To Critique and be Critiqued: a hard but necessary art

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I was at my local Barnes and Noble last week, sitting with a writing buddy and redoing the opening of my most recent work in progress. I had received some great critique feedback at the NESCBWI conference in April and I’d finally figured out how to make my opening stronger. Beginnings are hard, and mine…just wasn’t working out.

But no biggie; that’s what all those little tappity-tap things on your keyboard are for: fixing the weak bits and making everything stronger.

I’d been sitting on those edits for a week and a half, gathering the courage to jump in and start again. Because if you think editing is hard, critiques are even harder, and I just had to take the time to let this one sink in a little before I was ready to get back to work.

Those who know me, or who read this blog, will know I’m a big fan of critique groups, either in ‘real life’ or online. I know my writing has improved tremendously since I began sharing my work with others, and in turn reading their work in an attempt to share my oh-so-not-very-profound wisdom.

It’s not easy, though. It really isn’t. Critiquing someone else’s work is a delicate business. You want to be encouraging but you also want to help make that person’s work better, stronger. It’s a fine balance. And when you put your work out there for someone else to read, you’re hoping for the same thing: enough encouragement to keep on going, along with enough feedback to know where you’re heading.

Critiquing and, in turn, being critiqued really is a vital part of the process if you intend to grow as a writer. Because if you eventually get published, you’re going to have to deal with editorial notes and endless rewrites. No one is going to look at your work and go: “Oh, it’s perfect just as it is. A precious jewel. Let’s not even copy-edit, let’s throw it straight out there for public consumption.”

Yeah. Not going to happen.

I’m slowly learning the art of taking criticism on the chin and putting it to work for you. Because it stings, I’m not going to lie. It always stings. But then, once the dust settles, you find yourself nodding along slowly. “Ahh, I get it. That makes sense.” And then you sit down and make the changes and gosh darn it if your work isn’t all the better afterwards.

I started out small, following the critiques section at the SFF Chronicles forum. Then I slowly gained a trusted group of online friends who were willing to beta read my work, and let me practice my fledgling critique skills on their own novels. The next step was my real life critique group; learning to say things straight to someone’s face and hear it right back at you. And at the recent conference I mentioned, I took it one step further and booked a couple of critique sessions with literary agents.

You know what? Each of these steps has been a learning curve, a whole new process. And my writing is all the richer for it. It’s hard to write all on your own, without feedback, without guidance. Pick up a book – any book – and you’ll probably find the acknowledgements are full of beta (or early) readers, writing groups, agents and editors. They say it takes a village to raise a child… It certainly takes a whole network of support to write a novel. And you’re the only one who can set that up.

Spotlight on Short Story Writing with Nathan Hystad

Canadian speculative fiction writer Nathan Hystad isn’t afraid to dip his toe in any waters, however deep they may be. His preferred genres are horror, paranormal and science fiction, but he’s been known to write fantasy on occasion, along with a whole line-up of strange and mysterious sub-genres.

Nathan has published stories in four anthologies so far, with another four submissions already accepted into anthologies this year alone. His work has also appeared in a growing list of online magazines. And I haven’t even mentioned his flash fiction yet!

Although Nathan is currently working on a novel, he has focused mainly on writing short stories, which is a whole art form in itself. To squeeze worldbuilding, character background and an entire story arc into anything between 300 and 10,000 words takes a lot of skill, as those struggling to edit their 250,000-word epic fantasies will agree. So I was pleased as anything when Nathan agreed to answer a few questions on short story writing.

Juliana: I’ve tried my hand at a few short stories and they’re surprisingly hard to write. What is it about short stories that appeals to you?

Nathan: When I started writing, I jumped into a novel. I quickly realized I had no idea how to write well, so I started to write shorter pieces to work on the basics. Then I found I had a lot of ideas creeping out of my head and the only way to get them all out was to write. I really like shorts because you can start a world, and have a cool story in a few days, and move on to the next thing. I also like the ability to write so many types of stories and genres. There is something nice about being able to do a complete story in a short time, as opposed to writing a book. I find my writing time is sporadic, so shorts have worked well for me.

Juliana: What do you find is the hardest part in the process?

Nathan: I think the wow factor is the hardest part. It’s also hard to pack a full story into so few words, with no ‘telling’ so you have to show and hint at things properly. Short stories aren’t for everyone, and a lot of readers never buy or think of anthologies. I think they are a great way to see a variety of ideas on any particular subject. So you have to have something special in them, whether it’s a theme, character, or zinger of an ending.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing a few tips for short story writing?

Nathan: Sure. In my stories, I like to start with an intro that sets the mood. Mine are usually a little strange or dark, so I sometimes have a scene introducing the ‘monster’ with some tension. To sell a story, you need to have a good start. Some publishers get so many submissions that regardless of the payoff, the start has to grab them instantly. It’s the old ‘Hit the ground’ running idea we hear about as writers. It is very important. The next scene tends to slow down and builds until the climax. There is nothing better than reading something and knowing something will happen, but not knowing how or when. I also love to do a doozy of a last scene. One thing I am working at doing is focusing on one character for the most part. The stories where I’ve had too many POV’s (Point of views) tend to not be received as well. So keep it simple, and don’t jump around too much. The more stories I write, and the more beta feedback and publisher feedback I get, the better I’m getting at knowing what is being looked for. I adapt quickly and I think it’s because of this that I’ve been able to place a decent amount of stories in a short time.

Juliana: Do you write a story to fit a certain theme, say for an anthology? Or do you write the stories as they come to you and then try to find them a home?

Nathan: I have done both. I started by writing for a few calls and then just kept writing an assortment of stories. There are a lot of places to place a Ghost story, or horror in general. It’s the more specific that are harder to place if they aren’t accepted to the specific submission call. So it varies, and I like that. I guess the more specific ones would be much harder to place if they are rejected, and rejection is a big part of the game. So at this time I haven’t written a lot of stories for the very specific ie. Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada.

Juliana: Leading on from the last question, what are your top sources of inspiration?

Nathan: I loved the serial TV shows growing up. Are You Afraid of the Dark, Goosebumps, when I was a kid…then Outer Limits, and Twilight Zone. Also X-Files, Star Trek, Star Wars…all of those influence the way my brain thinks of ideas. I also read a lot. There is never a time when I don’t have a book on the go, so my imagination is always being spurred on by something new and exciting.

Juliana: You’ve been having a lot of success with publishing your stories. What are your publishing tips? Is it simply a case of perseverance or is there more to it?

Nathan: I think that some of it was luck. Kraxon Magazine gave me my first ‘Yes’ with Central Park in the Dark, and I will forever be thankful for that. He has given a lot of great people’s stories a home on his site. Then Tickety Boo Press took ‘A Haunting Past’. I think getting over the initial hump of getting published was all I needed. With that I got some confidence, and I also have had amazing people at my side. With people like you, Juliana, helping me with Beta reading, and improving my stories, I have been able to have polished pieces that might stand out for that reason. So it is imperative that you send as polished of a piece as possible. Don’t write a first draft, and fire if off into the world. Get it beta read, and take the advice of your colleagues. An outside perspective is very important in making sure your pieces are always improving.

I remember talking with Em (E.J.Tett) about it, and she said that it can be like a snowball. Once you get a yes, the momentum keeps going. That being said, you have to work your butt off to get those yeses. You have to keep writing, subbing, writing, and subbing. Not every story needs to be put out there to the world, but as an author, we know which ones we really want to find a home. Then you can get to know some of the publishers, and maybe next time you can get in with them because they enjoyed your work, and you were nice to work with etc. I have also made a habit of trying to spread myself out there. I think getting stories into multiple publisher’s anthologies is a good way to make contacts and network.

If I can give one piece of advice, it’s this. Never give up. Even though I’ve started to see a lot more acceptances, my spreadsheet of submissions has much more Red (rejection) than Yellow (acceptance). So when you start out and get the rejections, and they were kind enough to give you any criticism, use that to better your story, or your next story. Don’t get upset, and dejected, just keep working at it and keep writing and subbing. It will all eventually come together.

Juliana: Would you mind sharing some of your favorite authors with us?

Nathan: I have always been a huge fan of reading fantasy. I don’t write it often (though I do have a fantasy short being published this year) but I love to read it. Brandon Sanderson, Joe Abercrombie, Robin Hobb, and Stephen King probably top my list. I read a lot of authors and they all bring something different to the table for me, whether it’s me learning from them or just getting lost in their stories.

Juliana: Thank you very much, Nathan, for taking part in the blog’s first Spotlight, and sharing such great advice. And… is it weird that now I really want to read some Lovecraftian Robot Romance set in Canada?

Nathan Hystad can be found blogging on his website, http://nathanhystad.com, and his work is in the anthologies Malevolence: Tales from Beyond the Veil, Whispers from the Past: Fright and Fear, Tales Told in the Dark 4, and Beyond Science Fiction May 2015. Some of his magazine work includes Kraxon and Saturday Night Magazine (for the last, type Nathan Hystad in the search box on the stories page to find his three shorts).

My lawn is full of wild violets…

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So pretty. They’re supposed to be ‘lawn undesirables’ but I love them. My neighbors can keep their perfect, labor-intensive lawns; I’ll take violets in spring any day!

NESCBWI 15 – Think Outside The Crayon Box

A week ago I was rushing around madly, checking I hadn’t forgotten anything, and preparing to drive up to Springfield, MA for the New England Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators’ annual spring conference.

I’d heard great things about this conference; that it was a little smaller than the New York one I attended last year, and a little friendlier, simply because everyone stays on at the hotel and doesn’t scatter around the city. I’d signed up for my first ever agent critique sessions. I had an amazing line-up of workshops to go to. That I was excited was probably the understatement of the year.

And the best part? The best part was that I wasn’t a ‘newbie’ travelling there on my own anymore. I actually knew a few people, either from twitter or from the New York conference. Bestest of all? Almost my entire critique group was going. I had backup. This was huge. I’m not a naturally outgoing person; I can fake it pretty well (I think!), but it’s hard. So having conference buddies was a big relief.

Now the conference has come and gone I can definitely say this was a very pleasant experience. The atmosphere was relaxed, great conversations were had in between and after the panels and workshops, and I didn’t spontaneously combust out of fear at my critique sessions.

Some of my personal programming highlights:

  • Keynote speeches – excellent, all of them, but we’re talking about personal favorites and my own was Jo Knowles, who made everyone cry – happy tears, though;
  • Great editing workshops by Katie Carroll (Post its! Pretty colors! Fun!) and Lea Wait, who gave us a fabulous checklist which I can’t wait to use;
  • Pitchapalooza run by the Book Doctors, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry (dare to get up on the stage and pitch your story in only one minute? No, but I did clap enthusiastically…);
  • The Saturday night diversity panel, featuring among other great writers my critique partner Cindy Rodriguez – great discussion on the subject;
  • Mining Myths, Legends and Fairy Tales to Write Fantasy, with Katie Carroll – very inspiring;
  • Fun workshops on worldbuilding with the best titles of the whole lot: Habitat for Superhumanity with Mike Jung and Killer Robots, Time Portals and Wizards with Carter Hasegawa;
  • And a workshop on writing LGBTQ characters by Ellen Wittlinger, which turned out to be full of great advice for writing any type of character.

But as I’d been warned, the best moments were the in-between ones, the impromptu conversations and the hanging out at night. It was truly a fantastic experience, one I hope to repeat next year. I’ll finish up with a few choice snippets of wisdom from some of the weekend’s workshops, and a reminder: getting out of your shell and facing an event like this hurts less than you would imagine. And guess what? It might even be a ton of fun.

Katie Carroll: Go beyond the Cinderella story when searching for inspiration. Think and read outside your comfort zone, and find what resonates with you by mining your own mind and heart. (on mining myths and fairy tales to write fantasy)

Ellen Wittlinger: ‘Otherness is transferable’, Lee Wind. Once you get to know someone, your prejudices fall away. You can ‘know’ someone through a book, face your prejudices by getting to know a character. (on why you should write LGBTQ characters)

Mike Jung: Once you’ve established the rules for your world, follow them consistently. (on worldbuilding)

Carter Hasegawa: Question everything in your world, push all the limits and take it further. (on strong worldbuilding without holes)

Katie Carroll: With the exception of opening, escalation, climax, and closing, the purpose of a scene is to move the plot forward and/or to develop a character. If it’s not doing either, consider if it needs to be there. (on revision and editing)

Setting up the bookstore
Setting up the bookstore
Critique group R&R
Critique group R&R
View from my hotel room
View from my hotel room

Off To NESCBWI 15!

Tomorrow I’m off to Springfield, MA for the New England SCBWI conference. An entire weekend of workshops, panels, and critique sessions!

This will be my first time at the Springfield conference, but I’ve heard such great things I can’t help but be excited. I’ll report back next week, but in case you’ve never been to a writing conference or convention before, here’s a little piece I wrote a while back on Jo Zebedee’s blog.

In the meantime, since yesterday was Earth Day, please enjoy a photo of the Nepaug Reservoir, not far from home.

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Why Is A Birthday Like A Writing Desk?

(Apologies to Lewis Carroll for mangling his famous riddle, but I couldn’t make the Raven fit!)

I turned 43 a week ago, which is fine by me. I have to admit, I’m loving my forties. My thirties went by in a wonderful, manic rush of house moves and babies and toddlers and general child-rearing delicious craziness. Not that I’m done with child-rearing (who is, ever?), but now, at 10 and 12, they’re young people with their own firm opinions and busy schedules. I have time of my own again and it’s quite frankly wonderful.

I started writing novels the year I turned 40. For over 20 years I had written nothing but poetry (some of it not bad; one was even published) and cringingly awful ‘literary’ diaries (the diaries were really, really bad; I eventually came to my senses and threw them all out).

Writing was a passion, a compulsion, but one I didn’t dare give in to, too busy with jobs and dating and marriage and babies. So I scribbled little bits here, and little bits there, always telling myself that one day, someday, when I was ready, I would write.

I was never ready.

I kept putting it off. There was always a reason. I was too tired, too busy. Then suddenly I turned 40 and I realized I wasn’t really too tired any more. The nights of wakeful babies and toddlers were long gone. There was no reason to rush through my to-do list while the children were in preschool so I could give them my full attention when they got home; they were elementary school kids now, and free time was more about Minecraft than finger painting. It was a light bulb moment. There was no reason I couldn’t do the laundry in the afternoon instead.

There were no more reasons.

I worked out that I could get in a good two hours of work each day before I had to pick up the kids from school at lunchtime (we lived in Brazil, so shorter school hours). In August that year I began writing a middle grade story, and two months later I was typing those magic words ‘The End.’

Now, it was only a short 20,000-word novel, but it had a beginning, a middle, and an end. It was a ‘real’ story. And I was hooked. By December I’d written the second and third in what I had planned out as a 4 book series. It felt amazing!

Since that 40th birthday a lot has happened. I joined a very supportive online SFF forum with a busy writers community. I moved to the USA and joined the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). I went to my first writer’s conference, found a critique group and honed my skills. My word count crept up and up as I moved from those first 20k-word novels to 80k YA novels.

I’ve met other writers since then who had the same sort of light bulb moment. For many it was growing children, for others retirement, or a change in job circumstance. There’s no universal ‘right’ moment, just the moment when it all suddenly makes sense to you, personally.

But eventually, that moment arrives. And it shines.

Light bulb.

Have Book, Will Read #2

It’s been a while since the last reading log, and it’s an icky, sticky, wet and wild sort of day outside, so naturally my mind turns to tea and books. While I can’t really justify curling up to read (I have a translation to work on, deadline looming!), I can certainly spare a moment to at least think about reading. Which is very nearly almost the next best thing. Soooo…

Recent Reads: Odd places and alternate settings. And no magic, for once, or does prophecy count?

First up was Susan Boulton’s debut Oracle, a gaslight fantasy novel. Now, I hadn’t read any gaslight before, so this was an interesting ride. I was immediately smitten by Susan’s prose and her character Claire/Oracle. As Oracle, the character blurts out seemingly random snippets of prophecy at deliciously inappropriate moments, and as Claire she struggles to reclaim her past and come to grips with her two sides.

Oracle centers around prophecy, but not the well-ordered prophecy we often see in fantasy. Instead, the messages are disjointed, confusing, often appearing absolutely useless and bizarre. I found myself thinking, over and over, this is what prophecy should look like. Something strange and alien that makes no immediate sense, not even to the one who spouts it.

The plot had lots of twists and turns and a really neat setting. I’ll certainly be keeping an eye open for future novels by the author.

Another great book I read recently was Elizabeth Fama’s Plus One. I was already acquainted with Elizabeth’s work through her nicely spooky mermaid story Monstrous Beauty, so I was looking forward to reading this one. I’m just sorry it took me so long to get around to it!

Plus One is set within an alternate history where, after the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918, the USA was divided between night dwellers (called Smudges) and day dwellers (Rays). The setting is fabulous, and this fast-paced thriller is also a beautiful love story.

Main character Soleil Le Coeur is feisty and driven, and the flashbacks woven into the plot do a great job of coloring in her character. It was a quick read (mostly because I couldn’t put it down!) and it’s a pretty accessible YA novel; my preteen is currently devouring it, entranced.

If you want a taste of the worldbuilding, you can read the prequel short story Noma Girl on Tor.com.

Now Reading: I finally got around to Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire, which I mentioned in my last book log. Life and all that jazz means that lately my reading has been patchy at best, and all mixed up and back to front. However, I’m really glad that I’m finally reading the sequel to The Emperor’s Blades.

So far, so good; Brian does a great job of easing readers back into his world and reintroducing characters and settings without spelling things out too much. I really like the direction that Adare’s arc is taking her, and I’d missed reading about Valyn’s Kettral wing (there is nothing more awesome than giant battle birds!), although I think Kaden is still my favorite character. Still waters.

I think the beauty of Brian’s work lies in his characters. Yes, his worldbuilding is lovely and highly detailed. But it’s through the three very different siblings – different in personality as well as made different by the hands life has dealt them – that he leads us along the crisscrossing paths of his plot. And this threefold story strand works very nicely indeed.

To Read: Too many words, not enough hours of the day…

My current book pile is getting a little ridiculous. I’m not even talking about the to-read list I keep on my phone. I’m talking about actual physical books sitting on my coffee table. Or in my kindle.

First on the list is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which I’ve heard so much about. Ann gets first dibs on the reading front because this one’s a library book so reasons.

(An aside: much as I’d love to support every single author out there by buying their books, I just can’t afford to. I do buy a lot, more than I should, really. But I’m lucky to have a great library system I can dip into at the same time.)

Anyway, once I’m done with that, next on my list is Peter V. Brett’s The Skull Throne. I read all of his Demon Cycle books pretty much as soon as they came out, so I almost can’t believe I haven’t so much as peeked in this one yet! But that’s okay; I shall continue to savor the anticipation as I stare at the great cover with Renna on it. I like Renna, and I’m so glad she gets a little more of the spotlight this time.

Third on my list (told you it was a pile!) is Max Gladstone’s Three Parts Dead, which I picked up at Boskone in February and haven’t had a chance to even open yet. His world sounds really interesting and this looks like one I’m going to enjoy.

Last up (and cheating, really, because it’s a three-fer) is Veronica Roth‘s Divergent trilogy. My daughter (the same ten-year-old who’s reading Plus One) read the novels and loved them so much she wants to share them with me. Which is pretty darn cool. So I promised her I’d read them so we can talk about the books. Kind of like a mother-daughter book club.

My kid rocks.

Happy Sunday

It’s Sunday. The sun is shining, and up here in the wilds of suburban Connecticut it finally looks like spring. Things are stirring in the earth – stirring, I tell you! And, after several weeks where I could think of nothing but the characters from my most recently completed novel, I have new things stirring in my brain.

I had a long blog post on perseverance planned for today, but you know what? It’s Sunday and the sun is shining. Go enjoy the day, take a long walk or maybe write some new words. Perseverance will still be here tomorrow.

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