23 May 2012

Send me in, Coach!

by Robert Lopresti

I am working like blazes on a piece of fiction I hope to finish before a contest deadline, so don't expect a long, well-thought out masterpiece this week (as opposed to every other week, of course).  But the work did bring a subject to mind.

You see, I have run my piece past two of my fellow writers, and that has been an interesting and useful experience.  R.T. Lawton and I have been swapping stories regularly for a few years, and I know my work has benefited from it.  (I hope he feels that his has too.)   Last year James Lincoln Warren asked me to preview his entry in the Black Orchid Novella competition, and, since he won, I am prepared to take all the credit.   Sorry, I meant to say, that since he asked for my help I felt free to request his. 

Both of them offered helpful insights into my story, including:
* typos (no matter how many times Spellcheck and I have gone over the damned thing)
* unclear sentences (one was so difficult  to clarify I wound up having my narrator address the reader directly: "now, hear me out...")
* flashback confusion (this is the one point I am still struggling with... telling the story chronologically will lead to a dull patch.  But REtelling it is complicated.)
* a great big honking plot hole that needed to be fixed.

If and when this thing gets published I will bore you more detail about this.  But right now I am just interested in the coaching experience.

For more than a decade I have been a member of a songwriting group.  Every month we get together, sing new or at least unfinished songs, and let our fellow members have at them.  We always warn newcomers not to make the classic rookie mistake: "I'll bring my best song and wow them!"  Since we are in critical mode we WILL find something wrong with your song.  Otherwise, we aren't helping, are we?  So, we emphasize the need to bring something unfinished.  And the songs do improve, sometimes remarkably so.

Of course, when I send a story to a coach it is as close to finished as I can make it.  I want them to be brutal.  (Hey, the editors won't by the story because of my charming personality.)  And both James and R.T. have been very helpful and constructive.

(But I do have a question for them: how is it that all three of them missed the fact that my character Andrew changed his name to Anthony twice with no explanation?  And Victor, perhaps out of sympathy, decided to become Richard at one point.  Ah well.)

Unfortunately, my dear friends have carried me as far as they can.  Now, alas, my fate all in my hands.  So, why am I wasting time talking to you guys?

But you have a moment to spare you can tell us about your experience with writing groups or partners.  I will try not to critique you. 


  1. Since we are in critical mode we WILL find something wrong with your song. Otherwise, we aren't helping, are we?

    I couldn't agree more, Rob.

    When it comes to my writing, I'll let almost anyone who asks read it. But, I give them a red felt-tipped pen, and say: "The deal is, if it comes back looking as if it's bleeding like a stuck pig, I'm a happy camper. And, then I'll let you read one again, if you want, in the future. If there's no red ink when I get it back, I'll have to think twice before letting you read one the next time you ask."

    Most come back with pretty useful notes.

  2. (But I do have a question for them: how is it that all three of them missed the fact that my character Andrew changed his name to Anthony twice with no explanation? And Victor, perhaps out of sympathy, decided to become Richard at one point. Ah well.)

    It's because it's such a damn good story that R.T. and I didn't bother with such minutiae as mere names. I wish I had a dollar for every time I'd made such an error. I had one story published where the editor (never mind me) missed that a character who was a Corporal in one paragraph became a Sergeant in another.

    But the truth is . . . critiquing a story written at such a high level is in fact a privilege rather than a chore—and Rob is dead on the money when he mentions that I was only returning a favor he'd done for me.

    It's easy to see further possibilities in something that engages your imagination. It's a lot harder to suggest improvements to something that has nowhere to go. Although I did make several suggestions, Rob's story on its face is brilliant, and that made delving into it a distinct pleasure.

    Mark my words: you will read more about this anon.

  3. Rob, I was in a rather large writers' group where all anyone ever did was rave over whatever each person brought. Three of us pulled out because we wanted real critiques, not just praise. We stayed together ten years, meeting once a week and "bleeding" each other's work.

    Back when I was into song writing and had Harlan Howard Publishing take a couple of my songs, I was the guest of honor at a song writers' group in North Carolina.This man played a tape of the most awful song I've ever heard. I thought and thought and finally gently said, "I think the only person who can get away with rhyming 'tired' and 'hard' is Loretta Lynn. You might want to change one of those lines."
    The man jumped up from beside his little jam box and stepped toward me with rage on his face. In a threatening tone, he said, "I'll have you know I wrote that song for MY MOTHER." I turned down my next invitation to speak at one of their meetings.

    I will always believe that the most necessary characteristic for writers, whether poetry, songs, or prose, is a thick skin.

    Congrats to James Lincoln Warren and good luck to you, Rob, in the contest.

  4. FROM: the law firm of Dewey, Cheatum & Howe

    It has come to our attention that your story contains a multitude of characters, plus other name changes already in place, thus obfuscating the situation. To wit:
    Page 15, your own character, the PI, says: “Wait a minute,” said Delgardo. “There are too many characters in this (story)…”

    As for deliberate name changes already in place as part of the story, we present EXHIBIT TWO:
    On Page 3, the PI’s name is Dwight Delgardo.
    Page 8, it’s Sam
    Page 22, it’s Frank
    Page 50, it’s Mud
    Page 58, it’s Ellery

    Thus with the constant name change of one of your main characters, our client raises the defense of having fallen into the name change pattern and therefore thought little of minor characters also changing their first names. That's his excuse and we advise him to stick to it.

    PS~ Our client also suggests that on Page 52 you need to capitalize the word “Gallic.”
    PPS~ It’s still a great story.

  5. Well, that's typical of something. I point out something all three of us miss and James responds with flattery while R.T. drags in a law firm. Just hang in there, guys. (And thanks a million, another million, for the help!)

    Dixon; "bleeding like a stuck pig." Lovely.

    Fran: When I was in high school I had a speech teacher who talked about judging speech comeptitions. The rule for judges was "always start with a compliment." Inevitably there came a time when neither judge could think of ANYTHING good to say. Finally the other one smiled and said "That's a lovely hat, dear!"

    We have had our share of lovely hat moments at the songwriting group. Some involved my songs.

    As for "tired" and "hard" (which would work fine in a comic country song, of course... but I am guessing the one about his mother doesn't qualify), I am known in my songwriting group as the Rhyme Police. I can't STAND songs that rhyme "home" with "own" or "car" with "stars." Etc. Etc. Etc....

  6. I attended a writing group once in which one woman read her work aloud in a Hyacinth Bouquet voice, another person reacted to criticism much as Fran's gentleman song-writer, and others jumped on me for my "morbid" choice of subject matter, i.e., murder. I didn't go back. I pass my stories around to my husband and a few friends, who give me criticism and good editing. And we still miss things, like the fact that the waitress in "Wind Power" changed her name between orders...


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