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 bookThe Timekeepers’ War.
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?
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…
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.'”
Never attempt to re-write your work, change your voice or style to suit the personal preferences of the critiquer.
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…”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.
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).
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:
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?”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Writerhas 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!
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?
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.
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!
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!
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”
We are in the middle of a midwinter deep freeze. Lows of -42 Celsius overnight. I can remember very few winters that have been this cold as relatively far south as we are. My husband, who works in the real north, suffers through a few weeks of the -40 stuff every year but this is unusual for us. He’s in his truck right now, and I’m trying not to think about what will happen if he has truck or trailer problems. It’s unforgiving out there.
School busses are cancelled and the kids have a fort built in the living room. We’ll be hiding inside today. I’m going to make bread and do some writing. I really can’t complain.
But the cold has got me thinking about freezing. Not the freezing of fingers and toes and the tips of your nose, but that full body/brain freeze that only really happens because of fear. Fear of getting hurt, fear of looking stupid, fear of failure. You know the freeze I’m talking about. Would-be writers suffer from this all the time, myself included.
This thought started to solidify for me this winter when the kids started skating. We all bought skates, even though my husband and I haven’t been skating in 25 years. My husband didn’t do a lot of skating growing up and was never great at it (so he says). My dad has always played hockey, right up until he broke his ankle a few years ago (in his 60s!), and I learned to skate young. But when we got on the ice for the first time, I was the one who froze.
Ice is hard. And slippery. And I was exquisitely aware of how vulnerable I was in my now middle-aged body. It was terrifying. My husband, who is naturally athletic and, it seems to me sometimes, completely immune to fear of physical injury, took off. He was a little shaky at first, but pretty soon he was doing just as well as most people out there.
In the end, I did fall. I had a nice purple knee for a couple of weeks. But it took falling, and getting that fear out of the way, to allow me to move forward. It hurt, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. I knew, suddenly, that I would survive if it happened again. And when you’re skating, my husband reminded me, you fall just as hard when you’re standing still and when you’re going fast. So you might as well pick up the pace! Next time we went, I wasn’t doing half bad. I still have to work on my technique and my ankle strength, but I’m not afraid to move and (mostly) not afraid to fall anymore.
With the kids, it was different. They’ve never skated before. It wasn’t all that long ago that they were learning how to walk. This was totally foreign and scary and they didn’t know how to handle it. My son, who has inherited my (lack of) athletic prowess, has been convinced since he was tiny that he will be a hockey player. That enthusiasm skips a generation, apparently. He envisioned himself as a pro. So the rude shock of having to learn how to do this thing, just like everyone else, was incredibly frustrating.
The first hour that we were out, the kids basically just fell over. Got up. Fell over again. They were in tears; I was nearly in tears (my knee really hurt!). My son kept saying, “How can I learn anything if all I do is fall down!” And I told him that every time he fell down, his body was learning what not to do. If you step like this you fall. If you lean like that you fall. And eventually, once it had eliminated a bunch of “wrong” motions, it would start to figure out the “right” ones.
I mean, I was just making that up. I didn’t want him to be frustrated. I honestly had my doubts that any of us would figure out this skating thing this year.
But sure enough, by the end of the two hours that we were on the ice, all three of the kids were shuffling around and mostly staying upright. And when they fell down, they were really good at getting themselves back up again.
Even more interesting was the fact that my son who, like I said, has my natural cautiousness and lack of athleticism, was doing much better than his twin sister who, despite the fact that she has my husband’s fearlessness and agility, quickly loses interest in things that don’t come easily. She doesn’t get angry or frustrated, she just moves on to the next thing, like running around the bleachers with her cousins.
To see my son skating, you’d think he was having a terrible time. His eyebrows were furrowed and he frowned in concentration. There were a lot of breaks and tears of frustration. But when the skates were off and we were back in the truck he lit up, and couldn’t stop talking about it. He had focused on his goal and powered through the challenges just out of sheer determination to be a hockey player. And maybe that’s just what he’ll do!
But guys. This story is not about my kids.
It’s about me. It’s about us. It’s about learning to love the struggle of getting better at the thing we are passionate about. It’s about failing, and failing repeatedly, because it’s the only way that we learn. When have you ever learned anything by being good at it already? Never. You might coast for a while on natural ability–that’s what I was doing when I chose to study English Literature in school–but eventually, if you want to grow, you have to fall on your face. You have to make mistakes. You have to try new things, and mess them up, and try again.
I’ve never actually enjoyed writing. Writing, at least in the draft stages, is a lot like hard manual labour. It is the equivalent of getting a shovel and digging until you find clay. Digging until you have enough clay that you are ready to make something. It’s the re-writing and the editing that is the real art, I think. That’s when the magic happens. That’s when you sculpt your lump of clay into what you want it to be. But you can’t edit a blank page. You can’t finesse the words you haven’t written yet. So sometimes you have to force yourself to sit down and write. You’ve got to dig.
You can’t let yourself worry about the what if. What if what I’m going to make will be no good? What if no one will like it? What if the thing I’m trying to say is derivative and pointless? That’s when you freeze. That’s when you get “writers block.”
Because none of that matters. If what you write is a bunch of rubbish, that’s fine. Then you go back and work it again. And the next time you try, it will come out a little closer to that piece of art you are envisioning in your head.
So I hope you aren’t freezing this winter. But I do hope that you fall on your face a couple of times and, more than anything, I hope you pick yourself up and try again.
I read a wonderful flash fiction piece the other day, by Jennifer Stephen Kapral called “The Alien in 36B.” In it, Kapral describes the experiences of an alien ambassador travelling by airplane with a bunch of humans and it is both funny and poignant. I loved the descriptions of the alien’s kaleidoscopic ability to see germs, and I think some of my germaphobic friends and readers will appreciate his disgust at being crammed into an archaic flying tin can with a bunch of coughing, sneezing, bacteria ridden humans.
However, what struck me most was the parallels between this alien’s experience with humans and the experience of immigrants, particularly visible minorities, in North America. Kapral expertly injects a sense of otherness that is so subtle I had to read it twice to catch all of it. The alien “[whose] bones felt heavy with the weight of being constantly watched” must consider his every word and gesture so as not to offend his co-passengers. In a polite, everyday type of conversation he “steeled himself, anticipating an insult.” Even something as simple as passing a drink to the woman next to him, which he doesn’t want to do because he is disgusted by the germs he can see on the cup, becomes a potential political battleground because “humans were extraordinarily talented at taking small, meaningless incidents and turning them into worldwide scandals.”
It made me think of the way we expect people to participate in daily rituals that seem harmless enough to us. Simple politeness can carry the weight of cultural expectations we take for granted. A handshake, a shared meal. To a person of a different religion or different culture, there may be a hundred socially ingrained rules they must break in order to appease out sense of “normalcy” or “politeness.”
I also wondered if it would take the sudden appearance of an alien species to finally make humans see that we are in fact more similar than we are different. Is that what it would take for us to really believe that we all belong to the so-called “human race.”
This kind of “otherness” is an integral part of the science fiction genre. In order to speculate about future worlds, species, societies, we must first be able to imagine ourselves as the Other. Some of the best SF writers today are minorities: women, people of colour, LGBTQ+, immigrants, people with disabilities, people with mental illness; I believe this is because writers who have experienced being “othered” by a majority have a better sense of the anxiety, fear, frustration, and loneliness that comes with being different. One of the reasons science fiction is so popular, I believe, is that it gives people a glimpse of a world that is so different that they can imagine themselves belonging there, when our own world seems to reject them.
What do you think? Have you ever experienced being “Other”? Do you feel that it helps you connect to science fiction as a reader (or a writer)? What did you think of the story? I hope you read it!
If you liked that story, and would like to read more, I highly recommend subscribing to Daily Science Fiction‘s newsletter, or at least checking out their site any time you want a quick read. I hope to see my own work up there some day, but I keep publishing it to my blog instead of submitting it. What a terrible habit!