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!

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Know Your Genre – Speculative Fiction

How many times have you heard that? If we are to ever write something worth publishing, we must know how our book differs from all that has come before. This is essential in marketing your book to agents, editors, and ultimately readers. As agents are fond of saying, your book’s genre is where it gets shelved in a brick-and-mortar bookstore.

With the rise of e-books and self-publishing along with the current trend of postmodern genre mash-ups, the importance of genre may be slightly decreasing, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t know your stuff. Consider it another part of the research process.

That’s why I’m so freaked out about attending Taos Toolbox next month, a two-week science fiction and fantasy novel writing workshop. I write speculative fiction, of course, but I know I’m not as well versed as I should be in the field.

Sure I’ve read Tolkien and Lewis; Le Guin, L’Engle, Bradbury, and McKinley; Susan Cooper and Lloyd Alexander; and later Phillip Pullman and Garth Nix. I also read my fair share of Piers Anthony and too many Star Wars novels to count. But current stuff? No so much. You’ll also note how much of the authors above trend toward more young adult stories.

So of course I started hunting around on the interwebs to see what was considered required reading for speculative fiction.

io9 provides a wonderful overview of the genre with their Syllabus and Book List for Novice Students of Science Fiction Literature. The list is described thusly:

It is not comprehensive. It is intended to introduce the novice student of SF literature to the major themes in the genre, as well as books and authors who are representative of different eras in SF lit (including the present day).

And I’ve read just 7 of the 24 titles listed. Yikes.

Last year, NPR ran a poll for the 100 best books in science fiction and fantasy. I fared better here, having read 29 of the top 50 books (and another 14 of books 51-100). But still, there are plenty of gaps in my reading.

Earlier this month, Kirkus Review ran a series on Social Science Fiction (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3). And while I haven’t read all of the books they mentioned, it’s clear that social science fiction is one of the areas I’m better versed in. That and young adult SFF up until two years ago (when I essentially stopped pleasure reading and started writing more).

This is good since I tend to write more socio-cultural speculative fiction stories in addition to YA. There’s still more work to do, but at least I’m not a complete slouch in the sub-genres I’m writing in.

What about you?

For more recommendations:

Adult SFF: David Brin’s List of “Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy Tales”
SFF Short Stories: Bibliophile Stalker’s Short Story Collections for the Aspiring Speculative Fiction Writer
YA SFF: Book Review Blog Charlotte’s Libraryvar 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) {}

Review – Air by Geoff Ryman

Air (or Have Not Have) by Geoff Ryman is my April selection for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up for through the book review blog Floor to Ceiling Books.

Chung Mae is the resident fashion expert in her poor farming village in Happy Province, Karzistan. Unable to read, Mae spends her time making graduation dresses for local girls and hosting shopping expeditions into the big city for her adult clients. But all that is threatened with the coming of Air, a new technology that will bring Happy Province, willingly or no, into the future.

When a test for Air goes horribly wrong, linking Mae’s consciousness with that of Mrs. Tung, an elderly neighbor who dies during the test, Mae is both feared and admired by the other villagers thanks to her ability to navigate Air and the prophetic wisdom she utters when Mrs. Tung takes over during emotional moments.

But just as Air takes away Mae’s fashion business – for she can no longer be the only fashion expert when anyone in the village can access Air and see what designs are the latest rage – Air also gives her a new purpose as she vows to prepare her fellow villagers for the flood of information that will soon be at their command.

Air is a meditative, beautiful, frustrating, imaginative read. If you are interested in stories featuring the impact of new technologies on culture (like me) then it is also a must-read (albeit with some reservations).

What is perhaps so striking to me is Ryman’s decision to show how Air, an advanced technology, impacts a small farming community where things like indoor plumbing, telephones, and bank accounts are far removed from daily life. The villagers literally go from having nothing to the possibility of having everything thanks to Air. Thus Air is a very different story from one where Air is just the next iteration of communication technology in a more modern community.

The intersection of a traditional, agrarian society with the new technology provides countless opportunities to show the effects Air has socially (Mae’s interactions with her neighbors and the larger community), gender-wise (Mae and the other village women are empowered by Air and subvert traditional gender roles), occupationally (Mae goes from fashion expert to teacher, resulting in friction with the local headmaster), as well as other cultural dimensions. Ryman explores each aspect exhaustively but weaves them together into almost seamless, satisfying conclusion.

What was also impressive is Rymans’s use of lyrical and figurative language to describe concepts – as if literally translating them from Karz or Chinese. Not only in Mae’s dialogue, but her inner thoughts as well. His portrayal of Mae is intimate and complex, offering writers a great character to study.

My only issue with the book is his handling of

SPOILER

Mae’s pregnancy, which I found offensive and the only misstep in an otherwise excellent work. Other reviewers have interpreted this part of the story as a symbolic event – and it does work as such – but the specific subversions of Mae’s pregnancy necessary for symbolism still rankled. I mention this not so much to deter readers, but to give them a heads-up, should they be surprised by it like I was. Otherwise, I fully recommend Air to any reader of speculative fiction.

Be sure to check out other April reviews for the Speculative Fiction Reading Challenge.


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5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Becoming a Writer

I love being a writer. But as with anything, there are some things I wish I’d known before I got started. The blog Paper Hangover is hosting Friday Fives, where writers share the five things they wish they knew before becoming a writer.

1) It’s ok to be afraid, but do it anyway

I stared writing in my early teens. In my bedroom, door closed. I like to think my family didn’t know what I was doing – they probably did, but we didn’t talk about it. You see, I never told anyone I wrote because I was scared of what they’d say. Sometimes my doubts made me stop writing all together. I lost valuable years of developing my craft thanks to my fears. And I regret that every day as I try to keep moving forward with my writing years later. It’s ok to be afraid – writing is a scary thing, putting your thoughts and feelings on display – but never stop writing. You can only get better, and soon enough, those fears will fade.

2) Seek out all the opportunities available to you

I hate the fact that I was too intimidated to take a creative writing class in college. I was good at studying, got good grades, but terrified at trying something more creative in a room of my peers, even though I had been writing on my own for some time. Now I realize that it was foolish to let my fears hold me back like that. Today I would kill for an opportunity to take a creative writing class with my peers. Now I constantly cull the local paper for writing opportunities and events. I got involved with two writing groups. I make sure I know when readings and author events happen near me. If you want it, work for it. Make connections. You never know what will pan out.

3) Don’t just read books – study them

You’re going to read a lot of books. For fun, for school. Books you want to read. Book you hate. But the best thing you can do is become an active reader, a critical reader. Don’t just read a book because you have to or because you want to pass the time. Read for craft. Why does the author write something one way and not another? Why is one book a page turner and another one isn’t? How would you make the content of a dry history text come to life? By asking yourself these questions as you read, you will have internalized the techniques of other writers and be able to apply them to your own writing.

4) Remember to experience life

If you know you want to be a writer, that’s great. And it’s important to work towards that goal. But don’t forget to experience life in you quest for literary greatness. Go to that party. Watch TV. Walk in the rain. Talk to that person you never talk to but always see. Live. And write. The more you experience, the more fodder you will have for your stories.

5) Don’t give up

Writing is a long journey. It can be lonesome. It can be terrifying. But it can also be exhilarating. It can also be energizing. It can tell you who you are. But it takes determination, patience, and hard work. A few good writer friends won’t hurt either. You will be rejected, you will get discouraged. But you will still pick up your pen or type on your keyboard, because you are a writer. You write.

Be sure to check out the other writers participating by going HERE.

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Routine Recalibration

I think I’m in a rut. Not a I-can’t-write-a-thing rut. More like a nothing-is-inspiring-me rut.

I still tinker with some of my short stories, analyze and implement some of the changes my CPs have suggested for my historical romance novel, and deliberate on whether I should go back to my problem-riddled SF novel that is mostly complete, the problem-riddled SF novel that I need to start over from scratch, or the half-drafted contemporary YA project that’s been hanging out on my hard drive since Christmas.

I can rattle off a whole list of pros and cons to tackle one WIP over another. And as usual, there’s a whole bunch of other things in life that can keep me from writing at all — like sunny days, bathroom remodels, and dress shopping for the three weddings I’ll be attending this year.

To top it off, everything I’ve been writing lately makes me cringe. The folks at Writers Unboxed say You Hate Your Writing? That’s a Good Sign! (and be sure to watch the Ira Glass interview mentioned in the article!):

That struggle—that feeling that you’re wasting your time—is a sign that you’re probably on the right path. But most people quit, not realizing that nearly every writer who does excellent work went through a phase of years where they had really good taste, but they produced total crap.

When I don’t like what I’m writing, I tend to fall back on craft. I may not like something, but if I write it in a technically proficient way, that’s at least something. Author Jody Hedlund and Fiction Groupie Roni Loren both blogged about the importance of writing craft recently, and I realized it’s been some time since I cracked open the books I’ve gathered.

Even my horoscope last week said:

If I had to come up with a title for the next phase of your astrological cycle, it might be “Gathering Up.” The way I see it, you should focus on collecting any resources that are missing from your reserves. You should hone skills that are still too weak to get you where you want to go, and you should attract the committed support of allies who can help you carry out your dreams and schemes. Don’t be shy about assembling the necessities. Experiment with being slightly voracious.

In other words, it’s time to study up. So that’s where I’m at — incorporating deliberate study of craft into my writing routine. I’m currently plowing through Virginia Tufte’s Artful Sentences: Syntax as Style and will probably reread Character, Emotion, Viewpoint after that.

Anyone else feeling the need to hit the books?
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