Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Posts Tagged ‘Writing

Reading Critically

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My friend has written his first novel and joined a writers’ group to get some feedback on his work. He’s enjoying the discussions and is learning a lot, but he asked me the other day how he could better contribute. He felt like he didn’t have as much to offer about other writers’ work as they did about his.

The most useful thing about critique groups is the variety of things that the people point out. You might not agree with everything or act on everything, for instance, but if one reader had the thought or comment, you know that many others will, so it’s worth considering each comment and looking at text to see if you might change something to make the comment or question go away. If you can offer those kinds of comments, your critique group will appreciate your attendance even more than if you’re merely written something really good.

What to Look For

There are many contributing factors to reading critically. Here’s a fairly bald list of the things that I look for as a substantive editor, and the kinds of things you might look for when asked to read critically.


  • Accuracy. If it’s non-fiction, this is a given. But if it’s fiction, are allusions correct (for instance, do you have a troubadour playing the lute in Northern Germany in the 12 century? Believe me, people know that the troubadours never came that far north and not that early and that there weren’t lutes yet)? If anything can be checked and verified, some reader WILL check it and let it be known that there’s a mistake. As a critical reader, it’s your obligation to pose the question if you have doubts (did people use oil lamps in their homes in 14th century France, or would they have used candles?) or ask them to check it out.
  • Basic grammar and syntax. Is anything distracting about the way the work is written? Are things conjugated properly, and does the writer use words correctly (are the meanings conventional or obscure—or incorrect—are there unnecessary or distracting foreign words, are there made-up words, and if so, is their meaning obvious from context)? Are things capitalized that ought to be, and not when they shouldn’t? Are they capitalized and spelled consistently?
  • Compelling plot/story. If the subject matter is obscure, has the author found a way to make it interesting to folks who might be new to the subject? If the subject matter is well-known, do they have something innovative or unusual to offer?
  • Headings, titles, and subheadings. Can you read only these elements and have a clear sense of where you’re going to end up? Has the writer been clever in a way that makes the work itself less appealing (sarcasm, in-jokes, pop-culture references, etc.) to a wide audience?
  • Hook. The piece has to start with something interesting enough to make the reader want to persist. That means every piece, every heading or subheading, every new chapter, has to hook us, not just the first paragraph. You might not come up with a better hook for someone else’s work, but you might be able to help the writer think in those terms or tighten up an existing hook.
  • Punctuation and formatting. There are plenty of great resources on how to do these things properly, including my own Web page (, among others). Give them a read, and try your best to comply. No one’s perfect, but coming close earns you points. Nothing makes a publisher or a learned reader crazier than to have someone heedlessly ignore these niceties. Such things are the difference between readers thinking that the writer is a clever fellow with an interesting tale and thinking he’s a crackpot.
  • Tense: Does the work waffle from past to present to future?  It’s very helpful to point out waffling because a reader might not know why they’re losing interest, but it’s often this sort of confusion causing the dismay. If every word is valuable, the reader will be grateful. (Swobbling across tenses implies that the verbs are not valuable, which means that none of the action is important.)

Language Choices

  • Clarity. Can fewer words or better words express the same thing? If the expression “in other words” shows up, even the writer already knows that she hasn’t been clear.
  • Dialog and dialect. Is your dialog distracting or is it informative? Have you spent time making people sound like they really would sound and dumfounded readers with tin ears who can’t understand? (Note: Dialect is VERY hard to do well. Until you’ve got rather a lot of experience, reserve most such self-indulgences for the rare injection.) Are there natural hesitations in speech, the “well”, “er,” and “um” that all of us say, and the “I mean,” “like,””actually,” “really” and other ubiquitous empty expressions that many of us sprinkle liberally into any given sentence, and have you thereby bored the stuffing out of the reader? Point out curses or foul language that is gratuitous. Yup, hardly anyone is offended or surprised by these words anymore, but that doesn’t mean writing is improved by their presence. Dialog is a great way to show action (rather than tell about action), but point out if it’s sounding like a transcript. Dialog should serve a purpose other than providing color or breaking up a page.
  • Passive voice. Passive voice distances the reader (and the writer) from what has been written. It can be useful if the character is avoiding admitting complicity in a crime or the marketing department doesn’t want to admit that their product doesn’t really work, but it’s pretty tiresome reading, sentence after sentence.
  • Pompous voice. Are the word choices ordinary language? Readers soon tire of running to the dictionary. It’s another way to distance the reader, rather literally, I’m afraid. If you haven’t heard of the word, there’s a good likelihood that other readers won’t know it either.
  • Repetition. If something repeats, it had better be furthering the plot or there for obvious artistic purposes, or readers will soon be ripping out their hair and walking away. Repeating the story itself is the worst offence, but repeating words is almost as bad. You have to repeat nouns, obviously, but repeating adjectives, adverbs, and verbs appears lazy. And it’s distracting and boring. Point ‘em out, even if you think they might not be a problem.
  • Suitability. If it’s historical fiction, for instance, no one before the 20th century would say “okay” because it’s a radio term. Unless a priest is a bad guy, he’s not likely to curse in casual conversation. If readers are young adults or children, five-syllable words, discussion of historical facts (like wars and mutinies or rulers of obscure places) will lose them fast unless these subjects are the subject of the piece. If the audience is adults, the writing should not also make a five-year old happy. 


  • Sentence and paragraph length. Is there enough variety to keep the reader stimulated or does it grow monotonous? Have short sentences been used to promote breathlessness and long sentences to slow the action down? Are there long paragraphs making the page look daunting, or are there a whole series of single lines making the page look like a children’s picture book without the pictures?
  • Story arc. If you took an outline (for fiction or non-fiction), could you see a clear arc of discovery from the introduction of the idea or plot line, through each paragraph, to an endpoint that would have been predictable to someone who knew where they’d end up before they read it?
  • Title appropriateness. Does the majority (and I mean 80%, not 51%) of the piece answer the demands of the title? In other words, if the piece has a title like “Why I Like Sailing,” does it talk about the joy of the activity, or does it talk about wind velocities, boat types, the best places to go sailing, and so forth? The title and the content should match. If it’s fiction, does every paragraph promote either the story itself or character development?


  • Complexity. Can you imagine any other way to tell the story? If you can, tell the writer cautiously, or you’re in for an argument. It might be of value to point it out, though, so just weigh your words before letting fly.
  • Connection. If it’s fiction, do you relate to the characters? Why or why not? Is it something from your personal experience that makes you respond this way, or will a general readership feel the same? If it’s non-fiction, do you feel informed or entertained by the piece? Do you feel invested in the future of the discussion or characters sufficiently to want to read through to the end, or is a small sampling sufficient?
  • Continuity. Is the character wearing a green shirt at the start of the scene and a blue one at the end? Would the character, who claimed to be a pescatarian in chapter one, tuck into a big plate of steak in chapter three?
  • Motivation. Why are the characters behaving as they do? In many cases, the reader doesn’t need to be told why, but it needs to be apparent that the writer knows. In order for someone to be plausibly irritable, for instance, they can’t just be discovered drowning kittens. They have to have been pushed to their last strand of sanity and the reader needs to see some of that. The work needn’t show all the things that made the characters the way they are, but a character who’s evil for the sake of having an evil character only works in cartoons. Implausibly cheerful characters are just as grating.
  • The point. Is the writer telling the story to hear his own voice, or does he have something interesting or important that needs conveying? Yup, I know, it’s fun to wind the story up. But readers soon grow weary if they’re always being wound up.
  • Recurring themes. Does the writer have a soapbox that they keep climbing back up on? Can you recognize a character by an activity, a turn of phrase or a facial tic? Is it too much, just enough, or do you want more?
  • Show, don’t tell. If there isn’t a lot of action, and the action doesn’t lead readers deeper into the plot, there’s probably an inequality of telling the story rather than letting the reader discover for themselves. Good writing doesn’t tell the reader “be sad now;” good writing makes the reader feel sad. Sometimes it’s necessary to tell what this looked like or what happened in the past, but the reader is invested better if they have to ferret it out for themselves. Oh, and what one person thinks is a tale of horror and moral decay, another reader thinks is hysterically humorous. Both responses are legitimate. The writer shouldn’t pick the readers’ responses; they should hope for certain reactions, and you will help the writer if you reveal that your response was perhaps not what they expected or intended, or if it differs from what other reviewers felt.
  • Tension. What needs to happen to make the story progress? Why should we care? If it’s a murder mystery, well, there’s a problem to solve. That’s easy. But other forms of literature are harder to inject urgency into. What is it about the story that compels the reader deeper?

Presenting Your Comments.
Some people start with the good comments first. I like to mix them up, so that the good stuff isn’t colored by harsher comments. (We are, after all, a society that loves to linger on the negatives.) You don’t want the writer to stop writing; you want the writing to get better, right? Direct all your comments, the positive and the negative, so that your goal of helping the writer improve is apparent.

I make smiley faces in the margins when something strikes me as really good, for whatever reason (super clear sentences in a sea of otherwise purple prose, a clever or evocative expression, something unexpectedly funny, etc.). Other people highlight, make check marks, etc. Make sure that the author knows what you liked and why you liked it.

I try to find things that the writer does well, like perhaps they don’t write well (which I don’t say literally) but it’s a really good story. Or it’s maybe twice as long as it needs to be (which I will say kindly and gently and with clearly marked areas that could be cut) but it’s beautifully written. Maybe the story isn’t all that compelling (I don’t care why these people are here doing these things) but the characters are really well developed.  Perhaps the work seems overwrought, over-edited, and over-thought and suddenly, there’s finally a paragraph of wonderful, relaxed prose.

In some cases, the writer reads the piece aloud in the group, and the critique is extemporaneous. This is a hard way to do it because one person will say, “oh, I didn’t like such and such” and everyone else will say “yah, me too,” obscuring whether they’d actually had the thought themselves or just recognized it as true once they heard it. There’s a difference. Some readers can identify what they do or don’t like, but most people have a general sense of liking or not liking it and no clear idea of why they feel that way. It’s hard to gauge into which category the item falls with this “group think” response. However, it’s very interesting to hear how the words sound out loud—the writer will discover many things for themselves that did not leap out at them when they were reading silently. And, of course, you can learn what sorts of things people make note of, and add them to your list of things to look for yourself.

Other groups submit their work in advance, and each reader has a chance to review as much as they want before the meeting. For readers like me, this allows several passes (one for the story, one for grammar/syntax/formatting/punctuation, one for continuity, and one for fine tuning) and it allows me to edit my own comments, to make sure that they’re all helpful, positive, and clear. The comments are read aloud, and again, you have a chance to see what sorts of things other people point out and add them to your list.

Some groups don’t meet in person. This works much the same as the advance submission, where each participant has the opportunity to read the submissions several times, but it loses some of the interesting discussions that come because one person thought it was a romantic story and another thought it was a tale of stalking. (This happened recently during a discussion of Proust’s “Swann’s Way.” It was very surprising indeed.)

Whichever way your group works, there’s a lot to be gained by participating in critical review. Your editor/agent/publisher might be happier to get your work if it’s squeaky clean, but also, they are rather likely to just put you in the “no” pile if your work is too rough, rather than working with you to smooth it out. The critique might help you avoid the “no” pile.

Written by Melanie Spiller

November 29, 2011 at 3:07 pm

What’s Your Purpose?

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Thrice in the recent past, I’ve encountered writers who are stuck in their writing. In the case of one, he’d been working with a critique group and didn’t know how to proceed. One critic said do this, another said do that, and neither thought he was on the right path. In the case of the second writer, there was just so much to write about, she was stopped in her tracks. The third was trying to do everything at once and although he wasn’t having trouble writing, he was overwhelming his audience.

The problem of the first writer (shall we call him Vincent?) was simple. He had a story to tell, but people wanted him to tell their stories instead. In an effort to please them, he was getting stuck. It wasn’t his story anymore. We stood on a street corner saying goodnight one evening, and I could see from the bleak look on his face exactly what the problem was. He was trying to please his audience before he knew how his own story ended.

The second writer (let’s call her Alexandria) has done a lot of writing. Newsletters, blogs, journaling, and so on. She has had an extraordinary life so far, and there are parts of it that really should be told and heard around the world. She’s stopped in her writing because she has a largess of resources. It’s hard to begin when there’s so very much to do.

The third writer (I think I’ll call him Mike), falls between the two. He wants to tell the story of his family, but he’s also charmed by the way he heard it himself and wants to share that. He wants first to recount sitting at some elder’s knee and then to recount the stories they’d told. Even his own family is having trouble reading through it and they share both the experience and the history.

All three have the same problem. They don’t really know why they’re writing. They just know that they want to or need to.

Vincent’s case is easy. He needs to tell his own story in his own words. Once he’s finished it, or he’s far enough along that he has some distance from the earlier chunks, he can start seeking the advice of others. But until he has his own clarity about where he’s going and how he’s getting there, any advice he gets, even advice that coincides with his own designs, will divert him from his goal of writing, After all, no matter how well he’s written or how pristine his prose, he has many rounds of editing ahead of him. He has his own multiple passes, the passes he makes after other people tell him what they think, and if he’s lucky enough to find a publisher or an agent, they too will tell him what to do.

My advice: Just write your story. Worry about what other people think later. There will be plenty of time to please them.

Alexandria’s situation is more complicated. First, she has to pick out the stories that she feels convey her message, knowing that along the way, she will change her mind a hundred times. Then, she has to understand that she has more to offer than a single flavor. There’s a memoir, there are instructions about the line of work that she’s in, there’s a sort of love song to a mentor, and there’s her own very interesting take on life and all its turns and twists.

My advice: Make some outlines, apportioning each bit to its assorted corner. Things might wander from one place to another, but at least she’s got a place to start.

Mike’s problem is that he wants all things to be in one place. He wants to share this great experience of learning about the Ancient Ones from the merely Old Ones. He has done a whole lot of research to back up his story, and he’s cleared time in his life to write it. All advice that he needs to separate the tale from the telling falls on deaf ears.

My advice: Decide whether you want to tell your tale or whether you want to get published. If you just want to tell your tale, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If you want to get published and everyone tells you it’s too complicated, it’s probably too complicated.

All three have the same issues. They believe that they have something to say that people will want to hear. In Vincent’s case, he just needs to get past the fear of dropping the new baby on its head and know that no matter how carefully he watches, the baby is going to eat some dirt or fall over or some such dreadful thing at some point. (Please excuse the metaphor. Sometimes I just can’t help myself.)

In Alexandria’s case, she has a traffic jam. Once she figures out which story belongs where, she can pick and choose which one she’s ready to work on. It’s a kind of Rubik’s cube of writing.

In Mike’s case, he needs to decide whether he wants to get published or just finish writing it all down. If it’s the latter, there’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s more of a journal that way, or a blog, perhaps, than a book.

You might have noticed a contradiction in what I’m telling Vincent and what I’m telling Mike. I’m telling Vincent not to listen to his critics until he’s gotten some distance, and I’m telling Mike to listen to the critics who say it’s too much information and too much swobbling in time and place to follow the story easily.  What’s the difference? Vincent is writing a memoir that he might later fictionalize, and Mike is writing fiction based on facts.

Alexandria will encounter some of these same issues, I suspect, but right now, she just needs to get started and the path will get increasingly clear. Frankly, I can’t wait to read all three.

Written by Melanie Spiller

October 10, 2011 at 11:19 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

Tagged with ,

Stage Fright

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I don’t get stage fright. After all, one way or another, I’ve been on a stage since I was four years old—ballet, playing the flute, ballroom dance, a brief theater period in college, teaching in a classroom and privately, and of course singing. But when I went to that historical novelists’ conference, lo and behold, I got a little stage fright.

It was standing outside the room where everyone pitched their books to agents and publishers that did it. I was fine, didn’t expect much, thought of it as a way to suck information out of people more than a way to get into print. I got to the room in plenty of time, signed in, and then lurked, listening to the others talk about their books, their pitches, or the weather. Suddenly, my stomach lurched up into my throat. Apparently, it showed on my face, as the nice woman signing us all in came over to me and asked if I was okay.


Here’s the thing. I’ve been around plenty of people who get stage fright. You can feel it, almost smell it on them, a kind of quivery stomach, heart in throat extravaganza of sweating palms and loose bowels. But *I* don’t get it. Nope. If you’re prepared, even if you make mistakes, you will recover. Heck, as I always say after singing a solo, “no one was killed.” You just can’t take it so seriously.

But I did. I seriously did.

I pulled myself out of it quickly enough, though. Here’s the tale.

The night before, there was a reception, and we all stood around pitching our books to one another while we sipped adult beverages. This nice young man, a graphic novelist specializing in the Trojan horse era, asked me what it was that I thought would go wrong. I realized that I couldn’t explain. So then he said to me—and here’s the really clever part—give me your bad pitch.

So I did. I slumped my shoulders. I pinched my voice up into my nose. I whined on academically about the driest aspects of my book. I pretended that I was proud of how LONG the book is. I used long words and foreign words to make myself seem smarter. I checked my teeth repeatedly for savory morsels.

Those were all the things I didn’t want to do. So then, he said—knowing I was ready now—give me your good pitch. And I did. I was funny, engaging, and told my story with light in my eyes. I could feel myself just flat out enjoying that I’d come up with this idea and seen it through. I mentioned my second-draft trimming efforts and my plans for the next book.

Ta da!

So there I was, getting nervous in the line to present to important dignitaries, and I just ran that little exercise again. I got all the ickies out before I went in to see someone who could decide whether or not I really did have a good idea.

You know, this works, or so I’m told, for proper stage fright as well. I’ve read that if your hands are all sweaty and your heart is pounding away like it’s a conga drum, you try to make your palms sweatier and your heart beat harder by just willing it so. Apparently, that makes these unpleasant fight-or-flight instincts quiet right on down.

You’ll have to let me know though. Even though I’d only known about the solo for four days (someone had to bail at the last minute), I got away with it at this weekend’s concert extravaganza without a peep of stage fright. After all, no one was killed.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 29, 2011 at 7:37 am

Posted in Thoughts, Writing

Tagged with ,

A Writing Conference

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I spent last weekend at the Historical Novelists Society’s three-day conference in San Diego. Wow.

I could really just stop there, it was that good. Oh, the hotel was humorously hokey (they had fabulous chandeliers hanging from stained ceiling tiles that were polka-dotted with dirty air conditioning vents) and noisy (less than a mile from the airport, across the street from where the military hosts its helicopter fleet, and half a block from the Amtrak trains, who have not been discouraged from honking merrily for most of a mile all through the night), and the food was, um, institutional but plentiful. But the conference itself! Wow!

The first night was a reception with a cash bar. The good news about the cash bar is that no one got conspicuously drunk. The bad news was that it got seriously loud and it was impossible to be heard without screaming. But it was such a hoot! People practiced pitching their books, talked about getting published, and were generally hilarious, friendly, and informative. I even got feedback for my pitch, which was worth the attendance fee in itself.

Then we went in to dinner. This was buffet style, but very well organized. They had a buffet line down both sides of the hall and the wait staff came to tell each table when it was their turn, so there wasn’t a dreadful line, and even though my table’s turn was late in the serving, the trays had all been replenished and everything was fresh. There were speeches during the meal welcoming us and telling us what the weekend held.

After dinner, we were treated to published writers reading their fight scenes. I was surprised that they were not all written by men and that they weren’t full of death and destruction. It was interesting. I’ve never thought about writing anything more violent than a disagreement, so it gave me pause.

On Saturday, the conference offered panel discussions, mini-lectures, blue-line feedback on work, and the opportunity to pitch to agents and publishing houses. I made my first pitch that day. This was quite an interesting experience. People signed up for certain agents and editors in advance. I was lucky enough to be granted three pitch sessions. The organizers assigned each of us a ten minute session. Pretty much everyone turned up early for their sessions.

Each of us was granted eight of the ten minutes. Someone came along and politely informed us when we were at six minutes. It was obvious from the waiting area that the editors and agents were adept at assessing, as some people popped out after only two or three minutes looking dejected, and others popped out looking elated. I’m pretty sure that writers would be dragged physically away if they exceeded their eight minutes. This was a well-oiled and incredibly efficient machine.

People were so nice, too. Not just the agents and the officials who kept us moving along, although they were lovely. The other writers were really nice, too. Everyone was solicitous before and after a pitch, and everyone respected someone pulling aside and not participating in the conversations. There were supportive smiles and knowing nods. And when each of us slunk into a panel discussion session already in progress, everyone understood and was nice about that, too.

The panel discussions were great. In some cases, they talked about certain aspects of writing and publishing, in others, they talked about their processes, and in yet others, they talked about pitfalls and fortuitous happenstance. They were all excellent.

There was a sit-down dinner the second evening for which we had all pre-selected a meal option. I have peculiar dietary needs and the meal they provided wouldn’t do. The wait staff was nice about that and although I was eating my dinner while everyone else was having dessert, they were very helpful and I got the meal I needed. After dinner there was a fashion show, everything from ancient Greece through the middle ages, the Tudors, the Victorian era, the civil war, and the 1940s. The person MCing the parade was hilarious, a sweet grandmotherly type with a rather saucy wit.

After the fashion show, there were readings of sex scenes. These were interesting and fabulous, but I was completely out of steam and toddled off upstairs to sleep before it was over. In the morning, there were more pitches, more sessions, and then a long and sad goodbye.

This was my first writers’ conference and it set a high bar. I chose it partly because of its location (I could visit with my long-lost cousins while in town) and partly for its timing, but mostly, I chose it because it was specific to the genre of my books.

I came away with new friends, new draft readers who specifically enjoy the sort of book that I write, and a LOT of new energy for the revisions and such that will be needed before my successful pitches can go very far. And too, I sort of pitched another idea to my fellow writers, and I’m clearly onto something, so I’ve begun writing that one too.

In the near future, there are other conferences to attend. One is a general genre conference and another is about getting feedback on the writing itself. I’m not sure if the timing or the money will work out for those, but I’ll let you know what happens.

The one thing I’m sure of is that a genre conference is a very good thing indeed. And the HNS has at least one very happy new member.

Written by Melanie Spiller

June 22, 2011 at 12:20 pm

Posted in Writing

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Round Two of my Hildegard von Bingen novel is underway, and simultaneously (for reasons of pure avoidance), so is the travel guide to Things Hildegardian.

Thinking about how I will revise each chapter is fun. I went through and put a story arc on each fictional chapter (as I’d threatened to do in The Story Arc) and now I can see the slow points. I highlighted them in the outlines. I can focus on whether to add some action, change direction or tone, or just lop off the slow bits.

In the first chapter, it was pretty easy to lop off the beginning right after the second slow point. The lopped bits provided some context for the scene, but they didn’t really further the story much beyond introducing the characters and their location in time and place. The characters can introduce themselves during the less slow parts. See? That wasn’t so bad.

But all that reckless abandon and lopping away caused a dilemma. You see, I’d used the early part of that first chapter to show something about life in the Middle Ages within a convent, things my early readers had trouble understanding without a little help (oh, those pesky modern sensibilities!). Now I’ve got to find some clever way to put those little snippets of facts into the action. Someone can coyly say “oh she’s one of the reluctant nuns,” I suppose, and things of that nature.

Some of that knowledge of the 12th century needs to be in place for the second chapter to go smoothly. So there I sat, looking at Chapter Two as if it were a three-headed monster that had swooped up from under the davenport.

I turned my attention to the travel guide. I thought this would be easy—after all, I’m changing it to a memoir with an appendix full of directions for how to get there. Initially, it wasn’t hard, I plopped the directions into an appendix and then massaged the memoir-style stuff to flow nicely. But then I encountered the interesting tidbits about non-Hildegard things to see in the town. These are interesting! I can’t just lop them off! I can’t make another chapter or appendix for non-Hildegard things, can I? I mean, the memoir must include all the non-Hildegard things I did or it’s not the whole experience.

This led to the horrible question: Does it really have to be accurate? In other words, will anyone really mind if I go out of order, combine several trips into one, skip bits that I think won’t be interesting or add off-topic bits because they’re interesting or funny? (Like the fifteen-foot tall foot and ankle that I encountered outside a library in Mainz. Wouldn’t you be sad if that were missing?)

In the Travel Guide, the feedback of my readers was that the personal vignettes were the best parts. So my excursions around the town, Hildegardian or otherwise, are of interest, right? I mean the theme of the whole book is Hildegard and I plan to teach about her life as I go, but a memoir doesn’t need to be completely focused, does it? Shouldn’t it ramble into my own experience rather more than not?

And the fiction book, well, it’s fiction even though it’s based on history. I want to teach the facts, but it isn’t, after all, an academic exercise. So I have to snuggle the facts in there with the more entertaining aspects of the story. Can I use this technique in the non-fiction book?

I don’t know. I think I’ll go “revise” a closet or something. It’s gotta be easier.

Written by Melanie Spiller

May 24, 2011 at 11:06 am

Why Am I Writing About This?

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I’ve begun revising my travel guide/memoir. Revising just isn’t as fun as I’d like it to be.

First, let me say that originally, the book was a memoir. Then, I started think that it would be truly useful and interesting to tell people what to see where in regard to my favorite historical figure, and how to get there and so forth, a sort of Michelin guide to a time and place. And I had gotten self-conscious about why anyone would want to read the meager meanderings of Melanie as she trotted around Germany.

So it shouldn’t be hard to put it back to being a memoir, right? Wrong.

When I vetted the travel guide and the fiction work through my writing group, they kept wondering why I was so interested in this particular character. My answer amounted to “because she was so interesting.” And I’m normally pretty good with words.

One person said that the best parts of the travel guide were the personal vignettes. I told her that I’d written most of the things that held any interest or humor into the book already, and she said “so make some up” to fill in the gaps. That’s partly how I came to write a novel about my favorite historical figure.

Now that I’m revising the travel guide to be a memoir, I’m trying to provide some explanation of why a perfectly ordinary 21st century nominally Jewish and somewhat bohemian woman of Russian descent would get so obsessed over an uptight 12th century German saint.

I guess it’s on the order of why some people like cheese and some people like the color blue, and some people like Josquin, and some like football. I really can’t explain it. The music she wrote (I’m talking about Hildegard von Bingen, if you hadn’t already figured it out) is ecstatic and celebratory, her visions were dark and angry, her studies of nature were thorough, and her thoughts on philosophy were stimulating. What’s not to like?

As I read the laundry list I just wrote, I feel that it doesn’t really explain 25 years or so of fascination. I suppose some of it comes down to just enjoying rooting around in a subject. It might have just as easily been chocolate manufacturing or politics, I suppose. Doesn’t everyone have a pet subject like that?

Oh, and don’t forget all the lovely tangents. There’s all the early music stuff (the development of it, performing it, analyzing it), there’s the history stuff (it was a time when exciting discoveries were just about to be made. The steps leading up to those discoveries are fascinating), there’s the regional stuff (several of my parents’ closest friends during my childhood were from Germany), and there’s the traveling part (putting oneself in the land of the “other,” and seeing how the world works in other places than home).

Okay, so I come from a family that loves music, literature, traveling, languages, taking things apart (and putting them back together again), puzzles, good food, reading, and the occasional terrible pun. I love all those things too.

The thing with Hildegard is that she’s most of those things. She’s a puzzle because she got away with amazing stuff. She convinced people— including Bernard of Clairvaux (who was instrumental in the inquisition effort), a violence-prone king, and the pope—that she heard from God and had messages for them. She traveled around preaching (preaching!) against the Cathars, an odd little sect that everyone loved to hate. But nuns didn’t travel and women didn’t preach. Women STILL don’t preach. Why was Hildegard allowed?

And of course the music is intriguing. First, Hildegard didn’t really know all the rules of Gregorian chant (or she knew and chose to ignore them). But also, she was writing for women’s voices. Men typically have about an octave and a half of comfortable range before you start bringing in the trained singers. Women, on the other hand, often have two or more, even untrained. So Hildegard played with range and vocal leaps in a way that the monks who wrote for men just couldn’t.

Also, where Gregorian chant used texts from the bible, Hildegard wrote her own poetry. She loved a good metaphor and she especially loved the idea of “greening,” which meant that things were virtually verdant with faith or love or other religious sentiments. She especially loved that “virga” had three meanings and she used it constantly. (It is the name of the most stable of notes—a single note that is emphasized or “weighted”—it is a reference to “the virgin” of Christian significance, and it also means a branch, like on a tree, growing and giving life to the tree in its greenness.)

And Hildegard didn’t just write her own texts and music. She made up words if she didn’t know one that meant what she needed. She also wrote a bit of musical theater, something that it took other composers nearly another 300 years to think was a good idea and imitate.

Oh, and speaking of imitation, because people wanted to sing Hildegard’s music and made copies of it, hers is the first European composer’s name to which specific work can be attributed. You see, the church thought it was vanity to take credit for writing music, and most secular musicians were also illiterate (or at least don’t seem to have documented their ideas), so Hildegard began the tradition of being named as a composer.

See? I’m so obsessed with all this stuff that I forgot that I was writing about revising.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

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Writing Groups: Preparing for the Meeting

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In my last post, I talked about what writing groups are and why you want to find one. In this post, I’ll talk about your responsibilities as a member.

In my writing group, submissions are sent as attachments to emails. We are expected to send a “got it!” response, and sometimes there are formatting issues to iron out. The submissions can arrive anytime from immediately following the meeting to the weekend prior to the next meeting.

We are expected to know things like proper formatting for the type of work we submit (it’s different for non-fiction and fiction books, different again for contest and magazine submissions, and different again for cover letters and synopses).

Pretty much anything is fair game for a submission, including cover letters and such (presuming that we’ve all read the work described), and one of our number has occasionally woven together several of his NTEs (see Writing Groups: What They Are and How They Work). No one is obligated to submit each month, and those who have just completed a long haul (first or second drafts, or publication, for instance) don’t need to feel obligated to submit anything as long as they contribute feedback.

Reviewing the work is the core objective of the gathering. I find that I have to read each submission more than once to give each submission a decent review. I mark the passages that I like as I go, do line edits because I can’t help myself, and make marginal comments in my nearly illegible purple pen scrawling. Some people do these things on the computer, some do one pass on the computer and another by hand. Some people write up separate comments and notes, others write on the back of the last page. It’s all good.

The important thing is to carefully consider what has been written and to make thoughtful comments. Look for things like:

  • Continuity: Did you say he had on a black jacket and now it’s green?
  • Character: Would the character, as you’ve come to understand him, behave this way? (This comes up a lot in mystery fiction, especially where there is a policeman involved.)
  • Grammar, word choices, punctuation: We mostly screen for basic knowledge of these things before we let you join us, but we have had a couple of participants from the UK whose choices are often different for cultural reasons. It’s important to know the difference.
  • Plot: Are you following along? Did the writer just kill off your favorite character? Are plot points tossed  in as straw men to hide the fact that the outcome is obvious?
  • Distractions: Has the writer wandered off the plot points? Is needing to know the answer to something keeping you from paying attention? Is a description missing and driving you crazy?
  • Length: Are you taking forever to get to the point? Conversely, does it feel like a haiku?
  • Questions: Do you wonder what happened, how it happened, or why it happened, and do you feel that this will be resolved at some point?

I’ll admit that there are some writers in the group who have me so absorbed by the plot that I forget to look for anything to comment about. That’s the main reason I give it at least two reads. Yes, things jump out at the first reading—these are drafts, after all—but some things become clear in ensuing readings because you know how things work out and you can help the writer focus when you reread.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm

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Finding a Writing Group

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I was lucky. Someone I knew invited me to an existing group, and I was exactly ready to ramp up my efforts on my travel guide. And the group was exactly what I was looking for in terms of skills and submissions from the others.

I’ve seen ads on Craigslist (and other similar places) and there are organizations you can join, too. In my area (San Francisco), there are several companies that specialize in monitored writing. They have a place that you show up at the same time as the usual crowd, like a class. Only instead of having a teacher or any sharing, everyone sits there and writes for the allotted time. Some people are really helped by the community of it, even if there isn’t anyone reading what you’ve written.

Classes are a good place to get feedback. You can take them at the local university or junior college, and adult education or continuing education often offer courses under the heading of “creative writing.” As I mentioned in the first blog about writers’ groups, you are likely to find inexperienced writers if you do that, but perhaps that is appropriate for you, and better, you will connect with people who share your interest and can form your own group.

I have one friend who just wants to exchange chapters. She needs a deadline and some sort of penalty (embarrassment, I guess) if she doesn’t deliver. She’s interested in feedback, but she’s more interested in just getting the words on the page and has trouble motivating herself to do that without a deadline imposed by someone other than herself. She’s not in a position to commit to a weekday evening every week, so she drops things in my email. I like to read them, but I don’t always give her feedback. It depends on whether I think it’ll fire her up or grind her to a halt.

I have another friend who posts to her blog (she writes mostly poetry), which is great for getting feedback from the general public, rather than a set of known contributors. It’s a one-way street, though. You never know what she does with the feedback.

I know of a group that formed at a coffee shop. Several people would sit in there pounding away on their keyboards. They seemed to all be on the same schedule, and someone breached the gap and asked if the others were working on novels. The rest, as they say, is history. I believe that they still meet in the coffee shop, but now they have a writing session and a feedback session every week.

Participant Profiles
My group is quite varied in its participants. I would say that there are comparable skills all around the table, but our interests are very different. Two are writing mysteries, but one novel is kind of creepy and the other, well, it isn’t exactly cozy, but it’s not a psychological thriller either. One writes about a certain time period in a certain place, all contemporary. There may be some political or social statements being made, but we are swept up in the story and may only see these when it’s over. Another writes about sexual encounters, or near-sexual encounters, but it’s not erotica. It’s story lines with a lot of heavy breathing. I’m writing historical fiction and I previously woodshedded a travel guide with the same group.

We’ve had essayists, travel guides (other than mine), art criticism, self-help books, fantasy novels, and children’s books. We apparently have some proscription against poetry (although I don’t know why or where the sentiment came from—it could just be tradition).

The factor that has been much the same among us all is that we are all actively writing, and for most of us, this is not our first book. A lot is learned by simply writing until it’s finished, and whether you woodshed the drafts or the next revisions or start something completely new, experience is the common thread.

A couple of us write in our day jobs, although the subject matter is very different, and we often talk about how we keep fresh for our personal work. Several of us read about publishing, or take classes on the craft, or attend conferences and workshops. We share what we’ve learned at our meetings, and occasionally lend a book or set up a class. More than one of us is in more than one writing group.

We do spend some time commiserating about getting agents, writing cover letters or synopses, and the minutia of getting published. We do not spend time whining about finding time to write. No apologies are needed if all you do are the NTEs, and if you’ve just finished something, so long as you’re still providing feedback, you’re still welcome.

People do bow out when they stop producing and they don’t see a change in their habits coming soon. Several former members have finished their books and felt burned out, and didn’t want to feel the monthly pressure to contribute, even though we weren’t the ones supplying it. A couple of people found it too intense, another had trouble with travel schedules, and so forth. A couple of people have moved away.

We don’t know what happened to our mythical member who owns the NTE cards.

I hope he writes about his adventures, though.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 13, 2011 at 11:04 pm

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Writing Groups: What They Are and How They Work

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Everyone who wants to write also wants to join a writing group—or at least they should. If you write without feedback, there’s very little chance that you will foresee all of the issues that your readers will come up with, and of course, an agent, editor, or publisher WILL come up with them and drop your manuscript into the recycling bin.

You can take a class, and you’ll get feedback from only one experienced person (the teacher) and a whole bunch of people with the same limited experience that you have. This is useful, especially when you are just starting out.

Oh, and you could work one-on-one with an editor. It will cost you plenty, but again, you’re only getting one person’s ideas and you’ve got to hope that more than one person reads your work once it’s published.

The best way to become a great writer is to do a lot of writing and to listen to what a lot of people say about your work. You won’t agree with all of it, but it’s useful to hear what others say.

If you join a writing group, everyone will have experience, everyone is prepared to give and receive feedback, and everyone is actively working on the craft of writing. Your work will improve exponentially. It’s not better or worse than a class or an editor; it’s just more like the real world.

Here’s How It Works.

Each person submits something. There might be a schedule, like perhaps only one person submits at a time if the group is looking at longer works. Or perhaps, like the group I’m in, everyone submits a limited amount, perhaps a chapter’s worth, every month, and one person is the designated contributor. That means that the designated contributor (we call it “the des” in my group) gets his work read first, so no matter what, he gets feedback. We read everyone else’s work in the order in which it was received and provide feedback on that too. Sometimes we run out of time and can’t get to all of them.

Let’s Visit, Shall We?

The group I’m in has existed for about 20 years. We have one member who’s been in it for most of that time, and the rest of us have been in for 10 or fewer. I’ve been in for about three years. There are currently five of us, but last summer, we were eight and I think it was about five when I joined. People come and go.

We meet once a month, on the fourth Tuesday. We call ourselves the FWG for Famous Writers Group because someone way back when was optimistic, but it has evolved to stand for Fourth Week Group.

We meet at someone’s house. The location rotates. Two of us have extreme locations, being the furthest afield (about 60 miles distant), so we tend to circulate around the others in the middle. We occasionally meet on a weekend at the extreme locations, and we have met at workplaces that had nice cafeterias and at restaurants with a quiet room for us.

Someone, not the des and not usually the host, is assigned to bring the meal. Some people cook, others stop at nice little ethnic restaurants. I have odd eating habits, so I always bring a salad to ensure that I can eat something, and I bring enough to share no matter whose turn it is to bring the meal. People bring wine or cookies, if they are inclined. The cost of the meal is spread among the attendees. It’s usually around $10 a person for our crowd, sometimes less, sometimes more.

While we eat, we have “writers’ week” which is really writers’ month, where we talk about what we’ve been working on since we last met. Sometimes this blossoms into vacation vignettes or diatribes against a phone carrier, but it’s always fun. We start with the host and go around the table clockwise. We are at very different stages this month—one is shopping his finished novel to agents, several worked on chapters for something ongoing, and one (he knows who he is) worked only on his NTE (more about that in a moment).

Getting Down to It

Once the meal is eaten and the table cleared, we get down to work. One person agrees to moderate each piece, which means forbidding the writer to speak until the review is over, and asking the group the questions that lead the discussion forward.

  •  What is it? For new pieces, to determine whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, short story, memoir, etc., and to synopsize the plot. For continuing pieces, we skip this.
  • Read sentences or phrases that stand out. We shout out bits that we’ve marked for this purpose. We often all shout out the same things. Usually they are things that we really liked, some clever turn of phrase or super clear description. We’ve also had some very entertaining dialog readings.
  • What works? We talk about voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, and length—anything that’s positive about what we’ve read.
  • What needs work? We talk about anything that stumped us, made us curious, that didn’t match something we’d read already, and voice, plot, characterization, language, imagery, length, etc.
  • Then, if the writer has any questions, explanations, or rebuttal, he is allowed to speak.

We work through the des’ work and then the rest of the submissions in the order they were received. We rarely run out of time before we’re through all of them, but it has been known to happen. This is the really important part of the meeting, and I will discuss preparing for it in the next blog.

When we’ve made it through the submissions, our host puts on tea or coffee and cookies are served. During cookies and coffee, we have a reading of NTEs.

Not To Exceeds

NTEs are Not to Exceeds, which means that they are not to exceed a single page and they are not submitted in advance. They must contain a phrase selected at the previous meeting. We used to get the phrases from a large stack of defunct business cards onto which someone had copied poetic expressions, but these disappeared when one of our members disappeared without a word. We refer to him often as mythical (half of the current group has never met him at this point) and invoke his name if someone has wandered off the path. He is the disciplinarian if we get off topic or too rambunctious. I don’t remember him actually being particularly stern, but at this point he’s fictional anyway and can’t defend himself.

At any rate, now we use a book of poetry, opened at random, and someone blindly points to a line. That line becomes the phrase that needs to be included. Not everyone contributes an NTE, but if you didn’t have a longer submission, you can contribute one of these and keep your status as a “working” writer. After the NTEs are read, we clean up and the evening is over.

Sounds fun, doesn’t it? It is. If you’re writing historical fiction, as I am, it’s a great testing ground to see if people can follow along to 900 years ago without anybody launching into a classroom lecture. I learn more about misconceptions and assumptions from this group than I can get on my own; I’ve spent so long steeped in the Middle Ages that I no longer remember what is common knowledge.

This sort of group works for mystery, fantasy, tour guides, essays, and literary writers too. We’ve had some of each, and we probably will cycle through again.

In the next blog, I’ll talk about preparing for the meeting—what you need to contribute besides your own work. In the blog after that, I’ll write about finding a group and who I’ve found in mine.

Written by Melanie Spiller

February 10, 2011 at 11:02 am

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