Writing Tips

Go Forth and Edit: An Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Critique Circle

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Today, I want to share some tips for getting the most out of your Critique Circle experience and some etiquette (AKA mostly my own CC pet peeves).

If you are not familiar, Critique Circle (CC) is a free platform where writers post stories and receive critiques. You start out by critiquing a handful of stories and earning points, which you then use to post your own story. Generally, you’ll post 5,000 words or less at a time, and longer submissions require more points. You also may need to wait a few days before your story goes live. When you start out, your story will be posted in the “Newbie Queue” for new members, and you will also critique stories in this queue. Newbie Queue stories get up to five critiques, but my last story received 7(!) for some reason. There are also paid subscription plans if you would like to get going faster.

I’ve been to different in-person critique groups and exchanged stories with friends. I’m not trying to discount the value of those experiences, but I’ve realized that platforms like CC have an advantage that traditional critiquing just can’t match. And that is this: nobody knows who you are! Other CCers are looking at your story in almost the most objective way possible, and they have only the context that you provide. Maybe that sounds lame and impersonal, but experience has taught me the value of this. It’s great to have a place to go where your work is not judged through the lens of your own gender, ethnicity, race, age, socioeconomic status, or persona. Obviously, those things don’t go away, but at least you can choose what you want to share about yourself on CC.

When I first started using CC, I felt a bit of a disconnect with my readers. I didn’t feel like they were really getting my story. It’s probably because I didn’t give them any context for it. I was just kinda like, “here ya go, thanks for reading.” And my story was weird and trippy too, so you can imagine how disorienting that was.

So you can benefit from my own CC mistakes and follies, I’ve compiled this little checklist so you can know what to expect from CC and crush it!

When Critiquing

  1. The Newbie Queue is not genre-specific, so be prepared to critique work from different genres. I think that critiquing outside of your genre can be helpful for all parties involved. Sometimes, I like it when people who aren’t my target readers critique my story — that way, I can see what kinds of things are working/not working for audiences at large.
  2. Let the author know what you liked about the story. It can be hard to put your stuff out there. Even if you have thick skin, you never know who you’re critiquing. They may be just starting out. So try to be welcoming and encouraging.
  3. The other side of the coin is: be honest. If you’re worried about being a douche, you can try this: instead of saying something like, “I didn’t like X,” you can say, “I would have liked to see Y.” Or, “Z would have made more sense to me.
  4. I encourage in-line critiques. “In-line” critiques on CC allow you to make little notes for each paragraph of the story. You can also insert comments at the beginning and end. “Classic” critiques just give you a place to make general comments. I like in-line because I can make cute little comments throughout the story and quickly point out any spelling or grammar mistakes without having to be like, “well, in the third paragraph, tenth sentence…”
  5. Just Google it! Ok, I’m going to rant for a sec. Sometimes, people will read your story and complain if you mention a celebrity or idea that they’ve never heard of. It is the author’s job to explain things, but not every little thing. And do you really want to live in a world where you only read things you’ve read about before? If you see a word or name in a story, and you don’t know what it is, just Google it! And then, you won’t have to complain in your critique.

When Posting and Reviewing Critiques

  1. Provide a short description. If you’re posting a chapter of a novel, briefly explain what the novel is about in the opening comments section. Introduce characters as necessary, important plot points, and little idiosyncrasies that the reader won’t understand if they haven’t read the rest of your work. If you’re posting a short story, do something similar, but less context will be required.
  2. It’s OK to be confident. I’ll go out on a limb and say that many writers are introverts. Maybe, like me, you’ve been conditioned to be unsure of yourself.  Well, that’s ok! CCer’s are all just trying to be better writers. There’s no need to be self-deprecating. You don’t need to put something like, “Well, this was just kind of something I threw together and it probably sucks” in your opening comments. Even if that stuff gets you brownie points in real life, it may not on CC. You may just get less views and less critiques. Why not be confident? What harm could it do you? This isn’t some horrible job interview where you have to demonstrate just the right balance of humility-machismo/alphafemale-ness to mesh with the office culture. Just get to the point.
  3. Pre-Critique. I am more receptive to stories that the author clearly proofread and self-critiqued before posting. Not to say that it needs to be perfect. Before hitting submit, I find it helpful to read my comments together with the text of my story on the browser window to see how it looks. It’s also nice to get out of your own word-processing groove. Seeing the naked text may help you notice things about your writing that you didn’t notice before. Strange, but true. Also, you may need to make some tweaks because certain formatting things like italics will not transfer over from Microsoft Word.
  4. After Receiving Critiques, Let Your CC Friends Know You Appreciate Them. Send personalized thank-you messages and let CCer’s know what you liked about their critiques. I’m a sucker for validation, so I like these. Even if you didn’t think the critique was that helpful or astute, it doesn’t hurt to be gracious. The person still took time out of their day to read your story.
  5. Critique Back! Return the favor by critiquing your critiquers when they have stories in review. If they don’t have a story in review, you can always check back later.

If you’re looking to make real-life writer friends, maybe CC isn’t right for you. It’s not region-specific, so you may do better finding a read and critique group in your area. But if you need to get some quick feedback on your story or you’re worried about being judged by friends and coworkers, CC is the way to go.

Writing Tips

How Do You Write When You Feel Like $#^! ? 5 Steps for Effective Damage Control

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There’s the kind of sad that fuels hauntingly ethereal poems. Can’t wait to turn this boo-hoo into moo-moo! Because I’m going to milk this pain. Sorry for that analogy, vegans.

And then there’s the kind of sad where you don’t want to get out of bed. But if you did, you would destroy all your writing. “I suck, so it must too.”

This isn’t an academic exercise for me because it just happened.

Has this ever happened to you:

1) You feel like you’ve made all this progress in dealing with your emotions and getting things done;

2) You feel like a different person now and even have a hard time relating to your past self?

And then something happens. The wind shifts. You’re forced into a situation that you would rather avoid. Or maybe there is a subtle trigger. You find yourself behaving in the old, “unenlightened” ways and you get a horrible, obnoxious, blast from the past right in your face?

For me the trigger can be something as seemingly innocent as a movie or show about high school. I empathize with the characters and transport myself there to the bottom of the pecking order. I start to think: “Well, I haven’t changed at all. Because here I am, after all these years, still feeling alone and still not a successful author, and still wanting all the things that I used to want that I can’t have, and that wouldn’t make me happy anyway.”

Yikes.

The experience is different for everyone, but the result is the same: good writing doesn’t get done and potentially awesome ideas can go to waste. All because of some distorted thinking and a momentary lack of vision.

What can be done?

Step 1: Don’t delete your shit just because you’re sad, and don’t wholesale dismiss your work.

Don’t do it! Think long and hard before you delete. Highlight or strike-through, but do not delete!

Follow this rule of thumb: if your eyes are still puffy, don’t assume that your writing is … stuffy?

Step 2: Don’t think only in terms of progression and regression.

Too often, we can make things worse by criticizing ourselves and labelling events and actions as progressive or regressive.  

For example, if you used to be in the habit of watching Netflix in the afternoons or drinking with your friends, but now you catch up on chores, you may be inclined to label those old behaviors as “bad” or somehow unnatural. But if you really think about it, the trivial decisions made throughout the day are neither good nor bad intrinsically. Instead of constantly trying to live up to an ideal or avoiding behaviors or situations that remind you of the past, you can instead strive to live in the present and adapt to the circumstances as they unfold.

See, you can learn something from self-help books.

Step 3: Keep a journal.

There are many reasons to write things down.

Many of the things that you write will not be published.

Writing about a difficult experience is probably not going to release you from the emotional pain forever. But, it may make you feel better for a while.

Step 4: Make some coffee or tea.

I used to hate it when people would tell me to just “get over it” or “move on.”

In fact, this is why I don’t share many of my feelings anymore.

The fact is, you often can’t just snap your fingers and “get over it.”

It may take years or a lifetime.

Nowadays, I try to parent myself. Instead of dismissing my feelings, I choose to take breaks by engaging my senses, meditating, or doing something “productive.”

It’s like, “well, this does seem kind of hopeless, but on the bright side, we’re all going to die, so there’s no reason for me to feel so inferior that I can’t get out of bed.”

Step 5: Rinse and repeat.

Being sad is going to change the way you write and change the way you view your existing work. This is inevitable. How can I incorporate my sad work into my happy work? How can I manage to maintain a consistent tone when nothing in my life is stable? Should I start over? I can’t answer these questions. But I can say that all experiences can make your writing better because read that somewhere. People who can’t appreciate the ebb and flow of life cannot be writers. You are not one of those people; therefore, you will figure it out.

I ran out of steps, but I’ll leave you with one more thing: managing expectations.

I think that living in an instant-gratification world can be very detrimental to a healthy writerly mindset. When negative emotions come, we can get wrapped up in comparing ourselves to others. At this age, I should be like ______. I think this comes from having skewed expectations.

Being a writer has never been the safe bet. What even is a safe bet these days? It’s more complicated than putting in the work and getting paid. This is especially true if you’re like me, constantly pushing the envelope. My novel has a prologue and a musical number in the third chapter. Do you think literary agents are going to like that? I don’t.

It’s unrealistic for me to believe that my writing will become an instant success. I also have to live with the possibility that what I do may never be commercially or critically successful, even after I’m dead.

All I can do is try to understand the method behind my madness and respect that. Maybe I can delude myself a little (it’s so punk to be weirdly brilliant in ways that few people will ever understand). What else is there? I can’t expect instant commercial success, or any commercial success.

Sometimes, all you can do is follow the steps and shove your soul into the black box that is the publishing world.

Writing Tips

How I, an INFP, Fell in Love with Writing (Again)

INFP writing tips

My first little creative renaissance happened when I was twenty. I had just finished my first year of law school, and in the summer, I went to London for study abroad. I had a number of formative experiences, such as: discovering the Velvet Underground Matrix Tapes (props to American Airlines inflight entertainment) during my flight there, reveling in the joy of macarons, making new friends, going to a bar for the first time, and having my first romantic experience on public transportation. During my flight home, I wrote some great material for my novel and, therefore, was completely unable to sleep during the whole trek from LHR to LAX.

I think what really happened during the trip was this: I discovered my Ne, and it was awesome. For you non-MBTI freaks, that’s extraverted intuition, the INFP’s misunderstood auxiliary function.

During parts of my childhood and adolescence, my Ne was poorly developed for whatever reason. Although I excelled in school (Fi-Si) and was sort of likeable when not trying to prove something, I could also be judgmental, selfish, and downright rude. I don’t think my Ne really developed much until my twenties. I still struggle with many social situations, but I think now it has more to do with anxiety than a dormant Ne.

In the months that followed my trip, I finished the first novel that I could be proud of. It was a coming-of-age literary affair called, “The Eastward Exodus of Julie Ashbury.” I had worked on it for years, and while earlier drafts had some good points, it was simply too disorganized to go anywhere. Certainly, this was a product of inexperience. But the root of the problem was that I was trying to do way too much. I’d had a pretty Christian-conservative worldview for much of my life, and that was a huge influence on my writing. Trying to serve God, country, and story — all at once — proved to be a tall order. 

The novel was never actually published. Anyone who knows me is aware that I actually turned down an offer. I’ll be kicking myself for that for a long time. But still, I consider the final version a success in so many ways. It was a raw and unflinching look at growing up for a creative, highly sensitive, and deeply religious young girl. Stylistically, it did a great job weaving heavy dialogue, questionable pop culture references, fantasy, and weird symbolism into a kind of slippy-trippy suburban romp.

I flirted with the idea of a second novel, but I was focusing so much of my energy on law school that it seemed impossible. For a long time, I just wasn’t writing anything of substance. After I took the bar exam, I completed three short stories within a year. The first one was way too Hemingway — and not in a good way. The second one was an experiment that I respect (it’s published here). The third one is forthcoming with Writer’s Resist magazine. This is where I really came into my own as a writer. But it was less than 3,000 words, and so I had to ask: was this just a fleeting glimpse at the writing career that’s already passed me by?

There was a lull after that. I hopefully scribbled ideas in notebooks, but they didn’t satisfy. I was spinning my wheels. Personally and professionally, my life was in disarray. Through late 2019-2020, I struggled with finding a job. Then there was a failed business. I was already starting to feel isolated and lost when Covid-19 hit. I battled fatigue, depression, and mood swings. My pet bird went to heaven. Yeah, it could have been worse. But twenty-year-old me had hoped for so much more. 

I settled into routines. I made bracelets. I made pizza. Also cut down on carbs. My health improved. I meditated. I replaced some of my coffees with ginseng tea. My energy levels spiked, and my outlook on life improved. It was one heck of a montage. As the narrator in my new novel says, “I’ve got a new lease on life, and this is the down payment!” You gotta love the naïvete.

My crazy ideas were tentatively impressed on legal pads. Most were useless: they were permutations of pure boredom, unfortunate puns, and meaningless pop culture jabs. But some were great. The plot slowly emerged. It was awakened more than it was actually “plotted.” An anxious-manic energy flourished.

The working title is “Cognitive Snack.” The narrator, Maggie Lovell, a salty, bat-shit INFP, goes on a quest to turn herself into an ESTJ with the aid of pseudoscience and magical thinking. She uncovers secret societies centered around microdosing, online CIA-MBTI conspiracy theories, and a personality change guru and former litigator who now operates from a shill tarot card reading booth in a Chinese supermarket in the Strip District, Pittsburgh. And yes, she discovers wonderful and uncomfortable truths about herself and the world along the way.

I simply allowed this to happen, and it did. Ne works in mysterious ways. Ne is underrated. Ne is cool. Not as cool as Se. Or maybe even cooler. It’s lustforideas meets lustforlife. No offense to other types (maybe a little), but it’s definitely cooler than Te, when used properly. Ne doesn’t hate, Ne doesn’t judge, and Ne is here for it all.

I’m not trying to denigrate my other cognitive functions. I will need their help too. Fi can help me fill up plot holes, tighten the loose screws holding together my whole emotional arc setpiece, and, more importantly, delete swear words. It takes a village.

I can’t wait for the world (more realistically, a small following of MBTI-obsessed nerds) to gawk over this romp within a farce that I’ve got going on. It’s basically a curated collection of clichés. It defies genre, balks at religion and politics, and wisely dodges the label of Literary.

It could be completely dissonant, banal, and awful. It could be brilliant. There’s really not much of a middle ground. And that’s just how I like it.

Uncategorized, Writing Tips

Get to the Why: Tips for Authentically Discovering Your Characters and Their World

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The best stories will tell strive to answer the following question: why? You can who, what, where, and when all day long, but without the why to tie it all together, you don’t have much. It may be abstract, or it not be the answer we’re looking for as readers, but there it is. Of course, some stories are so po-mo and disjointed that you could argue that the why is that there is no why. But even if you’re writing that kind of story, you may still want to strive for the why, just for fun. Here’s how.

Just kidding. We all know the why is elusive. I can’t tell you how to find it. But here are some fun exercises to start:

  1. Pretend that you’re a character in your story. Now, you have a gun pointed at your head, and your assailant is asking you to write a joke on a sticky note. It doesn’t need to be a joke that you think is funny. But your character should think it’s funny. Or, your character should think that their would-be-killer thinks it’s funny. So meta. Also, you can take as much time as you need because you don’t actually have a gun pointed at your head. Sorry if this exercise is triggering (I seriously did not intend that pun), but I just wanted to make writing seem high-stakes.
  2. When you’re feeling uninspired, do some research. Learn about the places your story takes place in, read a book your character would read, or Google something obscure related to a character’s day job. Call it research, self-improvement, or… the Dunning-Kruger effect? It’s probably going to help down the line.
  3. Embrace false starts. Today, you may be congratulating yourself for finally starting your project. Tomorrow, you may delete every word you’ve written. Don’t do that. Instead, play the devil’s advocate for your work, no matter how bad you think it is. What, specifically, about the work is “bad?” Does it need to be shortened or lengthened? Is there too much or too little context for certain events? Is the dialogue boring? Does it parrot common stereotypes? Answers to these questions are always helpful when you’re thinking about what directions you do want to go in. And ask yourself another question: is there anything I can salvage, repurpose, or re-invent?

I hope that trying these exercises and finding other ways to fully engage with your work will improve your writing. My final piece of advice: have some fun. If there’s a subject you want to try, a style you want to emulate, a crazy idea you had in the shower that you want to bring to life, then DO IT. This is supposed to be a blast. We’re writing fiction, not trying to find the cure for cancer. There’s simply no reason to hold back.

Photo by Ash Valiente from Pexels

 

Uncategorized, Writing Tips

How To Write Amazing Short Fiction: 10 Steps for Success

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Hello! Quick “about me.” I haven’t blogged in over a year, but you can feel free to look at my archives at your leisure, where you’ll find my hilarious and uncomfortably ambitious travel writings. In my defense, I was twenty-one. Since then, I’ve finished up law school, lined up a couple short stories for publication, and embarked on my very own business venture (more on that later). I’ve learned a lot lately, and I want to share it with anyone else who’s starting out and may want some guidance.

  1. Get a notebook. Dust off your spiral-bound notebooks, legal pads, and composition books. Or make notes on your phone. Write down every idea you have throughout the day, no matter how half-baked it seems. It goes without saying: if you have a day job, try to be discreet 😉 The idea may be useless, or it may be the kernel of truth that grows into your next masterpiece. Cram the wheat with the chaff into that notebook, and sort it out later!
  2. Write in the morning, or before bed, when your subconscious mind is more active. From Toni Morrison to Hemingway, countless great writers swear by their early morning sessions, and there’s good reason for it. You can be creatively engaged at any time of day, but from my experience, the best stuff often comes in the morning, with no effort. As you sleep, your subconscious mind creates connections between seemingly unrelated things, and that’s where you get intuitive and emotionally resonant fiction.
  3. Don’t give up. Not all writers are able to create quality, consistent output. Unless you need the income from your writing, don’t sweat it. Trust your instincts and plough forward. Your next breakthrough is right around the corner.
  4. Nail down tone and voice. You simply can’t successfully launch a story without having tone and voice figured out. This is probably the most difficult part of the process, and potentially the most satisfying. There is no easy way out, but you can start by drilling down into your character’s life experience and personality, which is especially helpful if you’re doing first-person. Pretend that you’re answering security questions for your character. What was the make and model of her first car? Start there and get more personal. This may seem silly, but do it anyway. And if you’re stuck, look to novels, movies, or songs for inspiration.
  5. Character sketch. This goes hand-in-hand with Step 4. Come up with some backstories, the better if they’re long, and a little melodramatic won’t hurt. Think about the character’s weaknesses and predict breaking points. While your backstories may not appear in your finished product at all, writing them out will help you distill the character’s most important experiences. Of course, you may choose to not have any flashbacks in your story, as I have done before, but knowing a character’s past will inform the actions they take in your narrative.
  6. Outline Plot. I suck at outlining. As you can probably guess, I do character-driven pieces, and yes, I shoot from the hip and entertain wild delusions of literary grandeur. I take this pretty far sometimes. I once wrote a story that began and ended with the narrator driving to school in the morning. Was I proud of myself? Kind of. Could the story have been better if I took an outline seriously? Most definitely. Are you more of a Kafka or a Stephen King? Doesn’t matter. There’s probably something you can do to make your outlining process more thorough and thoughtful. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you what not to do, which is: not outlining.
  7. Edit early and edit often. Some writers will disagree with this. They will suggest getting down your all thoughts before you go into critique mode. But here’s the thing. The sooner you catch obvious mistakes, the less likely it is they’ll end up in your final copy. At the same time, try to be conservative. If you really don’t like it, delete it. But if you’re not sure, highlight it and decide another time.
  8. Keep it short. For a newbie writer trying to get published for the first time, this is probably the single best piece of advice I can give. The word limit for many submissions and contests is 5,000. Under 3,000 is gold.
  9. Read it out loud. You can probably get away with not reading narration out loud, but why? Read the whole thing out loud several times, especially dialogue. Pretend it’s a movie script and you’re an actor trying out for the part. If the phrasing is awkward, just change it.
  10. Get feedback. If you’re excited about the project, chances are you’ll have lively conversations about it with friends, family, and coworkers. Exploit that. Sort of. And if you’re looking for some more spice in your editing life, post it on Critique Circle where strangers can roast it with zero repercussions. If this makes you scared because you’re a snowflake INFP writer, I totally get it, but don’t let that stop you. Respect the feedback and think about the feedback. It will make you better. Know in the end that it’s your story and no one else’s. For now 😉