Saturday, March 13, 2010

Getting feedback on your writing

At some point, all of us writers need readers or listeners or both. We toil away for weeks on a story, years on a novel or memoir. We alternately think it’s terrific or crap, the best thing we’ve done or a sorry excuse for spending time. And then we just don’t know any more.

If we’re lucky, we know some other writer-types and a fair number of reader-types who can help us out. And if we’re smart, we do so very carefully. Here are some ideas.

If you can identify friends or writing colleagues who enjoy the genre you’re working in, they are a good place to start for trial readers. You’ll get better feedback if you give your novel to an avid fiction reader or your collection of vampire stories to a short-story vampire aficionado. A client came to me recently. She had finished her book but hadn’t farmed it out yet for trial readings. Her book, a spiritually oriented self-help book, needs readers who will be engaged in that process, for they are her target audience.

If possible, choose someone with whom you have a mutually supportive relationship. This is not the time to share your hard work and tender creation with your contentious sister or your overly critical friend from high school.

Ask for specific feedback. Many readers are tempted to focus on the tiny details of your writing: an inconsistent formatting of subheads or missing commas or a misspelled character name. If you want that kind of feedback, do say so. But most of us want something quite different from trial readers. We want a sense that our writing is meaningful, interesting, engaging, useful or entertaining. A simple list of questions to your reader at the outset can elicit the kind of helpful feedback you’re wanting. Here are some I like to use:
1. Where were you most engaged?
2. Where were you least engaged?
3. Were there places you were tempted to skim or skip (what were they)?
4. Were there places you didn’t understand?
5. What did you want more of or feel was missing?

Whether the feedback has come to me in writing or in person, I keep these as my criteria for useful response. Anything else (such as “I really didn’t like the character of Bill” or “your part about the bar downtown seemed unrealistic to me”) I’ll take under advisement but I don’t place much weight on it as I wasn’t asking for it.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

A good story doesn't always make a good book

"That's a fascinating story. You ought to write a book about it."

A fair number of the clients who come to me for editing of a manuscript have had this experience. They've shared some part of their life story with others and gotten the above response more than a few times. So they decide to sit down for a few months and write out their story. Then they bring it to me to edit for publication.

And they generally do have a good story, often a riveting story. But they don't have a good book. Why? Because they don't know how to write. Well, they're literate. They know how to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and they can compose sentences and paragraphs. But they go blank when I ask them about writing courses they've taken, or workshops they've attended, or how extensively they've read in the genre they're working on. They go blank when I talk about the arc of the story, the development and motivation of their characters. How they chose their dialog stance. What creates a chapter for them.

What it boils down to is that they haven't done any of the work to become a writer. And it takes a lot of hard work to become a good writer. Not every good writer follows the same path. Some get an MFA in writing, some get a PhD in a related field. Some find inspiring teachers and great critique groups; some attend conferences and workshops and weekend retreats. Some do all their reading and writing practice on their own. But each of them recognizes that writing takes the dedication and discipline of craftsmanship and artistry to be worth disseminating.

It helps to have a great story, but to really be successful, that story needs a great author.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Draft fast, edit slow: The zero draft

French writer Gustave Flaubert was notorious for the slowness of his writing, agonizing, it seems, for hours over the word choice of a single phrase. That always comes as a surprise to me when I think of it, for he was not a concise writer. In fact, his novels are often tediously lengthy and full of minute descriptions, a style that would go out of fashion when the new-fangled technology of photography could do it better.

My advice to my writing students and the writers is coach is just the opposite: draft fast and rewrite slow. Whether it's a term paper, a short story, a self-help book, or a novel, getting as much down to work with as quickly as possible keeps your brain going and the words flowing onto the page. You get all the ingredients down into this "zero" draft, this predraft, and then you can go back and fill in the gaps, flesh out the characters and the dialog and the description or the argument.

Drafting fast is a great way to get past writer's block. Writer's block is seldom about a lack of ideas; it's much more often about a lack of faith: faith in the writer's ability, faith in the saleability of a piece. So drafting fast, not caring about the tidiness or the grammar or the success of this initial go-round can break through that resistance. After all, this isn't even the first draft, it's the zero draft.

And the zero draft never has to start at the beginning. It can start at the end or in the middle or wherever you have some strong sense of what you want to say. A beginning can be added on later; in fact, everything can be rearranged, reworked, rewritten. It's just a place to start and a good one at that.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

What do your characters want?

In the Daily Writer, Fred White includes a list of five questions that can really help the development of your fiction, whether long or short. These questions concerns the motives of your characters.

1. What do they want?
2. Why do they want it so badly?
3. How do they intend to get it?
4. What stands in their way?
5. How will they overcome these obstacles?

The answers to these questions drive all great fiction, in subtle or more blatant ways. As an editor, I often find that beginning writers spend too much time obsessing about plot twists and too little time focussed on the motivation of the main and secondary characters. Plot doesn't exactly take care of itself if you focus on character motivation; you still need to devise interesting incidents and coincidences and turns in the arc of the story. But without the deep, underlying motivations for their actions in the story, we won't much care.

During the writing of my first novel, Witnessing the Creation, it didn't become really clear to me what the main character was after until about a third of the way through the first draft. I knew he was dissatisfied and yearning but exactly why and what he was after didn't come clear until then. I don't know that one needs to do the character question answers before starting a piece of fiction, but if you can do it early on, it will help guide everything from description to dialog and become a main thread of the story that readers can rely on.

Monday, March 8, 2010

He said, she said--the author's invisibility

There's a lot of discussion these days around verbs of attribution. Elmore Leonard is an advocate of "said," and only "said." In an oft-quoted statement, he says, "The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in." Novelist and founder of the Stanford Writing Program William Stegner agreed, saying that "said" was the least intrusive way to get across that the speaker had changed. "Said" is invisible, he said, absorbed by the reader, who moves on. Gasping, grumbling, cautioning, lying, and the like, all bring attention to the writer, and not to the story.

There's something to that idea of invisibility. You want your reader completely caught up in the story, not noticing the way you've put it together. The reader wants characters that are believable, plots that are exciting or surprising, descriptions that help paint mental pictures, not an abrupt detour into the writer's methodology.

But it's so boring, complain some of the writers I edit for. They get tired, they say, of writing "said" over and over. Think of it like "the," I say, or "of." You don't get tired of writing these words because they're useful. "Said" is the most useful of attributions in fiction. It makes your writing more seamless, more focused on the story.

And the dialog itself should carry the meaning. An actor should know to grumble or gasp from the plot, the character description, and the dialog.

Poetry is another genre and the use of more descriptive verbal attributes may well serve, but I am a proponet of good old, steady, invisible "said" for fiction.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

A dog-eared novel

Here's a short piece I wrote several years ago that I came across today:

She had obviously come to the mall for the same reason I had: to escape the 100° heat. My apartment had become an oven about noon and I had a stack of research articles that I could read just as easily in the frigid air of the Food Court as at home all asweat.

She clearly had no such agenda. She carried two big white plastic garbage bags drooping with the weight of her possessions, a man’s winter parka, a big paper bag rolled over at the top, and a cup from Taco Time out of which she sipped from time to time. I could see that she wore a couple of sweaters over her men’s slacks—all of the clothing old, all of it poorly fitting except for the sturdy black tennis shoes on her feet.

She sat first at a table one row over and five down near the Orange Julius stand but just as she was getting settled, a large handsome Hispanic family spread to part of her table. She was immediately distraught, her eyes shifting between the now shrunken elbowroom and her bags. Without a word or even a real look at them, she gathered everything up and moved to a larger table where she spread her possessions in three chairs and sat in the fourth, closer to me now but with her back towards me.

For the next two hours, while I read about botanical therapies for hypertension, underlining quotable passages, and I ate teriyaki chicken and drank iced tea, she sat, occasionally mumbling to herself, shifting in her seat, wiping her nose, moving the bags around.

I was hyper-conscious of her there, wanting to offer her something, anything. But I couldn’t figure how to do it in a casual way that wouldn’t painfully point out the differences in our lives. I wondered, as I always do when confronted by a homeless person, how I would be on the street. Could I spend two hours at the mall with nothing to do, not even a dog-eared novel to read? How would I live my life without my structures, my purposes, my community? She was my age—and I felt such sorrow and guilt.

She left as I debated this for the 6th or 7th time, and I felt ashamed. The next day I gave $10 to a one-legged man begging in the still 100° heat at a freeway exit. I didn’t care if it was a scam. It was something to do and it was nothing.