Grim Curio Gets a Shift in Perspective

If you’ve been following the production of Grim Curio, then you already know that it’s a story told in first person, past tense. Well that’s changing.

The Problem

I’d written 30,000 words before I realized that first person, past tense just wasn’t working out for the story I wanted to tell. I want an epic story told from intimate perspectives, so first person felt like a natural choice when I began.

But I also want the city of Refuge to be a character, and I want to build a world that can engross the reader. And in my execution using first person, that felt clunky no matter what changes I made.

I also want a feeling throughout the second half of the book that no character is safe, but first person practically gives characters narration armor (the idea that the character can’t die because he or she’s the one telling the story).

I considered using this to my advantage buy killing off a character in first person, but in past tense that felt a little off. I could be done, and it might work, but mixed with my other issues, I didn’t think it would be worth it.

The Experiment

After a while, I began wondering if a change to third person, present tense would make things better. To test this, I saved a backup of the first couple chapters and rewrote them from the new perspective. Instantly I loved it. The story feels more in the moment, I’m able to explore the city more, and I build scenes more fluidly in this environment.

The Result

Here’s one example. Below is the opening scene of the book which sets the world up in three paragraphs (and one is a single sentence):

The world never ended. When flood came, many survived. The sufferers shuffled about from place to place, some finding shelter, others not. When fire came, some survived. It blazed over continents fueled by primal fear, justice and revenge. Fire has no conscious. When radiation came, few survived. The survivors were not a chosen people. They lived in the correct geographical locations with mountain ranges and northerly winds and had access to a little infrastructure to support a small, terrified wallow of survivors.
Years passed, the pockets of humanity dwindled. Some starved and died, others fought and died, and others fell to indiscriminate forces: massive storms, poisonous air, and not a little stupidity.
But the world never ended.

Scenes like this are nearly impossible to get right in first person, and I was trying so many different ways. The switch to third person was like a breath of fresh air, and these three paragraphs just came naturally without much effort. A good sign.

I wonder what you think of this change? Be sure to let me know in the comments.

 

Grim Curio Cover Reveal

For a while I’ve been of the mind that Grim Curio needs a decent cover. I know it’s still a work in progress, but I wanted an image to go with the name. So after a few weeks of playing around with cover design, I created something I think works to communicate the themes as well as catch the eye. Take a look.

I designed this cover using Canva, a fantastic on line image editor that I’ve used for years. It makes designing pretty straight forward, especially for non-designers like me.

I ended up using their cover theme called “Coming Out” which was designed for gay fiction. I replaced the image of the two dudes delicately holding each other with an image of a dying city-scape, and played around with font and color. I got the image from PixaBay which provides free to use stock imagery.

I played around with a few other images, I wanted to get a spore on the there somehow, but it just wasn’t working. Maybe a professional could work it in, but not me. Anyway, I’m happy with the result so far. Of course it’s early days yet, so if you have a critique for this cover, or a suggestion, be sure to let me know in the comments.

In the meantime, if you want to get notified whenever I release a new blog post, be sure to put your email in the box to the right.

Welcome Back

I’ve been blogging on Tumblr for a month or two, and it was nice while it lasted. But Tumblr quickly became too small for me. There’s more I want to to with this website and blog than what Tumblr will allow. So, here we are, new home on the (ahem) old home.

Fifteen Years A WriterA Short History of S.C. Barrus

It’s been nearly a month since I started this blog chronicling the production of my novel Grim Curio. I haven’t spent much of that time talking about myself, and that’s been deliberate. But today I want to do something different and share the writing journey I’ve gone through over the last fifteen years.

High School

I began writing in high school, took every creative writing elective I could. It was there I wrote my first novel, My Field of Everlasting Smiles. It was an angsty coming of age story that’s now collecting dust in storage.

I was 18 and queried agents for a month or two, but didn’t get far. Then I gave up. If you’re a young writer with a novel and a desire to get published, don’t give up. Send out query letters for years if you have to, or work your ass off on the independent publishing route (but do it right). Just don’t give up.

College

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I went The University of Washington and a degree in Creative Writing. While there I wrote my second novel, Everything Else by the Wayside. It followed a few listless travelers who played the blues, and I thought it was philosophical as hell.

I spent months querying agents and received good feedback, but nothing happened. It’s not hard to see why. It was a difficult to summarize, meandering literary tale featuring an unlikable character. Not a book that screams best seller.

Sometimes I think about Everything Else by the Wayside and wonder what could have been. Maybe one day I’ll revisit it.

Post College

After graduation I got a job as an internet marketer. I was paid to write blog posts about flooring and modular homes, gardening and a swath of ecommerce copy. I hated it.

Meanwhile, I stole every second I could to write the novel I knew would get me out of that shitty profession (sorry if you’re an internet marketer, but it’s a shitty profession).

I wrote Discovering Aberration and immediately thought, “Screw the publishing industry, I’m going to do it myself.” Away & Away publishing was born. I hired editors and cover designer, printed hundreds of copies which I sold by hand at conventions, and quickly sold around 10,000 ebooks with a few smart promotions. Pretty cool.

Then I was fired from my shitty job. I couldn’t get a job for nearly a year. I tried to write, I really tried. I wrote and published the first episode of a serial novel called The Gin Thief, but my depression got so deep I couldn’t finish it. Even now when I think back on The Gin Thief all I can see is that dark time when I lost my job, my apartment, and my will to write.

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Today

Eventually I went back to school and became a web developer. Now I work for a company called Concur building expense reporting software, and to be honest I’ve never had a better job. Oh, and I’m writing again.

That’s it, that’s my story so far. I don’t know if there is a moral to it, but I’m here and I’m brimming with ideas. What will happen with Grim Curio? Will I handle publishing duties myself or go the agent route? I don’t know yet, but I’m considering all my options. In the meantime, I’m glad you’re here and I hope you’ll stick around as the next chapter in this journey unfolds.

Grim Curio’s Style Update

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The weekend’s almost over, but I’ve got a lot of work done. I’ve been focusing on the style of Grim Curio. Check out the first couple paragraphs, all newly rewritten:

The wailing of worn iron hinges ripped me awake. The sound grated. It squealed with an irregular rhythm, accompanied by constant popped corn sounds of spores, carried in the air, beating against the thick, wobbling sign out my window. The sign read:

James Bartlebee
Detective of Anomalies, Curiosities, & the Supernatural.

It was a lie. I was no more a detective than a believer in ghosts. Trial and error led to those words, eventually the right combination lured in leads. Some believed spirits wallowed in nooks of sheet metal, abandoned factories, ventilation ducts sucking air to lower zones, they believed they were cursed by clay baubles mixed with toxic spores, or that the very electricity running sporadically through Refuge — lifeblood of the world they called it — lay in wait, ready to fry blasphemers in their rusted hovels. But no. Loose wires in metal houses have no conscious. But sometimes, rarely, I discovered the answers I was looking for: evidence of the nature of the universe itself.

How do you think its coming?

41 Questions to Improve Your Writing and Critiquing

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When refining, rewriting, editing and critiquing, what should you be looking for? Sentence structure? Character believability? Setting? Sometimes it can be a bit much to keep everything in your head, so I’ve written the following list of things I look for (or need to remind myself to pay attention to) in order to make my writing, and my critiques of other writers, as effective as possible. Hopefully it works for you too.

Style

  1. Is sentence length varied?
  2. Do sentences flow naturally?
  3. Is the information being communicated accurately and effectively?
  4. Do sentences start and end with strong, evocative words?
  5. Are long, wandering sentences used effectively, or should they be broken into shorter, punchier and easier to follow ones (depends on the situation. Long is good for lists and important points. Short is good for immediacy and impact.)
  6. Are there too many -ing and -ly words bunched together (happening, doing, jumping, running, happily, excitedly, remotely)? Too many of these words weaken prose.
  7. Are there semicolons? Rip them out.
  8. Are there parenthesis? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out.
  9. Are the colons? Can they be justified? If not, rip them out too.
  10. Are two words used where only one will do?
  11. Are there phrases like ‘in fact’, ‘there was’, ‘she had said’, etc. Rip those out.
  12. Are the words on the page interesting in themselves? Trade common words and phrases for unique ones. Make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.
  13. Is the same word used twice in a paragraph? If so, there better be a reason for it. Clarity and rhythm are good reasons, lack of vocabulary is not.
  14. Does it read like I spent all my time looking at a thesaurus? Simplify.
  15. Can a dumb reader make sense of your complex ideas? Consider simplifying your explinations.
  16. Does a smart reader feel they’re being talked down to? Make your ideas bigger.
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Descriptions

  1. As a reader, can I inhabit the scene with the information given?
  2. Are all the senses engaged? Can the prose make a blind man see or a deaf man hear? If not, add more.
  3. Is the flow of narrative slowed by an overabundance of description? Pair it down or rearrange it.
  4. Are the details portrayed in logical order?
  5. Are descriptions of everyday things lending value? Again, make the familiar unfamiliar and the unfamiliar familiar.

Characters

  1. Do we know the character enough to justify the current scene?
  2. Does the characters actions make sense from the characters point of view?
  3. From reading the current scene, can I imagine how the character might behave in a different situation? If not, the character is not as well defined as it should be.
  4. Can I picture the character in my head? If not, add more description and do it early.
  5. Does character speech feel natural. Read aloud.
  6. What mannerisms does this character have? Do they have a tick, a habit, or feature that sets them apart?
  7. What does each character want? How badly do they want it? What are they willing to do to get it?
  8. Do character actions reveal something about the character, or are they superfluous?
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Scenes

  1. Is the current scene vital? Justify it, if you can’t, cut it.
  2. What is the purpose of this scene? Furthering plot, building character, etc. Every scene should do what it does well.
  3. Does the current scene feel familiar? Is it familiar to another scene in the work, or familiar to something from somewhere else? If so, there better be a really good reason.
  4. Where is the tension / suspense? (from wikipedia: Suspense is a feeling of pleasurable fascination and excitement mixed with apprehension, tension, and anxiety developed from an unpredictable, mysterious, and rousing source of entertainment) How many layers of tension / suspense are there? More on this next.
  5. Is there a basic level of tension? If there are two characters, they should each want something different. If characters have the same wants, then something should get in there way. If life is easy, then the read is boring.
  6. Is there a middle layer of suspense? Something else above the immediate scene should be looming. Something outside of the characters current control.
  7. Is there a grand level of suspense? There should be a singular overarching thing that drives the story, gives it a time limit, forces the characters to make difficult choices again and again. If it’s a villain, it better be a damn good one.

Cohesion

  1. Can each scene be explained in one or two sentences? Hone them.
  2. Can each chapter be explained in one or two sentences? Hone some more.
  3. Can the entire plot be explained in one or two sentences? If not, focus, hone, find the heart of the story and throw the rest away.
  4. Is the word count justified? The entire reading experience should feel tight, even if it’s 200,000 words or more. If there is a moment of boredom, cut cut cut.
  5. In the end, am I fulfilled but wishing there was just a little more. Perfect, time to start the next book.
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From Mind to Paper: Creating a Character

Above: Ginko from Mushi Shi.

Writing is a process. Prose don’t appear on paper perfectly executed. First drafts are a spew of consciousness, a firehose of concepts splattered haphazardly with the wrong words in the wrong order, the wrong setting with the wrong details, the wrong character featuring the wrong motivation. But you have to start somewhere.

First I mash my mind onto the keyboard, sleep it off, then begin the process of refining everything. Rearrange sentences. Alert the senses. Mold your characters into believable people. But for now, let’s focus on that last point – characters.

Clive and Nemesis

These are two very different characters featured in Grim Curio. You can read a scene featuring both of them now in The Working Copy. Among their differences, Clive is a bit character, created out of necessity to carry a few scenes forward, Nemesis is a major character, antagonist, created to foil some of the plans of James and co. Beyond this, their very conception is different, Nemesis being a premeditated character and Clive being a necessitated one. So let’s look at the differences.

Conception of a Character

Above: Harry Lockhart from Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

When bringing a character to life, I’ve found I tend to follow one of two paths into inception. There’s the Premeditated Character and the Necessitated character. Premeditated refers to the days I’ve spent constructing a character and theorizing her place in the story. Necessitated refers to the moment I reach a point where I realize I need someone new to carry the current scene(s) forward.

Premeditated Thought Process

I need an antagonist and I want it to be a person that’s unlikable yet somehow relatable. How do I do that? Make her a girl. Make her young, like sixteen or something. Thrust her in an scenario where the only way out is by ‘going to the dark side’. Have her emerge confused, conflicted, wracked with insecurities but steadfast in her convictions. Etc. This could lead to an interesting villain.

Premeditated is the most obvious method, I stroll through the day, mull on a character and think how this person exists in the world I’m creating. Like Whinnie the Pooh, I think think think think think. I sit to write, fingers frozen over the keyboard while I consider from which angle to attack this person first.

Necessitated Thought Process

James needs to go to Clayton, how does he get there? Does he walk? No, too dangerous. What then? He hires somebody to drive him to Clayton in an ATV. Ok, so what is a person who does this like? For that matter, how many people like him exist in this universe? Not many, maybe 5, they’ll be called runners, and this guy, let’s call him Clive, is the only one James trusts. But why does he trust him? Because of his reputation as the only runner you can really trust. This guy must be expensive, how does James hire him? On and on, deeper and deeper, etc.

You can see how answering question after question a character might emerge, pieced together until he’s fully formed. These tend to be bit characters, but they often morph into major ones without me premeditating it.

The Execution

Above: Alfred Borden from The Prestige.

Writing Premeditated

Premeditated characters are a pain to get started. They feel fully realized in your head, but they’re not. They’re an amalgamation. Inspiration comes from my influences, my experiences, bits from people I know, bits from things I’ve seen people do, and most of all just my own sick mind. That’s not a person, that’s a blob and a blob must be sculpted.

You take this mass and begin to massage it as you write the first scene where they appear. For me, this scene is almost always emotional, tense, proving who the character is in a dire circumstance. That’s just me though, the action nerd wanting to see what my puppets will do when facing the gun.

As it turns out, these scenes are rarely the right way to introduce a character to a reader. They are good for me because now I get to learn more about who this person is. But for a reader coming across this sort of scene as way of introduction, everything feels disjointed and unearned.

Writing Necessitated

Necessitated characters come about in a much less deliberate way. Often they are a means to an end. James needs to do something and needs someone to interact with to get the job done. Enter minor character.

But each character needs to feel fully formed, no matter how or why they’re conceived. In action, I tend to set the scene, flesh it out, write the major points I want to hit, then go back and add. It’s exactly the opposite of the premeditated character. Instead of a blob that I need to refine and temper, it’s a brick I need to add to and build up until a fully formed house emerges, or at least one that looks fully formed.

Closing Thoughts

I have more to say on this topic, but I think this will do it for now. Come back soon when I follow up with some critiques I received for the writing of Nemesis and the changes that led me to make. I hope you find it informative and interesting. Until then, have a great weekend.

Read Chapter 2

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:

Read on Google Docs
Read/Leave the Critiques on Reddit

I’m beginning to realize that I need to create a page so people can easily find and read all past excerpts, which hopefully I’ll have time to do this weekend. Until then, have an amazing weekend.

Ideas are a brewin’

Welcome to another Grim Curio production note, a post where I share something that I’m thinking about for a future scene. If you want to learn more about production notes, read this.

The Nihilists

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.

That’s all for now. Keep on being you!

How to Harness the Critique Feedback Loop to Become a Better Writer

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.

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Phases of the Feedback Look

  1. Write a draft (1000 – 4000 words).
  2. Share the draft with a critique good group. Emphasis on good. For me it’s /r/DestructiveReaders.
  3. Make changes based on feedback.
  4. Submit again.
  5. 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.

Closing comments

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?