There's a certain satisfaction to finishing a critique

A couple weeks ago I was in the middle of critiquing a 90K story for a group on Scribophile dedicated to getting entire novels critiqued. Because that's a huge time commitment and it takes some organization and reciprocity to get done. I don't having anything ready for them to read but I figured I had some time and should continue to be a member in good standing for when I do have a novella or novel. Because there is nothing I want to do less than critique a novel while I'm in full revision mode for my own stuff. 

So, 90K words (about 35 chapters, as Scribophile breaks things into chapters) in the modern fantasy genre. Magic, world building, other species, all sorts of good stuff.

I got through 15 chapters, having told the author that as a reader, I would have stopped after chapter ten. It was like slamming my head against a wall of my personal pet peeves and piques in writing.

With much trepidation, I contacted the group leader, saying I just couldn't do this. That trying to force myself through this particular story would mean that I would blow the group's deadline by weeks. I was worried because I felt like I was being a pain in the butt – the previous time I'd critiqued for this group, I'd had to contact the same group leader and say that I was going to miss the deadline. That the book I was critiquing that time had so many issues that I could only force myself to critique a chapter a day, or so. (Look, a story where the main character is female and the surrounding characters consist of two women and one dude should really pass the Bechdel-Wallace test before chapter twenty [if then], okay?) Two times stepping up to the plate and both times I have to go to the group leader and say I can't do this. Blerg. I mean, at least I said 'what can I do to fulfill my obligations to the group?' 

But the group leader was really awesome. Totally happy to let me switch to a different (shorter) story and work on the latest deadline (today actually), not the original May 16th one.

I think I should let them pick what I'll critique from now on. When I choose, I get a sequel. Either an offensive portrayal of women or an aggressively mediocre, the emotions/motivations aren't making sense sequel.

When group leader chooses, I get a 45K word fun, intriguing world-building, adventure story in the style of a boy's adventure from the 19th or early 20th century.

Which is not to say I was great about holding to my self-calculated minimum of 2 chapters a day, in order to make the deadline. But I buckled down this weekend and spent most of Saturday and all of Sunday morning alternating between critiquing two chapters in a go and playing some 2048 to clear my mind.

I am so happy to have finished. Including the two chapters posted on Friday that I didn't know about until late Sunday morning! It's not quite the same feeling as putting the last word down on a first draft. But there is definitely that element of 'whee! I finished a project!' to it. The satisfaction of (hopefully) helping someone make their writing better. Of checking something off the mental to-do list. Of having fulfilled my word. I've kinda got a thing about following through on my word.

One of the nice/frustrating (nicely frustrating?) things about this particular story was occasionally I'd read through a chapter and think it was excellent as is, nothing to say critique-wise. I always found enough suggestions I could make to give it another polish on a second read-through, but dang if that wasn't the best problem to have.

So! Go, give this story a read through – the author deserves your time:

The Boy who Fell Sideways

Pet Peeves in Writing and Critiquing

When I'm copy editing, I know that I've got a couple things I am going to hunt for – namely making sure all the Oxford commas are in place (I know, I know, that's a style choice, not grammar) and using em-dashes instead of hyphens where appropriate.

When it comes to critiquing (on Scribophile) / developmental editing, I find that there are a couple of things that can really push my buttons – jaw dropped, plaintive cries, muttering 'why? just... no. why?', expansive, angry gestures at the screen, occasionally putting my head down on the table to just stop looking at the screen, etc.. Buttons. Pushed. What can I say? Acting out my emotions makes me feel better.

This time it was a combination of the idiot ball with something that didn't make sense emotionally in a combat scene. Now one person's idiot ball is another person's 'that character is already characterized as incompetent'. And reasonable people can disagree on whether something was stupid to do. 

But argh!! Secondary characters don't switch off and stand in the background while your main character has a physical fight with secondary character's relative. Especially a relative they've been shown on screen to have a relationship with. The secondary character should be doing something – scream at either combatant, wade in on one side or the other, something.

Look. Characters who have been stated to be competent enough to survive 30 years of being actively hunted by a big bad, 1) don't physically knock out characters they aren't trying to kill by hitting them over the head with a lamp, 2) do not fail to restrain knocked-out characters in any way (handcuff, rope, something) when they want to talk to them later, and 3) walk into another room with no line of sight on the knocked out character in order to perform research for hours on end. It's just bad tactics... Look, I've got no military training, no police work training, and no medical training (not even a recent first aid course) and I can tell you that
1) clonking someone over the head can produce a concussion, concussions can cause you to throw up, and if you're unconscious while vomiting, unless you're in the recovery position, you can asphyxiate on your own vomit; and,
2) you cannot predict how long someone will be unconscious for, so if you really want them to remain in place, restraints are necessary. Otherwise they could quietly come-to and sneak out. Especially if you CLOSE THE DOOR in between you and them.

It really didn't help that the main character had been established as working for a quasi-military police agency for a period before the book opened either.

The important take-away though for me is this – have a plan to spot these type of things before I ever send a first draft off to critiquers. Whatever my plan, I will miss plot holes and somethings will just not work emotionally for some critiquers or beta readers. BUT I really want to minimize those problems.

So, what's my plan? Well, first I am a planner (not a seat-of-the-pantsing-it writer), so during the outlining phase I should note places I know I'm not very knowledgable in and build a research points list. Second, do the research. I don't think I can emphasize that point enough for myself. Third, once I've got a first draft, I need to set it aside for a little bit and then reread it for anything I can spot. Fourth, I need to read it out loud (preferably to my partner, but his plants will do).

Honestly, that's sounding a lot like a general editing plan. So maybe this is more an 'add looking specifically for X issue during editing' issue than a separate plan for dealing with idiot balls. That's actually a relief – it's easier to add things to the 'things to look for' list than adding steps to my editing process.

... BEHOLD THE LIST:

Things to Look for While Editing

  1. Misspellings
  2. Lack of dialogue tags / Unattributed dialogue
  3. Parenthetical asides
  4. Go-to words
    1. So
    2. Actually
  5. Idiot balls / Player Character Logic
    1. Is this something a reasonably competent person could realize they should NOT do, while not pressured for time?
    2. Is the character pressured for time?
    3. Is the character generally competent in the area under question?
  6. Emotional black holes – do people have feelings / reactions to the world around them at all times (even if it doesn't noticeably show up on screen right that second, it may affect later scenes, so I should know how they feel).

This list will grow, of this I am certain.

[Rant] - the first of what I am sure will be a recurring theme

My project has moved to the back burner for a bit while a couple partners I have in this focus on somethings in their lives, so I figured I have extra time to devote to critiquing on Scribophile and to continue to be a member in good standing of one of the critiquing groups I signed up for. I'm being a bit coy about which group and who I'm critiquing because, well, I'm going to be ranting. And it's not really about this particular individual or their story.

But freaking hells, YOUR CHARACTERS NEED DESCRIPTION. 

I don't need a block of text as one character looks over another and describes them from head to toe. But an adjective somewhere would help! Tall, short, smooth voiced, lithe, curvy, something. Especially if your opening chapter, my introduction to these characters, is a fight scene. Trying to picture the blocking of combat when characters are nothing but blank outlines is frustrating. Especially when the environment has no more description than 'forest'. Okay, I mean that helps, but what kind of forest? Old growth and therefore lots of room to move around? Densely packed with lots of tripping hazards? Bamboo? Unrecognizable alien planet?

Look, description is my weak point in my writing, this I know. You want reasonably snappy, snarky dialogue that reveals characterization through word choice and implication, I'm your writer. It's a bit of a challenge remembering to add enough description of body language and dialogue tags – I'm still working on adding more/enough after my first two passes, a beta read, rewrite, and in-line critiques, to say nothing of adequately describing the surrounding environment. So I really don't have any room to be throwing stones.

But Jesus Christ, this was beyond anything I've ever failed to add into my own work. It was the description equivalent of reading pages and pages of talking heads dialogue with no dialogue tags.

Critiquing is good for the soul. There is always something to learn, either as a reminder of things to pay attention to in your own writing or as an example of good writing.

[/Rant]

State of the Project #2

Still at 40,217 words, which if you're keeping track from last week, means I haven't touched the current draft. Well, I suppose I could have somehow magically written as many words as I cut, but I didn't. Concentrated on writing all those critiques I agreed to for folks on Scribophile – two for Jay, two for Emily, two for Sid, one for Karin, and three for John. Huh. Didn't feel like ten over the week. My jerk brain is telling me I need to pick up the pace, but that averages out to one and half chapters critiqued a day. Which is pretty good for having a full time job, right? Fellow Scribophile writers, when you're concentrating on trading critiques, how fast do you write critiques? 

Part of the jerk brain's ammunition is that Lorena finished critiquing the whole project and the guy who started looking at my writing through the Fast Critters group. Dude is already on chapter 12 and doing 3-4 critiques a day. Unfortunately, he's not all that helpful for me. Which is a bit of a story.

See, I critiqued his piece several months ago through the Fast Critters group.

It was bad. I had to ask the group leader for more time everyone agreed to because I had to mentally force myself to read through their work. Three female characters and one male character and the dang thing didn't pass the Bechdel test in the first dozen chapters or so. Female lead character was an abusive, misogynist. Just really insulting characterization of women (I thought) from a male writer with bad existential philosophy thrown in. Not that I think existential philosophy is a bad philosophy, it's that the philosophy in-story was badly written. And just bloody uninteresting. 

And I have no idea if this guy remembers that was me critiquing his second novel in a trilogy and hating it so much I hoped it never sees the publishing light of day. Not that I said that, but my distaste for his work showed through the critiquing. Which I know because he kept messaging me to defend/explain/mansplain his writing and stop pointing out how red-flag abusive and misogynistic his main character was.

So, um, yeah. Didn't like his writing. No idea if he remembers me. Or if it's influencing his critiquing. But he's pointed out things that no one else mentioned in any of the other 11 critiques on chapter one. Not even hitting the minimum level of stuff to say to get currency-unit points on a couple chapters. And saying things like "Hey, here's some homework to go do". Okay, not liking how often I use names in dialog is one thing. Possibly a valid thing. Probable even. But the second you're condescending enough to tell another adult on a website of peers who choose to associate with each other to go do homework... I don't have words at that point, just inarticulate side-eyed annoyance. 

Next time I participate in Fast Critters, I'm going to ask the group leader not to assign me to this dude's writing, or this dude to my writing. We just don't like each other's work. We'll see how that works out since I'm pretty sure they participate in group more than I do. I need to know I'm going to have a clearer few weeks than usual to feel like it'd be fair to the author waiting on my critiques, for me to sign up for a round at Fast Critters.

Sorry, derailing into only semi-related topics here. Back to the actual state of the project.

Started pulling together some creative commons images onto a Pinterest board for cover development. Also some photographs I'll have to check the copyrights on.

State of the Chapters:
5 critiques, 3 comments on the blurbs
12 critiques on chapter 1
9 critiques on chapter 2
5 critiques on chapter 3
4 critiques on chapter 4
4 critiques and 1 comment on chapter 5
4 critiques on chapter 6
3 on chapter 7
2 (each) on chapters 8-11
1 (each) on chapters 12-14
and 2 (each) on 15 and 16

Definitely time to cross-reference all the critiques on 1 through 6 and create a revision log. I'm not entirely sure about the mechanics of how I'm going to do that. I could do the standard of having the draft in one window of Scrivener and one critique in the other and deciding on a case-by-case basis what I want to incorporate into the draft. But I would like see what multiple people agree on before making that decision. Which sort of sounds like creating a draft copy in Word, turning on track changes, and adding everyone's comments, suggestions, and changes through the comments function of Word. Which would be a lot of work. I'll have to keep thinking about it. Any other writers feel like sharing in the comments their methodology? 

I need to keep revising the blurb. Did a bit of research on what covers in my genre look like on Amazon. Turns out the mystery section of Amazon doesn't have subcategories below Mysteries : Hardboiled, just moods & themes or characters tags. So... covers look like the Vintage Crime printings of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. I could emulate worse.  Also I still need to read up on how to export into ebook formats.

And keep on blogging.

See y'all next week.

Blurbs, my nemesis

Everyone has the things they find more difficult to write - for me, it's the blurb for the back of the book. Along with 'About Me's on social media, cover letters for job applications, emails asking for favors... Notice the pattern there? If it's directly intended to market the rest of my writing, it's like pulling teeth getting the words to march up in line in my head, much less out onto the page. I'm sure if I ever try the traditional publishing route, a query letter will be just as difficult as blurbs. It's amazing how 120-130 words can be so recalcitrant, and that's a short blurb too.

The nice part about novelizing RPG actual play episodes is that in many ways you're in a conversation – there's more to work with than just what's in your head. And the episode I'm working with right now, The Dangers of Fraternization, the GM already wrote a blurb (for the GenCon program), so I have some really good copy to work with. Why not just use that then? Well, because it's really good copy for gaming, for setting up the world and problem and letting people imagine themselves into the space. Good for enticing people to come play your game. Less good for convincing people to buy the book to find out what happens to characters they'll identify with.

Or at least be interested in seeing what they do. None of the folks I wrote in this novella are good people – maybe a little worrying if folks identify with this lot.

Anyway, the long and the short of it all being that I have written a second draft blurb and posted both, GM's and my version, to Scrib for feedback during the massive posting. I'm even getting a decent amount of that, feedback.

5 to 1, folks prefer the GM's version.

Don't get me wrong, they're making suggestions on things to include, to cut, to rewrite, etc. all over the place. And really, I think the GM's version was pretty dang good myself - got me interested in his game after all. But still. Little frustrating that, not having improved at all on scaffolding provided.

Oh well. First drafts are shit after all. Time to get back to rewriting.

Writer Neurosis

So I'm at the stage of writing where I've been writing and rewriting my own stuff for so long that I no longer see what's actually on the page anymore. Just what I meant to write. Which means it's time for everything to be posted to a writer's site I'm a part of called Scribophile - more or less it's a big hangout spot on the 'net for folks who write to critique each other's writing. Because who else has the time/inclination? As many a frustrated writer will tell you, it's nearly impossible to get friends or family to read over your work, unless they're writers too. There's the time issue. And the 'what do I say if this sucks?' issue. And, and, and. I suppose you could call Scrib an internet facilitated writer's circle. But any rate, the site works off of an internal currency system (they call it karma, but really, whatever you name it, it's a currency) where you have to spend 5 units to post your writing for other people to critique, which they'll be willing to do because they get roughly 1 unit per critique they write. More if they're verbose in their critique. But, more or less, you have to critique about 5 different pieces of writing in order to post one of yours.

Which is a long way of explaining the back story behind, having posted 17 chunks of up to 3K words each, at 5 currency units a pop, I'm at the stage of:
'Oh gods, nobody's reading it! I am terrible at marketing this! Terrible at enticing people to read my work! I'm never going to get feedback or copy-editing help! I spent so much time reading over other people's stuff, it was all wasted! Wasted!'
...
'What do you mean people are leaving critiques? Oh shit, people are reading my writing! Baby, love, are you okay, the mean people aren't ripping you to shreds are they?'

 

Yeah, I try to keep that sort of thing inside my head. ... Right up until I write about it here anyway.