Human Parts Do Not Have Human Traits

Hey Folks,

To follow up on last week’s post, this truism doesn’t favor any particular body part, really. And most of these aren’t as humorous as “her eyes drifted around the room and eventually lit in the corner on a barrel of nails.” But some of them are pretty good.

Basically, any time any body part is the subject of a sentence, you probably need to recast the sentence.

At least in the example that got me started last week (The baron … raked his eyes across everyone at the table) the author had the human, the baron, actually performing the action.

Had the writer written, “The baron’s eyes raked across everyone at the table” it would have been doubly awkward.

Um, ’cause eyes can’t do that. The baron wouldn’t do it, but his eyes can’t do it.

Only in certain, very specific circumstances can eyes do anything at all on their own.

If eyes ever legitimately “shoot across the room,” their owner better have been slapped in the back of the head with great force a split second earlier. Just sayin’.

So don’t write stuff like

Close to the window, his ears heard an eerie sound.

Her nose (or her palms or her forehead) pressed up against the glass.

Her hands (or hips or butt or forearm) leaned on the rail of the ship.

His hand crept along the back of the seat and eventually made it to her shoulder.

As her left hand held the forestock firmly, her right hand worked the lever on the 30-30.

As my hands ran past my ears, I felt something in my ear lobes.

Tossing my hand across the couch’s back with studied casualness, I attempted to initiate the usual subtle encircling movement but to no avail.

Chloe’s head went up and down.

Bill’s face broke into a grin that wouldn’t stop.

His eyes roamed across the room, stopping at a table with no empty chairs.

His face turned deadly silent.

His long muscular legs effortlessly loped after the bus.

Her eyes slowly climbed the tree.

Her legs raced frantically down the street.

“A place called Valentino’s,” he said as his eyes touched hers.

And as a bonus, one of my favorite oddities, although this doesn’t fit the “human parts don’t have human traits” category. This is from an email I received a few years ago: “I hate to miss your class, but I’m leaving town unexpectedly tomorrow.”

You get the idea.

‘Til next time, happy writing.
Harvey

Beware of Rights Grabbers

Hi Folks,

I really hope I’m preaching to the choir here. Forgive me if that’s true, but better safe than sorry. And if you aren’t currently in the choir, this should convert you.

A new literary acquaintance I’ve never met, Linda Maye Adams, commented on Dean Wesley Smith’s blog post  one day awhile back:

Just passing along another rights grab I ran across. It’s a writing contest sponsored by a non-profit [Story Shares] who is trying to help teens and young adults read. If you SUBMIT to the contest, you automatically give up all the rights to your story and payment. SUBMIT, not win or place.

I emailed Linda to ask her to divulge the name of the particular non-profit. She did, so I added it to the quote above [in brackets].

Rights grabbers are organizations that take all rights to your work. And folks, even if it’s FOR payment, that’s just wrong.

A major example of this is Reader’s Digest, at least a few years ago. At the time, they offered payment for short pieces in various sections of the magazine. But upon payment, they own all rights to the piece.

Most, if not all, traditional publishers are rights grabbers, but if you sign a contract with one of those—well, frankly, you deserve what you get.

Unfortunately, rights grabs abound in places you would never suspect. And their stock in trade are writers who don’t read submission guidelines and rules of contests. Or publishing contracts.

Think about it. Your copyright is your intellectual property. It’s like a rental property that you own. With a rental property, you rent or lease apartments or houses for a specific use by a specific person for a specific length of time.

With copyright, you license slices of it for a specific use by a specific company for a specific length of time.

But when that time is up, you still own it. If you give away “all rights” to your work, it’s exactly like selling your rental property outright to a renter in exchange for one month’s rent or a year’s rent in advance. Would you do that? Of course not.

Back to the contest Linda mentioned on Dean’s blog. It’s only a writing contest, right? No biggie. Submit, win or not, then submit elsewhere.

Wrong. Read Linda’s comment above again. If you only SUBMIT to this contest, you forfeit all rights to the work you submitted. You created it. But you no longer own it. In this case, you just gave away your rental apartment or house to someone who showed up to look it over.

Rights grabbers also appear in other, slightly less-innocuous forms. Believe it or not, many subsidy publishers are also rights grabbers. One subsidy publisher whom I used to recommend includes in their contract a “no-compete” clause.

Let’s say you’ve submitted your work to a subsidy publisher and they’ve “accepted” it (BTW, they accept everything).

And let’s say later you become unhappy with your contract and are unwilling to pay the exorbitant fee for return of your rights (the fee is in the contract).

If there is a no-compete clause in the contract (and there usually is), you also can’t simply slap another title on the work and publish it as a new book on your own. Nor can you go through the manuscript and change all the character names. Nor can you even write another book based in the same fictional world. Nor can you write another book that resembles, in any way, the book you placed with that subsidy publisher.

If you do any of the above, they will sue your backside off. And they will win.

How to avoid such pitfalls?

Easy. Don’t submit your work ANYWHERE without reading the submission guidelines, rules of the contest, etc. And if there’s a contract involved, read it thoroughly. Better yet, have a copyright attorney read it.

‘Til next time, be careful out there. And happy writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer. For more writing tips, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click The Daily Journal link in the header on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

HarveyStanbrough.com — A New Look

Hey folks,

Some of you might have noticed the website has a new look. If you haven’t, check it out at http://harveystanbrough.com.

I’m slowly transitioning the website. Well, expanding might be a better term.

The site will continue to be a valuable source for writers. I’ll continue the weekly posts each Tuesday on topics of interest to writers, and the Writers’ Resources listed in the left sidebar will remain. I’ll also continue to offer writer services like copyediting and occasionally add to the items available at no cost on the Free Stuff tab.

But I’m a professional writer, and this is also a writer’s website.

To that end, for the foreseeable future, the website will open on a new homepage, one that showcases the various bundles from BundleRabbit in which my works are included.

When you purchase a bundle, you pay approximately what you would normally pay for a single ebook. But you get several additional books by various writers at no additional cost. It’s a great bargain, both as an entertainment venue and to purchase fictions by authors whose work you want to study and emulate.

If you’re a writer, I strongly recommend you get your work listed at BundleRabbit.com. It’s a great way to expand your audience. Readers purchase a bundle to read my novel or the novel of a best-selling writer like Dean Wesley Smith or Kristine Kathryn Rusch or Kevin J. Anderson and they also get to read your work, all for one low price. It’s one of the best discoverability tools out there.

If you’re a reader, BundleRabbit is an invaluable way to find new authors and maybe even new genres you’ve never considered before. Again, all at a very low price.

BundleRabbit also gives you the option of donating part of your payment to charity, and you always have the option of purchasing the bundle through your favorite electronic retailer. It truly is a win-win situation.

As part of the expansion of this website, I’ll also occasionally post news about my own fiction and nonfiction writing. That will include news concerning upcoming and new releases, news about my writing personas and characters, and occasional special surprises that will be available only to readers of this blog.

To keep them separate of the professional writing advice posts (on Tuesday each week), these new posts will publish less frequently and always on a Friday. They will always contain news of potential interest to readers.

For example, did you know that in addition to the Magic Realism stories from my persona Gervasio Arrancado, I have also written a 10-volume Western saga? It’s the story of Wes Crowley, a Texas Ranger in 1870s in the Texas Panhandle. It ends some 50 years later in a small fishing village along the Pacific coast in the Mexican state of Guerrero.

Did you know I also write both “we went there” and “they came here” science fiction? And apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels? And novels that take place during the Spanish Civil War? And Mystery novels? And Noir-PI Detective novels? And Crime novels?

About the only genre I haven’t tackled to date is Contemporary Romance, but trust me, there’s plenty of romance in my other works. (grin)

And if you enjoy reading Mystery, I’m excited to announce I’ve recently stumbled across a series PI character named Stern Richards. In fact, my current novel is the third that features him. It’s all very exciting and a great deal of fun.

Whether you’re here as a writer hoping to polish your craft or a reader seeking entertainment, please stay tuned. And either way, thank you for your continued loyalty to this blog.

Best,

Harvey Stanbrough

 

Trust Your Professional

Hi Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 5/30/2013. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

First, find a professional you can trust.

For example, I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting. It costs less than you think.

Thomas D. Morrow wrote that “Advertising may be the only business in the world where the clients with the most money can make demands until they get the agency’s worst product, while the small client with little to spend must meekly accept the agency’s best.”

So if a guy walks into an ad agency with his hat in his hand, a small budget and the willingness to listen that usually accompanies a small budget, he will walk out with a much better product than the Know It All who barges in, perfectly willing to pay extra to force the professionals to do it his way.

But Mr. Morrow was wrong. It isn’t just advertising. The same holds true for other artistic endeavors.

Let’s read the important part of the statement again: “The clients with the most money can make demands until they get the agency’s worst product.” (Did’ya get that?) “While the small client with little to spend must meekly accept the agency’s best.”

Here are a few examples of wrong thinking on the client side:

Cover design clients often believe the cover must reflect the main characters or the storyline or both.

Uhh, nope.

That isn’t the cover’s job, and most of the time it will render a cover that’s far too busy. Reflecting the main character(s) and the story line is the writer’s job in the story.

The cover’s job is to attract the prospective reader’s attention and convey the theme or concept of the story. The cover’s job is to entice the reader into buying your book or at least sampling it.

When I was designing covers for others, I charged a low rate to design a cover based on the client’s ideas but on my preferences. I charged a lot more to design a cover over which the client demanded full artistic control.

And when I was designing websites, those clients often expected me to explain each nuance of web design as I was progressing. For example, if I told them I would host their website, free of charge, so I could more easily access it and work on it, they immediately became suspicious. The conversation usually went something like this:

“What do you get out of hosting my website free?”

“I get the ability to provide you with better, faster service than I would if I had to jump through hoops at your hosting service.”

“Yeah, but how much do you charge for hosting?”

“Umm, free hosting is, you know, free. What part of ‘it costs you nothing’ do you not understand?”

But that wasn’t good enough.

They expected me to spend a few hours explaining why it’s easier for me to access their site when I’m hosting it. So before I learned better and got out of the business, I would explain what I have to do—the actual process—to upload a particular premium theme framework and then access and change the permissions on certain folders and files through an FTP (File Transfer Protocol) client.

Eventually, finally, they saw the benefit. Or more likely, they tired of the explanation. Then they’d say something I knew all along was coming: “Ahh, well I didn’t know it was that involved.” At that point, they would usually giggle and say, “Oh, okay. Well go ahead then!”

That really sent me over the top with frustration. Why couldn’t they just believe up front that I know what I’m talking about instead of making me explain it all before assenting? I mean it isn’t like they learn anything they can use.

And then, having gobbled up two or three hours of my work day, they say something radically uncool like, “Well, I’m off to an evening on the town (or off to boating on Lake Havasu or off to board a plane for Hawaii or off to take a nap). You just have a really great evening!” Giggle giggle.

Ugh.

Right now, some of you are thinking But don’t we have a right to ask questions?

Sure. Yes, you do.

But why would you want to cost your professional service provider a lot of time that he could be spending on your project?

Seriously, think about it.

When you put new tires on your vehicle, if the guy at the tire store says he’s going to balance and mount them on your vehicle at no cost to you, do you grill him for a few hours about WHY he wants to balance them and mount them on the vehicle?

Do you then question him about the process of mounting the tires on the rims, balancing them, and finally putting them on your car?

Or do you just say, “Thank You” and let him do his job?

Finally, amazing as it sounds, Morrow’s statement about advertisiting also holds true for freelance editing.

A couple of years ago, I spent two precious hours (my fault… won’t happen again) explaining to a writer why most of the changes I made to his manuscript were very light nuances. After all of that, in his best the-reader-will-know-what-I-mean tone he said, “It makes a difference, sure, but not much.”

I said, “That’s specifically because I don’t want to change your voice. I just want to smooth out the reading experience for the reader. The reader won’t even realize the work has been copyedited. He’ll just know it reads like polished glass.”

Folks, it isn’t the presence of something good that the reader notices; it’s the absence of anything bad. In other words,  the reader will never notice that something’s written well; he will only notice if it’s written poorly.

The client said that was fine, but insisted that I never replace (for example) “he said to himself” with “he said quietly” because “all ly adverbs are bad.” Sigh. And he laid some more pretty strenuous requirements on me regarding his edit.

He responded by saying that three published authors had read his manuscript and “gave it a passing grade.”

I know, I know. The customer is always right. Blah blah blah.

Except that if he were always right, he’d be providing the service instead of purchasing it.

But I digress.

What I should have said is this: “Y’know, you’re absolutely right. You’re paying for this, so it should be your decision whether to pay me to actually do my job or subsidize me for not doing my job. Tell you what. I’ll charge you 1 cent per word to draw on my expertise and edit your manuscript the way I want to, or I’ll charge you 5 cents per word to edit it the way you want me to. I mean, it’ll read like crap but hey, it’s your call.”

But I didn’t do that. Instead, since he’d mentioned those “published authors” giving it a passing grade, I reminded him that a D is a passing grade.

Yeah, it all went pretty much downhill from there. Now he’s back in chasing-an-agent land wondering what happened. Well, he was back then. Today he’s in “whatever happened to” land.

Please don’t get me wrong. I don’t mind at all when other writers ask me questions in an attempt to learn something, but it bugs me to no end when they ask with an inflection that implies they believe I’m trying to put something over on them.

I’m too busy to waste my time trying to con anyone, and I’m too busy to spend time convincing them that I’m not trying to con them. Eventually I got to the point where I would sigh, shake my head and say, “Remind me again, why did you hire me to edit your manuscript?”

Here’s some friendly, completely free advice: if you’re going to insist on doing everything your way, save your money and do it yourself. Remember, the reader will never notice that something’s written well; he will only notice if it’s written poorly.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

(Thanks to my friend Dan Baldwin for bringing the Morrow quote to my attention in his weekly Business Communications Tip of the Week. You may subscribe by emailing Dan at baldco@msn.com.)

I am a professional fiction writer. If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

On Seeking Constructive Criticism (or “Shall I Be Wistful, or Shall I Progress?”)

Hi Folks,

Note: I ran this originally in September 2014, but it was so much fun to write I thought I’d share it again. So here it is. Other than some reparagraphing to make it more lisible, it appears as it was written originally.

I sometimes experience an exchange of emails with a writer who asks for a critique of some writing with the proviso that I understand he or she is highly sensitive. Others ask for a critique with the proviso that I don’t tear their writing “to shreds.”

Okay. That’s fine with me.

First, I don’t tear anyone else’s writing to shreds. I just read it and report on what I find. As for whether a writer is “highly sensitive,” that’s really neither here nor there.

I’m a professional fiction writer and instructor. I will never go out of my way to hurt anyone’s feelings. That isn’t my job, it’s a waste of my time and it isn’t productive.

But neither will I lie to a writer about her writing just to spare her feelings. That isn’t my job either. It’s not only a waste of my time, but it’s counter productive rather than helpful. In fact, it actually harms the writer.

If you come to me with a piece of writing and tell me up front, “Hey, I just wanted to share this with you,” chances are I’ll say “Thank you.” Then I’ll read it when I get time.

After I’ve read it, I’ll thank you again for sharing it with me and probably say something like “Good story.” I won’t say that unless I mean it, but neither will I go into full critique mode and tell you what I believe would upgrade it from good to excellent.

If you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a sample edit or a critique or my honest opinion, that’s what you’ll get.

I won’t try to tell you what you “have to” do, but I will tell you honestly what I believe would improve your writing and why. (That “why” is what’s missing from most amateur or unprofessional critiques.)

At such times, I automatically assume you asked for a critique so you can take my suggestions under consideration. I don’t expect you to accept them automatically. But I do expect you to decide rationally whether applying them will improve your work.

But what if you approach me with a piece of writing and ask for a critique AFTER pointing out that you’re “highly sensitive” or that you “have very thin skin” and ask me to “please be gentle” or “please don’t rip it to shreds”?

Well, then I will assume what you want is praise, empty or otherwise, and I won’t waste my time offering an actual critique. I’ll still accept your work. Then I’ll glance over it and say something like “Ahh, what a story (or essay or poem)!” You will then take that statement as you like it.

If I offer an honest critique and it’s negative in the slightest, I will have hurt your feelings. If I offer a less-than-honest critique, I’ve wasted my time and yours, plus I’ve given you false encouragement.

The point is, none of this has as much to do with developing a thick skin against criticism as it does with getting over yourself. You aren’t all that special, Pookie.

Look around. Most writers are highly sensitive, which is to say, we’re human. We ALL enjoy hearing praise, and we ALL dislike hearing criticism of our work.

The difference between the amateur writer and the professional writer, as with the difference between the amateur and the professional ANYthing, is that the amateur focuses on the emotional drama, and the professional focuses on deciding whether applying the criticism will improve the work.

In my own version of the perfect world, we would all place a higher value on honest constructive criticism than on empty praise.

I mean, we’re all adults here. If you want unbridled, unmitigated, unconditional praise, you should show your work to someone who would rather lie to you than hurt your feelings. (This is the role of your mother or that nice aunt or the siblings you get along with.)

If you want to improve your work, I recommend you eschew empty praise, acknowledge and then dismiss as a fluke any honest praise, and seek out criticism as something that at least has the potential to be a learning experience.

What I recommend you DON’T do, under any circumstance, is fling one forearm across your brow, grow wistful to the point of melting into the floor, and throw a do-it-yourself pity party to indulge the unrelenting psychological and emotional pain of having received what you requested.

That really isn’t a good look on anyone, and least of all on an aspiring professional.

‘Til next time, happy writing!

Harvey

On Challenges, Part 2

Hi Folks,

Note: This follows on a topic I wrote for The Daily Journal. If you haven’t read it, you can find it at http://hestanbrough.com/the-journal-friday-915/.

At the beginning of the calendar year, I challenged myself to write 15 novels during the year.

Later, after an intended novel fell short and ended as a novella, I adjusted the goal to 16 novels or novellas. That should have clued me I was in trouble.

It didn’t. I plunged merrily ahead but conveniently forgot the whole purpose of a challenge: productivity.

In my desire to write a certain number of novels, I allowed myself to be overwhelmed. In short, I lost sight of the little picture: the word count.

Grandpa always said you can’t build a house, but you can drive a nail. (Or you can’t write a novel, but you can write a scene.)

If you drive enough nails, you’ll look up one day through the clearing smoke and see that you have a new house.

Now just for fun, let’s slip a bit afield.

Productivity isn’t finishing a certain number of novels or novellas or even short stories.

In its initial, base form, productivity is putting words on the page. Like it or not, it all boils back down to the basic act: word count is what produces short stories, novellas and novels. You can’t escape that fact.

I find it particularly telling (and humorous, actually) that so many writers wrinkle up their nose and eschew word count as if it were gross and even distasteful. Pedestrian, even. Like sex.

Well, it might be. But it’s still a necessary (if ugly, depending on your POV) act in which the writer must allow his conscious and subconscious mind to engage if he is to birth a new novel.

It occurs to me that the metaphor extends when you realize word count generally isn’t talked about in polite circles.

Get it?

And it’s something all writers engage in whether or not they want to admit it.

After all, if such things really were only for us peasants, Great Britain’s royal line would be really short. In fact, it would have ended abruptly on the other side of a pair of crossed arms and a head shaking side to side eons ago. (Somebody stop me!)

Okay. Okay (deep breaths). Enough on the metaphor.

Now I don’t push productivity for its own sake. I push productivity as a matter of business.

The more works a writer has “out there” the greater the chance readers will stumble on something he’s written, like it, and buy more.

This is common sense, even given that what was once common for most seems to have become a luxury for many. But I digress.

Noting word count, whether it’s done publicly (as here) or in private (all the better people only do it in private) is what drives the writer to produce more literary children.

And when our word-count drive begins to weaken, there’s no better way to enhance it than to give ourselves a challenge.

Try it. You’ll like it. And you don’t have to tell anybody.

‘Til next time, keep writing.
Harvey

Words (and Grammar and Syntax)

Hi Folks,

When I was teaching grunt English at ENMU-Roswell a billion years ago, I went to the bookstore one day to sign for a shipment of textbooks I’d ordered.

There, stamped on the box in bold black all-uppercase letters was “GRAMMER BOOKS.”

A poignant moment, that.

But I don’t fault the warehouse workers who inked the stamp and applied it.

And amidst the storm of unruly comments and laughter from the bookstore workers, I was gracious. I forgave whoever put the stamp together in the first place.

But secretly I hoped he or she wasn’t also an aspiring writer.

Daniel Webster once said (paraphrasing here) that common use trumps denotation. But I don’t think he meant that to be used as an excuse by professional writers.

Words, grammar and syntax are the tools of your trade. Know how to use them.

Kristine Kathryn Rusch started this with a small post on Facebook: “When did ‘alright’ become all right? (She grumps after seeing the WRONG spelling in an ad for a national magazine. Sigh)”

My first comment was “So called ‘professional’ reporters once said troops had found a ‘weapons cachet’; they also constantly use ‘likely’ when they mean ‘probably,’ and interchanging ‘infer/imply’ has become acceptable in many circles. The dumbing down continues. Check out the film Idiocracy if you haven’t seen it. Great stuff.”

Seriously, if you haven’t seen Idiocracy yet, find it, rent it, buy it, something. Watch it. It’s a very funny film that almost made me cry. And not because I was laughing so hard. But because it seems prophetic.

My second comment (because this stuff annoys me practically to no end) was “Oh, and I’ve seen ‘a myriad of’ used in two separate articles (one in Smithsonian Magazine and the other [I believe] in Archaeology). So I’ve seen myriad mistakes, a veritable plethora of mistakes, by alleged professionals, the likes of whom would have Cronkite and Murrow spinning in their graves.”

Why Cronkite and Murrow?

Because they were consummate professionals who would be eternally embarrassed had they misused a word due to their own ignorance of the language. An ignorance that shouldn’t exists because they’re professionals.

Writers should take pride in their profession. But instead, increasingly in our dumbed-down society, writers are shifting the responsibility for their writing to the reader: “It’s good enough. The reader will know what I mean.”

I’ll bet you wouldn’t want your heart doctor going in to see whether mabye he could clear that stuff out of those little round tube-thingies leading to your ticker.

Maybe readers will know what the writer means, but not necessarily. And if they don’t, that’s the writer’s fault, not theirs.

My point is, if you want to make your living using words, be more than familiar with the language. Know what words mean, how they’re spelled and pronounced and their proper use. Know the formal rules of grammar and syntax too. If for no other reason than so you can break them, intelligently and intentionally, to create a particular effect in the reader. (Like writing a sentence fragment for emphasis.)

And when some moron slaps a “grammar police” label on you, smile. They’re only acknowledging your superior knowledge and work ethic, though I suppose it would seem sweeter if they actually realized it.

Okay. Grouch session over.

‘Til next time, happy writing.

Harvey

12 Ways to Make That Critique Group Work (Revised and Updated)

Hi Folks,

Note: I originally posted this back in August, 2013. Much has changed since then. I’ve updated it to reflect those changes.

Most notably, I no longer recommend critique groups. At all. Mostly because

1. Criticism (or critique) by definition is a function of the conscious mind. It’s wonderful for “deconstruction,” but worthless for creation. Also,

2. Nobody, even writers who are much farther along the road than you are, can know all the intricacies of your work in progress (WIP),

3. Nobody else can “speak” in YOUR original voice, and

4. I don’t care for books that were basically written by committee. Even if the final product turns out “good,” I can’t help but wonder how much more original and therefore how much better it would have been had the writer simply trusted his or her own voice. But perhaps most importantly,

5. I don’t know and have never heard of a single successful professional fiction writer who workshops (offers up to a critique group) his or her work. Most professional fiction writers jealously guard their WIPs until it’s published, with the exception of showing it (of necessity) to a trusted first reader and/or copyeditor.

Now, what do I mean about “writing by committee”?

Simple. If the other writers in a critique group primarily want to change the writing to reflect the way they would have done it, and if the targeted writer feels obligated to take their advice, that’s writing by committee.

However, all writers are different.

On the surface, participating in a critique group seems an excellent idea, and it probably can be for some writers. Maybe. In fact, I wasn’t always of the opinion that critique groups are harmful. I actually created and facilitated a critique group when I lived in Roswell NM many years ago.

So if you prefer using critique groups or believe them valuable, that’s fine with me. After all, your process can’t directly affect my own creativity or my sales.

So here are some things to look for in a GOOD critique group.

First, if you want to join an established critique group,

1. pick one that has not degenerated into a mutual-admiration society, and

2. pick one that has safeguards in place against a piece of work eventually being written by committee. You will see those safeguards below.

If you want to form or participate in a good critique group that stands at least a chance of actually being beneficial, here’s what you need.

1. A conscientious facilitator who will steer the participants to honesty in their critiques.

A critique group without a facilitator usually will degrade quickly into a mutual-admiration society, a group in which flattery is trump. And a “be nice to me and I’ll be nice to you” atmosphere certainly causes the participants to feel good about themselves, but it also leaves them wondering about the quality of their writing.

2. Limit the size of the group according to the length of time you are able to meet.

For example, there were ten participants in my critique group, but we met for two hours every other week. Each participant had time to read his or her work (if he or she wanted to) and receive the criticism of the other participants.

3. Only one person at a time is the writer in the group.

If you aren’t reading your work to the others at the time, you’re a reader/listener, not a writer. Don’t endeavor to change the person’s writing to fit your style. Rather, point out places where, for you as a reader/listener, the story stumbles or stalls, where you feel you don’t know enough (or you know too much) about a character or a scene, where confusion creeps in, and so on.

4. Don’t require everyone to read every time.

Take off your control-freak boots, flex your tired toes and chill. Everyone can be an active, valuable participant without reading at every meeting. Some people will want to read every time, and others won’t.

5. However, the members all should be serious about writing.

To maintain membership in the group, I suggest that everyone should be encouraged to submit something for critique—even if it’s only one poem or one stanza or one scene from a novel or memoir—at least every other meeting if you meet monthly or every third meeting if you meet more often. Again, though, notice I said “encouraged,” not forced.

However, non-participation (say one member very seldom reads her own work and very seldom comments constructively as a reader/listener) should be grounds for dismissal from the group, especially if there’s a waiting list of folks who are serious about the craft of writing and would like to join. (See 2 above.)

6. Be honest in your critiques.

This is the most important feature of a good critique group. Honesty, even brutal honesty, is critical. After the first session or two, any hurt feelings will subside and those who prefer the mutual-admiration society will have dropped out. The participants who remain will begin to trust each other and appreciate the honest feedback. And when acceptance letters and checks begin replacing rejection letters, they’ll appreciate it even more. Besides, “honest” is not synonymous with “hurtful,” “hateful,” “spiteful” or “mean.”

7. Always provide positive critiques.

But didn’t I just say you should be honest? That’s right, so when you point out what you believe is a flaw in someone’s writing, make it a positive critique by offering a recommendation for improvement. Remember, though, that you’re trying to help the writer improve HIS OR HER work, not make it your own. Besides, you should point out the bright spots as well as the flaws.

8. Bring your “first draft” to your group.

I recommend that your second draft should be a run-through with a spell checker. And a third draft should be your original manuscript to which you’ve applied whatever changes your first reader has recommended IF YOU AGREE with those recommendations.

But if you’re in a critique group, you probably don’t have a first reader and probably still believe you have to write numerous drafts to turn out quality work (you don’t).

So at least give the members of your group your most original effort (your first draft).

9. Perform “blind” readings.

If honest critique is the most important feature of a good critique group (and it is), performing blind readings is a close second. Although this advice goes against the common practice of most critique groups, I’ve found that the author should not provide copies of her work for the other participants.

Instead of trying to read along with the reader, during a blind reading the other participants should be able to listen attentively, noting on a pad any passages that confuse them, stop them cold, or impress them. They might also note passages that either bog the story down or move it along too quickly.

Once the author is finished reading, each participant then offers his or her critique. Blind reading lessens the chance of participants “parroting” each other and leads to a more honest, constructive critique. It also forces the reader to read his or her work aloud, and that is always a good thing.

10. The facilitator should avoid influencing the other participants’ opinions. To do so, the facilitator should offer his or her critique last.

11. Don’t argue with critiques as they’re offered.

This is a non-productive waste of valuable time. Besides, you should respect the opinions of the participants as listeners; that is, don’t expect more from them than they can give. If they were experts, they probably wouldn’t be in the group.

12. Consider every participant’s critique.

Don’t automatically accept or reject any critique. What one listener (reader) likes, another will dislike; what one finds believable, another will find ridiculous.

Carry the critiques home with you, calm down, then use or discard the criticisms one at a time at your leisure. As a rule of thumb, though, if you hear the same critique from more than one participant (after a blind reading), you probably should consider it more seriously.

Overall, critique groups are a paradox. Few group interactions can be as rewarding as a good critique group or as destructive as a bad one. Fortunately, which group you belong to (or whether you belong to one at all) is your choice.

You need answer only one question: How important is your career as a writer?

So if you’re already a member of a group and if the group isn’t working well for you, consider bringing these ideas to the attention of the facilitator; if you aren’t a member of a group yet or are considering forming one, choose wisely. After all, it’s your career.

Okay, but if I don’t recommend critique groups generally, what do I recommend?

Learn from those much farther along the road than you are. Visit Dean Wesley Smith’s blog regularly. I do.

And if I’m farther along the road than you are (26 novels, 4 novellas, and over 180 short stories as of September 5, 2017), consider hopping over to my Daily Journal and subscribing. It’s free, and there I offer insight into the daily life of a professional writers. Several times a week, I toss out writing advice in a Topic of the Day.

‘Til next time, Happy Writing!

Harvey

To a World Free of Cliché

Hey Folks,

Note: This post was originally scheduled for 1/10/2014. It didn’t post to MailChimp, so I’m posting it again now. I’ve revised the original post so it’s up to date.

Once upon a time, I edited a manuscript that was teeming with clichés, ripe to bursting with platitudes and filled to the brim with trite, self-serving crap.

It virtually screamed Look at me! Aren’t I wonderful? Aren’t I generous with my time and helpful in all things? Aren’t I just pretty much Oprah on steroids?

Of course, the clichés and platitudes were slumping along behind like great lummoxes, mumbling, Hey, uh, looky here. I ain’t never had one original thought, an’ I’m dang proud of it. This here’s m’nose-pickin’ finger. Yup, I’m dumber’s a bagga bricks.

Did you ever read something that actually made you recoil?

The unoriginal writing in that particular masterpiece bludgeoned me so strongly and so often that I wanted to curl into the fetal position and hide beneath my desk. I hoped the writing gods would come and spirit that evil piece of sh-riting from my laptop.

They didn’t. I’d gotten myself into it, they said, so I could get myself out. Ugh.

So why did I accept the manuscript for editing? I got lax.

Although the writer sent me the full manuscript per my request, I took the sample edit from the first few pages. It didn’t take long during the edit to realize those pages plus a few more had been previously edited so that they weren’t ugly, hairy legged, knuckle-dragging things slouching toward some poor, unsuspecting reader.

But hey, mea freakin’ culpa. I gritted my teeth and forced myself to  f-i-n-i-s-h   t-h-e   e-d-i-t. Have I mentioned how happy I am to be writing full time now?

But back to the original point. Far more important than me having to put up with a horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible, horrible—I suppose I could have written that (horrible)5—piece of writing was the realization that many writers, we who are supposed to be sources of original thought, simply aren’t.

So here’s a new rule for you, annotated to ease understanding. Not that YOU need it to be annotated—I realize that—but face it: some of the folks reading this are missing more than a few spots off their dominoes.

Strive (attempt with all the power of your will)

never (not even once)

to write (put pen to paper, fingertips to keyboard or mouth to recorder)

an unoriginal thought (a syllable or series of syllables that have been uttered before, by anyone, at any time, anywhere, ever)

except as you do so purposefully (intentionally, with intent, on purpose)

to create (cause to occur, bring into being)

a certain (premeditated, planned, intentional, particular)

effect (emotion, gasp, increase in heart rate, smile, chuckle, laugh, recoiling in horror, etc.)

in the reader (person whom you want to impress so much with your work that s/he will seriously consider breaking into your home just to learn more about you).

Again, Strive never to write an unoriginal thought except as you do so purposefully to create a certain effect in the reader.

That one rule would cover a LOT of the other lessons I’ve tried to teach writers over the years, especially if you include the use of the various marks of punctuation in that “create a certain effect in the reader” part. And you should.

Of course, if one of your characters actually speaks in clichés and utter platitudes per his role in society, that’s fine. Let him.

At least until you hire another character to fit the cliché-ridden guy with reinforced-concrete underwear and drop him off a pier somewhere.

Give me three hours’ notice and I’ll drive. Hey, I’ll even help you load him in the trunk. But your narrator… well now, that’s different.

See, thing is, you’re a Writer. You were brought into existence on this funny, filthy little blue marble to shake it the hell up, to look it in the eyes and dare it to say or do something that you can turn into a story.

And in your writing, although your characters will wander around being themselves (as they should), your narrator can’t.

The narrator describes the scene, period, albeit through the characters’ senses and the characters’ OPINION of that scene. The narrator provides a great transitory bridge between the colorful, magical world of your story and the grey-white, humdrum existence of your reader’s reality.

You and your narrator will describe the scenes in vibrant, expansive splashes of prose that leave the reader gasping for breath, not crawling under his desk to hide from an onslaught of boredom.

You and your narrator will make readers laugh until their sides ache, cry until they’re dry, or sleep for three weeks with one eye open.

You and your narrator are too intelligent to mumble clichés or platitudes when you have a perfectly good brain right there between your ears.

And I hope you’re just plain too stubborn to use something someone else has used a thousand times.

So get on with it!

‘Til next time, happy (original, unboring, unclichéd) writing!

Harvey

I am a professional fiction writer as well as a copyeditor. For details, or just to learn what comprises a good copy edit, please visit Copyediting.

If you’d like to get writing tips several times each week, pop over to my Daily Journal and sign up. In the alternative, you can also click the Pro Writer’s Journal tab on the main website at HarveyStanbrough.com.

Traditional Publishing: Just Don’t

Hi Folks,

Via The Digital Reader, The Huffington Post (whom I would never and am not now promoting) published an article titled “The 4 Great Myths of Book Publishing.”

You can read the full article at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/the-4-great-myths-of-book-publishing_us_5988e9ebe4b08a4c247f252d/ but I’ll save you the trouble.

There are actually a lot more myths about traditional publishing than four, but we’ll go with the ones they list.

According to the article, the myths are that a traditional publisher will

  • aggressively promote your book to the widest possible readership,
  • ensure your book gets on the shelves of all the nation’s bookstores,
  • print your book’s text in exactly the way you conceive and arrange it, and
  • provide you with a sizable monetary advance.

Of course, the article goes on to say no, they won’t. Because No, They Won’t.

The “remedy” the author of the article recommends for points 1, 2, and 4 (3 is just silly) is to do it yourself. But still use a traditional publisher.

So let me get this straight:

According to the author of the article, you should develop your own promotion plan, promote your book aggressively yourself to ensure more people order it in bookstores, “be flexible” regarding layout, and “be grateful if you’re offered any advance at all.”

So in addition to writing the book in the first place, you have to do everything else too. Okay, I’m good with that.

But in return for your effort, you should still give ALL RIGHTS FOR THE LIFE OF THE COPYRIGHT to the traditional publisher and receive around 12% of the net royalties for as long as they decide to sell your book.

Oh, and if you also have an agent, he/she gets 15% of that 12%.

Uhhhhh, no.

This is it, folks. This truly is your forehead slapping moment. Please don’t pass it up.

If you have to do all that anyway, Publish It Yourself and pocket 100% of the net royalties.

And MOST importantly, Keep Your Copyright (your property) for the rest of your life plus 70 years.

You STILL have to develop your own promotion plan, aggressively promote your book, and you can do the layout yourself (or pay to have it done — see https://covertoupload.com/).

Of course, you’ll have to forego receiving an advance you wouldn’t have gotten anyway. Darn it. Oh, and somewhere, some village idio— er, agent — will go a little hungry. But so what?

Copyright is property, folks. Your property.

Don’t give it away, and don’t sell out for a pittance.

Harvey