September 19, 2017

A Lesson In Writers' Etiquette

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles
"I think you and I got off on the wrong foot."

I looked up in surprise at the newest member of our writing group. "Why is that?"

"You said certain things weren't clear, so, I brought you a copy." He handed me a manuscript bound in one of those clear plastic covers high school students use to dress up their reports.

I glanced at it and looked back at him. After a confused moment, I asked, "Do you want me to edit it?"

He looked surprised. "No. I want you to read it, so you'll understand where it's going. It's only thirty pages."  He shuffled his feet when I didn't say anthing. "Look if you're not willing to give me a chance, others in this group asked if it was finished. I'll give it to one of them."

The meeting was about to start, so I set it aside, unsure how to respond. After the meeting, he left before I could talk to him again.

The next day, I received an enraged email from this same member chastising me for asking if he wanted me to edit his story. He insisted I give the copy back, which I had planned to do.

Unfortunately, he didn't understand the etiquette of working with other writers.

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Etiquette Between Writers

This new member, I'll call him George for simplicity, arrived at his first meeting prepared to read. First-time visitors don't usually read, but he was a paid up member, so I allowed it.

George sat to my right, so when he finished, it fell to me to give the first response. I told him I liked his concept and voice, which I did. I don't recall much of his story now, but it had some speculative fiction elements in it, so it fell in my line of interest.

I suggested he scrap the first pages because nothing was happening in them. He objected, so I tried to explain. He was new, so I didn't say much else. The feedback he received from the rest of the group echoed mine. We liked his concept, but he started the story in the wrong spot.

One or two people asked him if he'd finished the manuscript. He had. Throughout the feedback section, he kept telling us, the answers to the issues we identified would be cleared up in a few pages. Everyone told him to drop the first few pages and get to the story.

From this, George decided I hated him and his writing. No one else, just me. An unfortunate misunderstanding, probably based on the fact that I went first and others reiterated my thoughts.

I liked George's writing voice and his concept, but our group provides constructive feedback to help a writer improve. I followed our process of giving feedback: start with something positive, his concept, and move on to areas of improvement, the story's beginning.

When George's angry email showed up in my inbox, I took my time responding. New writers struggle with their first feedback. I try to be helpful when I give it. I explained this to him as gently as I could. Then I addressed his request for me to read the entire manuscript.

The Problem With George's Request

What was wrong with George's request? His timing mostly. We'd met for the first time two weeks earlier. I had many obligations--work, family, the writing group, my own writing. It's inappropriate to ask a writer you've just met to read your manuscript. It's presumptuous to think this writer has time to read your manuscript in order to disprove their feedback.

When I wrote back to George, I explained that establishing a critique partner took time. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. Since we didn't have a relationship, yet, it made sense to think he might want me to edit his work.

Establishing Critique Partners

Most writers choose critique partners from writers they know well and respect. Usually, they have talked about their writing outside of a meeting and established an understanding of what they want from each other. The door swings both ways. It you ask someone to critique your work, they will want your feedback on their own writing. Or you pay them or compensate them in some way.

What about the people who asked if he'd finished the manuscript?

Our members often ask new members this question. It does not mean they are dying to read your work. The question serves several purposes:
  • It hints at your dedication and experience.
  • It tells us what kind of feedback you need. First-time writers often keep re-working the same pages over and over if we don't advise them to keep writing the story, to not get stuck at this one point. 
  • It lets us know how much we can ask about the developing story.
When our members asked if he'd finished the manuscript, they weren't asking to read it. In fact, this isn't done either. You don't ask a writer you've just met if you can read their entire manuscript. Agents and editors can ask this, but other writers shouldn't and won't.

The Point

Although I tried to explain, George chose to not return to our group. This happens. Some people aren't prepared for true feedback, even when it's given with kindness and respect. If you want to improve your writing you have to develop a thick skin for feedback. Listen to it, consider it, decide what to do with it. It's ok to ask someone why they said or thought something about your work. It's ok to ignore their feedback. It's not ok to try to prove your point by asking them to read the entire piece. At least not until you know them better.

September 11, 2017

Hurricane Emergency Kits: What Books Would You Include?

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Over the past week, I've seen several posts and articles focused on hurricane emergency kits, but not one mentioned items to help pass the time such as books and games. This came to my attention as several of my writer friends on Facebook began to ask the question:

What books would you suggest for waiting out a hurricane?

This question prompted quite a list of suggestions, a TBR (to be read) list that no one can conquer in a lifetime.

Here's my list in no particular order:

Fantasy Genres
Faith Hunter:  Jane Yellowrock series and Soulwood series
Shannon Mayer: Rylee Adamson series and Elementals series
CE Murphy: The Walker Papers series and The Worldwalker Duology
Patricia McKillip: anything
DB Jackson/David Coe: Anything
Anne Bishop: The Others series
Gail Carriger: anything

Other Fiction
Barbara Claypole White: anything
Donna Gillespie, The Lightbearer (my favorite, all-time book), historical fiction
Donna Andrews:  Meg Lanslow Mysteries
Barbara Kingsolver:  The Poisonwood Bible
Sue Monk Kidd:  The Mermaid Chair and The Secret Life of Bees
Sarah Addison Allen: anything (this falls in the fiction categories but probably fits magical realism better)
Rita Mae Brown:  Mrs. Murphy Mysteries
Fiona Buckley:  Ursula Blanchard Mysteries set in Elizabeth I's court
Pamela Kaufman: The Book of Eleanor: A Novel of Eleanor of Aquitaine
Anne Barnhill:  Queen Elizabeth's Daughter: A Novel of of Elizabeth I 

For kids:
J K Rowling: Harry Potter
C S Lewis: The Chronicles of Narnia
E B White: Charlotte's Web
Frances Hodgson Burnett: The Secret Garden
Rick Riordan: Percy Jackson and the Olympian Series
A. A. Milne:  Winnie the Pooh

Hurricane season doesn't end until November 30, so, as much as I hate to consider this, it's far from over.

The list above is a drop in the bucket of what I would recommend. What about you? Please add your recommendations in the comments but do not plug your own books. This isn't about marketing yourself.

September 5, 2017

Pushing Your Characters to Extreme Limits

I read a book yesterday where the main character pushed beyond the limits of her body, took it to the extreme edge, hobbled on in severe pain with a high fever, no food, and no rest. I enjoyed the story but found  myself thinking, "Come on. Do you seriously expect me to believe this?"

Popular fiction often pushes its characters beyond the boundaries of endurance, but I have to wonder if I'm alone. Am I the only one who experiences a moment of doubt or considers these extremes ridiculous?

Why do we read, or write, these stories?

We don't like to read about normal people.

People want to relate to the character, but they want the character to be the best version of them. An ideal that no one can measure up to. We love hearing about someone who pushes on in the face of adversity.

I read a lot.  (Anyone who writes should read a lot, especially in the genre you write, by the way.) Sometimes, I want to roll my eyes. Sometimes, I put the book down. Sometimes, I accept it and read on because I like the story or character.

How far can the writer push the character?

That's a hard question to ask. Many fictional heroes don't sleep, don't eat, don't deal with injuries and keep on going. In the fantasy genre, this happens a lot with supernaturals. It's part of their powers to be stronger than mere humans. But fantasy isn't the only genre depicting characters pushing beyond the limits of endurance.  Historical novels, mysteries, and thrillers bend the rules, too.

Sometimes I go with it, but I have to ask how many times can a character suffer a serious injury, one that requires surgery, and decline the surgery, slap a bandage on it and push on? Worse yet, they awaken after a serious injury, their caretaker instructs them to rest, but they ignore the doctor's admonition and hop up ready to fight.

I've had surgery. You don't pop from the table and run around like a healthy person. Even if you do feel pretty good after surgery, you suffer the consequences of further injury if you don't rest and recuperate. Yet, book after book shows the hero pushing through, ignoring the stitches, the sprained ankle, the weakness of their injuries.

Then there are the characters who push on for days with no sleep. They want sleep, they think about sleep, but they don't have time to do it. We have those nights when sleep evades us. The next day isn't easy. Imagine you didn't sleep for three days, or you only got a thirty minute nap in the span of several days. Caffeine might help, but at some point, you crash. Your body craves sleep. To ignore it is hazardous to your health and to the lives of others.

What about adrenaline?

Writers use adrenaline as the source of these amazing feats. The body releases adrenaline into the blood stream in response to stress. It pours into our blood and gives us the fight or flight impulse. Of course, characters in stories chooses the fight tactic. If they choose flight, we're disappointed in them. They've let us down. I get it. It's exciting. It's interesting. It hooks the reader, but I'm afraid we've gone a bit too far with our use of adrenaline to sustain a character for long periods of time.

Can we perform amazing feats due to adrenaline? Normal people have used superhuman strength to lift a car off of a loved one. Adrenaline provided the ability. Someone, against all odds, survives a horrific accident in the wild and walks out with severe injuries. Sometimes, the person cut off a limb or managed to use a tree branch to secure a broken leg.

This is the will to live boosted by adrenaline.

Without adrenaline and the will to live, these acts fall into the realm of impossible. It can happen, but it doesn't happen every day, and a person can't sustain it for long stretches of time. That burst of energy from adrenaline is fleeting.

A lot of adrenaline pouring into your blood stream for an extended period of time is a bad thing. People with too much adrenaline in the blood stream suffer from insomnia, extreme nervousness, heart problems, dangerous blood pressure levels, and other severe illnesses. Not exactly what our heroes depict is it?

It's just not possible.

What do you think?

Have you read a story like this and accepted the extremes? Why or why not?