Tagged: critique

That Barely Hurt A Bit

r-avatarWe have a large pile of marked-up pages from taking the Music Novel through our critique group, and we mentioned recently that the process of digesting all that input is something we find cumbersome. Happily, it turned out that a fairly simple workflow adjustment made things go very smoothly for us this time, so all of that valuable input is now added to our Scrivener project as comments. We’ve even made significant headway on addressing it.

What was this radical innovation in critique-copy processing? We ran it in parallel rather than in series. Instead of picking up a single review copy and going all the way through it, then doing that with the next one on the pile, and so on, we grabbed all the copies of a chapter and spread them on the ottoman at once (where we had room to turn all their pages — the auxiliary writing cave has a big ottoman). Not only was it more efficient mechanically, but it allowed us to compare the notes immediately when different readers commented about the same thing.

If, on some future occasion, we devise a more interesting solution to this issue you’ll certainly read about it here. But for now, simple is best.

Sing Like No One’s Listening

r-avatarAn author needs a brand. (No, not social media or “platform.” That’s how you promote the brand; it’s not the brand itself.) This is about the work, about craft. And by brand, we mean more than genre + style, although that’s how a lot of your fans will sum it up — “Oh I love her stuff, it’s edgy scifi with this bleak sense of humor.” That’s not your brand. Neither are your characters, or your Big Ideas, or intricate plots, or deep themes. They’re elements of brand, but it’s more than the sum of those parts.

Your brand is your voice.

Cultivate your voice. Do it your way. Revision is a chance to make your voice more yours with every editing pass. Take out that stuff that doesn’t sound like you, and replace it with stuff that does. Own it.

Weigh all critique input against your voice. Your critiquers’ suggestions might be biased toward their own voices, unconsciously. They won’t set out to sabotage your voice; you need to keep an open mind. But, sometimes the “corrections” are actually mistakes. When you feel like someone really isn’t getting it, you’ll be tempted to try to appease them. Soon you’re trying to compromise with each reader, removing the impediments to their appreciation of your work. Don’t. When they don’t get what you’re doing, that’s a sign that you need to do it more, do it harder — do it so hard there’s no doubt you’re doing it on purpose. You’ll know you’re on track when instead of comments trying to “help” you with how you use language, you start getting comments about how your language makes them feel (good and bad).

Writing isn’t about serving up some mythical concoction that appeals to everybody. It’s about creating something meaningful for some, and that means it will be repellent to some. But it will find its audience and they will be passionate for it. That’s your tribe, and even if it’s small they’re your people. They’re the ones who are called by your voice.

When the Time is Right

r-avatarThe first draft of Son of Music Novel is 99% done. (Amazing how the last couple of percentage points take so much  longer to complete!) Soon we’ll be ready to start taking it to critique group, which is very exciting. We’re really looking forward to getting input from a bunch of very smart fellow writers.

This time out we’re following the same policy we had great success with on the Science Novel: waiting until the draft is entirely written and the known issues are dealt with before taking it in. That allows us to keep input in perspective because we can weigh comments against what we know about how the various arcs ultimately play out. Sometimes it’s a good thing if readers get pissed off! The fun is in watching them take the ride.

Certainly, there are other ways to manage critique. Past experience has taught us to prefer this method. The Music Novel itself is a case in point. With that one, we started taking it to group when we hit approximately the halfway mark. That was intended to give us time to reach the end before our critiquers caught up, and in that regard it worked fine. Thing is, we then did a major restructuring that rendered much of the original input moot. Fortunately, by the time the second version was ready we had new critique group members available, meaning there were unspoiled readers by whom we could gauge the success of our changes. It’s very hard to look at successive drafts as if for the first time.

In the primordial phase of our fictive endeavors, when crude stick-figure drawings of mammoth hunters first appeared on the walls of the writing cave, we used to take stuff in whenever we had stuff. Often this meant a new chapter would go through group before we’d even written the next one. The drive to produce something so you can take it in is a plus, but we ran into some serious downsides. Premature input can be very distracting. Even with an outline telling you, broadly, where things end up, it’s easy to fall into trying to “fix” your critiquers’ attitudes about particular characters or events. You might even be talked into departing from your carefully planned outline.

Talking to your critique group about a work in progress can lead to inspiration. Critique’s a collaborative process, after all. Knowing that other people are taking your story to heart, investing energy in understanding it, is very motivating. Depending on your process, you might thrive on the in-the-moment feedback, or even depend on the influx of ideas that arise in discussion.

Are you in a critique group? (You should be.) How do you get the most out of it? What works best with your style?

Haus of Haunted Smellz

  • k-avatarbitten by a green lizard
  • just take rotten eggs
  • if you don’t want to cry today
  • painstakingly coded virtual replicas
  • no better than a haunted house

Video Game Review: Haus of Haunted Smellz

If you don’t want to cry today, don’t spend any money on this game. There’s not much to it, and it’s lame. You just take rotten eggs, well, painstakingly coded virtual replicas of rotten eggs, and throw them at things. The setting is supposed to be creeptastic, but it’s no better than a haunted house in the kiddie section of a milquetoast theme park. The ghouls in the mansion are easy to evade, but getting to level two without being bitten by a green lizard — which sends you back to the start — is nearly impossible.

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One Is The Loneliest Number

r-avatarHow do solo writers do it?

Our evenings lately have been spent sprawled on the big leather sofa with the laptop and a small mountain of meaningfully marked-up copies of our manuscript. One of us (usually Jen) wades through all of the critiques while the other (usually Kent) mans the laptop, adding comments and making edits to our master copy. Jen interprets all the line-edits and deciphers everyone’s handwritten comments, directing Kent to the proper parts of the manuscript so that together we can discuss the proposed changes.

It’s slow going, and we generally only manage one or two chapters per night. Each of those chapters is gone over with a fine tooth comb (hey baby, that is one fine tooth-comb you’ve got there!) four or five times as we consider the feedback from all of our beta-readers. Working with a partner makes something like this bearable, oftentimes even enjoyable. It’s hard for us to imagine this part of the process as a solo author. Who do you talk to about whether a suggestion or complaint is valid? Who do you high-five when a passage works exactly as you planned? Whose shoulder do you cry on when a passage doesn’t work at all? And most important: who do you send for snacks and refills of fortifying beverages?

The writer’s life can be a very solitary one, but with a writing partner it doesn’t have to be.

Better Than Talking To Yourself

r-avatarFor once the timing worked out really well. Our critique group gave us their final feedback on Novel #5 (the Science Novel) just a few weeks ago, shortly before we finished nailing down the edits for the Music Novel. That means that we’re going back through their comments while everything is still fresh. It’s relatively easy to recall the conversations we had during our meetings as they lavished praise (and, admittedly, the occasional not-so-glowing remark) and we took notes. When we encountered a point we had a question about, the work was still clear enough in our group’s minds that they were able to clarify their original idea.

Before we looked at our critiquers’ comments, we read through the manuscript for ourselves, looking at it with fresh eyes. We were quite happy with what we saw. We talked along the way, and made some notes about plot points we want to strengthen and characterizations we want to clarify. Once our own thoughts were down on paper (or, in pixels), we spent a week reading through all of the notes we took during our critique group meetings, and reading all of the comments they wrote in the margins of their comment copies. We chose to disregard the diagram one member drew of the intersection where she had a showdown with a street sweeper, and likewise the lessons on how to write our characters’ names in Korean. Interesting as those were, they are irrelevant to the Science Novel.

The process of looking at a novel’s worth of critique all at once can be quite overwhelming, and it’s an excellent example of why having a writing partner can be a good thing. During group meetings, we all try very hard not to argue or answer back to the critiquer. Unless you’re planning the world’s most complicated and tedious book tour, the work needs to stand on its own. With a coauthor, you have someone to talk through each point with outside of that setting.

Some of it is fun, like when a reader asks a question that you know is answered in the next chapter, or when all of the readers get the “Hell yeah!” moment just like you intended. And some of it is not so fun, like when a reader stumbles over something you were sure you made quite clear. With a collaborator, you’re not stuck just talking to yourself. Your partner is there to help you make sense of the comments and decide which items are in legitimate need of extra work, and which ones can be chalked up to the readers only looking at one chapter a week.


Madness In Our Method, But Not Like Back Then

r-avatarWe recently devoted an entire meeting of our critique group to the Rune Skelley Method. Jen and Kent brought the rainbow, and a hard-copy of the outline, and a few sample stubs. Our fellow authors were keen to hear details of how we use all these components in our process. How we do things, of course, is not necessarily what will work best for you. (But details are available at the links above, if you’re interested.)

The key is that we have a process.

You know you’re supposed to have an outline. You know that the more you road-test your plot before you start writing prose, the less likely you’ll get stuck. You know you’re supposed to get enough sleep, and eat your veggies, and not run with scissors. We certainly hope you’re heeding at least some of that advice, but knowing what you should do and doing it consistently are not the same thing.

That’s another hidden strength of writing in a partnership: you can’t get away with winging it, which forces discipline upon you. It makes you actually do the things you know you’re supposed to.

The conversation at our critique meeting spanned the entire Rune Skelley career. We didn’t always have a defined process — we didn’t know we wouldn’t get away with winging it, and wing it we did. We ran, with and without scissors. We wrote much of our first novel from inspiration, letting the characters find their ways into more and more trouble with little supervision. It built up effortlessly into a top-heavy mess. There was no outline, just a vague sort of mission statement for how it was all supposed to end. For a while, it ended in tears and an abandoned manuscript. We had to put it aside for a year. A year. We just stopped writing it. When we did go back, we largely started over. It took a long time and a gigantic amount of work to figure that book out.

What we know now is that all those impulsive maneuvers our characters came up with, which we spent months transcribing into elaborate prose, should have been explored in brainstorming sessions where they could be be debugged quickly, and where potentially better alternatives could more easily be considered. By doing all the exploration in long-form text (written longhand, BTW) we gave ourselves a huge disincentive to think about changing it. So when it became clear that we didn’t have a way forward from where we were, that something had to change, we needed that year off before we could face the task.

In contrast, Novel #5 worked the first time. There’s still work to be done, but it came out the proper overall shape in one go. We devoted a considerable amount of time up front to documenting what was supposed to happen, and fleshing out the setting, and analyzing the characters’ psyches. Considerable time, but way less than a year. And we didn’t have cry about it.

Marketing… We got nuthin

r-avatarAt our last critique group meeting, one of our colleagues told us about his experiences so far working with a professional editor (overwhelmingly positive). He now has an editor as well as an agent, and the conversation at our meeting delved into all the business-of-writing stuff that we just basically suck at.

There’s a rant that wants to get started, but we’ll try to keep our cool.

It prompted us to face that we need to get back into some kind of habit of trying to sell our work. We’ve sent out queries in the past, and we’ve gone to conferences and pitched agents at the slam, but for several years now we’ve done very little marketing of any kind.

Why is it so hard for us? (Not just for us, we know.)

  1. it takes time, time that’s already in short supply, so it cuts into our “real” writing
  2. querying is a different kind of writing, so those mental muscles need a separate warm-up
  3. the fact that it’s different from writing fiction makes it feel a bit perverse that it’s the package by which we are trying to attract representation for said fiction
  4. it’s frustrating; we do get tired of hearing “thanks anyway”

That wasn’t too ranty, right?

Why don’t we self-publish then, if we’re so bothered by the traditional process? We’ve been asking ourselves that very question with increasing frequency. Of course, we already are self-publishing some stuff — you’re reading it right now. But we know that the amount of work involved with publishing a novel ourselves is enormous. Sending a batch of queries feels like a major effort, so it’s probably wishful thinking that we could solve that problem by taking on the entire workflow.

What we know for sure is that our current approach — waiting for psychic vibrations between us and an influential publishing magnate to generate a contract out of thin air — isn’t going to work. We need to carve out the time and follow some kind of strategy.

Who Said That?

r-avatarAchieving a unified and consistent voice is a key issue for co-authors. Some might find ways to let their individual styles show through without becoming a distraction, but Rune Skelley strives for a single voice in the finished novels.

That’s with the novels. In the writing prompts on this blog, that’s not the case. Not the case at all.

Our comprehensive circumnavigation of the Skelleyverse over New Year’s was more of a learning experience than anticipated. We wrote the stuff, howsoever long ago, so we expected to have a pretty good handle on what it contains. Ah, well.

We couldn’t even always tell which were Kent’s handiwork and which were Jen’s, based on the content. (We kept the hand-written originals, and the penmanship or its lack gives us a definitive ruling.) It’s a bit of an odd experience to read forgotten words that came from your own pen. It’s even weirder to read a passage thinking you wrote it, and then be informed that it was in fact the other person in the room with you.

A similar thing happens with the collaboratively written material, sometimes. Specifically, Kent has a tendency to forget who wrote which parts of the novels. He must admire Jen’s prose, because invariably we discover the mixup when he tries to take credit for stuff she actually wrote.

Our standard of quality includes, among other things, making sure our critique group can’t spot the seams between Kent’s and Jen’s sections. The fact that one of the authors loses track of them is a very good sign that we’re achieving a unified voice.

Revisions, Revisited

r-avatarNow that we’re done with our latest first draft, and mostly recovered from the bacchanal honoring that milestone, we’re getting set to make revisions on our previous novel. It’s also at the first-draft stage.

We have a methodical approach to this, as we do for nearly everything. The first step is a read-through. We are making some notes and discussing the story along the way, but the primary goal right now is just to get to know the material again. It’s been “resting” for quite some time while we worked on other projects, which is a good thing. The time enables us to get some critical distance.

The next step will be to paw through all the comment copies. Critique group feedback is invaluable, and we have a sizable heap of it. We’ll look for patterns, things that are raised by multiple readers. We’ll also indulge in a frightful amount of second-guessing and interpretation. Using what we learn from all this feedback, combined with our own to-do list generated during the read-through, we’ll move into planning the actual edits.

In this case, we expect to need some substantial structure-level changes. Therefore, it’s even more important to be systematic in dealing with things. If our process has its steps in the wrong sequence, we’ll end up wasting effort on things that will only get cut later anyway, or worse yet, tangle ourselves up in inconsistencies.

It’ll probably be a while before we reach a point where we can split things up. There’s a time for divide-and-conquer, and there’s a time for double-teaming the work. This is an example of the latter. Much like the very early stages of story development, we’ll be doing a lot of analysis and making decisions together about what is needed. It’s one of the most intense and rewarding aspects of writing with a partner.