Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Thinking about how to respond to criticism

I've returned from a long blogging hiatus for a Public Service Announcement. Do you know what you're supposed to say after someone critiques your writing? Thank you. That's it. Don't argue with their points, don't tell them why they're too ignorant to assess your work, don't describe all the praise everyone else has given the same piece, or how you're certain you're going to achieve massive success with it. You can think these things. Heck, write them down if it makes you feel better, but you don't say them. And I dare say even thinking them is problematic because there's a very good chance that there is a kernel of wisdom buried beneath the comments that raised your ire.

I have a long history with critique groups that I've written about in the past and they have been, unequivocably, vital to my development as a writer. There have been people who I disagreed with, who I felt didn't "get" my work but even they often had very useful feedback. When they didn't, I offered my thanks and walked away, knowing I was under no obligation to do everything (or even anything) they'd suggested.

I know a lot of writers who won't critique the work of people they don't know. Why? Because time and again when they've taken the time to thoughtfully respond to something, the person being critiqued has done exactly what I've advised you not to do above, which means the hours they spent reading and responding to their prose was a wasted effort.

Look, we've all had those moments when criticism rubbed us the wrong way or when it was glaringly apparent that someone missed something or grossly misinterpreted it or decided to be a massive wanker for no good reason. But being snotty in return achieves nothing other than marking you, in that reader's mind, as someone who isn't worth their time. (If you're lucky. Things get much more murky when that nasty-gram you sent off in response lands in the lap of someone more connected that you realize.) Instead of responding with a three page diatribe, offer your thanks, take a deep breath, file away their comments, and later, when you're feeling a little more generous about it, look at their critique with fresh eyes. You may actually find something valuable there.

And thus ends today's PSA...

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Girl is....thinking about her favorite writing exercise!

I did a classroom visit today for a high school creative writing class and it got me reminiscing about my own writing workshop experiences and the exercises we used to do. My favorite one was from undergrad. On one of the first days of class we were assigned to write the worst story we could think of. What was so neat about the assignment is how differently everyone approached it based on their answer to the question: what makes a story unreadable to you. Is it unsympathetic characters? Bad grammar? Poor structure? Genre out of your interest area?

Those are all great answers, but they weren't what I thought made a bad story. No, in my infancy as a writer I thought what made a bad story was a repulsive premise with excessive description of bodily functions.

So I wrote a story about a man having a difficult, odorific bowel movement. Pages of description, incorporating every adjective I could think of. Oh, and he runs out of toilet paper. See what I did there? That, my friends, was my attempt at dramatic irony.

Guess what our next assignment was? If you guessed "revise that story into something readable" you are officially ten times more intelligent than I was at 19. Somehow, I didn't see it coming, and when the hammer came down I was mortified. Had I only relied on poor grammar and incorrect punctuation to define my story as bad, I would've had it made, but instead my entire premise had no merit. And I somehow had to make it work or I WOULD FAIL AT LIFE.

I don't remember the particulars of the finished product, but it was successful enough to win raves from the instructor. And it taught me a lesson I've held onto ever since that day all those years ago: never write about diarrhea., actually what it taught me was that any story, no matter how misguided, can become better upon revision. Everything is salvageable if you're willing to put the work into it. Or, in the parlance of that long ago tale, even a turd can be polished.

How about you? What's your favorite writing exercise?

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Girl is...thinking about Dr. Suess!

It's Dr. Suess's birthday and I can't let the day pass without sending a tip of my (cat in the) hat his way. Suess has a special place in my heart because it's thanks to him that I learned to read. The first book I ever made it through on my own was Green Eggs and Ham, a feat that I'm sure I owe entirely to the fact that I memorized the darn thing after making my mom read it to me again and again and again (a ritual my own child is currently forcing on me). The clever, simple rhymes were easily remembered by my pea-sized toddler brain, though, and I quickly figured out how to match the sounds in my head with the squiggles on the page. Thus began my life long love affair with the printed word.

But did you know that Dr. Suess also has a World War II connection? Around the time he first started writing and illustrating whimsical children's books (and getting rejected for them), he was also working as a political cartoonist skewing the Third Reich, giving Roosevelt his props, encouraging people to buy war bonds, and lamenting racism against Jews and African Americans on the homefront (while being decidedly less kind to Japanese Americans). He also wrote U.S. propaganda and training films while serving in the Army, one of which became the basis for Our Job in Japan, the documentary he wrote that went on to win him in Academy Award in 1947.

Here's one of his short propaganda films, Our Job in Germany.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about Pearl Harbor

After taking a blogging hiatus, it seems appropriate that I pop back in on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. I have to admit that I was shocked to discover that it was the 70th anniversary of the attack, which left more than 2,400 American servicemen dead.  Writing about World War II makes the attack feel so much more recent and relevant in my mind, so much so that it was a bit shocking to find that today’s anniversary isn’t getting more press. Oh, it’s being mentioned in the news, but when you consider what a drastic role Pearl Harbor had in changing the course of American History, it seems awfully strange that it gets less ink that the Kardashian’s latest antics.

And what were those changes? Of course, we, as a nation, left our position of neutrality over the war and entered the fray, full tilt. This was a gross miscalculation on Japan’s part. They already knew we had greater capacity for war production and that the odds were good we could defeat them, but by attacking us on our own land, they awoke a beast so desperate for vengeance that nothing would satisfy us but complete victory.  Or as Japan’s Fleet Admiral put it, "I fear all we have done is awakened a sleeping giant and filled him with terrible resolve.”

But how else did it change us? 

  • No longer did we consider the home front safe. After years of watching wars from a distance, we had to conclude that an enemy could strike on American soil at any time, a lesson that we, sadly, learned again on September 11th.
  • Prior to Pearl Harbor, we were hardly enthusiastic about entering the war, but after the tragedy many people changed their opinions of the necessity of joining the fray. Pearl Harbor gave us a rallying cry and a convenient piece of home front propaganda to wave around as the war lingered on, we tired of the loss of life, and the restrictions on resources. No matter how self-centered you were, it would be hard not to soldier on when you were reminded of the tremendous sacrifices those who were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 made.
  •  Just as the U.S.’s policy of isolationism ended with our entry into the war, so, in some ways, did the isolation of her citizens. Faced with such tremendous loss, we enlisted, volunteered our time, gathered resources, and looked  for other ways to band together as a community for the greater good.
  • Pearl Harbor helped to instigate one of America’s favorite past times, the government conspiracy theory. Long before we obsessed over aliens landing in Roswell or the government ordering the attacks on 9/11, the American public questioned how much we knew or didn’t know about the attack on Pearl Harbor in the days before it happened.
  • The attack gave us an enemy to hate unequivocally. From the language used to describe the attack (“Sneaky”) and the caricatures of Japanese people in the media to the deportation and internment of 100,000  people of Japanese descent, Pearl Harbor gave Americans permission to hate an entire nation of people because of the actions of a few. It was an unfortunate blueprint for the ways in which we would respond to people of Middle Eastern descent after 9/11.

And, of course, perhaps the most dastardly thing about Dec. 7, 1941, is that it spawned this:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Girl is....thinking about slang

Slang is one of those terms that’s surprisingly hard to define, though I think we all intuitively known what it is and recognize it when we encounter it. It’s, basically, informal language that is often tied to a particular subculture or group. We tend to think of slang and young people’s lingo, but really it’s not restricted to youth. Those of us who adopted slang terms as teens, often continue to use the same terms well into adulthood, much to the horror of our kids. Oh, and it’s hardly an English-speaking phenomena – slang is found in most major languages.

Slang always seemed to be an oral medium, but today, with text messaging and the internet, it’s become increasingly written as well, often starting that way and then filtering into our speech.

Slang can work two ways: it can either invent new terms for familiar objects (in the late 1930s people began referring to a phone as an “Ameche,” in reference to the actor, Don Ameche, who had played Alexander Graham Bell in a film) or it can attribute new meaning to familiar words (using the word “hot” to imply someone’s good looking). The types of terms it often embodies are for “forbidden” things, which is why there are so darn many words for sex and body parts. 

Every era seems to produce its own slang, but the first half of the twentieth-century seemed particularly ripe for it. Part of that may stem from a more clearly defined youth culture. As teens became a population unto themselves after World War I, they may have found it necessary to create their own language. 

In Iris’s world the slang is coming out of the Jazz music and swing dancing phenomena – many of the terms originating in the dance halls and then filtered into other parts of society. Speaking these words means you’re branding yourself as part of that subculture. Suze, Rhona and Maria all use terms that would’ve originally been spoken at places like the Savoy.

But that isn’t the only kind of slang Iris encounters.  Her more upper class friends use teen-speak that probably developed out of their cliques. And the world around her is increasingly using G.I. talk, a unique form of slang developing out of the war. 

It can be a challenge to figure out how to integrate slang into a story without overwhelming the writing. On the one hand, the terms are going to be unfamiliar to your audience and may potentially rip them out of the story. On the other, though, if you’re trying to realistically depict a subsection of the population during a moment in history, you have to honestly depict how they communicated with each other, and that means integrating some of these unfamiliar terms and hoping your audience can suss out the meaning from the context. It can feel forced if you don’t do it delicately and you can, of course, completely overwhelm the dialogue by using too much slang (see my first Rosie Winter novel, when I was enjoying slang a little too much).  Sometimes utilizing the rhythm of how people talked “back then” is just as successful as sprinkling dialogue with unfamiliar words.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about occupational hazards

I’m going to tell you one of the worst things about being a mystery writer. It’s not rejection, or bad reviews, or writer’s block (though all of those certainly make me question my vocation), it’s that writing mysteries has ruined reading mysteries for me.
I was reminded of this last week as I reached the halfway point on a book I was really enjoying reading. Just like that, long before the narrator or anyone else in the story, I was certain I knew who was behind the murders and why. And what had been a pleasant escape for the bus ride to work became irritating: why can’t everyone in this story see what’s so freaking obvious to me?

Probably, because they’re fictional. And not writers. I can’t turn off the writer part of my brain when I read, which not only means that I’m frequently revising other people’s sentences, but I’m also painfully aware of the mechanics of the story: the clues, the suspects, the red herrings. It’s highly unusual for me not to have the culprit pegged before I reach the halfway point of a book. When I don’t, it’s dizzyingly exciting, especially when the novel is well-constructed enough that I should’ve seen it coming but didn’t. But when I do pick up on things too fast, I’m left wondering if it’s the fault of the writer for making the solution so obvious, or if the fault lies with me being more attuned to what to look for than the average  bear.
It’s part of the reason that I don’t write book reviews. It hardly seems fare to lambast a mystery for being too easy when I’m not really sure that’s the case. More often than not, I find myself reading other people’s reviews to confirm if the problem I experienced is widespread or unique to me.
This plot prognostication spills over to other media too: my husband hates watching mysteries or thrillers with me because I’ll peg the culprit early on. I’ve learned not to say it out loud, but he can always tell when that “aha!” has hit me and the rest of the evening devolves into his begging me to tell him what I think is going on.
This sixth sense can be detrimental to my own work. I’m so desperate to make a mystery hard to solve that I worry that I over complicate things so that readers like me won’t be spoiled halfway through the book. I do have rules though: any solution must be supported by the text, so that the re-reader can go back and see that the answer was there, if heavily cloaked, just like in the books I love. I don’t want the reader to feel cheated because I didn’t bother to introduce the culprit until the last chapter. As anyone who’s ever been a debater knows: you can’t have new arguments in the 2AR.
Have you been surprised by a mystery lately (in a good way)?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Girl is...thinking about historical fiction

As a writer of historical fiction, it probably comes as no surprise that I’m a passionate reader of the genre. I thought I’d discuss some of my favorite reads and why they so inspired me.

1.       Max Allan Collins’s Nathan Heller series. Collins had made himself so ubiquitous through his extraordinary prolificness that I often wonder if he hasn’t cloned himself. The most amazing thing is, despite his constant output, everything he writes is so darn good – he’s definitely not an example of a writer spreading himself too thin. I stumbled upon his Nathan Heller series quite by accident, but it’s one of the things that inspired me to want to write historical fiction. The series starts in the 1930s in Chicago and features not just a delightfully rendered historical backdrop (I learned so much about the World’s Fair from the first book in the series) but three dimensional  depictions of historic figures like Frank Nitti and Al Capone. Later tales tackle Ma Barker and her kin, Dillinger, J. Edgar Hoover, World War II,  the Lindbergh kidnapping,  Marilyn Monroe, the Black Dahlia and many, many many more. I must confess I haven’t read all the books yet, but the ones I have devoured were amazing and his use of real people effective without being hokey. Collins has reissued the series through Amazon’s Encore program.

2.       John Dunning’s Two O’Clock Eastern Wartime. This was the book that started my juices flowing about World War II. Dunning sets his book on the U.S. homefront at a radio station (old time radio is a specialty of Dunning, who's a collector in the field) and creates a humdinger of a mystery involving a 4F writer, saboteurs, Irish nationalists, the Boer War, and the actors and technicians who populate radio sttaion. He’s not heavy-handed with his history but does a beautiful job evoking the era.

3.      Iain Pears’ An Instance of the Fingerpost. A dear friend recommended this book and I remember thinking he was crazy if he thought  this would even be remotely interesting to me. It’s set in the 17th century England, a period I never had any interest in, and deals with topics like the invention of blood transfusions, the English civil war, complicated inheritance legalities – things that I didn't give a fig about. But the writing is so amazing, the story so complex, the  mystery so amazing that I devoured all 704 page of this book.
And learned a lot in the process.

How about you? Got a favorite historical novel you’d like to share?