It’s been a while since I posted a critique ready excerpt of Grim Curio, not for lack of writing though. I’ve actually hit a flow that’s been pretty great, removing around 2,000 words and adding about 4,000 in the last two weeks. Progress.
In this excerpt we meet a new POV (Point of View) character, a young girl who’s about to join a small extremist group called The Cleansing Sisterhood. I’m really happy with how this chapter has turned out.
Enough talking, follow one of these links to checkout the latest:
Part of Grim Curio’s subtext involves a variety of groups that live in or around Oasis – the last city on earth. I’m considering new names for the city, maybe Final Refuge or something. In recent excerpts we were introduced to the Naturalists and the Students (they were called Scientists in the drafts, but I’m trying out new names.
Well, I’ve got a third one now. The Nihilists.
Nihilists are a loose knit group who live primarily in east Oasis. When the first and second Calamities wiped most of humanity off the earth, some people survived. The Nihilists think this is a mistake. They believe the earth wishes to be purified, and they seek the finish the job.
Nihilists mug, burn, murder, and otherwise ruin the lives of anyone they can. Many are petty criminals who ‘believe’ in the Nihilist teachings, but who don’t participate fully. Others are nothing short of terrorists. The most hardcore of the Nihilists commit a pledge that if they are the last humans alive, they will kill themselves to cleanse the final life off the planet.
As I write my novel Grim Curio, I’ve been sharing excerpts on /r/DestructiveReaders and my development diary to get feedback. At first I did this just to get an idea of what people thought of my work in progress. Then a pattern emerged, and through it I found myself becoming a better writer.
I’m calling this pattern the Critique Feedback Loop. It’s nothing revolutionary, I’m sure, but it’s been incredibly useful for me, so I thought I’d take a little time to share this pattern with you.
Phases of the Feedback Look
Write a draft (1000 – 4000 words).
Share the draft with a critique good group. Emphasis on good. For me it’s /r/DestructiveReaders.
Make changes based on feedback.
Repeat 3 and 4 until changes are no longer significant.
Like I said, nothing revolutionary here, but it’s been immensely helpful. Not only does it make my drafts higher quality, it informs my green field writing, giving me areas of weakness to focus on improving as I write new content.
Why it works
Every round of criticism has been focused on one of my weaknesses. First was character, then setting, now structure. It’s amazing to see my previous weaknesses no longer getting mentioned as new ones emerge.
If you want to see proof that your writing is getting better, there’s no better way than submitting the same piece over and over after each rewrite. But this only works if your writing community is: 1) blunt, 2) informative, and 3) has a culture of 1:1 critique ratios.
Let’s break down what a constructive community looks like.
How constructive /r/DestructiveReaders can be
/r/DestructiveReaders is the best feedback loop I’ve ever found. Better than in-person writers workshops. Better than any other message board or online community I’ve been a part of. But why is that?
1. The attitude
When you submit your work to /r/DestructiveReaders, you are fully aware that people are there to give you unfiltered feedback without much regard for your feelings. They’re not being dicks, but they will tear your writing apart if they don’t like it. They’ll mention line by line what bothers them, what you can improve, and what you’re missing all together.
Nothing makes you a better writer than having your flaws bluntly pointed out to you. Often this will come with a suggestions for improvements, and it’s up to you to filter through the suggestions and choose what to work on. Of course if someone is pointing out a weakness, it’s also up to you to consciously improve it.
2. The 1:1 ratio, aka don’t be a leech
If you submit a piece to critique without first critiquing someone else’s work of equal or greater word count, you’ll be labeled a leech. Don’t be a leech.
But you know what? That’s how it should be. First it keeps the critiques coming, keeps the tone civil (even when the critique is brutal), and it teaches you as a writer the clear line of what you like and don’t like in a piece.
As I read others works, I have to think hard about why I don’t like the sentence structure, or why a pieces character development doesn’t work, etc. When I then turn to write my own work, the critiques I wrote for other writers is fresh in my head, actively forcing me to cut out the passive voice, build the setting, and make the characters feel real.
3. Line edits
There are two phases to most /r/DestructiveReaders critiques: 1) line edit, 2) critique essay. Both are very useful but cover very different things.
We use Google Docs to share our work, and line edits come through the built in commenting feature. Line edits tend to focus on style, grammar, dialog, confusing passages, etc. This will lead to a lot of quick fixes to your text, but I don’t think that’s where the real value comes from.
The real value comes when you sit to write the next day. You know for a fact what you’re struggling with now. Your weakness might surprise you.
4. The Critique
First let me say that I have not received a bad critique. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve received fairly brutal ones, but they have always led to significant improvement in my work. The amount of work /r/DestructiveReaders users put into their feedback is staggering.
Most critiques begin with a short paragraph on what the reader liked and didn’t like. That’s followed by an in depth, point by point essay that often exceeds the length of two pages or more.
Everyone critiques slightly differently, but there is a trend to focus on title, style, plot, character, pacing, etc. individually. This format in particular is so helpful, because it helps you as a writer see the boundaries between these skills, and inform you of what techniques you’re using incorrectly and how they affect the reader.
The feedback loop
Sure, you can submit a piece, make changes and move on. If you’re goal is to get the most words critiqued over the shortest period of time, then this makes sense. But if your goal it to improve your writing, then submitting the same piece after making significant changes will be much more informative.
The reason for this is simple. Most pieces have one pronounced weakness, and several less obvious ones. The first round will likely focus on that weakness, which allows you to go back and improve it. But if you don’t re-submit your work after the changes are made, you’ll miss out on discovering the next pronounced weakness that’s been lurking just a layer deep.
Submit a piece to get critiqued, wait at least three days for the critiques to come in, make significant adjustments, then submit again. Once your critiques only point out minor mistakes, then move on to your next segment to get critiqued.
This is a slow and deliberate process, so you can’t let it hold back you’re overall progress. Keep on writing green field words, reading your critiques, and adjusting your writing process accordingly. In this way your entire work benefits without your progress coming to a halt.
What if I want to submit, but I’m too nervous.
That’s normal. I’m terrified every time I share a piece of writing. Terrified but excited. I know my writing isn’t for everybody, there are plenty of people who don’t like my genre or my style, but that’s fine.
You can’t please everyone, so don’t try. Instead focus on writing what you like to write, and then take the criticism with gusto. Even someone who hates your piece will give you valuable advice. And if it’s brutal, if people just rip your work apart, be thankful and start making changes.
On the flip side, if you’re lucky, people will actually enjoy your work. You may gain a small group of authors who regularly read your writing because they genuinely enjoy helping you.
So, yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s natural to be scared or nervous. Power though, it’ll be worth it.
I hope you found this blog post useful. If you’re new to this development diary and want to follow along my entire writing process as I write Grim Curio, consider following me here or on Facebook or Twitter. Finally, I’d like to hear what you think of this. Have you ever submitted your work for critique? How was the experience?
I’ve been talking about my novel in progress for a couple of weeks now, and there are some topics that I’ve brought up that need some fleshing out. Grim Curio is a kind of Fantasy/Post Apocalyptic hybrid, so there’s a fair amount of world building in the subtext.
Today I want to talk about one probably the most prominent piece of subtext, The Layered Universe Theory. The Layered Universe is James Bartlebee’s working theory seeking to explain the many phenomena he’s witness through the years.
The Many Layers
The theory states that our reality is actually one of many. These realities exist on a plane stacked on top of each other. The idea of a stack is very important, realities piled up like a deck of cards. In fact, these realities are so tightly stacked that they almost inhabit the same space: often things from one reality can influence the other.
Between each layer of reality is a thin substance known as a veil. This matter acts like lubricant between realities, allowing them to coexist without too much friction. Certain actions can put stress on the veil, for example attempting to punch a hole through the universe. As the veil hardens, veil sign is produced.
Veil sign can be many things, but in all cases it is an observable manifestation of stress on the veil. Often this will appear as a burnt smell or an optical illusion that distorts reality.
If the veil is stressed enough, the result is veil residue. This is the flaking of the veil where literal flakes of reality will appear in our world as the veil attempts to repair itself.
A base layer is any layer of reality that exists “below” our own. As you travel down the layers, life becomes more primitive. If we were to visit the layer directly beneath our own, the most complex organism would be like the simplest in our reality.
They’re behavior, however, might be incredibly beguiling to us. Some organisms might be driven by an urge to no longer exist, others might invade empty spaces and attempt to build a consciousness into them. There are some, though, the may present a truly great threat to our world with their insatiable drive to multiply.
Go past the first base layer to the next and what you find will be truly mysterious and unfathomable. The laws of the universe shift as you go down, with forces that behave one way in our layer of reality (like gravity, dark energy, dark matter, etc.) behaving in quiet different, unpredictable ways in another.
As you might guess, if you were to somehow go up a layer in this stack of universes, organisms get drastically more complex. Consciousness behaves radically different, and a creatures ability to manipulate things like matter, time or space would be considered god-like to us.
James even extends the Layered Universe Theory to include the possibility that gods as we know them live in this layer. Any god who may have affected our world could simply be a being from a higher plane who’s pressed up against the veil and greatly affected our world.
Move up more than one layer, and the complexity will become so great that your mind could not comprehend it.
There are some concessions in the Layered Reality Theory. For example, James has only collected evidence of two layers apart from our own. Those may be the only layers in existence, but it’s impossible to say unless we were to visit a layer up or down and seek evidence for the next layer there.
Also, layers beyond our neighbors, if they exist at all, may not continue to follow the pattern of Baser things going down, and greater things going up. No way to know without going there.
One thing to remember, this is just a theory proposed by James and it is not widely accepted in the world of Grim Curio. In fact, many groups (such as the Naturalists and the Nihilists) are hostile to this idea because they see it as a threat to their own beliefs. Many scientists scoff at the idea, reasoning that if such layers existed they would have been fully discovered by now.
So that’s the Layered Universe Theory in a nutshell. I love it because it opens up a universe of possibilities for Grim Curio. What’s going to happen when Simon pierces the veil? You’re just going to have to wait and see.
You won’t see me,” he said. “But I can see you.” My eyes struggled against the darkness, straining to see the man behind the voice. I saw nothing. “We took your weapon,” the man said. I felt my pocket for the snapper coil. Nothing. Fear gripped me.
In part 1 we were introduced to James, a detective specializing in anomalies and living in a dystopian world. James seeks out Veil Sign, a phenomena that’s the result of ‘creatures’ from other realities brushing up against, or invading, our own.
When we meet him in part 2, he’s investigating a disease that is turning a villages young into brain dead husks. He has just made a breakthrough when he see’s veil sign in a little girls room. Creatures from another plane are swarming her, drinking her thoughts.
There’s one more short section before the end of Chapter 1. It looks like it’s shaping up to be another 2,000 words or so. That would make Chapter 1 a total of 8,000 words.
What does that mean? I don’t know, you tell me. It’s certainly a damn long chapter, much longer than I anticipated it to be. But I don’t see a reason to break it up because it’s scenes are already broken up pretty well.
Here’s one thing I could do: I could turn Chapter 1 into Part 1 and separate the scenes into chapters. I’m not sure what I think of this idea yet. Probably too short for a Part.
As for the overall structure of Grim Curio: if this story ends up having five acts, then I think the first four chapters would make up act 1. Act 1 will involve the introduction of characters, plot and setting (surprise!).
Act 2 will involve the mystery of the creatures that posses Simon, and will likely set up the tear in the veil. I’m not sure how I’m going to approach that yet, but I think it’ll be cool.
Act 3-5 is where things get hazy. I haven’t really thought this far ahead in any real depth yet. I’ve done that on purpose though, because I want to make sure the plot is reactive. But I do have some scenes in my head.
I have this idea of these ants that live in a fungus forest. They are about 2 feet tall and three or four feet long. They are hosts to mind fungus growing out of their heads. That’s all I know about that, but we’ll get it in there eventually!
Let me know what you think in the comments. Did you know that there is an actual fungus that does that to actual ants? Google that shit.
Recently I made a major career change: I went from being an internet marketing guy to a programming dude. One of the many benefits programming has over my last job is more vacation time, which in turn means more writing time.
This year I’m setting aside four full vacation days which I’ll dedicate to writing Grim Curio, and I’m calling them my badass writing days! Not very on brand or whatever, but it’s fun to say.
My first BWD will be this Friday, and I’m really looking forward to it. I haven’t been able to set aside full writing days since college, so I plan to take advantage of it.
BWD: The Plan
A day like this will be most effective if I have a plan, so here are my priorities:
1. More words on page.
This is a simple but important one. No book was ever written without putting a substantial amount of words down. Depending on my other focuses, I’d like to write at least 1,000 green field words – meaning these are brand new sections of the narrative, not words added through rewriting.
I can often get 1000 words in about an hour and a half, but I run out of steam once I reach that point. To combat this, I plan on working on some other aspects of Grim Curio once my momentum slows.
This initial sprint of writing will focus on Chapter 2. Chapter 2 introduces us to the two other protagonists: Simon and Julia (not sure I’m happy with the name ‘Julia’ yet). These two scientists have succeeded in punching a hole through the veil that separates our reality with the Base reality.
If that’s confusing, no worries. It’s all layered reality stuff, a concept that runs through the core of Grim Curio. The more I post here, the more I realize that I really need to write a post on the layered universe, otherwise you’ll likely get lost. Another time.
[what follows is more spoilery than usual] In this chapter, Simon and Julia attempt to repeat the experiment and punch another hole in reality, but something slips through the hole. It dives into Simon’s eyes. This entity then begins mapping itself to Simons neural network, and slowly begins taking control of his body.
So it’s not good times for Simon, or Julia for that matter. Anyway, I’ll be working on that bit.
2. Determine whether to cut chapter 3.
This is a toughy. Chapter 3 was the original piece I wrote when I thought up the concept of Grim Curio. Because it was the first thing written, it’s also the part the stands out the most as potentially not belonging.
This may not make sense, so I’ll explain. I’ve found when I come up with a new idea I’ll write it a quick as possible, often getting 5 – 7,000 words written before I need to recoup. In this burst, my ideas are usually simple and direct.
But as the story grows, these ideas break down for one reason or another. Maybe a character isn’t working as well as I had hoped, or maybe the setting isn’t as cohesive as I had thought, or add other thing here.
As I continue to write, the ideas begin to bloom. I’m able to adjust for the weaknesses in the original concept, and the writing style of the piece has been solidified. So when I go back to read the original pages, they don’t really fit with everything else.
In the case of Grim Curio, the idea behind Chapter 3 was to introduce the reader into a day in the life of James Bartlebee. You follow him through a particularly gruesome case that ends poorly for him. Along the way you’re introduced to the narrative universe.
Since writing this, I realized that Grim Curio needed a better introduction, so I started working on what is now Chapter 1. In this new chapter a similar thing happens: James goes out on a case, solves it, and comes out worse for it. It also does a far better job of introducing the world.
I can revise Chapter 3 to be congruent with the rest of the story, that’s not a problem. But do we really want a second case of 7,000 or so words before diving into the guts of the plot? I really don’t know.
Part of me thinks “yes we do want this chapter because it shows us James’ rhythm, and gives the reader a formula to expect”. This could be good because it’ll make the rest of the story feel bigger as the story zooms out from the day to day life of James to a reality splitting attempt to stitch the universe back together (or something like that).
On the other hand, it may feel too repetitive. Grrr. I don’t think I’ll know until I rewrite this chapter and read it in the context of the rest of the book. It’ll be very painful to cut if it doesn’t work out, but I could also release it as a stand alone short story if that’s the case. We’ll just have to see.
3. Rewrite Chapter 3?
If I choose to keep it, then I’ll still need to do some major rewrites. This will likely take me a significant chunk of time. Still, I don’t loose steam while doing rewrites like I do when I write green field, so I’ll be able to devote myself to this for a good long while.
4. More words…
And of course, I’ll want to end the day with another sprint of green field words. I’m not sure if all this is realistic, so even if the second sprint is 500 words, I’ll consider it a success.
So that’s what I have in store for my Badass Writing Day. What do you think of the idea? Have you ever devoted a day to a side project? If so, tell me about it in the comments. If you’ve never had a project day like this, then tell me what you would work on if you had the time.
Last week I shared my critique ready version of Grim Curio Chapter 1 Part 1. It was 3600 words long and was the first piece I shared online. I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of feedback and felt compelled to revise it right away.
So what is the difference between the two versions?
There were a few points of feedback I received which resonated with me, but one overshadowed all the others: the setting is too vague. Readers seemed to picture a British gentleman when they pictured James, not exactly what I was going for. Clearly something was off.
It makes sense why that is. While writing the first 10,000 words, I’d never formalized a setting. There was something vague in my head, but I was having trouble solidifying it.
But once the feedback started coming in, the setting began to develop in my mind. This story will be cosmic in scale, involving the ripping apart of the boundaries between multiple realities. So not typical. For this kind of story, I need a setting equally not typical. And now I’ve got it!
The new setting
The concept of this setting is: 500-1000 years in the future, the earth is a husk of what we know today. It’s been ravaged by scientific progress. A multitude of events have shaped the world to it’s current state: ecological devastation, nuclear war, chemical weapons and more have made the planet an inhospitable place.
What little of humanity remains are packed within relatively non-toxic safe havens. Spores linger in the air, and spore storms are a ever looming danger.
Of course, humanity has divided into sects, as is always the case. Two of these sects are the Scientists and the Naturalists.
Scientists are devoted to furthering scientific progress above all else, even treating sciences as a religion. They believe that those who do not embrace Science will eventually be swallowed up by the desert. So it has been projected by their analytical analysis of the planet and her patterns.
Naturalists are devoted entirely to nature, living simply off the fungi that surrounds their villages. They believe that the only way to survive on this hostile planet is to embrace what little nature we have left, as toxic as it is.
These factions are just subtext. They only have a little baring on the story, but they flesh out the world and expand on some of the themes I’m working on.
This new setting moves the genre closer to the weird science fiction genre, which is the realm of authors like China Mieville. If you haven’t read his work, I highly recommend it. The nice thing about this genre is it offers nearly unlimited freedom to explore the ideas I want to dive into.
That’s all I have for today. There’s a lot more I want to share with you, but it’ll be information overload if I just spill the beans all at once. Here are some hints of things to come: character profiles, the meat factories, how spores affect the environment, and how the layered universe works (plus more).
I’d like to hear from you. So what do you think of this format? Do you find these kinds of posts interested? Is there a topic you’d like me to cover in a future post? Let me know by leaving a comment.