Archive for July, 2009

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What Stace had to say on Thursday, July 30th, 2009
On Critiques 4

So having had my unscheduled little rant on Monday about the importance of critique, and a little bit about why having your work critiqued is important, let’s discuss today why it’s important to critique. (I know you guys are waiting for the Mean-assed examples, and for more nitty-gritty stuff on how to critique etc., and we’re going to start that next week. I want to get the theory down first as a sort of base.)

We all know getting critique can improve our work. Critique partners or beta readers can ask questions we didn’t realize were there, or point out weak areas we didn’t see. They can helps us show not tell or clean up dialogue or whatever, depending on our own individual skill levels.

But what often seems left out of the gotta-get-a-crit race is how important it is to critique others, and how that process helps us become better, more critical, more thoughtful writers.

How many times have you bought a book because it looked promising, only to discover, a chapter or two in, that it wasn’t at all? For whatever reason, it didn’t appeal to you. Maybe you thought the characters were wooden and insipid, or the writing didn’t sparkle, or the plot was cliche, or too many characters were introduced at one time and you never could keep them straight because they all seemed exactly the same, or maybe the writer kept using the word “unctuous” over and over again until you wanted to slap him or her in the face repeatedly with a bowl of oxtail soup.

There’s almost nothing in the world more disappointing than a bad book.

But bad books can teach us a lot. Bad writing can teach us a lot. Because your work came from you. Yes, we can and should learn to distance ourselves and be objective enough to see it as a piece of work separate from ourselves. That’s important.

But the way to learn that distancing and objectivity, the way to learn to take critiques, is by giving them.

When it’s someone else’s doc open on the screen, we’re not emotionally attached to it. We can view it for what it is: a piece of writing. Not somebody’s “baby.” (UGH.) Not somebody’s soul. Not their heart. Just a piece of writing, which can be judged on its own merits.

Does that mean we can forget that it’s a real human behind that piece of writing? No, of course not, and as we’ll see when we get to the mean-ass crits, it’s very possible to really hurt someone. Comments like “This sucks. Give it up,” are no help to anyone, especially not–surprise!–you.

Because when you look at something and simply dismiss it, you’re not learning anything. You’re not putting on an editor monacle and really studying why something doesn’t work. And sure, sometimes a piece will have so many problems you don’t know where to start.

But most won’t, at least not if you’re finding appropriate partners. Most will be close. And what you’ll learn in trying to make them hit the mark will teach you how to fix your own work.

Maybe the word “was” keeps leaping out at you in this particular piece. And it irritates the fuck out of you for no discernible reason (this happens. See my “unctuous” example.) It drives you do crazy, in fact, that soon all you can see is “was.”

Then you open your own book. Lo and behold, you have “was” strewn about like crayons on a playroom floor. Oops! Maybe you should try to rework some of those sentences, huh? Figure out a way to show all those things you “was”ed instead of telling them?

(That’s not to say “was” isn’t useful or should never be used. It’s just an example. But we should be careful about “was”ing.)

Here’s an example:

The night was dark. (Hey, it’s an example. Shut up.) Lucy was walking down the street, past the pub, which was filled with drunks playing darts. Lucy shivered. It was so cold outside, and her feet were (ha!) so sore. She was desperate to get home, but it was still so far away.

Now. This is not great. It’s rather dull. And something feels off about it, at least to me. There are a few issues with it, but all those wases jump out at me first. So how do we eliminate them?

We figure out how to show the dark, cold night, the pub drunks, Lucy’s desperation and sore feet, without telling them. Perhaps we try something like this:

Lucy pulled her ragged jacket closer around her shoulders, but it didn’t help much. The wind cut through her like shards of ice, whipping around the lonely buildings to shred her soul. Up ahead home waited for her, warm bright rooms and her mother’s smiling face. But here on the street only the echoes of her footsteps kept her company.

She passed through the square of pale gold light on the street made by the pub window. Inside men shouted and laughed, lifting pints, slapping each other on the back when one of them hit a bullseye. If she only had some money, she could walk in and have a drink too, defrost her aching extremities by the gentle coal fire.

Now. This isn’t great either, for another reason. Can anyone tell me what it is? Go on, critique this paragraph.

When you’ve done that, think about it. You’ve just read this opening looking for flaws. You’ve been specifically looking to find something wrong. You’ve (hopefully) taken your undoubtedly very warm feeling toward me (ha) out of the equation and examined the openings just as openings, and tried to decide the following things:

1. Is it well-written on a basic level? (i.e. are there no obvious grammatical flaws or spelling errors; is the character named Lucy throughout, does it make sense, etc.)

2. Is it well-written on a more advanced level? (Are the sentences clunky; are words repeated; do all the sentences start with “she” or “it” [that’s one of my personal bugbears].)

3. Did you get a sense of character, place, and/or time from it?

4. Most importantly, would you keep reading?

There’s more, of course, and we’ll get to it in time. For now, take a look there and tell me in comments what your thoughts are. And be honest! You’re not going to hurt my feelings.

In fact, as a bonus today I’m going to offer the sum total of my wisdom on accepting critiques. Keep repeating this to yourself:

My work is not me. My work is not me. My work is not me.

Have fun!

What Stace had to say on Tuesday, July 28th, 2009
It’s release day!

DEMON INSIDE is released today! Very exciting!

To celebrate I’m chatting over at Bitten by Books, and giving away a $30 gift card to the online bookstore of your choice. So come on over and say hi!

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What Stace had to say on Monday, July 27th, 2009
On Critiques 3

Okay. I had a different post planned for today, but I’m in a mood now, so I’m going to rant a little bit. And maybe when I’m done ranting we’ll get to what I actually planned, which was different from what I originally planned. Muahaha, the nefarious twistiness!

Here’s the thing. A critique partner or beta reader will do different things for everyone. I personally think that the better we get and the more confident we get, the less we actually need critique and the more we just need a second pair of eyes; this is something I’ll be discussing later.

There’s another name for this beta reader person, once you’re published. That name is EDITOR.

See, when I write a book, and make it as shiny and perfect and clean as I can–and yes, I am the judge of that–I send it to this person who works at my publisher. That person is called an “editor,” and that “editor” will actually read my book, every single page, and will then point out things that perhaps aren’t clear, the occasional pacing issue, or simply an area my “editor” would like to see expanded or feels was expanded too much. Maybe she (my editors so far have all been women) feels I didn’t hit a certain emotional place hard enough. Maybe she feels I hit it a little too hard, and the scene has become a bit depressing–or rather, more depressing than usual, ha.

What’s my point? My point is that A) Working with beta readers or critique partners is a good way for some of us to get used to dealing with editing suggestions (I never had a problem doing so, and I love edits, but some do); B) Every single book on the shelves–every decent book–has been through this process and has thus had at least one other person making suggestions to the author, suggestions we usually take; C) That that extra pair of eyes is necessary to make a book the absolute best it can be; and most importantly D.

D is that it is my job to make my editor’s job as easy as possible.

How do I do that? By turning in the cleanest, tightest manuscript I possibly can. I accomplish this by working hard. By writing and rewriting, editing and editing, by thinking of hardly anything else for weeks on end. I accomplish this by neglecting my family so I can write, reread, edit, change, rip out, add in, polish polish and polish some more.

And I accomplish it, when I’m done with all of that, by sending the ms out to a few people I trust, to see if they spot anything my editor might spot. Anything I can fix before I turn that book in. Any slow spots or areas where I know the story so well I forgot I was writing for people who don’t, and so have neglected to fully explain a character’s reasoning or whatever.

My book is one of dozens my editor may be working on at any given time. I want to make her job easier. If I may, I’m going to tell you something one of my editors once said to me: That she was looking forward to my ms because she knew my work would be clean and tight, that it wouldn’t require a lot of heavy lifting.

That’s the kind of shit I live for, people. And that’s why I have beta readers–aside from the simple fact that it’s FUN to share your work with your friends, and that often in exchange you actually get to read their mss too! I love my friends and I love their work. Why wouldn’t I want people I trust and admire to read my books? Why wouldn’t I want to read theirs? Do you have any idea how good it feels to actually be able to discuss your work with someone? And if all that reading fun means I also get to have a reputation with my editors for turning in clean work? (Which I would have anyway, as I generally change very little based on my betas’ comments?) So much the fucking better.

Once you’re contracted, one you’re published, it’s not just about you anymore. It’s about the people who depend on you, too. It’s not “asking a committee” or wimping out. It’s the business of professional publishing. Period.

But that does bring me to an interesting point, the one I originally planned for today, which is, who the hell is giving you such crap advice?

Here’s the thing. Finding people willing to crit you is good. And a lot of this is covered when you see theirs; you get an idea of their skill level and thus how reliable they actually are.

But some people post work online, like in the Share Your Work forum on AW or any number of other places. And those are great places, they are. But watch who you listen to.

Not everyone who offers you comments will know what they’re talking about. Some people get bugs up their asses about silly things that don’t matter. Some people will argue based on nothing. (Years ago I posted an excerpt from a historical. I got excellent feedback, and really appreciated it, except the one or two people who insisted my years of meticulous research were incorrect. This also happened in a nightmarish way later and elsewhere, at a place that no longer exists, but that’s not really a story I can share here.)

My point is, yes, you need to trust yourself, and you need to be careful who you listen to. Just because someone sounds like they know what they’re talking about doesn’t mean they do. Just because they have several people who agree with them doesn’t mean any of them know what they’re talking about. Check their credentials. Are they published? In your genre? By whom? For how long? Do they normally make sense? Step away from the work and the crit for a while and come back to it.

Does it still seem unreasonable? Forget it. Don’t take every bit of advice you’re offered. Learn to pick and choose; it’s part of the process.

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What Stace had to say on Sunday, July 26th, 2009
I will be at BITTEN BY BOOKS on Tuesday

I’ll be giving away a $30* gift card to the online bookstore of your choice, and answering questions all day, so come hang out with me! If you RSVP at the following link, you get 50 extra entries in the contest.

So, you know, do that. Bitten by Books RSVP.

*(Or foreign equivalent, i.e. 20 pounds. I don’t have a pound symbol on my computer anymore, ack!)

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What Stace had to say on Saturday, July 25th, 2009
Another chance to win a signed copy of DEMON INSIDE!

I’m a Dame for a Day at the DEADLINE DAMES site! I’m blogging about pressure, and giving away a copy of the book, and you should all pop over and visit!

And if you haven’t spent any time on the Dames site, have a wander-round, because it’s seriously cool. Nine awesome authors: Jackie Kessler, Lilith Saintcrow, Keri Arthur, Devon Monk, Kaz Mahoney, Keri Arthur, Jenna Black, Rachel Vincent, Toni Andrews, and Rinda Elliot. Lots of great posts. Cool links. It’s the place to be, especially today, when I bare my insecure, neurotic writerly soul for your entertainment.

So come on by and say hi!

What Stace had to say on Friday, July 24th, 2009
Winners!

First, a HUGE thank you to everyone who entered! And if you didn’t win this one, I’ll be giving away a copy tomorrow at the DEADLINE DAMES blog, so stop by there too!

Seriously? I love doing giveaways, but hate having to pick only a few winners. Really. It makes me feel bad. But they only give me so many copies, you know?

Anyway. Thanks, thanks, thanks, everyone. You made this a really fun day for me and I hope you had fun too.

So…I had my stepdaughter pick three numbers between one and forty-six, which was the total number of entrants between here and livejournal. She didn’t know why she was doing it and didn’t see any of the comments at all.

First…Coffeeisgod, from Livejournal!

Second…Wendy, from here, comment #21!

Third…SusiSunshine, from here, comment #11!

Again, seriously. I’m so grateful to all of you who entered, or tweeted, or blogged about my little contest, and I really hope you’ll all enjoy the book even if you didn’t win, and that you’ll all stick around.

What Stace had to say on Friday, July 24th, 2009
DEMON INSIDE copies arrived!

And OOOOH they’re so pretty!!

So guess what?

I feel like giving one or two away.

Yes, I know they’ll be in stores Tuesday. And you’ve all preordered them, right? But this will be a SIGNED copy, and if we work fast we can get one to you before they hit the shelves.

Here’s what we’re going to do. In comments, tell me your favorite moment from PERSONAL DEMONS. It can be anything; a line of dialogue, an entire scene, whatever. Just let me know what it was.

I will randomly pick a winner or two–depending on how many entires I get–and will take the books to the post office tomorrow morning, to be shipped overnight mail.* So you’ll have them Monday.

Now. In order to do this, I have to have your address by tomorrow morning. I will announce the winners this evening; let’s say by midnight. So be ready! It’s a short contest, I know, but hopefully will be fun. Um, and hopefully people will want to play.

So…let’s get started!

* Yes, I will ship to other countries, but not overnight. Sorry. I’m generous and excited, but I’m not rich.

What Stace had to say on Thursday, July 23rd, 2009
Summer Series: On Critiques 2

Be gentle with me today, everyone. I spent an hour this morning with the Hair Butcher of Alpharetta, and am feeling a mite traumatized. I should have realized something was wrong when I saw her Laura Ashley-esque dress and little wedge heels; this woman would not understand what it means to want to look like a whorish punk rock Barbie. And no, she did not. The good news is, apparently I’m a better hairstylist than I thought, as all she really did (at first) was to trim–barely–the layers I myself cut. It was when I explained I wanted MORE layers that the trouble started. But oh well. It’s only hair. It grows. And I can put enough gunk in it to fix it in the end.

Anyway. Enough about me.

As I said the other day, I have plenty of crit submissions; six or seven, I believe. I am going to try to do them all, interspersed throughout instead of at the end. Thanks so much to all who submitted.

So. Last time I gave you all a bit of background on my fantastic crit partners. Today I’m going to talk about finding partners, a bit, and next week we’ll start doing the crits and talking about how what we need from crits changes as our skills develop. Next week we start getting into the nitty-gritty, in other words.

Kait Nolan left a link in comments on Monday that I want to post here. It’s Crit Partner Match and it looks pretty good to me.

But it occurs to me that with the exception of Anna, none of my critique partners were found specifically to be critique partners. Not that there’s anything wrong with the Crit Partner Match service–I think it’s incredibly clever, actually–or any of the other services about which I’ve heard good things, like CritiqueCircle.com.

My suggestion? Join Absolute Write. Or any other writer’s forum that has beginning and professional writers as members; that has a good mix. Romance Divas is another, if you write romance. As with any forum, AW or Divas are not for everyone. Hang out for a while. Join some conversations. Get to know people a bit.

For the love of all that’s holy, do some research before you join such a forum. Don’t join a forum called (to pull a name out of my mullet) “Professional Writers” or some such faff without checking the members out. Are they actually pros, or are they all self-published? Are they PA “authors”? Do they actually know what it means to be professional, in other words? What kinds of people do they seem to be? This may be simply a quirk of mine, but I avoid any forum where I see more than one member discussing their own God-given talent. Or offering to trade Amazon reviews. Or discussing promo ideas like slipping bookmarks into their utility bills so “the person opening the envelope sees it.” (Those are all opened by machine, AFAIK, anyway.) Do you know what I mean? You want a cp who knows what the hell they’re talking about.
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What Stace had to say on Tuesday, July 21st, 2009
Critique submissions

Thanks everyone! I have more than enough now. I’m going to try to do them all, but I’m not sure if time will allow. Either way, I really, really appreciate all the submissions!

What Stace had to say on Monday, July 20th, 2009
SUMMER SERIES: ON CRITIQUES

So this is the first post in this summer’s series, which is a bit late, I know, thanks to moving and deadlines and one thing and another.

Anyway. I anticipate it will last through mid-August or so, and I’m hoping to get a few guest posts in.

Oh, and. The series isn’t really going to be about finding a critique partner per se, although we will touch on it several times throughout. In fact, if you’re looking for a CP, why not go ahead and mention it in comments? What you write, what you’re looking for? Who knows, maybe someone will match up.

But I’m going to do a little bit of an unorthodox start to this, one, I think, and we’ll try to have fun along the way (as I always do.) First, I’d love it if someone would send me something to crit. BUT. Hold on. Wait until you hear what I want to do first, okay? (And if nobody sends me anything I’ll pull something out of my files.)
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