Become More Active, Join A Critique Group

As I’ve mentioned in one of my earlier posts, reading is essential to being a good writer. (Do you think there ever was a successful band that didn’t listen to other music?) So to continue to improve your “chops” in addition to reading, you should become a reviewer. Either join Goodreads.com and write lengthy reviews of the books you have read, or join a Critique group (I did both). However, the critique group will improve your analytic skill, and open your eyes. You will learn to know good writing when you see it because you are not reading final drafts that have undergone professional editing.

Critters Writer’s Workshop (critters.org) is a free online sci-fi, fantasy, and horror writing critique group. While it is free, they mandate your participation. If you are not actively submitting critiques to other author’s short stories or chapters, then they will delete your membership. On top of that, they have “pro” members, such as SFWA Chapter Presidents and Nebula Award winner Ken Liu. They were established in 1995 and have over 15,000 members and are still growing.

Being that it is online can cause some uneasiness. “What if my original work gets stolen?” you might ask. They are huge advocates of the Copyright law. It is posted heavily, and there hasn’t been any problems with that yet. FYI, the protections afforded to you under the U.S. Copyright law apply as soon as you put something original on paper, so your work is already protected and there is no need to file with the USPTO. Your alternate choice is to join local in-person critique groups, but you usually have to have something to share in front of the group (which you might not always have) and they critique you on the spot. The benefit of this being online is that I can take my time with my review before I send it in.

Critters allows you to submit your entire novel too, and members can elect to become part of a dedicated reading group for your novel. The point is, they have a really good system, and I highly recommend joining if you write in the fiction genres aforementioned.

As an active member of Critters Writer’s Workshop, I had the pleasure to submit my completed fantasy short story: The Ravenous Flock. I wrote it to a fair length of 5,000 words, which I believe is optimal for submitting to magazines (which they state on their websites), though most short stories that I have read and reviewed are around 7,500 words. Once submitted, you get added to the queue (unless you are “pro” then you go to the front of the line). The queue is so long that it usually results in your manuscript being read 3-4 weeks from when you had submitted it. (Not bad). When I receive feedback, I’ll post my opinion of how helpful or not helpful this process was.

I’ll leave you with this final note: Short Stories are a different beast. Mark Twain once said, “I don’t have time to write you a short letter, so I’ll write you a long one instead.” Terry Brooks also said, “Writing a short story was one of the hardest things he had ever done. He would rather have a 500 page project any day.” So when I read one of Ken Liu’s short stories on Critters.org and saw it was only 750 words, I was impressed. Then I began reading it…. it had a never ending comma… the whole 3 paragraph story was one sentence. I felt beyond inadequate; I felt unworthy… and it really opened my eyes. And I hope all new writers have the opportunity to experience the same. So go join a critique group!

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Questions For A Literary Agent

An agency has requested to read my full manuscript. After I had submitted it, I had been waiting to hear from them for about two weeks. Those two weeks were nerve racking. I began rereading my book and noticed so much more that needed editing. They were small things, but they were imperfections, so I did another round of editing. I took the liberty to send the revised manuscript to them just in case they hadn’t received my original submission (they never confirmed with me that they got it). 

The lady that I was in contact with informed me that she was 100 pages in and did not want to switch to a new file. I learned that she was an intern at the agency and it was her job to review my manuscript and then write a report to submit to her boss. As far as I can tell, this report is going to be the deciding factor in whether the agent chooses to offer me representation or not.She also informed me that whatever her boss’ decision is, he will let me read her report verbatim. While that is very comforting, this chance to communicate with an agent about my novel and my future as an author is monumental. It is also a critical opportunity for learning any information that can help me to succeed if, *knocks on wood*, he chooses to pass.

I can only hope that they can look past any minor errors that may have existed in the version of my manuscript that she read. I’m hoping that they can say, “With editing, this book would be great!” What I don’t want to hear is, “I’m sorry, while your story is compelling, your writing isn’t strong enough.” (Or something of that sort). So, in during the wait for their response, I have prepared a great many questions. When I get that phone call, I want to be ready.

  1. (The BIG question) What did you think of the story of The Soul Smith?
  2. What criteria was I being evaluated against?
  3. As an agent, what are you looking for in a book? (e.g. marketability, story, characters, originality, length?)
  4. What are you looking for from the author? (e.g. commitment, motivation, coach-able, long term relationship?)
  5. What was I doing well in my book?
  6. What is my greatest area that needs improvement?
  7. (If necessary) Am I worthy of a second chance?
  8. What did he like about my query letter? What caught his eye when I submitted?
  9. (Assuming he offers me representation) What are the next steps? (e.g. professional editing? submitting to publishers? getting it translated for international submission?)
  10. What services do you provide as a boutique agency?
  11. What could a full agency provide that a boutique agency cannot?
  12. What are the terms you are offering me? (% for international and national sales)

What Good Writing Is

I had the pleasure of reading On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King over the weekend and it really slapped me awake. It is a highly recommended read for any and all aspiring fiction authors. In my writing, I had to overcome one large hurdle to change my style and now I’ve found that I need to overcome another. So, as I perform some last minute revisions to my manuscript, I thought I would offer up some of the advice that Stephen King had provided (this is a summary of only a select few of his points and the examples are my own).

1) Show, don’t tell. This was my first obstacle that I had to overcome, however this weakness in my writing was brought to my attention by my most trusted friends early on, and I was able to adapt to reveal information to the reader in a more scenic way. I’ve encountered a lot of this in my readings on Critters Writer’s Workshop, so it does warrant mentioning. Telling is required, but only up to a point. Mr. King emphasizes the fact that you should always show the reader, rather than tell the reader.

Example of tell: The hag makes a foul and putrid mead that many rumor to taste like swine’s piss.

Example of show: Eric watched as the hag swirled her broomstick to stir the bubbling stew that filled her bathtub. She threw in a honeycomb speckled with dead bees into the mixture. The hag bent low to retrieve a stein from the mudded floor as she pat her pet pig. She dipped the stein into the bath and scooped up some fluid.

“Here’s your mead,” she said as she plopped the iron stein onto the counter.

2) Adverbs are the devil. Anything that ends in -ly should be removed. This is my second hurdle that I am now addressing in my manuscript. Adverbs are a clear sign of a new writer. It’s lazy. Describing scenes and actions without them promotes and fosters more detailed writing. Mr. King emphasizes that they should especially never be used to describe how a character says something. “He or She said” is all that is required.

Example: “I love you,” he said passionately.

Alternate Example: The candle light shone in his eyes as he held her hands in his. “I love you,” he said.

3) No fluff. No Redundancies. Often times simple scenes can be over explained, or you describe the obvious. Plain and simple, Mr. King’s recommendation is to follow this formula to tighten up your writing. It increases pace and matures your work.

2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%

4) Don’t stop reading, and don’t stop writing. Getting better at the craft requires both. There has never been a successful author that doesn’t have the time to read. Additionally, Mr. King suggests setting a goal for yourself: Set aside a block of time each day and try to write at least 1,000 words a day. Sticking to a regimented schedule is important, even if you don’t meet that goal every day.

How to Format your Final Manuscript

I just had the pleasure of formatting my final complete manuscript, so I would like to share how it should be done with other authors. I had to use multiple different sites to obtain concurrence about how something should be formatted as well as just to find ALL the information. Too many websites left out important details so I will ensure that this one is comprehensive.

Title Page

In the top left corner, you should have: Your real name, address, phone number, email address. Top right corner should say: Approx. XX,XXX words. Then centered in the center of the page, it should say TITLE OF BOOK <press enter> by <press enter> Your Name or Pen Name.

NOTE: As much as I wanted to include the cover art for my novel, it has no place here. That is why I believe authors (even unpublished ones) should have a webpage. The agent/publisher should have been given a link to your website during the Query process, which is how you can get them to see it. I will Blog about this later.

Manuscript Header in Microsoft Word

Insert Header, pick Blank. In the top left hand corner type “Your Last Name/TITLE OF YOUR BOOK”. Under the Design tab, check the box for “Different First Page”… this will let you NOT have a Header on your Title Page (which is what you want).

After done entering the info in the left corner, Hit Tab twice. Select Insert Page Number, Current Position, Plain Number. You should edit it so that the page number count starts at 0… this will take into account the title page (and since no header will be displayed on that page) the first page of your manuscript will start with 1.

Entire Manuscript Format

Within Microsoft Word, hit Ctrl + A to select all your text. BE CAREFUL NOT TO DELETE ANYTHING WHILE EVERYTHING IS SELECTED.

Make everything 12 point Font.

Make everything either Times New Roman, Courier, or Courier New Font.

Make everything Double Spaced. Instead of choosing “Double Spaced” as your Line spacing selection, choose “Exactly” and set it to 25 pt.

Make everything have 1″ margins on every side of the page.

At the end of your manuscript, center the word “End” on a page.

All new paragraphs should be indented (TAB over).

Chapters

When you start a chapter, the word “Chapter” should be 1/3 or 1/2 the way down the page. Make sure the way you capitalize Chapter, and/or the way you use the numeric portion is consistent throughout. For example, CHAPTER 1, or CHAPTER ONE, or Chapter 1, or Chapter One.

The first sentence of your chapter should always be indented half an inch (or one TAB over). This is exactly how every new paragraph should start.

In order to keep Chapters starting on their own new page, you should always enter in a Page Break. This can be done by inserting a Page Break through the buttons in Microsoft Word or simply hitting Ctrl + Enter at the end of every Chapter.

Little Things

If your manuscript ever changes POV, use a # in-between the paragraphs to signify it, make sure it is centered on the page.

If there is a break in time, use *** between paragraphs, make sure it is centered.

Some Agents/Publishers are picky about how you format it. Just follow their instructions. If they don’t provide instructions, then follow what I have outlined above. If you are submitting it via e-mail, then you should probably send as a .pdf (unless they request different). If you are printing it out, do NOT print front and back… just do 1 sided printing. And if you print it out, ONLY use plain white paper.