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

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

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

Closing Up Camp

Good news and bad news.

Good: I’ve passed my Camp NaNo quota. Actually, I passed it early last week, but I kept chuggin’ along.

Bad: I haven’t finished the novel yet.

I’ve got two chapters and change to go, and I doubt I’ll finish it all today.

So what shall I do? Well, I’m putting it on high priority while I sort through stuff, but I’ll submit what I’ve got for validation. I mean, I won, right? I deserve to own it.

On the other hand, when I do finish I have to get into editing land, and I think I’ve decided a plan.

I put my work – all my work – through nine rounds of edits before I send it off to Natalie Cannon. Each time through, I focus on something different. I think what I’ll do this time, though, is get friends involved as beta readers. I’ll have a different friend read during each of the nine rounds, and I’ll task them to look at everything EXCEPT what I’m focusing on. So while I’m focusing on description, they can’t comment on description. When I’m scrutinizing verbs, they have to talk about anything except for my verbs.

My friend Sarah is going to start out, and she’ll have a free pass to talk about anything, since my first round is just me reading it out loud.

I’m sort of excited for this new method, and I’ll keep y’all posted on how it’s working out. I have high hopes.

Cheers,

C

The Prodigal Camper

Remember ages ago now when I said that I was doing Camp NaNo to finish up a novel?

Well, I didn’t lie. I just…put off adding on to that novel until this morning.

So it’s three weeks in. Meh. I still only have to write about 2k a day to finish on time, and I did about 3k this morning, so that’s totally fine. I’ll be done before the end, for sure.

How did that happen?

Well, writers are people like any other people, and we happen to be people who often have day jobs. While I see my novel as priority number one, my boss might not like me putting off paperwork until Camp Nano is over, right?

Right. Unfortunately.

So here I am, listening to Muse and taking a deep breath before I plunge into a bit more work so I can justify a bit more writing. A balance, I tell myself, everything’s a balance.

I happen to have complete and utter confidence in my ability to finish Camp NaNo successfully and possibly with a banging good story to turn around and edit. Not only do I write disgustingly fast (just ask Natalie, seriously), but I do that with quite a bit of efficacy to my writing, and I’ve got much of my work well-organized in one way or another.

So I’m taking this small break in my life to a) apologize for lack of blogging and b) remind you ALL that the best way to tackle anything in life, especially a novel, especially while doing something like Camp NaNo or NaNoWriMo itself, you have to have a plan. It doesn’t have to be a color-coded plan with a binder full of alphabetized character profiles signed in triplicate (although one of my writing projects does have that, minutes the signed in triplicate part), but it DOES have to be a plan. Big, small, long, short – you have to know where you’re going to actually be sure you’re going to get there.

Now, you could just work from scratch and let the spirit MOVE you where you need to be. But for that you’d better be prepared to work for a set amount of time every day, at the same time every day, like a real job. And if your life can afford you doing that, I applaud and envy you.

I certainly can’t, and thus I’ve got my binders and notebooks and many pen colors and pomodoro timers.

Also, get a really good to-do app. I could recommend several, as I actually USE several simultaneously. Maybe that shall be my next post. Thoughts?

How are your Camp NaNo excursions faring?

Cheers

C

Continually Moving Forward

I was reading over a short story I’d started because I set my mind on finishing it yesterday. (I did finish it, so now it’s going to be subjected to the rigors of editing), and it got me thinking about the development of my writing over time.

When I read back to my very earliest work (we’re talking when I was, like, ten) I am often astonished by the strength of character and the weird but suitable sense of plot. But something I’ve struggled with off and on is forcing myself to include enough physical description in a scene. In fact, in my list of things to consider in different rounds of edits, one of the first rounds is entirely focused on adding in physical description, with the knowledge that my editor my cut or pare down some of it later.

Adding this step to my editing process has been invaluable, and Natalie noticed the difference immediately. But this short story (which doesn’t really have a very good working title at the moment so I’ll not use one yet), I started out forcing myself to describe intently.

I have to say, when I’ve looked back on this, it’s really some of my better writing (not surprisingly), but it does NOT come naturally to me. I’m not a person who cares so much about how things look, but about how things ARE, what things are doing, what sort of person people are, how they interact with other persons. So the ending I’ve written for this story?

Not nearly as descriptive. I tried, I really did, but it just didn’t happen.

I suppose we are constantly moving and changing as writers, and that’s one reason editing is so important, isn’t it? We have to smooth over who we were when we started writing and who we were when we finished, and make the work seem like it’s from one cohesive place in time. But nothing ever does.

Cheers,

C