Shameless Plug for Critters Critique

For those of you active on critters.org, forgive me for pointing out #23178, Determination. Would love to hear your thoughts on it! It’s up on this week’s list of manuscripts.

 

Question dog
Question dog (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Advertisements

Hope Management for Writers

Dreams in a Puddle
Dreams in a Puddle

Most writer’s seem to need dreams to propel themselves through the hundreds and thousands of hours it will take to finish a book but those dreams don’t always serve us well in the face of rejection. Nothing like having hopes dashed to make you want to give the whole thing up.

In some of my recent posts, my comments may have been mistaken for a touch of despair. I’m pleased to report that I’m still in the “happy writer’s place.” I’m enjoying a break from my current project by doing story development on my next one. Defining the basic premise, characters and plot is a particularly enjoyable exercise for me. What some of you may have keyed off of is my ‘hope management’ that keeps me motivated without letting things get so unbounded that bad news crushes my spirit.

Off and on, I’ve been writing since 1990 with the ‘off’ periods mostly due to over-reaction to negative feedback. After analyzing that (I am an engineer, after all), my response has been to set more realistic goals with a better understanding of the writer’s market. Consider this an extension of all those blog posts that remind us that almost all successful writers endured heaps of rejections before finding success. In my case, a better understanding of my chances helps me accept the more-critical-than-hoped-for feedback, the oh-so-terse editor/agent rejections, the fact that the story that I loved and spent two years on just isn’t up to snuff and should be set aside. It then follows that I must be prepared to shelve my current project at some point if it doesn’t get traction. I could keep polishing it forever and it is tempting to do that (look I’m a writer: see, I have a book I’m working on) but there’s too much good advice out there from folks in the business that suggests moving on after a reasonable time is the proper course if I ultimately want to be a successful writer, which I do. So, that means being able to talk about setting SOTA aside, even if I still very much hope I can get it published.

It also means being realistic about other aspects of the writing business, like how much I want to market my work. Conventional publishing still requires a lot of work from the author but in the end, it will always be a challenge for me so I’m going to try the conventional path, where you get at least a little help. And I’ll think twice about ever taking the self-pub path: I don’t want to do it just because the bar is lower. That’s no path to success in an absurdly crowded field. I might yet go self-pub, but only if I can’t find a contract and I also have some trustworthy feedback that the book is worth publishing. Otherwise, I’d rather wait to launch on a better book.

So for me, it’s a matter of setting realistic goals and having a realistic understanding of likely responses and reactions. That’s not to say I don’t let my hopes soar at times.  I find the best time to unbridle the dreams is when writing the first draft. But when it comes time to put it out for critique or review, send it on to agents, etc., I find the criticism and rejection easier to take if I’m realistic about the response. These days, bad feedback is usually just a blip in my day. I allow myself not to write for a few days after worse-than-desired criticism but I don’t typically do that any more. It’s just part of being a writer, like trying to figure out whether something needs a comma.

But one thing I’ve learned about feedback: I almost always need to set it aside and read it again in a few days because I tend to read it as more negative than it was. There have been more than a few critters critiques that were actually quite positive but when I read them the first time, I was convinced they were entirely negative. So best to read it twice, at least for me 🙂

Not everyone approaches things this way. My two sons, for instance, have completely different responses to being asked to do a chore. One will happily do them whenever you ask. The other will moan and groan if you don’t give him advance notice. It would be nice if the second one didn’t require that but, in the end, that’s just the way he is wired (and I can appreciate his position because I don’t like chores dropped on me out of the blue either: “but honey, the garage has been a mess for months, why do we have to clean it today?”).

How do you manage your hopes as a writer?

Judging in the Land of Oz

English: gavel no background
English: gavel no background (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I feel like the wizard behind the curtain: I’ve been asked to judge a contest I entered. As I mentioned in Synopsis Re-visited, I entered my current project in the On the Far Side Contest. This is a yearly contest run as a fundraiser by the Fantasy, Futuristic and Paranormal (FF&P) Special Interest Chapter of the Romance Writers of America (RWA). The cash rewards are nominal ($25) but, as with all these smaller contests, the real reward is judge feedback and a chance to get looked at by an editor or agent if you make the final round.

My wife is very active in our local RWA chapter and they also have a yearly contest, the Golden Rose, which starts June 1st. These contests are for unpublished authors and interestingly, the total number of entries isn’t huge- in the 60-100 range, split across 5 or more categories. What that means is that you are not competing against a lot of people for a chance to get seen by someone who might buy or represent your work. Now, you will probably also toss  your work into the slush pile for a pro-view, but in the case of contests, judges of any round generally feel obligated to read the entire entry and usually to provide detailed comments. So in the first round, you get feedback from 3 or so judges, some of whom may be published, and if you make the second round, you get feedback from an agent or editor, and it is pretty much guaranteed to be actual feedback, instead of a “not for me”.

Coming back to the judging, these contests are run by writer’s organizations that contain a fair proportion of published authors, many of whom judge the contests, which is good. But 60 entries and 3 judges per entry is a lot of “judging bandwidth,” thus the perpetual need for judges and how I got asked to judge. I’ll be judging both the one I entered (but not my category, of course) and my wife’s chapter’s contest.

I must confess, it is weird being a judge. For one, I’m not published and for another, I’m judging romance written by women for women: so I get to critique gushing descriptions of the male romantic interest’s physique: yippee! Actually, I just skip that part. At least I’ve spent a year doing critters.org critiques so I don’t feel entirely unqualified and on the judge feedback form, I’m able to disclose that I’m not published so they can do what they want with my feedback. I still feel something like a fraud as a judge but hey, the contest folks know what they are getting with me.

As for the contests, there are categories for SRE (strong romantic elements) so it doesn’t have to be a pure romance novel to enter. Might be worth a look, depending on your project. I don’t think winning one of these goes very far as a writing credential but the feedback could help and it can’t hurt to have something to add to your resume if you make finalist or win.

Critique Feedback

Feedback loop
Feedback loop: notice, this loop NEVER ends! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

John from Fairy Spell got me thinking about feedback with his excellent post on waiting for an answer (Writing is the Easy Part). As he points, once you send something in to an agent or editor, you have the seemingly interminable wait, followed by the usually terribly terse “not right for us”. And I’ve also seen the “and please don’t ask me why it isn’t right, I won’t answer.” I’m sure I’d do and feel the same way if I was an agent or editor, the slush pile is immense, but it’s no fun being on the receiving end of that, no matter how politely phrased it is.

A similar experience is when you send something out for critique, to your friends & family, a critiquing partner or group, or to a critiquing site like critters.org. In this case, you usually get a lot more than “not right for me”, although on the critters site I’ve occasionally seen the equivalent, which per the site guidelines is a no-no. But in many ways the process is similar: you polish something until you think it glows, perhaps admitting a few flaws but expecting it to be reasonably well received, because, after-all, it is good, you spent so much time it. Then the feedback comes in and there’s always more to work on than you hoped or expected.

Some of that is critiquitis, “inflammation or over-excitation of the critiquing gland,” something I’m as guilty of as anyone else: asked to critique something, you sharpen your pencil and you let the comments fly! With those not used to critiquing (generally the friends and family side of the aisle), things are usually quite murky. There you have people who like you (I hope) so they are trying to be kind. Plus, generally, they aren’t writers so while they can tell you if they liked it or not, they often cannot help you diagnose the problem.

Feedback
What an engineer means by feedback (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For instance, you may get “I didn’t really like the character.” This is often a sign that you didn’t show why the character made certain decisions, typically due to missing or weak sequels, but your grandmother isn’t going to tell you that. She may actually suggest doing something that is actually not right for the novel: “Can’t you make him a little nicer?” Stories need conflict and nicer may not be the right approach: better revelation of the character’s motivation might be the right approach.

Where criticism really gets fun is when  you get conflicting feedback. My recent round of critiques through critters.org had a bit of that: “you should describe the telescope in more detail, I really wanted to understand what it was about.” This was after I cut a detailed description of the telescope in a previous draft because “it seemed to be too much attention to something that didn’t really matter.” (And if either of you who gave this feedback read this, I’m not knocking the feedback. It’s just a great example of conflicting feedback.) What do you do with that? Well, on the one hand, being an engineer, I can say I’m experiencing undamped oscillations which are bracketing the desired point, i.e., either is fine. Unfortunately, it probably actually means neither approach is right, I might need something in the middle. In any case, it is funny when you get the “do this”/”don’t do this,” from people you respect. Funny in a what-am-I-supposed-to-do-with-this way. At this point, there’s no option but to call it as you see it. It’s your story after all.

I’ve sent chapter 1 of my current project through the critter queue 3 times now. It’s been a bit of a rollercoaster. First time was mostly great feedback (i.e., useful things to work on) although there was one that offered little “actionable.” Second time I had added too much backstory and while that was useful feedback, it felt like a wasted round to me. Third time was a bit all over. There were several with some great feedback including some I resisted at first: cut even more backstory out (in the end I saw the light and moved it or cut almost all of it.) But some of the third round feedback seemed off base (even checked it with some other writers). Not sure what that really was. Maybe I’m not at the right writing maturity to appreciate it but perhaps it was the critiquers maturity level (my ego likes the latter but beware of the ego!)

One thing that has helped in the last round of critiques where there didn’t really seem to be a consensus about what to change (other than the backstory bit) is that I did pay for a few rounds of professional critiques which helped provide a baseline. Otherwise, it’s hard to figure out how much to value any particular bit of feedback. While, in the end, the professional is also offering just a personal opinion, I’ve used her enough to respect her advice and she is multi-published. She’s at least been through the process a lot. I’ve got her looking over an outline now for a contest.

In the meantime, I’m already up to chapter 6 on draft 2.1. This is the first draft I’m going to ask others to look at. I’ve got a critter lined up to read the whole thing (one of the ones who seemed to have some great feedback last round) plus some friends & family. After that round, I’ll make another revision and send it by the professional critique service I use. Then… we’ll see how the feedback looks. Ideally, another minor edit and I’ll start shopping it but more realistically, maybe some more major revisions. Hard to say. But while it’s out for review, I’ll pick my next project and start story development on it.

What I’ve Learned after a half-year as a Critter

It’s almost half a year since I become a critter, a critiquer on critters.org. For those who haven’t found it, it is a place where writers can critique each other’s work. It’s nearly all science fiction, fantasy and horror but there are small amounts of other genres. You earn a place in the queue by critiquing at least 3 stories per 4 weeks, not a very onerous bar. Eager for feedback, like any good critter, I was happy to find a place to have people I didn’t know read my work but not really sure what it would entail. I’m happy to say it has been a very positive experience.

For the mechanics: I tend to write about a 800-1200 word critique (minimum recommended is 500 words). That has proved to be not hard to sustain, even while writing a novel and the occasional blog post. Critiques are due by end of Tuesday and Burt, the kind gentleman who runs the site, sends out a note on Saturday as a reminder with a list of any stories that don’t have at least six critiques already. I try to choose ones that are low on critiques, knowing full well the pain of being overlooked, but I do avoid submissions over 5000 words and chapters 2 or later of a novel. You have your pick of what to critique and I must confess, I do tend to pick the more mature writers with a first paragraph that engages me. That does make the critiques go more quickly 🙂

I can’t say critters introduced me to any writing technique or aspect of the craft that I didn’t already know about although I’m sure I’m forgetting something. But what it has done is help me think more like an editor and make the basics second-nature. There’s nothing like seeing a lot of “tells” to make you appreciate why an editor requests more “show”. Or how the absence of sequels makes you appreciate how it saps reader engagement. You can do this for published fiction, of course, but the strong stories give me the chance to reflect on what worked and the other ones, the chance to dissect where it falls short for me. Especially since I try to pick stories where something appeals to me it becomes a “I liked this but what kept me from liking it more?” exercise, which is useful for my own writing and hopefully of use to the writer getting the critique.

Another thing I already knew but now I really get: a reader’s response is very personal. You may love a story that others hate, or vice versa. This is the nature of fiction but seeing someone gush over something I thought wasn’t really ready or someone be very critical of something I thought was quite good drives that home like nothing else.

Plus writing so many critiques for strangers, where I take to heart Burt’s advice to be extra diplomatic, has helped my critiques of my wife’s writing: not just content, but tone. Constructive criticism is hard to receive and making it clear that my critique is just my personal opinion (and not an absolute rule or ‘the way something must be done’) goes a long way to making sure it falls on receptive ears.

I’ve sent two things through the queue so far, chapter 1 of both my previous and current projects. I also received a complete read of my earlier book (and offers from several others to read but I wanted to hold off until I had another revision in place). The critiques have been very useful. They vary from fairly high level to more line-by-line but as both general encouragement and actionable things to work on, they have been quite handy. Thankfully, I didn’t get any that were cruel or useless but you occasionally see the 2 line critique (too short to be of any real value, I think) or some that push the envelope of decorum. There was one, not for mine, thankfully, where the critter essentially said “this sucks but if you do this, this and this it will be great” and proceeded to recommend, in great detail, what to cut, what to move, and what to re-write. Burt doesn’t look kindly on those critiques and does try to coach the critters where necessary.

Overall, a great resource and one I intend to keep using. I’m about to send my next piece into the queue (a revision of chapter one on the current project).

Excellent Critique at an Excellent Price: Red Circle Ink

A few posts ago, I wondered about what to do with a previous novel that was sitting on the virtual shelf gathering dust. While I wanted professional feedback, everything I had found so far was outside of my writer’s budget so I had turned to other sources. Turns out there is professional feedback out there for a great price: Red Circle Ink. From my own amateur efforts on critters.org, I know detailed critiques take a lot of work so I can’t argue with services charging $4 or more a page for a critique. Based on effort, it seems like a fair price. But based on what I’m willing to spend, it’s too much: that’s $1200 for a shortish novel that I wasn’t even sure deserved more time.

Enter Red Circle Ink: you can get a free critique of the first 10 pages to see what you’ll get. I started with that, loved the feedback and went for the full review. What I got was a combination of a line-by-line critique and a good overview which was a great developmental critique. It happened to answer my immediate question: was it worth spending more time on the novel (answer: yes) but it wasn’t just a “it’s promising but fix this, add that, and go to it”. The feedback is “actionable:” a range of items from specific things to tweak in the manuscript to larger, but still specific, things to address in terms of motivations, how to tie setting into the story, and so on.

For instance, my wife (also a writer) has been uncomfortable with my first chapter for quite some time. She rightly called out that my protagonist’s motives are not well developed. Yes, I recognized I needed to do more and had been trying to address it bit by bit but until the Red Circle Ink critique, I was still fuzzy on what I really needed to fix. My wife saw the critique and said, “That’s it! That’s exactly what I’ve been trying to say.”

I’m really pleased with the critique. It is invaluable feedback for really making a difference in the next few drafts and hopefully getting this to a marketable manuscript. Of course, as with any good critique it calls out much I was hoping was good enough but critiques aren’t about hearing what you want to hear but what you need to hear.

If you are looking for high quality, affordable critiques, give Red Circle Ink a look.

Critiquing by Critters

Story critiques by other writers

Looking for some feedback from more than family and friends? Wondering if your story is up to snuff? Or know that it isn’t but you aren’t quite sure what needs fixing? Give Critters.org a try.

I’d come across this site before but did not sign up until recently. I’ve yet to submit my own work but judging by the other critiques I’ve read, you’ll get a number of critiques, generally of very good quality. It’s primarily focused on science fiction, fantasy and horror short stories but there are other genres (with much lower numbers of submissions and critiques) and a provision for getting novels critiqued. The novel critiquing does seem to work.

Naturally as a budding writer, I was drawn to his by the chance to get some feedback but having been critiquing for over a month now, I’m getting a lot out of doing the critiques. The process of figuring out why something did or did not work for you really helps extend your own writing. Plus skimming other critiques offers interesting perspectives as well.

To stay in “good graces” and have your own stories hit the queue, you are required to critique one story 3 weeks out of 4. You get to pick your stories and sub-genres. If you’re going out on vacation or going to busy you can always do an extra one or just skip a week. Critiques have to be at least 200 words and are generally about 500 words or more. Critiques of stories under 2000 words earn just half-credit.

Give it a look; it’s a great resource and excellent practice for your own craft skills. Even if you don’t want to be active on it, there are some good resources on the site. It’s a great alternative if you can’t find a local critiquing group you like or want a much wider range of critiques (most stories seem to get at least 4 critiques and often get many more).