Finding Critique Partners

I've decided (somewhat randomly) this is going to be Critique Week on Author's Echo. Some of this stuff I've said before, but finding critique partners and getting/giving good critiques is so dang important, it's worth repeating.

But where do you find someone willing to read 80,000 words and tell you what they think? More over, where do you find people who are actually good at that sort of thing?

I know of three places, though the first two specialize in SF, Fantasy, and Horror. Hopefully folks can offer more in the comments.
  1. Critters Writers Workshop. Cost: Free. Wait Time: 4-5 weeks for each submission (you may submit many at once though, and they will be put up for critique one week at a time). Requirement: Critique at least 3 stories every 4 weeks. Submission Length: Up to 20,000 words.
  2. Online Writing Workshop. Cost: $49/year (first month free). Wait Time: Minimal. Requirement: Critique at least 4 stories for every submission (after the first). Submission Length: Up to 7,500 words.
  3. The Entire Freaking Internet. Cost: Free. Wait Time: Varies based on social media skills-slash-how nice you are: a week to years for the first submission. Subsequent submissions usually have minimal wait time. Requirement: Usually critique 1 story for every submission. Submission Length: No limit.
You laugh, but that last one is a gold mine. My first novel was critiqued by two friends (albeit an avid reader and a lit professor). My second by self-selected readers, still mostly friends and family.

Now, thanks to my *cough* "charisma" and a LOT of time wasted on the internet, I feel comfortable asking for critiques from multiple writers at or above my level, two agented authors, and two published (or scheduled-to-be-published) authors. Shoot, if I can make friends this awesome, so can you.

Social media, man. It really works.

The Great Criddle-Heine Art Swap

The great K. Marie Criddle approached me to exchange sketches, which does all kinds of nonsense to my ego (e.g. "Your ego's so fat, it uses Wilson Fisk's socks for finger puppets"). ESPECIALLY since I failed to win a Criddle sketch from her recent contest. It's like I won the contest for free!

Well, not free. I got to draw this:

This is Miss Hannah P. Bartleby, the main character of a manuscript Marie is revising for her agent. She's not the most graceful of young ladies, but she can be a mean duelist with that grappling hook when she wants to (that's right, it's for DUELING).

And for me, Marie drew a picture of Ren from Air Pirates:

He's a machinist who took care of Sam for a number of years (before Sam ran off to become a pirate). His face and arm got kinda messed up in the war, but he can still wield a mean sledgehammer.

Speaking of Air Pirates, the YA revision is finished (did I mention that yet?) and in the hands and Kindles of some betas. Also the query is being worked on, even though I plan to do at least one more revision/beta cycle before I call it finished. I'm getting excited, but that always happens in this stage. Talk to me again in 6-8 months when I either have a new idea for revision or have decided nobody wants a steampunk adventure about fortune-telling stones, air pirates with mechanical arms, mothers who were presumed dead...


Answers the Second: Randomness and Torture

Matthew Rush asks: Would you rather be Jirayah (Pervy Sage) or Kabuto (the dork with the glasses)?

I can't say I approve of Jiraiya's choice of hobbies or Kabuto's choice of employer, though they are both pretty powerful. But any way I look at it, Jiraiya's got one thing going for him that Kabuto doesn't. Sage Mode:

Susan Kaye Quinn asks: Favored platform: Mac or PC?

I would love a Mac. Thank you for offering.

Every time I buy a new computer, I have to make this decision, and it always comes down to the same thing: Macs are expensive, and PCs have all the open source software I want.

Preferred literary success: Bestseller or Hugo?

Oy. Fine, if I have to choose, I go with the one that gets more readers: bestseller.

Apocalypse: Super virus or sentient computers?

Neither. The world is destroyed by robot pirates and zombie ninjas (also dinosaurs).

Awesomeness: Star Wars or Lord of the Rings?

For the purposes of this exercise, we will pretend George Lucas stopped fiddling with Star Wars in 1983. With that in mind, the most awesome trilogy ever is ISTHATSAMUELL.JACKSONINANICKFURYMOVIEZOMGITIS!!!

Caped Guy: Batman or Superman?

Batman, hands down. Did you know he has a file on every superhero's weakness, just in case he ever has to fight them? The guy's a genius.

Asea asks: What's your favorite local food?

Market food: fried pork and bananas, dim sum and pork dumplings, chicken satay, rotee, fried potatoes... (Hm, just got a Mary Poppin's song stuck in my head).

If your characters (from your various WIPs) were caught in a zombie apocalypse, would they make it?

Heh. Hagai would be the first to go, though Sam and Ren might last a while (good fighters, and I bet the zombies would have a hard time storming their airship). Suriya, on the other hand, should have no problem. She has a tendency to blow things up when she's mad.

Do you ever make up your own board/card games? How about twists to existing ones? Do you play games in combination (e.g. you play Monopoly, and the profits from it fund expansion in Puerto Rico)?

Before I focused my creative energies on getting published, I designed games all the time. As for twisting existing ones, we don't do it often (I tend to assume the game balancers did their job well), but we do it to our most familiar games. We've played Settlers with a blind setup (i.e. flip the numbers over after you place your settlements) or with a 12-sided die, and we once played Ticket to Ride: World Domination, in which we combined a board of regular TtR and TtR:Europe. I don't like Monopoly much, but I love your combination example. Sounds like it would be fun for a tournament or a gaming marathon.

Thanks again for your questions and for putting up with my answers. Don't forget our special guest artist on Friday!

Answers the First (or "Hi, This is What I Do")

Apparently 88% of us would rather be lonely (and smart) than stupid (with friends). I'm with you guys, but you should know this is how super villains are made.

You guys asked some fantastic questions! I'll be answering some today, some Wednesday, and on Friday we have a double sketch featuring a very special guest artist. Now, to the questions!

An anonymous visitor from Natalie's blog asks: Can I ask what your main profession is?
Believe it or not, the "About Me" description over there is pretty much it: I write and I foster kids. My wife and I have a heart to give a family to kids with nowhere else to go, and most of our income comes from folks who support that mission (though obviously I'd love it if writing could help with that!). In my previous incarnations, I programmed computers, led Christian worship, and developed computer games.

Yeah, I don't see the connection either.

Advice for people who did not study writing or English or anything related to that in university...and struggling on how to really "start". Is there a method?

Ha! As you might have guessed, I studied Computer Science in college, not English. I think I wrote a total of ten papers--none fiction--and I haven't read a novel for a class since I graduated high school. So no, I don't think a formal education is necessary at all to write good fiction.

Here's what I do instead:
  1. Write.
  2. Read.
  3. Get and give critiques.
That's it. I would (and do) read books on writing as well as fiction. I always recommend Orson Scott Card's Characters and Viewpoint and Nancy Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends. But everyone's got their favorites. I bet they'll tell you in the comments (hint, hint).

And I'd love to know what a typical "day" or daily schedule is like for you (how you fit in work, writing, reading, eating, etc).

Yeah, I'd love to know how I fit all that in too.

Seriously, most days kinda look like this:
  1. Wake up (or get woken up) about 6 am.
  2. Get boys fed, girls ready for school, etc.
  3. Check e-mail and the rest of the internet.
  4. Write (my wife teaches the boys, and a helper takes care of the baby for a couple of hours).
  5. From about 11 am - 4 pm: watch/play with the boys, keep the baby happy, clean the house, fix the house, and (if possible) write blog posts, critique manuscripts, and maybe read or draw.
  6. Pick up the girls from school.
  7. Repeat #5 until bedtime.
  8. Bust out Secret Snacks. Watch So You Think You Can Dance until unconscious.
Today was a little different. Cindy took all the kids to a homeschool co-op, and one of our friends is leaving the country soon. So it was more like:
  1. Wake up.
  2. Check e-mail.
  3. Play Agricola.
  4. Eat bacon and ham sandwiches.
  5. Visit Lutiya's school.
  6. Play Agricola.
  7. Write blog post.
  8. Pick up girls.
  9. Play Agricola.
  10. Pass out.

Myrna Foster asks: Have you written a ninja story?
Sadly, no. I've got ideas for one, but it still feels too much like Batman Begins (which I guess isn't a bad thing). Later this year, I expect to choose a new project. We'll see if the ninjas make the cut.

How many children are you guys raising at the moment?
Nine. And we're in the process of adopting a tenth. This is what we look like now (click to enlarge):

More answers on Wednesday!

Questions! 2011!

It's been a while since we've done questions, and there are a number of new faces around the blog lately. I figure it's time to do it again.

The rules are simple. Put your questions in the comments. You may ask anything you like, serious or silly, professional or totally inappropriate. I'll answer all of them as best I can and may even do so honestly!

You may, if you like, review old questions and answers, but it's not required. Part of thinking like a pro means realizing some questions will be asked repeatedly. I'm okay with that. Ask away!

And just to keep things fair, here's a question for you, devised by one of my most devious Irish friends:

Books I Read: Favorites of 2010

I know it's a bit late, but here are some of my favorite books I read last year. A few I've talked about before. Those have just a brief summary and a link to my original post on the topic, but there are a couple here outside my regular genre(s) that I wanted to point out.

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Mark Haddon, 2003, Mystery/Literary
An autistic teenager investigates the death of the neighbor's dog and ends up learning secrets about his parents he was never meant to know. Read more...

Million Dollar Baby: Stories from the Corner
F.X. Toole, 2000, Short Stories
A collection of stories drawn from the author's experiences in the world of boxing. Now I don't like boxing, and I don't normally like short stories, but I really enjoyed this book. The trainers and fighters in this book are smart, showing that boxing isn't just about hitting the other guy until one of you drops. It's about strategy, timing, knowing where and when to do the most damage. As Toole put it, "Boxing is like chess with pain."

Hunger Games
Suzanne Collins, 2008, YA Science Fiction
Do I really need to talk about this book more? It's awesome. Worth all the hype (the two sequels are pretty good too). Read more...

Mistborn trilogy
Brandon Sanderson, 2006-8, Fantasy
In a world where the nobility exhibit super powers just by ingesting metal, a small band of thieves sets out to do the impossible: start a revolution among the commoners, and overthrow the immortal tyrant known as the Lord Ruler. Read more...

Itchy Brown Girl Seeks Employment
Ella deCastro Baron, 2009, Memoir
A collection of stories, poems, and essays that serve as an ironic resume of experiences one wouldn't normally tell a potential employer. Ella is a first generation Filipina American who writes about her struggles with faith, prejudice, eczema, death, miracles, and more. I'm biased, as Ella is a good friend of mine, but there is a lot here to make you laugh and to make you think. I was most moved by the story of her friend Emilia who died of cancer, and Ella's struggle to trust a God that didn't answer our (because I was there too) repeated prayers for her to be healed.

 So tell me, what were your favorite reads of 2010?

Think Like a Pro

"There is a secret that real writers know that wannabe writers don't, and the secret is this: It's not the writing that is hard. What's hard is sitting down to write."

-- David Mack, Kabuki: The Alchemy

Do you want to be a pro?

I didn't at first. I knew I wanted to write. I wanted to prove to myself I could finish a novel, maybe publish it if anyone was interested (little did I know finishing a novel is the easy part).

Then I learned about the system. I read the blogs of authors and agents. I researched everything I could about writing a good query letter. I looked up statistics on debut author's advances. And as I poked my head into the publishing world, I discovered something.

I really, really wanted to be a part of it.

Something weird happened that day, and has been happening since. I wanted to be a pro, and suddenly I began acting like one. I tried to write everyday. I paid attention to what worked and what didn't on my blog, even kept a schedule. I became more professional (a term which often means "silent") when voicing my opinions on the internet. Sometimes I even interacted with people in real life(!) thinking they might someday buy the book I don't have published.

Totally insane, but helpful, I think. If you're writing for fun or therapy, and you don't care whether you ever sell anything, then who cares? Do what you want. BUT if you want to become a professional someday, now is a good time to act like one. It might feel silly at times, even a tad arrogant -- and you should never, ever let it get in the way of real life.

But for all that, it works.

"You imagine what you want to be and you act as if you are that. Ghandi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world'.

If you want to create, you must treat it with the respect and dedication that a pro would."

Books I Read: Leviathan

Title: Leviathan
Author: Scott Westerfeld
Genre: YA steampunk
Published: 2009
Content Rating: PG for action and mild violence

It's around the start of World War One, except Archduke Ferdinand (whose murder started the war) has a son, Alek, who could inherit Austria should the emperor die. He goes into exile with only a walking warmachine and a small band of men to help him. On the other side is Deryn, a girl from Britain who wants to join the air corps so badly she disguises herself as a boy.

These two find themselves stuck in the middle of the biggest war the world's ever seen, between Clankers and Darwinists.

Oh, you don't know what those are? Dude, they're the best part of this novel. Clankers (Austria, Germany, and some other Central Powers) have advanced machine technology beyond what we have today, to the point where they sport multi-legged land dreadnoughts and Stormwalkers instead of silly tanks. The Darwinists, on the other hand, (Britain, France, and other Allied Powers) have taken the teachings of Charles Darwin to a whole new level and are fabricating animals to serve them in a variety of ways. Among them: talking message lizards, hydrogen-breathing jellyfish, and an enormous living airship.

If you're not excited yet, maybe this isn't the book for you, but I loved it. It's illustrated too, bringing to life all the best, most interesting aspects of the world. And on top of everything, there's action and adventure every other page. This is a totally fun book. My only complaint is I wanted more closure at the end, but that won't stop me from getting the next book when I get a chance.

So You Think You Can Write

Cindy and I are going through last season's So You Think You Can Dance (one of the drawbacks(/benefits) of living out here: we miss a lot of TV). She watches it for the dancing, of course. Being as I'm totally clueless on the subject, I watch it for the characters.

Seriously, except for the hilarious weeding-out rounds, all the dancers look good to me. The judges' critiques for me are like:

Nigel: You need to bring more passion to your work.
Me: ?
Mia: You don't have that quiet fire this dance style needs.
Me: ?
Adam: Try lengthening your strides more.
Me: Oh.....yeah, totally.

But even though the critiques are lost on me, I've realized something. The finalists really are very good dancers, but the judges are looking for more than that. Some maybe-undefinable quality that makes them stand out.

For those of us eyeing traditional publication, it's very much the same. Lots of writers are good, but our judges are looking for more -- a fresh voice, a tight concept, a unique look at a hot issue...something that edges you above the rest.

Being good is just a baseline.

I know that's not very encouraging,* but look at it this way: it will stretch you. For me, that's one reason I keep going (and the reason I haven't self-published). If you really want this, and if you don't quit, this process will make you a better writer than you ever thought possible, published or not.

Heck, if you can understand the critiques, you're probably most of the way there.

* I'm something of a realist. If you ask me whether the cup is half empty or half full, I'll tell you how many milliliters there are and wonder why you didn't just measure it yourself.

I'm a Gamer. This is What We Do.

Our buddy Emmet is in town, which means we've been playing more games than normal. It's been a while since I talked about board games. Here's what we've been playing. (I promise to be less crazy than last time).

Start off as a poor farmer. You and your spouse have to choose how to manage their time. Do you collect building resources to build fences or improve your house? Do you plant grain? Collect animals? Build a fireplace so you can actually cook them? Eventually you'll want a larger family, which lets you get more work done, but you have to feed them all too.

This game is surprisingly balanced, and it handles 1 to 5 players. It's not even very hard to teach. The only real problem is the time the game takes. According to the box (which we've found rather accurate): half an hour per player.

Betrayal at House on the Hill
Play a group of explorers checking out a creepy old mansion. Weird things happen as you explore each room until eventually you discover what's really going on. Maybe one of the explorers is an alien scientist trying to trap the rest of you for his experiments. Someone might become an incubation chamber for a nest of giant spiders, and you have to save them. Maybe you'll have to beat Death at a game of chess.

There are 50 different scenarios to play out, chosen randomly each time. Whereas Agricola is all about strategy (there's very little luck involved), Betrayal is all about the story. As a writer, that's what I love about it. I love when the young boy befriends the strong madman (Sloth love Chunk!). Or when the tough Ox Bellows turns on his girl, and she has to maim him with a strange dagger she found just to get away. I love that you can win even if almost all the explorers are killed (just like a real horror movie!). The game's a little creepy, but totally fun with the right people.

So what have you been playing lately?

Proving the Rules Wrong

As Professional Aspiring Writers, we hear a lot about the Rules of Writing. Aspects of the craft that we are supposed to adhere to in order to "write well." More experienced PAWs know that the Rules are, in fact, only guidelines. If you don't know what you're doing, you should follow them, but a story can break them and still be good.

I submit here five fairly standard rules and their counter-examples: books or authors that have blatantly broken them, yet remain extremely successful.

Yes, you could argue that the reading public is dumb because it doesn't recognize "Great Literature" (which isn't a very nice thing to say about your future fans, btw). Or you could decide that maybe -- just maybe -- each of these authors does something SO right, their rule-breaking just doesn't matter.

Rule: Write what you know.
Counter-Example: The Dresden Files
Jim Butcher has never been a private eye nor a wizard (I don't think), but it doesn't seem to affect his income much.

Rule: Your protagonist must be proactive.
Counter-Example: The Twilight Saga
Say what you will about Bella, the books about her sell. And Stephanie Meyer now has the freedom to write pretty much whatever she wants.

Rule: Show, don't tell.
Counter-Example: James Patterson novels
(From London Bridges):
It was amazing footage--black and white, which somehow made it even more powerful. Black and white was more realistic, no? Yes--absolutely.

Rule: Never use adverbs.
Counter-Example: Harry Potter
(From Chamber of Secrets):
"We wanted to ask you if you've seen anything funny lately," said Hermione quickly.
"I wasn't paying attention," said Myrtle dramatically. "I was so upset I tried to kill myself. Then I remembered that I'm -- "
"Already dead," said Ron helpfully.

Rule: Be original.
Counter-Example: Eragon
(From The novels feature the tale of a farmboy who discovers a Plot Coupon sent to a wise old mentor by a captured princess, and has his uncle who raised him killed by the impenetrably cowled servants of the Evil Empire. The mentor is a former knight, who teaches the farmboy how to use his mystical powers in about five days. Luckily, the farmboy meets up with a Badass AntiHero, rescues the princess, who is also a major player in the Rebel army, and joins the rebellion, becoming a key member before going to train with a half-mad old hermit in the forest. After this, he discovers that his father was the Empire's right-hand man and he's been betrayed by his own family.

So don't let the rules scare you. They can be trumped.

Where else have you seen rules broken, but where it didn't ruin the story at all?

Choosing What to Write Next

Usually, the way I choose the next story -- assuming I have more than one idea -- is just to write the one I like the most. But after two failed query rounds, and my hopes resting all too precariously on an upcoming third, I'm taking more care with what I invest my writing time in. In my friend Ricardo's words, I'm leveling up.

I have two criteria now for what I write next:
  1. It has to be something people want to read.
  2. It has to be something I want to write.
Not that I (or anyone, really) knows what the public wants. Mostly the first criteria helps me look critically at my concepts. Is it a strong premise I can explain in a sentence? Has it been done before? If it has, do I have a unique enough twist on it to keep it interesting? (Or was it done so obscurely that I can do it again without anyone noticing?)

The second criteria is more about theme. Usually I just jump into a story because I think the plot or the world is cool; only when I get to the end do I realize the story's supposed to mean something too. I've been a Professional Aspiring Writer* long enough to know that I'll enjoy most any speculative premise, but I can't be passionate about every theme.

So now I'm thinking not just what are the themes of my story ideas, but what themes am I interested in writing? Like I had this idea of a kid born perfect in a Gattaca-style world where people are obsessed with genetic perfection, but he resents the pressure and attention people put on him. I like the idea a lot, and the theme of trying to be yourself is common enough I think I could write it. But the idea of writing a popular kid, when popularity is something I've never really "struggled" with, makes me wonder if it's really my story to tell. Especially when I've got other characters in my head whose struggles I have shared.

That doesn't mean I won't write it (I really like the idea), but it's one of the negative points I'm going to weigh when I decide what to write next. Although maybe I should finish these current projects first...

What about you? How do you decide what to write next?

* Feel free to borrow that term.