Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Guilie Castillo on "Critic or Cheerleader?"

Do you belong to a writer's group? You do? Congratulations! It's essential to the process of growing as a writer, of honing your skills, of becoming an ace at the craft. By joining one, you've taken a major step in your career.

But here's a question: is your group a critique group? Or a chorus of cheerleaders?

We all need cheerleaders. Pom-poms and rah-rahs. Undying support from someone—anyone—that we can latch onto in those dark moments when the blank page seems the hardest thing to face; when your words, once sheer genius, have begun to look like so much crap. Ordinary crap, at that.  

We need cheerleaders to help us believe we can do this thing, that we have it in us, that our talent exists, that our writing is not ordinary.

If your goal is not only to get published, but to grow as a writer, to become the best writer you can be, you also need a helping hand in terms of craft. I know—you've read the books, you have an MFA from a prestigious program, you've been doing this for a long time. Hell, for all I know, you're Stephen King or JRR Tolkien. Whatever. If you're committed to this career, you want to be better. Write better.


Cheerleading is for the spirit. It's to keep you sane, focused, motivated. But it won't improve your writing. Unless it's balanced against objective critiques, it may even damage it.

What is the function of a good critique group? To improve your writing. How? By providing a bunch of objective opinions on it—what works, what doesn't. Suggestions on how to make a scene more alive, give a character depth, draw the reader into the narrative to the point where they cannot put the book down. A critique group is the foundry where your skill is tempered into cutting-edge precision. Like iron ore, you need to be smelted and continuously honed into the hardness of brilliance.

What a critique group is not: a cheerleader faction for your work. A support group? Certainly, when it comes to true improvement. Like AA, your critiquing partners shouldn't encourage you to hit the bourbon no matter how desperately you think you need it, but rather push you—hard—to stick on the right path, to rise above yourself. A good critique partner will tell you the hard truths you need to hear—and listen to—in order to take your writing to the next level.

A critique group is like your editor—but careful here: not your spellcheck. You wouldn't send a first draft to your editor, right? You'd check for misspelled words, for echoes, for repetitious scenes, for character and plot arcs. When it's as good as you can make it, and only then, you'd send it out.

And then your editor would come back with suggestions and remarks, and you'd start work on your final draft. 

Revise your expectations: a critique group should get your writing as good as you can get it in order to help you improve it. A rah-rah might feel great, but how much does it help, really?

When you join a critique group, you leave your ego at the door. You bring only your story. It's all about the story, about making it better, making it shine.

 Guilie is currently in the final revision process of her first novel, Restoring Experience, and working on another spawned during NaNoWriMo 2011. She blogs at http://guilie-castillo-oriard.blogspot.com, and her short stories have appeared in www.fiction365.com, http://www.ladyinkmagazine.com/home
, as well as a few blogs, including an honorable mention in Clarity of Night’s contest in July 2011 (http://clarityofnight.blogspot.com/2011/07/entry-97.html). 

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Guest Author Mithran Somasundrum on Characterization

"Action is character," F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in a notebook, meaning that showing a person's actions, and more importantly his choices, is the clearest way to delineate his personality. But there is a distinction between character and characterization. It's one thing to make a man seem brave, petty or violent. It's something else to make him seem real. The best short description of characterization I've ever found was a quote on the back of a novel whose title and author I can't even remember. While they've gone out of my mind, the quote, by V. S. Pritchett, remains.  "[Author X]," he wrote, "knows the fantasy lives of his characters." 
When great writers look at the works of others, they often end up discussing themselves; and Pritchett's statement could just as easily have been a description of, and an explanation for, the vitality and life in his own work. Throughout the whole of his long writing career, you feel Pritchett had a direct line to the cinema playing behind his characters' eyes.  The cinema where they were the heroes and happiness unfolded.
While we judge the people we meet in fiction by their decisions, we believe in them largely because of what comes out of their mouths. Which ties good characterization inextricably into the art of writing good dialogue. "Good" doesn't necessarily mean clever or long. "You killed Miles and you're going over for it," is good because it's true to Sam Spade's hard-headed, uncomplicated view of his life. However, given that the main purpose of the pages of a novel—any novel—is to make you keep turning them, dialogue needs to be more than just true.  It needs to be interesting. 
The fuller section of The Maltese Falcon that I've just quoted is,
"I don't care who loves who. I'm not going to play the sap for you. I won't walk in Thursby's and who knows who else's footsteps. You killed Miles and you're going over for it."
This has a great rhythm and power, without moving outside the vocabulary Spade would use or the kind of ideas he’d express. Another writer of great hyper-real dialogue is Saul Bellow. His characters use ordinary idioms and phrases, but often at such a pitch of emotion their thoughts go tumbling into each other. From The Victim, when Leventhal finally decides he's had enough of Allbee leeching off him:
"You dirty phoney!" Levanthal cried huskily. "You ugly bastard counterfeit. I said it because you're such a liar, with your phoney tears and your wife's name in your mouth, every second word. The poor woman, a fine life she must have had with you, a freak like you, out of a carnival."
People reveal themselves in anger; they lose hold of the image they want to present to the world. But it's impossible to write a novel in which everyone is angry all the time. So the writer needs to find the smaller signs where people give themselves away. Great examples of these are scattered throughout Paul Theroux's collected short stories.
Theroux is a great describer of groups. Whether it's a reception at a London Embassy, the muggy heat of a Malaysian polo match, or four poets strolling through a frosty Amherst night, Theroux's group scenes bristle with life. This isn't because his characters are constantly screaming at each other—although their tempers do fray and irritations do flare—but rather because he creates the impression of separate human minds running on very different rails. Theroux's people talk to one side of each other, they enter conversations pre-armed with a view of the world, their minds snag monomaniacally on an idea and then refuse to let it go.
How much mental space an author needs to achieve this is moot.  Graham Greene often said he knew his characters had become real when they became capable of surprising him.  In contrast, Nabokov described his characters as "galley slaves."  And yet to the reader Humbert Humbert remains as disturbingly real as his desire for Dolores Haze. 
The issue of authorially-granted freedom has often led to novels being labeled as either plot-driven or character-driven; but the fact is, any wholly alive story is set moving by the hungers and self-deceptions of its people. The plot of The Maltese Falcon ticks along like a Swiss watch. But it's the low cunning and mutual suspicion of Joel Cairo, Brigid O'Shaughnessy and the Fat Man, and the almost amoral nature of the "blond Satan" (Sam Spade) they turn to who set the book ticking.
Who would you recommend as a great example of characterization, either to learn from or simply to enjoy?  Which writer and which of their works?
Mithran Somasundrum was born in Colombo, grew up in London and currently lives in Bangkok.  His short stories have appeared in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, The Sun, Inkwell, The Minnesota Review, Natural Bridge, and GUD, among others.