Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Six Things New Writers Can Learn In Six Months

For all the communal aspects publishing fosters, writing is still a solitary profession that requires its adherents to develop themselves as much as they develop their storytelling abilities. This can be difficult, as we are all victims of our own neuroses, hang-ups, and habits. For example: I have a big issue staying focused on one project, which often leaves me having to deal with three different manuscripts, and invariably, I will only focus on two of them. I'm working on this, but the thought came to me that there were six things to share that might help my fellow wordsmiths better commit themselves in a healthy, happy way. I would never dare to say that these are universal; they are just ideas, and like all ideas, they should only be considered if they add to your process.

1. MEDITATION


I first learned meditation from a physician my family patroned, named Dr. Z (I cannot remember nor spell his Russian last name). Like Dr. Z, meditation helped me with a lot of the anxiety that comes with people in a situation where people treat you like you are damaged. Meditation helped me later when I decided to dedicate myself to it in relation to my writing. I like to work fast, and I expect faster results, but unfortunately publishing is a slow, arduous process. Being able to slow down, clear your mind, and stop thinking is a pivotal skill both for writing and for life. We are flooded by our senses every moment we are awake and asleep, and with writing, it is multiplied. We become so ingrained within our characters, our stories, and we sometimes forget to take a step back. For me, meditation is that step back. Anyone can do it, and it only has as much of a spiritual component as you allow it, and you can do it as long as you like. It is an open practice.

There are a lot of resources where you can learn meditation, but here's a simple introduction to the basic technique:

Find a comfortable place to sit where you won't be bothered by noises or distractions. This could be your writing area (which for me is my entire apartment. I'm a bit nomadic.) Sit in comfortable position, using whatever you need to do so. I use a Zafu pillow. Close your eyes, and empty your mind of all thoughts or, if you are very active, picture yourself in a setting. I usually go to a place like this:


Count your breaths. In through your nose, out through your mouth. Nose In, Mouth Out, Nose In, Mouth Out. In the beginning, try to get at least 15 good breaths before you open your eyes. This will calm you down, and in time, help you see the world and your work more objectively, as well as your writing. Which leads us to...


2. YOUR WORK IS NOT YOU (EVEN THOUGH IT IS)


One issue that really plagues me is separating myself from my work, often taking criticism more harshly than I should, and in some ways, delivering it. First, no writer or reader should criticize another for who they are, but it is completely fine to constructively criticize the work, even if it is as simple as "it's not for me." Learning to separate these two things is incredibly important.

Now, this idea is a bit of misnomer. Of course your work is about you--you wrote it, and whatever you write, it is a reflection of how you feel, your experiences, and your beliefs at the time of the writing. Still, it is important to remove "you" from assessing the quality of what you put out. As I have said before, rejections can be a great thing for a writer if they go about assessing why they were rejected in the right way.

Here's an exercise: next time you get a rejection, sit down with the rejected work and read it differently. Act like you are not the person who wrote the piece, but a constructive critic who has never read it. This will open you up to new details you might not have noticed in your previous proofreading, ways to better the story, etc. There is a multitude of wisdoms to gain in doing this.

3. FINISH YOUR WORK


One would think that this would be a given for new writers, but every day I hear so many writers I come across lament their inability to finish a manuscript. Among the things I am speaking of here, this one might be greater in importance than the second point above, so let me clear:

Finish your stories.

So many people get into the Craft of Writing thinking that it will be a simple enough business to finish their first book, let alone a simple short story. The act of writing is arduous, being a combination of physical, mental, and emotional stress much like a real job. Sitting in a chair hurts me. I don't stop thinking about what I should be writing. I sometimes cry when I am done with a story. Putting in work is putting in work, and finishing a story gets you past a huge hurdle that the majority of writers never even attempt to leap. Finish your stories. It is the only way you can find out what you really need to work on.


4. READ CRITICALLY FOR PLEASURE


This one will take a bit of explanation.

When one decides to become a writer, they often forget to remain a reader. However, things change quickly when one takes up the craft. Speaking for myself, getting involved in the process of writing initially made reading fiction a much more labor-intensive task. I often found myself breaking down the style of the writer I was reading, looking for imperfections I wanted to avoid in my own work. This can take a lot of fun out of the act of reading, but with a few little tricks, it became a joy again.

For all the mistakes you notice, take the time to bask in the moments where you are just reading. When there are no mistakes, the reader simply reads, and though we are writers, we will always be readers first. Mark the places you really enjoyed, and the places you did not. Read deeply for lessons, for theme, constructions, character, everything; reading critically can be a wonderful experience if you go about it the right way. Make it about learning first, criticism last.

5. JOIN A GOOD WRITING GROUP


Like this one.


6. UNDERSTAND THAT PUBLISHING IS NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME... but The Craft is competitive.


It is easy to think that the publishing industry would be a competitive place as a new writer, but if you look beneath the surface, it is anything but. Here's what you need to understand: everyone around you wants everyone else to succeed (unless you make a colossal ass of yourself, which I am sometimes guilty of), and this is because we're working for the most wonderful resource there is in the world: readers. Readers like to read, so they aren't going to buy just YOUR book (if they do in the first place, which is another blogpost for another blog time.) They will keep buying the product we put out, all because readers are so wonderfully voracious.

At the same time, I think it is important for writers to have a bit of an competitive bent. This is just an opinion I hold to myself, but I want to write better than R.A. Salvatore, my literary hero. I want to write better than Jeff Vandermeer, the baddest MFer in Fiction today. I want to write better than K.V. Johansen, one of the most talented writers I have ever seen in Epic Fantasy. I want to write better than any other luminary I can name. I think every writer should look at their inspirations in absolute reverence, but also as bars you need to climb over. Anne McCaffery set bars. Lloyd Alexander set bars. Tolkien, my literary father, set bars. David Gemmell. Michael Moorcock. Robert E. Howard. Try to achieve more than your forefathers and foremothers did. We owe it to them.

These are practices, attitudes, and mindsets you can achieve as a writer in six months. They have been invaluable to my creative process over the years, and if they can add to yours, I hope you produce some of your best work.

So let's get to work.

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Stay safe and see you soon!

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Evaluating Critiques: Do's and Don'ts to Follow

Full disclosure: I am writing this out of reaction to a bad critique session I recently experienced, but instead of sitting and stewing on the negatives, the decision was made to turn that experience into a positive one.

Critiquing fiction, short or long, is often dependant on the critiquers themselves being well-read, experienced in collaborating with an editor (which means they have sold work), and taking the time to go out and get training through workshops, at conventions, and even within the critique groups themselves. Good writers are good critiquers because they put the work into their writing, reading, and editing on a daily basis so they can learn the tricks of producing great fiction. Still, there are pitfalls that can plague any critique group. The list below is a series of four Do's and Don'ts when it comes to giving and receiving a critique.

JAY's List of Four DOs and DON'Ts: Critiquing Fiction


DO read the work more than once


As the current Head Organize of Charlotte Writers and as a regular member of some smaller groups beforehand, I can easily say that since 2011 I have read hundreds, if not thousands of pages of manuscript. Everything from my genre of Fantasy, to Science Fiction, to Romance, to Memoir, and even manuscripts that contain poems have passed in front of me, and one of the first things I learned that I needed to do was read a manuscript more than once. I discovered the need to do this the hard way during one critique session where I had read a Charlotte Writer member's manuscript more than a week before their scheduled critique, where the entire membership would discuss the work while the writer remained silent (which is always wonderful in terms of learning body language), and it couldn't have gone worse for me. I forgot key points to the story's plot, characters, everything you could imagine, and in the end I was unable to offer anything of value to the person who had put so much time and effort into their manuscript.

The solution I came up with was to read the manuscripts twice (we usually critique two during a session): once when they first became available for download, and then again on Friday, at which point I would actually start creating my notes that I would explain during the session itself. This way I was always prepared, was familiar with the work, but at the same time, reading the work twice allowed me to learn new things about the author in terms of their style of writing, what they did right, and what mistakes they made that I want to avoid, etc.

Putting in this kind of time can offer huge dividends; both for yourself and for them!


DON'T critique the author; critique the work!


This is a faux-paus that happens more often than not because it is an easy one to make. Writing, especially fiction writing, is a reflection of the writer's very self, and from reading their work in a critical setting can often leave critiquers open to interpret things about the writer that may or may not be true.

For example: I was once leading a critique of a writer whose work featured the kidnapping and very graphic rape of a young woman, two things in today's publishing industry is looked at with less than favorable views, both by professionals and readers (which I agree with, by the by.) As soon as comments were allowed to be taken, the author was hit with "Your creepy prose..", "Your sick...", etc., and it created an atmosphere where everyone had to tiptoe around what they said about the work because they were making value judgements on the person. When the author of the work was finally allowed to address the comments made, they revealed they had written the creepy character in question because it was told by that character's POV. Once it was explained, it made far more sense, yet the damage was still done--critiquers had made judgements on the person AS WELL as their work, and the author stopped attending our group.

Part of the fault for that was mine, and after that day, I made sure that it was the work being critiqued, not the author! Judge their work for what the work is, not as a measuring stick for who they are. What they are there for is constructive criticism of their writing and NOTHING ELSE. (However, it should be said that we do not allow works at Charlotte Writers that contain bigotry or misogyny as positive affectations of a work.)


DO be clear about your expectations


Often when I host Charlotte Writers critique sessions, we often ask our writers who submit work for critique to be clear as they can be about what they are looking for. Are the characters likeable? Does the pace work with the genre? Is the dialogue engaging? These are all wonderful questions to ask and receive information on, but it is equally important that you as the critiquer are also clear about your own expectations. There are some definite questions you have to answer when you go into a critique:

1. What are you looking for as a reader? Are you looking for clean copy? Grammar issues?  Flow and pacing? Content that speaks to you? You have to answer these questions because not every critiquer is great at everything, nor are they supposed to be. Some of them are better at writing characters than they are writing plot, just like some are stellar at dialogue but really need to learn how to write action scenes. You have to know what you expect from the submission.

2. Is the work publishable for its market? This is one of the bigger concerns I try to bring to Charlotte Writers when we critique submitted work, as the stated goal of the organization is to prepare writers to get their work published in the genre marketplace. This often requires our members to put in time by learning about the industry at conventions, conferences, meet-ups, workshops, etc. You have to know the business you want to be in, and you have to know the current conventions by which the publishing business works. It not only helps you with your own manuscripts, but it also assists in allowing you to look at a manuscript from another author and point out the places that would get them sent to the rejection pile.


DON'T GIVE/RECEIVE A CRITIQUE IF YOU'RE NOT READY!


Let's be honest: critiquing is hard. 

A lot of factors are involved when it comes to a reader enjoying your work, and sometimes no matter what you write, it won't be right for them--and they may be highly critical of that, but that is what they are there for. I cannot tell you how many times a new writer has come up to me and expressed their fear about getting critiqued, and what I usually tell them is that the first time is always nerve-wracking, but if you can get through it will probably never be nerve-wracking again. It's like pulling off a band-aid.

However, just because you are ready to have your work critiqued doesn't mean *you* are ready for the process. It takes a lot of humility and maturity to sit there and let someone put your "Literary Baby" in a corner, and if you are going through a tumultuous time this can be really trying. There have been instances at critique sessions where prospective authors state that they are ready and then fall apart by the end. I have seen tears, passive aggressive responses, and the always aggravating defense of things everyone else found issues with. If twenty readers in the room find something in error with your manuscript, most likely the problem is there, and the best thing you can do with it is take the time to really look at what was said about the issue. Writing is a process of creation and problem-solving, and denial does nothing to solve problems. The best thing you can do is be ready.

To sum up, critiquing is a wonderful way to grow your skills as a writer, but a lot of thought needs to be put into the process just like every other aspect of your work. Be humble, keep your ears and mind open, and remember that this is about identifying problems and solving them. If you can keep yourself motivated enough to fix those problems, you're well on way to the day you sell a story, a novel, or whatever. Be mindful of your own expectations and knowledgable about what you and others write. In doing so you will grow by leaps and bounds.

Critiques are a powerful tool. If you learn to use this tool correctly, you will become a powerful writer.

Thank you for dropping by. Please check out my Publications, and please consider clicking on the G+1 button on the left side of the screen if you enjoy the content you see here on the blog. Follow me @JayRequard on Twitter, and see you next time! 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Poem: By Strands of Hair

I do not take often to writing poetry and presenting it in public, as I often find that reaction to it is so varied. I even once heard a poet say that "nobody could criticize her poetry because it was hers", to which I say "then keep it to yourself." The moment you put something out into the world, it is no longer just yours, but is open to interpretation and criticism by the audience-at-large. That's the cost of trying to live off your creativity, and anyone who tells you otherwise is a fool. But back to poetry...

I wrote this in a free form style (as the only other style I am actually good at Sonnets in the form of Shakespeare, and mine are horrible.) The inspiration came to me one night in a hot bath I had drawn after painting along to Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds by the Beatles. I used a bath wash that dyed the water a lovely shade of rose which put everything floating within it (including myself) in stark definition. One of my fiance's hair strands came floating along and from that was born this poem. It follows a 4,4,4,5 count by word, which I came up with during the same bath. The last stanza reverses it and follows a 5,4,5,4 count, again by word. Again, forgive me if this is awful.


"By Strands of Hair" by Jay Requard



By strands of hair
love found itself born,
mixed by fiery water,
a spirit of past aeons.

By strands of hair
therein found whole redemption,
the weight washed away,
a spirit laid to rest.

By strands of hair
cities would burn ashen,
blood would flow unhindered,
a spirit of wrath enthroned.

Yet by strands of hair,
the spirit chose otherwise.
By strands of her hair,
the spirit never faltered.


If you wish to let me know that you like this poem, you hate it, or if you have constructive criticism which *can* equal "stop writing poems", let me know below. Hope you are all doing well and see you soon!

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Why I'm not a fan of NaNoWriMo (And how YOU can succeed at it)

I'll be honest, there's not national novel writing month for me, mainly because I write everyday unless I have a reason not to, which even this is suspect because what excuses can you make NOT to do a job you love? Even so, every November comes the flood of posts, the good intentions, and the massive cottage industry that seeks to exploit those who take part. I could gripe about this for an entire blogpost, but instead of griping, I should be helping. So let me state some things clearly before I begin.

NaNoWriMo in itself is not a problem. The idea that you dedicate yourself to writing 50,000 words over the month of November is a great goal, even though it is often presented in an incredibly obtuse manner that doesn't really help those who try, especially those who have never done it before.

Here's why I say that: I have written, to date, seventeen different novels, having only completed six of them, and having only sold one that didn't even make it to print at a very tiny press. I started writing in earnest when I was 19, and the average time it takes me to really put out a novel-length manuscript that I'm willing to put my name on is six months to a year--and that is only on the rough draft. The drafts that follow it will take as long as they need to take. Some have taken six weeks. Others, three years. Part of this is because I try to work on three to five different manuscripts at once, but that's me, and I'm getting help for it!

Novel writing is not easy in any sense of the word, so the idea that someone like me, who has sold stories and written novel-length manuscripts before, looks at NaNoWriMo with a bit of trepidation should be telling. But I've seen how the sausage is made, which also means I can imagine someone else sitting down, never written anything ever before, and seeing something else that is completely different--and I don't want to downplay that. I know people put a lot of love into their work this month, and that should be celebrated. But remember:

The only pat on the back you deserve is the one you get when you sign that publishing contract and sell that work.

With that said, I could be a fan of NaNoWriMo and its output if it was presented in a realistic, meaningful way that helps instead of pressures. There is a way of doing this that helps new writers learn the craft, helps experienced writers edit their work, and helps those who are already prepared to create the manuscript they will one day send out to publishers/agents/alpha-beta readers. This will be my attempt to provide that path with these five tips for making NaNoWriMo work.

Jay's Five Tips for succeeding at NaNoWriMo


1. Outline


There are two concrete ways of going about writing your manuscript, though you can usually play between them. The first is "Pantsing", where you essentially write your story as it comes to you, with no planning whatsoever, until you reach THE END. That works for some people, and for short stories, it is usually a doable model. 50,000 words, however, is a completely different beast. A lot can happen in those words, so it often important to "Outline", and thankfully there are a lot of great outlines and methodologies available on the internet to help get you started. At the very least, you should know four things:

A) Your Beginning - Where does your story start? (Characters, setting, problem, plot)

B) Your Middle - Where are we when the reader hits your story at its dead center? (Character growth, resetting the board, new problems, fresh solutions)

C) Your End - Where does the story end? (Resolution, Growth achievement, Landing, Seeding the next book if there is one...)

D) Your Climax - What is the big thing that happens before THE END that ties it all together?

Knowing these four points, at the very least, gives you a road map where to go, even if you are pantsing it. Knowing where you are going gives you time to formulate how your scenes will play out, how you will sequence events, characters arcs, etc. This leads us to...


2. Word count


Let's do the math: 50,000 words/30 days in November equals 1,666 words a day. For new writers, that can be daunting, but the fact that you're attempting NaNoWriMo is daunting in the first place. With those considerations, I would suggest that everyone employ Stephen King's Word Count "rule" that he enumerates better than I will within his memoir, On Writing.

Hit 2,000 words a day.

Yes. That many. By shooting for that number, you can realistically hit the magic 50,000 words, even if you have to miss a few days, which you will, because...


3. Hitting 50,000 words is not the point. Getting writing done is.


I see every year people lament and complain that they didn't hit 50,000 words for the month, but if 50,000 is the point of this month in the first place, stop. Word counts don't equal publishing contracts, and neither does bitching about the fact that you couldn't hit some arbitrary number that nobody is ever going to get mad at you over for not hitting. Things WILL get in the way that may cause you to not reach 50,000 words--work, school, kids, drugs, the apocalypse, John Hartness--anything and everything can and will stop you.

And that's fine!

Great writing is not made on an assembly line or on schedule. Great writing is made through dedication, time, work, destroying your own ego for the sake of your story, and revising again and again and again until the manuscript is sold. NaNoWriMo is the opportunity to get started, because there is often one thing that people forget: there are not a lot of traditional or small press publishers out there that are taking 50k manuscripts who are going to get you into a bookstore. And that shouldn't be your goal this month. The real goal is much more simple.

4. Focus on writing a great rough draft.


Depending on the genre your write in and the path to publishing you want to take, having 50,000 words at the end of November may only get you so far. In some genres, it won't get you anywhere. Now, if you are self-publishing your NaNo project, none of this really applies to you, and I wish you nothing but the best. However, if I was a publisher or an agent and I received a query letter that said "this is the manuscript I wrote for NaNoWriMo, and I am submitting it to you" and that query letter is dated on December 1st, good bloody luck!

Take this time to write the best story you can. NaNoWriMo should be about the process, not just the completion, and if you are writing in a genre that often requires more than 50,000 words for acceptance, you owe to yourself to give you a break from any sort of pressure that writers who partake in this month usually put themselves under. There has only ever been one author that I have known who set out to write a complete novel during NaNoWriMo, and he's a North Carolina Laureate. I'm guessing those reading this are not him, and neither am I, so why pressure yourself into doing something that results in work that is not your best?

The words will show you how important it is to just to take your time. Make this the best rough draft you can.

5. Commit


Here's where the real pressure is: 1,666 to 2,000 words. For some, that is a steep mountain to climb every day, while for others, it is a walk in the park. Speaking for myself, I usually hit an average of 1700-2000, but that took YEARS to get to. Just like climbing a real mountain, you have to train for it.

Allow me to repeat myself: you don't have to hit 50,000 words by November 30th.

You do, however, have to sit down and write everyday. You will lose sleep. You won't be able to go out for drinks with your friends. You might not be able to watch your favorite show on Wednesday night. That's because your butt needs to be in a chair, in front of whatever you use to write on.

Set goals on word counts. Follow your outlines. And remember--this isn't about the word count, it is about the creative process of writing. Enjoy what you are doing. That is what this month should be about: enjoying the process of writing fiction and getting it done.


Now go to work, stay safe, and if you have any gripes with what I have said here, I'd be happy to hear from you in the comments below. Bye now!