Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Why I love conflicting feedback

Two Ubergroupers have recently aired frustrations about receiving conflicting feedback:

"I'm at a bit of a loss because [my critiquers] disagree so much about one particular section. [Some] love the section and say that that’s where things really start to pick up, while [others] say it drags."
"It makes it really hard to figure out if I really didn't make it clear, or their perception is off in some way."

My answer to both: collect more data.

I don't simply mean "seek more critiques," but also, collect more data about the critiquer. Everyone's opinion is valid insofar as the demographic they represent.

For example, I paid for a professional critique on my last draft. It was absolutely fantastic, and for the most part, I weigh Chris' opinion much more heavily than others, because:

- He has three extremely well-reviewed books out with Penguin and therefore has a more valid professional opinion about what will and won't sell in the traditional publishing industry than a random volunteer on the internet.
- I personally think he has a masterful command of the English language, in the same grandiose, archaic style I am fond of.
- I know he's a history buff (everyone who I've met working at Renaissance Faires is at least a little bit) so if I didn't make something clear, I can't say "well, that's cause you don't read historical fiction."

A perfect example of conflicting information and what I did with it is the varying reaction he and other critiquers have had to my prose. That is, the words I choose and the way I actually phrase things.  Chris said it was almost boggling how some individual lines were so stunning and others were such honkers. He accurately identified a common habit of mid-level Faire performers such as myself: mixing Early Modern English (aka "Shakespearean" English) with modern colloquialism. This can be used purposefully - he does it to very good comedic end in his Faire act - but often, it's just a lazy actor saying nonsensical shit. I do it a little in my Faire act as well, but mostly I'm in the latter camp of "uncontrolled bad habit," and he made a point of singling out cases in my manuscript where I'd been grandiloquent in an obvious designed, rhythmic and appreciable way, versus where I'd just spewed some senseless anachronistic crap and never fixed it.

Incidentally, everyone one of the lines he picked out as stunning (with the advice "now make the whole book like this) has been HATED by about 5% of my other critiquers. And I mean all the same ones. If one person hates a line Chris loved... that same person will usually single out every other line Chris loved and hate them, too.

It's not a coincidence, I've realised, nor is it conflicting information. It's information about how readers have consistent preferences. Chris is a Shakespearean actor, and frankly, much better than me. He is extremely comfortable with grandiose sentence structure and archaic vocabulary, and can discern when it is or is not done well. The lines he loved were all convoluted 40+ word monsters, bent over backwards and tied in knots of metaphor like a goddamn Cirque du Soliel contortionist. Most had at least three clauses and several featured a cameo appearance by a semicolon.

Needless to say, readers who like contemporary minimalism HATE THAT SHIT.

Is that conflicting information? NOT AT ALL. Especially once I get enough of it, and take the time to dig into the critiquer's background and preferences. If the first and only critique I'd gotten was from a minimalist, and they'd destroyed my sentence-de-resistance, demanding I make it simpler, I would have shared in the frustration of "Is it ME, or do they just not get it?" With enough data, however, I can see the pattern. This is not to say I suggest burying your head under a pillow and throwing a tantrum about how SOMEDAY you will find someone who understands your artistry. It's a struggle to figure out the difference between laughing off bad advice and actually refusing to learn.

The question comes down to: to whom do you plan to sell it? Whom do you want to impress?

Find critiquers who represent that in some capacity, and that's whose advice to take.

I know that there are theatre and history nerds who go OMGWTFBBQ!!!!KFDJHJKDD over well-delivered Shakespeare with me. They are a large and rabid audience, and I've got a plenty high goal to try to impress them, without worrying about making any minimalists who wouldn't sit through "The Hollow Crown" with me happy. But the key thing is that I now know whom I am trying to impress. Whom I theoretically want to buy my book and rave over it. So I now know whose negative opinions I take the most seriously in terms of poor word choice and what constitutes a 'clean' and 'comprehensible' sentence.

You may need to find several groups of critiquers who care for different aspects of your work. with rare exceptions, I don't recommend latching onto only one good critiquer. There's a foil to all of Chris' value - he doesn't like romantic subplots. That's a bit of a mismatch when my whole book is like a historical soap opera about political manoeuvring, marriages and betrayal, "sit(ting) upon the ground and telling sad stories of the death of kings."

At one point, he  said in the margin notes: "OH MY FUCKING GOD. I seriously don't give a shit about who he sleeps with." He said it during a scene that almost 90% of my other critiquers adored. One person, an English lit teacher and also highly qualified opinion, told me to hurry up and publish so he could incorporate the book into his curriculum on gender roles, feminism and sexuality.

Key difference? All of the people who liked that scene like love-triangle type plots.

Both types of feedback have been excellent, and it's what I recommend for everyone. Find multiple qualified critters to represent different facets of your target audience. They don't have to be Shakespearean actors and English lit teachers - people who would buy you genre count as "qualified" readers. My work straddles the line between fantasy and historical, and only by getting reviews from multiple people who read one genre but not the other have I been able to learn what goes over well with whom, and to which markets I should pitch the final product. They all had no special qualification other than being the kind of person who might possibly buy a book of that nature. Consumer research, if you will. Corporations spend millions on it all the time.

Almost every feeling of "I don't know which opinion to take!" can be solved by collecting more data.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

I am talented

Is there a prize for being really good at burning porridge while writing? A uni degree, perhaps? Because I am a goddamn master at it.

Me: (writing) Hmm, I'm hungry. (wanders out to kitchen, peers into cabinets.) Hmm. Everything requires serious cooking except for the oat bran. I know, I'll make porridge! It will be nice and warm for a cold day and I'll be full for hours so I can get things done without my stomach bothering me.

(Assembles pot of oat bran and milk. Maybe with some chocolate, or some goji berries and cinnamon)

(goes back to writing)




(smells burning, runs out to kitchen. Boiled-over milk is ALL OVER the stove-top. Oats crusted and blackened to bottom of pot.)


Saturday, 18 January 2014

NA: Can it be serious?

Can a heavier topic like drama or historical fiction be NA if it is about angsty self-discovery of what it means to survive in the adult world .... but also if it features a male protagonist and is not a romance? Henry II was 17 when he inherited and Edward IV was 19. Topic-wise, the stories of either of their ascensions fundamentally focuses on someone abruptly forced to deal with the adult world. For fantasy readers, we're talking the Robb Stark "I must stand up because my father was wrongly killed" story arc here, which bears an uncanny resemblance to Edward IV's actual one, when his father, Duke of Stark York was murdered by Lannisters Lancasters.

NA seems to be defined by "self-defining" type angst of coming of age and trying to find your place in the big world... which actually does describe the whole "big shoes to fill / heavy is the head" situation most of abruptly ascended medieval teenage kings were abruptly thrust into. What confuses me is that that's been a valid adult historical topic for ages, and NA is usually petty crap about sex in college, not world-scope sweeping-political-ramifications coming of age.

Is there an accepted "tone" for NA? The same way YA is usually about misfit high school angst and is separated in tone from adult by just not being as dark or gritty... Even if we followed Henry II's early campaigns to reclaim his mother's throne at 14, it would be adult automatically, not YA, because of content. But since NA does allow the gritty stuff and is explicitly supposed to be about angsty self-discovery and finding one's place in the world, would something that large and heavy in scope qualify? Or does it get bumped up to Adult because NA is supposed to be fluffy romance, and therefore NA Historical implies bodice-ripping?

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Three arguments for making writing an ensemble art form.

Writers, are you in a critique group? If not, you should be.

I'm really growing to appreciate the importance of bringing the ensemble-arts culture of peer review, accountability, and positive reinforcement to primarily solo pursuits like fiction writing. Coming from a theatre background, I thrive on group dynamics.

A theatre background understates it: I am an improv kid. Doesn't matter if that improv is drama, comedy, music, dance, or anything else. The very first thing I want to do when a half-formed concept enters my head is throw it to a group of peers to bounce around and play with. I thought for awhile this was just a quirk, an entertaining footnote about my personal process when talking shop.

Now that I've been moderating the Ubergroup for awhile, I've realized the need for ensemble culture is almost universal. Dozens of people who have been stuck in ruts told me the Ubergroup motivates and energizes them. Some have told me it's prevented them from giving up on writing as a craft. This is not because I'm particularly awesome, or because the Ubergroup is made of magic. It's because working with other people is awesome. I'm just some fuck who is so dependent on this particular form of human interaction, I'm motivated to beg people to do things with me.

The kick comes from people, buddy boy.

Here's why:

1. A group provides accountability. As everyone knows, it's all too easy to put off doing pretty much anything... until you have to show up and tell people what you've done so far. In the Ubergroup, we ask people to post one new chapter of writing per week, and critique the chapters of 3-5 teammates. This pace is completely fucking arbitrary. Brandon Sanderson suggested it in his online course, and we liked it. That is all. There is no God of Writing that says you will be damned for life if you don't produce new work at that rate.

How do I enforce this rate? Well, if I don't see you post your chapter at the beginning of the week, or critique your teammates by the end of it.... I email you and ask you if everything is okay. OoooOOOooooh. Scary. I even have secret police keeping an eye on everyone.... aka, a few veteran Ubergroup members divide the work with me of clicking on everyone's chapters to make sure they all got their promised crits. If you don't respond, you go to the Big Badde Public Pillory: the 'Delinquent List' stickied in our discussion forums. The delinquent list is used to keep track of people who have gone MIA. If they don't surface within two weeks, they lose their place on their team. In the end, it's just a list of names on some forum somewhere on the internet, but people act like they're about to lose their job. Humans are naturally competitive, social animals who care what other humans are doing. Simply having a moderator keep track - publicly - of your promises to write regularly lights the fire under people's asses, and the result is people sticking to their own goals of consistent production.

2. Different perspectives prevent stagnation. Remember Myst? The one game where everyone and their mother got stuck and gave up? When I was in high school, my friends and I beat it in 22 hours one weekend. That Christmas break, we beat Riven in 5 days, playing round the clock, sleeping in shifts. Aside from proving what gigantic nerds we all were, the key thing is that different people think differently. Myst was groundbreaking in that it's puzzles required you to simply pick up on patterns in the environment, which were all coded in extremely different ways. One might be mathematical while another is based on colour, and yet another might rely on observing the ambient sound effects of birds in the background. The Myst games are so friggin' hard because most people simply aren't good at everything. In a group, we found that even when most of us were stumped, at least one person would be the right combination of visual vs auditory, mathematical vs verbal, right brain vs left, or whatever, and find the solution.

The idea of falling into a book is oddly appropriate here.

That's an indispensable asset of practising any art in ensemble: you can build on each others ideas where you might have run out on your own and correct each other where you might not have noticed. Why do writers imagine they must sit alone in their metaphorical attics like archetypal mad composers, sweating and slaving over their unadulterated genius? For every miraculous prodigy, this method produces about 10,000 shitty garage bands doomed to crash and bang away in obscurity.

One of the biggest values of the Ubergroup is that it provides a round-table environment for discussion and brainstorming. The model means that a minimum of 3-5 people have all read the same work on a given week, and if the author has questions about the feedback they received or needs ideas on how to fix a problem, they can tap into other people's varied thinking methods and find the solution much more quickly. As useful as it is to have a spoon, you can't use it to drive a nail very well, and a hammer is not particularly suited to eating soup. Neither will saw a board in half very effectively. Technically, if you really want to go back to the stone age, an intelligently flaked rock CAN do most things, eventually, but good god, the wheel's already been invented and someone else has one you can borrow. Share. In economics they call this comparative advantage.

3. Competition and cooperation drive people. Humans are naturally both. It's necessary on an evolutionary level. Life is competitive, and one of the ways we deal with it is by being social animals. Nothing motivates a group of people to action like dividing them up into teams and giving them something to compete over - even if it is the silliest little thing. Accessing our tribal brain - in a lighthearted way, of course -  fosters good feeling and makes friends for life. (In a non-lighthearted way it can turn things into the Hunger Games, which I am not suggesting at this juncture.)

In practice, I've found that dividing people into teams and encouraging them to name themselves (Names range from the more obvious, eg "Team Awesomesauce" and "The Unsavory Plot Doctors" to the unequivocally silly, eg "The Fighting Salmon" "Strawberry Jello Warriors" and "The Noblest Goat-Farters In The Land,") creates a sudden sense of comradery. The teams that are lukewarm about developing a unified competitive identity are inevitably the ones that fall apart. Originally, the teams were simply for the purpose of delineating who owed critiques to whom, but a few Hogwarts-style point jokes ("Ten points to Spaceship Slacksalot for being the first team to submit all their chapters this week!") rapidly evolved into a good-natured contest that seems to have galvanized people.  There's about a zillion scholarly articles about the benefits of positive reinforcement in the workplace, and public acknowledgement about feats of productivity, such as being the first team to complete all posts or critiques for a week, or having a particularly constructive conversation about this weeks works in the forums, etc, gets people excited and proud. It's the reason it's so easy to get a kid to concentrate on playing guitar hero, but not on practising a real guitar alone - nothing is measuring their progress and cheering on their success.

No one actually needs the tiny prizes (in site currency) I'm offering the winning team, but plain and simple, acknowledgement of your hard work motivates people to keep working.

Once again, it's not the Ubergroup that is magic, nor is it me. It's the bringing together of people. There's the accountability of being expected, the "economic" (in intellectual and artistic currency) advantage of trade, and the psychological benefit of competition, cooperation, and positive acknowledgement. If you're not in a writer's community, join one, or form your own. Some popular online options include Absolute Write,, and AQ connect. My personal favourite, hands down (and no, they don't pay me to say this, I actually pay them to be a regular old member) is Scribophile. It's a chicken or the egg question to ask whether the Ubergroup formed there because I like Scrib, or if I like Scrib because the Ubergroup formed there. Either way, ANY venue to interact with other writers - including good old fashioned in-person crit circles - is invaluable. Meet and rehearse every week like a band or a theatre company. It will blow your writerly mind.

Friday, 3 January 2014

Why character is the most important thing.

A critique partner over in the Ubergroup has an excellent plot, but his story wasn't engaging me as a reader. I explained to him what does engage me as a reader, and I think it's relevant for any aspiring storyteller.

I, personally, am drawn in by character, character, and character. Flawed, sympathetic, three-dimensional people with desperate needs and a fire lit under their asses. People I can understand, like, and empathize with. People I get worried about. It's like making a friend. I have to know them - and like them enough - that I give a shit if they live or die.

That's the "why" I'm looking for. Right now I could give less than a shit if some made-up country is over-run by goblins. Simply being a massacre is not enough to catch my interests - I'd rather spend my brain energy on the real-world massacres in South Sudan actually going on right now. The actual, real, literal world we live in is full of genocide, human trafficking, disease, and all kinds of shit I could (and SHOULD) be spending my time worrying about. Why would I, as a reader, want to pick up a book in which someone made up a bunch of shit about human suffering in an alternate universe?

Answer: because it's happening to a character I give a shit about.

This is why I'm more likely to waste time helping that friend who's roommate attacked her move out of her apartment asap, or take in the wayward runaway at my door, or testify in the court case of the single dad who's babymama is a total crackhead. Because they are real people with real emotions in my face and I give a shit what happens to them next. Every one of them is having a first world problem. Everyone one of them has clean running water and health care (to what extent we have health care in america) and isn't literally being forced into prostitution at gun point, starving, or having bombs go off around their houses. Hell, I'm going to help the one friend without a car get to the apple store to fix her phone because it's cold out, speaking of first world problems, instead of concerning myself about South Sudan and Syria and Darfur. Why? Because I don't actually know any South Sudanese. Yes, people are dying, like they always do. But my friend with the broken iphone is really upset and I like her.

That's just how human motivation works - we are only capable of caring about so many people, before it becomes a statistic. I can flip on the news any day to hear about someone getting shot in right here in Chicago and not be nearly as upset as if one of my friends was the one who got shot. Why? Is that person across town less human than my friend? Do they count less? No, I just don't know them. There was a study I read somewhere recently (I can probably google it up if you're curious) that says the human  brain is hardwired to have a limit of about 130 people it can care about - the maximum size of a tribe in a hunter-gather society, the context in which we evolved for millenia. That's how big "us" can possibly be, before everyone else is "them." I mean DEEPLY care about - the way a person is wrecked for months, years, or the rest of their lives if their spouse of child dies, not the way people calmly say "OMG, I'm so upset" when a celebrity dies and forget about it in a few days. 

To make me give a shit about your plot and whether or not goblins overtake a fictional country in a fiction world, you have to make the people of that country part of my tribe. Part of my 130 people I am capable of giving a shit about.I have to get to know at least one person, vividly, and like them, and worry about them.

They have to become my friend.