Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Random thoughts on a...Wednesday? Really? Already?

1) I'm going to need pictures of me to start better aligning with how I see myself in my head. Read: Natalie Portman.

2) I've been stood up on three client calls this week. We don't have waiters in my office, but I imagine the same look of pity and shame when my coworkers come into the room.

3) I know it's been a rough Texas summer when I'm almost jealous of the East Coast for having a hurricane.

4) I don't usually write to music since I find it too distracting (yeah, maybe I act out music videos in my head, judgment-free zone). But I started a Pandora station for Film Scores and it's actually an awesome station to write to. Plus I've already got the movie all planned out now.

5) There are some new fall/spring shows on the big networks that look really good. Like I can already feel my productivity running down the drain good. I'll call it "character research" when I watch, but that will be a lie.

6) I can't decide if I should stop reading about the economy because it's freaking me out or if I should keep reading so I'm an informed citizen. Mostly I've resolved this by playing games on my phone and reading celebrity gossip blogs.

7) Oh, ten is so not happening today.

What's your random thought for the day?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Picking and choosing

Not to be confused with picky or choosy. Although I can be those sometimes as well.

When I first started receiving feedback on my writing, I thought that if someone said something it must be true. Which meant it must be changed. So if someone said, "This scene is dumb, take it out," I took it out. And if someone said "I don't like this character, give her blue hair," I gave her blue hair. That's what feedback is for, right? At some point our editorial vision turns myopic and we can't see the forest for the trees, so we ask others to read our work and tell us when we've jumped the shark (maybe literally).

As you might imagine, this eventually put me in a really frustrating cycle. I'd change something for one critique partner and another would say they hated the change. I'd change it back and a third reviewer would say I should go in an entirely new direction. I had so many voices in my head that I couldn't hear my own, and my story fell apart in revisions. I actually walked away from a manuscript - probably the best thing I've written to date - because I didn't even know what I wanted it to be anymore. I'd put it through too many critiques by too many people in too many rounds. My beautiful jello mould had melted into a glob of hot mess.

I took a very different approach with critiques on my current manuscript. I restricted the number of reviewers and made sure they were a diverse enough group to catch 90% of the plotting or characterization mistakes I made. I took notes on each round of critiques (we critique a few chapters at a time) and then let them sit for several weeks. I didn't make changes, I didn't read through the notes, I went and distracted myself in other ways. Then, when the little critiques started to add up to big picture changes for me, I went back and made the changes I wanted to make.

Yeah, read that again. I'll even bold it for you. I made the changes I wanted to make.

If I didn't like the feedback? I didn't change it.
If I didn't agree with the feedback? I didn't change it.
If I got conflicting feedback? I chose the one I agreed with and made the changes.
If I could understand the point of the feedback but wanted to take the story in a different direction? I didn't change it.

This is your story at the end of the day. You have to tell the story you want to tell, which means you get to pick and choose the changes you make. You own the story, so you're responsible for the choices it makes. You ask for feedback to point out what you can't see, but that doesn't mean everything they see is right for the story you are trying to tell.

A point of clarification: I draw a distinction between feedback that you don't like but is true and feedback that you don't like because it doesn't tell the story the way you want to tell it. I've received plenty of critiques that, given enough time, I see the error of my ways. But I've also received plenty of critiques that don't jibe with the story/character for me. Sometimes I can even see where they're coming from, I just disagree. Don't give yourself permission to ignore ALL feedback - after all, you're trying to make this the best story it can be - but do give yourself permission to ignore the feedback that doesn't feel right.

So be picky. Be choosy.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How do you know when you're overediting?

Roni Loren had a great post the other day about how to avoid killing yourself or your work over critiques. My favorite piece of advice was to edit until you love the story, not until you think it's perfect. You don't hear much about the dangers of overediting, and frankly I thought you were supposed to edit until the thought of opening the same Word doc one more time made you throw up in your mouth a little. It never occurred to me that editing could go the opposite way - that you could spend so much time with your piece that you actually start editing in the wrong direction, and damage your story.

Some edits are obvious - as soon as you read a scene a second time, or out loud, or your critique group comments on it, you have a "duh" moment. Of course the giant spider wouldn't be friends with Harry Potter; he'd want to eat him! Some non-edits are just as obvious - you can see how/why your beta reader suggested the change, but that's not what you want to happen. You respect their opinion, but you don't make the change. It's your right as a writer.

The harder edits to make are the ones you're not sure about. I run into these most with character decision-making and subsequent actions. I may think the character would react one way, but my beta readers may say something different. Ideally I know my character best, but they can be fickle creatures, our made up characters, and sometimes they're not good at revealing their motivations. Emotional reactions are not like math - there isn't always one correct response. I don't always react the same way to the same situation, so I don't expect my characters to be so consistent. When a critique partner comments on a character's reaction, I'm not always sure if I think they would behave that way or not. And if multiple readers give me the same feedback, I have to re-evaluate that character's behavior.

But the hardest parts to edit are the ones you've read so many times you're bored with them. I think this is where the danger of overediting comes in. Think of it like decorating a room - when you first decorated your room at 16 you probably LOVED it. Pink is awesome! Backstreet Boys will be cool forever! I love Teen Beat! (I was a sad, sad child). At the time you thought it was the greatest room ever. But after a few weeks/months/years in it, you started to get sick of it. Maybe Backstreet isn't so cool. Pink is so girly. They don't even make Teen Beat anymore. All of that awesomeness starts to look like crapness.

Here's the trouble - to a 16 year old, that room is awesome. But to an 18 year old, it's super lame. And to a first time reader, your scene is awesome. To you who have seen it so many times you hate every single word because you're so tired of them, it's awesomely bad. So you change it, because it's stale and overdone to you and where you used to think it was funny you now think it's stupid.

STOP. Don't touch that scene. Walk away, take a deep breath, date other manuscripts. Whatever you do, stop thinking about that manuscript. Because you're going to break it. You're going to break it and everything that comes after it, and suddenly a story that started about a sweet girl on a picnic is now about a werepanther at a rave (seriously, Charlaine Harris?). It's not your scene anymore, and you're not telling the story you wanted to tell. Now you're just dissecting a rotisserie chicken carcass because you can.

How do you know when you've hit this point? For me, it's when I start trying to edit scenes no one's read yet. Scenes that never used to bother me before, but because I've fixed all the big stuff I'm turning on the specifics. That's not to say you should rely on someone else's opinion as fact, but the odds are if you have enough people read it and they don't tell you it's broken and you never thought it was broken before, it ain't broke. Trust yourself and your storytelling, and trust that you don't need to change every single word or every single plot thread in revision because you must have written a crap first draft.

How do YOU know when you're overediting? What do you do when you realize that you are?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Mixing real world and fiction

I spent a large part of my weekend researching, gentle readers. My manuscript takes place in New York, a place I haven't visited (yet) or lived (maybe yet), so I was a bit vague on location descriptions and transportation methods in the first go round. This next pass at editing is focused on nailing down exact locations and weaving in the feel of neighborhoods and movements through the city. One of my fellow critters (who lived in NY for 15 years) was kind enough to give me the lowdown on neighborhoods and potential locations for the main settings in my story, and I've now got a concrete map of the story.

In my research this weekend, however, I ran up against an interesting dilemma - marrying the real world with a fictional world. Obviously New York exists, and pretty much every square inch of the city (at least Manhattan) is claimed, so inserting fictional locations into what is arguably the most well-known city in the world is tricky. Do you invent an address? Take over an existing building and make it your own? Modify the purpose of said existing building?

Yeah. Tricky.

I've run into this dilemma before with historical writing as well. As soon as you decide to write about a fictional character interacting with real people, you've got historical timeline to juggle. Do you make up a title for someone? Or choose a less well-known title and attach a made-up person to the title?

For me, it made the most sense to do a little bit of both. If I could get away with making up a location (like a warehouse or a coffee shop), I did. Where I couldn't (like dropping an entirely new building into a famous stretch of road), I used Google Street View to find the perfect building to "steal." And let me tell you, gentle readers, Google Maps and Google Street View were my best friends this weekend. I don't know how people wrote about places they'd never been before the internet. Or maybe they just didn't.

So my question goes out to all of you fiction writers today: How do you insert your characters and locations into the real world? Do you hijack existing locations for your own purposes? Or do you prefer to create new locations that don't exist on a map?