Monday, January 30, 2012

Sharpening Critical Skills, A Few Thoughts Thereon

As I was learning to write at a professional level, I participated in a long-running writer's group, along with people who'd attended the Clarion workshop and Advanced Writing courses at UCLA. Thus, as I struggled with my own writing craft, I also learning to read carefully and give written critiques. This involved a number of skills, including identifying problems with the story -- whether they were at the level of prose/diction/grammar, plotting or characterization, atmosphere and authorial voice, or theme and dramatic shape. As I got better, I learned also how to read between and beneath the lines, and especially to pay attention to what the writer was trying to do, not how I would prefer to re-write the story.

As in other groups, we gave the author written critiques after reading them aloud. This had benefits for the author, who did not have to take notes and remember everything, but could just listen and take in as much as humanly reasonable under the circumstances, as well as for the group, so we could all hear each other's reactions. But it also forced me to write down what I saw, where the writer lost my confidence, what struck me as infelicitous or out of tune or just plain lacking in credibility.

Coming March 2012!
In recent years, I have had the joy of editing several anthologies: 2 volumes of Lace and Blade for Norilana Books, and 2 forthcoming stand-alone anthologies, Beyond Grimm, Tales Newly Twisted for Book View Cafe, and The Feathered Edge: Tales of Magic, Love, and Daring for Sky Warrior Books. So I've spent a fair amount of time reading stories and thinking about how and why they work/don't work.

It's an amazing pleasure to work with professional authors. Sure, some of us can be egotistical tyrants, but by and large, most of us -- author and editor -- want the same thing, for the story embody the best of the author's imagination. A "fresh pair" of knowledgeable eyes is invaluable. I love, too, that I don't have to explain the principles of writing (Show Don't Tell, Use Scenes, Don't Bash The Reader, etc.), I can just point out where I felt confused or misled, and the author gets it and then fixes it in his or her own way.

Then...I turn back to my own work. OMG, as my computer-fluent kids say. How could I possibly have generated such...well, to say it's drek is an insult to drek. Did I in a million years think that constitutes a proper sentence? Or that any reader with two neurons to rub together would believe this other thing? I exaggerate, of course. Even my rough drafts have improved considerably over the years. What I'm getting at is that changing of gears from being on the outside, thinking editorially about someone else's work, to applying that same turbo-charged critical eye to my own, can be excruciating. I go from confidence to despair within a few paragraphs.

And well I should, because I've been sharpening those critical skills, the ones I deliberately set aside when I'm creating. I can't emphasize enough how important it is to get my editor offline when I'm drafting -- lock her in the attic, send her on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Iceland! It's deadly to my imagination to have her looking over my shoulder, telling me how wrong, wrong, wrong everything I write is. Yet there comes a time when I welcome her back with open arms, give her carte blanche and a cup of hot chocolate, and bid her do her worst. Then I don't want her flabby and weak, which is why it's important to have some aspect of my writing life in which she gets to flex those muscles. For that, she needs to be in fighting trim, and that means regular exercise.

Copyediting -- Boot Camp For the Internal Editor!

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