ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 5: Give it a Rest!

Noon: Rest from Work by Vincent van Gogh
Three weeks to go before the June 11 deadline to submit work and sign up for the AmradilloCon Writing Workshop. There is still time to go through the entire boot camp program from the first post and create a short story or novel chapter in order to participate. Consider blocking off a few chunks in your schedule if you can, take a vacation day from work, or bargain with your family for some “away” time and create your own mini writer’s retreat.
If you’ve been following along with the program so far you’ll have a rough draft in hand that has the essential elements of characterization, plot, and worldbuilding in place. Now it’s time to give it a rest. I firmly believe revising my own work effectively depends on my ability to see it with new eyes. One of the best ways to do this is to put it aside for a while. If no deadlines are involved, I find a week or two to be ideal, but even putting something down for 24 hours can be immensely helpful.
In this post, I’m going to talk about both resting and your next revision. Because, as I mentioned before, there’s no rule against submitting your work early!
For me looking away from my current writing project is just as important as the time I spend focused on it. If, like me, you have a few pieces in various stages of completion resting one piece means that you can turn your attention to a different one for a while. If you don’t have anything else on deck, then spend a day or two with your reading. If you’re working on a short story, pull up some short stories online (see the fiction links in my sidebar for a start). If you’re working on a novel chapter, read the first chapters of the novels in your bookcase or at your local library or go to Amazon and preview a bunch of first chapters.
Resting, in this case is, more like what happens when bread dough “rests.” After activating the yeast and kneading the dough a baker covers it and lets it rest. But a lot is happening under that kitchen towel. While the baker is attending to other things, the yeast ferments, the dough expands and the final loaf’s signature flavor and texture are formed. When the baker returns to the dough, it is something different. For writing the transformation takes place in your head. Your subconscious is always percolating themes and ideas and this process doesn’t stop during revision. Time away from your piece can give you space to solidify what is important about this story and what elements might need to be enhanced or minimized in order to refine it.
After you’ve given your piece a rest, read through it again. If you feel that everything is roughly in place then it’s time to start refining your piece with a more granular revision. (If, on your read through you find a logic problem or plot hole, go ahead and excise or plaster in some words or a scene before you go on to the next step – all of these revision stages can be repeated as needed.) If you’re ready to refine what you have, here are some things to focus on:
These are the breaks between scenes, changes in location, point of view, or gaps in time in the story. An extra space, a short line of asterisks, or a transitional sentence can mark these changes. Generally, I find that too many transitional separators are often a sign that the story (especially one limited to 5,000 words) is perhaps trying to paint on too large of a canvas. If you have a lot of disjointed scenes, consider scaling your story down, e.g. by narrowing the amount of time it covers or number of characters. When I write a first draft, I can be pretty lazy about writing transitions between scenes, this draft is where I write those sentences that link adjacent scenes together. If you are looking to write a story that is more conceptual or is set in a vast time scale you can use alternative forms. For example, when I wanted to write about all of the different ways we think about time, I did it as a list story.
Once you’re happy with the way your story flows from one scene to another, turn your attention to your paragraphs. A good paragraph, like a good story, will have a beginning, middle, and end. It should progress to a tiny resolution of it’s own. At times, for impact, you might want to have a one sentence or one word paragraph.
Is tricky, because in fiction dialogue is not the same as natural speech, which is often rambling and circular. Dialogue has to accomplish something while looking like it isn’t, to be intentional without appearing intentional. Dialogue often moves the plot, but it really shines by revealing character. Employing dialect can work, but it is often more effective to think in terms of individual habits of speech. Actors often do this when creating character, think of how Lumbergh in Office Space almost always starts off with a long, irritating “Yeah.” Try to give your main characters unique speech patterns and check that all the dialogue is accomplishing something, either moving the plot forward or revealing character (preferably a little of both).
As you’re refining your piece the ultimate goal is to focus it both structurally and for emotional impact. You’ll be surprised how much you can dial up the conflict and drama of by making small adjustments at this point.
Next week we’ll talk about the final polish, and working at the sentence level for clarity and grace. There’ll be a bit about dun DUN dun! Grammar.

If you have any questions, put them in the comments and I’ll address those too!

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!

ArmadilloCon Writing Workshop Boot Camp Week 4: What have you got?

We’re About a month out from the June 11 deadline to turn in your work and sign up for the Armadillocon Writing Workshop (of course you can turn in your piece early – hahaha! No, seriously, the door’s open). If you’ve been following this boot camp program you should have a messy zero draft in hand. (If you just found this, it’s not too late to catch up. Scroll back to boot camps one and two for gathering and developing ideas, and week three for writing your zero draft.)

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!
This week it’s time to set aside your writer’s hat and start revising. But when it comes to revising you’ll need more than one hat. I’ll call this first hat the big picture hat. This is where you need to assess just what exactly you’ve got.
Sometimes our stories are buried beneath our conscious thought. If you wrote your first draft free and fast, new story elements or characters may have emerged or changed direction on you. Instead of forcing things back into your original plan, this is an opportunity to see what this draft has to say to you.
This is big picture editing. Start by simply reading through the mess and listen for the piece’s beating heart. What are the things your characters believe in? Fight for? What is won or lost? Try not to be distracted by scene details or sloppy sentences. Resist the urge to do any housekeeping at this point. Try to get a bead on the essence of the story, the thing that will guide your revisions.
Now that you’ve read your draft for you, it’s time to pick up your pen (or put your document into revision mode) and read through it with your readers in mind. Is your story coherent or are there places where you might lose your reader logically or emotionally? This first revision is where it’s easiest to make big structural changes. Move the furniture around, write new material, change a character’s motivation, age, gender if you need to, try different dialogue.

Oscar Wilde’s handwritten manuscript 
page of The Picture of Dorian Gray

Mostly, I’m drawingwith my red pen here, circling text to be moved, crossing out chunks, writing brief notes for new scenes or dialogue. Here are some things to think about:
Is there a beginning, middle and end to the story? Does the protagonist change in some way? Do they succeed or fail at something? Do they have a goal or desire? Did the characters get side tracked? If so and if the story lost its focus you can either redirect the characters to your original idea or explore the alternate story that the sidetrack suggests. It can be helpful to write a brief reverse outline here. Make a list of each thing that happens to see if you have cause-and-effect chain of events running through your story.
May be wonky at this point. Frankly, pacing can be tricky in shorter forms. Five thousand words can go by in a flash, so check for long stretches of description or rambling characterizations. Try to keep things concise and make sure events are progressing in a way that increases the tension (i.e. keep tightening the thumb screws on the protagonist).
Are there logic holes or missing steps in the chain of events that will confuse the reader? Are there places where you can adjust the description or characterization that will make the ending resonate more powerfully? In theater, early rehearsals are devoted to blocking out the actors’ stage movements. Think in terms of blocking. Make sure it’s clear to your reader where your character is in the room/woods/spaceship/etc., and in relation to other characters.
With scribbled up draft in hand or on screen, you are ready for your first big rewrite. You’re not shooting for perfection here, just improvement. Try to improve the overall shape of the story, dial up the conflict if you need to, refine the characters and their desires. You can rinse and repeat this process throughout the week. Hell, if the zero draft isn’t cooperating, you have time to start over from scratch. Maybe there’s some moment within your first try at a story that branches off, intrigues you, go ahead and see where that one leads you. Your goal is to come out of the week with something rough but cohesive, something with all the moving parts in the right places.
All of this advice holds for an older piece that you want to refurbish. Except that what you have may be more polished, and it might be harder for you to scrap big sections, rearrange or take the story in a new direction. If so, this is the week you kill your darlings. No matter how beautiful your sentences, how shapely your paragraphs, if the story isn’t working it’s going to have to change and probably change into something very different than your original idea. Sometimes I feel better if I keep the stuff I amputate in a folder with the idea of using these scraps in something new someday.
Next week will be a rest/catch up week. I will also talk about revising for style and grace (that other editor’s hat) for writers who may want to fast track and get their story in early.

Hey Toto, we’re in Kansas! Readings and Panels at WorldCon!

It’s been a crazy, busy summer with lots of travel and time with family. I’ve managed to do some writing. I thought I’d take a quick break from the novel by writing a short story, but the story grew (as my stories seem to do nowadays) into a novella. I’ll finish revising it and return to the novel just as soon as I get back from WorldCon!

I have an early flight tomorrow, which is a good thing as I have a busy day coming up.

I’ll be reading at 1:30 in room 2202
I can’t wait to share a story or two live and in person.

From 5:00 – 6:00 I’ll be moderating “Knock on Wood: From Squirrel Girl to Lumberjanes” (room 2207) with fellow panelists Jason Stanford, Catherine Lundoff, Adam Rakunas, and Tom Galloway.

“What the junk?! In the last couple of years we’ve seen the growth of comics that might superficially appear to be aimed at a YA audience, however these titles are hitting the mainstream with a vengeance. Marvel are leading the pack with Squirrel Girl, Ms Marvel and Captain Marvel, but there’s also a vast amount of Indie work coming through such as Lumberjanes, Space Dumplins, Khaos Komix and Footloose. Our panel discuss why these titles are so popular, and what they have to offer both new and established audiences.” 

From 6:00 – 7:00 you can find me participating in “Cleaning Up Your Prose” (room 3501B) with C.C. Finlay(!), Randy Henderson, Rob Chilson, moderated by Alan Smale.
My love of revision is no secret. I’m looking forward to a lively discussion about how writers go about improving their work once the first draft is finished!

Then on Saturday from 4:00 – 5:00 back in room 2202, I’m thrilled to participate in Flash Fiction Online‘s group reading. This one is going to be tons of fun. Hosted by Anna Yeatts and Chris Phillips, come by to hear stories from Sunil Patel, Kelly Sandoval, Laura Pearlman, Beth Cato, and yours truly!

You can check out my schedule and more here. Hope to see you there!

When is a Story Ready for Critique?

The last post focused on the usefulness of giving critiques, but what about getting critiques?

On its most basic level, preparing a story for critique provides me with both an informal deadline and a great intermediate milestone for a work in progress.

If all goes according to plan, getting a story critiqued is one of the last rungs on the ladder to completing it and sending it out for publication. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always come out that way.

So, how do I know when something is ready for critique?

I don’t submit first drafts to critique. In fact, I don’t show my first drafts to anyone. I need the security of “only my eyes will ever see this mess” in order to write bravely and take chances. The second draft is all about the big picture, major character adjustments, and fixing obvious plot holes. In the third draft, I clean things up and attend to style paragraph by paragraph and sentence by sentence.

At this point, I’ve arrived at the place where I feel I’ve taken the story as far as I can by myself. This is when comments from others feel most useful. Sometimes, I know there is some aspect that isn’t quite working, or some element that is out of balance, but I can’t figure out how to fix it. This is where a nice range of comments can really help me get unstuck.

I usually feel that the story is close to being finished, and I’m itching to wrap this project up and get on to the next one. Of course, sometimes my story isn’t close at all. See my post: Story Fail, Critique Win. Yeah, it’s disappointing. Writing stories requires a certain amount of ego, like when an actor takes a part; I really have to commit emotionally to the story I’m working on. It’s tough to find out that I’m farther from the finish line than I thought, especially when there isn’t always a clear fix.

Writing a good story is complicated, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. A good set of critiques will not give you a single solution but many. It can be frustrating. Sussing out several opinions and ideas about a broken story is hard work. But finding a way forward and revising it is also a creative act; one that has led me to take my stories to places I hadn’t imagined at first.

And that’s a good thing.


Workshops, Critique Groups, and What Works for You

OK, my writers’ group doesn’t look exactly like this… Dance of Apollo with the Nine Muses by Baldassarre Peruzzi
If you are a writer and are planning to attend Austin’s own ArmadilloCon Convention, this is your heads up that the deadline to submit work and sign up for their excellent Writers’ Workshop is fast approaching. Get your 5,000 word diamond in the rough together and submitted by June 15, 2014!  I have participated in this workshop the past few years and found it to be both inspiring and useful: well worth the price of admission (which, by the way, also gets you into the con).

For those of us who don’t have the time or the funds to go for the big name workshops like Clarion or Odyssey, know that many local consrun writers’ workshops that will give you a chance to read and critique other people’s work and get a critique of your own project.

I’ve blogged about the usefulness of critique before. For me, it is invaluable to get someone else’s eyes on my work at some stage in the process. Also, since I enjoy the chance to socialize with other writers, my regular in-person critique group keeps my daily writing routine from feeling too cloistered. 

I also use the Online Writing Workshop. OWW charges an annual subscription fee, which, I feel, inspires a greater level of commitment and participation. And, in the end, better crits. The site is well run, and I’ve made connections with writers from all over the world trading crits there.

Over the past couple years I’ve built an informal schedule for regularly critiquing and getting my own work critiqued. This has helped me grow as a writer in several ways:

  1. Informal deadlines – Slugtribe meets on the second and fourth Tuesday of each month. I try to bring something in every 4 to 6 weeks. If a piece takes longer to get to a critique-able stage, I can just move that deadline out another two weeks. Still, having a meeting to go to gives me something to shoot for when I’m planning my daily writing.
  2. Regular face-to-face critiquing – Learning to articulate what is and is not working in a piece of writing has taught me more about writing than anything else. Having to think on the fly (at Slugtribe we read the work at the meeting) and put my ideas into words hones a different kind of assessment skill. Hearing what other people in the room think of the same piece of writing is also illuminating!
  3. Regular written critiques – With the online option, I can read a story over twice, make notes in the margins, and then put my thoughts into written form in a more coherent way. I try to put something up online every couple months, too. If, after a Slugtribe critique, I’ve made major changes to a story, I’ll submit the revised version to OWW to get fresh eyes on it. Other times, I’ll submit something new for a critique on the first or third week of the month.
  4. Making connections with other writers – I’ve met lots of other writers in all stages of development. We commiserate about the writing life, and trade tips and techniques about anything from punctuation to how to fit our writing in around kids and significant others.

Wherever you live, check out the resources around you. There may already be a critique group meeting at your local library.  If so, sit in on a few sessions and see if their style suits you. If it doesn’t you can always start your own group. There are also several other online options Lit Reactor is another subscription based site for writers. Critters critique group is free and can be a good place to start (though I found the critiques there varied pretty wildly as far as quality).

The important thing is to find the groups and people and schedule that works for you. You’re looking for a support system that inspires you to write and finish more material. 
In person or online, remember that it’s you who’s auditioning the group, not the other way around. While there is no perfect group (as they are all made up of humans after all), find or create a network that supports you and keeps you moving forward.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly

The Writer’s Journey

Look up how to write a story and you’ll find a million descriptions of the different components that make up most tales. The elements we use today can be found in folklore and myth. Joseph Campbell called it the “Monomyth” or “The Hero’s Journey” and described a host of elements employed by writers and storytellers down through history – all the way back to the nights when our pre-literate ancestors gathered around the fire to frighten and delight each other with their words.
  • A story has a beginning, an inciting incident, a hook.
  • It has a middle where any number of complications and reversals arise while the protagonist struggles to overcome all the obstacles aligned against him or her.
  • These complications lead to a thrilling or tragic or heartwarming climax, which in turn resolves to an emotionally satisfying conclusion, i.e. an ending.
For me, these are not only the elements that create a satisfying story; they also often describe the writing process itself. When I’m in the idea stage, an image, situation, character, or concept hooks me. It’s exciting! I do a little research, develop the idea in my journal for a few pages, then dive into the draft. Unfortunately, beginnings lead straight to middles, and middles are all about struggles, complications and obstacles.

As the writer in the middle, I have to manage the plot and the pacing, I have to insert exposition and make it engaging, I have to foreshadow elements of an ending that I may not have written yet. And, talk about reversals, if the story takes a different direction, and I come across an even better ending, then I have to double back and adjust everything.

For me beginnings are easy, and if I get the middles right, the ending will usually snap into place like the last piece of a puzzle. But the middles are hard. It’s the territory in which I spend the most time when I’m writing. Often, it feels like sailing into the doldrums – that windless place in the middle of the ocean that trapped sailing ships for days.  Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote about it in The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: 
Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion;
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.
Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.

In the end it’s all about persistence. Any writer or artist who creates anything lasting has to persist over the long run by showing up day after day and doing the work, but you also have to persist when you find yourself in the doldrums of a particular project.

For example, the current story I’m working on started as a flash piece. It wasn’t quite working, so I rewrote it expanding it to four times its original length, then I did a quick revision for my critique group.  So draft, expansion, revision, that’s three solid passes. I knew going into the crit that, while this story is approaching its potential, it isn’t firing on all cylinders yet. I got some great advice and ideas, but because I’m writing to the limit of my abilities, most of what I need to do is going to be difficult. I’m looking at one more major revision and then a final pass for grammar and style.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m into this story, but I’m also sick and tired of it. Sick and tired! This last revision will be the hardest. I’ve already taken care of all the low hanging fruit, now I’m working toward things that are harder to define, like transcendence and resonance, and making the tone and style support this specific tale. 

This is the time when abandoning ship is most alluring, when new ideas become an immeasurably more attractive use of my time than trying to work a problem that I don’t really know how to solve. But, I believe that it’s in these revisions, where I try to fight above my weight class, that I become a better writer. So, I keep this taped above my workspace:
If there is no wind, row
                     ~ Latin proverb

As part of my process, I do step away from a story for a day or two between revisions. Sometimes a little distance lends perspective. But, I don’t let go, because writing each story is my own hero’s journey. As a writer, I know that it’s only by rowing through the doldrums that I’ll return with the prize I’ve earned from the journey of each story.

How to Finish Things

Does anyone else think it’s odd that in Michelangelo’s version, David is the giant?

After chipping away at a block of marble for months, when exactly, did Michelangelo know that David was finished? We might see perfection, but did Michelangelo? Or, could he still see little rough spots, spurs of stone? Did he feel like he could have kept going? At some point Michelangelo had to decide to put his hammer and chisel down.

The more I write, the more I realize that completion isn’t so much point as a spectrum. And, it turns out, “finished” means different things to different people. Some writers are satisfied as soon as the tale is told, and nowadays there are plenty of avenues to put your work out there before the paint is dry. While this isn’t the path I walk, neither do I want to be trapped in a cycle of perpetually revising and polishing a story in a futile pursuit of ultimate perfection. Surely, if Michelangelo had pursued David to perfection the boy would have vanished into a cloud of marble dust.
So, how do you decide when something is finished?
Set some standards.
These are personal standards and can be hard to define, but it’s worth taking the time to articulate them. Spend a few journal pages thinking about what you want to achieve in your work. I want to write something saleable, and I want to write to the very best of my ability. More specifically, I want to create stories with great plots and three-dimensional characters. I want to tap into deep emotion. I want the prose to achieve a certain level of diction and style. These standards help me assess my stories through a writing process that can be varied. For example, some pieces may need only a couple tweaks while others aren’t working at all and will go through the revision wringer 10 or 12 times.
Hone the ability to honestly assess your work.
The ability to dispassionately assess your own writing is probably the most useful skill you can develop as an artist. The two best tools to do this are time; i.e. putting a piece away for a few days, and others. The important thing to remember is that anybody can show their work to a critique group or an alpha reader, but to benefit from this exercise, you have to be willing to see your work through their eyes. This is not the place to defend your writing. If you can understand how some else sees it, you will be in a position to make the most of their feedback.
You have to be able to let it go.
This is hard because you will always see flaws, little rough spots that could be reshaped. Once I’ve made a story as good as I can make it –for where my abilities are right now– it’s time to send it off and move on to something new. I believe you can only grow so much within any one given project. And I have to accept that I may look back on a piece of writing I did three years ago and cringe at my ham-handed attempt at some aspect of the craft. That’s part of letting it go.   
Mastering the ending is just another part of the process. Closing one door means that you’re free to step into the next adventure.

Michelangelo sketches an early draft