Monday, May 31, 2010

Post #4 - A note about Critique and Feedback

I am sort of oblivious at times, particularly when it comes to my attitudes. I don't often realize how I'm coming across or how the other person reacts. I don't filter a lot of what I say, nor gauge it for best response, as I consider that to be a disservice to people - no one gains anything when you walk on eggshells.

I don't deny that I'm a skilled writer, and that I know a lot about the technical aspects as well as stylistic aspects of the craft. While this occasionally leads me to feeling a certain level of superiority, I believe it earned -- I've been doing this awhile, and I'm good at it -- what I disagree with is that there is therefore created a sense that other people are inferior.

This is not a contest. There is no prize for being the best. (You cannot even argue that a Pulitzer makes you the best, because there are many awards available.) Just because I am good at this, and perhaps better at this than you are, in no way does that translate to you being stupid or a bad person.

Yes, there are writers and coaches WAY WAY WAY better than anything I could ever hope to be. People who teach different methodologies, different material and in different ways all exist. This variety of writing professionals is also not a contest -- John Grisham and I don't fight each other for a trophy. Different schools of thought exist, and I have mine, they have theirs.

There is a bit of a reputation that I call things "crap", and fuel some great "god" complex because all my writers (in my group) allegedly spend all their time agreeing with me. This is most often said by people who have not been a part of the group or by people who received comments they did not agree with.

My group does not spend all it's time agreeing with me. I can point to many pieces that include such comments as "WTF?" and "This isn't like you, are you okay?" We are all serious-minded about our comments. If something is not working, we say so.

Jumping to the extreme point of view that we only say bad things is wholly erroneous, because we're also very good at saying what's right.

The problem seems to come when people have this idea that in order to say what's bad, you MUST say what's good. This softens the bad, and creates a hand-holding experience which is not actually constructive. Perserving the "feelings" of a writer (who said writers have to be tissue-paper thin-skinned?) over improving the writer is not what my group is about. If you write something and it isn't good (meaning it lacks proficience thematically or technically or possesses structural errors and/or is wholly unclear, lacking in point or evocative attraction to the reader), we say so.

If you come to group and what you write is clear and concise, but all you've missed is a semi-colon (meaning there's way more good than bad), we say so.

Whatever is good or bad about the piece is said. Absent from this is a sense of personal condemnation -- I do not berate you as a person because you shifted tenses in the ninth paragraph. Also absent from this are weak, unconstructive criticism -- none of us say "It's good" and then move on. We say it's good, and then develop specific things that we found good. I may like the dialogue and Andrew may enjoy the description of the room.

My only request for people giving critique and feedback is that none of it be extreme. Avoid the "It's good" or the wholesale "Never write again, burn your keyboard." I leave it up to the individual to determine what specifically they say aside from that.

I find it both naive and foolish to think that there be some sort of extra merit or condition given to feedback, as if you have to balance bad things with good. Sometimes, things are good without bad bits and vice-versa. What matters is whether or not the writer improves because of what you said.

Note: WHAT you said, not HOW you said it.

I have neither the time nor inclination to mince words and find the best way to tell you something. Time is a precious commodity in a group of 12+ that takes almost 3 hours a night, so there is little reason to find the "best" way to tell you something.

You know what the "best" way is: Pure truth, backed up logically and cogently.

So if you bring me pages of drivel, where your plot is non-existant and your characters dry, I will say so. One of the others may say its the best thing ever. Which one of is right? We both are.

Even though this is not a matter of right and wrong (although people will try and make it such for the sake of their understanding), we're both right because we both spoke the truth.

Let the sum of the feedback GUIDE (not dictate) revisions. Do not just tally the "6 for, 7 against" but examine the whole scope of all the feedback to see if multiple people came across the same elements. And even then, it's still up to you as to whether or not you do anything about it. There are many people who write, and then come to group, and then the next month they write something else. No effort is made for publication, no concern is given to personal response on feedback. If I tell Mary that she shifted tenses on page 2, and she's been doing it for the last two months, I'll let her know that it's a habit, and here's how to break it.

My suggestion on how she break that habit is just that: A SUGGESTION. She can choose not to listen, she can choose to pay attention. I'm going to give my feedback either way.

I feel as though I rambled, so here's a summary:

1. My group is not my cult of personality.
2. When giving feedback, we speak our truth, unvarnished and clearly.
3. Feedback is at best a list of suggestions, not mandates.
4. If you need your negative feedback packaged with good feedback, I suggest you reconsider why you need packaging like that
5. Feedback about what you write IS NOT feedback about you as a person.

If I'm a jerk, then call me a jerk, but I might be a jerk who can help you write a story that turns into a book that goes on shelves.

Post #3 - Show Don't Tell & Show-And-Tell

There is a great writing expression that should be etched in stone and taught at a very early age to people in English classes:

Show, Don't Tell

Having read and worked with a lot of people, I think they've either never gotten this lesson, or they're confused as to its meaning.

So let's go through it.

At the most simplistic, it instructs writers to demonstrate a feeling, an action or a concept, rather than just stating the feeling/action/concept.

Example: Janine was nervous.

This "tells" us what state Janine exists in. She is nervous. Depending on the subsequent sentences, the audience may apply their own understanding of "nervous" to develop the scene.

Example: Janine felt clammy and her stomach churned a little as she moved through the dark house.

This sentence "shows" us what Janine did and allows us to infer from the description what state she was in.

Example: Janine was nervous. Her skin was clammy and her stomach was nauseous.

These two sentences are redundant. The first sentence tells us Janine's state, and the second clarifies it. Specifically, the second sentence directs us to specifically create the condition that "nervous = clammy skin + nausea". The problem with crafting the equation is that until we hear otherwise, all mentions of "nervous" can be defined that way, even if other characters don't express nervousness in that same manner.

There are generally three issues sitting at the heart of the "show/tell" debate:

1. The author does not trust the audience in their ability to see/get/understand the story the way it is intended. - the author thinks the audience is stupid.

2. The author does not want to relinquish control of the story, not even for the purpose of cooperative enjoyment. - the author thinks they should be totally in control, all the time.

3. The author writes poorly, crafting dull sentences that either lack development or suffocate under the weight of their construction. - the author abuses sentences.

Do other issues exist here? Yes, and we'll address them in later posts.

Let's go through these three.

1. The audience is not stupid. If you (the writer) build a clear world, with compelling characters, evocative and reasonable plot, supported by dialogue and dynamic exposition then the audience will "get" any theme or moral you're describing.

If you believe the audience to be stupid, then you'll treat them that way. Generally audiences are treated poorly by suffering through bad, over-illustrative prose.

The problem here is that if you write bad prose, the audience will think you're stupid too.

Treat the audience as you treat yourself. Granted, they don't know the whole story, but you will describe it to them. That's what they're relying on you for, that's why they've chosen your story above all others for their enjoyment.

Remember: They "get" only what YOU provide them. So who is the stupid one?

2. If the story is done, give up control. I am a huge proponent of empowering authors. I believe that a majority of writer-fear can be beaten back by the knowledge that the author is in charge of the story throughout its creation. But creation is only a part of the overall package. Once created, (and we assume editing is a part of creation) the next major phase is publication, wherein the story leaves the author's hands and goes out to the audience for reading. The author cannot race out to every bookstore and change every forty-seventh page to include an extra line, and I think that sense of finality scares some people and keeps them from finishing work.

As with so many other parts of life, you can only control so much for so longer. To try and maintain that control for too long is injurious to the end product. Let go, and let audiences have your work. It's good enough. If it wasn't, it wouldn't have made it past the creation phase.

3. Prose that lays flat on the page, prose that does not evoke feeling or create images can be essentially wasted ink on paper. Further, this waste turns into wasted dollars for the purchaser of your published book, and that sense of waste translates into diminished returns from the audience (why buy a crappy book?). One of the biggest tools in the writer toolbox is the sentence, and the crafting of sentences is what distinguishes authors apart, both in terms of unique style and quality. A sentence is the delivery vehicle for information, and it's alright for sentences from Author #1 to be different from Author #2. In fact, I'll say it's preferable that they are different. HOWEVER: If the sentence is weak, unclear, vague, or grammatically incorrect that is NOT acceptable and will tell the readers/editors/critique-ers of a lack of skill or inability to convey information. (This is what they're counting on you to do, don't let them down. Trust yourself to do this, and do it well.)

Sentence composition is developed through the writing of more, and varied sentences. Practice. Practice putting the verb first, try eliminating clauses, clip adverbs....there are so many options available.

Relinquishing control is part of the process, and a big key to that is accepting that you're good enough to finish pieces and that finished work is "good enough" (because people who are good, write good things).

Trusting the audience is developed by working on both sentence construction and getting over that need to explain things, no matter how mechnical or counter-intuitive this structure may appear. Explain what you need to, what is new/foreign to the audience, and allow them to fill in the blanks. If they get it wrong, if they miss details, then have the rest of your text correct them.

Post #2 - The Conceit of First Person

I do a lot of writing in the first person. It is not a bad point-of-view and allows me to more directly line up my thoughts and translate them into actions. Further, I can express a character's emotions more clearly because the "I" acts to translate and blur the line between thought and action so that the audience can more readily place themselves in the character's shoes.

However, the first person is full of traps. I've outlined a few below:

1. It's all about Me Me Me -- Most grievous among author-errors is forgetting how limited the "I" experience can be. Yes, it is the most direct way to convey narration, thoughts and dialogue in a setting, but at the same time your writing-hands are tied...because you can only write as much as the character knows.

I'm writing this blog in the first person, and while I can easily detail what I'm doing while I write (drinking a glass of water, listening to music) I have NO idea what you are doing while you read it. Maybe you're on the phone, perhaps you're downloading porn - I have no clear way (as a character) of knowing what it is you're doing. As such, I can't describe it. Well, technically, I could describe it, but I better speak in vagaries or with an element of doubt.

2. Narration is inner monologue -- Narration (which is exposition made specific to the character(s)) in the first person acts as monologue. There is very little elemental distinction between what the character thinks and interaction with the world/plot. See here:

I wrote this sentence and considered watching television.

There is a pair of explicit actions present: (i) writing (ii) thoughts about watching television, both of which serve as potential springboards for the upcoming plot. Maybe I will write another sentence, mayhaps I shall go watch television. You (the audience/reader) is propelled forward to see what comes next.

The plot (and potential-plot) are driven forward only by what I say/do/think in response to any stated action. If there's no stated action, then there's no clear indication that I have or will do anything in response. Also, if there is a stated action, and there's no relevance to me, there's not any indication that I'll respond either. Example:

I sat in my chair, looking out the window. It was too warm to do more than sit and sweat.

Starting with the pair of explicit actions (sitting, looking), the text moves from narration to narrative-exposition as I stop talking about myself and move to speak my opinion about the conditions beyond myself.

"It was too warm to do more than sit and sweat" is the opinion of the character. This does create the condition of being warm, and creates an inference that the character giving that opinion is not going to be, or not encouraged to be active. It's an opinion. There's no action in the sentence, so it's monologue.

When you dive into the first-person, and you start to explore the plot, the divisions between who says what (dialogue), what I do (action), what I think (narration/monologue), what else is going on (exposition) all blur, and sometimes horribly fail.

The plot (the conflict which drives the story and compels the characters to grow/change) is built on action, not opinion. While I can spend an entire page describing thought processes (like when a certain girl spends a whole page in chapter 2 pining for her sparkly vampire), that isn't actually moving the plot forward, it only reinforces what is already established. (Or in the case of girl and vampire, it does fuck-all).

How firm a foundation do you need to move things forward? Audiences are not stupid, so stick to this simple formula:

create element + solidify element -> move on

Once you've established some idea or concept, an audience does not need reminders in the immediate future. What you say in line 6 will hold true in line 12, unless you've introduced new conflicting material. Your monologue AT BEST establishes elements and reinforces them, but it is the action-verbs and action-beats which will advance your plot.

3. Sentence abuse -- Just because you write in the first person, you need not start the majority of sentences with "I". The world can still be described (exposition), characters interactions can be fleshed out (narration) all without you starting off with "I" to preface everything.

Bad example: I stood on the catwalk, a few feet from my foe. The whole metal structure swayed, so I bent my knees and grabbed the railing. My old foe, Doctor BadGuy, held Penny by the neck and I felt angry. I wanted to get to her sooner, before he dropped her over the edge.

The words "I" and "my" snake like a ribbon through that text. Notice too, that the character doesn't actually move forward, he instead bends his knees and grabs the railing. He wants to move forward, but doesn't actually. The end result is a lot of wanting (which is hard to describe) and not a lot of tension or movement.

Better example: The catwalk swayed and groaned as I made my way closer and closer to Doctor BadGuy. Penny hung limply in his hands, and although I wanted to save her, risking her life was not an option. Each step seemed to take hours as my old foe grew nearer and nearer. With any luck, I could sock him and grab Penny, before she collapsed or was hurt further.

There are actually more "I" and "my" in this text, but they're not as jarring. This is because the elements of the sentence have been moved around. Instead of stating what "I" does, there is a descriptive, tension-building element placed first, which allows for a more direct explicit action to occur in the first sentence. One sentence in, and we're already doing something. The second sentence does not directly present action, but it does establish context. It discusses what Penny is doing, creates the feeling that she should be saved (by "I") and clarifies that she can/will/should be saved, but not with undue risk. This qualification creates greater tension, which is detailed in the third sentence. Notice here that more action is occuring as the distance between two characters is closed. The final sentence put a nice solidifying bow on the whole thing, raising the tension by inserting a possibile course of future action.

4. Badguys - Since first person is often protagonist-focused (although there is antagonist-driven..but in that case the badguy/goodguy convention is reversed), the audience is often left without clear badguy motivation. We are treated to pages (hundreds of pages) of the hero so that we are made to sympathize, and understand and cooperate with him, but the badguy is only giving examination through the lens of the hero.

If the badguy turns out to be a goodguy all along, we only know that when the hero expresses that idea. If the badguy has been trying to demolish this orphanage, but we later find out that he's doing it because he plans to build a bigger orphanage and oppose the spread of the highway, our conclusions about the badguy come through the hero.

It falls then to the hero to tell the audience how we should then perceive this former badguy, and that's usually accomplished through narration or dialogue:

"I guess he wasn't really a badguy after all." or something like that.

Through that one sentence (or one idea, if you express it differently) the entirety of focus changes about the character. Now we can go back through the book, examine the motives and actions and use the new information we've gained to put together a more full picture of the character.

Third-person is the medium of choice here for this, giving it's objectivity and ability to describe things without limitation. The classic villian-turned-hero has most recently been done well in Rowling's Snape, as the discoveries of the final book allow a total character examination in all the previous books. If it were told in first person, this explanation and lensing of the character would have to be handled in-scene, either in dialogue between two characters (giving the audience a change to "overhear" or as hero-thoughts)

Avoiding these traps is not difficult.

To avoid the "Me Me Me", place yourself in the character, and write only what the character would think/do given the information you've provided thus far. The character does not have the benefit of the entire plot nor the other elements of the story, so put the blinders on and just express THAT character at that time. (If you're on page 7, you can't write/act with the knowledge that on page 90 he's going to die, it makes the future less credible).

To keep your narration clear, establish the exisiting situations WHILE including action. Make sure the characters DO things while they think whatever they're thinking. DO NOT have them do all the thinking first, and then act. It's not what people do.

To avoid sentence abuse, stop building "I-first" sentences. There are billions of other ways to compose the thought, use a variety.

To strengthen your bad guys or express a change in character-nature, remember that HOW you illustrate the change is what will validate the type of change. Do not skimp on this for the sake of expedience or under the assumption that "people get it".

Write As If Your Life Depended On It, Post #1

I've started this blog for the benefit of my writing groups, writing clients and for all the writers I know who are trying to get better.

This will NOT be a candy-coated experience. Wherever possible I will be frank, graphic and clear.

My goals are these:

1. To have an outlet for my writing thoughts, as well as present commentary about elements of fiction.

2. To review/critique specific works

3. I need another blog experience.