Critique Group

On Sunday, I attended my monthly critique group meeting. I’ve been part of this group since about 2011 or 2012, and it predates me by a couple of years at least. I’ve grown a lot as a writer thanks to the feedback I’ve received. Also thanks to the feedback I’ve given. Examining other writers’ work with a critical eye has helped me recognize some of the same problems in my own prose, and to stop making the same errors.

I haven’t grown as much as I could have. As I mentioned in the first post in this daily blog experiment, I have often been reluctant to take risks and show unpolished work to the group. As a result, I’ve robbed myself of opportunities by going months without a submission, or by submitting something I’d worked on so much that I’m reluctant to make changes when I do get feedback.

This month, I submitted a raw first draft: a short story of 1,300 words, warts and all. A character appeared in paragraph four, then vanished. Another character changes location from one paragraph to the next without covering the intervening space. (This is not a science fiction story.) The ending is simply the place where I stopped telling the story.

Previously, I would have held onto this story. Turning it in helped me realize that the internal dialogue that the protagonist carries on is not distracting, as I’d feared it would be. Had I revised the story before turning it in, I probably would have edited that element out. In fact, my group gave me suggestions for a stronger ending that relies on the fact of the that internal dialogue. And one of my partners shines when she slices my paragraphs to ribbons, and rewords and reorganizes them. I often don’t like the exact suggestions she makes—our writing styles are so vastly different—but the changes she makes often give me fresh perspective on how the words are recieved, and the next draft will be much stronger.

If I ever do manage to have a novel published, it will be a direct result of this group’s advice.

Scrivener 3.0 for Mac

Today, Literature and Latte released Scrivener 3.0 for Mac. Although there are many new features, the one that caught my eye has long been on my wish list: true paragraph styling. Previously, the RTF formatting was difficult to manage, and whenever I compiled a Scrivener project as a Word document, fixing the formatting so that I could use styles the way I’m accustomed to was tedious and cumbersome.

I created a document with each of the predefined paragraph styles, then compiled it as a Word .docx file. I was happy to see that each style came through as a true Word paragraph style, with Scrivener’s default “No Style” mapped to Word’s “Normal.” In a second test, I created a brand new style with a unique name; it showed up as expected in Word’s Style gallery when I compiled the document. Creating, modifying, and deleting styles are all simple tasks, and switching between paragraph styles is simple.

The new style system comes at a cost, though: Scrivener 3.0 files are not backwards-compatible with previous versions of Scrivener. Round-tripping a file between a Mac and a Windows PC now requires exporting the Scrivener 3 project as a Scrivener 2 project. That’s frustrating, but I imagine that the number of people using both Mac and PC to round-trip projects is very small. The website says that version 3.0 for Windows will be here next year, I’ll believe that when I see it. Literature and Latte’s track record in that regard isn’t promising. The original Windows version took forever to be released, as did the iOS version.

The new interface has a lighter, more modern look to it, but the overall layout is much the same as Scrivener 2.0. I’m disappointed that I still can’t customize the formatting buttons—I almost never user Underline, so that button is wasted real estate for me. Meanwhile, I use strikethrough frequently, and I’d like to add that button to the formatting bar.

That’s a small matter, though, since I can always use the shortcut key for strikethrough. The paragraph style system was the big selling point for me, and it does what I’d hoped it would. It’s a bummer that I can’t round-trip projects, but I will learn to live without that. The primary use case for that scenario is my writer’s notebook, and I can use my iPad in a pinch.

Whether Scrivener 3.0 is worth the upgrade price ($25 if you bought before August 20, 2017—newer users get it gratis) for users who don’t care about paragraph styles, I can’t say. But for me, it solves my biggest frustration with the product, so I’ll gladly shell out the money come next payday.

Struggling

I’ve struggled to write blog entries for the past few days. Although I haven’t skipped a day, the topics have been anodyne, simply a recounting of some aspect of my daily life. I suppose that’s OK. Everything can’t be a deep, soul-searching memoir or a reaction to the latest gun idiocy.

Speaking of which… you heard about the idiot who was showing off a pistol in church and ended up shooting himself and his wife? Nothing says “responsible gun owner” like ignoring all four of the basic rules of gun safety. But I digress.

Oddly, I feel bad about the daily life posts, as if I’m not giving my best. As though my day-to-day life is not worth writing about. The inner critic whispers, No one wants to read about that. It says the same thing when I delve into memoir, too. Who cares about your past? No one wants to hear it.

I do it anyway. I want to be able to draw on the events of my life in my fiction, so it’s important to capture moments that might seem inconsequential right now. It’s also valuable to explore events in my past with an eye toward understanding how they shaped me. That will lead to more robust characters in my stories.

Mostly, what’s important to me is the discipline of writing every day, and more importantly, sharing it every day. The only way I’ll ever feel comfortable writing honestly and openly is to keep doing it, even when it feels uncomfortable.

 

Pardon me

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Yesterday, I wrote about my experience as a member of a Pentecostal church when I was in my twenties. I struggled to write it, and I struggled with publishing it.

The first reason I struggled was that I would be publically acknowledging something about myself that has been a source of shame to me for a long time. How did someone who was once thoroughly skeptical of fundamentalist Christianity get caught up in a Pentecostal church to the point where he would pretend to speak in tongues? That’s a topic that would take more than a few hundred words to explore. For now, what’s important is that it was very difficult to make this embarrassing episode in my life a matter for public consumption.

The second reason I struggled was that I was sure that it would offend some people. When I posted a link to the piece on both Twitter and Facebook, I added this note:

 

As I write this post, I have no idea if I was right or not. I haven’t logged onto Facebook, haven’t looked at my Twitter notifications.

I felt as though I had to take the risk, anyway. Fear of giving offense is the inner critic’s backup attack vector when, “You suck” stops working:

  • Your mother won’t like being presented in that light.
  • Your father will be so disappointed in you.
  • What will your family think?
  • What if your boss/potential employer/customers sees that?
  • You’re going to lose friends over this.

It sounds so reasonable, but once you give in to the impulse to self-censor, it grows. Today, you can’t write about religion. Tomorrow, politics. Soon your own memoirs are off-limits, and eventually, there is no topic you can write about.

I’m just starting to find my voice again, so I refused to shut myself down.

I had another reason to find the courage to publish the piece. I often counsel other writers to overcome their fear. How could I have any credibility if I couldn’t do the same thing? I had to show the same willingness to be vulnerable, the same courage to speak my mind that I advise others to develop.

Now, having finished this entry, I’m going to check in on social media and see if anyone hates my guts yet.

Noise

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I flew home today from visiting my family in Colorado. Unlike Friday’s flight out, when I had extra legroom and an empty seat next to me, I couldn’t write. Wedged into a cramped airline seat next to a guy as big as I am, I couldn’t get to my computer to get it out. Even if I could have extracted it from my bag, I couldn’t have used it. The woman in front of my tilted her seat back as soon as we got off the ground, and the keyboard would have been crammed into my stomach.

Instead of writing, I read. I had brought Salman Rushdie’s latest novel, The Golden House, which I had started reading a couple of weeks or so ago before I got distracted. Other than discomfort, there were no distractions in the sky, so I finished the book. One line jumped out at me:

I need to think and the city is full of noise.

It occurred to me that my life is full of noise, and that noise makes it hard for me to think. Social media. Television. Even work. Noise, noise, noise. If, as journalist William Wheeler said, “Good writing is clear thinking made visible,” then I’m going to continue to struggle to write well as long as I am too distracted to think clearly.

I need to find space and time in which to think so that I can write well. Maybe a repeat of last year’s social media sabbatical is in order. Maybe I should cut back on television. I definitely need to set aside more time for meditation and reflection.

Challenge Complete

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This is day fourteen of my two-week blogging challenge. After I posted the first one, I didn’t know if I could complete the challenge. I have never enjoyed blogging. I didn’t know if I’d be able to think of something worth saying in 250 words or more every day. I didn’t know if I’d be able to find time to write 250 words or more every day.

That was why I tweeted a link to the first post. A public announcement would force me to be accountable. It worked. One of my friends responded:

 

Another response and a handful of “likes” encouraged me to push on when I really wanted to quit midway through writing the third post. I didn’t want to let down the people who had expressed support.

By day seven, I had momentum behind me. Even though I wanted to keep going, I still struggled with each post. Often, I’d think of a topic, only to run out of steam about 75 words short of my 250 word goal. Either I’d said all I wanted to say, or I would recognize that the topic I’d chosen was so broad that I couldn’t do it justice without spending more time than I had available.

I’m proud of myself for completing the challenge. Confronting and overcoming my insecurities every day made me feel more powerful as a writer, and I want to keep going for another two weeks. This time, I’m going to make the minimum word count 250 words per day, not per post. So if I write a short post one morning, I’ll follow up with a second one later that day. Stick around, and keep me honest.

Gulf Coast Product Camp

I spent the day at the inaugural Gulf Coast Product Camp put together by Julee Bellomo. Bringing Product Camp to Tampa has been a goal of Julee’s for a long time. The work she has done to build the Product Owner meetup group for Tampa Bay Agile has been phenomenal, and I wanted to be involved in this event as soon as I heard about it. I knew it would be something special, and it certainly was. A hundred attendees, two very powerful keynote speeches, and an engaging design thinking workshop made for an exciting and mind-expanding day. And the whole thing ran so smoothly that it didn’t feel like a first-time conference. I’d call it an unqualified success.

The experience was especially valuable for me because my Agile career up until now has revolved around Scrum teams and delivery of product features. Ideation and visioning  weren’t part of my world. By the time a delivery team has gotten its hands on a product, the question is no longer, “What will we build?” but, “How will we build it?” Now I’m coaching with a broader scope, and I need to understand better how to grow a product vision, how to position it in the market, and so on.

Beyond my day job, I’m starting to realize how powerful some of these practices could be for my writing. I spend a considerable amount of time on each novel I write, with only a hunch as to whether or not I’m writing something that people will want to read? What if I could use design thinking and lean startup principles to refine my vision before I spend months & years writing?