Critique

Step back with me, if you will, to the early 90’s where a young Tony DeCastro is toiling away in architecture school.

My education as an architect was fairly common in that it centered around Design Studio, as it should.  To not do so, would be akin to the Iowa Writers Workshop centering their coursework around Reading Comprehension.  Design Studios occurred three-times per week, 4-hours per class.  We were on the quarter system, and generally you took one studio each quarter…. Each studio, typically, comprised one large design project. Sometimes you would take what was called a Couplet. This meant you took the same professor two quarters in a row with the understanding that you would work on a larger, complex project over the course of two quarters.

During studio, you worked on your project while you awaited the professor to visit your desk for a desk crit.  This may seem like a lot of time to work on a project 12-hours per week, but you’d be wrong.  At least twice the amount of time was spent after class hours.  You may also think, “that’s a lot of crits.”  You’d be right, and wrong.  It is a lot, but it also is only scratching the surface.  In addition to the desk crits every class, you also had scheduled juries, where you post your work in a gallery and other professors, classmates (sometimes from other classes), and often outside professionals were invite to give you feedback on your work.  There were also peer crits, which happened pretty much whenever you sat at your desk…and were impromptu.  As I understand it, this is pretty much the universal way of architectural education.

One of things that I recognized even as I was living through this was the result ended up being that forward motion on the project was difficult.  With three desk crits a week, and no telling how much advice outside of class time, it was pretty much guaranteed that the last week of the quarter was armageddon trying to meet deadlines.  Why?  The work was endlessly criticized and then revised.  Finishing took a lot of effort.

Another thing I noticed, some design ideas were repeated throughout the studio class.  I’ll never forget a second year studio, where I was designing a residential bank with walk-up tellers.  I had these tellers arranged in a “fan”, and the professor complemented the idea.  In the coming weeks, it was amazing (and depressing) to see “fan”-shaped tellers show up in designs throughout the class.

Other things I recognized years later:

  • We spent a lot of time on single projects.  The Architects Registration Exam’s (ARE) design section basically required us to do the same level of design in ONE day. (some of presentation-levels we were asked of in school admittedly exceed the exam requirements)
  • Almost all of the advice given in crits came down to taste.  Less about whether something actually worked, more about whether the critic liked it.
  • Most of the time, juries resulted in severely conflicting opinions.  Again taste.

Towards the end of my education one of our professors adopted a “no crit” approach to his studios. The only advise he really gave was whether he felt the student was on track for completing the work, and if there were some objective “wrongs” about the design (i.e. the vehicular traffic on site was driving on the “wrong” side of the road).  At the time, I thought this was crazy talk, as did a number of my classmates.

Looking back, I think he had it right.  And I hope that he continued to teach this way.  And I hope what this meant was that instead of one design every ten weeks, maybe he had five.  After all, when you spend no time chasing the holy grail which is an individual’s taste, things should go quicker. Also, think of all the PRACTICE this results in…more projects, varied scope, diversity, etc.

My professors were some of the most intelligent and talented individuals I have met in my life. They helped me see the world, especially the built world, in a new light. I’m forever grateful. But I hope this one professor’s method of teaching design has caught on…

I only started to appreciate this years later when I got serious about writing. Of course, this meant I took up peer critiques in earnest, because this how it is done.  And how else will I learn…

Then, I started seeing things like:

  • Sameness
  • Conflicting advice
  • Never-ending revision of works in progress
  • Projects taking over a year with no end in sight, despite writing 50,000 words in less than a month

To borrow a phrase from Yogi Berra, “It was like deja vu all over again.”  This time, it ground my creativity to a halt. It was after attending a meeting for one of the largest peer writing groups in the state… a “workshop” that I stopped writing for years. I can’t recall saying I’m going to stop writing.  There was no decision. It just sort of happened.  And when I think back, it happened right after this meeting, where a bunch of peers got together to tear each other’s work down or pat each other on the back or both.

Today, I am back writing. It is fun. I am productive.  And readers, not writers, occasionally tell me what they like (or not) about my stories.  I am a “member” of a couple of local writing groups that are mostly focused on critiques. I only make it to the other meetings. I admit that it sometimes saddens me, because I like the people…and I love to talk about writing. I have tried to figure out a way to make it work for me.  But I always come back to what I’ve learned in the past… plus, I can’t for the life of me figure out how the timing could ever work for a novelist.

So, for now, I will remain home telling my lies for fun and (hopefully sometime in the future) profit. The work itself is more enjoyable than it’s ever been.

–TD

 

 

Process

Writing Blogger Extraordinaire K.M. Weiland posted on her twitter account a day or two ago her question of the day:

What if your favorite part of the process?

This was a head scratcher for me. As a reminder, my process looks like this:

  1. Write to the end, while cycling.
  2. Send to a reader. (Start next story)
  3. Address the reader concerns, that I agree with.
  4. Send to copy-editor.
  5. Correct that which I agree with.
  6. Format book.
  7. Covers.
  8. Publish.

I suspect K.M. isn’t really asking about formatting or covers as part of the process. And I can’t imagine anyone answering that addressing edits is their favorite part of the process. How could writing not be the favorite part of my process?

It occurs to me that my simplified process probably appeals to the Project Manager in me. There isn’t a lot of fat in it. (To be brutally honest, my weeding out of some of the other processes appeals to my contrarian nature as well.) But I realize, that most writers also have things like Outlining, Character development, Rewriting as part of their process. I can’t imagine any of that being more enjoyable than writing the story, though.

So again, head scratcher.

So, tell me fellow writers, are any of those other pieces of the process (and I’m sure I’ve missed some… so share those as well) actually your favorite?

*BTW, I often do not agree with K.M. Weiland, she’s big on plotting ahead and stuff I don’t do. She’s also wrong about Boyhood ;).  But, I still find an awful lot of great insights on her site. And I have never seen anyone communicate Dwight Swain’s methods as well as her, including Mr. Swain himself.  Considering Techniques for the Selling Writer is my favorite writing craft book, that’s saying something.  Her blog is definitely worth a visit.

–TD

You Must Keep it on the Market until it has Sold.

I’ve reached the end of Heinlein’s Rules. Though, I somehow feel I’m still at the beginning.

The world is different than it was when Heinlein wrote his “rules.” But I think I can apply this one as an independent publisher.

Here’s how:

Keep my work on the market! Ha.  Seriously, all I have to is just leave my books on the market. In today’s world, the work will not go out of print. It will sell. It has sold. All I have to do to follow #5, is keep it there.

And what if I decide to go down the Traditional Publishing route?

I’m going to remember my hero’s story:

https://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/there-are-no-rules/if-youre-feeling-down-and-out-about-a-rejection-letter

I’m not sure I’m interested in  traditionally publishing my book length works, but I am considering hopping on the submittal train with short stories.  And I’ll keep Burke’s story in mind, if I do.  Hell, who am I kidding, he’s a hero for a reason. His story of persistence works for any route in a writer’s career…hell for any pursuit.

And it is the perfect depiction of Heinlein’s Rule #5 in action.

I’m still early into this, but this rule seems simple. If you’re further down the road and I’m missing something that makes this rule difficult, PLEASE SHARE.

–TD


 

My work on the market:

Everything is Broken

and

North County Girl

 

I hit the Weekend, just like a freight…

 

Okay, so not really. I had a pretty relaxing…laid back weekend. At least as relaxing as they can be these days. Job seeking isn’t my favorite thing in the world…

All in all, though. It wasn’t bad…

Saturday, I met some local writers at a coffee house down the road from my place for an impromptu write-in. Always fun for me to meet-up with other writers, and pound out some new story.

Saturday night, I listened to the new Hayes Carll album on NPR First Listen, while playing some Tabletop Baseball games.  This is one of my favorite hobbies, which has taken a back seat the last several months due to the work of publishing, writing, and working.  I am in early June of my replay of every game of the 1976 major league season… yes that is a shit ton of games, but it’s fun (to me) and relaxing, and it’s nice to be back rolling the dice.

Jill made baked ziti and chocolate chip cookies, too.  Two of my favorite things…and now, I’ll have to be a good boy the rest of the week to shed the consequences.

Sunday, I slept in!  Watched some Deadwood, which is becoming a favorite series of mine, despite the fact that I see some depressing similarities to the business practices on the show and the independent publishing scene. More on that some other time… maybe. I’m in too good of a mood for that now.

Played some more tabletop ball. Tapped out some more words on the new book. Settled on a working title…finally.  God’s Golden Shore. 

Ate some more ziti. And while writing this listened to one of my favorite ‘Weekend’ songs a couple of times.  Enjoy ye some Dave Rawlings!

I hope y’all had a great weekend.

–TD

Ideas

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Readers ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”

Writers bemoan, “I have so many ideas.”  Or, “I’m writing my current story, but I’ve got this great idea for the next one and all I want to do is write it.”

I have learned to shut down the idea factory.

Writers are advised, “Carry a notebook. You never know when you will get an idea, and you don’t want to forget it.”

I don’t write them down for a couple of reasons:

  1. I’ve shut down the idea factory, and only open it when I sit down to write.
  2. If the idea is really worth anything, it would be worth remembering.

Ideas are everywhere. I have zero fear that I will lack for ideas. I do however fear that the sheer number of them will become debilitating. Or the shiny, fresh idea will distract me from the current work.

Keeping Heinlein’s Rule #2 in the front of my mind helps with this.  If I am adamant about finishing what I start, then my creative mind will shove those fresh ideas to the corner closet, and focus on keeping the current work shiny and fresh.

You Must Finish What You Start.

A simple tool to keep ideas from overwhelming the process.

Back to the reader’s question, “Where do you get your ideas?”

The answer is simple. I get them from the process. Writing regularly does that. I know if I sit down and write… If I sit down with a character in a setting… if I ground myself (and by extension the reader) in the setting with that character… I will never want for ideas. Story will happen.

As an example, have you ever had a dream that was so realistic that it felt you were living it, despite the fact that the people you encounter are people you have never met in real life, and despite the fact that the locales are places you have never been to?  Of course, you have. This is the reason a lot of writers keep a notebook and pen on the bedside table to write down their dreams when they awake. ( I don’t do that either. ) Do you ever wonder where those ideas come from?

Probably.

Have you ever found an answer?

Probably not.

I think the answer is simple. You put yourself in a position to create those dreams. Namely, you go to sleep… and all of those critical voices that would suppress the creativity in your waking hours are asleep, too.  And your creativity awakes like a toddler put down at the playground. And there you have it, a great dream. A great story.

And that is how it works, if I just sit down regularly to write. If I don’t worry about if it’s any good… If I don’t worry about having a working “idea”.  Just sit down, and follow my characters around. They’ll get in trouble…they’ll do unbelievable things… they’ll probably do things a lot more interesting than real life. It is not my job to pass judgement on those things or criticize or tell them about some really cool idea I have about what they should be doing.  My job is to record them, as if I were recording one of those dreams I mentioned above…like the writer who keeps the pad on the bedside table. Except, I’m doing it real time. I’m recording the dream at my keyboard as it is happening.

–TD


 

Both of my books are widely available, and I would love to have you as a reader.  Universal links:

Everything is Broken

and

North County Girl

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Bittersweet

Yesterday the author’s copies of North Country Girl arrived. I can report that it’s still pretty cool to hold a book in your hand with your name on the cover.

I struggled with getting the cover right at both Amazon and Ingram Spark this time. DIY can be a challenge. So, I think the emotion was more relief than elation this time. Still, pretty cool.

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But also, bittersweet. The first thing I did was look to the dedication, and it choked me up. I was approaching the climax* of North Country Girl, when my younger (by just over a year) brother unexpectedly passed in October. I still grieve his loss, every day. But those days after his death were debilitating. I couldn’t think straight, let alone write. I had a hard time talking on the phone, and my brother touched A LOT of people’s lives. So, there were many calls… most were answered with “I’ll need to get back to you.”  I haven’t come close to getting back to everyone. If you’re reading this, and you are one of those persons I hope you’ll accept my apology. I’m still not sure I’m ready to talk about it.

I also experienced writer’s block for the first time. Believe it or not, when your brain goes to mush, it affects your access to the creative magic.

I managed to break through the block several days later, and reached the end a couple of weeks later. It was miserable getting into the chair, but once there and the writing started it was a little cathartic. Of course, I was sure it was all crap… and I’m not sure it isn’t still. We are the worst judges of our own work after all.

It was our intention that Dennis would do the cover art for this book. We were supposed to have a call to go over the specifics on a Wednesday in October. He didn’t pick up. He was already gone.  I regret not asking him to do the art for Everything is Broken…because I was embarrassed by how little I could pay, and didn’t want to offend him. I don’t look back in regret on much, but I beat myself up over this. Even as I type this tears well up.

Yes, so, bittersweet. I feel like I can remember every keystroke of those last couple of thousand words.

RIP Dennis. You are loved.

–TD

*If you’ve read North Country Girl, I had just started the scene where the super-group of misfits convened at Stefanie Charles’ trailer.

You must put your story on the market

We’re back to the “simple”, no duh, universal truths of Heinlein’s rules. The thing about writing rules is that I don’t generally have a rules-following mindset. So, when someone says “show, don’t tell.” I’m like…okay, but…

Heinlein’s rules on the other hand? Four of the Five, I simply do not see how you break. The one that you CAN break, frankly, I think is the best writing advice I have ever received.

What about #4?

This is the one I struggle with the most by far. Let’s examine a little about how my process works.

  • Write the book. If you’ve heard of “cycling”, that’s pretty much what the process of writing my stories looks like. If you haven’t…in summary, I write until I get stuck. Take a short break. Jump back and read what I just wrote adding depth, correct a typo or two…but most importantly reading…by the time I have reached the white page, I have momentum and I plow forward until I get stuck. Repeat. I also do the jump back and read until the white page, when I start a new day’s writing.  Okay, that’s more than I wanted to say on the subject…
  • At the end, I turn on spell check. Make those fixes.
  • Hand the story over to my reader.
  • The next day after finishing one story I start the next. This is one of my self-imposed “rules”.
  • When the reader’s comments come back, I make the fixes I agree with. Generally, I agree with most of them, because she knows what I’m looking for and she does a good job at it. This doesn’t take much time, usually an hour or so.
  • Send to copy-editor. Continue writing the next story.
  • Fix copy-editor’s mark-ups. I’m not going to lie, these usually number in the 100s. But they are simple fixes. Almost all typos.
  • After I’ve done this fix, I format the interiors of ebook and paperback.
  • Create covers (honestly some of the covers stuff goes on throughout the entire process, but I have to have the interior format to be able to complete the paperback cover)
  • Submit to KDP and Ingram Spark for publication

I’m sure I’m missing something in there, but that’s pretty much it.

To follow Heinlein’s rule #4, I either submit to traditional publishers (or I guess agents, though it must land on an editor’s desk to follow the rule).  Or I self-publish.  The process above is for self-publishing.

What I dislike about this is that I spend far too much time in critical thinking in these steps after the Write the Book step. I enjoy the covers work, until I get to the getting Ingram Spark to accept my paperback cover portion of it. But, for the most part I hate spending that much time outside of the fun of creating.

And because of that there is a lag between each step, when I must drop the writing and address the “getting this shit ready for market” part of the process.

If you’re a regular reader, you know that I don’t participate in the ritualistic chant of “Writing is Hard.” However, I will confess that I find Heinlein Rules #4 difficult.

All the above, speaks to process.

There is also the psychology of it. This is the point where you release it to the world of editors or readers. I think some writers struggle with this more than others. It took some courage for me the first time, but it’s gotten easier. I think seeing this Rule helps.  There’s no arguing the logic of it. You cannot sell what sits on your desk. As a result, I don’t think much of my issues with Heinlein’s #4 are psychological… I just don’t enjoy the process between writing and publishing.  So I procrastinate…

Here is the result of my adherence to Heinlein’s Rule #4:

Everything is Broken

and

North County Girl

 

–TD

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