workbook, I would be taking that time away from the actual writing of my book.

     There are 16 parts in all to the Marshall Plan. Step 1 is to decide what the is right novel for you to write. I agree that is important.  Personally, I think prospective authors need to pick the type of book that flows organically from their perspective and isn't just a case of "what's hot right now and what can I mimic?"

      Steps 2, 3, 4, and 5 cover shaping story ideas, creating the protagonist, writing the supporting characters, and formulating beginnings. There is a lot of good in building a strong foundation in these areas for new authors. After an author starts to get comfortable with the writing process, knowledge of how to master these areas should become common practice.

     As the Marshall Plan progresses, middle steps in the process cover story line progressions (Step 6) and learning how to surprise the reader and keep the interest flowing (Step 7).  It moves on in a natural flow to Step 8 which covers how to write effective endings.

     In all, the above Steps 1-8 cover the writing of the first draft of your book. Steps 9, 10, and 11 cover revising the draft and working on dialogue and action, among other writing topics.  It all leads to Step 12 which discusses creating the final draft. Steps 13 and 14 cover the editing process.

     The Marshall Plan moves towards an ending with Step 15 on writing proposals now that your book is finished. The final chapter (Step 16) covers how to approach editors and agents.

     After reviewing the Marshall Plan, my opinion is that it's an excellent plan for a first-time writer but I don't know if it has the same merits for a second book or a writer with a lot of experience.  I'd be willing to hear what others think.  Have you used the Marshall Plan?  Did you find the workbook helpful?  What do you think?

Monday, March 4, 2013

Methods of Writing: #3 Kiser

Methods of Writing: #3 Kiser

     While investigating different writing styles for my on-going blog series, I came across the Kiser Method.  This method allows writers to complete an entire manuscript in approximately nine months.  It's more of a hybrid of the truly methodical Snowflake Method I discussed last time and my Linear Style I discussed in the entry before that. It's also a good fit for people who like to be told what days to be creative and when not to be.

     The Kiser Method breaks writing into month-long chunks but it considers each month to have 25-days. That's more of a Venus month than an Earth month but it does allow the writer to take off three to six days a month (depending on if it's February or March, etc.)  Breaks are always good but planning to turn off creativity on certain days is an odd premise to me.  Sure, I don't write every, single day like I am supposed to but I also don't pre-plan my no-creativity periods in advance either.

     One thing to bear in mind about the Kiser Method is that the originator's goal for this plan is to turn out a 100,000-150,000 word novel in nine months.  The truth of the matter is that unless you are already a known commodity, good luck in selling an over 100,000 word novel out of the gate.  The going word rate for first and second novels right now are more in the 50,000 to 70,000 word ballpark. The good thing about the Kiser Method, in light of this, is that if it works for you, you may bang out your entire first draft in well less than nine months.

The Kiser Method has six main steps:

1.) Spend the first month planning out your novel. Use this time to decide on characters and location, outline, plan key scenes, and map as you see fit. Make sure you create a useable outline.  (Although it doesn't say it, I assume you decide on the story idea before sitting down to step one.  Depending on how many hours a day you put into this and how detailed your pre-scene work, character development, and location/setting planning is, you will be spending as much as 25-50 hours in month one just planning. );

2.) Month two is the first month you actually write.  Everything in month one was just mapping and out-lining. The plan here is to write 500 words a day for 25 days. That will produce 12,500 words in month one.  Then take five days off to read and edit the above product;

3.)  Spend months three, four, and five building on your original 12,500 words from month two.  The goal here is to know write 900 words a day for 25 days on, then take five days off.  Then write 900 words a day for 25 days on with another five days off. Repeat for a third month in a row. The plan is that at the end of month five, you should have 80,000 words;

4.)  Spend month six trying to knock out 1200 words a day for the last 25 days. You should end up with approximately 110,000 words;

5.)  Spend months seven, eight, and nine editing the above manuscript at a rate of seven pages a day.  You are allowed during this part of the process to add or delete words to streamline the manuscript into a finished product. It is still important in this process to stay true to your original outline from step #1 above. At the end of the ninth month, the manuscript should be complete;

6.) Spend months ten, eleven, and twelve resting before starting the process all over again on another novel.

     This all sounds very interesting and it has a great structure, but I am at a loss on the planned breaks in creativity. This,in my opinion, is too close to taking the art out of writing. I like the dedication of the specific word counts for each day because I actually love structure like that but making myself not write for five day blocks at a time at the end of every month and then taking a full three months off a year is just too much down-time for me when it's the whole process of writing and creation that I love so much.

     How about you?  Have you tried the Kiser Method?  How do you feel about the built-in down times?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Next Big Thing Blog Hop

The Next Big Thing

Thanks to Stevie Thompson, I get to take part inThe Next Big Thing blog hop!

I had never heard of this before but the plan to have authors from all around the world to answer the same 10 questions about their current project. The goal is to start on one blog and follow the links to discover other authors and books that you may not have found otherwise.

1) What is the working title of your next book?
I'm working on two many projects at one time but #1 is called, "Changes."  That's a working title only. I'm terrible at titles most of the time.

2) Where did the idea come from for the book?  
I was had an idea that came out of the blue and I wrote a short story about it. My beta readers really liked it, so did I, so I decided to explore the idea into a longer piece.

3) What genre does your book fall under?

It's Young Adult Fantasy.

4) What actors would you choose to play the part of your characters in a movie rendition?
Gee, I don't know. The main characters are only 14 years old in the book and I don't have a handle on teen actors. 

5) What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

Vivian has a secret and the Fairy Court wants to kill her to keep it that way.

6) Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Agency, I hope.

7) How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?
I keep starting and stopping and working on 100 other things but this book should come out to 64,000K and that will take about 5 months because I write after my day job.

8) What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I'll have to think on that.

9) Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I've been writing for years (since I was a child) and I've had tons of inspiration from family and from my career as an editor, journalist, and an English professor.

10) What else about the book might pique the reader's interest?
It's a mix of teen drama, love triangles, the fairy realm, and the keys to controlling the world.

Some fellow authors to check out:
Stevie Thompson
Rhiannon Douglas 
* more to come *

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Methods of Writing: #2 Snowflake

Methods of Writing: #2 Snowflake

     In my last blog entry, I discussed how I usually favored a Linear Writing style or method but that I was open to exploring other writing methods as well.  I also said that I despised people who referred to my typical Linear Style as being a Pantser, aka flying by the seat of our pants. It makes us sound like we are taking a plane with one propeller blade and ten ounces of fuel on a cross-Atlantic jaunt. Not so.  These people refer to themselves as Planners.  One style of writing especially favored by Planners is The Snowflake Method.  Since snowflakes are known for their uniqueness and individuality, I think naming a method writing system after them is odd but I'm sure there is a good reason for it.

      Upon investigating, I found out the following information about the Snowflake Method, invented by Randy Ingermanson. Namely, that it is a ten step process wherein the writer starts with a simplistic theme and then grows the novel out, in varying levels of complexity from there.  One of the advantages of this program is that it has structure and eliminates the writer losing steam on a tangent or a side arc that doesn't really fit in to the final picture. The biggest disadvantage, in my opinion, is a lack of allowing the creative process to have room to ebb and flow.  It feels a bit anti-creative right out of the gate.

     The ten step Snowflake Method process neatly breaks down to:

1.) Write a one sentence summary of the proposed novel.  (This isn't a bad idea as all good pitches should be able to be summarized in one to two sentences, a la an elevator pitch.)

2.) Take the one sentence summary above and expand it into a full paragraph detailing all of the main events in the story and what the ending will be.  

3.) Write a one-page summary of the main character. This summary needs to show the main character's motivation, goal, conflict, and epiphany (i.e. what does he or she learn through the novel). It should also include a one paragraph summary of the character's story arc. (Here's where planned methods such as these start to lose me. I feel, in my opinion only, that by the time I write all of this, I could have already had one to two pages of the first chapter done. After all, I already know my character in my head. But that's just me.)

4.)  Go back to #2 now and expand each sentence into a full paragraph.  (What? Why? I'm getting bored now.)

5.)  Now write a one page description of each other major character, telling the story from his or her point of view.  (Okay, now I'm going to start to mix up POV's in my head.  I do it easily enough in my Linear Method when I don't even mean to do it.)

6.)  Expand the one page synopsis of the story into four pages. (Sounding like an actor here, but what's my motivation for this? I could be finishing chapter one by now.)

7.)  Expand each of your character descriptions into character charts. (No. Don't want to.)

8.) Using the expanded synopsis from #6, make a list of every scene you will need to write to complete the novel.  (Every scene?)

9.)  Using the scene list from #8, write a page-long narrative description of each scene. (Am I shooting a movie?  If not, this just doesn't work for me. I seriously could be well into chapter two by now.)

10.)  Now it's time to (finally) write the first draft.

     I am not trying to diss a writing method that can very well work for others but this style just doesn't flow for me.  A basic estimate for me is that by following a Linear Style instead, I would be at least 40-50 pages into my manuscript by the time a Snowflake Method writer is ready to start his or her first page of the actual first draft.  Now, granted, I wouldn't have all of my scenes mapped out but because I find my characters have their own minds and go there own ways, I prefer to let them flow and not keep them trapped down into a specific pre-planned format.  But that's just me.

     Have you used the Snowflake Method and has it worked for you?

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Methods of Writing: #1 Linear

     Methods of Writing: #1 Linear

     I was asked recently how I write.  Well, I just do.  The truth is not often enough because I work full-time but I've tried 700 novel writing methods and I keep coming back to "Just Write It."  For me, that means writing in a Linear format.  Start off with a blank page, type in a working title (WIP is perfectly fine) and then type Chapter One, return twice, and start with sentence one.  I just write and the story flows in a linear, how it should look in the finished version of the book, way.

     Now, of course, the Linear Method is not for everyone.  I can't even say if it is always for me as I have tried, and I'm totally open to continuing to try new methods and approaches.  I am an educator and I loved being a student so learning is always welcome in my world.  However, I have to say that I absolutely hate, as in despise, as in detest, when some people calls it "Pantsing."  They are referring to the Linear Method (as I call it) being nothing more than a writer just flying by the seat of his or her pants. First of all, "pantsing" sounds like it should describe something that drunk college guys do to each other as an initiation, it certainly doesn't have a very nice ring to it.  Those that call a Linear writing style "pantsing" view pantsing as the opposite of planning.  They say a writer is either a Pantser (first time I read that fast, I thought they were calling certain writers Panthers...) or a Planner.

     The reason I don't like this comparison is that it insinuates that those who write in a Linear style don't plan.  Not true.  I might write the scenes as they will appear in the finished product (ideally) but in my mind, I have future scenes, pivotal interactions, and most importantly, the ending, already envisioned.  The key is that they are only envisioned, not committed to paper yet so "Planners" don't feel these eventual scenes don't count until committed in some way to paper.  I disagree.   As long as I know where I'm going, I don't need a minute-by-minute GPS system to get me there.

     One of my personal reasons for favoring Linear Writing is that I feel some planned writing, or methodical writing, systems waste too much of the author's time.  They require note cards, systematic fill out this or count out these methods, or they take outlining (an otherwise true love of mine) to the extreme.  I find that if I pursued any of these methodical systems too rigidly, I burn out on my own story before I even commit a full chapter to paper.  However, in the spirit of learning and exploring, I plan to look into and evaluate several different writing approaches: Snowflake Method, Marshall Plan, Outlining, Note-Carding, and Mind-Mapping to begin.

     As for a break-down of my Linear Method, the steps are:
1.) Have a solid idea for a story;
2.) Have a general audience in mind: middle grade, young adult, adult, mystery readers, women, etc;
3.) Have a general idea of where you are going. What kind of story do I want to tell?;
4.) Know where you envision yourself ending up. The ending may change by the time you get there but overall, you know where you are going;
5.) Start writing.

     This method certainly isn't for everybody, but is it for you? 

Monday, January 7, 2013

10 Steps for Giving Criticism

     In my last blog entry, I talked about how to accept criticism.  Yes, one of the most important parts of being a writer is to be able to accept criticism.  But, there's more. As a writer, you are - or should be - a part of a community of writers and in that community, you will come across numerous times when you will need to give criticism to others. I've had this happen at three main points in my life:  1.) when I taught creative writing, 2.) as moderator of a writer's group, and 3.) any time anyone anywhere mentions I'm a writer in the presence of anyone else who wants to be a writer.  Even if #1 and #2 don't apply to you, there will be a time when #3 will.

     In my opinion, there are ten steps to giving criticism correctly:

1.)  Criticism MUST be constructive. Otherwise, it's just a barrage of negative language for which the recipient has no means of comeback except for an angry or hurt one and that's just terrible.

2.)   Start off with something positive.  If the constructive criticism starts off negatively, the recipient is going to be so busy mentally going over what you just said that any follow-up praise is going to be missed.

3.)   Don't mistake starting with humor to be the same thing as starting with praise (#2). If you open with, "well, at least the font was easy to read," don't be surprised if the author doesn't think this is as funny as you do.

4.)   Try the sandwich approach. I was involved in Toastmasters, the international public speaking organization, for many years.  The preferred way to give constructive criticism in Toastmasters is the sandwich, or Oreo, approach.  Basically, start with something positive, then move on to the negative (gently), then add with one final positive point.  It sounds pedantic but it goes over very well and the recipient usually absorbs all of the information.

5.)   Don't edit the grammar unless you've been asked to do so.  Being a copy-editor is not the same thing as giving feedback.  Only point out an error in grammar if it happens numerous times or if it changes the meaning of something.  The author can use a copy-editor for the true grammatical fixes.

6.)  Remember that the criticism you are giving is only YOUR opinion. Don't provide it with the same tone and demeanor of a judge passing a sentence to a criminal.  It's fine to pepper your criticism with caveats like, "in my opinion..." or "one possible suggestion here..."

7.)  Point out where you have questions.  Sometimes asking the author for clarification is constructive criticism enough. Admit it if you don't know why the main character or the villain or the hero is doing what he/she does. Sometimes there is nothing wrong with the writing itself, there is just something lacking in the motivation or backstory.  If that's the case, clarify it for the author.

8.)  Ask the author if he/she would like suggestions.  Don't just offer them up. Sometimes the suggested changes are exactly what the author needed to realize a way to polish a tricky spot or to get some inspiration BUT make sure the author is open to that before you start rattling off your own ideas.

9.)  Offer to re-read the piece when the author has made the changes.  Sometimes knowing that you are invested in the work and in the author's progress can make a difference.

10.)  Pick any color ink in the entire world except red. If you aren't the teacher and the author isn't your student, don't turn a request for constructive criticism into school.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

10 Thoughts on Accepting Criticism

     Despite being occasionally pessimistic in my own mind, I pride myself on always been optimistic, happy, and (if possible) humorous in my interactions with others. I'm the one who likes to give, to make others happy, to be patient and polite.  I don't understand people who burden others with negativity when there are better ways to go through life.  However, there are times in the writing world where being too kind is actually cruel. In the arena of giving criticism, honesty is key.

     This is post one of two.  First, I would like to address how to accept criticism graciously and then use it to strengthen your work and to grow in the process.  In a future blog article, I plan to address how to give honest criticism. I think it is better to learn how to accept criticism before ones gives it.

     I've said it before but I love my writer's group. I find them to be funny, insightful, creative, and honest - all of the necessary qualities a writer should be. One person said to me at the October meeting that she liked how I was open to receiving constructive criticism and how it made write more and that realization helped her to feel more comfortable being honest. She proceeded to tell me that she didn't care for one of the three short stories I had submitted to that month's session and then she told me why. And I agreed with her on every one of her points. They all made sense. I'm not trying to make points about myself here. I'm just trying to impart how an open mind and active listening is helping me to grow as a writer.

     But getting and giving honest criticism doesn't always go so well.

     Two occasions come to mind when I had to impart constructive criticism on another author and it was not well-received. The first time, I was teaching a creative writing class for adults and the students had handed in the first chapter of their WIP for that week's exercise. One adult student had written the first page of a murder mystery in which the main character was a former Vietnam-vet and army medic turned police officer. He finds the requisite dead body in chapter one (it was a mystery after all) and promptly acts the complete opposite of what the reader would expect: he threw up, walked away, swooned, passed out.  She said she wanted to make him a vulnerable hero.  All I could think of was how did this guy get through a war and medical school? Did he swoon and pass out all the time?  I got the vulnerable part. I just didn't get the hero part.  The author was immediately unwilling to take suggestions to make her character more believable. Internally, I questioned why she had signed up for a creative writing class at all if she felt she didn't need mentoring or instruction.

     On the other occasion, a fellow writer gave me and two others a manuscript to read for a science fiction WIP. The three of us produced constructive criticism that said mostly identical things about plot and dialogue holes. The author was perturbed and thanked us for our feedback but didn't plan on taking it.  This author then submitted the work to several places who all rejected it and cited the same plot and dialogue issues we had already pointed out.  The truth could no longer be ignored and the author conceded and made the changes but not before burning opportunities with several agents and publishers.

     As a writer, the only way to improve your writing is to listen to the reader and adapt when necessary. Yes, it is your creation but that doesn't mean that it can't be improved.

1.)    Listen. Just take a breath and listen. You can't learn if you are talking at the same time.

2.)   Write down what you hear. Paraphrasing or jotting down key words is fine. I like to write things down so that I don't remember them differently that what the speaker originally meant.

3.)    Be an active listener.  To quote Wikipedia: Active listening is a communication technique that requires the listener to feed back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties.

4.)    Don't be so sensitive. People aren't out to hurt you. Don't take constructive criticism as a personal attack. It's not.

5.)    Resist the urge to be defensive or to lash back. To do so means you aren't listening (see #1); being an active listener (see #3); being too sensitive (see #4), and/or open to growth.  If you are in a writer's group and you demonstrate defensiveness, you aren't going to be a treasured member, or possibly a member at all, for very long.

6.)    Ask questions. Make sure the audience knew what you were trying to say.  Sometimes this discussion clears up confusion early on. 

7.)     Go home and review what you were told. Which things need to be fixed?  Which don't?  Which just need to be better explained?  I once wrote a short story where I thought it was clear that a particular character was being taken off to prison but my beta readers (critique group) were sure that person was taken away and killed by the armed guards.  One short additional sentence and the confusion was cleared up.

8.)     If possible, take the revisions back to original critique members to see if you understood what needed to be done.

9.)     Despite all of the above, never make changes you, as the author, feel change the meaning of your work.  Make changes to make it clearer not to make it someone else's.

10.)   Keep writing.  No matter the criticism you get, make sure it propels you to write more, not less.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

500 Words a Day

     Maybe my problem is that I try to do too much and burn out too easily. I work full-time and then I write seven days a week. I make an attempt to do a private version of Nanowrimo every month but the truth is that I'm usually too tired to type out the requisite 1667 words a day. Sure, some days I do it but most of the time, I don't.  Then today I stumbled onto a 500 words a day writing challenge. 

     At first, I thought, "This is nothing. Why bother?"  but then I pulled out my handy-dandy calculator (i.e. I minimized my Firefox and clicked on the calculator icon on my desktop) and, lo and behold, 500 words a day works out to a lovely 182,500 words in one year. Wow. 

     Now when I factor in that there will be days (heck, they'd better be days) when I write well more than 500 words, I may be able to get to 250K words this year.  If I can, 2013 will be an awesome year for me as a writer. 

     Who wants to join me in the 500 words a day challenge?