Meanwhile at Emerald Cove…

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the Emerald Cove writers’ critique group, so this seems like a good time.

The big news is that we may actually be able to start meeting again. Meeting for real. In person. Around a table. At our favorite Denny’s. Yay!!! All of our authors will be fully vaccinated and beyond the two week, post-vaccination waiting period by mid-June. I can’t speak for the others, but I am very excited about the prospect of seeing everyone in person again. In my experience, writing critiques are far more effective when delivered face-to-face instead of on a little screen. Technology has been a real sanity-saver during the pandemic, but it can never take the place of personal interaction.

The shared-world anthology is nearing completion. Most of the stories are already finished and the final one is almost there. Sue’s cover art is progressing nicely. If there is a San Diego Comicon this fall, we are still hoping to release the book at that time.

Danny is working on a new novel. He is up to chapter 12. From what I have read so far, I believe it will be one of his best books.

As for John and me, our second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son is now finished and has been given to the critique group for another review. I hope to start the publication process on Amazon by the end of this month. After learning from our formatting mistakes with 60th Hour, I plan to order Galley Proofs for review prior to publication. I have an outstanding reviewer/editor lined up to do the final proofread.

That’s all for today. I’ll keep you posted when we have an actual publication date for Prophecy’s Malignant Son. Talk to you next Friday!

-Susan 5/14/2021

Second Draft Anyone?

There comes a point in an author’s career when one must face the prospect of…shudder…rewriting.

I tend to approach writing the second draft of a novel with all the enthusiasm of eating leftovers. It’s a lot easier to make dinner by throwing leftovers in the microwave than it is to cook a meal from scratch, but leftovers are seldom as tasty or fun to eat. In the same way, writing the second draft of a novel is easier than the first, because I already know the story, but it seems a lot more like drudgery than writing the initial draft.

For an author like me, who tends to start with a story premise instead of a complete outline, rewriting is critical. The second draft is where the book really comes together. In the first draft, it’s easy to think the problems will “all come out in the wash.” In the second draft, it’s laundry time.

With my current manuscript, I have started the rewriting process by going chapter by chapter and reviewing all the critiques I’ve received from my fellow Emerald Cove authors. If the suggested changes are simple grammatical issues or spelling corrections, I make them as I go. For the more detailed plot or scene suggestions, the rewrite can take more time and might require me to kick around ideas with John before I change anything.

At times, it can be tempting to ignore the critiques, particularly when they involve major changes to a scene or chapter. However, in my experience, the final product becomes much stronger when I make revisions in response to those criticisms, even if it means rewriting a chapter multiple times.

Once I finish with the chapter-by-chapter rewrite, I plan to reread the entire story from start to finish and see how it all fits together. If it needs further revisions, I’ll start work on the third draft. When the entire story is satisfactory, it will be ready for the final editing for grammar, spelling, and formatting issues.

I’m hoping to finish the second draft of the current manuscript in the next two weeks. If all goes well, the release date should be some time in June.

Talk to you next Friday.

-Susan 5/6/2021

Second Draft Writing Critiques?

Imagine this scenario: You invite a small group of friends over for dinner. You prepare an elaborate meal for them, and you all have a great time eating, laughing, and talking together. Your friends are also cooks, so they give you tips and suggestions for how the food might be improved. The next day, you invite them over for dinner again…

…and you serve them the leftovers from the previous meal. Sure, you may have added a few extra spices based on their suggestions or an additional side dish or two, but basically your friends will be eating the same meal they just finished the day before.

You probably wouldn’t do that. If you did, your friends probably wouldn’t be very excited about it.

So what about the second draft of your manuscript? Is it fair to give the second draft right back to the same writers’ group that just finished reading and critiquing the first draft? If they were getting paid to edit your work, that might be different, but suppose they are just friends and volunteers?

This is not a hypothetical question for me at the moment. John and I finally finished writing the first draft of our latest manuscript. Now the rewriting will begin. As every author knows, rewriting is often as important as writing. I expect to complete at least one more draft, perhaps two or three, before the manuscript is ready for its final review.

Do I ask my fellow writers at Emerald Cove to review the second draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son? I’ve never had a problem asking them to review multiple drafts of the short stories for the group anthologies (Kidnapped! and Stolen!), but that seems a little different. First of all, reviewing a second draft of a short story takes a lot less time and work. Second, my fellow authors have a personal interest in making sure that all the anthology stories are well written, because those stories will appear alongside their own writing.

The second draft of a novel of 100,000+ words, however, is a far different matter. The latest manuscript was written so quickly that a couple of the Emerald Cove reviewers are still completing their critiques of the first draft. It will seem like a “revolving door” if I hand them a second draft so soon after they complete the first review.

After giving the matter some thought, I am considering a couple of strategies for the second review:

  1. Ask my fellow Emerald Cove authors to reread only the chapters which contain major changes. I already have an excellent editor lined up to review the final version and catch all the typos, so I am more concerned with making sure the revisions from the first draft are successful;
  2. Find readers outside of Emerald Cove to review the second draft. This may prove a little more difficult, but it would be nice to have input on the story from people who have never read it before.
  3. Beg and plead with my dear friends to take a second look at the entire book. Well, all right, I probably won’t have to grovel too much. They are friends, after all. Hmmm…I wonder if bribery will work? Maybe, once the pandemic is finished, I can invite them over for an elaborate meal…and NOT serve them leftovers.

No matter what I decide in terms of the second review, it is great to be done with the first draft! I feel like I have just reached the top of the mountain peak, and can now enjoy the scenery on the way back down the trail.

Talk to you next Friday!

Susan 3/19/2021

Don’t Do This By Yourself

Writing is a solo activity best done with friends.

Yeah, that sounds contradictory. Frankly, it is contradictory. In my experience, however, I have found it to be true. Writing is more fun when someone else is reading what you write.

In a prior blog post, I spoke about the importance of writing critique groups and how they can help hone a writer’s craft. Beyond just the technical aspects of writing, there are other advantages to having one or more friends read your stories, particularly if you are a new author.

First of all, a friend can give you encouragement to continue writing. When I have an audience reading my manuscripts, I have a greater desire to write. It’s fun to hear someone else talk about the characters John and I created and speculate on where our story is headed.

A reader friend can also encourage you to meet the writing deadlines you set for yourself. If a reader is waiting for the next installment of your story, you have a good reason to sit down and write it. Half the battle of writing is…well…writing. I’ve known authors who started a novel enthusiastically with a great idea, but lost momentum part way through the book and never finished.

Writing a novel is a long endeavor. I cannot speak for everyone, but I suspect that very few people can stay super-enthused about a long project on each and every day of that project. There will be days when you just don’t feel like writing. One of those days or even two may not be a problem, but they can easily stretch into procrastination and writer’s block. Having to meet a deadline for a friend can help keep those non-writing days from lengthening.

If your reader is a fellow writer, you get the additional benefit of helpful suggestions and/or critiques of what you have written. There is not, however, any requirement that your reader must be a writer.

Our Emerald Cove writing critique group meets every month via Zoom. Back in December, Danny and I decided that wasn’t often enough, so we started once-a-week Zoom meetings. The two of us get together every Thursday morning to exchange chapters, discuss and critique the chapters we received the previous week, and chat about the world for a while. It’s been working very well so far. Both of us have the incentive to finish a chapter each week to exchange with the other and we get rapid feedback on the prior week’s chapter. I am nearing the end of the first draft of my current manuscript and Danny is on chapter nine of his new novel.

By meeting with just the two of us, we have time for in-depth discussions of each other’s writing. We’ve also been able to help each other prevent writer’s block, by kicking around thoughts and ideas about upcoming chapters. (Of course, I do that a lot with John, but sometimes it’s nice to have a perspective of an individual who is not my co-author.)

We call our Thursday meetings Weekly Emeralds, and they certainly have helped us dig up a few gems!

-Susan 2/5/2021

A Few Points About Multiple Viewpoints

So whose novel is it anyway? Well, yes, of course, it’s the author’s book. But which character or characters are the focus of the story? Whose thoughts and observations drive the narrative? From which character’s point of view is the story told?

When I first started writing, I did not understand the concept of character point of view. I’m certainly no expert on the subject today, but I have done enough story critiquing (and had my own writing critiqued enough) to recognize a point of view shift in a story when I see it. No doubt there are treatises and “how-to” books out there to describe and define what constitutes character point of view. I don’t feel qualified to do that.

What I can do is give you my favorite example of viewpoint shift within a story. In Chapter Three of the Fellowship of the Ring (“Three is Company”), the story is mostly being told from Frodo’s point of view (though not completely). At one point, as the Hobbits are traveling through the Shire, the viewpoint abruptly shifts for about a paragraph to a “fox passing through the wood on business of his own….” We read the fox’s thoughts and are told “but he never found out any more about it.” The next paragraph then shifts back to Frodo’s point of view as he wakes up the next morning. I always felt sorry for that fox because he never learned the full story!

Many years ago, a person critiquing one of my manuscripts told me that a book should be written from a single character’s point of view. I respectfully disagree. That is certainly the most commonly used method of storytelling in modern novels, but I have also read excellent novels told in multiple viewpoints. On the whole, however, if there are going to be multiple point of view characters, I prefer a clear demarcation between viewpoint shifts, such as separate chapters for different viewpoints or, at least, section breaks between them.

As a writer, my “default setting” tends toward ensemble casts, in which the book is told from more than one character’s point of view. There were five point of view characters in 60th Hour and there are three in the current draft of Prophecy’s Malignant Son.

I suspect my preference comes from my fondness for table-top role playing games. In a really good, story-driven rpg, the game master makes sure that each player-character at the table gets his or her moment in the spotlight. If one character is the real protagonist and the others are just there to bolster that character’s plotline, it will rapidly become a boring game for anyone except the person playing the main character.

There are both advantages and challenges to writing a novel with multiple point of view characters. Multiple viewpoints allow the action of the story to occur in two different places at the same time. The author can create mini-cliffhangers as the story abruptly shifts from the events involving one character to a different character. In addition, the writer can have fun describing a character in different ways depending on whose viewpoint is currently being portrayed.

One of the challenges with writing multiple viewpoint novels involves making sure that each viewpoint character is different from the others. Each character in a novel should be unique, of course, with a separate personality, but that is particularly true with point of view characters. Their thoughts, experiences, and outlook on the world should differ from the others.

Timing can also be tricky with multiple viewpoints. With a single viewpoint character, the story tends to be linear. With multiple viewpoint characters in different scenes, it may get confusing for the reader as to what events are occurring at what point. You may need to draft a timeline as an author to keep track of concurrent events.

The recent movie Dunkirk had a fascinating twist on the concept of multiple viewpoints and timing, with three stories set in different timetables being told at the same time. Even though the movie announced that would happen right from the beginning, it still took me a large part of the movie to actually appreciate what was going on.

The idea of timing recently hit home for me, when I was drafting Prophecy’s Malignant Son. I changed the length of time that passed in one chapter from a week to a month. That meant I had to revise the timeline for the concurrent chapters involving the other point of view characters to make the story consistent. Despite the extra work, I still think the story will be better for the change.

There is another question I cannot answer. When, if ever, do you hyphenate the words “point of view” when used in a sentence? For purposes of this blog post, I decided to forego hyphens between those three words, but if I have done so in error, you can all laugh at me behind my back!

-Susan 1/22/2021

Update on Current Book Projects

Concept sketch for a possible cover of Prophecy’s Malignant Son (planned for publication in Spring 2021)

It’s been a while since I provided an update on the current writing projects, so this seems like a good time. John and I are still hard at work on our latest fantasy novel Prophecy’s Malignant Son. We have over 50,000 words written at this point, and we are still hoping for publication some time in early 2021. The novel will probably end up longer than the 70,000 words I had originally intended, but it will be a complete story with no cliff-hanger endings. Any sequels will be separate stories (although they will probably involve some of the same characters).

So far, the comments from the Emerald Cove writing critique group on the manuscript have been favorable. The other authors have suggested a few tweaks here and there, all of which will help the final story. (We are fortunate to have such a great critique group to help us!)

A couple of weeks back, I started playing with some ideas for the cover. The rough sketch above represents one of the ideas I had. I am currently talking with an artist friend about possible cover art. For those of you who read 60th Hour, you know the cover art on that book was pretty abstract. To produce it, I played with variations on a photograph I had taken of a state capital rotunda. That was fine for the initial edition of our first published book, but this time I’d like something a little more “fantasy” looking. Depending on how things go with the cover for Prophecy’s Malignant Son, I may also commission some cover art when we put out the revised edition of 60th Hour (to correct all those little formatting oddities that I mentioned in an earlier blog post).

We held our latest Emerald Cove meeting via Zoom on Wednesday night. Things are progressing with the shared universe anthology. All the stories are now complete and have had their initial reviews by the group. We just need to make revisions and finalize them. At a prior meeting, Sue gave us a peek at her partially completed cover art, and it looks amazing. I can’t wait to see the finished product.

We are still in the process of writing the short stories for the Haunted! anthology. John and I have finished our contribution, but plan to revise one section of our story based on the comments we received from the group.

I hope you are all having a safe and healthy holiday season!

-Susan 12/4/2020

Coming in Spring 2021: Prophecy’s Malignant Son: What happens when a prophecy goes wrong . . . very wrong?

The Other Side of Writing Critiques

Last Friday, I talked about the importance of finding good critics to help evaluate your manuscripts before you publish. This week, I want to discuss the other side of that issue. How can you be a helpful critic for your friends and fellow authors?

Let me confess right away that I am no expert on the subject. The thoughts I share today come solely from many years of trading manuscripts for review with other fiction writers. I should also mention that the following tips apply only to critiques done before publication. I’m not talking about reviews written on Amazon about a published book.

Tip number 1: Be kind. “Your writing sucks” is not a good way to start a critique. One primary goal of a critique, particularly of a work by a new or unpublished author, should be to encourage the person to keep writing. You want to help improve the manuscript, not make the new author walk away and take up a different hobby.

Tip Number 2: Good comments as well as bad. This tip is closely related to the first tip. While your critique can and should point out problems with a manuscript, you should also be quick to point out the things that were done right. Authors can learn just as much about their writing by understanding their strengths as they can from hearing the weaknesses. Does a particular turn of phrase work well in the context? Does a paragraph provide a vivid description or good characterization? Was there a clever plot element or a scene that evoked strong emotions? Make sure to let the author know those things in your critique.

An old friend and fellow author (who shall remain nameless for the moment because I forgot to ask her permission to post her name in this blog) uses a system of “bings” and “bangs” when critiquing fiction. The “bangs” are the negative comments, such as problems with the grammar or writing style in a particular sentence or paragraph. The “bings” are the good things the reviewer found. My friend uses exclamation marks to note the “bings” and often includes a short comment to explain why the bing is there (such as “good characterization” or a similar phrase). When I was just starting out as an author, those exclamation marks on my reviewed manuscripts were more precious than gold to me.

Tip number 3: Be specific: A critique which simply says, “The story is great!” is fine as an Amazon review, but not really helpful for an unpublished manuscript. The author needs to know what works in the story and what does not. A really useful critique addresses the specific good and bad things in the author’s characterization, plot, and sentence/paragraph structure (often by comments in the margins). Even when there are no typos or grammatical mistakes in a manuscript, there are almost certainly places where the text can be tightened or improved.

Tip number 4: Read through the manuscript twice: This is a practice I always try to follow when I have time. During the first review, I enjoy the story as a reader would, without looking for specifics. Of course, I will note any typos or grammatical errors I find along the way, but my purpose is to see how the fiction fits together as a whole.

During the second review, I look at the language in detail and try to catch any typos or other mistakes I missed during the initial read-through. Often I will examine specific parts of the story based on problems I saw. For example, if I found a particular scene confusing or boring during the first reading, I try to analyze what was written to find out why. Is there a confusing sentence or paragraph that could be rephrased? Is there unnecessary language that could be cut?

And, of course, I note the things done well with those wonderful exclamation marks and comments in the margins.

Tip number 5: Be tolerant of the other author’s voice: As you do your review, be aware that there are many different styles of writing, all of which are equally valid. Even when a particular scene or phrase does not work or you, that does not mean it is “wrong” and must be changed. During our Emerald Cove meetings, it is common for one of us to criticize a particular part of a manuscript, only to have others disagree.

One final observation about critiquing another writer’s unpublished manuscript: Often it provides a benefit to you as well. By thinking about and commenting on what another author has done right and wrong, you can apply the things you’ve seen to your own writing.

-Susan 10/23/20

The Importance of Critics

At our Emerald Cove writer’s group meeting last week, I was reminded once again of how important it is for authors, particularly Indy authors, to have trusted people critique their writing. Reviewers see the mistakes a writer misses. All writers, of course, understand the need for a skilled editor to catch typographical errors and to help tighten manuscripts. However, we also need those critics who are willing to dig deeper, to catch plot holes and tell us when our precious ideas (that we just spent weeks carefully crafting into words) really don’t make sense.

I suspect that many of us are familiar with the phenomenon of reading what you think you wrote, not what is actually on the page. For example, if you accidentally leave a word out of a sentence, your brain can fill in that missing word when you proofread the sentence later. (And, if you’re like me, your brain will always fill in that missing word, no matter how many times you proofread the page. *sigh*) A good writing critique by someone other than the author can catch those mistakes.

The same phenomenon can apply to a plotline. As a writer, you can grow so enamored of that wonderful plot twist you developed that you miss how implausible it might seem to a reader. A good, honest critic will not be afraid to point out that implausibility and explain why it is a problem.

Unfortunately, that also can be the hardest kind of criticism to hear as a writer. Typos are easily fixed. Poor sentence construction can be remedied with a little work. But tearing apart a plotline is a stab through an author’s heart. We want our stories to be clever and interesting, and we usually don’t let others read them unless we already think our words are worth reading. We want our critics to boost our egos, not bruise them.

In addition, correcting those plot inconsistencies can often require a lot of work. If you’ve written what you think is a great story, having to rework the plot can be a daunting task. However, rewriting is always necessary in any work of fiction and is often as important as writing the initial draft of the story.

Case in point: My short story for the upcoming Haunted! anthology takes place, in part, in some pipelines under a construction area. At a certain point in the story, I was stumped for how to proceed and my beloved co-author suggested that the pipes start flooding with water. I loved the idea — it sounded perfect to advance that section of the plot. When I submitted the completed story to my fellow authors at Emerald Cove for review, however, they pointed out many problems with the way I had incorporated that particular plot element into the story.

I accepted their criticism with my usual calm, adult reaction (which involves panic and me thinking, “Blargh!! What do I do now?”). After talking with John and giving the matter a lot of thought, I concluded that the best way to fix the problem was to remove the flood. (That’s why I don’t mind mentioning it in this blog — no need for spoiler warnings, because it’s not going to be in the story.)

But as tough as it was to hear their criticisms and as tough as it will be to revise the plot of the short story, I am very grateful to my fellow authors for their comments. The published version of the short story will be better because of their willingness to read it and give me their honest opinions.

-Susan 10/16/20

Making an Old Story New

Back in the early 1990’s, before self-publishing was common, before I even owned a cell phone, I wrote a fantasy novel called Feast of Five Crowns. I dutifully attempted to get my manuscript published in the old fashioned way. The rejection letters I received were very polite. One publisher told me that, if it was my second novel, the company might consider it, but it was not good enough for an unknown author.

After a while, I gave up and went onto other books and other pursuits (little things like getting married and buying a house). So the manuscript for Feast sat on my various computers in WordPerfect format for all those years. I think my original backup copy was on 3 & 1/2 inch floppy disks, just to show you how old it was.

Then came the 2010’s and the Emerald Cove anthologies (Kidnapped! and Stolen!). John and I used a generic fantasy setting for our tongue-in-cheek kidnapping story, Lord Larrin’s Daughter. When I decided to write a humorous sequel for the second anthology (Lord Larrin’s Trophy), the story setting fell naturally into one of the lands from Feast of Five Crowns, so I placed it there.

Like many fantasy novels, Feast involved potentially world altering events that the characters had to address. I avoided any mention of those events in Lord Larrin’s Trophy, because I was not sure if I wanted to set the story before or after the events in Feast. However, by the time Trophy was finished, I had set it (at least in my mind) shortly before the opening of Feast.

As I mentioned in a prior blogpost, when 60th Hour was published, I thought I could dust off Feast, add the characters from the two Lord Larrin stories and have a second self-published novel. However, after some of my fellow authors at Emerald Cove reamed…err…gave me constructive criticism regarding the first four chapters, I realized: 1) my writing has apparently improved since the 1990’s; and 2) it would take the ton of work to make Feast into a novel worthy of publication. Essentially, I would have to rewrite the entire novel from the ground up (with John’s help).

Thus began my dilemma: did I really want to spend that much time rewriting a story that no one wanted to publish 25 years ago? Should I put it back in storage and move on to another novel?

In the meantime, John and I have been working on a story for Emerald Cove’s upcoming anthology (Haunted!). Almost from the first moment Emerald Cove announced the theme for the third anthology, I knew which story I wanted to write. Not only is the story set in the Feast of Five Crowns universe, it contains background material from the novel. In effect, it is a prequel to the novel.

With three short stories now set in the Feast universe, I guess it’s time to take a stab at rewriting the old manuscript. At this point, I am thinking of using the main characters from the short stories as the point of view characters for the novel. I’m also thinking of giving the novel more of a light-hearted feel, perhaps not as overtly humorous as the fish story, but not as serious as the original book.

Will the help of my wonderful co-author and more than two decades of writing practice be enough to turn Feast into a book that people will want to read? Only time (and my Emerald Cove critique group) will tell.

Susan 9/4/2020

Critiques During a Lockdown – Part 2

As I discussed in a prior blog post, writing during this current pandemic should be easy. We’ve all got so much extra time at home now. For someone of my…ahem…mature age, the “shelter-at-home” lifestyle means that I am pretty much in front of a screen all week. Loads of time for me to write.

However, instead of making optimal use of that time, I found myself in a pandemic malaise, unmotivated to write anything. When I emailed the other members of the Emerald Cove writer’s critique group, I discovered that they were in much the same motivational slump. We could no longer hold our monthly critique group meeting at Denny’s because the restaurants were closed, but we all needed the encouragement that our fellow authors provided during those meetings.

And we definitely needed the monthly writing deadline!

So we decided to try critique meetings via Zoom. We held our first Zoom meeting last month and our second one this past Wednesday. We spent a lot of the first meeting in a discussion of logistics. We used to distribute physical copies of our manuscripts during our meetings for each other to read, take them home for review, and then comment on them at the next monthly meeting. That practice worked pretty well, and we wanted to approximate it as best we could using technology.

I am happy to report that after two months of meetings, we finally have…a system. A Great System. Well, all right, maybe not great, but it has already prodded most of us back into writing again, so even if we have to tweak the system later, it is working.

In case it will benefit any other writing critique groups out there, let me pass along how our current system works.

During the Zoom meetings, we still discuss each other’s manuscripts from the prior month. We also talk about what is going on with our individual writing and how our shared projects are coming along.

In place of the written comments we used to write on the hardcopies of the manuscripts, we are now using the “review/comment” function in Word. It takes a little longer to type all our comments and corrections than it did when we could scribble in the margins, but it has the advantage of being easier to read than handwriting.

To exchange those reviewed copies, we use OneDrive. One of our members created a shared OneDrive folder for the critique group. Each month, she creates a subfolder with the meeting date on it. The manuscripts we “bring” to that meeting go into the folder with that meeting date.

During the meeting, we decide on the next meeting date. Our computer expert then creates a subfolder with that new date. Within that subfolder, she creates sub-sub folders with each of our names on them for comments. (“Comments to Susan”, “Comments to Danny”, etc.)

The reviewers “pull” the manuscripts, use the “save as” function to add their initials to the title, and make changes and comments with the review/comment function in Word. When the review is done, the new document is placed in the author’s subfolder for the next month’s meeting. So, if Danny reviews my story, he saves it with a title that includes “DA comments” and places it in the “Comments to Susan” folder for next month’s meeting.

I hope that explanation makes sense. If it sounds confusing, my apologies. To paraphrase Dr. McCoy: “I’m a novelist, not a technical writer, dammit!”

By the way, I should mention that one of our authors prefers to exchange reviewed copies by email, so we have a slight modification of the system for that individual.

-Susan 8/14/20