Friday, May 30, 2008

The Good and the Bad

Maybe it's just a Jewish thing, but when someone tells me they've got good news and they've got bad news, I always want to hear the bad news first. In fact, the good news has little to no importance. Because no matter how good that news may be, I know that something bad is attached to it.

When it comes to critique, I think most people are like me. They hear all the praises, how this character was really interesting, how that paragraph was really well written, but in their minds, it doesn't really matter. They're waiting for the "but", for the criticism. They want to find out what's wrong with their story and fix it, they don't care about having their ego stroked.

Most critique groups are like mine, everyone starts by telling the author what's working before leading into what's not. So why do we do it? If all we want to hear is the bad so we can make revisions, what's the point of giving positive feedback?
  • Reassurance. An all bad critique could easily send a sensitive author out on a ledge. Even the most hard-core, no nonsense writers need to know that they do not suck. By starting out with positive feedback, you let the author know that there were lots of parts you enjoyed and that the story has some merit.
  • Credibility. By telling an author what you enjoyed about their piece, you're letting them know that you are interested in the story and wanting to make it better. If I know someone liked the chapter I handed in, I'm far more receptive to their critique. Even if it needs a total rewrite or there were some major flaws, knowing that the reader is invested makes me more open to making those changes. If someone isn't invested or even interested your work, are you going to take their comments to heart?
  • Knowledge. By knowing what's working, it's easier to identify places where it isn't. Say someone tells me, "I'm really pulled to this chapter because of the sense of place. I can clearly see and the city and it's adding to the suspense of the novel." If another chapter feels flat, and I know that place plays a big role in the story I'm telling, heightening that sense of place can breathe life into the chapter. Your strengths are your tools, they can be used to fix problems, but first, you have to know what those strengths are.
  • Positive Criticism. This is something I learned at Columbia that I have taken with me to various critique groups. Some call it sugar coating but I call it positive criticism. Say there's no real sight of the main character; you don't really know what he looks like. Instead of flat out saying, "I need a description" or "I have no idea what this guy looks like" you put a positive spin on it. Say, "I'm intrigued by the protagonist. I want to know what he looks like, get a better sight of him." Which comment would inspire you to go back and revise? Next time you're in a critique session and the story feels rushed and summarized or a plot point feels too convenient, try putting a positive spin on it. Say, "This scene is really poignant. Is there a way to slow it down, really make me feel it?" or "Everything up until this point has been really well crafted and this plot point sticks out as convenient. Is there a way to change it so it's just as tight as the rest of the story?" It may feel like sugar coating, but try it some time and see how the author reacts differently.

While I tend to focus on the bad news rather than the good, I know that positive feedback has its place in a critique session. Care to weigh in? In critique group, do you just like to hear the bad stuff or do you care about the good? Are there other ways positive feedback can help the writing?

Friday, May 16, 2008

Head-Hopping Overload

Often, reviewers are asked, “What is your biggest pet peeve in books? What is the one thing that would make you put a book down, even if it was good so far?” My answer has always been the same: head-hopping.

Head-hopping is shifting point of view without a section or chapter break. For example:

Jane shook with panic as she stared down the barrel of the gun. She was sure Dick didn’t want to kill her, it wasn’t like him, but a fire burned behind his eyes that she never saw before.

“Stay where you are,” he commanded when he spotted her inching towards the door. He couldn’t let her get away, not after what she did. He watched as a single tear dripped down her cheek and he knew then that she needed to die.

While the entire passage is written in third person, we’re in Jane’s head one minute and in Dick’s head the next. Those shifts are jarring and pull me out of the story, enough where I need to put the book down. There has been the occasional literary novelist who is able to pull it off, but in genre fiction, I believe head-hopping to be the mark of amateur writing.

Unfortunately for me, there seems to be a surge of authors who head-hop throughout their novels, causing many partially read books to find their way into my giveaway pile. The last three books I picked up, had a jarring POV shift before page 50. And what’s very unfortunate, is that many of these books are well plotted and have interesting characters, but every time the point of view shifts mid paragraph, my reading is stalled, the flow halted. I’m not an unforgiving reader, if the story is keeping my interest, I’ll overlook one or two POV issues. But if the author continuously switches and head hops, reading becomes more frustrating than enjoyable, and I have to put the book down.

Head-hopping is something I learned about during my years at Columbia, but I was sure most writers figured it out at some point down the line. Has there been some change? Are they now teaching that it is okay to shift point of view mid-paragraph? Is it the writers that are head-hopping more and more or are the editors turning a blind eye? Before hitting the shelves, a book has to pass inspection by so many people, so I don’t believe the POV shifts are mistakes that weren’t caught.

Is it just me?

Monday, May 12, 2008

More Reviews

My reviews of STALKED, LADY KILLER, EASY INNOCENCE, and NO TIME FOR GOODBYE which appeared in issue #23 of Crimespree Magazine are now available online. Or support the magazine and buy the print edition. Issue #24 runs my reviews of FIRST THE DEAD, CITY OF HUMAN REMAINS, and CITY OF THE SUN. (It also showcases a horrible photo of me from Love is Murder. I'll remember this Jordon!) Enjoy!

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Augusten Burroughs Q&A

Click here to check out my interview with one of my favorite authors, Augusten Burroughs, which ran in today's Chicago Sun-Times.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Clarifying the Qualifier

Mystery. Thriller. Suspense. Crime Fiction. Cozy. Hard Boiled. Noir. Pulp.

All of these are labels and, as I've said before, labels make a difference. But do people really know what these labels mean? I have had countless Lee Child fans claim they don't like mysteries or Harlan Coben fans say they're not big on noir fiction. Because there are so many sub-genres, so many qualifiers, many readers (or writers) have lost sight of their meaning.

Mystery vs. Thriller: Gayle Lynds had the perfect explanation of the distinction between mystery and thriller. She says that in a mystery, the bomb goes off in the first chapter and the story is spent trying to figure out the how and the why. In a thriller, there is a bomb in the room and the story is spent trying to prevent it from going off. In mystery, the big event happens at the beginning of the book and in thrillers it happens at the end. This is the best explanation I've heard, so this is the one I go with.

Suspense: This one is pretty self-explanatory. Suspense novels are books that are driven by suspense. This could apply to both mystery and thriller, even romance and historical. Usually, I deam suspense novels to be mostly plot driven, but there are no hard and fast rules. But just because it's a page turner, doesn't necessarily make it a suspense novel. If the thing that's most important to the central character is put at risk (family, life, the world), and that risk is driving the story forward, I'd say you have a suspense novel.

Crime Fiction: Again, pretty self-explanatory. Any work of fiction that centers around a crime. Therefore, most mysteries, thrillers and suspense novels can fall into the category of crime fiction. It's a very broad label and therefore, it's the one I use when people ask me what I write.

Cozy: Cozies are books where all sex and violence takes place off stage. Think Agatha Christie and anything with a cat on the cover. Usually, this qualifier applies to mysteries; I'd think it'd be difficult to write a Cozy Thriller. Historically, it was the British way of writing mysteries, though there are plenty of Americans who have carried on the tradition.

Hard Boiled: It's the opposite of cozy fiction. Not only does Hard Boiled crime fiction portray violence and sex, it does so in a very hard, unsentimental way. Think Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Just because the book contains violence or sex doesn't necessarily make it hard boiled, it depends on the way the violence or sex is written. No sentimental love scenes in hard boiled fiction.

Noir: Noir and Hard Boiled fiction tend to be confused. While both have the same gritty, unapologetic writing style, I think of Hard Boiled as specific to detective fiction. In Noir fiction, the main character is someone tied directly to the crime, usually a victim or a suspect, rather than a detective called in to solve a crime he had nothing to do with. But to me, noir has more to do with the tone and style of the book than the subject matter.

Pulp: Pulp fiction originally referred to the cheap short story magazines and mass market paperbacks of the 1950's. Think glossy covers of damsels in distress with hunky detectives or action heroes coming to their rescue. Pulp fiction can span all genres, but the stories are usually violent and crime-related. I think of pulps as centrally plot driven with little to no character development, but I'm sure there are plenty that would prove my theory wrong.

Hopefully this will shed some light on the various sub-genres and help you figure out what type of fiction you like to read and write. And when an author tells you he writes hard boiled mysteries or pulp noir, you'll have an idea if you would like their books.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Facing the Revision

Over a month ago, I had reached the conclusion that Streetwalk, the novel I'm currently querying agents with, deserved a rewrite. A couple trusted agents and one of my lovely critique members gave some wonderful feedback that called for major structural changes. I would have to rehash most of the plot, pretty much rewrite the entire book, and scrap pages upon pages of my hard work. That was over a month ago.

Revision had always been daunting to me and one of my least favorite stages of writing. I liked writing the new stuff, exploring, creating. Plus, my difficulty stepping back and looking at the story as a whole made the process even more tedious. So I spent a month thinking and brainstorming, something my girlfriend likes to call procrastinating. I hate it when she's right, so I had to prove her wrong.

I spent Monday coming up with a game plan. I created lists of items that needed to be addressed, I recreated the outline to fit in with the story structure, I cleaned the house and I stocked the fridge. I wouldn't give myself any excuses.

On Tuesday, I unplugged the phone, turned off the internet and wouldn't let myself leave the house until I had a grasp on this revision. And you know what? It worked. I went through, page by page, deleting and rewriting and cutting and pasting, and though I threw out six chapters and wrote whole new ones, it wasn't as difficult and as tedious as I thought. I have hit my stride. Tuesday night, after working from 7am to 7pm, I had revised over 100 pages of the novel and let myself call it quits. And though I can't ignore my e-mails, phone calls, and chores everyday, getting the rhythm and proper foundation has made all the difference.

Revision Tips:
  • Have a plan. If you have an outline or at least an idea of where you need to take your story, you won't get blocked midway through the process
  • Rewrite. I've seen many people just tinker with existing scenes, trying to make them fit into the new story. It's better to chuck it and start anew. The scene will come off as fresh and it will be more fitting to the story. Later, you can always add bits of dialogue or description from the previous version.
  • Don't give in to distraction. If you're like me, when you're in the writing zone, nothing could tear you out of it. But with revision, you're more removed, more in tune with the world around you, especially when you hit a block. Don't let yourself check the internet or turn on the TV or sit down with a book. Glue yourself to the chair and force yourself to work through the hard stuff.
  • Don't leave when you're blocked. I can't revise an entire novel in one day, therefore, at some point I'm going to have to stop and leave it for tomorrow. The temptation is to leave when you lose steam or you reach a point where you don't know what's going to happen next. That is not where to stop. It will just make it more difficult to start work the following day. A Chicago Contingent member calls it the 80-20 rule: only write 80% of what you know and leave that last 20% until you figure out more. It makes it easier to start work for the day if you know exactly what you need to do.
  • Talk it out. It always helps to bounce ideas off of someone but if you don't have anyone to listen, talking it out to yourself sometimes helps. Tell the story, in your own words, like an improvised synopsis. If you hit blocks when you're telling it, chances are you'll hit blocks when you write it. If the plot sounds cheesy or coincidental when you say it aloud, it probably is. Talking the story through before it hits the page often helps work out some of the kinks.
  • Don't edit or fact check. That comes later. First, get the best draft that you can, tell the best story that you can. Line editing and fact checking aren't creative endeavors; you can do them whenever. Don't lose your creative drive by stopping to check the syntax of a word or to make sure a street really exists in the city you're writing about. Just write.

I've always hated the revision process and I've always had to tell myself to get used to it. Once I think I've "finished" this book, enough to send out to agents at least, the revision process has only begun. The agent will want revisions, then if it sells, the editor will want at least two. We're always learning things about our writing processes and this week, I learned that revision isn't such a bad stage. I just had to approach it with the right attitude and from the right angle.

Feel free to leave your revision strategies, because I assume I'm not the only one who finds this process daunting. But it's a necessary step in the writing process, just as much as reading aloud or writing query letters. We have to do it, so it helps to have a plan.