Tag Archives: storytelling

Plots and Plans

At our bi-weekly Okinawa Military Community Writers meeting, Kyle led off the discussion with an exercise in developing the main idea of a short story, novella, or book. He posted about this and covered the 5 Ws that can help a writer summarize the story they intend to write.

I hope to build on that here with some additional tools or techniques for devising a plot line. Your mileage may vary, but hopefully one of these options will prove useful.

So you want to write a book…

Anyone setting out to write hopes to create something new and interesting, a unique contribution to their genre–and that’s a noble aspiration, of course. That might make some of these formulaic approaches seem unpalatable.

The thing to remember about a formula is it exists because it works.

Readers expect certain elements in particular genres… and this is not bad. A reader should have a decent idea what to expect based on the cover, back copy, and the first few pages. The tale may be familiar in structure, but unique in the telling, which makes it a fun read.

Deviating from the standard plan can be creative. Deviating too much is detrimental unless you telegraph it from the beginning.
In one of his excellent lectures on writing, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson brings up the example of a fellow writer who got published around the same time as Sanderson’s first book, Elantris. Sanderson’s book sold well and launched his career. The other fellow’s book sold poorly. What started as one type of novel (fantasy coming of age) suddenly became an entirely different book (dark and gritty science fiction) about three-quarters of the way in. Obviously other factors could be at work in this example, but when a book doesn’t deliver on its promise, that turns readers away.

That’s where planning and plotting can help. If we understand the commitment we’re making and the steps we should take in order to fulfill that promise, it’s easy to give readers what they will like.

“But I write free and unrestrained,” one may protest. “An outline or plot is a straitjacket in a padded room, an orange jumpsuit in a prison cell. I won’t go willingly.”

Pantsers (those who write by the seat of the pants) can still find use in these tools and structures. However, instead of using one to start an outline, the pantser can use these to guide the first major revision. If we’ve done our job as writers, the rough first draft will have elements of story and theme and proper flow between events, leading from whatever kicks off the thrill ride to the explosive climax. Figuring out the main structure of a story–even a free-writing journey of creativity–can illuminate what works and what fits, or highlight what should be cut to make the end result leaner and tighter.

Get your writing on LOCK

James Scott Bell writes about the LOCK method in Plot and Structure, among other books. The elements are:

  • Lead – a compelling or interesting character we’re going to care about enough to read through an entire novel.
  • Objective – the important goal or need driving this character into action they might otherwise avoid
  • Confrontation – the opposing forces or agents keeping the Lead from a quick solution
  • Knockout – an unexpected yet exciting ending that wraps up the conflict while blowing the reader’s mind

The stakes in the conflict have to be high–usually involving death. That doesn’t mean the lead or some support character must literally be hanging from a cliff or targeted in a sniper’s scope. Death can be professional (disbarred as a lawyer, kicked out of the military, imprisoned for a crime, or simply shamed and humiliated), or personal (divorced by the spouse they love, abandoned or rejected by their child, trapped forever in regret and frustration at what might have been).

Varying the Variables

A technique I picked up from George Guthridge during a fantasy writing workshop involves sorting out the variables and reasons that sum up the conflict, almost like a math formula.

(Variable 1) (verb phrase) (variable 2) because (reason).

For example, “A hopeless loser gets his life mixed up with his wealthy twin because neither knew the other existed.” So we get all the variations on The Prince and the Pauper, such as Freaky Friday, the Parent Trap, and a number of plots for one-off episodes in cartoons and comedy shows.

The trick here is to ensure that most of the equation involves some new or interesting. One of the variables can be boring–the hopeless loser, for example–but the rest must be exciting for the equation to work.

For example, the hopeless modern-day loser is trained to use magic by an enigmatic centuries-old sorcerer because only together can they close the portal to Hell in the middle of Times Square.

Okay, that’s been done, but the point is only one part of that equation feels like it fits in the mundane everyday world.

Filling Out the Outline

Guthridge also taught a skeletal plot structure that lays out the protagonist’s character arc, around which all the rest of the story will build. Here are the pieces of that framework:

  1. The Protagonist (what’s interesting about him or her?)
  2. Has an emotional / inner problem (what’s the backstory that led to this personal issue?)
  3. But an outside problem arises (what happens that forces the protagonist to face their issue and backstory?)
  4. Protagonist tries a solution that not only fails, but makes things worse (how are the stakes raised as a result?)
  5. Repeat 4 with another failed solution that builds the conflict and deepens the crisis
  6. Repeat 4 if you have space for a third failed solution and the resulting increased tension
  7. Protagonist solves the outer problem (without help from God, luck, friends, family, deus ex machina stuff)…
  8. And in so doing also solves or overcomes their inner problem

This will establish the main thrust of your character’s journey. Plotters can use it to start an outline; pantsers can look for how what they’ve written conforms to this kind of arc and revise accordingly.

Characters Change… Maybe?

Some books and speakers insist that a story is a series of events where characters change. This isn’t always true.

While considering the path a character will take (or has taken in the first draft), it may be that he or she remained firm in their convictions, against all the odds and pressure to change. Some stories are about people whose unwavering beliefs carry them through seemingly insurmountable odds. The tension builds with the increasing temptation to give in, and readers wonder, “Will they break? Will they sell out?” We’re satisfied when they don’t. Think of Captain America in the Avengers movies, who states that sometimes when all the world pushes you to move, you have to stand your ground and say, “No, you move.”

Conversely, plenty of stories involve the transition from an old belief or worldview to a new take on reality. Most “apprentice” novels and coming-of-age stories involve an underdog who becomes a master of their craft while developing the internal confidence to stand up for themselves.

A character may stand firm or change views–then we can reveal if their decision will end well or poorly for them. Maybe it’s a mistake with dire consequences, a cautionary tale. The unwavering person might not be able to survive a changing world (alas, Ned Stark!), and the person shifting their beliefs might live to regret their decision. Either of these can be a satisfying (if not happy) resolution to a character’s arc.

Nothing New Under the Sun

None of these structures or techniques are first-seen, unheard of, unique experimental snowflake novels. They don’t have to be. Everything we do and create is derivative of something we’ve seen or experienced–that’s what makes it relatable. The familiarity of the structure puts readers in a comfortable place, but each writer’s individual twists or combinations of ideas build a fresh experience that keeps the writing from feeling like what we’ve seen before. On top of that, no one tells a story exactly the same way; the use of voice and style in writing puts the spice in the casserole of words that will satisfy a hungry reader.

I hope the tools above and the 5 Ws from Kyle’s post help spur some creative writing. Whether following a recipe is easier, or looking at a picture and winging it is preferred, let’s get cooking and serve up something delicious.

Feedback vs Feel Bad

“Well, I tried to read it, but… sorry, I couldn’t get past the first page.”

If you’ve ever put your creative work out for other to see, you likely did so wincing with trepidation, unsure what to expect.

Do they love it? Do they hate it?

Did he just laugh? At what?

Did she just raise her eyebrows?

Is that interest at a cool turn of phrase, or disgust at some mistake I didn’t catch?

Sometimes the response you get back is empty of value. Other times, it’s thoughtless and crushing.

One of the hardest steps we take as amateur writers is giving others the opportunity to read our work. It feels easier to leave all our poems or stories in files on the computer than to face the judgment we fear.

But unless it’s a private diary or journal, reading is an essential part of the writing process. The audience is the intended recipient of all our word-smithing, and their response is the tool we use to discover what we’re doing well and where we’ve missed the mark.

What if we could witness those important cues and responses in a friendly setting, a “safe space” of sorts? What if we got insight from other writers on a similar journey–people who know not just what we’re going through but how it feels–rather than from “professional readers” whose replies lack technical detail or depth?

Enter the feedback group.

I’ve written about the value of such groups before, so this time, I thought I could show an example of what good feedback looks like:

What He Would Have Wanted–Full Critique

The Word document at that link is a combination of comments and discussion points over aspects of grammar, description, dialogue, and format. I love the comment feature on Word and similar programs for this purpose.

Feedback2.png

Kyle writes epic fantasy, and he also pays great attention to detail. He uses AutoCrit among other programs and services to dig into the weeds on his own writing.

One good example of such detail is that in my original draft, I used “then” 12 times. As an example of the constructive type of feedback, Kyle not only pointed these out but also provided re-writing suggestions for how to avoid them.

Feedback1

Jessica is an avid fantasy reader and helped me see what worked really well in my descriptions.

A newcomer to the group, Natalie mentioned how a portion of dialogue struck her as possibly too modern for the setting.

Judy is a professor at one of the on-base colleges. She saw a lot of meaning in the imagery and word choice that I didn’t anticipate or intend. I can use that feedback to do a better job intentionally incorporating those aspects in future writing.

One point that isn’t captured in the document (because I forgot to add it as a comment): I described Fleuris as having hair the color of carnations… but there are many varieties of carnations. Judy and Kyle assumed red, and Jessica pictured a light pink–which is what I was aiming for. Lesson learned: it’s not a clear description as written.

At the end of the session, Natalie–a newcomer to the group–remarked that the experience was better than she expected or feared. In her career dealing with military writing, she’d seen arguments over whether to use “or” or “and” in order to highlight some meaning in an article. “People spend hours bickering over these minor details,” she said. “I guess I thought it might be like that.”

That fear is common when joining a new community or putting our work out for others to see. But like many things in life, the fear is often far worse than reality.

In a good group, everyone has the same vision of constructive criticism in order to make each other’s work better. In that light, while it may sting a little to realize I’ve made a mistake, I develop from the insight of others and hone my skills for next time.

For anyone wishing to grow as a writer, I can think of no greater resource or method than a solid, constructive feedback group.

Military Community Writers currently meets every two weeks from 10:30 to 12:30 on Saturday at the Kadena Base Library. Our next meeting is July 29th. Got something to share? Come out and take the plunge with the rest of us.

Graphic Subjective Matter

There’s a lot of froth and excitement on the Interwebs about the recent episode of HBO’s Game of Thrones, which involved a graphic rape scene.

For a number of fans, this crossed a line and forced them to give up the show–a show which up to now has been extensively violent and sexual, with depictions of incest, dismemberment, beheadings, sadism, murder of children, murder of a pregnant woman and her unborn child, and the exploding of a human head with one’s bare hands… to name a few choice subjects.

The series is full of questionable matter, but we all draw our lines in the sand differently.

On the one hand, some question what makes rape any different from the above. The show’s writers are clearly depicting a horrible world in which people with power often abuse those without power, including through sexual assault. The perpetrator is an already-established cruel villain delighted by inflicting pain and stripping his victims of any shred of humanity left to them. Defenders of the show might say this accurately depicts evil, both in the individual perpetrator and in the world at large. This is the grim reality of the world Martin created in the novels and all too often reflective of the world around us. At this point, there’s sort of a sense that “you knew what you were in for when you clicked on this show, and you could turn it off if you really wanted to.”

On the other hand, is a rape scene necessary at all? Or is it a trope and a symptom of lazy writing? Abuse of women is all too common even in our modern “progressive” society, let alone medieval times–something I hope we’d all prefer to see changed. Doesn’t portraying such violence glorify or encourage the act? Is it just a cheap grab at the “feels” of the reader, an easy way to engender compassion or empathy for a character? Does the scene require graphic and detailed explanation? Will this moment serve a purpose? Or is it only there to prove the grittiness of the storyline? Are we pushing an edge to say something meaningful, or simply because there’s an edge to push?

I have to ask, what’s wrong with a simple fade-to-black? When the lovers passionately kiss and start pawing at each other, they can close the bedroom door without showing anything specific, and the meaning of that moment isn’t lost. When the sadistic villain makes obvious threats about what he intends to do with his captive, again, we don’t need to see it take place to guess at what actually takes place between scenes. When the killer is bearing down on his intended victim, we don’t have to see a knife plunge repeatedly into someone’s body to understand the peril of the moment.

I know, that’s a nicety for the prudes and the oddities who don’t want or need to see nudity and blood splashed on every other scene. There’s a reason this particular show plays on HBO and not NBC primetime.

And this leads me to think about writing and storytelling. Whether we’re talking graphic sex, graphic violence, or a combination of the two, I have to ask: What’s the point of it? Is it shock value or storytelling?

I’ve seen the question posed long before this episode of Game of Thrones. And I’ve given it some thought, but only in the distant sense of conjecture. Then I considered my fantasy novel, currently in first-draft form being read by a selection of alpha readers.

There’s a scene early on where the main character is assaulted. When writing, it struck me that rough men willing to murder an innocent and isolated woman would probably also have no qualms about taking advantage of her situation. I don’t provide a heap of details, and the moment “fades to black” before anything graphic takes place. In this case, the desperation she feels in the moment triggers activation of a hidden power as yet undiscovered, which leads to the rest of the events of the book.

One of my friends pointed out that the scene lacks the sense of utter powerlessness and helplessness that would take hold during an actual assault. There’s a sudden crippling realization, I’m told, that nothing you can do is going to stop this from happening.

Maybe that’s part of the fantasy, I guess… that in this one case, someone trapped in such a terrible situation suddenly finds empowerment and escape, and stops the assault before it goes too far.

A mantra I’ve often heard among writers is that “every word has to do double work” meaning every word counts and serves a purpose. There’s no room for bloat and fat. So if we include anything graphic in our creative works, it ought to have a greater point than mere spectacle or sensationalism. We can show how evil respects no boundary formed by civil society; that doesn’t mean we simply violate social bounds to show off.

I’m not sure that’s the guideline the show is following, but it works for me.

I’m curious: what are your thoughts as a reader or viewer regarding graphic violence and sexuality in a written story, movie, or television show?

Finding Voice

You must strive to find your own voice, because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all.

– Prof. Keating (Robin Williams) in Dead Poets Society

In critique groups, writing conference presentations, and books dedicated to the craft, I’ve often seen reference made to “finding your voice.”

Sadly, the description of what that is and instructions on how to do so are all fairly vague–by necessity. Voice is a big part of what sets one author apart from another in writing. But it’s an elusive quality, hard to pin down sometimes, let alone to document in a how-to book. The consensus is, the best way to find it is to write, write, write. And then write some more.

I don’t think I could give a lot of clear, descriptive adjectives about the sound of my wife’s voice. But you can bet I’ll recognize it as soon as I hear it.

One good practice is to look at examples where an author has a particular style that sets them apart. Read how they write, and consider how the word choice and sentence structure create the desired effects.

I somehow missed that Prince Lestat came out at the end of 2013. I picked it up as a travel companion. Very quickly I realized I don’t much care for Anne Rice’s style of writing. In my late teens, I read some of her work and loved it. Now, I deemed it haphazard, a little wordy, with too much rambling for my tastes.

Then again, she’s making money with ease, so who am I to judge? We all like what we like, and she’s clearly got a fan base.

What I did like about the book is that it felt like dropping in on old friends. The chapters written as Lestat sound like that character in my mind… how he would say a thing, how he would interpret events taking place. While I may not like the writing style, the voice shines through.

Another great example is this gem I picked up solely based on a recommendation by Brandon Sanderson in one of his blog posts: The Accidental Highwayman by Ben Tripp.

It’s a madcap adventure through an England on the cusp of the Industrial Revolution, with an intrusion of magic into the real world. The “voice” Tripp uses for his characters and their descriptions of his world seem effortlessly perfect. Line after line stands crafted to drop the reader squarely into Kit Bristol’s head, with no cracks or flaws in the writing to jar the reader. It is chaotic and quite silly–no serious thinking required here. Therefore, it probably falls in a “love it or hate it” category. But for a light-hearted jaunt, or a mental break from the demands of the real world, the book serves well.

I now can see that’s more likely the result of dedication and hard work than a gift of luck or genius as a writer. And this gives me hope. Because otherwise I’d read something like his work, declare my inability to match such skill, and go play video games for the rest of my days.

Back Where I Started

On a deployment six and a half years ago, to a “secret” undisclosed location in Southwest Asia (that everyone knew all about), I picked up some D&D rulebooks to keep boredom at bay.

I read through the rules of the game, and noted some of the authors’ suggestions for ideas players could use for their characters–or Dungeon Masters could use to write stories those characters could star in, like a Choose Your Own Adventure.

And it struck me that no matter how well I planned a story, real live people would make decisions I didn’t anticipate, causing the Adventure to go in any of several exciting ways–but not the way I first envisioned.

So why not write the story the way I wanted to?

I sat under the Memorial Plaza’s massive double-tent (affectionately referred to by most as “the bra” for how it appears from a distance) or at the Coffee Beanery shop across the street, and I began to write.

I’ve written things before, of course. But during my two trips here several years ago, I decided to take writing seriously. Within a couple years of studying novel writing and elements of style, over the course of six plus months deployed (and time writing at home), I’d typed out over 100,000 words of a massive fantasy tale.

But the material borrowed too heavily from genre tropes. It sounded too much like World of Warcraft or Dungeons and Dragons in novel form. It had no unique element to separate it from the rest of the books on any fantasy shelf, along with too many elements I discovered had been done before and better than anything I’d write.

I decided to shelve the thing until I could devise some fixes to all the problems I saw. And I worked on other projects until I found the solutions to those glaring issues.

I regret that decision. It took me six and a half years to develop the discipline to finish a full novel manuscript–not of this fantasy project, just a novel–because I’d learned to give up part way whenever I felt a project had too many flaws.

So here I sit, where I began years ago, halfway through the almost-completely-rewritten manuscript of my long-planned fantasy novel. A lot has changed. Almost everything about the world, the magic systems, and the long-term plan for the story is different than when I first envisioned it. Also, I’m allowed to sit here in jeans and a Hawaiian shirt instead of wearing Air Force PT gear.

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Most important, I’ve proven to myself through NaNoWriMo that I can finish what I start, flawed or not.

So this time, I will have a completed draft before I depart for home. I may find my way out here again in the next few years, but I don’t want this novel to come with me for a fourth trip.

D&D 5th Ed: A Resurgence of Imagination

I quite possibly squealed with glee when I saw the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Player’s Handbook show up at our local base exchange book store. That meant they should carry the other books when those are published.

It's here!
It’s here!

I know there’s Amazon, but I still like picking up a physical thing and looking at it before deciding to plunk down my card or cash.

Some of my best-viewed blog posts are about 5th edition. It’s perhaps a trick of the title I chose; certain kinds of players go looking for ideas on how to build the “best” character to “win” at the game, so they’ll search online to see what combinations and tricks others have found within the rules to make (arguably) overpowered characters.

I suppose it’s the D&D version of human growth hormone, and it’s not banned… just frowned upon by some.

Leaving for a deployment plus NaNoWriMo kept me from focusing on setting up the long-awaited game for my family, let alone an actual group of people. But what D&D 5th Edition is doing well is just that: bringing groups of people back together.

Sure, your tabletop group today might bring along their tablets or iPhones for dice apps and fast tracking of information related to the game. The tabletop might even be virtual.

But people are connecting once again, telling stories together, and exploring that wonderful space between our ears. Some fear that in our digital, always-connected, everything-visualized world, there’s little room for imagination and wonder.

Thankfully I find these fears unfounded. My kids play with Legos and bring me their latest creations constantly. They also play Minecraft on the iPad or Xbox. But again, they often show off their wild palaces, deep caverns, and unique structures. They’re exercising and expressing their imagination with ease.

While I don’t fear for them in this area, I do want to encourage them–and their friends–and create spaces for their minds to play in. Because we have that ability to conceive of things beyond ourselves… beyond even the bounds of what we’ve seen or experienced before… beyond what actually exists and into what could.

Maybe that’s not for everyone. Whether the subject is video games, RPGs, or even TV shows and written fiction, I know I’ve heard the judgmental “I don’t waste my time thinking about things that aren’t real.”

How boring.

This article sums it up really well, even if the URL appears to be about something completely different (and super gross):

The awesome glory that is Dungeons and Dragons

Winner Winner

Winner-2014-Twitter-Profile

I’m happy to declare that I’ve validated the rough draft of my NaNoWriMo novel, “Not to the Swift,” and have won the event.

More importantly, I’ve actually completed a start-to-finish draft of a novel.

Up to this point, I’ve had outlines and chapters and scenes from multiple works-in-perpetual-progress, but never a finished draft. So the milestone is particularly exciting to me.

I could have uploaded the 50,000+ words my Friday evening, but the goal for me has been to actually get to a point where I could write two important words: The End.

It’s imperfect, no doubt dreadful in some places. There are scenes missing and plot problems I already realize I need to fix.

But for now I will enjoy the sense of victory.

Because if I can finish this one–about an unfamiliar topic in an unfamiliar genre–then I have no excuses for not knocking out the projects I’m really excited about.

No more excuses.

Cinema Sins

There’s a YouTube channel I admit (with some guilt) I find entertaining.

Cinema Sins posts clips from various movies, and they count up the number of terrible clichés, plot holes, and cheesy lines to give the movie a score. Needless to say, this game is like golf: the less points the better.

Their slogan is that no movie is without sins.

I watched the “review” of Divergent, which did not fair well. And while some of the critique might be valid, I began to wonder about what exactly they’re going for.

On the positive side, I can appreciate the criticism as a useful tool. As an aspiring novelist, they show great examples of what I might be doing wrong–instances where I might think “Wow, that’s cool” but then realize it was cool in those 15 action movies that each used the same scenario, plot twist, or snappy retort.

But on the other hand, I have to ask: What movie are these guys putting out there? What great amazing story are they writing?

Because it’s easy to sit back and look at everything Hollywood releases, tallying up sins and saying “Oh that’s so lame, that’s so overdone.” But it’s another story when you’re trying to create something unique, something special. (And arguably none of our stories are really all that unique. Most follow structures we’ve learned from other stories.)

Regardless of how many "sins" Cinema Sins finds in your plot.
Regardless of how many “sins” Cinema Sins finds in your plot.

I can’t help but think of the Roosevelt quote, always a great reminder:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

So there.

 

Ok, now I’m gonna go back into my draft and change some overdone plot twists.

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Elements of Critique: Perspective

Now that the A-Z blog challenge is done (thank God!), I thought I’d return to the theme I chose in order to cover three aspects that came up during the month of blogging. I’ll hit on perspective, participation, and planning, so that with the A-Z plus three posts, anyone could in theory organize and run their own critique group.

Three more “P” posts, for the price of none.

One of the keys to good criticism, noted in my ‘C’ post, is that it’s constructive. Critique is not about tearing down a fellow writer until they put up their pen or delete Word from their computer. It’s about working together building ourselves up into the best writers we are capable of becoming.

With any construction project, there are plans and considerations. Some of these will involve the overall style and aesthetics of the future building. Some will involve the math and physics required to ensure stable and lasting architectural integrity.

The math and physics are going to be objective – not contingent on anyone’s opinion. Will a support of such size hold up a roof of such weight? Will a foundation only so deep be able to bear the load of a building with so many storeys? There are equations involved, and these have to follow the rules of math in order to determine correct answers.

The aesthetics are subjective – open to interpretation and based in opinion. These probably involve the input of a designer and the owner. Will a large open welcome center suit our purposes? Would the project be better with a more curved appearance to the structure? Does the design suit the intended purpose? There’s no math for this.

Critique is exactly the same. But to offer good critique we need to understand the difference between what is objective and what is subjective. How we offer advice changes based on this distinction.

“I feel like perhaps some words are missing in this sentence, and it’s just my opinion but you seemed to jump from past tense into what felt like present tense, so maybe that’s a problem?”

I might as well say “Well, you know, I feel like two plus two kind of equals four.”

There’s no need to be overly careful about rules of grammar and punctuation. If we lack confidence, we can do a touch of research and make sure we’ve got the right idea about how the items in question should be formatted or used. Then we can speak objectively – with authority – about the use of a particular punctuation mark, breach of point of view, or format of a sentence.

Of course we cannot present objective critique in a cruel manner. We’re there to build up, not tear down. But if the math is wrong and the structure is inherently flawed, the building will collapse without corrective action.

So if I have the time to do a good critique, I will not only mark something as wrong but provide an explanation or reminder about what’s proper, based on objective rules. I may also present a helpful method for finding errors before submission.

When I do this, I take into account that the solution I see may not be the only option. And since I’m offering possible solutions, this is where my subjectivity starts to come in. “You could separate this into two shorter sentences or use a semi-colon to link the two parts. I’d suggest…”
This is where we start getting into the design of the building. What will look good? When talking about our writing, however, we each have an individual voice or style we follow. If my critique of someone’s writing turns their piece into my voice, then something has gone wrong. I want to savor and enjoy the distinctive “design” of their piece, so I tone back and make subjective suggestions in areas where no true rule applies.

We can’t critique tastes like a math teacher grading a paper. What I see as an awkward sentence may not be to everyone else. My thoughts on what is subtle or what is “authentic” dialogue, my take on whether a hook works well, these are subjective things. When a particular phrase seems weak, or I think something might be clearer in a different order, that’s my opinion.

I have to take into account my familiarity or lack thereof with the writer’s intended genre or audience. My style and tastes might not fit what is expected of their kind of writing.

Our writings are our babies, our darlings. If I say the baby’s ugly, then that puts the writer on the defensive. Defensive ears are notoriously unreceptive to advice. And while I could hope that everyone would be humble enough to receive input from even the most insensitive source, the fact is, we shut down or start to argue our side when we feel our writing is under attack.

So I try to offer my subjective input as an encouraging suggestion, expressed as “just my take on this,” or “this is what worked for me.” I won’t state my opinion as a fact like “this is a mistake you must correct.”

Recognizing the difference between what’s objective and subjective permits me to sound authoritative and encouraging at the same time. Hopefully that keeps defenses down and allows the writer to get the most from the critique.

Of course, we as critiquers can only do so much to communicate helpful feedback. The recipient has to be willing to receive. That’s the subject of the next add-on post: being a good critique group participant.

Elements of Critique: Zaftig

Here we are at the end of the A to Z Blog Challenge. This year, April caught me by surprise.

On March 30th or 31st, I saw a reference to the challenge and remembered how “fun” it was last year. I toyed with the idea of participating, and realized I could do a series on critiquing writing. Topics sprang to mind in a torrent, and I prepared my entire A to Z list in minutes…

Except for the Z.

What writing concept or element to critique falls under Z? I know, I can suggest people write “zany” things or whatever, but that felt lame.

I popped the Merriam-Webster dictionary app open and scrolled to Z to see if anything sparked an idea. And “zaftig” is the first thing that caught my eye, because I have no idea what that means.

“Zaftig” means (of a woman) slightly fat in an attractive way, pleasingly plump. A safe term might be “full-bodied.”

It comes by way of Yiddish from the German word for “sap.” Think of it as that which sets dead wood and wooden characters apart from something alive and meaningful.

Full-bodied, lively characters and meaningful articles are something I look for in critique.

For non-fiction, zaftig might mean that interesting angles are covered. When writing, I might have several analogies or personal recollections that would fit a given topic. But which of them are unique to the average reader? Which would present the most vivid picture?

I’ve tried over the course of this project to come up with examples that capture a reader’s interest as well as communicate a thought. I want to write something full-bodied and thorough, not emaciated and weak.

Word choice can reflect a “zaftig” mindset. Does the writer choose plain vanilla phrases to give the bare minimum detail, or do they select powerful words that evoke imagery and feeling in the reader? The letters on our screens and the ink on our pages should be ‘sappy’ — carrying life and energy to the reader.

And characters, most of all, embody this “zaftig” concept I look for when critiquing fiction. Are the actors in a story realistic people with dreams and goals or are they cardboard placeholders meant to call up a stereotype that will be forgotten one page later?

Our main characters usually get a lot of attention and thought. But what about the villains? Are they full-bodied, three-dimensional, reasonable and logical in their motivations? Or are they Snidely Whiplash, twisting an oiled mustache and cackling while tying yet another damsel in distress to the train tracks?

The villain should have some kind of redeeming or likable quality. It’s a rare person who has none at all. They should be as believable and thought-out as the hero, or they look like a caricature instead of a character.

Supporting characters are important too. Fictional worlds deserve to be populated with zaftig people, not the literary equivalent of Photoshopped crowds.

When I was young, my pastor always wore a three-piece suit to church. That was the only way I could picture him. One Saturday we drove past his house and I saw him mowing his yard in a T-shirt and shorts. I couldn’t believe my eyes; I thought he should be mowing in a suit because that’s the only way I knew him.

That’s what can happen to our supporting characters. They become one facet of their personality, to the exclusion of everything else. I think of friends with whom I only interact on Facebook or social media, compared to those with whom I experience the ups and downs of life in person. I “know” the Facebook friend, but I only see one dimension of them. It’s nothing like being face-to-face on a regular basis.

So I look for that character depth when critiquing writing. Or more likely, I note its absence.

For example, in my current project, I had two women watching the protagonist attempt to use divine healing. One was the motherly, kind-hearted, supportive encourager. The other was the scowling, stern, follow-the-rules, dissatisfied stickler. And they were going to maintain those roles for the foreseeable future.

They became wooden and lifeless, cardboard stereotypes.

When someone pointed this out to me, I realized I could switch their roles.

In a later scene, both women witness the protagonist using forbidden magic in an attempt to save lives. The motherly encourager becomes horrified and rejects the protagonist. The scowling stickler sees the pragmatic value of the deed, and approves of the choice. It’s a minor change, but it keeps the characters from staying in established and expected ruts.

Our writing is meant to take the reader somewhere, and our story arcs should force characters down a new path: Not one populated with faceless Facebook “friend” caricatures and deep grooves dug into the well-traveled route, but one with full-bodied characters and evocative writing to blaze an uncut trail into the unknown.

That sounds lively and interesting. That’s what I’m looking for, from those whose work I critique, and even more, from myself.

Thanks for hanging with me for these A to Z entries. On top of these posts, I have three extra elements of critique I will be adding to this series, covering the difference between subjective and objective advice, being a good participant, and the basics of an orderly critique group.