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Here’s to the children(s writers)

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I was on my way to a writing workshop yesterday and some guy started hitting on me.

His big line was: ‘What kind of writing do you do; kids books or real writing?’ I told him I wrote for adults and he grinned and replied: ‘so…real writing.”

In the moment I didn’t respond because I was busy trying to ignore him, but when we finally parted ways I was pissed. How dare he suggest that writing for children isn’t real writing? Where was his book? Where was his children’s book for that matter? And let’s not even talk about how bad it was as a pickup line because if I was a children’s writer I would have kicked him off his bike and as it was I kind of felt like doing that anyway.

It’s so easy to sit there and think that children’s writers have it easy, that they write such basic things that anyone could do it. But if you think that you’re dead WRONG.

Children’s writers are the people who give birth to literary worlds. They bring us up, nurture our dreams and imaginations, teach us lessons and rhymes. How would I know how to be a good friend if it weren’t for Charlotte’s Web? How would I learn about the places I could go without Dr. Seuss? How would I know what a blow-fat glow fish is without Mercer Mayer? I only wish My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic had existed when I was a kid, but I’m thrilled to be able to enjoy it now.

Children’s writers are so talented; they take complex ideas and reduce them to simple, elegant language. It’s a skill most writers strive to have but not many get to achieve.

So here’s to the children’s writers who feed our imaginations with their delightful talent, who help us grow and learn and see the world through colourful language and amazing imagery. Thank you. Even if that asshole pickup artist on the street doesn’t appreciate you, know that I do.

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The art (and sandwich) of the critique

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So I’ve been attending various groups and trying to chime in on writing forums to critique other people’s writing.  I like doing it because I feel as though I am sort of paying it forward for all those times other people have helped me with critiques.  I also like it because it helps me delve into the craft of writing and really get a feel for different styles and what works for me and what doesn’t.  

So critiquing is awesome, it forces you to think critically about the writing world around you and (ideally) gives you a more honed ability to turn that critical eye on yourself.  

Critiquing is awesome, but sometimes it can be hard.  You want to be helpful, but you certainly don’t want to send the critiquee home bawling, dreams of a literary future crushed under the weight of your scathing review.  

So now, I shall bestow upon you my rules for the art of the critique, gathered during my relatively short career as a reviewer of many works of fiction and non-fiction alike:

Don’t try to change the writer (or the story)

I went to Ad Astra.  It was nothing to write home about (hence the lack of commentary posts about it) but I did hear one thing that stuck with me.  It was during a discussion on critiquing that someone piped up and said – don’t try and change the story you’re critiquing.  

At some point in our lives as readers and reviewers I’m sure we’ve all done it – thought (or said aloud): wouldn’t it be better if the story was (insert opinion on how the writer should change the genre, the style or the storyline completely).

Maybe it would be better if the story was completely different, or if the style was more up your alley…better for you.  Remember you are critiquing someone else’s work, not your own and it’s so much easier if you critique in context.  Don’t try and change a writer or their style, finding their own voice is up to them.  What you should be doing is trying to help them by making the style they’ve chosen and the story they want to tell the best it can be.  

Maybe you’d prefer if half the characters were anthropomorphized animals, maybe you think it would be smashing if the protagonist discovered latent super powers half way through the novel or maybe you think a good dose of gritty stylistic modification would spice up that children’s book.  But ultimately, it’s up to the writer.  Feel free to suggest whatever you want, but at some point it’s going to feel like you’re just banging your head against the wall, trying to make someone a writer they aren’t – and that just sucks for everyone.  

At the end of the day, if the writing just isn’t speaking to you maybe it’s best to just pack it in and pass it on to someone who might be more capable of critiquing that writer’s work.  

Use ‘I feel’

Let’s face it, when we create and allow others to critique our work we are making ourselves vulnerable and it’s a tough thing for anyone to do.  Although thick skin is always good, there’s probably very few people who are immune to the bad review blues.  So let’s do our part to soften the blow a little.  

Using ‘I feel’ can sometimes remind the writer that it is just your opinion.  This is important, because frankly, that’s all it is.  There will always be different strokes for different folks and your critique is probably not the be all and end all.  I try (as much as I can) to explain that my review is just my perspective and if I’m not their ideal reader, I like to tell them that.  Sometimes it helps make things a bit easier if the writer is reassured that your opinion is just one in a million and they ultimately have to do what they feel is best.  

Strengths and missed opportunities

I have someone in one of my writing groups who uses the system ‘strengths and missed opportunities’ for critiquing.  I wasn’t sure about it at first, but it’s pretty good.  Starting with the strengths is always a good thing.  As pattern seeking monkeys, when we are told we need to ‘critique’ something, we automatically look to be critical.  But so often when we do that, we miss out on what we liked or even loved about the piece.  Sharing the strengths is not only good because it gives us the warm fuzzies, it’s also good because it’s telling the writer what to keep doing.  

Missed opportunities can also be a helpful way to frame the more negative stuff because it reminds me of the number one rule, don’t try and change the writer.  Instead of thinking ‘why this piece sucks’, when I think of missed opportunities, it makes me think contextually and inside the framework of the existing piece.  So bravo to the person in my writing group who introduced me to this concept – and thanks!

The sandwich

Sandwiches are delicious.  Who doesn’t love them?  So why not make your review a sandwich!  This goes along with the above point and I find it useful in written reviews (or really any time you need to say something critical).  It’s the good-bad-good sandwich.  Start with the good, move onto the bad (or missed opportunities) and end on a high note, with something encouraging and awesome!  Yum – critique sandwich!

Give exercises

I like giving people challenges, or something they can do on their own to help them visualize what I’m trying to say.  If I’m not feeling the dialogue chemistry, I might suggest practicing writing scenes of pure dialogue.  If they’re stumbling over description I say slow down and write a half a page about a location.  This doesn’t mean they should absolutely use it in their writing, it’s just a way to practice to make things a little more footloose and fancy free!

Share your fears and feelings

If you’re a writer too, you probably have some stories to tell (see what I did there?) about bad critiques and times where you’ve felt unsure about yourself.  Share yourself with the writer you are critiquing.  Make that connection, because it might just help them (and you) in the long run.

Don’t be so definitive

Nothing is set in stone, so don’t make it sound like it is.  Try to hold yourself back from saying ‘this is crap’ with no further elucidation.  Also, please avoid making barfing sounds while you read their work too, they won’t appreciate it.*

Don’t be a douche!

Ah the final and most important rule.  Don’t be a douche!  It’s really easy to bring people down, but it takes skill and compassion to actually try to help them.  And ultimately, that’s what we’re trying to do!  Here’s my dos and don’ts:

Don’t

• Be condescending
• Make assumptions about them
• Talk down to them
• Try to ‘educate’ them (try saying how you feel or sharing what you’ve learned along the way instead)
• Write them off simply because you don’t like their writing

Do

• Tell them how you feel
• Make sure they know it’s just your opinion
• Share your own struggles and challenges
• Use the sandwich!

Did I miss something?  Let me know in the comments!

*This may have sounded like I was speaking from personal experience, but I’m not.  It just kind of popped in there.

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The Business of Counting Words

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When I first started out doing the writing thing I never thought I would care about word count.  I thought it was mundane and technical and overall irrelevant to the art of writing.

Now I know better.

It’s not so much it’s relevance to the art that matters, but more to the business, and being a writer is indeed a business.  I find the process of trying to become a published writer not so different from my job as a producer for our video company, Happy Creations.  Although you have to have an undeniable passion for the art, you must also be a freelancer at heart.
The first thing I did when I decided I would be a writer officially was, of course, write.  I wrote a whole novel (around 150,000 words) and then a series of short stories (from 2000-5000 words each).  Then I did the research.  I have a spreadsheet full of lists of magazines, publishers, agents, contests and opportunities and what I began to learn from looking at the business side of things (that part where they pay you to write stuff) is that word count matters.

Some magazines have word count limits, contests too.  Some agents don’t want to read query letters beyond a certain length and even more to the point, a book can be classified as a novel or a novella based on word count alone.

I am currently working on a piece that started out as a short story and then turned into a novella.  Now at 15,000 words and counting, I’m wondering if it won’t go ahead and turn itself into a novel.

So I started out with a reluctance to count words, thinking the process of keeping track and trying to fit more (or less) words into a story would separate me from the art, but I realized that there is more to being a writer than simply art.  It is a business and in business, numbers matter.  So now I count with panache and excitement.  How many words can I write in an hour?  How many words can I get out in a day?

How does counting words effect you?

Do you view your writing as an art, a business or both?

Also, just so you know, this article is 383 words.

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Why Speculative Fiction?

I used to write a lot of non-fiction.  I would write about my world travels, my love affairs, moments in time that felt significant.  But it always fell short for me.  It felt laborious and although I tried to infuse my non-fiction with the magic I feel lives in the world, I could never quite make it…magical enough.

So I turned to fantasy.  The more I write the more I fall in love with the genre.  I am mostly interested in urban fantasy, magic realism, myth, fairytale and more subtle types of magic.  No high fantasy with elves and orcs.  No sci-fi with spaceships and lasers.  It’s not that I have a problem with high fantasy or sci-fi, it’s just not quite right for me.

What I love about the more subtle tones of fantasy is that it allows for vivid and vibrant metaphor.  I get to play with magical creatures and concepts and use them to represent things that are typically more mundane.  It gives me an opportunity to build the world I always used to imagine (and still do), where there are mysteries just beyond our reach and you can catch glimmers of magic in the corner of your eye.

A speculative approach also allows us to examine hard questions, challenges, bias’ and conflict within a unique and sometimes safer context.  When it is just beyond reality, it is easier to hold tough issues up to the light and take a good hard look.  Through the metaphor of magic we can find ways to express things that might otherwise be too crude or dull.

I want my stories to mean something and for the most part I’m succeeding at having them do just that.   You certainly don’t need to write non-fiction or mundane fiction (I don’t know what else to call regular fiction) in order to delve deep into the psyche of the world.

I’ve read a couple of articles suggesting that the world of speculative fiction is taken less seriously as an art form or a form of literature.  I’m not sure if that is entirely true, but to those who think that magic can’t have meaning I say, why not?  Sure there’s loads of speculative fiction out there that may not strive to do much more than tell a cool story that involves vampires or witches or spaceships.  But the same could be said of any genre.  What matters most is that there are loads of stories out there in the speculative fiction world that strive for meaning and purpose.

I love speculative fiction because it allows me to imagine a world just below the surface of our own, where magic is metaphor and everything means something.

Why do you love speculative fiction?

Or if you don’t, why not?

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Don’t be afraid (of dialogue)

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Dialogue used to freak me out.

I thought it was a bit of jerk.

I wrote my stories with minimal dialogue and it worked, for a time.  The problem with a lack of dialogue is stories tend to get thick and dense pretty fast.  Now thick and dense isn’t always a bad thing, but sometimes it’s good to mix it up.

So I held my breath and dove into the world of dialogue.  I started with just dialogue, nothing more, no descriptions, just simple back and forth between two characters.  I loved it.  It flowed, the characters developed themselves and I found it an absolute joy to write.  After my fudge-thick dialogue free stories it felt effervescent to write in pure conversation.  After that, I wrote another dialogue-only story.  Interestingly, both stories took a turn into the comedic (which I didn’t know I could even accomplish).  This was quite a change from the more moody and dark stories I had been working on before.  So not only did my experimentation lead me to a new found interest in dialogue, but it also led me to an understanding that I can, in fact, write something mildly funny!

Next it was onto a more integrated approach.  I wanted to write something that included both dialogue and non-dialogue descriptions.  I had my doubts about my ability in this department too.  Would it flow well?  Would it feel natural?  The story took a little while to develop (see: Let your story stew) but once I got to writing, it just poured out onto the page as though it had always been there.  It was exciting and I got to know my characters in a way I wasn’t entirely used to.  I got a chance to hear their voices.

Overall I was so inspired by this process that I have decided to pursue thoughts on a new novel.  My last book (sitting unedited on my computer) had little in the way of dialogue for the most part (it is a book of short stories and I only started experimenting more with dialogue half way through).  Now that I have developed a new perspective on conversation in writing I feel as though I am ready to give a longer format story another try.

Dialogue used to freak me out, but now I think it’s awesome. 



What are you afraid of?  Do you ever wonder if your fear is holding you back from a style you might love?  From stories that are waiting to be told?  Take your fears and give them a kick in the butt.  Write something you have always wanted to try.  Do it now!

Have you done it yet?  Great, let me know how it went!

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Let your story stew

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I had an idea for a story last month.  It’s been sitting as a single note on my computer for a month.  It’s been stewing in my brain.  I didn’t think I would do anything with it ever, like it would be one of those things that you get all crazy inspired about and then it just gets lost.

It had been three days since I wrote a story.   I was getting annoyed.  I wanted some inspiration and my prompts just weren’t cutting it.  So I thought of my stew.  It was simmering and I tasted it.  I just wanted to try it, see if it was ready.  I held the story for a day and it wasn’t feeling right.  I was just being really one dimensional about it.  You know when you have an idea in your mind and you keep going at it from the same perspective?  Over and over it was the same story, until all of  a sudden I changed the focus, changed the perspective, the voice and BAM!  Awesomeness.  After that the stew was edible.  I worked the rest out quickly, it just came pouring out.

So now that I’m done, waiting for Ben to look over the story and give his feedback, I’m reflecting.  What did I learn?  Stew tastes better when it has been left to simmer.  Sometimes ideas don’t come right away.  Hell sometimes they don’t even come at all, but that’s okay.  It’s in there somewhere, it just needs some time.  The veggies need to get soft, the juices need to mingle.

Now that I have driven this metaphor into the ground, I would love to hear your thoughts on story development.  How does it work for you?  Are you a stove-top cooker or do you just toss things in the microwave and super-charge them?  Personally, I’m a little bit of both, but I have to learn to be patient with myself during those times when the microwave just won’t cut it.

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Unfinished Business

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When I was around 17ish I wrote 25,000 words of a Harlequin novel.  I just found it the other day in my old files and started reading it.  Hilariously it wasn’t that bad.  My main problem though, was the sex.  I got to the sex part, they got it on and then I got stuck.  I didn’t have a plan beyond the coitus, which was probably pretty silly.  There was still the conflict and the dramatic make-up that needed to happen.  Instead there my protagonist sits, with a rose in her hands and new love in her heart, awaiting her climax and resolution.  It’s kind of tragic really, the unfinished tale of her love with the dashing prince (seriously I think the dude’s actually a prince).

It turns out I’m not really into writing romance novels, I just thought I would try it to see if I could.  Although it may not be my passion, it still got me to thinking about all the unfinished business I have lying around.  Stories without endings, or unedited tales waiting patiently in the form of 1’s and 0’s.  Just sitting on my hard drive.  I was spurred to explore my unfinished pile and I found a whole lot of it.  Tales of my lustful and daring adventures around the world, stories of magic and immortals and witches.  Not all of it is gold, but some of it certainly is interesting and worth recollecting and exploring.
What concepts did I find fascinating in my teenage years?  What themes are reoccurring?  What can I harvest?  What is worth resurrecting?

I encourage all writers, when you have a moment, to reflect.  Go back, don’t be embarrassed (hey if I can appreciate my Harlequin you can at least look at your unfinished business).  In reflection perhaps we can have the opportunity to recall things that were once important (and maybe still are), we can remember the days when we were at our most earnest (for good or ill), we can maybe mine some gold and if nothing else we can have a good laugh and feel good about the fact that we have grown in style and substance.  Because we have grown…haven’t we?

Tell me about your unfinished business!