Writing Groups – Don’t Be Mr/Mrs. Rudeness

 

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One of the most beneficial acts you can do as a writer is letting more than one set of eyes peek at your work. It’s nerve-wracking and scary to have your work out there for others to scrutinize and judge…even if that’s what us writer’s want in the long run. Other people see things that you gloss over because you live and breathe your story and it’s difficult to step back and see it from a new perspective. Writing groups, with more reasons than merely to give feedback, are essential to taking the next step forward in your writing career. Problem is, just like you have to scrape the sludge from your writing, you have to dig a little bit to find a good group.

The focus of this piece will be how to identify a toxic group with two easy observations.

I could write a plethora of entries on writing groups and their positivity, but time is of the essence. Wisely using the time we’re given is crucial and therefore you will want to know right away if a group isn’t worth your time.

First red flag: Lack of continued participation

Everyone gets busy. As one who’s writing novels, working a part time job, keeping my wife happy, in a writing group, and diving into far too many hobbies, I understand we fill the time with more obligations and work.  So if your group doesn’t meet at least once a month, it’s going to fail. It’s kind of how the world works, people like consistency. Especially if you’re looking for feedback on your novel and you can only get through a chapter a month—sorry friend, that’s gonna be a long road. It’s hard to stay motivated for a group that cancels every other month or keeps putting things off.

On a participant by participant level, if an individual is constantly not reading your work, it might be time to move on. Sometimes my writing group has eight submissions a week, that’s a lot of reading in one week! It’s understandable if a person doesn’t get to all of them or misses one every so often (are group meets every week and that’s not possible for everyone—keep that in mind. I don’t go every week either). What’s a problem is when an individual continues to have this behavior. It sets a tone for the group, that it isn’t a priority. You don’t want to be in a group where the priority isn’t helping one another or brushing it off to the last minute.

Red flag number 2: The attack vs the Critique

As a writer, you have to develop a thick skin. I know putting your work out there is hard, what’s even harder is taking criticism. Hearing someone tear your work apart, even in a constructive way, is like needles to the chest.

 

So as you scream inside: “How can you not see this! You said what about my favorite character?! Do you know how hard I worked on this gahhh!” Remember, these people are helping you.

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If your group is cordial, it will be advice you need to hear. What you don’t need to hear is the attacker rather than the critique…er?

This is the person who tells you how wrong your story is because they’ve read a dozen (insert genre type) and never seen it done this way. Or in this (insert genre type) you always focus on (this generic advice) over (insert snooty comparison). You can call these types of individuals “I know it all because I’m writing this genre and have experience.” Comparatively, the beauty of writing groups is you have people in your genre (and outside) that come with knowledge of what they’ve read and that can be an asset. But the “I know it all because I’m writing this genre and have experience” hinder others thinking their way is the only way and trying to shove that mantra down your throat is annoying and time-consuming.

The major red flag is when the individual attacks the writer, not the writing. Once in our group, a submission had a reference to a bird. They named the bird, it was a morning in the scene, I don’t remember it verbatim, but I remember his response. Instead of giving some advice, said individual opened with, “clearly you don’t know about this “type of bird,” they don’t chirp in the morning they do blah blah blah. You haven’t done your research this is all wrong.”

Sure, maybe this writer had the wrong information on the way the fucking bird chirps, but that shouldn’t goad someone into attacking the person as a writer. I mean I invented a word once (or thought I did) and a fellow group member pointed out it was a type of fish. Didn’t demean me, he made me aware. There is a chasm between awareness and rudeness.

Don’t be Mr/Mrs. Rudeness. And if that is your actual last name…your ancestors suck.

If you witness either of these two red flags, you might be in the wrong group. What helps with these types of writers is having group moderators to keep things moving forward swiftly and safely. They tend to deter the group from falling by the wayside and reminding others of the rules on critiques. Get good moderators or become one yourself.

I’ll keep you updated on writing groups, but with these two observations under your belt, you’ll be ready to see if the group is worth your time.

Until next time,

Write on.

 

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The Fight For The “!”

At the end of the day, it’s the crafted words on the page which give the emotion of the scene more than any other facet. Punctuation, though, has its place.

This concept for a blog came to me while reading Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melniboné. I wanted a change of pace from reading current fantasy novels and take a trip back in time. I found 1987 to be my home and Elric to keep me company. Fantasy novels tend to have a different flair dependant on the time the work was created. The style of the writing seems to shift with every 10 to 15 years. I found enveloping myself within an older story gave me more tools to scrutinize my own work with.

Elric of Melniboné is a product of its time and with it comes different prose and dialogue. Even within the first Elric novel, it starts off with a short story from 1961 – writing has changed since then. Whether it has changed for better or worse is up to the eye of the beholder. I used a past book as the catalyst for why I’m a stickler with my exclamation mark.

I love my exclamation punctuation!

But I’m dutiful in how I spread its glory.

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[Credit Grammarly]

A certain bridging sentence caught my eye before a battle scene in Moorcock’s work. I don’t remember it verbatim, but it read similar to:

The battle ensued!

I read it, re-read, and then had a good chuckle. To me, it sounded cliché and corny. The use of an exclamation mark in the prose left me baffled. And then I noticed it more and more in Moorcock’s novel. He had exclamation marks galore in his dialogue which made the poetic high-speak of his exchanges even more theatrical than practical. The exclamations were used intermittently in his prose but stuck out each and every time for me as a reader. What did this leave me with?

 I’ve come to realize the effect of exclamation marks correlates with the amount of usage and the placement.

I find exclamations in the prose to be distracting. Only times I deem them necessary if they are revolved around a protagonist’s thoughts, which I would put into the category of inner dialogue versus prose. I do love the exclamation marks in dialogue, but with moderation. An example of how I find the exclamation mark to enhance the dialogue is shown below:

  • “Fine,” Daz shouted. “But I’m taking my new damn pony. Going to get the full use of my coin.”
  • “Fine! But I’m taking my new damn pony. Going to get the full use of my coin.”

The first sentence gives off the same emotion of the second, but I find the second iteration improves the flow in this particular case. Exclamation marks imply the rise in voice without us writing those telling tags. Both above examples work and I found it to be a case by case basis for my use of exclamation marks. For instance, this one is a combination:

  • “Back,” Daz shouted. “Into the kitchen now!”

Now I could have done:

  • “Back! Into the kitchen now,” Daz shouted.

Or

  • Back! Into the kitchen now!”

All of the above examples tweak how the sentence is conveyed and how the reader reacts. The scene where the above dialogue takes place also determines how I utilize exclamations. For the most part, I delete any double occurring exclamations within two sentences. Once you have one in a set of dialogue, I find it’s redundant to place another.

When I see an exclamation point placed after a character’s dialogue that exceeds one sentence, I find myself reading the entirety in a raised tone. For this reason, if I know the character is shouting, getting excited, wants to be heard, etc, I make sure to implement an exclamation point earlier in the dialogue. Otherwise, I find it off-putting for it changes the flow:

  • “Such a charmer, I see you haven’t let my hospitality go to waste. Even left some for later in your beard, the thinking ahead type, I’m envious. Sparrow, close the door!” I ordered as Cleeve ran his sleeve over his mustache and beard.

The above instance feels like Rith is shouting all three of his lines of dialogue. This might not be how an author intended it, but a break needs to be inserted to differentiate the tones, either with non-verbal movements or an interjection from another character or the scene around them. In this case, I didn’t want Rith to do any of the above, but if I were, I would have done it like this:

  • “Such a charmer, I see you haven’t let my hospitality go to waste! Even left some for later in your beard, the thinking ahead type, I’m envious. Sparrow, close the door,” I ordered as Cleeve ran his sleeve over his mustache and beard.

The following sentences, including the tag of ‘I ordered’ are shifted by the tone set up by the insertion of the early exclamation point. A simple punctuation goes a long way to diversify the tone of a piece. This is how I currently have it, no shouts:

  • “Such a charmer, I see you haven’t let my hospitality go to waste. Even left some for later in your beard, the thinking ahead type, I’m envious. Sparrow, close the door,” I ordered as Cleeve ran his sleeve over his mustache and beard.

Some find exclamation points to be correlated with a character’s social status. The more exclamations the lower they are on society’s ladder. I find this to be…stagnating advice. It shoehorns characters into little boxes. I’ve seen the wealthy shout as much as the poor. I’ve witnessed bosses having reserved personalities as much as their employees. If this is true in the real world, it should be true in any fantastical world as well. Remember, one shoe never fits all.

I don’t plan to use exclamation marks in my prose, outside of internal thoughts, but maybe I will someday. Right now it doesn’t sit right with me. It’s another beauty of writing, it morphs with time and with the one who’s creating their world. Maybe in my next book, it’ll be different. For now, exclamation marks are my friend when used seldom.

*Checks Manuscript*

Out of the 39 chapters of my novel, seven chapters don’t have an exclamation mark. Not as sparingly as I thought.

I shall get back to the editing once more, until then write on,

Michael

Cut The Redundancies

There are many phrases throughout our language that convey simple meaning without an overabundance of words. Honing in on singular phrases or words is paramount to rid your manuscript of redundancies. In the depths of editing, my novel is littered throughout. But, for the most part, it’s as easy as tapping the delete key to come back to clarity.

Clarity is what writers want to strive for. The problem is our minds obsession to picture exact details of scenes can hamper the exchange from author to reader. This, in turn, muddles our sentences, which muddles the writing for our readers and their enjoyment. Other words and phrases slip by the eyes without a second glance, but best get rid of those as well.

The first slough of phrases to axe is directional additions. I’ve stated before that I like directional words in dialogue, but these types need to be cut throughout your writing.

  • I knelt down.
  • I knelt.

Of course, the character knelt down, that’s exactly what kneeling is, but I’ve done this numerous times throughout my manuscript. Unless when your character kneels they somehow go up in some gravitational paradox, hit the delete key.

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  • He descended down the steps.
  • He descended the steps.

If my character is descending, he’s going down not up, no need for the direction, the single word choice already describes the action.

  • He slid down to the floor.
  • He slid to the floor.

I found a horribly silly sentence in my manuscript that read something like:

—I descended down two levels of stairs, jerked to my left and ascended up another stretch.

It aches my heart writing the above sentence and reading it out loud is even worse. Scratch out those redundancies, it’ll go a long way.

The next example can be a controversial one. Let’s identify it before I explain why.

  • The bar maiden began to cry.
  • The bar maiden cried.

Now it can seem like, well I want to portray the initial start up of a cry. There is a stark difference between the beginning of the cry and someone in the midst of one. I see it in my mind’s eye clearly, but does stating a character began to cry add anything?

Instead make this bar maiden use some of those non-verbals, make her shoulders shudder, make her eyes squint, let wetness congeal under her green pools—all those examples portray a better image than she began to cry. If you want your readers to focus on the start of a cry, make it worth their time. Otherwise, leave it at the character cried.

Another way to cut out redundancies is with the external sounds and internal feels. This is especially needed if you’re in the first person POV, but the third person could use a glance as well.

  • I heard my cry, it sounded like a feral animal in a fit of rage.
  • My cry, it sounded like a feral animal in a fit of rage.
  • Or even better: My cry was a feral animal in a fit of rage.

I wrote the first example, an exuberant amount of times. It sounds normal, but when you think about it, do I need to tell the reader that my protagonist heard his own scream? The last sentence conveys all of the above with less wordage. Less is more in this case. Sometimes the structure of the sentence needs to be tweaked, but we don’t need to hear what you’re characters hear, write what it sounds like and your audience will hear it on their own without the extra aide.

The “I feel” and “I felt” ones can be distracting too. Cut them out, like the example below.

  • The cold would help mend the rampant rage I felt within.
  • The cold would help mend the rampant rage within.

If there is rage within you, you feel it, without having to acknowledge that you did so.

Give the readers sentences devoid of bloated phrases and redundancies.

Until next time, I’ll be hostage to my editing.

Write on.

A Shiny Spoon – Setting the Scene

The dreaded phrase of many writers will and always will be, set the scene. I’m not sure where this fear comes from, but it’s a feral beast, one that haunts as they peer into the black and white abyss of a manuscript. The abyss only exists for the characters if they’re swimming in pages with no direction. Setting the scene gives your characters direction of what’s around them and in turn gives readers a vision of the world they inhabit.

The key is to enhance the world for your readers not distract them.

Fantasy writers, like myself, generally fall into the category of over setting – we like our colors, tastes, and minute details that half the time no one gives a shit about. I’ve been there, done it, lived it, and gotten flak for it as well as praise. My newest novel is faster paced and relentless at times, I didn’t want to get bogged down with setting the scene. Fast pace, short descriptions, and more stabby-stab sounded like a fantastic idea—except you lose direction.  So you make a compromise with yourself, stay within an invisible line of enough details to picture it in your mind, but not implode your head space with lists of dimensions and where every piece of furniture is in the room and its color and its shape compared to your main character’s childhood home.

Direction, make sure your readers can follow where your characters exist currently and where they are headed. Literal directions, for the most part, can be thrown out the window, not the window on my left side of where I’m typing this blog.

Examples:

  • “How courteous,” I said as I tossed the brush to my left on what passed as a desk.
  • “How courteous,” I said as I tossed the brush on what passed as a desk.

In this case, does the direction of where the desk is located to the main character matter to the story? The same conclusion happens, Rith is done using the brush so he discards it. It clutter frees your sentences and still conveys the same meaning.

Cutting directional words makes the most sense in your prose. I am a firm believer in directional words can be used in dialogue, sparingly, but are viewed as all right in my eyes. Most people give directions in their speech when going places, so don’t limit your characters verbiage to discard direction phrases. If my characters want to go to the near north, damn it, they will say it and mean it!

Little details, using the five senses, can enhance the imagination more than a string of scrutinized findings that only you might be able to picture. For instance:

—My room, a dark space of wood and subtle light like a ship’s hold, smelled of clean fish and coriander.

The above description cements a few things, smell, sight, and possibly taste. I used three (two depending if the sight of the word fish makes you hungry) out of the five senses in one not-to-long sentence. This one sentence gives a vision of the room without going into the dimensions, where the furniture resides or the color. I didn’t start off the chapter with this description, but it comes soon after to set the scene for the actions of my character. Later on, I add some sound:

—Light footsteps sent the squeaky floor boards into groan…

You now have four of the five senses, with a mere two sentences, not too shabby. Now the key is, not every place you visit or thing you see in your world needs to have a multitude of senses. Some senses can be implied:

—Sparrow and I followed Daz through the convocation of citizens who billowed with slurs of bargain and rants of indecisiveness.

The above sentence sounds like a crowded area, I don’t need the taste or the colors of what’s around to distract my readers. Right now, the focus is on the noise. Can I enhance the scene with some more detail? Yes, sprinkle it in and I’ve got a nice vision of the scene without taking away from what my characters are there to achieve. You’ll have to read the story to find out why they’re at the market—suspense!

Fantasy authors have a hard time because they have to build something entirely new, but even still readers are able to create their own vision of your world. And I’m guessing their vision is off skew from your own, it’s one of the many reasons why I love the medium, we all experience the same story with various flavors are mind finds fitting to the mood—make sure you can quench a reader’s thirst.

Non-fantasy writers have a have a hard job ahead of them as well. You have to make the mundane everyday occurrences seem intriguing. I wouldn’t know how to tackle such a style, I dread setting scenes as it is. Unless it’s some foreign structure or creature, it’s dull for me. Character descriptions…seldom feel rewarding even when characters are the essence of our stories, making unique ones, I still find it troubling to nail down those descriptors at times. But once you nail one down and they flow beautifully, rejoice for it is a difficult task. Ok, focus back to the setting.

Setting the scene is a give and take kind of relationship.

Please yourself with crafted prose for your readers to chew on, the pleasing kind of stuffing face, where it’s only the fluffy mash potatoes on the spoon, nothing else. Make sure it feels good going down the throat too, you need your readers be pleased and ready to move onto the next mouthful.

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The spoon is your foundation of the scene. It’s imperative to make it glisten with enough details to turn the reader’s head.

The Potatoes are the scrumptious acts your characters do in the world around them. You’re here to have your readers enjoy each bite. The only way to accomplish such a task is a sturdy and consistent spoon. Make the spoon shine, just don’t have your readers staring at it when they should be eating. Lack of sustenance is bad, it kills people, don’t kill people.

Until next time, write on.

That Pesky That

 

I’m in the depths of editing my fantasy novel a deep and dark place filled with moments of complete destitute findings and opposing frivolous joy.  Editing can be such an uplifting and rigid experience wrapped into one snowball to splat you in the face. At this point, I’ve read through the entirety of my manuscript once and was happy with the outcome my fingers placed upon the keyboards. But there was something off about it still. I couldn’t pinpoint what made me scrunch my brow at the words on the page until I watched a vlog about overused words.

I watched the video and cringed at the long list…I think there was 29, but one stood out like a wolf amongst sheep—that.

I use Scrivener (love it and would recommend to many writers, more to come later) and I typed ‘that’ into my search bar. Scrivner filtered through my novel and highlighted ‘that’ in yellow. My screen was drenched in yellows and ‘thats.’

I rejoiced for finding the source of my discomfort while I edited my novel the first go around, but I also banged my head against my desk for the multitude of hours to commence to make these sentences fit.

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That pesky ‘that’ made me work hard.

My manuscript was littered with them:

  • “I heard a cry that made my ears bleed.”
  • “Sparrow ran toward the strike so that she didn’t get impaled.”
  • “I couldn’t crane my head to see what had happened, that made everything worse.”

Most of the time I used the pesky word, it was toward the end of a sentence, I surmised it to how my brain thought out the actions or feelings of my characters. Once identified, I realized how it distracted me as a reader and a writer. Some of the sentences could easily be fixed by eliminating the word. For instance the second example:

  • “Sparrow ran toward the strike so that she didn’t get impaled.”
  • “Sparrow ran toward the strike so she didn’t get impaled.”

The other sentences would sound off if I tried this easy solution every time. I found sometimes switching ‘that’ to ‘it’ or ‘which’ helped to give variety to the sentences. For example the first sentence:

  • “I heard a cry that made my ears bleed.”
  • “I heard a cry, it made my ears bleed.”

The use of ‘that’ isn’t always a bad thing either. Sometimes it punctuates a sentence perfectly.

  • “Isn’t that the truth?”
  • “Rith you’re one of the smartest fellas I know, but even you must think that sounded idiotic.”

These two sentences convey ‘that’ in a different way as opposed to using it as more of a placeholder word. When it refers to a phrase or sentence another character had previously stated it flows. There is no hard rule for either option, but excess verbiage of any kind can distract the reader.

This was my first hurdle to overcome and I think I’ve found success while I perused my novel with the yellow highlights of my demise. Another read through complete and now I’m onto the next and one of my most dreaded, the out-loud read-through. This is where I’m sure I’ll find another set of phrases I use in excess, but it’s one of the best practices I’ve used, albeit the most time-consuming.

But that’s the thing about writing. Good things come when you invest time and let them marinate.

If I find any more pesky words in my next stage, I’ll be posting them on here. Until then, write on.

Beyond the Idea

 

I’ve honed enough energy and fortitude to will my fingers into creating four novels. I’ve started three others and have numerous passages afloat in my head not yet set to keyboard or paper. All of this began with a singular idea which festered and grew.

Have any of these novels seen the light of day and gone to print—nope. The fourth one I finished in December finally feels like a winner. The trudge through the editing process has far less screaming hair-tearing moments than anything prior. But I wouldn’t be able to bask in this glorious stage of ‘hey this project that bled into months of my life isn’t total shit’ without an idea which tantalized me until it needed to pour out of me.

   If there is one facet of writing where people stumble, it’s the idea—this is utterly important.

I’m flattered when others take interest in my currently unpaid career of writing. Sometimes there is a genuine thrill in their eyes and I can’t help feel a little flutter in my stomach. But then there are the times of, ‘I have this idea.’

I love this part. If you’re willing to share an idea with me than I know there’s some sense of passion behind the thought. I straddle the line between passion and the need to write, but without an idea, none of it would come to fruition. Once I’m done listening to their pitch for an idea, I smile and say, “now go write.” Sometimes excuses ensue. Sometimes the curiosity billows in their eyes and I know they will write when they depart from my company. Sometimes they seek advice on where to begin. Each scenario I’ve seen, some more than others.

   Get beyond the idea for the world is filled with them.

If this idea gnaws at you with each passing day and you find yourself thinking through scenarios, get to writing. You’ll know when it’s ready, ideas need time to gestate, it’s how the good ones stay and the bad ones leave you all together.

Seeking advice should not be the antithesis of what I feel the a-want-to-be fledgling writer should aspire to. It shows dedication to the process and it shows vulnerability. It has taken me a long time to realize asking for help isn’t a sign of inability, but a sign of yearning growth. No one’s a master the first time they put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. Seek and then indulge. Your first manuscript will probably be muddled shit. If you think it’s golden it’s just fool’s gold glimmering in the eyes of accomplishment. But don’t dismay. You learn, you enhance the craft, you find a plethora of ways to scrutinize your work, and you become better. Congratulations you’re a writer. Cash or no cash you’re on the road to self-doubt and agonizing days of why the hell am I trying to do this—I promise it’s worth the weight of the tears.

If I leave you with anything, don’t be excuse dude or dudette. If you have an idea, go beyond it and begin your journey.  You can do it. Can you do it well—only one way to find out.