Don't forget to send your 10 books for inclusion in the 100 Books Every Writer Should Read. (See the ridicky looking jpg over there?----->>>>)
I'd like to thank author, Debi Alper, for being A.MAY.ZING. After the earthquake/tsunami combo prevented me from heading to York fo r my conference, the awesome Debi Alper- who I wasn't even signed up to meet with, but who knew me from the Festival forum- offered to look at the work I'd sent in.
Anyhow, this most recent critique has got me to thinking about perfecting your writing. I'm not really talking about the individual manuscript level. I mean as an author. I've 'completed' 3 manuscripts, and while the 3rd is leaps, leagues and light years better than the 1st, many of the same flaws exist.
According to Writing Fiction for Dummies, by Randy Ingermanson and Peter Economy, there are 5 pillars of fiction: Style (which I think is what we hear of as voice), story world, character, plot, and theme.
In my (very humble, unaccomplished)opinion, these things sell a book:
Someone to feel,
Something to do.
In other words, hook, theme, characters, plot. The other two elements that a book needs (but that won't sell a book all on their own) are setting and voice.
So now, we've got 5 or 6 things that you need to polish. I think anyone interested in writing is probably good with 1 or 2 of these naturally. The rest we have to work on. But how do we know which is which?
A. FINDING THE FLAWS
As writers, we're often pre-disposed to seeing our work as all unicorns and rainbows (unicorn-covered rainbows or rainbow-covered unicorns) even. On the other hand, we also swing into 'everything I touch turns to rust' territory pretty often.
Noone knows your work like you. Pick up an MS you haven't seen in at least 2 months, and re-read it. You'll immediately know which elements are hitting the mark and which make you want to drown yourself in a Strawberry Sundae.
2. Critique partners/beta readers
It's always recommended that you get other writers to look at your work. But in this case, I don't think that's absolutely neccesary. Yes, your friends won't know what to look for, and they won't want to hurt your feelings. Just ask what their favourite things were and what didn't gel so well for them.
You'll probably get answers like:
"I really like how the MC..." (character)
"I thought that it took too long for..." (plot)
"I love that it was about..." (theme)
"I felt like I was in..." (setting)
If you're fortunate enough to have writer-critiquers, then analyse their feedback and see where it fits. If all your criticisms are in the same area, then you've found your weak spot.
3. The pro's
It's not that hard to have an industry professional do a partial critique of your work. There are lots of opportunities to win on agent and author blogs, you just have to keep your ears to the ground (or web). Also, if you're interested in conferences (which I think you should be- but don't listen to me, since it seems to be impossible for me to leave Japan for a conference), then look for ones which include a chance to have an author/agent/editor look at your work.
These are much harder to come by for free. Still, be vigilant on the web, and you may see a few ops. If you're willing to pay, there are thousands of freelance editors. Please check to make sure they are reputable, and that their credentials are relevant to you.
FIXING THE FLAWS
There are a million and one craft books out there for writers. It's good to get your hands on a general craft book, and probably also one for your genre. But you'll also want to read up on your weak spots. There are two wonderful-looking series on Amazon (ordered a few, but haven't read them yet): Write Great Fiction and Elements of fiction writing.
Also, blogs are not to be discounted. There are lots of authors who are amazing for offering free advice on their blogs. A few of my faves: Shannon Messenger, Angela Ackerman, Elana Johnson and Natalie Whipple.
If you prefer interactive learning (or live in an English-speaking country or a country where your daytime is not the middle of the night in the West) then you can take a class nearby or online. I recommend the Writer's Digest University. Classes are more expensive than literature (up to 10 times as much) but then, they're are more personalised and give you feedback.
Workshops, webinars, conferences etc. There are lots of events ranging from 1 day to 1 week, where you can focus on the elements of writing. Most conferences include a workshop on plot, one on character, one of theme, one on hook, etc. Some-times one-offs are more expensive than classes, sometimes they're less expensive. They are generally larger and less personal.
Having identified the problem factors in your fiction, you can actually solve a lot by writing. Every element of your writing gets better with practice. In fact, you can not improve unless you write. (Please remember this and don't become one of those writers who lives on blogs and has read every craft book, but doesn't have a single complete first draft.)
Voice/style, moreso than any other element improves according to how much and how often you write. But with a little thought, and a whole lot of practice, you can improve any of the elements.
And, just in case you wondered, my strongest element- the one I am always complemented on, no matter how bad everything else sucks- is voice. Number 2 is character. Plot is a total washout, and I've never made any effort whatsoever with setting. (Sad, but true.) The next craft book I'll be reading is Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell.