Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 30, 2012Permalink

Turkey City Lexicon

In any specific human endeavor involving more than one person, the people involved soon find themselves repeating the same phrases over and over.  It’s inevitable they should seek some shorthand way to avoid that.  So they develop jargon, specialized terminology suited to their activity.

Turkey City LexiconSome time ago, in science fiction writing workshops, the participants worked out a vocabulary of writing terms called the Turkey City Lexicon (TCL).  There is no authoritative source for the TCL, nor is it copyrighted.  It’s available on many websites; just search for “turkey city lexicon.”

I won’t reiterate the list here.  My purpose is just to introduce it to you and comment on its usefulness to me.  I encourage you to search for and read through the list, then come back to finish reading my blog entry.  Several of the items are humorous to read through.

A few TCL terms are more applicable to science fiction (The Jar of Tang, Abbess Phone Home, Reinventing the Wheel, and Space Western), but the vast majority of the terms are applicable across all fiction genres.  TCL might be useful to you even if you don’t write SF.

A number of the terms are disconcerting for me to read through since I’ve committed these errors before.  These include Burly Detective Syndrome, You Can’t Fire Me–I Quit, Fuzz, and Bogus Alternatives.

But that gets right to the value of this list.  Most of the terms describe deficiencies common to beginning level writing.  Worse, they describe failings even experienced writers can succumb to, like a bad habit.  Even just reading through the list periodically can refresh your resolve to avoid the bad habits.

I’ve found it vital to subject my writing to the crucible of my critique group just so they can identify faults I don’t see.  Once you’ve been accused of any of the items in the TCL, chances are you’ll hear that accusatory voice again in your head while editing all subsequent stories.  Thus will your writing improve.

My critique group has found three TCL terms to be the most useful—Infodump, As You Know Bob, and Telling Not Showing.  I’m not sure why those three dominate, but they do, at least for us.

Do any of the TCL items ring embarrassingly true for you as you think over your own writing?  Are there other fiction writing failings that should be recognized by the TCL but aren’t yet?  If so, leave a comment for me and let me know.  On a mission to improve own writing and that of others, I’m—

                                                   Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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December 23, 2012Permalink

Blog Hop – The Next Big Thing

Many thanks to Charlotte Holley who tagged me to participate in The Next Big Thing blog hop.  I didn’t know what a blog hop was but it seems like fun.  In this one, authors answer questions about their Work in Progress (WIP) and people can follow the links along and see what various writers are working on.  That way readers can anticipate and check back later to buy the books they’re interested in.  It’s possible that one or more authors in this chain may really be working on The Next Big Thing!

When you’re tagged for this particular blog hop, you post your answers the following Wednesday and tag five other authors for the following Wednesday.  Here are my answers:

1. What is the working title of your book?  “A Tale More True”

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?  If I recall correctly, I was thinking about fanciful trips to the Moon in early literature.  I’m a fan of Jules Verne, but he’s actually a latecomer to that topic.  While researching, I came across references to Baron Münchhausen.  My story then sort of sprang into my head.

3. What genre does your book fall under?   It’s alternate history, in the subgenre of clockpunk.  I’ve not written much clockpunk, my story “Leonardo’s Lion” being the exception.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie renditionThere are three characters of interest.  The protagonist is Count Eusebius Horst Siegwart von Federmann.  Count Chris HemsworthFedermann could be played well by actor Chris Hemsworth.  He’d have to speak English with a German accent, but doesn’t have to do it well, since it’s a comedy.  Count Federmann is a brooding character, angry at and jealous of Baron Münchhausen.  The Count is intelligent, determined, and optimistic, but lacks sense.

 

Shia_LabeoufThe Count has a young French servant named Fidèle, and I’ll select Shia LaBeouf for that role.  Mr. LaBeouf would have to speak English with a French accent, but not an especially good one.  Fidèle is full of life, but has the sense to fear danger, though he’s always respectful of nobility.

 

 

The character Baron Hieronymus Carl Friedrich von Münchhausen only appears briefly at the beginning and end of the story.  Since it’s a cameo role, I’ll splurge and pick Robin WilliamsRobin Williams.  I need an older character of plain appearance who’s able to speak English with a German accent and captivate an audience with his words alone.  Robin Williams played the part of the King of the Moon in the 1988 Movie “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen.”  

 

5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your bookA man is so angry about the self-aggrandizing lies of Baron Münchhausen that, just to prove the Baron wrong, he constructs a gigantic metal spring and launches himself to the Moon, where he learns about the nature of Truth.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?  I will offer it to Gypsy Shadow Publishing to be included in my What Man Hath Wrought series.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?  I’m not done with the fist draft yet.  I researched, planned, and outlined the story for about a month.  First and second drafts will take another month.

8. What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?  It’s a light-hearted clockpunk tale, so there aren’t many comparable stories.  Perhaps the closest thing is that movie, “The Adventures of Baron Munchhausen.”

9. Who or What inspired you to write this book?  The muse speaks.  I listen and write it all down as fast as I can.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?  Come on—intense jealousy, a space voyage in 1769, and weird Moon creatures.  What more do you want?

At this point I should mention which authors I’m tagging next in this blog hop, but I was unsuccessful in getting any to participate.  I think the hop has been going for about thirty weeks now, with most authors tagging five others.  If you do the math for such a chain, you’ll see how, theoretically, we’d pass the population of the earth in Week 15, and by Week 30 there would be over 2 with 20 zeroes participants.

There only seems to be that many budding authors in the world.  So much for theory.  As Yogi Berra said, “In theory there is no difference between theory and practice.  In practice there is.”

So I won’t be tagging anyone else.  This strand of the chain ends here, with my alter ego, a guy I like to call—

                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe

 

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December 19, 2012Permalink

To Do, Or Be Done To?

That is the question.  Today I’ll cover one of my pet peeves—passive sentence construction, as contrasted with the active version.

Defining these types is easy.  In active sentence construction (also called ‘active voice’) the subject of the sentence performs the action described by the verb.  In passive construction, the subject is the recipient of the action.

For example, here are two sentences from a recent story of mine:

  • Doctor Rudolph Wellburn looked up from his workbench as Red dragged the trampled man through his door.
  • The man had been bound with ropes to three tree limbs lashed together.

In the first, the subject is the doctor, Wellburn, and the verb is looked.  There’s another clause with its subject Red and verb dragged.  Both are active, since the subject is performing the action.  In the second sentence, which is passive, the subject man has had an action done to him, described by the ‘had been bound’ verb.

It’s possible to convert sentences back and forth between the two voices.  I could have phrased the first sentence as “The workbench was looked up from by Doctor Rudolph Wellburn as…”  I also could have worded the second sentence as “Red had bound the man with ropes…”  I’ll soon reveal why I didn’t do that.

I think of active sentences as direct, honest, and clear.  They also seem stronger to me.  Passive sentences, with their ability to hide the subject entirely, seem dishonest, confusing, and weak.  Needless to say, I prefer active sentences.  At my workplace many others write in passive sentences, so I’m on a one-man crusade to change all that.  Change has to start somewhere!

Ulysses S Grant - mistakes were madeAmong the worst passive sentences ever written is “Mistakes were made.”  Politicians since Ulysses S. Grant have used that one to acknowledge a problem but to hide the responsible party from blame.  However, the press and the public are on to that tactic, and would pounce on any official who uttered it (after laughing out loud).

By now you’re wondering why Poseidon’s Scribe has stated a firm bias against passive sentences, and yet used one in a recent story.  There are several valid reasons for using passive sentences:

1.  The doer of the action is unknown, unwanted, or unneeded in the sentence.

2.  The action of the sentence needs more emphasis or focus than the doer of the action.

3.  Sentence variety.

4.  Putting the subject at the end of the sentence can delay its impact to achieve surprise or humor.

I chose a passive sentence in my story for reason 1, since the identity of the person who bound the man to the tree limbs was unimportant to the story.  Police reports use passive sentences when the person who committed the crime is unknown.  Scientists often use passive sentences for reason 2, to emphasize the experiment, not the experimenter, and to sound more objective.

But in your fiction writing I advocate sticking to active sentences as much as you can.  Weed out passive ones, and make each one defend its place in your story.  Remember, passive sentences are easier to write and you can fall into the habit of favoring them unless you make the effort to avoid them.

Am I being too harsh on passive sentences?  Leave a comment and let me know.  I’m not infallible, after all, but I’m not too proud to admit that mistakes were made by—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe 

P.S. Be sure to check this space on Wednesday, December 19.  I’ll be participating in a blog hop called The Next Big Thing.  You wouldn’t want to miss the next big thing, would you?

                                                         P.S.

 

 

 

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December 16, 2012Permalink

Rules Writers Break

In the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” several pirate characters throughout the movie mention the Pirate Code in reverent tones.  Late in the film, Captain Barbossa reveals, “the Code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

Today I’ll discuss writing rules your grade school teachers taught you, and whether following them is something you must do, or should do. When teaching young children, it is often best to give them black-and-white rule sets.  That’s a lot easier to understand than wishy-washy grayness, the actual messiness of the real world.

However, if you aim to be a writer of fiction for the modern marketplace, it’s time to let go of some of those rules.  If, as you write, your mind’s eye sees your teacher from long ago admonishing you to follow one of the rules below, try deliberately violating the rule even as your teacher watches.  Steady practice at this should make the visions of your teacher go away.

  • Always use complete sentences.  Not only did your teacher tell you that one, but word processing software often alerts you when you’ve created a sentence fragment.  It’s fine as a general rule, but there are times when your story requires a sentence or thought to be emphasized, to stand out.  An occasional fragment is okay when used deliberately for such a purpose.
  • Don’t begin sentences with ‘And’ or ‘But.’  Your teacher might have extended this rule to all connecting words—conjunctions—which also include ‘or’ and ‘yet.’  Traditional English sentences require that such words, when used, connect two clauses.  Again, if your second clause needs special emphasis, go ahead and set it apart with a separate sentence.  But remember to use conjunctions properly when you do, according to their meanings.
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition.  This is an ancient rule imposed by grammarians who wanted to make English more like Latin.  The rule is long discredited now, or should be.  No one buried it with more flare than Winston Churchill when he wrote, “This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
  • Always use proper paragraph form.  By this your teacher meant paragraphs should have topic sentences, then sentences that build on or substantiate the topic sentence, and then a concluding sentence.  Therefore, by that rule, you would never have a paragraph consisting of just one sentence.  In fiction writing you can throw that rule out.  Just tell your story.  Paragraphs are useful to break up the text, to give white space so the reader catches a breath now and then.  Paragraphs also help to group like thoughts together.  A one-sentence paragraph now and then for emphasis is permitted.
  • Don’t use long sentences.  Many people confuse these with run-on sentences, which are different, and it’s still a good rule not to use them.  The thing about long sentences is, your reader could become lost and confused wading through all the ‘ands,’ ‘buts,’ em dashes, commas, and semicolons.  Use a long sentence (over, say, forty words) if you need to, but do it for effect and make it easy to read.
  • Never split an infinitive.  Stated differently, the rule is to never split an infinitive.  This rule, too, once created controversy but the battle is pretty much over.  You may now split with impunity.  Go with what sounds right to you.

If you are still in grade school, follow the rules presented by your teacher, (knowing you can break some of them later when your grades are no longer at stake).  For the rest of you, remember your main job as a writer of fiction is to move your reader emotionally.  If the story demands it, go ahead and break some of these rules.  Like the Pirate Code, they’re more what you’d call guidelines.  Take it from that one-time pirate and noted rule-breaker…

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 9, 2012Permalink

Captain Nemo sighted at Darkovercon

Those who attended Darkovercon this year on November 24th and 25th got a chance to see me, dressed as Captain Nemo.

I’m the one on the right, by the way.  Why, yes, that is an electric pistol I’m holding; very observant of you to notice.  Not visible in this photo is the Captain Nemo motto “Mobilis in Mobile” on my chest.  My Nemo costume is based on the original illustrations, unlike the movie versions where Nemo appears either as a Navy Captain or an Indian Prince.  Jules Verne’s Nemo had abandoned connections with the land.  He was no military man, nor did he consider himself Indian any longer.  He was part engineer and part pirate, and his clothing reflected that.

 

Here’s my electric pistol.  Very steampunk!  The golden, jagged sights on top are reminiscent of the Nautilus submarine from the Disney film of 1954.  True, Nemo didn’t go around carrying a pistol.  The electric rifles mentioned in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea were only for underwater use, and the original illustrations show them to be similar in appearance to standard rifles.  I just took a little creative license.

 

And there’s the motto.  The Latin translates as “moving in a moving thing” or, more metaphorically, “free in a free world.”  Yes, you can find versions of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea where it’s rendered as “Mobilis in Mobili” where that last word ends in ‘i,’ but I’m told that’s plural, and singular was most likely intended.

Feel free to send me a comment if you (a) think I looked like Captain Nemo should look, or (b) think I looked too silly for words.  While I wait for you to type your comment, I’ll enjoy recalling how a childhood fantasy came real for–

                                                            Poseidon’s Scribe

 

 

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December 2, 2012Permalink