The Final Weekly Writing Memo and a Writing Prompt

If you aren’t interested in my update, skip to the bottom for a writing prompt.Weekly Writing Memo

The Update

As any readers who have been checking in regularly have probably noticed, I’ve been a little behind on posting these Weekly Writing Memos for the last few months. Between picking up new jobs, constant traveling, and a big move to Los Angeles from Michigan, it’s just been a struggle to keep up. Starting in December I am also going to be embarking on a project involving studying the horror film genre, as well as some new work as a part-time assistant editor for a small publishing company.

With my increasingly complicated schedule, this is going to have to be my last Weekly Writing Memo post for a while. Instead, I’m going to be cutting back to monthly memos and the first post will be sometime in December. I’ll still be doing other guests posts now and then to fill in for Kaye when needed, and I’ll hopefully be posting more on my blog as well. If you have questions, or if just miss me dearly, feel free to contact me at my blog Author the World or on my AtW Facebook page. For my final Weekly Writing Memo, I thought I would go with a writing prompt to leave you all feeling inspired (hopefully).

Writing Prompt – The Breakfast Fight

You have a character in a restaurant. They’re eating breakfast. Start with the restaurant. What kind of place is it? What kind of tables does it have? What kind of waiters or waitresses? What kind of clientele?

Now go to your character. Who are they? What kind of mood are they in? They can start alone at the table but they can’t stay that way. Your character is about to get in an argument. Do they know it yet, or will it be a surprise?

Before the argument starts your character’s breakfast arrives. What are they eating? Is it actually breakfast time? How are they eating it?

Once everything’s in place—the breakfast, the characters—it’s time to start the fight. Have your character continue eating throughout the argument. Try to keep the characters from making the argument into a big scene for as long as possible.

When the fight ends, does your character take out his anger on anyone else? Does he snap at the waitress, or forget to leave her a tip? Does he finish his food or lose his appetite?

Where does your character go next? How will he resolve the conflict? See where the argument takes you from there. Where there’s a conflict, there’s often a story, so follow it. If you decide you don’t like the characters in the argument, try writing it from the waitress’s or another diner’s perspective. Explore the scene and the people in it, and see where the writing leads you.


Who is Robin Conley?

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It occurred to me that although I introduced Robin Conley as my cohort in the M.F.A. program when she first began doing guest posts for Writing to be Read, I really didn’t give a lot of information about my friend and former cohort, who happens to be a very talented writer with a sharp eye for what does, or doesn’t, make a story work.

When she was introduced in my M.F.A. cohort at Western State of Colorado University, there was one amazing thing about her which stuck in my mind. She had challenged herself and her writing abilities by writing a short story a day for a year, and called it Project 365. Not only did she challenge herself, but she took it public. She got the idea as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University in 2010. Robin explains how Project 365 came about,

“ …we were reading a book of plays called 365 Plays/365 Days by Suzan-Lori Parks… her work inspired me to try something like it for myself to help me push myself to write every day, and to try new styles of writing. There weren’t any rules except that I had to write a complete story every day… as long or as short as necessary to tell the story, but the purpose… was trying something new. I played with genres, new characters, new styles (minimalism, surrealism, literary vs. genre, etc.) In order to keep myself on track, I started a twitter account (@Jminspirations) at the same time and a blog, and forced myself to post every story on the blog and then put a link on my twitter account.”

I found this to be amazing. Talk about inspirational. Wow!

At the time, that’s how I thought of her, the amazing girl who did the short story challenge. But over the past four years, I’ve gotten to know her better and she’s become a good friend to me, and in a way, she’s become my writing partner. We are working together in some of our writing endeavors, including her guest posts here. Through our Etsy store, Writing the World, we offer critiquing and proofreading services. Robin does guest posts for us, besides writing for her own blog. In addition to her own writing, she currently does writing for hire, volunteers as a script reader, and is teaching a couple of classes in screenwriting. (I think she may do some babysitting, too.) Besides being skilled at the craft, she’s smart and witty, and a she has a wonderful sense of humor.

I wanted my readers to know a little bit about Robin, so you’ll have a better idea of who you’re getting your weekly writing tips from. There’s no better way to tell you about her than to let her say it in her own words. The post runs a bit long, but Robin’s answers were so good, I couldn’t bring myself to cut much of them. I’m hoping after reading the following interview, you’ll be able to see a little bit of what I see in Robin, who I’ve come to know and consider a friend.

Kaye: We’ve already talked some about Project 365. How has that writing experience helped shape your writing career?

Robin: Project 365 was a strange part of my life that really pushed me to be a better writer. Every time I thought I wouldn’t be able to come up with a story idea, I somehow found one. It was stressful, and there were a lot of days where I wanted to do anything but write. Sticking with it taught me more about my writing than anything else I’ve done. By the final few months, I’d learned a lot about my process and my writing and I learned how to write no matter what else was going on.

So far, at least 2 of the stories have sprung into novels, and there are at least a dozen others that I also plan to turn into novels when I have the time. Many others I’ve revised and am working on sending out to publishers in hopes of finding a home for them. Of course, there are several that are just pretty crappy and probably won’t be used for anything other than as a “learn from my mistake” sort of thing, but that’s to be expected when doing so much in such a short time.

Kaye: What works have come out of the 365 stories?

Robin: One of my favorite stories that sprung from the 365 challenge is my Tour Guide that was part of my thesis novel, Labyrinth of the Dead, which I wrote for the MFA program. The world she is a part of was a pre-existing place I’d written about before, but the Tour Guide was a new character that I decided to play with while doing the challenge. She works in the underworld as a guide for the newly dead and leads them through the orientation process, so to speak.

Another story that came from the challenge has become a mystery novel, Indecision Killed the Cat. It’s about an anxiety-riddle woman who believes her troubled brother is missing, but no one believes her because of his past history of running off, and her irrational and unreliable way of thinking.

Kaye: In what way, if any has the challenge helped bring you to the point you’re at now?

Robin: Doing the challenge helped me grow more confident in my own writing. It let me explore genres and stories that I had been thinking about, but hadn’t tried writing in.

One of my main goals with the challenge was to help me focus. Before the challenge, I often found it hard to work on longer projects because I had so many ideas in my head and I felt overwhelmed by them or distracted… Now when I go to write I know exactly what I need to do in order to get started, where before I’d waste a lot of time. It really helped me be the writer I am today.

Kaye: What kinds of things influence your writing?

Robin: I’m influenced by everything. I love learning how things in the world work: people, jobs, cultures, nature… I love learning and I love watching how things are interconnected. When I write, it’s all about taking little details and connecting them in such a way that they tell a story. Every part of my life, every little thing I’ve interacted with every day, helps me tell stories.

Sometimes the smallest thing can inspire a story for me because it’s all about perspective. The way someone holds a beer bottle can be significant and inspiring. I know, it sounds silly and dramatic, but it’s true. It may inspire me because of the attitude, or the way the person is interacting with the bottle. Are they gesturing with it like it’s an extension of themselves? Or do they carry it like it’s nothing more than object? These kind of small details can make me start to wonder about a person, and before I know it, I’m no longer thinking about that person, I’m thinking about a character. Every character has a story, and I love finding out what it is. So once I have a glimmer, I have to delve deeper. Essentially, the answer to where stories come from for me, is simple: they come from curiosity. I want to know more, so I write until I find my answers.

Kaye: What’s your favorite genre to read? To write?

Robin: About 60% are books recommended to me by friends or family. I have several people who pretty much give me everything they read because they know I like to check out all types of stories as research for writing. If someone I know wanted to read it, I’m curious to see it for myself. My preferred genres are the classics, urban fantasy, horror, and anything involving zombies. In general, though, I’ll pick up any book that either has a character or plot that catches my attention, and I usually read several books at once. Right now I’m currently reading:

  • David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
  • 21st Century Dead Edited by Christopher Golden
  • House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski
  • The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley

In writing, I seem to lean toward telling stories that involve some form of fantasy, or something involving horror or supernatural elements. While these types of stories are my favorite, I end up writing in a wide variety of genres because what usually draws me to wanting to write a story is the character or a particular conflict. I like to follow the story and take it wherever it leads me instead of trying to focus too much on one genre or style.

Kaye: Like me, you hold a duel M.F.A. in Creative Writing, with emphasis in both genre fiction and screenwriting. What prompted you to spend the extra year to add that additional screenwriting emphasis?

Robin: I love telling stories, and I love absorbing stories in any form (movies, music, oral storytelling, plays, books, etc.) When I took my out of concentration course for the fiction program I decided to take Screenwriting because it would help me expand my ability to tell stories. The more mediums I am familiar with, the more options I have when I choose to tell a story. Plus, when I took the Screenwriting class I just really fell in love with the visual format and wanted to know more, so I decided to add the extra year in order to learn as much as I possibly could about screenwriting before I graduated.

Kaye: What is the biggest challenge for you when writing short fiction?  Or when tackling a novel length work? • What is your biggest challenge when writing a screenplay? • Have you ever played with poetry?

Robin: Short Fiction – condensing the story. I love getting lost in characters and worlds, and finding a short story is often hard for me. I really have to force myself to focus on one small part of the story and make it matter, without getting lost in the bigger story.

Novels – I think I most struggle with the outlining and preparing to write stage. I hate the pre-writing stuff and always want to just get started, but I find that the pre-writing really helps me write faster and clearer so I force myself to do it.

Screenwriting – During my first drafts I really focus on the plot and getting that to work on the page first, which means my protagonist’s personality often gets lost even though I know it well. Future drafts are often all about bringing that personality out and fixing character stuff, which is a slow and tedious process for me.

Poetry – It was my first foray into writing. It was awful stuff that will hopefully never see the light of day again. These days I simply appreciate poetry and admire those who have the skill. It’s not my strong suit.

Kaye: Which is your favorite type of writing? Short fiction, genre fiction, or screenwriting?

Robin: I’m kind of torn on this these days, because I love the visual format of screenwriting, but I also adore getting lost in the world of a novel. I think for me, which is my favorite really depends on what story I’m working on at the given moment and which medium it seems to fit best.

Kaye: Is there anything unique or unusual about your writing process?

Robin: The main thing I can think of is that in my first draft I really focus on getting my plot down first and writing the motions of the story, while drawing character out comes second. I know my characters in advance before writing, but they don’t always come out on the page well in the first draft since I’m focused on plot. Doing it this way helps me write faster, and gets the plot all out on the page so I can look at it and see what is and isn’t working, because sometimes you can’t tell until it’s written.

I look at it as being similar to drawing. First you do a rough sketch to plan the drawing (outline), then maybe you do the structure of the drawing in black and white (plot), and then you go through and add color (character and finer details). Writing this way lets me really focus on my plots and make sure they are logically sound before I really delve into bringing out the character elements and some of the smaller details that help bring a story to life. The key, though, is knowing your characters really well first so they fit the plot.

Kaye: We’re offering some proofreading and critiquing through the Etsy store. What’s your worst pet peeve when reading or critiquing a book or story?

Robin: 1. When the author writes a character doing something for the sake of getting the plot to go where the author needs it to go, rather than staying true to the characters.

2. When critiquing and someone sends me something that is clearly a first draft and I can tell they haven’t read it over. It’s one thing if we’ve talked about sending the first draft for some specific reason, but it’s another to send something to someone asking for a critique when you haven’t even done a basic revision pass. You may only get one critique, so don’t waste it by sending something that is filled with mistakes you could catch on your own!

Kaye: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

Robin: I have a lot of random hobbies and like learning new things, so what I’m up to is constantly changing. Lately I’ve been teaching myself to knit, and relearning some Spanish. In general, I love reading, movies, anything involving animals or nature, traveling, and photography.

That’s it, folks. I hope this interview has given you a better idea of who Robin Conley is, and instilled confidence when she offers writing advice. If you have questions for Robin, leave a comment to this post.

Robin Conley offers great writing advice most Wednesdays on Writing to be Read. If you just can’t wait until next week to find out more, you can pop into her blog, Author the World, for more tips, or a weekly writing prompt.


Weekly Writing Memo: Robin’s Guide to Critiquing

Weekly Writing MemoAs Kaye mentioned in her blogpost “The 2016 Writing to Be Read,” I am Robin, I’m a writer, and I run the Author the World blog. I will be doing a “Weekly Writing Memo” on Wednesdays each week on Writing to Be Read that will consist of writing tips, tricks, and Q&As. So feel free to post questions in the comment section, tweet me, or e-mail me at: AuthorTheWorld (at) Gmail (dot) Com.

This week’s memo will deal with one of my specialties, critiquing. I spend a lot of time working as either a Beta or Alpha reader for people’s fiction and screenwriting, and honestly if I’m not writing myself it’s my next favorite thing to do.

Over the years between working with other writers and being in workshop settings, I’ve found that many people really struggle with giving critiques. When looking at a manuscript of any kind, it can be overwhelming to figure out where to start with feedback, to decide what is and isn’t important, and what is and isn’t helpful. So here is the way I approach feedback that seems to have the most success in helping other writers improve their work.

What Makes a Good Critique?

Before you can write a good critique, you have to know what one is. A good critique usually involves these five things:

  1. It’s detailed and says more than just “I liked it” or “I didn’t.”
  2. It’s objective, and minimizes the criticisms based on personal preference. (i.e., “I hate horror, so I don’t like this story.”)
  3. It doesn’t try to write the story for the author.
  4. It’s honest, but not mean.
  5. It’s about the writing, not the writer.

These are my goals I keep in mind when I do a critique. As long as every comment I make about the story connects to all of these things it’s a good note to make. With that in mind, here is how I go about giving a critique from first being asked, to the sending it back to the writer.

Ask What the Writer Expects.

In my experience, every writer has different expectations when they ask for a critique. Some really just want line edits. Others want you to tear their story apart. So the first thing I do whenever I offer to read for someone, is to ask how detailed they want me to be and what they are looking for.

Ask What Stage the Project is in.

I also ask what draft the project is in so I can get a feel for what stage the writing is at. A project in the first few drafts usually doesn’t need line edits yet because a lot will change along the way, so I focus on larger story issues (plot, character, tone, setting, etc). If it’s toward the final stage, then I will do line edits as well as larger issues.

This saves myself the trouble of marking things that may not be in the story later on, but also helps prevent shocking the writer. Early drafts will most likely have a lot of larger notes, as well as line notes if you do both at once, which can dismay a writer and overwhelm them.

Read Like it’s a Whodunit.

When reading for critiquing, you have to read like it’s a puzzle, not like it is entertainment. If you let yourself get sucked into the story, you stop paying attention to the faults. When I was little I used read those 2-minute Mystery books. The key to them is that you have to pay attention to every little detail and not get distracted.

I find that when I approach someone’s writing the same way, it helps me catch the little things—character mannerisms, minor plot details, foreshadowing, etc. Being able to catch these things early, lets me know what to expect in the story to come so I can make notes as to whether the story is meeting the expectations it is setting up or not.

The hardest part of critiquing, in my opinion, is staying in the critical mindset. It’s easy to get sucked into the characters, and the story, and to stop analyzing what is and isn’t working. By approaching the writing with the mindset that there is a puzzle to solve within it, it helps me keep analyzing it. At worst, if you feel yourself reading a lot and not analyzing, take a short break.

What to Mark?

The goal of an Alpha or Beta reader is to help the author see how an audience is reading the story, and to find issues the writer might be blind to. But how do you show this in comments? If you’re commenting on the line level, then of course you’re pointing out typos, grammar issues, and the like. If you’re commenting on content, then you have to put more thought into it.

Generally, I leave a comment when:

  1. I am confused by something in the text.

I write HOW I’m confused. Is it because the character said one thing but did another? Is it because there was no foreshadowing? Is it because the language is confusing? Etc. The key is to EXPLAIN what it is that leads to the confusion and not to simply write that you’re confused.

  1. I don’t believe something in the text.

I will write it’s unbelievable, but I will also write a line or two about WHY I don’t feel it is believable. Then I go an extra step and I tell the author HOW I think they could make me believe it. That way, if they want to stick with the idea, they know what it would take for me as a reader to believe. If I just think it isn’t ever believable, then I will offer 1 or 2 suggestions of similar things that I think would be believable not for the author to necessarily use, but to point them in the right direction.

  1. I have a question.

Whenever a question pops into my head, I will usually make a comment to let the author know that, as a reader, this is what I’m wondering at this moment. That way if the text is leading me in a direction the author may not want, they are aware of it. For example, if the text mentions a brother and builds up suspense around him, I may mention this, that way if the brother is not a character that comes back the author can minimize the attention on him so I, as a reader, don’t have that question pop up.

  1. I pause or feel bored.

Whenever you feel like stopping reading, ask yourself WHY. Are you bored? Is the passage slow? Is the character uninteresting? Has the plot not started? Etc. Then put a comment marking the passage and explaining WHY you are feeling that way. I also usually try to go back and pinpoint the moment the story stopped being interesting so I can mark it as well, and then I try to figure out which thread line (character, plot, setting, etc) it is that dropped out of the text so the writer knows what it is specifically that is missing. At the very least, though, always mark WHERE you feel bored and try to explain WHY.

  1. Something is missing.

A character is forgotten, a plotline is not finished, a setting is not described, etc. Whenever I feel like something is missing, I explain WHAT, I explain WHY it matters, and I pinpoint WHERE it first begins to be missing.

Ask Questions.

The other big thing to consider when commenting is how you are interpreting things vs. how the writer intended them. Whenever I think something I am commenting on could be something that is not what the writer intended, I make a note about that says something along the lines of:

“I’m interpreting this part this way, but I think you mean it this way. Here’s why I interpreted it the way I did and here’s what you should change if you mean it the other way.”

That way the author can see what and where there is a mix up.

Final Notes.

The key to all of the above is basically SPECIFICITY. Feedback is only helpful if you can be specific about what it is that you think is wrong. Ask yourself WHY do I feel this is wrong, HOW it is wrong, and WHERE it is wrong. Now sometimes you don’t know what is wrong or just can’t figure it out, but you do know something is wrong.

It’s perfectly valid to just leave that as a comment, but still try to give some specifics about what FEELS wrong. Tell them it feels slow, or boring (in kinder words if possible), but describe something so the author has an idea of where to look for the problem. At the very least, it’ll give them a specific passage to get a second opinion on.

The important thing to remember is that all feedback is opinion. Everyone can read the same story and come up with a different idea of what is wrong and how to fix it. So when you’re giving notes, try to keep things as objective as you can. If you know something you’re commenting on is just your preference, I always explicitly say that in the feedback and then explain WHY I prefer it that way. Then the author can decide if your preference is one they want to use or not.

Lastly, when you give feedback always expect that the writer may not use any of it. It seems like a defeatist thing to say, but writers (myself included) have their own idea of what works and what doesn’t and what they want in their story. Just know that in going through the process of analyzing the work and forcing yourself to think critically to explain how you feel about it, you are helping your own writing. Every time I give feedback, I feel like I can approach my own work more analytically, and like I am more prone to finding my own errors.

You won’t catch everything, no one can, but be honest, be specific, and remember it’s not about the writer it’s about the writing. Everything you comment should be about making the story better and helping the writer tell the story THEY want to tell, not what YOU think the story should be about. If you can keep that in mind your feedback will be helpful, it’s just up to the writer on whether they want to use it or not.