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) {}

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) {}

Delayed Miscellany

I forgot to post this Wednesday, but life and writing happened, so I’m not too repentant.

If you didn’t know, Gearing Up to Get an Agent (#GUTGAA) is going on right now, and I’ve been busy polishing my own pitch and critiquing others this week. And I got the good news this morning that I successfully entered the preliminary round for agent judging. Yay! Even if I don’t move on to the next round, my pitch has already benefited from entering.

I was also bestowed the Very Inspiring Blogger Award by the wonderful Jen McConnel. If you haven’t checked her out, you need to as she blogs about the writing life and provides insightful book reviews.

As a Very Inspiring Blogger Award recipient, I need to post seven interesting things about myself. Since I’ve done variations on this before, I’ll stick to writing-related things this time around.

1.  My Wily Writers story “Chicken Feet” is being reprinted in Bibliotheca Alexandrina’s The Shining Cities: An Anthology of Pagan Science Fiction. “Chicken Feet” is about a young girl who makes chicken foot ornaments, an aspect of Hoodoo culture, to survive a post-apocalyptic world. So please check out the anthology and the other great stories it contains.

2.  I won a partial request in this month’s Secret Agent contest through Miss Snark’s First Victim. Here’s a hint—it was for my YA SF story I’ve been working on. Keep your fingers crossed for me. And get your logline ready for the Third Annual Baker’s Dozen Agent Auction coming up later this year.

3.  I’m joining a new in-person writing group. I’m still keeping my current group of course, but this new group is comprised of members a little further along in their writing journey (think pro sales and book deals). I’m lucky to have been invited, and the first session is this weekend. Hopefully I’ll have more to share about this soon.

4.  I went to my first SF/F convention two weekends ago. And I lived to tell about it! It was a local convention, and much more focused on books and trends than fandom, which I appreciated. Worldcon didn’t make sense for me this year, but I’ll definitely be attending next year when it’s in San Antonio.

5.  I received my print of the cover illustration for the Fat Girl in a Strange Land Anthology – a reward I received for supporting their Kickstarter campaign to pay pro rates and bring back their magazine. I’m going to frame it and hang it along with the illustration for my story in the Memory Eater Anthology in my office. Cuz yeah I’m a dork like that—and I need all the inspiration and encouragement I can get sometimes.

6.  Elizabeth Craig will be interviewing me in an upcoming edition of the Writers Knowledge Database newsletter. If you haven’t signed up (which you can do here), you are missing out. The Writers Knowledge Database is a great way to find resources on craft, publishing trends, you name it.

Writer's Knowledge Base

7.  Finally, I picked up a copy of Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence after reading Janice Hardy’s interview with author Lisa Cron. This is the first craft book I’ve felt compelled to read in a long time. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Okay… That’s it for me. Have a wonderful weekend and 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) {}

Managing Critique

I’m a firm believer in the benefits of critique—regardless of what shape they take.

Since getting serious about writing, I’ve experienced a wide range of critiquing styles and formats:

Reading Work Aloud – On one end of the spectrum, there’s things like open mic nights where tepid applause or catcalls tells you how well you did. I’ve done this once, and although I didn’t crash and burn, I don’t want to repeat the experience. On the other end, I’ve been in groups where you read a predetermined number of pages aloud and then discuss them. Great for problem scenes or seeing if your story or chapter opener hooks readers.

Exchanging Work – I’ve done where an agreed upon number of pages (up to 10 pages, up to 1 chapter, first 50 etc.) are exchanged in advanced and then discussed in small groups. Great for fostering local connections and looking at stories more in-depth. I’ve also exchanged full and partial manuscripts with critique partners and other trusted readers, marking up the text and making micro and macro level comments. It’s a lot of work but it allows you to evaluate a work as a whole, and as we all know, good readers are priceless.

Contests – There’s a wide variety of these for both short and long form work. Things like Miss Snark’s First Victim provide a forum for novel openers to see if readers are hooked. Query contests also abound on blogs. Plus there are a wide variety of contests sponsored through local and national writing organizations. Contests can provide you with feedback if you are in a place were you don’t have a trusted reader in your corner, but beware contest fees as not all contests are created equal.

Then there’s writing workshops like Taos Toolbox, where a lot of feedback comes your way all at once.

And that can be overwhelming. Strike that. It is overwhelming.

So how do you incorporate it all?

Well, when I have the opportunity to collect feedback from a variety of sources all at once, I like to focus on macro-level issues first.

These are general vibes my CPs and trusted readers get from my story or, in the case of the critiques from Taos, what stands out most in my mind as people went around the table and told me what was wrong with my stories.

Based on those things, I do a revision pass. That way I’m proactively working through what I perceive as problems with my story.

Only after I’ve done my initial revisions do I go back through the more detailed individual crits. That way I find I’m less reactive to individual comments that can often lead to changes in my story that serve the critiquer, not necessarily the manuscript as a whole.

Granted this process won’t work for every project, but I like to use this model whenever I can. Besides, by tackling the “big” issues first, because usually by the time you get to the smaller nits, many of them have already been fixed or eliminated.

There’s also some caveats to critiquing more generally.

As Kristine Kathryn Rusch pointed out in her post Perfection:

Critiquers get the manuscript for free and they’re asked to criticize it. Of course, they will find something wrong with it. In that circumstance, we all will.

So remember, just because someone says there is a problem with your story, figure out if it’s because they’ve been asked to find a problem or if there really is something wrong.

It’s also worth noting that not all critiquing advice is equal. Some people may not understand your vision for your story or be unable to divorce themselves from what they would do in your stead.

Fellow Toolboxer Catherine Scaff-Stump in Technique versus Vision explains:

If you ask me to give you feedback on a story, my job is to talk to you about your technique, but it is not to suggest you move in a different direction. I am not going to ask you to compromise your vision. You know what you want to do.

Worse, why would I pass judgment on your vision? I can say, “Your piece isn’t very good.” Unpacked, that should mean that you are vague, or your characters are underdeveloped. There should be things I can do to help you with technique. But I shouldn’t be thinking that your piece isn’t very good because I don’t like it. Because it’s not my thing. Because it’s not my sub-genre. That’s besides the point. I should be focusing on your technique, not telling you to like what I like.

Another great resource for figuring out how to incorporate feedback comes from How to Tackle Critique Notes from Writer Unboxed.

What other tips and tricks have you learned from your own critique experiences?

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) {}