Remembering Victor Milán

Last week, sad news came in that prolific New Mexican author Victor Milán passed away after complications with pneumonia. That’s a bit deceptive as he had been in and out of emergency room since early December, but so much time in the hospital took its toll and robbed us of one of the greatest adventure writers out there. Some good retrospectives on his writing career can be found at Locus, File 770, Tor, and GRRM’s blog.

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Victor Milan, John Jos Miller, Jane Lindskold, Lauren C. Teffeau, S.M. Stirling and Emily Mah at Page 1 Books, June 2015

Vic had a tremendous impact on the local science fiction and fantasy community here in Albuquerque, and it’s only fitting there will be a remembrance ceremony celebrating his life and work at Bubonicon, the local SFF convention, this August.

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Victor Milan at the Dinosaur Lords release party / birthday — August 2015

I met Vic through the NM-based Critical Mass writers’ group, which I first joined back in fall of 2012. He was always witty and kind and an insightful critiquer. I felt privileged to have read his work in turn, most notably his Dinosaur Lords series with Tor. His encouragement and support of my own writing over the years was a huge gift, and one I’ll carry with me for a long time.

 

 

 

When he got sick, getting shuttled from emergency rooms to hospital beds to nursing rehabilitation facilities only to be sent back to the ER for the process to start all over again, it was hard seeing such a gentle vibrant man brought low by illness and an indifferent healthcare system. But he was fighting up to the very end.

My last visit with him, a few days before his passing, was a good one. I wanted to see him before I left town for a weeklong trip back East to visit family. There were the usual gripes about the facility, interruptions by staff members taking vitals or administering meds, but he brightened up considerably when I mentioned some editorial feedback I’d received on a project, happy to talk about the writing process he’d devoted so much of his life to. When I left, he was still weak but showing outward signs of improving, even as pneumonia and sepsis were unknowingly setting in. I didn’t realize that would be the last time I’d see him.

After that visit, he sent me the following text:

 

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I didn’t respond—I was going to see him as soon as I got back to town. We could talk then, right? Wrong. In any case, here’s my belated reply:

No, Vic. Thank you. And wherever you are now, happy voyaging!

 

Invisibility of Progress

Improvements in writing ability are often hard to detect. So much of what is “good” is contextual—dictated by a particular project, the audience you’re writing for, or even market trends.

I’ve talked before about How Do You Know if you are ready for publication. Although it’s related, that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today.
Instead I want to focus on all the invisible things writers do in the hopes of bettering their craft, expanding their professional network, and positioning themselves for success to the best of their ability.
Image courtesy of Penywise of Morgue Files
Objective measures of success in this field are pretty self-explanatory. You’re either published or you’re not (however you choose to define it). When you’re “not” published, chances are you’re doing a bunch of things other than writing in the hopes they will pay off in some small way in the future.
For example, I haven’t sold any short stories since last fall. If you are looking at my output objectively—well, there isn’t any by that definition. Instead, so much of what I’m doing these days is invisible. And I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
These invisible activities include:
Reading slush for Masque Books – Beyond occasional mentions here on the blog, it’s something I do to strengthen my ability to evaluate projects, diagnose writing problems, and gain insights into the editorial process. I won’t be able to learn these things overnight—this requires a commitment of months if not years to see the benefit from this type of activity.
Joining an invitation-only critique group – The meetings are intense and panic-inducing. I’m learning tons, making good connections, but as with any critique group, feedback is only as good as the projects I bring to them. Workshopping novels (and short stories to a lesser extent) can be a long process outside of development time.
Submitting to higher-tier markets – I have three in rotation right now that I truly believe in. And I’ve been aiming high. My sales last year gave me the confidence to target higher-tier markets. Personal rejections? Check. Second-round bumps? Check. Agonizing ‘You just missed the cut’ notices? Oh yeah. And the worst part is, all this means longer response times.
When non-writers ask me about my writing these days, it’s hard to explain how all these invisible activities fill up my time and contribute to my work. But they do mean something. They are valuable. They just go largely unseen because they don’t conform to objective measures of success.
I just have to believe they’ll add up to something that cannot be ignored one day.

What aspect of your writing life is invisible?

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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.
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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.

Happy writing (and critiquing)!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) {}

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.
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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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Collaborative Writing

Over the last few months, I’ve participated in a collaborative writing project with two of my writing friends.

It’s something I was initially hesitant doing. For one, the project is in a genre I don’t normally write in. For another, I wasn’t confident our writing styles would mesh. Plus, the time I spent on the project would inevitably take time away from my own work.

But I did it anyway, and as we’re polishing the initial draft, I can say it was largely a success. How did we keep it from devolving into a game of tug-of war?

Well, for starters, my emotional investment in this project was much lower to begin with. After all, I had to share this story with two other people. So my level of engagement was more in line with the collaborative writing I did in academia—I had a professional desire to get things done and do them well, but I was more than happy to put it aside at the end of the day. In other words, I viewed this as a job or an assignment, not my “art” (whatever that means).

That also meant I was accountable to the other writers I was working with. Excuses that I sometimes use to get out of working on my own projects didn’t fly in this case because I had two other people counting on me to write my portions of the story.

That level of detachment did make it harder to engage with the material initially, but as we got further along into the story, that became less of an issue. The detachment also meant I was also more open to compromise as we discussed the overall story arc and decided on character traits and plot points.

We also stuck to a schedule. We met every two weeks while drafting the story. We started with an initial brainstorming session where we roughed out the plot. Then we would assign each other scenes to write. We would exchange those scenes before the next session, review them, and make big-picture adjustments at the next meeting. Then the process would start all over again. The result was a full draft in less than four months.

It also helped that each writer was assigned a specific POV character, so we didn’t have to worry about handing off that character to someone else and the continuity issues that would stem from that.

Would I do it again? It depends. I learned a lot about my writing through this process and exposed myself to the drafting techniques of other writhers. And it’s encouraging to know that such collaborations can be successful—provided there’s a good mesh of working styles. Plus it was a lot of fun too.

Doing it again would necessitate a time commitment I’m not eager to make at this stage right now. That doesn’t mean some future project won’t be worth the effort.

So if you are contemplating a collaborative writing project, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Find writers you trust.

This means you trust their creative instincts, you trust their ability to do the work, and (it has to be said) you trust they won’t dick you over in the end. It helps that I’ve known the two women I worked with for over a year through our local writing group. Not everyone starting a collaboration will have this option, but the point is to vet the other writers the best you can and go with your gut.

Treat it as a professional obligation.

This means you (and the other writers) need to be accountable to one another. Make goals, stick to a production schedule, brainstorm together—but remember to build in enough leeway so that you can help each other if the going gets tough. Respect each other’s work and each other’s time. Couch story development negotiations in terms of craft and structure, not you own selfish desires for how the story should turn out. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ and all that.

Remember that this is a learning opportunity.

Collaboration is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It’s also a rare one, because of the difficulties inherent in any collaboration. Use this time as chance to look under the hood at someone else’s writing process—you may glean a few nuggets of wisdom for your own writing. You may also surprise yourself at what you are capable of in the right set of circumstances.

Check out On the Art of Collaboration in Writing from Magical Words and Amie Kaufman’s Three Rules You Can’t Break for more insights into collaborative 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) {}