Thursday, February 28, 2008

On Spiderwick and Some Writing Advice

Danny and I went to see the film, The Spiderwick Chronicles tonight. As most folks know, it is based on the wildly popular children's fantasy books. It was a good story, told well and well acted with pretty good CGI special effects and beautiful cinematography. Maybe a bit too scary for really little kids in a spot or two, depending on the kid. We like Sci Fi and fantasy films and we enjoyed this one. Unlike the recent Golden Compass, it actually had an ending. Best of all from my own personal viewpoint, it didn't have any actual spiders in it either. Danny liked the way the movie story line kept moving at a very brisk pace with no lags and that it was made using the Linux computer system--which is his particular favorite--and the one we both work with most of the time. Plot-wise, I really like the angle that the children had to tackle the mystery and the monsters pretty much on their own and work together to save the day. No polar bear warriors or talking lion kings or fairy queen warriors to fight their battles with the little kids as sidekicks. Just using their own brains and cleverness.

This next part is for you writers and would be writers out there who are interested. The rest of you go look at my Flickr pictures or something.

Earlier today I had some questions from a writing friend who wanted to know about my reactions to presenting my material to various writing groups for critique. How did I feel when other people either didn't like something I wrote or might have been offended by something perceived as being politically incorrect. Or dismissed it by saying that they just didn't get it? What about a short part of a longer piece being read and studied without benefit of the readers being able to place the material in the context of the whole story or book? How did negative criticism make me feel, my friend wanted to know.

Well, when I first started doing writing groups a half dozen or more years back, I admit I was pretty sensitive. Just ask Danny. He'll groan and nod in affirmation. I didn't know then or know now any new writers who weren't (aren't). New writers want to be and hope that they are talented creatures and that their precious words--the outpouring of their hearts and soul and intellect-- are perfect just as downloaded onto the virgin page the very first time.

You know, offer it to the world the way you download and glory will follow. This never happens. Not even to the famous guys. In the film, Finding Forrester (which was about writers and writing), Sean Connery as Forrester said that the first draft of your book is for you and all the others are for everybody else. Editing is...well...everything. Oscar Wilde once remarked that he spent five minutes putting a comma in a piece in the morning and the entire afternoon taking it out. You'll agree, Oscar knew of what he spoke.

I hate reading messy rough drafts that the writer obviously never looked at a second time so I never offer a really rough draft to a group for critique. It's always edited at least three or four times and neatly typed, checked for tense agreement and grammar errors. If a writer is going to to send a piece out for hopeful publication he or she should know that an editor will not even read a sloppy download with tense and subject verb agreement errors, spelling no nos, etc, its a good habit to learn the writing rules and always do things professionally from the get go.

I try to offer a complete chapter that fits into the group length guidelines since I really don't see the value to me of having them read anything less complete. People don't always like everything they read. This doesn't bother me anymore...but it did six years ago when I was a "newbee" too. Now, I can listen to and read their comments and often find value in the things they say. Sometimes (often) I make some plot or dialogue changes as a result of the readers comments that makes the piece much better. Sometimes I get ideas that take me in a whole new direction I like better. I love the comments, positive and negative.

I had to get to this place of serenity by writing a lot and working hard to improve in areas I was weak in. In the early days, my tender feelings would be bruised in critique. I'd struggle not to defend my stuff verbally and then go home and alternately think, I'm terrible, I'll never be any good, I should just give up...followed by some angry feelings towards the negative commentators. Then, that day or the next, I'd sit at my computer for hours banging on the keyboard until I pretty much fell over from fatigue and eyestrain rewriting the damn piece. And guess what? After all my hard content editing, it was always better. Since in the beginning folks often picked at my description and dialogue, I worked on exercizes to improve both areas almost exclusively for a year. Now, it both amuses and pleases me that the most frequent comments I get from critiques is that my dialogue rings true and my description is right on!

Sometimes, I use phrases or words that some people don't know because they are not common usage. I shrug inwardly when folks complain that they don't understand a German word or Pennsylvania Dutch term or SciFi term and leave it in the story. When I read, if I don't know a word, I look it up. Generally a reader can infer the meaning from the context of the piece. If not, let them look it up or leave it. If the word contributes to the authenticity of the characters or setting it should stay. The same goes with politically incorrect dialogue or dialect. That's the writer's choice in any case and with the general dumbing down of our culture I make it a point to offer new bits and bytes of information even if trivial. Anyway, there's always instant referencing on Wikipedia for the readers. No excuses anymore.

So here's the advice to new writers. Don't turn in something you downloaded from your head onto paper thirty minutes before you make copies of it for the group. Not fair to you or them. Take some time to polish the piece a little. Try to remember that nothing is perfect the first ten go rounds though and that your piece can't be everything to all readers. Try to remember that there's always room for improvement. Accept fair criticism on your work. Sleep on it and rework your piece later. Don't let adverse reactions shut you down. And if perchance you run into some smart alecky condescending know it all who makes the criticism unprofessionally personal...well, theres' always itching powder, thumb tacks, and voodoo dolls.....just kidding. Really.

So, its not the destination grasshopper, its the journey...wait a minute...the destination can be pretty good can be Paris or the Pulitzer or the National Book Award. Oh crap, what do I know? It's tomorrow already. Time for a bedtime snack and a few pages of the mystery book I'm currently reading and...bed. Live long and prosper. Write on.

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