From the Archives: New Perspectives

While visiting one of my favourite blogs one Thursday back in November 2011 — Susan Atole’s Just… a Moment – I was intrigued by the unusual perspective in her featured photos. I learned she had been challenged by someone to lay on her back for taking photo shots, and I decided to try it, too.

This unusual perspective offered design and reflections, glimmers of colours and shapes not previously noticed. The ordinary became extraordinary.

There’s something to be said for lifting our eyes beyond the obvious. If we always look at things from the same perspective, we’re going to keep seeing the same things in the same way. It’s true in life, and it’s true in writing.

I’ve been doing some editing for a friend, and am appalled at how often I’ve found an error in sections already line edited several times. “How could I possibly have missed that?” Every time I read through a chapter on the computer my brain insisted on reading what it expected to find, not necessarily what my eyes were seeing. It wasn’t until I printed the manuscript and read it in the new format that more errors popped out at me. For the final proofing I printed it again, but in a different font, and found still more.

A new perspective provides fresh inspiration when we’re bogged down writing a scene, too. Where do we go when our only idea keeps leading us to a proverbial brick wall? Sometimes we need to take the story on the road … write in a different environment, use different tools, maybe give the scene to a different character.

A different perspective tricks the brain into shifting its thinking. And that new viewpoint may be all that’s needed to stimulate the mind and send it off in a fresh direction.

Besides laying on your back, how might you achieve a new perspective for an existing project? Has a new perspective ever helped you out of a dilemma? 

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(A click on the photo will enlarge it so you can see the source of my camera’s focus.)

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The day this was originally posted (in 2011) I was also talking about Dealing with Transitions over at The Pastor’s Wife Speaks Blog. Please consider clicking on over there if you’d like to read what I said on that topic. [The Pastor’s Wife Speaks blog was discontinued at the end of November 2011, so it was my final post there.]

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From the Archives: Beta Readers

One of my favourite (and best) beta readers was my dear Aunt Norma. Now that she’s gone I’ve been thinking back to all the reading she did for me, and remembering her insight and tact, her encouragement and wisdom. Beta reading isn’t easy, either for the writer or for the reader.

I’ve drawn from the Archives again, from January 2009, for today’s post.

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One snowy Sunday afternoon as wind-driven snow whipped over the backyard peaks and valleys, fashioning them into anonymous mounds, I settled in by the fireplace. It was time to begin reviewing notes made by the long-suffering people who agreed to be beta readers of my current novel.

Beta reading is a necessary tool in the path to publication but I find it nerve-wracking. This is the point when a story first goes public — someone other than me gets to probe my creation, poke into its structure and pass judgment on its credibility and readability. I want and need honesty from the readers, but I cringe at what their opinions might reveal about my storytelling effort.

Few of my readers are impartial. Family members and friends have a built-in bias — they are predisposed to a positive response. More experienced critique partners can sometimes be the opposite, nitpicking to the extreme as they identify all the ways in which the story isn’t told as they think it should be. I’m not obligated to accept any of the criticisms or suggestions, but I value every one. Once the story is published (notice my positive attitude here!), I may never know what the majority of readers think of it, so getting feedback now is desirable.

But still, there is a small chill of uncertainty within me. I suspect it belongs to the icy heart of my I.C. (Inner Critic) as she circles close by, subtly trying to cool my flame of hope for the success of this story. Is it really the best it can be? Is there even a market for it?

As the evening begins to descend, the outdoor lights come on for one last pre-Epiphany sparkle and I put aside my pen and the comment sheets. I’m choosing to spend the rest of the evening curled up with a book… mine.

I wonder, can I be one of my own beta readers?

Evening descends ~ January 2009

Archives: There’s No Sin in Being Good to Yourself

When it came time to find words for today’s post, I had none. I wandered through my archives, looking for something to ‘re-run’, and one title appealled, so I’m reposting it. Sometimes being good to oneself is as important as being good to someone else.

I clicked on the link in the first paragraph to ensure it was still active, and I found the blogger, Patri Francis, had managed to continue her disciplines for just two weeks. Her blog posts ended at that point, in 2009. Curious, I checked out her profile and found she had a second blog. A further click took me to a post that uncannily seemed meant for me today, entitled “What We Inherit“. But after reading it I found that blog also ended there, a last post in 2011. Still, my original post and the links seem worth sharing again. I hope you think so, too.

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Sunset Home

A blog called “Toil, Solitude, Prayer: Writing as a Practice” caught my attention recently. It is a secondary blog for author Patry Francis who is returning to her writing after a six month hiatus following surgery for cancer. The blog is recording her attempt to add several daily disciplines to her life that will help her finish her next book. It’s such a commendable goal and I settled in to read all of the posts.

I found myself wondering how, just six months after her surgery, she can have the mental stamina to tackle such a regime. Several years after my surgery I am still not there. Yes, the body is healed. But the mind? Having cancer, regardless of its severity, is a life-changing experience. Hearing that diagnosis does a real number on your mind. For a long time after physical recovery is complete the mind will continue holding you hostage in places you don’t want to be. Overcoming that inertia is a bear!

As I read Patry’s daily account I know what she is attempting would have been too ambitious for me.  Setting achievable goals is important but the operative word for me is ‘achievable’. Compounding a series of goals over a short period of time is putting additional stress on a mind that isn’t ready to handle it. It sets a person up for failure, and failure is devastating to the morale.

My remedy for getting back into my writing was to set one reachable goal — to write something every day – with no pressure to rack up a specific number of words or do it within a set time frame. Maybe it was only a minor challenge but by not being overwhelmed with the immensity of a more impressive one, I succeeded. It was satisfying to look back after each week and see the word count growing. And with each success came increasing optimism and energy. I finished that manuscript and the sense of achievement was wonderful.

But first I had to give myself permission to find the one goal that was realistically within reach. I also had to accept that there are times in life when there’s no sin in backing off a bit and being good to myself.

(Originally posted May 5, 2009)

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Blogging hiatus and a little R & R

The hot weather’s back and the timing is perfect for me to take a bit of a blogging break. I’m heading offline for a couple weeks, hoping to get a little extra writing done and maybe squeeze in some R & R.

R&R

I’ll be back in the traces and on schedule again by mid-August. Probably. Maybe. (But don’t count on it if this heat sticks around.) :|

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Critiquing #2: Writer Bashing (or, What Good is a Bad Critique?)

This is a second of two posts from the archives, revisiting the topic of bad critiques.

A critique can be either a beneficial or a devastating experience, and the difference doesn’t always depend on the person giving it. The attitude of the writer on the receiving end also has an effect.

Last Friday I blogged about harsh critiques.  Today I’m offering some practical suggestions based on critique experiences in some of the writing groups to which I’ve belonged.

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FOR THE GROUP

  • If you are in a group where reading of manuscripts is done during the session, you may have to limit the word count of each reading and set a time limit for each critique so that everyone that wants to participate will have sufficient time to do so.
  • Having copies of the manuscript for each person allows people to mark typos and grammatical errors directly on the paper, thus leaving the group free to discuss larger issues. The author can collect the copies to use later for line edits.
  • After reading is complete, allow a moment or two for reflection before beginning the first critique.
  • Some people find it easier to respond than others. The group can easily develop a dynamic in which the same people always respond and others remain silent. Agree ahead of time that every person in the group will respond once to the entire piece before additional input is allowed.

FOR THE INDIVIDUAL RECEIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Participating writers may be at different stages in their manuscripts — still working on early drafts of a first novel, doing revisions, or preparing for submission and publication. When providing your material for critique, consider advising others members of the group what stage you are at and the type of feedback you are seeking.
  • If asked, feel free to clarify why a particular point has been made, but don’t try to rationalize your choice of words or argue with those offering their opinions. You may not like the suggestions but you are not obligated to put them into practice. If you feel too defensive to accept possible negative input, don’t submit the piece for critique.

FOR THOSE GIVING A CRITIQUE

  • Critiquing the work of others is a balancing act. First practice active listening. Then respond pleasantly, don’t attack. Be helpful and honest but not harsh, providing positive feedback in a polite and respectful manner. Consider what you like about the manuscript. What did the author do well? What were the strengths?
  • Only then mention the things that did not work for you. Do not critique the choice of genre or subject matter. Be specific about what you didn’t like about the writing and why, but remember that your opinion is only that… an opinion. You may offer suggestions for changes, but realize that your wording may not be right for the author and he/she may not opt to use your suggestions.
  • This isn’t the time for a line by line edit. Mark any glaring grammar problems, word choice, spelling or syntactical revisions on the manuscript. Then move on to consider the following points:
  1. Opening – good hook, active not passive scene
  2. Characters – strong, MC motivated to solve dilemma
  3. Point of view – consistent
  4. Plot/Story line – credible, interesting, flows well
  5. Narrative – show versus tell; no author intrusion; minimal backstory
  6. Language – “purple prose”; overuse of adverbs and adjectives; passive tense
  7. Dialogue – conversational and not artificial; not used for info dumps
  8. Conflict – builds throughout
  9. Ending – satisfying and logical; not necessarily happy
  10. Style – suited to the genre and theme

The point of a critique is not to tear apart a manuscript but to point out strengths and weaknesses, and encourage the writer in making the piece stronger. Remember that newer writers are often exceptionally sensitive about their inadequacies. Without a tactful approach, a thoughtless critic can do irreparable damage to a fragile morale.

The reverse of this, of course, is that the purpose of putting one’s work out for critiquing is to obtain opinions and suggestions. If the possibility of a negative response is unnerving it may be that the writer is not ready for this stage quite yet.

A bad critique is worse than no critique. Setting out the ground rules first lets everyone know how to proceed and what to expect. In a one-on-one critique encounter this is especially important.

Now it’s your turn. Have your critique experiences been positive or negative? What would you add to the above criteria to make them more useful?

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March Madness 2: Making a Noise

The brown and grey Song Sparrow isn’t very big. The Cornell University’s Ornithology site describes song sparrows as medium-sized but bulky, and says they are one of the most familiar sparrows in North America. If I sit quietly down by our marsh on a summer day, I’ll sometimes hear their chip-and-trill song from somewhere in the bushes, but I never get to see them.

Song Sparrow, Pacific Northwest form (Melospiza melodia)

Song Sparrow, Pacific Northwest form (Melospiza melodia)

This little guy is the only one that ever comes out of hiding, and he reappears every year during late winter, travelling with a flock of Dark-eyed Juncos. He’s a ground forager but visits our deck to snack on seeds spilled from the feeder by other more messy eaters. I’m assuming it’s the same one every year, since I’m told they can live ten years or more, but of course I can’t know for sure.

I’m not a great birdwatcher, but I’m learning to identify the birds that frequent our property, most by sight but some by their song. Each species emits a specific sound. You can hear the Song Sparrow’s here, if you desire.

SongSparrow2It’s surprising what you can learn from birds. Today I’m reminded of how important it is to have a distinctive voice. For this Song Sparrow, hearing him and knowing he’s around means I’ll be sure to toss out a few handfuls of his favourite seeds.

For those of us who are writers, our voice, according to Wikipedia, is “a combination of idiotypical usage of syntax, diction, punctuation, character development, dialogue, etc., within a given body of text (or across several works).” A lot of words, but what exactly does it mean for us?

Donald Maass, in his book, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL (if you haven’t read it, you should), says:
“What the heck is “voice”? By this, do editors mean “style”? I do not think so. By voice, I think they mean not only a unique way of putting words together, but a unique sensibility, a distinctive way of looking at the world, an outlook that enriches an author’s oeuvre. They want to read an author who is like no other. An original. A standout. A voice.”

So, fellow Wipsters (or March Madnessers… I kinda like that term of Shari‘s), as we launch into this second week of pursuing our goals, I’d like to suggest we give some thought to what makes our work stand out. Whether blogging, writing stories or illustrating, have you put any effort into developing a unique voice? Do you think it’s important, or just a literary accoutrement? And if you’re a reader, do you prefer certain books because of the author’s voice, or are you more attracted to the theme or story?

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Before  moving on, I’d like to give away another prize from our huge prize arsenal! Today’s winner is…

Trudi Trueit!

Congratulations, Trudi! Stop by our goal-setting post, and choose your prize from those still listed. Then email Denise at d(at)denisejaden(dot)com with your choice and we’ll get it out to you as soon as possible.

And if you didn’t win, there are still LOTS of great prizes to be won, so keep checking in each day. Tomorrow’s check-in location is at Angelina Hanson’s blog: http://yascribe.blogspot.ca/

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Cover Design in Less Than Two Minutes (a reprise)

We’ve been sharing information here on the designing of book covers and I remembered a related post I wrote three years ago that I thought you might enjoy seeing again. (More accurately, I seized this opportunity to use something from the archives because I forgot to write a post last night. There! I’ve admitted it… but it fits in so well with my last few posts that I don’t feel one bit guilty.)

Here’s a time-lapse video that cleverly utilizes the process, condensing a six hour process into less than two minutes. It’s fascinating, albeit dizzying. In it, the Creative Director of Orbit Books, Lauren Panepinto,  displays her process for designing the cover of Gail Carriger’s Blameless. While vampires and werewolves aren’t my genre of choice, I thought the resulting cover was a good example of what Rachel Cole said in Friday’s post, that the cover design must reflect the genre, or potential readers won’t pick it up.

There’s more about the the making of this video on the Orbit Books website, and a further detailed commentary by Lauren Panepinto on the Design Related website.

It all goes to show that creating exactly the right cover isn’t a simple process.

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