The Benefits of Critique

Last weekend I drove 2-1/2 hours to participate in a Agent/Editor Day with my New England SCBWI chapter. The day was focused on middle grade and young adult manuscripts, and we had the opportunity to share the first chapter of our novel with 2 different agents or editors. We received feedback from two agents/editors, as well as the other participants.

I had participated in SCBWI conferences before, but this was my first Agent/Editor Day. I shared the first chapter of the novel I am currently working on, called Modern Girls. I was nervous going into the day, a range of thoughts swirling through my head from “What if they hate it?” to “I hope they like the characters as much as I do.”

I was pleasantly surprised, and thoroughly enjoyed the insight of the two editors, Monica Perez from Charlesbridge and Stephanie Kasheta from Merit Press. They each asked different questions and challenged me in different areas. I felt buoyed by the positive reinforcement on my character development, learned what areas hold more opportunity for exploration, and what questions I still need to ask myself about my characters and their relationships. In addition, I enjoyed listening to all of the other stories shared – fantasy, science fiction, adventure, mystery, and animal stories. Such creativity all in one room!

I do know the power of critique- it’s one of the reasons I joined a critique group many years ago and still benefit from their wisdom (besides the best part – they are wonderful women and writers!). My critique group keeps me focused, encourages me to keep going through the hard work of writing and revising, and are partners with me on my journey to become a better writer. Joanna and Anne are invaluable to me, and I hope I am able to provide them with an ounce of the honest and beneficial feedback they give me every month.

What I learned last weekend was that we must always be searching for how to write more concisely, look at our characters a different way, and better express those ideas in our heads. We must steel ourselves to truly hear the feedback, digest it, and decide how (or not) to incorporate it into our work.

My critique partner Joanna introduced us to Lisa Crohn’s Story Genius, and I applied what I learned from it to completely rewrite the first chapter of my novel. It is that rewrite that I took to my critique group, and that rewrite that I took to the Agent/Editor Day. Being open to the feedback, whether it be from trusted critique partners, craft books, or industry strangers, will hopefully help me to write my best novel yet.

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Using Character to Move Your Story Forward

I belong to a women’s book club, and this month we read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. I enjoyed the book, but how the author develops her main character made me reflect on how I structure my own stories.

In The Language of Flowers the main character is Victoria, a damaged young girl on the cusp of aging out of the foster care system. She loves flowers, and uses their inherent meanings to communicate to others what she cannot.

The author lets us learn about Victoria through her actions, not exposition- we learn why Victoria is the way she is through her experiences. But the focus is not on what happens TO Victoria, but instead it is on the choices that she makes.

Somewhere in my ongoing education as a writer, I read that you should figure out what is the worst thing that you could do to your character at that point in the story. And then you should do that exact thing to them, which will propel the story forward. I understood the concept, but was always hesitant to torture my characters. After reading this book, I realize there is an alternate approach. Rather than think of what could happen to my character, I can think of what the choices are that the character might make and which one will move the story forward the most. I suspect it will be the choice that is the hardest, and the one that will require the most significant consequences.

For those of you organized thinkers like me, think of it as a decision tree. As you write your character and they reach a decision point, what are the different choices they could possibly make? And then for each choice, what would be the consequences? And if you later don’t like where the story headed, you hopefully have multiple decision points with which to go back and start a new path.

I’m looking forward to trying this on my novel in progress. Maybe this will help me to get some energy behind more novel writing!

Spring Has Finally Sprung

Here in the Northeast, we finally had a weekend worthy of being called Spring. The temperature was in the mid-70’s, it was mostly sunny, and the flowering trees decided it was time to bloom.

Magnolias

We spent as much time outside as possible- riding bikes and scooters, climbing trees, and even sneaking in a book while laying on a blanket. A visit from Grandma and Pa made it even more special.

Bike Riding

These are the weekends that lift my spirits and inspire me. Each spring I realize how much the winter weather has weighed on my mood, and how much I enjoy the fresh air and the warm sun on my skin.

Each Spring, nature begins again. Maybe last year the daffodils didn’t put on their best show, but this year could be different. Each Spring the Earth is given a new start and a fresh approach. So how can we not be inspired? This may be the 5th time we’ve worked on that first chapter. We may feel like there is no way to get that picture book right. But we must begin again. Maybe we need to let a story hibernate for a while, but then it’s time to start again with fresh new eyes and bold determination. And maybe, just maybe, this will be the revision that makes that chapter feel just right.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

The Value of Honest Feedback

I’m a big believer in honesty. Not painful, hurtful honesty, but the idea that being upfront with people (especially friends and family) avoids much drama, misunderstandings, and unnecessary conflict.

However, for honesty to work fully we must be open to feedback. Sure, honest feedback might still sting a little, or initially rub us the wrong way, but if we can ultimately incorporate the information it can be a gift.

Take the writer’s submission process for example. Joanna and I were discussing how we hope for open feedback when we submit our work to agents and editors. Even a little open feedback instead of a standard rejection would help us to know which direction to go. Such as:

“Not really the kind of book I represent.” – Try another agent.

“Strong concept, but the prose needs tightening.” – Now you know where to focus your revisions.

“Good idea, but I wasn’t hooked at the beginning.” – Time to rework the first few chapters.

“I like the characters, but the stakes for them aren’t high enough to keep me interested.” – More work needed on the plot and character development.

Knowing how to proceed in this highly subjective art of writing is invaluable. And why I need my critique group so much. We encourage each other, make suggestions, and give balanced feedback that helps us each be better writers.

So if someone asks you for your honest feedback, consider giving it. It could make all the difference.

Love and Romance

I hope this post finds you all feeling loved on this Valentine’s Day weekend. Here in the Northeast, we are trying desperately to stay warm and snuggly with temperatures in the double digits below zero.

Screen Shot 2015-02-15 at 5.17.46 PM

So do you consider Valentine’s Day to be about romance, love, another attempt by businesses to get more of your money, or a reminder of how we should treat our loved ones all year long? Or a combination of these? As the holiday approached this year and I am knee deep in writing a middle grade novel where two girls discover dating, it made me think about the role of romance and love in children’s literature.

Let’s start with the idea that middle grade novels are about pre-teens testing their boundaries and beginning the journey of self-discovery. And teenagers are focused on breaking out of the system and forging their own paths. So with that logic, experiencing romance is a part of that self discovery. What do I like about the opposite (or same) gender? What do I expect from a relationship? How do I expect to be treated? What makes me happy? What tells me that I am valued, appreciated, and desired? How do I show affection? How do I make a connection with someone else? (As I write this list, it makes me think that romance and love is a work in progress for our whole lives.)

It would then follow that as teenagers (with some of these ideals formed) that they would begin to break out of what society expects. Perhaps they experiment with the content of their relationships, or they choose unconventional partners, or they choose to opt out of the whole “have to have a boyfriend/girlfriend” ideal.

And then to add complexity to the forming of their idea of what love is, we overlay their non-romantic relationships: mom, dad, siblings, extended family, and best friends. Sometimes these relationships are their example/non-example for how to form a relationship, or they use these non-romantic relationships as experiments for what might work in their romantic relationships.

So, despite certain trends to make literature more edgy (YA in particular), I think that a fuller exploration of how young people explore romance and love is much more interesting. And if done correctly and honestly, it will connect better with young readers’ internal experiences, regardless of the time in which the novel is written.

A Sequel to a Classic and a Poll Update!

Many of you may have read in the news this week about Harper Lee, the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird. Ms. Lee is now 88 years old, and the manuscript she wrote before To Kill a Mockingbird back in the 1950s was recently discovered, and will be published in June. It takes place 20 years later, when an adult Scout comes back to visit her father.

Besides my curiosity on what this story might contain, what struck me most was a statement that the publisher made. They stated that the story would be published in its entirety (300 and some pages) without revision. Why no revision? Is it because Ms. Lee’s capabilities at 88 aren’t what they were 50 years ago? Because it is so perfect that no revision is required (I doubt it)? Or perhaps as Joanna noted, if it were revised it would be through a completely different lens than she would have had 50 years ago. Her experiences and perspective would have colored and changed how she writes, for better or worse.

I am most interested in a more craft-driven academic comparison of the two works, rather than excited for the story itself. My experience with To Kill a Mockingbird is the reason for my current approach to movies made from books. Back when I first experienced To Kill a Mockingbird, I saw the movie first. Once I read the book, it did not have any chance to be as interesting – how the story played out in my head was completely driven by the black and white images of Gregory Peck that I had already seen. Today, I swear by reading the book first, before I watch the movie. Then my own images are already rooted in my mind, and I can enjoy the movie from the perspective of seeing how the filmmaker might interpret the material. Often my mental images are richer, but sometimes the filmmakers can use technology to create some pretty amazing things (especially with fantasy or sci-fi materials).

Are you interested in reading Harper Lee’s new book, Go Set a Watchman, when it comes out in June?

An update on the poll we ran a few weeks back: There was a glitch in the poll that prevented us from getting complete results. Here’s your second chance to participate! Take a minute to tell us in the comments what type of book is your favorite, and we will choose a winner who will receive a book from a Connecticut or Wyoming author.

Some possibilities:

Funny

Fantasy/ Science Fiction

Realism

Non-Fiction

Mystery/Suspense

Thriller/Crime

Textbook

Other- whatever else might trip your fancy!

Congratulations Joanna!!

I am pleased to announce that Joanna has officially graduated with her Masters in Fine Arts from Lesley University! She has invested 2 years of hard work, which went by amazingly fast (she may disagree with that last part).

The other member of our critique group, Anne, and I are so proud of her. We are excited to see where her writing career goes next – it will certainly be to wonderful places.

Congratulations Joanna!

Review: The Dot (AKA Step One on the Path to Creativity)

Creativity is an intangible thing. It can’t be held in your hand or bought with money. Each of us knows (or is!) someone who claims, “I’m not creative.” Yet I would argue that creativity is accessible to all of us. Maybe we just need a little help getting there.

Part One: The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds

Art class is ending and Vashti’s page is blank–she’s convinced she can’t draw. Her wise teacher suggests she “make a mark and see where it takes [her].” Vashti jabs angrily at the paper–just once–and an artist is born. As the story progresses, Vashti experiments with her own creative expression and is given an opportunity to guide another “not creative” person on the path to creativity. Her story is charming, making this book perfect for, well, everyone! Vashti is so likeable, and her artwork so simple, that it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Artsy kids will love it immediately, but the message is accessible to all types, even adults. The first time I read this book, my son hadn’t been born, but I want to share it with him now and talk about how Vashti’s experience can be applied to all kinds of situations in life–from building with Legos to experimenting with different sports as he discovers who he is.

Part Two: Creativity in Life

As Vashti’s learns, creativity starts with one action–any action–and expands with the opportunity made by that choice. “If I can make little dots,” she realizes, “I can make big dots, too.”  From this point, creativity can travel in so many directions. One podcast I’ve been enjoying lately is Sara Zarr’s This Creative Life. She interviews various creative people about their creative process, and I always find it freeing to see how diverse that process can be. That makes space for me to try whatever I want. But what if you need a bit more help? If you’re a writer, you might enjoy Sarah Selecky’s Daily Writing Prompts. These are short writing exercises designed to help spark out of the box ideas.  If you’re not a writer, or if perhaps you’re one of those “not creative” types (said lovingly), Vashti’s journey still might apply to you.

Either way, make a mark and see where it takes you.

The First Page

Attend virtually any conference on writing and someone will insist the first page is paramount. You must hook the reader. I’d heard the idea enough, and struggled with nailing a great first page on many a project, but it wasn’t until my MFA that I took the time to analyze what I thought was a good first page. While doing an editing internship with Hunter Liguore, editor at American Athenaeum, I was charged with reading 34 first pages (without knowing the author or title) and deciding which ones I would accept, as an editor, and which I would decline. It was very informative, and I encourage you to try it out. Discovering what magical recipe for first page elements I was most hooked by has helped me figure out what my own first pages lacked. Here’s a sample of questions that I came up with from a few of the samples:

Is there too much emphasis on setting?

If the character isn’t very fleshed out, does the story premise fill in the gaps?

What kind of tension was there?

Were the questions raised unique and so enticing I had to read on?

Does the description feel connected to the character?

Is there dialog? What does it show about the characters?

Ultimately, I learned that I connect most with the people, the characters. Any other element had to serve them. If it didn’t– for example, if there was a lot of description about a ritual but not about the characters–then I wasn’t interested. I writes stories about people (arguably every writer does), so I need to make sure each of my first pages highlights the characters and their struggles, their connect to place, their sense of the world.

Try this exercise with books you’ve already read. Or take ten books from your to read shelf and read only the first pages. If you could only pick one to read further (pretend you’re an editor with a limited list), which one would it be and why? Or read the latest Flogging A Pro, a post on Writer Unboxed that takes first pages from a variety of genres and analyzes them in a similar same way. I imagine most of you read or write picture books, but I think the exercise can be helpful there too. It’s a lot of fun!

If you’re a reader, and not a writer, asking these questions can help you discern what it is you’re looking for in story, in general, and help you find better books to read for ourselves and your children.

Floppy-eared rabbits

For PiBoIdMo, I decided to keep a small journal with me at all times, something I’d often considered, but had never done before. One page per idea. And I’d look to my own life for the seeds. Over the past few days, I’ve found that being attentive to, well, life and all its ridiculousness (or wonder or awkwardness or or or) is the best way to access interesting concepts for picture books. After I got my notebook, the ideas started coming like hot-cakes. Not all of them seem immediate winners.

A recent favorite: I just returned home from dinner with friends, one of whom shared a story about a bush airstrip in remote Alaska covered in floppy-eared rabbits. Now, it might take a more creative person than me to turn that into a viable picture book. But what a fantastic image! I wrote that one down, but if it inspires you, go with it. (Please send me your draft, if you do.) On a more serious note, my son has developed a fear of riding the school bus–there are so many angles to take on this theme. Katie once said that she’s got too many ideas, and I see what she means. The ideas are really every where. We just have to take them and run.

Registration for PiBoIdMo has passed, but I encourage you to check out the daily posts. I’ve gotten something from each of them, and maybe, just maybe, there might be something to help me write my book about the rabbits on the airstrip.