Friday, May 30, 2014

Constructive Criticism and Magic

I don’t think of constructive criticism as an oxymoron. Constructive comments as a term might sound less harsh. Better yet, feedback. Whatever you call it, it is invaluable for a writer seeking to improve skills and a story.

Writers need not fear revisions and rewrites. That’s where the magic happens.

I’ve recently gathered the confidence to let my novel out to a few trusted readers with the instruction, request actually, to give me comments and feedback.

Now, I have to wait and fret. I’ve spent the better part of four years building up to this point. If the consensus is totally negative, what can I do? Start completely over after investing so much? That will hurt. I’ve heard of writers doing just that. They put a bad manuscript in a drawer and go on to the next something else. Sadder, but wiser.

I suppose I could move on the next project. Check out writing websites for ideas. But I’d rather not. I still have high hopes for my Bishop Hill novel. I’d rather have constructive comments and ideas on how to make it better, to continue working within the framework of what I have already built.

When I took part in a novel writing workshop through the Midwest Writing Center in 2012, I had to come up with 30 pages of manuscript to share with the dozen other writers. I felt lucky to have those pages ready to go. Some of the other writers didn’t.

Amy Parker, a writer from Iowa City, led the group through the workshop process and set up these guidelines for us:

·        Read twice: first for pleasure, as with a “magazine read” and look for first impressions; second as a writer who marks up the manuscript to indicate the passages that delight, that confuse, that pose questions. In short, fill in the margins with comments.

·        Write a one page letter to the author. She wanted us to describe the story, what happens, and where we thought it was going. Readers can pick up on things the author may not have intended. We need to know what worked for the reader, what moved them, what they admired.

The goal was to get at what confused the reader. Where the story needed development, gaps filled, inconsistencies fixed, language clarified. What scenes that could be compressed or summaries that could be amped up.

I don’t expect my readers to go through a whole novel twice, but I am hoping for good suggestions for the next rewrite. After all, magic is a good thing.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Stay Calm: Don't Hyphen-ventilate

I think I’ve finally figured it out. Why Quad-Cities becomes Quad Cities and vice versa.

It’s been a mystery to me ever since, well, ever since I started writing my own mystery.

Along with learning how to write, what makes “good” writing, are the finer points of punctuation—the glue that holds a sentence together. Sadly, in my middle school days, I willfully ignored that nice Language Arts teacher. I’ve paid a heavy price for that indiscretion ever since.

So now, I’m playing a catch up game. I actually bought and read a grammar book. I supplement that with a lot of Google searches. I ask my kids. Stuff like that gets me by until I’m ready to buy the time of a professional editor to check things over.

I feel I’ve improved over time. However, my spell checker program still remains a life saver more often than not. But it has its limitations—it doesn’t do hyphens well. As in, it doesn’t tell me what to do. It gives me choices. Not at all helpful. Most days I can’t decide what I want for lunch.

I found an online dictionary comment that said hyphen usage was down. Don’t believe it. Once you start looking, hyphens are everywhere.

Which brings me to my conundrum. The collection of cities that straddle the Mississippi River northwest of Bishop Hill is a nice place. I’d like to send one of my characters there. Do I hyphenate the name or not?

The answer came by way of a newspaper article about the Quad City Symphony Orchestra celebrating its centennial. It seems the original name was the Tri-City Symphony. I envisioned the ensuing years saw Tri-City turn into Quad-City as the organization grew and prospered. The final stage of growth and transformation required the omission of the hyphen. Quad City can stand on its own as a mature entity. It doesn’t hurt that it can also assume equal, nonhyphenated, standing with the Illinois Arts Council.

In case you’re wondering if this situation applies only to artsy groups, consider the Quad City Mallards.

Therefore, I’m going to send my character off to visit some nice people living in the Quad Cities and let the editorial chips fall where they may.

Friday, May 16, 2014

A Multitude of Michaels

I’m lucky to have many Michaels in my life, both past and present.

I recently helped the first of my Michaels get to O’Hare airport. Not by driving, mind you, his dad drove. I sat in the back seat trying to convince my smart phone to give me verbal directions to go along with the map. Everyone had a safe journey and I got in a lot of valuable practice time virtually navigating around Chicago.

Another one of my Michaels is a family friend, a bright young man I watched grow up. And yes, when he started kindergarten he rechristened himself with a new middle name—Dinosaur. I’ve waited a long time to find a place for that little gem.

He’s grown up to become a responsible family man with an impressive beard that makes him look a lot like his father. I ran into him at a museum a few months ago, but didn’t mention his little niche in my novel as we chatted. It wasn’t the right time.

Two other of my Michaels are a father and son. The son was responsible for my family getting involved in the Bishop Hill 4-H club. I put in ten years shepherding kids through monthly meetings, helping them complete all kinds of projects, and staging local and state fair presentations. Personal high point: watching rockets and robots do their stuff. Least favorite: the lemon shake-up assembly line.

One day, I had the three of these young men sitting in my living room. I walked in to tell my son something and called out his name. Three sets of eyes simultaneously turned to stare at me and I immediately lost track of what I wanted to say. Whatever important thought that had been there fled my mind, just as I fled the room.

The last of my immediate collection of Michaels was a brother who never had a chance to grow up.

There are probably a few more Michaels that I have forgotten about. It has been a popular name for a long time, so I hope they’ll forgive me if I can’t mention each one.

I just wanted folks to know how I rolled all these people up to become the namesake and inspiration for one of my characters.

Additionally, bits and pieces of many other people went into creating the personality and background for this character.

I hope the finished product will be a tribute to all.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Story Arc

In an effort to add form and substance to my work-in-progress, my Bishop Hill mystery, I participated in a workshop entitled “The Novel as Machine of Desire: A Crash Course in Story Structure” offered at the 2013 David R. Collins Writers’ Conference.

Amy Hassinger, of Iowa City, began the three day workshop by posing three questions:

  • What do your characters want?
  • Do they get it?
  • What gets in their way?

According to Amy, to know the answers to these questions is to know your story. They are at the heart of plotting and novel structure.

I was far enough along that I could answer the first two questions fairly well. However, I couldn’t say I knew everything I needed to know about my protagonist. She needed more obstacles to overcome, ways to stretch, grow, and become a “real” person.
By day two, we were using sheets of paper to actually draw arcs for individual characters, plots, and subplots. We then filled in basic details appropriate to each one. I really liked the visual aspect. I needed to see form, shape, and negative space come together. It reminded of my jewelry-making days in the Colony Blacksmith Shop in Bishop Hill.

Modern word processing pretty much gave me the means to seriously start writing—less than ten years ago. I discovered I could put together a story in the same manner I created my jewelry. I always started by sketching out designs before creating the physical segments that I could move around, change, and reorganize into a new, creative whole. Merely another way to cut and paste.

Now, instead of creating silver rings, I fashion sentences and paragraphs. Instead of forming sections for a necklace or bracelet, I link up scenes to form a story. Just as I once worked to refine and polish metal, I now rework and fine-tune my grammar and punctuation. It’s all a similar, ongoing process using different tools.

These days, I employ spell checking programs and use online search engines to supplement old copies of textbooks, the OED, and a trusty thesaurus. No more hammers, wire cutters, and files.

By the last day of the workshop, I had such empathy for the process I was learning that I dug out of storage one of my larger necklaces. Every link was wire wrapped in a different way. Small links for behind the neck with larger, more complex ones progressing outward from there. At the center, a set of interlocking rings for maximum movement.

If someone would have commented on the necklace, I would have taken it off and shown them how easily the shape could change. Demonstrate how malleable it was and, to me, the perfect symbol of the story arc.

But, no one did. I was left to savor my cleverness alone.

Friday, May 2, 2014

Easter Egg Hunt 2014

The book I’m working on takes place in and around Bishop Hill, Illinois. I spent twenty-four years of my adult life living and working there. I had a jewelry-making business and raised two sons. I was involved in local organizations and on occasion wrote for the Galva News. I think I know that area as well as anything else in my life. Perhaps more than anything else. So naturally, the themes I explore in my mystery novel revolve around my past experiences in this part of Henry County. I say past, because I now live in Davenport, Iowa.

Central to my fictionalized story of a recent college grad coming home to a mystery involving a prominent Swedish-American folk artist and missing paintings is a cast of make-believe characters that starts with a 103-year-old runaway. I found it far easier to create these composite personalities than to name them all. In the midst of my first NaNoWriMo surge of writing, I had to give up on finding everyone a unique Swedish sounding surname. Instead, I went for the common and overused. This didn’t turn out as bad as you might think; it actually presented a couple of opportunities for humor. However, I wouldn’t call them Easter eggs in the traditional sense of hidden treasures awaiting discovery by an astute reader. They’re easy to spot and explained away early on.

Also in a lighter vein, I took pains to add to my narrative many, many references to coffee. After all, it’s such a Swedish thing to do. Stieg Larsson did it in his books, so why couldn’t I? Two perfectly good excuses right there.

Anyway, I’m closing in on the ending to my novel and still no cleverly hidden gem I’d call an Easter egg.

Then I got an idea. Will it work? Perhaps? Sure, why not try. To be fair, I have to go back to the beginning and add some appropriate clues. Not a big deal with my computer. I use my outline to hunt up the most likely places for the patches. The next rewrite should smooth the rough edges. In the meantime, I think I have my Easter egg. Only time and some reader feedback will let me know if I’ve succeeded or not.