Busy everywhere but here

Spring came (and fully deserving a red carpet welcome after this past long, cold winter) and meant lots and lots of yard work on top of everything else I’m trying to get done. Sometimes I do miss living in a condo. One thing I’m not terrible good at is focusing on a single thing and finishing it …

For now I’ve finished the cover for The Fortune Teller’s Curse, got a Kindle/Amazon account and am waiting for a few things to process. Since I’m not a US resident, there was some special tax form I had to fill out. I also applied for an ISBN number, which Canadians can apply separately for here: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/services/isbn-canada/Pages/isbn-canada.aspx

Paperwork and filling forms are probably my least favourite things to do. But now, they are done.

I’ve also finished a second book, for which I’m drafting a query letter to send to agents. There’s a #pitmad on Twitter in June I need to get ready for as well, especially since I’ve missed the more recent ones. I’ve no clue how to hook an agent, but it’s worth trying.

On top of all that I’ve been binge-reading a pile of best-sellers I’d long meant to get around to reading and hadn’t. So the past month or so I’ve read Books 1-4 of GRRM’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones for TV watchers), the first Mortal Instruments City of Bones (sorry, hated it though I’d wanted to like it), The Time Traveller’s Wife, the first Harry Potter and also decided to re-read as many Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett that I can get my hands on. So far I’ve gone through Colour of Magic and Light Fantastic and am halfway through Equal Rites. I’ve also got Deborah Harkness’s Discovery of Witches on hold at the library, which I’m looking forward to reading.

 

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

Favourite quotes about novels

One of mine, defending reading fiction to those who would disparage it, comes from Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. It is still one of my favourite books of all time. Back when I was first writing, I began my own updated version of the story, switching it to a “New Age” retreat and inspired partly by Moliere’s plays as well. I’ve since lost whatever it was that I’d written and sometimes I wished I’d kept at it, especially since re-workings of Austen novels later became quite a trend.

“It is only a novel… or, in short, only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour, are conveyed to the world in the best-chosen language”

What are YOUR favourite quotes about novels, books or reading?

How people sabotage themselves and get in the way of what they (supposedly) want… Part I

One thing that fascinates me, is a theme I like to explore in fiction: how people sabotage themselves in their relationships and their careers. Many people are their own worst enemies and as I get older, I see the habit crop up in all sorts of different ways.

For example, one friend of mine is nearing middle age and is forever single. He keeps saying he doesn’t want to be, that he’d like to settle down and have kids. He’s certainly eligible enough. His profession pays reasonably well, he’s a decent-looking man who dresses fairly stylishly, owns his own house, never married, keeps active … and yet, he always does things to screw up his chances to settle down.

First, he doesn’t really search that hard. He’s well past the age where being too shy is a reasonable excuse. He knows how to talk to women without being a creep, but is reluctant to chat with anyone he’s not been formally introduced to. Nor does he scope the room when he’s out somewhere. Even when everyone he’s with is engaged in conversation with others, it’s as though he’d rather stare at the walls than glance around to see if anyone’s possibly checking him out.

When he has had a girlfriend, he’s generally decided fairly early in the relationship that she wouldn’t be a suitable long term partner. I won’t reveal any personal details, but with one of the more compatible ones, she was adamant she didn’t want kids. And for him, it was a deal-breaker. Which is perfectly alright, but if something is that important, it’s not fair to string someone else along for a year or two in the meantime. In at least two instances, he stayed for years in relationships he knew weren’t going to go anywhere.

He’s not the only one. A female friend of mine, who’s a little younger and also perennially single, has a similar problem. She goes every week for her ‘girl’s night out’ at the exact same bar. Trying to get her to venture from her scene is nearly impossible. Oh, and she loves her gay boyfriends. Several years ago, a friend of mine had invited her to a party that would have lots of single men, including one named ‘Jason’. She didn’t bother showing up and a couple of years later, she got to meet Jason at a wedding. Jason thought she was cute and she raved that he was absolutely gorgeous. However, he was no longer single.

Now, these are just anecdotes, but each of these friends (along with several more I know and love) follow the same pattern: they can’t stand leaving their comfort zone. They find safety in routine. Ironically, that same personality trait is what helps make a marriage work. In most other parts of their lives, they’re very stable, reliable people. But somewhere along the way, they got stuck. They say they want this part of their life to change, and yet they are unwilling to take action to make it change.

Now, I know from experience what that’s like, because that was me in my twenties. I went a long stretch were I was constantly single and didn’t want to be. At least, that’s what I’d tell my friends. It’s what I thought I wanted …

… to be continued …

I just did one of the worst things a would-be writer could do

I let myself get distracted with a new project before completing any old ones. Bad, bad, bad!

Instead of finishing final edits and finishing the book cover for The Fortune Teller, I wrote four thousand odd words for the opening of a brand new novel. Normally, I don’t bother writing new ideas down. If they’re good enough, they’ll stick in my mind regardless. Well, this new idea stuck like crazy glue, though it’s barely the skeleton of a story. More like a premise. However, it’s also that ever-elusive ‘high concept’ idea that might someday sell. I hope.

As for the cover of my almost-finished project, it’s basically a fairly generic-looking fortune teller, complete with hands hovering around a crystal ball. When I looked up something similar for inspiration in Google images, there were two general versions: one with an opaque, glowing crystal ball like the one I created myself, and one with a glassier looking, more traditional crystal ball. Naturally, I’m now dithering on whether I should try the latter instead. I have a blue marble I photographed, but I’m thinking of getting a clear one from the dollar store or one of those new age shops and trying that instead.

Decisions, decisions… or is that excuses, excuses?

At least I have still been plugging away at something… *sigh*

I think I’m turning into a bear…

Or at least, I’ve been hibernating like one. This has been one cold, nasty winter. Instead of writing and reading as much as I should be or want to be, I’ve been sleeping. The past weekends, I’ve been averaging 15 hours a day. I just have to remind myself that February is almost over. It will get warm again soon. And at least there’s more sun each day.

In addition to two novels I hope to self-publish, I have one where I’m aiming for the more traditional route. I tried one round of query letters, and it wasn’t working, so hopefully this week I’ll get another version written. On top of that, a site called Manuscript Wishlist has one entry that (I hope!) matches my book to a ‘T’.

This week as well, I have to go back to the cover I was working on for the Fortune Teller and do one more read-through of the MS before a final edit.

Good thing it’s only Monday. And hopefully I’ve had enough sleep by now that I can burn the midnight oil a little more.

Dreaming of white sand instead of snow…

A few years ago, I travelled to the gulf side of Florida with some friends. We went to Siesta Key, where the sand was soft and white like flour. Around sunset, I took a few pictures. Apart from the bikini-clad beachgoers (and the wonderful heat, of course!), the setting looked like it could just have easily been taken somewhere in the arctic.

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If I were brave enough to face the sub-zero temperatures, wind-chill and icy roads, I’d probably be able to take a similar one of Lake Erie right now. Only I’d much rather be on a warm, sunny beach… *sigh*