GPS for writers

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Silk’s Post #45 – At this moment, I’m on our sailboat lying on the hook in an anchorage in the San Juan Islands called Blind Bay. I know exactly where I am. Not just from looking around at my surroundings, or consulting the chart.

No, I mean I know exactly where I am on the planet through the magic of our boat’s Global Positioning System. A bunch of satellites orbiting the earth are telling me where I am, precisely … within a few feet. Just stop for a moment to think about this man-made miracle. GPS is now so common, it’s even available on your cell phone. Getting lost is actually becoming hard to do.

But it was only yesterday, in the sweep of human history, that people didn’t even realize the world is round, and maps showed the edge of the earth where “there be dragons.”

What I really wish I had was a writer’s GPS to tell me where the hell I am in my story at all times. Maybe, like me, you’ve come to a place occasionally in your first draft where you find yourself looking over the edge of the story world into a void, wondering how you got there and where to go next to avoid the waiting dragons.

If you’re a writer, it often feels like everything you experience turns out somehow to be about writing. So it was for me at 9:30 this morning when we sailed out of the Pacific Northwest’s version of a Victorian seaport village called Port Townsend. Fog and low cloud reduced visibility to 500 feet, and the wind was still. We had a course plotted, and a destination in mind, but everything on the sea is subject to conditions. The skipper may command the helm, but Neptune and Boreas command the elements, and the weather, winds, currents and seas are infinitely more powerful than any mariner in any peapod of a vessel.

As we blindly steamed out into Admiralty Inlet, skirting the notoriously fickle tides off Point Wilson (today showing its gentle side), I quickly lost sight of land. I knew where I was – GPS told me that – but I could see no visual evidence of it.

Nothing but fog. We were moving forward on faith (in technology, the modern god), surrounded by the small, watery world that fell within the limited circle of our vision. There was occasional evidence of a bigger world outside our bubble. A foghorn. Kelp mats that materialized out of the fog just feet ahead in our path. Low, undulating swells from the Pacific that sent the boat rocking like a cradle, throwing gear against bulkheads in slow motion. A deep warning whistle from the shipping lanes. Suddenly visible rafts of small black murres, who dove underwater en masse at our approach. The gong of a channel marker buoy.

Churning along across this blank canvas, I flashed on the analogy between the voyage and my writer’s journey through the book I’m working on.

I know where I started, and where I want to go. I have a sense of the waypoints I must pass to get from Point A to Points B, C, D, and so on. But I can’t yet “see” the whole story. A lot of it is still like a fog bank – insubstantial but impenetrable to the eye. A lot of the story voyage will be dictated by the conditions I find along the way. Currents, obstructions, hazards. And at the end, I very well may find my course has taken me to an unexpected destination.

By 10:30 the visibility was a quarter mile, and I was able to see some of the waypoint buoys on our course as they appeared briefly out of the fog, then melted away again. We made good time with a favourable current, but it felt like we were standing still for hours, with no visible scenery to mark our passage. We were marching in place, still surrounded by the tiny blank canvas world of our limited vision. Then, at 11:30, we saw our first hint of land. Little Smith Island. Just a ghostly smudge off to port at first, a defined shape where no horizon had existed. As the sky became a brighter white, edges sharpened and soon the line between land and sea revealed itself in shades of gray.

By 1:00, we had colour. The blurry gray lumps looming up from the ocean became green-clad slopes and the sky began dissolving to blue, tinting the water itself. My log entry for 1:30 reads “skies clear, sun out”. Not poetic, but to the point.

The effect of this visual transition on the journey was, of course, profound. I knew exactly where I was throughout the passage, but it wasn’t until I could see it with my own eyes that I had a sense of actually moving forward – of getting somewhere.

This is a simple story with no tricks, no clever punch lines, no huge surprises. However, the experience – and the analogy to my writing journey – had a clarifying effect on me. It made me think about the “writer’s GPS” I have in my own head (we all do). It’s also called “instinct”.

Maybe getting through the fog of a first draft requires you to have faith that you’re making progress toward your plotted destination, even when you can’t always see that progress in glorious technicolor. If you start with a course in mind (whether you’re an outliner or a choose your route more organically), eventually the blank canvas will be filled in with rich detail, and your story will come alive. You may not follow your originally plotted course exactly, but the thing is to just keep moving, keep writing, trust your instinct and try not to get lost at sea or hit any rocks.

Maybe when the sky clears and the sun illuminates your storyworld, you’ll find you’ve discovered a new continent.

The verdict

Before the verdict.

Before the verdict.

Silk’s Post #41 — I sat in the straight-backed chair at the head of the table, facing the panel. The hot seat. Four jurors sat before me, two on each side, laptops open and coffee cups steaming. Four faces smiled back at me as I made some forgettable opening statement.

Don’t worry, their expressions telegraphed. This won’t hurt a bit. Uh huh. I’ve heard that one before.

I knew I was starting from behind, with my paltry 100 pages of manuscript. It should have been closer to 400. Sitting before a jury of my peers, I knew I was already guilty on one count: Writing Without Due Care and Attention to a Deadline. As I yielded the floor to my colleagues, I sat up a little straighter, steeling myself for the additional charges that might be added.

Illegal Use of Backstory, maybe.

Violation of the First Five Pages Hook Requirement.

Contributing to the Corruption of a Plotline.

Arrested Character Development.

Failure to Signal Emotions.

Or the worst of all, Author Voice Intrusion. 

It was going to be a long day. I looked longingly at the bowl of candy bars.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: before.

Candy bowl: after.

Candy bowl: after.

Here’s what it can sound like when you’re trying to follow a verbal critique: “On page 18” … (I scroll to find page 18, miss page 18 and find myself on page 34) … “blah blah blah your character’s acting like a nitwit blah blah blah” … (I finally find page 18) … “and then on page 72” … (scroll, scroll, scroll) … “blah blah blah brilliant dialogue, well done blah blah blah.”

You really have to be on your toes, and I began flat-footed.

The jury.

The jury.

But I got my rhythm. Listen, don’t scroll, that’s the secret. Listen, don’t defend. Listen, don’t read, don’t write, don’t explain, don’t try to atone for your sins. Now, no one can listen to a discussion of their work and fail to react at all, but I tried (with partial success) to keep open ears and a closed mouth. An inveterate note-taker, I didn’t even take notes. I wanted to look the jury in the face and listen to their unspoken words, the ones behind their eyes.

When you’re being critiqued, the impulse to interrupt with “Yes, but …” is almost irresistible. I admit, I did occasionally try to acquit myself. But the object of getting a first draft critiqued is not to convince the jury your manuscript is already perfect as written. No first draft is perfect. As Papa Hemingway so delicately put it, “The first draft of anything is shit.”

No, the object of getting critiqued is to get some clues about how to make the second draft  better. Hopefully, much better. And faster than if you rattle around in your own head for weeks trying to decide which of your treasured characters to dump, or where to actually open the first scene, or how to turn 15 flabby pages into 5 tight pages, or where you can painlessly weave in the arcane details needed to understand your plot.

The problem with first drafts, especially for us unpublished writers, is that we grow attached to them. We love them for their strengths and tolerate their weaknesses. An honest critique – delivered with good will and intelligence by someone whose opinion we value – helps get us unattached. Able to see it through other eyes.

In advance of our “critter summit” at Whistler, BC, we all blogged about the challenges of critiquing. We researched critiquing advice in books, on websites, on blogs. We developed a template for organizing our comments. But, like all communication, the critique process is a two-way encounter: a speaker and a listener. And the best critique in the world will not help the writer who lacks listening skills.

That’s why I was watching the eyes of my 5writers colleagues as they delivered their verdicts. We’re friends. When we declare each other guilty of a writing offence, we try not to inflict too much pain. So I was watching for supplementary, unspoken input: signs of pulled punches, frustration, or, worst of all, pity. And for unvoiced agreement (or disagreement) around the table while each juror made his or her statement: heads nodding, heads shaking, eyes rolling.

What I realized – what we all realized in our 5-day retreat – was that after a couple of years of practice we have actually become pretty damn skilled critiquers (if I do say so myself, and I do). For all five books, for almost every major observation both positive and negative, there was a high degree of agreement around the table. Every juror viewed the work through a slightly different lens, and often had a different suggestion for solving a problem, but as a group we were virtually unanimous in identifying the key strengths and weaknesses of each manuscript.

We’re learning. And not only from the critiques we receive, but also from critiquing others’ work. And hearing everyone else’s critiques. And then discussing them. And then brainstorming ideas to help get a writer “unstuck” with a plot or character difficulty. And then taking advice on board and going back to the keyboard to craft our own solutions in our own voices. We’re learning.

In my own case, the verdict was clear and this was my sentence:

  • Smarten up my protagonist so she never sounds witless or allows herself to be used to serve the plot at the author’s whim.
  • Make sure the protagonist is consistently driven by priorities. Mystery and jeopardy first. Everything else second.
  • Rewrite the whole story in first person.
  • Introduce the villain earlier.
  • Extract all undue writer cleverness that takes the reader out of the story.
  • Tear down and rebuild one major character and his relationship with the protagonist.
  • Resequence some of the plot points to make the beats work better.
  • Keep the characters in motion. Don’t let them sit around.
  • When I scare the bejesus out of the protagonist, make sure she shows it.

I was thrilled with this sentence, as much for what isn’t in it as for the rewrite direction it gives. I wasn’t convicted of serious backstory violations, for instance. That’s progress, for me. I only got dinged for minor author voice misdemeanours, except for my plot-driving-character felonies. And almost all my characters were unanimously acquitted, with the exception of a couple who were released after time served and will be replaced. Even my protagonist got away with a stern lecture, shown leniency as a spirited but sometimes confused youth. (However, she is expected to keep her nose clean from now on.)

I’m wildly grateful to my 5writers colleagues who spent hours reading my partial first draft, deliberating the verdict, and giving me a sentence that will rehabilitate my book and help give it new life.

I will begin serving my sentence tomorrow. It’ll be a piece of pie. I hope.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Pie for 5. Sweet.

Two for the price of one

Karalee’s Post #37 — Sometimes a bargain isn’t a bargain. Don’t we all have those clothes in the closet that we’ve bought but never worn and tossed out without even removing the price tags? But hey, they were two for the price of one….

The comments I received from my critique today weren’t unexpected. As I had written in a previous post running up to this critique week, I had concerns about my protagonist and antagonist vying for equal attention.

Today I had unanimous feedback: I had written two books, not one!

I had been so clever in hiding all my villain’s villainous activities that my detective had nothing to detect. That was my struggle in writing this novel as well, and I certainly wasn’t able to hide that from my wonderful 5Writers.

So here I am with two books, and not to my surprise, the antagonist won as the more compelling story, or should I say, had a story to tell. My weaknesses show like red flags in a hurricane, but my strengths do too. I had a lot of fun writing the villainous parts while I struggled with my detective detecting parts and it showed.

In general my characters need to be fleshed out more and have higher personal stakes. Sounds simple if typed quickly, but creating characters is not an easy job.

A adult character comes on stage fully mature with all his life’s experiences making him what he (or she) is. The author (me) must have concocted the character’s complete family/friend/school/professional/cultural/global background, and then only let out bits like releasing steam from a pressure cooker. The character’s personal information must not be too much at once and take away from the action, and it must also be relevant in the context of the scene and be personal and believable to the character.

Oh did I mention that the plot must pushed along too? 

It’s not an easy task, but when it happens it is pure magic.

And that’s the magic I want in my writing. 

This is my first draft of a book that has a strong and unique premise. Now I need to look at it like one does at the stalls in a flea market and pick and choose what to purchase and what to walk away from in order to create a manuscript that will keep readers up all night. 

Fortunately there are fixes for every problem and the brainstorming among our group was invaluable to me. I’m off with fresh ideas and my delete button will be busy in the coming weeks. My fingers will also be flying on the keyboard creating a new maze to be unraveled.

And that’s why I feel blessed to be part of this group that is helping me (and each other) on our journeys to be the best writers we can be.

Happy rewriting!

Up the critique creek this week

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Credit: iStock licensed image

Silk’s Post #39 — Doing four book critiques in a month – one a week – sounds quite do-able. That is, if you don’t have any social engagements, do no travelling, don’t need to pay your bills, are okay with dust bunnies, receive no unexpected visitors, have self-feeding pets, and never need to cook or eat a meal. Or sleep, or go to the bathroom.

Then, it’s an absolute snap.

Since I wasn’t able to duplicate those conditions, I still have a few miles to go. I’m in full critique immersion this week, and it’s an intense journey. Navigating the story streams of my four writing friends, I’m encountering just about everything a writer can throw at you: thrilling rapids, still waters, back eddies, tricky channels, stretches along the way where I’m totally lost and need a map, and fine passages that sweep me along effortlessly towards my destination. Oh, yeah. And a few rocks.

All to be expected. This whirlwind trip through four very different first drafts is a great adventure, even if it does leave my head spinning occasionally.

I jot (electronic) margin notes as I go, without looking ahead. This lets the writer know what I, as a “designated reader,” am thinking along the way. Sometimes this reads like that incredibly annoying person who always sits behind you in the movies and blabbers all through the show … “oh come on, KISS her already” … “okay, here comes the monster, right NOW” … “hey, don’t TRUST this guy” … “wha? why would she even SAY that?”

Other times I write an aside while I’m thinking about some deeper point. Maybe I’ll try to identify why something is bothering me. Or suggest a way to work past some plot or character problem. Or speculate on an upcoming “surprise” turn of events. These are, of course, always brilliant insights, which I often discover are either dead wrong or completely irrelevant by the next chapter. I leave them in anyway, footprints along the path to show the writer where the reader’s thoughts have gone, even if sometimes in circles.

All these are useful when doing the overall written critique, which must step much further back and make some sort of useful sense of such spontaneous reactions.

Since we’re big on the 5 theme, here are 5 things I’ve learned – and trends I’ve noticed – in the course of reading and critiquing early drafts (my own and others’) …

1.  Protagonist torture can get out of hand. Even the wisest of writing rules can lead one astray if taken to extremes. I mean, spinach is good for you, but if you eat it morning, noon and night for a month, I’m pretty sure you’re going to get some kind of spinach poisoning. We writers have it pounded into us that we must give our protagonists problems to solve, and troubles to cope with, and pain to endure, and challenges to overcome, and conflicts to resolve. But when a character is so dumped on that he or she is more or less constantly miserable, terrified, angry, in emotional or physical agony, or overwhelmed with self doubt and guilt, I’m not sure I really want to spend the next 400 pages in their company. At least not without some kind of happy pills.

2.  Every first draft has many “huh?” moments. Huh moments can be unintentionally  amusing. Or quite irritating. Here are a few common ones among a rich array of possibilities …

  • Huh? Would he really say/do that? – someone is stepping out of character, behaving in a way that conflicts with expectations, contradicting themselves, or speaking in language that doesn’t fit them.
  • Huh? Who the heck is Melvin Humperloopen? – a character last seen on page 7 has just made a surprise reappearance on page 382.
  • Huh? Where did Uncle Oscar disappear to? – a character last seen heading for the kitchen to make a cup of tea doesn’t return and is never mentioned again.
  • Huh? Did you really mean what that says? – the author misspoke, misremembered, misused a word, or otherwise unintentionally baffled the reader.
  • Huh? You expect me to swallow that? – the spell over readers known as “suspension of disbelief” has been broken.

3.  Every time the author is around, the book goes to hell. Authors tend to haunt their first drafts, making their presence known through inartful narrative, exhortations to the reader to notice important details, dialogue in which characters act as Charlie McCarthy to the author’s Edgar Bergen, and in a thousand other sneaky ways. It usually requires an editorial exorcism to purge a first draft of the demon of “author voice.” Hey, if we authors knew we were doing it, we wouldn’t. It just creeps in. And then it has to creep out.

4. Punctuation does matter. Okay, I know it’s a first (or second) draft, and boring, arcane details like punctuation and spelling can be cleaned up later. Fuss-budgeting and obsessive self-editing can stifle the process of getting the story out. I understand that. But when you’re reading a story for critiquing purposes, every one of those little errors is a stumbling block for the eye and an interruption to the flow of the story for the reader. Even though a critique is not a proofreading exercise or a copy edit, it’s just a little harder to read when the punctuation marks need a spanking.

5.  When you forget you’re critiquing, it’s all good. The best indicator that the writing is really working, the plot is moving along, and I’m being  transported as a reader in the stream of the story is a lack of margin notes. The reader is supposed to get sucked into the story – so sucked in she forgets to write margin notes, or get down to the post office before it closes, or fix dinner. That’s a great day of reading.