Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The NaNoWriMo Writer's 10 Commandments

I. Thou shalt not begin writing before November 1.

II. If, in the fervor of creativity, thou dost begin writing before November 1, the words that thou writest shall not figure into the final counting.

III. Thou shalt not undertake NaNoWriMo lightly. Even if thou dost not "win," thou shalt write -- and no word thou writest shall be writ in vain.

IV. Remember the eleventh month is for writing. Thirty days within it shalt thou write, and none shall stop thee. Neither thou, nor thy spouse, nor thy children, nor thy grandchildren, nor thy parents, nor thy brothers, nor thy sisters, nor thy friends, nor thy coworkers, nor thy boss who is an ass, nor any other shall thwart thee.

For 335 days of the year thou mayest move heaven and earth to procrastinate and devise myriad excuses not to write. But November is the WriMo, and God knows you deserve it. Therefore, thou shalt bless the Office of Letters and Light and meet thy daily goal that thy manuscripts may grow long and thy word count increase.

V. Honor thy structure and thy passion, that thy story may remain strong and thy chapters may be long.

VI. Thou shalt not murder the English language, neither shalt thou commit grammar-cide in the rush to increase thy word count.

VII. Thou shalt not commit the premature edit, for such actions inhibit the creative muse and boggeth down the finishing of the great work which you have begun.

VIII. Thou shalt not steal the words from a previously written work and include them in thy word count. Neither shalt thou plagiarize, for this is cheating. Verily, I say: winners never cheat and cheaters never win.

IX. Thou shalt not covet thy buddies' word counts, not their agents, nor their book deals.

X. Thou shall persevere for 30 days. And thou shalt avail thyself of every opportunity to encourage other writers who are undertaking the same task, crossing the same creative desert, and climbing the same NaNo mountain that risest before thee.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Problem With Backstory

A few weeks ago, in church, I heard a story that was so unexpectedly funny (in church!) that I laughed loudly enough to make those nearest me turn their heads to see who was causing the ruckus.

I couldn't wait to share it with my daughter. So, on our way home, I repeated it practically word for word:
A grandma was babysitting her granddaughter. "Grandma, how old are you?" the little girl asked.
"Oh, honey, when you get to be my age, you don't tell anyone how old you are," Grandma replied.
A little while later, the grandma noticed that her granddaughter was no longer playing in the living room. A quick search of the house revealed the little girl in the grandmother's room, on the grandmother's bed, with the contents of the grandmother's purse spread out, as the little girl intently studied her grandma's driver's license.
"Grandma," said the girl, "you're seventy-three."
"That's right, Dear. How did you find that out?"
"I just looked at your birth date and did the math. And Grandma -- it says here you got an F in Sex."

My 10-year old laughed as hard as I had. But then she stopped. "That's the punchline," she asked. "The point of the story."

Uh-oh, I thought. I nodded.

"So the whole 'how old are you?' lead up was all backstory," Miss Thing said. "It wasn't necessary."

Much as it pained me to admit, she was right. Not only could the story have started with Grandma searching the house for the missing granddaughter, in the interest of time, set-up and payoff, it should have started there.
The story starts with an incident that sets things in motion.

Backstory can introduce the main character. It can set the scene. It can ground the reader in a brave new world. But this is not information that compels the reader to turn the page. This is not even information that the reader needs in the first chapter. As long as backstory reigns, the story can not start.

What is missing in backstory is the Inciting Incident -- the plot point where things start to happen. The question "how old are you" may have been the backstory that set the plot machine in motion. But until the grandma realizes her babysitting charge is missing and goes to find her, the story stays static.
Backstory is just water under the bridge...

If you're in the throes of an edit, consider revisiting the beginning of your project and identifying where the story starts. Find the incident that kicks everything off. The incident will not be backstory. It will not be exposition. It will not be staged drama or contrived conflict. Instead, it will be an event that involves an action that sets the main character or story (depending on whether the project is plot- or character-driven) on a collision course with the ending. THAT is where your story starts.

Find it. Start there. And wave goodbye to everything that happened earlier.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

If You Can't Say Something Nice...

From the Inbox:

Help! I am reading the first ten pages of a ms. for critique and it kinda stinks. Okay, it sucks!  But I have to fill out notes on it, both positive and negative.

What are some general positive comments I can make on it?  I'm sure you must have some in your little bag of wisdom words!

Jewelry pouch.Exellent for travell  for safety of your jewelry.
If only I HAD a little bag of wisdom words...
Ah, the problem of Finding Something Nice to Say...

When reading, evaluating, editing, or critiquing a project (that is not yours), it's shockingly easy to see the flaws.

But pointing out problems with a piece is only half the story. If that's all a critique partner does ("Allow me to elucidate how much you suck!"), the process ends up being more bullying than bolstering.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a proponent of the Sweetness and Light philosophy that advocates making writers feel good about themselves just for slapping words -- any words -- onto a page. ("You expressed yourself through words! Cue the marching band and confetti flingers! Hurrah.") Cheerleading without suggesting ways for improvement leaves me clammy.

So, what do you do if you're reading something for critique and the merits of the piece are, er, hidden?

Some suggestions:

First, remind yourself that this is a work in progress. Even if the writer thinks it is finished and polished, your keen editorial eye realizes that more work is required. You are not critiquing the writer; you are critiquing the work.

Second, try to identify what strengths the writer should play up. At first glance, these strengths may be hidden. (Often, this is especially the case when critiquing a writer who is just starting out. But we all started at some time. Don't be a snob just because you've mastered the craft better than the poor schlub you're critiquing.)

Some strengths might include:

* Vivid characters
* Unusual situations
* Strong, worthwhile subject matter
* Good description
* Good command of written English
* Memorable dialogue
* Interesting idea for a story

There *has* to be something the writer does that would improve the read if it were done even more.

Finally, remember: Progress, not Perfection. Your job, as critiquer, is not to edit the hell out of this manuscript so it's ready for publication. Your job is to give the writer guidance, using the benefit of your objectivity to identify a work's strengths and weaknesses. 

After all, isn't that what you want from those who critique your writing?