Tags: structure

How to Deal with a Huge Pile of Comments

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: August 20, 2015
Comments: No Comments

Have you ever felt buried under a pile of manuscripts comments? My two critique groups generously agreed to read my whole middle-grade novel April Fool. So I had 10 copies printed and mailed them off.

All 10 members read them, poured their hearts, souls and intellects into reading and commenting. And now I face this:

Pile of April Fool manuscripts

(Wow, it looks so much more intimidating on my desk…believe me, its a huge pile.)

When I met with the two groups, the members gave me oral comments and I took notes furiously. But I don’t want to miss anything they may have written in addition, so I have to go through this huge pile. Did I mention that it is huge.?Or at least feels huge…

So how do I take a pile of marked up manuscripts and turn it into a plan? I start by pulling the first manuscript off the pile. I begin to read the comments. In Word I start two files: One is a list of notes on comments that I know I want to address. These comments and suggestions resonate with me, and I have a hunch that by making these suggested changes the manuscript will not only be better but will also be closer to what I want the book to be. The second Word doc is a list of notes on suggestions that I think are interesting but that I’m not sure I want do.

The first list becomes my master TO DO list for revision. The second list I will consider again after I have finished those revisions. After working with the manuscript on the first set of notes, I usually have a better idea of whether these suggestions will take me in the direction I want to go.

There is one more step to this manuscript mountain climbing process. The height of the pile is partially my own fault. Instead of printing the manuscripts double-sided to save paper, I print single-sided. That way I can flip through a manuscript, taking out all the pages that have no comments or that have comments or edits that I don’t want to do. This leaves me with a much smaller pile of the pages that have important comments or line edits that I want to input. Ahh, a smaller mountain.

This reviewing and sorting and weeding process helps me both ponder comments at my own pace and sets me up with a clear list of revisions I know I want to make.

And when I’m done with all these revisions and I’m ready to print out my new improved manuscript, I’ll have lots of recycled paper to print it on 🙂

Happy revising.

Elizabeth Rusch

NEVER Give Up on a Book You Believe In

Don’t give upWhen I was pregnant with my second child, who is now 10 years old, I started writing a picture book called Squeaks, Stumps, and Surprises: A Big Brother’s Guide to Life with a New Baby. I was trying to see my second pregnancy and the appearance of a new baby in the family through my first child’s eyes. I asked him and his friends what they thought about pregnancy and new babies, especially new siblings. And I learned that little kids don’t see things the way we adults do.

In the book, I tried to capture the voice of a slightly older, wiser kid giving insider advice about what life with a new baby would really be like. I loved writing it, I loved revising it, and when I submitted it to publishers, I got nice notes back about the writing and the concept. But all agreed it wouldn’t stand out in the crowded New Baby market.

So I went back to it, revising it again, making the voice stronger, fresher, funnier. This went on for several years (I had a new baby at home after all) before I submitted again. This time I found a few editors who liked it, too. It went to acquisitions several times, but alas, no one bought it.

I got busy with other projects, busy with my two kids, and forgot about the manuscript for a while, perhaps years. If I happened to think of it, I would open the most recent version and read it. I’d think: “I still really like this book.” Sometimes I’d play around with it again. I changed the boy to a girl. I broke the book into sections. I added more dialogue, more funny lists, more punch lines. I cut it radically. I added more material. I cut again. I went from one narrator to two: a boy and a girl.

I started working with a wonderful agent who sold some of my manuscripts. When I first showed her this one, she said something to the effect of: “I’m not sure this would stand out in the crowded New Baby market.” Sound familiar? So I put it away again.

In the meantime, I started writing a graphic novel. (MUDDY MAX, coming this August!) Sometime while working on the graphic novel, I took yet another peek at the new baby book. I thought: “I still really like this book.” And I had an idea. What if the book was a picture book/graphic novel hybrid with some main narrative text and some funny scenes in comic form? I carved out some time to try this, got great feedback from my critique groups, revised again and showed my agent. This time she said: “All right, let’s give it a try.”

And I am happy, ecstatic, thrilled to report, that TEN YEARS after first writing the book, we got an offer on it. I am still in shock that it actually happened. Look for The Big Kids’ Guide to Life with a New Baby sometime in 2016!

And don’t EVER give up on a book project you believe in.

Elizabeth Rusch

P.S. In case it’s not obvious from the story above, it is OK to put a manuscript aside for a while (months or even years), play around with it a lot, try some radical revisions, get feedback, put it away again, revisit it again. But if you like it, if you believe in it, if there is something in there you think is special, don’t give up, don’t ever give up.

The ULTIMATE Story Checklist

by Elizabeth Rusch
Published on: December 20, 2013
Comments: 1 Comment

I’m going to keep this short because I don’t want you to waste your time reading this when you could be reading Matt Bird’s AMAZING ULTIMATE STORY CHECKLIST:

http://cockeyedcaravan.blogspot.com/2011/08/ultimate-story-checklist.html

Screenwriter Matt Bird has written a list of questions to ask yourself about the story you are writing. Read them. Print them. Post them near your desk. Let them rock your story and your world.  — Elizabeth Rusch

Liberate Your Story By Placing Your Characters in a Web of Constraints

by Amber Keyser
Published on: October 7, 2011
Categories: Craft, Creativity
Comments: No Comments

My current project is writing a young adult novel set in the Angel Punk universe.  Angel Punk is a transmedia project that uses a feature film, a comic book series, a fan engagement site, and a novel to tell interwoven but non-overlapping stories.  Here’s the teaser:

Power. Greed. Tragedy. Forgiveness. 

Angels Turned Mortal

A Supernatural World Divided

The Angel Punk saga follows Mara Layil on a journey of discovery as she’s unwittingly thrust into a millennia-old struggle between supernatural dynasties. This hidden world of ancient wonders and dark secrets forces the orphaned teen to accept her own incredible power and confront her family’s mysterious past.  Awakened to the truth, Mara must choose sides. Hidden assassins, shattered oaths, exiled eternals and warring Nephilim all play a part in the greatest supernatural conflict of all time.

The most common question I get asked is this one: “Did they give you an outline to follow?”  The subtext is either (1) if I did get an outline, doesn’t that undermine me as a creative person and (2) if I didn’t get an outline, do I fight all the time with the rest of the team?

I’ll answer the question and then get to the point of this post.  When I took the gig, I read the movie and comic scripts as well as the in-depth legacy (background) document on the universe.  It was a crash course in the characters, the mythology, the socio-political structure, and the history of all things Angel Punk.  I did not get an outline for the novel.

In initial meetings, we decided that the inciting event for the action of the novel should be the climatic scene of the movie.  The action of the novel would begin where comic book issue #3 ends.  And the novel would end when…  (I can’t tell you that!)  That was the extent of my “outline.”  Yet the plot is constrained by all of the other properties.  My story must be consistent with and extend the stories in the movie and comics.

OK. Finally, I’m at the point of this post.  Constraints are a good thing.  Every good story operates within constraints.  A story without them is a shapeless mass of whatever you’ve dumped out of your subconscious mind.  In other words, NOT a story.  It’s true that writers invent worlds, but the worlds have to have rules that are consistent.

SETTING:

Every world has physical laws (gravity, planetary orbits, etc), environmental conditions (weather, habitat, inhabitants), and rules that govern how plants, animals, and people behave.  Your story occurs in a particular time, at a season, in a place.  These are good constraints and you have to stick with them.  One key is to balance the strange with the familiar.  There has to be enough that is familiar for us to relate to but also be unique.  This is true whether you’re writing sci-fi or about the Inuit.  I adore Garth Nix’s Abhorsen Trilogy, but the Keys to the Kingdom lost me because I never got grounded in the rules of the place.

CHARACTERS:

Realistic characters are constrained in their choices by their history and their personalities.  Plot occurs when characters make choices.  They have to do things that are consistent with “who they are.”  You might want your character to jump a freight train because you need the plot to move to another city, but if she is too short (or too shy) to reach up into an empty boxcar, she can’t do it.  Boom – you are constrained.

BACKSTORY:

We give our characters and our worlds histories.  Those histories must logically lead to the decisions characters make and to the structure of our worlds.  A war-torn people can not suddenly lay down arms.  You have to make me believe that is a logical outgrowth of the action.

The take-home message: your story is actually liberated by the constraints you place upon it.  Conflict is critical to a good story.  Placing characters inside of a system of constraints causes conflict.  The result is emotional truth.

Concrete Ways To Suss Out Potential Critique Group Members

by Amber Keyser
Published on: June 4, 2011
Comments: 3 Comments

OR:  HOW TO MAKE YOUR OWN SCRIVAS

Our readers often ask how they can find a group like ours.  In the FAQ section of this blog, we offer general suggestions for how to connect with other writers, but that is only the first step.  Once you’ve identified a list of people that all want a great critique group, how do you make it happen?

FIRST, ask questions up front to try and assess fit.

How long have you been writing?
How much time do you have for writing?
What are your writing goals?
How often would you like to meet?
How often will you have a piece to critique?
What is your writing/publishing experience?

There are all sorts of reasons we write, and there needs to be a match in terms of purpose.

I was in a group once where one woman was a visual artist who was writing to keep her creativity alive  until her kids were old enough for her to go back to oil painting.  I was trying to build a career as a professional writer.  Mismatch!

Another time I was with a group of women where everyone but me was primarily interested in writing stories for their own kids.  Again, mismatch!

Finally, I exchanged writing with one superbly, talented writer, who had a very demanding full-time job.  She and I could not keep the same pace. Mismatch!

SECOND, ask potential critique group members to participate in a book round table.  It would work like this.  I’ll use a picture book group as an example but this will work with any genre.  Ask each participant to bring in 2-4 picture books (published by strangers) and be prepared to point out what works and what does work about each one.  This is a non-threatening way to see what kind of a critique that person might give.  Plus it is a fun way to practice analyzing manuscripts.

THIRD, do a test drive manuscript exchange — a clean version of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”  Read each other’s work.  This will enable you to assess whether you can get behind that person’s writing.  One key to Scriva mojo is that we have an immense amount of respect for the writing of the other Scrivas.  You’ll know quickly whether your potential critique partner is doing work that you can believe in.

The EXPERIENCE question.  A fit on the “experience” level is the trickiest.  The truth is that new writers benefit most from being with experienced writers.  Experienced writers tend to need each other while a group of new writers may not have the expertise to proceed effectively.  There is an obvious problem here.

What is a new writer to do?

Remember that many unpublished writers are very good writers and may be very good critiquers as well. The missing piece is knowledge about the business and professional connections.  A group of new writers can divvy up tasks and take steps to educate themselves.  (Wondering how to do this?  I’ll have to do a blog post!)  You can also invite more established, local writers to come as a guest to your critique group.  Many may be flattered by the opportunity to share their knowledge.

And you experience writing professionals out there…  consider taking a flyer on a newbie.  It just might be the best thing you ever did!

 

 

Innies & Outies: Respecting Differences in Critique Process

by Amber Keyser
Published on: May 26, 2011
Categories: Critique Process
Comments: 3 Comments

Recently Addie posted When Talking is Better Than Writing.  It really resonated with me because I am one of those people who will spew words about anything and everything.  I love talking about my work in progress with anyone brave enough to bear the onslaught.  So my comment was something like “Why the heck doesn’t everyone talk about their writing all the time?”  In her typically gentle way, Ruth reminded me, “Amber Dear, sometimes the work is fragile for a while.”

Hmm… Cogs turned in my head.  Yes, I could see that.  Sort of.  But I am not very fragile (usually) and my work/ideas can take a beating.  Then one of our brilliant readers sent an email that illuminated this cobwebbed corner of the writing process (and maybe my marriage, too!)

She said:

I have learned over the years that there are basically two major groups (though most likely there may be shades of gray in there as well). Inward processors and Outward processors.

I am in the latter group. Things make so much more sense when I can talk it out.

Innies get so upset when Outies want to talk before *they* are ready. Outies NEED to talk before they burst into flames.

Ah-ha!

I should have realized this before since I (like our reader claimed to be) am an outie married to an innie! It’s taken me a decade of marriage to be comfortable with the way my husband works through things and for me to realize that if I want to process out loud, I should grab an outie friend before I subject my husband to my unformed ramblings.

As for critique, I see now why one of my previous groups was so disastrous for me. It had a rule that the person being critiqued could not speak or ask questions.  I might as well have been hog-tied in the corner with duct tape over my mouth.  No asking questions?  No discussion?  It was stifling. Does that mean it was a flawed structure?  No.  It means it was a bad fit for me.

There are both innies and outies in the Scrivas.  Outies are more likely to bring an idea and run it by us before writing.  Innies may wait until the entire first draft is done to start sharing.  Sometimes we have heated discussions propelled by questions asked by the writer about her work.  Sometimes comments are shared and then allowed to lay fallow, taking shape in the writers mind slowly.

I think one of the secrets of Scriva mojo is that we each feel comfortable asking for the kind of eyes we need on a manuscript. Therein lies the key… the writer drives the discussion so that it takes shape in the way she needs it to take shape.

 

Scriva Structure-This is how we make the magic happen

by Amber Keyser
Published on: April 22, 2011
Categories: Basics, Critique Process
Comments: 1 Comment

The Scrivas tend toward free-form in our meetings, but we do have some structure in place.

We submit mss via email 1 week prior to meetings.  These are critiqued on a first-come, first-served basis (Liz is almost always first!)  Late?  Scrivas try to read but are not obligated.  Almost all of us print the mss and mark up with ink.  Maximum length is around 30 pages.  We deal with whole novels in a different way (see tomorrow’s post).

Along with the mss, we ask for the kind of critique we want (line edits, help with voice, general comments on approach, etc).

We meet once a month, in the evenings, at an undisclosed location with coffee, cocktails, food, and chocolate!

During our two and a half hour meetings, we look at the number of mss we have (usually 4-6) and divide up the time.  If we have a lot of mss, one of us (usually me) gets out a whip to keep us in line. We don’t share our comments in any particular order though we try to take turns going first (and getting the fun of saying all the meaty stuff).

While receiving comments, the writer scribbles notes, asks questions, and generally participates in an in-depth discussion of the work.  We try to let each person finish comments, but often ideas are bouncing around like the Weasley brothers fireworks.

If you were at the next table, you would hear lots of laughter, weird comments like I’m not sure about the characterization of the desk or you’ve got to kill that guy, and frequently squeals.  You would never, ever hear sobbing.

Oh, and one of our favorite things is to see the mss again after revision.  Scrivas have read many of my mss four or five times.  It is incredible how we can take the chaos of a first draft, add several iterations of critique and revision, and reveal an exquisite order.  It inspires me every single time it happens in a Scriva mss.

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