Tuesday, January 19, 2010

How Soon Do You Start Critiques?

I've been workshopping a new novel, one that has less than 20,000 words so far. I haven't let so many people see my words so early before. I always thought that I needed to get a story into decent shape before people could have something solid to critique. However, now I realize that showing an early draft to critique partners can help you create that shape.

I sent my first two chapters for critique last December, and I asked the group to focus on character, not plot. I had an idea of how the plot would reveal itself, but at I wanted to know if my characters were compelling. And my workshop told me who they liked and who they didn't. What they were curious to know about each character's background and what details they didn't need to get weighed down in.

At the end of the critique, the group speculated about where the story was going and what could happen next. A few folks picked out the plot path I was heading on, but what was more interesting to me was hearing new possibilities of what could happen to these characters that I'd never dreamed of. They gave me some potential directions to investigate.

I'd been hesitant to toss pages out for critique so early before, but now I'm going to get early stuff out there sooner. And in my notes I submitted with my pages, I asked the group to focus on a certain aspect (character) that I needed the most help with, and the group kindly obliged.

Once you have a full first draft, it might be harder to change direction and press that delete key so often. It has been for me at times. But now that I'm sharing these early pages, I feel like making changes won't be as gut-wrenching because I'm not tossing away so much time and effort.

What have your experiences been with getting critiques at various stages in your drafting process?

Friday, January 15, 2010

Homer Simpson & Character Development

I was watching The Simpsons Twentieth Anniversary Special this weekend, and a quote by creator Matt Groening struck me as a tip to apply to creative writing. If you're not familiar with Homer Simpson, he's kind of a doofus. He's lazy and terrible at his job. He often shirks parental responsibility. He wastes the family's money on crazy schemes. He spends too much time at the bar and often forgets the name of his youngest child.

But, viewers love him. At the end of the special, they addressed the question of why, when Homer does so many awful and destructive things, does everyone love him? Matt said that someone suggested that viewers love Homer because Marge (his wife) loves Homer. Well, isn't that sweet?

But, Matt contradicted this assertion. He said that he believes that viewers love Homer because Homer loves Marge. And that, my friends, is how you offer your audience a well-rounded character. If you know The Simpsons, you also know that Homer and Marge are crazy in love. When Homer gets in a jam and Marge gets mad at him, Homer makes his sad, Homer whimper and realizes he's been a doofus. And he feels bad about it and know he's disappointed Marge.

If Homer went through all his hijinks not caring about his consequences, he wouldn't be so appealing to an audience. But because he balances out his screwballness with sincerity, because he loves his wife and hates letting her down, he's likeable. He's relatable.

And when Homer and Marge walk off into the sunset together, you know he's truly in love. And that makes for a character we all can root for.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Creating Trouble for Your Characters

I love my story's characters. Even the mean ones. I want the very best for them, and I want to see all their hopes and dreams come true. And with fiction, this is very easy to do.

Lose your job? Hey, how about you pop by the 7-11 and I'll make you buy a lottery ticket on a whim. I'll even make it a winner. Striking out on the dating dance floor? Well, I can whip up a man who meets all your requirements. Want to bop around Europe? Wouldn't you know it, the value of the Euro just plummeted and I can get you there for a song.

Problem is, all these easy outs don't make for interesting writing. It's clear that as an author you'll have a more complex relationship with your characters than anyone who reads about them. But, to create compelling writing, you really have to care more about your readers than your characters.

Because creating trouble for your characters is what your readers are thirsting for. They want to see the very worst of your characters. They want to read about people who are down on their luck. Stuck between a rock and a bigger rock. Choosing between crappy option A and crappier option B. It's what keeps the reader turning the pages, to find out how will Billy get out of this mess?

And without the readers engaged enough to keep turning the pages, those characters don't get a chance to tell their story. So fall in love with your characters, sure. But love your readers more.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Short Story Publication: In Amsterdam

I'm thrilled to announce that my short story "In Amsterdam" will be included in the Genre Wars Anthology. The great folks over at The Literary Lab put this baby together. Look at the beautiful cover!

Proceeds from the anthology go to a non-profit organization that supports writers. Please hop on over to their site and vote for an organization!

I started this story when I was in Amsterdam, and blogged about it in this post. Here's a picture of me writing those first few sentences!

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Just Keep Showing Up

Well hello blogosphere! I hope you had a very nice holiday season and are settling into 2010 nicely. Mostly, I hope that wherever you are it's warmer than it is here in Chicago (current temperature: 14 degrees!). Now, let's chat more about writing, shall we?

One day in early December when I checked in at the gym, the general manager was working the front desk instead of the usual silent, sleepy employee who barely mumbles a hello. It was one of those days where I was too tired to even go to the gym, but I went anyway because I know that's when I need it most. I could tell the manager wanted to chat, but I just wanted to get my card swiped and get on with the workout.

But the manager beamed at me with a shiny smile as he slid my card through the reader and said, "Hi! What's your holiday workout goal?" He pointed to the wall behind me, that was plastered with small sheets of white paper where other members had posted their holiday workout goals.

I held my hand out for my card, not wanting to get roped into his game, but his smile worked its magic on me. So I said what instantly popped into my mind: "Just keep showing up."

"That sounds like a great goal!" the manager said and slapped down a piece of paper and pen for me to jot it down. And I was sucked in. It was a great goal, I decided.

I don't really care what kind of workout I do when I go to the gym, I just count it as a win that I even show up. I know that once I get to the gym, or step outside with my running shoes on and iPod in my ears, exercise is going to happen. That first step of showing up is more than half the battle.

And perhaps writing is the same way. If I sit down in front of my computer, and instead of going to Facebook or Google News or Twitter, I open the Word document that contains my current WIP, writing is going to happen. Some days I'll get in a great scene or craft some fantastic metaphors. Some days I'll write just a page or two that's way too heavy on dialogue.

But I've written words, and writing some words is closer to a book than writing no words. And the first step in all that, where I need to start each and every day, is to just keep showing up.