ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 6: Time for a Spit Shine

We’re two weeks from the June 11 deadline to submit a short story or the first chapter of a novel and sign up for the ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop. Believe it or not, two weeks is plenty of time to create a brand spanking new piece for a writing workshop. If you’re diving in from scratch, clear some time in your schedule, buy some extra coffee beans, and peruse the earlier boot camp posts in this series. Take what you need and write like the wind!
Regardless of when you start writing, we’re not talking about a shining piece of perfection here. What you want to bring is something in decent shape that will give the pros and your fellow critique partners an idea of where you are as a writer. In my opinion perfection is overrated. Strive for it, sure. We all do, and we’re all destined to fall just short – welcome to the creative life. I know it’s scary to turn in something that you can see is flawed or has some issue you just can’t resolve, but the worst that will happen is that your critique partners will point it out. If you’re lucky, you will also receive useful solutions for your story in particular and gain new skills for your writing in general.
If you’ve been following along with my (patented) boot camp schedule you should have a middle revision of a story that, while it still might have some rough edges, has all the necessary parts and culminates in some kind of climactic moment. Either your protagonist DOES something or s/he DECIDES something, and this action or decision carries an actual and/or emotional consequence – preferably both.
Honestly, with two weeks to go there is plenty of time to cycle through middle revision territory a couple more times until you are really happy with the shape and emotional impact of your story or chapter, but I know how good it can be to finish ahead of schedule so let’s talk about the final proofing and polishing.
A few words about grammar.
Grammar isn’t really a final revision task as your grasp of grammar affects every stage of the writing process, but this read though is a good time to really attend to word choice and sentence structure.
Don’t feel bad if you find grammar intimidating. I did for years. Really, if I can get a working mastery of grammar, anyone can! I didn’t get great grammar instruction in middle school, and after that I was on my own. Only after returning to writing as an adult did I take my grammar education into my OWN hands. Now grammar is no longer a nebulous topic where I worry that I’m going to somehow screw up every sentence I write. Once I got a toehold, I have found grammar to be an enduring source of fascination. Like clay to the sculptor, exotic musical keys to the pianist, words and sentences are a writer’s medium.
That said, if you think you know everything there is to know about grammar – check yourself. The English language is constantly evolving – including grammar. Being completely prescriptive about grammatical rules (current or past) will limit your writing, too.
There are many wonderful sources for learning grammar out there, and Strunk & White isn’t one of them. For me its twee style, brevity, confusing advice, and contradictory examples were just more of the same ineffective instruction that got me so deep in the hole during my school years. Here’s a far more eloquent and thorough take down of S&W.

“The book’s toxic mix of purism, atavism, and personal eccentricity is not underpinned by a proper grounding in English grammar. It is often so misguided that the authors appear not to notice their own egregious flouting of its own rules. They can’t help it, because they don’t know how to identify what they condemn…. They know a few terms, like “subject” and “verb” and “phrase,” but they do not control them well enough to monitor and analyze the structure of what they write.”

If you feel you need a grammar refresher, here are some resources. Start small, commit to spending 10 or 15 minutes a day, and focus on one element at a time.
For specific questions, check out the Perdue Owl grammar site
Put the Grammar App or the Grammar Up app on your phone,
Listen to The Grammar Girl or the the BBC’s 6 Minute Grammar podcasts.
As you go over your writing, just remember it’s all about Clarity: 
  • Think about the essential meaning of each sentence.
  • In description, use specific, telling details.
  • Focus on precision of language.
  • Check the usage of any tricky words and make sure you’re using them correctly.
  • For style, try to replace linking and helping verbs with action verbs. 

Look for common errors like their/there/they’re or it’s/its. I read my draft aloud again, “un-contracting” every contraction, and I almost always find one or two slip-ups.

There. All polished up and ready to go. Right? Next week I’ll talk about knowing when a piece is finished. Seems a simple enough question, but when your trying to become a better writer, it can be hard to know when to stop trying to improve a piece and let it go.

NOTICE: Diverse writers welcomed here!

Diversity is vital to speculative fiction. A genre centered on exploration and encountering the Other must include voices and visions from writers, readers and thinkers of all kinds.

This year the Armadillocon Writing Workshop has sponsored seats for writers of color! Visit the workshop page for more information and to fill out the sponsorship request form!

Belated Grammar Love Day

Read up on semicolons here

Monday was National Grammar Day. I posted about it last year and have decided to make it an annual tradition. I continue to study grammar, and it turns out grammar is a lot more fascinating than I thought it would be back when I saw it as just some monster waiting to trip me up. It’s also a moving target. Languages express our cultures and evolve with them. Check out this sampling of a few older grammar rules that have fallen out of use. Now you can indeed split that infinitive and feel free to boldly go!

A good book to wet your toes in the grammar pool is It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer’s Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. It’s practical and straightforward, and written by someone who’s actually spent time editing in the real world. Because if this, she acknowledges that there can be more than one way to interpret a sentence grammatically, and many ways to fix it.

I have the Daily Writing Tips Grammar category on my RSS feed, and it’s a great way to get a ten minute lesson in on a busy day.

This year, I’m also working my way through some more advanced books:

where Virginia Tufte “shows how standard sentence patterns and forms contribute to meaning and art in more than a thousand wonderful sentences from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. “ 

This workbook takes you through twenty sentence patterns, e.g. a series of balanced pairs, compound sentence with elliptical construction, object or complement before subject and verb

There are also chapters like: combining sentence patterns, myths about coordinators, and the twenty patterns in print (with examples drawn from published writing).

Heady stuff. 

I’m learning so much by intentionally writing sentences in a specific structure. I do this as an exercise – not while I’m working on stories. When I’m writing a story, all I can bring to bear are the lessons that I have internalized through practice. I want to have these elements DOWN, so that the story can flow unimpeded.

To some, my enthusiasm may look a little obsessive, and I’ll own that. Certainly all that’s required to convey a story is competency in grammar, but why shoot for competency when you can shoot for the stars? If the story is the message then the words and the GRAMMAR are the medium. The more I understand the nuances of grammar the more I can convey the story with subtlety and power. My ability to control and manipulate the elements of grammar is a big part of what makes up my writer’s voice. It also gives me the ability to adapt my voice to the needs of individual stories. It’s how I hone the emotions and themes of a story to a razor sharp edge.

I’ll always be learning, always making mistakes. There’s no such thing as a perfect story, but that’s why art is all about the pursuit of perfection.

Writers Groups & the Value of Critique

The ArmadilloCon Writers’ Workshop was excellent again this year. The morning was devoted to a wide-ranging discussion about different aspects of writing and publishing. Pros who write, edit, publish and review all had great advice and opinions about the process of writing and the business of getting published.

After lunch we broke into separate critique groups. The ratio of pros to students was nearly 1:1. My group had four students and three pros! (Cat Rambo, Liz Gorinsky from Tor, and Stina Leicht) Everyone, student and pro alike, put their egos aside and came to work. I feel like everyone gave and got good feedback for the chapters and stories they brought. I’ll be revising my short story next week and look forward to sending it out into the world.

I have always felt that both getting AND giving critiques are valuable tools when learning how to write. There are so many techniques that you must manage to produce really good prose. When I write I try to get inside the story, the characters, and their world. It’s easy to loose perspective about what’s working and what isn’t. Putting the work away for a few days can help (and I do that too). But getting a critical perspective on a work in progress is often what will help me take it to the next level.

The key is a CRITICAL perspective. It sounds scary, and the endeavor is not without pitfalls. There isn’t really any instruction for critiquing, so most of us just have to learn how to do it any way we can. The world of critiquing is full of trolls and ogres who will tear your work down so they can show how brilliant they are (NOT). There are well-meaning dolts, toadies and yes men (usually relatives) only interested in heaping praise on anything you show them.

Learning how to give good criticism will help you recognize and find good critiquers for your own work. I started out reading slush for the Austin Film Festival‘s annual screenwriting competition. I would recommend looking for slush work. It’s an eye-opening introduction to the basics of presentation and storytelling, and you don’t need that much experience to weed out the awful.

Most of the time the only option is to dive in. Take a workshop if you can, or look for a group in your area. Many people form their own groups after attending a workshop like the ArmadilloCon Writer’s Workshop. With Skype and other chat services it’s possible to have a real-time discussion regardless of where you all live.

Here in Austin, Texas I attend the Slugtribe writer’s group, which is an open critique group. I like meeting face-to-face because it allows for a give and take that can be useful and illuminating. People in the group can ask you questions and tailor their comments to your stated intention. Also, people can disagree, which often generates a discussion about the piece that goes in interesting places.

When you’re live and/or in-person the Milford rules are a good format, which is essentially keep your trap shut – and listen, really listen – while everyone gives their thoughts and impressions on your work. Don’t worry you’ll get your turn at the end. But remember a critique is not about you defending your work against all comers, it’s about problem solving and making what you’ve done better.

You may find that learning how to articulate how a story isn’t working, will teach you as much about writing techniques as any book or class. Good criticism requires you to fully engage with the work of others; to think not about how YOU would write this story or chapter but about what this writer is trying to accomplish.

The more you learn how to give it the easier it is to take it. Getting good criticism helps you to develop a thick skin, because you can’t write good stories without becoming emotionally involved, and even if you know they aren’t perfect, it still hurts to have their imperfections pointed out.

Also, it will teach you to be brave. By accepting errors (in a story in particular or your work in general), you reduce their cost. Once you see that the flaws pointed out by a good critique session can be addressed, you can spend less time perfecting your work before anybody sees it and more time being daring and trying new techniques.

There are also some online groups out there for genre writers. Most of them require you to critique other members’ work in order to put yours up for critique, providing both an opportunity to give and receive critiques. The downsides of these groups are the same as with any web-based endeavor of this sort: from amateur or lazy critiques to snark and worse. I still think it’s better than nothing, just gird yourself for the experience. Critters is an open and free group. It’s quite high volume and can be a good place to start. Currently, I use the Online Writing Workshop they charge a small annual fee. I feel that this investment shows in both higher quality work and better critiques.

Just remember to critique in the spirit of generosity. No matter how bad someone’s work is, they were still brave enough to put it out there, so find a way to be both kind and honest. Just remember, it’s about the work and, I believe, about supporting each other on the journey.

How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Grammar

If you want writing to be your career, then mastering grammar is your job.

Did you know there’s a National Grammar Day? Well, there is and it’s right around the corner. Sunday, March 4th is the official day to “speak well, write well, and help others do the same!” I have to admit grammar has never come easily to me. Years I wandered in the wilderness, too timid and frustrated to write, because I knew I would make grammatical mistakes. I felt I would never comprehend the many rules of grammar.

Of course I was taught grammar in school, but the level of instruction was merely adequate. It was fine for those with a natural affinity for the subject, but for those of us for whom grammar does not come naturally, there was zero follow-up. Only years of bleeding red papers and no further instruction. When I finally started taking my writing seriously, I knew that meant taking on grammar. I was just going to have to slay this dragon, even if I had to build my own armor and smelt my own sword.

Alas, the personal metaphor that set me on the path to improving my written English has nothing to do with dragons. When my daughters were babes I got into knitting, like WAY into knitting. I borrowed scads of books from the library and learned numerous techniques. I knit like a banshee until we were hip-deep in knitted items of every description. Today, although I don’t knit as much as I used to, I do know my way around a pair of knitting needles, a skein of yarn, and a knitting pattern. 

After getting notified (with kindness) from my writers’ group that my grammar needed work (and after a nice long scotch to dull those old feelings of frustration). I told myself that, if I can master a lace pattern and turn the heel on a sock, then I can master the rules of grammar. In fact the metaphor continues to serve as grammar and knitting have a lot in common. They both have a core of unbreakable rules (just watch your scarf unravel when you miss a stitch), and they both use pattern and repetition to create infinite variety of garments.

Since that day, I’ve devoted ten minutes a day to grammar. While I’m far from perfect, I am no longer the grammar idiot that I once was. I am a journeyman traveling on the road to mastery. And you know what, it’s getting fun. The more I know the ins and outs and the whys and wherefores of the rules the more it feels like play when I’m crafting sentences.

There are so many resources out there. As with any real course of study you have to find the method and the materials that work for you. Everybody knows about Strunk & White, but honestly, they are not my favorite. Currently, I use The Only Grammar Book You’ll Ever Need for general checking,

and Garner’s Modern American Usage for more detail.

Grammar Girl Podcast

The Purdue Online Writing Lab‘s Grammar site is useful as well.

I have several apps on my iPod including The Grammar App, making it easy to get a quick ten minutes in on the go and the Grammar Girl podcasts count too.

Not only is good grammar central tool for writers, it is a fascinating topic in its own right. Language is a living thing, a moving target. Because of its variable and elusive nature, I know I will be studying the rules and history of grammar for the rest of my life. 

P.S. I’m sure there are grammatical errors in this post. You’ll have to take me where I am.