Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

A while back, I posted about how critiquing can be valuable for writers - not just the process of getting outside eyes on your work, but the act of reading critically, bringing your reactions together, and phrasing them in an effective manner.  Today, I wanted to talk about how I approach the critiques I receive:  how I filter them, decide how to proceed, what advice to use and what to ignore.

Important to everything that follows is this:  take critique with a grain of salt.  Not every reader is bothered by the same issues.  It may only be an "issue" for a particular individual.  I've received rejections-with-comments from editors that offer contradictory reasons and comments.  Once, I got a rejection on a story criticizing its florid prose.  The same story got praise for the lyrical descriptions ... from the very next place I submitted it.

(Some of you may be thinking:  what about the writers who are so arrogant they brush off anything that isn't praise?  I'm sure they're out there, but in my experience, they're the minority.  Most of us hate everything we've written and are prone to believe every negative word.)

In most critique situations, you have more than one reader.  Now, I know perfectly well that the best way to deal with this is to wait until all (or at least some) of the responses have come in before changing anything ... but I have a compulsion to apply and "resolve" the critique as soon as possible, so I'd be a hypocrite to advise others to wait.

I analyze each comment in a critique and decide how I feel about it:  whether I agree, disagree or am on the fence.  This involves knowing myself as a writer, what I want out of the story, and of course the content of the story.  (Readers are human, and I have gotten comments / confusion about a fact that is directly stated - but I've also been sure I said X, and gone back to find that wasn't the case ...)

If I agree with the comment, I will make the change right away.  Easy enough.

If I'm not sure whether the point is valid or not, I will put it on hold until I hear if others agree with it.

If I disagree with a point ... yeah, I tend to discard it, though not always.  If others echo the same concern, I will go back and take another look.  I also look at the objection and the reasoning behind it.  Sometimes, there's a way to address it in another fashion.  Let's say a critique says (this is awful blunt, but let's go with it):  "This character is boring.  Cut them."  I could remove the character entirely ... or I could amp her up and justify her place in the story.  Not every reader will explain or even know the reason behind their comments, so it's up to the writer to do a bit of detective work ... even go to the reader directly, if you can do it without being confrontational.

Also, sometimes it's just about what I want the story to be.  For instance, I wrote a short story once with a supporting character who betrayed the main character.  The ending affirmed his decision and his true colors ... and people hated it.  They wanted him to be redeemed, but that was never my intention.  In a way, maybe it was a backhanded compliment:  they liked him enough to want him to be a good guy.

Finally, sometimes it's about knowing your audience and their tastes.  Sometimes, they'll tell you ("I hate happy endings") and sometimes, if you've dealt with the same people for a while, you'll already know.  Personally, I hate first person present tense with a passion unless there's some pressing reason for it.  It doesn't convey any more immediacy, to me; I just find it distracting and unbookish.  (That is not a word.  I know.)  As a critique partner, I will note this directly - "I hate first person present tense and I didn't mind it at all here" or "I should preface this with the fact that I hate first person present tense, but I don't think it worked here ..." - but not everyone does.  But your reader's tastes may add a few extra pinches of salt to a comment.

It's all a delicate balance between believing in your story and trusting that outside eyes will make it stronger.  Go too far in either direction, and the story suffers.  Even if you change an oddball story to appeal to a wider audience, it may no longer be the story you want to tell ... and to me, that is the more important part.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Song Styles

I've always thought that song lyrics, out of context, can make excellent story prompts for writers.  For my flash / poetry boot camp, I took a line from a Rihanna song - "I'm lost, you've got me looking for the rest of me" - though I didn't end up using that particular prompt.  I also once challenged a group of writers with this gem from the Sondheim musical Into The Woods:

I'll see you soon again; I hope that when I do, it won't be on a plate.

The results were well worth the irritable reactions.

But one of my favorite from-lyrics prompts has to come out of Heather Nova's Maybe An Angel:

And when you said that you were dead, I hung on.

It's a line that doesn't make sense even in context, granted, but it suggests so many things, particularly for a writer like me who is fascinated with afterlives.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Song Styles

New year, new car CDs?  Not really, actually:  I swapped them out mid-December.  I've stopped sharing my other themes, seeing as my music choices wander between the obscure and the obvious, but I do like sharing my odd thought process for my word association CD:  where the songs link by title and occasionally topic through stream of consciousness connection.

So here's my most recent collection, including some brand-new acquisitions:

Spin - Rachel Fuller
Dancin' in Circles - Lady Gaga
Circle of Stone - Laura Powers (song treats the stone circle as an otherworld gateway, so ...)
Underworld - Joss Stone
Afterlife - Ingrid Michaelson
Death of Love - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Would You Call That Love - Kelly Clarkson
He Never Mentioned Love - Kirsty MacColl
Never Said - Liz Phair
The Last Words You Said - Sarah Brightman
Last Letter - Katharine McPhee
Writing On The Wall - Blackmore's Night
The Walls Keep Saying Your Name - Sophie Ellis-Bextor
Four Pink Walls - Alessia Cara (I consider this a metaphor for heart walls, so ...)
Into My Heart - Rachel Fuller
Bringin' On The Heartbreak - Mariah Carey
How To Be A Heartbreaker - Marina and the Diamonds
How To Touch A Girl - JoJo
Touch Me - Kirsty MacColl
Don't Touch Me There - Dian Diaz
Don't - Jewel
I Didn't - Kristin Chenoweth
Didn't I - Kelly Clarkson
I Didn't Plan It - Sara Bareilles
Wild Child - Enya
Children Of The World - Amy Grant
Small World - Idina Menzel
Our Little World - Into The Woods soundtrack
Too Little, Too Late - JoJo
It's Too Late - Gloria Estefan
Midnight Heartache - September
Midnight Bottle - Colbie Caillat
Bottle It Up - Sara Bareilles
Hold Me Down - Halsey
Bow Down - Chvrches
I Bow Out - Whitney Houston
Take a Bow - Leona Lewis
Applause - Lady Gaga
Private Show - P!nk
Show Me - Idina Menzel
Reveal - Celine Dion

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Wednesday Wanderings

The end of the year was tumultuous, hence my radio silence over the past few weeks.  I've never been much for New Year's resolutions, though I do swear by setting goals; I simply don't hold much stock in waiting until or focusing on the first of the year.  The calendar is arbitrary, after all.

On the culinary front, I have some solid goals, though they're mainly coming about now because I've settled into my new job and have time to breathe after the holiday madness.  There are some professional certifications I intend to obtain over the next year; two of them are fairly pro forma (just taking a test to put a rubber stamp on what I already know, maybe with a little brush-up), and one of them is long-term, which I won't qualify for until August - one of the requirements is a certain length of work experience.

On the harp front, I don't have any specific goals, but I have a potential new student and a number of gigs through the first few months of the year.  That should keep me busy for a while.

On the writing front, I must admit I'm at a bit of a loss.  The only goals I can think of either involve external gatekeeping (sell short stories to professional markets; acquire an agent; sell a novel to a major publisher) or more of the same old (finish writing / editing a novel, write a certain number of short stories / poems / flash).  I know I want to get more involved with beta readers and maybe a small critique group, but I'm not sure of the logistics or the details I want.

Thoughts welcome, but for now ... onwards.  That's the important thing.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Wednesday Wanderings

This is why we can't have nice things, Christmas edition.

So one of my mother's favorite Christmas desserts, and a holiday tradition in our house for many years, is red velvet cake with boiled buttercream.  I've never been a big fan; the frosting is too sweet, and as far as I could see, the only difference between red velvet cake and any other cake was food coloring.  (I've since learned a bit more about it, and there really isn't that much more difference:  red velvet cake uses a bit of vinegar and a small amount of cocoa powder, not enough to qualify it as a chocolate cake and - more importantly - not enough to inhibit the color.  Suffice to say, I'm still not impressed.)

But every year, red velvet cake, and I'll have a piece, but I can take it or leave it.

Another convention, this one born from necessity:  we kept desserts that needed to be chilled outside in the garage, sealed, on top of the cars.  In the case of the red velvet cake, we had a cake cover.

So one day I get into my car to drive to an appointment.  I turn onto a road that is an overpass over the highway ... and all of a sudden, I see something white fly past in my rear view mirror, followed by ...

Yep, that's the cake.  Cover, cake, plate and all whooshed off the top of my car and landed on the bridge over the highway.

I swear there was no subliminal malevolence about it, but I don't think I ever even retrieved the cover, because it was *over the highway.*

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Sunday ... Shopping?

Tis the season for ... frantic commercialism?  Perhaps not, but if you're looking for a gift to give to support a starving artist, perhaps consider:

My contemporary fantasy novel Flow
The traditional music of Rolling Of The Stone, from Scottish to Renaissance to Medieval and other Celtic lands

For a seasonal taste of what I write, my story Xmas Wishes is available from Gypsy Shadow Publishing, as is Taming The Weald.

Want to give a taste of several authors?  (Or just keep it for yourself!)  Some anthologies I recommend, from complete and total bias:

Unburied Treasure (with fantastic illustrations!)
Light of the Last Day
The Best of Abyss and Apex Vol 1

In conclusion, support a small press artist this season.  Even if it's not me.  ;-)

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thursday Thoughts

(It's been a crazy few weeks and my work schedule has been temporarily flipped around, which means I'm working my normal ten hour shift on Wednesdays ... hence the lack of a mid-week post.)

I posted a few weeks ago about my recent short story publication, "For As Many Dawns," which was based on the fairytale / fable The Buried Moon.  I adore fairytales, myths, fables and ballads, many of which share influences and borrow storylines.  Often, the lines between these different types of tales blur, and classifying them is a matter of personal taste.

I grew up on D'aulaires' Book of Greek Myths and the varying Andrew Lang colored fairy books.  One of my earliest attempts at a short story was a rewrite of the Pandora myth, where Barbie was Pandora.  I've never grown out of the fascination.  The title track of my CD, Rolling Of The Stone, is an Appalachian ballad which is a distortion of a Scottish ballad, The Twa Brothers.  The original story is about two quarreling brothers, one of whom slays the other, and ends with the dead brother's beloved weeping over his grave.  In Rolling Of The Stone, the focus is on the beloved, Annie, who uses her tabor to charm her lover out of the grave.

As a writer, I love using fairytales (myths, legends, etc) as the basis for a story.  I think they appeal to readers, too, because the elements are deeply archetypal, often subconsciously absorbed.  And because of that, there's an implicit understanding:  you can take shortcuts or start in the middle, and (generally) readers will know exactly the landscape they've been dropped into.

I admit the lazy element, too:  there's a built plot outline with using a fairytale.  But then again ...

The fairytale is ripe for a plot twist, for subverting the expectations and taking an unexpected turn.  How do you figure out where to turn?  A great place to start is to take a good, hard look at fairytale logic, which is often poetic rather than rational.  For instance, how in the world did Cinderella's prince find her by footwear alone?  (I'm sure someone's written a story where the prince picks the wrong person because he happens to come across another girl with minuscule feet first ...)

Another fun way to play with fairytales is to transport them to an unexpected setting.  I once partook in a writers' challenge on the premise to take a favorite fairytale and then set it in a speculative subgenre you weren't comfortable with.  I rewrote "The Six Swans" as a cyberpunk tale, reworking the main character's prohibition against speech into being forbidden to plug into the network.

And the current short story I'm working on?  It's based on The Flower Queen's Daughter (found in one of the Lang books, though I'm not sure which), and starts with the moment where the hero proposes to the princess he's rescued ... and she says no.  The flashback explores a fairy's broken (or is it?) promise to him and the events that followed.