Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Guest Blog by Erik Larson

Today, I'm posting a piece by W.E. Larson, one of my critting buddies over on FWO. Erik is a software engineer by day and a fantasy writer by night, and he's currently working with his agent to get his first novel, COG (a MG steampunk novel) polished for submission. Erik's characterization, storytelling and world building are fantastic, and his writing process fascinates me because it is almost the polar opposite of mine. I'm an inveterate pantser whose creative gears really don't get turning (aside from having a sense of the characters and their general problems) until I start writing a story. He is a planner who works best from a detailed outline. Erik's day job gives him some perspectives into the creative process.

Creative Writing and Coding

 By trade, I'm a software engineer. I'd really like to say writing code is like writing fiction. It's pithy, and it makes it sound like my working life somehow provides a hint of credentials for my writing. Hey doesn't Wordpress say that code is poetry?
 However, I can't really say it is, but there are some virtues that apply to both. Creativity is essential at a conceptual level. The best fiction has a creative concept that brings something fresh to the reader. In much the same way, the best software brings something new to the user. There's a place for stories that follow an existing formula and software that doesn't do anything new, but they won't win any awards or make the user/reader go "Wow!"
 At a lower level, both fiction and software need to be understandable. If a story’s writing is an impenetrable wall of opaque metaphors and pretentious phrasing, then the reader is likely to give up rather than admire the author's cleverness. This is like the user-interface of a piece of software. The UI might be clever and efficient, but if the user can't understand it then it's useless. There will be some readers or users that will take the time to penetrate the writing or UI, but should they have to do that?
 Once you get to the words or code, then the mediums get really different. Here's the thing, good computer code should be boring. There's actually a concept in software engineering called "Design Patterns" where you use well-established solutions to particular problems. I have a book filled with these patterns that I can refer to when I run into common problems that need to be solved. It's like a writer having a book of clich├ęs that he or she pulls out to resolve plot points. Good if you have code that needs to be understood by others, bad if you're reading for entertainment. Likewise, a clever turn of phrase can be entertaining in a novel, but a major headache in software. If a software engineer writes code that isn't easily understood, he or she is not going to have fun when annual review time rolls along.
 So, writing code isn't all that much like writing fiction--being a software engineer isn't going to give you some sort of credentials as a writer. But when you get above the code and into concepts, maybe there is some synergy (that's right I used a buzzword, wanna make something of it). In a sense, software is about telling a story of what a user does and what that action accomplishes. In fact, there's a software creating process called "Agile" in which software actions are actually called stories. Obviously fiction is about telling a story. If that fictional or software story isn't any good, then there are no words or code that will make it good.
 In software or fiction, it's the tale that counts the most. To misquote Shakespeare, "The story's the thing."

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Infinite Critting Loops

Writing has a strongly subjective element, obviously, and it's particularly hard to be completely objective about something you've written. You know what you're trying to say, so it can be really tough to spot even basic typos and grammar errors when you re-read. When issue with your prose move into the realms of opinion, it can get even harder. Putting something down and coming back to it can be beneficial, but here you can run into the opposite problem. Now, everything has gone from being lovely, flowing prose to impossibly clunky crap.

Soliciting feedback from reviewers can be invaluable once you get to this stage of your writing. But when you ask for criticism, you'll get it. Even if there really is nothing wrong with your writing, and a lot right with it, reviewers will be falling all over themselves to find something that could be improved. Everyone has preferences, of course, but there's also just that desire to be helpful. So sometimes people will hold their critting partners to a higher standard that they do the books they read for fun. Sometimes sharing something you've written can feel like you're getting this treatment:

And sometimes you feel like you've gotten stuck in an endless loop where fixing one issue creates another, and another, and another...


You write: She frowned. Critter 1 says: "Booooring. Doesn't evoke anything. There are so many ways someone can frown. Also, you have too many sentences starting with he or she in that chapter.

So you write: Her frown was doubtful. Critter 2 says: "Now you're using a "to be" verb. Horrors."

So you write: She frowned doubtfully. Critter 3 says: "Aiyeeee, an adverb. Kill it!"

So you write: She gave him a doubtful frown. Critter 4 says: "How can someone give another person a frown? That image is pretty hilarious, actually, because it makes me think of someone extending her hands, offering a frowning mouth.

So you write, A doubtful frown twisted her features. Critter 5 says, "Ack! Disembodied action. No!"

So you try, He noticed her doubtful frown. Critter 6 says: "Ew, filtering! And anyway, what's a doubtful frown look like anyway? Show me, don't tell me."

So you try: Head cocked to the side, she frowned, lips at that precise angle that suggested doubt and not anger. Critter 7 says: "Now you're giving me too many details! You don't need an exposition.

So you try your passage without the frowning in it at all, and someone says: "Your passage is too 'talking heads.' You need a beat or action tag to break up the dialog here and to show some description.

So you write: She frowned.

At the end of the day, there's no approach to writing something that will appeal to everyone, so all you can do is weigh all the criticism carefully and then respond in the way that seems best, knowing that you'll never write anything that all readers will think is flawless.

And don't forget to breathe now and again and to read some books by authors you like to see how they handle various things. Chances are, you'll find plenty of sentences that the critting puppies would nibble to bits.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Guest Blog on Writing Communities

Online writing communities can be a useful to connect with other writers and gain useful feedback while sharpening your own critiquing skills. But there are potential pitfalls as well.

I've done a guest blog on online writing communities for my critiquing buddy Erik Larson. It's posted on his site. Head on over and check it out, and maybe stay to browse some of his own posts.