"" Rob Parnell's Writing Academy Blog: November 2010

Thursday, November 25, 2010

On Writers' Crit Groups


Many writers swear by critique groups.

They rely on them for good solid feedback from a wide variety of other writers - because it's helpful, confidential and, best of all, it's free.

But many new writers join critique groups for the wrong reason.

Actually, it's not so much wrong - and it's common enough - but it does hamper what you might get out of judgment by your peers.

Namely, newbie writers usually only want one thing, and that is: validation.

It can come as a great shock to new writers to venture out into the world - to finally summon up the courage to show their work to other writers - only to discover that they are not universally and immediately acknowledged as a genius.

I have seen this phenomenon over and again.

New writers come down to our own crit groups and read their material.

You can tell they most times only want one response - to be told that their work is brilliant!

Any other gentle criticism from group members can result in a tirade of explanations and justifications from the author - who is hell bent on defending his/her work to the bitter end.

At this point we often ask, "Why are you here?"

"Do you want help? Do you want to improve? Or do you simply want praise and accolades?"

Writing doesn't really work that way.

And writers are generally hard-wired to criticize other writers.

Not always in a bad way.

Most writers just want you to improve your own writing.

Mostly, when a new writer appears in a crit group, they need to be warned against all the usual mistakes that newbies make.

And, don't forget, we all make them.

My own experience at my first writers' crit group is typical.

I read my cherished story and in no particular order, the dozen or so writers around the table informed me of the importance of point of view (don't change it mid section etc), the overuse of adverbs, the desire for less verbiage, adjectives etc, the need to quash the indefinite article (it) and excessive description, the ugliness of exposition, being active rather than passive, and various of the other faux pas that tend to litter newbie's work.

Of course I was crushed.

Weren't they listening to the story, I wondered.

Why all this nit-picking?

Now I know.

It's the nit-picking that will teach you the most...

Because you can't really take anybody's writing seriously unless they get the basics right first.

And this, to me, is what writers' crit groups are best at providing: a sound basis to move on to a more professional attitude towards your writing.

The story and the concepts are all well and good.

The emotional roller coaster is a grand thing to create and experience. 

But the impact and relevance of a story can only be assessed when you have the basics down pat.

Style too is irrelevant before you get the fundamentals.

Every new writer has to learn this.

Technical competence is not something you can leave till later - or hope that an editor can fix for you.

No, you have to learn this stuff yourself.

And learn it quickly, so you don't spend years submitting work that is routinely rejected for basic errors.

Because this is the number one reason why 70% of all MSS are rejected.

Not story or ideas - but basic technique.

If this thought scares you, it's supposed to.

So, if you join a crit group and find the other writers tend to pick on the basics, don't fight it or be hurt by it.

Listen to what is being said, ask for clarification, appreciate the reasons for the basic rules of writing - and learn them quickly.

Because if you absorb the fundamentals immediately - and act on them - you'll find that the next time you read out your work - or submit it to a crit group - you'll find the reaction is completely different.

Because only when your basic errors are corrected - the ones we all make at first - does your writing deserve to be taken seriously.

Writing rules are made to be broken, sure, but ideally only when you know them all!

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"Don't worry about people stealing your ideas. If your ideas are any good, you'll have to ram them down people's throats." Howard Aiken

Thursday, November 18, 2010

News, Views & Clues to Writing Success

I hope you're well and happy and that your writing is going well.

Most of you will know by now that I send out a free newsletter every week - usually on Fridays. But I'm not sure everyone will know why.

Fact is, I have a dream...

I've always known I wanted to write. I actually started writing before I could read properly. I've kept a diary of my private - and not so private - thoughts since I was around five years old.

I don't know why, but it always seemed logical and somehow important to record my insights in written form. I guess that's how most writers start out.

Later, I wrote plays, short stories, movie scripts, even novels as projects that had to be fit around the rest of my life, working to pay the rent in whichever place I found myself. Mostly London, UK, as it turned out - where I submitted manuscripts and played music to earn a crust for almost two decades.

Over that time, I read as many books about writing as I could find. I took courses, did workshops, kept writing...

I began to notice something.

Whenever I tried to find out more about the mechanics of writing from other, more successful writers, I was struck by how hard it was to get decent, accurate information and advice.

Maybe I was just being paranoid but I started to get the feeling professional writers had secrets they weren't willing to share!

I realize now that mostly this is about protecting what they have.

Working writers want you to think that writing is hard - and that the way to writing success is fraught with difficulty and hardship. Either that or they don't want you know they personally find it easy!

Simply put, most successful writers don't want any competition.

If aspiring writers - the logic goes - fall by the wayside, then so much the better.

I've noticed too that publishers, editors and agents rarely help aspiring writers for the same reason.

They have enough to do with the writers they take seriously!

To encourage a writer, they seem to think, is to make a nuisance of them. Fact is, publishers want to deal with fewer writers, not more.

And then there's the way we writers let writing get to us.

We beat ourselves up about it. We almost want it to be hard - as though every word is wrenched from our souls. As though our writing can't be any good unless it pours like blood on to the page.

Which is absurd, of course.

Editing, polishing, perfecting - yes, that can be hard work. But the writing - especially the first draft - now that should be easy, automatic, I would suggest, fun even.

And that's what my teaching is all about.

It's about breaking down our self-imposed barriers - and just getting down the first draft of our stories, screenplays, novels and non-fiction books quickly - with no stress.

It's about channeling our subconscious mind into a voice that we can put down onto paper as effortlessly as possible. Because, I believe, that's how you create your best work.

Not using the rational, critical mind to write. But by accessing the endless store of inspiration and originality that is within your subconscious mind.

I really believe that writing is the most important, most creative, most inspiring thing we humans can do with our time. It defines and illuminates the human condition in a way that transcends every other activity.

Plus of course, writing is at the root of everything. There would be no culture, no business, no science or engineering, no inventions without writing. No books, no ideas, no movie franchises, and certainly no internet without writers.

Writers often get criticized, marginalized and even ridiculed. And not just by the media and the general public. But by a writer's friends and relatives too. Ironically, they are often trivialized by the very people - publishers, agents and producers - that rely on writers' work to make them rich and powerful.

I've lost count of the number of times I've heard publishers and movie producers describe writers as a necessary evil, little deserving of respect.

Writers are often seen as ten a penny - and their efforts and inspiration next to worthless compared to the fortunes their work can spawn.

And this attitude can leave writers feeling bewildered, undervalued and yes, sometimes despairing.

My dream is for writers to be respected, sure - but mostly I want writers to respect themselves first.

I want writers to feel good about what they do - and understand that dedicating yourself to writing is worthy and courageous - and the right thing to do.

But mostly I believe that if you want to be a writer, then you should aspire to write well - and that there's an easier way to do it - and that becoming a good and successful and respected writer is totally within your grasp.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"In writing fiction, the more fantastic the tale, the plainer the prose should be. Don't ask your readers to admire your words when you want them to believe your story." Ben Bova

Thursday, November 11, 2010

You Got The Power!

The more you write, the more you realize how hard it is to get anyone to take any notice of you.

Newbies often worry that their words are going to have some awful and monumental impact on people - way out of proportion to reality.

First time novelists often email me in varying states of panic, asking if it's okay to say this or that.

Others are so afraid of putting their name to their own writing, they want to invent pseudonyms - usually just before publication! In case their own words come back to bite them somehow.

In today's world, it's hard to even get noticed, let alone raise a stir in people enough to provoke a response.

There's about billion new words appearing on the Internet every day. In the real world, probably a billion again appearing in new books, newspapers and magazines. Writers everywhere are trying to read and to be heard, to be taken seriously.

And yet, a celebrity's kiss will always be more compelling news.

You've got to see things in context.

While it takes courage and determination to stand up and be counted, you have to understand that there's a lot of people out there that are already on the journey - people that have already discovered that endless self-promotion is just part of a writer's job - and that 99.99% will most likely seem ineffective.

Especially nowadays when a reader's time is so precious.

It would be nice to believe that all the words we slave over will one day have impact and carry the weight we give them.

But the fact is most people are more interested in their own words than anyone else's.

Self-interest is hard wired into our natures...

Ironically it's understanding this that will help you improve your writing.

My articles often focus on the need to connect with your reader.

It's well known in the marketing world that a reader's primary concern is: "What's in it for me?"
I call this WiiFM.

This is true of fiction, too.

People read because they want to feel a connection with the characters and the story. They see themselves as your hero. When you are being completely honest, readers don't automatically think, "Ooh er, what's this writer like?"

No, they most likely think, "Yeah, I understand that. That's what I would feel, do, be like, act in that way."

Books like Twilight and The Da Vinci Code become bestsellers simply because more people relate to the characters and the stories than they do other, just as competently written books.

Again, 'connection' is the key.

And as a writer you have to constantly strive to find better ways to connect.

On a practical, down to earth level, that's why writing a blog is always a good idea for a writer, not only to improve your writing as you do it, to get used to regular writing, but also to 'converse' with your audience and potential fans of your work.

You need to work in different writing mediums too - to strengthen your writing muscles and your skill base.

You have to be aware of societal changes - and regularly adjust your perspective to incorporate new mindsets, new ideas and new technology.

Making a two minute YouTube video promoting your book might seem a daunting project but, given the mindset of the average punter, it's something you should seriously consider. If only to help a larger number of people visualize your writing, in a way that is more commonly apprehended today than the mere written word ever is or was.

Don't be afraid to experiment. Never say no to a new way of thinking - and never stop learning.

Too often old writers, even quite successful ones, get stuck in their ways and watch with incomprehension as younger writers rise to the fore and pass them by.

If you're not afraid to fail, you have more power than you think.

Especially if you embrace technology - and are determined to use it effectively.

Keep writing!

Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"When a man becomes fully conscious of his powers, his role, his destiny, he's an artist and he ceases his struggle with reality. Thus, he is enabled to play the monstrous role of living and dying innumerable times according to the measure of his capacity for life." Henry Miller

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Moments of Clarity - and What to Do With Them

Writers are a stubborn lot.

Sometimes it can take us decades to learn a subtle truth about writing that forever changes us - and our writing - for the better.

At various stages in my writing career, more experienced writers and critics have said (in no particular order) "watch your point of view switches," "careful not to use the author's voice," "learn format and punctuation assiduously," "don't over justify your concepts," "don't overuse adjectives or qualifiers," "dump cliche and adverbs," "be totally honest in your writing," "know your characters inside out," "make your motivations believable," "write for the reader," etc., etc.

Each time I felt an inner resistance and fallen back on the age-old feeling of "I know what I'm doing - that's my style."

Only to realize, sometimes years later, that my peers and critics were right - and that I should have listened to them, and immediately acted on their advice.

The interesting thing about the last two months of the intense writing workshops we've been running is that we have been bombarded daily with fabulous advice from working writers and industry professionals - not so much about writing technically - but about the effect of our writing on our others.

We have been encouraged to explore our ideas and concepts and deliberately find those that will connect with our potential audience - and reject those that might be good but have limited appeal.

Then, to hone those viable ideas into a form that will resonate with readers, agents, publishers, producers and people the world over.

Precision is the key.

We've learned that having a different effect on different people is actually not quite good enough.

Our writing should be so clear, so meticulously transparent, that it has roughly the same effect - the one we desired - on almost everyone that reads it.

Look at it this way.

The job of a fiction writer is to elicit emotion in a reader. This is true of novels, short stories and screenplays, any fiction.

But the job of professional writers is to elicit the precise emotion we intend - and at exactly the time we want. And we do this in a number of specific ways.

Being a student of human psychology can help. We have to know from experience what events and circumstances trigger certain emotions in others. But we need to do this in an objective way - so that we learn which emotions are triggered in general to the population at large.

Knowing ourselves is vitally important.

The longer I live the more convinced I become that on some deep level we humans are all fundamentally the same.

99% of our DNA is similar to every other person on the planet.

Simply put, we're made the same.

That's why, by relying on our own feelings and reactions to stimuli, we can get a pretty good handle on how others feel and would react given the same scenarios.

But what about originality? I hear you.

Uniqueness comes from the way we in particular process and describe the commonality of experience.

Genius is ascribed to us when we exactly personify that which others already know - but have perhaps been unable to exactly express themselves.

On a practical level, we need to be rigorous when plotting fiction.

You might take a character and say he does this, then this, then this. And you have to know why he does those things. It's not enough just to say, 'Yeah, well that makes sense to me'.

You have to be sure that, based on empirical observation, that the character's motivations are logical and consistent to almost everyone that may later read your work.

That's what makes a fiction writer great. To be able to take the ordinary and mundane, even the extraordinary and fantastical, and make it shine with TRUTH.

Because, as I often say, fiction, at its best, is more true than real life.

And basically, that's why we humans like it.

For most writers, moments of real clarity are few and far between. But when we're assailed by them, we must embrace them.

A while back I realized that, yes indeed, we are complete masters of our own destiny. That this was not some idle concept. No, it is absolutely true. And that revelation changed me forever.

Similarly, the last few weeks of writing workshops has convinced me beyond any doubt that unless writing connects with the reader in exactly the way the writer intended, it's not really working.

But the good news is that our real purpose as writers is to improve that one overarching aspect of our skill base.

We need to get better at eliciting exactly the emotion we intended, at exactly the time we intended.

That's the real reason why we need to improve our technique and constantly seek perfection.

Not to impress or shock or wow.

But simply to connect.

Keep writing!

Your Success is My Concern
Rob Parnell's Writing Academy


"A professional is a man who respects his trade, tries as hard as he can to perfect his work, and realizes that one failure isn’t the end of the world. Or two…or three." Nathaniel Benchley

The Writing Academy

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