Applications still being accepted for Taos Toolbox 2013

Do you love science fiction and fantasy?
Do you want to take your writing to the next level?
Do you have a speculative, novel-length story in need of critiquing?
Then consider applying for Taos Toolbox 2013. The workshop is a master class in science fiction and fantasy writing, taught by two luminaries in the field, Walter Jon Williams and Nancy Kress. This year’s guest lecturer is Melinda Snodgrass.
I attended the 2012 workshop (read more here and here). I found it to be a fantastic opportunity to hone my skills and form valuable relationships with my SF/F peers. Plus, two weeks in the mountains of New Mexico, with people who not only understand the writing life, but live it, was an amazing experience.
If you are at all interested, I encourage you to apply. A writing sample is required, but it doesn’t have to be what you plan to workshop come summer. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.
To learn more about the class of 2012, check out fellow toolboxer CatherineSchaff-Stump’s series of interviews (myself included). You’ll be able to see what brought us to the workshop and the different trajectories the writing life can take.
Happy writing!

var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Shifting Priorities

How is it March already?

What started out as a one-week break from the blog turned into two. And the only reason I’ve been remiss is because I’ve been slammed lately.
My critiquing responsibilities skyrocketed since the fall when I joined a new writing group. We meet monthly, and the week before, each member submits anywhere between 30 to 100 pages of their WIPs. Then those pages need to be read and responded to in time for the meeting. Needless to say, when that week rolls around each month, critiquing has to be the first priority.
My own writing often has to be put on hold, and that means my blog as well. I’m also a member of another writing group that meets weekly, so I sometimes have to be creative with how I divvy up my time.
This month another variable was added to the equation—my editorial pass on the collaborative project I wrote about a few weeks ago. 70k that needed extensive line and developmental edits. Hence the radio silence on the blog.
Now, I wouldn’t trade joining the new writing group or working on the project for anything. But sometimes something has to give, and more often than not, that’s this blog.
I’ve been blogging now for three years. When I started, conventional wisdom was that you needed to do social media all the time. Now, slowly but surely, people are starting to back away from that.

If you’re a totally new, unpublished writer who is focused on fiction, memoir, poetry, or any type of narrative-driven work, forget you ever heard the word platform. I think it’s causing more damage than good. It’s causing writers to do things that they dislike (even hate), and that are unnatural for them at an early stage of their careers. They’re confused, for good reason, and platform building grows into a raging distraction from the work at hand—the writing.

Do I regret blogging? Absolutely not. I enjoy it and I’ve enjoyed the connections I’ve made because of blogging. But that doesn’t mean I always enjoy the time and energy it takes to maintain one.
Especially when it comes up against my own writing time and professional responsibilities.

So that’s where I’m at. If I’m not here, I’m writing. Which is how it should be.
var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Immaturity in Writing

In January, I started reading slush for Masque Books, a digital imprint of Prime Books. And so far it’s been a fascinating peek behind the publishing curtain.

I’ve seen my fair share of crazy fonts and strange formatting, but not nearly as much as I expected to based on the horror stories of the slush pile that get bandied about. What’s surprised me the most is the overall care that’s gone into the submissions. This doesn’t mean they’ve knocked my socks off, but rather that the average submission is much higher in quality than I expected—they’ve been literate, proofread if not perfect, and largely followed the submission guidelines.

That kind of attention to detail is encouraging to see, which is why it’s so heartbreaking to get to the actual story and know within two paragraphs, sometimes sooner, that it’s a no-go. And more often than not, the culprit is immature writing.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s a catch-all phrase that I use when I see a manuscript that has either sentence-level issues or a lack of sophistication with elements of craft (or both).

Sentence-Level Issues

This can be as simple as a poor grasp of grammar—improper punctuation, run-on sentences, etc. A mistake or two won’t make or break a submission. But they can add up, and when the errors are egregious, it’s that much harder to take a story seriously.

There are also more subtle signs of sentence-level issues. Things like wordiness, filtering, awkward phrasing. I’ve trained myself to write tight, to weed out inefficiencies in my text, to catch mistakes and edit out the awkwardness. When I see project where these kinds of things aren’t addressed, it makes me wonder just how far along the writer is in their journey. Is this their first project and they haven’t quite figured everything out? Or have they just not taken the time to refine their writing to make it the best it can be? I usually go with the former interpretation, and have to hope they won’t give up when they get their rejection, that they’ll keep writing, keep striving until they get their stories out into the world.

Bottom line, every word in your story subconsciously signals your ability as a storyteller to a reader. Sentence-level issues are the one thing you as a writer can control in a highly capricious business, so there’s no excuse not to learn them. And if you haven’t learned them, when I read your submission I assume that you are too immature a writer to competently tell me a story I’m interested in.

Elements of Craft Lack Sophistication

This is even more subjective, but in some ways more detrimental to a submission. Say an author has great descriptive powers, but cannot orchestrate an action scene to save their life. Or the voice of the protagonist is largely spot on, but infodumps and unrealistic dialogue grounds a story before it even gets started. Essentially, there is some aspect (or aspects) of the writer’s craft that screams inexperience, by virtue of it being poorly handled or weaker relative to other aspects of the work.

This isn’t always a fatal flaw—after all, a good editor will work with a writer to improve all aspects of a story. But the problems with craft must be surmountable. For example, a story where every paragraph tells the reader what to think instead of showing them or a clumsy inner monologue that sidelines action in every scene are too insidious to tackle. Other things like a lack of specificity or an overabundance of specificity could be fixable, but the story would have to be worth the effort.

This is where beta readers and critique partners and groups come in, because writers can be blind to their shortcomings.

Bottom line, you cannot afford to ignore the weaker parts of your craft and hope the rest will be strong enough to carry your story. If I see a big imbalance in your abilities as a writer or if the way you handle certain aspects of craft show your inexperience or lack of awareness of what’s acceptable, then I’m going to assume you haven’t matured as a writer and that your story isn’t ready for publication.

Harsh? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. I’ve only recommended two stories since I’ve started slushing, and those were both with big reservations.

So at the end of the day, remember: Writing stories is hard. Rejecting stories is easy.

It’s all too easy to find a reason to reject a story. You’re goal as a writer is to minimize those reasons for “easy” rejections (following guidelines, fine-tuning your prose, making strides with your craft). You want to make it difficult for me to say no. You want me to keep hoping if I turn the page, it will be worth it.

I want it to be worth it. And you can prove that to me by maturing as a writer. It won’t happen overnight. But if you keep writing, keep working, keep striving, you’ll get there. We all will. One day. var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

How Do You Critique?

The last couple of weeks (and maybe into the next) I’ve been buried in critiques. Hence this slightly delayed post. I’m not complaining, mind you, but the volume recently—the result a confluence of chance—has forced me to evaluate my process in between all my edits, insertions, and comments.

Some observations:
I read everything. For me, critiquing is less about the genre or subject matter and more about supporting the writer behind the project.
I firmly believe there is a level of trust required for exchanging work. And that mutual respect means doing my best to evaluate the work I agree to critique, regardless of what it is, as I would hope others would do for me. It’s too early for me to be trapped in a particular genre, and I’m always eternally grateful that my CPs and trusted readers are usually game to crit whatever I send their way.
Part of this is because I’ve spent a lot of time in non-genre specific writing groups. In fact, one of the more successful groups I’ve been a part of has members writing in completely different genres—poetry, alt lit, women’s fiction, and then there’s me. All of us have good bs detectors and strong writing chops, which definitely helps. Plus having this exposure also keeps me from getting tunnel vision from the particular genre/style I’m writing in.
If a fellow writer thinks they’ll benefit from an honest reader reaction from me, I’m happy to support them. Karma is important, and I know I’ve benefited from the writer connections I’ve made. That’s not to say if they hand me a mystery I’ll be thrilled. But I’ll do my best to critique it, with the caveat that I’m not as well-versed in this genre as I am others.
I usually have to read a piece twice before I’m ready to critique.
This is time consuming, yes. That has become abundantly clear these last couple of weeks. BUT, it’s something I’ve made peace with. Mostly because my own standards of quality demand it.
Reading the piece the first time, I’m trying to get a general feel for the story, understand how all the different elements work as a whole. I might make some copy edits in the first round, but really I’m just reading for story.
This is a tremendous help when it comes time to offer my comments on the second pass. That’s when I decide what are real issues that need to be dealt with to support an author’s story intentions. I believe I have to understand the macro story elements into order to comment on the micro-level ones (outside of grammar).
My critique style has evolved as I’ve taken strides with my craft.
What this essentially means is that early on, I was overly focused with style and micro level issues. If someone wrote a line in a way I wouldn’t, I’d offer my suggestions for changing it. I was also overly concerned with “the rules” and more than happy to say “You’re doing it wrong!” because the craft books said so. I won’t say I was a Craft Nazi, one of the Writerly Types to Avoid, but it took time for me to digest all that advice so I could apply it in more constructive ways.
But after a number of critiques, after reading a variety of work, I’ve been exposed to a lot of different ways of doing things. And I’ve realized with all the do’s and don’ts out there, all that matters is whether a particular technique is effective in a particular story context. That’s it.
So I’ve adopted a more flexible live and let live policy. I’ll still point out awkward phrasings or unsuccessful techniques, but I’ve come to realize that just because someone doesn’t write something exactly the way I would doesn’t make it wrong. It just makes it different, and that’s ok. And that frees up more of my mental space for addressing more substantive story issues.
I rarely say no to requests to exchange work, but the time may be nigh to change that.
For so long, I was too scared to share my work. Then, when I got less scared, I had trouble finding people to share it with. I talked about this progression in my post The Critique Mindset a while back.
Over time, I’ve collected a formidable group of trusted writer friends: local writers, online writers, and my writer colleagues from Taos. For every person I can rely on for critiques, they must be able to rely on me. And as the last weeks have shown me, I’m near my limit, if I still want to be producing my own work at a pace that doesn’t make me cranky. (Hint, I’m cranky this week.)
So while I’m a huge proponent for exchanging work for critique, all things in moderation. And maybe it’s time to take my own advice.
***
Happy Nanoing for those participating! Happy writing for the rest of us! And only good thoughts for our friends on the east coast!

var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

Feedback: It Gets Easier

This is a post I couldn’t write a few years ago. Back then, I had just started sharing my work with others. Although I desperately needed feedback, sometimes it hurt. Sometimes the criticisms made me doubt. And sometimes those criticisms made me change my stories, for better andworse.
But it doesn’t change the fact that feedback is a necessary evil in writing.
That first project? You know the one. The story that started them all, the one you’ll see through the bitter end, and the one you fear will end up in the bottom of the desk drawer. That one—your baby.
Feedback on that story is always the hardest. There’s no way around that, unless you have a Teflon-coated ego (and if you have one of those maybe you shouldn’t writing). You put so much of yourself into that first book, your dreams and hopes that you’ll buck the trend and get on the NY Times bestseller list. Any critical feedback will seem like an indictment against all that labor and love.
But if you’re writing for publication, you’ll get over that eventually. You’ll have to. Along with revising and revising some more until it’s time to start the feedback cycle all over again. It’ll go easier the second time around. After all, you already understand how it works. You have a stronger sense of your story’s strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll understand yourself better. Which means knowing when you are overreacting to a piece of criticism and knowing which suggestions you need to consider and which ones you need to ignore. This is a huge milestone, but it takes practice with the feedback cycle, and sometimes a strong understanding of the people reading your work.
It takes time to do this. But it’s time well spent, because you need to get all this out of your system in order to start on the next project, regardless of whether your baby sells.
With the next project, you’ve told yourself you’re not going to make the same mistakes as the first. And you won’t—you’ll just make different ones. And then the feedback circuit will give you time to fix them.
It’ll be even easier this time. You know why? Because you don’t have nearly the same emotional investment in this project as you did in the one before. I’m not saying you don’t care about this project—you most certainly do. But now you know that this project isn’t the be-all and end-all of your writing career. You have other stories in you. This new story proves it.
So feedback this time may still sting, but you’ll be better able to compartmentalize it and use it to fuel positive changes in your work. And this is hugely valuable when you’re faced with tough revision decisions like restructuring your novel, adding or subtracting characters, or simply gutting the story and starting all over again.
The hard work that maybe you weren’t strong enough to even consider with your baby. But now, when the hunger for getting published—getting out there—when you have enough confidence in your craft that it’s just a matter of the right story hitting at the right time? Yeah, that. That’s when the tough decisions get made.
(and if this sounds like a pep talk, it kinda is for me)
The takeaway is this:
The more you write, the more mistakes you get to learn from.
The more mistakes you learn from, the more viable stories you create.
The more viable stories, the easier it is to deal with feedback.
Why? Because you can be more objective about your work. Because you no longer have the one story to care about, you have other projects now. All that emotion, good and bad, gets distributed across them. The successes and failures of individual projects gets muted, which makes it easier to make objective decisions how to manage them.
It’s a good thing, I think. It’s just important stay engaged, move forward, and above all, keep writing.
 
In my experience, my objectivity is reduced the longer I spend working on something. Tunnel vision is inevitable—that’s why it’s so important to take a break from your projects every now and then to gain perspective. It’s also why you need other readers.
But at the very least, if you keep writing, the less likely you’ll fall into the trap you did when writing your baby.

*Time spent working on a project could be equated to length of project as well. For example, negative criticism on my shorter pieces doesn’t nearly affect me as much as for my novel-length stories. But your mileage may vary. var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}