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

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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

Goals for January: Writing by Checklist

As I’m balancing many projects, I’ve got to do some prioritizing in order to be sure that I’m making inroads on various projects.

I’m working on exploring new story-telling media, and I’ll keep you updated on how that’s going. Thus far, it’s going very, very slowly.

Also, I’m prioritizing two of my novel projects: an alternate history and a crime novel (this because I’ve had an insight into the sequel, so I’d better get on and finish the first one, hadn’t I?).

Other projects will plod along as usual, and whichever project is the closest to my heart in March will likely be my April Camp NaNo. After my sad failure of a showing for the November NaNoWriMo, I’m intent on actually accomplishing my Camp NaNos this year to the fullest.

I’m doing this in small pieces, focusing on a chapter at a time, with the attempt of accomplishing at least three chapters a week, knowing that during NaNo months I’ll be stepping it up to at least a chapter a day.

What are your January writing goals? Have you met any of them yet?

Cheers

C