Thursday, May 3, 2012

Crits for Water Interview with Michael Underwood

(Or, Happier with Your Story)

A charity water fact: One child dies every 19 seconds from fatal water-related illness.

Sadly, it’s true. That’s why author Michael Underwood jumped at the chance to help out in the 2012 Crits for Water campaign. He’s donated two separate query critiques and a 10,000-word critique. Watch the Crits for Water calendar for his auctions.

Meet Michael.


Michael R. Underwood grew up devouring stories in all forms: movies, comics, TV, video games, and novels. He holds a B.A. in Creative Mythology and East Asian Studies from Indiana University and an M.A. in Folklore Studies from the University of Oregon, which have been great preparation for writing speculative fiction. Michael went straight from his M.A. to the Clarion West Writers Workshop and then landed in Bloomington, Indiana, where he remains. When not writing or selling books across the Midwest as an independent book representative, Michael dances Argentine Tango and studies renaissance martial arts.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

MU: Read over the letter carefully, getting the general sense of the response. Then, if you can, put the critique away and work on other things for a couple of days. Then come back and re-read the critique, taking your own notes about comments you think are useful, and re-examining those you think are not.

Once you’ve gotten a handle on the comments, prioritize the revisions to be made. I always try to start with the biggest changes first, since they will have the largest ripple effect on the rest of the novel. If the big stuff is really intimidating, maybe do one or two little things in between the big tasks. Keep track of your revision tasks and don’t get discouraged.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

MU: Read, read some more, and think in terms of the writer’s efforts. Critiques, for me, aren’t about how you as a writer would fix what needs work, but helping the writer discover the solution for themselves.

At Clarion West, our system called for starting with positive comments, identifying elements that worked well for you. Then you can move into comments about elements that didn’t work. And if you have suggestions of approaches for revision, those can go at the end, but again, try to frame them in terms of what the writer is already doing or seems to like doing, not how you would fix their story.

NAE: When you critique someone’s work, what is your general process?
MU: It depends on the level of critique I’m giving. I don’t generally find it too useful to do a developmental/editorial critique at the same time as a line edit/copy edit, because they are different levels. If you still need developmental editing, why go ahead and clean up the prose, when thousands of words could still change?

I usually read through a whole time, making major notes on the side as I go, and then when I’m done, I think about the whole story/selection, and re-read the selection if I can to get another look and clarify my comments.

If I’m line editing, I will do everything at once, commenting in the margins as I go.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?
MU. In a developmental edit, I tend to focus on character arc or the paradigm of the world – how the magic fits into the world, making sure the setting is consistent.

In a line edit, I usually focus on flow and readability, making sure that the prose is doing right by the story.

NAE: How do you reconcile contradictory critiques?

MU: As I was revising my last novel, a New Weird Supers fantasy, I revised it frequently enough with so many different voices that I was totally lost about what I needed to do. Some people said I needed to get to the action faster, and let the action provide the exposition, others said I needed to slow down and focus on character first, setting the stage.

They were both right, and both wrong. There is no one way to open a novel, because there are countless ways to hook a reader, many of them mutually exclusive, depending on the reader. If you’re stuck between contradictory critiques, go back to your own vision of the story. Which change are you more excited about? Which way of fixing it would give you the story you’d prefer reading? I always find revision easier when I’m changing the novel in a way that makes me happier with the story.

Crits for Water Quickfires – And, go:
1. Oxford comma?   Essential.
2. Should "I like him too" have a comma before "too"?   Depends on context, for me.
3. Italicize or underline?   I used to believe that editors wanted underline instead of italics, but Adam Wilson, my editor at Pocket, just had me change everything over to italics even before we went to production. Which makes me happy, because I’d rather the draft look like the page will look whenever possible.
4. How do you separate scenes: #, ***, line break?   I like ***
5. What's your favorite verb?   Defenistrate.


Giggling at defenestrate. Michael’s debut, GEEKOMANCY, will be released later this year. In the meantime, if you need help in attaining happiness with your story or your query letter, check out his items up forauction this month.

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