It’s all about the timing: Critique groups

From mid-October to mid-December I submitted the first six chapters of my work-in-progess (tentatively titled ‘Parse’) to a virtual writers workshop.

I’m not sure if it was or was not a success. The feedback on the first two chapters was positive, but the subsequent chapters were universally panned. For my last submission I revised chapters 3-4, and the feedback was slightly more encouraging.

This post isn’t about the other participants in the workshop, nor about their feedback. It’s about the result of the feedback on my progress on the manuscript.

I’ve stopped writing. 

It’s not “writer’s block”, which I don’t believe in. I’m discouraged and doubtful about the entire concept of the story, so I’m letting it sit and listening to the back of my brain whisper to me about characterization, tension, and plot point timing. I hope I’ll get past this and start writing soon.

I think, after considerable reflection, the manuscript was too young to send out to play. The story needed more revisions, more seasoning, and simply more time. Before I finished my first novel I had years of unsuccessful attempts to finish stories and I discovered describing the plot to anyone, friend or foe or chance met in an elevator, was the certain kiss of death. 

Parse isn’t dead. But it has certainly been retarded in its growth. Now that the holidays are over I hope I can get past this problem and start writing again, even if it means tossing out 2/3 of the existing manuscript. I’ve done more violent edits to other manuscripts in the past and the finished book survived the experience.

But I’ve learned to be cautious about if and when I put a manuscript out for critique. If you’re a writer like me, think twice. I jumped at the critique workshop chance when it came around. What I didn’t do was ask myself if the current manuscript was ready for it. Negative criticism comes to us all, but we should only ask for criticism when we have something worthy to show. Otherwise, you’re simply setting yourself up for failure.

Revisions and Editors

After three months of revisions, I sent the finished manuscript to a professional editor. My final version of The Dog of Pel is almost exactly 100,000 words, by Microsoft’s Word Count. 340 pages.

For anyone interested in process:

I printed out the entire manuscript, went over it line by line, and wrote in corrections and notes to myself. Sometimes they were very detailed corrections to the text and other times said informative things such as “Rewrite!” or “Expand” or “?”. Going to Starbucks was very helpful and caffeine was essential. Well, caffeine is always essential, but the atmosphere helped. The white noise of a coffee shop really aids concentration.

Then I went back to the computer and entered the corrections or changed the troublesome bits. The ending seemed rushed and weak to me. I have an elaborate world with rules and structure and the end as first written seemed a bit ‘he waved his arms and magic happened’ so I rewrote it.

I rewrote it three times.

Because these changes altered some of the earlier plot, I printed out the manuscript again and repeated the corrections process, trying to catch all the tiny plot details and achieve logical consistency. I double and triple checked the last 50 pages for flow and tone and whatever you want to call it so the characters achieved logical and emotionally satisfying ends, whether good or bad.

I spell-checked the whole thing twice. I also went through my List of Words I Overuse such as ‘just’, ‘thought’, and for some annoying reason ‘nodded’, and removed as many as possible. Sometimes I see my characters as bobble-headed dolls, apparently. I have never put a sentence into a manuscript that said: ‘I just thought he nodded’ but clearly it is only a matter of time.

I let the manuscript sit for a few days. When I returned to it I changed some sentences. Then I changed them back. Then I changed some more and changed them back. This is my “You Are Done” indicator.

I didn’t use a professional editor for either Matcher Rules or The Bone Road. Whatever your opinion of either of those titles, I decided this time to move beyond the criticism and input of my friendly beta readers and send this manuscript to a professional. After some hesitation I chose a woman who I’d taken a workshop with some years ago. She’s not a fantasy genre specialist, but she does edit genre. I felt my trust in her professionalism and competency outweighed the narrow confines of genre. 

I won’t find out if this decision was good or bad until May 8th. She’ll start on the manuscript on April 20. I sent it in early because I could not do anything else with that enormous lump of work and anxiety sitting on my desktop. So it’s gone.

Now I have time to clean up a bit around here and work on some other projects. Also, I’m carrying around a notebook with the beginnings of the next book. So far I have a title, the first two sentences, about six character biographies and the beginning of an outline. This is my favorite part. All the possibilities of story, none of the reality of writing it down.

Fun in Our Work

Yes, it’s been a while since I updated this blog, but give me a choice between blogging and making progress on The Dog of Pel and you guessed it.

I’ve combed through the existing manuscript, removed, changed, modified, and added all sorts of text, and sent the revised opus off to my beta readers. I’m working on the final chapters and thinking about the END, which is marvelous. Choices have been made. By me. I’ve made choices, finally, and I must tell you I’ve never worked on anything with so many possible ways to go. The beta readers (bless them) will tell me if I made the right choices so far, although I was very mean and left them suspended in mid-scene.

For this one, I think I am springing for an editor. A proper editorial critique by someone I respect who gets what I am attempting to do. The manuscript needs it, and several readers have said the others could have used one, so this time around it will get it.

I’m very excited at the prospect. I’m at least three months, maybe more, away from finishing and sending the final product off to an editor, but I’m looking forward to it. Also, I have to chose an editor, get on their schedule, and pay them dollars, but I’m even looking forward to the process.

With indie publishing, if I have to do all the work and wear all the hats, I get to have all the fun. It’s only fair.


Why I Self-Publish

Because I’m old.

Okay, I’m not exactly being followed around by some jerk in a long black robe waving a scythe, or not more than any of us are. But I’m not young. I read a woman’s obituary in a local paper a few years ago. I can’t remember many details but one thing stuck with me: she’d written 13 books, all of them unpublished. I don’t want to be that woman.

Everything came together after my layoff. At that time I had completed one book and had another about halfway finished. I had submitting manuscripts to agents and publishers and had collected many rejections. I understood this was the way of the aspiring writer. I accepted that. But another comment on some writer’s blog also stuck with me: it takes 20 years to break into print.

I didn’t think I had 20 years. I still don’t. And posthumous recognition doesn’t have anything to recommend it. If I’m doing all this work I want to be around to collect the rewards, dodge the abuse, have the experience. So I self-published my first book, learned a great deal, finished and published the second. I learned more from that experience and, even better, had a really good time doing it. After years of corporate life where consensus had to be mimicked to get anything done it was liberating to do everything myself. I loved it. I still love it.

I’ve submitted a story to a commercial anthology. I hope it gets accepted. But if it doesn’t I can publish it on Amazon or submit it somewhere else. I can put it on this blog and let people download it for free.  I can do exactly the same with The Dog of Pel when it is ready to go. Being an indie author is all about choices.

So would I like being published by a commerical publisher? Of course. It would be interesting, exciting, and validating. It would be a new experience and I hope I have that experience while I’m still competent to enjoy it. But if it never happens at least the work is out there. That’s what my obituary will say.


Getting Stuck/Getting Unstuck

About two months ago I got stuck. The Dog of Pel was over half done but I could not see my way forward. Or rather I had so many possibilities and permutations I was writing scenes, changing my mind, rewriting scenes, and ripping them out.

I have three fallback techniques, which aren’t really techniques but tricks to fool myself and force my brain to solve the problem. I tried two and invented a third, which seems to be working.

The first: print out the entire manuscript and re-read from the beginning. Mark it up. Go back to the computer and do all the revisions, hoping for inspiration to move forward. (This techique is very good for wasting time; I highly recommend it if you want the illusion of progress.) It didn’t work.

The second: Outlining. I hate outlining. I have six or seven outlines of possible plot permutations and kept tripping over the alternative possibilities and unanswered questions, see first paragraph.

The third: I wrote down all the questions. I stared at the list for three days. Make that a week. Not writing for so long made me nervous I would drop the manuscript entirely, but I was reassured by my obsession with the questions. If I was that worried, the story was still alive.

This worked. Or it has worked short term, because I ignored all the outlines and notes and started a new story line for the last third of the book. Now I’m moving forward, like Jamie in the Scour, one step at time and testing my footing very carefully.

I remind myself over and over: I got stuck with The Bone Road. For a very long time. Years. I planned and wrote my way out of that, and (I tell myself) I can do it with The Dog of Pel. Never Give Up. Never Never Never.


Work In Progress

I’m ambivalent giving details of the novel in progress. For one thing I change my mind a lot. For another sometimes I have a great idea but talking about it to another person kills it. So without going into too much detail, here’s the current state of being:

The title will probably be The Dog of Pel. I can see myself spending the next two years saying “No, I’m not writing about a dog” which will get old fast, but that’s the way I think of the book and until I get a better idea I’m going with it.

I’m working very hard on a consistent and logical world structure. In fantasy this is harder than it looks. If you have a world where the use of fire is forbidden you have to construct a way for the characters to heat their homes, cook their food, and transmute objects from one state to another. It’s quite easy to slip up. The other day I found a well-written description of an important location which had smoke drifting up from the chimneys. Urk!

I’m trying to write this one from a single point-of-view. This means the reader can only know what the character knows, so I have to make sure the protagonist gets information by either being in the right place at the right time or has access to the information some other way. Also, I must be careful not to give my protagonist mind-reading skills. In other words if he is talking to someone he can assume the other character is motivated by hate, or ambition, or love, but he can’t know it until the character demonstrates it by his actions or tells him.

There has to be enough action to keep the reader involved. I’ve spent a lot of time building this world and I have a bad tendency to data dump, so I’m always going back and removing (not deleting!) hunks of exposition. I have to feed that information into the text and the reader’s mind in a natural way without slowing down the story. As a reader I actually like data dumps so my judgment is shaky here.

I’ve run the draft past several patient alpha readers and they’ve been encouraging enough so I don’t feel as if I’ve wasted both my time and theirs. They also gave me great feedback.

One of the encouraging things about the state of the manuscript so far: it’s like a scaffold. I’ve gone back three times and added new characters to existing scenes, tweaked world details, and made other substantial changes and the manuscript has been very accepting. I’m able to slot new stuff in without much difficulty and this more than anything makes me feel I’m on the right track.

So, onward! And no, it is not about a dog.

Daydream Believer

When I had to work full-time, and especially during those last frantic and futile years as the company I worked for went down the tubes, I would visualize my ideal life. I wanted to do: Nothing. I wanted to spend my days staring off into space, daydreaming.

As a goal, this is difficult to explain to anyone. People said, “Oh, you’ll get bored. You should plan to do something, get a part-time job, volunteer.” I read page after page of worried cautions about people who didn’t ‘plan’ their retirement activities and spiraled into depressions. They needed, said the pundits, something concrete to do.

Well, I’m not sure I ever formally retired. My day job went away, true, and since my husband and I had saved every penny I didn’t have to find another one. (This is not ‘luck’ but that’s another rant.) I spent hours out of every day daydreaming, staring off into space, doing absolutely nothing. I had the time and I used it.

I stopped work over four years ago. I’m not bored.  I feel no urge to find something to ‘do’. I’m already doing it.

Now, you might ask, what about the writing? Isn’t that doing something? Well, yes, but the writing comes directly from the daydreaming. You can call it plotting, you can call it ‘working on the manuscript’ but really, I’m fantasizing and drifting, making up people, solving puzzles, playing around. All my creativity comes from the part of me that got squished down by work and commuting and worrying and lack of sleep.

I have a book in process of becoming, and while I’d like it to move faster, it has its own rhythm and comes at its own time. Once it gets done, whenever the hell that will be, I have two more behind it ready to start. Once you commit to daydreaming, it’s endless.

Fire Sale at the Magical Junkshop

It’s difficult to plot a fantasy novel without resorting to magical props to aid the hero. I’m not sure if this is a failure of imagination on my part, or just a reaction to the hundreds of fantasies I’ve read which require the hero/villain to find, lose, destroy, or give up the magical sword, ring, amulet, crown, locket, mirror, cup, diadem, or other miraculous tchotchke the author has built the story around. Sometimes I feel as if we’re all playing ‘button, button’.

About two-thirds of the way into The Bone Road I realized I’d fallen into this trap. I was so annoyed with myself I immediately had the hero toss the Miraculous Object off a cliff into the ocean. Then I spent several months figuring out how to end the story when there was no object to find anymore. I was pretty chuffed when I did, and I do think it’s a better story this way.

Of course I am not the first person to notice this. If you haven’t already, please visit TV Tropes and check out the pages on Chekhov’s Guns, MacGuffins, and other plot devices. Don’t plan on doing much else that day; it’s a very funny site and you can learn a lot.

If you don’t build your plot around magical bric-a-brac, you can build it around previously unknown inbred or acquired powers. (See Amplifier Artifact) I did this with Matcher Rules and it’s a lot more satisfying. For one thing, the hero doesn’t have to have extra large pockets for all the magical junk; it’s in his or her head. When I first read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows I howled with glee about Rowling’s solution to the junkshop problem: Hermione’s beaded bag, not to mention Harry’s neck pouch. With an inbuilt ability, the hero needs to be breathing, period, although the world-building has to make the ability credible.This is a lot easier to talk about than to do successfully.

In both Dave Duncan’s Dodec series (Children of Chaos, Mother of Lies) and Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion, the magical powers are bestowed by the gods for their own ends and the heros have to learn to use them and then figure out how to fulfill the god’s plan. Both plots are intricate beyond belief, and both come to satisfying conclusions. Go read these books! If you’re a writer, learn from the best. If you’re a reader, enjoy!


Process, Structure, And Magic

Despite all those How-To-Write-A-Novel books, web pages, webinars, and workshops, everyone has their own process. This process can be improved but not altered in fundamentals. In other words, if you are a writer who sits down without a plan or a plot or an outline and merrily starts writing to see where it goes, forcing yourself to outline in detail, do character histories, or decide whether the section is a scene or a summary is going to derail the process. It might kill the story entirely.

My process falls somewhere between Outline-The-Hell-Out-Of-It and Let-It-Roll. I do need some overall idea of what the world looks like, what the rules are, and I certainly need to know the characters, but I find a detailed outline impossible to stick with. In the new manuscript, I know the primary character has to travel to certain places and meet other characters in a sequence. But how the characters meet and what they say to each other isn’t defined until I sit down and write the scene. Odd things happen. Sometimes a character changes from good to bad, or a new character appears and becomes very important.

Last night I was pushing myself to do a stint on the manuscript. I didn’t feel like writing and I certainly didn’t feel creative. I had two characters traveling together for a brief time. They had to speak to each other. I had no idea what they were going to say, aside from things already mentioned. Suddenly, one of the characters revealed an important detail absolutely essential to the plot. Now, that is his job in the story. But—and this is where the eerie music plays—I swear I didn’t know that detail until the character mentioned it. I discovered it as a reader, not as an author.

This happened to me once when I was writing Matcher Rules, and once or twice during The Bone Road. It cannot be forced. It cannot be speeded up, no matter how much I want to be one of those writers who churns out a novel every three months. The plot development of the novel takes place in the back part of my brain(which I hesitate to call my subconscious, because it isn’t). Sometimes bits and pieces float from the back to the front and I write them down. I can depend on it, but I cannot force it. The best I can do is write a bit every day, write the sections I know, link them together, smooth out the rough spots, remove the text that clanks, and repeat. That’s when stuff happens. It’s the most endlessly fascinating process I know. And every so often: Magic.

Teeny Tiny Genres

If you call yourself a writer, the first  question everyone asks is What Do You Write? I started answering this by saying ‘Genre Fiction’, meaning I was writing science fiction or fantasy or mysteries, not books about gardening or how I found love in a villa in Italy.

It’s a pity this answer isn’t acceptable. People want to know which genre, because most only read in one or perhaps two categories. (“Oh, I only read mysteries.” Why? Are you afraid you might find a non-mystery you like?)

Genre fiction is now divided into small categories, which are subdivided again and again, so it is possible to send an agent a story defined as ‘mid-range urban fantasy romance’ or ‘steampunk space opera with zombies’ and not have the recipient blink. These divisions persist all the way to the bookstore’s display tables and to amazon’s website, so I wonder how many readers there are who ONLY read steampunk and absolutely nothing else. Surely, they sneak in a cozy or two when no one is looking?

I read (and purchase in hardback, ha!) science fiction from space opera to sociological, fantasy of all sorts, mystery stories both hard-boiled to cozy, thrillers, autobiographies, gardening, critical essays, poetry, and a book on how to play competitive Scrabble. That’s a selection from the closest bookshelf and only what I can see without craning my neck.

So it seems a shame to categorize what I write, because that’s the last thing that happens. I have an idea, I see a character dealing with a problem, I build a world around the idea and the character, and then I write the story. The only criteria for me is I must be interested enough in the story to stick around to tell it. With a novel, that’s a minimum of a year, and a maximum of who knows? So when I’m finally done, that’s when I say, oh, this one is a fantasy. And that’s what I try to sell it as. But to me, it’s a story, not a genre.