Critique Groups and the Mirror

As I pass through the stations of writing skill improvement, I am realizing that I have a custom set of writing weaknesses.  I got a notion of it from critique groups … the same issues kept coming up again and again.  It was cemented by the editor who raked over my second novel with a fine-toothed linguistic comb.  The same problems kept recurring.  For me, it was leading a sentence with description, following with action.  (“Hearing a knock, John went to the door.”) Or having a character say something, then having me as narrator come along behind and tell the poor benighted reader what the character meant (rather that writing the character’s statement well enough to convey the feeling in the words). And so on. There were … ahem … many others.

Conclusory Bludgeon

Any Google search will provide a list of tens or even hundreds of these writing mistakes.  It’s a little less daunting that one’s own style features a few … not all … of them.

There is an advantage of critique groups that has only recently become clear to me:  It’s easier to see one’s own weaknesses in other people’s writing.  As in: “The scene is engaging, but in the second paragraph, Jason’s facial expression and sigh says it all.  You don’t need the sentence that tells us that Jason’s exasperated.”  Oops … wait a minute … I do that too.  But I don’t see it as easily (ego, perhaps?) in my own writing.

Critique of others’ work teaches me to look in the mirror, and … oops again.  You already knew that without the conclusory bludgeon, didn’t you?

John Grisham and Beethoven’s Ninth

John Grisham, thanks for setting me free.

I’m in three writing critique groups.  Twenty or so regulars beethovenand some great writers.  We focus down on plot, character voice, technique.  I occasionally worry about over-analyzing everything I read.  Like in college when I had that course in music that took Beethoven’s Ninth apart note by note.  I still don’t like to listen to it.

So, here I am, worrying about whether it’s okay to name a character who turns out to be minor, whose point of view (pardon me, perspective) I should be in, when I pick up Grisham’s latest, The Whistler.

Damn.  He starts the story pretty much the way my own most recent novel starts, which is boooooring, according to a substantial minority of my readers.  Chapter 10 has a short paragraph in which we see the world through the eyes of three different characters.  A stone no-no.

And, guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  The story moves nicely.  The characters are interesting.  The plot is straightforward, but it has me in the palm of its hand.  I kept turning the page.  Finished at 1:30.  In the a.m.

In the hand of a skilled writer, the rules become plastic.

I know I have to cleave closer to the rules than Grisham, but I’m glad to see that writing rules are guidelines, neither prescriptions nor proscriptions.  Maybe some day, I’ll get out of the straitjacket.

But I doubt I’ll ever be comfortable listening to Beethoven’s Ninth.

Putting an Edge on Writing

My wife, Beverly, can’t stand the sound of knives being sharpened. Clever person thKnife sharpenerat she is, she gave me a professional knife sharpener several years ago. It’s big and electric, so she has plenty of warning when the urge to sharpen takes me.  The device has three sharpening positions. The first one comes with a special cover and dire warnings that it should be used only with very dull and distressed knives. The second grinding stone is where the basic business of sharpening gets done. The final position is not a stone, but an emery cloth that polishes the edge.

The sharpening process is similar to rewriting, at least for me. That first, most dangerous stone is for very dull writing, the kind that should be thrown out entirely. In my case, the second stone is my writing groups, where help from others grinds away some words, sharpens dialog and puts an edge on plot (sorry, I couldn’t resist). The final polish is copy editing to make the work shine (ditto).

Okay, it’s a bit labored as a metaphor, but it works for me.

The Difficulty of Simplicity

I keep running into the oh-so-true bits that slap me upside the head:

A comment from Benjamin Moser (New York Times Book Review):  “Today, I realize that clear expression can come only from clear thinking. And I know how hard it is to write something that is easy to read.”

A comment from Tim Mahoney (, who has a couple of great books set in the days of Prohibition, back before St. Paul, Minnesota had discovered “Minnesota Nice,” in last night’s critique group:  “watch out for the word ‘because.’  What follows it is almost always an explanation. If you need an explanation, you’ve often not done a good enough job of creating the scene or the emotion.”

Big Words

Last week, I had one of those epiphanies that come when seemingly unrelated events collide and produce insight.  In my case, three events gave me perspective my habit of (proudly) using big words.

The first was wife Beverly chuckling over a John Grisham short story, Fetching Raymond. It’s a wonderfully written story in its own right, relying on big words for humor (and, in the end, sadness).

The story centers on Raymond, a sorry soul on Death Row at Parchman Farm in Mississippi.Parchman Farm  The family fetching him is uneducated, but Raymond has spent ten years with a dictionary, so he lards his frequent letters home with the impressive vocabulary he’s acquired.  On the way to Parchman, the family contemplates one of his letters explaining why yet another lawyer is coming to his defense:

“Not surprisingly, a lawyer of such exquisite and superlative yes even singular proficiencies and dexterities cannot labor and effectively advocate on my behalf without appropriate recompense.

“What’s recompense?” she (Inez, his mother) asked. “Spell it,” Butch said. She spelled it slowly, and the three pondered the word. This exercise in language skills had become as routine as talking about the weather. “How’s it used?” Butch asked, so she read the sentence. “Money,” Butch said, and Leon quickly agreed. Raymond’s mysterious words often had something to do with money. “Let me guess. He’s got a new lawyer and needs some extra money to pay him.”  Grisham, John (2013-06-17). Fetching Raymond: A Story from the Ford County Collection. Random House Publishing Group. 

Okay, so that exquisite bit of humor built on ponderous writing tweaked me.  Surely, not my vocabulary, though.  Right?  My wife just smiled, which brought on the next act of realization: a vision of sitting long ago in my college writing professor’s office.  He had asked what I was trying to say in a particularly tortured passage.  I explained in much plainer English.  He looked up from the paper, puffed his pipe and said, “Why don’t you just say it that way?”

The last event came at a meeting of a writing group.  Tim, a fine writer, editor by day and thus person one listens to carefully, read out these lines from my work-in-progress, Skins and Bone:

It had started as a simple statement that as a good trader, he was simply trying to do the best for his company. Over a couple of days, it had morphed into a full-fledged tragic exposition. In Ross’s perfervid imagining, the judge would surely understand how Ross’s desire to do good had been taken advantage of by dishonest, ungrateful people.

“Perfervid,” he said.  “Great word, but it drags the reader away from the character who’s speaking and reminds us there’s a narrator.  You don’t want to do that.”  But I love the word, a marvelous conflation by my cousin, Gamble, a consummate story-teller.  You won’t find it in the dictionary, but it has a pretty clear meaning. However, Tim’s right — it’s showing off, and it weakens the passage.

I need to think simple language, or at least not orotund (oops!).

Present Tense, Past Tense and the Oral Tradition; OR “This Guy Walks Into a Bar…”

No, I’m not turning this into an adults-only blog.

Last night, I finished presenting Novel #2 to my very helpful writing group.  After the comments were finished, our grammar nazi and certified DFW (Damn Fine Writer), whose day job is being an editor, did one of those Ahems that often precede something heavy.

“Umm, why did you write it present tense?”Present tense

She continued, “You know, it being a thriller, editors are going to expect past tense.”  Across the table from me, another editor and DFW was nodding agreement.

I summoned up my response, preparing an explanation that would be both incisive and erudite, “I dunno. It just came out that way.”

I’ve been churning on this for a day.  Of course, the editors are right.  But it’s not a small task to move from present to past for an 88,000-word work, so I have employed a variety of arguments, justifications and self-serving excuses.  But I still come up with, “It just came out that way.”

So, why did it come out that way?

I have to blame the Oral Tradition.  See, I came to writing from music.  I’ve been telling stories and playing music for many years, and most of that is in present tense, so I guess I just naturally moved into the story-telling mode I was familiar with.

Present tense is pretty limiting, though.  88,000 words?

Finding the good and the bad in writing

I have been dilatory in my blogging.  All of the reasons are good, but like intentions, they pave the way to hell (in the form of low readership).One of the several delaying factors was the success of my writing groups.  More people, more writing and more time spent critiquing.  I’m learning that bad writing is perhaps more helpful to me than good writing.  Don’t get me wrong. I love reading a beautifully-crafted paragraph or watching another writer’s character do something that explains a volume in a few words.  That writing adds in an ineffable way to my skill as a writer.  But the bad writing, the times when the narrator becomes a blowhard, or the writer has the character tell us something we already knew, or the sentence is just too ugly for a simple ‘k’ in the margin … those are the times I see the same weaknesses in my own writing.So, long story, but the critiquing I’m doing now is doubly time consuming, because I spend as much time fixing the embarrassing parts of my own writing as I do critiquing.Wait a minute.  That’s what it’s all about, right?

With a Little Help From My Friends

Join a writing group, they said when I was starting out.

I was skeptical.

Now, here I am a year and a half into writing groups.  My friend Karl, himself an exciting writer, has helped me restructure the beginning of my first novel and suggested an important twist that will carry into my second.  Miranda, an editor, has ever-so-nicely restructured my query letter to be shorter and better.

Those are the obvious and wonderful advantages.  The more subtle part is that I have heard many different voices speaking from different points of view … short story, YA, romance, science fiction. I have sampled good (and, as valuable, bad) examples of the craft of writing.  I have seen other people’s characters jump off the page.  I have become a better writer with a lot of help from my friends.


Mechanics, mechanics

One of the things I’m learning from reading other people’s work in progress is the importance and unimportance of mechanics. In several groups, I’ve read stuff that’s mechanically exquisite but not very interesting. Then the other day, there was a piece with interesting characters and the rhythm of a good song. But I had to keep stopping to reread because the Mechanicmechanics were ‘invented’ … no quote marks to set off dialog, one-line paragraphs breaking up thoughts, commas where they shouldn’t be, none where they should be, and so on. Maybe James Joyce or Faulkner can do that stuff, but it’s hard for we mortals.

I’m realizing good mechanics make it easier for the reader to enjoy the story. Sure, breaking convention is sometimes important, but it’s harder to pull off that plain vanilla mechanics.

Writing Groups and the Deluge

Ahh, those writing groups.  When I started, I bought into the concept of the lonely life.  You know, the writer sitting at a desk in his hovel (before publication) or hideaway (after publication), concentrating on stringing words together.  But ‘they’ said, join a writing group.  For the first several months, I was resistant.  Who could possibly critique my writing but myself.  Or maybe my wife, who is an accomplished writer.

Short story:  I did, and I’m glad.  I’m playing out the second novel to the threCritiquee writing groups in which I now participate.  I’d be disingenuous to say that it’s humbling.  Rather, it’s exciting, and it’s great to have other eyes coming from other perspectives look at one’s writing.  A writer of romance novels turns out to be a master at sentence structure.  A writer of mid-grade stories helps me understand that my hero is too much a wimp.  My wife makes my plots much, much better.  So far, I’m halfway through Skins and Bone, and I have these references (picture) to consider in the rewrite.  Hallelujah!