Happy summer solstice 2013!

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The Sun today, June 20, 2013, at 17:25:30 UTC, as seen in the extreme ultraviolet by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Helga’s Post #40 — Today is Summer Solstice. It occurs when Earth’s axis is the most tilted toward the sun. This year’s Summer Solstice is remarkable because it will be closely followed by the largest “supermoon” of 2013. Make sure you set your alarm clock to the  wee hours of the morning on Sunday, when the moon will reach its full phase and will be the closest to Earth that it will be all year.

Serendipity: It was also the last of five long and intensive days of our writers’ group retreat in the scenic Olympic village of Whistler.

And my turn to receive critiques of my manuscript. A long critique on the longest day of the year, generously given by my writing partners.

Here’s what happened:

Every one of us in the hot seat was allowed opening comments before the critiques started. I chose mine to say what I think I could improve, based on what I learned during our retreat thus far.

I started with what I predicted my four fellow writers would ding me on (sort of taking the wind out of their sails). In other words, I critiqued my own writing before I let them have a go at it. As it turned out, I was pretty close to the mark. Here’s what my writing partners dinged me on:

Problem #1:

– There isn’t enough suspense in my first five pages. And it doesn’t relate to the main plot

Problem # 2:

– The scientific lingo is too complicated for non-scientists. Such as, is the average reader of suspense novels familiar with chromosomal damage and shortening of telomeres?

Problem #3:

– I have two protagonists. Who is the main one? Can you have two of equal weight and importance? Much discussion ensued on who should be the one; the vivacious Indian biochemist working at a Canadian West coast university, or the social scientist at the U.N. in New York (both female).

– Sex in the lab? Oh dear! Well, maybe, but not just spontaneous; build it up before it happens Much discussion about spontaneity. What’s so special about sex in a chemical lab, when sex in an elevator wasn’t a big deal in another, you-know-which novel? More discussion about whether a seasoned and respected woman scientist should risk her reputation for giving in to a moment of, well, feeling horny. Regardless, this pesky little topic appears frequently, not just in our writing. Such as, a cocktail named ‘Sex in the Gondola’, offered at the Whistler restaurant where we dined on this, our last evening.

–  Have more dialogue instead of being in my characters’ heads so much.

Overall, I got away easier than I thought I would. No bruises, no running to the bathroom, no hurt feelings. There is a learning curve in being able to do this. And we all became good at it during these last five days. The most valuable aspect we learned during our little retreat was that the critiques we received are going to improve our manuscripts. Follow the advice or ignore at your peril. Your choice. Period. We came, we listened, we learned. Perhaps it wasn’t quite what we may have hoped for, although in general we kind of knew what to expect. Better our friends point out the weaknesses in our writing than giving an agent an excuse to reject us. Polish the writing, weed out superfluous scenes that don’t aid the plot, make your characters drive the action, rather than the plot dictate what the characters should do, and you will likely have a winner.

Not surprisingly, it turned out that we all have a good story. Not yet perfect, but the bones are good. Now it’s up to every one of us to put some flesh on it. Judging from the dynamics of those last five days, there’s no question that we’ll keep the flame alive. We are passionate about writing, and while that by itself is no guarantee for success, we take comfort from knowing that passion is one of the main ingredients for writing a good story.

Tomorrow morning we’re leaving this picturesque and inspiring setting. Whistler has been good to us. A little rain in the last two days, but we managed to stay intact and sober in spite of invitations to the contrary.

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We will have more to say about next steps of our group. Some exciting ideas emerged that may sound even crazier than the initial concept of the ‘5writers5novels5months’.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith and do without a safety net.

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Let the Games Begin

Helga’s Post #39

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Bags are packed, loins are girded, critiques are printed. We are ready.

Well, not everybody quite at the same level, but we’ll better be by Sunday morning when critiques start in earnest. The morning after we meet for a bonding dinner somewhere in the picturesque village of Whistler. Before the games begin in the heart of the former Olympics site.

Coincidence?

Maybe. Or maybe a subliminal choice of venue. A signal of our aplomb and commitment as writers preparing to get published.

To make the process random and fair we drew names from a hat. Paula will be the first in the hot seat starting Sunday après pancakes or whatever. I will be the last. Not sure if that’s in Paula’s favour or not. Or in mine. What we haven’t done yet is determine who is first in the line-up of GIVING their critique. (Think about it. This could be a sticky wicket.)

We allow one day of critique for each of five manuscripts. Not only one-way communication, but dialogue. Opportunity for the writer to ask specific questions that may not have been covered in the critiques.

Genres and writing styles of the five novels are as varied as their authors’ personalities: A colourful palette of suspense, mystery, fantasy, Y-A and some in-betweens that straddle more than one genre. I tried to visualize all the different characters from our novels in one room. A hilarious exercise!

Because of the sheer diversity of our novels, the entire event is incredibly dynamic. In the last month we each had to read and critique four manuscripts. And critique them in an objective manner, regardless of whether these novels are in the genre of our own preferences. Or in a writing style that’s not a favourite. Believe me, it takes an Olympian effort of self-discipline and constraint (Is it surprising that we have chosen Whistler?) and the main ingredient (as Joe said in his latest post), an open mind. Challenging as it sounds, it turned out I have learned more during this process than during writers’ conferences and workshops galore. It never ceases to amaze me how I can spot problems in other people’s writing, but continue to make the same mistakes in my own manuscript.

But it has also been an intense and challenging lifestyle during this last month. Not the healthiest one I admit, because it meant spending most of my non-sleeping hours sitting and staring at the computer screen. Not something I aspire to repeat anytime soon.

That process is behind us now. We are planning for lots of fresh air and outdoor activities in between the hard work. And yes, having fun ranks high on the agenda.

(To be continued from our idyllic retreat in the village of Whistler)