Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 30, 2012

Holy hotcakes, Batman, the year’s half over! Which means there’s still half a year to get that big project you’ve been working on DONE. Today’s two posts are about parts of that process.

  • First up us Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) describing The Bubble Method: How to Get the Most Out of a Writing Workshop. The method isn’t new–put the writer in a “bubble” from which they can’t speak while their piece is being critiqued–but it’s a good one, particularly the suggestions on how to allow the author to respond once all the reviewers have had their say. What’s missing, and I’m sure Gab would agree, are the rules of behavior for the reviewers: be specific, be constructive, and focus on the writing, not the writer.
  • And second, Merry Jones (@MerryDDJones) offers her suggestions for How to Pitch Agents at a Writers’ Conference on the Guide to Literary Agents blog. Her suggestions are all pretty much common sense, but that seems to go out the window when a writer is desperate for representation.

That’s all for today. Enjoy your weekend.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 29, 2012

Must be a Friday. Just a few things for you to end the week.

We’ll start with a couple things from agent Kristin Nelson and her Pub Rants blog:

Over on WordServe Water Cooler, Sharon A. Lavy (@SharonALavy) poses the question, “Is Reading Fiction…Safe?” She cites some evidence–and there’s a lot more out there in the scientific literature–that people react physically as well as psychologically and emotionally to what they read, and as a result, change.

As it happens, one of the members of my writers’ group noted at dinner after our last meeting that she’d recently read a book called The Better Angels of Our Nature, Why Violence Has Declined by Steven Pinker, a psychology professor at Harvard University, that shows that the level of interpersonal violence has gone down, dramatically and world-wide, since the 1700s. That’s when the first modern novels started to appear. The thesis behind the research was that novels caused people to begin to empathize with others, and that caused, over time, a change in behaviors. Interesting thought.

Speaking of interesting thoughts, I haven’t pointed to anything from Write to Done for a while, but today I get to. Cheryl Craigie (@manageablelife) asks Does Writing Make You Feel Like a Failure or a Fraud? Like, you mean, it doesn’t? But then she makes an even more surprising statement–that being blocked is good! Say what??? Her point is that being blocked is the time when your subconscious is at work and has put up a sign that says, “Don’t bother me, I’m working. I’ll get back to you when I’m done.” Or, as Albert Einstein put it, “Creativity is the residue of time wasted.” So go off and work on something else for a while, and when the light bulb finally turns on, get back to work.

And last but not least, Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) announced today that The DIY MFA Workshop is now up and running on DIY MFA’s Facebook page. They’ll take “the first 500 words” of any writing, fiction or non-fiction. One piece will be selected each week to be posted and critiqued.

Have a great weekend and send up a thought or prayer (or a donation to the American Red Cross, @RedCross) for all the people around the United States (and elsewhere?) who have been evacuated from or lost their homes due to wild fires. I had to evacuate last year. It wasn’t a happy experience. At least I didn’t lose my home, like hundreds and hundreds of families have.

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 28, 2012

Another day of synchronicity on the blogosphere. I know, I know: technically I shouldn’t be surprised. There are so many blogs out there that it’s a certainty that some are going to touch on the same topic on the same day, but when you only read a dozen or so (“only”!) and four hit the same thing on the same day, that catches your attention, doesn’t it? It does mine, anyway. So here we go, with multiple posts on feedback and two on transformation.

  • Feedback first. I don’t usually read or mention Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s (@KristineRusch) posts because while Kris is a terrific and prolific author, her posts tend to be really long and, well, my time is a limited resource. Isn’t yours? So with that caveat about today’s almost 3,800 word post Perfection, I’ll say give it a look anyway. She’s right about the simple fact that no story will ever be perfect and there comes a point when a writer has to stop listening to critique and send the story out.
  • Agent Kristin Nelson is famous–some might say infamous, but not me–for her Agent Reads the Slush Pile workshops. Feedback in a very public setting! (If you’re not familiar with the workshop, someone–Kristin, her assistant, or brave authors–read (out loud!) the first page or two of their work. If Kristin says “stop” before they finish, she explains why she would have rejected the manuscript. If they make it to the end, she explains why the piece “worked.” Except sometimes, even then, it doesn’t.) And that’s the subject of today’s post, Mechanics Vs Spark on the Pub Rants blog: when a piece is mechanically fine but lacks the spark of a distinctive narrative voice.
  • The third feedback piece comes from freelance editor Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, a.k.a. The Edit Ninja, (@EditNinja and @popculturenerd) on the Authors’ “Habits” & Predictable Writing she’s encountered. Examples: reusing an atypical word; using the same descriptions and mannerisms for different characters; reusing a letter, name, number, or color; and many more. This post really (one of my “writer’s tic” words) brings home the value of not just a second set of eyes on a manuscript, but a set of trained eyes. Thanks to Jordan Dane (@JordanDane) for bringing Elyse to The Kill Zone.
  • The last one is from John Vorhaus (@TrueFactBarFact; love that Twitter handle!) on Writer Unboxed. A Tale of Two Readers describes what he learned from his encounter with two readers and what they told him about one of his books, once he assured them honest feedback was OK. In particular, “What I take away from this tale of two readers is to keep playing to my strengths yet still shore up my weaknesses.” Deep? Maybe not. Fundamental? Definitely.

Now on to transformations.

  • In Three “Flaming Young Stars” Share the Big Screen, Robert Bruce (@robertbruce76) discusses on 101 Books how the movie A Place In The Sun changed–and didn’t–its source novel, Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, and what that might mean for viewers and readers.
  • In a piece on visual rather than literary art, Kevin Kelly (@kevin2kelly) examines how The Rule of Transformation applies, or doesn’t, to artistic images and how the rule of (copyright) law has been applied, or hasn’t, to some of those images, from Andy Warhol’s famous re-imagining of the Campbell’s tomato soup can to colorization of origami folding patterns. Interesting stuff.

What’s great out in your world?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 26 & 27

Ah, the joy of having to miss a day at this during the week! So much to explore. So much to discover. So much to get behind on. 😦 Off to the great stuff (and a close with something more than a little weird). Like one of my last posts, this one has a certain flow to it, starting with…

  • Joe Moore (@JoeMoore_writer) identifying on The Kill Zone the two Magic Words that can start just about any writing adventure. Know what they are? Sure you do. “What if?”
  • So where and when are you going to set the story than answers “What if?” Well, maybe in a fantasy setting, in which case Chuck Wendig’s (@ChuckWendig) 25 Things You Should Know About Writing Fantasy might help. Or it might not. Chuck himself warns us that he is “woefully underqualified” (his emphasis) to provide this list. And you should be aware of, and perhaps beware of, two other things: (1) this is a long post, almost 3,000 words, and (2), Chuck being Chuck, the f-bomb is going to find its way into the post more than once.
  • Before you can get to getting the story down, however, you might want to do some interviews. Why? Barbara O’Neal (@barbaraoneal) explains and provides some examples in The Art and Power of Interviews on Writer Unboxed.
  • Finally, it’s time to start writing. But how? With action, right? In medias res, right? SLAM! BANG! BOOM! CRASH! Right? Um, maybe. Or maybe not. Kristin Nelson explains how Action Vs Active Openings…Grab Attention on her Pub Rants blog. (Actual title slightly edited to fit into the text here.)
  • [Some months later…] Whew! The writing’s done. Time for critiques. Amazingly, four different posts addressed critiquing just in the past two days.
    • We’ll start with a bit of self-critique, or self-editing. Kim Weiland (@KMWeiland) warns us that there’s a word that too often is dropped in by authors who aren’t even aware that they’re doing that. What word would that be? Find out in A Quick Ode Against “That” on WORDplay. (A note: Kim’s video didn’t run when I visited the site on two separate occasions, but the transcript’s just below the intro screen, so that’s all right.)
    • Gabriela Pereira (@DIYMFA) follows with two posts on critique groups on DIY MFA: 3 Things I Look for in a Critique Community and Critique vs. Discussion: What Kind of Feedback Do You Need? I fully agree with her three things, plus add one: a group that works the way you need it to. See my comment on that post for more. The second post offered an insight I hadn’t considered before. Interesting thought.
    • Then, once you’ve gotten that feedback from your critique group, Carleen Brice suggests How to Tackle Critique Notes on Writer Unboxed. Now, her post deals most with things like an editorial letter from an agent, editor, or beta reader, but they apply just as well to the comments from you friendly (let’s hope! See Gabriela’s first post above) neighborhood critters (critiquers).
  • So now it’s time to publish. Indie or legacy? Kathryn Lilley (@kathrynelilley) enters the fray with a new (to me, anyway) and eminently sensible discussion of Becoming Your Own Gatekeeper on The Kill Zone.
  • And finally, for the main topics today, Ed Cyzewski (@edcyzewski) discusses his thoughts on Why Self-Publishing Is a Tragic Term on Jane Friedman’s (@JaneFriedman) blog. Hmm. “Tragic” might be a bit of a stretch, but Ed’s point is that almost any publishing effort takes a community of people, not just a single individual.

And finally-finally, a little bit of news of the weird, from Kevin Kelly’s (@kevin2kelly) The Technium blog: I See Cats. Seems some Google artificial intelligence researchers linked together a set of 16,000 computer cores (the central processing units) running a special program and turned the network loose to “view” ten million randomly downloaded  pictures from the internet, specifically YouTube videos.  What did they find? Cats. Without ever being told, “this is a cat” or “go look for cats.” Here’s the full New York Times article. As Mr. Spock would have said, “Fascinating.”

Pretty good stuff, no?

Great Stuff on the Writers’ Blogs, June 25, 2012

No “theme” in today’s best posts but at least I can put them in some sort of logical flow (I think).  Soooo, let’s see…yeah:

  • Let’s start with why each of us writes in the first place, what we’re trying to achieve by doing so. Leslie Leyland Fields (@leslielfields) suggests Creating a Writer’s Manifesto on WordServe Water Cooler. Even if you don’t share her Christian faith, the idea of creating your own manifesto is to give yourself a sense of focus and direction.
  • We’ve all heard–over and over–“build your platform.” But for some of us, especially if we’re not all that technologically inclined, or we pine for the old days when publishers did all the PR for us, we’d rather be attacked by a gang of evil garden gnomes than build a platform, whatever the heck that is. To help us along that path, Chuck Sambuchino (@ChuckSambuchino) offers 5 Encouraging Reasons to Build Your Writer Platform on Writer Unboxed. Maybe at least one will appeal to you.
  • OK, so now you’ve got that manifesto and you’ve agreed to build a platform. But where’s the time to do all that going to come from? More important, where’s the “me time” going to come from–the time you spend doing non-working, family, fun things to recharge the batteries, or keep them charged? Michael Hyatt (@MichaelHyatt) provides a method for How to Create More Margin in Your Life, where “margin” is that recharge time.
  • Let’s jump forward in time a bit. That manuscript you’ve been slaving over for years (or at least months) is now ready–you think–to go out and find its place in the world. But how do you know?  Joel Friedlander (@jfbookman) gives 10 Quick Tips to Get Your Manuscript Ready for Publication on The Book Designer. While the focus of his tips is on preparing to self-publish, at least half of them are good tips for any proofreading, although I will disagree with one: “Get rid of extra paragraph returns.” That extra paragraph return can be a section or scene break, in which case it needs to stay in the manuscript. I offer some techniques for addressing some of his tips in a comment, too.
  • These tips won’t get you all the way to a quality manuscript, however. Clare Langley-Hawthorne wonders about Quality Checks and Balances–especially how to get them–on The Kill Zone, which generates a lively discussion. Agents, she believes, are one source, editors perhaps another, but perhaps not. And who assures “quality” in the indie world? This is very much an open question.
  • As we get to the end of the process of getting a book published, we all hope to have written so well that multiple publishers want to have the chance to publish our book. Rachelle Gardner (@RachelleGardner) describes How We Choose the Best Publisher at her agency. I’d like to think other agencies follow a similar path, but who knows? Anyone?
  • Finally, your book is out. It’s on the shelves and in the e-book stores. Have you made it? Maybe not. Has your title been included in a rap song? Seriously. Robert Bruce (@robertbruce76) has found A Guy Who Raps Book Titles. Seriously.  His name is Destorm Power and you can watch the rap video on Robert’s 101 Books blog. To help you along, DeStorm even shows you the book covers as he comes to them in his lyrics. Two warnings: he does drop the F-bomb (just once), and the last 45 seconds or so of the video are advertising.

That’s all for today.

Critique Technique, Part 24—Unclear Transitions

This post begins a series on flashbacks, flash-forwards, and backstory: that ancillary material that fills out a story and its characters by introducing information that doesn’t fit into the piece’s main flow. As with so much of the other subjects I’ve discussed, this topic applies to non-fiction as well as fiction.

Before I get to flashbacks, etc., though, I need a transition: this post on transitions.

A transition is a bridge, a connection between two pieces of a story, such as when the story changes:

  • Time, that is, moves into the future or past relative to the current moment;
  • Location;
  • Point-of-view or focus character, in other words, whose eyes the story is being told through or whom it is focused on;
  • Mood or tone;
  • Topic (particularly in non-fiction); or
  • Any combination of the above.

This is not a complete list but focuses on the kinds of transitions you’ll most often see in fiction. Non-fiction transitions include such things as addition, comparison, effect, clarification, cause, and purpose, among many others.

Transitions come in two types: “hard” or “soft.” Hard transitions are marked by a scene or chapter break. The physical presence of that break announces that a transition of some sort is about to happen.

A soft transition occurs within a chapter or scene. Instead of having a physical marker, it’s denoted by either a verb tense change, an identifying word or phrase, or both.

Verb tense changes depends on what tense the story is being told in. If in past tense, then a flashback or backstory usually shifts into past perfect tense: from “Bob went to the store” to “Bob had gone to the store.” A present tense story would shift into past tense: from “Bob is going [or goes] to the store” to “Bob went to the store.” Flash-forwards can shift into the future tense, the present tense, or even stay in the past tense but at a time ahead of where the flash-forward started. That could be really confusing, though, and would need to be marked by a transitional word or phrase as well.

“Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” is probably one of the most famous examples of the transitional phrase–and one of the most clichéd—but notice how it marks both a clear shift in location and a subtle shift in time. “Meanwhile” indicates that something is happening at the same time as what we’ve just read, but there may be a slight shift back in time to catch us up to the same moment as we just left. Some other transitional words or phrases are: earlier, at (as in “at the same time” or “at [another location]”), after(wards), once, and before. You can find lots of other examples of transitional words and phrases on the University of Wisconsin, Wichita State University and Brigham Young University web sites.

There’s another important point here: a flashback/forward or backstory needs two transitions—one into it and one back out of it.

So what makes a transition unclear? Usually it’s one of the things I’ve been discussing: failing to insert a scene or chapter break or transitional words or phrases, or to change verb tense. As a reviewer, you’ll know the author messed up a transition when you find yourself confused by an unexpected shift. It’s a good bet this happened because the author knew what had changed but forgot to signal the reader.

When you have one of those “Wait…what?” moments:

  • Find and flag the spot where the story changed time, place, point of view, focus character, mood, tone, or topic without warning;
  • If the change is into backstory or a flashback/forward, look for the place where that diversion ends or should end to see if there is a transition there, too; and
  • Identify what kind of transitional device(s) the author should have used.

Transitions ought to be easy to get right but they can catch even skilled writers from time to time. What else do you look for to spot unclear transitions?