Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Feedback

Thank you to everyone who read my short story. I plan to do many more in the near future. In fact, I hope to be in the process of writing one each week. But first things first.

I took a creative writing course at Solano Community College in Fairfield, California, and was blessed to have such a wonderful instructor in Dr. Laurie Duesing. She had a special talent for critique--a balanced blend of encouragement and constructive criticism. I started her class with the vague idea that I wanted to write, and ended with a passion that has sustained me since. All writing students are asked to keep a journal, but not many succeed. The task becomes odious and is eventually dropped. Even Dr. D. told me once that she doesn't keep up on hers like she should. Enter the blog.

I believe the blog will be the writing student's journal of the future, if it is not already employed today. A blog with a following, no matter how small, must be maintained and be somewhat interesting to attract and keep vistors. Teachers can leverage the oldest form of persuation to keep their students writing: peer pressure. I would write every day regardless*, but my blog friends lift me up--a welcomed and unexpected surprise.

* excluding weekends and holidays, see side panel for details

After Dr. D's writing class, a small group of us decided to press on and get together on our own. It started big and pared down to four with an occasional surprise visitor, but for the most part it boiled down to Toni, Elizabeth, Monica and myself. Elizabeth is an aspiring romance writer and is a successful singer songwriter in the Bay Area, whose talent was obvious from the first piece she read in class. Monica has a frightening grasp of language, and is the only person I've encountered whose prose needs to be dumbed down in order to communicate with the average reader. She is amazing. Toni, my writing buddy, writes from a place deep in her heart. She paints vivid scenes from her childhood and can transport her reader from a desk overlooking Times Square to the back of a wild stallion in a fantasy world. Toni has been published in magazines, and is my number one proponent. She told me in an email recently that I won't become a writer someday--I already am.

As part of being a writer, you have to absorb criticism of your work. Who among us is perfect? Have you ever found it easier to see the flaws in others than in yourself? My writers group didn't pull punches when it came to grammatical errors, and neither did Dr. D. I submitted my story to my wife, who, after reading it, was pleased with the plot but had comments on my wording and sentence structures. She was shy at first, and what wife wouldn't be. Has anyone seen Funny Farm? There is a classic scene where Chevy Chase has written a novel and surprises his wife with the completed manuscript on their anniversary. He makes her read it against her wishes, and she hates it, which is a turning point in their relationship. I have assured my darling wife that I will take it like a big boy, even if the medicine is unflavored.

Dixie Belle, a romance author whose blog I frequent, was kind enough to read my story and offer constructive advice:
Scott: I read it. I like the plot twists. You need to cut some of the adjectives, especially out of the first paragraph. Also break some of the longer sentences into shorter ones, which will make them more effective and quicken the pace. Also be careful with dialogue tags, especially animal sounds.
This is the kind of advice I used to get from my writers group, and especially from Dr. D. I had misgivings about some long sentences, and even about some of the adjectives I used, such as gigantic head. But her reference to dialog tags sent me to Google and to the bookshelf. I found a book by Stephen King, On Writing, that I bought maybe two years ago but never read through. The first section recounted his life, which held my interest fleetingly at best. Yesterday however, I opened to the very page of a discussion on dialog attribution. In a nutshell, dialog attribution refers to words like "said" and "asked." Take this sentence for instance: "Daddy, can I have some ice cream?" asked Jackson. The word asked is a dialog attribution or tag. Some authors would spice my example dialog by replacing "asked" with "pleaded" or "begged." Others avoid such markups. Here is what Stephen King has to say about it:
Some writers (..) shoot the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback original:

"Put down the gun, Utterson!" Jekyll grated.
"Never stop kissing me!" Shayna gasped.
"You damned tease!" Bill jerked out.

Don't do these things. Please oh please.

The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said. If you want to see this put stringently into practice, I urge you to read or reread a novel by Larry McMurtry, the Shane of dialogue attribution. That looks damned snide on the page, but I'm speaking with complete sincerity. McMurtry has allowed few adverbial dandelions to grow on his lawn. He believes in he-said/she-said even in moments of emotional crisis (and in Larry McMurtry novels there are a lot of those). Go and do thou likewise.
I am reading The Writers Companion as a referesher course on sentence construction, and after that the aforementioned Stephen King book. If I want to be serious, I have to be the master of my craft.

I know there are a few readers of mine that have the same goals, such as Mr. Schprock, Chloe and NYPinTA. Probably Jason and Zombie, and a few others too. I welcome all comments, critical or otherwise, and am willing to do the same in return. That's the only way we are going to get better.

16 comments:

Chloe said...

Scott, you said it perfectly. Never did I imagine that I'd get as much encouragement as I have from my fellow bloggers. You are so lucky to have had a great professor. I took a writing class once and would get ill before every class just knowing I'd have to share the same air as my teacher. He was mean, self-absorbed, and cutting, none in a good way. I'll stick it to him good when I get published, though!

Sadie Lou said...

I love Stephen King. His Dark Tower Series is one of my favorite stories of all time.
His book On Writing was a great read even for people who don't aspire to be writers.
I've taken maybe three or four creative writing classes over the years and one thing remains the same: Constructive critism is only good for someone who is listening.
I have offered pointers to people before and I could just tell that they don't give a rat's behind what I have to say.
I think writers have a tendancy to be their own biggest fan and that's a dangerous place to be.
My advice: Be humble.
From this post, it seems like you've already got that down.

Scott said...

Chloe - Wow, a teacher makes all the difference. What an exposure to read in front of a class and have it ripped mercilously. There is an art to being a writing teacher.

Sadie - Thanks Sadie, I will always try to be humble. It's that or be humbled.

magnetbabe said...

I'm stupified. I always thought such "dialogue tags" kept a story from sounding redundant, like when you find yourself using a word way too much and start searching the thesaurus for a synonym. Good thing I don't really write creatively. This is kind of like when I learned from Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree that true literary snobs dislike e.e. cummings. I hadn't a clue. I love him. Anyway, you obviously have a talent for creative writing and I'm very glad you are using criticism constructively and finding resources to improve your talent further. Whoa, that was a run on sentence. Keep up the good work. I look forward to future stories!

Ben O. said...

On Writing should be required reading for every writer-to-be. He has such a way of character development . . . anyone who dismisses him as a "Scary" author does so at their own peril.

Add me to the list of those with goals similar to yours - I'm afraid this blog thing of mine has taken more time away from serious writing than I had anticipated. It's fun, though.

Ben O.

Scott said...

MagnetBabe - I thought the same thing, that after so many repetitions of said and asked I would sound like a skipping record. The run on sentence is one construct I can't identify--yet. That's why I'm hitting the books. I'll bet I have a few in the story. Thanks for the props.

Ben - I felt the same way, that this was taking away from serious writing. That's why I started the short story project. Now I have something to polish and call my own.

jenbeauty said...

Great food for thought Scott. I just write whatever pops into my head. I try to be correct but it is difficult. I know fanfiction writers use what they call a BETA or editor. It helps with feed back and such.

Feel free to e-mail me with suggestions, I don't mind!

Moni said...

Stephen King's book, On Writing is awesome. I can't believe a teacher of his actually told him he was wasting his time by writing sci-fi shorts.

I once tried to write a children's book, I couldn't do it...so I have the utmost respect for those who have the ability to write stories.

It's almost like I can't be that expansive and descriptive so I write lyrics. heheh :)

The Zombieslayer said...

Scott - One tip from a writer to a writer. Read Shrunk & Whites Elements of Style book once a year. It has done wonders to my writing.

My older brother has three books published. He bought me a book called Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. It has helped a lot as well.

Scott said...

Jen - Writing can be frustrating, especially when you know something isn't right but have no idea what it is. If you ever want a critique of something you have spent some time with, just give me a shout. I would be happy to help you out.

Moni - I have seen classes pertaining to childrens writing. As with all genres, there is a learnable technique to it. Don't give up so easy! Writing lyrics is just another form of creativity.

Zombie - I really appreciate your recommendations. I put them both on my library queue and will give them a read. If I can't live without them, I will pick visit my local bookstore.

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

I too love writing.

I never attended a course though. Ergo, my grammar tends to be lacking and I pick the odd descriptive duffer when selecting words.

Perhaps I should go on a course.

Tee said...

I remember in school the teacher encouraged us to change "said" to something else... It does get a little silly if overdone.

I love your writing, if I ever see anything I think you could tweak, will let you know.

Otherwise, keep up the great work. (And I agree, the support available through blogging is awesome.)

Scott said...

Mosha - Or should I just refer to you as God? Check out Zombies comment. He recommends Elements of Style and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I highly recommend a creative writing course though, not so much for grammar, but for inspiration.

Tee - Thanks, I appreciate that! I picked up a McMurtry book, and one of the first tags I saw was "declaimed." Hmm....

Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

Self editing for fiction writers has been purchased.

I will hold you personally responsible if turns out to be rubbish (especially if the grammar is poor)

:-)

Scott said...

I have my own copy on the way, so we are on this journey together.

Jason said...

King's On Writing is just great, and I got a blast reading Danse Macabre as well. Both caused me to rethink his fiction.

After my first novel flopped I got about 2/3 through the second, then moved to SoCal and started grinding out unproduced screenplays. My biggest challenge is sticking with it and setting aside my writing time while balancing a pretty demanding day job and family. Kind of like working out -- you need to do it regularly to get results.

Keep it up, and I'll dish out fair-minded critiques, as I can appreciate that's what you need. Happy 41st! Mine is six weeks away or so.