The difference between listening to a lecture on velocity, trajectory, and the tensile strength of steel… and getting a dart in the ass.

You can read all the writing manuals you want, physician but there’s nothing like a knowledgeable and impartial publishing professional giving you feedback*. I’m talking about paid critiques at writing conferences, case or First Page sessions.

I love writing conferences. And I hate them. It’s like going to a wonderful party with interesting new people—but knowing that for one terrible ten minute stretch, here you’ll have to strut around naked in front of them, while paying for the privilege, even as a personal trainer loudly points out your various bodily flaws, and states they would never date you.

Think I’m exaggerating? I suspect most writers would either agree with me, or have become so successful that they’ve forgotten the feeling–and possibly become that loud personal trainer themselves. :)

BUT the most valuable part of a writing conference is EXACTLY that. The five or ten minutes ‘naked’, hearing criticism that is tailored to where you are in your writing journey. Because guess what. Writing flaws can be fixed. Even more, they’re expected. Everyone has them (or almost everyone) and they should be expected. Writing craft takes time to develop. But one of the most frustrating situations to be in, and the most stunting to actually getting published, is not knowing what you’re doing wrong. And that can easily happen, in a world where agents are too busy to give personalized rejections. Paid critiques are usually a rare chance for professional feedback.

Let’s give a real life example. Back when I first started writing Black Diamonds, when I was still brainstorming the concept, I signed up for a SCBWI conference, and an opportunity to get a paid critique from an author and freelance editor was offered. I accepted, paid my $40 or whatever it was, quickly drafted three opening pages for Black Diamonds, and submitted it.

Two months later, I arrived at the conference, got lots of wonderful speeches and casual chats with other writers, then had to face my one on one critique session. I sat down across a table from a stern-faced lady who proceeded to list all the things I was doing wrong. She didn’t like my descriptions, they didn’t have specific detail; she didn’t like my writing style, too simplistic, closer to middle grade than young adult; and she really didn’t like my opening scene, she thought that I’d started in the wrong place**.

If I hadn’t had some time in the writing trenches, I probably would have been squashed at that point. Horrified. Mortified. And admittedly, it still wasn’t a super fun moment, because you’re never expecting any of the things that are said. Because, if you’d have known what was wrong, you’d have fixed it, right? Or at least I would have done.

But, as I’ve been trained to do, I thanked her politely. She then frowned and apologized for her comment on my prose. I think she expected that one to be devastating. But I just shrugged. I was confident it could be fixed. I’ve written both prose plain and lyrical (see the post on poetry in writing), simple and complex. To me, that’s just editing, and style choice. Honestly, I was more interested in her comment on plot.

Because she was right. I saw it immediately. I’d missed something. Despite her comment meshing with things I’d clearly read it in writing books, I just hadn’t seen it. I was too close to my own work and ended up with a blind spot, that took an unbiased view to point out.

That conversation, for all its negatives, was some of the best money I’ve spent on my writing. Way more valuable than any of the speeches that preceded it.

So I deleted those three pages, found a place to start that I was happier with (stumbling down a mountainside with a wounded brother, which plays more heavily to a reader’s curiosity) and have had positive reader reactions to those pages ever since.

I have had this or similar experiences several times, which is usually beyond what I can achieve in a critique group, where the bluntness, level of knowledge, and impartiality is almost by definition lower. No offence to my critique partners, they’re great and talented writers, especially now, but when we first started out we were all aspiring authors, with similar flaws and blind spots. We’ve improved together, but early on, none of us could have offered the same quality of feedback that a publishing professional could.

It’s up to you what you do with this information, but I would encourage you to keep reading craft books, polish your craft by writing as often as you can, and join a critique group if that’s your thing (people tend to be really hot or cold on this). But every once in a while, if you can afford or beg it, find an industry professional to give you feedback on YOUR work.

A dart in the ass hurts. But it sure does get you to the finish line faster. :)

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* I’m assuming that the person giving you feedback is a reputable professional, with reasonable knowledge of craft. I would guess that for most SCBWI events near major population centers this should be true, but obviously, do your due diligence, as best you can. Bad advice is worse than no advice at all.

** For those curious, I opened the first three pages with the main character’s mother’s death, in a fairly busy action scene. The critiquer noted that it fell flat because there was no empathy and little tension, despite the violence, because the reader didn’t know the characters yet. So, it was theoretically horrible, but didn’t really strike the reader in a significant emotional way.

 

The featured illustration is the one I started earlier, and showed with this post. Watercolor. Enjoy! And you know why I had time to finish it? You guessed it. Edits are done! Whoot, whoot! Now I’m writing a synopsis, getting ready for a twitter pitch party, and otherwise celebrating my sudden abundance of free time. :)

 

When you talk about someone a lot, guess what? They’re important.

I know someone who talks about someone else a lot. Which probably means that the person talked about matters, at least to the speaker. The relationship might be good (in this case it’s not), bad (um, not entirely), but one thing it’s surely not, is indifferent. I’ll come back to this situation later.

The concept applies to writing too. When you describe something in your writing, a character, event, or action, you want your words to be brief and powerful. But sometimes you also want the reader to pay attention to something, even if it seems innocuous at the time. If you want a fact, description, or character to stay in the reader’s mind, for them to subconsciously mull the information’s importance, you need to use more words.*

But what if you don’t have much else to say? For example, you want the fact that there’s a bird on the rafters to be noticed, and so remembered, but there isn’t really much more that needs to be said? There’s not an awful lot going on in the rafters otherwise.

Let’s use an example. Here’s a nice, mood-building, efficient sentence, that includes my Significant Bird:

“The room was dark, menacing, from the broken frame of the door, like fractured wooden teeth, to the bird that slipped deeper into the shadows.”

Are you going to remember that bird 200 pages later, when it all comes to a head? I kind of doubt it. You’ll remember maybe for the next page. Maybe two.

For a long time, I clung to the rule that Strunk and White laid down. The fewer the words the better. Be efficient. Cut. But eventually, my brain clued in. Sometimes rules are there to be broken. If you have a good reason for doing it.

So even if you don’t have anything additional to say, some eloquent words that add to description, or mood, or insight, you may still want to stick those extra words in anyway. Because if something needs to register with the reader, a single word or sentence might not do the trick. The extra words DO have purpose, even if it’s not immediately obvious to the reader.

“I looked up at the rafters and saw a grey-feathered bird with headstone eyes. A sculpted figure that looked like it knew every doubt in my mind. Knew and laughed. I swallowed and looked away. It was just a bird.”

Will you remember this paragraph 200 pages later? I think there’s a better chance, simply by the volume of words I threw at it.

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone argue with Strunk and White on this particular point, and I may be struck with lightning for even putting it out into the web, but I think it’s true. It’s certainly not the rule (brevity really IS the soul of wit), but there might be the occasional exception.

Now about my friend’s friend…

Mmm. Sorry, I’ve forgotten what I was talking about.

I clearly didn’t use enough words… :)

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* If I was succinct (he he), my whole post would be: “More words = More memorable.” But then who would remember? Hee hee.

The image this time is also taken from the large Devils and Angels War piece I mentioned in the last post, a different corner. Again, Prismacolor done dark. I feel slightly guilty for not actually doing any new art for a month or two, but life has been hectic, and the manuscript edit is getting close to finished. A couple of weeks away, would be my guess, and I’m finding a final wind upon me, a gust of energy to sprint to the finish. It just doesn’t leave much time for other things. Like art. :) I’m hoping to do a bit more once the editing is finished, maybe pre-paint some blog icons for later use. We’ll see. It’s nice to dream… :)