Writing, Reading, and Reading Out Loud

The English front office is weird today. I’m…the only one here. Which I did not expect, and which makes me wonder if I should get trained in how to contact all these folks if there is no one here.

We interview our last job candidate today. I hope the rest of the committee turns up. I baptized myself with about a third of this morning’s latte, so at least I’ll smell like Grandma’s kitchen for the interview.


Write-a-thon: Why yes, I have finished chapter 5. Yes, that is four days earlier than planned, thank you. So, right now, I’m reading through the first five chapters and ramping up the description factor. Sunday begins chapter six. So far, on schedule.

The Writing Process: I think I’ve covered what I do for revision, but I haven’t talked about proof reading. I do have to confess that I am the worst proofreader of my own stuff in the world, and I often default to good friends who are awesome proofreaders (my friend Lisa can spot a misspelled word from across a crowded room). It’s important, no matter how lazy, and/or type A you are, to put the work down for a couple of days and look over spelling, punctuation, and spacing. Don’t be like Grandma Cath. Do this carefully. It’s important.


Because I’ve been focusing on writing in my spare time, I’m not doing any panels. However, I am doing a reading. That would be the Broad Universe Rapid Fire Reading with me and Kathy Sullivan, and it would be Friday from 3:30-4:30 upstairs in that literary place it always is. I will be reading the Augean Stables bit from Hulk Hercules, O-Taga-San, and if there’s still time, the Hephaubot scene from HH.

I like reading at conventions. I’ll be doing it next week again at Readercon. I think I might do a post on how to ramp that up, eventually.

One more thing to post for today, and then I’ll move on.



Update for those following the write-a-thon: My current goal is rewriting a chapter a week. Last night I breezed through a great deal of chapter 5. I have one more scene to add in tonight, and then I can move forward. That was faster than expected.

I’d like to talk about one more aspect of revision before I let that topic go, and that’s rhythm. How many of you take the time to read your work aloud after you’ve completed the basic story? I think it’s a very important step in making sure that your writing sounds good and that you don’t have those evil sentences that begin and end with the same words. If you like the way words sound, I think it’s almost indispensable.

How do you handle the flow of your sentences?


Character Background

Many authors advocate for working with their characters before they begin to plot their story. Revealing information about the characters is helpful with main plot and subplot. A standard in the writing world is a heuristic that asks you all sorts of questions about the character. They are as numerous as books on writing. A quick Internet search reveals a character profile, as well as a good column from The Lazy Scholar.

In the article, LS suggests that not only are character profiles a good way to get started, and not only are they are a great resource when you’re slogging through the middle, but that you can also employ them at the rewrite stage. It’s an excellent continuity check, as well as a measure of consistency of actions.

I don’t use them too much. I could see the need in a more complicated story. What I often do is write about my characters when an issue about their past is something I want to know. This piece won’t usually make it into the story, but, like the zero draft, this is my way of figuring out who they are, to place them in situations and see what happens, or have them tell me stories about where they’ve been and what’s important to them. These pieces often don’t have plot, but they are very helpful to me because they reveal motivations, emotions, and priorities.

How do you work with your characters? How do you revise them when needed? Do you ever decide to cut them? How do you do that?


The Outline: Friend or Prohibitive Foe?

Let’s talk about outlines for a moment. I used to be outline phobic. I had the misconception that outlines locked me into plans I couldn’t necessarily follow through on. Now, I use outlines in a whole ‘nother way.

Whatever a writer uses to get them through the story is a useful writing technique. Notice how I’m talking about ending the story. Most stories start promising, hit some mud in the middle, and die an ignoble death in the tar pits of fiction. (Some resurface as fossils. Others become word petroleum. Yes, it is true.) We have to persevere and wade through the swampy middle to get to the end. Remember, revision is our friend. We can clean and sharpen.

So (rolls up sleeves) the writer has a first draft. The writer has asked questions, received feedback, and now it’s time to revise.

These days, the first thing I’m likely to do is OUTLINE my story. I go through it, chapter by chapter, scene by scene, and look at the action. There are many ways to do this, some low, some high tech.

1. Recipe cards. After you’ve written the main actions on the card, you can divide them up, shuffle them around, and throw some cards away. You can even notice gaps where you need connections.

2. The spreadsheet. Some people like scenes all in one document.

3. Scrivener (not a paid endorsement). Scrivener is for Macs (similar software is out there for pc). With Scrivener, you can shuffle hi-tech postcards, or you can do what I do, which is pop whole scenes in and out of chapters. I also keep a file for scenes I trim, just in case I decide to throw them back into the story, or reference them later.

I use the outline mainly for plotting. My stories center on character and action. Sometimes I’ll do an outline for a character story arc and write that straight through. If I do several of these, I have a master story outline of several character story arcs. I do have to build interactions among these, and you guessed it, I figure out the best places to do that among the outline.

I am, in the case of the first draft, what they call in the trade, a pantser. As I revise, I am definitely more of a planner, and all the way through, I am intuitive about what feels and sounds right for my characters.

Should we talk about how to get to know your characters? Probably. That’s another topic.

I’d also love to hear how you organize your plot and novel structure as you revise.


Giving Good Crit

Last entry, we talked about being active when you received crit. Now, how can you get good karma points as a reader?

I actually do a lecture on this with my students, because we have to do some peer edit training at the beginning of the semester. There are a couple of pitfalls that peer editors don’t avoid.

“Your paper is good. I wouldn’t change a thing.” There are two reasons that I see this happen in the classroom: 1. The student doesn’t know enough about writing to make any suggestions, and sees the writing as so much better than something they can do that they really believe the paper is unchangeable. 2. The student doesn’t want to take the time to crit the paper.

In theory, in a writing group, number 2 isn’t going to be our option. If it is, get out of that writing group! Number 1 can be a problem, which is why it’s important to be in with a group of your peers. There are ways to teach people about writing so they can help each other crit. I usually model anonymous student papers with the class. Perhaps a way to get on the same page is to critique a story that isn’t from one of the writers in the group, and give people some common ground.

What about those rare instances where a paper/story/novel really is good? It *can* happen. My suggestions at this time are for complimenting readers to substantiate what the writer is doing well by telling them the specifics that work, if no other reason that you don’t want a writer accidentally get rid of good stuff when they inevitably do some tweaking.

The other pitfall? When I give the speech about being too nice, perhaps the pendulum swings the other way.

“This paper sucks.”

Continue reading “Giving Good Crit”

Getting Good Crit

Two weeks out from the end of the summer semester. Mamma wants some down time! I guess I should have figured six weeks in which you taught a class, oriented a new group of students, presented to the board, added a level on another campus, and interviewed and hired for a new teaching position would be a little busy, huh? Didn’t even see that coming.


All right, world. I *think* that’s the last of the Hercules books out to kind people who helped me out with the book. I think next up I need to be thinking about a contest. Here. With amazing Morty Moose tokens. And mythology stuff. Look for something soon. In July. When the semester is over.


Before I move on to the next exciting installment in my series of writing process, you need to take a look at these two links:

Maggie Stiefvater Revises.

Maurissa Guibord on the qualities of a good critique group.


All right. So you’ve got this manuscript in your hands. What do you do with the darned thing? That’s a question if you’re both a writer and a reader.

Let’s start with the writer then. I know that, as you wipe your brow from the concerted effort of writing your work, that you think your job is over. Guess again, writer san (sorry. Bryon’s been building a tori in the garage, and he just had me out to see it) You must continue to be active. There is no passive in writing.

Remember our detachment from yesterday? This is your place to ask questions of your readers. Look over your story. Pin down any issues you might have with:

1. Plot and story
2. Characters
3. Pacing
4. Description
5. Wordiness

I could do the numbering thing all day.

Continue reading “Getting Good Crit”

Critique: Part 1–The Need To and the How To

Once a writer has a first draft, this is the point where things get interesting.

For many writers, the idea of showing drafted work to someone initially is very hard. I tell my students from day one that they have to get over that. The benefits of getting feedback on any piece of writing far outweigh the negatives. I know that creative writing can feel very personal, and a bad feedback session makes a writer feel small. The best advice I can give you is this:


When you are drafting, you want to care. A lot. You want to have fun and play. You want to explore. When you show your draft to other people, you have to put the draft outside of you. Outside of your ego. Outside of your emotions. What’s being examined are the words on the page, not you or your writing process, or your multiple hours (years? decades?) of work.

Someone is doing you a favor by looking your work over for you. They deserve a kind and courteous response from you for doing so. Even if you don’t agree with a blessed word they say.

I know that all peer editors are not created equal. Writers want to find someone that will give both positive feedback and constructive criticism. If a critique is only negative, and not helpful, I doubt that it’s helpful to you as a writer to go back to that person for a reading in the future. Similarly, someone who strokes the writer’s ego, but doesn’t substantiate that praise, or doesn’t give you anything to chew on as revisions occur, might not be the best person to read your work.

Another factor to consider when asking someone to critique is getting a writer at the skill level as you are currently. A more experienced writer can teach, but really can’t give a less experienced writer the same kind of feedback as a peer can. I think you need both kinds of feedback.

Writing is viewed as a solitary occupation. Where can you, writing in Cherokee Scream, Texas (population 614) find someone to read your work that knows something about writing? Glad you asked.

Not all of these methods have proven successful for everyone, but they have for someone, so I’m listing them here.

Continue reading “Critique: Part 1–The Need To and the How To”

First Drafting

On Saturday, I posted about zero drafting. Logically, the next thing to talk about would be the actual first drafting.

Conventional wisdom dictates that you write the first draft. It may seem odd to you that we have to even say that, but there are writers out there who don’t write. I doubt very much that they will ever be published writers if they don’t write, but you know these folks. I’m not sure what causes this disconnect of ideas to words on the page, but in my experience with students, the issue can be everything in the spectrum between procrastination and perfection. Anyway, if we want to write a book, we do have to write things down.

I know I can find all sorts of things to do to prevent myself from writing. In creative endeavor, it is often the case that we delay. A writer on limited time, like one of my students, or me, full-time job writer, has to make an effort to stop waxing the cat. I can fritter my writing time away, and there’s not necessarily a guarantee that I’ll have that time again.

One thing I suggest to my students, and that I do is make an appointment with my writing. I block off a certain amount of time to write and try to keep that sacred appointment. This has taken me from having no time to write to becoming a submitting author. Prioritize. You do have time to write. Maybe not every day. Maybe not as often as you want. The matter is far from hopeless if you plan and prioritize.

Many would be writers withdraw from the arena when they begin to examine the prose they write when they do finally get their fingers on the keys. Lots of my students edit their work too soon, and they comb over the introduction, or throw multiple pieces of paper away because they expect their words to shine gloriously on the page. It’s at this point we pull out the adage that there are no good writers, only good re-writers.

As a zero drafter, my work is often at several stages at one time. However, my goal is to get through a complete telling of the action of the plot. My goal is to get to the end of the story, no matter how ugly that story’s shape is in the first draft. A mistake many writers make is becoming too worried about the ugliness early on.

That first draft is not the time to become too critical. I do go back to the beginning and write forward several times as I progress toward that first draft, but only when I find the logical center no longer holds for my plot arc. Some writers find it more useful to make notes, such as “From here on out, Character X is a woman”. Whatever you do, expect the draft to be ugly, to have incongruity, to sound awful.

Make your peace with that. It’s okay. This is your time to play and let the magic happen.

On the other hand, how do you know when it’s time to abandon a project? If there’s no excitement or creative spark, maybe it’s not the best project for you. And if you’re not under a deadline, it’s possible. I’m not the best writer to talk about what you have to do if a book you’ve proposed isn’t sparking, and I’d love to hear what people suggest under those circumstances.

Let’s pretend, then, we have an ugly draft, full of error and maudlin sentences. Yay, us. We wrote a book, however ungainly it is. The important thing is not to stop here. Next stop, revision.


Planning: The Zero Draft

There is one great thing about this darned troll story–it has caused me to think about my writing process. I’m also teaching Composition One for the last time this summer, and that’s caused me to think about what I’m telling my students about composing. I’ve been getting really reflective.

One of the things I do that is useful to me is write a zero draft. These exploratory excursions into a story help me form my characters, plots, and settings. Many people do this planning as they outline and work on their characters. I find that I prefer the improv approach, at least initially.

What I’m interested in doing is seeing how characters interact and bounce off one another. I’m interested in their motivations and relationships. I am also interested in sketching settings and basic plot. I’ll write kaboodles of these words.

I’d say I throw 80 percent of this away at the beginning. Later, as I progress through the draft, I’ll throw away less and less.

Does this sound wasteful to you? If you’re quantifiable (like being certifiable, only with numbers), you may well think so. Why write words you don’t intend to keep, at least in some form?

The zero draft is my answer to the outline. I’m pretty sure that the ideas I form during the zero draft are the ones that form my real first draft of a scene, the one I’m going to keep. The first scene of the troll story was a batch of faeries stealing the princess away. The only piece of that that stayed was the main idea. Grant started life as a kid, rather than a teen. There was originally a father, rather than a sister, tracking the baby down. Quartz had a much larger role in the first two drafts.

The zero draft gives me ideas. I’ll find that I don’t like something, but even as I’m writing it, I’ll have the idea that I really want to use. I’ll write the new scene, the new first draft which wouldn’t have happened without the zero draft.

From the first scenes that feel right to me, I’ll begin to take some time to plan. The planning process, the minimal outlining I do also changes often as old scenes are replaced by better ideas.

At a given time during the writing of a novel, I will have zero draft scenes. Somewhere in my brain, ideas are being sifted, discarded, and created. I don’t think this is uncommon for writers.

The zero draft also makes me a shameless writer. I’ll write tons of horrible crap. From that fertilizer, I will grow something passable, a first draft. As I move through the revision of the first draft, we begin the zero draft process with new scenes.

It’s important for me to also get people to look at the crap. It’s not that I think the book is ready for prime time. I want to see if the ideas I like float with other people as well. It helps me make some sifting choices.

On the whole, then, I find the zero draft helpful to me. I understand Cherie Priest also writes a zero draft, although I don’t know if her zero draft is similar to mine.

Writing handbooks talk about the zero draft as a perfectly valid way to plan, right up there with clustering, outlining, and listing. How do you get yourself started? Have you identified your planning process yet? If you’ve yet to find a way of planning that works for you, you might give this one a try, especially if you have a high tolerance for ambiguity, and you don’t mind throwing some things away.