About Writers, blogging, book sales, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

WHAT’S SELLING?

Colleen Hoover wrote six of the “Top 10 Selling Books, 2022 Year-to-Date.”
https://www.npd.com/news/entertainment-top-10/2022/top-10-books/
Colleen Hoover is an American author of romance and young adult fiction. Many of her works were self-published before being picked up by a publishing house. As of October 2022, Hoover has sold more than 20 million books.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colleen_Hoover

Who knew? It never occurred to me that one author had cornered the market with romance and young adult fiction. That is quite an accomplishment!

I intended to blog about the different kinds of best sellers from various authors as evidence that it could happen to any of us. Publishing a book should be like buying a lotto ticket. For a brief moment, we should be able to fantasize a miracle. But it turns out that the chances of having a best seller are not much better than the chances of winning the lottery.

I would have already known this, of course, if I were insisting on writing a best seller. Not to evoke the taste of sour grapes, but I know the difference between writing and fantasizing. I enjoy both but writing is satisfying and real.

So I guess the real question here is, why do you write?

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About Writers, book promotion, inspiration, marketing, The Writing Life, Uncategorized, Welcome, Writers Co-op

Book Fair!

Our own Victor Acquista (above, center) was one of two featured speakers at the Naples Book Fair. Attendance yesterday was in the hundreds, a surprising number for a small town like Naples unless you know that Naples has known a few known writers. Current authors in residence include Robin Cook, Dave Barry and Janet Evanovich. Ben Bova and Robert Ludlum have passed on, but they may have attended, unseen. I punctuated my own arrival by accidentally knocking a framed book cover off Victor’s table. People around the hall looked when the glass smashed to the floor. Being a friend though, I didn’t charge him for the unexpected publicity.

Victor’s talk illustrated the structure of the story by reminding us of the many stories in each of our own lives. We live small stories daily and larger ones as the years pass until finally, we have lived the beginning, the middle, and the end that is our life’s story.

Like his talents, Victor’s books range from wellness to science fiction. The former came from his years as a physician, the latter from current explorations of the human psyche, a journey that often leads serious writers to the sci-fi genre.

BOOKS BY VICTOR ACQUISTA

Revelation, *Serpent Rising, Sentient (including the German edition Sentient: Genetik und Alternative Weltgeschichte,) The Einstein Protocol, Health Wise: Integral Lessons in Transformation, Pathways to Health: An Integral Guidebook.
*Serpent Rising won Best New Age Fiction in the 2021 International Book Awards

Victor’s short stories have appeared in the Sci Fi Roundtable Anthologies The Quantum Soul and Gods of Clay.

And, of course, he helped to edit our anthology The Rabbit Hole: Weird Stories Volume Three (special issue: Weird Romance)

https://www.amazon.com/s?i=digital-text&rh=p_27%3AVictor+Acquista

INTERESTED IN PODCASTS?
Check out Podfobler Productions
https://victoracquista.com/podfobler-productions/

Book Fair Main Hall
Ray Jensen & Meridith Bunting
Susan Sachs Levine
Victor Acquista

https://VictorAcquista.com

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About Writers, book reviews, Uncategorized, writing technique

Surviving the Destructive Critique

Now here’s a topic you almost never see raised in writers’ groups. For good reason—by-and-large, it’s much more helpful to approach this topic from the opposite, positive perspective: that is to say, how to give and receive a constructive review. (Note: throughout this blog post I shall use the terms “critique” and “review” interchangeably.)

So first, let’s enumerate the attributes and practices of a constructive reviewer (of which Sue, Tom and Atthys—among others—are masters).  

A constructive reviewer will:

1.) Flag problematic areas of text without resorting to snark or sniping. 

2.) Find something genuinely positive (supported by the writing) to highlight. 

3.) Frame suggestions as “I thought at this point” or “have you considered?” or “this puts me in mind of _____; did you intend . . . ?” Shun emphatic: “You really f#cked up here, pal!” declarative statements.

4.) Avoid commenting on how the writing impacted their emotional state (unless positive). 

5.) Read the writer’s text carefully. 

6.) Understand that a self-deprecating sense of wry humor and/or “in-the-trenches-with-you” camaraderie engenders trust and openness. (Animals expose their bellies to show trust. Proffering your manuscript to another person and asking for a critique is, existentially speaking, a similar act.) 

7.) Always remember: Respect earns respect.

8.) Be more coach than oracle. (Quick: Who were your favorite teachers in school? The coldly imperious, doctrinaire and/or sarcastic set? Those who talked at you instead of with you? No, I didn’t think so . . .) 

9. Respect the reviewed writer for taking chances, even if—in the reviewer’s opinion—the writer failed to accomplish what they set out to do. 

10. Critique the writing for what it is, not for what it is not. This doesn’t mean that the reviewer should refrain from addressing errors in the text (of grammar, historicity, inauthentic dialogue, etc.) It means that the reviewer doesn’t react to a writer’s tragic text by telling them it would work better if it were a little less tragic—a comedy, perhaps. Or a one-panel New Yorker cartoon. (“Does it have to be a story?”) That kind of thing. 

One note before proceeding: a neutral review is not a destructive review. A neutral review (usually given when the reviewer is pressed for time) simply highlights what is not working in the text for the reviewer in as direct and succinct a manner as possible without cushioning “rah-rah” statements to soften the blows of critique. I prefer neutral reviews of my work. As I’ve stated: It saves time. The reviewer isn’t racking their brains for positive things to say immediately before and after highlighting a problematic area of the text. This technique is called “the critique sandwich”. (Example: “Your story moves at a brisk pace until that extended info dump re: malfunctioning doggie squeak toys on pp. 23-25did you intend the reader to be amused as well as somewhat overwhelmed by insider industry knowledge?though overall the book’s pacing and deft, incisive strokes of characterization . . .”) The critique sandwich certainly helps “the medicine go down”but can be mentally exhausting for the reviewer, as well as somewhat patronizing to the reviewed.

Now let’s talk about the destructive review. Dear literary gods in their manifold heavens, where to begin?

Perhaps by listening to a quote of Joyce Carol Oates: “I believe that any form of art is a species of exploration and transgression. … Art by its nature is a transgressive act, and artists must accept being punished for it. The more original and unsettling their art, the more devastating the punishment.” 

If you write an effective piece of fiction—albeit one that demolishes unexamined verities and/or probes the circumstances and motivations of the darker, more perverse aspects of human nature—brace for snarling contempt, histrionic outrage and bitter vituperation from some quarters as your reward. Or baffled confessions that are actually thinly veiled protestations: “Why did you choose subject x? Employ technique y? Adopt tone z? It made me crazy! I don’t know what you’re trying to do here…”

That’s if you write an effective piece of fiction. Now if you should stumble and write an ineffective piece of fiction . . . 

We all might wish that the professional literary world be full of warm, compassionate human beings who communicate their empathy, intelligence and professional wisdom by expressing themselves with tact, courtesy and rueful good humor to all and sundry. Yes, we all might so wish! Alas, this is not the case. And there is no one better skilled at flaying with words than a practiced writer. You think your uncle Joe’s or cousin Suzie’s offhand, inarticulate comments misreading your text were upsetting? Wait till an accomplished fictioneer starts in on you! For economy of motion and maximum impact in the deliverance of “death-by-a-thousand-cuts-criticisms” the work of a pro cannot be matched. It is a thing of beauty: oftentimes as ID-tickling amusing as it is abrupt, nasty, idiosyncratic and censorious. (See: Poe vs. Longfellow, Hemingway vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald, David Foster Wallace vs. John Updike, Mark Twain vs. Bret Harte, H. G. Wells vs. Henry James, etc.)

Exhibit A: I am now going to share with you a critique experience I recently had with a professional writer who considers themselves a friend. (Name withheld to protect their privacy.) Not solely to vent (though of course there is that aspect to the matter) but because I think others can learn from it.

Disguising certain particulars of what exactly was said, here is how my professional reviewer delivered a critique of a couple pieces of writing I asked him to review. He: 

1.) Made repeated references to how the writing had negatively impacted his emotional state. (No warning of “don’t send me triggering stories concerning subject X” beforehand.) 

2.) Urged that I directly quote a writer mentioned in one of my texts. (But I did quote that writer: twice. In that very same text. What were we saying about close reading, please?) 

3.) Smarmily and testily informed me that I should be billed for causing him to “read 32,000 words of Carl E. Reed text” over the course of five stories. (I sent six. And specifically noted beforehand: “Please choose one . . . or two . . . to comment on. I’ve submitted six to give you review options, not homework; good grief!” I could not have been clearer in my intentions/expectations. Mind you, this whilst simultaneously working my way through one of his 500-page novels. “I should bill you for reading 175,000 words . . .”) 

4.) Suggested I have my protagonist (in a horror story) fight someone or something to be “more like Indiana Jones”. Then—comically, almost in the very next sentence—objected that the three black-robed antagonists my protagonist did fight toward the latter end of the tale put him in mind of “Luke Skywalker fighting in the tree”. So . . . no fighting, then? Or fighting that doesn’t—in any way, shape or form—put one in mind of fighting done by someone else, sometime earlier or later, elsewhere? I’m confused. 

5.) Made absurd, off-the-wall suggestions re: multiple stories that would have completely demolished or transformed beyond all recognition authorial narrative flow, plot, tone and theme. (Example: complained that a bookish, sociopathic, high I.Q. juvenile monster in one of my tales wrote glowingly in his journal of the writings of Ayn Rand and others instead of being influenced by TikToc videos.)

6.) Ignored themes and metaphors (literalized or otherwise). My reviewer was completely blind/impervious/indifferent to same. I mean, nary a word mentioned regarding what is to me the central justification for the existence of literature: what the machinations of plot and the collision of divers characters within a story mean; what it all adds up to re: commentary on the human condition.

7.)  Made cutting comments throughout the text whenever he encountered wordage deemed problematic. (Full disclosure: He apologized in a prefatory email for the many “dyspeptic comments” my writing prompted him to articulate.)  

8.) Flagged as textual “errors” subtleties that were lost on him. (Example: In one instance, I described a person smoking a cigarette exhaling “blue-gray smoke”. Later, a passing truck backfires and emits a pungent whiff of “blue-gray smoke”. This is an intentional highlighting and callback to the fact that the truck is emitting a whiff of smoke every bit as toxic as the smoker’s cigarette: the identical phrasing of similar events in differing instances serving to create a leitmotif, which itself underlines and dramatizes the hot-house, claustrophobic toxicity addressed in the tale.) 

9.) Seemed more interested in crafting cutting comments than in reading closely, deeply and well. One story (whose tone, plot and thematic material was influenced by my currently reading Tragedy, the Greeks, and Us; Simon Critchley) I submitted to him for review opened with the following epigraph:

…………………………..

Tragedy is built of one part fate, one part willing surrender to nihilistic impulses and perverse compulsions. It is both existential horror and chaotic mystery, striking the person of Apollonian and Dionysian temperament alike. Above all else, tragedy crushes the spirit and breaks the mind, leaving psychic ruin—and manifold death—in its wake.

—Anonymous

…………………………..

A richer, more lapidary and polysyllabic than normal use of the mother tongue, perhaps; but hardly impenetrable or so confoundingly recondite that it defeats comprehension. It draws upon philosophy, psychology, mysticism and ancient Greek theatrical art (tragedy) for its meaning. His response?

“Wow, this quote! I had a tough time following the bangs of this nailgun procession of ideas. I’ve torn it apart a couple of times and it still doesn’t make sense.”

I could go on, but to what end? Why include an entirely superfluous point #10? I think you get the picture. My industry professional (20+ novels and counting to date) “friendly” reviewer was angry, distraught (remember: triggered by the material), contemptuous, sarcastic, belittling and resolutely downbeat throughout his back-handed, teeth-gritted, unforgivably sloppy critique of my work. It amounted to an act of intellectual violence.

Yes, there were occasional helpful suggestions made and errors flagged during the course of the critique. (Example: He flagged the use of the word “astronaut” in a 1930s pulp sci-fi tale as an anachronism. Nice catch! And quite right. I changed the word to “spaceman”.) The problem is, the ratio of these constructive-to-destructive comments was running at something like 20-to-1. Nevertheless . . .

The trick when receiving a destructive critique is to salvage what you can from the morass of misreading, misattribution (of authorial intent and accomplishment + references back to things in the text that simply aren’t there; or that are there and were slighted/overlooked/denigrated), sarcastic comments and wildly wrong-footed, bizarre suggestions. (Sarcasm kills communication, which is exactly what it is intended to do. It is the lowest form of wit, as the joke is always assumed to have been made.)

So . . . How did I react?  

With as much decency, kindness and appreciation as I could muster.  

His bad day did not mean that I needed to become completely unglued. Though it hurt. Maaannn, it hurt . . . ! (Don’t deny the reality of your feelings; acknowledge and manage them. Stay grounded and real. And remember: to the world-at-large this is a meaningless—even somewhat comical—overwrought piffle. Writer drama; heh! :::person pulls up chair; dives hand into bag of popcorn:::)

I thanked him for putting in so much time (you always—always!—owe your reviewer thanks; no exceptions), demurred re: a couple of his factually wrong/misreading comments (citing brief, pertinent reasons proving why he was wrong drawn directly from the texts he disparaged), and stated (not apologized) that I would never have submitted material to him that was intentionally triggering. Then I assured him that the overall message he’d communicated was well and truly received. Crystal clear. Five-by-five. As a postscript, I closed by offering truthful, sincere and measured praise of his penultimate novel. (Be a class act!)

And now we come to the over-arching, brutal, dispiriting truth of the matter, friends and neighbors—fellow knights of the quill—earnest midnight (or is that crack of dawn, or mid-day?) tireless scritch-scribblers: As you begin to get noticed in the particular genre in which you write, the venomous bitchy darts directed your way from certain quarters (“friendly” and otherwise) only increase in number, toxicity and force. Those who have made it are oftentimes annoyed that a new “proud bird, beautified with our feathers” dares to preen and strut his or her colors before editors who have turned a considering, speculative eye your way. Many writers have a zero-sum view of the publishing game: If you are on the rise, they must be on the decline. (“Whenever a friend succeeds, I die a little.”—Gore Vidal) Or you’re “doing it all wrong”: Your choice of subject matter, perspective, and/or technique offends and irritates. It’s not what they do or the way they do it, you see. Or they’ve simply taken it upon themselves to properly initiate you into the blood guild with the requisite amount of sneering contempt and/or self-transfixing snide witticisms. (“My, aren’t I clever/funny/tough!”) 

At some point in their writing life (amateur, semi-pro or pro) a writer will have their work subjected to destructive critique. Count on it. The trick is to weather this distressing experience with as much dignity as you can muster. Do as little self-defensive squawking as possible, earnestly endeavor to recognize and implement the constructive criticisms proffered by your savage reviewer, and most of all—most especially of all—continue to write afterward.

If you are truly a writer, you have no other choice. You must continue to write—with courage and skill, heart and intelligence—as best you know how. 

Believe that your ideal reader is out there. 

Have faith that practice in the craft will improve your literary skills. (And read, read, read—everything that interests you, regardless of whether or not it falls within your chosen genre.)

Have I mentioned that your ideal reader—the one who “gets you”—is out there? 

You deserve to find each other.

And you will—if you continue to write . . . and learn . . . and grow.

:::::Dispatch from the forward edge of the battle area 10/28/22: Yours Truly, Carl E. Reed:::::

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editing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Notes from an editor (jg.)

I thought I’d take a moment to mention that “The Rabbit Hole, volume 5: Just…Plain…Weird” has been put to bed.  Release date is October 31st (Happy Halloween!).

While it is difficult to follow past posts by Carl and Sue (among others) on the subject of criticism, let me offer some comments from the viewpoint of an (admittedly amateur) editor.

First off, no matter how much an editor would like to give some hints or suggestions along with a rejection slip, it’s just not possible since we are only allowed 24 hours in a day (although I will post some helpful [?] hints below).  This last go around we had over 220 submissions from which we chose 37 stories.  Now consider, we are a non-paying publication, with a volunteer staff (me, Curtis, and GD).  Imagine what it’s like at major magazines and publishing houses swamped with mountainous “slush piles”, along with submissions from agents of well-known authors.  (Something I assume most, if not all, reading this to be well aware of.) If I remember correctly, Molly Barton, one of the initial creators of our sorely missed Book Country, stated that it was her inability to help aspiring authors with criticism, etc. that led to the idea of a site where writers could help other writers.

Second, the accept/reject decision.  Ah, if only this were easy.  We are all human (no AI editors yet, that I know of — thank God!), and we all have our likes and dislikes.  That’s why I insist on having three editors for the decision-making process.  Editors should be like a clichéd tv family of siblings (e.g., a bookish one, a dumb one and the jock), only in this case with different likes and dislikes (genre 1, genre 2, and literary).  Why?  Because it keeps the resulting anthology diverse in tone and substance, but that diversity of opinion also results in a diversity of approach.  I think Curtis, GD, and I made a good team for RH V (GD replaced Atthys who worked on RH IV), because when their comments came in, I often felt like I was in the US Congress—no one agreed on anything (with rare exceptions).  The most common initial vote was 1 Yes, 1 No, and 1 Maybe.  It’s good to have a range of tastes from the more literary to the more pulpish, action or fantasy stories.  Everyone gets their say, and decisions get made. (BTW, no one ever threatened to hold their breath until they turned blue in fighting for a story). Remember, weird, like humor, ranges from the subtle to the outrageous!

In my case, when I first look over a submission, I read for plot (I find this kind of funny because if I have any strengths as an editor, it’s as a line editor).  As a result, I have initially advocated for stories (which didn’t make the cut) only to realize, on rereading following the receipt of another editor’s negative comments, that despite being a good story it was poorly written.  There was one, submitted for RH IV, which I remember really liking, but following that reread, had to admit that I didn’t have a month to turn it into acceptable English (a total rewrite of someone else’s story isn’t my job anyway). 

Well, I did promise some hints (feel free to share).  So here they are (and I apologize ahead of time if anyone is offended):

  1. Please read the call for stories, and/or the publication’s descriptive blurb, carefully!  The editors know what the theme of their publication is, and so should you. What do you think would happen if you submitted a story about growing up in Middle America for a cookbook compiling only flaming chili recipes? Or maybe a story about the great time you had getting drunk in college to Alcoholics Anonymous magazine? Why wait for the rejection slip? It’s a real shame when we get a beautifully written story about a little girl raising her first puppy or about an author mulling their life while facing his or her final days, but we’re specifically looking for, and asked for, weird stories. 
  2. Weird and gross are two very different things!  If necessary, look up the definitions.  While potty humor works well in elementary school and at frat parties, it doesn’t age well in print.  (I’ll spare you examples.)
  3. Submit fan fiction to fan magazines.  Enough said.
  4. Look, it may be true that every plot in this universe has been, in some fashion or other, previously used in a story or novel.  But please, please, at least try to add sufficient originality to your effort to avoid a red flag waving in the wind proclaiming to the reader, “You’ve read, or seen, this already!”  We had rehashes of “Through the Looking Glass” and “Alice in Wonderland”, but the worst was the blatant rip-off of Hitchcock’s “The Birds” (except the meanies were, I kid you not, commas! Yes, big, fat, flying, killer punctuation marks that impaled people with their pointy bits!  I’ll give the author this much, it was reasonably well written, but such a blatant rip-off we just had to pass on it (and no, it wasn’t a satire)).
  5. Note: a jokey narrator generally comes off as a wise-ass, not a wit. Pass.
  6. Please have someone who has a reasonable grasp of the English language read your story before you submit — and take their advice. Please.
  7. Never, ever, ever submit a first draft. (Yes, that means that just because you’ve completed the text of the story, it does not mean you are finished.)
  8. Gibberish is not weird, it’s just gibberish.
  9. This should actually be 8a) if written while stoned — Please don’t submit it.
  10. A personal bug-a-boo.  If you haven’t got an ending for your story, you haven’t got a story.  Others might disagree, but from my perspective, a good writer should know both how a story starts and how to end it. 
  11. And finally, please put your name and contact information at the top of the first page of your story.  I often had this wonderful experience teaching technical writing.  It seems people assume that since they have their name on the email containing the story file that grants immediate author recognition.  Instead it means, after downloading the story file into the “To Be Read” queue, the editor has to go search through email to see who sent it. (I, being nice, will.  I assume that larger publications just send “To Whom It May Concern” rejections slips when you inquire six months later.)

Let me finish by saying that despite all of the above, it has been a real joy working with Curtis, GD, and Atthys (on RH IV).  They are insightful, knowledgeable, and understand how to arrive at a group decision even if it means rejecting a personal favorite.  The Rabbit Hole IV and V would not have been the lovely anthologies they are without them.

So, after all my venting, let me ask — any interest in Rabbit Hole 6?

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Uncategorized

Writing Irrational Beauty

By JOHN CORRELL

Precision and perfection dwell solely in the realm of the infinite. And I claim perfection but never reach it because something better, always better, steals away my hope of perfect victory.

Perfection portrays an impossible ideal, while precision attempts perfection in practice.

But when is practice perfect? I draw a perfect circle, but no matter the accuracy of my hand, the refinement of my compass, or the sharpness of my pencil, my best knows better. Never perfect. So I ask a computer for the perfect circle, and it heats up and runs and runs. Years, decades, millennia, and eons, it hums.

To create the perfect circle, it needs to calculate the never-ending irrational number — π (pi). A never-ending calculation for a never-ending number. Infinite — perfection.

Okay, what does this have to do with writing? Let me clear up my irrationals before I explain.

π is just one of many irrational numbers. And an irrational is any number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers. Divide the top by the bottom, and the numbers after the decimal just grow and grow. It is not a repeating number like ⅓’s 0.333333…. It just goes on without sequence or sense.

And one particular irrational number draws the attention of artists and theologians alike. The number of ‘perfect’ proportions, the divine φ (phi), the golden ratio (1.61803398875…). And if writing is an art, then φ’s ratios may apply.

I’ll illustrate this mathematical concept with Gary Provost’s advice to write musically:

The first paragraph mocks a hideous passport photo with the subject centered on banality. A dull ratio of 1.

The second paragraph rhythmical screams ratios, whether conscious or not. The highlighting colors help show the sentence word count of 2-9-1-3-9-4-7-53; interestingly, the proportion of non-blue to blue (the longest sentence to the rest) becomes 35/53 or 0.66037735849056603773584…. This is similar to the rational repeating number, ⅔, an infinite cousin of the golden ratio. And ⅔’s 0.666666…, like Gary’s paragraph ratio, sits in the ballpark with 1/φ’s 0.618033988749854683792717082….

In the shadow of φ, the second paragraph attains a pleasing, artistic state of ratios, or, let’s say, ratioality.

Now, we don’t need to be precise with the golden ratio. For one thing, the golden is impossible to derive in a finite amount of time. At best, φ provides a rough guide, give or take a few words or more.

Sort of, maybe. Am I fooling myself?

I have the worst sense of lyrical writing and poetry committed, criminally, to a page. I must be grasping at straws. In my utter inadequacy, I’m using the wrong tools and words. The instrument of mathematics, a set of tools to model the real and the imagined foolishly harnessed for art? What am I thinking? Can I use a virtual logic formed in our heads, where assumptions, axioms, and postulates scramble to best fit our prejudiced points of view? Where’s the art in that? These irrationals hide nothing golden, mystical, or divine. Like a chainsaw or jackhammer, they are no better. But for me, these are familiar implements. They hold a certain unexplainable beauty, and in the right hands, even a chainsaw creates beauty.

Perhaps, ratioality can provide a template to understand and improve our compositions, whether in illustration, music, or writing. For example, the visual artist turned musician Brian Eno uses his visual composition expertise to create appealing music. So in turn, I hope that the mathematical application of ratios can enhance our mastery of successful writing. And remember, the golden ratio is but one of many proportions, and variety, even in math, provides spice.

Ratioality, studied and applied, can fine tune our messages’ tone, like the mood inducing musical selection of modes, rhythms, and tempos.

We can never grasp these imagined mental gadgets, these infinite irrational numbers. Never in a billion trillion lifetimes. That’s why they’re called irrational. Yet, these oddities call us like false prophets in a mistaken cloud of spirituality and other-worldliness. Infinity dazzles. But just like a notion of God and an unattainable idea of perfection, these numbers can inspire us with a hope of better, if nothing else.

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Uncategorized

The Power of an Honest Critique

by S.T. Ranscht

An Editor’s Eye. Not really as scary as it looks. (Photo credit: S.T. Ranscht)

There’s a word that describes authors who believe their work would not benefit from an honest critique: Wrong. To be clear, an honest critique is not a harsh judgment of the author’s manuscript. It’s a thoughtful analysis that is constructive, helpful, and — hopefully — kind. It lets the author know what works and what doesn’t work for that reader. It explains why what doesn’t work doesn’t work, but it does not tell the author exactly what to do to fix it. Neil Gaiman’s advice to authors sums it up:

“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Neil Gaiman

Both parties to any critique have some obligations to the process and each other to ensure its integrity and success. Chronologically, of course, the author comes first, but because the author also comes third, let’s start with the second party, the reader who critiques.

There are certain qualities the reader really should possess. First, it helps tremendously if they’re literate. Even more than that, they should commit, just for the purpose of critiquing, to read the manuscript carefully. Like, every word. After all, the author went to all that effort to write every word, so it’s only right that the reader should put in commensurate effort to read them. After all, a legitimate critique point might turn out to be, “Trimming unnecessary verbiage would tighten the pace, particularly building to and including the climax.” Or, to express a point that works, the reader might say, “Your use of language imbues your work with a lyrical quality.”

Sometimes authors ask for feedback about specific things, like whether or not the dialogue is natural. Or if the characters’ relationships convey enough depth. Or if there needs to be more world building. It is helpful — even necessary — for the reader to address these points, but the author’s request doesn’t limit the reader’s responses to only those items. It will be equally helpful for the author to become aware of other parts of the manuscript that might confuse the reader or seem to defy the internal logic of the writing. If you’re left wondering, “What is the author trying to say?” you probably won’t be the only reader to feel that way. The author needs to know that.

A few words of caution. It may happen that the manuscript you face seems so riddled with problems that your frustration crafts some cunningly snarky or scathingly sarcastic observations you are sorely tempted to share. Resist. You might be right, but it would be neither helpful nor kind. Then, too, you may someday be on the receiving end of that particular critique partnership, and you know what they say about karma…

If you are the author in our original scenario, you might think you did your part when you submitted your baby manuscript to the judgment of a reader, and now all you have to do is sit back and watch the compliments roll in.

*ahem* Wrong.

Let me amend that. Most casual critique partners will not read your work with an editor’s eye. Their analysis will be more superficial than deep. Not because they are lazy, but simply because the are readers first, not trained editors, and they have a natural desire to focus on the positive, especially if the author is someone they don’t know well. Unless you are paying an editor or having your work reviewed by an editor who has the power to publish it or not, an author must encourage their readers/beta readers to speak freely, and then openly acknowledge the validity of the thoughts they’ve shared so you can establish mutual trust.

When an author receives an honest critique, chances are it will include both positive and critical observations. The first obligation the author has is to resist — or overcome — becoming defensive. Take a step back from your creator’s eye view of the manuscript, and look at it objectively. (Yes, I know — that’s easy for me to say, isn’t it?) However, once you accept that the reader has shared their honest feedback, your second obligation is to examine how you might incorporate it to improve your writing.

And improve your writing it will.

Your mileage may vary, but I assert this from the experience of being both a reader with an editor’s eye, and a writer who has received both gingerly offered criticism and more direct editor’s eye notes. I’ve learned to value both and nurture the relationships that offer them, because even I see the improvement in my writing that results from accepting honestly offered constructive criticism.

Even more important than that self-serving, improved writing motive, I have developed trusting relationships I will value for the rest of my life.

That’s the power of an honest critique.

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Uncategorized

More thoughts on Contests…

There was a post in May, by Mike van Horn, called “Writing Contest Rant.”

That post stuck in my head for several reasons. I enter contests. I never expect to win, at least in the traditional sense. I find his rant entirely valid, as well as the ensuing comments from everyone else. I even posted a rumination on my blog about whether I should contest, or not. 

Yet, I still enter contests. Why?

After that post, and agreeing with all of his points, I re-evaluated why I still wanted to enter contests. What was I getting out of it? I’m writing full time now, so it’s not like I need an incentive to write. In fact, I now have enough writing projects to keep me happily engaged daily, not to mention the challenge of building and maintaining my own websites. 

Why waste my time on a useless pursuit then? 

At the same time I’m questioning my judgement, I also realized I lacked motivation for keeping up with my personal blog. Then I got the idea to use each contest to write the chapters of a story. Each contest would provide one chapter. Once I complete the story, I will post each chapter on my blog. I still write within the constraints of the contest parameters, but add the twist of how it relates to the rest of the story. 

I now have six chapters into a story that has been a lot of fun to write. Now when I get the feedback from the contest, I admit I feel a bit smug, like I’ve manipulated them to my purpose and they have no idea. I also feel like it has ratcheted up my writing skill a notch. 

At some point, though, I will reach a moment where I decide the whole exercise is pointless. I regard the challenge of writing within the contest parameters to be fun. But as I spend all day writing (and painting) I find I need that sort of challenge less and less. Also, the story that has evolved from these contests may be larger than the amount of contests I will enter. 

One final observation. In my personal writing journey, I struggle/d with endings and writing less than thirty thousand words. The contests have helped me learn the art of less is more. It helped me smooth out my revision process. 

While I understand contests are not for everyone, as a person who wanted to be a full-time writer, but had to concentrate on my day job first, they became a helpful skill building process. Especially when I removed any hope of winning from the equation. I still have a long way to go. But at least I’m honing some skills along the way. 

While contests lack the merit of reward for writing well done, they serve as a tool to improve aspects of an individual’s skill. Like all tools, they don’t work in all situations and, like some tools, they just need a new purpose or alteration to make them more useful.

At any rate, I’ll likely continue with the contests I enjoy until they become drudgery. Then I’ll know I played along as long as I could and then let them go.

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Freedom of Writing, inspiration, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing prompt

A Writer’s Life

Where do your ideas come from?

Seriously, what sparks your ideas to create? From a blank page/screen flows a myriad of words, strung together in just the right way to evoke emotion of every kind. To stir the ability of every reader, to forget where they are and immerse themselves in imagination.

When I think about this, I really understand the power of language. Writing is a superpower, especially in the hands of a Master. Ok now I am humbled. I have a long uphill climb to reach that lofty peak. Will I make it? Who cares, the fun is in the journey … right?

So that journey. That’s where the ideas spark, bake, incubate, grow, die and flourish. (Not necessarily in that order either.) You hone your craft, realize your style, and find your voice. I wish it were so simple! Angst, doubt, and fear cloud reason. They insist you’re a hack. That tiny voice nagging in the background, you know the one; it tells you the story on the back of the cereal box is more brilliant than anything you write! (I haven’t read a cereal box in years.) Yet, you keep writing. Why?

Personally, if I don’t, I’ll have an aneurysm from the pressure of the squirrels multiplying in my head. Or a heart attack from bottling up my emotions. So I write. 

My oldest son messaged me the other day. “Mom, I had a four-day weekend. In my head I finally worked out what was wrong with my story, but I didn’t write a word. I’ll never make it as a writer. I’m too lazy.” Did I mention angst?

This made me think why writers don’t write. It’s not lazy. It’s working forty-plus hours a week at a job that has nothing to do with a writer’s life. It’s being surrounded by people who don’t write unless they must and people who don’t outwardly show creative curiosity. I told him I get it. When you write, you immerse yourself in that process. It’s difficult to get started when you know your life is going to interrupt that process multiple times.

Personally, it took nearly two years of full time writing for me to enter a space where I could immerse myself, yet keep a bead on the world around me. It took stepping out of the working world. It took distancing myself from the people who distract me from my purpose. It took surrounding myself in an environment conducive to unleashing my creativity. My son doesn’t have that luxury… yet. His time will come. Until then, it’s all fits and starts.

Yet, I know not every writer or creative requires this, or do they? I know experiences, travel, interaction with the world, produces the ideas. But the time spent typing the words (or handwriting) requires stretches of solitude. The immersion into the process. 

Definitely the writer’s life isn’t for everyone, but I’ll be damned if I go do something else ever again.

SLRandall, writer and artist
https://awriterwrites.org/
https://artistbyaccident.com/

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Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

Open Comment Week

Use the comments section to discuss anything of interest to you that is related to the writing life.

I’ll begin…

And now for something completely different.

Four billion years ago, the bit of iron pictured above was part of a larger chunk in the asteroid belt. Sometime between 160,000 and 90,000 years ago, homo sapiens sapiens evolved and began imagining things.

Quite recently -February 12, 1947, actually- H. s. sapiens noted 200,000 pounds of that iron arriving on earth and wondered what it was and where it had come from. The resulting fireball was brighter than the sun. The artist Pyotr Medvedev, who at that moment was painting a landscape on the street, opened his mouth in amazement. “We thought it was an explosion of the American atomic bomb, since it happened shortly after the Americans dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.”

The event was significant because it marked the end of the iron bit’s natural history. H. s. sapiens imagined many scenarios and eventually they calculated the physical laws that whimsically sent it here, they analyzed it (93% iron, 5.9% nickel, 0.42% cobalt, 0.46% phosphorus, and 0.28% sulfur, with trace amounts of germanium and iridium; minerals present include taenite, plessite, troilite, chromite, kamacite, and schreibersite, if you must know) and they even figured out its origin and then they displayed it in their space travel gift shop on a deliberately unnaturalized beach they called Cape Canaveral. One H. s. sapien, me, had it mounted for wearing on a chain around his neck.

This piece of iron is no longer subject merely to the universal laws of physics. It now also wears according to the whims of one H. s. sapien who began his novel, The Phoenix Diary, by stating,
“The consequences of the Big Bang should have flowed like rows of falling dominoes; the physical universe should be predictable. But it ain’t, because intelligent life forms are messing with it.”
This piece of iron is proof of that statement. The H. s. sapien feels vindicated.

Sikhote-Alin Meteorite
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About Writers, humor, inspiration, Literary critique, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op, writing technique

Ten Things Writers Do That Cause Me To Sigh Heavily

Originally posted on Penguin’s Book Country by Carl E. Reed, March 21, 2012

In no particular order here are ten things writers do that cause me to sigh heavily:

1.) Use words that sound like the opposite of what they mean: Puissant doesn’t sound mighty, powerful or potent to this speaker of 21st-century Anglo-Saxon dialect and noisome immediately invokes the aural, not olfactory, sense (for me).

2.) Misuse words: Penultimate is not a synonym for “ultimate” (it means “next to last”, as in the number nine in a series counting up from zero to ten), and a semi-automatic weapon (fires one bullet every time the trigger is pulled) is not identical with a fully automatic weapon; i.e., a machine gun. For that matter marines are never soldiers, troops or dog-faces (I’m looking at you Stephen King!), they’re marines, Leathernecks, Devil-dogs, jarheads or grunts. (That last word applies if your marine is also an infantryman.)

3.) Write mediocre, albeit serviceable prose: Has this ever happened to you? You pick up a book and begin to flip through it only to realize almost immediately that there’s no there there; the writer’s voice is as homogenized and ennui-inducing as vanilla frosting on cardboard masticated by a muppet. For god’s sake stop writing in a defensive crouch! Get out there and say something on the page with all those words you’re time-sharing with the rest of the human race. You may fall flat on your face but I’ll respect you for trying; I truly will. Bullet-proof prose is boring prose.

4.) Litter your text with untranslated foreign words and phrases: A word or two here and there is fine but entire sentences? Paragraphs? As Isaac Asimov once remarked: “I’m flattered that you think I’m fluent in every language ever spoken by humans, including the dead ones, but please—don’t flatter me that much.”

5.) Characters who are forever staring off into the “middle-distance”: I swear to Harlan Ellison, if I ever read again of a character who “stares off into the middle distance” in order to communicate thoughtful reverie to the reader I’m going to fling the book off into the middle distance.

6.) Characters who are described as looking like famous people: “She had a raspy, Kathleen Turner-like voice; he was beautiful and energized as Ernest Borgnine on a bender”. Lazy!

7.) Insult your reader’s intelligence: Everyone else is smarter than you are. I thought you knew that? Never write down to your audience—despite the bad advice you may have been given by demographic-obsessed marketers, burnt-out grumpy editors and well-meaning friends and relatives urging you to “dumb it down.”

8.) Stop your narrative dead in its tracks by injecting too much back-story too soon: If I want to read a history book I’ll read a history book. I bought Demon Balls & Lost Sabbaths because I thought something was going to happen here . . .

9.) Over-use adverbs while under-using evocative adjectives and vivid descriptive nouns: Kill as many adverbs as you can while polishing those adjectives and vivid descriptive nouns. In the first instance, trust your reader—kill as many adverbs as you can bear to live without. If a character has just shouted or ended a sentence with an exclamation mark I probably don’t need an “angrily” speech tag to underline that fact. In the second instance give us more vivid, picturesque speech: Writing “she walked inside the house, threw her purse on the table and bent down to kiss the dog” is not a better sentence than, “she walked into the mildewed cottage, threw her satchel purse on the table and bent down to kiss her beloved beagle Bacon-barker.” Stop worshipping at the altar of minimalism—it’s a false religion with a blank-faced idiot god.

10.) Then suddenly out of nowhere!: The use of the word “suddenly” always reads as the injection of cheap drama and comical, amped-up surprise to me: “She was walking along the winding cobblestone path when SUDDENLY a black-masked bear jumped out of the bushes and demanded her Odor-eater shoe inserts”; “He sat there smoking when SUDDENLY an angel of the Lord appeared and smote him about the head and shoulders with a kielbasa.”

What are the things other writers do that drive you crazy?

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