Lessons from Writing Consultation

In 2010 I took a writing class with Merridawn Duckler. The class itself, offered at The Attic, was more than worthwhile, teaching me how to think critically about my writing, how to critique and observe what other writers were doing, and offering a forum to have my own work critiqued. 

Recently I needed some help with my second novel, so I paid Merridawn for a one on one consultation. She read my manuscript, then gave me feedback on my novel.

Although the feedback is specific to my novel, the issues and methods to address them could apply to anyone, so I thought I'd share.

  • Things can't always go well. In most of my novel, things work out for the characters. If they are hungry, they go to town, and get food. If they need a computer, they find a computer store. If they don't have money, it's OK, they can make a deal. They struggle with the big issues, the main plot of the book, but they don't even struggle with the little stuff. But they need to, in order to grow as characters, and in order to create tension for the reader.
  • Be sure of facts and timelines. I'm writing science fiction, and in that genre, even more than others, people really tend to notice any errors, even small ones, and pick them apart. So I need to be even more sure about timelines and locations. That doesn't always mean I need to be specific about them in the book, but I do need to be specific about them in my head.
  • What makes the difference between science essay and science-fiction novels is characters that the reader can really get behind. If the characters are flat, underdeveloped, then the reader might as well be reading a science essay, because they have nothing to deepen their emotional connection to the work.
  • Work on language. My favorite novels are William Gibson's early cyberpunk work. They have prose so beautiful I nearly weep when I read it. It feels impossible that I could ever create prose half so amazing, and yet if I don't try, it won't happen. I need to strive as much as possible to make that happen. (An aside: As I have told my friend Gene, if I was ever referred to as a "poor imitation of William Gibson", I would be thrilled.)
  • Readers and characters need human problems. In my novel, there's a scene where a building is burning down, and it's been indirectly caused by the main character. He is overcome with guilt watching this. And yet, a building (or even an entire block of buildings) is too abstract for the reader or even the characters to be really affected by. It would be a far more personal, human problem if they said "Oh my god, Susie's disabled mother lives in that building."
  • Characters need skin. All of the action and all of the dialogue is focused on the events of the book. This makes for characters that are skeletons: they are there, but there is no meat or skin to them. The characters need to have lives outside the events of the book. Hearing this feedback made me ask, "But where does the inspiration for that skin come from? I read other books critically, and I always find myself wondering where all the non-core-plot stuff comes from. Why did they choose to have that character have that best friend? Why does the character have a birthday? Why did the author choose those things?" And that leads to...
  • One source for skin is the character's relationship to the core theme of the book. All three of my books explore theme of man's relationship to artificial intelligence: Can man and machine cohabit? For each character, then question then is, "How does this character relate to that theme?" For example, one of my characters is a woman named Rebecca Smith, who is a CEO in the first novel, and POTUS in the second. For her, the machines are just a distraction. She wants to do her thing, which is to run the company/country. She wants to be in control of the now. That's how she relates to the theme. Which means that her skin should reflect those things: We should see her running the country: doing all the things a President would normally do: working with other politicians, dealing with her rivals, campaigning, etc. My main character is a student trying to get a scholarship when he is waylaid by the events of the book, but we should see him filling out scholarship papers, we should see him fail to get the scholarship when he doesn't show up, etc.
I hope these ideas are useful to you. As I said, although the feedback is specific to my writing, these are issues anyone could struggle with. If you are in Portland, and want to get a similar critique of your work, I urge you to contact the The Attic. My experiences with them have all been very positive.
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