Saturday, February 27, 2010

To crit or not to crit: chapter 3 of 4

Here we are, almost done. There are a few thoughts I have to include.

As you crit someone else's work, you may have to mention facts: pointing out where the writer breaks grammar rules, for example. Even here, it’s not necessary to leap off an ivory tower onto the poor writer. Say something like ‘I think you meant…’ or ‘In this context, the accepted standard is…’ When I can cite a source, such as my trusty Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, Second Edition 2002, I list that. The writer knows I’m not pulling stuff out of the air and she/he can go check it out if they want. I’ve had critters cite examples from published fiction and that’s great. That gives me someplace specific to go if I want to get further into it.

If you crit in a newbie queue, please be extra careful. Those writers may not be new to writing or getting crits, but they’re new to the site. Don’t sour people on something you yourself find helpful by biting off their heads. Put in a few extra smileys, or ‘good job here’ comments. People who are in fact new to writing will probably have more weak things and just plain errors in their writing, so think about whether or not you want to tackle that before you start critting.

That said, try to crit an occasional newbie story. You were a newbie once too. You might gain a crit buddy.

It may be easier to just leap out of the water, mouth gaping, and bite off limbs. People who saw "Jaws" when it came out remember those teeth. But bunny rabbits get the positive attention.

The final chapter: So what's in it for me?

Hand waves

Hi to AJ, who came on board a couple days ago. I'm tickled that you decided to follow me. :)

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

To crit or not to crit: chapter 2 of 4

As I get into a crit, when I see things that could use improvement, I use phrases like ‘I think’, ‘in my opinion’ or ‘IMHO’, ‘maybe’. I use smiley faces too. This reiterates that I’m giving my opinions and cushions the hard news. Even people who say they have thick skin don’t deserve to be whacked upside the head. Writing is often personal and it can feel risky to put yourself out there for strangers to dissect.

How would you feel if somebody said "you shouldn’t be writing, you obviously don’t know how to do it." That’s what tends to come through when you turn into a shark.

I try to describe why I think a word or phrase could be improved. I include a suggestion when I can think of one. Most writers seem to appreciate a concrete example of something better.

Please don’t pad a crit with praise just to increase your word count and get full credit. The writer will probably see through that and may get pissed off enough to report you to the site administrator. If the story only calls for a short, good quality crit, be gracious enough to accept half-credit. The writer may ask you for a crit later because you were honest, and you could pick up credits then. Don’t let getting credits become your primary reason to crit. And that’s a whole ‘nother post ;)

When I feel something works exceptionally well, I usually say ‘Yay for you!’ or ‘great job here’. I include the exact phrase I liked and try to describe why I think it’s great. That way, the writer is better able to do it again, and that’s half the reason to crit: to help the other person. I try to keep my crits balanced. There is almost always something good to say in addition to pointing out what’s not so good.

Some people say to give the kind of crit that you’d like to receive. That’s fine as long as you’re not genuinely hoping for a pile of praise without any criticism at all.

I want to stress that: there is almost always something good to say.

If you can’t bring yourself to say that you liked the dialog for example, or even just the writer’s enthusiasm for the subject, maybe you shouldn’t send a crit. Or come back to it tomorrow after a rest. If you shape shift into a shark, the writer may report you to the moderator/administrator, you may get a warning or be kicked off the site, and writers may tell each other that you are really nasty.

If people talk about me, I’d rather they say ‘Owlie’s not bad, she gave me some options for the weak parts and let me know what I did right.’

The next chapter will be shorter!

Monday, February 22, 2010

To crit or not to crit: a short series

What kind of critter are you?

Many writers find an online writing workshop to help them improve their craft. I’m active on Critique Circle {CC}. We pay ‘credits’ to post a story, and we earn credits by critiquing {critting} other stories. In giving crits, receiving crits, and reading posts about crits, I’ve come to several conclusions about the process. While I don’t know everything, I’ve been thanked repeatedly for the style of my crits and I was recently a ‘star critter’. That just means the people I critted for in a given period really liked what I said.

It’s clear that critiquing can be a hot button issue. My goal, when I give crits, is to be a bunny rabbit critter, not a shark.

Smokey, Grizzles, Claude and Miss Mousie are the bunnies who share my life. I like rabbits for a lot of reasons, among them being the fact that what you see is what you get. Like dogs, they don’t have agendas. Well, except for Grizzles, who’s always hoping you’ll hand him something to eat. Rabbits will show you in plain body language when they’re happy and when they’re scared. Happiness is stretched out, chin flat on floor, eyes closed while absorbing the body strokes or head scratches you’re bestowing. When they’re unsure or angry, they will thump: hit the floor - hard - with their big back feet. My bunnies do not bite people.

I have a standard disclaimer I give to everybody I crit for the first couple of times. I tell them my intent is to help not harm, but if I do say anything offensive, to let me know.

When you crit, it’s easy to say ‘this phrase doesn’t make sense’ or ‘that character wouldn’t say that.’ I skim a story before I crit, if I don’t know the writer. If it looks like there are a bunch of grammar mistakes, spelling gaffes, and clich├ęs, I may skip critting it. Doing a thorough crit on a story like that can easily take two or three hours, and is mentally tiring. It’s hard on the eyes. I know I’m not alone in sometimes deciding to skip a crit. You can message the writer to say something like what I did in this post. That lets them know {without you being a shark} that they need to fix basic things. If they decide to fix and resubmit, they may ask you to crit the revised version; you’ll get credits, the writer will like you because you were honest without being a jerk, and you’ll both be happy.

This will be continued in two more posts, plus a final one on what the critter can learn from doing.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hand waves

Hi to Angela, who joined up a little bit ago and whom I didn't officially welcome until today. *bad Owlie!*

Hi to Spammy!!

So nice to have both of you.

I'm working on a post about critting ... those of you who've been doing it for a while will understand why it's taking me a while to sort it and condense it ;)

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Context in the written word

‘Who said that?’ asks the reader.

Was the confusing comment addressed to another character? Did the speaker look or gesture at another character immediately before or after saying it?

The last character named is not always the one to whom the next comment refers.

Webster’s New World Dictionary and Thesaurus, second edition (2002) defines ‘context’ as: 1) the parts just before and after a passage, that determine its meaning.

Fred strolled to a seat next to Ethel. “So I hear you’ve decided to become a professional dog walker.”
“Yeah, word travels fast around here.”

This is where some people stop and say, ‘Who said that last sentence?’ For that matter, who said the first sentence? Let’s take a look at the snippet. “So I hear you’ve decided to become a professional dog walker” is positioned on the same line that opens with a mention of Fred, so I’m going to assume that Fred is the speaker. This of course should be confirmed or changed by an additional detail, such as Fred’s next comment marked with a dialog tag.

The second sentence, “Yeah, word travels fast around here” is on a separate line, so a different character must have said it. Context: The first comment was addressed to Ethel, and the reply makes sense for Ethel to have said it, therefore: I’m going to assume that Ethel said it.

In the next sentence or two, the writer should confirm that assumption or make it plain who else spoke.

And really, even though I’ve taken a bunch of words to explain this, when it happens in your brain, it takes at most a couple of seconds if the writer’s done it correctly. There is nothing wrong with a few seconds of confusion on the reader’s part, provided it’s cleared up right away.

Who said that? Uh, oh, Fred addressed himself to Ethel, so Ethel must’ve said it.

Even I can handle being unsure for the couple of seconds it took to straighten that out.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Ineffective words

I use color to write. I'm currently revising/editing my story a second time, and realized that I use certain words a lot in the first pass. I'll write a chapter with some parts stream-of-consciousness style. Other parts are taken from the previous version of the chapter combined with crits received from my pals at

These are passive words when active would be better; overused or cliched words that readers and editors alike are sick of; and words that just fall flat.

When I get to the end of the chapter, I run a "find" (sometimes called "search") on certain words, one at a time. Right now I'm focusing on seven words, each a writing demon unto itself. Each word has its own color. For example, "was" is medium blue.

Whenever the computer finds the word, I change its color. Then, when I'm done with those seven, I look over the chapter for each color. There tends to be a lot of medium blue. With the computer looking for the words, I know I won't miss any. I look at each instance of the word and decide if it should be changed. This has made a big positive difference in my writing!

My Critique Circle (fondly referred to as CC) friends helped me come up with a list of words that can be overused, or are generally considered weak. Sometimes I leave the word in the chapter, sometimes I change it, but it helps to know what's considered overused or not as strong as it could be. I've included the list on the right side of the blog.

If you have suggestions for the list, do share :)

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Research I've read

"Life on Planet Rock" by Lonn Friend (editor of RIP magazine 1987 - 1994)
Morgan Road Books, 1986

Wow. For anybody who loved '80s and/or '90s rock-n-roll (and I know I ain't alone here), this book is it. He offers this quote early on:
"There is nothing stable in the world; uproar's your only music" (John Keats)
I can't argue with that! Fortunately for Lonn, his personality helped him reach out to those whose work he loved. He connected with people immediately, adjusted himself to make artists comfortable, and was allowed into their lives as deeply as the artists' own families.

Unfortunately for Lonn, his own life fell apart because of it. He had a wife and daughter but got divorced. He lost his own identity for a while. I don't condone leaving your family at every opportunity, but Lonn has a box of memories that is priceless.

He says his magazine covered "hard rock" and "metal", though he seems to blur the definitions of those labels. For me, Metallica is metal: hence the name, duh? Whatever. That hardly detracts from the book.

Lonn got started at a Larry Flynt publication. He was there for a few years and that background helped open doors for him as he moved through the music world. If you admire Chuck Berry, you'll want to skip that part.

He makes one big mistake. "Sitting passively in your seat with your toe tapping and head bobbing works for an Eagles or Elton John concert..." 'Scuze me? I've been to Elton shows, and believe me we did not "sit passively". For anybody unfamiliar with rock concerts, sure, we sit sometimes, mostly during ballads. People lucky enough to get floor seats don't hold still or sit much at all. Maybe I misunderstood Lonn, but he seemed to think certain acts under the "rock" label didn't generate much fire during shows.

I was at a Bruce Hornsby show as recently as summer of 2009. You can't confuse Hornsby with Springsteen: they're different types of rock musicians. But, I was still shoved up against the stage barrier and had to listen to people howling "Bruuuuuuuuce" in my ears, waving and jumping and screaming. People pushed themselves in front of me. The only "passivity" happened as joints were passed, don't drop that please!

Again, didn't seriously mar the book. Lonn clearly did a few things right. His daughter thinks of Slash as "Uncle" :)

Research I've read

"Written in my Soul: Rock's great songwriters talk about creating their music"
by Bill Flanagan (Comtemporary Books Inc., 1986)

Flanagan quotes Bob Dylan as saying that up until Eric Burdon recorded it, "House of The Rising Sun" was sung from a woman's point of view.

That's fascinating all by itself. Frankly, I've only ever heard Burdon's version, and couldn't think of the song any other way. Changing the gender of the POV person in a song like that changes the whole flavor of the piece. Makes you think about the words you choose.

Chuck Berry's interview was illuminating. He seems, at least at the time he spoke with Flanagan, to have been mostly after money (although Lonn Friend's book, discussed next, indicates Berry was also after women). Here I thought Berry was gonna be at least somewhat appreciative of the public's wild acceptance of the unique way he approached rock, but he says he just wanted commercial hits.

Maybe that shouldn't surprise me. Commercialism didn't arrive with the Charlie Brown Christmas special.

Sting, Bono, Pete Townshend, Richards and Jagger, Joni Mitchell, Elvis Costello and Van Morrison are also included. Keith Richards came across as being concerned with creating good songs, shattering my assumption that he was mostly interested in money.

I didn't learn much about "how to write songs" because the artists talked about ideas and generics, how insubstantial the whole process is - like fiction writing. Paul Simon, in particular, veered off into how he changed chords and got so technical, I was lost early in the conversation.

I like Flanagan's interview style. He kept it easy and friendly. The artists appeared to enjoy discussing their work and their lives with him. I'd love a second volume.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Sandy's Journal

It's a shock to find out your life isn't your own. You mind your own business for years then suddenly you find out you have a writer. Not somebody you write for, somebody who writes you! Freaky concept. I think she can change my past, too. I have hazy memories that nobody else does. From before using blow!

I sympathize with my writer a little. She's so nuts about rock and especially percussion but doesn't have the contacts I do. My life moved in a direction she only dreamed about. I'd show her around if she visited.

But then again, she's the one who decided Neal wasn't enough of a bastard to me. I find myself reliving the time he and I met, and he's gotten to be more of a terrorist. She had him decide to slit my throat for real until he realized he knew my face. The first time we met, he wasn't really going to kill me, but she decided that wasn't edgy enough, or something. I get the feeling she's got a lot more planned for me, so I must stay alive, but why did things have to kick off on such a violent note?

You know, she makes me nervous. She says she only does stuff like that to people she likes. Who needs enemies with...

Neal's Journal (language warning)

I'm free!!

I got out of Mi Familia and I ain't dead!

This crazy musician takes me to his house and I meet the band and I'm outta Watts. Sandy had to twist their arms - I'm gonna shred that fucking Eric. Thinks he's muy muy. Well he ain't shit! Lennie's the manager and he greenlighted me.

But the worst thing is my writer. She pushes me around. I gotta do what she wants or this hand comes out of nowhere and slaps my head. Damn, my shot caller was crazy too. Why've I got so many crazy people around?

I get even though. I'll hafta hide my journal. Sometimes I don't talk to her, or I talk in the middle of the night. She pushes my buttons, I push hers.

She keeps changin' what I say to people. That's why I'm screwed up, how can I think straight when she keeps changin' my mind? Damn, she's lookin' for me - gotta take off.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Hand waves

Greetings to my two followers, I'm so glad you both stopped by. :)

Writing doesn't have to always be lonely.

Research I've read

“Sound Recording Handbook”, by John M. Woram
Howard W. Sams and Company (1989)

Seriously, this got really interesting.

Waveform … It’s like seeing a TV special about ocean waves. You find out water waves go down below the surface a long way - I’ve forgotten how far, but many dozens of feet - but you only see the top bit. You don’t realize, watching one come running straight at you, that it’s dragging its feet along below the surface. But when that wave knocks you on your ass, hello!

Same with sound waves.

Spherical waves, plane waves, the speed of sound! Density, elasticity and temperature of the air! To anybody recording sound, this stuff matters. It seems that, for sound engineers as well as the rest of us, the devil is in the details.
Threshold of pain - someday I’ll write a poem based on that phrase. Something with a title like that might make a great song too. Phase shift - great heavens, it’s a miracle anybody can memorize this stuff and be able to use it. (If I read it correctly, the threshold of pain is about 140 decibels.)

Psychoacoustics - is that a great word or what?

Threshold of feeling - yeah, gotta use that too, somewhere. That’s about 120 decibels. Not much space between smiling and screaming.

Microphone manufacturers … yeaahh, I don’t really need to know that. But I did find out there is a specific mic type often used to record drums. Drum kits also normally are recorded with several mics.

I gotta say, since I’ve started reading more about what goes on in recording studios, I’m able to hear things in the headphones I had no idea were there. I pay particular attention to percussion; maybe it’s because my heart has a beat. Whatever, I’ve been in love with percussion since I first became aware of rock-n-roll. I can’t play a lick - oh that was a bad pun!

I knew there was more to making records than putting people in a room with instruments and vocalists, telling them to rip into it, pushing ‘play’ then backing off. I’ve never been able to talk to anybody about it, though. I didn’t realize that sometimes a sound is added that’s more felt than heard. I hear triangle dings in songs that I never guessed were there. Sometimes, I get so caught up in listening that I completely forget what I was writing about. So many of the songs I’m completely in love with were recorded in bits and pieces, but the finished product sounds like everybody did their parts together, at the same time, in one effortless session.

Sound engineers and producers, my hat’s off to you. I hope to create the same illusion through my story.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Hey hi. So glad you could make it. I suppose you're all wondering why I've asked you here; it's about the writing. I've had characters in my head for over thirty years, and have recently begun compiling and editing all that yakking into a story I'd like to have published.

What's the story about? I've tried to pinpoint that. On one hand, I could say it's about a gangbanger befriending a musician in 1988 Los Angeles, and where that friendship takes them. But that's far too bland! I like to say that it's about two unlikely friends discovering that by being true to themselves, they can change the world around them - around occasional kidnappings and gunfights, and frequent rock-n-roll shows.

It's still early in the process, so I might ramble from time to time. I plan to have separate posts from the two main characters, venting as I work with my muse to chase them up trees, throw rocks at them, and set the trees on fire.

I'll comment on books I'm reading for research. This includes works by Neil Peart, drummer and lyric writer for the Canadian rock band Rush; and something I've just started by Ian Copeland, brother of the Police's Steward Copeland, about his contributions to rock.

And I'll probably comment on the sound recording books I'm also reading. Who knew that stuff could be interesting? Come along for the ride. My characters love to meet new people ;-)