Thursday, October 22, 2009

Snapshots in My Mind

Writers notice things. I often think we'd make good detectives. Whether it's the violet-green swallow colony flocking on a wire before they wing their way south, the exact color a tree glows red just before it drops its leaves in the first wintry blast, or the way a young soldier in the sandwich shop talks bravely about his deployment but won't look anyone directly in the eye. Writers notice things, and make mental snapshots of them, tucked away to use at a later date.

When my uncle found out I'd become a writer he said, "oh yes, that makes sense - you were always the quiet one." Quiet maybe, to the external world, but always watching, always jotting things down for later use in the back of my mind.

Just like photographers enjoy capturing and recording the moment in a photograph, just like artists enjoy portraying colors and feelings in all kinds of various media, writers capture moments, too. We save them in our minds, waiting for a later time when we attempt to describe them in our chosen media - words.

Recently, in the middle of a nice discussion, my mind wandered to a spider crawling on the wall. In a very short period of time the spider crawled up to the ceiling and halfway across. Yuck, some of you might be thinking. Squish him, get that spider out of there! (I almost never squish spiders. Usually I help them crawl onto a towel, walk them quickly to the front door, and then shake them off outside with good wishes for a nice life.)

But I was fascinated by this spider's journey, and my reaction to it, and kept thinking how I could use that in a scene. Perhaps one of my characters is having a nice discussion, a nice moment with someone, when she suddenly gets interested in a spider crawling along the ceiling. Does the person she is with get upset at her for not listening? Do they get in an argument over the importance of the life of a lowly spider? Does one of them stomp off, and everything in their relationship changes from that very moment?

I was not only watching the spider, but making up scenes in my head about it.

My mother bought me a cool sweatshirt that reads: Careful, or you'll end up in my novel. Maybe it should actually read: Careful, creative mind taking notes.
Do you take snapshots in your mind? What kinds of things do you notice?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spotted Donkey Babies

Because my last post was so long and wordy - here's a short one you will love.

See? I knew you'd like it.

Jasmine and Buttons, donkey babies I raised a few years ago.

Stay tuned for an upcoming post about how owning donkeys prepares you for survival in the publishing business.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

In Praise of Critique Groups

I have been part of a fantastic critique group for several years. I cannot sing its praises high enough. We are an eclectic group, and we write all kinds of stuff - from dark science fiction to fluffy cozies, from middle grade to murder mysteries, from young adult to women's literature, with even the occasional picture book thrown in.

Although our membership has been somewhat elastic over the past several years, we have quite a solid base right now of around six to seven people, and usually we have five or six actively participating in each meeting.

I have been involved in other critique groups in which members read their work aloud. Afterwards, we all go around the circle and make comments. Sometimes the writer would hand copies around for everyone to read and make notes on, and sometimes not. This format works well for, say, picture books, which are meant to be read aloud, but for longer work, this doesn't really suit me. For one thing, I'm not so good composing my thoughts out loud, off the cuff. I like to take my time and think about what I want to say. And secondly, my mind is used to reading words, and processing them in that way, not hearing them.

My present critique group works in a different way, which I have found so helpful to my writing. Each week, if we have a manuscript we've been working on, we submit a chapter or two, with copies for everyone. These we take home, read at our leisure, make notes on, and write a short critique for the submitter, to be discussed at the next meeting. When our brain cells are all firing, and we are all actively submitting, this can be a lot of homework!! And indeed, we have inadvertently chased some people away from joining our group, because it is, indeed, for serious writers. But with written critiques to look back on, I can pick up a manuscript I am working on at a later date, and still have all the notes from my fellow critiquers to help me in my next round of edits.

Our group met for several years without a name. Our writing genres were all over the board. How could we come together and pick a name? But at one productive brainstorming session, we realized that we were all working hard because we had one common goal: To Be Authors. Hence, a name popped up- the TBA group. And this name, and goal, has served us well in describing our group to potential members. If a writer has a completed manuscript, and has been actively seeking publication (or indeed has been published) then they might be a good fit.

What do I get from my critique group? Oh, lots and lots and lots . . .

For starters, it's a time when I don't feel crazy. When I can associate with people as nutty as me, who will stop anywhere, anytime, in the middle of the night or day, to somehow find a pen and jot down those perfect, important, beautiful WORDS that just floated across our brains.

Second - knowing that I have to write critiques keeps me writing. Sometimes, the critiques I write for other members are the Only Intelligent Thing I've written all week. So yeah, that's a good thing.

Third - I love our long-winded, over-the-top, brilliant and sometimes even loud discussions about imaginary characters and events we have invented on paper. We get so carried away we are often afraid a librarian might open the door to our meeting room and shush us. Our characters spring to life off our pages, and we are thoroughly engaged in their struggles .

Fourth - we learn so much from reading each other's writing. All writers, brilliant or not, make grammar mistakes, write horrid sentences, often don't say what they really mean the first time around. Watching (and reading) other people struggle with these things allows us to pick out those same mistakes in our own work. It also allows us to feel validated and not alone (as in, hey, I'm not the only one who writes crappy first drafts, hee hee.)

Fifth - it is so helpful to have a variety of people discuss your work. Some of us point out little nit-picking details that need to be changed. Others point out transitions, or chapter endings, or character descriptions that could be better. And some of us can see the bigger picture - like, what was it you were really trying to say in this piece?

Sixth - the other nice thing about having several different people read your work is you realize how subjective this business is. For every scene or description or dialogue passage one of us does or doesn't like, we often have someone else pipe up and say "oh, I loved that part!!" This is such an important lesson to learn, and gives us heart and hope to keep writing in our own voice. Of course, if your entire critique group agrees that something needs to be changed, than perhaps you'd better give it a harder look :-)

Last - but certainly not least (I could think of many more reasons I love my critique group, but this post would be too long) is TRUST. It is not often you can sit down with a group of people you only see twice a month, and trust them with something so personal and precious as a FIRST DRAFT!! Here (you think to yourself, as you hand them the first couple of chapters), here are hours and hours of time spent in front of that blasted computer screen, time trying to compose my thoughts, time pouring words out into the universe, hoping they will mean what I say and say what I mean, hoping these words will somehow, somewhere touch someone, make them laugh, or cry, make them think, or possibly UNDERSTAND. Here, you say, is my precious FIRST DRAFT. Treat it like you would a newborn anywhere, gently and honestly and with great compassion. And you know what? As I let go of those pages and pass them around the table, I TRUST my critique group to do just that.

I wish all of you luck in finding a critique group that meets your needs.

I don't know what I would do without mine.