Monday, May 28, 2012

How do you feel about critique groups?

Frankly put, most critique groups are a waste of time.

Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t join a critique group.

1 - Members aren’t experts. Most professional writers don’t have the time or inclination to join critique groups; they’re too busy making a living writing. As a result, critique groups are typically made up of aspiring authors, many of whom are unpublished (or self-published), or have maybe written material for someone’s website or the church newsletter. They’re not in the group because they have something to offer, but because they have something they need. It’s nothing against them personally; they simply don’t know enough about writing to offer you good advice. Which leads to #2:

2 - You get bad advice. There are a myriad of forces that shape the way your story should be told—believability, escalation, voice, characterization, inevitability, causality, mood, and so on. Without taking all of these into account a person will end up offering you advice that, in the end, is detrimental rather than helpful. To ask someone who doesn’t understand the intricacies of story to help you with your novel is like going to someone who’s never been to medical school to try and get advice on how to perform heart surgery. It’s going to be bad news for everyone involved.

Think about it this way: novice carpenters don’t get together to critique each other’s carpentry, they have a master carpenter teach them. Novice swimmers don’t get together to critique each others’ strokes, they have an expert swimmer teach them. Writing is the only field I know of where we encourage people to let the blind lead the blind. If your group has a master carpenter in it or an expert swimmer (I’m trusting you to know what I mean), then go for it! But if not, I’d stay away.

3 - The material being critiqued is out of context. Here’s a typical scenario: One person says, “You need a better hook for your story,” but she doesn’t know the rest of the story so she doesn’t know if it really sets up the novel well or not. So then you go home and rewrite the hook and then bring it back next week. But really, you should have probably moved on to develop the broader context of your novel instead. Who knows, you might need to discard that opening anyway.

If you have writers in your group who are professionals, who make a living writing, then have at it. Otherwise steer clear. You’re going to unqualified people giving you bad advice that wastes your time.

There’s nothing wrong with getting together with other aspiring novelists to have lunch, to encourage each other, to develop your friendships, or to keep each other accountable, but find someone who’s qualified before asking others to critique your work.

Instead, hone your work, study the articles on this site and on Writer’s Digest’s site, and put the stuff into practice. Keep critically analyzing your writing and try reading a book like Self-Editing for Fiction Writers or The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them).

You can improve. You can do this. And you can do it without the pitfalls of being part of a critique group.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Do you have test readers give you suggestions, or is your work 100% Steven James original with you as the only reader that needs satisfying?

Before I send in my manuscripts I will typically have four or five readers look it over and give me some feedback. With my crime novels I try to get (1) an FBI agent or a police officer, (2) a medical doctor, (3) a person familiar with the series, (4) a freelance editor, and (5) someone from my target audience who isn’t familiar with the series.

I will give them specific directions on what I’d like them to look for, then I take those into account as I work on the story. I usually send out the manuscripts to them before the end is fully pulled together, that way there’s still time for me to make changes.

The only other time I give something to readers is early on in the process when I need encouragement to keep going. At that point I know pretty much what the scene needs to accomplish, but I’m not fully committed to that specific wording and so on. Since I know I’ll still be going through that scene another dozen times or so, I just want to see if the scene is vivid, if the reader can see what’s happening.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Do you prefer to edit your work one chapter/section at a time, or do you prefer to write a completed rough draft before beginning to edit?

Story events are always causally related—this means that everything that happens is caused by the thing that precedes it. Therefore, each scene is inextricably tied to what precedes it and what follows it.

So here’s the paradox: you don’t know where a story needs to be (currently) until you know where it goes, and you don’t know where it needs to go unless you know where it’s been. How does that work out in the actual writing process? I’m not even sure exactly, except that I need to continually weave the story backward and forward, rewriting what I’ve done and figuring out where to go word by word as I develop the story and figure out where it is leading.

Back to the question. I tend to work on a scene until I can see it, then I reread the story before that scene to get the context and pace as I move forward. (However, there are some transitional scenes that I don’t shape too much until I know what happens next—so that I’ll know what needs to have happened to cause that to happen. Make sense?) As details emerge and the story grows I will constantly go back to rewrite the scenes that lead up to the one I’m working on.

My books are typically so complex that as I work on each progressive scene I need to go back and recast what happens—this is especially true in crime novels in which every clue drives the story forward and if you change clue progression you will change the story’s direction.

Finally, when you write, you’re inevitably making promises to the reader about what will need to happen (the would-be lovers need to get together or be torn apart, the detective must face the killer, the hero must find the dragon, etc.). So as I’m writing, I will often think of those scenes in which I keep those promises and sketch them out even though they might not happen for several hundred pages.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How much should an aspiring writer write a day? Should he or she focus more on short stories or should they dedicate more time to a novel?

I have a sign up in my office: Perseverance + Perspective = Success. Basically, I believe that if you’re not  willing to work hard, you probably won’t (and don’t deserve to) find true success; and if you have your priorities out-of-whack, you won’t find it either. So for me, time-management boils down to evaluating what matters most and then working hard and sacrificing what I need to in order to accomplish that.

That said, it’s impossible for me to tell you how much time you should spend writing each day since I don’t know the other obligations and responsibilities you have. I will say, however, that if you have an already full life, and you’re planning on adding writing to the mix, something will need to give.

Personally, I don’t write every day. I write most days and, honestly, I’d say I don’t take enough days off from it, but I’m not the kind of person who would tell you that you need to write for an hour a day, or write a thousand words a day, or something arbitrary like that—especially if I don’t know what your life situation is right now. Look at your professional duties and your spiritual, relational, and physical health goals, then evaluate what you can eliminate or re-prioritize to pursue your writing.

As far as how to spend your writing time (the type of project you should work on) there are a number of factors to evaluate. A novel might take you 1000 to 1500 hours to write. Think about that—if you put in an hour a day you’re looking at three years or more of writing.

Also, with the publishing industry in flux, it seems that novellas and short stories are having a bit of a comeback (at least in e-book publishing). So I would say, only attempt a novel if you have a story that requires that many words to tell. If you can get by with writing it as a short story, go that route. Save yourself and your readers time.

If there’s any way you can do anything else other than writing, do it. If the stories are burning in your soul and you start to go crazy because you have to get them out, then do what you have to in order to give them birth. It’ll be a gift to yourself and to the world.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

How much and for how long do you self-edit? When do you share it with editors? How do you know it's done?

Somehow you slipped three questions in under the guise of asking one. Very sneaky of you. Let’s give it a shot.

First of all, I self-edit a lot.

Sometimes people ask me how many drafts or revisions I go through and for a while I told them, “Maybe a hundred or so.” They would scoff and I would feel a little weird—like I was probably using too much hyperbole just to get my point across.

At last I decided I wanted to be able to answer the question honestly, so while I was working on my forthcoming novel Placebo, I kept track of how many times I read through the prologue and changed something in it—even if it was only one word. I stopped counting when I hit fifty revisions. So, with no exaggeration, I can tell you that by the time I’m finished with a novel I’ve gone through and edited the entire thing dozens of times.

As far as feedback, I’ll ask for it only at certain times during the development of a story. Early on, I might have someone read it and I’ll say, “Be gentle. I know it’s not done, just tell me the stuff you like.” Then after the story begins to take shape, I may have plot questions or specific areas that I know are weak and I’ll ask readers or an editor for suggestions to work through that part of the narrative.

If you ask for critique too early on you can smother the idea before it’s had a chance to really breathe, and if you ask too late it won’t do any good because the story will be full-grown by then and it’s not going to change much anyway.

Finally, I know a story is done when I can’t improve it anymore. It’s as simple as that. If I find things in it that I can fix, tweak, hone, etc, then I know it’s not done yet. When I read through the entire book and I can’t find a single word or punctuation mark that I think could or should be changed, then the book is finished.

Monday, May 7, 2012

How does one go about crafting characters that instantly come alive to the reader in the first chapter without making the whole chapter just explanation?

It’s important to remember that stories are not simply about what characters do, they are about what characters want—and then what they do to get what they want.

So, early on in the book, preferably as soon as we meet the character, you’ll want to make it clear to readers what that character desires most. Here are four keys to developing characterizations quickly.

1 - Stick your character in the middle of a struggle - Ideally the characters will have an internal struggle (a question that needs to be answered) and an external struggle (a problem that needs to be solved). The internal struggle should be one that readers can identify with. For example, the desire for freedom or love or acceptance or forgiveness, and so on.

2 - Give your character an attitude, a wound, a quirk or a unique voice - If you want us to empathize with the character, consider giving him or her a wound that we all share—grief, rejection, despair, regret, shame, etc. (This is similar to #1.) Then, bring your character to life with something unique that will attract readers to him.

3 - Show differing degrees of status - Status is another aspect to characterization that’s vital for creating multi-dimensional characters. What is status? Essentially, it’s the degree of submission or dominance characters have in relationship to other characters. So, if a person is always angry or always brooding or always shy, that character won’t be interesting because he always has the same status with everyone. On the other hand, if a character has differing degrees of status with his boss and his wife and his daughter and his associates at work and the villains he is tracking, that character will seem more real because that’s the way real people relate to other real people.

4 - Let your character show resolve, courage or self-sacrifice - Frankly, most readers couldn’t care less where your character went to college or whether he’s wearing a maroon or light blue cardigan. Readers want to see the character in a struggle to accomplish a goal, overcome an obstacle, or strive toward fulfilling a dream. So spend less time telling us about the character’s background and more time rendering the character’s desires.

So, when introducing your characters, show them in varying relationships with other characters, give them a universal desire readers will empathize with, make it clear to readers what that desire is, and reveal what lies at the heart of your hero by allowing him to be heroic early in the story.