Critiquing

Jan. 15th, 2011 06:12 pm
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
I haven't stopped writing, but I have stopped blogging. This is something I need to remedy, because so much of the author-reader experience these days includes internet interaction. In this vein, I may soon break down and get a twitter account. I've been holding off for ages because I feel like twitter is contributing to the poor grammar of America. If you're restricted to 140 characters, you feel justified in taking shortcuts.

But I don't want to turn this into a rant about social media. It is a powerful force, and should not be ignored.

What I want to write about instead is workshopping.

I just got back from my third residency at the Seton Hill Writing Popular Fiction MFA program. Aside from being the only program of its kind in the country (there are plenty of MFA creative writing programs, but only one that focuses entirely on genre fiction), it is also the first writing program I've been involved with that fosters good, constructive workshop sessions. Sometimes I've stumbled into good critique groups almost by mistake, but most of my undergrad writing classes were fraught with disdain and disparagement. Often the professors egged on the students in their destructive critiques. I escaped that world and switched to studying literature (mythology and folklore was my specialty) just to keep a hold on my sanity.

But Seton Hill isn't like that.

Here's what I love:

They've learned from their mistakes. The first class you ever take at Seton Hill now is a class on critiquing. You learn the "sandwich" method (positive comment, constructive critique, positive comment), and how to explain what you feel rather than saying, "I didn't like this." Then you don't have a workshop until the next day, which gives you time to revise any critiques you may already have completed.

Every workshop is moderated by an instructor who has copious workshop experience. This is more important than you might believe. The students can easily take over a workshop unless the moderator is on top of things.

The joy of workshopping a piece is found in having so many inquisitive writer-minds focused on your manuscript for an hour. No matter what genre they write, other writers have fantastic insights into the process and can spot all sorts of things you, as the author, are too close to the work to see. I love workshops and critique groups because I get so much out of them that makes me a better writer. I hope I give a little back, too.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
As an author of a fantasy series-in-progress, I feel honor-bound to defend them against negative comments.

Tonight I participated in a class chat as part of my MFA program in genre fiction. The chat's theme was characters and point of view, but about halfway into the the chat we started crossing from character into plot. We were talking about the requirements of series writing, and how to carry characters and plot over the course of a series. Someone made a comment about mystery and romance series being different than fantasy series, and I chimed in that a lot of fantasy writers view their series as one huge story/book chopped into volumes. Another member of the class shot back that that was lazy writing, a la the Wheel of Time.

A chat room isn't the best place for an argument, or even a discussion, because you can only enter so much text and in this case there were twenty or so other students who wanted to talk about other things. So my only rejoinder was that I didn't mean that the individual volumes didn't or shouldn't have their own story arcs.

But now that I have time and leisure, I want to talk about the fantasy series, and to defend my views.

The first point is that we have Tolkien to blame. When he wrote The Lord of the Rings he did not write it as a trilogy. He wrote it as one book and for various reasons (one being the cost of paper post-WWII), his publisher insisted on breaking it into three volumes. I would never suggest that other writers blindly ape Tolkien's example. After all, if you read the entire book it does have a plot arc and character development (though confined primarily to the hobbits). Tolkien knew what he was doing, but was forced to do something else instead. I mean, who would end The Two Towers with Frodo taken by the enemy and Sam in possession of the Ring? When the movies were made, they shifted events around so that Towers would have a more satisfying climax and conclusion, and it's one of the few changes I agree with.

Modern fantasy readers want their books to have good character development and good plot structure. Just furthering the overall series plot isn't enough- you have to tell a good story every time. But that big picture or big problem that follows/pushes/is pushed by your characters throughout the course of the series is just important.

I think of the modern fantasy series as an ocean tide. It's all the same water, and the goal is to hit some high point on the shore, but it is going to take a number of waves breaking on the sand before the tide comes all of the way in. Each wave is a book. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end. In each, the characters are pushed further on their own journeys and grow and change as the wave swells and curls. At the climax they crash upon the shore and then sweep back to regroup for the next book/wave. Every time they get a little farther toward their goals, and meet new challenges along the way.

Fantasy readers want big, sweeping stories with lots of scenery and characters and plots that aren't easily resolved in one 500 page volume. Stand-alones exist, but both publishers and readers are going to beg for more.

So when you write fantasy, you can't neglect the individual book problem or the overall series problem(s). You have to consider both.
allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
In undergrad I took a course on Tolkien where we spent half the semester on The Lord of the Rings. Once the Fellowship breaks, Frodo, Sam, and Gollum spend the rest of the The Two Towers toiling through unforgiving landscapes. They get lost and wander through the rocky labyrinth of Emyn Muil, then slog through the interminable Dead Marshes on the Plain of Dagorlad.

I've always identified with how these events happen in the middle of the book (I'm referring to the entire cycle here, since it was intended to be a single volume), because the middle is always the hardest part of writing a book. In the beginning you are excited, motivated, charged with this new idea that still has all of its sparkle and shine. You start building a world and putting characters into it and seeing how they interact and then at some point you realize you are lost. Isn't that the same outcropping of rocks from twenty pages ago?

That's kind of how I feel about my WiP right now. I've set myself a NaNo-like goal of writing 1500 words a day every day in September so that I can finish the novel by the end of the month. That will give me most of October to work on revisions and putting together the other items one needs in order to successfully query agents/editors.

One of the things that has helped me with this novel was writing out a very detailed synopsis during the early writing process. There have been deviations from the synopsis, but nothing major. So every time I get lost or am unsure about what I'm writing, I go back to the synopsis to get my bearings. I'm going to start doing this for all of my books. It also helps a great deal in keeping character names and details straight.

Now it's back to slogging. Well, after I finish my homework for my MFA class.

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allisonholz: Here I am in my writing cave, aka my basement (Default)
Allison Holz

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