Musings on Finding My Tribe

These are some thoughts on finding and connecting with potential readers, which arose from a local writing workshop. We were fortunate to have the wonderful Lauren Sherritt from the equally wonderful Queensland Writers Centre (http://www.qwc.asn.au/) come up from Brisbane. Her workshop was about developing an effective on-line author platform.

As she spoke about the importance of having an author website and a blog, of using Twitter and Facebook, it all made sense. I can’t say I’m fond of anything related to marketing, promotion, or having to speak to strangers, but I can see that my personal combination of social ineptitude and introversion is something I will need to adjust if I’m to find people to read my books.

So, one of the things that Lauren asked us to think about for our websites or blogs was how we wanted to brand ourselves. We have to present, immediately, just what it is we are all about. We don’t want to present an image that fails to attract the people we want on our site or (even worse) attracts the sort of people we don’t want. Harking back to an earlier blog post of mine, in which I said our book pitch has to be true to the kind of story we’re trying to tell, https://kaywantcheung.wordpress.com/2016/04/05/the-pitch-part-1-the-importance-of-managing-expectations/ I believe our on-line image has to true to the person we are trying to be.

What, Lauren asked the class, was our core message? And what is our point of differentiation that sets our work apart from anyone else’s?

This was where I felt myself slipping and sliding like a cyborg on an ice-rink. In my hazy thinking, I had assumed that, as a writer of sci fi and fantasy, I could just blog about writing and SF. But that’s not a core message, is it? That’s not a point of differentiation. Somehow, I needed to go deeper. What type of SF do I like reading and why? What am I myself trying to write? In essence, what is Kay Want Cheung the Writer all about?

Not so easy, is it?

It’s something I got half-way towards in a previous post. I tried breaking my work down by genre in https://kaywantcheung.wordpress.com/2016/04/08/the-pitch-part-2-dispelling-genre-myths/ and ended up with this:

May I present my New Adult Futuristic Soft science fiction Adventure series with a Psychological slant featuring Cyborg Spies encountering Alien cultures.

In Lauren’s class, given only a couple of minutes to think about it, I came up with this:

What I do is I combine the classic science fiction tropes of portals between worlds, cyborgs and artificial intelligence, and I add a little modern realism: ‘What would it really be like…?’

Now I’m finding myself wanting to go further, to get past the aliens and the cyborgs and reach for the heart of what I’m trying to achieve. When it comes down to it, I don’t want to market my books as comic-book style adventures of heroes vs villains, because that’s not what they’re all about.

And now I see that ultimately the only thing that matters to me is that my characters are real people, that they love and laugh and hurt and make mistakes. That they do what they believe to be right and when they get knocked down they get back up again and keep fighting. They’re about doing something for a cause that is greater than oneself, about survival and persistence through adversity.

And suddenly I’m realising that, while there’s nothing wrong with the stories I’ve written in terms of providing light entertainment, adventures with a futuristic slant, that’s not enough for me anymore. I want to go deeper into my characters’ motivations, their inner struggles, their joys and sorrows. I need to write a different kind of book.

So now I have a lot to think about, because when I started this blog post I had no idea that this was where it was going to end. Have I found my tribe? No, but perhaps I’ve found something more valuable at this stage in my writing development: finally, a better sense of direction in my re-writing.

 

The Perilous Art of Critique

Well, you’d better know from the start that I’m no expert in the art of critiquing others’ works. I’ve only studied English up to O Level (that’s like grade 10 or 11 in Australianese, I think) so I’m not about to win any prizes with the depth of my literary knowledge. My only qualification is that I’ve read quite a lot of commercial fiction.

What I can say is that somehow, in the course of all that reading, I do seem to have picked up a basic sense of the elements that a good story ought to have and to recognise when one of those elements might be missing. Writing that down in the form of a critique is something I learnt by trial and error on the website Authonomy (now sadly defunct). I’d also recommend Scribophile as a particularly good website for those learning how to critique.

On places like Amazon’s ‘writeon’, critiques tend to be based only on the first chapter or three (on Scribophile it’s limited to a chapter at a time), so my experience at critiquing full novels is more limited. The basic rule is that, regardless of what I may have rashly promised, I’ll only critique an entire novel if I’m enjoying the read, otherwise it just gets too painful. I’m sure any writers reading this will know what I mean.

So, for anyone still interested after all those caveats, here are my highly subjective (and quite possibly totally misconceived) views on the Perilous Art of Critique:

  1. Why are you here?

Let’s face it, none of us are saints. Generally we’re critiquing someone’s work because we’re hoping they’ll reciprocate in some way. (Incidentally, most won’t – expect one return critique for every three you give out).

You can see the temptation, can’t you? Why not ignore all the faults of the piece and only offer praise? The writer will be happy, will return the favour, and then we’ll be happy. And we’ve made a new friend into the bargain.

Except that the empty praise we get in return, while stroking our egos nicely, is going to do absolutely nothing to help improve our writing.

So ask yourself why you’re here. If your aim is to make a new writer pal and get a confidence boost, don’t do a critique, do a flattering review – that’s what they’re for. If you want honest, constructive feedback on your writing, look for someone who might appreciate the same and give their work a decent critique.

  1. Proceed at your own risk

You’re going to make enemies.

I probably ruffle feathers with about a third of my critiques. If you’re more diplomatic than me (which is likely), you might limit the casualty rate to one in five or so, but basically if you do enough critiques it’s going to happen.

Accept that some fall-out is inevitable – critique by its nature is criticism. You can make it as gentle and constructive as you can, but in essence you’re telling someone that there is a problem with their baby and not everyone’s going to be able to handle that.

  1. Everyone else likes it so why don’t I?

What you’re critiquing may be something outside your normal genre, not the sort of thing you normally read. My opinion on this is that it’s still okay to give a critique as long as you tell the writer that you’re not within their target readership and they might want to put less weight on your comments. Most writers value ‘outside opinions’.

  1. Good news before bad

I think this ought to be a rule set in stone – it reflects something ingrained in the human psyche. People are only receptive to criticism once they are satisfied that we like them, we like their work, and basically we’re on their side. So always start the critique with what you liked about the work.

I’m a shocker for forgetting this and just diving straight into the negatives. The worst thing is, I do it to the best writers, assuming that they already know how good their work is. But of course they don’t, they’re aspiring writers like me, full of the same devastating doubts and insecurities.

We know that writers are often too close to their own work to see the problems with it, but they might also be too close to recognise the positives. We need to tell them what they’ve done well.

  1. Big picture before small

What do you do if you’re reading someone’s work and you see a grammatical error? I know what I do, I pounce on it like a particularly enthusiastic English teacher. It’s like scratching an itch, I long to correct every perceived error (preferably with a flourish of red ink).

I don’t think I’m the only one, either. A surprising number of people consider a thorough correction of grammar and spelling to comprise a critique.

Now suppose you’ve gone through three chapters nit-picking on grammar and you suddenly realise the story has a massive problem. Maybe the plot has a hole big enough to put a foot through, or the main character inexpicably changes personality to keep the story going, and it’s just not going to work.

What I try to do (and occasionally I manage it) is to read through the whole piece once without making any comment at all, just to get the gist of where it’s going. Then I comment on the big picture issues. Biggest for me are probably interesting characters, a novel or exciting plot, and enjoyment of the story. Second most important are things like believable dialogue, flow of the language, and evocative descriptions. Right at the bottom of the list is grammar.

Of course, there are exceptions – those unfortunate times when you get stuck about two pages in because the writing has too many mistakes to ignore. On these, I’ll let my inner English teacher out of her box.

(So if you receive a critique from me with only grammar corrections and no comment on characters or plot, what can I say? You’re either a great writer or a terrible one. I’ll let you work out which.)

  1. The Stop Test

What’s the ultimate test of a piece of fiction? For me it’s that “unputdownability”, the wrench I feel when I have to stop reading, the sense of being pulled out of another world, and the dinner burnt on the stove because I was too busy wondering what was going to happen next.

So the most useful feedback you can give a writer is to tell them where it was you decided to stop reading and why. Give it a good shot, read three or four chapters, and decide at which point the book became too putdownable. What was missing?

I reckon that’s about it. Happy critiquing!

 

 

Stories of the Dark and Light

dark and light cover

Today was a big day for our writers’ group, Wordwick3d. After several weeks walking around the pool nervously, dipping our toes in to test the temperature, we decided it was well past time to jump right in.

A fraught few hours on the web, which nearly saw us drowning in details, saw us making our first book upload. You should have heard the squeals of delight as we went into Amazon and found it there in the store!

Our first collection (one of many, hopefully) crosses the genres of fantasy and science fiction. There’s something for everyone in the mix: dark paranormal fantasy with hints of romance, and tense confrontations in alternate realities.

“Stories of the Dark and Light” is now available in Kindle and e-book. Enjoy!

2016-07-04 001_Aiyson-Kay-Barb(15) - Copy (1)

L-R: Alyson Walton, Barbara Strickland, and me – just after upload