Thursday, May 15, 2014

Critique Groups and Pixar's Braintrust

Yes, I wish I were affiliated with Pixar, but alas--not today.

Anyway, a kindly neighbor with a great Kentucky drawl brought this magazine article to our house the other day featuring Pixar's braintrust. This is a group of storytellers, filmmakers, smart people, etc., who get together, watch Pixar's movies in development, and give honest feedback. Sometimes this takes movies  in a completely new direction, sometimes the movies are scrapped altogether, and sometimes they spark an idea that makes a great movie a Pixar wonder.

Writers, I hear your collective thoughts right now. Yes indeed, it IS just like a great critique group. So with this in mind and a great many critique groups having come my way through the years, I want to underline the fabulous points the article made about how great critique groups work--call it a braintrust if you will, it's still a critique group.

1. The author is the boss. Oh my goodness, there are some critiquers who are adamant that their suggestions must be taken or your manuscript will burst into flames. Nope. It won't. And even though you may have ultra-bossy critiquers, you are the author and you must feel free to be so.

2. Storytellers are your best bet for critique least that's how the article slants. I know many who are happy with good readers who've never thought to write on their own...but they have to be readers and not just people who like you enough to wade through your manuscript. Basically what you want is honesty from someone with perspective on the craft.

3. I liked that the article said what you want are people who can give you a great many ideas in a short amount of time. I can vouch for this being liberating. Instead of one thing you can do to improve your story, it's nice to have many things to choose from. When you're making something up from scratch, it helps to remember that there isn't one correct path. There really isn't. And it helps you remain in control, too. Let idea lead to idea. Then you can choose the best from a bunch, not just the one you thought of first or the one the bossy critiquer is pushing.

4. Finally, you need to do your part when you're critiquing. Express what's going right with a manuscript, SOMETHING is going right. And offer honest feedback. I know it's hard--if they don't want your  honesty, they'll quit coming to you. But any writer worth print must learn to love the honesty. So be that honest, affirming, idea-offering critiquer. Don't be the bossy one. Offer suggestions, offer ideas, and realize that your idea sitting there in a room full of people is just one of many and you are not the author, nor (probably) the best critiquer on the planet, so keep it in perspective.

5. Take your critiques with a smile and a thank you. You can write mean things about your critique group in your journal at home afterward, if need be, but they are trying and they gave you their time, even if you didn't like what they had to say.

So there you go. Everyone can be a little Pixar, even if you're currently, well, not part of Pixar.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Tagged: My Writing "Process"

I was tagged by the wonderful Suzanne Warr to blog about my writing "process." Yes, that's process with quotes because I use the term loosely. Scheduling writing into my life is something I'm pretty formulaic about; the actual writing is something else again.

Picture Book Class
I can hear little gasps all around cyber space from the young students who take my picture book classes. We do go over a tried and true picture book writing process--but it's only one of many ways to write a picture book. Here's what I teach the kids to get us to our deadlines:

1. Decide on a character--species, gender, name--the good stuff.
2. What is your character's problem?
3. What other problems might the main problem cause?
4. What will your character do to solve their problem? (We usually try three things--there are three bears, three musketeers, three billy goats Gruff, get the picture. Stories love threes.)
5. What will finally solve the problem?

We throw in some discussion of tension (internal, external, and time--for those interested). We talk about about exaggeration, word choice, proper picture book length, and using illustrations to tell more story than your words do. We don't talk about rhyme because I'm no good at rhyme...

Anyway, this is all well and good for a picture book class on a schedule. In fact, it's not so bad for a professional picture book writer as long as they remember that not all great stories fit into the mold--still, it's uncanny how many of them do.

Novels--The Adventure
But I find when I write novels it's a whole different thing--not so much a process as an adventure from beginning to end. I've outlined, written cold, used 3x5 cards, interviewed my characters in type and out loud, used the plot point methods, and for me it comes down to this: whatever gets that story out of my head and onto the page is what I have to do. For me, it's never been the same thing twice, but there are some vague similarities between all my projects:

I always start with a character and their problem. Okay, almost always. Sometimes I start with just a concept, but the story never gets moving until I have my particular character and their specific problem.

The second thing I need to know is where my character ends up at the end. I can't just write and get somewhere good in the end by rambling. I just can't. Some people can. I can't even write the next chapter unless I know where I'm going with it. I need a map: beginning point, end point. Then I experiment with all the ways there are to get to where I want to go, and hopefully choose the best one.

No matter how well I outline (and I have outlined superbly at times, trust me) I feel lost in the middle of a novel. I can't hold it all in my head like a picture book and frankly, I don't like that feeling, still, I keep moving forward. Once I've written the entire thing--only then--does it begin to come together as I rewrite (and rewrite and rewrite). Only then can I plant the clues in the beginning, bring out the running gags, play with character descriptions, depth, and finally (my favorite) add VOICE. I think that's because, finally, it does start to all have a place in my brain. But boy, that first draft, no matter what, really stinks. The  3x5s help in their way, the plot points in theirs, and I have a current thing I like that I'll explain below. But my book never really sings until I've gone over it so much that I can forget methods and mechanics and give it life--making it real once my framework is built all around it. It's sort of like a house becoming a home, or (to be more literary) like Dr. Frankenstein building a monster.

The Thing That Happens To Work For Me Now
Now, this is the current thing I like (stolen from the bestselling Jonathan Stroud). I prefer it hugely to 3x5s because I spend an untold amount of time fiddling with those things, not to mention color coding them, and dropping them in parking lots. So, I finally made a list of every one of my current book's scenes (a list of chapters would work just as well).

Because my POV shifts, I write the POV character, too. Then I make precise little notes about what to add and where as needed during my many rewrites. You can tape a blank page to the left and right of your list if you need to (for notes). That's it.

I can see my whole book at once. When I panic about a character being at breakfast when they're supposed to be saving the day, I don't have to sift through the manuscript to figure out how to fix it. I just pull out my handy dandy list which helps me figure out exactly where to add things and how.

I'm telling you with this current book, it's all about this list. Next book, it will probably be about scribbling on the tablecloth or taking lots of baths.

Whatever gets it on the page, that's what I'll do.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Sweetest Review

This week, an acquaintance approached and said his wife coerced him into talking to me...always a good start to a great conversation--but the thing is, it really WAS a great conversation.

"I don't think you know that I'm Navajo," he said. (I didn't.) And he went on to say that the book I'd given his wife for a baby gift, Wild Rose's Weaving, had captured his childhood memories perfectly. He said Wild Rose was now his little boy's favorite book, that it sits on the shelf by his bed, and he picks it out to read first, every night. He said the symbolism, the words, everything just hit the culture right on.

I hugged him. That ups our acquaintanceship to official friends, right?

At any rate, I think it's the sweetest review I've ever received.

Wild Rose was originally written in response to a week I'd spent in the Navajo Nation. My publisher and I didn't want to assume we knew all about a culture we don't belong to, so I made the text a bit more general than it was originally, and the illustrator went for a multicultural feel as well. Still, it's nice to know that I got it right. Nicer to know that I could spark real memories, and foster a connection between father and son (and grandma).

Just really touched--and thankful for wives who make their husband's talk to people!