Guest post: “The Critique Masochist” by Frances Pauli

The Critique Masochist

by Frances Pauli

 

As an art school veteran, I am no stranger to criticism. When I create something, I not only expect critique, I immediately crave it. Critique is necessary, it’s useful, it is required. And the more brutal the better. In essence, I have become a critique masochist. How could this have happened? Let me explain.

Art majors at the college level spend their week something like this… Monday through Thursday are filled with studio classes–three hour sessions of drawing and/or painting in the classroom. Sometimes, it’s a clever arrangement of old knickknacks, vases, and Styrofoam balls and sometimes an assortment of nude models which is not nearly as exciting as you might imagine when you’re trying to get the lines right.

Friday, however, is critique day. On Friday, you gather your week’s work, tack it to a wall, and wait for the guns to start firing at you. You learn to love Fridays or you aren’t going to be in art school very long. Freshmen feared the week’s end. Those with tenuous egos invented reasons to be ill on Friday. You could try to dodge, but no matter how clever you were, eventually, it was your work on the wall.

There were only two rules in a peer critique and they are very good ones. First, you must remain absolutely silent while your work is being trashed–er, examined. Second, a critic may not say “I like it” or “I don’t like it” unless the statement is immediately followed by a detailed explanation of “WHY”.

Fridays were fun days in the school of art. If someone wasn’t crying in the halls between classes, it wasn’t Friday. I’m serious. People fled critique day, people sobbed. Some stomped straight to administration and switched majors. But, no matter how you look at it, Friday was a good day. It was Friday that turned me into a critique masochist.

So, back to writing…and critique. Critique is a good thing. It is the single most vital tool to becoming the best at any creative endeavor. We cannot be our own critic. We can try, and please do try. It’s required, you HAVE to learn to look at your work objectively. On the flip side, you will never, ever be as objective as your reader in Connecticut who’s never met you. Seek out the guns. Please. As you do, remember a few things to nurse a happy relationship with criticism. It will find you eventually anyway. If not before publication, then after.

DETACH: Your work may be your baby, but it’s not your baby. Any discussion of your work is not a personal attack. It is not your job to protect it. It is your job to let it be ripped to shreds and reassembled into something better, and golden, and closer to perfect.

EGO AWAY: Put it in a box, lock it in its room, whatever. Your ego will be needed later (when the rejections roll in and make you want to quit) but while receiving and giving criticism, it’s dead weight and will only botch up the whole process.

LISTEN: With both ears and the whole mind. Listen and consider the slim possibility that the critic may be right. Don’t waste time disagreeing or mentally arguing, listen. Listen and pretend they’re a genius–just for now.

SALT: When you have listened, considered and absorbed, THEN remember the grain of salt. This is an opinion–one person’s opinion or a whole class’ opinion, but still an opinion. Do you agree with it? Try. If not, stick to your guns and trust that you know your own goals. Don’t ever think that a suggestion is a rule, that you must change and adapt to every criticism or you will never stop fixing and changing things back and forth. Do change what you agree with. Do give serious thought to any suggestion that comes up more than once, or over and over again from different sources. But in the end, you decide.

Remember the two rules–they are good ones. Don’t interrupt. Never argue during the critique. If anyone ever says, “I like it” or “I don’t like it” insist on a detailed “why.” Embrace the horror–that is, the process– and learn to love it. Laugh at your mistakes and yourself often. Eventually, you might find yourself craving it, needing it. Personally, I’m suspicious of anyone who reads my work and doesn’t pick it apart, at least a little. Don’t trust the “I loved it” or the “It’s great” without further discussion! With a little practice, you too can be a critique masochist.

 

This post first appeared on Speculative Friction.

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Guest post: “Setting Effective Writing Goals” by Renee Carter Hall

Setting Effective Writing Goals

by Renee Carter Hall

 

For many of us, a new year brings a feeling of a fresh start — a blank slate ready for new habits, new goals, and new accomplishments to celebrate. But after the novelty wears off and all the responsibilities, obligations, and distractions of day-to-day life rush back in, it’s easy for writing to get pushed back to the bottom of the to-do list. Here are a few tips to help you set goals that won’t set you up for disappointment.

1. Consider what you really want. That may sound obvious, but it’s easy to accept other people’s ideas of goals instead of your own. Do you want to write the first draft of a novel to challenge yourself, or because everyone else in your writing group is working on a novel instead of short stories? Consider, also, whether you want to set goals that deal with process (“write 3000 words a week,” “write for 1 hour every weekday”), goals that deal with projects (“finish 2 short stories a month,” “finish the first draft of my novel”), or a mixture of both.

2. Choose goals that are under your control. You might want the end result to be “find an agent” or “get a short story accepted to Magazine X,” but you can’t control whether agents or editors accept or reject your work. Instead, consider goals that are based on your own actions, like “query 10 agents” or “send at least 1 submission to Magazine X.”

3. Find the balance between challenge and realism. Some writers like the challenge of setting big goals and pushing themselves to achieve them; others would rather set the bar lower, get the confidence boost from achieving a smaller goal, and build from there. Consider your personality, your experience level, and your situation, and decide what’s right for you.

4. Write it down. Whether it’s in a private journal or posted online, a written list gives you a visual reminder to focus on — plus the fun of checking off your accomplishments. If it motivates you to share your goals with others, feel free; if not, keep it private.

5. Check in. Once a week, once a month — on whatever schedule works for you, glance over your goals and re-evaluate them. What steps you can take now to work toward each goal? Which ones have been accomplished? You may find that some goals are no longer relevant to you or may need to be reworked, and you might find others to add.

6. Celebrate accomplishments large and small. It’s easy to get disappointed by the goals that don’t get checked off, but try to keep the focus on what you do achieve. Celebrate your progress along the way, no matter how small that progress may seem, and reward yourself with something you love — an hour with the newest video game, the latest book from your favorite author, or a decadent dessert. (Just don’t derail any goals you might have for your health!)

I hope these tips help you make 2016 your most successful writing year yet. What are your goals — writing or otherwise — for 2016? Feel free to share them in the comments!

 

Guest post: “The Lady or the Tiger or the Wolf?” by Carmen K. Welsh Jr.

The Lady or the Tiger or the Wolf?

by Carmen K. Welsh Jr.

 

I was asked by more than one person while writing my book if I’ve owned any dogs. The answer is no. Most of my life, I have actually identified with cats more but decided many years ago that I refused to get into the eternal debate about which pet is Better: a Dog or a Cat. I didn’t want to get caught up in nonsense and senseless hype.

Both cats and dogs are no better or worse than the other. I don’t even like that there’s such a debate. As an animal lover, it makes more sense to learn to enjoy and learn more about as many creatures as possible, even those one may be deathly afraid of, because, it’s nature, and nature’s cool.

Many cultures do not, or once did not, view animals as separate species. Animals were spirit guides, soul companions as well as kin. Depending on the individual, and among many animal-lovers and pet owner anecdotes, a human and a particular creature will bond no matter what, solidifying the idea that the human and animal species have more in common than is understood.

To tell you the truth, since I was a child, I felt drawn to cats (both literally and figuratively as well as artistically). I would draw them constantly. Cartoon cats I would often copy and change to my liking. If one reads my FWG bio, my first character at age 5 or 6, was a cat with bat wings! My avatar is an anthro snow leopard from one of my short stories. Saturday night, with my older brothers, watching original Star Trek episodes had me drawing on leftover cardboard a space opera comic with a galactic ship complete with captain and crew (all cats! What I wouldn’t give to find some of those drawings).

Also, as a child, I was deathly afraid of dogs. I mean, it made sense. Cats hate dogs because dogs chase them, right? But dogs also barked with large teeth when one walked by their wired fences or wooden gates. Yet, when I stayed in Jamaica with relatives, and after a few summers, having even lived there, going to school and all (talk about culture shock) the dogs there seemed… nicer. The strays didn’t try to bite. Dogs would run to a person, mouth wide open, tails wagging. House dogs seemed quiet and not growly. They also looked similar, lanky, medium size and short-furred, but that’s because being on an island did not allow for a varied gene pool. United States’ dogs seemed meaner to me at 8 years old. Do I sound as if I’m making ‘cultural stereotypes’ on dogs?

But I learned from those dogs and how to interact with them. Also, my grandma, being of old ideas, believed cats were evil and didn’t want them around. However, she had no problem with canines. There was a dog known as Old Max in the neighborhood. Though he had an owner, he would amble about our block. Nearly every household he visited would feed him, including my grandmother. He was a stately gentleman and never barked loud and always allowed us children to play with him.

It took more years and experience to realize that dogs weren’t the antithesis to cats. They couldn’t be. It was like comparing from the old adage about apples and oranges. One could love cats and still love dogs! Once I understood that I began to incorporate more dogs into my writings.

Also, plenty of my beloved childhood films during the 1980s had canine actors I cheered for! I loved the Benji film series as well as Disney’s A Dog of Flanders, Ol’ Yeller, The Shaggy Dog and its sequel The Shaggy DA. One of my favorite Disney animations is Lady and the Tramp, which I count as the earliest inspiration for my novel draft. But I equally loved The Aristocats!

If I’m the animal writer I believe myself to be, then I should learn from them, and not just the ones I readily relate to. A writer should step out of the comfort zone. Writing what one knows is fine, yet it’s even better to learn new things so one could write on that as well. I read more on dogs, I met friends’ dogs and I began to study them.

When my thesis needed new life, I began to dig deeper into why I loved dogs (ah, puns). That’s when the story’s voice and tone were found. Not just deciding on Third-person vs. First POV (on my thesis mentor’s advice, I switched all previous drafts to first-person), but experimenting with other literary vehicles to best tell my story. Instead of the ‘aloof’ third-person I used for my cat characters in my fantasy series (there’s those stereotypes again), I would let go and let my dogs tell their own stories in immediate First-person.

Because such a voice felt more historical, I wanted a sense of the familiar as well as what we humans often overlooked or took for granted in canines. Though I still haven’t had a dog for a companion yet, I’m looking forward to many more adventures with both dogs AND cats. See? Cats aren’t the only muses for writers; dogs can be a writer’s best friend too. And yes, I went there. *groan*

Guest post: “A Tale of Two Rejections” by Ocean Tigrox

A Tale of Two Rejections

by Ocean Tigrox

 

Once upon a time, there were two aspiring writers, Stanza and Prose. Both had aspirations of someday being published, and together they began sending off submissions to various publishers. Stanza was successful, receiving an acceptance on their first story! They quickly began drafting up their second story to send off. Prose, unfortunately, was met with a kind rejection letter. Disappointment hit them hard as they took their lumps, pushed their chin up and tried again. The second round of letters came back with similar results. Once again, Stanza succeeded in having another work accepted. Clearly their first time hadn’t just been just a stroke of luck. Meanwhile, Prose found themself sighing at a second rejection letter. What went wrong this time?

This cycle repeated a few times. Stanza submitted more, being accepted each time; Prose became more disappointed with each new rejection. As this continued, Stanza became empowered, feeling invincible. Anything they wrote was gold and always came back with a happy congratulatory note from the editor. Prose continued to struggle through each deemed failure, learning how to improve with every submission’s iteration.

One day the cycle broke. Upon opening a letter from another editor, Stanza nearly choked on their coffee when they read words that they had never seen before: “We’re sorry, but your story was not selected.” Preposterous, they thought. An editor clearly made a mistake. But, no, that was their story in the explanation below about why it was not selected. The editors had found issues with the main character and decided against accepting the story.

Doubt filled Stanza’s mind. They were invincible. How could this happen? Unless, they thought, the other times really had been flukes. Maybe the accepted stories had just been filler or just barely squeaked in. Maybe Stanza wasn’t as talented a writer as they had originally believed. After all, talented writers don’t get rejected, do they? Lost and confused about their own skill as a writer, Stanza put away their writing, unsure if they should submit another story.

Things were quite the opposite with Prose. They awoke the next day to find their first acceptance letter. Tears overwhelmed them as they read the editor’s glowing notes about the submitted story. After wading through rejection after rejection, continuing to push through and not stop, their hard work and perseverance paid off. Their treasure was well deserved. After telling their friends and family, what better way to celebrate than to write another story?

Prose would go on to find more stories being accepted. Occasionally a rejection letter still found its way to their mailbox, but it never had the same effect on Prose that it once had. They took the criticism and moved on, just like they had done before. Stanza, on the other hand, struggled for a long time before picking the pen back up. It had taken a lot of willpower to pull themselves back together after falling so far. They found the motivation to write again, and although they had their share of rejection letters that still came, acceptance soon returned. Their confidence soon resumed, though this time with a small bit of humility.

Is this just a fairy tale? Some writing allegory? Not quite. This is actually based on a true story (though slightly exaggerated). If you’ve listened to the Fangs and Fonts podcast, you may already know that this happened to two writers in my writing group. Some of you may know them as FWG members Roland Jovaik and Tarl “Voice” Hoch. They both experienced acceptance and rejection, but both ended up handling them differently. Neither of them did anything wrong. Prose, like most new writers, had to struggle and climb higher with each new submission until they finally achieved victory. Stanza on the other side managed to knock it out of the park on the first try. This isn’t common, but it happens. Still, rejection found them both eventually, and they were forced to confront the inevitability that all writers experience. The moral of this story is that although they dealt with their rejections differently, they both pushed through and went back to writing.

The one thing missing from this story is the support of other writers. We need to be there for each other. Something I’ve seen lately is people congratulating new writers on their first rejection. This may be a weird event to see from the outside, but what we’re really saying is “Congrats on taking your first serious step in becoming published” or “Congrats on the achievement”. It takes guts to send your story out into the aether and have an editor you don’t know reject it. It hurts. And recently, I found it hurts being the editor having to reject people, too!

Rejection doesn’t feel good for anyone, but it’s inevitable within our craft. Be ready when it comes. Don’t worry, each one gets easier to take, and it’ll all be worth it when you get that glowing acceptance one day.

Guest post: “Getting It Done: What Determines a Writing Quota?” by Franklin Leo

Getting It Done: What Determines a Writing Quota?

by Franklin Leo

 

Writing is hard, and even for the experienced, it continues to be difficult. Whether it’s editing or drafting, there’s always a point when we find ourselves unable to move forward simply because time is such a huge issue.

I’ve instructed and tutored writing to college students for a few years, and I have only recently started to come out more as a furry author, but the number one thing that I hear from other writers or hopeful-writers is that there’s too much going on in their life.

Stephen King says in his memoir On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft that it’s best for one to get around 1,000 words a day down and written into some piece he or she’s working on. That alone is around four pages, and to some, the idea of doing so much so soon comes off like a triathlon equal to NaNoWriMo.

What matters, however, is that you get something down — anything down. Students tell me that they could only get a paragraph written. In college, that’s quite a bit, I tell them. Some often tell me that they could only get a sentence or two down because they had to do some reading. That’s okay as well. Reading and writing go together. You simply can’t do one without the other, I say.

I also tell them that some days, it’s okay to write more than other days. Some days, it’s okay to write nothing. What’s important is to discipline and let yourself write as much as you can, understand that there is no punishment for writing too little, and being there for yourself when you need it. Writing is part therapy and part communication. Try to write as much as you can, but also allow yourself the freedom that the work demands.

Personally, I stand by the 1,000 word quota, simply because it works for me. I enjoy it, I get good enough results from it, and it makes me feel accomplished. Have I ever questioned my own methods? Of course. Working as a writer is like working as your own personal trainer at the gym. You need to know how much, when, and in what way to push yourself. I continue to keep my quota going as long as I can, but with work and class (as well as different stories going on at the same time in my head), it’s just impossible to do everything that I wish.

What works? Again, it really depends. For someone, writing a couple of sentences before bed can be enough to get him or her going until the next day. For others, they may feel that 2,000 words a day is worthy of any acknowledgement. Working with others, as well, forces you to work as much as you can; several times, I’ve had other writers tell me that I’m just not writing enough, which is nice because they hold me accountable when I myself am unable to do so. Beating yourself up about it, however, is something a writer should never do. By changing writing into something that you have to do rather than what you get to do, you ultimately take the fun out of it. You ruin your chance of wanting to return to a story because it honestly gripped you. For a writer at any level, that there is the kiss of death, whiskers and all.

My students come to me every day when I’m in my school’s lab, and I get to hear how they enjoy writing now because they realize it’s not work — it’s fun when they allow for it.

That’s all you can ever do. Allow for it, and be proud of those moments when you do. That there will build you a quota and keep you pressing forward amidst a hectic schedule and series of setbacks.

 

Guest post: “The Writer’s Notebook” by Renee Carter Hall

The Writer’s Notebook

by Renee Carter Hall

Writers today have more tools than ever to choose from. We can tap out notes on a phone or type our stories on a laptop or tablet. With all the spellchecking, grammar checking, sync, and instant backups at our fingertips, why would anyone still bother to write by hand? What can a pen and notebook give us that a word processor can’t?

  • A slower process. In today’s on-demand culture, that might not sound like a benefit. But when it comes to writing, faster isn’t always better, and writing by hand can force you to slow down and weigh your thoughts as you put them on paper.
  • Fewer distractions. When you write by hand, there are no emails, games, or social media to demand your attention. You can also write in a coffee shop without scoping out the available power outlets — and while I’ve learned the hard way that waterproof ink is sometimes a good idea, I’ve still never gotten an error message from a notebook.
  • A different mindset.  For me, there’s something very direct and true about writing first drafts by hand. Typed writing can feel “finished” before its time, and while I’d never trade a computer for editing, the drafting process feels more intimate in my own handwriting than a font. I’m sure some of this is generational, but to me, writing done by hand is writing for the self, while typing on a keyboard puts me in a “public writing” mindset — blog posts, emails, functional writing instead of creative — where writing by hand reminds me of childhood days spent scribbling stories in wide-ruled notebooks, and reminds me that writing is supposed to be fun. A journal feels like a safe, private, patient space to experiment, in a way a blinking cursor can’t duplicate.

I’ve kept some form of writer’s notebook (or journal, whatever term appeals to you) for over twenty years, and I can’t imagine giving it up. My journals have been to me what a sketchbook is to an artist: a gym for exercise, a laboratory for experimentation, a butterfly net for rounding up stray thoughts. Unless I’m on a tight deadline where I have to get from first draft to submitted work in a hurry, my preference is to write the first draft by hand. (This also has the fringe benefit of easing me into the editing process, since I always start making changes to the text as I’m typing up the draft.)

My notebooks also place my writing within the larger scope of my life. Interspersed among story drafts and notes are quirky lists of favorite commercials, possible character names, passages I’ve loved from books and poems, and the odd to-do list. To me there’s something delightfully grounding in that. There’s also a physical pleasure in writing with a good pen on quality paper, and there’s a sense of accomplishment that comes with filling pages in a journal that isn’t quite matched by keeping track of word counts in a spreadsheet.

Keeping a notebook isn’t for everyone, of course. Some have physical restrictions that make writing by hand impractical, and if you’re prone to losing things, you’re probably better off with tools that allow for backups. Writers who keep notebooks have to be comfortable with a certain amount of chaos and inefficiency, but out of that chaos can come a playful serendipity that brings renewed focus, deeper contemplation, and revitalized creativity — all from putting pen to paper.

My current journal, open to the notes and brainstorming for this blog post.

My current journal, open to the notes and brainstorming for this blog post.

Tips

  • Choose materials you’re comfortable with. That might be a handmade leather journal or a black-and-white composition book, a pencil or a fountain pen. Different moods and projects can also call for different tools.
  • Take it along. Try to choose a journal you can easily carry with you, or keep one at home and a smaller one in your bag.
  • Play! Experiment with tools — write in pencil, marker, crayon. Try out prompts. Paste in pictures from magazines, cancelled stamps, ticket stubs. Make it part of your life, not just your writing life.

Supplies

Guest post: “Getting More Out of Your Writing” by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

Getting More Out of Your Writing

by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt

 

Writing is both a craft and an art. There are aspects that cannot be taught; you either have it or you don’t. But plenty of the skills that go into making a good writer can be learned. The general rule of thumb: Writing more leads to writing better.

But what’s the best way to get more writing done? I’ve never been a fan of writing exercises for their own sake. They always strike me as too artificial. Writing is about telling stories. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t practice your craft. But make your practice work for you. You may even get paid for it.

Here are a few ways I’ve turned what could have been a writing exercise into something more:

 

1) Flash Fiction

Do you need to work on dialogue? Do you want to practice your action scenes? Unsure whether first person or third person POV is right for your story? Flash fiction can be the perfect way to improve your writing through experimentation.

I define flash fiction as any story under 1000 words, though there are markets under 500 words, or even 100-word stories.

There are many advantages to working in such a small scale. In flash fiction, every word counts. Practicing flash fiction can teach you to choose the right word in the right situation. Flash fiction is also great for experimentation. I’ve written flash that are only dialogue or that just paint an impressionistic portrait of a single character. In a rough spot on your novel? Write the worst day your main character ever had, and do it in 500 words.

Flash is all about instant gratification. I’ve written five or more drafts of a 100-word story and still finished in a single day. In the midst of a long project, it can be nice to remember that you can finish a story.

 

2) Short Stories

Longer fiction (say, 2,000 to 7,000 words) has many of the advantages of writing flash fiction while providing additional opportunities in practicing your craft. If flash fiction allows you to experiment and to focus on individual narrative elements, short stories are the place to work on structural features of stories such as pacing and combining scenes into successful sequences.

In the 1930s and 40s, writer in the US often got their start writing for the pulp fiction magazines. Today, print-on-demand anthologies and e-anthologies can serve the same function. You can’t get rich writing for them, but you may be able to buy that Rabbit Valley book you have your eye on.

 

3) Blogs, Forums, and Social Media

One of the goals of the Furry Writers’ Guild is to foster professionalism among furry writers. Professionalism is a broad concept, but one of the things it means is this: You should write at a level that people pay you for what you write.

Money and art are not enemies. The days of noble patronage of the arts are long gone. Even if you are never able to support yourself by your writing, being paid for your writing frees you that little bit more to create more. People show what they think is important by what they will pay for. Take your writing seriously enough to expect to be paid for it.

That said, there are times when it’s perfectly fine to write and not be paid. Or at any rate, not in money. In addition to trying to sell your stories, look for opportunities where your writing can create what might be called social capital.

The age in which we live puts the writer in control of their own destiny in a way like never before. Readers want to connect not just with your stories, but with you and your personal story. Blogs, forums, Twitter and other forms of social media enable you as a writer to connect with people around the world.

But it’s not about shoving your work down their throats. It’s all about building friendships. Take the time to write something people can connect with. Write professionally (e.g. without texting abbreviations), because people will judge you based on how you present yourself online. Put yourself out there, even for free, but do it strategically.

Today’s internet is like a bizarre cocktail party taken to several orders of magnitude. Don’t whore yourself out to anyone who comes along. Find a community where you think you can add to the conversation and focus there. Give more than you take, and at worst you may make some friends. At best, you may find a community of people interested in your work.

And yes, this blog is an effort in practicing what I preach.

 

Links I Find Helpful

I want to conclude by giving a few links I’ve personally found helpful in trying to act on the thoughts I’ve outlined here. My own interest is in speculative fiction (fantasy, horror, science fiction), so there is a definite bias in that direction. Not that these are not strictly furry markets, but in my experience, most people in speculative fiction are very open-minded, so long as the story is told well.

 

Flash Fiction

http://www.microbookends.com/ MicroBookends is a weekly micro fiction contest based on a photo prompt. A very cool community surrounds this group.

http://thecultofme.blogspot.com/ This blog sponsors a monthly flash fiction contest with a significant giftcard prize.

http://specklit.com/ One of the highest paying sites for 100 word stories.

http://www.drabblecast.org/ Home for many weird and wonderful things, including drabbles and great short stories.

 

Short Stories

http://www.ralan.com/ In my humble opinion, your best one-stop site for finding markets to sell speculative fiction.

http://thegrinder.diabolicalplots.com/ When Duotrope became a pay site, The Submissions Grinder became the best free search engine for calls for submission.

http://horrortree.com/ The best on-stop site for horror calls. The calendar view is extremely helpful.

http://thewritersarena.com/ Full disclosure — I’m regularly a judge at this weekly one-on-one writing contest. But if you’re up to the challenge of writing a story under 4000 words in one week on an assigned topic, the Arena can be a lot of fun.

 

Blogs, Et Cetera

https://furrywritersguild.com/

http://www.anthroaquatic.com/forum/index.php

https://twitter.com/FurWritersGuild

You probably know all these links already, but the Furry Writers’ Guild is a perfect example of social media done right. Writers helping other writers not because they’re getting paid but because they want to fill the world with more good stories. Learn from what the guild members do well!