Being Clever versus Being a Good Storyteller

Over the weekend I went to a reading for a local speculative fiction author. In the course of his talk, he said something that resonated with me.
That with his first book series, he was trying very hard to be Clever and write Very Important Stories. But now, a few books later, he’s focused on good storytelling, no matter the milieu he’s working in (I’m paraphrasing here).
I found this to be an interesting distinction he made, and it echoed some of my internal (but not quite fully formed) thoughts about my own work and what I need to be focusing on if I want a career in this field.
Case in point: One of my short stories that I have been submitting since early 2012 has been shortlisted or bumped to the second round at SIX pro or semipro markets. But it still hasn’t found a home, and I have to ask myself why. I’ve settled on the fact that it is my “cleverest” story, given its subject matter. It asks a lot of the reader at the beginning, but it also rewards you once you get to the end. (Yeah, that kind of story.)
The first couple of times it was shortlisted, I chose to be encouraged, thinking I just haven’t found the right market. But after six (six!) times being a bridesmaid, well, I think it’s time to reevaluate things.
Perhaps I’m a little too in love with my cleverness, and as a result, I’ve forgotten the number one reason for writing a story for publication…. Readers.
I’m not saying cleverness is a bad thing. Instead it’s a matter of emphasis.
Putting story and the reader experience first does not mean you can’t also be clever. In fact, being clever in that context can be an amazing thing.
But the flip side? When being clever is your primary goal, sometimes to the exclusion of all else? That’s where you tend to lose people. (A semi-related aspect of this is when beautiful writing overwhelms a story to its detriment—see the recent article Literary Talent versus Story Talent.)
I think this is a particular problem in SF/F because Ideas!and Science! are often an integral part of the story. A nifty idea can make up for a lot of sins in craft, character development, and plot. Almost to the point where that nifty idea becomes a crutch.
My story has a nifty idea, and it also commits a few sins of good storytelling. And that combination has netted me a whole lot of close-but-no-cigars. So where do I go from here? I’ve got to figure out a way to present my nifty idea within the context of good storytelling.
That can be a hard gulf to bridge for any writer, beginning or seasoned. But letting the story rest and getting some new eyes on it will go a long way. At least I’m hoping so.
Warning signs your “cleverness” is getting in the way of your story:
  • Focusing on your “nifty idea” to the detriment of other story elements.
  • Reader feedback saying they didn’t understand aspects of your story.
  • Infodumps that are necessary to explain things to unenlightened readers.
  • Telling yourself the above is okay because you’re writing for a select/smart/in-the-know audience which consists of you and maybe five other people.
Have you ever been guilty of letting your ideas take over your story?

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Best Laid Plans

Writing is a slow process. From idea to draft, from early drafts to later drafts, from query to agent, from contract to publication. That doesn’t mean things can’t move faster, just that they so often don’t.
Patience is a quality you need to cultivate if you are going to survive this field. I understand all this—even if I don’t like it. One thing I like to do is make plans to distract myself from the futility of waiting (I’m type A all the way).

Regardless of whether you’re a plotter or a pantster, I think being able to plan is a crucial act of writing, even if it’s the just-in-time variety pantsters employ. We have to be able to hold large amounts of information in our heads and then turn that information into something that’s not only literate but adheres to a recognizable structure. This ability is explored in part by Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographerby Peter Turch—a book that’s geared more to thinking about writing than actual writing, if you know what I mean, though in this case that’s not a dig.
Planning, making mental maps, using words to formalize what has only been nebulous or intangible thought… these kinds of activities take a lot of time, and can be the very means to work through the periods of waiting that always seem to crop up.
These activities for me often include:
–Planning out my next project
–Determining what I need to do on the blog
–Prioritizing story drafts across projects, critiquing for my writing groups and CPs, and research time
I also create contingency plans in my head.
Sometimes I create contingencies when I’m plotting out a novel and need my research to corroborate the action. I want X to happen in my story, but if the research doesn’t support X, I’ll need to go with Y. Or Z. Or maybe X will work but another set of conditions need to be considered. By planning out what needs to happen, and what alternatives could also work, I’m able to work through tricky plot issues and stay on target with my story.
Or in the case of submitting, say I have a handful of short stories under consideration at markets. However, most markets have no simultaneous or multiple submissions policies in place. Because of this, I have to consider what is the best order to submit them. Usually factoring in some combination of
1. Impact (higher tier/exposure over lesser markets)
2. Response time (quicker over slower)
3. Fit (always hard to judge)
4. Deadlines
For example, let’s say the average response time at a market is a week. And there’s a deadline for stories with a theme similar to my story coming up in two weeks. I would probably submit my story to the market with the 1-week deadline, under the assumption that if it gets selected (great), but more realistically I might get some feedback that would help me to submit to the themed market in time.
I’ve also created contingency plans in my head for what happens if something big and exciting happens. What then? I don’t recommend this last one. For starters, I can make a gazillion plans and all that mental effort goes out the door with one rejection. Sure, a contingency plan will kick in then, and I’ll remain optimistic for another few weeks and then… Well, you can see how this cycle could last forever.
So planning can range from the highly useful (as in the case of story plotting and time management) to busy work (micromanaging story submission orders) to entirely unnecessary (winning the publishing lottery).
But writers write. And in the case of this writer, I plan as well.
Happy writing (and planning)!

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Feedback, But When?

Feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Well, at least mine! How else will you know if your intentions match up with the reception of your work? Today, I’ll talk about the different stages of a project where it might be appropriate to solicit feedback.
In-Progress Feedback
In one of my writing groups, the work I share is almost always a work-in-progress. It’s literate, but it’s usually a snippet from a novel or a short story that still needs some fleshing out. In this case, I’m actively looking to my other group members for assistance in how to flesh the story out, what I’ve overlooked, and ultimately whether I’m on the right track or not. Just realize not every writing group is geared to workshopping this kind of early stage writing. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Critical thinkers, other writers.
Developmental Feedback
I’d call this feedback on anything that’s been drafted and fleshed out, but hasn’t fully cured in a version you are confident in submitting somewhere. In other words, you’ve gotten to the end, but the ride is still a bit bumpy (not in a good way). Here, I’m looking for macro-level adjustments (micro is good too) that I can make so the story can gel into a finalized draft. At this stage, I want people who understand the big picture but also the aspects of craft that will help me realize it all on the page. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Other writers, particularly those writing in your genre.
Polished Feedback
This is feedback on a polished draft that you think is the best it can be. You know, all those checklists when you’re trying to decide if you’re ready to submit or not? If your answer is yes, it’s still a good idea to get another person (or persons!) to take a look. You might burn a few weeks only to get your readers’ blessing to send it out, but it’s better to know you are sending out your best work than being surprised by some issue that was overlooked at other stages. And when you only have one shot with agents, you want everything to be as good as it can be. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Readers of your genre, other writers.
Public Reception
So let’s say your story/novel/what-have-you got published. Yay! At this stage, there’s still a couple metrics you can use to see how your work is received and ways to use its reception and apply it to your next story. Obviously things like sales figures are important. But so are reviews. I’m not talking about the reviews your mom/critique partner/best friend wrote. I’m talking about the reviews written by strangers who have no personal investment in you or your story.
Seth Godin says the worst feedback is indifference. Some stories and novels get published, and just as quickly vanish into the ether. Now some of this can be attributed to poor marketing and positioning, and sometimes a story just doesn’t have the impact it should. And sometimes, you are lucky enough to get reviews that help you to understand what worked and what didn’t in your story. Elizabeth Spann Craig talks about this in Handling Reviews from Mystery Writing is Murder. Give yourself time for the sting to wear off, but even bad reviews can be instructive (so long as it’s not coming from someone with an ax to grind).
One of my published stories was not received in the manner I had hoped for, and I learned a lot from seeing those reviews of my work. It forced me to analyze my assumptions in writing that particular story as well as my assumptions in who the story’s audience was, and so on. Despite the short-term disappointment in that story’s reception, that was a hugely valuable experience, and one that will shape my work to come.
***
So obviously, you need feedback, and at what point you solicit it and from whom will be dependent on your writerly network and your own needs and comfort level with the critique process.
Personally, I try to get feedback at each stage of a project, if possible. In my goal to write faster, I’ve found that In-Progress Feedback is extremely helpful for heading off mistakes in a story that would need significant retooling if they were found much later in the process. However, for that to be successful, I think you need to be:
1)     very used to critique and,
2)     very clear in your own head with what you’re trying to achieve with your work.
Especially because rogue comments can easily affect the trajectory of a story and your confidence in it at the early stage of a project. It should also be said that if you’re sharing early work, you are sharing it with writers who:
1)     you trust
2)     understand that it’s an early draft, and
3)     can provide constructive criticism (not all critiquers are alike in this)
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I’ve found this work for me.

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Rough Crit

Criticism is hard to take sometimes. But if you are actively seeking it out, there’s no better way to improve and hone your craft in my opinion. It means you take your work seriously and want to grow as a writer.
It also means you are guaranteed a rough crit session from time to time. So here are some tips for how to survive an in-personcritique when it seems like your colleagues or fellow workshoppers are out to get you.

During the session:

1) Don’t get defensive

I repeat: Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive leads all too easily to getting angry, which can lead to things being said that cannot be unsaid.
If you find your hackles rising, find a way to channel that feeling into something productive. Me? I’m a notetaker. I write down all the bad things someone raises about my work during critique sessions. Even the things I don’t agree with. Something about the process of notetaking adds a crucial bit of separation between me and what’s being said, allowing me to compartmentalize the negative stuff and move on.

2) Don’t try to justify

We’ve all been in that situation where a writer says something like, “Well, what I was trying to do in that scene…” or “My intentions were…” et cetera. This often leads to a lengthy monologue where the writer explains why the story is the way it is, refuting every issue raised during the session along the way.
This is a waste of everyone’s time. If you try to justify what you wrote—preferring your words to a reader’s honest reactions—you’re basically saying your critiquers’ reactions to your story don’t matter. Which begs the question why you are soliciting critiques in the first place.

Note that this does not mean you can’t ask someone for clarification about why they felt the way they did about your work. You can. But be wary if you find yourself protesting too much.

 

3) Don’t take your bad crit out on others

I’ve been in roundtable critique sessions where a writer responds to a harsh crit by being harsh in turn out of spite—not raising legitimate issues with the work under consideration. Don’t be that person.
If you can’t be civil in the aftermath of a rough crit, excuse yourself, take a time out, do whatever it is you need to do to find balance. It may not seem that way when your critiquers are tearing apart your work, but they are trying to help you. Don’t do something that will jeopardize their future good will.

 

After the session:

1) Give yourself some time

If you aren’t ready to dive into the negative feedback, that’s okay. Read a book, work on another project, do whatever it is you need to do to be in the proper headspace for processing feedback.
Taos Toolbox had a very large critique component. I deliberately refrained from looking at what my colleagues had to say about my work until I got home. Why? Because I knew if I looked at the written feedback it would distract me from my main goal of the workshop: making real connections with fellow writers. I didn’t want my interactions tainted by the critiques—that’s the one who got too heavy-handed with their line edits or that’s the one who hated my MC—instead of getting to know them on a more personal level. It also gave me time for their suggestions to sink in, and when I got home, I was more open to making changes.

 

2) Understand who is giving you feedback

In other words, not all critiquers are created equal. Just because someone writes a lot or well doesn’t mean they automatically give good feedback. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t have a lot of publishing credentials doesn’t mean they won’t have any insights into your work.
Some things to ask yourself when weighing feedback:
How much experience does this person have with critiquing?
Do they write in my genre?
Do I like their style/storytelling abilities?
Are they a writerly type to avoid? – Inexperience, ignorance, and ego can all be problematic

 

3) Understand what you are getting feedback on

You’d think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Whatever you submit or send in, right? Here’s the thing. You know, consciously or unconsciously, what kinds of questions you have about your story. And whether you ask for specific feedback or not, the issues your critiquers raise can surprise you.
There’s nothing worse than expecting macro-level feedback and getting your story put through a line editing meat grinder. Or expecting help to polish a final draft, only to have your story premise dissected. That’s not to say those things can’t be helpful—usually they are. But if you aren’t expecting it, those kinds of crits can be devastating.
So double-check your critique expectations. If there’s a large deviation between the feedback you expected and what you actually got, ask yourself the following:
Did I specify my critique expectations? 
Sometimes it is as simple as saying your story is an early or a final draft—often that will cue the critiquer to respond accordingly. Other times, you may need a second opinion on a problematic element (say structure or characterization). You want to make sure you tell your critiquers that. It may not help—they could forget or get distracted by another aspect of your story, but at least you know you tried to get the right kind of feedback for your story.
Did I inadvertently trigger one of my critiquer’s hot-button issues? 
People will respond in unexpected ways to your work. If you hand an atheist a Christian romance, well, that could lead to a very interesting critique. People with different worldviews and life experiences are great to have in a writing group—but those very differences can lead to surprising results in practice as well.
It usually comes down to knowing the people you are exchanging work with. As someone who’s spent a lot of time reading and writing romance, I can be very critical of those scenes. One of my writing friends is an interior designer, and often her comments pick apart descriptions of interior spaces and architecture. Similarly, scientists get cranky when you fudge scientific details or resort to handwaving in speculative works.
So if a critiquer is overly sensitive to an aspect of your story, ask yourself why. Usually it is because they have firsthand knowledge or expertise on a particular subject. Instead of getting defensive, use their knowledge to strengthen your work.
***
I hope this post results in less stressful and more useful critique sessions. For more on this subject, check out 5 Ways to Get Good Revision Notes.
Happy writing!

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Push or Pull

What kind of writer are you? Someone who needs to be pushed to write? Or someone who would write no matter what, putting themselves out there, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps?
I’ve been both at different stages.
When you need a push to write:
To take the plunge—Maybe you had a teacher who inspired you, or a partner or family member who encouraged you to write. Or maybe you read something that was so amazing you wanted to write too. In any case, someone or something pushed you into the writing world.
To follow through—But writing can be a fickle process. Sometimes we get in funks where we can’t write or lose our confidence in our abilities. That’s when a nudge from a writing friend or taking steps to reinvigorate your creativity helps you keep going when the going gets tough.
To do what’s required—We can all hope we reach the point where contractual obligations and deadlines serve as the push to keep us writing.
When writing pulls you in:

Because you have a story to tell—Often we discover our love of writing because we have a story to tell, something that can only be expressed in words. And by taking that first step, you discover you have even more to say.
Because you’ve found your rhythm—Some days the writing comes easy. Those are good days, and they are earned because you’ve built up momentum in your story. Developing a writing routine can also help by giving your brain a set time when the words can pour forth.

Because you have goals you want to reach—And the only way to reach them is to keep writing. Sometimes that’s the only inspiration you need.
***

So at the end of the day, is your writing pulling you or pushing you? 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) {}