Monday, February 21, 2011

Critiquing Creative Writing on the Spot

As an editor for a magazine, an assistant to a freelance editor, and a tutor of a writing center, I find it interesting how the critiquing dynamics dramatically shift between each. You approach chapter one of a novel much more differently than you approach a short story, and you certainly have to approach both differently if you're being forced to critique on the spot, just like a tutor must.

Well, there isn't a whole lot of advice for critiquing creative writing on the spot, so I'm going to dish out some tips from my minimal experience with tutoring. Writing centers usually receive a lot of technical writing papers, but there are the few rare who come in with creative writing, and while the tutors are helpful, many may not be creative writers and so don't know exactly how to approach a creative writing piece. Here are a few tips on how you, as a tutor, or even a beta reader forced to crit on the spot, can approach a piece of writing you aren't able to devote extensive time to:

1) Look at the hook. Does it open with character? Description? What? Short stories, especially, need to open with the character, because opening with description is often pointless. Setting description is often best saved for later, AFTER you've established the character. Stories are about characters, so they need to start with characters.

2) How long does it take for the story to start? In short stories, depending on the length, the story needs to start within the first page. "Scattershot," a short story I accepted to go into The Corner Club Press, is a 7,000 word short story whose plot immediately unfolds within the third paragraph: the MC hears a metallic ping, a piece of glass flies at him, and he discovers three holes in his window. So readers expect at this moment for the story to be about uncovering who did this. And this is exactly what the writer delivers, with a few exciting twists. Any short story, really, regardless of length, needs to start within the first page. Because they are so short, the mentality of reading a short story versus a novel differs. People expect more immediacy in a short story than they do a novel, so that immediacy must be delivered to maintain reader interest.

3) How exactly does the story start? With action? With dialogue? You often don't want to start a story with dialogue, as you want readers to care about the character first before they can care about what the character says. It CAN work, but there needs to be a reason it can't be saved until after you've introduced the story in a non-dialogue way.

4) Are you able to get the gist of the plot? Short stories only have one plot. Never really any sub-plots. If there are sub-plots in a short story, it's often going to be too short to draw those sub-plots in and create a satisfying close.

5) Is there any other way the writer can go about telling this same story? The job of an editor, I've learned, is to break the box and look beyond what's there. The job of a beta reader, I've also learned, is to look at what's already there and make it better. The job of a tutor, I think, should be to break the box and offer other ways of going about the same thing. Can this scene be introduced earlier? Is there a better way you can go about getting your MC from point A to point B and make it more interesting? Is there something else you can add to develop this particular scene?

6) What's the POV? How many main characters are there? The POV, whether first, second, third limited or omniscient, needs to be easy to follow. With third omniscient, the biggest mistake I see writers make is giving more time with one character than the other. The other mistake I see is introducing one character, building up the importance of that character, then deliberately switching POVs mid-scene without having established the importance of the character the POV is switching to.

These are just some of the ways to go about critiquing on the spot, and probably the only ways you'll really have time for. But these are essential points to hit upon. Addressing copy editing errors is important, but not as important as addressing these issues first.

Thursday, February 17, 2011


Here's a link to a contest on the YA Lit Six:

MS critique, book and blog button enter to win:

Tweet, blog, Facebook, do whatever you can think of.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Corner Club Press Issue One Teasers!

Here they are, finally! *Note: Flash fiction teasers will not be posted simply because there is a danger of giving too much away with such short pieces.

Gehenna by Kevin P. Keating

This is what they do to him, to the old man, after a lifetime spent in quiet contemplation among books of eschatology.

They parade him before the students on high holy days, not unlike the mummified thumb or shriveled toe of a medieval saint or mystic, an artifact to be revered as a symbol of piety, celibacy, wisdom and dread. Recently forced into retirement, the old man is given the title “Instructor Emeritus,” an honorific bestowed upon those priests too ancient and addle-minded to continue teaching without embarrassment or scandal in the classroom. Though rare and often ritualized, these appearances are meant to satisfy his need to be among the students, his proverbial “lost flock” whose intellectual curiosity seems to dwindle with each passing year.

Into the Unblinking Eye by David Copper

Whitfield manor was empty and uncomfortably quiet. The rumble of dark brown bodies – bustling, fumbling, fussing, slipping into creaky corners to evade the glare of young Master Whitfield – had receded long enough to grant Tillie a long-desired moment of repose between laundry and the preparation of supper. But something was wrong: the door to Young Master Whitfield's bedroom was ajar and a sudden thud inside snapped Tillie into wide-eyed alertness. Seconds later, Abbey, Tillie's nine-year-old niece, scampered out, a pint-sized tornado of lead-heavy breaths and incriminating tears.

Note for the Bright Star by Tom Sheehan

Fred Chandler, editor of the weekly and only newspaper in Quipilanta, The Bright Star, enjoyed looking out one side of his shop window the day the issue was printed. He’d already placed the front page in the window and watched early risers stop to look at the page, read some of the items on the page, and pass on. A few other shop owners, real early risers like he was on most days, with a lantern to guide them to their work place, read the page under the light of the lantern, swinging their lanterns to assist in their reading. The lanterns threw soft shadows into his editorial office. The lighting activity was, he had decided early in the career of the paper, a significant part of issue day.

Rooted in Lies by Eric Devine

I looked where he directed: Jamie’s ass was cresting out of her jeans without panties to obscure the view. It was a cherry of a backside, and as I took in the rest of Jamie's contours, I realized how Huff had pointed her out. It was in a proud manner, as if he were displaying a trophy, and it made me wonder. "Did you tap that?"

His entire body shook at the question, "No." He slumped in his chair. "But I would."

We sat for a while, not speaking, and I itched inside. Huff, my only friend, looked like a clam attached to his desk, and I wasn’t sure if the question was too much too fast. But ever since the move--really, before--I’d been listening to my older brother Scott’s advice: New school, new girls; get laid as fast as you can. Wasn't that why Huff was pointing her out? He sat up then, as if he’d been forming the next question the entire time, "You ever hit it?"

The truth was on my tongue, but Scott's voice filled my head, again: Just do it. Don't be some fucking angel your whole life. Shit, a solid ten lies can turn you into somebody else.

Planting Roses in Iraq by Walter F. Giersbach

She stood and waited until he nodded, wanting to make sure he had really chosen her.

“My grandfather was a lawyer,” she began softly. She read methodically in remarkably good English, her words marching evenly over her lips like orderly soldiers. “He worked for the Ministry of Justice and wore a white shirt and smelled like roses when he went to work every day. He worked for justice. Then the war came and I saw them take my grandfather away. They shot him and two other men and put their bodies in a hole outside our town and the machines covered up the bodies. I saw this happen at night. My father and mother and brothers cried but they could do nothing. I said we should dig him up and my father slapped me. In the spring I planted a rose in the ground where he lay sleeping and watered it and white roses grew. Then my father took our family to Basra and we were helped to go to Syria and then to America. I hope someone is watering my white roses. The end.”

Scattershot by Mark Willen

He was washing the vegetables, somewhat more cursorily than if Sally had been there to supervise, when he heard the noise—a kind of metallic ping. He couldn’t quite place it, neither its nature nor its location, and went back to washing. He was wiping his hands on his already soiled khakis when he heard the second ping. The living room. Definitely the living room. He went to investigate but found nothing amiss. Then, just as he was leaving the room, he heard the sound again, and his eye caught some motion, a tiny piece of glass flying into the wall and falling to the floor. He picked it up and turned it around. He saw holes in three of the foot-square panes that made up the living room windows.

We are the Dead by Dorian Dawes

The First was all that we knew in our city of dead. His thoughts were our thoughts. We were the enactors of His will. We had no purpose but His purpose. And in our ignorance, we believed that this was good.

Within our conscious there are but scattered echoes of what was before the First. They are the remnants of His memories, fleeting visions that we embrace when they come and abandon when they are gone. Up until now, they have been useless to me. Up until now, I have not needed to know.

Now, I think they are more important than anything. They are certainly more important than this existence we lead, this unlife.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Money or Circulation?

Based on a question I found on AbsoluteWrite, I decided to blog about it, particularly because I'm an aspiring author as well as fiction editor of The Corner Club Press.

So, the main question was this: Would you submit to a magazine that paid well but had poor circulation?

I automatically knew my answer was no. For one thing, I care about readers more than I care about money. I want to be like Emilie Autumn, who calls her fans 'muffins.' She cherishes and adores her fans, and I want to be one of those writers that cares about her fans as well. Call me idealistic, but while I write what I want to write, I also want to bring smiles to those who are going to read my work. And I WANT people to read what I've written. It's not enough for me to simply hand out my work on-line or whatever and say 'read it.'

For another thing, unless you're able to support yourself on writing alone, which many can't, you shouldn't even be writing to pay your bills. Most writers have a steady paycheck, and writing just gives them extra money. Money's nice and great, but I'm willing to bet that extra money will go to things you don't even need. There are writers out there who make a steady living off short stories, but it's because they can afford to. Some of them might even have taken a chance by quitting their jobs and jumping into the short story market, but for writers like me who don't want to be kicked out on the streets because I can't pay my bills, I'm going to have a steady job until I know I can support myself with writing without having to risk anything.

And another thing, a market that has poor circulation has poor circulation for a reason. That market is likely going to do nothing to bolster your credentials as a short story writer. Sure, editors, like myself, only care about the story and not the credentials behind the story, but magazines that often have poor circulation are magazines that'll probably fold in the future. Don't you want to be with a magazine that'll archive your work for a long, long time? A magazine guaranteed not to fold in the near future?

I'm being critical, I know, of those who opt to sell out and run for the money rather than the circulation. But you shouldn't be writing for the money in the first place.

Call me judgmental, call me whatever, but I've never been the one to sell out. Money's nice, but money can't tell you what a great story that was, how that story changed someone's perspective on life, or whatever positive things fans say to authors. By all means people should be paid for hard work, and I'm definitely not saying we shouldn't desire money for our work, but at the same time we also need to be realistic and realize the short story market is damn competitive. You should just be happy you're getting published at all, particularly because ones that do pay well sometimes have less than a 1% acceptance rate.