Methods of Murder

Murder first started out as a critique group. We all knew we liked writing. Being catty and judgmental came pretty naturally to most of us, so it felt like the next natural step to be catty and judgmental at each other, especially if meant improvement. We'd read our stories out loud to each other. The listeners would take notes, or maybe they would just try to remember everything, and then, at the end of the piece, we'd all jump in and give as many opinions as we'd had time to make note of. It worked out alright. Then Jack and I took a workshop class with a really fantastic professor. He introduced us to an abbreviated version of Liz Lerman's Critical Response Process. We brought it to Murder and the difference has been awesome. For starters, it cooled some of the chaos. Now we all take turns like adults. More than that, though, it challenged us to really look into the work, to dig out the parts that work and don't work for us as readers, and to describe the story.

So, here's what we do. It always premeditated murder. We share our work with the group a few days in advance so everyone's had a chance to go over it.

  1. Motive. This part seems silly but it is actually one of the most important. Once you, as a reader, have read the shared piece, jot down what you think it was about. If it was just a chapter or section of a larger work, talk about what happens, how it furthers the story, and how it might differ from the rest of piece. Think about the themes and plot. When you, as a writer, are listening to the readers discuss this, pay attention. Don't talk. Stay quiet and listen. Make sure they got what you intended them to get. Several times, we've found that people inferred things we didn't mean them to. Sometimes, it's been awesome and we've decided to make it on purpose. Sometimes, it's been awful and we've had to go back and get that crap cut out. Example: "In this section, Alex is beginning to learn what really goes on in Camp 16. Sara tries to protect him but is unable to when Esau gets involved. There are strong themes of helplessness and fear, showing us how far Alex has to go before he can become who we know he will be."
  2. M.O. This part can be tricky. If you, as a reader, have any questions, this is when you get to ask them. But, there's a catch-- You're not allowed to be judgmental here. No opinions yet. So, "What did you hope the reader would think was happening in the fight scene?" is fine while "Why is the fight scene so vague and confusing?" is not. Writers, you'll want to pay close attention here. Some of the questions asked will reveal weaknesses in your narrative that you'll want to address. Also, writers are allowed to talk during this portion, but only to answer questions or ask for clarification. Examples: "Where was Jordan going before he ran into Sophie?" "Why did you choose not to describe Rolo's race?" "What do you want the reader to feel at the end of the story?"
  3. MurderThis is to be handled delicately. You don't want to end up with a bloody mess on your hands. Writers, your job here is be quiet and listen. You may ask for clarification, but that is all. Readers, you start by telling the writer what your opinion is about ("I have an opinion about the accuracy of your science and the meteors"). The writer can either say yes, in which case you go ahead and tell them your opinion, or they can say no. Neither one of you allowed to take it personally. Be cool. Be respectful. There are many reasons a writer may not want to hear an opinion on something. With that meteor example, I had done my research and knew exactly where I was being inaccurate. But, if I'd kept it all 100%, I would have had to give up some descriptions that I loved and I don't write hard sci-fi so I decided it didn't matter. There's also the danger of critique fatigue. An author might start to feel overwhelmed and this gives them the opportunity to have more control over the situation. So, just keep in mind that the goal here is to make the piece better, not be smarter or more clever than anyone else. Readers, you are there to help the writer. Writer, you are there for what amounts to a performance evaluation.
  4. Spatter Analysis. So, you, the writer, have answered the questions and heard the opinions. It's your turn now. This is when you can ask any remaining questions you might have about what you wrote. Want to know what they thought about the character arc? Ask away. Curious as to how they felt about something? Go for it. This is when you get to check in and make sure for good that the readers are getting what you're wanting them to. I like to check in on past issues. Like, do they still hate that one character or has he gotten better? Do they think I've made any promises in the story that I need to start living up to?

Most of us type this out or write it on the back of the manuscript so we don't forget. We sit in a circle and take turns sharing what we have. Rather than endlessly agreeing, we knock. It makes a sound without interrupting, so the writer can sort of take a mental count of how many people are on board with a certain question or opinion. This keeps us from getting repetitive, which makes the discussion go faster, which means we get to cover more ground. It also keeps us from banging dead horses.

The upside of writing it all down is that the writer can devote the discussion time to listening and getting clarification rather than trying to take notes or remember everything that was said. It also means that even if they didn't want to hear a certain opinion at that time, they can always go back and read it later.

I should mention that we try to avoid murdering a piece over grammatical issues. That is to say, we mark them on a page with a red pen (some pages end up bloody), but we don't really talk about them. Issues like spelling, grammar, dropped words, et cetera can just be marked. There's really no opinion that needs to be mentioned. In some cases, it might warrant an M.O. question ("Since this piece is in first person, did you intentionally use bad grammar to show the character's voice?"), but there's no reason to get pedantic about that stuff and point every mistake. That kind of just makes you a jerk.

So, there it is. That's how we critique each other's work. How do you do it? I'd love to hear about more methods.

Know What You Write

The most common advice people seem to give to beginning writers is to "write what you know". I have a lot of opinions about that. I'll be touching on that soon, but what I want to cover here is, what I think, a slightly more important piece of information. Know what you're writing.

It sounds easy, right? Like, how could you not know what you're writing. Maybe if you're an outliner and a planner, you've already got it all figured out. That's not me. I can barely plan out a snack, let alone a story or an entire book. I tend to start with a character or an idea and kind of just go, hoping I'll eventually stumble across a plot. So, often, I have no idea what I want to say with a piece until I'm well into it.

Which is fine, by the way. I'm not saying you have to know from the get-go. But you should definitely figure it out before you let anyone talk you out of anything.

Example time! I just finished reading Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book. I found myself, at one point, wondering exactly what the plot of it was. We started with the main character, Bod, as a toddler and it's just about his life. His normal(ish, I mean, the kid lives in a graveyard and is raised by ghosts, so as normal as you can get with that), day-to-day activities. I thought maybe it was meant to be a series of connected short stories and I just missed that part of the description (because I honestly didn't really read the description, I just saw his name and the title of the book and went for it). By the end, it was clear how it all tied together. It was pretty great.

But, if someone had brought a story like that to our writing group, I would have said, "This is really cool, but does it further the plot?" And, if the writer had listened to me, a great story might have been lost.

Christine Taylor-Butler said that you should never take a piece to be critiqued or edited until you know what it is you have. So, that's really what I guess I'm getting at here. You don't have to know right now or tomorrow or even next week. But you should know before you let others pick it apart and before you change it. Let it turn it into whatever it's going to be first. Otherwise, you could miss out on something awesome.

But if you get there, if you figure what kind of animal you've got and you realize that it really doesn't need that vestigial tail, cut that thing off. There's no shame in that.

3 Ways to be a Better Failure

You are going to fail. Not once, not twice, but over and over. You have to. It's part of being a writer. There is no interview to go through and your resume isn't all that important. No one cares who you are (at least not yet). What they care about is your story. And every story is a new job. A new chance to impress or not. Odds are you won't impress them. At least, not more than the horde of other people trying to do the exact same thing you are. You'll get rejected. A lot. When I started taking writing seriously, I got rejected for an entire year before finally getting an acceptance letter. That's pretty rough. It's really easy to start feeling down and decide to just quit. I mean, you're obviously failing over and over so maybe you're just no good at it. Why keep banging your head against the same wall, right?

Meh. Maybe not. Maybe don't quit. Not yet. As John Taylor says, "Don't quit. I know someone in this room is about to do it, but don't. There is someone out there that needs to hear what you have to say. Someone out there is waiting for your book. They need you. Don't quit."

So, how do you get over that?

This isn't really a guide on how to published or getting readers or anything. More just about how to deal with-- rather, how deal with-- failure.

1) Where are you submitting your work? How much do you know about the particular publication? I've gotten rejected from Clarkesworld and Strange Horizons about eleventy-hundred times. It bummed me out a lot. But, then I found out that Clarkesworld only accepts 0.09% of the stuff sent to them. Strange Horizons is a bit better with 0.79%. That's not even 1%. That is seriously elite. I'm not saying that you shouldn't try or that you should lower your expectations. Just that getting accepted here is like winning at bingo at something. Which is to say, it never happens to me.

So, instead of getting discouraged, try expanding your pool. For me, I found Horror Tree to be crazy helpful. If you don't write horror, you might find it less helpful, though they do occasionally do speculative fiction calls. Also, Duotrope is pretty awesome, but it's a subscription service.

2)Are you offering the right story? Once, when I was looking for a job, I found a paper company that was hiring. I like paper a lot. It seemed perfect. I had my whole cover letter typed up about how much I love paper and stationary, then I thought to myself that I maybe oughtta take a look at their products. Toilet paper. They made toilet paper.

The moral of this story is don't try to sell a splatterpunk story to an inspirational publication. They probably won't like it and now you're the assbutt that made the poor editor read that. Granted, that's an extreme example, but you get the point, right? This kind of ties into number 1 up there. You should always do some research on the place to which you're submitting. Even if it's just reading their webpage.

3)Are you trying to sell the story you want to sell? This one is trickier. This requires some objectivity and ability to accept the right criticism. I listened to talk from Christine Taylor-Butler, who warned against letting your work be critiqued before you know what it is.

I got this rejection letter for my story Left and Leaving:

Thank you for submitting "Left and Leaving" to [Name Removed], but we've decided not to accept it for publication. I found this to be very creepy and atmospheric, but ultimately the story didn't quite work for me. I saw the twist early on, so it wasn't a big satisfying reveal, and I left the story wishing I knew more about who the kid was and what exactly had happened. I also didn't understand why the friend didn't turn the body over to the authorities. Thanks for letting us consider this, though.

First, I want to say that it was wicked awesome to get a rejection that included the reasons why. That is not the norm. But I didn't take any of the advice for several reasons. First, I never thought there was a twist in the story. I hadn't meant to set it up as a twist. The fact that she saw it coming was exactly what I'd intended. In a post Sixth Sense world, I knew the story wouldn't work with the narrator's life as a twist. Also, I'd thought about that bit about the body. In my original drafts, it had not been addressed and it started to bug me, so I'd added in a bit of dialogue between the narrator and Dylan that would would explain why Dylan didn't later turn the body over to the authorities. I did ask my writing group how they felt about the body issue and they all felt it had been covered. I don't fault for the editor for not noticing because they have a lot of stuff to read and have to make snap decisions. But that left her main complaint being something that I'd done intentionally. I knew I was writing a gothic ghost story. I wanted the reader to know it was a gothic ghost story. She got that, so I was happy. Even if it wasn't her cup of tea.

But, sometimes you do have to change some things. Recently, "Getting Wet" got on the second read list for a zombie anthology, but didn't end up making the final cut. I went back over it and decided that, yeah, it could use some work. I ended up adding about 2,000 words to it and, honestly, I think it's a much better story now. We'll see how it fares with this other editor.

So, failure. It's gonna happen. You can't help it. If you're getting rejection letters, it means you're doing something. It means you have stories to send out. It means you've written and that you're working. It means you found the courage to send your creation out into the world to sink or swim. So, rock on, man. You're awesome. Go fail some more.

Eventually, you'll wake up, see that new rejection in your email, and it won't be a big deal. You'll look at the story, edit, and send it out all over again. And maybe someday, it'll learn to swim.