jenniferkoliver: (Stock | Typewriter)
Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help author see where a story might still need work.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1) How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2) Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

(Note: This post was originally written for Storyslingers. Cross-posted here in case anyone finds it helpful.)
jenniferkoliver: (Stock | Book!)
(This article was originally written for and posted to [ profile] getyourwordsout.)

There are loads of reasons to be a regular writer. Writing regularly makes you a stronger writer. Writing regularly makes you a more focused writer. It helps with memory and recall, and with spelling, grammar and punctuation. It can be rewarding. It provides structure. It's brain exercise, and that can only be a good thing.

Trouble is, it's not always easy to get into the swing of regular writing. I've struggled with it in the past, and I still do. We all have down-times. Things happen in everyday life that are out of our control, and sometimes writing is simply impossible. Once you fall out of your stride, it's damn hard getting back into it.

But there are things you can do to ease you into a writing life. And if you plan to have a writing career, you really can't afford not to write regularly )

Love Until It Hurts (Aurosonic Progressive Mix), by Headstrong feat. Stine Grove.
jenniferkoliver: (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)
A few weeks ago Theodora Goss said something on her blog that struck home:

I think the same thing happens with a novel: in order to write a particular novel, you have to become the sort of person who can write that novel. And of course the process of writing the novel changes you as well. But you have to become the writer. The novel comes out of the writer that you are, and if you’re not ready, the novel won’t work.

This is so true, but I'm adapting it very slightly here for my own post. I often start stories, get a little way in, and realise that I'm not ready to write them yet. It's not a case of giving up; it's more putting them aside until I feel confident enough to do the idea justice, or more knowledgable on the subject. It's always an instinctive sense that I'm not ready. But it's also instinctive that I know the story seeds are good enough not to throw away.

It might take a month or two of pondering, research and progression—writing, reading, talking about writing and reading, learning all I can—or it might take a year or two. There are some ideas you just love so much that you can't let go of them, and that's fine. Hopefully, eventually, you'll be ready to write them, and write them well.

It's got to the point where I actually quite enjoy the feeling. I think: some day, this story will rock. It's like having something to look forwards to. So, while it might not be instantly productive, it's heartening that you get to the stage where you're self-aware enough to just know and not sweat it.

(One day, I will be ready to write science-fiction set in space. With actual science and everything!)

Bachelorette, by Björk.
jenniferkoliver: (Stock | Balloons)
At my last creative writing group meeting we explored Dadaism, a cultural movement that started during WWI. From Wikipedia:

Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.

Many Dadaists believed that the 'reason' and 'logic' of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

Our own Dada exercise focussed less on politics and more on letting go of authorial control, something I struggle with a lot. It's easy enough to try at home, or anywhere, really. All you need to do is pick a couple of passages from any book, magazine or printed source, print them out and then cut out individual words and/or small sentences, mix them around, then reassemble them into something new—without forcing them to make sense. One of the key things about this, and one of the things I found most difficult to start with, is allowing the word order to be totally random. I kept wanting to put certain words next to each other to form a coherence. So after a semi-Dada practise run, I managed to make a fully random Dada paragraph.

We used excerpts from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I don't know if I'd call it a poem, because even that suggests some kind of 'ordering', so I'll just say it is what it is:

Patriarch's Ponds. Associations, dressed in a Berlioz, an awe horn-rimmed glasses my utterance / And and with who called Massolit / broad-shouldered drag drink deep and by thee, O torments me. Hair, eternal my.

And these are my semi-Dada pieces, where I'd not quite let go of control and there was a little conscious placement:

The lips should utterance / One of you pseudonym of Homeless / And his conduct and vengeance

I must excited quickly dark-haired, plump, bald / Destroy him by perish / The spirits their murderer / The poet feel, poet agony; this shall feel the dead over

Sharing them with each other was most of the fun. Some of them were hilarious, others a little eerie, and all contained interesting concepts or prompts that could be expanded into longer pieces. This is definitely an exercise I'll be trying again in the future.
jenniferkoliver: (Stock | Butterfly Hat)
Recently I've stumbled upon a few articles about outlining stories, and more than a few people have expressed a dislike for it. Which is fair enough—our individual writing processes are different. But it made me ponder which of my stories I outline and which I don't, and why.

See, in theory, I love the idea of throwing caution to the wind and just writing off the cuff, seeing where the unfolding plot and characters take me. People have said in the past that outlining in detail can spoil the fun of writing a story, because it eliminates the element of surprise and ruins the discovery process for the writer. Not using an outline does sound exciting and a little scary, a bit like a blind date, but in practise it doesn't always work.

As with most of these things, it depends greatly on the story and author. Often I'm struck with details and ideas for my plots at the most inopportune times, like when driving at speed down a motorway, or scrubbing shampoo out of my eyes in the shower. Not the easiest of moments to grab that notebook and furiously jot things down. So whenever I'm hit with a plot twist, a new scene, or a character detail, I'll make it my mission to write it down as soon as I'm physically able, because otherwise I know I'll forget it. The worst time is at night when I'm trying to sleep, when I'm on the cusp between conscious thought and subconscious—that's where some of my best ideas lurk (damn them all!). In this way, I absolutely have to outline and write down where these events are going to occur in the story. There's often too much detail to keep in order in my brain (poor thing, *pats it encouragingly*). And once I've got a bunch of notes, I then feel the desire to tidy them.

But moving back to scrapping outlines and letting the story whisk you away, it can work for me when I'm writing shorter fiction. Stories around the 5k mark can just explode out onto the page without many time-lines and pie charts and summaries. It's the idea of tackling something longer, say over 10k, without an outline that frankly terrifies me, and I respect authors who dive right in there without inflatable armbands and come up with something spectacularly awesome.

So, flist, do you always outline? If not, when do you choose to outline? Or are you a writer who tosses outlines to the wind and writes without a clear plan where you're headed? Do you find you end up without direction, and abandon some stories when you work this way?

ETA: Joshua Palmatier has a good article about this here.
jenniferkoliver: (James Hook)
This is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon - A Primer for SF Workshops. It's worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that can clog up a story. The article was written with sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I'm focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A couple of years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn and track our improvements. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors, full of excitement and dreadful clichés, lacking finesse and attention to detail but having so much fun writing and developing our styles. It's a bit like travelling back in time and spending an afternoon with the kid version of yourself, entertaining and not a little eye-opening. I'm way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do stumble upon it when reading other people's work—sometimes, even renowned published authors who should probably know better.

Here is an example of countersinking:

"You have to get out of here," he said, urging her to leave.

This is what's happening:

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, "showing and then telling". It's obvious from the dialogue that somebody is urging someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but like I said, some pro authors do it too. I'm quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, reads clunky, and makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I'm always on the lookout for sneaky countersinks. And if I find any? I kill them.

It's strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings. :)
jenniferkoliver: (Stock | Typewriter)
One of those annoying little details that can distract me from a story I’m reading is the unlikely passage of time. I try not to let it bother me, but I hate it when my brain snags on something trivial and drags me out of a good book. Every now and then I’ll read a story in which a ridiculous amount of time passes in the middle of a scene—or worse, in the middle of conversation or action.

One thing I try to do when I write the passage of time in my stories is to actually time it and see just how long it is. Let’s face it, if character A stares at character B for ‘several minutes’, there’s something seriously wrong with character A (unless they’re a known stalker, in which case staring at someone for several minutes is probably an every day event). Creepy.

But seriously, have you ever timed two or three minutes? It’s an age, especially if we’re talking about a blink/incredulous stare/fumble for words. Even the most awkward of awkward silences rarely last more than a handful of seconds, not when all parties are perfectly capable of leaving or going off to do something else.

This issue crops up more often than I’d like and I wish it didn’t propel me out of a story. But I suppose if time passage wasn’t so distracting it would be something else. ;) And to be fair, I’ve never thrown a book against a wall because of the unlikely passage of time(… yet).


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Jennifer K. Oliver

March 2017

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