Tough Decisions, or, I’m Not a Quitter–Honest!

Being a writer means making lots of choices. Why did Uncle Melvin kill off Cousin Carl? How will Detective Haskins discover the killer? Why did Sarah run off with Luigi? And on and on…

One of the toughest things about being a writer is knowing when to quit. Not necessarily for the day, but when is the story done. Or when it’s not done, and there’s nothing you can do at this point in your life to make it done.

by Astroboy_71

I’m facing one of those times right now.

For the last 6 1/2 years, I’ve been working on a novel project. It’s had a lot of names, but right now, it’s “Homebody”. This novel predates my children being born, and the two main characters actually predate my marriage.

Over the last year or so, I’ve struggled with the book. I’m on like the 7th draft or some crazy thing, and I keep feeling like I’m circling around when it could be considered done, but just not quite there. Those who have read it say the same thing. But I can’t figure out what’s wrong with it, not now at least. For a while, I thought it was done: I submitted it to agents, and have received a few nice, even encouraging replies, but nothing that would have me thinking I’m almost there.

In a last-ditch effort, I asked Texas Momma (aka Linda Yezak) to take a look at it this spring. Between all her battles, she read a few chapters, but life happened and she had to return it, mostly unread, but with a few very helpful suggestions.

Then, last week, I got that niggling feeling again, like it was time to let it go.

I’ve had that feeling off and on for a while. I’m not sure why, but after it came back stronger than ever, I decided I’d e-mail Texas Momma about it. Even though I asked, I wasn’t quite prepared for the blunt reply:

“Give up on Homebody. Save the personalities for another book, if you’d like, but I’d quit on it.”

My stomach clenched reading those words. This book has become so much a part of my identity the last several years. How can I just give it up? It’s almost like abandoning one of my children at the grocery store.

One thing you should learn early on as a writer is to kill your darlings. In other words, that turn of phrase you think is so clever, or that scene that you love but doesn’t necessarily fit with the rest of the book. Perhaps it’s the same way with this book–it’s become my darling in many ways.

When I first started it, I was a completely different person than I am today. I had different goals, different aspirations, different worries. And, writing… and rewriting Homebody was cathartic in many ways. In the past six years, I’ve started work on several other projects, most of which I’ve finished, one or two I haven’t for whatever reason–my creative juices ran out, I lost interest, etc.

Homebody wasn’t the first novel I wrote. No, that disgraceful thing happened back in my teens. I pray it never again sees the light of day. A couple more came in between, both before and after a hiatus in my last semester of college into the first year of married life. Perhaps Homebody is that transition for me–the one I needed to get out, but isn’t yet worthy of being published. Perhaps the next one or two books I’ve got on my plate will be it. I hope so.

For now, I must say goodbye to this story. Thank you for helping me grow as a writer. I’m sorry I had to use you to do it, that you never reached your full potential, that I wasn’t the writer you needed me to be. Just know that even though you will remain on my flash drive, and I may never open you again, you’ve been valuable. I will always have fond memories of writing you.

As for my characters, Amanda O’Flannigan and Richard “Rick” Pierce, I think they’ll be around again. Almost as soon as I made the decision that it was time to cut it loose, I got a new idea which would be perfectly suited (I think) for them. And, Homebody definitely allowed me to come up with a great deal of back-story for these two. I hope it comes to fruition, mostly because I love both of these characters dearly. I’m not quite ready to quit on them, even if I have to quit on one of their stories.

For the time being, I’m going to get back to work on “Reprisal”. I’m mid-way through the 3rd draft, and it’s lingered far too long as I’ve had two children, done NaNo, and tried to get that OTHER book done. I’ll try to post monthly reports, even if they’re brief, on how that’s going. Once I’ve completed the 3rd draft, I’m going to go back to my 2009 NaNo project, “Beyond Dead”. It’s very short–just barely over the 50K minimum to win NaNo, and ideally I’d prefer it around 80K. That’s a lot of words to add! But, one thing at a time.

If you’re a writer, how do you gauge when it’s time to cut a story loose permanently and stop working on it? Have you ever had to do it? Did you mourn for the story and/or characters as I feel I’m doing a bit of now?

Happy trails,

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Take Your Writing to the Next Level

Learning to write fiction well is a process. There are so many details of grammar and style that trying to learn them all at once is overwhelming. Instead, consider it an ongoing “continuing education” class. No matter where you are in the process, there’s always something else you can learn or perfect.

LEVEL 1: The first step in taking your writing to the next level is to get your writing out there—let others read it. By that, I mean other writers. Friends and family can give you reader feedback, but they can’t give you the specifics about what you’re doing right and wrong.

The best place to get feedback when you’re beginning to write is a critique group (either local or on-line). I can’t say enough about how much they can offer. My first critique group practically taught me fiction style from the ground up. It was tough getting critiques back with all kinds of color marking errors and denoting long comments. But I took their teaching to heart and began applying it. It took a while—and many more tough critiques—but eventually they went from pointing out basic errors to asking me when I’d be sending the next chapter because they couldn’t wait to read more.

At this level, it’s also a good idea to read as many books on the craft of writing as you can get your hands on. Joining writing groups (both local and on-line) is also beneficial. There is a great wealth of knowledge available through other writers. Soak it up like a sponge!

LEVEL 2: When I reached a level where other writers began to enjoy my writing, that didn’t mean I had “arrived.” I still had much more to learn. I had another major revision to go through, along with some tweaking and a several complete rewrites of the first two chapters before my writing was good enough to catch the eye of an agent. During this time, the feedback from my critique group was still extremely important. Instead of pointing out basic stylistic and grammatical errors, however, they focused on deeper issues: goal/motivation/conflict, deep POV, motivation-reaction units, and character development, among others.

At this intermediate level, it’s also good to enter some contests to get feedback from professionals. It’s also an excellent time to find a mentor or hire a professional to critique your work. Either option connects you to someone who can help you navigate through these deeper issues.

LEVEL 3: Getting an agent is an awesome accomplishment, but isn’t the top level…neither is publishing your first book. There’s still more to learn. We need to work on the issues where we know we’re weak. We can polish our voice and our style. And anyone who has ever worked with an editor knows that they almost always suggest changes that will make your
novel even better. Learn from them and apply these lessons to your future novels.

Even at this level, being a part of a critique group or having several trusted critique partners can be very valuable. There are also a variety of editorial services available to help you polish your manuscript.

LEVEL 4: Even multi-published authors need to be open to learning. It never hurts to review the basics. A good way to do this is to work with newer authors in some way. Mentoring or critiquing or teaching are good options. It helps keeps you sharp. Also, the publishing industry is constantly changing. Styles come and go, and writers need to be aware of what the current trend is. If you’ve always written with omniscient POV, but the industry is moving towards third-person POV, you might find yourself left behind if you’re not willing to continue learning and growing.

AT ALL LEVELS there are good courses available. Most are short-term and focus on only one issue at a time, which makes them easier to digest. Attending writing conferences is also something good to do no matter what level you’re at. There’s something for everyone at these conferences. The key, no matter what level you’re at, is a willingness to keep learning.

Suzanne Hartmann is the author of the pre-published books, THE RACE THAT LIES BEFORE US and DISAPPEARING MOM. She is an editor with Port Yonder Press and offers her own critique service. She also blogs about the craft of writing at: http://suzanne-hartmann2.blogspot.com.

Thanks, Suzanne, for guest blogging today!

Until next time,

Analyze This: Critiques and how to make sure you’re getting the best ones


The first time I ever attended a critique group, I nearly made myself sick on the 20 – 25 minute drive and almost turned back once or twice. I was nervous. Would they like my work? Was it complete crap? Since I was only 17 or 18, and everyone in the group was at least twice my age, would they like and accept me?

After my work was reviewed, and it was scathing at best, I cried most of the way home. I gave serious thought to not going back. They obviously didn’t recognize that I had a masterpiece on my hands!

A few days of reflection, battling through my sudden feelings of inadequacy, and a good, hard look at the suggestions made, I decided I would go back. They would help me become a better writer.

____________

This was nearly ten years ago. As a writer, I’ve matured. My plots have become (I hope) more intricate than what I showed those ladies all that time ago. My characters, more well rounded and three dimensional. My writing better. Though still unpublished, I honestly believe the critique groups I’ve belonged to over the last ten years have improved my writing dramatically.

While there’s a multitude of styles to critique groups, the two I’ve had experience with have operated night and day differently. The one I currently attend (when my husband and daughter will let me!), you get instant critiques. Bring a chapter or two, pass it around during the course of the hour or two we’re together, get it back at the end of the night with notes from your crit partners that you can look through at your leisure. While I like the instant part of this, there’s one thing I miss from my first crit group, and that’s discussion.

The first crit group I went to as a teen operated differently. You’d bring enough copies of your work for everyone, they’d take it home, then at the next meeting, there’d be a discussion of your work. What I found interesting was how one person may not have seen something someone else did, but once it’s pointed out, they would jump on the bandwagon or vehemently disagree. I often wished I had a recorder for these sessions, they were that valuable to me.

In addition to the groups, I’ve found I have several partners that I love to get critiques from. My local friends Julia, Juliet, and Dave (all from my local crit group) all give me something different. With Julia, she’s great with helping me spot holes in my stories, character’s that aren’t acting the way they should, and also urging me to get out of my comfort zone. She and I write stories that are night and day apart, although they’re still mysteries. Juliet is actually, of all three, the one I dread giving my work to the most. While she’s very good, she’s a former creative writing professor at the local junior college, and is, for that reason, the one that helps me tighten my writing the most. Dave always has a unique perspective and, being the lone sci-fi/fantasy writer in our group, as well as the only male, helps me see things from another side, options on where I could go with a story. I value all of their feedback.

I also have a few online friends that have also helped me improve my craft. Katie, Holly, Michele, as well as others from the online website ChristianWriters all have contributed in various ways. Katie, a published novelist (see Katie’s site), is my go-to gal when I need a real tightening. She spots a lot of my flaws better than Juliet does, and I find I rely heavily on her feedback during editing. Holly and Michele are probably my favorite cheerleaders. While they’ll point out my errors with the gusto of a butcher cutting a prized-beef, I probably get more encouragement from them that I can finish my book and I can get it published, although all my crit friends are good at this, too.

So, now you’re thinking you need to get into a crit group. What do you look for? While I personally would try to look for a group that focuses on your area of writing (for me, mysteries) it’s not necessary. Sometimes depending on where you live, it’s impossible. What you do want to look for are folks that will dig into your writing, tell you what they like and what they don’t, but also explain why. While it may take some time to discover who your jewels are, the process of finding them is quite enlightening. You can find some groups via word-of-mouth (Ask around! You may be surprised who you know), writer/reader groups like Sisters in Crime or American Christian Fiction Writers, the library, or your local junior college.

Don’t discount your online options, either. While there are groups that charge for critiques, I prefer sites that don’t and that give peer critiques. Writer’s Digest will have some of these sites listed in their annual ‘101 Websites for Writers’ (I believe this year’s article was in June), but Google whatever you’re interested in–romance writers, mystery, Christian, etc. As noted above, I prefer ChristianWriters, but there’s a multitude of other good ones out there.

Whatever you do, go into it with an open mind. Don’t get defensive about a critique, or take one too personally. While the reader may be critical of your work, they’re not being critical of you, though I know that it’s sometimes difficult for us writers to not take our critiques as personal attacks. Do try to enjoy the experience. Hopefully, you’ll find some folks that will become good friends and colleagues.

Until next time,

For more information on critiques and critique groups, I highly recommend the following blog posts:
Write at Home: Top 10 Ways to Get the Most Out of a Critique Group
Word Sharpeners: How to Use Critiques to Improve Your Novel
Wordplay: Questions for Critique Partners