Category Archives: Writing

Thoughts on my writing process and writing life

The Totality: Impressionistic

The landscape fell into shadow, as if night came in from all directions at once. The air grew chill.

The sun still blazed high — and then it was snuffed, a bottomless emptiness where it should have been, ringed with a feathered halo of white fire streaming away into a deep twilight sky.

Around the horizon was a pale band, as if the sun was rising from all directions at once.

This, then, was the end of the world.

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For a more complete and less evocative description of the eclipse, please go here.

Poor Cueing – Wing Commander

Last time, I discussed some thoughts on cues and audience expectation.

Today, I want to look at an example where the cueing was poorly done, and resulted in disappointment for at least some audience members.

My target is Wing Commander.

When I saw this recently, it caught my eye as having a few instances of poor cueing — some of which made a difference, and some of which didn’t.

I am going to look at three examples of failed cueing in the movie. One is the innocuous sort of false cue that is almost inevitable in a complex work. The other two are more problematic.

Example 1: Minor cueing failure

When the MC and his best friend first arrive at their posting, they go and check out the fighters they’ll be flying. Almost immediately they see an attractive female — the first, as far as I can recall.

Rob made a crack about her clearly being the love interest, an opinion that I was inclined to agree with.

Of course, then we met the real love interest some twenty seconds later.

Cue Cause: Something unusual (a girl!), underscored by character attention.

Effect: Brief red herring about the love interest. A minor red herring that did not cause any disappointment when it turned out to be misleading.

Comments: This cueing misfire didn’t really hurt anything, although it didn’t really accomplish anything, either. If there is a good variety of characters all the way through, the storyline will be less vulnerable to such mis-cues, because the first girl (or POC or …) won’t stand out as different from the homogenous norm.

Example 2: Detail-based cueing failure

One of the major sources of tension through the middle of the movie is the MC’s Pilgrim association (he is half Pilgrim, which makes him the subject of suspicion by some of the crew members). Early on, he discusses his Pilgrim memento — an amulet roughly in the shape of a cross — with his best friend. His friend thinks he should get rid of it.

All well and good.

But then it is revealed that it has a little knife that can pop out of it.

It is a striking and suggestive detail.

We promptly decided that it would play a key role in the plot, probably in some sort of fight.

It . . . didn’t.

The amulet crops up again, but the little knife isn’t shown ever again. It doesn’t play a role, major or minor.

We were disappointed.

Cue Cause: something unusual (the amulet has a knife!), underscored by character attention, the fact that it had clear utility, and the fact that it was otherwise pointless.

Effect: this engendered the expectation that the knife would show up later and be used for something cool. The lack thereof caused disappointment.

Comment: this detail registered as a cue rather than an enriching detail because it was unusual, it was not surrounded by other details of similar weight, and it was a detail that had clear application. The reason all of this is problematic is that the viewer is cheerfully waiting for the knife to come into play, and when it doesn’t, is disappointed. It’s sort of like putting a gun on the mantle, but never having it fired or used to hit someone over the head.

Example 3: Interaction-based cueing failure

The MC’s best friend does some semi-competitive showing off with a girl.

The girl subsequently dies in an accident as a result of showing off.

The MC’s love interest blames the best friend.

All well and good.

But then there is a scene where the MC tells his love interest (who is also a officer) that she needs to make things right with the MC’s best friend, because she needs every fighter at her disposal.

This cued the expectation that the best friend would then play an important and likely redeeming role.

But . . . that was basically the last we saw of him.

Cue Cause: an emotionally fraught scene where the MC’s love interest forgives the best friend because they’re about to go into battle.

Effect: this engendered the expectation that the MC’s best friend would play some sort of important or cool role, or — failing that — die spectacularly. It is somewhat ironic, because he did play an important role — but it was before the “clearing the air” scene with the MC’s love interest.

The issue with this is similar to the issue with the unused dagger: there was the expectation that something interesting would happen at the end, and it didn’t happen. With a really good climax that might not have been a problem, but Wing Commander had a relatively weak climax — so the cues relating to interesting things that never happened were far more noticeable.

Comment: if you’re going to make a big deal of needing someone, their success or failure should be important. They should somehow be relevant, whether they come through or not.

To just ignore the whole thing doesn’t hack it.

In this case, I think they were just tying off the sub-plot “hey, we can’t just leave the MC’s love interest mad at the MC’s best friend,” but it looked like it should relate back to the main plot. And it didn’t.

General thoughts:

The two cueing failures that I consider problematic set up expectations for an exciting climax and resolution.

The ending turned out to be pretty lukewarm, so the cues stuck in my mind as missed opportunities.

I see two possible fixes:

1. Pay attention to the critical cues, and fulfill or subvert them.

2. Have such a splendid, satisfying climax that it blows away any recollection of what the audience expected.

Cues and Audience Expectation

I have been thinking about Chekhov’s Gun lately. Although the principle is to only include the bits that will be important to the story, in my mind the more critical takeaway comes down to cues:

If you provide the audience with a clear cue, and fail to fulfill, exceed, or confound their expectations, they are going to be disappointed.

In other words, it’s ok to not fulfill their expectations, but if you don’t, you’d better come up with something even better.

What is a cue? This gets tricky, because the audience is on the lookout for cues, and they may spot a “cue” you didn’t think of — in which case they will be sad when nothing comes of it.

This is, to some extent, inevitable. After all, to produce a rich story, every single thing can’t blossom into a critical plot point. This is especially true in SFF, where vivid and interesting descriptions are often necessary to capture an alien world.

What is an author to do?

I think there are two really important things:

1 – Things that are described in greater detail will be assumed to be more important, unless there is a clear alternate reason for the degree of detail.

2 – There may be small dead-end cues. That is ok, as long as they are minor enough that the memory of them is washed away by the cue that is fulfilled.

If you keep these in mind, your reader will be satisfied.

1 – Detail Equals Importance

This really comes down to use of attention. If the author lavishes something with attention, the audience expects it to be important.

That can be tricky in SFF, where world building is important. If you dwell lovingly on a gun hanging over the mantel, will the audience expect it to be used?

As long as there is a clear reason to be dwelling on it — other than cueing — it isn’t as dangerous. If something is out of place, most readers will presume that it is a cue.

Consider the following examples:

The gun over the mantlepiece was an 8 series Omega Orbital blaster. It was flanked by a pair of Zagon dueling blasters and a rare sniper’s laser from Antares.

vs.

The gun over the mantelpiece had belonged to the professor’s great-grandfather. A filigree of brass curled across the polished wooden stock. An antique ammunition case sat on the bookshelf to the right, half lost among the scholarly tomes.

Which gun do you think is more likely to be used in the story? Which is a stronger cue?

To my mind, the first is simply describing the home of a weapons collector. Oh, I’d expect some sort of mayhem to come about, but it would actually be fun if it turned out to be the antique sabers off to the right.

The second is a gun in a professor’s library. Yes, its presence is explained, but it seems a surprising detail. I’d expect it to go off, or get stolen, or perhaps get damaged. Or I might expect it to signal that the professor is actually interested in guns, and is a crack shot. Regardless, it is included for a purpose.

2 – Small Dead-Ends are Inevitable. . . and OK

If you’re busily describing all sorts of interesting things, some things will catch the audience’s attention more than others. You might expect the audience to be paying attention to the antique gun, but maybe they were more interested in the ammunition case. Or the faded photograph next to the ammunition case. Or….

That is inevitable. And it is not necessarily a problem.

A detail that doesn’t turn into anything only matters if the audience thinks at the end “wait a minute, what happened to X?”

If they do that, you have a cueing problem.

The important thing is that potential cues will usually only be remembered if they became important, or if they were so vivid that the audience members told themselves a story about it.

Once the audience starts theorizing, you have some fulfilling to do.

Thoughts? Agree? Disagree? Please Comment!

Next time:

An example of horrible cueing: Wing Commander.

Revising – Checking Pacing/Continuity

I’m reaching the end of revisions on Joining the Draken; at this point I’ve made my structural changes and am filling in some gaps and smoothing out a few continuity issues.

Then it will be on to final tweaking and refinement before I go on the Great Agent Hunt.

A couple weeks ago I did a pacing/sub-arc/continuity verification exercise that I found very useful, so I though I’d describe it here. It was a somewhat more elaborate version of the calendar checking that Patricia Wrede mentioned on her blog.

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First, I set up a timeline on the left side and sections indicating major characters/plot lines along the top.

Then I added key plot cues on the left side.

Finally, I used handy little colored dots to plot out when important things happen in the story relating to different events and characters.

This gave me a solid visual of the novel that helped me check a few things:

  • Continuity — I could more easily confirm that the key events were stacking up correctly. This was especially important when there was a dependency among different sub-plots.
  • Rhythm — I could verify that things were building the way I wanted them to.
  • Frequency — I could verify that I was actually visiting each sub-plot and character at an appropriate interval (so the reader can hopefully remember who they are).
  • Balance — I could check the give and take in pacing among the different sub-plots.
  • Temporal spacing — I could check that different things had the necessary percolation/build time. Not in terms of pacing, but in terms of “lived” time for the characters.

I found this process very helpful. It helped me catch a few minor continuity issues. More importantly, it helped me fine-tune the interplay among the different sub-plots and determine where to put some floater scenes (things that I wanted to have happen, but had some flexibility in terms of when they should happen).

As a result I shifted a few things around, using blank labels to adjust placement in time.

It would also be helpful to go through this exercise using page/word count as the Y axis instead of calendar time. That would give a better pacing check, although it wouldn’t be as useful for confirming temporal feasibility.

Do you have any interesting strategies for sanity checking the plot during revisions?

Balancing Act

The balancing act of my life has been teetering these past couple months, to the detriment of my writing. As noted in my earlier post, finding time to write largely comes down to priorities.

Unfortunately – or fortunately! – I have had some doozies to compete with my writing.

In February and March I had a lot of projects for my day job (read “things are going too well for my own good”), and wedding planning to catch up on.

I had planned to really get cracking on my writing at the start of April, but my sprint start has turned into a crank-sided limp.

The problem this time is still partly work (things are still going too well for my own good), and partly the unseasonably gorgeous weather we’ve been having. In Western Washington it usually drizzles most of the time until late June. This last week we had gorgeous sunny days half the time (sorry, East Coasters!).

That meant that I wanted to be out, frantically working on getting a garden in.

The days are getting longer, too, which meant that I could work myself until I was pretty exhausted.

All of these are good things, but a bit too much of said good things.

Fortunately the rains came back today, which means that I can turn my attention back to indoor things – like writing!

I have been working along on a short story. I’m a bit stuck on the ending, so I think I’ll switch to Joining the Draken here in a couple more days.

I’m due for a full read-through, with my beta readers’ comments in mind. Normally I try to do that in one fell swoop – devoting a whole weekend day to it. I don’t think that will happen with the current nuttiness, but Rob will be on the night shift this next week. At a couple hours a night, I should be able to knock it out in a few days.

I would love to get revisions done before 4th Street . . . so I’d best get cracking!

Growing Things

Spring officially arrived two weeks ago, and is progressing nicely here in Port Angeles.

A couple days ago I saw a couple elk bulls grazing their way through the neighbor’s field. I haven’t seen them since, so they were probably on their way up the mountain to their summer territory.
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The daffodils are in full bloom, and my sugar-snaps are looking good.

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The big question is whether I can keep the garden safe from the deer. I have rigged a fence out of fishing line – the goal being to (mostly) keep the deer out, without being too ugly. We’re going to supplement that rather frail defense with a motion-detector sprinkler system. Fingers crossed that it will work!

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Gardening is a bit like writing in that you sow and weed and dig, in hopes that in a few months or a few years it will pay off. Many small efforts are necessary to get the bountiful harvest.

The big difference is that a garden will change if you neglect it for weeks or months. With luck, it will grow. Or perhaps it will wither or get eaten. But it will not be static.

A story, if neglected, will just sit there. It will not change. You, the author, will change – which is why a resting period can be very helpful. But the story will wait quietly for your return.

That is both good and bad. Without attention, nothing will happen. But it is never too late!

I am gearing up for another round of revisions on Joining the Draken. I have gotten some very helpful critiques from some of my Viable Paradise cohort, among other brave souls.

The critiques confirmed that I need to ratchet up the tension and conflict. I’m hoping that I can manage it by judiciously sowing a few seeds, doing a bit of pruning, and staking up the droopy bits.

Hopefully by June I will have a burgeoning garden and a book that is ripe for submission!

The Finger of Blame

Who is to blame? This is an interesting question, because it is asking more than “who caused this?” – it is asking “who is at fault for this?”

It is interesting from a writing standpoint because blame very often has a load of anger attached, and the finger of blame is not always reasonable in selecting a target. In other words, it is a prime way of adding conflict to a story.

Have something unfortunate happen. Have one character blame another for it. Good – conflict!

Have one character blame another for it unfairly. Better – more conflict!

Not only can it add conflict, it can also expose information about the characters involved: how the culprit is determined, how the wronged party behaves towards the culprit, and how the culprit responds – all great stuff!

 

This came to mind because of an incident last night.

Rob and I had a dinner gathering for the first time in our new/old house. We have had a few people swing by, but this was the first time we were trying to feed multiple people at the same time, and in style. All rather stressful to start with, since we don’t have a lot of practice entertaining.

 

So I was in the kitchen, trying to get the last few things ready. Rob was showing most of the guests around outside, and I was chatting with one guest while I worked.

Through the kitchen window I saw a dog streak by. Rather worrisome, because one of my cats was outside, and we don’t usually get dogs.

I commented on it, and the guest said “Oh, that’s Tim’s dog.”

One of the guests had brought a dog? News to me.

 

The crew stayed out an unexpectedly long time, and when at length they came in my sneaking fears were realized: the dog had treed my cat.

Well and thoroughly.

Forty feet up a Douglas Fir.

I was not happy.

I didn’t do anything regrettable, but I left Rob to keep everyone entertained while I went out to see whether I could lure Avanti down.

Already, the finger of blame was looking for a target, never mind that I wasn’t about to give voice to it.

The obvious person to blame was the guest in question, the “gentleman friend” of one of our friends. He seemed like a prime candidate, because it was his dog, and he might or might not be around for the long term.

Note that it is very convenient to blame someone if there isn’t a major cost to blaming them.

 

Avanti came down by a couple branches in response to my calling, but didn’t make it any further. Rob brought the ladder and helped me put it up in the fading light, but it was a good ten feet short. I reluctantly went back in, since there was nothing I could constructively do.

 

As it turned out, Avanti made it down just fine all on her own, after I “abandoned” her. This story has a happy ending, so there is no need for me to pin blame on anyone. Note how the lack of consequence lightens the load of blame to almost nothing.

 

But what if she had fallen? Been seriously injured? Killed?

 

Then the finger of blame would anxiously seek out a victim.

It is interesting to look at this as an example, and consider different interpretations – and who might pick one or another.

 

Here are the prime candidates:

  • The dog. He treed the cat. But that’s pretty much what dogs do, so most people wouldn’t be inclined to lay blame there.
  • Avanti. She ran. The dog followed. But running from dogs is pretty much what cats do, so most people wouldn’t be inclined to lay blame there.
  • The guest who had brought the dog. It was his dog, so he was clearly responsible.
  • Rob. Rob had given the guest permission to let the dog out. He did not know Avanti was out, but he didn’t double-check. On the other hand, the guest assured him that the dog did not chase things when he was around. Which turned out not to be true. So maybe the guest was to blame, after all.
  • Me me me. I hadn’t seen that there was a dog, because I was busy getting final touches together, but if I had actually looked out properly I would have seen it in time to forestall a problem.

 

This is where it gets interesting, because there isn’t necessarily a right answer. There are more and less rational answers, but there is some basis for any of these interpretations.

And this is where a writer can have some fun, depending on the desired level of conflict and/or character exposure desired.

 

Rational:

Rob is to blame. He gave permission for the guest to let the dog out, without first checking on the situation. Yes, the guest indicated that the dog didn’t chase things, but almost any dog will chase a critter that runs from it.

In this particular case this interpretation would also have had all sorts of potential for relationship friction. Great potential for a story that focuses on relationships!

 

Conflict-avoiding:

I am to blame. I should have seen the situation and prevented it from happening. This is probably how I would have played it if something dire had happened, because I have a lot of trouble blaming other people if they blame themselves (which Rob would have done). From a writer’s standpoint, this is probably the least satisfactory, since most of the conflict would be internal. It could be useful from the point of view of exposing character, but that’s about it.

 

Simple:

The dog is to blame. In this case the dog was just doing what dogs do, but then a dog that gets in and kills chickens or somesuch is still doing what critters do, and it doesn’t necessarily prevent the humans from holding the critters accountable.

This doesn’t have direct conflict potential, but it has excellent indirect conflict potential. If the “wronged” party holds the critter accountable, and demands that the critter itself suffer for it – be put down, in an extreme case – that will then give rise to all sorts of conflict with the owner or defender of the critter.

All of this can be interesting, but I think the majority of readers would view this interpretation as unreasonable, at least in a case like this.

 

Blame the victim:

Avanti is to blame. She shouldn’t have run. The fact that she ran triggered the whole incident.

This is a good choice if you want to say something very specific about the character involved. It takes a certain sort of person to blame the victim – although more people are likely to do so if they are the obvious alternate culprit.

 

Direct:

The guest is to blame. It was his dog. Yes, Rob gave him permission, but the guest said that the dog didn’t chase things. He was mistaken.

This is a nicely defensible position, and in this case it also has the benefit of blaming the outsider in the group. Always a favorite!

This has conflict potential either if there is a nice blow-up at the party, or if the guest actually stays in the story. It could become a nice point of friction with the friend who brought the gentleman-friend in the first place.

 

With all of this, there are a few key points: who is blamed, how much emotion is behind the blame (which is likely to influence how reasonable the blame is), how the emotion is acted on, and how the blamed party responds.

This can get especially dramatic if it is a group of people (ethnic, cultural, political) that is blamed instead of an individual.

All sorts of fun things to play with – and a potentially valuable exercise for my own writing, since I’ll be working on upping the conflict level in Joining the Draken over the next couple months.

Hmm. What can I come up with that will cause a nice storm of blame?

 

What My Viable Paradise Cohort is Doing!

Life has been decidedly nuts of late: long hours for my day job, lots to do on the house, and a wedding to plan! I have been taking a little break from writing while I try to cope with all of that. I’m hoping to resume in March, but in the meantime my Viable Paradise cohort has been writing some nifty things:

  • Lauren Roy – not part of my cohort but one of the invaluable sanity support members for VP – has a new book out! Check out Grave Matters at your friendly neighborhood bookstore!
  • Shveta Thakrar wrote a very touching essay about what it was like to grow up feeling like a changeling: a child of non-European cultural background in small-town America. I just want to go back and give her teenaged self a hug!
  • Fonda Lee wrote a great short story involving irresponsible friends and 3D printers for Crossed Genres.
  • KJ Kabza has a piece in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. Issue 168 is not available on-line quite yet, but I’ll update the link when it is!
  • Ben Kinney wrote a couple nice blog posts, one involving flaming bears in Judaism, and one comparing Chosen One plots to the Power of Love plots.

Nice job, everyone! It is inspiring having friends doing so many nifty things!

Terrible Things Happen – Should We Write Them?

This week’s shooting of three young Muslims in Chapel Hill got me thinking about just how many terrible things happen in the world, and the degree to which that should – or should not – be included in a work of fiction.

So far 2015 has seen mass killings; people killed or brutalized by police; people killed or brutalized by terrorists and extremists; and the standard run of murder and assault. And those are just the headline-worthy woes. If you get into the weeds of day-to-day prejudice and violence . . . well, why get out of bed in the morning?

I don’t think I’m the only one who finds it soul-crushing.

And yet it is happening, it is real, and ignoring it does not seem to be the answer.

 

Should We Include Such Things in Fiction?

I have mixed feelings on this.

Depicting hate-driven violence can help acknowledge that it is a real problem in our society. Such depictions can also be sickening and pointless. Of course, that is part of the point, but if I had run across the Chapel Hill shooting in a work of fiction – three nice young Muslims, two of them newly wed, gunned down by a hate-filled white atheist – I would have wondered why the author had chosen to include such a pointless horror.

However, we live in a world where such things are, horribly, a reality, and completely ignoring them does not seem to be the answer.

 

What to Include and in What Degree?

In a way “should we include it” boils down to two separate questions. What should we include, and how much of it should we include?

For example, if a work depicts prejudice, is it going to focus on the subtle day-to-day prejudice that is so insidious, or is it going to depict an all-out hate attack?

I think the “what” depends somewhat on the type of story, but humans being humans there is almost always some sort of prejudice available for consideration. I think it is a valuable thing to address in some form, whether it is class-based, age-based, race-based, gender-based, or something else. Really, “what” to include comes down to thinking through the dominant groups in a work, and how they would rub along together.

The “how much” can be a little trickier, and is likely to be more dependent on the type of story. If a religious war is central to the plot, then terrorist attacks are perfectly appropriate.

In a character-driven story where prejudice is a background element, rather than a major part of the plot, I think that keeping it to a background noise level is appropriate. It still acknowledges the problem. And really, that is the degree of problem that can realistically be addressed.

I think the truly horrific attacks grow out of the fertile soil provided by general prejudice. If the general prejudice were not there, these attacks might not occur, or might manifest in a different way.

I think it is very important to acknowledge the existence of prejudice, and to consider the impact it has on various members of a story.

I don’t think that the prejudice ever needs to escalate for its inclusion to be valuable.

 

Back Handed Inclusion

Many of us are uncomfortable with discussions of prejudice. Racism, religious prejudice, sexism – they are all loaded.

One thing that science fiction and fantasy bring to the table is the ability to mirror our world at safe remove.

For example, I’ve always found it interesting when a work of sci fi replaced inter-human racism with xenophobia against aliens.

It is sad that we have to go to an alternate reality to have a proper discussion about our irrational fears and biases, but at least we can take advantage of that safe space!

 

Thoughts on the subject? Please comment!

Writing and Feedback

This last week I stiffened my spine and sent my YA fantasy book out to beta readers. It got me thinking about the problem of writers and feedback at different stages of the writing process, and different levels of experience.

Feedback is both important and pitfall-ridden.

There may be the occasional writer (Kafka?) who can write amazing stories with no feedback. Most of us need someone else to help figure out what’s working and what isn’t.

The sad irony is that the less experienced a writer is, the more important feedback can be – and the harder it can be to get.

 

The Problem of Feedback

Feedback is vital, but sadly there is no guarantee that it will be good or appropriate.

Bad or inappropriate feedback can be extremely destructive, especially to a beginning writer who doesn’t have much perspective.

My brother was hot to write after college. He made a good go at it, writing daily and treating it as a job. He got the draft of a fantasy novel together, and handed it out to friends and family for feedback.

Among others, he gave the novel to our high school English teacher – a teacher who had done an excellent job of teaching us to analyze literary works. She also happened to favor literary fiction.

She . . . was not impressed.

Fair enough.

The problem was that my brother valued her opinion very highly, and the way she stated the problem was not “you need lots of practice” or anything more concrete; it was “you need to experience life before you try to write.”

It is true that life experience helps in writing, but unfortunately the teacher’s feedback caused my brother to simply stop writing.

Many very successful authors wind up trunking their first four or five or eight novels. Had my brother kept going, he might well be published long since.

The thing that I find most striking about this is that the feedback was given with the earnest desire to be helpful. And it stopped my brother cold.

How destructive, then, is malicious feedback? Wrongheaded feedback? Feedback that is trying to convert a story from one species to another?

This is all marginally less problematic for a more experienced writer with more perspective, but from all I’ve heard, the doubts never go away completely.

So, what to do?

 

Safe Feedback

There are a lot of potential sources of feedback out there. They vary significantly in risk.

I think that a beginning writer – or an especially insecure writer – should stick with the safest of these.

Indirect Feedback

Bad direct feedback can be extremely destructive.

Fortunately there are ways to get information about writing and editing that don’t involve exposing your precious work to the withering scorn of others.

The most effective of these is to let someone else expose themselves instead, and then look for useful information in the feedback.

The “Share Your Work” forum on AbsoluteWrite is a great place to do that.

You do have to be signed up officially, but aside from that you can hop on immediately.

Hopeful writers will post chunks of work, usually first chapters or short stories.

Anyone on the forum who is interested can then comment.

Some of the comments are impressions, some are line edits. Some are excellent, some are largely useless.

These critiques provide three valuable things:

  • Information on mistakes that you may well have in your own work.
  • A view into the range of opinion – there are often completely contradictory pieces of feedback.
  • A way to improve your “eye” – and then apply it to your own work.

It is a fine crash course in basic editing, and it provides no risk to the observer.

Safe Feedback

The ideal is to get feedback from a known safe source – someone who will give useful information, and isn’t at risk of crushing you.

This is the ideal. I don’t know how you could find such a source without risk – but if you have a source of safe and effective feedback, value it!

Usually the best you can do is to get feedback in a safe environment. When I attended Viable Paradise, they made it very clear that the critiques should be honest but gentle. If you are considering a workshop or course, try to find out about the flavor of the critiques.

There are some groups that seem to pride themselves on being harsh – apparently equating quality with toughness, and toughness with brutality.

Avoid these!

Write Write Write!

The last safe approach – the one I used for the first couple years – was to simply write. A lot.

Although guided and conscious practice is ideal, any practice is good.

There are many ways to improve the efficacy, including looking at books on writing and editing. I found “Self Editing for Fiction Writers” especially helpful, since it gave concrete examples out of well-known fiction.

Dangerous but Potentially Effective

There are many sources of feedback that can be risky but may have a significant payoff in terms of helpful information. In seeking these out, honestly consider how thick your skin is and how committed you are.

If they say you stink in the harshest way possible, will you be able to keep going?

If so, go for it!

Writing Groups

Many of my fellow students at Viable Paradise had had excellent experiences with writing groups. If you can find a group of like-minded writers, it can be a good source of feedback, while also giving you the benefit of thinking critically about other writers’ work.

There are three major potential problems with a writing group:

  • You’re all beginning writers. This doesn’t render it useless – chances are that you’re all rabid readers, which means you’ll have at least some useful opinions on each others’ work. However, you won’t come along as quickly as if you have a more experienced source of advice. It is a somewhat bigger problem if you are intermediate or advanced, and everyone else is beginning. Then you’re at risk of becoming the teacher. Gratifying, but not as helpful to you.
  • They’re mean. Usually it isn’t everyone who is mean, but all it takes is one brutal person.
  • They don’t read your kind of stories. Writing is writing up to a point, but if you write fantasy and your writing group is made up of literary fiction writers – or vice versa – you won’t be able to effectively evaluate the quality of the story, or give good advice.

Beta Readers

This is where I am!

The risk level varies quite a bit. I minimized it by drawing many of my beta readers from my Viable Paradise cohort – so I know that they at least have some background in kind but useful critiques. I also supplied the first couple chapters to help verify that they were a good match with the story. I want to make my story the best it can be – not change what kind of story it is. So it helps if they like the type of story it is!

So. Fellow writers – good, especially if you have some sense of their likely style.

Friends. Well . . . risky.

It helps if you know they like the type of story you wrote. Even then, think through what will happen if they never give you feedback, or if they give you terrible feedback.

I gave my first completed/edited (now trunk) novel to my then-boyfriend to beta.

He never told me what he thought. I suspect he only got a few chapters in.

It probably wasn’t very good – it’s a trunk novel now – but that silence was almost as damaging as a brutal critique. Maybe more so, since it just left me hanging.

It isn’t a coincidence that I stopped writing for a year or two.

Fortunately I moved on!

Workshops/Conferences/Etc.

My critique experiences at Viable Paradise were very helpful.

Depending on the workshop, it can be a very beneficial experience.

Just do your homework. Most workshops – standalone or associated with a conference – have been around for a while, and will have a known personality.

The participants vary from year to year, so it is always possible a bad egg will sneak in, but this is a comparatively safe resource since there is usually some sort of moderator.

Online Critiques

After you’ve gotten indirect feedback for a while by observing or providing critiques online, you can give it a whirl yourself.

There are a number of online critique forums, including AbsoluteWrite and Critters.

The biggest risk with these is that someone can be brutal – it’s somewhat luck of the draw – but they are usually somewhat regulated, and try to promote playing nicely.

I had very good luck when I submitted things to AbsoluteWrite. I would recommend it – but it is likely to be most helpful once you have the fundamentals down and are trying to refine your craft.

 

Actually, that goes for pretty much all of these except the indirect feedback method.

 

Other Opinions?

These thoughts on feedback and where to get it are drawn from my own experience, direct and otherwise.

Thoughts or opinions? Please share!