Committing to a Writing Project

On Tuesday I came clean about my version of writer’s block—too afraid to write. I started yesterday by tackling some of the jobs that have been hanging over me and cluttering my brain. As I eased out from under the load, I felt less paralyzed, but honestly, I considered backing out of going to the conference. Except, I’ve already paid.

OK, so I’m going. I prayed. I know others did too. And a friend of mine reminded me about writing during my optimum thinking time. For me, that’s morning—usually my blogging time.

Today I switched that and worked on one of the projects I’d hoped to take with me to the conference. Except, I still don’t know. I sent off some pages to another writer for some feedback with the idea that if it’s no good, maybe I’ll can the idea.

Then I read a part of Randy Ingermanson’s blog post about goals. He said there are two necessary things if you want to complete a project: define it and commit to it.

The “commit” part seemed applicable to my circumstances. Here’s the pertinent passage:

Second, you commit to writing that particular book. Commitment means that you won’t quit when things get hard (they will). You won’t quit when your critique buddies find flaws (they will). You won’t quit when the agents say they’re not interested in that particular book (they will). You won’t quit when the editors say no (they will). You won’t quit when the substantive editorial letter comes back with 20 pages of requested revisions (it will). Commitment means that you’re in all the way. Commitment means that you work on the book until one of two things happen — either you realize that the book is fatally flawed, or you finish the book.

My question is, How do you know when a book is “fatally flawed”? If I can’t finish, have I quit or have I recognized it is fatally flawed? And who’s to say it is fatally flawed? Not agents or crit buddies or editors, it would seem.

And if it’s up to me, how will I know? I can’t judge by it being too hard or because I’m not getting the responses I hoped. So what should be my the measure I use to judge “fatally flawed”?

Unless … Maybe there should be only one thing—I’m all in until I finish. Not, until I finish or …

Something to think about.

Published in: on March 11, 2010 at 2:33 pm  Comments (8)  
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Listening to My Inner Editor

I’ve read over and over that writers are to turn off their inner editor. That advice comes from seasoned authors, novices, and instruction books. And I think it’s wrong.

Not entirely, mind you, but I think it’s a great advantage to develop an ear for what works, and I don’t think a writer does that by ignoring the nagging voice that says, This part isn’t right.

I’ll add another caveat: I don’t think an author should listen to any editor or critic when working on the rough draft of a story. An author must accept that a rough draft will be … rough. Plot points may not quite fit. Characters won’t always be adequately motivated, and their personalities probably need to be fleshed out more completely. Setting may need to be envisioned afresh.

And language! Repetition will need to be annihilated. Wordiness, cut. Weak verbs will need to be replaced, and so on.

But those are all things to do in the rewrite, not in the first draft.

When rewrite time comes, however, I think it’s important for an author to reach a point where he trusts his inner editor.

I remember when I first went to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference in Northern California and met some of the writers I’d first encountered on blogs and online writing communities. I remember asking one—Brandilyn Collins, I think, who co-taught the fiction track that year with Randy Ingermanson—if she was in a critique group.

No, she said. And I thought, How in the world does she do it? I had just found an online group that was changing my writing. I was learning so much and growing as a writer.

But the interesting thing I discovered later on is this: When I suspected something in my manuscript wasn’t quite right, those in my crit group who gave me feedback almost always overwhelmingly pointed out those spots as needing work.

In the end, I realized that when I thought something wasn’t right, it probably wasn’t right.

Perhaps that editing skill is something I acquired over years of grading papers. I know it developed exponentially as I critiqued others in my group and even more when I began editing professionally.

But in the back of my head I keep thinking, Writers are smart people, plus they are readers. They know what they like in the books they pick up, so why can’t we apply the same sense to our own work?

Usually, I think the answer is, we’re too close to it. We were visualizing a scene, hearing dialogue in our head, and we think what we wrote is what we were seeing, hearing. But if we set the work aside for a time, then come back to it, we have a much better idea if the words on the page conjure up those same images, that same dialogue, as we first imagined.

Critique groups are great. First readers are great. Editors are great. But I’m beginning to think we authors, who ought to have the most invested in our work, should own a lot more of the rewriting and revising.

Characters and Emotions

I’ve written on the topic of Characters a number of times, but I don’t think this is a repeat.

When I first started writing fiction, I would have put myself in the plot-over-characters camp, mostly because I believed, and still do, that story trumps all. But what I’ve since discovered is, in order for a reader to care about the story, he must first care about the characters.

In essence, no good story focuses only on plot or only on characters. In fact, no good story ignores setting or theme, either, but that’s not the topic today.

I’ve discussed in the past what makes a character “engaging,” i. e. why we as readers connect with them. I think there’s another component that makes characters memorable and makes stories come alive: readers connect with the emotions the characters experience.

Author and writing instructor Randy Ingermanson teaches a method of writing a scene using what he terms MRU’s. While I don’t consciously use this method, I find when I critique or edit or revise my own work, understanding the principle behind MRU’s is helpful and actually can maximize the reader’s emotional involvement.

The idea of the MRU—the Motivation-Reaction Unit—is simple. Reactions must flow from a motivating action. However, I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve written, critiqued, or edited a work that reverses that order. I know in my early writing days, I thought I actually was increasing tension by giving a reaction first. Like this.

Dorothy gasped. How could it be? Her wallet was gone. Her credit cards, cash, and driver’s licence were in that wallet. She peered inside her purse, moved her keys, even dumped the contents onto the bench beside her. Still no wallet.

The problem is, readers will process Dorothy’s reaction cognitively, not emotionally. No problem understanding what Dorothy felt or why she felt it. But because the author showed the reaction first, the reader can only wonder why, not also feel the same thing.

In addition, the payoff may actually be a let down if the reader is expecting a bigger something to have motivated the reaction.

Instead, if the proper order is maintained, the reader will process the event, then feel with the character what the author next shows. So the real difference is having the reader understand what the character is feeling versus having the reader enter into the character’s emotions.

Here’s an example of the motivated reaction:

Dorothy moved her keys aside and peered into her purse. Still no passport. She dumped the remaining contents on the table in front of her and rummaged through the odds and end. Her passport simply was not there. She slumped against the seat back. “It can’t be,” she whispered. What good was a plane ticket to England if she didn’t have a passport?

Published in: on September 2, 2008 at 6:05 pm  Comments (1)  
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Mount Hermon Report 2008, Part 7

Saturday afternoon had two workshop slots, but I only attended the one. I planned to get coffee and figure out which seminar to attend next during the break, but instead ran into Debbie Thomas, a Mount Hermon writer friend who was in Randy Ingermanson’s Mentoring Clinic with me in 2005. We spent the hour talking writing, and it was time well spent.

Hanging out with other writers was definitely one of the great pluses of Mount Hermon. I was a little slow in getting pictures—I haven’t had a camera for a couple years, so it took me a few days to get into the swing of snapping all the people I wanted to blog about. Consequently, there are many, many omissions. But here are some notables, besides those I’ve already posted.

Katie Cushman at Mount HermonKatie Cushman, our carpool driver and author of A Promise to Remember (Bethany). You can read my review, which I posted a week ago, here. Besides being a brilliant writer, Katie is a kind, funny, interesting, organized, smart woman of faith. I would miss out on a lot if I didn’t get the travel time with Katie and the other carpoolers.

I wish I’d taken a picture of the four of us, especially because I don’t have any photos of Rich Bullock (one of the omissions I mentioned), my “twin” (we share the exact same birthday) and first carpool driver back in 2005. Just this last year we’ve also joined with a few other writers to form an online critique group. Rich has such great instincts and is a fantasy reader. Next year, I’ll make a point of getting his picture!

Caroleah JohnsonMy roommates, Caroleah Johnson and Sally Apokedak. Caroleah and I shared a cabin in 2006, one that was nearly at the top of the hill and about killed me off because after hiking the ten minutes up hill, there were some fifty stairs to climb. That was the year it rained non-stop, too. Still, it was a great cabin, with a fully outfitted kitchen, dining room, living room, separate bedrooms. During our stay, we had some time over late night cups of hot tea to get to know each other. Caroleah is an up-and-coming writer. She started in non-fiction, writing devotionals and producing a newsletter for her church. The 2006 conference gave her information about where to market her work and started her in fiction. Some time later, I came across her name in the list of Writer’s Digest Contest top one hundred. She placed there again in 2007.

Sally ApokedakI first met Sally online as the moderator of the critique group I joined. We actually met in 2004 at Mount Hermon. Since then we’ve become good friends and critique partners. She is another fantasy writer but targets children and YA. In fact, she recently became the Writing for Children editor at Bella Online.

Katy Popa/Sharon SouzaSome of these writers are ones I wish I could have hung out with. We’d see each other in passing and maybe have a meal together, but time was limited. Pictured here are Katy Popa, author of To Dance in the Desert (my review is here) and Sharon Suza, author of Every Good and Perfect Gift (my review is here). I knew Katy from her participation in Faith in Fiction but met both women in Gayle Roper’s mentoring clinic in 2006. Last year, when exchanging emails, I learned that Katy lived in a Victorian home. She gave me a fun story I was able to use to open the article I wrote for Victorian Homes magazine about blogging.

Becca/Susan JohnsonOne more picture for today. I met Becca Johnson, on the right, at a meal in 2006 when she came to Mount Hermon as a seventeen year old. Her mom, Susan, who accompanied her, claims not to be a writer, but during this past year she posted a review of one of the CSFF Blog Tour books for Becca and did a great job. Besides, since Becca is homeschooled, it’s apparent Susan knows more than she lets on. As we talked, she left the door open for writing some herself, but as it is, Becca, now nineteen and in college, is the writer of the family. I’m happy to say, she is a fantasy writer and well into her first novel.

More pics and reports next week.

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