Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How to Handle Feedback

Writers, by their very nature, will have to face feedback during their lives. Whether it is asked for (critique partners) or given without your request (reviews on say, Amazon), there will be positive feedback and negative feedback.

Each writer has (hopefully) heard that if you want to be a writer, you need to be able to take rejection and by implication, negative feedback. Lots of people would probably say that they can take it, but it is naturally ingrained in each human being to focus more on the negative than the positive. In an article on Psychology Today, Karen Wright writes (no pun intended) that John Cacioppo, a neuroscientist, found that there is stronger brain activity in response to negative stimuli than positive stimuli.

In the same article, Wright mentions that it is harder to accept feedback from a peer or someone lower than you (interestingly enough, this includes positive feedback). It is because of this that step-parents struggle to control their step-children – the kids don’t recognise their authority.

Here are some things to keep in mind when getting feedback:
-Don’t ask people to critique your work if you feel they don’t have authority to give you advice.
-Know that the more narcissistic or insecure you are, the more the criticism will hurt.
-In the case of critique partner or beta reader, remember that you are the one who asked for feedback.
-When you get negative feedback, don’t immediately include or dismiss it. Allow yourself to come out of your fight-or-flight mode and then look objectively at it.

Perhaps a most important point here is remembering that not everyone will like your story. This is nicely put on Simon C. Larter’s blog.

Feedback is a necessary step in writing that lets us see how others perceive our work. Handle your critique partners and beta readers in such a way that they will give truthful feedback and in that way help you with your story.

How do you handle getting feedback? How do you handle GIVING feedback?

Monday, March 28, 2011

Places that Inspire : Attic

Inspiration comes from everywhere, so for this week’s post (and probably the rest, except if something specific catches my attention) I’ll look at an ordinary place and how to draw inspiration from it.

An attic, for those who don’t know, is a space that fits between a slanted roof and the ceiling of a building’s top floor. This prevents, I imagine, awkward-looking top floor ceilings. Ergo, attics are generally weirdly shaped and are probably filled with rafters and the like. They are also generally hard to get to and hard to manoeuvre in. Most people use them for storage, though some convert them into bedrooms or studies.

There are two things that caught my attention from that and which I will try to expand on.

1) Attics are hard to get to (and subsequently not visited often).
2) Attics are used for storage.

For 1, I can deduce that if it is not visited often, it would be a good place to hide. Plus, if I take into account that people convert it into rooms, it translates into a room that was made where someone who does not want to be found can go. Since I’m a sucker for the supernatural, I immediately think of a not-entirely-human man hiding in the room to avoid getting torch-and-pitchforked. Or, maybe he’s trying to stay in. But if he was, say, a werewolf, the room would have to be heavily fortified, or he’d just bring the whole roof down. That’s a beginning.

Number 2 tells me that there is probably a lot of old things in attics. Again with the supernatural, it could be VERY old things. As in ancient times when people still used magic and so on. Old things implies old people or the handing down of items. Let’s say there is an old man who was guarding some sort of artefact from the old days. Before he could pass the responsibility on to his son, he dies of a heart attack.
The son goes up to the attic to clear it out in preparation for the sale of the house, but then he finds the artefact and activates it, inadvertently destroying the world/transporting him somewhere else/anything else that could go wrong.

I hope this gives you an idea of the thought process I go through to come up with a story.

What ideas can you come up with about attics?

Herewith is my attempt at flash fiction based on idea number one (feel free to leave a piece of flash fiction based on an attic – 200 words or less in this case – of your own in the comments):

Henry climbed the ladder that led to the great metal hatch on his ceiling. He typed in the code that released the lock on the keypad next to it. Another box was attached to the ceiling with a green light shining in a corner. He typed on the pad, inputting 12 hours as the time. The light turned red and Henry opened the hatch.
A single lamp hung high in the rafters and a thin light was cast in from outside the window. He climbed inside and closed the hatch behind him. There was a loud click. The lock was active.
The entire room - except for the reinforced window - was metal. Five inches thick. Even so, there were huge dents and long gashes everywhere.
Henry went to sit in the middle of the room, facing the window. After an hour, he felt his skin tingle and his bones shift. It would be eleven hours before the hatch opened again.
The full moon came out from behind the trees.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Writing on the Last Day

This morning, I read a post on Jennifer Hubbard’s blog. It was an interview with Shaun David Hutchinson about his book, The Deathday Letter, where people get a letter 24 hours before their demise, informing them of the coming end. The book is about what 15 year old Oliver does with his last day when he receives notice. I haven’t actually read the book, so I have no idea what Oliver does. However, it got me thinking, what would I do on my last day?

Isaac Asimov said the following: "If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."
I think it is obvious what he would have done if he got a Deathday letter.

Can you say the same as this author (and probably many more)? Would you write if you got your Deathday Letter?

I have no idea what I’d do with my last day. But I can tell you this: I hope that I can write to the end*. Chances are that if I got my Deathday Letter today, writing would be the last thing on my mind. But it is a goal that I hope to reach. To grow as a writer and get to know the craft until it is like breathing. Until I cannot stop myself from writing.

What would you do on you last day? Is writing your favourite pastime? Do you have a message you want to deliver to the world?

Age old advice, “Live each day like it’s your last.” If you have a story you want to get into the world, don’t wait. Craft and craft until it is perfect. Don’t wait for better days. They might just never come.

* Okay, I’d probably like to say goodbye to everyone I care about and all that, but I communicate better by writing than talking anyway.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Places that Inspire : The Door to Hell

Originally, geologists had expected the gasses from the cavern to burn for a few days, but thus far, the pit has been burning for over 40 years.
Derweze, Turkmenistan, is rich with natural gasses. In 1971, some geologists came upon a cavern filled with some of these gasses. The whole thing collapsed, leaving a gaping hole. The gasses were potentially poisonous and to prevent it from escaping into the atmosphere, they decided to burn it off.
It is a tourist attraction as a pit of fire that never stops burning. The people of Derweze had decided to leave it burning, since it was less harmful to the environment than letting the gasses escape into the atmosphere (methane is one of the greenhouse gasses with a high global warming potential).
The locals were the ones who named the cavern “The Door to Hell”.

How can a cavern still be burning after 40 years? That is a big question to ask if you want to get a story out of this. Is it really a gateway to Hell, fuelled by eternally burning bodies? Or maybe there is a whole other reason for it, a conspiracy using the beliefs of the natives to cover up the burning of something, or someone. Perhaps it is kept alive by spirits who want to deliver a message.
Then again, maybe there’s just a whole lot of gasses. But what happens when it dries up?

Friday, March 18, 2011

How Writing Relates to Charades

For a long time, I have stuck to the concept of showing instead of telling by comparing it with a movie. You know, they tell you that when you show, it should be like watching a movie. Don’t tell them what’s happening, show them. That all didn’t help so much.
Then, some or other time, I realised that showing is not like a movie. Movies work differently, is paced differently and gives different information. In fact, movies are not the best thing to have in your mind when you’re writing a story. Unless you’re writing a screenplay. If that is the case, ignore everything before and after this point.
So, I decided that a new comparison is needed.
Showing is like Charades. You know, that game that everyone played at some point*. You act out a word or phrase and let other people guess what it is you’re trying to say. And that is what showing is.
Let’s say you want to let readers know that your character is nervous. You could say, “John is nervous,” but that’s boring as hell. Instead, play a miniature version of Charades. Show your readers that John is nervous without using the word ‘nervous’. “John’s hands are sweating.” Better? Somewhat.
With emotions, it gets even better. Now you get to play Deep POV Charades as well. Thoughts and feelings that relate to the emotion and shows it. Without using the word itself. “John feels his heart pound against his ribcage and his mind refuses to concentrate.”
In fact, I think one should avoid using any words like ‘fear’, ‘happy’ or ‘sad’ in a piece of prose, unless it is used indirectly, like “John’s fear of Jane outweighed his fear of ants.”
As a final note, a quote from Anton Chekhov**: “Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Sorry for the less than stellar example sentences.

* Except for me.  I saw it on TV once though.
** I burrowed/stole this gem from J.C. Martin’s blog.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The Meaning of Success

Humans, by nature, like to compare things to other things, be it human to human or subatomic particle to subatomic particle. For this reason, humans also like to compare themselves to people in similar situations as their own. Ergo, a horror writer will almost certainly at some point compare his or her work to Lovecraft or King.
How do you measure your success as a writer? Do you take a passage from you WIP and a passage from a Stephen King novel, print them out, shuffle them around and ask a beta reader to tell you which one is the best?
Unfortunately, the chances are pretty good that your work will not be as good as the super best-selling author you are comparing yourself against. Thus many authors might think to themselves, “I’m not even close to writing like this!” and perhaps even give up.
Since we, as humans, compare things almost subconsciously, I can’t really tell you to not compare yourself to others who have made success, but I can tell you to look at it differently. Stephen King quality should be a goal, not a measurement. Aim to reach it, don’t compare your current work to his. Improving your writing is a life-long journey, ask any of the best-selling authors. They continue to learn the craft, and so should you.
To see how far you’ve come, you should glance to your goal, but also glance back to see what you have overcome*. When you do this, you can see what areas you’ve improved on and which areas you still struggle with.
When you look upon the goal too hard, your mind will want to even things out and you will start to copy the goal instead of reaching it. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t learn from the masters of writing, but each author has a voice that needn’t be substituted with a copied one from a grandmaster.
Find your voice and look at how far you’ve come. See your goal ahead, but realise that there is room for movement. This will allow you to grow as a writer and then get the hell onto that NY Times Bestseller list.**

* Read some of the stories that you wrote five years ago and you’ll find yourself wondering, “Did I write this?”
** That’s every book writer’s dream, right? If not, substitute the correct dream in there.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Objects that Inspire : Origami Cranes

A crane is one of the mystical creatures of Japanese culture. It is said that a crane lives for a thousand years.
Origami (the art of paper folding) cranes have a special meaning to the people of Japan. It is said that the one who folds a thousand paper cranes can be granted his or her wish. The most famous example of this is Sadako Sasaki.
Sadako was a victim of radiation from the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and she was dying of leukaemia as a result. To prolong her life, she started folding cranes, hoping that she could wish for a recovery if she folded 1000 of them. Some sources say that she only folded 644 before she died, and her friends finished the rest and buried it with her. Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum on the other hand, says that she actually completed all one thousand.
As a result of Sadako, the paper crane has become a symbol for world peace and people often give them to temples that burn eternal flames for world peace.
The thousand cranes also serve as gifts, for couples, marriages and family in general. By giving someone a thousand cranes, you are wishing them good fortune and happiness for a thousand years.

Paper cranes have huge cultural significance to the people of Japan and can breed all sorts of stories. The obvious one being the granting of a wish when one completes the feat of a thousand cranes. Sadako is also a great inspiration, especially the mystery about the amount of cranes she was able to finish. If she did fold a thousand cranes, maybe she wished for something else instead of getting better? The cranes can also be used as a symbol in a story, delivering a message otherwise not mentioned.

I specifically chose paper cranes for today’s post for the people of Japan that was hit by the tsunami. If you have the money for it, please donate some to help the victims of the disaster. If you don’t know where to go to do so, here is a link to Maureen Johnson’s page where you can donate for Shelterbox and even win prizes! LINK

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Expanding the Scope of Your Writing

Among age old advice that includes ‘Show, don’t tell’ there is a specific one that I want to contradict today.
Write what you know.
I’m going to go out into the line of fire and change that around. Write what you don’t know.
Now, I’m not saying stop writing what you know, I’m merely adding that it shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. If you look at the matter closely, you’ll notice that by writing what you don’t know will eventually turn into writing what you do know, thus completing the cycle and fulfilling the rule.
Writing outside your genre is perhaps one of the best ways to expand your knowledge. Who knows, you might find that you enjoy writing mysteries more than you do fantasy. You can even go as far as dabbling in poetry to see if your creative niche fits in there somewhere.

I’d like to expand a bit and add: write what you’re bad at and write what you haven’t tried before.
By writing what you’re bad at – for example writing from the opposite gender POV – you will gain practice and get better at it. For example, I do in fact, suck at writing female perspective, so I’m currently working on a novel with a female protagonist. Does is currently suck? Yes. But I get better the farther I go. (Novel length is good, since it gives you lots of practice*)
Experiment a bit, and write outside your groove. Let’s say most of your stories are epic-proportioned plot-based fiction. Swing that around and challenge yourself by writing a character-driven story that is set inside a bomb shelter.
Change everything you can, including but not limited to : Setting, amount of characters, POV, suspense, character or plot driven. By getting out of your groove, you’ll learn how to do new things, and maybe find out that you like it. It will give you a wider scope of reference to pump out that best-selling novel that rests inside your heart.

*If novel length just to practice is a bit long for you, short stories work just as well.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Leap of Faith

From when I was very little, I was protected from – or rather, deprived of – risk. Everything was dangerous and I was quickly scolded or stopped when I attempted something dangerous like doing a cartwheel. I was even steered clear of washing dishes until I was much older (Not that I complained).
All this built up the ruler which I live(d) life with. In an almost doctrine sort of way, I avoided most things that could lead to any sort of trouble or bad ending, resulting in many missed opportunities.
This was applicable to me up until a few years ago when I discovered that you can't go through life without taking risks – unless you live in a steel box wherein you grow your own food (And even that isn't foolproof).
But, even with my newly discovered epiphany, I was still mentally ingrained to avoid risk. So I started a plan to try and take one risk – no matter how small – every day.
Okay, enough soppy life stories and useless self-improvement advice. What the hell does this have to do with writing?
Well, besides a background story for a quirky character (don't say I never did anything for you), a whole lot, in fact.
Writing is all about taking risks. If you don't take risks, you'll end up unpublished. Let me explain.
Success comes with trying something new. And trying something new means putting your idea out there for people to reject or hopefully accept. Isaac Asimov deviated from the normal, as he calls it, “Frankenstein complex” robot stories of his time (stemming originally from Faust) and put his idea out there. What if the robot didn't turn on its maker in the end? What if robots were just servants? And from there sprang the three laws of robotics which basically defines robot stories these days.
Then again, you don't have to try something so radical to get published, but you still have to risk something. When you give your story – your soul on a page – to an agent or publisher, you risk rejection and the feeling of failure.
Risks are only stepping stones to success. You have to take risks in order to hit it big.
If you are, however, riskophobic (there's probably an actual word for it, but I'm too lazy to find it) like me, you should start small. If you're in the shower and you start thinking about what would happen if your protagonist's house blew up before he got home, don't simply dismiss the idea because you think it could be bad. Try it out. Same goes for if a character starts acting differently. Don't push him or her back in line. Try out the water, take a leap of faith. Though it will feel like you're taking a risk, you're really not. You can always just double back and try another route.
Make the jump, even if you think you might not make it. Your writing will thank you for it when you do.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Question

Have you ever been prodded with a ‘So, what do you do for a living?’ (or an equivalent), and answered ‘I’m a writer’, upon which people, as if programmed to do so, immediately ask, ‘What have you published?’ (or its equivalent)
I can say that I hate it. In fact, I do the best I can to avoid telling people what I do, knowing that the question would eventually come, and I’d have to answer with the dreaded, ‘Nothing.’ (Yes, that’s right, I haven’t published anything as of yet. There, now you don’t have to ask me.)
Sure, this isn’t a problem for published authors, but even people who have published a few short stories have a similar problem. ‘Oh, I’ve published two stories in Clarkesworld Magazine and one in Apex,’ you say. ‘Clark’s world? Is that some kind of superman fan magazine?’
Unless you’ve published a novel (and I might even add, a bestseller or at least a famous book) or avoid people altogether, you’re going to land in a situation as pointed out above some or other time.
This problem comes from humans' general view of writing. They see it as a slack-off job and only measures success with bestsellers. How many times has someone told you to get a ‘real’ job? (If you’re writing full-time or studying)
Writing is what I love and that is what I do. Even though I haven’t published anything, I am still a writer, and I am proud to announce it to the world. (Okay, that last part is a bit of a stretch. I’m pretty sure I won’t go around telling people that I’m a writer that hasn’t published anything.*)
If you love writing and you want to write as a job, (since your only other options are doing something you hate or starving) ignore the people’s faces when you answer the dreaded question and what follows upon it, or just think up a fancy job title of a made-up job (it should be easy, you’re a writer after all).

Have you ever been asked the question? Is writing just a hobby, or your (planned) sole source of income?

*If I do publish something however, I would probably go and tell every person that I can find that I had recently published something and have just achieved the status of published author.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Places that Inspire : Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon Rainforest covers an area of five and a half million square kilometres. Most of it is situated in Brazil, while the rest lies in Peru and seven other countries. A large part of the forest remains unexplored.
Because of the quantity of trees in the forest (naturally) the rainforest provides more than 20% of the earth’s oxygen. However, the trees are cut down daily for lumber.
A few hundred thousand species of plant life have been discovered to date in the forest. The diversity of animal life is just as great. For example, 2000 species of fish have been discovered in the Amazon Basin. It is more than the number of species in the Atlantic Ocean.
More still, many cures for illnesses have been found in rainforest plants, and the rich diversity in the Amazon Rainforest makes it one of the largest store of medicinal plants in the world. Many indigenous tribes live in explored and unexplored areas of the forest and have years of experience using the plants as medicine.
Some of the tribes have yet to be approached. Unfortunately, most of them might never be safely contacted, for they don’t have the natural immunity for many of the illnesses that have devastated Europe and the rest of the world centuries ago and that any travellers would bring into their camps if contact should be made.

The Amazon is a place that can be used as a setting or simply to make a story of. There are many undiscovered areas in the rainforest that could be home to some frightening new species, or an undiscovered people who have had a breakthrough in dangerous technology. Furthermore, the forests are being destroyed, and a single character can make a stand to stop them. Or, your story could take place after the forest is gone entirely, creating massive global warming and resulting in an epic disaster. I’m sure you can think of more things to do with the Amazon rainforest as inspiration, but that’s all from me today.

(Most of my information comes from Wikipedia, as well as I can give you a link if you really need it.)