When to write down ideas

When I first started writing, I tried to jot down pretty much every idea that came to mind – characters, bits of dialogue, a story idea, rhyme, you name it. Unfortunately, although I was in the habit of carrying a pen at nearly all times, I rarely kept a notebook handy. So I wound up with piles of receipts or gum wrappers or whatever was available when inspiration struck. Also, my handwriting is nearly unreadable (one of my professors said it resembled Hittite. AFAIK, Hittite has never been deciphered).

So I got more disciplined. I invested in a notebook (small, with a durable plastic cover) that I carried in my purse. However I’d frequently misplace said notebook (often under a pile of papers or books) and so I bought a few more so I’d always have one close by.

You can see where this is going, right?

I’d write down random snippets and then forget which notebook I’d put it in (and as the pages filled up, where in the notebook I’d written it). Worse, half the time I’d nix the idea altogether, delete the scene a particular line had been written for, or decide that no, I was never going to get around to that novel about an alien landing on Earth during the Viking era or that semi-autobiographical story of a person landing in Guyana in the aftermath of the Jonestown massacre. Of the ones that remained, for about half of them I’d waste half an hour puzzling wtf was I thinking at the handful of words that, at the time, I’d been convinced was a stroke of genius. Provided I went back and read any notes at all while I revising any particular story.

Finally, I decided, keeping notes was largely a waste of time. The best ideas seemed to stick in my memory regardless. Only on one single occasion among the dozens of stories I’ve worked on do I regret forgetting to jot down something. It was a Terry Pratchett-type pun for a YA Fantasy I’ve been working on. Oh, well.

That isn’t to say the habit is entirely useless. Nowadays, I try to limit what I bother jotting down to either premises that I could hang an entire story and characters onto (and wouldn’t involve a solid year of research), or plot points I’ve been struggling over on nearly-completed works.

There are also times when I am bombarded with so many ideas I cannot concentrate on the task in front of me, whether it’s a writing project or making sure the bills get paid. On those days I feel like Hwel from Terry Pratchett’s Wyrd Sisters:

Particles of raw inspiration sleet through the universe all the time. Every once in a while one of them hits a receptive mind, which then invents DNA or the flute sonata form or a way of making light bulbs wear out in half the time. But most of them miss. Most people go through their lives without being hit by even one.
Some people are even more unfortunate. They get them all.

Writing the lot of them down (even if it never goes further than a notepad document) clears the proverbial clutter in my mind so I can get on with whatever project at hand.

And eventually one of them becomes a blog post on WordPress.


Life as a would-be writer: How to deal with critiques Part Two

One issue that comes up a lot in critique are the various biases and personal tastes or pet peeves people bring to critiquing. It’s hard to help; we all have our ideas about what makes writing good or bad and while some aspects are objective – proper spelling and grammar for example – others vary from person to person.

This is something to pay close attention to for both the person whose work is being critiqued, and the one doing the critiquing.

For those who have gotten some feedback on their work, it helps to familiarise  yourself with the people providing it. Take a look at what other works they’ve commented on. Do they point out the same problems in other people’s works as well? How knowledgeable are they – are they tailoring each comment to the work, or quoting the same line from whatever how to they last read? Do you think their comments on others’ works are valid and insightful or are you secretly hoping the author will ignore everything they say?

If you’re the one providing a critique for someone else, always try to view the work on its own merits and if there’s something you’re not familiar with, leave it for someone else to point out. For example, if you’re unfamiliar with the Fantasy genre and read mostly romance, be wary that there may be tropes or conventions you’re unfamiliar with. Pointing out repetition or confused sentences can still be useful, but posting ‘wtf is a travois?‘ much less so. For those seeking feedback, how familiar that person is with the genre you write in is another thing to consider.

Humour is particularly tricky area. Me, I like sharp wit and satire with the teeth of a shark. Others prefer slapstick or toilet humour. Just because something isn’t to your tastes doesn’t mean no one else will find it funny, or offensive, or just plain dumb. And some people are more tuned in to broader cultural norms than others. Some people get offended by nearly everything, others by nothing, while other people still have a fairly good idea where the boundaries are that most people would consider acceptable within a given context.

Another controversial area is style. So many people love to proffer advice about cutting out ‘useless’ words, especially adverbs and adjectives. However, it’s often those very same ‘useless’ words that wind up making us sound unique. Fiction isn’t essay writing, nor do all writers strive to be Hemingway. While it’s often good to avoid repetition, it can also be a strong literary technique. One Hemingway was fond of using, for that matter. Some people like stripped down to the bone prose, focusing primarily on what happens next, while others like a little purple and don’t mind stopping to admire a sunset even if it involves the dreaded rosy fingers. When someone nitpicks about their use, it is wise to ask yourself if this was an effect you were deliberately trying to achieve, or were you being unintentionally verbose?

If you do find yourself particularly confused about where you are with your writing, you’re best off finding someone who is a skilled writer who ‘gets’ your work. Not everyone will have equally useful or valid advice to offer, but the most helpful are those who know what you’re trying to achieve and can help you get there.

Life as a would-be writer: How to deal with critiques Part One

I’d posted this on an old, now-neglected blog and a recent discussion on Reddit inspired me to continue with something I’ve had on the back-burner for quite some time: a series about critiques. The first will be how to deal with critiques, then, why it’s important for would-be writers to give critiques and finally, how to critique, which some people are leery of doing for various reasons.

How to Deal with Critiques:

I’m on several different writers forums and one skill writers have to learn in addition to is handling feedback from others. It’s always important to get another’s view of whatever you’re working on at some point, whether it be the openings scenes, a couple of chapters or a beta to look at the overall novel. Novice writers make a lot of common errors such as overly purple descriptions, clunky dialogue or too much ‘set-up’ and not enough story, but even experienced writers get too close to their work sometimes. The best critiques often come from complete strangers – people who don’t care whether you’ll like them or not afterwards, since they don’t know you to begin with. That isn’t to say you can’t ever use family or friends, but you need them to be honest. Not just saying ‘yeah, it’s great!’ while grinning through clenched teeth.

So you polish that opening thousand words or some middle chapter or a short story, then find some other people to read it and … then what. If you’re like me, you cringe each time you open up any response and think maybe working in the dreary world of excel spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations, or being a cashier somewhere is a way more realistic option. Then you spot one paragraph no one commented on. That’s good, right? Unless they stopped reading there … Honestly, I find the best thing to do at that point is close the damn thing up and wash some dishes or go for a walk or do something to distract myself for a bit. Then I go look at it again.

Now. I know how my brain is skewed: towards the negative. I’ll miss any ‘I can’t wait to read more!’ three times but things like ‘this seemed too distant’ or ‘cut this line’ pop out straight away. So my first piece of advice (well, second if you count stepping away for a bit being first) is to be aware of how your own perception trips you up. Some people go too far to the other extreme and see the ‘I love your writing’ while missing any ‘but…’ that follows.

Writers often get attached to their work and as such, it’s necessary to step back from it and weigh both the good and the bad that other people are pointing out. It might be ‘your baby’, but it isn’t perfect. When reading through critiques, it’s also important to make sure your expectations are in line with your degree of experience. A first attempt at a novel will probably get picked apart a lot more than if it’s the tenth you’ve written. And it will have a lot more problems that need fixing.

Next, remind yourself that all forms of art are subjective. What you are soliciting is one person’s (or a few people’s) opinion about the piece you have submitted, not you personally. And no one is infallible. Some things may fall flat for nearly everybody. Those are the most important things to work on fixing straight away. Other parts, some people will love and others will hate with equal intensity. There’s almost nothing that absolutely everybody will love. So keep that last part in mind. You will never please everybody. So don’t worry about it. The ones you really want to please are the ones who already like your writing to a degree, or are tuned into the same wavelength.

Sometimes you know deep down something isn’t right, but can’t figure out quite what. That’s when feedback from others is invaluable. Once you know what needs to be fixed, it can be easy. One thing to keep in mind is that no one is ever completely 100% right about everything (even me, shockingly enough!), and someone is rarely 100% wrong either. In fact, sometimes the most important comments to heed are the ones that initially strike you as so very wrong. I’m not talking about where someone’s been rude or trolling or trying to be clever, but where you just want to grab them saying ‘hey, what the hell??’. Even if after careful consideration you do think they are still hugely wrong, it’s important to know exactly why you think they are. What set off that reaction. Anything that produces a visceral response needs to be weighed. It might be that the writer anticipated some problems already, but not what that person had pointed out. Being blindsided is always unpleasant. But worse is having a blind spot that persists through endless revisions.

Where it gets trickier is when dealing with conflicting advice. In the same chapter I once put up, one person thought the emotional nuances were very well-done, and another person thought it was too distant and wanted a deeper POV. As someone who prefers to be subtle and reads fiction written in first person only reluctantly, I decided to leave it as is. Ultimately as the author, it’s your responsibility to write in the style you’re most comfortable with. Please yourself first.

One more thing to keep in mind is that each person has their own biases and personal tastes or pet peeves they bring to critiquing*. Some people like lots of internal monologue – they like to be told exactly what the MC is thinking each moment. Myself? I prefer it kept to a minimum, and only if there’s not a better way to express it through dialogue or action. Some people will nitpick any description – does it matter if his jacket is red? – while others love paragraphs dedicated to building an entire world they can then immerse themselves in. As a writer the key is to try to strike what feels like the right balance to you. Maybe the person who picked at the description passages objected not because he or she doesn’t like much to begin with, but because the description didn’t work on its own. Maybe it wandered all over the place, lost and in need of directions, or was full of pureed metaphors. In that case it might be useful to seek out a critique partner who is stronger in those areas.

Lastly, thank the person for taking the time and effort, even if you don’t wind up taking a single thing into consideration. Never get defensive, never argue (though asking for clarification is perfectly fine) and never lash out at the person. Most people just want to help and mean well. In my experience, if someone’s really off base, others are usually happy to step in and say so. As for those who gave the best feedback, be sure to thank them too and let them know how helpful you found it. And most importantly, try to pay it either back or forward. My next post will be about integrating critiques into your work-in-progress.

*I plan to bring this up later in a future post about How to Critique