Critiquing, Uncategorized

What to Look for in a Critique Partner

Writing is a lonely passion. You spend hours alone, and sooner or later, you want someone to read your efforts. No wonder, then, that, online forums are crowded with aspiring writers desperately seeking feedback. Any feedback. There are even sites where you can find someone to exchange manuscripts with, the literary equivalent of dating sites. The trouble is, to find a suitable critique partner, you usually need to go through several. I went through six myself, each of various degrees of satisfaction — but my writing is all the better for it.

Some writers look for beta readers, a term borrowed from software development via fan fiction. However, for me, that term implies a one-way, perhaps one-time relationship involving a finished work, and reminds me uncomfortably of Brave New World, where betas are inferior people. I much prefer the the term “critique partner,” which is less one-sided and can start as soon as you have a finished passage to show.

So what should you look for in a critique partner? Here’s what I learned:

To start with, despite your eagerness, don’t accept just anyone. You may not be compatible on even a basic emotional level, which may make working together hard. Get to know a potential partner first, before you begin to swap stories. If you want more than a general reaction, you need someone in sympathy with your work. Usually — although not always — that means another writer. In addition, you are likely to get only general feedback from someone who neither reads nor writes your genre. That is particularly so in fantasy or science fiction, which has traditions like world-building that mainstream books simply don’t have. Without an understanding of your genre, a critiquer is likely to be of limited use.

A first critique can reveal other limitations as well. Someone who only corrects typos and grammar is not a critiquer — they’re copy editors. What they give you may be useful, but probably you want something more. Similarly, someone who keeps telling you how they would write the story, or who the main character should be without being asked is not going to be much help, either. I had one potential partner who insisted that militias named for animals must be were-creatures — which led to jokes about were-salmon swimming up river to spawn on the night of the full moon, but was otherwise useless to me. Someone who tells you what works, or what might work better is one thing, but someone who wants to continually rewrite your story is not working in the spirit of critiquing.

Even more importantly, do you respect their work? It can be difficult, if not impossible, to take advice from someone you don’t respect. Ideally, critiquing partners should have a mutual respect, even enthusiasm, for each other’s work. That doesn’t mean they can’t criticize each other deeply, but someone who points out only the flaws and never what works, is likely to quickly become an annoyance. Partners needs a mutual sympathy. Otherwise, how can the two of you have an interest in making each other’s work as strong as possible?

In addition to mutual sympathy, successful critiquers also require a deep honesty. With any luck, a critiquer will also be diplomatic, and point out faults discretely to make them more acceptable, but the key requirement is complete frankness about what works and how to fix what doesn’t. That means a family member or an existing friend generally makes a poor partner — probably they want to encourage you and to avoid hurting your feelings. By contrast, a useful critiquer makes honesty the higher priority. They should also be willing to talk out their comments in general. Such conversations, I find, are where I learn the most about writing. The conversations tend to turn into brainstorming, and both you and your critiquer can end up learning something.

All these points matter, but the most important one is that critique partners should at about the same stage in the work in progress and knowledge of writing. Otherwise, the relationship is more of a teacher-student one, which is useful in itself, but a subject for another blog. The entire strength of a successful critiquing relationship is in its give and take, which is next to impossible if the expertise is too one-sided. If necessary, partners can even look for outside expertise, and learn together.

For example, I have worked with Jessica, my chief critique partner, for eleven months now. We both have teaching experience, and we both have sold numerous pieces of non-fiction. Both of us are writing fantasies underpinned by a knowledge of history and of the genre, and are currently somewhere over two-thirds finished. The problem that one of us has is often one that the other has had, or has at least been thinking about, so comments are almost always relevant. I know that my work has improved my work immensely thanks to her dead-on observations. In addition, we have become online friends, and between Christmas and New Years, I flew down to New Orleans to hobnob with her husband, children, and cousins. We plan on meeting again some time. Meanwhile, we have joined with a third writer, who is about on the same level as we are, who is on the way to being another online friend.

Nor are we the only one who have found that critique partners can become friends. One writer online told me that her critique partner felt like a sister, and I have hints of a similar closeness from others. But that shouldn’t be too surprising, when the relationship involves people sharing their dreams and helping each other to reach them. You may have to swipe right dozens of times to find critique partners, but when you do, the search is worth the effort.

General Writing

Writing Infodumps without Slowing the Story

I reject the word “infodump” categorically — that’s a smartass word out of the cyberpunks’ workshop culture, them thinking that they knew how fiction works, as if it were a tinker toy they could disassemble and label superciliously, as if they knew what they were doing. Not true in any way. I reject “expository lump” also, which is another way of saying it. All these are attacks on the idea that fiction can have any kind of writing included in it. It’s an attempt to say “fiction can only be stage business” which is a stupid position.”

  • Kim Stanley Robinson

Sooner or later, a story has to give some background on the characters or the setting. That is especially true in fantasy and science fiction, both of which often have to sketch in an invented background. However, even in a mainstream story, at some point you need to describe characters or give some of their history. For this reason, “infodump” and “expository lump” are thrown around far too freely. As I reflected on Robinson’s comment at thirty thousand feet, my eyes closed against the vague claustrophobia of economy class, I concluded that he was right. Infodumps are an unavoidable part of writing. The question is not whether you should have them in your fiction, but whether they are done poorly or well.

Poor examples of infodumps are easy to find. They are common in novices’ writing, identifiable by the way they stop the story from advancing. Here’s an improvised example:

“We’re surrounded,” Tyler said. He was young giant, blonde haired and with outsized hands. He wore black jeans and wore a sleeveless shirt that might have been called a wife-beater on a man with a less cheery grin. The son of Appalachian coal miners, he spoke with a slow accent that many took for a slowness of mind until they heard his ideas.

“Better break out the guns,” Antoine replied. He was a small man, whose skin showed his Mexican ancestry. Wiry, he was quick with his feet and hands, and his tongue as well. He had met Tyler one night in the student pub, when his fast-talking had kept Tyler out of a fight with a woman’s jealous boy-friend.

This is a parody, but only barely. I have seen dozens of similar passages that interrupt the action to give background. They are the written equivalent of a stage actor who steps out of character to talk directly to the audience about their character.

However the usual correction is no better. Told to mix the background with the general narrative, many beginning writers come up with something like:

His white-skinned hand wiped his ash-blonde hair out of his sea-blue eyes.

This strategy slows the story just as much as my first example, but by overloading the sentence with adjectives. Yet another doomed strategy is go to painful length to have a viewpoint character see themselves in a mirror or a reflection. All these mis-steps are often caused by a writer wanting to have done with the necessary exposition as soon as possible. After reading Robinson’s comment, I have reserved “infodump” and “expository lump” for passages like them.

So how do you fit necessary description or background into a story? One technique is to start each chapter with an excerpt from a fictional document, as John Brunner did in his classic, “The Sheep Look Up.” Removed from the action, such excerpts become more acceptable, especially when kept short. Similar excerpts can be added within the narrative itself as a character reads or hears them. In The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien frequently uses poems in this way, offering only snippets in moments of actions, such as the poetry that Theoden quotes before the Riders of Rohan break the siege of Minas Tirith, and long ones only in scenes where nothing much is happening, such as a quiet night in Rivendell.

However, the easiest way to weave information into a narrative is to take advantage of your viewpoint character. If a character has a background that includes the information you need to convey, all you need to do is put them in a position in which they would naturally think of it. For example:

Gareth leaped for the door, but he was too late. The door clicked shut, and he was trapped in precisely the part of the castle he had been warned not to go. In his childhood, he had heard stories of headless and hungry ghosts who haunted this wing, and now he looked around, half-expecting to see them.

In this passage, instead of halting the narrative, the background information is also used to give the character’s reaction to the setting, and add some tension. You could even make the information part of the character’s thoughts:

Gareth leaped for the door, but it had already clicked shut. Trapped, he thought, and in precisely the part of the castle I have been warned against. I wonder if the headless and hungry ghosts I heard about as a child are still around?

Or if you wanted to describe the character a bit:

Gareth had always prided himself on his speed, but his leap for the door was too late.

You might be able, too, to combine both the descriptive detail and reaction, although probably that would be too busy. Often, dialogue can convey information:

“I leaped, but the door had already clicked shut,” Gareth said.

“What do you do?” Linette said.

“Tried not to think of headless and hungry ghosts,” Gareth said ruefully. “Remember those tales we were told as children? I remember all of them.”

Any of these strategies would work, depending on what you want to do. Still, as a general rule, if a passage has more than one purpose, the chances are that it will convey information without any slowing of the story.

When integrated, background needn’t slow down the narrative at all. At times, as in Tolkien’s descriptions of Rivendell or Lothlorien, the description can even become an attraction in its own right. The next time you see background added to a story, don’t rush to condemn it. Rather, ask how well it integrates with the narrative. The question is not whether anyone can avoid such elements, but how well they serve your story.

General Writing

The Leap into Freelancing

One of the conventional bits of wisdom about freelance work is that it is chancy. Never quit your steady job, experts often insist, unless you have six months of contracts lined up, or a hundred thousand in the bank. It’s sensible advice, except for one small detail: I have never met anyone who followed it, including me. All of us seem to have reached a point where we had enough of the nine to five grind, and took a leap into the unknown.

I still remember my own leap. I was consulting, and making heavy weather of my consulting work as a marketing and technical writer. I had just come off being an executive in two start ups, and was having trouble being just an employee. I was used to responsibility, and I was seeing too many decisions I believed that I could make better. At one gig, the CEO whose office I shared was honestly baffled that he had a morale problem when he had cut a quarter of the staff, including several key hires required to keep the company operating. At a second, the CEO had a habit of arriving at meetings two hours late and drunk, and unilaterally undoing all the decisions already made. Increasingly, I was fed up.

At the second gig, I was part of a team working long hours in a hot summer. Things hit bottom when the company decided to reward the team with an evening at a night club. However, nobody signed up. We were tired, and the last thing any of us wanted was more of each other’s company. When the company changed the evening to an afternoon event, nobody came. The human resources manager was reduced to flushing employees out of washrooms and closets, and from under desks, and herding them over to the club. There we sat, barely chatting, using our free drink tickets, and then, at exactly 5pm, leaving without bothering to make excuses.

The next week was spent doing last minute cleanup on the project. Still shaking my head over the afternoon at the night club, one day I went for a walk along the sea wall in Vancouver’s Coal Harbour. I was weary, and realized that I no longer took even a professional’s pride in doing good work. I gazed up at the North Shore mountains, wishing I were there –or anywhere, really — and reflecting that the mountains would still be there, even if my development missed the final deadline but a few days. I had had enough.

I worked out the final days of my contract, and turned down an offer to renew the contract, despite my misgivings and the internalized voice of my upbringing telling me to be sensible and play it safe.. In the past year, I had done occasional articles for Linux.com, then the online newspaper of free and open source software. In my search for an income, I begged Linux.com’s editor, Robin “roblimo” Miller for a regular position. He said he would take a chance on me as a contributor, but that I would need to write twelve articles a month –over 15,000 words.

I was nervous about only being a contributor rather than an employee. I was even more nervous about researching and writing more than I had ever written in a month, and doing it month after month. But no other source of income turned up immediately, so I decided I could write for Linux.com until more steady work turned up.

I was still there a few years later when the Linux.com URL was sold to the Linux Foundation. In fact, I had found other sites and magazines to make regular contributions to as well. Moreover, when Linux.com closed down, I replaced my lost income in a matter of hours. Since then, I have done the same several more times.

Undoubtedly, I was lucky. Still, looking back, I realize the conventional advice about waiting until I could freelance safely is like the advice to take a regular job and write in your spare time: if I had listened, I never would have made a career out of writing.

I learned, too, that, far from being precarious, in some ways freelancing can be far more secure than regular work. With regular work, I had only one job to depend on. When I lost it, I lost my income and at times my self-respect. By contrast, as a freelancer, I could arrange my finances so that they depended on several sources. Lose one, and I still had an income. Moreover, because I developed a reputation for writing grammatical copy and meeting deadlines, I could almost always replace one lost source of income with another.

I’m not saying that anyone should rush blindly into freelancing. However, I am saying that freelancing is a calculated risk, and a moment may come in your working life when you can take that calculated risk. In fact, a moment may come when the calculated risk of freelancing is no greater than the calculated risk of taking a steady job. Rather than listening to the conventional voices of reason, consider your own circumstances, and whether it’s time to believe in yourself and take your own leap of faith.

General Writing

How Long Should a Chapter Be?

Judging from Facebook writers’ groups, chapter lengths are one of the main anxieties of new writers. Hardly a week goes by without someone obsessing about whether their chapters are too short, or too long, and craving for a scrap of certainty that, frankly doesn’t exist. I could say that I have seen chapters of two words and others of ten thousand words, or that the average length appears to be 3000-4500 words, but neither of those answers is very useful. Like most aspects of writing, chapter length is highly circumstantial.

One school of thought is that you should take pity on your readers, and keep your chapters short for the sake of those who want to finish a chapter before going to bed. Most people would also agree that chapters in a children or young adult book should be shorter than those in a book for an older audience. But these answers aren’t especially useful either. How short is shorter, or long is longer?

To get an actual length, you might start with with your structure. For example, if you are using a five act structure borrowed from Shakespearean plays, then you could plan on five scenes per act, and plan each scene as a chapter. If you plan on a 100,000 word novel, that means your chapters should average out to 4,000 words. The trouble is that Shakespeare himself rarely wrote a perfectly symmetrical play, and frequently had Acts with three or seven chapters in them. Nor are other standard structures any more useful.

Lacking a firm answer, I prefer to plan my chapter lengths by the rhythm they create. Chapters are a natural break in the narrative, and a fresh start. Just as short sentences have a different effect than longer sentences, so a short chapter has a different effect than a longer one. On the one hand, consistently short chapters are likely to create a faster pace, perhaps with more changes in point of view. If you want to go into more depth with shorter chapters, you may need more cliff-hanger endings — and, even if you don’t, the narrative will sometimes spill over into the next chapter, and is likely to break the rhythm established by earlier chapters (which may or may not be something you want to do). On the other hand, long chapters are apt to be slower, and perhaps more philosophical. Your chapters are more likely to come to definite ends.

However, who says that chapters have to be a consistent length? A single sentence chapter can be used for a number of different purposes. In her Falco series, for example, mystery writer Lindsey Davis ends on chapter with a thrown knife, and deliberately breaks the tension in the next, single-sentence chapter in which her narrator simply says that he caught it. Suspense is not the main point of the narrative at that point, so Davis refuses to milk it. More recently, in The Cruel Prince, Holly Black glosses over a lapse of a decade with the simple sentence, “In Faerie, there are no fish sticks, no ketchup, no television,” implying all that a young girl might miss growing up among elves in just eleven words. Each is brilliant in its own way, even if I suspect both writers delight in showing off their writing skills.

Similarly, a chapter longer than those around it can also be useful. Consider, for example, The Council of Elrond in The Fellowship of the Ring. It follows the tense retreat of Aragorn and the four hobbits from Weathertop, racing against time so that Frodo can get the healing he requires. In fact, ever since Bree, the hobbits have been pursued by the Black Riders, with next to no relief of tension. Once they are under Elrond’s protection, the tension is broken, and the characters and the readers alike are overdue for a rest. So Tolkien gives them one, full of welcome reunions and pages of history and debate which, if sometimes ominous, seem remote when heard in such a refuge.

Tolkien also makes effective use of a long chapter in The Battle of Pelennor Fields. The chapter describes the siege of Minas Tirith by Sauron’s army, and the mood gradually becomes grimmer and more hopeless as the city fights on, waiting for the forces of Rohan to relieve it. Just as the tension has been cranked up to an unbearable pitch, a cock crows, and the long chapter ends with, “Rohan had come at last.”

As these examples show, how long your chapters should be is not a trivial question. The problem is that it has no easy answer. The only meaningful answer is: that depends on what you are trying to do.

Fiction, Uncategorized

Michael in the Forest

He will do it. I have come to stop him. Everything is that simple.

Michael moves a chess piece of red clay. He is folded up on himself, his shoulders shrunk. I see my own age in him. I see that I do not tell the whole truth to myself, that I would have come back to his house for some reason before I died. The stones, seeming dank in the firs’ shade, the caverns carved by shadow where my heartbeats throw footsteps down the trails ahead: these I understand. The city is what I do not understand. Had I died before seeing the house a last time, I would have become a ghost and lingered by the lanes and bus-stops where the dogs sniff each other in the early morning. I have always envied Michael the place where he lives.

His move has checkmated me, and he smiles as he reaches for my wine. My tastebuds have gone before I have, and it seemed dusty to me. But Michael gulped his an hour ago, and now his lips edge towards a smile as his tongue slips over the wine in my glass.

I am lulled, after our years of office-sharing, the way I was by the habits of my wife. For three years after I retired, I trailed in my dressing gown after her as she did her housework. Only after she died did I compare myself to the undergraduates who lingered in the cafeteria in the hopes of spotting Michael.

I shake my head. How tiresome, that I am still able to lie to myself. The years have simply made my lies more subtle. I see now that I came for another brawl with words, because he always acts without asking – beause, in fact, he asked me by letter. Now that I think, I doubt that I will be able to stop him when he tries to die.

Michael says, “It has always stood on the edge of the clearing for members of my family. It waits for me. It will call me, soon.”

“How could it have always been here?” I say. “The house and the clearing are a hundred years old, no more.”

He smiles. “Do you think it could be Tsonoqua? The tribes’ Cannibal Woman?”

“Not my specialty.” I mean that I do not remember the mythology. I have not been at the faculty club, even, for two years.

His faculty was English, the same as mine. All the same, he frees a small Henry Hunt print from the wall. He props it against the chess board, facing me. The puzzle-piece blocks of red and black fit into a person holding a basket. I do not know West Coast art, so I cannot say that I see a woman.

“There you go,” he says, “Cannibal Woman.”

His talk is like his tarot cards, like the witchy books whose pages he never turns. I use two fingers as tweezers, and toss the print aside.

“Your father moved here after the war,” I insist. “How could anything have been awaiting your family?”

“A father and an aunt. Two great uncles.” He counts on his fingers. “My grandfather on a visit. He was as old as I am now.”

“How can you believe?” I glared at him and go to lean on the mantlepiece.

He keeps silent.

“You can’t start to argue and then stop, Michael. I know too well that you’ll try to.”

Still, he does not answer. I stare furiously into the fire.

After a moment, he takes pity. “I doubt it will come tonight, Jonathan. Why don’t you sleep?”

He lets some wine lurch from the bottle into his glass. I do not say what I wanted to when I saw the label. I was young, when Okanagan wines were malt vinegar. I take my lacquered walking stick and start to the stairs. The further I move from the fire, the more the cold off the stones seems to slip inside me.

At the stair’s bottom, I turn. He is going to be awake all night. He will be sleepless, steady and sober, and he is six years older than me.

“You’ll be all right?” I say.

“I hope so,” he says. My neck hardens as I understand that we have different meanings.

“I wish I could hear the sea.” I climb two stairs and turn again. “Here in the trees, you forget there is a sea.”

“I could take you to the saltchuck tomorrow.” He opens last week’s paper to the chess problem. “Good night, Jonathan.”

“Good night, Michael.” I sway up to the landing. When my breath is not so tight about my breastbone, I walk in the darkness to my room.

Two, three times, I grope out, sleep-slowed, for my bladder’s sake. From the landing, I look down each time. I know Michael and I do not want to wake in the house alone.

On my last stare, his bald spot slides away to make room for his face. “I told you it probably wouldn’t come, Jonathan.”

I trudge back to gape up into the dark. I tell myself that he is drunk on words, that his family has been proud and chosen their deaths in lonely places, the way that cats are supposed to. But I sleep in a fever of doubt. Through jagged dreams, I watch as a stooped Cannibal Woman plucks men and women from the ground. Among her harvest is Michael, his tweeds thick with needles and loose with the damp. Dew dribbles down the branches on to his head.

When I fall out of sleep, I say, “This is it.” I would use the same tone for the long-awaited holocaust-by-button. I know, not knowing how I know, and I lash the sash around my dressing gown as I walk. In the dark before the stairs, I push my glasses up along my nose.

Michael is straightening a toque about his head. A black ski jacket coats his body.

I place myself in front of him. “It’s cancer, isn’t it? That, or something worse.”

I am sure that I will be faced with silence, his smugness so much worse than a curse. Instead, he smiles. “No, Jonathan. Just time.”

I move between him and the door. I was strong, when young. My arms were veined with strength. Now, I strain and grunt, and still I am pushed aside and into a chair.

How can these crying sounds creep out of me? My eyes itch with dryness.

I hear the lock open. My cheek is brushed by the rush of air.

“Good night, Jonathan.”

After a moment, I can hear him outside, walking with slow purpose, as if he is early for an appointment and looking for the address.

Twisting in the chair, I seem him easing into the dark.

Overhead, the wind ruffles the branches. It seems to dance through the dark as I stagger to the door.

By my car, across the clearing, Michael twists sideways into the bush. I see him, one hand raised to move a branch from his path. The hand straightens and rises a little as he sees me. He

does not wave.

Part of the dark seems to slip from the rest. It clings to him like a lover. There is a laugh like Michael’s—no.

There is only the twitching branch.

The trees seem to stoop after me. I have gone senile and want to giggle, but the beginnings of sweat are breaking out over my face. I have thought death thin, and bleak. Yet the night outside flows about me, as warm as bathwater. I want to close my eyes to remember. I want to invite the night in through the door. Instead, I leap to close it and I hurry away, faster than my heart would like.

Upstairs, I tug my dressing gown off. I lean over the bed, lowering myself face-first.

Mouth at the pillow, I speak to the dark. “They’ll have to solder my coffin lid down.”

After a second: “They’ll have to pin my heart down, and plant me in a place where two freeways meet.”

“I’ve always liked garlic. They’ll give me garlic for chewing tobacco.”

I carry a poor tune in the dark. I lunge at the light. “Me,” I whisper as I pick up the phone. “It should have been me.”

The silence that replies seems Michael’s, and, already, loneliness aches like a rib-bruise.

Tomorrow I will look for Michael in the forest.

Characters

Economy of Character

My late friend Paul Edwin Zimmer wrote a story in which a trained fighter defeated a vampire, not through speed, but through the absolute efficiency drilled into him over decades of training. The idea has always seemed a working definition of skill, and, not incidentally, an apt description of Paul’s own writing. However, it’s only recently I realized that it could apply to the creation of characters as well.

Most people, including me, seem to create characters unsystematically. They arise out of the immediate needs of the plot, or emerge full-grown out of their creator’s imagination. Few, if any, seem to consider characters as a long-term part of the story’s development who can become a member of a sort of central casting that can be drawn on to increase the long term efficiency of writing and help to bind the story together.

Perhaps you need to be someways along in your story to realize such possibilities. My own revelation came a third of the way through my first draft. I had thrown my main characters on the road, penniless, and in desperate need of a place to hide as their pursuer closed on them. I could have created a new character, but then I remembered a character who didn’t even appear on the page, a servant whose newborn child had been sacrificed for magical purposes. Nobody would have bothered to tell her, so her story was left unfinished, a minor part of my main characters’ adventures.

That seemed callous — however common in fantasy. However, I realized that I wanted my characters to be responsible. In the middle of their own misfortunes, they took the time to carry the sad news, and in the process found a roof for the night. The next morning, the servant is last seen stoically trudging home.

Realizing I was on to something, I had a soldier who had played a previously minor role show up further down the road. I also took an embarrassing ex-lover with a sheltered view of life — a comic character, a throwaway, really — and set her on the road to maturity with the soldier’s help.

However, the real advantage of having cast only struck me when a main character woke up alone in a village whose language he barely spoke. He had come with his lover and a young hero who was adopting him for political reasons, but neither were available. Two other characters were enemies who were not about to help him.

I did not want to have a chapter of my character wandering around inarticulately, so I needed a few people he could talk to. I found them in the form of a sexually ambiguous shaman he consulted, and a crippled ex-prisoner of war turned blacksmith. Later, I added two Aunties who started as his enemies, and became friendly due to their sense of romance.

All these characters appeared for ruthlessly practical purposes. Yet, after each served an original purpose, by the time I started relating the village’s politics, together they gave me a ready-made crowd cast for crowd scenes. For example, one chapter involves the reactions to the sudden appearance of an item of magic. Between all the previously invented characters, I had a full range of reactions.

For instance, I had originally made the smith crippled because I had the image of him swinging around his workshop on parallel bars. I had no other reason for that detail than it was vivid in my mind. However, when the magic appeared, and others were healed but not him, I had a new aspect to the story, and a new image of the disappointed smith limping back home disappointed. The shaman, a likely candidate for a cure, didn’t want one. As for the Aunties, one was reassuring the other that the cure would not affect their lesbian relationship. I had an entire cast ready to perform without any need to introduce more bit-players.

Nor am I through with this cast yet. Looking ahead, I can already see the roles most of them will play. Like Paul wrote years ago, it’s all about economy — and that’s a lesson I’ve never seen in all the millions of words published on how to write. Maybe it’s one of those skills you can only learn by doing.

General Writing

Take the Work Seriously, Never You

A few weeks ago, someone asked for general advice about writing. My reply was, “Take the work seriously, and yourself not at all.”

I was trying to capture the combination of attitudes I have observed in successful writers over the years. However, as an aphorism, my reply needs more explanation. So let me add a few comments. I’ll start with the second half first.

As a writer, you can easily develop an egocentric opinion of yourself. You have a skill that most people cannot match. Probably, you are surrounded by family and friends who want to be agreeable and praise you so that everybody is pleased. Moreover, as you settle to work, you face long hours alone, much of which involves learning what works and what doesn’t. Under these conditions, to look for compensation is only natural. After all, it is arrogant think that you can write a whole book. Even a non-fiction book, which placed no demand for dialog or metaphor, is difficult simply in terms of size.

Under such circumstances, it’s understandable that you might daydream about finishing your current work, or imagine your future success. My critique partner, for instance, jokes about her future six-figure income. She’s as wistful as she is serious, however, so she does herself no harm.

However, the problem sets in when you start thinking of yourself as special — when you think of yourself as misunderstood, as lacking the respect you think you deserve. You rant about how other people don’t understand the importance of art (or, by implication, of yourself as a servant of the muse). Perhaps you start talking of visions, or of epiphanies, like James Joyce. You bristle at any critique that is less than wildly enthusiastically supportive. If the subject of diversity arises, you insist that no one should dare to tell you how to write, and allude to freedom of expression and the arrogance of encroaching on your sacred vision (see above).

The problem with such attitudes is that they make you miss opportunities for development. Moreover, by rejecting all criticisms, you miss the chance to learn how to separate the valid comments from the useless. That kind of attitude is especially harmful if you aim for traditional publishing, in which the transition from an agent to a publisher to publication is all about knowing how to learn to evaluate criticism. Before long, you are off on the wings of ambition, planning twenty book series when you are stuck on the first thousand words.

If you ever have thoughts like these, stop and have a look at yourself. You are not special; one Facebook writing group alone has over ninety thousand members, all a little ahead of you or behind you in their writing careers. The most that the majority of us can say is that we have — or might have — potential. That potential does not mean we are misunderstood or special (although it might mean that our ranting puts people out of sympathy with us). And if you find yourself rambling on about epiphanies, you might gains some perspective by recalling Ursula K. Le Guin’s comment that Joyce used have a lot of epiphanies, especially, apparently, in his bathroom. In other words. get over yourself. None of us are important because of our potential, only because of what we manage to actually do.

Instead, focus on making each work the best you can manage. Instead of isolating yourself in self-referential dreams, look at the trees and streets around, you, and the river of voices and noises around you. In the words of Fritz Leiber, the creator of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, make gathering snippets for your stories part of your everyday adjustment to living. If you see a good bit in someone else’s work, see if you can repurpose it and make it your own. If you need to information, research it. Learn to love editing. Listen to critiques until you can tell which are useless and why might deserve consideration. In short, put your ego away, and dedicate yourself to perfecting your craft generally, and your work in progress in particular.

It’s the work that matters. Not you. Repeat those seven words until you believe them, and they describe how you work. You’ll be doing yourself a favor. And when you feel pride in your work, it will because you earned it.

General Writing

Harp and Carp: The Fantasy of Medieval Ballads

Harp and carp, come along with me, Thomas the Rhymer

In the writing community, you often hear that Europe is exhausted as a source for fantasy. Europe, people say, has been the default for so long that not much original can be done with it any more. Instead, writers are advised to look to other cultures. Nothing is wrong with that advice — providing, of course, that you observe any rules in the culture about who can tell which stories, and familiarize yourself with your culture of choice. However, Europe still has plenty of untapped inspirations, and, among those, my favorite are the English and Scots ballads that flourished 1300-1700. In fact, I go so far as to say that some of the most evocative fantasy ever written can be found in some of those ballads.

Usually, these ballads are not closely tied to time or place. Even when they allude to historical events, they are not always bound by fact. However, they usually depict a land ruled by feuding lords who are a law to themselves, and where raiding and revenge are a way of life. Many seem to derive from the Anglo-Scots border, where lawlessness prevailed even after the unification of England and Scotland.

Even when fantasy is not a major element, a sense of the uncanny is rarely far away. Consider, for example, this verse from “The Battle of Otterburn“:

Last night I dreamed the drearest dream,
Beyond the isle of Skye,
I saw a dead man win a fight,
And I thought that man was I.

Some ballads may not have been considered fantasy at the time they were written, but would be considered fantasy now — although, even 800 years ago, prophecies and visitations by the devil were presumably not the stuff of everyday life. In “The False Knight on the Road,” a child meets the devil, and his only hope is to stand firm, answering promptly until morning forces the devil to withdraw:

“Methinks I hear a bell,” says the knight on the road,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” said the child where he stood,
And he stood and he stood, and ’tis well that he stood,
“It’s ringing you to hell,” says the child.

. And in “The Great Silkie,” a man who shape-changes into a seal comes to retrieve the son he got on a helpless woman, and leaves with this eerie prophecy (presented here , as all other quotes, with modern wording):

And you shall marry a proud gunner,
And a proud gunner I’m sure he’ll be,
And with the first shot that e’er he fires,
He’ll kill my son and me.

Others are murder ballads that could have come straight from The Game of Thrones, straying from the improbable to the fantastic. For example, in “The Famous Flower of Serving Men,” a woman’s husband and baby is killed for unknown reasons by her mother. After burying her husband, the woman disguises herself as a man and takes service with the king. The king discovers the murder after being led to the grave by the husband’s spirit in the form of a stag and a singing dove, and realizing that his court favorite is a woman, kisses her the next time they meet. and takes revenge on the mother:

“And don’t you think that her heart was sore
As she laid the mould on his yellow hair
And don’t you think her heart was woe
As she turned about, all away to go.

“And how she wept as she changed her name
From Fair Eleanor to Sweet William,
Went to court to serve her king
As the famous flower of serving men.”

Still others are outright fantasies. “The Elf Knight” is a Blackbeard-like story, while “Allison Gross” is about a spurned witch who turns the man who rejects her advances into a giant worm. In two of the most popular ballads, the elves feature prominently. In “Tam Lin,” a young pregnant woman rescues her lover from the elves by dragging him from his horse as the elven host rides by a lonely place at midnight, holding on to him as the Elven Queen transforms him into dangerous shapes:

Well they changed him then – it was all in her arms
To a lion roaring wild
But she held him tight, she feared him not
He was the father of her child, she knew that he was
The father of her child.

Similarly, in “Thomas the Rhymer,” Thomas of Ercildoune — a historical figure in Scotland — meets the Queen of Elfland and is carried off to her realm, after being given the gift of prophecy. The song ends with one of the loveliest expressions of medieval Christianity, in which the Queen shows Thomas three paths: one to Heaven, Hell, and Elfland:

And do you see yon narrow, narrow road,
All beset by thorns and briars,
That is the path of righteousness,
Though after it but few inquire.

Don’t you see yon broad, broad road
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness
Though some call it the road to heaven

Don’t you see yon bonnie, bonnie road
That winds about the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elf land
Where you and I this night must stray.

I could go on and on, but I think I already have. For those interested in learning more, Child Ballads collects over three hundred of these ballads, complete with variations. Many recordings are available on Youtube from folk acts like Fairport Convention, The Corries, June Tabor, and Steeleye Span. Together they represent a rich source of mostly unused material in fiction, despite the current popularity of retold fairy tales. If you don’t find some inspiration in them, you might at least find some music to write by.

General Writing

Finding the Right Title

Titles

Titles are the most important half dozen words in a piece of fiction. However, the right title can be nightmarishly hard to hunt down, and matters for more reasons than most people think.

A non-fiction title is relatively easy. The potential readers are a select audience, interested mainly in an accurate summary of the article. As a result, a title is often no more complicated than “Setting Up Bluetooth Speakers” or “Ghosts in Shakespeare.” Sometimes, though, I pun shamelessly — more because I can than for any valid reason. For instance, in writing about Gaël Duval’s eelo project (now /e/) to produce a free-licensed phone, I couldn’t resist “You say goodbye, and I say eelo.”

However, in fiction the stakes are higher. Probably, you won’t want to pun, except perhaps when doing humor. More often, an effective fiction title is like a good blurb: it should intrigue a reader and summarize the story without giving too much away. For me, the titles in Tolkien’s trilogy cover the full range of effectiveness: The Fellowship of the Ring intrigues, The Two Towers is neutral, and The Return of the King gives away a key plot point.

But how to find a title? That is the hard part. Ideally, you want a phrase that encapsulates the entire work. Unfortunately, though, that is a painstaking business. Too frequently, I need several dozen attempts, and even then I may not find a suitable title. The trouble is that I first have to decide what the main themes are — which, like most authors, I struggle with — and then have to find a way to express it in a few words. Personally, I’d rather write a Spencerian sonnet.

In desperation, I may turn to collections of quotations. Shakespeare has been largely mined out, so much so that the more famous passages can sound like a library catalog. I, for one, am unable to hear or read Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy without envisioning a stack of unmemorable Penguin mysteries from the 1930s. However, there are countless other writers whose quotes you can borrow. All you have to do is to scan a list until you find one that suggests one of the themes of your work.

Sometimes, too, you can echo a quote, changing it just enough to be intriguing. For instance, when I published my master’s thesis on Fritz Leiber, I knew that the academic title would never do. No one is going to stop to read the title, much less pick up “Divination and Self-Therapy:” Archetype and Stereotype in the Works of Fritz Leiber.” Instead, after countless self-starts, I remembered that Leiber had memorized most of Macbeth while playing in his parents’ theatrical company. Coming to the “dagger of the mind” passage, I finally found something with which I could work. The thesis was about the Anima, the female aspect of a man in Jungian psychology, which often gets tangled with the Shadow, or sinister aspect. With all this in mind, I settled on Witches of the Mind, which, to those who know the original passage, suggests that Leiber’s depiction of women was all about male perception, not actual women.

Similar twistings of familar phrases are especially common when a movie becomes popular. For instance, shortly after the release of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, there were all sorts of plays upon its title.

Other times, a phrase within the work may provide the title. I avoid a phrase from the start or the end of the story, which when combined with the title can sound repetitious. For the same reason, I avoid chapter titles, if I am using them. I also suggest not using invented characters or place name, although many writers do. But that still leaves thousands of words to choose from. In my current work in progress, my critiquing partner Jessica suggested The Bone Ransom, highlighting an important piece of background detail. I admit that I had invented the bone ransom for some creepy atmosphere, but as soon as I heard the suggestion, I knew that I was unlikely to find another title half so intriguing.

No matter which method of finding a title you choose, it’s always wise to check the title before using it, especially if it’s only one or two words, and is therefore likely to have been already used. For instance, I thought I had a wonderful title in Sister Assassin, but, unfortunately it’s been used. I might have used it anyway, but I prefer for my titles to be unique. But even if a title is unique, it can never hurt to field-test it among friends or a Facebook writing group. You are unlikely to have a consensus, but if most of the respondents approve the title, and the negatives are minor, or for trivial reasons, you can adopt the title with some confidence.

The Reason Why

Asked why a title matters, many writers say that it is meant to catch a potential reader’s attention. With any luck, seeing the title will make people stop to read the blurb or maybe the first few pages. And if you are self-publishing that may be reason enough to labor over the title.

However, if you aiming for traditional publishing, it is not readers whose attention you are trying to attract: it’s agents or editors. This difference matters because the title you’ve labored over stands a good chance of being changed on the way to publication, sometimes for a sensible reason. For instance, your perfect title may have “blood” or “dark” in it, at a time when many other submissions have as well. In such a case, changing your title might keep your work from being lost in the crowd. For this reason, in traditional publishing, your working title becomes a way to prove your competence to agents and editors.

Titles may come at any point in a story, ranging from before you start to the completion of the final draft. I was lucky with an unfinished story called “Grendel Night,” but often, I can’t settle on the title until the very end, simply because until I finish, I don’t know what the story is about.

Yet whenever possible, I try to have a working title as early as possible. Why? Because the title works on you as a writer as much as it does on a potential reader. A well-chosen title is a way of thinking of your story as a whole, a kind of mental shortcut that makes thinking about the story easier. Moreover, the title can be a guideline for the direction of the story, or at least for revisions. For example, when I settled on The Bone Ransom, I immediately understood what parts I needed to emphasize in the next draft, and what I needed to add.

In this way, your title can help you as much as it does potential readers or editors. The influence of a title can be as much artistic as commercial — and either means the time devoted to finding the right one is justified.

Critiquing, Diversity

What does a sensitivity reader do?

I first heard of sensitivity readers a couple of years ago. Like many writers, the concept of someone examining my depiction of other cultures and genders intrigued and alarmed me at the same time. In theory, I liked the idea, but what if I failed to measure up? What if I was unintentionally racist or sexist? Then I had the chance to play a sensitivity reader myself, and saw what a difference a sensitivity reader could make.

The writer I agreed to help was writing Lone Ranger fan-fiction. Her goal was to update the Lone Ranger for modern times — deliberately ignoring the disastrous Johnny Depp movie — and she had already added a few scenes in support of her goal. For example, at one point, the story has a scene in which Tonto explains to the Lone Ranger that the law is not on the sides of non-whites. However, she was not sure she had done enough to realize her goal, so she asked for help.

From the first, I was painfully aware of how unprepared I was for the role. I am of Cornish and English descent, and my knowledge of First Nations is specifically centered on the tribes of British Columbia, from whom I buy art and whom I support with a scholarship at the Freda Diesing School of Northwest art. From the first, I made clear that I had no experience of the Apache or Comanches, the tribes mentioned in the story.

All the same I brought two qualifications to the reading. First, I knew that research is one of the keys to depicting other cultures as human. Second, while the local cultures have no cultural relation to the Apache and Comanches, most First Nations share a common history of oppression by the dominant European-based culture in North America, a history full of broken faith and lies on the settlers’ side, and suspicion and of mistrust on the First Nations side. Only the details differ.

Doing the reading

After doing some research, I was able to make a few concrete suggestions. To start with, while acknowledging the violence of Apache raids, I suggested that it should also be mentioned that settlers committed their own share of atrocities against the Apaches.

However, most of my suggestions centered on Tonto. “Comanche” is not what members of his nation called themselves — that would be “Numinu” or something spelled similarly. More importantly, based on the ethnology of Tonto’s tribe, I could suggest some possible traits and habit that go beyond the stolid “faithful Indian companion” of TV and film. For example, he might tend to give older man respect, because the old men governed his tribe. He would almost certainly have knowledge and interest in the buffalo, whom his people relied upon. Probably, he would use a travois to carry his goods. All these are simple points, but even they start to flesh out the character.

What really matters, though, is that the mythos makes Tonto an orphan. Could that mean that he had never gone through the standard initiation for Comanche men, killing a buffalo on his own and going on a vision-quest? If so, that would explain his position as an outsider. He could be expected to feel himself lacking, and a stranger to the culture of his birth. Such feelings would also find their counterparts in the Lone Ranger, which would explain their friendships. Both would feel themselves exiled from their own cultures, and strangers in each other’s. Basically, they would be mirror images of each other.

The Revision

I sent these comments to the author, emphasizing that these comments were basic and she should do more research herself. Several months passed before I saw the revised story.

Unfortunately, she did not seem to have done the additional research I suggested, which I am sure would have improved her story still further. But she had listened to most of my comments, and I found the results interesting.

The simple mention of settler atrocities made mention of Apache raids more ambiguous. Even more interestingly, when added to her habit of giving Tonto more of a voice, my comments had helped to transform Tonto from a supporting character to something of a shared lead. In places, he schooled the Lone Ranger, even correcting his views. He came across clearly as a lonely man, rather than a figure of stoicism. For the first time, he became interesting. Much more than I would have imagined possible, he had become a character in his own right, no longer simply part of the background to the Lone Ranger’s story.

Could I have said more? Undoubtedly. But I was new to sensitivity reading, and working for free. All the same, it was gratifying to see the results of my comments. From the story as well the author’s comments, I had played a part in helping her goals.

Sensitivity reading, like any critique, is probably what you make it. Still, judging from this experience, I am convinced that it can be a useful exercise so long as a writer is willing to listen. Although I think I avoided any major mistakes, I believe that, the next time I attempt to do a sensitivity reading, I can do a better job.