Monday, February 29, 2016

Critique Partners and the Art of Revising

This month I’ve been revising my NaNo project. For those of you that don’t know, #NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. It's in the month of November and carries the lofty goal of 50,000 words. I didn’t “win” but I did get close.  

I know they say close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. But what do “they” know, anyway? Let's see *them* write forty-eight thousand words in a month. <scoffs>

Slapping 50K words in a month means every single word will have to be revised. Revision is key. If I tried to fire off my NaNo Draft (which is probably even lower caliber than a First Draft) to agents or editors I could expect silence. If I sent it to my Critique Partner, I might expect a scathing reply along the lines of; “Did you send me a (swear word) First Draft?!”

I always try to remember that a first draft is just thata first attempt. 

While writing is rewriting, it can't be done alone. A good critique partner is worth their weight in gold.  I interviewed Lane Buckman, the Lane of Robyn Lane Books, to talk about writing and critiquing.

1. How long have you been writing with a purpose?

I have been writing with a purpose since elementary school.  I got an early start with a specialized program to develop young writers through Old Dominion University, in Norfolk, Virginia.  I took my first write-for-pay job doing campaign scripting when I was fourteen, and have been working freelance since then.  I do a lot of technical writing for hire, a lot of op-ed, and dabble in marketing materials.  Now, as far as writing novels goes, I got serious about that in the early 2000s.  I sold my first novel in 2010, then followed up in different genres in 2013, 2014, and 2015.  Now, I focus on my work as a publisher, so I spend most of my time offering editorial notes to the fantastic writers we have found.

2. What’s the best thing a critique partner can tell you?

The best thing a critique partner can tell me is, "This doesn't work."  If they can back that up with why it doesn't work, that's a lot more helpful, but if something isn't reading well, I need to know--no matter how painful.  The most painful feedback I've ever gotten was, "Oh, Lane.  No."

3. What’s the worst thing a critique partner can tell you?

The worst thing a critique partner can tell me is, "This is perfect!"  Because it never is. 

4. What’s one piece of advice you’d like to offer new writers/new critiquers?

Don't ask your friends to read you to critique is my advice to new writers.  Your friends love you, and they won't tell you the problems with your work.  Find a reader you respect, and ask them to read as though they were going to review it to recommend to their most esteemed colleague.

My advice to those new to critique is pretty simple.   My critique motto is:  Imagine it's your work.  I offer the feedback in a way I would want to receive it.  That is, honestly and respectfully.  I don't pull punches, but I am kind.  Writing is hard work, and whether I'm reading James Joyce, or E.L. James, I keep that in mind, and I offer my feedback with respect to the effort, and the human being who did the writing.  We're all in the same boat, hoping for the same success, and we can all afford to be kind in how we deliver our messages.

5.  How many critique groups have you been in? What will keep you engaged? And what will have you running for the door?

I am active in three groups.  Each group was carefully cultivated (either by me, or another group member) to include published authors, copy editors, and people who love to read within the particular genre.  My favorites are the people who love the genre because they will tell you right off the bat if you are missing the mark.  Feedback keeps me engaged.  I run for the door when someone asks me to add in some erotica because I can't write that without laughing.

6. What can a critique group/partner offer that a writer can’t accomplish on her/his own?
Critique groups and partners offer honest, objective opinions in a safe environment.  I can't speak for anyone else, but my greatest fear in publishing is that my manuscript is the one the editorial team cracks up over because it is so bad.  I would rather run my work through thirty flesh-stripping critiques, than have one publisher laugh at me.  A friend recently posted that she'd just joined a critique group, and was thoroughly embarrassed by the feedback she'd received, but she was so glad she hadn't sent the book out to a publisher, or agent that way.  Critique groups help you hone your work, and help make you better.  I really can't say enough about how important it is to have someone else read your work.

KM Weiland has a great list of questions for Critique Partners  

Used with permission from Debbie Ridpath Ohi at

What do you like to ask for in CPs?

Friday, February 19, 2016

Writer's Crutch: Is Your Character Dreaming? Wake Them Up

At the last conference that I took pitches, near the end a flustered but determined writer sat at my table. Her first words were, “I was just told my project is unmarketable, but I’m going to pitch it anyway.” My interest was piqued, not in the project, but in what she had been told and why. I’m always curious to hear the advice given to writers by other industry professionals. Usually it tends to be something I and many others agree with. But there are cases where we disagree. This business does have a subjective element to it after all. And sometimes it’s advice that I perhaps hadn’t thought of, but would agree with. On occasion it’s something I didn’t know and would want to follow up on. And sometimes, yes, it is painfully obvious bad advice which needs to be corrected immediately. (Anyone who advises a debut author to throw up their book on Amazon to “garner feedback” before taking it to agents or publishers, I’m looking at you.)
I smiled to reassure her, said go ahead, and she launched into her pitch. Then the words “my character is dreaming and living in the dreamworld,” came out, and I sat back. Ah. AH.
I stopped her there. Having a character live in a dreamworld, or dreaming a scene, is a big show stopper in a pitch. But but, what about SANDMAN or ALICE IN WONDERLAND you may cry. Here I revert to my standard, “Know the rules before you break them.”
You see, a lot of newbie writers tend to use dreams, dream realms, or dream worlds as an lazy tool, mostly unconsciously. Writer’s crutches we call these strategies that attempt to skirt the hard work of story development.
The most common of these is opening your story with a dream. It’s an easy way to create exciting action before you have your character gasp and sit up in bed. Unfortunately it’s also painful for the reader. Your goal in those opening pages is to draw the reader in with active prose and tension that will carry them deeper into the story. And when you expend all that energy into a dream sequence, only to bottom out with the character waking up, you risk dropping the reader’s trust and interest. Especially if your character then gets out of bed and sits down to breakfast with his mother. Sure you might say it worked for Dan Brown in ANGELS & DEMONS, but note, his opening dream sequence was 6-7 sentences long, and very obviously a dream. And he’s Dan Brown. Now if you’re determined to stick to your guns and are convinced your opening dream sequence is both necessary to your story as well as better than all the other opening scenes out there, I offer you one last argument. Agents get reading fatigue. Although we want to be perky and hopeful with every submission we open, the reality is when we see the same thing over and over again, we can’t help but shuffle it into THAT pile. And a dream as the opening scene to a submission? One of the most common things we see in the slushpile. Seriously.
The second, less common, is usually found in submissions of the fantasy genre (and science fiction on occasion). This is the dream realm or dream world. A fantasy author wants to have their ordinary modern day character thrown into a parallel fantasy world full of magic and wondrous creatures, and the easy way to do that? Have them enter the land through dreams. Which sets up the question, why bother having them dream? It’s fantasy. The worlds can just be. These are called portal fantasies. THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA is a classic example. Neil Gaiman’s NEVERWORLD is another. And in these, the characters find their way into the fantasy world without the need for dreaming. The entrances are a bit more complex and require more world-building, but hey they are also more interesting. My absolute favorite is the HIS DARK MATERIALS series by Philip Pullman. A fantasy writer who understands this, is an experienced fantasy reader, which is what agents are looking for. The writer knows their genre in and out and knows how to write a portal fantasy. But a newbie author, who writes a portal fantasy under the guise of a dreamworld, will be perhaps, “unmarketable.”
After I explained this to the writer, she left with a smile on her face and a list of books to read, ready to fight to change her project’s status to marketable.
I will mention that portal fantasies are not hugely popular on the market right now, and can be a hard sell, but they are not unmarketable. They dropped off around 2009, see Annalee Newitz‘s 2010 post, Walk Through This Portal With Me Into Another World in io9. However, the market is cyclical, and a really good portal fantasy might just break out, so don’t throw yours in the trash yet!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

THIS IS WHY WE DO IT! by Janice M. Wilson

I am often asked how I do it or how I get my inspiration (easy – nature!), but once in a while someone will ask WHY do I do it?  Usually followed by a question of have I been published (yes) and how much money I make (not much – yet!) but it seems unfathomable to many that I can sit for hours and just………..well, write.   Usually for no monetary reward.

Well, the idea!

I guess many consider it a chore, or they don’t think they have it in them. Do they mean to finish something or write an epic bestseller?  Probably both, because both require commitment, talent and luck.  Or maybe they simply don’t like to nor have the time to write.

But I ask them who wrote all those books in libraries and bookstores?  They read them, or at least see the latest movie made from the latest bestseller novel.  Yes, those books. Someone else can make the time to sit and write them. I can too.

Who writes?
Ordinary people like you and me, and out of those – the diligent who didn’t give up get published!

About WHAT?
There really are only 7 main topics of life to write about:
1.     man against man
2.     man against nature
3.     man against himself
4.     man against God
5.     man against society
6.     man caught in the middle
7.     man and woman

It’s all been said before.   So why bother?

Because we continue to live it all.  Over and over again – all of them. And as long as man continues to live them, the questions of overcoming them are pondered, experienced, and reflected. With success or failure, the cycle never stops.

Hence – we write.

We write to vent.

We write to share.

We write to understand.

We write to create.

We write to educate.

We write to escape.

We write to capture time.

We write to feel/be felt.

As long as we live and breath in love, fear, joy, sorrow, faith, pain and hope – we all speak through our souls about life somehow.  Some of us do it in affection, gifts, touch, words.
And some bare their souls through ink.

It’s what we do.