Tuesday, October 6, 2009

For ShannonAnn -- About Choosing a Critiquer

In the comments section of my last post, I discovered an excellent question I'd like to answer here. (Thanks, ShannonAnn!) It concerns how you choose someone to critique your work.

Yes, it can be very scary to turn your work over to someone else for judgment -- and this is true whether you're a beginning writer or an old pro. And a big part of the scariness is the fact that once you hand over your manuscript to this other person, you have no control over the kind of feedback you're going to get back.

Or do you?

I've found that the best way to reduce the scariness AND get more valuable feedback is to give the critiquer specific instructions regarding the kind of information you're seeking. For example, you might say, "I've written a romance but I don't know if the relationship between the two main characters is working. Could you please read it and tell me what you think of the way these two people interact? Also, are both characters equally realistic? Are you having any trouble visualizing them or their actions? I'd really like to know your reaction to either or both of them."

Another example: "I've written a fantasy novel but I'm not sure if the world I've created is detailed enough and/or realistic enough. Could you let me know what you think of my descriptive passages? I'm especially worried that they might be slowing down the pace of my story. Do they drag?"

I've always gotten really valuable feedback from this approach, probably because it gets the critiquer thinking in terms of what works and what doesn't, as opposed to whether the manuscript is "good" or "bad." I'm not interested in subjective judgments like that, only in how the reader is responding to various aspects of the story. And if I want to know lots of different things about the manuscript, then I use several critiquers and give each one different instructions regarding what to look for.

As to how to get balanced comments -- that is, comments that aren't all negative or all positive -- all you have to do is tack this instruction on to the end of your request: "And if you'd like to make some general comments about the manuscript too, please be sure to tell me about its strengths as well as its weaknesses."

Don't be afraid to ask for exactly what you want! I've never yet had a critiquer (friends, family, whoever) react badly to being told what to look for; in fact, most find it easier to make comments when you set things up this way.

As to how you choose your critiquers, I've found that the best ones are people who read lots of books in your genre. My favorite critiquer from years past was a friend of mine who was addicted to romance novels at a time when I was struggling to write a romance novel. She loved reading my work, and because she herself had no desire to be a writer, she didn't try to turn my story into her story; she simply let me know how it affected her as a reader and what she expected to see in a romance novel. (Reading groups are good places to find people like this.)

Sometimes, though, the only person on hand to read your work is a family member, and if this is the case with you, then it's even more critical that you give that person specific instructions. It's also important that both of you understand it's the manuscript that's being evaluated, not the author. Don't take any of those criticisms personally! It's the manuscript's strengths and weaknesses you'll both be talking about, nothing else -- and if you can't keep that straight, then hand your manuscript to a complete stranger instead.

So there you go, ShannonAnn and others! I hope this information has been helpful -- but if you still have questions, just let me know. (And I apologize for not responding to the question more quickly!)

Until next time, happy writing!

Sunday, September 20, 2009


My writing students typically have a lot of trouble with word limits. They spew words on the page, and when they find out their manuscript is too long they say, "I just don't know what to cut!" But it isn't a matter of cutting as much as replacing; they need to take the time to find the one strong word that can replace three weak ones.

I think computers make it too easy to spew words. You do it because you know you don't have to worry about how you'll clean it up later. When writers used typewriters it was an ordeal to change a word (often you ended up retyping the page), and revising a manuscript meant retyping the entire thing, so you made sure that every word was perfect before you pressed those keys.

While revising a novel recently, I spent an hour finding exactly the right word to replace a word my agent didn't like. An hour! But I really did need to choose the perfect word, because it was part of the opening sentence of the book. (You know what they say about first impressions.)

Some of my students have really strong aversions to revising anything. One came to me with a manuscript that was about 100,000 words too long and said, "I'm not cutting a word, so don't even ask me to." (What editor would want to work with someone like that?) I told the guy, "Don't worry about it. My edits are always suggestions, not mandates. You don't actually have to make any of the changes I recommend." In other words, I marked up the manuscript anyway, showing him what he could (should!) cut, and left it up to him to reject or accept the fact that his manuscript would be better off shorter. In the end, after much internal struggle, he ended up cutting about 50,000 words, unable to part with a weak subplot that would have taken care of the other 50,000.

Another writer who won't revise (but isn't a student of mine) is in the process of falling for a scam. He wants to believe his novel (a first draft) is perfect as-is, and he's found someone happy to tell him so. She has a website offering to help writers with their novels, but she's vague about her credits. "I've created content for ABC, HBO, and other networks," she says. No specifics about credits, no mention of belonging to the Writer's Guild. What does "content" mean, exactly? And why offer help to novelists if you write for television? It doesn't make sense -- but the revision-resistant writer sent her his manuscript anyway, paying her several hundred dollars to read it, and she praised it in glowing terms. Then she said something like, "Your novel just needs a little tweaking, a few minor word changes here and there. I can help you with it, for an additional fee." Next she'll probably offer to help him submit it, for a fee.

(There's an interesting article about a similar scam at http://www.razorsedgepublishing.com/publisherspick.htm)

It's tempting to think your writing is really that good -- and of course, sometimes it is. But it's better to have several people tell you that than just one, and to get feedback from individuals who have nothing to gain or lose by telling you one thing or another. With my own manuscripts, I get feedback from my daughter, my husband, a good friend, and my agents. (I now have two agents, plus my agency encourages everybody in the office to read and comment on agency-represented novels.) And if anyone tells you a first draft is "perfect," doubt them. I've never yet come across a novel that didn't improve with multiple revisions.

And now I'm tempted to revise this post, because I've found myself talking about revisions (again) when I started off talking about word limits. But instead I'll just give a final word of advice on word count. If you're good at revising, go ahead and spew while writing your first draft, with the awareness that you'll have to cut a lot of words later. If you hate revising, take the time while writing that first draft to choose each word carefully, tracking your word-count progress as you go to ensure that you won't have to cut a bunch of material later. But either way, know that at least one full revision of your manuscript will always be necessary, and usually many more revisions as well. (The typical for me is eleven drafts, which is why I'm tickled that there's a good book on writing called The Eleventh Draft.)

So until next time, let me wish you not only "Happy Writing!" but "Happy Revising!"

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The Revision Blues

I know I promised to do some book reviews this time around, but those will have to wait until I have more time. (Although in the meantime, try out some puzzles in Word Searches for Dummies by Denise Sutherland; I've been using them as warm-ups for my writing sessions, and they're a great way to stimulate the brain!)

And as to why I'm so busy . . . I'm dealing with the most complicated revision of my life -- so difficult, in fact, that at one point I actually exclaimed, "I just can't do this!" (But since quitting isn't an option, I'm still slogging along.)

The reason this revision is trickier than most is because it's requiring me to make such major changes to the story that in the end the novel will no longer be the book I set out to write. I intended to create an 'edgy' contemporary teen novel whose main focus was a really messed-up family. ('Edgy' is what agents and editors call a certain type of teen story, one that's tense, provocative, gritty, etc.) But now the focus has to shift to what made the family messed-up in the first place: a murder.

So without going into all the gruesome details (ha!) about what I need to change, essentially it boils down to this: ready or not, I'm writing a crime novel now, and if I can do the requested changes in a way that makes everybody (including me) happy, the novel will sell.

But in the meantime I have to ward off the revision blues, and remind myself of all the good things people said about the novel before they told me what I needed to change. It's hard sometimes to keep those good things in mind when you're concentrating on everything that's 'wrong.' (Although I hate to even use that word, because I maintain that there's no wrong writing -- only writing that won't sell today but might sell tomorrow.)

And I also have to shake my head over how many times I've found myself pointed in one of two directions: crime or romance. We all have 'natural genres,' I think, and elements of these genres tend to creep into everything we write. And when the creeping becomes flooding, we just have to go with the flow -- which is what I'm going to do from now on!

So what do you think your 'natural genre' might be? Do you find yourself including romance in a lot of your stories, even those that wouldn't normally lend themselves to romance? When people praise your writing, do they tend to single out one aspect of the story over others? For example, do you find that your action scenes are always being praised, or your love scenes, or your descriptions of historical settings? And what about your narrative voice and your character voices? Do they tend to sound young (which might indicate you're a natural for children's books), or are they adult? Do you find yourself writing lots of simple sentences, or more complex ones?

Pay attention to what seems effortless for you, and use this self-awareness to guide your writing choices -- so that even if you don't stick to writing what comes naturally, you'll be able to prevent the kind of flooding I just experienced. (Although as my experience proves, sometimes we're too close to our own work to see the obvious -- which is why it's always a good idea to get lots of feedback from writing-group buddies etc. before you start submitting it to agents or editors.)

Oh, and one last thing: don't ever succumb to the voice in your head that says, "I just can't do this!" Every time you hear it, either ignore it or shout, "Yes, I can!!!" That's the best advice I'll ever give you. =)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

The Next Step

My book for younger kids is nearly finished (barn-runner phase again!), and the teen novel I mentioned earlier is in the process of being shopped around to publishers. Next up is another contemporary teen novel, but after that I might tackle either a crime novel or a historical romance, two types of writing I haven't done in a long time.

I used to be very into crime stories, but after I had kids my desire to describe violent scenes fizzled; when I looked at their innocent little faces, it felt wrong to put any 'bad stuff' out into the world. Now that my kids are young adults and our culture has made graphic violence much more accessible, though, I'm less worried about my own contributions to the genre, which by comparison are pretty tame.

However, the historical novel attracts me a bit more because it's a story I've wanted to write for at least a decade. What's kept me from doing it is the amount and type of research involved; I wouldn't just have to plow through a lot of reference material but I'd have to do some serious traveling to other countries. I always told myself I'd do this when my kids were grown up, but now that they are I still find myself holding back. The time, the effort, the dangers in one of the countries -- it all seems so daunting.

"Feel the fear and do it anyway," my husband says. "But could you wait until the economy improves?"

Ah yes, and then there are the travel expenses.

The beauty of doing contemporary novels is that they take place in today's world, so no pre-writing historical research (and/or worldbuilding, for fantasy and sci-fi novels) is required, and if you set them in places you've already been, no travel either. This means that the planning phase of the project is fairly short, and during the writing phase you can focus more intently on developing plot and character. Perhaps more importantly, you're less likely to succumb to PBR -- Procrastination By Research -- whereby you make endless trips to the library and/or the locations of your settings just to avoid actually writing the darned book.

For these reasons, I try to steer first-time novelists towards contemporary fiction -- though I don't push too hard if they're absolutely in love with some other genre. In my next post, I'm going to talk about how passion figures into your work, and how you can balance your need to feel passionate about your writing with the needs of the marketplace. I'll also have a writing-book recommendation for you -- or maybe two, if I can get enough reading done between now and then. But for now I've got writing to do . . . and I hope you do too. So get to work!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Patience, Patience!

For all who struggle with waiting to hear back from editors and/or agents -- I feel your pain! I still haven't found out whether my last novel will need revisions, because the folks who make such decisions have been out of town. Meanwhile, I've nearly finished another novel -- something done completely for fun, for a younger audience than what I'm used to.

Before I can write the final scene, though, I have to do some research regarding my setting. It's a place I visited years ago, but I'm having trouble remembering exactly what it looks like, so this morning I hauled out my old photo albums and am trying to jog my memory. But this too is testing my patience, not just because my memories are coming slowly but because I'm eager to write and can't (yet). At one point I was tempted to change the location -- but this decision would have been based solely on impatience, because the setting goes perfectly with what I want to achieve in that final scene. So once again I just have to be patient. Arrrgh!

(Nobody said writing was easy!)

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Returning to the World

Yes, I know. It's been January since I last wrote anything here -- but the reason might help you with your own writing.

Simply put, I can only produce so many words in a day, a week, a month . . . and I chose to use my words over the past three months to create a novel. Towards the end of the project, I was writing 3,000 words a day -- a period I called my 'barn-runner' phase. (Barn runners are horses who quicken their pace, sometimes dramatically, once they realize they're heading towards home.) When I saw that the end of my ride was near, I galloped towards "The End," and it felt pretty darned good.

Before the barn-runner phase, though, comes a detachment from the world; it happens every time I get deep into a book project. Whether I'm writing fiction or nonfiction, when I start working on a new manuscript I'm not very committed to it. I'm just playing around, trying different things out, and during this period I'm perfectly able to remain engaged in all the other aspects of my life. But gradually I find myself becoming more and more obsessed with the project, more and more distracted by it, and this distraction leads me to abandon less important activities one by one until finally I'm spending all my time either writing or enjoying my family.

As with anything in life, it's all about priorities.

The great thing in my household, though, is that when I'm in the immersion phase -- the period when, you might say, I'm having a passionate love affair with my book project to the exclusion of all else -- my husband and kids handle the chores and errands that keep our home running smoothly. They want me to be able to focus on my project, and they know that when I'm finished they'll have my undivided attention again (until I fall in love with some other project!). In the early years of my career, when my kids were little, this wasn't the case; I had to hold back some of that passion so I could still get other things done. And I was able to make this work -- but the results were not as good as they are now. (Or at least, that's what my husband tells me. He thinks my most recent books, especially this last one, are my best.)

But getting back to my immersion in a project -- there's a final phase you should know about, the completion phase. This used to be a tough one for me; for years I had a real problem letting go of a project once it was time to move on. Even after an editor would practically rip the manuscript out of my hands, I would continue to think about it during the day and dream about it during the night. Then I hit on a way to "close the book" on a project: use a vacation as a way to transition back to the real world. So when I get to the point where the book feels finished, I print off a copy and do the final proofread at a beach motel that's long been a favorite of mine. The sounds and smells of the nearby ocean signal to my mind that I really am on vacation, not at work, and so I find myself reading my book as though it was someone else's, some novel I picked up at an airport to take with me on a trip, and when I'm done reading it I really do feel done.

Of course, this doesn't mean the manuscript won't need other changes, as my agent and editors have their say. I know a book isn't really done until it's in print and therefore can't be changed anymore. But the love affair is definitely over by the end of my vacation; I'll never again be so smitten with that particular manuscript that it has the power to pull me away from the real world. Instead, I'll be considering the book the way an editor would, with a critical eye and detached emotions.

And speaking of editors, I don't have one for this book yet, because my agent couldn't sell the manuscript until it was finished. This is what happens when you're writing in a genre you've never tried before. If you're working on something similar to what you've already done, then you can usually get a contract before you've started the manuscript, based simply on your prior sales figures etc. So now I'm in the position of a first-time author, waiting to hear whether my book will indeed be published -- and you might want to hear how I'm dealing with this uncertainty:

I just started writing a new novel. We're still at the getting-to-know-you phase, but I'm hoping this relationship will blossom into yet another passionate affair.

It's a good thing my husband is the tolerant sort!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Still Here in the New Year!

Yes, I'm still here -- but I plan on changing the nature of this blog for the new year.

It's occurred to me that it might be too boring for us to discuss writing all the time, so I'm going to think up some other things to share. I'll be back here in a few days with a new post and, more importantly, a better sense of direction.

In the meantime, happy writing!