SolarPunk: Sci-Fi for a Sustainable Future

Is it time for a little vitamin D in your dystopia?

Out of the Darkness…

Dystopian and Post-Apocalyptic themes are all the rage in Science Fiction these days. Arguably, they always have been. Sci-Fi has been a sounding chamber for early warning signals, from George Orwell’s vision of an omniscient government in 1984 to H.G. Well’s prediction of the atomic bomb in The World Set Free, and in some ways that is its greater purpose. Beyond simple entertainment, speculative fiction gives an outlet for great minds to explore the “what-ifs” of new technologies and the effects, both positive and negative, on the world as we know it.

Human nature being what it is, we are drawn to the dark side. Readers and writers alike dive into worst-case-scenario disasters with a kind of morbid fascination. Is this how it will end? Is this what will become of us?

Indeed, dwelling on disaster can be cathartic. We can console ourselves that at least our world isn’t that bad yet. Or that, if it gets that bad, it will still be possible to survive. As with the infamous “preppers,” considering catastrophic events in a logical way and planning for future solutions can be a great way to cope with the anxieties that surround the uncertainty of our fates.

I’m not suggesting you start hoarding cans of sardines and dehydrated mashed potatoes just yet, but hear me out!

Pessimistic Science Fiction has its purpose. Fear can catapult people into action. A lot of sci-fi scares are not all that far fetched, and sometimes fiction is more effective than reality at forcing people outside their comfort bubbles to think about the consequences of their cozy lifestyles.

However, there are risks to clanging the old doom and gloom bell too loudly and to early. People easily become desensitized to alarm. We have seen the effects of this first hand in public opinion on climate change and if/how/when we need to address it. Skepticism, and the desire to maintain the status quo, will win out over making small, necessary changes that cause us minor inconvenience and costs.

… And Enter the Light!

What is SolarPunk?

SolarPunk, a relatively new subgenre of science fiction, is making lightwaves in some circles. It all appears to have started with this post HERE from 2014, and has evolved since. Ultimately, SolarPunk is a response to SteamPunk’s romanticization of the Industrial Revolution and the nihilism of CyberPunk. It envisions an optimistic future in renewable energies and sustainable earth-centric practices are woven together to create egalitarian societies in which which the art, craft, and science of renewable energies takes center stage and egalitarian societies that are more community driven than corporate controlled.

That’s cool and all, but who cares?

Consider the ways that modern environmentalism has stagnated. It has become an echo chamber of like-minded people talking amongst themselves and becoming more and more convinced that they are right. Unfortunately, that conviction has been slow to translate out to the general public and into official channels. My feeling, is that one of the reasons for this failure is not that environmentalists are pushing for too much too soon. It’s that they are trying too hard to uphold the status quo.

Our visions of the future look too much like our current lives. It assures us that we don’t have to change too much. We’ll still drive cars and trucks, the fuel will just be a little bit different. We’ll still eat meat, farming practices will just be tweaked a bit. We’ll get better at taking care of the earth and you’ll hardly even notice the difference!

Science Fiction to the Rescue!

Fear of being labelled as extremist or alarmist has silenced a lot of brilliant people. The goal now seems to be a slow seep into public consciousness rather than radical change. Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t. I don’t have the answers, and I’m not going to pretend that I do. Other, more informed, people have discussed it better than I can. Check out this article on Medium.

But is this really the future that we want? When we imagine these brave new worlds, do we want it to look like the world today? As a reader and writer of science fiction, my answer is an emphatic NO! And I wonder if maybe we could inspire greater participation in the green movement by showing people how wonderful and exciting and DIFFERENT our world could actually be if we chose to make radical changes in our lives.

This all sounds a bit fluffy…

I mentioned the need for optimism in science fiction in a discussion with a writer friend the other day and I was met with some reluctance. Optimism sounds fluffy, doesn’t it? Where’s the conflict in a perfect world? What’s the point of stories without struggle?

Well, let me just clarify that for a moment. Optimism is not perfection. And it’s not easy.

We are primed for pessimism, these days. Just turn on the news, read your social media feeds… bad things are happening, and even when they aren’t we catastrophize good things because that’s what we do. Maybe it’s a survival mechanism that has been twisted by technology, I don’t know. What I do know is that it is increasingly easy to become anxious, depressed, and pessimisitc.

It is a heck of a lot easier to imagine a dystopia than a utopia. People question uptopias, critics pick apart any idea that dares to be too hopeful. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. And it doesn’t mean that if we succeed, we’re going to have a boring story.

The best books are always, in the end, about people not places. People are not perfect. Perfection is poison: to conflict, to character development, to tension, you name it.

A a world that envisions solutions to current problems will have problems of its own. Characters, even in the most utopic world are going to butt heads with life. I invite you, fellow readers and writers, to explore what social, political, interpersonal, environmental, etc. conflicts look like in the exciting possible-futures of SolarPunk.

Are You Up to the SolarPunk Challenge?

If you have read any SolarPunk, drop your recommendations and thoughts in the comments. I have no experience in this subgenre yet, and I’d love to dive in!

Writers, would you care to join me in a little challenge?

Write a flash fiction story in the SolarPunk genre and leave your link in the comments. I’ll write one and post mine in the Story Laboratory by the end of the Month. Let’s see what we can do with a little sunshine!

Mystery Blogger Award!

I have been away for a little while, and I think it’s driven some of my bloggie friends to desperate measures to make sure I’m still alive. I’m fine, really! I’ve just been busy melting water on my stove to make coffee and wash dishes while our water treatment system was on the fritz…

Just kidding. Well, not about the water (but it’s fixed now)

I’m actually very honoured to announce that I have been nominated by Matthew Whiteside of “Seeking Purpose Today” for the Mystery Blogger Award! Matt and I did a fun interview a few weeks ago, which you can watch HERE. He’s a fellow sobernaut and creative force, and if you don’t follow his blog already, you should.

Matt is full of enthusiasm for life, support for other humans, and his blog is overflowing with motivational rambles and casual brilliance. Read a few posts and get inspired to do what you love. It honestly has that effect on me every time!

So? What is the Mystery Award?

“Mystery Blogger Award” is an award for amazing bloggers with ingenious posts. Their blog not only captivates; it inspires and motivates. They are one of the best out there, and they deserve every recognition they get. This award is also for bloggers who find fun and inspiration in blogging, and they do it with so much love and passion.
Okoto Enigma

Three Things You Might Not Know About Me

As a recipient of the Mystery Blogger Reward, I am magically compelled to reveal secrets. It’s in the contract. So, here are three things about me that may or may not be news to you:

  1. I have been sober for exactly 200 days today. Quitting drinking is one of the hardest and best things I’ve ever done. I want to say it has changed my life. But it would be more accurate to say that it has changed the way I perceive my life, which is really a much greater challenge.
  2. I do not write because I enjoy it. Many writers say that they love writing. I do not. Writing is hard work. It is a struggle. It is frustrating more often than it is rewarding. I don’t write because I enjoy it. I write because I am compelled to do it. I am driven to challenge myself through my writing, to improve myself and my writing with discipline to the craft. The joy for me is in those fleeting moments of success when I accomplish a particular challenge, communicate a difficult idea, make a connection that wasn’t there before.
  3. I love power-lifting even though I suck at it. Moving heavy things is my preferred method of exercise (although I have had good fun with cross country and back country skiing this year and fat-biking in the warmer seasons)

But Wait! There’s More…

I am also contractually obligated to answer five questions posed by the person who has nominated me for the award. So here are Matt’s questions and my answers…

  1. Why are you on this planet? I am not a spiritual kind of person. I don’t believe in fate or higher-purposes or anything like that. I don’t think anyone is born for a particular reason. However, since I am here, I believe in making the best of it. For me, that means doing the best I can at the things that are important to me, supporting the people I love, and taking care of my little slice of earth.
  2. Are you Happy? This is another trick question. Happiness is not a continuous state. If we were happy all the time, happiness would have no meaning. I am generally content and at peace with myself. I have moments of joy and happiness, and moments of all the other emotions on the spectrum. I do not believe that happiness has any more value than any other human emotion and it is a mistake to place too much emphasis on attaining it. Trying to capture and sustain happiness is the surest way to unhappiness that there is.
  3. What is your favorite Myth? I’ve been reading a lot of Norse myths with my kids lately, and one of my favourites is the one where Thor’s hammer, Mjollnir, is stolen by the giants and Thor and Loki dress in drag–pretending to be the goddess Freya and one of her maidservants–in order to get the hammer back.
  4. How tall are you? I am the shortest person in my family, at a measly 5’9″. Technically, I’m taller than my mom, but not by much and only because she’s shrinking. I guess I’m taller than my kids, for now. My husband’s family towers over me, and the kids aren’t far behind.
  5. Can you make me laugh?  Please Explain? I think I have, once or twice. The trick is figuring out when I’m being serious and when I’m not. I always think I’m hilarious, especially when I’m pretending not to be.

Now It’s My Turn!

Now I get to nominate a few of you hapless bloggies… My victims are:

Simon Farnell of “Planet Simon” – Simon has tons of interesting Sci-Fi goodies on his blog and has been supremely supportive of my own attempt at blogging. We have plans to do some collaborating and guest posting, but I’ve been slagging off a bit. Give him a follow, and tell him I’m sorry, will ya?

Teresa Grabs of “The Haunted Wordsmith” – Teresa is a master of flash fiction and micro fiction. I read often and don’t comment enough. I highly recommend following her work!

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is this:


Award Guidance

  1. Thank whoever gifted you and include a link to their blog
  2. Mention the creator of the award and provide a link as well
  3. Tell your readers 3 things about yourself
  4. Answer the questions from the person who gifted you the Award
  5. Choose bloggers that you wish to gift the Award to no more than 3
  6. Ask 5 questions of your choice with one weird or funny one
  7. Notify those you gift the Award to

My questions for you:

  1. What writer or book made you want to be a writer?
  2. What is the value of speculative fiction in the modern world?
  3. Is there anyone that you will not allow to read your work?
  4. What is your most impressive physical feat?
  5. Coffee or tea? And how do you take it?

Fantasy Review: “The Griffin” by M.J. McGriff

I discovered this story in a roundabout kind of way through Instagram. [Check out the tag #MeetWriterMoms to discover some really interesting new writers!] I just had to share it. First, because it represents what great fantasy can and should be–engrossing, otherworldly, and original--and second, because it’s FREE to read! Click the link to have a copy emailed to you as a PDF of for your preferred e-reader format.

You may have noticed my emphasis on the word “original” above. I don’t know what it is, but Fantasy, for all of its infinite possibilities is one of the most consistently cliched genres out there. I love a good fantasy story. But having to wade through all the Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones rip offs to get to the good stuff is exhausting. Even if the story itself is engaging, I get tired of the run-of-the-mill fantasy worlds, unpronounceable Gaelic-sounding names, and robe-clad priests. I rarely stick with a series for more than two or three books anymore.

Don’t get me started on the characters. Why on earth, when writing in a world only limited by your own imagination, are the heroes and heroines the same cookie-cutter Ken and Barbie (or should I say Guinevere and Lancelot?) characters we are inundated with in the not-so-real media of the “real world?” Non-white characters are reserved to act as the exotic royalty and mysterious villains, if they are included at all. Not to mention queer, trans, disabled, or otherwise marginalized characters, or even well-rounded men and women, period. Fantasy loves its Mary/Gary Sues. I’m always on the hunt for writers and writing that is as diverse as our real-real world.

But I digress.

M.J. McGriff’s short story “The Griffin” is refreshing and wonderful and none of the things I just complained about. I flew through this story, driven to know what happens to young Neema next. After the unexpected death of her favourite uncle, Neema sets out to discover the secret behind a cryptic message he has left for her. Neema herself is a likable, believable character. The world is lush. The mystery is intriguing. Above all, McGriff’s treatment of the titular fantasy creature is unexpected and exciting!

I can’t wait to read more from Magia and the Griffin Vales!

M.J. McGriff also writes Sci-Fi, which I’m going to check out next. Her New Earth Series is available on the ‘Zon, click HERE to check it out. If you read and review it before I do, please send me the link, and I’ll send YOU a signed copy of my first book The Timekeepers’ War.

Click here to get your free copy!http://www.mmcgriff.com/

Critique Mystique Part 2: How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique

Oooooh, that smarts.

The first time you receive real critical feedback on writing, or anything, can be painful. It can be painful after you’ve received hundreds of them. Thousands. Any time you are told that what you are trying to do isn’t working sucks.

It does get easier, though. Receiving feedback is a skill you must hone just like giving it. Here are my tips on how to receive creative writing critiques with your dignity intact!

Check Your Ego at the Door

Yeah, yeah. I know. Easier said than done. How do you separate yourself from this brilliantly shining piece of art–it’s ART, dammit! You’ll never understand me–that someone has just defecated upon?

Well first of all, just stop. It’s probably not that great. It’s a draft, and drafts are supposed to be crap. Even if it’s a late draft, if you are at the stage where you are soliciting creative writing critiques, you are still in draft mode. You are asking for other writers’ ideas on how to improve your writing craft. Right?

If you’re not, then you need to go back and read my initial article on what a creative writing critique actually is and how to give one. Go ahead. Click it. I’ll wait.

It was a little long, I guess…

Okay. Are you back?

So we should be in agreement now, that you never ask for a creative writing critique when what you are really looking for is someone to tell you how wonderful you are. If that’s what you want, send it to your mother. She probably won’t read it but she’ll probably still tell you she thinks you’re neato. At least, I’ve been told that’s what other people’s mother’s do. Mine tells me she doesn’t understand anything I do and wonders how she went so wrong…

Anyway.

In order to check that Ego, you have to realize one thing. It’s a big thing. Are you ready?

You Are Not Your Writing!

Do you hear that? You are not your writing, your art, your job, your hobby, your anything. You are you, and these are things you do. Sometimes you do them well, sometimes you don’t. No matter how good you are you can always get better. And no matter how good you get, you should never define yourself by the things you make and do.

Identify with the process not the product.

You are a writer, you are not your writing. So when someone says that your story isn’t working for them, you don’t have to take that personally. In fact, if you take it personally you will never get better. You will live in fear of failure and judgement, wallowing in self pity and unrealized dreams. You will stagnate, because you will never be able to show your work to anyone (except maybe your mom). And we have to show our work. Because that’s how we learn and grow and flourish and become the glittering unicorns of greatness that we were always meant to be.

Yeah, you.

When you accept that you are not your writing, it will become much easier to view it objectively. This numbs the sting of a rough critique, especially if it, too, is written objectively. Which, to be perfectly honest, it might not be.

Objective vs Subjective Feedback

Ideally, your critique partner will be skilled and experienced in delivering constructive criticism. But, of course, this will not always be the case. Delivering creative writing critiques is as much an art as the creative writing itself. Sometimes you will receive feedback from people who are still early in the learning process. And that’s okay, because we are all still learning how to receive feedback, too. We all need practice.

Practice makes PROGRESS!

How can you tell if the critique you have been given is good or bad? Good criticism is objective and focused on the actual writing rather than you as the writer. Poor critiques are subjective, confuse the writing with the writer, and are sometimes, but not necessarily, delivered in a condescending or hostile tone.

The trick is, being able to tell the difference.

Objective critiques:

  1. Focus on the facts. That means, they critique what is there on the page. Word choices, sentences structure, character’s actions, etc. They do not make assumptions about your beliefs and critique that. Ex. “Wow, Charlie is a really despicable character! Can you provide more evidence to show why he is the way he is?” vs “This is totally misogynistic and gross. What is wrong with you?”
  2. Are familiar with the genre you are writing in and aware of the expectations of that genre. Romance stories have happy endings. Mysteries have a reveal. Some things shouldn’t be messed with.
  3. Offer clear examples and actionable suggestions. These should be presented as possible ways around a problem, rather than prescriptions. “You can bring the POV in closer by eliminating some of these filter words. Consider the difference between ‘Charlie realized it was too late.’ and ‘Charlie checked his phone and groaned. He’d never make it in time.'”
  4. Never attempt to re-write your work, change your voice or style to suit the personal preferences of the critiquer.
  5. Are aware of potential biases, and disclose them within the critique. Ex. “I don’t really enjoy romances, so take this with a grain of salt…”

Subjective critiques:

  1. Are based on personal opinions, assumptions, interpretations and beliefs. To some extent, all critiques are a bit subjective. It is impossible to completely divorce yourself from your opinions and experiences. However, a good critique won’t point out a first person present narrative as a flaw just because the reader doesn’t like them.
  2. Confuse the writing with the writer. We all have to write conflict, villains, and disasters. Good stories are rife with bad things happening to our beloved characters. It is possible to write a homophobic character without being homophobic yourself. Good critiques will be able to tell the difference. HOWEVER, it is perfectly valid for someone to point out when it isn’t clear if a particular bit of nastiness belongs to a character or is an overflow of your own personal opinion. If someone points out something like this in your work, thank them profusely. It may save you a lot of negative reviews and bad press. Or identify something you need to unpack with your therapist next week. Either way, say thank you.
  3. Forget that they might not be the targeted reader. If you ever receive a creative writing critique that tries to steer your piece into a different genre, a different POV, or a different style of writing without very good reason. “Oh god, I hate vampire stories. Can’t you make Fang a werepig instead?” Flag it as a personal preference problem and move on.
  4. Assume that how they would have written your story is better. This is the worst kind of critique to get. It’s in extremely poor taste and is best ignored if for no other reason than that you will not learn if someone else does the work for you! Never mind the fact that the people who attempt to re-write other people’s work are usually the least qualified to do so.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

So, you’ve received your creative writing critique. You’ve read it. You aren’t crying anymore. Much.

What do you do now?

First of all, thank your critique partner for their time and insights. Even if you just spent the last half an hour screaming at your computer about how said critique partner is an ignorant worm who wouldn’t know quality writing if it crawled up their arsehole and died. Yes. Even then.

Why?

Because whether you liked what they had to say or not, this person took time to try to help you become a better writer. And even if they don’t know how to write a proper critique and can’t tell an opinion from a fact to save their life, you can still learn from their comments.

Yes, even poorly written crits are valuable. They still highlight potential problem areas in your piece. They still help you to identify what works and what doesn’t work. Even if all you identify is exactly who your intended audience is not.

And then…

Please Sir, Can I Have Some More?

Yup. You survived. Now, you need to do it all over again. Why? Because getting more eyes on your work is what is going to help you decide what is advice you need to heed and what you can safely ignore. If that one weird girl from the back of the class totally digs your favourite sock puppet metaphor (Yeah, I loved it) and ten other people just don’t get it… maybe you need to kill that darling.

Or, you know, accept that what you’re trying to do isn’t for everyone and be okay with that. That’s okay, too.

Whatever you do, do it on purpose.


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Is there something you’ve always wondered about the writing, editing, or critiquing process? Do you need me to clarify any of these points? Hit me with your best shot in the comments.

Want to practice your own critique writing skills? Check out my Story Laboratory! I dare ya…

Critique Mystique Part One: How to Give a Creative Writing Critique

Yesterday I waxed poetic about why writing critiques are so important to growing and developing writing craft. But how do you actually give a creative writing critique? What is the difference between a good crit and a bad one?

Today I’m going to share some of the things I’ve learned while stumbling through online writer’s groups over the last couple of years. These tips are applicable whether you are providing feedback for a high school English course, helping out a friend, a university paper, or the aforementioned online writing circles. I am going to focus on short stories.


What is a Creative Writing Critique?

A creative writing critique is feedback on a piece of writing–short story, novel, memoir, article, etc.–that is designed to help the writer improve their writing craft.

What is writing craft? Writing craft refers to the the linguistic tools and techniques an author uses to convey a message or tell a story. The two broadest categories within writing craft are Narrative Elements (Big Picture): Setting, Foreshadowing, Characterization, and Theme; and Literary Devices: Imagery, Diction, Metaphor, Allegory, etc. and Sentence Structure (The Nitty Gritty). It does not refer to grammar, punctuation, or spelling except where these things affect the writer’s stylistic choices.

The Big Picture

When critiquing a piece of creative writing, you should have three main macro-objectives:

  1. Identify the writer’s goal. In a research paper, this is the hypothesis. In a short story, this will be the goal of the main character. Depending on the piece, there may be a secondary goal like the writer’s theme or moral.
  2. Evaluate the evidence. Do the characters’ motivations add up? Are their actions believable? Does the plot evolve in a natural, believable way? When you are reading the story, write down any questions that occur to you. If they remain unresolved at the end of the story, point them out in your critique. Unresolved questions in the story are often referred to as “plot holes.”
  3. Describe the impact. How did you feel upon finishing the piece? Did the writer achieve his or her goal? Stories don’t have to finish on a positive note in order to feel complete. All loose ends do not necessarily need to be tied up. But there should be a sense that the story is finished. The emotional impact of the ending will have a lot to do with how the writer handled the Narrative Elements of Setting, Foreshadowing, and Characterization. If the story does not feel resolved or complete, try to identify what is missing. But if you can’t, just provide the writer with how you felt at the end and let them identify how to solve the problem.

The Nitty Gritty

After you’ve assessed the Big Picture stuff, it’s time to dig into the micro-elements. This includes, but is not limited to:

  1. Imagery: Great imagery is what makes a story come alive for the reader, whether it is description of characters or settings. Metaphor and simile are the most used literary devices that affect imagery. Does the author mix metaphors, use too many similes to describe one thing, contradict themselves with their descriptions? This is the kind of thing you want to be on the lookout for. The best imagery plays into a bigger theme, and can be used to demonstrate shifts in the character as they move through the plot. Make sure to point out images you love as well as the ones that have you scratching your head so that the author has a chance to replicate their successes in the future.
  2. Dialogue: This is one of the aspects of creating writing even the best story tellers often struggle with. Does the dialogue flow naturally? Are the characters’ voices as individual as they are? Does the dialogue reveal too much or too little? Realistic dialogue and effective dialogue are not the same thing! In real life, we blather on to one another endlessly about things that don’t matter. We don’t need to read that in fiction. Dialogue must serve a purpose. It should show the reader something about a character, reveal something about the plot (but not so much that it acts as an info dump), it should create tension. Straight-forward, Q&A style dialogue is boring. Interesting, effective dialogue reveals more through what isn’t being said than what is being said. This is where you should look at the writer’s choice of dialogue tags and action beats. Do the action beats reveal something to the reader or are they simply stage-direction? Too many descriptive tags, or tags modified by adjectives are usually signs of “lazy” writing, telling vs showing. Point out what works for you and what doesn’t.
  3. Point of View: How close does the writer allow you to get to the main character? The more intimate the POV the more emotional investment from the reader. Is the writer holding the reader at a distance via “to be” verbs, filler words, and filter words? Is there “head-hopping” between characters? Is the POV consistent throughout the piece, or does an omniscient narrator sometimes drop in and reveal things that the POV character wouldn’t know? Identify the writer’s choice of POV, and evaluate whether or not that choice serves the goals of the story.
  4. Showing and Telling: Despite the rule being “show don’t tell,” good stories need both. Showing is used to slow the pacing, allow the reader to linger on important imagery and details, and add sensory detail to the scenes that increase the reader’s ability to identify with the characters and imagine themselves in the story world. Telling is used to pick up the pace, propel the plot forward, blast through action sequences, and leave the reader gasping for breath. How much of each the piece needs will depend on the story. Help the writer to identify areas that fall flat (and could use more showing) or that meander (and could use more telling).
  5. Vocabulary and Sentence Structure: Identify weak verbs that could be strengthened, adverbs that could be described in more detail [“He said angrily.” vs “His face purpled and spittle exploded from his mouth.”], redundancy “she climbed upward,” etc. This is one area where a writer’s individual style can vary. Faster paced narratives, like action/drama, allow for more “telling” which in turn allows for more descriptive shortcuts, like adverbs. Your goal as critique partner is to point out areas that can be made stronger and areas that the style is interfering with pacing. Sentence Structure, likewise, has stylistic implications. Some writers prefer short, succinct sentences. Some like long, flowing, poetic prose. Your goal is not to impose your own personal preferences on your critique partner, but to ensure they remain true to their own style, and are using the right type of sentences in the right situations. Like showing and telling, short sentences move quickly, longer sentences linger. They should be used purposefully!

Okay, I’ll stop there. You have a lot of options when it comes to what you can critique. You do not, by any means, have to address all of this. Usually, I focus on whatever aspects of the craft I have been studying recently and which are fresh in my brain. I also point out the things that are weaknesses in my own writing, because that’s what I’m primed to pay attention to. Focus on the aspects that stand out to you, and don’t go trying to pick the whole thing apart piece by piece. That’s what line edits are for!

What is a Creative Writing Critique NOT?

There are a few things you should avoid when providing a creative writing critique. A critique is not:

  1. Personal. You are critiquing the writing not the writer. Address the aspects of the story directly, without referring to the writer themselves. Be careful with your language so that you don’t come across as condescending, rude, or insulting. There is a big different between “Your writing is derivative and boring” and “This is a cliche, is there a way to make this image more original and specific to your character?”
  2. An Invitation to Re-Write. It is never okay to rewrite another writer’s work. This is a major faux-pas! Sometimes it is necessary to provide an example of what you are talking about, but this should be presented as an example and not a prescription. Use the “comments” feature and never directly edit within the document, even for typos.
  3. A Grammar lesson. If you notice a particular grammatical error that is repeated throughout the piece, mention it briefly but don’t point out every instance. Spelling and grammar are the business of copy editors. Some grammatical “errors” may be used to achieve a specific tone or style, and are not necessarily wrong just because the are ungrammatical.
  4. An Award Ceremony. Glowing praises are nice. But a critique that is only positive will not help the writer to grow and improve. If you really can’t find anything wrong with the piece, at least ask the writer some probing questions that might get them thinking about their story on a deeper level.

When should you critique?

Not everyone who shares their work with you actually wants a critique. It is good writerly etiquette to wait until you are asked to provide any kind of critical commentary on a piece of writing. Some people are just writing for themselves and don’t care what you think about it. Don’t waste you time and energy on writers who are not actively trying to improve their craft. That said, if you belong to a writer’s group or critique group, it is probably safe to assume that critique is welcome. If you are unsure, ask the writer what kind of feedback they are looking for and cater to their requests.

Practice Makes PROGRESS

Critiques writing, like any kind of writing, is an art. It requires practice. You will make mistakes at first! I still make mistakes. It is helpful if you can practice with someone who will not have their feelings hurt if you fumble a delivery. Newer writers in particular, who haven’t grown the calloused hides of us veterans, should be handled gently. Speaking of calloused hides, why don’t you practice in my Story Laboratory? I’d love to have the feedback, and you really can’t hurt my feelings. It’s a critique practice safe zone!

When in doubt, follow the golden rule: provide critique in the way you would like to receive critique.

In the event that you do hurt someone’s feelings, apologize, clarify, and move on. You will have plenty of opportunities to be on the other side of the fence. In my next Critique Mystique article, I’ll tell you How to Receive a Creative Writing Critique with all your grace and dignity intact. Well, on the surface, at least.

Critique Me!

What do you think of my critique articles so far? Is there anything that you would like me to clarify or maybe expand upon in the future? Hit me with your questions and suggestions in the comments.

Critique Mystique: Unlocking the Writing Craft BONUS LEVEL

What is is the value of criticism to you, as a writer or creator? How can critiquing other people’s work strengthen your own craft? Criticism and critique are invaluable in any field. Creatives in particular can use critique to take their work to the next level.

It’s been over a year since I quit the emotional energy treadmill that is Facebook. I don’t miss it. I really don’t. In fact, I feel much freer without it and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to go back even in order to make myself an author page and do the social media writer gig. But I do miss something that I used to get on Facebook. Writing groups!

I was lucky to belong to a number of great writing groups, and while I used to get frustrated with myself for spending more time critiquing other people’s work than actually writing, I’m really starting to miss that aspect of my erstwhile favourite writing community. Ditching the Zuck has opened up a lot of time for writing, which is great. I’ve been a lot more productive in the last year than I was in the year before that. There is no denying that the year I spent writing less and critiquing more wasn’t great for my word count output. What I didn’t realize is I was actually doing a lot of learning and processing when it comes to the craft of writing in that time. I’m really missing that critique community now that I have a back log of stories to prep for submissions!

I’ve been trying to get and stay involved in some WordPress circles, and it’s a wonderful community itself. However, publishing on a blog–even if it’s just in draft form–hinders one’s ability to submit work to most serious paying markets. These challenges can only really act as writing exercises rather than first drafts for salable work. With flash fiction being one of the best markets to start publishing in, it irks me to “waste” all of that creative energy on pieces I can ultimately do little with beside pad future collections of (hopefully) previously published stories.

So I’m looking at some other options. I’ve been investigating online critique groups. The Next Big Writer has had pretty good reviews from the writing community, and during my seven day free trial period I received valuable feedback. However, there is an annual fee involved that I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to yet. Scribophile is another site I’m scoping out, though I’ve heard mixed reviews. It seems more geared toward socializing than critique compared to TNBW. I’ll keep you posted with what I decide to do with those groups.

One place I’ve found that has been amazing so far is 12 Short Stories. I joined last year, but I didn’t get as involved in that community as I should have. As a result, I ended up missing half the assignments and being late with the ones I did finish. I’ve commited anew this year, though, and I’ve already found a handful of serious writers who deliver serious critique. Even better? They actually want to receive critique (rather than just praise, as you see with a lot of amateur writer groups).

Why is that better? Because giving constructive criticism is even more valuable to writers than receiving it. It’s only been two months and I can feel how much more focused my own writing is become!

That’s something we don’t often consider as writers. Giving critical feedback, applying what we are learning from all those craft articles and books we devour, on another writer’s work is just as important as receiving feedback on our own. This is true of writing, and it’s true of pretty much any skill that requires study and practice.

Writing a strong story is like solving a puzzle. Reading and critiquing a story allows us to apply all of our problem solving skills on a piece that we are not emotionally invested in. It’s the practice session to our game day. Constructive criticism forces us to identify issues, assign potential remedies, and articulate the things we have learned in a way that someone else can understand. It’s kind of like writing a paper to prove to your university professor that you actually read and understood the material. You make an argument for your case. The recipient of your criticism may or may not use anything that you suggest, but the value in giving that critique is never wasted.

That’s not to say that it isn’t wonderful to receive quality feedback, of course. By quality feedback, I don’t mean glowing praise, either. My favourite is when someone steps outside the warm and fuzzy back-patting bubble and says something like “You’ve used 17 unnecessary adverbs in a 1200 word story” or “Is the personification of the house really necessary?” or “Your imagery is great, but this is a little too much even for me.”

I don’t agree with everything that other people think about my stories. But even if I disagree, that feedback is invaluable. When someone draws attention to a potential problem within you work, it gives you the opportunity to assess that part and decide for yourself what should be done. Keep it? Tweak it? Trash it? The important thing is that you make a decision. Nothing in your story should ever be there by accident!

If the personification of the house is necessary, I might need add more examples so that the reader knows I’ve done it on purpose. Then they can wonder why (and hopefully I have provided an answer to that, too). Okay, 17 adverbs is a bit much. Which ones should I keep and which ones to I need to rewrite? Yes, this borders on purple prose, but does it serve a purpose? Am I slowing the reader down and forcing them to linger over something that matters to the story? These are the kinds of questions you are forced to ask yourself, and if you answer them honestly, your story will be better for it.

If you want to unlock the mysterious power of critique and use it as a tool to enhancing your own writing the secret is this: you get what you give. If you just tell everyone what a wonderful job they’ve done, whether or not they have earned that praise, that’s likely all you’ll ever get in return. Giving honest feedback is harder than receiving it, sometimes. But if you want to receive it, you might have to break the ice with your own foray into real criticism. Sometimes this will fail miserably. But you know how I feel about failing.

As writers we are often afraid of offending other writers, we are afraid that because our own writing needs work that we have no right to critique others. Bullshit. That’s fear talking. That’s insecurity. Some of the best critiques I’ve ever received are from editors who are not creative writers. Being a good writer and being a good critiquer are two separate skills. They are complementary skills, but they are separate. So get over that fear, do yourself a favour, and join a critique group today and start analyzing some stories!

If you belong to a group you really love, please share in the comments!

Author Interview: Jensen Reed

Pixie Forest Publishing, a fun little indie press, has a brand new collection of short fantasy stories coming out on March 8th! Pre-orders are open now, click HERE to snag a copy of Magical Reality. I’m here with Jensen Reed, author of “Heir” in this anthology, and co-owner of Pixie Forest Publishing.

Q: What was your inspiration for “Heir?”

A: I responded to a prompt in Writing Bad. It was a photo I found by Stefan Koidl that pictured a little boat above dragon bones in water. I wrote basically the opening paragraph as the prompt response and once we decided to do this theme for the anthology I knew it would fit perfectly!

Q: Who is your favorite character in your story and why?

A: I really love Jo. She has such a strong personality and I love her quirks. I also love how much Lincoln loves her though.

Q: Do you have a favorite story in Magical Reality? If so, why is it your favorite?

A: I absolutely adore “Misspelled” by Olivia London AND Melissa “Sell’s Mall of Magic.” They are both exactly the type of story I had in mind with this theme.

Q: What is your writing process like?

A: Be inspired, write out the scene that comes to mind, meet the characters, build their back stories, write, rewrite, edit, send to betas, polish. Oh and lots of caffeine.

Q: Is fantasy the genre you usually write in?

A: I dabble. I love fantasy, horror, I write romance, and I’m attempting sci-fi. But I mostly love feeding characters to zombies and making readers cry. 😉

Q: How long on average does it take you to write a story?

A: It honestly depends on the length. I’ve been working on my zombie apocalypse series for at least 5 years now, but I have written and published ten short stories in the last year.

Q: How important was research to you when writing this story?

A: This one, sorta. The most research I put in was for the spells that Jo does. The rest I just made up as I went.

Q: What are you are currently reading, and what made you grab that book?

A: This answer is going to change several times by the time this interview goes live, haha. I have been inhaling books this year as part of a goal to read more. I’m currently reading The Whispers by Greg Howard because I saw it at Target and fell for the cover.

Q: What are you writing now or what are you planning on writing next?

A: Lots. The Refuge series books one and two (zombie apocalypse), Painted Hearts (modern magic about a vampire who lives in a lighthouse), This Is Stupid (sci-fi), and several short stories for more anthologies.

Q: Do you have any upcoming releases?

A: Salty Tales anthology by Stormy Island Publishing launched on March 1st. I have a little Nicholas Sparks-ish romance in there. I am aiming to release Ranch (zompoc book one) this year as well as one of the two novellas I listed above. I have three more anthologies releasing soon too.

Q: Wow! You’re busy! Where can we find you if we want to keep up with all of this?

Facebook: Author Jensen Reed

WordPress: About Jensen Reed at Pixie Forest Publishing

MeWe: Join my anthology promotion group HERE

Goodreads: Jensen Reed


Thanks, Jensen! I’m excited to check out Magical Reality! Make sure you check out Pixie Forest Publishing for more great reads. If you are a writer looking for a home for your own novel or short stories, check out their upcoming anthologies and the submissions guidelines.

New Look!

Well, I’m trying out a new look here Sarah Does Sci-Fi. What do you think? I am still in the process of cleaning up my categories and tags, but that’s a bigger project than I can tackle in one day and I really need to get back to writing. Please do let me know if you find any broken links or other weirdness. Thanks for putting up with the chaos during construction!

Interview: Uniweb Productions with S.C. Jensen

Last week I was interviewed by Matt Whiteside of the UniWeb Interview Show about my novel The Timekeepers’ War, my publishing journey (so far), and my own creative process. It was a really fun time, if you can’t tell from all of the laughing. We had some technical difficulties and had to re-do sections of the interview a bunch of times, but Matt did a great job editing it into something cohesive.

Please click the link to view the video in YouTube. For some reason videos embedded into WordPress pages don’t count toward the channels views, and it would help Matt launch his UniWeb Productions channel to have more action over there. Don’t forget to like, share, and comment, especially if you have read The Timekeepers’ War and want to leave me some feedback!

Matt also has a ton of amazing content on his blog Seeking Purpose Today. I highly recommend following him and seeing what he’s up to: from motivational writing and discussion of addiction and recovery, to author interviews, dramatic readings of his own and other’s work, and an experimental “Choose Your Own Adventure” story that anyone can contribute to!

Of course, I’d love to hear your thoughts right here on Sarah Does Sci-Fi, too!

Writing, Hair-pulling, and Rewriting

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No, this is not a sexy new sub-genre of erotica.

I am working on my second novel, Book 2 in The Timekeepers’ War trilogy. The manuscript has been 80% completed for ages, but I keep running into snags. I had a development editor look at it, and she pointed out a few things that were definitely bogging me down, so I went back and restructured and rewrote half of it and I was feeling much better about it. And yet, there was still something missing. I couldn’t seem to avoid big chunks of exposition, forced dialogue, and backstory crammed in all over the place, and it was seriously affecting the pacing.

Well, folks. I started reading Outlining Your Novel by K.M. Weiland, thinking it would help me tackle this problem in a new way. I have been a pantser, as in I write “by the seat of my pants,” for the entirety of my writing career. Every excuse for why plotting and planning wasn’t for me has probably passed my lips. But lets just have a look at the data…

I had to cut over 50K words from my MS and completely restructure it to address placing issues with Book One. Now, I’m going through something similar with Book Two. I have done a lot of work studying flash fiction and short story form and practicing the craft as well as the art of writing short form fiction, and my writing has improved exponentially with a little structure…

I’m starting to doubt the wisdom of my hippy-dippy muses.

Reading Weiland’s book triggered a horrific realization for me. I have been writing the wrong book. What I have been trying to write as Book 2 in my trilogy is actually Book 3. I tried to skip too far ahead in my own story and was using exposition and backstory to catch up the readers when really, I needed to “show not tell” what has happened between Book One and my current manuscript.

So I have set that MS aside and outlined an entirely new Book Two, and one that makes a whole lot more sense at this point in the trilogy. If you are new to outlining and want to give it a try, I highly recommend Weiland’s book! It is accessible, and it addresses all of those niggling fears we pantsers have about the rigidity of plotting. I’m still not the kind of writer who has spreadsheets full of every detail of their character’s lives right down to their favourite flavour of ice-cream. But Weiland’s techniques allowed me to build and organic outlining method that still lets me tap into the joys of discovery writing while making sure that I have a road map to follow as I write my story. Her method even makes room for exploration of theme and imagery, something that I always add into my writing anyway, and demonstrates how to use the outline to strengthen these aspects of your story.

So, sadly, I have put aside nearly 70K words and another 20K of rewrites to tackle a brand new book. That is both exciting and sad. The bright side is that much of what I have written will still be usable because I still need to tell that part of the story. And all of the time I spent immersed in the world of The Timekeepers has certainly not been wasted.

I have set a stretch goal for myself to write 1500 words a day on this MS until I get the first draft done. Ideally, I would like to have it ready for revisions in three months.

The other thing I’m struggling with is the urge to go back and apply what I have learned about outlining and structure to Book One. I haven’t had any negative feedback about it yet, but I can see how much stronger The Timekeepers’ War could be if I had known some of these things five years ago. But that’s a project for after Book Three is completed, I guess. I might rewrite Book One and release all three within a nine month period. Dream big!

For those of you who have read and loved The Timekeepers’ War, don’t worry. I won’t add anything new to the plot so you won’t need to reread it (unless you’re curious or just want a refresher!) But I might cut some of the excess–there is still a lot of excess even after my initial fat trimming job–and make those sub-stories into short stories, novellas, and other bonus material for fans.

I’m deep into writing mode, but I will try to keep up with my short story challenges and submissions, too. And I’m going to set aside one day a week to catch up on the other wordpress blogs I follow and my “Thoughts on reading and writing SF”