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51ylynf4muL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Peter Elbow was one of the leaders in revising the way we teach writing during the seventies and eighties. His books Writing Without Teachers and Writing With Power were beloved by teachers and students alike for their multitude of ideas about getting the whole writing process going. Back in the days when I taught Freshman Composition, I used Elbow’s writing heuristics to get my students over their worries about having nothing to say or not knowing how to say what they wanted to.

But to me, the most valuable thing Elbow proclaimed was the need to get rid of the perfect. In his studies of writing among students, Elbow took a long hard look at writers block. He suggested that one sure way to become blocked was to expect your first draft to be perfect, or even to expect it to be very good. First drafts are just that: the first version. There will be (and should be) several versions after that. Get rid of your expectations of perfection, and get to work.

I thought of this the other day when I was closing in on the end of my Work In Progress (WIP). Because I wanted to quit. All of a sudden, I became convinced that what I’d written—all sixty thousand plus words of it—was crap. And though I could see the end, I wasn’t sure it was worth pursuing. The thing is, though, I often feel this way about something I’m working on. And as a result, I often feel like just chucking it in. But for the most part I don’t. I know it’s a temporary feeling, and that I’ll change my mind once I start working the manuscript over. Moreover, my work ethic won’t let me throw something away unless I absolutely have to.

I’m guessing most writers feel this way at some time or another. Part of it is that your WIP is always better in your head than it is on the page. You come up with all these clever turns of phrase and interesting plot twists, but when it comes time to write them down, there’s nothing clever about them. And what had seemed so exciting in your head now seems like pure drudgery.

But that’s where Peter Elbow comes in. Forget perfect. Just get it down. It isn’t like you have to have a perfectly written draft this time. You just need a written draft, period. Like Nora Roberts says, “I can always fix a bad page. I can’t fix a blank one.”

Whatever problems you may find (and usually you find quite a few), you can solve them once you’re finished. Multiple drafts mean multiple chances to get it right. And if you just give yourself time and space you can do it. We all can.

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As I’ve said time and again, I love critique groups. They provide a writer with that most valuable of commodities, feedback. Not all of the feedback is good, mind you, but even lousy feedback can tell you something. I can still remember when I started critiquing, though, and I remember the biggest problem I had—what do you say to good writers?

Figuring out what to say to somebody with difficulties isn’t usually an issue, although figuring out how to say it without bruising the writer’s tender feelings may well be. But what do you say to somebody who’s smokin’? “Love it, keep up the good work” may be accurate, but it may not be what the author’s looking for. This is particularly tough for someone who hasn’t had a lot of experience in critiquing others’ work before. After a while, you learn how to see minor problems even in well-written things. But at first, that’s hard to do.

However, a frequent response to this problem is to manufacture weaknesses so that you have something to comment on. You change the wording (becoming a dreaded Rewriter), you  tell the author you need more information on a character’s background (although you’re reading chapter four in the book and can pretty much guess that background has already been provided somewhere else), you make global assumptions without much basis in the MS (I once had a reader tell me to change my story to M/M because she didn’t think the hero really cared for the heroine—who didn’t appear and wasn’t really mentioned in the pages she’d read). This kind of thing is almost guaranteed to piss off the writer, while not providing her with much in the way of useful advice.

So here are some things to keep in mind as you, a very new critiquer, approach those pages:

1. You may not have done much critiquing, but you’ve undoubtedly done a lot of reading. Approach the MS as you would a book. What appeals to you? What doesn’t? Some of that will probably be personal taste, but even so the writer might like to hear about it. Chances are other people in her potential audience will share the same tastes. On the other hand, telling a writer “I hate paranormals” won’t be much help.

2. Be aware of where this particular set of pages is in the total manuscript. If it’s chapter one, then you can talk about whether you need more backstory or whether the backstory is too dominant. But if it’s chapter five, you can’t really complain that you don’t know the hero’s background—although you can make a comment to the effect that you assume this background was covered earlier, which implies it should have been.

3. Don’t make changes in the writer’s language unless you can explain the reason for making them. Some changes are legitimate (repetition, for example—but that may be handled better by simply highlighting the repeated words), but some are just a matter of your style differing from the author’s style. If the only reason you have for making a change is that it “sounds wrong,” it’s probably best to let it alone.

4. If you don’t have many comments to make, don’t worry about it. If nothing else, that tells the writer she’s on the right track.

And good luck. Trust me, the more you critique, the easier it becomes.

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You all remember Basil Exposition in Austin Powers—the stuffy intelligence chief played by Michael York whose sole purpose was to provide background information for the plot, i.e., exposition. I thought about ol’ Basil today as I was reading one of my favorite suspense writers because it seemed that he’d wandered into the book while I wasn’t looking. The amount of information the author had started cranking out was enough to choke a goat.

Exposition is a real pain in the ass for most writers. You usually need to explain some things that aren’t going to come up in the action, but you need to do it in a way that keeps the plot moving, or you run the risk of putting your readers to sleep.

The usual way to get the exposition in is via dialogue. The hero or heroine has a conversation with someone into which some of the more important info nuggets are tucked. Ideally, you do this a bit at a time, probably out of chronological order, so that the reader can begin to build a mental map of what’s going on. But if a fact is really important, you’re going to have to find a way to build it in more prominently while simultaneously hiding it so that the reader can have a pleasurable head-smack moment when the final plot twist is revealed. And if the connections are going to be particularly intricate, you may have to have one of those Big Reveal scenes in which all the characters gather to piece things together (if you’re writing a mystery or thriller, the villain may well be one of these characters so that she/he can grab a knife and a handy hostage at the end).

But what happens if you’ve got a lot of historical background to include (like Linda Fairstein or Dan Brown) or if you’ve got scientific information that has to be understood (like Kathy Reichs or Tess Gerritsen)? You can’t really drop those factual nuggets into casual dialog, particularly if they involve a lot of detail. Enter Basil (or Brenda) Exposition, a character or characters whose sole purpose is to explain the technical underpinning of the plot. The problem comes in working Basil or Brenda into the story because if their only purpose is to provide technical information they tend to stand out like very sore thumbs.

One way is to put the exposition scenes in an action setting. Maybe Basil is gassing on about the chemical properties of blood while the characters are careening across the countryside to a murder scene, or maybe Brenda gives you the fine points of the medieval theory of cosmology while the hero searches through the library, frantically looking for a clue.

But whatever you do to them, what they’ll do to you is bring your plot to a screeching halt while they fill in the blanks. If the information is interesting enough, readers will probably tolerate it. If it isn’t, you run the risk of having the reader throw the book into the return stack. Fairstein sometimes makes them villains, which, considering the amount of gab they’ve made us sit through, isn’t a bad idea. Other writers make Brenda/Basil a murder victim. I can definitely sympathize. I’m sure many of us have wished that once they’d delivered their important information, we could just kill those suckers off.

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The Rewriter

I’m a big believer in critique groups, as I’ve said many times and in many posts. Most of us have trouble looking at our writing objectively. Critique partners can give you an outsider’s take on what you’re doing (or not doing). So nothing I say here should be taken as an attack on critiquing in general. Just a comment on what is probably the most annoying thing a critiquer can do—unnecessary rewriting.

If you’ve been part of a critique group, you’ve probably encountered the chronic rewriter. You get your pages back and they look like they’re bleeding. The rewriter has gone in and changed every paragraph, redoing your tight, concise sentences so that they sprawl across the page or changing your baroque regency prose into something that sounds like Mickey Spillane. And the really annoying thing is that her rewriting hasn’t made the pages any better. She’s just made them totally different.

Now all of us are guilty of the occasional clumsy sentence (some of us more than one). But if a critiquer finds herself rewriting paragraph after paragraph, and she can’t really explain what’s wrong with the prose in the first place, chances are she’s falling into the “make it sound like me” trap. I used to teach a course in copyediting and this was one of the most common problems beginning students had. They couldn’t exactly understand what was wrong with a manuscript, so they’d start rewriting until they’d turned it into something that sounded like them rather than like the original writer. That didn’t necessarily make the MS any better, and it didn’t get the students many points from me.

My rule of thumb was to tell them to try to explain exactly what was wrong with the original. Sometimes they could: the writer had problems with grammar, or overly long sentences, or inflated vocabulary. But sometimes there didn’t seem to be anything specifically wrong. It just didn’t “sound right” to them.

The problem is, the writer’s prose may not “sound right” to me just because it sounds different from mine. It doesn’t sound like it would if I wrote it. But that doesn’t make it wrong or bad, just different. Copyeditors have to learn how to change things, but they also have to learn how to leave things alone. Otherwise, they’ll have a lot of pissed-off clients on their hands.

Let me interject here to point out that some things do, in fact, need to be changed. If the writer has grammatical problems, for example, or problems with punctuation, you probably need to point them out and perhaps suggest a revision (although I’ve also had people take sentences that were correct and make them into something that wasn’t). However, grammar and punctuation are different from style.

Now maybe you, as a critiquer, don’t like a particular writer’s style much. But I’d suggest dealing with that problem by using comments (“Your style seems a little stilted here” or “Why does he suddenly sound so much more formal than he did on the previous page”) rather than by rewriting whole paragraphs. The writer probably needs to know that some readers aren’t reacting well to the way a particular passage sounds. Then she can decide what she wants to do about it—rewrite it (in her own style), cut it, or leave it alone.

On the other hand, if you rewrite a manuscript to make it sound like it would if you wrote it, you’ll probably only annoy the writer and make her less likely to listen to anything else you have to say—believe me, I’ve been there! One perky critiquer even cautioned me not to get too downhearted when I saw what she’d done to my pages—she suggested I read through all her rewritten paragraphs so that I could learn how to do things better. I managed not to write her a scathing response, but it was a near thing.

So here’s the point: Allow the writer her style. What you might do if you were writing her book may well have no bearing on what she’s done. And who knows, maybe her version is as good as yours would be if you were working in her genre.

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Jane Haddam, the author of the Gregor Demarkian series, has a really interesting blog post about the problems of incorporating social issues into books. Her books are mysteries, and they frequently address social problems like homelessness and (in her latest) teaching intelligent design.

I don’t think romances run into this quite as much as mysteries do, particularly not romances like mine that take a comic approach to the plot situation. But that doesn’t mean romances don’t have political elements. Thrillers in particular seem to address social issues, at least in a backhanded way. I think of Elizabeth Lowell’s The Wrong Hostage, which centers around the drug cartels on the US/Mexican border or her Always Time to Die, which involves the exploitation of poor women by a wealthy, amoral politician. But in both of these books, the social issues, although important, don’t really take up the main spotlight. In both cases you’re more concerned about the relationship between the hero and heroine (and the ways that they can survive the dangers they’re confronting) than about the issues.

I think reason for this is pretty obvious: the romance is always the central focus for us. The characters can be affected by the world around them, and they probably will be, but the issues can’t really take center stage. In one of my WIP’s, for example, the hero is a real estate agent. Now in reality, real estate agents are really struggling right now, at least in certain parts of the country. My guy, who deals in vintage real estate, would probably have a very tough time of it if he were actually trying to sell houses in the King William District in San Antonio at the moment. You might be able to write a book about that, even a romance, where the hero’s struggle to keep his agency together in hard times was the central focus. But I doubt it would be all that comic. Moreover, it most likely wouldn’t feature a haunted house the way my book does.

And that’s the other factor for romance writers. We deal in escape. Now you can argue that books like my Konigsburg series are realistic in that the people in them behave in recognizable ways. But in Konigsburg all the characters’ problems are ultimately resolved. Happily Ever After is rigidly enforced in the romance world for good reason. If you pick up a romance, you have certain expectations. And if those expectations aren’t met, you’re likely to be really pissed.

So even if romances deal in social problems, those social problems don’t ultimately get in the way of the happy ending. Which is, of course, not the case in reality. Jane Haddam can incorporate social problems into her mysteries and then leave them unsolved at the resolution because her resolution doesn’t depend on everybody being happy (although Gregor and Benis had better be or Haddam’s going to hear from a lot of people). At the end of a romance, though, the “good” characters need to be satisfied. The “bad” people can be unhappy, but that’s because they’re bad (if you do bad things in a romance, you’re going to suffer). Romances posit a world in which at least some people can be happy, if only in the short term.

And I have to say—that doesn’t bother me as a reader or a writer. If I want heavy-duty social commentary, I won’t go to  a romance to get it (in fact, I might not even go to a novel to get it). When I go to a romance, I’m looking for something else. And if I don’t find it, I’m likely to think the writer screwed up.

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So here I am, writing the millionth blog entry about What Judges Want In Contests. Mine probably won’t be much more helpful than the other 999,999, but after reading a few recent contest entries, I feel the need to get something off my chest. So herewith I provide some items for all contest entrants to keep in mind.

1. Spell check exists for a reason. Having used a word processor for over twenty years now, I can tell you that today’s spell checkers are a lot easier to use and a lot more automatic than their predecessors. Mine (MS Word for Mac) puts a helpful little red line under any word not in its fairly extensive dictionary. That means if I’m paying attention, I can usually catch misspelled words with a quick review of my MS before I send it out to other readers. All of which boils down to this: there’s no excuse for misspelled words in your contest entry. None. As for homophones, those pesky words that sound the same but mean something different (e.g., bare and bear), if you can’t catch them on your own, find a critique partner who can. Trust me on this, nothing makes you look worse faster than having lots of obviously misspelled words sprinkled throughout your MS.

2. The same thing goes for misused words. I frequently judge historicals because, well, I like to read historicals. That means I frequently run across writers who are struggling with a vocabulary from a different time and place. The most insidious of these struggles involve words that sound like the word you want, but that mean something quite different.  “Parameter” is not the same as “perimeter”; “sensibility” is not the same as “sensitivity.” “Simplistic” is definitely not interchangeable with “simplified.” And so on, and so on. Okay, I’m an ex-English teacher and copy editor so I recognize these things. Okay, some readers may not. But here’s the thing—editors at major presses definitely will. Once again, misused words make you look like you don’t really know what you’re doing.

3. Basic grammar and sentence structure have to be correct. They have to be! Most of us like to believe that it’s the story that matters, and it’s true that if you have no story, no amount of proper English will save your butt. But most of us in this business have stories to tell, some better than others. And it’s a rare story that’s so wonderful you’re willing to overlook a lot of really elementary grammar mistakes.

Okay, so none of this advice is magical. None of it will make you run right out and start that Breakthrough Novel. Most of it refers to that phase of writing known as scut work. And most of us, with the possible exception of a few anal retentives,  would just as soon skip over it as quickly as possible. But you’re in a contest here. You’re up against a lot of other writers, most of whom have worked pretty hard on what they’re sending in. You want to blow the judge away, to make her believe she’s stumbled across the Next Big Thing. If you send in an entry without going over it with a fine tooth comb (and preferably running it through a critique group or two), you probably won’t be the one who does that. Please believe me, the Next Big Thing knows how to spell.

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I used to be a writing teacher in my other life. I never taught creative writing but I did teach freshman composition, technical writing, and writing for the Web. One of the most useful things I picked up in my years on the front lines was an introduction to the writing process.

A little background here: back in the old days (i.e., before 1970), nobody ever talked about how people actually wrote. They just told you what to come up with—for example, a “description essay” (and how many people outside of freshman comp classes ever write essays that do nothing but describe?). Then some composition researchers started looking at the way people actually went about writing. They found that the process went in phases that they divided into, roughly, prewriting, drafting, and revising.

Prewriting involves all the things you go through before you actually start writing—if you’re a planner like me, it means brainstorming, charting, maybe using the kind of question and answer structure you get in a software program like Dramatica, and so on. If you’re a pantser, it probably means doing a lot of thinking, both conscious and un-, about what you’re going to do and how it’s going to work.

The drafting phase is pretty straightforward—it’s getting the words on the page. And revising means going back and making those words say what you really want them to say. It’s those last two phases I want to talk about. I think a lot of beginning writers run into grief because they get these two phases confused.

Let me give you an example. I know a writer, a very talented writer, who can never seem to finish any of her manuscripts. She writes a couple of chapters, takes them to her critique group, lets the others in the group look at what she’s written, and then goes home and tries to make it perfect. And that’s where she freezes up. It’s not perfect and she can’t go on writing that particular book.

Now my finished stuff is far from perfect, I know. But believe me when I’m drafting it’s even more imperfect than the finished version! That’s because when I’m drafting, I’m drafting. I spend all my time getting words down on the page—not always the right words, or the words I’ll ultimately end up with, but words nonetheless. And I don’t really go over them from one day to the next. I’ll read what I wrote yesterday, and maybe I’ll fiddle with it a little, but for the most part I’ll move pretty quickly on to the next scene I’m going to work with. It usually takes me a couple of months to do a complete draft because I write longer books (around 90,000 words), but I don’t stop moving forward during those months unless something seems catastrophically off. Whenever I’m tempted to go back and clean things up, I end up muttering “Just get it down, just get it down.”

And that’s the point I’d make here. In writing more than in some other pursuits, the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Nobody starts off with a perfect draft, trust me. Some writers, like Edgar Allan Poe, have claimed that their masterpieces came to them fully formed. They’re lying. The first time through, the words in the dialogue won’t be quite right for everybody. You may not have enough detail in the descriptions. The action may seem too abrupt or too drawn-out. But here’s the point: IT DOESN’T MATTER.

Think of your writing as a party (maybe that will make it less painful!). You get the house set up before the guests arrive, but once the guests are there you just let ‘er rip. Maybe you’ve got a few things planned, like a meal or a TV marathon you want to watch. Or maybe you’re somebody who just likes to let the party develop the way it’s going to develop. Anyway, as long as the party’s going, you’re going with it, just letting the whole thing flow along. You wouldn’t stop a good party to run the vacuum sweeper just because somebody spilled a little popcorn on the rug. You might gather up some dirty glasses, and you’d probably refill the chip and dip bowls, but you’ll save the major clean-up until after the party’s over.

The main thing here is, don’t let yourself get hung up on revising before you’re ready. Don’t keep rewriting that paragraph to get it absolutely right. Get it good enough and then keep going. The great thing about the writing process is that you’ve always got a chance to clean it up later. Let the guests go home, let yourself put your feet up and take a rest, let your brain relax.

And then get out that vacuum sweeper and go to work.

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