Jennifer K. Oliver

Speculative Fiction Writer

Tag: writing: my articles

The (Vast) Difference Between A Critique and An Edit

Usually, when a writer has finished a story or taken a story as far as they can, they send them out to critique groups or beta readers for feedback. As the author, it’s difficult disconnecting from a story’s headspace, and that makes it tricky to judge if everything is working. This is where critique groups and betas are invaluable: the fresh eye, the new perspective, the telling reactions. These all help an author see where a story might still need work when they edit.

But there’s a big difference between a critique and an edit, and sometimes authors get back one when they really need the other. I’m going to talk about why, break down each one, and suggest things writers should do when approaching someone for feedback.

Critique

A critique is an evaluation. It’s a review where you look at the bigger picture and consider things like pacing, clarity, character motivation, character arcs, plot and plot holes, weak dialogue, unnecessary exposition, theme and motif. This is where you think about whether or not every chapter, every scene, every paragraph advances the plot. You ask if all the characters are pulling their weight. You ask what the writer is trying to get across. Think: bigger picture, overall story.

Edit

An edit focuses more on grammar, style, and punctuation. It picks apart paragraphs and sentences and looks for inconsistencies, repetitions, misused words, typos and spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, etc. It can expand to include suggestions on characters, dialogue, pace and plot, but these are generally smaller observations, on a paragraph by paragraph (or line by line) level. Think: details, fine tuning.

When you send stories out for feedback, be clear about the following:

1. How ‘finished’ is your story. It’s no good getting line edits on a first draft–it wastes everyone’s time. Ideally, you don’t want line edits until you’ve fixed the plot and characters. Plot and characters come first, and they should be analysed in a critique. Often revision is required, which can lead to whole chunks of a story being rewritten. How awkward when you have to explain to a beta reader who just spent two hours line editing your work that you’ve had to rewrite the entire story from scratch.

2. Be clear about what type of feedback you need. Specify the elements of a critique if your reader doesn’t know the difference. Ask questions (put them at the end of the story so as not to influence the reader before they start), and get them to write down their reactions as they read. Did their attention wander at any point, and if so, when? Were the character motivations clear and believable? Did the ending satisfy and tie in, at least a little, with the start? Was anything confusing? If the reader has never critiqued before, these questions will help guide them through it.

Writers become better writers much quicker through writing, reading, and critiquing. Editing will help teach you when to use commas instead of semi-colons, but it won’t teach you how to develop an engaging character with clear, compelling motivations, or sharpen your use of metaphor or motif, or just tell a damn good story. Semi-colons generally don’t sell fiction. Good stories do.

(Not, I want to add, that there’s anything wrong with a semi-colon! I ♥︎ them.)

If you’re a fiction writer, start critiquing. Do it every week. If you can’t find a fellow author to crit, then pull an anthology off a shelf and practise with that.

Here are some other excellent resources on writing critiques:

How to Critique Fiction, by Victory Crayne.

Nuts and Bolts of Critiquing, by Tina Morgan, posted at Fiction Factor.

15 Questions for Your Beta Readers, by editor and author Jodie Renner, posted at Kill Zone.

Social Networking for Writers

Today I have a big blog for you about social networking, content generation, and how it can benefit new or up-coming writers. Discussions are welcome and if you have any questions or comments about this post feel free to drop them below.

The Importance of Networking

Reaching out to your readers and potential readers both offline and online is majorly important if you want to draw in the crowds. With an ever-widening market for e-books as well as print books, it’s easy to sink beneath the ocean of other writers struggling to be seen and heard, and most importantly—read. A good place to start building your author presence is online, particularly if you’re a busy writer or can’t afford to attend book and writing conventions.

To someone unused to social networking, the sheer amount of websites, blogs and forums can seem daunting. The key thing to remember is you really only need to pick one or two to visit regularly, at least at first. It’s about cultivating a presence in your niche, not spreading yourself too thin. When you’re relatively unknown, it might be tempting to create accounts on every social site you find, but realistically it’ll be difficult keeping on top of everything.

Choosing the right social networking sites for you is a little bit down to personal preference, although there are a couple of biggies that you should be aware of. These are generally the best places to create accounts due to their immeasurable popularity and how current they are.

Facebook has always predominantly been about friends and family, although their Fan Page function can provide businesses with a platform and they are worth looking into.

Twitter is back in favour, after a strange drop in interest a few years back. It seems popular again as a venue for writers to network and share advice, so I’d say this one is a must.

Getting Started

Social networking doesn’t have to be a stressful endeavour. You can put in as much effort as you want. But bear in mind that you’ll probably get out of it about as much as you put in, sometimes less. This is why it’s advisable to log in at least once a week and drop a note to update friends and connections on what you’re up to (read on for advice about content creation).

Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre. Try to find a balance of both self-promotion and supporting your peers. If you rarely post and never comment on anyone else’s page, you might find people will stop commenting on yours. The secret is in the name: social networking. Give and take. Communication. These are the things you’ll need to build up a solid network—and hopefully a solid fanbase.

The Secret to Networking Consistently

Time for the big reveals. A lot of authors are doing this already, and if you’re struggling to stay on top of your social networking, or you’re just starting out with new accounts, here are my top two pieces of advice for generating content and posting regularly:

1. Soundbites! If you only have one post on your author blog, you can mine it for soundbites to share on your social feeds. I do it. In fact, I will do it for this very blog post you’re currently reading. I have a chunky post here which is focused on writing and content. I can legitimately mine it for three or four tweets linking back here. This is what my tweets might look like:

[#writing blog post] How Social Media Can Help Authors – [Link] “Take a moment to check other people’s statuses and engage with them, even if it’s just a like. If you have time, try to comment on anything that interests you providing it is relevant to writing or genre.” #amwriting #writingtips

In two or three weeks I will create another tweet, and choose a different quote from this post, then share that for the people who missed the first one. The trick is not to post too many and too close together. But three or four links back to the same post over the course of a few weeks is perfectly reasonable.

2. Schedule posts! If you invest in anything to help you manage your social networking, make it either Buffer or Hootsuite. Both have free versions where you can link a handful of your accounts. You can load posts in advance and set a date and time for them to be posted. Load 10 tweets / Facebook posts into Buffer to cover the next fortnight and you don’t have to think about it again for two weeks. Perfect.

Additional handy links

Social Neworkingfor Writers – These are all writer-specific, rather than the more general (and often busier) venues like Facebook and Twitter.

Social Networking and Message Boards for Writers – Similar to the above, though this one covers the lesser-known boards and forums.

Goodreads – One of the more popular books and writing websites. Goodreads is a cunning amalgamation of different things: a virtual library, book club, discussion board, blogging platform, and a place where authors can connect personally with their readers and hold competitions/giveaways.

Shelfari – Similar to Goodreads, this site is dedicated to books and reading. It also gives authors the opportunity to reach out to readers and vice-versa.

[Publication] Death Car Alley | Fantasy-Horror | 3,900 words

Back in 2012 I announced on my old blog my first story publication, a dark fantasy horror with a dash of tongue-in-cheek. I’m reposting this here because I’m still fond of my first venture into magazine submission and publishing. The story is set in a not-too-distant future where monsters have overrun the world, but people are still trying to live as normal lives as possible. Even the monsters have grown lazy, but feel a faint obligation to put in a little effort to hunt.

Title: Death Car Alley
Genre: Fantasy, Horror, Humour
Word Count: 3,900
Publication: Jersey Devil Press (Issue 27)

Evan stops dead as the shiny black Shogun 4×4 creeps around the corner up ahead like some giant prehistoric insect, liquid-metal smooth shell glistening.

A massive thank you to Yvonne Anisimowicz and Dabs Lyons for their superb beta reading and encouragement.

I designed a story cover for Death Car Alley in Adobe Photoshop. I’m happy with how this turned out, and it remains in my portfolio to this day!

Find the rest of my published fiction here.

Dadaism and Letting Go of Authorial Control

A few years ago my writing group experimented with Dadaism, a cultural movement that started during WWI. We attempted to let go of our authorial control and generate story ideas. First, a little about Dadaism, from Wikipedia:

Dada is the groundwork to abstract art and sound poetry, a starting point for performance art, a prelude to postmodernism, an influence on pop art, a celebration of anti-art to be later embraced for anarcho-political uses in the 1960s and the movement that lay the foundation for Surrealism.

Many Dadaists believed that the ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ of bourgeois capitalist society had led people into war. They expressed their rejection of that ideology in artistic expression that appeared to reject logic and embrace chaos and irrationality.

Our own Dada exercise focused less on politics and more on creativity. It’s easy to do at home or work: simply pick a magazine or book, and then chop out words and short sentences. Mix them up and reassemble them without thinking too hard about it. If you’re worried about destroying books you can scan or photocopy the pages too. One key thing and one of the things I found most difficult to start with is allowing word order to be totally random. I wanted to put certain words next to each other to form coherence, but this is not what Dadaism is about.

We used excerpts from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. I don’t know if I’d call it a poem as even that suggests some kind of order. Let’s just say it is what it is:

Patriarch’s Ponds. Associations, dressed in a Berlioz, an awe horn-rimmed glasses my utterance / And and with who called Massolit / broad-shouldered drag drink deep and by thee, O torments me. Hair, eternal my.

And these are my semi-Dada pieces, where I’d not quite let go of control and there was a little conscious placement:

The lips should utterance. One of you pseudonym of Homeless. And his conduct and vengeance

I must excited quickly dark-haired. Plump, bald. Destroy him by perish. The spirits their murderer. The poet feel, poet agony; this shall feel the dead over

Sharing our results was most of the fun. Some of them were hilarious, others a little eerie. All contained interesting concepts or prompts that could be expanded into longer pieces.

To Outline A Story, Or Not to Outline A Story

Recently there has been few discussions about the benefits and pitfalls of outlining stories. More than a few authors have expressed a dislike for outlines, which is fair enough—our individual writing processes are different. But it made me look closely at which of my stories I outline, which I don’t, why I might or might not, and what my outlines actually look like.

Generally, anything over 1000 words will have some form of outline. Mine are usually hand-written in pencil in my notebook. I take a scene or a chapter, and summarise it. I’ll do this for all of the key scenes and chapters. Often they are not in order in my notebook–ordering takes place when I open a Scrivener document and start typing. But that is my broad outlining method. Pencil. Paper. Scenes (or chapters).

In theory, I love the idea of throwing caution to the wind and just writing off the cuff, seeing where the unfolding plot and characters take me. Some writers I know find outlining in detail can spoil the fun of writing because it eliminates the element of surprise and wonder, and ruins the discovery process. Not using an outline intrigues me and I’m sure it’s exhilarating, though it’s still too far on the side of disorganised and directionless for my taste.

As with most of these things, it depends greatly on the story and author. Often I’m struck with inspiration at inopportune times, like when driving at speed to work, or in the middle of a conversation with a friend. These are not the easiest of moments to grab my notebook. So I will make it my mission to write these ideas down as soon as possible because otherwise I’ll forget them. In this way, I absolutely have to outline and work out where these events are going to occur in the story.

As for flash fiction (anything under 1000 words), I rarely need to outline these as they are so small that the structure is usually pretty clear at the start. Flash fiction can explode onto the page without the need for pie charts and timelines and eight million summaries.

I have the utmost respect for writers who dive right into a new story without inflatable armbands and come up with something awesome.

So, fellow authors, do you always outline? If not, when do you choose to outline? Or are you a writer who tosses outlines to the wind and writes without a clear plan where you’re headed? Do you ever end up lost, and have you ever had to abandon stories when they lose their way?

Other Resources

Joshua Palmatier has a good article about this here.

K. M. Weiland also has a helpful article at Writer’s Digest: 7 Steps to Creating a Flexible Outline For Any Story.

On the Pesky Nature of Giving Creative Writing Advice

I love the writing article There Are No Rules – Just Results, by Nicola Morgan of Help! I Need a Publisher! Why? Because this is exactly how I try to approach not only my own writing, but the writing of fellow authors. It’s about creative writing advice, and how much or how little to give. To quote from the post:

Please. Just write your book in whatever way works for you, even if that means hanging from a chandelier naked. It will be judged only on the result. Don’t get hung up on method, or at least on other people’s methods. You will find what works for you and that’s all that matters.

This is sterling advice. There’s nothing at all wrong with reading about an author’s methods and rituals (we all have them). There’s nothing at all wrong with trying out their hints and tips. It’s often helpful finding out different places writers find inspiration and motivation. But don’t hang all your hopes on someone else’s lifestyle working for you. We should always discuss writing, the how and why and where and when; it’s healthy to be open about these things because it could help somebody out there who is struggling. The key is not to expect it to make a massive impact on your craft or output. That’s still ultimately all down to you and how you apply yourself.

I tend to steer clear of articles where authors outright tell others The Best Way to write or What Not To Do when writing. Writing is such a deeply personal and sometimes very solitary activity (unless you’re actively collaborating with others, and even then there can be stretches of solitude). I would never want to be responsible for putting a fellow author into a stressful tail-chase, just because Method A works for me. I can, however, let that author know what works for me, and then they can try it if they think it might be beneficial.

The same goes for reading. While I star books on my Goodreads account to show which ones worked for me and which didn’t, I’d never say “Don’t bother reading this.” One person’s trash is another person’s masterpiece.

So, if anyone ever asks “How do I…?” my automatic response will be, “Well, I do it like this, but you should explore all options until you find one that works for you.” It seems like the best advice I can give.

On Countersinking: Showing and Telling

This article about showing and telling is inspired by Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops. It’s worth checking out the full article because it highlights some of the common clichés and pitfalls that clog up a story. The article has sci-fi in mind, although a lot of their points relate to all fiction genres.

The one I’m focusing on is countersinking. This one makes me grin because I used to do it a lot in my early writing. A couple of years ago, me and a friend set about workshopping our earliest pieces to see what we could learn. We wanted to track our improvements, see where we made creative leaps and bounds. The workshops were a riot—seeing ourselves as young, bouncy authors full of excitement and dreadful clichés. We lacked finesse and attention to detail but we had so much fun writing and developing our styles. It’s a bit like travelling back in time to meet the kid version of yourself. It’s also extremely eye-opening.

I’m way more conscious of countersinking nowadays and rarely find it slipping into my prose, but I do stumble upon it when reading other people’s work—sometimes even popular published authors. It happens to everyone.

Here is an example of countersinking:

“You have to get out of here,” he said, urging her to leave.

This is what’s happening: 

A form of expositional redundancy in which the action clearly implied in dialogue is made explicit.

Or as I like to call it, “showing and telling”. A writer shows something with action or dialogue and then immediately explains what it is with description, which is completely unnecessary. It’s obvious from the dialogue that somebody urged someone else to leave, so the explanation urging her to leave is redundant.

Newer authors tend to do this due to a lack of confidence, but like I said, some pro authors do it too. I’m quite sensitive to countersinking; it slows down a story, it’s clunky, and it makes the writing feel loose and flabby. When doing a round of edits that focus on dialogue, I’m always on the lookout for sneaky show-and-tell. And if there are any? I kill them.

It’s strange how writing peeves can bring up so many nostalgic feelings.

Time Travelling, Awkwardly

Something that can always pull me out of a story is the unlikely passage of time. It’s something that probably shouldn’t bother me, and I try not to let it, but logic often taps on my skull and it snags my brain. This is what I’m talking about:

They paused and stared at each other for a few minutes. “Ok, you can drive,” she finally said.

A few seconds can sometimes feel like an age staring at somebody in silence in the middle of a conversation or action. Imagine how creepy and weird a few minutes must feel. Have you ever actually timed, say, three minutes, paying attention to how long you’re silent and counting? Yeah, it’s a long, long time. Time enough to go make a cup of tea. Or a sandwich. While Character A is gawping at you for “long minutes” in shock, you could have popped to the supermarket and resupplied your cupboards or started catching up on the latest Blacklist.

When I’m trying to show the passage of time in my stories, I generally time how long something could take. So a character staring at another in shock might only be three seconds before somebody speaks or takes action. Three. Seconds. Not three minutes. There is a big ol’ difference.

To be fair, it’s not always easy to keep track of these things, especially if you’re powerhousing through draft after draft of a story – it’s easy to go unnoticed. I bet I could find a few in my own stories; those pesky details that slip through all the nets because, until you stop and think about them, they aren’t obvious. But it might be worth logic-checking the passage of time, just for the unfortunate people like me who tend to stop reading to boggle at how incredibly awkward that three minute “shocked pause” must be.

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