Monday, February 25, 2013

Cope With Your Critique

This week the Rockville 8 welcomes Matthew Iden, author of the Marty Singer detective series. Matthew is here to talk about the invaluable necessity of working with an editor. Whether we as writers choose to publish traditionally or go the indie route, we all eventually feel the (loving) wrath of an editor's pen. In the end, a good editor is a book's best friend.

Welcome to the Rockville 8, Matthew! What can you tell us about making the most of our editor's work?

One of the first commitments I made to myself when I dove into the world of self-publishing was to work with a professional fiction editor who had experience in my genre, crime fiction. Despite the expense, I believed — and later confirmed — that hiring and working with an editor was often the benchmark that separated professional self-published writers from fly-by-nighters.

I've since worked with two different editors on three different manuscripts and my novels have been improved in every instance. But each time I get that editorial letter back — even though I know I'll eventually reap the rewards of working with a true pro in the field — I'm unprepared for the battery of criticism that gets leveled at my writing.

I know, I know, it's what I'm paying them for. Why am I so surprised? I asked them to find what's wrong with my novel, not what's right. Still, each time a critique comes in, I struggle to overcome the sense of doom that settles over me when I look at my book. 

What follows is a short hand strategy for coping with those feelings of anxiety. Better yet, I've found it actually helps me make better use of the critique my editors give me. Next time you get that letter, follow these guidelines and see if it doesn't help you make the most of what you've paid for.

1. Read the critique, then take a breath

When you get your editor's letter, it will completely leave your mind that, if they're doing their job, everything they can find wrong with your book will be condensed into one small, soul-crushing package. Plot holes, ridiculous inconsistencies, flat characters, unresolved endings, shallow story telling, not enough conflict, too much conflict…all of it is going to be wrapped up into this one, concentrated missive.

This will poison you if you let it. Remember that they are condensing things and that this is not a condemnation of every page of your novel…and is certainly not a judgment of your skill as a writer. Read the critique through once, twice, ten times if you have to, but remind yourself that the criticism of your manuscript is representative, not total. Relax. Whatever your editor found amiss can be examined and corrected. That's the point of the critique.

2. Make a plan

Unless your editor is exceedingly well organized (or even if they are), your edits may come as a mish-mash of small, medium, and large problems. Once you've read your critique and understand what's being discussed — even if you don't agree with all of the proposed changes — make your own prioritized list of issues before diving in.

You might be able to address some of the items on their own, without consideration for other parts of the manuscript. Others might be so intertwined with related plot elements that you'd better look at the work as a whole before you start typing or you could upset the apple cart of the book's logic.

Understand the consequences of following particular courses of action. Know which parts of your book you're tackling when…and why.

3. Write with care

If you used your coconut, there's a good chance that you mailed your editor the best manuscript you could. After all, why would you send your editor 80,000 sloppily written words when you have to pay for each one? You no doubt rewrote the book several times, maybe even had your beta readers go through it, before you sent it out for its professional going-over.

Bear that in mind as you work on the editorial suggestions. Even if there are whole swaths of the plot you have to rewrite to address the issues your editor found, you can't afford to treat these new elements as first draft corrections or they won't be up to the caliber of your (formerly) finished product. Choose your words and your new plot constructions carefully as you go about putting your creation back together. The throw-words-at-a-wall-and-see-what-sticks method probably isn't going to work here.

4. Work with your editor

Once your subjective self is over hating the ground your editor walks on, there's a good chance your objective self will sift through your critique and examine each suggestion on its own merit, like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. Some don't come close, some will look right but can't be made to fit, and others will be spot-on perfect.

Give yourself permission to have a dissenting opinion, but commit to working with your editor to find out the whys and why-nots of particular disagreements. Assuming that you made sure before you engaged your editor that you can contact her or him for post-critique brainstorming, quick assessments, even additional reads (and I would suggest you not work with an editor who won't offer these things), take advantage of the working relationship. Clarify murky points, ask for suggestions, propose fixes and offer up a battle plan for your rewrites. Your editor likely wants your manuscript to be the best it can be as much as you do.


I hope you find this strategy helpful. An editorial critique should be a tool for producing your top work, not a cause for despair. Grab that letter, make a plan, and get to work. With it, you're about to write the best words of your life.

Matthew Iden writes fantasy, science fiction, horror, thrillers, crime fiction, and contemporary literary fiction with a psychological twist. His Marty Singer detective series debuted with A Reason to Live and continues with Blueblood. Signs, the third installment, will be out in early 2013.
You can find him on his website, his Facebook page and his Amazon author page.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Find Your Tribe

Today, I went to a wonderful event—Washington Loves Romance.  It was a gathering of writers and readers at a beautiful bar in the Washington Area.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect.  It was a great time to visit with friends and meet new people.  

It is important for writers to find outlets to reach out to other writers.  You can learn so much from other writers, especially about the business aspect of writing.  Hearing about what kinds of things they’ve been through is helpful for both commiserating and for learning about various aspects of publishing.

One thing I notice about any gathering of writers is how supportive they are.  For the most part, writers encourage one another rather than tear each other down.  Offer advice rather than keeping information to themselves.
Writing can be lonely.  It’s hard to soldier on sometimes, showing up at the computer, doing the writing, and making the commitment.  If you’re unpublished, you’re working without knowing there will be any payoff.  That’s all the more reason to seek out other writers.

There are all kinds of writer’s groups out there if you’re looking for one to join.  Every genre under the sun has a group.  Put yourself out there and find a group that interests you.  Volunteer in that organization and get to know other people.  Find yourself a critique group.  Search the newspaper for writer’s events.  Call bookstores and see what events they offer.   

Get involved and find your tribe.  You’ll be glad you found others who share your interests.  It’s a relief to find others who understand the kinds of joys and lows that writing brings.    
Let me know if you have any other ideas for meeting other writers.  We'd love to hear them.     

Monday, February 11, 2013

Tippin' My Hat to Stanislavski

Tell me if you know this one.

A girl flies to another continent (country, time zone, zip code) to get engaged to a guy only instead of getting engaged, he tells her he's met someone else and it wasn't like they were even serious because they lived on different continents (countries, time zones, zip codes) so she flies home, sobbing, to her friend who says "Poor Baby" and "Just remember how this feels so you can write about it."

Or maybe you know this one.

It is time for reviews at work and your boss calls you in. You are thinking, wow. Maybe I'll get a raise. And your boss says, "We're eliminating your job. Here's a month's pay and three months' health insurance." And your friend says, "Poor Baby" and "Just remember how this feels so you can write about it."

That's right. Remember how this feels so you can write about it.

Yes. It's the Method Acting School of Writing. Like Stanislavski himself were leading us through sense memory exercises.  Writers are told to dig deep into their memories, their experiences, their emotions and put it on the page.

Or more like, aren't we lucky we've gone through painful (or joyful) things because we can write about it better.  After all, a writer is supposed to write what she (or he) knows.

But seriously, what do we know?  Not a lot. Then again, should not knowing something stop writers from becoming god? Do we dive into that imagination that has been honing itself since Ms Martindale in fourth grade told us to open our math books to page 43 and do the first twelve problems or do we spend time revisiting our ups and downs of our past to give authenticity to our characters?

Constantin Stanislavsky would instruct his clients in the Actors Studio to revisit over and over, What would motivate me, the actor, to behave in the way the character does? Do I simply replace actor with writer? No, wait, that doesn't make sense. Let's tweak it a bit. What would motivate my character to behave in this way? And because we want to illustrate an arc within our story, What would motivate him or her to change?

Do we draw that arc from ourselves? Our own experiences? Or imagine ourselves in the character's shoes? Remember what rejection feels like by re-reading comments from a contest judge or what joy feels like by recalling a scorching hot kiss with Daniel Craig. (Well, writers ARE god. We are creating these universes. Why not Daniel Craig?)

Ahh. See. Right there. I did it. I stepped away from what I knew (Daniel Craig) and mentioned what I didn't know (rejection from contest judges). Are we as writers limited to what we know? Do we draw on our own experiences as we create our characters? If so, than Suzanne Collins, I am so sorry. (and Thomas Harris, I do not want to meet you in a brightly lit mall let alone dark alleyway.)

Yet there is much as writers that we can learn from Stanislavsky. Even as he sought "theatrical truth" so too can I seek literary truth. Whether I am writing a romance, set in Spain and England, or a suspense set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, I must portray my characters with integrity. How would Lucian show he is angry? Or Phoebe her fear of losing her child?

Generally, I find myself using the Improv approach to my plotting, rather than going as deeply and richly into a universe as is demanded by Method. And I tend to grow irritated when told to "save it and write it" when it comes to sharing my own experiences with friends. But  as frightened as I am of so intricately plotting a group of characters and carefully constructing their arcs, of including only those scenes that actually matter to the outcome of the book rather than those that I just loved writing, I must bow to Stanislavski and his Method, and embrace at the very least his call for Truth.

Even if I have to take a break from Daniel Craig to do it.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Beyond Character Foils with Karin Slaughter

or, Betty Makes Me Love Will More
If you read Karin Slaughter’s crime fiction/thrillers, then you know Will and Betty. If you don't, then pick up Slaughter's newest release, Criminal, and be prepared to stay up all night hiding under the covers and reading by flashlight. Slaughter will take you on an electrifying ride with characters you’ll love and hate, and scenes so scary that for days after you'll be as jumpy as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Slaughter is a talented writer and she’s skilled at nuance. This is especially apparent when writing about Will and Betty. In a Will Trent thriller, Slaughter devotes maybe 500 words to Betty. Yet, when the book is done, I know it is Betty that allowed me the most poignant glimpses into Will’s psyche. Betty's character is a foil for Will's but not in the standard Laurel and Hardy type of contrast. This is deeper and much more subtle. writes that a ‘foil’ is a literary device where the author creates a character whose primary purpose is to present a contrast to another character. We all know some great examples of foils: Ginger and Mary Ann, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, Hercule Poirot and Captain Hasting.

Character foils are useful in fleshing out a character in a show don't tell way. By painting a portrait of the adoring and dense Captain Hastings, Agatha Christie’s detective Poirot appears even more cerebral and urbane. Mary Ann’s pigtails contrast sharply with Ginger’s glamorous bouffant hair-do, and the BBC’s Jeremy Brett’s portrayal of the genius Holmes makes Dr. Watson look like a torpip, imbecile, not to put too fine a point on it. 

That’s not what Betty does for Will. Will’s partner, Faith, is a great foil for Will. She’s short, he’s tall; she’s an insider, he’s an outsider; she’s outspoken, he’s reserved; she smooth, Will is awkward. Faith tells Will that he has all the social graces of a feral monkey. Granted Will’s got some issues (he’s got more baggage than steerage in the Titanic), but to my knowledge he isn’t masturbating in public and flinging feces. 

So, as a foil, how is Betty different and why does it matter?

At her most superficial level, Betty’s feminity is a perfect foil for Will’s masculinity. Why? Because, Betty is a 6 pound chihuahua wearing a pink collar. Will likes to scoop her up and tuck her under his arm like a bug-eyed clutch. It should make him look ridiculous. It doesn’t. Betty only enhances Will’s masculine charms and makes him more endearing.

Slaughter could have stopped there. Betty as an accessory—like the purse-riding chihuahua in Legally Blonde. But, Betty goes deeper. Betty is the outward symbol of Will’s decency and kindness. This is important because considering Will’s troubled childhood of abuse and deprivation, he could be a monster, like the murderers he chases and finds. But he isn’t. Will rescued Betty. He built her a koi pond so she’s wouldn’t be bored while he’s a work. He is (mostly) not ashamed to be seen in public with her. He has mother-hen-like moments of caring for Betty that tell the reader: this is good man. He’s definitely husband and father material—once you clear up the issues with the ex-wife.

This is what Slaughter says about Will: I think women love him because he does the dishes without having to be asked.  …he's a very complicated man with some dark secrets…he doesn't let his past ruin the present.  He doesn't mope around.  He doesn't try to get pity... he's age appropriate, meaning he's responsible, has a good job and doesn't sit around all day playing video games. (Click here to read interview)

Will Trent is an incredibly popular fictional character. So much so, that “his” books are going to be made into a TV series (learn more). Betty has had a hand (uh, paw) in building Will’s popularity by being more than an accessory, by providing a deeper exploration of this complex character and that is why Betty makes me love Will more.

How are you using character foils and pets in your own work? I’d love to hear from you.