Posts Tagged ‘critique’


     

     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.

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     I’m learning that character development is less about conscious endeavor and more about letting your characters “tell” you about themselves.  When I first heard other writers talk about this phenomenon, I thought it was silly.  I couldn’t understand how a character could make their own choices, choose their own voice or, in more extreme cases, shape the plot according to their own agendas.  I feel very differently about that now.  Now I understand exactly what other writers are talking about when they say things like, “Oh, my characters just kind of take on a life all their own,” or, “Well, I intended to kill so and so, but the bastard simply refused to die!” 

     When a character begins to tell you his or her own story, it is an experience that borders on being eerie.  It’s foreign.  It is an almost supernatural anomaly.  After all, when a person that you created begins dictating to you what needs to happen, you tend to question your sanity.  For the most part, however, I’ve come to understand this as a natural, albeit strange, part of the creative process.  Once you get past the surprise of being given orders by an imaginary personality, and if you dare to let it take you where it wants to go, it won’t matter anymore where the “voices” are coming from; all that matters is that somehow, it works. 

     That being said, I also know that I must keep a close eye on my characters.  You can’t let them run the show entirely.  Some of them are helpful to the plot while others are untrustworthy and will manipulate the story to become all about themselves.  I try to let the characters do a lot of the talking while simultaneously keeping a close watch on the plot to be sure we don’t veer too far off into left field.

     Overall, my experiences with the characters tops the list of my favorite things about writing fiction.  I love the little surprises each character brings to the story and nothing makes me happier than when one of them does something so off the wall that even I didn’t see it coming.  I am a little bit in love with all of my characters and I think that’s important.  If you are writing a novel, you will be spending an awful lot of time with each of these guys, and if you hate them at a base level, it’s bound to be a most unpleasant experience.

     Right now, I am writing the most difficult character I’ve ever had to before.  He goes by the name of Sterling Bronson and he is violent and dark… he is all of the things we are taught not to be.  Since my time with this character hasn’t reached completion, I am currently blind to the methods with which I will have to deal with him.  So instead of focusing on him, I will go back to the major players of The White Room, where I can, in hindsight, more clearly give a brief synopsis of my experience with each of them.

     Cadence Walker ~ This is probably my oldest character.  Although he has evolved substantially since then, he was first conceived of in the mid-nineties when I first began trying to write fiction.  He was also my easiest character and I think that’s because he’s a lot like myself.  I had no trouble finding, and for the most part maintaining his voice once I sat down to write the story.

     Brooks Jacobi ~ Brooks is by far my favorite character.  He seems to be a kind of hybrid between my best friend growing up, and that more irresponsible, less stressed side of my own nature.  The first scene I ever “saw” from The White Room was one of Brooks’ scenes, so in a sense, he kicked the whole project off and got the ball rolling.  For the story’s sake, Brooks had to be Cadence’s polar opposite and I worried that they might somehow bleed into each other and become indistinguishable, but Brooks maintained his integrity throughout, making my job a whole lot easier.  I feel there is a lot more to Brooks than I was able to cover in the span of one book, and since writing the words “The End”, I have been unsuccessfully trying to find ways of revisiting him.

     Aunt Mimi ~ In spite of being a religious zealot as well as a forgetful and hopeless alcoholic, Aunt Mimi is a basic, static character set in place for the sole purpose of moving the plot.  What’s interesting about her is that she was a complete surprise.  I didn’t write her into the outline but when she showed up, I just felt I needed to trust her and I’m glad I did.  She was the most fun to write.  If anyone close to me ever saw me typing and giggling away at my laptop, I would personally guarantee it was an Aunt Mimi scene I was writing.

     Sheila Leventis ~ Like Aunt Mimi, Sheila was a surprise.  Her main purpose in this story was to support the main characters and the plot.  I deliberately gave her no real zest.  She was a quiet character who let the story work around her.  Even at the end, she was probably the only one who really never knew what was going on.

     Michal ~ This was the hardest character for me.  I had a hard time keeping consistency with him.  At times, he was this hip psuedo-cowboy type while at other times, he was a kind of wise, fatherly type.  Of all my characters, Michal was the one who, more than once, forced me to rewrite entire scenes.  In the beginning, he spoke in articulate, proper sentences.  By the end, he was like, “So, hey… ya wanna talk?”  It wouldn’t do of course, so I ended up having to revise him to the point I really just kind of wanted him to die.  But I love him… he ended up being a good character.

     Winter ~ This guy was awesome.  Winter just kind of came to me fully-formed one day and said, “Hey, here I am.  Do something with me.”  He became an integral part of the story on top of being a lot of fun to write.  Winter gave me no grief.  He was compliant, professional and well-rounded.  Of all the characters, Winter is the one I could most easily and naturally continue with.  He seems to have a story all his own and I think he wants it told.  Maybe one day…

     Gretchen ~ While Michal was hard to write because his personality was difficult to pin down, Gretchen was hard for very different reasons.  She came to me a long time ago, fully-formed and ready for action.  Her original purpose as far as I was concerned was to simply make an appearance and die in a way that moved the story into the more multi-layered recesses of plot.  However… that’s not at all what happened.  This character was one the ones I warned you about, one of the untrustworthy ones.  Persnickety to the point of maddening, Gretchen gave me more hell than any other character.  For one thing, she went through about seven name changes before finding the one that “felt” right.  Secondly, she nearly became the central figure of the story, moving the plot this way and that until it was so tightly wrapped around her that I had to consciously reel it in and redirect my focus.  In short, Gretchen is a diva and given an inch, she would have taken six miles.  I had to limit her voice while at the same time recognizing the value of the places this character wanted to go.  Although she evolved into much more than she was originally intended to be, and moved the story into entirely unexpected directions, it ended up being okay.  But I was wise to keep her on a short leash.

     Sebastian ~ This guy was fun.  I don’t remember exactly where he came from but shortly after Gretchen was developed, he was there, waiting to be heard.  Sebastian became an important player in the plot and he was natural and easy to write.  I like characters like him.

     Jazminka ~ It all started with the boots.  About fifteen years ago, I had this strange dream about a woman wearing the most insanely strange pair of thigh-high boots I had ever seen.  Among their other oddities, these boots had sharp, steel heels that made these incredibly ominous thudding sounds when she walked.  I never forgot those boots and when I first contrived the character Jazminka, I thought it would be awesome to put her in them.  Shortly after that, it occurred to me that these boots would make great weapons.  One of the first things I knew about Jazminka was that she could kill a man in less than seven seconds without spilling a single drop of blood… with her boots.  So Jazminka was easily designed around that deadly footwear I dreamed of as a teenager.  It was nice to pull something from a dream because I didn’t even have to think about it.  Her hair, however, was another story.  I wanted to give her a crew cut but was promptly told, “hell no”, and “don’t you dare”, by the few (and the brutally honest) who were critiquing my manuscript as it was being written.  Reluctantly, I gave her an ’80’s bouffant.

     Angel ~ This character was just full of surprises.  He began as a kind of filler, just there to people the story and then BAM!… he became something I hadn’t at all intended.

     Veritas ~ There wasn’t really much room for this poor guy.  He was well-formed in my mind but unfortunately didn’t get much of a part, although the part he did get was definitely memorable.

    Mahallia ~ My least favorite character.  Mahallia was an afterthought and I never liked her.  She came to be because Veritas’ part was so suddenly minimized and I needed a way to move through the end.  If this book never sees the shelf of a bookstore, I will always blame Mahallia…

     And so… this has been my experience in character development thus far.  I am still learning and growing and it’s my hope that I will continue to have as much fun in the future as I continue on this journey.  I understand fictional characters in a way I never thought I would.  The ins and outs of the people who drive our stories surprise and delight me at every turn.  As I said, getting to know the characters is my favorite part about writing fiction.  The characters will make or break a story, they will surprise us by playing parts we hadn’t intended.  Some will bring value to the story while others, if allowed, will sabotage it… but of all the things I’ve learned about character development, what surprises me most is that, crazy as it sounds… they really do have minds of their own.