Much harder than avoiding to put your foot in your mouth during a precarious conversation, the ability to impartially look at ones work and honestly critique it is hard to come by. As the writer, we the author often know the world and characters to the extent that we forget to clue others in. We can even be guilty of writing the “Cliff’s Notes” version of a story, because the rest is so deeply ingrained in our heads that we can read between the sparse lines we write. “What do you mean you didn’t get that the protagonist’s brother was really his father, I vaguely hinted at it on page three in the fourth paragraph.” To properly self-edit we need to read as a stranger and try to forget everything we learned from that detailed outline we spent months creating before embarking on this journey of storyline.
Another aspect of editing is the ability to be brutally honest. Some fellow Writer’s Group members take the act of being honest to others to an art form level and can even deliver compliments with a poisoned tip spear. When self-editing one must assail to similar honesty with themselves. If the sentence is weak or the idea muddled then you have to admit it. Just because rewriting that one sentence will change the entire structure of the paragraph and break the tension you were attempting to affect, in no way excuses you from fixing the sentence. That one line may be the thing that confuses the reader, takes the reader out of the story, interrupts pacing, or makes them put the story down. Seriously, if you have enough weak points, then the story as a whole will fall on its face. The bad sentences can also add up to enough to make the reader walk away from the work.
Grammar is important, but can actually fall to the background if the story is told well enough the reader forgets about it. Now I’m not saying to ignore the rules of grammar because your ability is obviously so wonderful that no one would mind. Not everyone can be as lucky as Timothy Dexter. What I am saying, is to pay heed to rhythm and pacing and story and character and mood. Remember your fundamentals. Follow your tropes if you’re in genre. Be true to your characters and don’t have them do or say things that they wouldn’t. Make sure the scene is believable for your story–research the things you don’t already know and apply that knowledge to the story. Then once you are confident all of these things are working, make sure your story is not grammatically indigestible. Besides, following some grammatical rules can often help you write stronger sentences.
Once you are through writing a piece, it is also very important that you decide upon your theme if you haven’t already. During the re-read, keep your eye on how the theme affects the story and how you tell it. Perhaps you weren’t aware of the theme when you first embarked on this storyline. In that instance, you may find many references or sentences that betray that theme. If so, then fix them. Often on larger works, writers discover that the first 20,000 words they write merely help them solidify their idea of the theme and thus they are forced to throw many of those words away in rewrite. Never be afraid to throw away your words. Remember, no matter how beautiful the prose, if it weakens or betrays the story as a greater whole then it must be culled.
And finally, remember that no great work was ever written in the first draft. The stories and books that stand the test of time are the one which the authors chose to work hard on during the rewrite process. So read your work honestly and don’t be lazy when you see the problem in your fiction, fix it.
“The first draft of anything is shit” —Ernest Hemingway
I never thought I would say this, but it really helps to belong. All of my life I’ve done things on my own, with little to no help from anyone. All of my choices in education and the funding thereof, has been of my choosing and from my pocket. Most major life decisions have also been solely mine–at least until I got married, but even then I still make most of the decisions and just clear it with my wife prior to execution. That has always been the way I am.
Part of “not being a team player” is what draws me to writing. The art and craft is a very isolated experience for the bulk of everything. When working on a story the only one to keep me company, the only one I have to work with are the very characters I create. The process of spilling them out takes hours upon hours of just me and my keyboard.
Once, I reached out to a local writer’s group, but they were all poets and mostly stay at home moms with nothing better to do with their time. Not to discredit their art, but their purpose was different from mine. I want to do this for a living and not as a way to kill time like needlepoint or puzzles. Hell, if I don’t do this sometimes it feels like I start to go crazy. I need to write.
The past 15 years I’ve virtually lived under a rock, honing my skills and teaching myself how to do what I love to do. Once or twice I searched for workshops or literary groups, in order to find a new avenue of learning or to touch base on where I was at. Needless to say, I still did it alone.
Two years ago, I discovered Genre conventions and the writing workshops that some of them provide. As is my course, I sought a few out in order to learn a little more, to get a status on my efforts. This allowed me to be introduced to Michigan authors, others who aspire as I do. These people are very serious about their craft. I was amazed.
Christine Purcell and Stewart Sternburg are very passionate (Stewart a bit animated too) about their art. They are also very willing to help anyone else who is passionate about their art. They recently invited me to join their writer’s group. Normally, I would be hesitant. As I said earlier, my past experiences have not been that positive. But this is definitely the exception. Having been through a writer’s workshop with these two individuals, I knew a little about what to expect. This helped me feel positive about reaching out from under my rock joining something.
So far, I’m very glad I did. Not only am I learning how to better edit my writing by editing other’s work and seeing how other’s edit, but I’m also learning from the mistakes all of us make and the other writers point out. Last night, Stewart gave a similar speech about characterization to the one he made at ConClave. Charles Zaglanis of Elder Signs Press made some very good points about word choice and characterization. Christine brought to the meeting some very interesting tidbits about changes in the industry. The newer members, whose names I’ve yet to learn, also offered very good input.
As part of this group, I will continue to learn and hone my craft in greater strides than by myself. It will also keep me to task working on my craft, as I need to get the critiques done in a timely manner and I also wish to have something of my own to contribute to the melee. It has been a long time since I’ve felt this positive about my dream. In of itself, that is enough reason to continue my membership in the group. As someone who battles depression every day, anything that I can add to my life which brings me joy and hope is a good thing.
So writers, you should search out a good writer’s group or form a group that is both positive and critical in a constructive manner, so that you may grow your craft, feel camaraderie from your fellow artisans, and grow in your art.
The weekend was a blast. Thank you to Christine Purcell and Charles Zaglanis of Elder Signs Press for their hospitality. The book launch of Lois Gresh’s Blood and Ice was fun and flavorful–I was blessed with the opportunity to enjoy Bacon Fudge. The panels hosted by Christine and Charles was both informing and entertaining. Then of course, Mr. Jim C Hines was as funny as you would expect the creator of Jig to be. The panel on Dialog that he moderated still makes me laugh to think about it.
I also reconnected with some past acquaintances from previous writer’s workshops, which was especially nice. Hopefully, I made some new contacts amongst the wonderful people there. Stewart Sternburg’s reading from his first book, The Ravening made me even more interested in the story.
All in all, in spite of there being no writer’s workshop the whole weekend still afforded me many opportunities to expand my knowledge of the craft. There were so many authors there I never met them all officially. Still, the ones I did meet shared so much of their struggles and triumphs that I now know there is nothing else I would rather do with my life. Genre fans are the best, the genre community is as flawed as any community, but still warmer and more inviting than any community I’ve come across outside of my church. I want to grow in my craft and learn to produce a work that touches people and entertains them as much as I saw people touched and entertained by what is out there now.
Many people will agree that the hardest part of anything is the beginning. The first ten minutes I spend on the elliptical machine are always the most torturous, pulling the lawnmower out of the garage to cut the grass is the most difficult part of mowing, and avoiding the million-things-that-can-distract-you-from-writing is the worst.
I once read an author’s quote where he said that he left the house to write because if he didn’t he’d find himself “staring into the fridge as if it held all the answers to the world”, instead of writing. Boy do I know what that is like.
Currently, I have a full-time job, a family life, and some strands of a social life. These things I’ve groomed and attended to so that I might grow as a person, enjoy this time I’ve been given, and be whatever of a blessing I can to those around me. Sadly, by choosing life, I also at times have to refuse writing. After all, the balance between living life and a person’s art is often tenuous.
When I first embarked on writing as a possibility in my life, I believed I had yet to experience life. Such is often the lament of the young. Looking back now, I know I’ve had an interesting life. The decisions I’ve made have led me to discover many a myriad notes about myself and how the world works. All of these things infuse my art, inspire my words, and shape the soul for which inspiration sprouts. They also take away from the time available for which to voice that inspiration.
The dichotomy is both exhilarating and bothersome. It is so invigorating to know that I have so much going on that life is a little more because of me, but it is also so frustrating and sad to know that my creation, my voice, my counsel suffocates in the restraints brought on by the very thing which fuels it.
The night, when the moon swam across the velvet sky, my mind would hear stories in the silence and spill them upon the page. Now, night is a time to unwind from the day and relax; a time to reconnect to the family I’ve been away from all day. Soon, in order to bring the balance back between my art and my life I’m going to have to retreat back into the night. In the spring I vowed to get up early and work on my writing while the rest of the world still slept. Alas, my mind is too foggy in the morning, too geared toward solving the problems of the day ahead. Therefore, it is in the night, the time that exists when the waking world has turned to slumber, that I must seek to ply my trade.
A few weeks ago a professional told me to never give up. Christine Purcell saw something in my command of the English language and my use of it that she liked. She even said that despite my lack of formal training I used some tropes better than most at my level. Such words are inspiring. Such prase is encouraging.
I will then move my work from the random short spurts afforded me during the hectic daytime and into the night, where it will fourish once more. This is my time. This is my opportunity to work toward that dream that I dared not dream as a kid. My time to never give up.
ConClave 35 has come and gone. It was a fun and eventful weekend to say the least. Friday, the hotel buzzed with the excitement of arriving con-goers and psyched panelists.
The Writer’s workshop met promptly at 8:30PM. M. Keaton, Stewart Sternberg, Dan J. Hogan, Christine Devlin, Christine Purcell, and William Jones appeared eager to greet this years enthusiastic upstarts. Stewart took the helm of the conversation and queried all involved if they prefered to break off in one-on-one sessions or rather hold an open forum for the night and break-off into individual sessions Saturday. Very quickly a quorum was met and the open discussion ensued.
At this point, I must mention that the intensity and energy of the workshop tripled in volume. All panelists agreed to not speak names directly or to point fingers at the authors whose failings they lamented openly. The hope was to allow each of us to learn from one another’s mistakes.
Stewart again grabbed the lead in both of his meaty hands and looked directly at me. He said, “Characterization is one if not the most important part of a story.”
Every panelist jumped onto that subject and went into great detail on the why’s, how’s, and impact’s of good characterization. Eventually, M. Keaton and Stewart both broke the rule and talked directly to me and about the pages I had submitted. They loved what I had done, they were very happy to read it, but the way I dragged my feet building on my characters weakened my prose. Christine P. even piped in about how much she loved many of the lines I had written. She too was disappointed in having to read so many pages of inner dialogue before the story began.
“I liked the first paragraph, but then I didn’t care until four or five pages later when the other character came in. Then I didn’t want to set it down,” she said.
After an hour, the panelists transitioned to speaking about passive voice, not engaging the reader, and the importance of writer’s groups. Occasionally they found a way of wrapping back to me and commenting about a specific parts of my fiction they both loved and hated. Had I started the story at a different point, had I not led them astray for so long, they wouldn’t have anything to say to me at all.
To hear these words. To see these professional authors look at me like I was an equal. I still cannot find words for it. There in my chair, I just sat as stoned faced as always, as if we were having any other conversation about anything else in the world. Now, over 24 hours after hearing their praise and validation, I am still speechless.
Stewart–“You remind me a bit of Bradbury.”
Christie–“Some of your prose is the most beautiful I’ve read in a while.”
Dan–“You are the most improved author this year.”
Saturday’s individual sessions lifted my spirits even higher. Christine P told me to never give up writing because I was already there, I am publishable. Those words burned into my brain and rattle me to even think about. Not even a full month ago I was ready to walk away from my writing forever, to give up the dream as just one more hair-brained failure.
William told me he thought it was time I spoke to his editor at Elder Signs Press, Charles P. Zaglanis. “Making contacts like this is what conventions are for,” William said.
Sunday, we held an open forum to wrap up the weekend of critiquing, with the panelists touching on all we had discussed both openly and individually. Stewart commented that the panel he was on prior was such a waste of his time that he could have ran through the room topless and still not been able to get a word in edgewise. He was glad to be back with us talking about things that really mattered. We laughed together and bonded just a little more before the session ended.
Charles from Elder Signs Press came to this last meeting also. When I presented him with my novel he said, “Christine has said a lot of really good things about you.” He read the first few paragraphs at the beginning of the book and then said he wished to read the rest. I now have a novel under consideration via the connections I made at ConClave.
As I said before, it was a fun and eventful weekend to say the least.