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On this early morning, as I stumble to my computer, turn it on and gaze out the window while the computer boots up,  this is what I see:  The sun rising on a brand new day.  I'm so lucky to live on the edge of protected land that most likely won't be developed in my lifetime. Every day, I feel grateful.  While I'd never be able to capture the beauty in words this view, on a daily basis, inspires me.  And so, as the sun lifts its sleepy head over the mountains this morning,  I will write my overdue blog. 
This will be a different entry for me--much more focused on the craft of writing than on my life.  But, in many ways, writing is my life. I, like many writers, put words on a page in order to make sense of things that sometimes seem impossible to understand.  And, in the process, I often find understanding. I write to give my life meaning. To preserve something so easily lost.

I've just returned from a weekend in Portland with my critique group. We're all novelists actively writing stories.  We come together once a month to share scenes and to offer up critique in the hopes we will help each other make the work the best it can be. Sometimes we bring scenes that aren't working--hoping our colleagues will help us isolate the problems and have suggestions on ways to fix them.  It's a big responsibility. And one that none of us take lightly.  I've come to believe our own writing improves the more we critique others. Most writers are blind to their own flaws. Critique is an important part of the process.

Unlike "normal" people, writers need and want the truth. It's hard to deliver. We're accustomed to telling someone we care about that they don't look fat in that dress, even if they do. That we love the new paint color in the living room, even if we think it is hideous. 

The more serious you become as a writer, the more you want honest criticism.  Praise, though we all love to hear it, doesn't ever make a story stronger.  

For years I've been studying under James N. Frey (probably best known for his book, 
How To Write a Damn Good Novel). In my opinion his craft books are some of the best and most accessible available today.  Over the years, he's become my mentor and my story coach.

Whenever possible, I attend his intensive workshops.  They are limited to 8-10 participants. We read a scene out loud and each person around the table offers his critique.  Jim gives his input at the end.  For as long as I've known him, more than 20 years, I've been awed by his ability to size up a story and know exactly what it needs.  At a recent workshop, he shared some of his secrets. 

1.  Respond emotionally to the reading.  Are you bored? Wowed? Gripped? Does it feel as if the scene is too long? Ask yourself why.  If you are bored, it is most likely because the piece lacks conflict. Conflict (opposition of character's wills) holds a reader's interest and as each character works hard to get what they want (trying different methods) the layers strip away and their true self is revealed.

2.  Look for a story question in the opening lines of each scene.

3. At all times in the story,  there should be a well-motivated character overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a goal.  Ask yourself who or what is the obstacle.  If the goal is clear and believable and the obstacles are real, the scene will hold the interest of your reader--even if it isn't perfectly written. Every character in every scene should have an agenda (a goal) they are pushing. 

4. Are the characters changing as a result of the events/conflicts in the scene?  Rising conflict is the best way to strip away the levels of self defense and reveal character. Whenever possible show characters' feelings through their actions and dialogue, not by telling the reader. 

6. Is the dialogue fresh, indirect, clever and in conflict?

7. The end of the scene should propel the reader into the next scene. And the emotional state of the characters should be changed from the way they were at the beginning of the scene.

I hope this blog helps those of you who are writers wanting to do a better job of critiquing both yourselves and others. I hope it will amuse and enlighten those of you who are readers curious about the writing process. Writing a novel is arduous and so different from life. Readers want to read about people who are heroes and are off the bell curve--extreme characters who will say and do things "normal" people won't. 

It is our job, as writers to provide our readers with heroes who will reach beyond the pages of the book, tug at the heart and inspire them to be more than they believe they can be.                               




01/29/2014 3:04am

Looking at the picture attached to this I can see how that view could inspire such thoughtful words. But how you see the world through you eyes and heart is inspiring to me. Never give up my amazing cousin

08/03/2016 11:22am

Reading this post made me remember and feel more the importance of my friends, classmates and teachers in school. Yes, because they are those who give constructive criticisms about my school works, writings, about my projects. In this way, I continuously learn, become more proficient and competent as well.

01/29/2014 7:32pm

IMO, honest critique, given in the spirit of helpfulness, is one of the best things a writer can give or receive. When I can open myself to the views of another, I become a better writer. When I critique another writer's work, my work seems to be elevated. Thanks for reminding me of the power of community. Thank you for these terrific and concise tips.Now, back to my words with your words in mind.

10/26/2015 9:36pm

Criticism and questions of the analytical nature are only asked if the person has and possess the qualities of the good critic. It is rendered and implemented for the benefits and traits of the analyst. Its importance is increased and elevated.

03/21/2016 8:34am

To the critics, this Pat Conroy quote tells us a lot about how readers appreciate a writer’s finished product: “The world of literature has everything in it, and it refuses to leave anything out. I have read like a man on fire my whole life because the genius of English teachers touched me with the dazzling beauty of language. Because of them I rode with Don Quixote and danced with Anna Karenina at a ball in St. Petersburg and lassoed a steer in "Lonesome Dove" and had nightmares about slavery in "Beloved" and walked the streets of Dublin in "Ulysses" and made up a hundred stories in the Arabian nights and saw my mother killed by a baseball in "A Prayer for Owen Meany." I've been in ten thousand cities and have introduced myself to a hundred thousand strangers in my exuberant reading career, all because I listened to my fabulous English teachers and soaked up every single thing those magnificent men and women had to give. I cherish and praise them and thank them for finding me when I was a boy and presenting me with the precious gift of the English language. ”

To the those writers out there who may occasionally struggle to cope with truth telling and its optimal delivery, Christopher Hawke in Unnatural Truth reminds them to stay open to chronicling emerging life since:

“Someone is pounding on a door within you and hoping for an answer. They want to tell us the secret tale of ourselves. The stories we’ve never told.
Some African tribes believe if you were to tell someone your entire story the audience would actually become you.
From then on, the only life the teller would have would be in and through the listener. Some believe this is the relationship between Jesus and his disciples.
How I wished for my story to be blemish free. How I wished to be a good-natured soul giving back to the world, regardless of how broken I was. In the end, it’s those things we are willing to die to change that sculpt our story.
Some people open the floodgates of their minds and hearts so memories burst forth like water through a breached dam. Pieces of our lives can be found among the floating wreckage, and somewhere, the presence of God hovers over the surface of the deep.
Inside, I am treading, biding my time, waiting for the magic I thought I owned as a child. Many seek this enchantment. I sought my wife, daughter and the power to conjure hope.”

To those who might be tempted of overlooking the importance of showing how, after all they have been thru, that they still can, within their writing, show that it is possible to love themselves, Dennis Lehane wrote:

“The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your love is. Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves that burden of it, either. You’ll be let down. You’ll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of real sucky days. You may sometimes lose more than you win. You may occasionally hate the person you love as much as you love them. But you roll up your sleeves and work – at everything – because that’s what growing older is.
There’s another story about children who survived the holocaust but were unable to sleep peacefully until they were given loaves of bread to sleep with. Only when they were assured of the promise that they could eat tomorrow were they able to sleep. Give yourself a loaf of bread to hold: concentrate on what you control, on what makes you feel good.”

08/06/2016 3:50am

We all are so lucky to live on the edge of protected land that most likely won't be developed in our lifetime!


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01/19/2017 5:42am

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