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Has Writing ruined reading for other authors?

Think back to when you were a child.  An innocence, where magic investagationand fantasy filled your world.  The tooth fairy somehow always knew when you lost a tooth, and you stared in amazement (though not disbelief) how such a tiny car could fit twenty clowns in it at the circus.

Then you grow up, and you discover why.  You were taken backstage and saw how the magic was done.  And like that *snaps fingers* the magic is gone.  You can’t ignore it.  The next time you went to the circus you looked for the trap door.  Even if the magician guesses your card correctly, you wonder how he did it.  ‘What’s the trick’, you ask yourself.  Not, ‘Wow, that’s incredible’.  You want to know the trick…  Because there is no such thing as magic.

You discovered the Great and Powerful OZ was just a charlatan behind a curtain using smoke and mirrors to play God.

Okay, I’m getting a little melodramatic, I realize that.  But it makes my point.  Critiquing is habit forming.

Since I’ve joined this underground society of writers I have done a lot of critiquing.  There are days I prefer it to writing.  But it is not without its drawbacks.

Even though my daughter is in high school, I recently started to read to her again before going to bed.  Sure the titles and topics of what we now read have drastically changed.  Little fuzzy woodland critters dancing gleefully in meadows have been traded for teenagers stranded in a town entranced by some dystopian virus outbreak, but still quality time is quality time…right?

I like to think my daughter enjoyed the times I’ve read to her when she was a little girl, but I’m not so sure this is the case now.

“I looked down the street.  All the houses had the same exterior brickwork, same mailbox, same landscaping…”  I pause after reading that last sentence.

“What?  Why did you stop?” my daughter asks.

“Exterior brickwork?  The author would have been better off saying ‘façade’.  It flows better.  ‘Exterior brickwork’ drew me out of the story a bit.  Don’t you agree?”

A sigh and eye roll later she replies, “Not as much as you analyzing every sentence.”

Critiquing is a wonderful tool.  I believe it helps me improve my writing as I become aware of other people’s issues in theirs.  But I recently noticed that I can no longer just read a book for the sake of reading.  I critique as I go.

I’m not saying I’m a master wordsmith, merely that critiquing helps sharpen your skills since you train yourself to look for pitfalls even experienced writers can fall victims to.  Like ending sentences with prepositions.

But like the grown up now looking for the trap door the tiny car parks on top of, there is a part of me that misses the freedom of reading without looking at word choices and inconsistencies.  Wires, pullies, smoke machines, and mirrors have replaced magic.

I still can enjoy reading, but it has become easier to get pulled out of it now that I read it from a more technical viewpoint.  I would never have noticed that a word appeared three times within a four paragraph stretch.  Head jumping never bothered me, and I would gloss over any semi-colons barely aware they were there.

Maybe it isn’t such as bad thing.  After all, those semi-colons have no place in modern society…

Honest Rejection

resume I recently saw an advertisement for a college.  It showed a man in a cap and gown smiling.  Obviously, he graduated and is ready to strike out and find his place in the world.  To find his fortune.  To blaze new trails…etc…

The caption read “In searching for the perfect résumé, you overlooked the perfect candidate”, though I may be paraphrasing.  But, I found it rather profound.

I remember years ago, I was working at a small startup software company.  I had zero managerial training, and was right out of college myself.  I was working in the shipping and receiving department…actually, I was the shipping and receiving department.

One day one of the owners came to me with a stack of papers asking if I was busy.   Sadly, being a startup company we were doing mostly receiving with very little shipping, so I had to honestly tell them ‘no’.

The owner handed me the stake of papers, which were résumés, and told me to sort through them.  I was to make one pile.  Résumés that contained certain buzz words, and the rest toss in the circular file.

Wow.  Just wow.  I couldn’t believe what job hunting came down to.  If you had three words on your résumé, you pass.  I think the ad nailed it.  It doesn’t matter what’s inside, it’s all about the packaging.

Finding an agent or publisher isn’t much different.  I saw a recent video where an agent spent about ten minutes going through his slush pile telling viewers why he was rejecting their query.  He mentioned several times he wasn’t sure if this would be well received, but hoped that it would be taken for what its intention was – an insight on how capricious the process can be.  He admittedly says he can’t give ‘the attention and consideration that probably every submission deserves’ because of the sheer amount he receives.  To be honest, I found it enlightening and sincere though I could see how another wanna be author could take offense to it.  The agent went through a small sample rejecting them solely based on certain details of their letters (not sample writing).

Two were rejected based on the titles, one was due to him being underwhelmed by the plot, and another because the writer plugged themselves in a bad way.  In one case the writer misspelled the agent’s last name, but he said that’s fine, although on a bad day, it could lead to rejection without a further glance.

He said these were not arbitrary decisions, but rather a system he put in place in order to get through the massive amounts of queries he receives on a daily basis.

I believe we have to acknowledge that fact.  Decades ago people would type out a query or résumé, stuff it in an envelope and drop it in the mailbox.  Somewhere between two weeks to a couple of months later you’d receive an answer with an explanation of the decision.  But those days are as ancient as leaving the restaurant’s phone number with the babysitter and walking to school in a blizzard, uphill, both ways.

Today applying for a job or querying can be done en mass with mail merge and online forms.  Decades ago agents may have only received maybe hundreds of queries a week rather than a day.  Job positions solicited a handful of candidates rather than hundreds.  Sure maybe there are more agents and jobs available, but that simply means more to apply to for those of us looking for that elusive ‘yes’.

So I do understand why that agent posted that video, and I do sincerely appreciate it.  He even admitted that he knows his system isn’t foolproof and he undoubtedly let some good stories slip through his fingers.  But that’s just something he has to live with, right?   Unfortunately, that’s something the writer of that would have been successful manuscript will have to live with as well.

Hey, I understand the reason for the process, but I don’t have to like it.

Blurring Genres

I always enjoyed Fantasy, as I mentioned in previous entries.  I read to escape reality, and perhaps it seemed the best blurred linesway to do that was to engage in a genre that removed itself from reality the most.

Even in my other free time hobby, video games, I enjoy fantasy – The Witcher series, Elder Scrolls, vampire sagas.

For a time I was interested in The Sims when it first came out (like a decade ago), but when I realized the game dealt with the same crap I had to deal with in real life it lost a lot of interest for me.  Like literally, your character had to find time to crap – go to the bathroom, as well as eat, go to work, shower, talk…  I had enough difficulty finding time for me to do all those things for myself!  I really don’t want to take up precious free time to do it for a virtual me.

So Fantasy was my passion.  It made sense when I started writing that would be the genre I was drawn to.  So my first two manuscripts were clearly urban Fantasy.   My first was a vampire novel, which has yet to see the light of day (seriously – no pun was intended).  Being my first attempt at a novel I made so many mistakes it is in dire need of revamping…okay, I chose that word on purpose, sorry.

My second novel, Natural Enemies, I believe shown major growth (you can check it out yourself here).  But then I wrote my third novel and was half way through it when my CPs mentioned I was writing a paranormal romance not a fantasy.  My opinion about blurred genre lines are posted here.

Now I started another manuscript.  Maybe the fourth times a charm…right?  When I started writing it was to be a good ol’ fashion urban fantasy.  However, as I wrote, as my characters and plots tend to do, it morphed.  As it turns out, it isn’t fantasy, it’s not even magical realism, or any other sub-genre of fantasy.  I thought it would become action/adventure, but I’m not so sure anymore.  In truth, if someone was to put a gun to my head right now and demand a classification I would have to say – incomplete, simply because I wouldn’t be able to answer them, so I they would shoot me, and thus, I wouldn’t get to finish the story.

I know this will be an issue when I finish, unless it develops in some clear and defined way so I can properly query it under the right genre to the right agents and publishers.  But what if it doesn’t?

Many stories overlap multiple genres, and at times it seems almost like a crapshoot when classifying someone’s work.

Yes, classifications are useful and necessary.  Most people when looking for their next book will make a beeline to a certain genre.  I don’t know anyone who goes into a bookstore or library and would say to the staff member or librarian if asked what are they looking for would respond ‘Anything, as long as it has words’.  People have interests matching the classifications of the genres.  I never had an interest in reading Romance novels, and I know others have no interest in Fantasy.  It’s not that one is better than the other, they’re just different.

But some genres can overlap.  Speculative Fiction has many distinct categories, and Romance can contain plenty of action scenes.  Mysteries can have plenty of romance scenes.  How do we know how to properly define a book when the relationship between the two main characters is as important to the development of the story as discovering who the killer is?  Just because there’s magic in the world, does that trump the fact the story is about the coming of age of a young girl trying to find herself in that world?

It seems that writers today aren’t so concerned with making sure they stay ‘inside the lines’ for want of a better expression, when creating their stories.  But if the industry isn’t willing to entertain that sort of flexibility, what happens then?

Be sure to read my latest entry of my Paranormal novel: Daughter of Lilith on Wattpad!

Everyone’s a critic

Muppet Critics
Statler and Waldorf, created by Jim Henson

Perhaps it’s human nature.  Although what purpose that particular instinct serves, I have no idea. Maybe it stems from the desire to be popular, to attract the best mate, or appear stronger in order to better our chances of survival and procreation. Perhaps it stems from a desire to feel superior to everyone else. Or maybe some people are just a-holes.

For whatever reason there isn’t a sport, hobby, or profession in existence that isn’t at the mercy of a critic. I don’t mean professional critics. I mean those people who, for example, walk into a room and see someone watching a game on TV. They sit for an hour watching and listening to the announcers and then see one of the players make a foul, error, or just basically mess up in some way. At that moment, they have absorb enough information about the pastime from observing for the past hour to pass judgment on that individual who has spent years, perhaps even decades, dedicated to learning, practicing, and playing that sport. They can jump right in with the announcers and click into place as easily as a perfect puzzle piece.

I’m just as guilty as the next person, I’ll own up to it. During the Olympics, I watch to make sure the gymnasts ‘stick their landing’, and when they don’t I’ll mutter a ‘tsk’ and shake my head in dismay. Never mind the fact that if I were to try as much as to walk across a balance beam the nearby hospital would have to be put on high alert.

Watching episodes of Family Feud sparks this as well. “Name something people drink at a wedding.” “KOOL-AID!” And of course the rest of the Family players jump and cheer, and pat the contestant on the back. “Good answer, good answer!” Well, no it isn’t. In fact it’s a stupid answer. (I made this example up, but if someone reading this thought it was a good answer, my apologies.)

But the truth is when you put yourself in the public eye, you open yourself up to judgment by EVERYONE. Those qualified to do so, and those who aren’t. Some will attempt to pass on constructive criticism; others will just pass on bad feelings.

The poor contestant who answers ‘Kool-Aid’ knows that isn’t a good answer, but they’re under pressure, on national TV, in front of a live audience with a microphone pointed at them. With that kind of pressure, a nice tall glass of cold Kool-Aid would really hit the spot…of course, so would hard liquor, which would be a better answer to that question, but whatever.

That gymnast has about a million things to consider when they are flying, twisting, and turning in the air. Inertia. Gravity. Momentum.   Where’s the f-ing ground? The fact they can do one-tenth of what I see is amazing to me. If they end up taking a tiny hop landing after being airborne for five seconds swirling around like a piece of dandelion fuzz in a tornado, I seriously can’t care less, I’m impressed!

Each page a writer types is a series of decisions. What their characters say and do. How they react to secondary characters. What setting should they create? Chances are some of those decisions will be bad ones. Some will be brilliant. Creating a world and populating it from your own imagination, then putting your name on it and shouting to the world ‘Hey, look what I did!’ takes a lot of courage.

With seven billion and counting people out there, it’s impossible to impress everyone. But not impossible to gather seven billion opinions. Some will share experience, and perhaps grant you some insights. Others will look for anything to pick at. The best you can do is take what you can glean from it all and move forward.

Writing styles – plotter versus panster

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Anyone who writes and talks to other writers eventually gets asked the question:  ‘Are you a plotter or panster?’

While to an outsider it sounds like the perfect beginnings of a harassment case and the filing of a restraining order, it’s a common question.   Writers are interested in knowing if their counterparts outline and plan their stories before sitting down to write or if they just ‘wing it’.

A plotter plots out their manuscript, often creating an outline of the entire story before they launch their word processor and type their first word.  A panster may have a rough idea of what’s going on with their characters, but doesn’t have a clear and defined concept, yet they dive into their manuscript and see where it takes them.  They are flying by the seat of their pants.  While I’m not sure where the term ‘panster’ came from, I’m just going with my belief that’s why we are called pansters.  If you know differently, please leave a comment.

To be honest I have yet to meet anyone who is completely one or another.  Most if not all writers are going to be a hybrid of the two.  One writer I know does create outlines before beginning the writing process, but as far as I know, has yet to not alter it numerous times throughout her characters’ journey.

I consider myself predominantly a panster.  I will often have the beginning and the end of my story scoped out in my head, and at that point will beginning writing.  I sit down with my characters, which tend to be flushed out more than the plot I’m about to the put them through and tell them the following:  ‘Okay guys, here’s the deal.  You’re here, at point ‘A’.  I need you all to get over here, at point ‘Z’.  How you do it is up to you, just make sure you get there…except for you Smeadly, you need to die at point ‘R’.  Sorry, need to make sure the main character has motivation to continue forward.’

Aside from poor Smeadly, the process works for all of us, mainly because I believe my stories are more character driven then plot driven, so as long as I stay true to their personalities, the plot will be pushed forward.  As I write I will find myself adding the points ‘B’, and ‘C’, and (poor Smeadly), ‘R’.  So in some sense I’m never really flying blind.  But since I don’t have the outline to begin with, I would be considered a panster.

Most will agree they while neither is better than the other, one usually works better for an individual.  Most plotters will shake their heads in wide-eyed wonderment as the panster sits down and just begins written without consulting a stack of papers with the outlines and character profiles, and bite their tongue when we get writer’s block.  Pansters will roll their eyes and tap their foot as the plotter goes over their notes before preparing to tackle the puzzle that will soon be their next masterpiece. 

There’s no right or wrong way to write a story.  If it’s in you, it will get out and find its way to the keyboard.