Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Leaving a writing group

I've been in a great local writing group for almost a year now, and these fellow critters have been essential in improving my writing, calling out my faults and lazy shortcomings, and encouraging me to continue on with my writing even when it feels like I've just word vomited on the page. I am a better writer because of them, and I can't imagine my writing life without their continued support and input.

So imagine my surprise when our founding member, the critter who brought the group together in the first place, emailed over the weekend to let us know he would be stepping out of the group. (Yeah, you thought it was going to be me, didn't you?) As the person who was the driving force behind the group for so many months, it was a shock to see him bow out now. It was (what I suspect are) the usual reasons for leaving a group - balancing family time and writing time. And I can hardly blame him for his reasons, since the closest thing I have to a kid is the partner-in-crime and our trusty sidekick, The Dog.

Still, it was a big disappointment for me. He'd brought us all together, weathered the storms of our growing pains while we figured out meeting times and submission deadlines and new member rules. As the only male in the group he gave invaluable feedback on the male characters and male voices in our pieces, and helped us determine what would appeal to boys in our writing. His own writing had grown by leaps and bounds in the group, and the last piece he submitted was so many miles above the first draft that we saw that I experienced a profound sense of pride in how far he'd come, and how much the group had helped him.

While I hope he continues to write and finds other outlets for his creativity, I worry. I worry because I know how lost I would be without their feedback. I worry because I know how much I would let my self-imposed deadlines slip if there were no one else to hold me accountable. I worry because writing is a lonely enough endeavor that if you don't have an outlet to discuss it you might find yourself wondering why you're pursuing it at all. I worry because I know how much my own life gets in the way of writing, and I don't even have kids to keep up with.

I worry because I can't help but feel like we've lost another writer in the world.

It's a hard pursuit, I know that, but I think it's worth it. The stories we tell, the joy we bring, for me it's worth the late nights and the early mornings and the longing looks outside when it's beautiful and you're stuck inside with a synopsis to write. It's worth the rejection and the wait and the agonizing edits and the overwhelming fear that you might get it wrong (or you might get it right). Because I still remember what it felt like to stay up until four in the morning hiding in the bathroom finishing a book because I Just. Couldn't. Put. It. Down. And if I can inspire just one person to such nocturnal fevers, it will be worth it.

Have you ever lost a critique partner? How did you feel when they left? Was there ever a partner you wished you could have talked out of their exit?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Movies vs. Books: the plot thickens

I saw the movie Drive this weekend, starring Ryan Gosling and some other people I didn't pay attention to (fine, it had a good cast, but come on. RYAN. F-ING. GOSLING. Pretty sure that's his middle name). It was a very different film from what I expected given the trailer, which made me think of the concepts of storytelling and backstory. As in, how much do you know/need to know about your characters and story, and how much do you reveal in the story itself?

I read a review of the movie after having seen it and the review pointed out one major point that I completely missed while watching the film: Ryan Gosling's character has no name. Even in the credits, they simply refer to him as "Driver." This one caught me off guard, because I've had this very conversation in many of my crit groups, and I've heard it from more than one source - you need to have character names. It's how readers identify a character, and if they can't name a character - even the narrator - they get antsy about it after a while. I know I do. But in the film, I never even noticed that his character was never named. How could they get away with such a thing under my trained nose?

Because I had a face. Ryan Gosling's face. I didn't need to know his name because his face was what identified him on the big screen. For me, it was the equivalent of giving me a name, because it was an instantly recognizable feature of that character. You can get away with it on screen, since it's a visual aspect, but giving a character description every time in lieu of a name doesn't really work. So for movies, we have faces. For books, we have names.

The second thing I noticed (which I actually did notice) was a complete absence of backstory. Gosling's character has a very specific side job (no spoilers, I promise) that is an offshoot of his day job but certainly not in the same legal category. He's a young guy with an old world feel, and being the writer-type I am, my first question was "How did he come to this line of work?" It's not something people fall into, and the backstory would have helped tremendously in my efforts to believe the character and what he knew. But we're never given a hint of backstory.

This movie is actually based on a book, so I'm curious if the book goes into his past in more detail. I would hope it does, because it drove me crazy throughout the movie. I kept expecting the explanation to trickle out along the way, to give us more depth to the character and build the anticipation of what he would do. But we never even got acknowledgement from any of the other characters that this might be a question to ask. No one, anywhere along the way, ever asked him "Where did you learn how to do that?" It left me feeling unsatisfied at the end of the film.

I would argue that this isn't something you can get away with in a book. You certainly HAVE TO KNOW your character's backstory - and not just the main character, either. Even if we never hear it, even if we never get to know all the nitty gritty details, you as the writer need to know it in order to fully realize your characters. It can be annoying and tiresome to think through it on that level, but it's essential. And for me personally, as a reader I like to know the backstory, especially if it's relevant to the details of the story you're telling. I don't need to know everything, but I like to see it sprinkled in here and there to give me context for the character I'm following. It's not an area often visited by movies - frankly they don't have the time - but it's necessary in any good story.

Have you seen any movies lately that have highlighted some conventions of storytelling specific to the written word? Have you read any books lately that felt like movies and left you wanting more?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

It's all about perception

I had a funny encounter with one of my fellow critiquers last night that really brought home a big concept for me. One of the issues I struggle with during any critique is being able to look at the feedback objectively. Typically that involves setting my own biases aside to determine whether or not I think the feedback is valid.

We were discussing a character in my manuscript that had just gone through a scene of trying on clothes. In the scene, she complains because none of the clothes fit her right. The group debated what they thought she looked like - some people thought she was tall and lanky and wouldn't have felt fat, some thought she was heavier and would have, some people wanted more character description. All of that is fine and good, but as we continued the conversation one girl said something that shocked me.

"She could be curvy," she explained to the others. "Even if she were a size 8, she could still have nice curves."

Now, we're not supposed to talk during these things when we're being critiqued, but I couldn't help myself.

"I'm sorry," I interrrupted. "I have a question. Do you think size 8 is large?"

Her eyes got big. "Well, yeah."

This was a moment for me, gentle readers. Because I happen to be size 8, and I have never in my life heard anyone refer to size 8 as "large." It's pretty solidly average in my book, and I am pretty solidly average myself. I ran through all the logical scenarios I could think of in my head for a moment, and asked the first question that came to mind.

"How tall are you?"

"Five two."

Uh, yeah. Me? Not five two. Not even close to five foot two inches tall. And then it made sense, in a way. If I were about half a foot shorter and the same proportions, I would probably be considered a lot curvier than I am now. But having never been five foot two (well, at least not for a good fifteen years), it would have never occurred to me that my size could be considered large.

What's the lesson for me in this? That sometimes, no matter how much you edit or how many people weigh in on your manuscript, someone will have a bias that you'll  never even think of. So as much as I'll continue to worry about making myself as clear as possible, I've also relaxed about capturing all of those butterflies with my net.

What about you? Have you run into issues of perception with beta readers? How did you choose to handle it in your manuscript?