Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Taking Feedback (Ownership)

"I have to wait a few days, until after I stop hating the people who said it's not perfect, before I can go back to a piece and start to agree with them."
-paraphrase, Jenny

Okay, I've talked about how I give feedback/criticism. It's only fair to talk about how I take it. The truth, you may be disappointed to know, is that I'm usually not bothered by it. My character's motivation isn't clear? Okay, I'll fix it. I've got a logic problem? Oops. Better change that. You hate it with a passion? Hrm... dunno if there's anything I can do about that.

Jenny calls it my poker face. I talk very little when I'm getting critiques. On one hand, because anything I didn't make clear in the piece, as it's written, isn't going to get any clearer in the piece, as it's written, if I explain it verbally. On the other, let's be honest: it doesn't matter what I have to say about it. As soon as I ask other people to read a story, it doesn't belong to me anymore. Said story belongs to the reader. If I wanted to keep it, I should have kept it to myself.

In this perspective, anyone is completely justified in thinking/saying whatever they want about my work, because it's their story now. Sound extreme? Perhaps. Be an English major for a while, that'll help. It doesn't matter what Hemingway thought about Hills Like White Elephants because we own it now, not him. So, I think the reviewing process from that angle. Anything I write needs to be able to stand without me.

I admit, I'm not always passifistic. There are times when I'm getting a critique and think, "Um, no. You're totally wrong." There are times when I refuse to change things just because someone suggested it. Let's face it, not every person is the ideal audience for every work of literature. Sometimes, try as they might, guys have a hard time liking Chic Lit. It's not a shortcoming of either author or said guy, it's just a bad match.

So, if I find myself flat out disagreeing with a critique, I don't worry about it. It's not my fault, it's not their fault, it's just a bad match. So what if Jenny and Oliver are actually agreeing on something, and that something is what's wrong with my story. It's my story, dangit. But wait, didn't I just get into a spiel about how it's not? Whups. Then again, I can justify.

The reader owns the story when they're reading and thinking about something I've written. It's theirs completely. However, I own the story when I'm writing and revising it. So, whatever they think, it's my choice how to revise. The reader owns the product. The writer owns the process. That's where I see the balance and the reason I've got thick skin when I'm being critiqued.

How about you? How do you take criticism? How do you see the reader/writer ownership question? Who does a work of fiction really belong to?

Giving Feedback

"You are the toughest critic in the group."
-paraphrase, Marie

Sunday was the writers group meeting and at dinner afterward, we got to talking about the group's dynamics. My demonic nature came up, and then a few of the folks added that I'm also the one who tends to be the hardest on a given piece of work. Marie also commented that, if she could survive my critique, she could survive anyone else's. They meant it in a kind and gentle fashion, with lots of love and no mention of bodily harm. They also mentioned that I say a lot of positive things in critiques too, but there's always the "but." Food for thought.

I started to think about my reasons for being so tough on people. I think it's mostly one, a golden rule sort of approach, "Review as ye would be reviewed." I tend to be merciless on my own work, willing to hack away, chop with abandon, and completely change characters/settings/structure/etc. I give credit to David for at least some of this.

For instance, one semester I did an independent study with him where I wrote a handful of stories based on mythological templates, i.e. my version of the story of Ganesh. He read the rough draft of that story and, instead of saying, "Okay, this scene could be tighter, and I want more of X here," he said, "Okay. What I want to you to now is set this draft aside. Don't look at it. Then, rewrite the story." At first I was a bit flabbergasted. What? I had to rewrite it from scratch?! He explained the logic though - by doing a blind rewrite, I'd lose the least memorable parts of the story and keep the best.

The main part I remember was that I had a scene where the main character has an argument with his dad. It was I think two and a half pages of dialogue. I loved it, I thought the dialogue was great. The only problem was I couldn't remember it verbatim. So what was a 2+ page chunk of dialogue became about half a page long. The kicker - it still said everything it needed to, but said it better.

David wasn't afraid to demand "impossible" things from his students. On more than one of my poems, he said "Alright, it's not bad, but it doesn't really get good until the last stanza. So, cut the other six, make the last one your first of a new poem, and go." The impossible things he demanded from me have made me a much better writer than I would be otherwise. He was very rarely "satisfied" with what I did, but because of it, he forced me to always improve.

As far as blame goes for me being a demanding reviewer, I share it with him. I know how much his high standards helped me, so I have a thought that mine might help someone else. Besides: if everyone else in the group disagrees with me, then by all means, the writer is free to as well. I just like to find ways to up the ante, so to speak. If it's a good story, then good, but what if it could be a great one?

What kind of a reviewer are you? What do you think are the most important things you can do/say in a critique? Why? How did you develop your approach?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Writing/Music Connection?

"I've been teaching myself how to play the banjo for about ten years."

On her blog, Deb recently posted about being a banjo player and a writer. Jenny commented saying that she plays the flute. David Keplinger is a poet who plays the guitar and sings. Ditto that for Jay Udall. My friend Dorothy is a wonderful singer and a writer. I used to play violin (and dabble with the guitar and piano).

So, I got to wondering - how many other writers are/have been musicians too? The more I think about it, the more it seems that people with an inclination to music also have one toward writing. Or vice versa, if you'd rather.

Now I'm wondering if I'm just making up a connection or if there really is one there. What do you think? Is it a matter of people who are interested in one creative endeavor also being interested in another? How many writers do you know who are also musicians - or sculptors, painters, dancers, artists, or carpenters? Do you think it's just a coincidence, or is there something to it?

Friday, July 27, 2007

Abandoning Books

Lately, I've been having some reading apathy. I keep going to the library and looking for something interesting only to later return these books completely or partially unread. The past few weeks, I've dropped three books (Migrations and Other Stories, New Amsterdam and A Good and Happy Child) and am thinking of dropping another (Demian). I'm usually not this bad about book dropping, and I'm a bit frustrated that it's so hard to find something that'll hold my attention.

Yesterday, I resorted to the ever-successful fallback of finding something from an author I already know and love. I can always count on Pratchett to entertain. Maybe he'll be enough to get me interested in reading other books again.

I'm curious, what's your policy on abandoning partially-read books? Do you often find yourself abandoning a book part way, or do you finish every book you start? What'll make you put down a book and never pick it up again?

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Round Story Troubles


Writers group is this Sunday and I have no idea what to write for my addition to the Round story. I mean no clue at all. *Sigh*

I know I have to get a chapter done (point C), but my lack of ideas (point A) leaves me without the faintest idea of how to get started (point B). I have to admit, I'm having a few mean thoughts about those who've already done their additions - they're done with it and safe until the next go 'round, the bastards.

Monday, July 23, 2007

They Call Me Ali-Demon For a Reason

"I'll think about it."

My dearest Jenny has given me a hellish nickname. I don't think I quite deserve being called a demon, but I've gotten used to it. Friday night, Deb even mentioned how Jenny had thought of naming baby #2 after me because of all the grief he/she's giving her in utero. You know, I think I'd be fine with that. Though, I think a name like Ali-demon might cause trouble for the tot in school.

I suppose you're wondering where the name came from. Well, the short of it is that in a writing community there are important roles we adopt in order to support and encourage each other. You have people who are great at cheering you on (cheerleaders), who have a sharp eye for technical stuff (editors), who can immediately see where you went wrong and how you can fix it (fixers), and people who have excellent suggestions for exercises to try in order to get around a writing problem - like writing it in a different P.O.V. or such (coaches). There are more roles than I've listed, and most people don't just fulfill one.

The reason I'm called Ali-Demon isn't because of one of the fore-mentioned roles, but because I'm a nag. Currently, there are two people who bear the brunt of my demon nature. First off is Jenny, of course. She's one of my favorite writers (Or, as Whitakker would point out - a writer I favor), and if I make a habit of demanding new work from her, I usually get it. I love sending her e-mails asking how she's doing on the new story she's going to submit this month. I've been on Jenny's case for a long time now, a year? Two? I can't remember. Long enough for the nick name, anyhow. Speaking of which, I had better remind her that I'm still waiting on the rest of her novel manuscript...

The second person who I've turned my demonic eye on is John from work. I've been working on him to come and visit the CSFWG for literally a few months. He keeps wussing out on me, "I'm not ready to show it to other people," but I think I'm making headway. For one, after looking over my comments on his first three chapters, he says he doesn't think I'm evil. Granted, he may be lying, but since he never actually threw anything or cussed at me on Saturday, I'm going to believe him. For another, I've been emphasizing that he wouldn't have to submit anything from the novel if he didn't want to. That the important thing is meeting other writers and having some practice critiquing other people's work.

With the next writers group meeting this weekend, we once again come to the point where either he'll wuss out or cowboy up. Hrm... Does it sound like I'm being hard on him? No malice intended, I promise, but he's an ex-marine, he can take it. My other plan is to take him to the less-intimidating rogue writers group as a way of easing him into it.

If nothing else, I figure he'll eventually come along one of these times simply for the sake of shutting me up. It's not the most elegant strategy, but that's not what's important. What's important is that it tends to work. Thus, the nickname.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Do You Genre Jump?

Me: I'm not comfortable doing it.
Old boss: That's exactly why you should do it.
-How I ended up doing a presentation in front of a room full of people at an old job (Also a philosophy I've adopted for my personal life - sometimes the things that scare us the most are the things we most need to do)

I didn't read the latest Round story chapter until last night (there's one goal missed), but when I did, I noticed something fun. In Fred's writing thus far, we've seen sci-fi with a fairly serious tone. The Round story, thanks to Oliver's tone-setting 1st chapter, is neither of those. In fact, it reminds me quite a lot of Oscar Wilde's work in its wit and love of absurdity. Now, one of the rules for the Round story is that everyone, regardless of comfort zone, has to do their best to match what's come before. Thus, Fred had to write like Oliver.

I have to say, the result is quite fun. This writing has a much freer feeling than anything else I've seen of Fred's and he writes it very well. In fact, I want to encourage Fred to do more of this tone. I've done some genre jumping before, and I've seen others do it, and the results are often the same. When we go outside of our comfort zone and write something in a genre, style, and/or setting that's totally alien, our writing tends to improve. Weird, right? After all, our comfort zone is the genre/style we have the most practice writing, so it seems really counter-intuitive. But, if you look at it another way, it makes perfect sense. When we write in a way that's completely strange to us two things happen:

1. Since this isn't our "thing" we're less married to it and less worried about it not working out. After all, it's just an experiment, right?

2. To write in an alien genre/style, we pay closer attention to what we're doing. In short, we get more focused on making it work as an imitation of Joyce, which means we examine how Joyce did what he did. This means getting out of the ruts we may have made in our regular writing.

The story I'm going to submit to the group this month is one of those stories. When I found it in my notebook, where it had been quietly sitting for a few years, I read it thinking "Okay, I know I wrote this, but it's nothing like me." This story does things that I'm normally too afraid to do. I like to make my stories tight, where everything has its place and a specific reason. This one is much looser and doesn't all fit snugly together. For these same reasons, I really like it as a piece of my work. It proves I can go beyond my comfort zones.

What about you? Have you ever tried writing outside your comfort zone? Have you ever seen someone else do it? What happened?

A new topic for the blog: Challenges. I hereby challenge you to go outside your comfort zone. Write in a genre or style you've never written in before. First, find a sample of your target writing. Second, read it and analyze it. How does it work? Lastly, get out your pen, crayon, computer, or stylus and go for it. You've never written a poem? Well, what are you waiting for?

What's Productive?

"I only wrote twenty pages this week"
-paraphrase, Matt

On the CSFWG yahoo group a couple of days ago, Matt sent a message that he wasn't feeling productive. A lot of people wrote back that they'd be thrilled to call a twenty page week a slow one.

Between this and my recent goal-setting, I've started to wonder what "productive" means. I tend to be a slow writer, barring workshop classes, because when I have no deadlines, I take my time. This isn't because I write better when I write slower. I admit it's just because of laziness. On average, if I write a complete short story, or novel chapter, in a month, that's normal. Anything above and beyond counts as "productive." My standards are low, I admit. Then again, there are many very good writers who work at a slow pace, and they're still considered "productive," aren't they? It's a fuzzy line.

I heard that Terry Pratchett sits down every day to type up 400 words. If he finishes the book he's working on at word 350, then he starts the first fifty words of his next book. Stephen King is similarly disciplined. These guys churn out a lot of books, and I'd call both good writers. Heck, Terry Pratchett is one of my heroes. Then again, Joss Whedon tends to write more slowly. He spent something like a year on the Wonderwoman script before leaving the project, and a script is only around 120 pages. Joss also is on the list of people I want to be when I grow up (this list ignores the fact that some of my heroes are men), number one on that list, actually.

For me, it seems a whole short story a month is productive. Which means we're talking about a monthly page count of 5-15 pages. Compared to Terry, I'm way behind. Compared to Joss, not so much. Then again, I think I could bump up my quantity without hurting my quality. Hrm... another goal, perhaps.

Take a look at your own writing habits. What do you consider "productive"? Do you have any specific methods for making sure you stay productive, like daily word counts or designated writing times?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

KFC Pages

I just wasn't in a coffee mood, so I opted for fried chicken instead. Not the healthiest lunch, I know, but I' m justifying indulgences with the fact that I'm getting work done. Yesterday, I went over two of the three storiest - I decided I wasn't ready for An Ocean Kind of Blue - and decided to submit a different story this month than the untitled one. All-in-all, not a bad day's work.

Goals for today: finish CSFWG critiques, read Fred's addition to the round story, and start thinking about what my addition will be.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Blue Frustration

"...she closed her right hand tight. The blue line of her scar curled into a half moon."
-from the untitled story

I'm having a hard time with this one. I like the jist of the idea, especially the mechanics of how removing a memory works. I just can't help but feel that there's a loose edge somewhere, and I can't quite see it to fix the damn thing. Not helping my problem is that I can't get a title for it. I know when a story is done because I kind of hear a "click" in my head. It's the sound of everything belonging (more or less) right where it is. This story hasn't made that sound yet, and I'm getting frustrated because I don't know what to fix.

Granted, this is the beauty of a critique group because these kinds of problems tend to be completely obvious to anyone who isn't the author. I'm sure that I'll fight with it over the next few days, trying to get it fixed up for the writers group, then they'll all read it and say, "Look, here's your problem" and then I'll smack my forehead and say "Doh" 'cause it'll be blaringly obvious. *Sigh* Doesn't mean I'm going to stop torturing myself about it, though.

Today, in keeping with my recent trend of writing outside the house, I'm headed somewhere after I'm done on campus to do some revising. I think I'll end up at a fast food place, since no one there cares how long you stay. Then again, maybe The Daily Grind would be better - a coffee shop w/a very artistic feel, thanks to the local art on the walls. Dang it, I think I'm going to have to take up drinking coffee since I'm starting to like the coffee shops so much.

As an homage to Deb, I think I'll start including some goals on this blog. To start off, my goal for today is to read & do some marking up on three stories I've printed out: the unnamed one, An Ocean Kind of Blue, and one called And He Knows Me which is a few years old.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

I'm Not Evil, Really

Me: What kind of feedback do you want? General or nitpicky?
John: Both.

After much goading from me, John from work has given me the first three chapters of his "science-fantasy" novel. Though, I think he's going to stop calling it that since I mentioned there's no such genre.

I've gotten about half way through chapter one and I'm starting to have some hesitation about returning it to him. I've written all over it. Really. I got a little carried away with trying to be helpful, so I've circled, underlined, and crossed-out like crazy. It looks like I hate it. I don't, I really don't. *Sigh* I'm going to have to do some serious prefacing before I hand it back to him, something along the lines of "Yeah, it's going to look like I'm the antichrist, but I just got carried away."

The jist: his story is interesting so far - a person from our world plopped into a fantasy realm premise, with a fun twist of the stranger having amnesia. The part that needs work is the storytelling. He has oodles of info-dumpy exposition, likes -ly adverbs (especially "quickly"), and explains just about every single line of dialogue in terms of "he asked with a puzzled expression on his face" stuff. Nothing that's irreparable, but plenty to be polished.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Zajj Pages (The Coffee Conspiracy)

Me: I'd like a chocolate latte.
Barista: You mean a mocha latte?
Me: (in my head) I'm so confused.
-Visit to Cafe Zajj on Tuesday

The reason for my confusion is that on Monday, at Its A Grind during the rogue writers group, I asked for a mocha latte. They said, "You mean a chocolate latte?" I'm starting to feel like there's a coffee conspiracy. Just when I think I figure out what the heck to order, they change it up on me.

Adding to my consternation about the conspiracy, the drink I had at one coffee shop tasted nothing like the one at the other. Even with an allowance for how a chocolate latte and mocha latte are presumably different things, there was nothing similar at all between the two lattes. What gives?

After we got the coffee sorted out, I found a table, flipped open my notebook, and got down to business. I only stayed about half an hour, thanks to having other things to do, but got down two hand-written pages of a story I don't yet have a name for. Usually, I can name stories pretty easily, but every now and again one comes along that just wants to be known as "the story about..." I think this maybe one of the stories I have to completely write before I can name it.

This brings us to another question. What's your relationship with titles? Do they come easily, painfully, or somewhere in between? Do some types of writing lend themselves more readily to titles than others? i.e. You name stories a lot faster than you name poems? Tell me about your process.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Rogue Writers Group

"It's all about me."
-Deb, last night at the coffee shop

There's the CSFWG and there's the rogue group, made up of people who've come through (or are still in) the CSFWG. The meetings happen twice a month and are much more informal. Usually, thanks to either class or work, I can't go. Last night was an exception, and quite fun.

Deb's book, MMG, was the topic of a lot of discussion - what's working, what could work better, etc. The neat thing was the way that everyone was saying the same things, like "There are so many characters, I'm losing track of who's who," and "The way you introduced the character S-- was brilliant!"

It's crazy. You take a group of people of different ages, professions, and from different backgrounds and have them all read the same book, and they all come to about the same conclusions. Weird stuff, I'm tellin' ya.

Monday, July 2, 2007

Writing Outside

"Early Saturday morning I went out and cut it into manageable chunks to get it out of the way. While I sawed and sweated and cursed a little bit, I thought about the next scene in HM."

Speaking of writing at a coffee shop, I want to talk a little about process. Everyone does the writing thing in their own way - whether long hand or typing, in a home office or diner (that one's David's). So, I'm going to pose a blog question. Where and how do most like to write?

For me, it seems like I'm at my most productive when I'm not home. At the house there are so many things to distract me, but when I'm at, say a coffee shop, my distractions are limited. Ditto this for lecture - I remember more than a few times sitting next to Jenny in a class and having her look over at my notebook and later give me a hard time about writing a short story, or a new bit of Oracle while I should've been taking notes. Then again, when I make myself sit in front of the computer to write, and only write - not play Solitaire, I can usually put out a decent number of pages.

I guess the truth is, that for me, it depends on the mood I'm in. Notebook writing is when I'm feeling like playing around. Computer writing is when I want to accomplish something. Process vs. product, it seems.

Tough Times at the Writing Marathon

"The building was made of gray bricks, with art deco moldings and stained glass windows. It used to be a hotel, but now it's a home for the elderly..."
-WM guy in my group

The writing marathon on Thursday turned out a bit disappointing. It didn't help that, while I did nab the two people I most wanted to be in a group with - Shawn and Rebecca - we also got stuck with two extra people who caused me great frustration. One was Guy who was trying to hit on me, the other was Guy who kept sharing what he wrote and kept writing about the stuff around us. Now, part of the idea of an WM is to get inspired by your surroundings, but technical descriptions of buildings that go on for two pages is not quite what a WM is going for. Ugh.

Also not helping was my inability to write something I was happy with. I managed one short-short story that I can make something out of, but otherwise, got squat. I'm not big on making excuses about writing, but dang it, I just couldn't make it happen that day.

On the up side, even though I had such a hard time, it did put me in the mood to write - I have no idea how, but it did. So, thanks to that, and the bonus drink voucher left over from the read-around at the coffee shop, I plan to spend a little quality time at Cafe Zajj in the next few days with my notebook and something frothy.