May 25, 2011

Critiquing and the Overnight Success

Writing is a strange craft.  I've probably seen hundreds of amateur paintings as well as masterpieces.  I've certainly listened to beginning trombonists learn their scales (it's memorable, I promise).  I've seen pick-up games of basketball. many amateur novels does the average person read?

With so many other endeavors, we're used to seeing the steps.  We know that today's awkward fencer, given dedication and practice, can hone those skills to become an olympic medalist.  With novels, we only get the final product, shining in glorious hard cover at the bookstore.

I've met writers who compare their writing to their favorite author and weep.  In some ways, this seems comparable to a second-year cellist sighing that he's not Yo-Yo Ma and never will be.  But who would expect a student to sound like that?  Yo-Yo Ma's been practicing cello for over fifty years.

Critiquing can help fill in those gaps we never see, throwing out the strange -- but somehow far-reaching -- notion that "real" writers pour genius onto the page the first time they try.  All those shiny hardcovers started as someone's first draft.  Even the books I adore were frowned over, revised, and reworked until they became sheer awesomeness.

A while back, the Writing Excuses podcast took apart the opening to Brandon Sanderson's very first, unpublished novel.  It sounds like...well, an unpublished novel.  Somewhere between this and Elantris, Brandon poured in a lot of hard work into the craft of writing.  Maybe someone will find that daunting; I find it inspiring and reassuring.  If there's anything I'm good at, it's lots of hard work.

So, Critiquing Secret #1: Critiquing shows us that writing is a process.

Critiquing is something I love and something I feel I can say something about, so I'm staring a series of posts about it, updating on Wednesday evenings.

May 22, 2011

Mistborn Review up at Bookshop Talk

Y'know how I keep mentioning Bookshop Talk?  Yes, they're an awesome review site, and yes, I've got another review up, this time for Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn, the most mind-blowing thing I've read since Tolkien.  Really.  It even gets the place of honor next to Tolkien on my shelf, in shiny hardcover.

If you've never read Brandon Sanderson, I weep for you.  You can read one of his books, Warbreaker, on his website for free.  Also amazing.

May 21, 2011

The Scariest Conference Class

First off, I've got another review up on Bookshop Talk, this time for Shadow Spinner, one of my all-time favorite YA must-read books of pure delight on paper.

Now, for more conference report!  Dan Wells, author of "I Am Not a Serial Killer" gave an amazing class on suspense.  Despite being a very nice person, his scary-skills are so honed that after this class, the little blinking light on the smoke detector in my hotel room kept me up at night.  Yes, I stayed in brightly-lit places right after this class, but I learned some amazing things.

I'm not writing horror, but the things he talked about easily translate to creating suspenseful scenes.  So, here's my not-so-scary notes (the actual class came with film clips; my notes come with book examples that jumped to mind).

1. Establish "normal," then break it.  Something is rarely scary out of context.  Imagine Lord of the Rings opening with Frodo screaming, "Ah!  Nazgul in the Shire!"  This isn't tense at all.  What's a Nazgul, and where's the Shire?  Once Tolkien establishes that the Shire is a place where spoon-theft ranks as a high crime and that these Nazgul are somehow connected to that creepy old ring, well, then I'm on the edge of my seat.  When the Scouring of the Shire comes, I'm petrified.

2. Familiar Things Become Unfamiliar.  This is similar to #1.  I just finished James Dashner's The Maze Runner, and he's a pro at all of this.  He establishes how something works (one new boy will emerge into the Glade once a month), but then it doesn't work that way (the day after a new arrival, a girl shows up -- with a note).  As an added bonus, the character's panic feels real because I'm panicked.  This just can't be a good thing.

3. Let the readers wait for the other shoe to drop.  This made me think of The Hunger Games.  I know Katniss has a death-match waiting for her, but the Suzanne Collins lets this tension build, build, build for a good chunk of the book.  By the time Katniss reaches the arena, I'm a nervous wreck (and it's 1:00am, but hey, who cares about sleep?).

4. Push fear buttons.  If you talk about or show creepy stuff, it creeps people out.  Ah, the power of perfectly chosen setting details.  In Shadow Spinner, the story largely takes place in a harem that saw a bloodbath some years before.  That aspect of the setting seeps into the scenes, adding tension to every page.  A floor that's been scrubbed clean.  Lots of now-empty areas that were full before the purge.  Marjan wondering what dead girl occupied her room before her.  These are scattered throughout the book, but the author doesn't let you forget what happened and what could happen again.

5. When the time comes, show the monster.  Dan Wells had just enough time to shout this sentence, without explanation, as filed out to run to our next classes.  Consequently, I've spent too much time thinking about it.  Not all books have monsters, after all.  Personally, I think it ties back to #3.  Wait for the other shoe...but when you let it drop, let it really go.  The end of Mistborn left me holding my breath, probably for longer than my brain cells appreciated.  For most of the book, I have a good idea that our hero, Vin, is going to end up confronting the Lord Ruler.  When she does, Brandon Sanderson doesn't downplay the moment.  There's certainly no tea and crumpets.  When the shoe drops, it explodes.  Awesomely.

I gave macro-examples, but this works on a scene-by-scene level, too.  After this workshop, I rewrote a lackluster scene where someone was about to be arrested, but she didn't know it.  I had it start with all sorts of people being awake too early (#1).  The guards didn't address her by her title (#2).  Originally, I let the information all drop at once, but I held it back and let her (and hopefully the reader) worry about what had happened (#3).  All the details, from the cold floor to the stale smells, were foreboding ones (#4), and when the bad stuff happened, I let it all happen at once -- worse than I hope the reader could anticipate (#5).

Dan Wells also has an amazing presentation on story structure available on You-Tube.  Very smart guy, that Dan Wells.

May 13, 2011

Bookshop Talk & The Desert of Souls

I ran across Bookshop Talk some time ago and they hooked me.  They review books -- but only books they adore.  The also include a brief barometer of language/sensuality/violence at the bottom.  I know someone will yell "censorship!" but I love knowing what I'm getting into.  I could (but won't) make a list of books I thought were fantasy adventure novels only to realize three-quarters through that they were stealth romance novels with the obligatory, ludicrously steamy scene somewhere near the end.  I'm of the opinion that such scenes are about as necessary as three pages describing someone brushing their teeth.  So, I love this site.  It's helped me accurately find books that I know I want to read and dodge the ones I know will make me roll my eyes.

They accept outside review submissions (rules are here).  What with packing and then being gone to the conference, I missed it when they put up the review I wrote for The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones.  It's a straight-up adventure ripped from the same leaf as Arabian Nights.  Lots of sword play, adventure, and no teeth-brushing.  Highly recommended.

More reports on the Storymaker conference coming soon.

May 9, 2011

Bootcamp and Critiquing

Just finished attending the LDStorymaker conference in Salt Lake.  I was amazed at how large it was -- some five hundred people attended, I'm told -- and it was incredibly well-organized.  Also, in the tradition of LDS events everywhere, delicious food also attended in great abundance (I was pretty thrilled about not needing to go hunt my own lunch -- I never had to miss a panel or workshop).

One of the coolest things about this conference was the "bootcamp" the day before -- five writers, five manuscripts, one published author, and roughly six hours of straight critiquing (well, except for the snack break -- as noted, food was plentiful).  I was fried afterwards, but it was exciting to meet new writers and utilize my brain picking apart the manuscripts.

I'm a huge fan of critiquing.  Learning about writing is great, but I think some things are only learned through critiquing others and yourself.  Kind of like archaeology -- textbooks are nice, but they make more sense once you've been in the field.

In honor of bootcamp, here's some of my favorite links on how to critique and how to receive critiques: 

The Diplomatic Critiquer
Critiquing the Wild Writer
Handling Revisions

Two of these, you've probably realized, come from -- an online critique group.  I have a writing group and other friends to read novels for me, but I run all my short stories through here (they handle novels, too, but I write a lot of short stories).  As the articles above talk about, sometime I get a critique I feel is very off, or is trying to solve a problem in the wrong way, but just as often I have light bulb moments.  The crowd is full of brilliant people, and having twenty or so brilliant people read something takes a story to a level I couldn't with my own eyes.

Oh, and at the conference, I ended up feeling like a Skype salesperson, even though computer-to-computer, it's free.  If you have writer friends scattered about, Skype makes it easy to still have an almost face-to-face writing group -- this is what my group does, and it's fantastic.