Category Archives: on writing

Top 3 reasons you should be in a writing critique group

As writers, we tend to plunk away at our keyboards in isolation. Even if you write your best work in the middle of a crowded coffee shop, you’re still enveloped in the protective writer bubble of isolation. It’s what shuts out reality and lets imagination reign. This is where the isolation begins and ends.

solitude2

After we’ve fretted and pondered and written and re-written our literary works of genius, and before we let it fly on submissions, it’s time to let an impartial and objective set of eyes take a read. Yes, I know, you’re a brilliant writer, you don’t make mistakes, and your jaw-dropping prose makes other writers gasp in envy. But after the writing is done, the isolation of the writer absolves. Now it’s time for other people to get involved. It doesn’t matter if you have the gift, or that you believe your delicious prose is on fleek (did I use that word right?) your work as a whole could be a structural disaster. Or it may be an inadvertent expositional sermon. Your first twenty pages might read like a grocery list of character traits. A well-written grocery list, mind you, but a list none the less. And you might be able to fool the average reader with your clever prose, but publishers and book editors will see past all of that. They work with Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, remember? So, before you pay a professional to read and/or edit your work, join a critique group with a few other writers. Here’s the payback:

  1. Honest and objective opinions of your work. Writers have a tendency to be blind to their own work, but can spot errors in another writers work a mile away. Focusing on your work with other writers gives you specific feedback, valuable advice, and often creative suggestions that lets you view your work with fresh eyes.
  2. You will grow as a writer. Not only will you be receiving critiques but you’ll also be giving them. As you give and receive constructive feedback, you’ll be training your brain to look beyond the words and into the mechanics of your story. It provides the education and experiential growth that every writer needs to improve. And there is always room for improvement.
  3.  It offers motivation and accountability. Setting regularly scheduled meetings with your critique group offers a certain accountability. Being prepared for your group every week with a new piece of writing can be the kick in the ass some writers need to set the necessary time aside to write.

I would also suggest finding strangers to critique with. They will be the most objective. And the smaller the group, the more opportunity each of you will have to submit your work for discussion. It’s also important to find writers who are on (or about) the same level as you and who are avid readers. As time goes on, your relationship with these writers will become more and more comfortable, but the habit of their honesty and objectivity will already be established. These critiquing partners will become champions of your work in the future.

critique group

And lastly, the most important thing to do before joining a critique group is to let go of your ego. You want writers who will shred your work to pieces and leave you weeping on the floor in the fetal position. (Well, maybe that will just be the first meeting.) If you require constant validation as a writer, get it from your family and friends. Joining a critique group is business. It’s education. It’s a commitment to yourself to become the best writer you can be.

Where can you find these other writers? In local workshops, writing classes, meetups, writing events, online, etc. They’re everywhere, and they need you just as much as you need them. And did I mention that all of this is FREE?

That’s it, there’s no more. What are you waiting for? Go get ’em.

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Lurking people on the internet pays off with Word wisdom

I’m a lurker, I lurk people. I’ve probably lurked you. Sometimes during my lurk-capades I find a little nugget of wisdom that blows my world apart. It’s usually mentioned in some off-handed way that suggests it’s common knowledge. In which case, this post should embarrass me.

lurkersbelike

I’ve been using Microsoft Word for some 20-odd years. It’s my go-to word processing application for everything when writing.  It’s handy word-count feature keeps me on track when submitting to journals and contests with submission rules. After 20 years you’d figure I’d know all its secrets.  But no, this morning’s lurk informed me that my word processing application has been quietly lurking me. After all these years it’s been keeping track of every minute that it takes me to grind away at edits. Well played Microsoft, well-played.

word

If you already knew about this little-known feature, congratulations, and where have you been? Tweet this information out immediately! If not, check your documents in File/Properties/Statistics (for Word 2003 or earlier) and Office Button/Prepare/Properties/Document Properties/Advanced Properties/Statistics (for Word 2007 and later.) I promise that Word doesn’t judge. If it did, maybe I’d have known about it earlier. (hint hint @Microsoft, forget Clippy, where’s my AI? I’d like the voice of Spock please, or Gandalf, yes, definitely Gandalf.)

Word: “Um, excuse me Catherine?”
Me: <fingers recoil from keyboard> “Woah… WTF?”
Word: “Yeah, uh, it’s me Word. Can you pick up your pace a bit? You’re slacking this week.”
Me: “What do you mean slacking? These edits are tough.”
Word: “Yes, right, well, you’ve been editing chapter one for 6,586 minutes already and you need to push on if you’re ever going to get this novel done.”
Me: “And what would you know about how long it takes?”
Word: “Well, I don’t mean to brag, but I am a child of Microsoft, and we know everything. Shall I give you the estimates of author chapter revision times in North America?”
Me: <pushes mute button>

editing time

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You’re an abomination of God… or not

Exciting news! My short story ‘Alba’s Tree’ was published on Commuterlit this morning. 🙂

alba's tree comment

For this short story I took the advice, “put your hero in a tree, throw rocks at them, and then get them down,” quite literally.

Why would someone throw rocks at Alba? Find out here, and be sure to leave a comment and let me know what you thought of the story.

albastree

Original image Photo credit: mripp / Foter / CC BY

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Kelley Armstrong’s advice on how to write a bestseller

This summer I attended a writing workshop hosted by the brilliant book editor, Brian Henry, on how to write a bestseller. I was excited to attend the workshop and be able to rub shoulders with the likes of Kelley Armstrong (author of the Otherworld Series) and, as usual, my imagination got away from me in the days leading up to it.

You know what I’m talking about.

While instructing us in the do’s and don’ts of making it to the big times, our eyes would meet. She would feel compelled to ask me what my current novel was about, and then, after I ever-so-eloquently pitched my story, she would request we become BFFs immediately and later that day we would be discussing the movie rights of my yet-to-be published novel as we sipped latte’s under a patio umbrella.

me-and-kelley

Yeah, so that didn’t happen. But I did shake her hand.

The workshop, itself, was pretty great. Kelley spoke in detail about characters, central goals, minor goals, conflict, POV and the emotion in our fiction. She was easy to understand, and there was a simplicity to what she was saying that helped me re-align my story in order to provide complexity, depth, and of course, action, action, action.

There was also a lot of obvious stuff thrown around. Things like, “you need to write a good story,” and you need to “stand out,” and have a “fresh voice,” that is different and compelling. We’ve all heard that before, right? But instead of wanting to slap her, I found that Kelley made it work. She backed up those statements with the “how” that most people leave out.

The most important piece of advice that I took home was that success has to be hard-fought. Another obvious humdinger. But the not so obvious part was that the fight of my characters for success needed to mirror my own. I had to work hard to bring my novel to the publishing market, and my characters had to work just as hard to bring success to the story. It was an inspired epiphany of layers that made me drive home in a mind-blown daze. If I want readers to spend their time in my world, I need to fight to give them something worthy of their time.

Somewhere about half-way during the workshop, we stopped for a short writing prompt. We got our notebooks out and had 20 minutes to crank out a short story based on a collaboration of prompts. Quite honestly, I’d never written a short story under pressure before and I was a bit panicked at the prospect. Everyone else seemed to be scribbling away and I was just sitting there like some gloss-eyed fool. But I persevered, and a couple of months later, that short story went on to win the Eden Mills Fringe contest. A short story that I’ve been invited to read at the Eden Mills Writers’ Festival next weekend on September 13th. That never would have happened without Brian Henry, that workshop, or the inspiration from Kelley.

Keep writing, keep editing, and think about taking a workshop or two. It’s worth the investment.

 

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Do literary agents suffer from gender bias with authors?

I may be one of those people who sees the world through rose-coloured glasses, but when I stumbled across this experiment by Catherine Nichols, I almost fell out of my chair.  Partly because my name is Catherine, but mostly because for a grown woman, it appears that I’m as naive as a toddler. I assume individual equality, and I always play by the rules. (Ahem, fortunately, they’re my rules.)

guidelines

Catherine had been sending out queries to literary agents for a novel she had written, and was receiving minimal responses. Now, this in and of itself is not unusual, however, it wasn’t her first novel, and she (along with her published writer friends) knew this novel was good. It had that something, and you just know. After some 50-odd sends to agents, she had two requests for a full and an inbox full of form rejections.

And so it was on one fine Saturday morning, feeling discouraged and perhaps low on java, she created “George Leyer” and gave him his own bare-bones email account. She copy/pasted her query and used all the same language, only now the queries came from George instead of Catherine. (And because my dog’s name is George, I figure her story is a sign from the universe.) She sent out one query, and as she prepared the second, there was already a response from the first in the empty email account. What the… on a SATURDAY? It read:  Mr. Leyer. Delighted. Excited. Please send the manuscript. She sent a total of six queries that Saturday, and she received five responses before the end of the weekend. Three requests and two personal rejections praising “his” abilities. By Monday morning, she had deduced that the novel wasn’t the problem, it was her as the author.

mr.-uberscribbler

In a puff of slighted rage, Catherine rolled her experiment out to 50 agents, some of them she had already queried under her own (female) name. “George” received 17 requests for a full manuscript. He was eight and a half times better at writing the exact same novel.  Not only that, his rejections were personal, warm, and full of compliments and advice.

Now, for new and budding authors that send out queries, our name is likely the last thing we’re thinking about. In fact, it’s usually the only thing we figure we got right. The query itself is a fierce animal that often takes longer to write than our precious novels.  We brood, we re-write, we take critiques, and then we spend large parts of our days curled up in the fetus position licking our critiqued wounds. There are as many authoritative types telling us the ‘correct’ way to structure a query and send our proposals as there are writers trying to get noticed. With all of this complex publishing science to navigate, now we have to worry about the name we attach to our work?

larry king

And if you do lie to 50 agents, 17 of which ask for a full, and let’s say a handful of those want to represent “George”, what’s that awkward conversation going to sound like when they find out that he’s a she?

I don’t know how to feel about any of this. Is this an anomaly? Tell me what you think.

 

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the artist formerly known as author L. J Smith…

I just caught wind of this in the Lulu Blog:

If you think writing a series of acclaimed supernatural thrillers, which get made into a successful television show and sell thousands of books, would be considered a job well done, think again.

Publisher HarperCollins removed LJ Smith, author of The Vampire Diaries, from the project after friction during the editing process. Smith said she was pushed out after arguing against cutting characters, scenes, and other creative decisions that she felt were important to her vision of the story.

Smith, who began writing the novels on a “for hire” contract back in 1990, was shocked to find out that she had no rights to any of the characters or stories she created. In an e-mail, Smith reflected, “Even though I have written the entire series, I don’t own anything about The Vampire Diaries.”

This is an all-too-common story among writers of genre-fiction. Authors desperate enough to sign anything end up losing any creative or financial control of the characters, and the ensuing sensations, they create. Where a publishing house offers a vast marketing and distribution network, it also tends to dilute and altogether alter a writer’s creative vision. To some writers, like LJ Smith, this becomes too much to bear. They fight to keep their work intact, only to find “a letter addressed to the ghostwriter by name, telling her to completely rewrite my book.”

We’re neither arguing against the need for a good editor, nor against some self discipline and revision on the part of the author, however, we think this example demonstrates an important benefit of self-publishing: complete creative control and financial ownership of your work. Even after writing several successful novels, LJ Smith was removed from her series with little to no warning whatsoever, and absolutely no recourse.

So, what does “for hire” mean in this case?  The Vampire Diaries series belongs to Alloy Entertainment—it always has.  They hired L.J. Smith back in 1990 to write the series for them—based on their premise.  She signed a contract upfront to say that the Vampire Diaries belonged to them, and everything the writer created (characters, events, etc.) throughout the course of the series belongs to Alloy.  L.J. Smith has no say in what they do with the series.

I imagine that 10 years is long enough to forget that you’re writing for someone else.

 

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The News Writer versus the Social Writer

In this business, we writers watch each other very carefully.  We keep an especially twitchy eye trained on those corporate staff writers with their pages of accolades.  It’s not their fault.  The collective ego of society convinces us that there is value in those accolades.  They need it to have value.  But the new generation is on to them.  They’re bored with them.  The slow-acceptance of these primitive thinking newspaper executives allows them to keep ramming their ‘glory days’ references up our wazoos.  They tote by-lines noting decades of combined newspaper writing experience—like that means something now.  It doesn’t.  There is no edge there.  It’s just old news.

If you’ve been in southern Ontario, you might have heard of DailyWebTV.com.  It’s part of the Torstar conglomerate—residing under the Metroland division.   Having paid some dues in the Torstar ranks, I lack the restraint in using them as an example of newspaper ego.  With a history of contracting for them, I can tell you that they are—as any other large corporation—in it to win it.  Focus on numbers and profit, and understand very little about the culture they’re cultivating. 

They are big management types making uninformed decisions based on old-school thinking.  Times have changed for the print houses—but their mindsets have not.  They’re struggling to keep their traditional identities out there in a shifting landscape.  (It’s really more of a landslide.)  Enter the DailyWebTV.com.  Truthfully, I don’t know much about the division, and I do know a couple of good, qualified people tucked in to the production side of things.  However, this is an example of a traditional print house trying to carve out a corner of the new media market.  This translated identity is based on expired knowledge—and they seem to believe that it is a benefit to them.  Their social presence lacks personality and something about their blog started a school-house-size fire deep in the crevices of my writer patience.  There are three writers—all clearly part of the newspaper club—with a collection of flat information that reads like the dry pamphlets littering the waiting room of my dentist’s office.  Harsh, right?   Pffft!  I’m their audience too.

Us social writers, already eking out our living—in real time—know something about the new audience that newspaper folk just don’t know.   There is no apocalyptic gone-to-press deep breath.  You are engaging your audience the second you post—and you’d better have written something that captivates, woos their hard-working souls and embraces the social nature of everything.  The competition is tight.  Every second person you pass is a blogger.  Stories are free.  There is no query process for commercial anymore.  The competitive strategies for landing article gigs are obsolete.  There is no more old-school news.  Nobody wants it.  Nobody listens.  Nobody reads it.  If you’re not giving the reader a little bit of fun and a whole lot of wow—they’ve moved on to the next site that will.  250 words.  That’s how long you’ve got to entice your audience or they’ll be backing out of your page before it finishes loading.  News writers and feature writers listen up; you’ve become obsolete.  It’s time to get your toes wet as a Social writer—or get the deuce out of our way. 

I respectfully apologize (in advance) to the staff writers of the DailyWebTVBlog.com for posting an excerpt from their “About Us” page.  It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a run-on sentence that can dry out my corneas.  With 30 years of skilled newspaper writing and editing experience—who the frak edited this?

“The skilled team of writers at DailyWebTV.com brings together the experience a 30-year veteran of newspapers and magazines who has worked as a news reporter, feature writer, senior editor and web editor; a writer and newswire service editor; and a consumer and trade magazines writer and online writer and editor.”

You lost me at skilled team of writers.

~uberscribbler

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