Writing Prompt: Eavesdropping

Eavesdropping by Vittorio Reggianni

At the last meeting one of the bits of advice given was about dialogue and how to make it more realistic. A trick suggested to help improve dialogue was eavesdropping on real conversations and analysing them. While that tidbit was passed over as the meeting takeaway (many are), it stuck with me in a different way.

Bad things tend to happen to people who eavesdrop in stories. So what can your character hear that will change EVERYTHING? If it’s information they must share will they make it away safely to do so? Or have you got a better idea, something that hasn’t been done before with eavesdropping?

I look forward to the results.

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How To Receive a Critique

To follow up on my previous post about how to give a critique I thought I’d best help those bright-eyed and bushy tailed newbies with their usually even bigger fear (and yet driving force behind showing up): receiving a critique.

I’ve split this into three sections: pre-prep, at the meeting, and taking on board the feedback.

Pre-prep

Before submitting your work it is vital to self edit. Do not submit a first draft, even when you are experienced. The tighter your submission is the less likely you are to receive feedback you could have avoided by noticing the problem yourself. This is also a matter of respect to your fellow authors – if you know there are problems and you leave them there, you have wasted other members time.

The other thing to do in pre-prep is prepare your mind.

You are about to hear everything that several different people think is a problem in your manuscript. Sometimes you will hear the same thing several times from different people, sometimes you’ll hear lots of different things from each person, and a lot of it will be stuff you never even thought of. It may hurt the delicate creative side of you, but this is when your hard-ass editor side needs to step up.

Remind yourself, I need to hear this. I need to know what’s wrong so I can fix it and both this piece and my overall talent in writing will be better for it.

After all, you came to this group hoping to make your writing better, didn’t you?

Some people come to the meetings expecting up to receive nothing but praise. In five years I have not once seen a single piece get such treatment, and we have members with multi-book contracts at the table — even they did not come out unscathed.

I’ll admit, there are some writers groups which will do this. Afraid to bite the bullet and possibly hurt feelings they won’t let you know about the flaws in your manuscript. On the other hand there are also groups that delight in tearing a story to shreds. Having seen both of these other types of groups in person I am relieved that Vision Writers is a group where we will be gentle but firm.

If you want to see if we (or whatever other group you’re considering joining) critique the way you want to be critiqued it’s a good idea to go along to a meeting. You can simply sit in without submitting or critiquing and observe the group and its members. This should give you a good idea as to how in depth the critiques will be.

Now you’re mentally prepared and have submitted a polished piece, lets get on to what to do at the meeting.

At The Meeting

Here I’ll become very Vision Writers specific, but a lot will still be valid at other writing groups(though do check their specific rules).

Our group follows a format where each piece has its turn. During the submitted piece’s turn each member of the group is given two minutes to verbally summarise their feedback. They will focus on the biggest or most important points they have to make. This is not necessarily all the feedback they have for you though. The majority of our members will print out your submission and write their notes all over it.

Despite these notes, it’s always a good idea to take your own notes too. Not just because it’s handy to have a back up, but also because ideas for solutions might come to your mind while they talk to you.

It is important never to interrupt or argue during this stage. You will have your chance to respond after everyone else has spoken. You will get three minutes for ‘right of reply’. The only exceptions for the don’t interrupt rule are if you need clarification on what was just said and to thank each person as they hand over their written notes to you.

During right of reply it is nice to thank everyone for their feedback again, after all, think of how long it took you to write the other member’s feedback. They each spent just as much time helping you. If there is anything you really want to respond to, such as questions asked feel free to do so. It’s also the perfect time to say “Hey, I don’t quite know how to fix XXX, does anyone have any ideas?” and begin a small brainstorming session if you’d like.

If you can help it, avoid explaining what you really meant if people misunderstood something. Take their misunderstanding as a sign of what you need to work on and put that explanation in your piece, because you won’t be there in person to tell editors or your readers. However if that will make you feel better, do so. Right of reply is your chance to let some of that pent up discussion out. Just don’t forget to fix the text too!

Taking On Board The Feedback

You may not quite feel ready to read all the written parts of the critiques immediately after having received the verbal parts. On the other hand you might have had some great ideas during the verbal part and are raring to go.

Something to remember when taking on the feedback is that these are the opinions of others. It is possible they are not familiar with the tropes of your genre, or they don’t know your intended goal for the story, so may have given advice based on their own knowledge, concepts and values, that won’t quite match with what you want your story to be.

It is perfectly fine to not take on board every piece of feedback you receive. What you should do before choosing to ignore or reject a piece of feedback is consider several things.

Are you rejecting this particular piece of feedback because,

  1. to take it would mean a lot of extra work for you
  2. you aren’t particularly fond of the person who gave it
  3. you really like that scene/line/character and either they suggest to remove it or the obvious solution is to remove it

All of those are poor reasons for ignoring feedback.

Also consider did a lot of people say they also had this problem? The more people who reported that issue the bigger the problem is. It could be a rather bad idea to ignore the advice of some many  people all on the one point.

Once you’ve taken on board the feedback, if you still feel uncertain about the piece consider resubmitting it for a second round. If you are doing this please ensure you did take on board enough of the feedback to have made significant changes to the piece. When a story comes through for a second time and is barely changed it is seen as being disrespectful to the people who critiqued it the first time. Also, if you didn’t take their advice the first time, why are you asking for it again? It will more likely than not be the same.

Overall

The whole process through, whenever you feel uncomfortable or hurt, remind yourself, I need to hear this. I need to know what’s wrong so I can fix it and both this piece and my writing in general will be better for it. With that in the forefront of your mind, it should help shield you from some of the hurt. Just think of how great your story will be after this!

I hope this has you all excited to submit your work for critique. Don’t forget our submission rules (or the rules for the group you’re working with).

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How To Critique – A Newbie’s Guide

Our newbies be all…

With newbies frequently joining the group I often hear or see them struggle with fear that they don’t know how to critique and worry they won’t be a valuable addition to the group. So, since there was no particularly significant ‘takeaway’ piece of advice from March’s meeting I thought I would instead tackle this.

First up: every opinion is valuable. You may not spot anything ‘new’ compared to the others at the table, but even simply agreeing with what others have said before shows the writer receiving the critique that this really is a problem they need to attend to.

Now on with how to critique.

Critiquing is essentially you telling the writer your opinion of their story. It’s how you feel. The only ‘wrong’ way to critique is when you attack the writer as a person, not the piece itself. This is a rule we have at Vision: critique the writing, not the writer.

When you’re a newbie it may be harder for you to spot some problems, but don’t let that daunt you. As you give more and more feedback your skills will improve – something that will benefit your own writing too.

Do you review books on Goodreads or your blog? Critiquing is rather like reviewing. In fact several of our members conduct their feedback in exactly that way, by summarising the story they read (this lets the author see if what they really wanted people to notice in the story is what they saw), listing things they liked, then problems they found.

If you don’t review books don’t panic, you still know what you like and don’t like, right? With the questions I’ll list below and the knowledge of what you like and don’t like, you can provide a good critique.

While reading the submission make a note of when you feel bored, get confused, or in any other way get thrown out of the story. You might not realise it at the time, but you have subconsciously found a problem in the story. Over time you will start to recognise what caused these feelings and you can point the root issue out alongside the problem sentence/paragraph/scene. Don’t worry if you can’t yet, this will simply challenge the author to put on their thinking cap and reassess that section to diagnose their own faults, which is a valuable lesson for them.

Other things to think about while you read are:

Characters:

  • are they behaving in a consistent manner through the piece, or do they change in ways that a real person would not? eg/ kind to one person, then awful to another, but with no explicable reason why
  • are they reacting as a real person probably would to the situation around them?
  • do you like the character? If you don’t ‘like’ them, are they still intriguing enough to make you want to read on?
  • are each of the characters their own distinct person, or are they pretty much the same person in different clothing/skin suits?

Setting:

  • Is the place the story is happening in described to you in a way that enables you to really ‘see’ it? Or did they give too much info until it bored you, or conversely gave so little your imagination filled in the blanks, then later on something was written that clashed with your filled in blanks, jarring you out of the story?
  • Is the setting exciting or interesting to you?

Dialogue:

  • Does the dialogue sound like real people talking, or is it awkward or, in some way you can’t define yet, weird?
  • Did you know who was talking at all times or were you ever confused?
  • Did anyone talk for too long about something and it became boring? (this could be an info-dump disguised as dialogue)
  • Do all the characters talk in exactly the same way, or can you tell who’s saying what even without the ‘Chris said’ dialogue tag?

Plot:

  • Did events happen in a way that was logical or at least possible?
  • Was what happened exciting or boring?
  • Did you have a reasonable sense of time flow within the story, or did you get confused as to whether an hour or a week had passed?
  • Was what happened the exact same thing that has happened in an a thousand other books (cliche) or was it new and novel (or at least with an interesting twist or new veiwpoint)?
  • Did things seem to take forever to happen, or was it a terrible sudden deluge of events you couldn’t keep up with?

Prose:

  • Were there sentences you didn’t understand because the author phrased them oddly?
  • Were any words used so frequently you couldn’t help but be distracted by their repeated use?
  • Were there times when you knew the writer was trying to make you feel a certain way but you absolutely did not?
  • Were there parts where you thought the wording was cliche or over the top? Or conversely, where it needed to be stronger?

Wow, I know, a lot to think about, right? But don’t panic. Even now, after 5 years, I still read a lot of submissions twice to make sure I don’t miss anything. Also, you might have ‘missed’ many of these points because the piece did not suffer from those problems.

Another worry some newbies have is hurting others with their critique. Most people at a writers group are prepared to hear the negative. A lot of us CRAVE the negative because we want to know what went wrong so we can fix it before submitting or publishing. Still, to help ease the pain of being told all the issues found in a story don’t forget to also mention what you liked.

If you loved (or loved to hate) a character, if the action scenes were thrilling, if the world blew your mind, if that scene made you jump up and scream “S*** just got real, son!”, or anything else that might let the writer know that no matter how many problems there are in their story, that there is at least some gold too.

You may like to put all the good things first, or last, or maybe compliment sandwich your critique, but always let them know what you liked.

Often Vision members will wrap up their feedback by thanking the author for sharing their work as a closing statement.

I hope this has helped you and you feel more confident in coming to a future meeting to critique. If you’re still a little wary, maybe practice with some book reviews. You could put them on Goodreads and see if any of your Goodreads friends or followers ‘like’ them, or just keep them to yourself like those embarrassing Tron rip-off/fanfictions you wrote when you were 10. Either way we hope to see you soon.

Coming Up Next – How to Recieve Feedback

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Writing Prompt: Role Reversal

The novel I’m writing now came from me wanting to make the protagonist of the story one of the ‘secondary’ characters of the quest. After all, we should be making all our secondary characters as strong and as fully fleshed out as our protagonists. I’d like to see what we all can do with that idea.

The challenge is, take a side kick and flip the script. It can be an acknowledged (within the story) turn about, like if Robin saved Batman. Or maybe something less recognised by the characters.

Can you do it in your current work in progress? Could your story be even more exciting from a different character’s view? Let’s see what we can do!

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What Came Before

Because of word limits on our submissions for critique and monthly gaps between meetings many of our members start their submissions with a synopsis of what happened before this latest installment. It’s a big help especially for people who might have missed a meeting so didn’t get to read the previous part/chapter.

A writer doesn’t get that opportunity when their book goes out into the world though. If you have a series you can’t stop someone from starting at book three, or maybe your publication schedule means they wait a couple of years between book two and book three. Then your first chapters have to do this work – but without being info dumpy and boring, because some readers will be binge-reading your books all in a row and don’t need too thorough a re-cap.

It’s a fine line to walk, giving just enough information to remind the reader who this character is and what they did recently without carrying on about it too long. Think of books you’ve read that did it poorly, think of books that did it well. Reread them and analyse what the authors did and practice it in your own writing. Beta readers and critique groups will be happy to let you know if you under or over did it. As with nearly everything, practice makes perfect.

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Christmas Freebie

From the 25th to the 28th of December the lastest Vision Writers anthology, Darkest Depths, will be available free from Amazon, so grab your copy if you haven’t already, and have a wonderful holiday season!

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Writing Prompt: New Traditions

This time of year is rife with traditions, whether it be the deeply religious, or the old family type. But what if you’re in a world without Christmas, Hanukkah, or any of our world’s familiar holidays?

What festival do they celebrate? Is it midwinter or midsummer? How does that weather effect the traditions? Are there typical costumes? Is it rooted in religion but deviated somewhat like Christmas? Or is it more deeply linked? Are there opposing religions who vie for attention this time of year?

Is this the perfect time of year for your desert nomads to cull the tribe’s weaklings in some form of trial?

Where does your imagination take you? What new traditions are you making for your world? Have fun, and have a wonderful holiday season!

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Too Much Of A Good Thing

darkest-depths-ebook-smallToday was a pretty funny meeting. Unintended innuendo had me laughing so hard there were tears in my eyes. It was also a touching meeting, with our lovely VP taking the time to bolster the confidence of another member. It’s touching to know we’re all in this together, and we’re all determined to make sure that our fellow members have the strength to move on. It was also a monumental meeting as we finally uploaded our latest anthology Darkest Depths (more on that later).

Amongst the hugs, tears, and cheers there was still critiquing though! The takeaway from today’s meeting is a problem that some writers probably wish they had. None the less it can be a story killer. The issue is too many ideas – in one story.

Sometimes (like in the opening chapter this feedback was given to) it’s a case of lots of cool and interesting ideas, but so many of them, in such rapid succession that the reader feels overloaded. Another possibility in the same vein can be a case of several ideas put together that don’t really mesh well.

With the first form, one possible fix is to spread out the ideas so they don’t came so thick and fast. What simply must be included in this scene for readers to understand and be drawn in? What can wait for another scene or even chapter?

The second possible fix is applicable to both forms of the problem. Ask yourself which of the ideas you can’t live without? Which are you most passionate about? Which can the story not survive without? Cut the others. If there’s still too many, go with the answer/s to the last question only.

Don’t be too scared to do this. Removing those ideas doesn’t mean you have to bin them completely. When you’ve finished this story you can write something that might better work with the discarded idea/s.

You know what there’s never too much of though? Awesome short stories. If you’re looking to sate your short story fix consider grabbing a copy of Darkest Depths, our anthology celebrating 20 years of Vision Writers meeting and critiquing.

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Writing Prompt: First Line Fun

photo credit Melinda Seckington

photo credit Melinda Seckington

Take your favourite book. What’s its first line?

We’re going to use that as the base, but here’s a few rules.

  1. Try not to work in the same genre as that book.
  2. None of the characters can be facsimiles of the characters from your chosen book.

Now, you need to take that line and change it a bit. Give it a new tone. If it was an optimistic line, make it dark and gloomy. If it was a ‘dark and stormy night’ your line could become something like ‘it was a brilliant golden dawn promising a glorious day’.

You don’t have to go polar opposite though, you can go on a tangent. Dark and stormy night becomes ‘a blustery afternoon were a simulation of early dusk came from oncoming storm clouds’.

Use you new line and go crazy.

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Filter Words

As always there was a wealth of good advice at the meeting. It can make it very hard to choose what to write about in these ‘meeting takeaway’ posts. This month I’d like to talk about filter words.

Filter words are quite nefarious, as they can seem like they’re drawing the reader into the story when actually they’re putting an extra layer between the reader and the experience.¬† That bit of distance is – strangely enough – the character.

For example:

“He felt the snow gather on the back of his collar” vs “The snow gathered on the back of his collar”

or

“She wondered how to avoid it” vs “It seemed unavoidable”

The first sentence is telling the reader what the character is feeling or experiencing, whereas the second sentence is letting the reader feel it directly, without putting the filter of the character’s mind between the reader and the experience. It puts you right inside of the characters body.

If you’re wanting deep POV, truly immersive writing steer clear of filter words like: thought, wondered, saw, heard, noticed, felt.

Why not open up your manuscript and use the ‘search’ or ‘find a word’ function and see how many results you get for each one of those filter words? You might be surprised at how many there are. But don’t despair, you’ve diagnosed the problem, you know the solution, and rewriting/revision is just as important a part of writing as the first draft. Go forth and revise!

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