I’ve recently taken over as interim Web Liaison for the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. Because of this, I’m able to really dig into the WCDR’s website and work with the rest of the board of directors to make the website more accessible, more resource-packed, and more informational.
One thing that became apparent as I now have my hands in the WCDR’s main website and this one (the RAW site), is that there’s no need to have such a separation between the two. So, I’ve got a new plan for Reading as Writers.
The focus of this site will be this, the literary blog. It’s generated some great discussion over the last year, since I took over as RAW Coordinator (a fancy title for editor and primary contributor of this blog and resource site). This needs to continue! The start of the online critique groups RAW Critters is also a component of the Reading as Writers website. As for the rest, it really belongs on the main WCDR website. So, over the next several months, I’ll be moving the resource content of this website over to the main WCDR website. Some of the content is repeated anyway.
I will also be closing the RAW Twitter account because…well, I’m currently tweeting for both accounts and it’s just not practical. Things sort of worked out to put me in a position to manage all online components for the WCDR together, so now I’m just organizing everything.
I’m hoping for this literary blog to become even more focused, now that the WCDR’s main website has its own informational news blog. “5 Questions, 1 Speaker” will continue monthly, with RAW blog topics directly tying to what the WCDR’s monthly RoundTable speakers plan to cover during their presentations. Last month, this proved to be quite successful with speaker Guy Gavriel Kay beginning his talk at the RoundTable meeting by referring to the discussion that was sparked by my post on October 21st, 2013. I’m still hoping to welcome more WCDR members to the blog with guest posts related to the concept of reading as a writer.
So, while the website might end up looking bare, nothing is really going to change. I’m just getting a head start on my virtual spring cleaning. And please, drop by the WCDR’s main website to see what’s going on. I’d love to hear suggestions on how to make the website more useful, so send any feedback and suggestion my way! email@example.com
Stay tuned for Harrison Wheeler’s return to the blog, with Pt. 2 of Graphically Speaking. (Pt. 1)
This week, RAW welcomes WCDR member Harrison Wheeler to the blog. On December 14th, Harrison will facilitate a writing exercise during the RoundTable meeting. Be sure to register soon! Now, please enjoy Part 1 of Harrison’s blog, and stay tuned for Part 2 next week.
Artists, like writers, are ‘reading’ the world all the time. Picturing potential scenes as we go about our lives. I’ve got my creative filter on every day. I see a guy at a bus stop having trouble lighting his cigarette. I squint and imagine him as a burnt out dragon. Could be a funny cartoon, I think. There’s a couple shopping for glasses at the mall that happen to have enormous noses. I squint and imagine them shopping for new noses. It’s not always funny stuff though, as designs also catch my eye easily. Here, a particular crack in the sidewalk. There, exotic henna tattoos. My smart phone is full of ideas on the fly.
My earliest memory is drawing. I’ve always self-identified as a cartoonist first, then a writer. Both writing and drawing are pure magic: strokes on a page to build ideas, tell stories, and light imaginations on fire? This will never cease to amaze me. And both can be read to inform the creation of either one. Let me break that down.
Reading Prose as a Person Who Draws
From personal experience, having a vivid mind’s eye is often as much a barrier to reading as it is inspirational. Why? Because all it takes is one word to set my own vision firing, and before I know it I’m itching for my sketchbook and pen. Reading can be overwhelming! I stop mid-sentence, stare into space, and then interpret passages in inspired doodles. Often I can’t get past a page! Here are things I sketched circa 1997 after inspired by just a few lines from ‘If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler’ by Italo Calvino.
I sketched a lot as I read that book, inspired by the quote and by the title of the book itself. New lines spilled from my pen as scenes I never would have considered before emerged in my mind. A traveler. Who? The proposition of a traveler enticed me as well. How bold to title your book as a dependent clause! If not a traveler, then who? Or what? I drew warped homes in a blurry distance, crosshatched and smudged for extra inky effect. Slowly a face revealed itself on my page, a suggestion of a profile only, nondescript but rich with potential.
Because of my active imagination, I often read like one samples appetizers at a party. A nibble here. A taste there. My library is full of dog-eared novels, underlined throughout, and many with entire pages torn out of them, transplanted into a sketchbook in flash eureka moments. I know others do this too, whether you are an artist or not, and while it can be frustrating (I’ve ready two novels this year…this YEAR!), I like to see it as a powerful tool for creation.
Suggestion: Try doodling while you read. Just make lines like you used to when you were bored in geography class. Drawing like this loosens the mind unlike writing ~ you might find yourself thinking, reflecting differently on the ideas at hand. And don’t say you can’t draw. We all did it as kids…
Next week: Pt. 2. Reading Pictures as a Person Who Writes.
Harrison Wheeler is a professional creative: an author, cartoonist, improviser and comedic speaker. Having housed his drawings and story ideas in sketchbooks throughout his teaching career and many life obstacles, Harrison is excited to share his art, to finally pitch his exclamatory flag on his visionary moon. Visit his website.
As part of a new blog series on RAW, I’ve come up with 5 questions to ask each WCDR speaker with the goal of sharing the interview with RAW readers leading up to the RoundTable meetings. I have a reason for this. Here’s the thing: Not all of you will have heard of the WCDR’s monthly speakers prior to the RoundTable meeting. I know that’s the way it is for me, and that’s okay. Each speaker was invited to speak to RoundTable guests because they have something (in most cases, many things) to offer other writers. If you’ve attended a RoundTable meeting before, you’ll know that it almost doesn’t matter if you knew the speaker already or not: you’ll leave there inspired and glad you were introduced to a new professional writer. That has happened to me nearly every time. But then I got to thinking about the whole reason for RAW, and how many of us line up at the Blue Heron Books table after hearing a speaker–why don’t we get things started a little earlier? Why don’t I give you a little taste of what you can expect from the speaker you’re perhaps still undecided on coming to see? So, look for the new “5 Questions, 1 Speaker” blog series to get the buzz going about upcoming speakers.
On December 14th, the WCDR will hold its special holiday RoundTable, welcoming editorial cartoonist/caricaturist Tony Jenkins as December’s speaker. Mr. Jenkins is the first speaker to receive my questions, and I’m pleased to say that he answered them! To read more about Tony Jenkins (and to register for the RoundTable meeting), click here.
1) What is the best piece of writing-related advice you’ve gotten throughout your career?
I’m cartoonist, which many would say is not a writer, that it is a craft the antithesis of writing; the idea being carried by the visuals. Sometimes this can be so, but rarely and the words, just the right minimum of words is vital. Best cartooning/writing advice? None. I’d say cartooning, getting across satire or humour is so idiosyncratic you must follow your own lights and not trod another’s path (he said mixing metaphors). There is no manual for telling a joke, just judgement and practice and experience. Go with what you know. What works for one, won’t for another.
2) How about the worst piece of advice?
Have a six word limit. One editor once tried to impose same saying,” If you can’t get across the idea in six words, it’s not working.” Nonsense. Sometimes you stomp an idea across. Sometimes there is a need to tap-dance.
3) Social Media: A chore, a fun distraction, or a great marketing tool? Why?
Me cave man. Old. No do social media. Probably dumb idea. Smoke signals no work good no more.
4) Most useful book on the craft?
I have always loved the wordcraft of George Orwell. He wrote several short pieces on how he writes and advice to aspiring writers. Plain talk. Best bit I recall was ‘Don’t use a complicated word when a simple one will suffice’. The idea is to convey an idea, not flaunt one’s vocabulary. The writings of Conrad Black are an example of the latter; annoying and pompous. Probably a pleasure for Lord Black to write, but no pleasure to read.
5) What could be so off-putting about a book that it would make you stop reading it for good?
Lack of brevity. Just going on and on and on. We endure that in life sometimes. Literature is supposed to better; life thought about, refined and polished.
Okay, so I’ve gotta admit that I was a little skeptical, thinking about what I could possibly learn from a cartoonist. But I’m prone to going on and on. I’ve just typed “the end” on a young adult manuscript that is now sitting at over 100,000 words! This week, I begin the task of slashing words. When I think of the point Tony made about getting down to the minimum amount of words, the right words, I know that’s exactly what I’m going to have to keep in mind. I’m going to have to take small sections and figure out what each is saying, so that I can pick out the crap and leave the good stuff. It’s hard, though, especially when my protagonist loves rambling so much.
The other point that resonates for me is the idea that there’s no manual to telling jokes, that you have to follow your voice and showcase your strength. I did a reading of a scene from my manuscript last summer at a retreat and the choice of scene was basically dictated by my fellow retreat attendees, because they all saw something in what I thought was a totally ordinary scene that I thought might not even belong in the story. But apparently there was some magic happening in the characters’ random banter and interaction. When I decided to start playing that up a little more in my writing, I realized readers of my work really responded to this stuff. I don’t think that’s something I learned how to do, per say, because I didn’t even really know I was doing it; it’s part of my style and what I had to learn was how to bring it out and showcase it.
Do you take away anything from Tony’s mini-interview?
In related news…
Just in case any of you are still hesitant about tying the cartooning thing to the writing thing, you can expect WCDR member Harrison Wheeler—who is both a cartoonist and a fiction author—to tell you more about his experience with both creative art forms. He’ll be dropping by the RAW blog in the next few weeks.
On November 17, 2013, the WCDR is sponsoring a workshop presented by Rich Helms, titled “Produce Your Own Book Trailer.” Please click here to read more about the workshop, and/or to register. If you’re publishing a book, these days you have to consider having a book trailer made. Sharon Overend, Workshop Coordinator for the WCDR, gives us the 6 reason why you need a book trailer:
1) A promotional tool to sell your book: A book trailer is a marketing tool to assist authors, illustrators, and publishers in promoting a book by creating a viral marketing campaign online. Like its cousin, the movie trailer, a book trailer is designed to create buzz for your book and drive your sales up, up and up.
2) Reach more readers: A well-produced book trailer will help you reach an audience far beyond your friends and family. People go online to find information and to be entertained, so if your trailer is there, people will find it. Your trailer can reach out and find your unique audience, wherever they may be, and that will generate more interest in your work and boost your sales.
3) Better than an elevator pitch: In one minute or less you can tap into the visual, auditory, and emotional senses of your potential reader with a book trailer. A trailer says far more than a bit of text on the back of a book cover. A picture speaks a thousand words. By adding a voice-over, music, and other effects, you’ve just said ten thousand words.
4) Drive traffic to your author sites and social media: Trailers are the perfect tool for marketing your site, social media sites, book review sites, blogs, online magazines, etc. This marvelous tool can increase traffic, boost your subscriber list, and hike your sales.
5) A professional touch: Whether your book is self-published, published by a small press, or released by a large publisher, a book trailer will enhance your professional look and brand you as the author promoting interest in your work and generating future sales and book deals.
6) Book trailers are important to readers: A trailer sets the scene for the book, creates tension and pace, and engages the imagination–all the things readers look for in a good story. The trailer can encourage a reader’s decision to buy, giving an instant visual to whet the appetite. And a book trailer sparks an instant human connection between the author and the reader, winning not just a reader for this work, but a fan for the writer over a lifetime of work.
And now for what a few WCDR members have to say about book trailers…
“The reactions have been amazing. A colleague told me that she kept meaning to get the book but, after she watched the trailer, she went to that night to Book City to buy it because ‘Now I had to read it.’”
~ Ruth E. Walker, author of Living Underground.
“Book trailers are becoming an essential marketing tool. I wish I had done it prior to the launch so I could have hit the ground running with some really good publicity, but live and learn.”
~ Lisa Llamrei, author of Reflections of the Gods.
I have to admit that I have yet to see my first book trailer. What gets me to buy a book is reading the first page, but…now I’m thinking the book trailer would probably be a great tool to steer me to particular books whose first pages I could test out. What are your thoughts on book trailers? Have you watched any? Have you ever bought a book after seeing its trailer?
Curious to know what went on at our monthly RoundTable meeting? Please enjoy this RoundTable Recap (prepared by Sally Moore, president of the WCDR, and Susan Croft, in charge of public relations for the WCDR). Also, look for more of these recaps after each RoundTable meetings!
Thanks to everyone who came out to our fabulous RoundTable on Saturday, November 9, 2013, where Guy Gavriel Kay spoke to our members about not following prescriptive writer-advice, and why it’s important to recognize that, so long as it’s working for you, your way is as good as anyone else’s. Being the “King of Caveats,” Kay added that, “if your way of doing things is to solicit rules, is to look for structure and advice … it would be inconsistent and contradictory of me to say you shouldn’t do that. Of course you should.” With respect to social media, Kay pointed out that big-name authors aren’t on Twitter to sell books, but on twitter because they sell books. Furthermore, social networking can distract from the amount of time and energy you have to work on your writing, as well as impact self-confidence—as you’re out there, doing what you’re supposed to do, and not getting anything back. “What you have to do,” Kay concluded, “is your work.”
Kay followed up with a book signing, and Blue Heron Book Store’s table provided a wide selection of his titles for members and guests to purchase.
Phil Dwyer led us in a fun and helpful writing exercise on Starting a Story, using prompts from this year’s contest judge, Sarah Selecky. Phil urged members to sign up for Sarah’s blog to receive daily writing prompts from her and jumpstart the writing process for our upcoming WCDR Short Story Contest (details on the WCDR site soon!). Click here for a link to sign up for Sarah’s daily prompts or visit Sarah’s home page. To buy Sarah’s book of short stories, This Cake is for the Party, click here or get it from our Pay It Forward lending library at our next meeting.
Rich Helms talked about his workshop coming up November 17, Produce Your Own Book Trailer. The sample book trailer he played graphically demonstrated how effective a short video can be in promoting your book or you as a writer. Our Workshop Coordinator, Sharon Overend, will send you the Top Reasons You Need a Book Trailer in an upcoming e-blast. Or you can just go ahead and register today.
M-E Girard announced the Members Forum Raffle! Anyone registered for our new Members Forum with at least one post by November 16 will be eligible for a draw at our December RoundTable for a free license of Scrivener, a WCDR mini-workshop, or a $25 gift certificate for Blue Heron Books (winner’s choice).
As always, we had a great raffle with prizes from Blue Heron Books. Thanks also to Sue Reynolds of Inkslingers, who donated a free sanctuary day and Janet Peters Varley, our featured artist, who donated bookmarks, a card and a print to the raffle. Members were also treated to a search for a card that offered a free Guy Gavriel Kay book as a prize, courtesy of WCDR.
Sharon Overend gave an excellent mini-workshop, Short Stories Aren’t Teeny Tiny Novels. The workshop was sold out, and the content detailed and insightful. Sharon expertly fielded many questions! Next month is Erin Thomas’ mini-workshop, Approaches to Story Architecture. Register early!
Next month is our annual Christmas RoundTable! Our featured speaker will be Tony Jenkins, renowned cartoonist and author. To read more about Jenkins and his work, go to the WCDR website, or Tony Jenkins’ site. You won’t want to miss this one! It promises to be a lot of fun. Books, artists, networking with your fellow writers, a holiday menu from the ACC chef, raffle prizes and a special Christmas gift from WCDR for each attendee.
Note: Please register early! We hate having to turn people away, and the mini workshops fill up fast, so registering early ensures that you can get a slot. Please note that we are not able to let you in at the door without registering in advance, even if it’s just for a few moments. If you pay by PayPal, make sure you get an email from PayPal confirming your registration. If you don’t receive the email from PayPal, contact Dawn Riddoch at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will look into it. Thanks for your cooperation.
On Saturday, the WCDR welcomes author Guy Gavriel Kay. I hope you’ve registered already, because this is sure to be a great one. On October 21st, I blogged about Guy’s advice to writers, specifically not to get caught up in writers offering other writers advice. I look forward to Guy expanding on this topic. Every writer has an opinion on writers’ advice to writers–be sure to check out the comments on my RAW blog post for some interesting perspectives by fellow WCDR members.
Here’s a little bit about this month’s speaker:
Guy Gavriel Kay is the author of twelve novels (most recently River of Stars), and a book of poetry. He has written book reviews and social and political commentary for the National Post and the Globe and Mail in Canada, and The Guardian in England. Translation of his fiction exceeded twenty-five languages and his books have appeared on bestseller lists in many countries including several #1 bestsellers in Canada. Kay has spoken and read on behalf of his publishers and at literary events around the world. He has been nominated for and has won numerous literary awards and he is the recipient of the international Giolardos prize for his contributions to the literature of the fantastic. His past work includes the Fionavar Tapestry series, Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, A Song for Arbonne, Ysabel, the Sarantine Mosaic series, and Under Heaven.
I haven’t yet read Guy’s work, but I plan to pick up one of his novels on Saturday–even if I’ll be reading way outside my comfort zone. As usual, Shelley Macbeth of Blue Heron Books will be setting up shop in the lobby of the RoundTable venue and she will have many of Guy’s books on hand. Please click here to have a look at what you can expect to see available on Saturday. Remember to support your local independent book store by purchasing one of Guy’s books! And don’t forget to have it signed!
So, people, have you read any of Guy’s books? Which one would you suggest I start with and why?
You guys are probably aware of the new(ish) initiative of the WCDR, the Pay it Forward scholarship fund (created by board member, Phil Dwyer). To date, the scholarship fund has raised over $500, and this amazing total will be added to the WCDR’s yearly grants and scholarships. The concept behind the initiative is to pay a small fee to borrow one of the books in its selection (up until now, the books are mostly on the craft of writing), and that money then goes back to the WCDR community, to assist writers on their writing path.
Last summer, we added a book to the PIF scholarship selection: The Emotion Thesaurus. Information about this terrific resource was already added to the RAW database. Impressed by our PIF initiative, Angela Ackerman, one of authors of The Emotion Thesaurus, contacted me with an offer to add the book to our PIF selection. Well, Angela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi have just released two more books to assist writers with character attributes and flaws: The Positive Trait Thesaurus, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus. They’ve been quite busy with their own PIF event, which Angela will tell you all about now:
“We have had a lot of changes lately, including moving our writing resource blog, The Bookshelf Muse, to a website called Writers Helping Writers. We’ve also just released two new books on Character Creation called The Positive Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Attributes, and The Negative Trait Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Flaws. These books look at the light and dark side of your character’s personality, and how understanding your character on a deep level will help you craft a compelling, layered hero.
To celebrate the release of these books, we ran a week-long pay-it-forward event called the Writers Helping Writers Amazing Race. The goal was to dedicate 100% of the time we might have put toward the marketing and promotion of our new books and instead see how many individual writers we could help within a week’s time. Other writers joined us on this race and together we managed to help over 350 writers with close to 1000 critiques, social media help and visibility opportunities given overall. As part of the event, we gave away seats to a webinar: Character Creation: Understanding How A Character’s Past Affects Their Present. Then at the end of the race, we made the recording available to anyone who wished to view it.
The webinar link is only live for 2 weeks in total, and there is just over a week left. If you are at a place in your writing where you are trying to get to know your character on a deeper level and understand what influences him and what his motivations are, this webinar may help. Here’s the link: Character Creation Webinar. Also, in the webinar some handouts are referenced, and you can find those here.”
I encourage you to check out this webinar, and to also check out the amazing writing tools provided on the Writers Helping Writers website. Here’s something you might not have known: Angela is Canadian. From the first time she reached out to us, she was impressed with the Writers’ Community of Durham Region and all it does to support writers:
“That’s great to hear the group is growing and bringing more people together. I know we writers can be reclusive, so it’s important to have something that makes people feel supported and part of a community. We write on our own, but writing doesn’t have to be solitary or lonely, and we learn so much by talking and sharing with other writers. Writing has a huge learning curve but this is cut drastically when we network and get involved in critique groups and workshops.”
Once again, Angela and Becca are showing their support of the WCDR by donating a copy of each of their new books to the WCDR’s PIF Scholarship initiative. I’d like to give them a big Thank You, and hope you’ll join me! I hope you’re also looking forward to continue contributing to the WCDR’s PIF fund and checking out the new selections when they’re added.
In August, author Guy Gavriel Kay made a tweet that attracted quite a bit of response from the Twitterverse. He wrote: “My Saturday morning writer’s advice for writers: try not to get hung up on writers’ advice for writers.” Guy Gavriel Kay will be speaking at the Writers’ Community of Durham Region’s next RoundTable meeting, on November 9th 2013, and the advice behind his tweet is something he plans to touch on.
I have to admit, when I first read this, I gasped. I like rules. I like what-to-dos and what-not-to-dos. I know we’re writers and the act of storytelling is a creative process. I totally understand the concept of experimenting with your art, of finding your voice and style by doing what works for you. But I also think there’s a lot of “crap” out there that can be attributed to writers not studying their craft, not learning from the more experienced, not bothering to pay attention to the details—not learning more words, better words. As soon as I decided to write, I started to study. I study writing as much as I actually write. I never believed myself to be some kind of writing prodigy who can put fingers to keyboard and birth amazing prose, and so I write, and I study, and I listen to what other writers have to say and I put it in practice.
So, Guy Gavriel Kay’s advice didn’t work for me. Until I found a blog in which he addressed the tweet and expanded on what he meant.
He said: “A writer I know asserted earlier this summer online: never rewrite until you have the whole story finished, then you can go back. I’d never have written a novel if I tried to work that way.”
Yes! How many writers are adamant that “powering through the first draft” is The Way to write a novel? I don’t write that way, either. I tried listening to that “rule” and putting it into practice. It led me to an 80,000-word manuscript that I scrapped in its entirety. I rewrite constantly; I go back and add things as I think of them, then I make subsequent changes. This, I found out, works for some, but I’m conscious that it might not for others.
The more I read Guy’s blog, the more I realized what he’s saying is absolutely right. He takes a different approach, which is to “report” something that’s worked for him, as opposed to “suggesting a process to other writers.” Guy Gavriel Kay’s point is to pick and choose from what’s reported and find out what works. Just think of the “Plotters vs. Pantsers” thing: How many writing texts advise writers to create detailed outlines to their stories? I have six on my shelf right now, yet creating rigid, detailed outlines doesn’t work for me. Flying by the seat of my pants doesn’t either. I’m a hybrid, as I’m sure many people are, yet I spent quite a bit of time trying to “train” myself to be a Plotter because I thought that was the “right” way to do things.
The thing about writing with the intent to publish is that you’re going to find yourself having to listen to other people and do things according to other people that you might not agree with. You’re going to grow as a writer, but in the beginning, you won’t have the experience to look at your work objectively so you will have to trust more experienced writers’ opinions. As you become a better writer, you become a more confident writer. So, you owe it to yourself to listen to the advice that’s out there, because that’s how you’ll experiment and learn more about yourself as a writer. But you also owe it to yourself to throw away what doesn’t feel right and go with what does.
There’s a lot of writing advice out there—showing vs. telling, “ly” adverbs = lazy writing—and I think a lot of it is legit and deserves consideration, but it’s not all black and white. If you don’t experiment and understand what you’re doing and why, you might not be able to interpret the advice and become trapped by these rules.
What are your thoughts on advice to writers from writers?
**Don’t forget, Guy Gavriel Kay will be speaking at theWCDR’s November RoundTable meeting. Register early!
I’ve been overdosing on critiques lately…willingly. I asked for it!
RAW Critters launched in September. This is an online critique group I facilitate through the website, specifically for members of the Writers’ Community of Durham Region. With two groups of 6 members and bi-weekly submissions, there has been a whole lot of critiquing going on. The submissions are so diverse and so entertaining to read. The whole RAW Critters endeavor has worked out so well. I’ve been a (pain in the butt) advocate for more online support to be available for Durham Region writers, and the WCDR has really stepped up its game, virtually speaking. One of the RAW Critters members is from Calgary! We have a long-distance relationship critique relationship going on, and it totally works.
Besides RAW Critters, I’ve been doing some random swapping of material with other writers. A chapter here, a short story there.
The WCDR now has online forums, which I moderate along with my friend and fellow board member Kevin Craig, and we added a critiquing section where excerpts and even query letter can be posted. Though there hasn’t been much activity yet, I have critiqued what’s there.
I’ve also done some editing of my own work, rereading stuff I wrote a while ago using fresh eyes. I like this part because I don’t have to be nice about my critique. I can just cut freely and call myself a no-good newbie for the lackluster parts.
I’m an addict. I know I am. I love critiquing for so many reasons, the two main ones being:
1) It makes my own writing better by giving me perspective, and allowing me to sharpen my reading-as-a-writer skills. I like seeing how far I’ve come, too, being a newbie still.
2) I like knowing what I said can help another writer up their game. I didn’t do the critiquing thing much in the first year or so I started writing, and then when I did, it was with other newbies who gave me really general comments that I had no idea what to do with anyway. I thrive when I get direct, thorough comments, so that’s what I dish out.
I think when you become a writer—at least one who works at honing their skills with the intention of getting published for something they’re proud of—you are also signing up to become a critiquer. They go hand in hand, even though you might not realize it at first. When you’re very new, you can’t find anyone but your significant other or a friend to want to read what you wrote. You spend a lot of your time trying to look for qualified people who will kick your butt and make you better (even though you really hope they’ll tell you your work is perfect as is…).
If you open yourself up to providing (free) critiques to other writers, you’re going to get a lot of interest. Add your membership to any writing circle, your participation in judging contests, etc.—and you might get so much interest that you have to start prioritizing; you might have to start saying no. I haven’t hit that point yet, but I do spend a ridiculous amount of time on other people’s stuff, which can lead me to neglect my own. I suspect I’ll have to start organizing my time soon to maintain a balance.
Here’s a funny confession–well, it’s not funny to me; it makes me cringe to think of it, but I’ll chalk it up to having been an extreme newbie:
A bit of background on me first: I started writing seriously in 2010. I wrote Chapter 1 and actually got to “The End,” at which point I took a creative writing class. I knew no other writer. (This is right around the time I did an internet search and landed on the WCDR website, but I was convinced there was no way this organization was actually in my Durham Region, so I assumed it was an American Durham Region and I didn’t give the website a second thought, until over a year later). So, after making my I’ve-only-read-one-book-in-my-whole-life friend read my first chapters (to which he actually tried his best to provide a useful critique, what a cutie), and then making my girlfriend resent me with requests to read my stuff—I wrote to my favorite author and asked her to read my manuscript! Yes, I did!
Are you guys cringing, yet? What a faux-pas. What a total newbie move. She responded to me very kindly, telling me her obligations were to her critique group. I then thought, Critique group? What is that? I also found myself thinking, It’s just one story…it wouldn’t take that long, would it? Having absolutely no idea how time-consuming critiquing can be—not to mention doing it for a newbie manuscript that is probably 98% yucky and needs seventeen rewrites before it’s worthy of a beta read.
I can’t believe I did that…
About a year later, when I took novel writing classes and joined a critique group, then started reading about the craft, joined SCBWI, etc., I realized just how much of a dumbass move I’d made. I wrote to her and apologized for my naivete.
Maybe that’s why I don’t ask for any critiques of my own work now unless I’ve done all the revising and polishing I can. I’m trying to make up for the fact that I didn’t give a second thought to asking a long-time, Little Brown Co. published, big name of an author to read my entire 90,000-word YA manuscript—a manuscript that sucked even from the first sentence, I’m happy to report, since I’ve beta’d my own work not too long ago and laughed my butt off at the presence of all the what-not-to-dos when writing fiction.
And maybe that’s also why I critique so much of other writers’ works: because I want to save them from being desperate enough to contact their #1 author and begging for a free critique!
What are your thoughts on critiquing?
I recently wrote a couple of guest posts about something that is dear to my reader’s heart, and my writer’s heart–to both my literary hearts: The unlikable teen protagonist. I thought I’d make this week’s RAW blog post about this same topic—well, without limiting it to not just teen protags—because I believe it’s a good one to discuss and I’d love to hear what my fellow WCDR members, and other RAW visitors, have to say about it.
Part 1 of my blog is here. In it, I talked about my experience receiving critiques about my teen protagonists (mainly, Pen, the protag of my current work-in-progess Boifriend) that pointed at the fact that my characters’ attitudes made them unlikable. As a writer, you constantly hear about your characters having to be likable (likeable? I didn’t know both were acceptable. Thank you, Dictionary.com). Before you realize that what they mean is probably closer to “relatable,” you might do what I did and try hard to change your character into being likable–which is pretty difficult since liking something is subjective (I mean, I like the odor of skunk drifting on the air. Just saying…). As I gained confidence in my storytelling, the whole concept of teen protags being held up to this “likable” standard started to really bother me. Do we take into account that those making statements on what’s likable about teen characters are adults? I’m not sure, but what I do know is that all my beta readers and critique partners are adults. I’m not technically writing for them, but they’re the ones who get to have opinions about the teens I’m creating. Lots of adults “get” teens, but lots don’t. It became apparent to me that teen protagonists can be deemed unlikable based on characteristics inherent to teenagers. Allow me to quote myself:
As a writer of YA fiction, you have to be faithful to the teen experience to give an accurate inside look at the teen world. And yes, all teen experiences are different—I get that. But when it comes to a regular teen in a contemporary novel, you can’t disregard the characteristics of that developmental age. That means the hormones, the ego, the identity stuff, the magnified emotions, the angst. I mean, would you call a toddler protagonist unlikable because he pulls the dog’s tail, destroys the paint job by using markers on the wall, and drops his mother’s iPhone in the toilet?
If you don’t care about my protagonist, that’s one thing; but if she’s not sweet and rational all the time, that’s not unlikable—that’s life. And if Pen asked me to sign her yearbook, you can be sure I’d write, Don’t ever change, man.
In Part 2, I took it a bit further and examined the way girls are often treated unfairly when it comes to this likability thing. This isn’t something I came up with: do a search on the internet and you’ll find lots of articles and blogs about this double-standard related to female gender expectations. So, teen girls can really have a tough time starring in young adult novels. That, too, led to my trying to “decrustify” my characters (all girls) to make them more appealing.
So, now you have my take on teen protags, and female protags. Let’s talk about all protagonists.
Here’s what I think: It’s not about what’s likable, or even what’s relatable. I can’t really relate to Dexter, but I want to read about him. I’ve read stories featuring people that probably fit the “likable” mold, except I didn’t like them at all. I see this this in a lot or works-in-progress, even in my own, and it’s the first thing I point out in critiques, and it’s usually the reason I won’t read any further. These characters piss me right off and I wish for them to get nothing that they want because they don’t deserve it. Harsh, I know. But why do I react that way? Because characterization totally crumbled for me: they said, did, and thought things that I didn’t buy. They weren’t sculpted with care. They were victims of inexperienced writing, or worse, lazy writing. You can present me with the exact same characteristic, for example “a wishy-washy personality,” and in one character it’s so well done I get it and it works, while for the other character, it’s a actually a symptom of bad characterization. I am prepared to like a lot as a reader; I’m even prepared to love a lot of ugly things. But it’s your job to ensure I’m given what I need to understand the people you created, and to want to read about them.
So, yeah, I’ve written some “unlikable” characters.
Maybe the first version of Pen was unlikable because I had no idea what I was doing, and I had no idea what she was doing. But now, if Pen’s unlikable, it’s for completely different reasons that I really have no control over, and that should not force me to change her. I think as long as you work your butt off breathing life into your characters, they can’t be unlikable because they’re real. But if you’re not going to do that, then yeah, I’m not gonna wanna be their friend and for good reason.
Instead of likable and relatable, let’s just concentrate on making our character-people real and readable.