Writing for (sort of) beginners

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Topics in comments do wander, and this did indeed happen when I posted a blogpost about spoilers, we ended up talking about writing, and SavageKitsune came out of the closet as having a story burning in her from childhood that she is beginning to put into written words. Hence this forum topic.

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SK drops a hint
Submitted by SavageKitsune on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 08:45.

Here's another interesting thing to wonder about in light of the study, though... sometimes when I'm writing, I feel some level of pressure to produce twists and surprises (especially with the ending) because I assume that predictable is boring and hackneyed and will make a poor story. Perhaps more people want "predictable" than writers tend to assume, and we can just quit worrying about it.

Karen takes the bait
Submitted by Karen on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 09:48.

I didn't know you write, too! Linky-link?

SK wrote:
I feel some level of pressure to produce twists and surprises (especially with the ending) because I assume that predictable is boring and hackneyed and will make a poor story.

My feelings exactly. I feel that pressure every weekday. But, yes, maybe we're at least a little bit wrong. Hence the poll.

SK says hold your horses!
Submitted by SavageKitsune on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 10:05.

I didn't know you write, too! Linky-link?

Eeep, not yet! My Work In Progress is only a few weeks old- and unfortunately is coming along both a)grindingly slowly, and b)all out of chronological order. When/if I get a few pages of the actual beginning hammered out, I may share links (Thank you for asking)!

If you'd like general new-writer advice
Submitted by Karen on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 10:13.

...please say so, and I, Shirley (technically I shouldn't speak for her, but I know her) and other experienced writers lurking around here I'm sure will jump in.

My first bit is: don't worry that it's coming either grindingly slowly or out of order. I wrote the dead-tree version of the Chevenga story totally out of order, and grindingly slowly compared to how fast I write today.

Oh, thank you, that is really
Submitted by SavageKitsune on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 10:24.

Oh, thank you, that is really awesome and really sweet of you (both/all). You & Shirley are some of my very favorite authors, so that would be a big deal to me. Would definitely be very grateful for constructive criticism at some point.

I expect my story will pick up rapidly once I can work out a few problematically tangled plot issues. I'm very character-driven, so they will write the story themselves as soon as I smooth out the plot issues a bit and then just get out of their way.

Well I'm curious
Submitted by Karen on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 10:53.

How much have you written before?

There are beginners and beginners. Meilin Miranda, for instance, was a beginning novelist when she started the Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom, but not a beginning writer--she'd been in journalism for 30 years, IIRR, before that. The polish of that experience shows in her writing.

Submitted by SavageKitsune on Sun, 11/13/2011 - 11:43.

I've written since I was a child, and gotten positive feedback from readers as well as encouragement to keep writing- short stories, comics, articles, reviews, opinion pieces, a little poetry, instructionals on various topics, a martial arts training blog, all sorts of stuff. All non-professional; some published in small newsletters and such. Never a full-length adult fiction novel.

EC & PA inspired me. I like the idea of being able to write online and share it or not as I choose, have full control over all aspects, change things as they continue to evolve, and also be able to continue the story and spinoffs thereof indefinitely if I want to. Not like a book for dead-tree publication where it's a finite market product.

The story I'm currently trying to germinate is a personal myth of my own alter ego, which has been building in my mind since childhood. (Yeah, this is part of the reason I'm drawn to your work, as it seems your experience of that is similar...)

Turns out mine is a reworking of the Tam Lynn legend. I was shocked when I read a couple of versions of the tale for the first time in my late twenties, and recognized my story right down to a whole slew of obscure details. A skeptic would say I'd read some version as a small kid and it stayed in my subconscious, but I dunno... it feels like more than that. There is just something spiritually significant going on here.

Researching it lately, as I'm trying to get the story going, I'm reading many versions and just keep running into, "Yup, there's that piece... and that detail... oh, that bit is in here too...holy &^%$...." Just surreal.

Anyway, this would be going a lot faster if I simply regurgitated the narrative as it's already been built in my mind over thirty-some years, but it is *so* intensely personal that I just can't bring myself to put it on paper/screen- even if I was writing it for no eye but my own- without altering it some. Just too much of a soul-level strip.

So that's where I'm kind of stuck at the moment; trying to sew at least a bit of underwear to put on before walking onstage buck naked. The story's there already, all of it, I just need to dress it up a little first for modesty's sake- but without diluting it too much.

Sorry for the wall-o-text, but you asked!

Walking onto stage buck naked

I promise not to point and laugh. It takes effort to actually comment, so you're more likely to get constructive comments than anything nasty.

Looking forward to your online writing debut.

But be careful there

Pointing and laughing is the refuge of small egos and small minds. I agree you're not likely to get that. But the more directly you ask for criticism, even constructive, the more likely you are to get it.

I post on a number of webserials and have developed a habit of being a bit more blunt than I normally permit myself irl, which has even become part of that online persona - ask me for an honest answer and I'm very likely to give it.

Before you put out a request for constructive criticism, first ask yourself where you think you fall in terms of practice, skill, and experience. Then ask yourself how you'll handle it if people don't agree with your internal (i.e. your ego's) rank.

I've posted a number of places in response to standard author requests for comments/criticism, and while I tried to be positive I've caused anything from a pretty serious meltdown (outcome: even if that author tells me they want honest constructive criticism, I don't provide it )to a real doozy. A writer with several areas ripe for improvement hunted me down in a comment thread on someone else's site where I was in the middle of being blunt with that author - who handled it wonderfully, gracefully, and even (I think/hope/keep telling myself) appreciatively. This other commenter asked me to go read their work and tell them "what [I] really think". I took an hour or so to read and try compose my thoughts in a direct but constructive manner...the next day they said that after some soul-searching they'd disabled comments on their site and none were visible. Oops?

I think constructive criticism is one of the fastest ways we can learn and grow, but it isn't always a pleasant process. The thicker your skin, the more likely it's a good option for you. I think I can take it about as well as I dish it, but be careful what you ask for.


Writing is HARD. Creative writing is not one of my skills, and I have a lot of respect for people who are good at it. The best of them have put in a lot of practice and also have worked hard to master other foundations of their craft: grammar, drama/psychology, science if they're trying to build a consistent fantasy world, appropriate areas of expertise (any surprise John Grisham practiced criminal law?) Don't run yourself down if you aren't an ace in everything already.

constructive criticism vs validation

I think some people ask for "constructive criticism" when what they actually want is validation or strokes. ("This is great! You rock!") Not that there's anything wrong with wanting/needing that- but if what you really want is a stroke, you should just ask for a stroke, IMHO!

Oh yes, indeed

...and this is one way you can tell the pros from the shmoes. Pros can handle constructive critique because a) they are truly committed to excellence in their work and b) they are committed to working with other people, which is the only way you can really excel, and so have learned how.

However, I will also second what V wrote re asking for it. You will get critique if you either a) encourage online readers to provide it or b) say you are a beginning writer. And not everyone out there has a clue how to do it. (V does more than most. I do, at a professional level, i.e. I don't do enough critique for a person to amount to actual work unless I'm getting paid for it. This is because I know not only where the weaknesses are, but how to fix them. I differ from V in that I never do critique at all unless I am either a) asked or b) collaborating with the person.) I caution against throwing out a general request for critique unless you are pretty sure you can tell the difference between critique which will actually help you, and critique which won't. Truly well-done critique will actually inspire you, by giving you tools to improve your writing and thus empowering you as a writer.

There are also those who want to be gatekeepers: who will tell you that your work is good enough/not good enough because they think it is good enough/not good enough, and refuse to recognize that their one opinion is but one opinion. Writers accepting this self-proclaimed authority is how these people get their ego-strokes. They are to be ignored. Real gatekeepers--editors--tend actually to be more humble about their gatekeeping role, because if they've had some years in the business, they've had both spectacular failures and surprise successes, and had to take responsibility for both.

I'll second this.

I've received hundreds of comments on this site, and only two of them, that I recall, have been truly negative on the writing (though sometimes people go after the characters--that's okay, because it means they're involved in the story!) In my experience, the default is polite and positive.

I *like* walls-o-text.

So long as they're interesting. I asked because I wanted to know, you told me, all is well!

Not inexperienced at all, got it. Next tip--in case you are not already doing it--write every day. At least 500 words. I thought I was as good as I was going to get when I started PA. I was making a living as a freelance journalist. To my amazement, from fulfilling the midnight deadline day in day out in addition to doing the news & feature writing, I've gotten way better. If you're already writing every day, forgive me.

I'm very honoured, and sure Shirley is too, that it's us who've inspired you to start work on this. It is similar to my experience except that I've never found an entire discrete story that matches Chevenga's. (Similar bits, themes, motifs, sure, but not the whole story.) But if you talk about a character and a story that seems to be woven completely in with your life so that the rhythm of it is always running in the background at the very least, and has been since you were young, I know exactly what you mean. The force of that story and that character within me is what keeps me going here.

Probably you don't want to hear this, but I also suggest you walk onto the stage buck naked. In authenticity is the greatest power.