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Update from the front, dear Readers!

I am getting close enough to finishing ABSENT that I can see the hoary light at the end of the tunnel!  I have decided, at virtually the last minute, to go do several weeks of archaeological field work in Honduras!  I am attempting to Beta-read two novels at once!  I have become overly fond of exclamation points (perhaps due to an excess of caffeine coursing through my veins!)

Yes, it is an exclamation point kind of week around the Suri household.  We have celebrated three years of lovely married life, have signed away our life savings on a new apartment, and have lined up so much travel for the month of July (all, of course, at the last minute) that I’m not sure it’s physically possible to accomplish it.  Most notable among our coming adventures is my decision to return to Honduras this summer to continue my archaeological research.

There will be more on this in future posts (and here’s a link to the project blog, for those of you who want to follow our adventures in the field), but in short: I co-direct an archaeological field school in Honduras.  The last time we were down doing work (2009), a coup d’etat happened.  It was not pleasant, and we haven’t been back since.  So, this is a big undertaking, and hopefully one that will go smoothly, as we’re taking 9 undergraduates with us.

On the writing front, I’ve been making happy-fun progress on the first draft of ABSENT, my archaeology time-travel novel.  With my new daily word count goal in place, I’ve cruised through about 8,000 words in the last week or so.  The climax is just a few chapters away, to be followed by another few chapters of denouement.  Is there a chance I could finish this bad boy before I leave for Honduras?  Probably not.  But what the hell, I’m gonna try anyway.  Wish me luck!

Complicating matters is that I’m now Beta-reading two novels at once.  Such is the danger of swapping novel critiques, in which the owed critique may arrive at an unspecified date in the future – you can end up with more than you can handle.  Both critiques are for writing buddies who’ve done me more than their share of favors and are due my best when it comes to payback.  So I’m going to power through.  Fortunately, I just bought an e-reader, the Nook Simple Touch (I’ll be sure to review this after I’ve given it a good work out), so I’m going to try to do one of the crits on the e-reader and see how that goes.

Clearly, I’ve got a busy week or so coming down the pike.  How about you all?

Oh, and this marks the 100th post since I started my blog last November. Nifty!

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Awhile back I discussed how I process critiques of my own work.  The post generated rather a lot of commentary, during which the topic of giving critiques came up.  In some ways, giving critiques is harder than getting them, but both require an ability to separate your personal feelings from your professional ones.

When I get a crit request from a writer buddy, the first thing I do is make sure I understand what they’re asking me to do.  Do they want a high level Beta read?  Are they looking for line edits?  Sometimes writers are very well aware of the problem areas in their own stories but are stuck on how to fix them, while others can’t pinpoint their problem areas at all.  Thus, you’ve got to look both at what they’re asking for and what they haven’t asked for but clearly need.

One of the more challenging aspects of critiquing is providing feedback designed to help the author make the story they want to write as good as it can be.  This means restraining yourself from trying to shape the story into what you want it to be.  I might want their story about a sparkly vampire to end with the violent death of said sparkly vampire, but if they’re set on a love story, it’s my job to help them do that as effectively as possible.  So, step one is figuring out what sort of story the author is trying to tell.  Step two is sussing out what’s preventing the story from being its best possible self.

For feedback, I usually try to give comments in orders of magnitude.  Some problems are going to be more sweeping than others and the fixes are going to require a more substantial overhaul, be it to the plot, world, or characters.  I spend the most time and detail on these kinds of problems (after all, line edits and nits may become irrelevant if big structural changes are made in revision).  Honesty is the best policy and I try not to sugar-coat my feedback while still remaining polite and professional.

Another thing to keep in mind when critiquing is whether the story is the kind of fiction you tend to like, dislike, or feel indifferently about.  Personal preferences are obviously going to influence how you respond to a story.  It’s good to include a disclaimer (e.g. “I just love me some steampumk vampire-zombie mash-ups! This is right up my alley” or “Take my feedback with a grain of salt because Cthulhu stories aren’t my bag”)

In his response to my original post on this topic, Ferrett used the phrase “pummel with love” to describe his approach to feedback.  I interpret this to mean being brutally honest out of a desire to make the story as good as it can be, or giving the author “tough love.”  I agree wholeheartedly:  it’s no good blowing smoke just to avoid hurting the author’s feelings.  It doesn’t help the author and it weakens your own ability to give a clear-eyed critique.  I also agree with the “love” part of it.  If you find yourself giving critiques to people who, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really want to help…stop at once.  A writer needs to trust that the feedback they’re being given is aimed at one thing and one thing only: making their work better.  To me, this means sitting down and putting aside everything but a cool, rational assessment of the story and then writing the kind of response I’d hope to get on my own work.

Now, we’re all big kids here, and big kids need to be able to take a few knocks and still get back up.  A good critique, though, also includes consideration of the language we use to present our feedback.  This is a tricky one, and most often the place where hurt feelings are born.  We all have different filters.  If our language is too harshly worded or tends towards the snarky, the author may become defensive and fail to take in the point we’re trying to make.  If our language is too careful and pampering, the point may be equally lost in unjustified self-congratulatory back-patting.  Striking the right balance is haaaaard.  I often find myself spending a good amount of time writing and then revising  my commentary, trying to balance the constructive and the criticism in “constructive criticism”.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail.  All I can do is try.

So.  Those are my thoughts on giving critiques.  What’s your process?  I’m always looking for ways to be a better crit partner, so share your approaches, please!

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One of my (few) superpowers is taking criticism of my work in stride.  I think this is a byproduct of my years in graduate school and, later, academia.  In those worlds, receiving regular and blisteringly cruel assessments of your writing, ideas, and general existence is sort of par for the course.  If you can’t take in the crushing and often mean-spirited negativity, parse it for the useful stuff, and then roll up your sleeves and eviscerate your writing to accommodate the demanded changes…well, you won’t last long (heck, even if you CAN do that, you might not last long.  Academia is a blood sport).

Coming from this background, I found dealing with the stress of critiques relatively easy.  After all, most people (assuming you’ve found a good writing group) are actually rooting for you rather than delighting in your failure.  Their critiques, therefore, are meant to be helpful and are rarely mean-spirited.  So right there we’ve got a big improvement.  Also, as noted above, I’ve been preconditioned to expect my work will need improvement and that readers I ask to provide feedback will be critical.

But still…

Still, it can hurt.  Even someone with Supergirl Teflon feelings is going to feel the pain of a harsh critique now and again.

How to deal with it?  We all have our own processes.  When I get a critique that’s tougher than I expected, I find I go through several clearly defined stages:

First: 2-4 hours of disappointment.  Man, I loved this story.  I thought this was the ONE that everyone was going to think was great.  I really thought I wasn’t going to have to make very many revisions.  Sigh.  *eats chocolate*

Second: 1-2 hours of indignation.  *addresses the cat* Why am I letting this bum me out so much?  Reader X obviously didn’t see what I was trying to do.  *shakes fist at the heavens*  What do they know, anyway?

Third: 3-4 hours to accept harsh reality.  Yup.  Reader X was right – at least about some things.  Especially THIS.  This IS a big problem.  Why didn’t I see it when I was writing?  After all, I was trying to fix that very problem in this draft and I obviously failed.  Will I never get any better at this???

Fourth: 12-14 hours of rumination.  Okay.  This isn’t THAT big of a problem.  Actually, I can fix it pretty easily by doing X, Y, and Z.  Plus, this will make the characterizations stronger and the narrative less clunky.  *tosses and turns all night while rewriting things in her head*

At this point I usually achieve clarity about what to do, regain my enthusiasm, and start revising.  This process varies in its intensity (and sometimes the duration of the stages) depending on how polished the story was (or I perceived it to be) and how dear to my heart it is.  Sometimes I know the piece is flawed (and in what ways) and so do not experience the first or second stages at all.

Even though receiving critiques can hurt and the process of dealing with them makes you feel like a crazy person who spends all her time having conversations in her head (or worse, with her cat), I almost always learn something valuable.  In most cases, it doesn’t just improve the particular piece I’ve had critiqued, but carries over to future projects – I become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to accent the former and improve upon the latter.

So, that’s my process for dealing with critique.  What’s yours?

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Vegas, baby!

Only a few words today, and those with pencil. (bonus points to anyone who gets the reference).

As you may know, I’m in Vegas for a writing retreat organized by my friend E.F. Kelley.  We’re heading into Day Two and, so far, I have to say: Yes.  Though several of us have not met before in person, the group dynamic is clicking very well, the feedback provided on previously submitted works has been substantive and insightful…and, of course, it’s Vegas.  So, there’s good food and plenty of inspiration to be found on what is (let’s face it) essentially an alien planet.

In addition to crits of work by Lou Berger, George Galuschak, and Hallie Rulnick, we had a rousing discussion of the difference between paranormal romance and urban fantasy.  Underdevelopment of villains came up a lot, and we talked about the five writing cards, two of which every writer is given and three of which they must learn (plot, character, setting, prose, and dialogue).  Also, we stuffed ourselves full of tasty food (Bouchon Bistro for an obscene breakfast that included pastries AND pomme frites, Earl of Sandwich for yummy lunch, and Sage restaurant for fancy dinner).

I’m up for critique this morning on an excerpt and synopsis of my novel Absent.  I’m really looking forward to getting help on shaping up the characterizations (especially my protagonist’s motivations and needs/wants) and the direction of the second half of the plot. We’ll also take a look at Catherine Schaff-Stump’s novella excerpt “Were-Humans,” a short story from Danielle LeFevre, and – time permitting – do a plot session on E.F.’s novel.  Tonight: Cirque du Soleil.

I’ll try to pop in for a an update on Sunday when things wrap themselves up.  Till then, have a great weekend!  I know I will.

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