Writing Advice: Critiques

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Recently, my posts have been focusing on the editing stage of a writing project. However, there is something else that typically occurs once you have finished writing a first draft: critiques. These may come from friends, family members, or random beta readers you find on the internet. No matter the source, critiques can be really helpful. But how do you make the most out of the critiquing process? How do you avoid feeling insulted and take your critic’s advice to heart?

Of course, there is tons of advice out there for dealing with critiques. But where do I always turn when I want to know about something writing-related? You guessed it — Mr. Chuck Wendig at the Terrible Minds blog. Not too long ago, Chuck made a post all about critiques and offered up ten tips for getting the most out of them. I think all of his tips are great and you should definitely read the entire post. But the one that stood out to me was the “look for patterns and potholes” tip near the end of his list. Take it away, Chuck:

One critique has some value. But several critiques offers you the power of patterns. If three people say the same thing — blah blah blah, that character doesn’t have enough agency, that plot point doesn’t make sense, why is the story narrated by one of those dancing windsocks you see out front of car dealerships? Then okay, that’s worth a long, hard squint.

Also worth realizing that critique is a curious animal. We are driven to not only point out deficiencies but then also to fill those deficiencies — it’s a noble goal, but what it ends up being for you, the writer, is that the reader will tell you both a) what’s wrong and b) how to fix it. Pay attention to a). But ignore b).

This is a great piece of advice because it tells you something you may have not thought about — you need more than one critique on your project. Sure, you may feel winded after reading feedback from just one person, but everyone has different opinions. You do yourself and your work a disservice by getting the opinion of just one person. If you belong to a writer’s group, pass around your piece and let everyone take a stab at tearing it to shreds. If you’re signed up for a website like Critique Circle, let lots of people read your stuff through that valuable outlet. Many eyes means you’re more likely to catch mistakes.

The other great nugget of advice here is to pay attention to patterns. Once you have multiple perspectives from multiple people, it all depends on what you do with that information. As Chuck says here, be on the lookout for problems that several people point out in the same area of your story. That’s where you need to focus when you prepare to edit. Look for the consensus.

One more thing — Chuck mentions here that critiquers will often offer up their own solutions for how you might fix issues with your story. But you don’t have to listen. I completely agree. You might take tidbits of what they say and craft it into your own solution, but you don’t have to take exactly what they say and incorporate it into your story. Solutions should come from you, and you’re under no obligation to take advice from your critiquers.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Book Adultery

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

When you read the title of this post, you might be wondering what “book adultery” means. It’s a term that I found on the incomparable Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog, which is where I find a lot of my writerly wisdom. Wendig posted something a while back about the importance of finishing your writing projects. One of the reasons he gave for finishing projects is to prevent book adultery. By definition, book adultery is when you “commit adultery” on your current project by starting another one.

I’m sure we all know the siren song of the new project. Compared to the one that you’re working on, that new project probably seems glittery, fresh, and enticing. It’s very tempting indeed to abandon your current project — which is, by now, musty, boring, and drab — in favor of that new one. And why, you might ask, should you prevent this abandonment? Well, Wendig sums up some very good reasons for finishing projects in his post, but I’ll say that finishing projects just makes you feel good. To write “the end” on a story and know that you’ve followed through with your idea gives you a sense of accomplishment that can then propel you into your next project, which you’re now more likely to finish because you’ve built up a habit of finishing.

Wendig also mentions the power of habit. He says, “a lot of the things we do as writers are given over to habit. We can develop bad habits…or we can develop good ones. Develop the habit that helps you finish your work. Prevent [book adultery] by keeping that new manuscript in mind (take some quick notes, write a logline, then move on) while actually finishing your current one.”

My favorite part about this piece of advice is that it allows you to cheat just a little bit. If you can’t seem to keep your mind off your new idea, jot down something about the story. Write out a bit of dialogue that keeps nagging at your brain, or start on an outline so that you don’t lose those precious nuggets of information. Always remembering, of course, to return to your current project.

So, stick with the story that you’re working on right now! If you feel that you’ve lost your enthusiasm for the story, find something to make it more interesting. Add in a spicy new detail that will get your imagination working again. With just a bit of work, you can breathe new life into a project that seems boring now. And when you finish this one, then you can move on to another. And you’ll have a finished manuscript hidden away for the day when you catch the editing bug.

Happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: Your Current Focus

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http://www.nprberlin.de/

The great thing about getting a group of writers together is that you get to hear how unique everyone’s current project is. Oftentimes, you’ll find many different genres in one group of writers. You’ll also find that everyone has their own focus when they sit down to write. Some people may be concentrating on their characters, others may be more concerned about the plot. Yesterday I wrote about a quote from Chuck Wendig, which focused on the idea of using keywords in your writing. Today I’d like to talk about your focus in your current writing project.

Your focus is what you think about when you sit down to write each day and what you keep in mind as your progress through your project. Whatever your focus is, it might show up in the keywords that you thought of for yesterday’s post. So if you’re having trouble pinning down what your focus is, you might want to revisit those keywords.

Your focus might also be the central theme or plot element of whatever project you’re working on now. If you’re writing a crime thriller, you might be focusing on the person who did it and writing in such a way that leads your detective to that person. If you’re writing a romance story, your focus is probably the two people you’re trying to bring together in your story.

For me, the focus in my current writing project is a suburban town’s underground history of ancient magic. No matter what scene I’m writing, I always have that focus and foundation in the back of my mind. Keeping myself focused on that central story element means that I never forget where my story is headed, and it helps me remember to keep all of my characters on track.

So, what is the focus of your current writing project? What is it that you want to convey? Share what you’re working on in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Keywords

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

As I’m sure you know, there are several different ways that a person can learn. The main ways include visual, audio, and kinesthetic. Audio learners learn best by hearing things and sometimes by using music. Kinesthetic learners learn best through hands-on activities. Visual learners, as you might have guessed, learn best by seeing things written out. This post is for the visual learners amongst you. Of course, this post is for anyone who’s interested. Even if you generally learn best through audio or kinesthetic means, you might find this post helpful.

Think about your current writing project. What are the main topics that you address in that project? What do your character want? What are some motifs that you focus on, or want to focus on? How do you want the story to feel? Do you have any points of reference, such as books or TV shows similar to your project, that you like to keep in mind while writing? Consider all of these things and then read the following quote from Chuck Wendig’s recent post, Five Stupid Writing Tricks Starting…Now.

Ten Keywords. Think of ten keywords about the story you’re writing. Or five, I don’t care. They can be anything. Emotions. Plot points. Locations. Write them down. Scribble them on a Post-It note, or keep them open on your screen in a little window, or tattoo them on your head backwards so you can read them in the makeup mirror you keep just to your left. The goal? When you write, glance at them. Peer at these from time to time. They’re meant to form the posts of an invisible fence to keep you and the story hemmed in.”

This is a fantastic piece of advice, and I think it would be really helpful to anyone who benefits from having visual cues in their learning. If you come up with these important keywords for the project that you’re working on and keep them nearby, I think it’ll keep you more present and aware of what you’re writing. These keywords might come from that magical time when you were first getting the idea for your story. In those early days, you know exactly how you want the project to feel as you’re writing, and how you want it to make readers feel later on. Recording those keywords can keep you grounded in the roots of your project and remind you what you want to include.

When you’re five, ten, or even twenty chapters into your story, you may begin to forget what your original burst of creativity and inspiration included. Keeping these keywords on a post-it note at your desk or in those little digital post-it notes on your computer’s desktop will remind you where you’re going and how you might get there. You could glance at these keywords when you first sit down to work on the project again, or when you’re feeling blocked and don’t know where to go next.

If you think this keyword method might help you, give it a try! And happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: The Brambles

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

As I think you already know, writing is not always easy. In fact, the moments when it’s hard more than outweigh the moments when it’s easy. For the most part, writing is about sitting in front of your computer or notepad and willing the words to come. Once they do come, though, you’ll usually get into a rhythm where things feel good and you can write smoothly for a while. Unfortunately, we all come up against that wall that stops the momentum at one time or another. We all get caught in “the brambles” of writing.

“The brambles” are what I would describe as the sudden feeling that you have no idea where you’re going or where you’ve been. It’s as though you were making good progress through a forest and now suddenly feel like you’re stranded in a sea of trees that you haven’t seen before. But in writing terms, the brambles usually occur when your rhythm is broken and you feel lost in your own story.

I have definitely experienced the brambles, especially during National Novel Writing Month. I’ll be in the middle of a really good, smooth section of writing and suddenly pause and feel lost. I’ll get caught up on the pointless minutiae of what I’m writing, feel like what I’ve put down on the page sounds stupid, or just not know where I should go next.

Earlier this month, Chuck Wendig wrote a blog post about detesting your manuscript. That’s probably the number one side effect of getting caught in the brambles. When you lose your rhythm and lose your way, you’re likely to step back and feel as though you hate what you’ve written so far. I particularly liked this section of Wendig’s post:

“Creation is hard. Itchy, uncomfortable. Sharp, jagged edges. Bones growing through your pre-existing carapace…Writing a novel is tantamount to wandering a dark forest. You’ll always have those times when it feels like you can’t see the stars, that the thicket has grown too deep, that the way out will never be within sight. But then you keep wandering and — okay, sure, sometimes you get eaten by a GOBLIN BEAR because they can smell your fear-pee — eventually you push through the shadow and the bramble and there’s the way forward again.”

I like that description — creation is itchy and uncomfortable, like you’re pushing your way through the brambles. You’ve come up against that uncomfortable feeling that you’re lost within your own story and you’re continuing on anyway. We all feel this way in our stories at one time or another. What’s important is that you push through and keep on writing.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Just Write

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http://www.bang2write.com

Just by reading the title of this post, I’m sure you can all guess what’s coming. I have spoken about this piece of advice before, and while I may not always be the best at following it myself,  I still think it’s the best piece of advice that anyone can give to a writer. There can be lots of distractions that come along with writing these days. People may tell you that you should build your authorial brand by tweeting and creating a blog. You may think that you need to pinpoint exactly what is marketable by today’s standards and then write that. You may even be waiting for that ethereal inspiration to shine down on you before you begin to actually write.

But writing is the point of the whole thing. If you want to call yourself a writer, you don’t need a Twitter profile that declares your vocation, or a blog on which you type out your writing woes. All you need to do is write. Just sit down one day and get started. Choose a time each day and get some writing done then. Create a routine for yourself so that you’ll feel weird if you don’t write every day. Get into the habit and soon you’ll be on your way to a finished draft, a first draft, or just a cumulative body of work that you can hold up as your proof that you are, in fact, a writer.

So, yes, I have written posts like this before. But I think it’s an incredibly important mantra to repeat to yourself: just write. If you remember that above all else, you may just finish a story or reach your writing goals.

Not too long ago, the wonderful Chuck Wendig over at the Terrible Minds blog wrote about this topic as well. Here is an extract from his awesome post, Shut Up and Write (Or: “I Really Want to Be a Writer, But…”):

Don’t tweet about writing. Don’t read this blog. Don’t opine about writing or give writing advice or worry about who will publish your book or oh god will you self-publish or will you find an agent and how will you weather all that rejection and will your book cover just be some girl in leather pants with half-a-buttock turned toward the reader no — stop, quit that shit, stomp that roach, cut those thoughts and those actions right off at the knees.

Tomorrow, write more words until you can write words no more.

Then the next day.

Then the day after that.

In addition to this advice, I come bearing some tools and resources that you might find helpful. Firstly, there is an amazing blog on Tumblr called The Writing Cafe that offers tons and tons of research resources and writing resources if that’s what you’re looking for. Highly recommended. There is also Ze Frank’s Invocation for Beginnings, which is a great way to psych yourself up to just get started already. If you need a kick in the pants or some kind of deadline to work toward, consider checking out National Novel Writing Month or the Don’t Break the Chain method.

And if you’re sick and tired of all those trappings and advice, just stop reading this post and get writing.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: What You Love

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

I’m sure we’ve all heard the old adage about writing what you know. That’s a good piece of advice, I think, because it means you’re in familiar territory when writing. But perhaps a better piece of advice would be to write what you love. Write what you are most passionate about and what you would choose to learn about regardless of the time it took to study. Write what grips your soul and makes you want to read all the books ever written about it.  Even if it’s not something that you, yourself, have experienced on a day-to-day basis (which is what I take “what you know” to mean), the passion you have for that thing or topic is going to shine through in your writing.

In a recent post on his Terrible Minds blog, Chuck Wendig is also covered this topic. In fact, his post was called Why You Should Write What You Love, and I love what he said here: “The things you write — that you choose to write, because you want to jolly well fucking write them — are likely things you’re better at writing because you chose to move in that direction. Writing things that don’t really speak to you? I can often feel it. It feels stilted, awkward, a story forced into an uncomfortable shape by an author wearing someone else’s skin. It’s itchy and weird.”

I know exactly what he means when he talks about the weird feeling you get when you’re writing something you don’t love or haven’t chosen. Maybe it’s something that you think will sell better in the world of publishing. Maybe you think it’s what your family would like to read, so you’re writing it to please them when they pick up your book on the shelf of a store. Or maybe it’s something that you know really well, or have experienced firsthand, but aren’t necessarily crazy about. In all of those cases, writing it is going to feel sort of wrong.

On the other hand, when you write about something that you truly love, the story is very unlikely to feel forced or awkward. As Chuck says here, it will be a writing path that you chose for your own reasons, not someone else’s reasons. That’s the best way to move forward with your writing because you’ll enjoy it more and, ultimately, you will produce a better product.

I hope this advice helped you in some way. If you’re writing something that you know, but don’t necessarily love, try setting it aside in favor of something that you’re really passionate about and see if you notice a difference. As always, happy writing!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Talking to Write

http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com
http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

Writing can be a very solitary activity. For the most part, writing consists of sitting alone at your computer or your notebook and putting word after word. As a project begins, you are probably feeling protective of your work and wanting to keep it away from other people. That’s a completely understandable feeling, of course. Your writing project is something that has lived mainly in your head, and now that it’s making it onto paper it feels more fragile. But, eventually, you will have to talk to someone about what you’re working on. And getting someone else’s feedback can be more helpful than you might expect.

In a recent post on his blog, Terrible Minds, Chuck Wendig wrote about essential elements that a writer needs to cultivate instinct. One of the things on Wendig’s list was talking about your writing. Here’s what he has to say on the topic:

“Sometimes? Sometimes you just have to talk about it. Go out to a movie, go get pie with friends. Read a book? Get online to chat about it. Have a story problem? Go talk to someone. Talking about The Work — ours and everybody else’s — helps us hone our writing knives and story swords.”

Of course, as Wendig mentions here, the best time to get out and talk to someone about your writing is when you’re feeling stuck. If you have a problem in your story that you can’t seem to get past, talking to someone else and puzzling out the problem aloud might help. Even if the other person doesn’t have any advice to offer you, saying the problem out loud might help you see where you could fix things. So, this is a great way to get out of writer’s block, or at least lessen it.

Wendig also makes a great point here when he says that we should be talking about ‘The Work,’ ours as well as others’. Discussing the books that we like and what we think worked well in those books is essential for understanding the craft of writing and translating that into your own work. Hearing the opinions of others might also help you understand what readers want to see in a book.

In addition, I would add that talking about your writing projects makes them feel more valid and real. Explaining what you have been working on, mostly in your own head, gives it new life. Letting someone in on the “secret” of your writing can also be quite fun!

If you haven’t yet, find someone you trust and talk with them about the writing project that you’re currently engrossed in. You never know how it might help or what they might have to say.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Writing Advice: Stop and Enjoy

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http://lagemoyen.blogspot.com

In the past, I have written about having a day job while also pursuing writing. As I have mentioned, there are both pros and cons to having that day job. On the plus side, you may get writing ideas from your workplace. On the other hand, your day job may cause you to be so exhausted at the end of the day that you don’t have the time or energy to get to your writing.

Though I’m sure we have all experienced the ups and the downs of this particular situation, I think we’re all forgetting something that can be placed in the “pros” column. In a recent post on Chuck Wendig’s blog, Terrible Minds, author Tom Pollock wrote guest post all about Writing Around a Day Job. Pollock offers some really great pointers for writing when most of your day is occupied by something that brings home your bacon. One of the things that he does is entreat those of us who have a day job to just enjoy writing!

Pollock writes, “Frankly, everybody who writes, day job or not, ought to be having fun with it, otherwise why bother? But this is one of those areas where keeping the civilian occupation can be a positive boon. If you aren’t looking for this book to pay your gas bill, it frees you up to write whatever the hell turns you on.”

He’s right! No matter what your situation, if you’ve chosen to include writing in your life, you should be enjoying it! If you’re not enjoying it, you should stop right now, or at least evaluate the project that you’re working on to see why you’re not enjoying it. Not everything can be fun, and there will certainly be un-fun parts of writing, but you should enjoy at least some parts of the process.

But for those of us who have something else going on in our lives that supplies us with money we need to live, writing should be even more fun. Sure, it might be nice to have writing be our main activity on a day-to-day basis, but that might introduce unwanted stress and pressure into the equation. For now, just enjoy the writing that you do, whenever you get the chance to do it.

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan

Discuss: Your Go-To Reading

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http://www.morguefile.com/

Yesterday, the Writing Advice post here focused on the concept of critical reading. Of course, you  can use critical reading with just about any reading material. But we all have favorites that we return to again and again. These are works of fiction or non-fiction that hold a special place in our hearts, and which inspire us to keep creating our own work. These are the books that you return to when you’re feeling uninspired, or feel like you have writer’s block. They’re different for everyone, but I’m sure that we could all name several books — or at least a certain type of book — that can help us with our own writing.

Personally, I tend to write mostly in the fantasy or urban fantasy genre. When I’m looking for inspiration, I like to turn to books that use fantasy settings and creatures in new and interesting ways. Most recently, Mur Lafferty’s book The Shambling Guide to New York City was a great source of inspiration for me. In fact, its plot and urban fantasy setting are very similar to something I tried to write for National Novel Writing Month a few years back. The way that Lafferty is able to easily insert fantastical creatures into a place like New York City is so awesome, and reading her book inspired me to get going on my own urban fantasy ideas.

In addition to books that inspire us, I’m sure we all have a few writing blogs that we enjoy reading when we’re not writing. As you may have gathered, based on just how often I quote him here on the blog, I love Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds blog. I think he covers important topics for writers and does so in a fun and engaging way. I also love his Flash Fiction Friday posts, which always have great lists of writing prompts or challenges.

So, now it’s your turn. What kinds of books and blogs inspire you the most? When you’re experiencing writer’s block, or are simply feeling uninspired, where do you turn? Share in the comments!

— Jet Fuel Blog Editor, Mary Egan