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What I’ve Learned

Memories of My Very First Story Critique or Suck It Up, Buttercup

What I've Learned

I’ve been writing for a pretty long time. I’ve been editing for a long time too. And, truth be told, I edit way more than I write. (Yes, I’m outing myself to you, dear reader!) It tends to pay a lot quicker 😉 My editing style was influenced in a lot of ways by story critique that I’ve been exposed to over the years.

I am a graduate of Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. I won’t go into how awesome it is here (but contact me if you want to know; I’ll totally talk your ear off!), except to say that it is the single best thing I did for my writing.

It was also the hardest.

Giving your work over for a story critique is possibly the most difficult thing a writer can do, on an emotional level. It’s even harder than the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the manuscript itself. Writing a story isn’t easy. Getting feedback on the story can be even harder.

But it’s necessary. Because we, as authors, can’t look at our work with an objective eye — at least, not without a lot of time in between the writing and the revision. And even then, I’m not entirely sure we’re very objective. Getting the feedback of other authors, particularly, can be incredibly useful. So I believe all authors should find good people to give them story critiques.

When I started at SHU, I’d never had a real critique before. I’d had some really nice comments on writing websites, but never a story critique from someone I felt knew what they were talking about. I must have had some raw talent to get in, because lord knows I didn’t know a dang thing about the best practices of writing. I’d never hung out with real writers before. I was both excited and terrified to my bones.

The set up: critique sessions at SHU are something like a roundtable. Whomever’s story is being critiqued doesn’t get to say anything at all until the end, when s/he can finally address any questions or comments that others have put forth. It’s generally a group of 6 to 10 people, including one of the program’s writing mentors as facilitator. Each person takes a turn talking about their impressions of the manuscript (which is usually around 10 pages long), both good and bad, with the facilitator going last. We generally did 2-3 critiques per session.

My very first story critique was in a larger group of about ten people (at least, in my head it seems like a large group!). I volunteered to have mine done first, because — well, let’s rip that bandage right off, shall we?

So, yeah, terrified.

My submission was a short story (that most people were unanimous about it needing to be a novel, which I eventually turned it into) about twin girls who learn that they’re guardians of Pandora’s Box. Everyone had both good and bad things to say, which is pretty normal, as I learned over time. The facilitator for that story critique session happened to be the woman who would be my first mentor in the program, Leslie Davis Guccione. At that time, though, I hadn’t even met her yet. (She turned out to be a lovely woman and wonderful mentor!)

Leslie’s really big on active verbs. I, on the other hand, was pretty clueless about active verbs. (Like I said, raw talent rather than any actual knowledge.) Leslie started by telling me that she agreed with those who were saying it read like the opening of a novel rather than a short story. She also said how much she liked it. She pointed out strengths right away. And then she schooled me about active verbs versus passive verbs.

If you don’t know, passive verbs are any that are “to be” verbs. So “was,” “were,” “been,” etc. Apparently enamored of these sorts of verbs, I had a lot in my ms. Seriously, a lot. When she passed me my hard copy (Leslie, at that time, only did hard copy edits), she’d taken the time to highlight all the instances of passive verbs in the first two pages. Thanks, Leslie! 😉

My first two pages were as yellow as a fluffy chick. There was so much yellow, you might have thought the page itself was yellow. I had no less than 15 — fifteen! — instances of “was” and “were” on each page. Almost every single line. Sometimes twice!

So that’s how I learned about passive verbs.

But here’s the thing — seeing all that yellow made me really aware of the use of passive verbs. So after that, as I wrote, I recognized when I went to type “was” or “were” and I checked myself. Could I find a better way to phrase this so the verb is more active? And, almost always, a better verb was there, just below the surface.

That critique session, all by itself, made me a better writer. It taught me how to create more vivid sentences, more accurate descriptions. Leslie’s tough love about passive verbs stuck. Thanks, for real, Leslie!

Maybe someday I’ll tell you how Leslie failed me on my initial thesis submission for messing up “further” and “farther” continuously (which I also never do anymore!).

Have you participated in critique sessions? Gotten a story critique? How was it for you? Did you learn things? What was your biggest take away? Tell me about it in the comments!

Stay awesome!

 

 

Unless attributed otherwise, all images are CC0 licensed.

What I’ve Learned: Story Elements I – Character

What I've Learned, Writing

I'm going to do a blog series on story elements beginning today with Character. Please feel free to comment, add anything you think I may have missed and make any suggestions you think might be worthwhile for others to hear!

Character

In today's modern novel, it's not farfetched to say that character is king. Readers want to connect with characters, sympathize with them, especially your protagonist. To catch your reader and, more importantly, keep her, you must make her care about your characters. If we don't care, we won't read on.

Characters provide a moral compass for your story. Your protagonist (the character whom your story is about) is the anchor which keeps your tale on track, the lens through which you're showing the reader your story. Your reader wants to see all sorts of terrible things happen to him but, in most cases (but not all), wants him to prevail in the end.
So how do you make your readers care?
Make your characters believable and sympathetic.

Making characters believable

Know thy character. The more you know about your character, the easier it is to make him believable. Of course, you need to know the basics about him: body type, hair color, eye color, occupation, family, etc. But don't stop there! What hobbies does he have? What does he do when he gets angry? Does he stop for directions when he's lost? What charities does he donate money to? What's his dream car/job/vacation? What's his biggest regret in life? His biggest joy? What were the circumstances of his first kiss? Does he wish he had a brother/sister/none at all?
Know your character's strengths and weaknesses, know what he wants and know what's preventing him from getting it (this goes a wee bit more to plot, but it's applicable here as well). Know what motivates him and know which character traits he has which will keep him from his goal. Give him a secret.

As you're fleshing out your character, you should understand that most of what you figure out about him, your reader will never know. But your reader will know that you know, because you will understand your character enough to know how he will react in each situation he enters. And it will be believable.

Making characters sympathetic

First, I should say, characters don't always have to be sympathetic. There are certainly genres which have unsympathetic characters as main characters. However, in order for your reader to connect with your character, to want to root for him, to care about what happens to him, she has to be able to relate to him in some way.

There are universal situations in life that most of us go through at some point: the awkwardness of adolescence, dating, loss of a loved one, learning how to drive, good relationships, bad relationships, our first traffic ticket or car accident, moving out on our own, college life, work promotions, getting fired/laid off, renting an apartment or buying a house. While you don't have to include these situations in your story (unless they are important to the plot), they flesh out your character and they can be alluded to in your manuscript. They make your character more real, more human. And that, in turn, makes readers more sympathetic.

Before closing, I also want to point out that your protagonist–the character your reader is rooting for–does not have to be your point of view character. Probably one of the more famous examples is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Tales of Sherlock Holmes. The point of view character is Dr. Watson, while the protagonist is, of course, Sherlock Holmes. Don't be afraid to play with point of view this way. Sometimes an outside voice can make the reader appreciate and care for the protagonist more.
Please let me know if you found this post useful. The next Story Elements installment will be Situation.
Best of luck with the writing!

 


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What I’ve Learned: The Curse of Was (or How to Hunt Down Passive Sentences)

What I've Learned, Writing

When I first started writing with an eye for publication, I hadn't taken any writing courses, no fiction classes, nothing. I was really flying by the seat. I started out submitting mainly to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, then also to Cemetery Dance and other short story markets. I always got rejected, but I often got little notes that really boiled down to, "I liked the idea, but it just didn't grab me."

I remember thinking, "How do I do that? Tell me how to grab you!"

Looking back at those old stories *cringe* I recognize why the writing wasn't doing any groping. Most of my sentences were passive. Certainly, that wasn't the only error, but it accounts for the sagginess of the prose.
Now, when I'm revising manuscripts (especially the old ones), the first thing I do is track down errant "to be" verbs. Here's how I do it (in MS Word):

  • Edit -> Find
  • Checkmark the "Highlight All Items Found In: Main Document"
  • Type the word "was" in the search field
  • Click the "Find All" button
  • Once the words are found and selected, go to the Highlighter function button and highlight the words an obnoxiously bright color

Then I do the same thing for: were, be, being, been, wasn't, weren't, and any other passive verbs I can think of. Once they're all highlighted that garish pink, purple or yellow color, I go through the document highlight by highlight and see whether the sentences affected can be improved and made more active.
Usually it's pretty easy. It's just a matter of dropping the "to be" verb and changing the -ing verb to an -ed verb.

For example:
Selina was careening through the underbrush.
becomes
Selina careened through the underbrush.

The active verb makes the sentence immediate and engaging. And that's what grabs your reader.
String together a slew of active sentences and you have a riveting paragraph. Make your paragraphs strong and active and you've got yourself a much more publishable piece!