MFA: Peer Review, First Crack

So, this school thing is becoming real again. I have my financial aid letter (more loans, yay!), my Blackboard is working and has stuff on it, I’ve registered for classes, and my first assignment, my peer piece, is online.

Now for the second part of that assignment: looking at the work of the other nine people and preparing myself to go in for a week and discuss everybody’s work.

Let’s be honest – when I was in undergrad, we did this every week. We’d have a certain number of people, we’d have their work, and we’d all read it, coming in with our neatly-printed copies, reviewing the work with our pens (I always used red because I psychologically have to). Then we’d say nice things about each piece (or sometimes let other people say nice things and keep our own mouths shut…), and then say some things that could make the piece better.

I’m going to use techniques I learned during that to do this first peer review, and we’ll see how much changes between now and winter – and here’s how it’s going to work for now:

  1. I’m in the process now of downloading each piece to a folder set aside on my flash drive specifically for this summer. I’m about halfway through. Yes, I’m taking a bit of time doing this, but I’ve been thinking about other things, like decorating a cake for Mum’s Day.
  2.  When they’re all downloaded, I’ll print them all. And cry a little about how much ink is being taken for one thing. And then swiftly forget about the ink when I have them all printed and stapled. Or maybe paper-clipped.
  3. With no pen in hand, I will read one selection from start to finish, considering it as a story, like any book I would read, without pausing to pick it apart.
  4.  With a pen in hand, I will read that same selection over, from start to finish, marking the particularly good or particularly troubling bits in clean, friendly handwriting, or with clear symbols. I will look specifically for patterns, habitual phrasing, character strength, and direction of the piece.
  5. I will repeat steps three and four eight times, until all pieces are marked and ready.
  6. I will find a nice folder or other carrying container and put them, clearly marked and water-proof with my other packing stuff, and read a book. Probably Anna Karenina.
  7. After the discussion and week, I will report back on how this went, things I would have done differently, and things that went well. Maybe not in that order. And I will prepare for the coming semester.

Cheers,

C

Advertisements

MFA Update: Preparing My First Peer Piece

When I chose my MFA program (btw, got in everywhere all my paperwork made it in!), I had a matter of a few weeks to turn in my first writing. I had a few pieces I could polish up and submit, and in theory I could have waited for inspiration to hit (as it surely did) and start something totally fresh.

But I’ve been kicking around a piece about a pedophile who raises the girls he kidnaps in a cellar, and a detective inspector who has spent over a decade obsessively hunting him, off books, as the kidnappings he was brought in on are now cold cases. He rakes over the coals whenever it haunts him, looking for some spark, and then two more girls are taken. I even wrote a few chapters.

My writing has come a long way since I first envisioned this novel, a few years ago, and I decided my first look at the case was from the wrong angle. I was using the eyes of the DS to see the obsessive DI objectively, but it’s not from her that we get the emotion. She’s important to seeing him clearly, but if the reader is going to feel the desperation to find the girls, they need to get it from the DI. So I did something I almost never do: I rewrote the first chapter.

One of the most fun things about the rewrite is that I added in a dream sequence. Dream sequences are a fabulous tool because they allow the writer to bend reality without asking the reader to suspend disbelief. Tidbits of past information can be squeezed in without lengthy dialogue or narration, and without a flashback sequence. Dreams are more fun, more visceral, and about a million times more interesting. So instead of introducing the case and the police aspect through discussion and narration at the station, I gave my DI a dream sequence and a brief, non-descriptive conversation with his son before work.

I’ll keep y’all posted on how it goes!

Cheers

C

The Other Writer’s Nemesis: In Spite Of

This might just be me. In fact, I’m entirely prepared for this to be a problem only I have.

Who else says “in spite of” at least three times a chapter, right?

I blame my fourth/fifth grade teacher. He was fabulous, taught me so many critical life skills and school skills. He encouraged my interests and taught me discretion over shock value. (Call me precocious)

But he had us memorize a poem/song/story a month. Because I had him twice, I had some discretion the second year, but the first year I learned what everyone else did – including The Night Before Christmas.

The skill of memorization has proved useful, and that particular poem is a great party piece around the holidays.

Let’s face it: poems can give us bad habits of wordiness. I have a feeling this is where a great deal of my awkward phrasings comes from – reading and memorizing poetry. And “I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself” sounds endlessly better than “I laughed when I saw him, despite myself,” not to mention not fitting meter.

But I say, “in spite of” waaaaaay too much in my work, and one smooth way to get rid of two words at once is to switch it to “despite,” which sounds more streamlined and cuts out those pesky, fumbling prepositions.

Again, not sure, could just be me, but if this is something you see in your own writing, now you have a fix.

That, and you’ll never be able to edit without hearing The Night Before Christmas in your head ever again.

Cheers,

C

MFA: Success!

I may have mentioned once or twice that I was applying for MFA programs. This was my second round of applications, the first directly after finishing my BA, to traditional full-time MFAs. I did this concurrently with my MAT (teaching) applications. Needless to say, apart from one waitlist at UI-Bloomington, the teaching applications were much more successful, so I did that first.

I finished my first Master’s last May, got some teaching and subbing experience under my belt, and began the process all over again, this time with Low-Residency Programs. The difference? Instead of living there full-time, you go to a place once or twice a year, and do the rest online. This is the model I did for my MAT, and I adored it. You can work while you do a degree, and you still get the benefit of physical meetings with other writers.

So, I put together my applications, sent them out into the world, and waited in agony. I heard from one program quickly, another very recently, and then I had another kind of agony – deciding where to go.

Thus far, my results have been all positive (still haven’t heard from some), and when I took some deep breaths, it was easy to decide between those two on grounds of faculty fit, I then found myself with another puzzle. Because the other program that accepted me has such an early date, I needed to get back to them – potentially before I heard from anyone else.

This may seem unreasonable, or unfair, or impossible, but actually it’s very simple.

Imagine you got in everywhere. Then say for each program, “Would I pick X or Y?” If there are other programs you can say, “I’d pick Y over X,” then you’d better not pick X without some answer from Y. If you can honestly say you’d pick X over everything, then you can go ahead and say yes to X without waiting.

This was the case for me. I picked apart every program – I do this relatively quickly – with some help from my research-savvy mother and advice from a friend in another MFA program and my undergrad writing prof, and I said, where I’m in is my best fit.

So, I have accepted my offer from SNHU, and I will give regular updates on my progress, and also I’ll mention where else I get in. I’ve turned down Oklahoma City University, and yet to hear from anywhere else. But I’ll be having my first residency in June, and I’ll keep you all posted!

Cheers,

C

Writer’s Nemesis: That

I am a…verbose person. To my knowledge and memory, I always have been. It’s not just the way I write – it’s the way I speak, too. But sometimes, as well probably all know, verbose can become wordy. One of the first things I learned in college was that I could lose clarity in long, winding sentences, specifically with pronoun ambiguity.

There it is: the dreaded “that,” sticking out in the sentence like a sore thumb.

If you’re a verbose writer, like myself, grab a sample of your writing and try underlining all the “that”s you come across. I guarantee, you’ll find more than a few in a sizable sample, and sometimes I find more than a few in a relatively small sample.

Why is this a problem? What’s so bad about the word “that”?

It isn’t always an issue, but for verbose people, in modern writing, it can act as a kind of filler word, the way we say “erm” or “uh” when we speak. In some places, “that” is a necessity, but the longer you look at this word in your writing, and the writing of others, the more you’ll realize it’s taking up valuable space more often than not.

How do we root out the nemesis?

I started simple. Because I use Word, I went to “Find” and typed in “that”, searching for every use of it in the work. I still do this for longer pieces, late in the editing process. I look at each use, and I determine whether I can reword, or even eliminate “that” without a change in meaning or clarity. The majority of times, it’s a completely unnecessary word.

Two things started happening the longer I employed this tactic.

The first was noticing as I reread my own work EVERY time I used a “that” I didn’t need. And not only in my own writing, but in the writing of others, including in classrooms I’ve substitute taught in, where famous quotes pepper the walls. You’ve no idea how awkward it is to stare at a quote by someone utterly brilliant half a day and think, “I really want to eliminate the ‘that’ in the middle of it.” It’s astonishing, at first, how many superfluous “that”s sink into our writing, and the writing we see around us.

The second thing was catching myself before I used a “that” in my writing. I’ve already done it half a dozen times in this short post. Depending on a variety of factors, you won’t catch every one as you write, but the longer you practice rooting them out, the more you’ll notice, so when you go back to root them out, you’ll find less and less infecting your work. Can’t control others, but it will be a nice change in your own writing, at least.

Although I’ve yet to verify this in my own life, I expect repeated culling of the nemesis word in written speech may replicate itself with eventual culling of the nemesis word in verbal speech. This could lead to less filler in spoken communication, and clearer oration. Who would argue with such aims?

Cheers,

C

Camp NaNo: April 2017

Last November, I took advantage of NaNoWriMo to write the draft of Hold Me Now, which has been poked at by two of nine betas. I’m still sifting through my changes a la my most recent beta, and I think I’m going to take advantage of the upcoming Camp NaNo not to write another novel (which I could easily do), but to force myself to pick through the manuscript again, send it to my third beta, draft a query letter, then go back through the manuscript.

I’ll still work on other projects, but my goal is 30 hours for this time through. An hour a day? Cake. Miss a day? Simple to make up. And I fully expect to double this by the time the month is over.

I don’t know yet if I’ll have a cabin – mostly because I’ve set it to private, and I’m not sure whether my friends are doing Camp NaNo this year. Either way, I’ve got the cabin set up and ready for Natalie and others to join in on the fun! Still have plenty of weeks to convince people to join in on Camp NaNo with me.

Are you doing Camp NaNo this year? April, July, or both? Anyone doing the revision mode? Tell me your plans, ask questions about the structure, or just share well-wishes for fellow NaNoers in the comments section below! Want to be in my cabin? Let me know!

Cheers,

C

Prewriting: How to Manage Your Fan Fiction Posting

As I may have mentioned several (hundred) times, I have many plates I’m juggling, with a fair amount on each of them. Today, we’re going to talk about one plate in particular: Fan Fiction.

With two days of my week devoted to writing fan fiction, and regular weekly updates on multiple stories, I’ve had several people ask how on earth I manage to update so regularly on certain stories (while others take shudderingly long times, I’ll confess). Apart from my unnaturally quick writing, my highly-organized notes and outlines, I have one other secret.

Prewriting.

This is not your teacher’s definition of pre-writing. In English classes, pre-writing is the outlining, brainstorming, organizational process that precedes the drafting process. Prewriting in this context is more akin to the drafting process. In order to understand what my definition of prewriting can mean, let’s first take a look at what it doesn’t mean.

The Write-and-Post: NOT Prewriting

This is the method I employed for YEARS, exclusively. Write a chapter, and when it’s finished, you post it right away. Don’t edit. Don’t read over again. Just stick it up and start the next one.

This worked pretty well for me at first for a number of reasons. For one, I only had a few stories for a long time, and did more reading than writing. I didn’t have to be as organized about my update structure. Also, because I write quickly and with minimal noticeable errors, I didn’t feel the need to schedule or edit. While I’ve acted as a beta, I’ve never used one.

This is a good system if you can count on yourself to write quickly, to avoid massive errors, and to have only a few stories. When you’ve got ten or more stories in progress, DON’T use this method. If it takes you more than a week to write a chapter – whatever your chapter length – DON’T use this method. And if you’re writing in your second language or you know you make LOTS of spelling/grammar/organizational errors, DON’T use this method. For the sake of your readers.

The Write-and-Edit: NOT Prewriting

This is a method many people employ. You write a chapter, you edit a chapter (or have a beta edit it), and you post the chapter as soon as changes have been made. Some eager beavers have two betas, so it goes through three sets of eyes before it’s posted.

This is a method I’ve never employed, but it works well for a lot of people, particularly those with limited stories, quick writing, but either poor English/conventions or a desire for perfectionism. If you work quickly, have fewer than ten stories in circulation, and you want a polished product posted the first time around, this  could be the method for you.

On the other hand, if you’ve got a lot of things cooking, DON’T use this method. Especially if you use a different beta for each story. That would get messy and time-consuming. If you write slowly, DON’T use this method, as you’re adding a step and may lose your beta partway through a project. And if you already have very good grammar/English/usage/spelling, you probably should go beta-free, stick to your own once-over before posting. It’ll be a lot quicker than waiting on someone else’s schedule.

The Write-and-Schedule: NOT Prewriting

This is the method a lot of people employ, and the method I use for most stories, these days. This is a good thing to do if you have multiple – even many – stories to juggle, and if you can write quickly. I prefer weekly, but a lot of people do weekly, biweekly, or even monthly updates on their stories. Have two stories? Write a chapter of each through the week. Edit if you have time. Maybe even use a beta. Update both on your scheduled day of the week (often weekends, but it depends on your schedule). Have twenty stories? Update at least a story a week, but maybe have them on monthly rotations, so that each week you update five stories. Get six or seven chapters done in a week? Schedule five for this week, and put two forward for next week.

This method is great for flexibility. You can make this work around any number of stories, and is better if you write quickly. Remember, this is around YOUR writing, not writing to a schedule. So if you have those twenty stories and you only get three done in one week, you only post three that week. Maybe you’ll be able to write eight chapters the next week, but maybe you’ll have to be flexible on actually hitting your targets. Life might keep you from updating the ideal, and I find some weeks I only update two stories, while other weeks I can update four or five. That means some months, Craving Comfort has weekly updates, and some months I don’t update it at all.

This works more smoothly if you either write quickly, have a lot of free time on your hands, don’t have a lot of stories, or don’t rely on a beta, but you can use this method for pretty much any circumstances, if you’re not too bothered by not having frequent updates.

The Schedule-and-Write: NOT Prewriting

Let’s say you have three stories, and you post weekly, on Saturdays. You know you have to finish a chapter for each story before Saturday. In a crunch from a busy week? You don’t go to bed until all three are up on Saturday – or you let readers down and skip that week. Lots of time on your hands from a open week or quick writing? Use the time to edit the pieces so they’re ready to roll first thing Saturday and you can start writing the next set of chapters.

Monthly updates with eight stories? Same deal, except you can say that you MUST post X and Y stories on the first Saturday of each month, Z and A stories on the second, etc. You get the picture. Don’t get both X and Y done that first week? You can either hold Y until the next month, or you can squeeze Y, Z, and A into that second week. Your choice. Readers prefer option two, but if that’s something that’s not practical for you, stick with what works for you.

You could also have twenty stories and say, “I will post five chapters this weekend. Any five chapters I have, whichever stories I’ve worked on.” That means some might get put off, say if you’re struggling to write a certain story at the moment, but if you keep a calendar, jot down what you’ve posted and when, so you can try to even it out when you’re ready to work on the shelved story later. This version of the method works best if you’re not worried about highly-regular updates for all stories.

This is a good method if you need deadlines. It’s also good if you can set realistic deadlines for yourself. If you write quickly, for example, maybe a daily posting schedule isn’t a big deal. If you’re juggling thirty stories, though, sticking even one of those on a daily schedule can throw monkey wrenches in all of them, so measure your writing speed, your editing needs, and your story load before you draw up your schedule.

The Write-Store-Splurge: Prewriting

Finally, we’re on to the prewriting methods! This is one I used in the early days of my Amy & Sirius stories, notably all through Cat & Mouse. The way this works is you write out a story entirely, you post the first chapter once you’ve written every chapter, and as you get reviews, you post another chapter. With this story, I posted for EVERY review I got. It encourages reviews and keeps the story flowing, but it makes the story go quickly.

There’s another important lesson I learned during this project. I had all of the second part, Deceptions & White Lies, and a large chunk of the third part prewritten, and then someone BROKE my USB flash drive. And I hadn’t backed it up.

Long story short, that particular project is semi-shelved, and I poke at updating it once in a while as I work on other projects, but I never feel like what I’ve got is good enough compared with what I had.

Here’s my number one piece of advice with prewriting: ALWAYS BACK IT UP. Frequently. In multiple places. I do monthly backup of all my files to Google Drive and OneDrive. Use whatever methods work for you, whatever schedule makes sense for your writing, but do it at least once a month and in at least one location. I do two, because I’ve been burned so badly. I also invested in a larger, sturdier USB Flash. Don’t get a cheap or cute one if you store your life on something. Its a minimum of 200 dollars to repair a snapped one. Paying twenty extra bucks now could save you hundreds and headaches later.

The Write-and-Store-and-Valve: Prewriting

This can be done in two ways. One is prewriting a whole story, like I did for my Amy & Sirius, or prewriting a large chunk and continuing to prewrite as you go, as I’ve done on other works. Both work, and it depends on what you want from the experience. But instead of giving it for every review, set a benchmark. Say, every five if you’ve got a story in its infancy of reviews, or every ten or twenty if you’ve got a popular piece.

You can also do this where you post when you hit five, ten, twenty, fifty, one hundred, etc. This means you don’t have to do it quite as frequently as you get to higher marks, and can encourage new readers to do every-chapter reviews instead of just reviewing at the end. I’ve even had people sign out and leave guest reviews on chapters they’ve already reviewed just to earn more content.

Downside? Sometimes you think a story will be more popular than it is. Sometimes, stories with lots of readers don’t get many reviews. You could end up having really slow updates for the amount of prewriting you’ve done. This is okay if you’re patient and have other irons in the fire, but if you’re impatient (like me) or you only have a story or two going, you might spend a lot of time pulling your hair and twiddling your thumbs, waiting.

The Write-and-Store-and-Schedule: Prewriting

Here we have a method where you write as much as you desire – either in chunks or all at once – and you release on a schedule. This is a very common method, where people may only write two or three chapters ahead, or have an entire prewritten story sitting in their files that they release weekly, monthly, daily… whatever they decide. I’m a fan of the weekly approach, and it’s a common method.

The great benefit of this is that you don’t have to wait for reader input, and you don’t have to explain when the next chapter is coming. Unless you are incapable of posting a certain week (and you can then double up as an apology the next week), they know exactly when to check their computers for an update. It’s great for those who don’t have a consistent reviewing base, and for those who have a lot of stories. You can stack up bunches of chapters for every story, and you can still be certain of regular updates on a particular schedule. The more stories you juggle, the more of a cushion of prewritten chapters you want to give yourself, just in case you lack motivation or time to write a certain story any given week.

The Write-and-Store-and-Mix: Prewriting

This is a blend of the last two methods, and what I use on my Unknowns and Against the Odds series’. Unknowns was a story designed for this from the get-go. The first part I wrote a large chunk of chapters for, posted on a Saturday, and said that I’d post weekly. HOWEVER, for every ten chapters I got in a week, I would post a bonus. Some weeks, no bonus is earned. Other weeks, I’ve given out as many as six bonus chapters. I’ve now posted not even halfway through Part Two, and I’m a couple of chapters into Part 3’s prewriting, with about 100 prewritten chapters.

When I completed prewriting Part Two, waiting on the verdict of whether I would write Part 3, I committed to this method on a story I’d already posted six chapters of, which was Against the Odds. I selected this because I already had a thorough outline of both parts, and because it had generated some interest lately. I posted Chapter 7 with the promise of this new method, and I’ve now posted up to Chapter 9 and am prewriting Chapter 13. It has yet to earn any bonus chapters, but as the story grows and becomes more interesting, I’m sure it will earn a bonus at some point. And once readers earn that first bonus, they learn ways to take advantage of the system when they get to areas where they desperately want to see what happens next.

The end of Unknowns Part 1, for example, when all the major plots came to a head over the span of a few hours, across several chapters, I got a huge influx of reviews in attempts to earn bonuses. The last few weeks in Part 2, with the story in the fourth Harry Potter book, I had several bonuses a week as readers try to get to the plot points they know are coming and are desperate to see.

This is a great method if you want to give the fans rewards for interaction, but you don’t want to sacrifice the benefits of regularly scheduled chapters for moving along a story to the most interesting plot points. This is especially useful in the early part of a story, where things can sometimes take a while to build up reader interest. The downside to this is that you want to have a sizable backlog of chapters to draw on, because I’ve had to post as often as daily, or even multiple times in a day to grant rewards. This works well for me, because I can prewrite anywhere from three to five chapters on a good day, and when I’m on a roll sometimes I prewrite as much as thirty chapters in a week, but this kind of uncertainty might not be for you, especially if you choose to prewrite in chunks instead of writing a whole story first.

A Few Further Notes

  • You may want to switch over to prewriting slowly, one story at a time, especially if you’ve got a lot of stories on your plate. Trying to start the prewriting process (whichever one you choose) with a couple dozen stories at once might be enough to make you give up before you’ve begun. As with anything new, baby steps.
  • How am I prewriting two stories at once? Simple. For every segment of this post I’ve written, I’ve alternated between a task on Unknowns (usually a POV section, of various lengths) and a task on Against the Odds (about 100 words at a time). I’m about 2/3 through one chapter, 1/3 through the other. I had about 700 words on each when I began this morning.
  • I work in editing to my prewriting process, which I don’t do in my other posting. Before I put up either a scheduled or bonus chapter, I read it over once, word for word, and make any necessary changes before adding Author Notes. Sometimes it’s a missed comma or a spelling error, sometimes it’s adjusting a mistake I made early on that will cause inconsistencies in later chapters if not changed now. If you want to use a beta, you can send off chapters as you’ve written them so they’re ready to post as soon as you schedule/earn them.
  • I’m taking the last methods to extremes with another story – which I won’t name yet – where I’ve outlined it, and I’m hand-writing the whole story. Then I’ll type the whole story. Then I’ll do the mixed-system posting. You can add as many layers of writing, rewriting, and editing to your prewriting as you want, but the more layers, the more prewritten chapters you want in your pocket before you start posting.

Cheers!

C