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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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

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!

Point of View

I am working on a new novel, and have been struggling with the appropriate point of view for my characters. There are two teenage girl protagonists, so I initially challenged myself to write it in a close third person. The problem is, close third does not feel close enough.

After much internal wrangling, many discussions with my critique group, and the opinions of some teachers/published authors, I have decided to try first person with alternating chapters. I have not ready many middle grade/young adult novels that successfully alternate between two distinct characters, especially of the same gender. A few books have been recommended to me, including Because of Mr. Terupt (multiple voices) and Gemini Bites.

Are there other books that you have read that you would recommend? 

Wish me luck! I’m off to rewrite the beginning, where hopefully I can make these two girls jump off the page.

Hard Work, Persistence, and a Little Luck

I double checked the content, took a deep breath, and clicked Submit. The first 50 pages of my middle grade novel and a synopsis went whizzing off to the inbox of an agent.

As you regular readers will know, I am referring to my beloved first novel that I have labored over for the last two years (ugh- has it really been that long?). Through hard work, persistence, lots of herbal tea, and much support from my critique group it is finally ready.

So now what? It is out of my hands and hopefully an agent will fall in love with it. All I can do for the next 4 weeks (their typical response time) is cross my fingers, pray, and hope. Any good thoughts you can send my way would be much appreciated.

Now that I have finally finished the synopsis and submitted the novel, I have no more excuses for putting off writing new stories. Sure, I have another novel to revise but what I really need is a creative jumpstart. My journals are bursting with ideas – perhaps the next book is just waiting to be freed from the pages.

 

It’s Time for Action!

A long (really long) winter causes me to want to pull the thick comforter over my head until it’s all over. This winter was so long, I tried to resist that temptation and kept plugging away at a few of my long term goals. I finished revisions on my first novel, and I ran as often as I could.

Now Spring has sprung. How do I know? The daffodils are in full bloom, the magnolias are ready to burst, and the sun is out more often. I am very eager to get back outside and work in my yard. I want to smell mulch, and grass clippings, and lilacs. I want to watch my kids swing, and rollerskate, and draw with chalk on the driveway.

Photo by Katie Cullinan

It also means that the fruit of my winter’s labors are at hand. I need to make final changes to my synopsis, and then I will begin sending it out to agents. I ran my first 5K race for the season two weeks ago, taking two minutes off my personal best race time. I’m still striving for a sub-30 minute race time this year, so we’ll see if another few weeks of training can get me there in my next race on Mother’s Day.

It’s hard to take the long view of things. I know I want to feel progress, feel accomplishment, and check something off my list. It takes a lot of faith and perseverance. Sometimes I’m up for the task, and sometimes I’m not. The best way I have found to keep my eye on my goals and put in the necessary hard work is to break it down into pieces. Biting off a piece at a time feels more manageable.

So the biggest step is just to start – to jump in and begin the process. I’ve always wanted to grow strawberries and blueberries in my garden. I resisted planting them, since most varieties must be in the ground for a year before they will yield significant fruit. Last year I finally planted them. So after a year of waiting, covering them over a long winter, and giving them much TLC, I peeked under the straw this week to see this year’s strawberry plants already growing and spreading vigorously across the planting bed. I can almost taste the fat ripe strawberries.

The hard work will pay off. I keep telling myself that. So if you hear me muttering to myself, don’t worry. I’m just talking myself into another revision cycle.

Weakness and Opportunity

I’ve been absent from the blog while working toward my MFA at Lesley University, and it’s good to come back for a quick reflection. When Katie and I chat, which we do with semi-regularity, we often discuss the latest thing I’m learning in my program. There’s always a lot to talk about.

During my recent residency in Boston, one of the faculty asked us to be truthful about our writing weaknesses. A task such as this is always easier said than done. Of course, we all have weaknesses. (Mine is dark chocolate sea salt caramels. Isn’t yours?) Prior to this seminar, I would have said revision was my biggest weakness. But if our weaknesses should be our top priority when it comes to revision, as this faculty person said, then revision itself couldn’t be my weakness. Besides, revision isn’t a craft technique. It’s the process of reworking the mechanics (read: craft techniques) of a piece. So I couldn’t play it safe with “revision.” But what I discovered at first unnerved me.

In general, my characters are deemed likable or relatable. At the same time, they trend toward being one-dimensional, lacking backstory, or blurring with other characters. In the case of my current WIP, I’d been thinking about these characters for over three years—I was convinced I knew them well. But when my chapters were workshopped at residency, there were questions about my characters I couldn’t answer. Here are just a few:

What was Sage doing when she found out her father had died?

What did she think when her mother first told her they were moving out of the country?

What did AJ think when he met his adoptive parents for the first time?

Why did Leighanne resist going to Nepal all those years?

Did Tenzin ever resent having a nun for a mother?

What fascinating questions! And what I wouldn’t give to know the answers to them.

It’s incredible to grasp how much I can not know my characters. Right now, they live only in my head. At some point, I hope they will live in your head as well, but until that day, I’m all they’ve got. To tell their stories, I would have to get to know them better.  I’d discovered a weakness, and a pretty significant one at that. What to do?

My advisor for this semester, Sara Zarr, recommended daily writing prompts by Sarah Selecky. (You can access it here.) Using these prompts, I write scenes with various characters from my WIP. A recent favorite involved an unnamed baby. In writing this scene, I discovered more about the dynamic between my protagonist’s parents. And while their relationship is somewhat critical to the backstory, I honestly hadn’t given them much thought.

Now, uncovering the details about my characters is a top priority, and the daily prompts are a big part in this process. Since I don’t know the answer (and arguably there is no right answer) of who my characters are, I can simply experience the joy of discovering new things about them. And my characters are so much more interesting than I ever would have imagined. I don’t foresee being able to use these scenes directly in my WIP, but I’ve only been doing them a few weeks, and already I feel more in touch with my characters. I’m hooked.

At first I was scared to confront the idea that I didn’t know my characters. Now I see that even within weakness there is opportunity. This is true beyond writing as well. Whether your weakness is defining characters or asking for help or speaking in front of large groups, be brave and embrace it fully. Who knows what will come of it.

It’s a Probability Game

I was catching up on The Late Show with Jimmy Fallon (one of my favorite shows), and his one and only guest for the evening was Bruce Springsteen. I’d never heard The Boss speak, so I was pleased to find he was extremely knowledgeable and articulate.

One of his comments really stuck with me. Jimmy asked him how he continues to come up with such great music, and he answered that you just have to keep writing. He said that 90% of what you write is no good. So if you can turn out 12 good songs every 2 years, you can imagine what you spend the rest of the time doing.

I think his comments really apply to anything in the creative process. It certainly feels like an accurate commentary on writing. You may have heard similar comments from successfully published authors such as Jane Yolen commenting on how many manuscripts they have sitting in a desk, unpublished.

There was something about how he said it (sometimes I can hear the same thing multiple times, but just say it a different way and it may finally click with me). It means that even highly successful artists and creative people fail. Repeatedly. And that for the creative process to succeed, we have to keep going. We have to keep learning, trying, and producing.

So I figure that if I keep writing (which I love, anyway), keep revising, and keep submitting, something will click. My success may not be as breakthrough as Born to Run, but a girl can dream right?

Fast or Slow?

BMW

Photo by Katie Cullinan

Often, while out running errands, a car races past me and others, weaving in and out of traffic. I shake my head, secretly hoping he or she gets pulled over (especially if they drive down the shoulder!). Sometimes, right after this car zooms past me, traffic ahead slows down to a stop. I pull up right behind Mr. Speed Racer. So what did all that racing around accomplish?

On the other hand, I sometimes I end up behind slow cars, who seem to take forever to get where they are going.

There are risks and potential payoffs for both approaches. If you drive fast, you may get to your destination quicker. However, you run the risk of causing an accident, and possibly hurting yourself and others. If you drive slow, it will take longer to get to where you’re going, and you might be late, but you increase the chances of getting there safely.

Let’s extend this metaphor to writing (novels in particular). What is the right speed to write a novel? If you write extremely fast, you may finish your first draft quicker, but the risk is higher that the novel crashes and burns from unfocused sloppy narrative or plot. Writing very fast also only works when there are no barriers (like the traffic stopping unexpectedly). When was the last time you experienced no barriers in your writing (or anything else, for that matter)?

Writing slowly means taking much longer to finish your novel. You will delay the satisfaction of completing the manuscript, and you could possibly lose momentum.

Neither approach is ideal. I think I’ll write as a slightly sporty sedan. Maybe with a convertible top for when I’m feeling daring. I will take a moderate pace, and keep moving. I’ll save speed for those sunny days when a revision cycle is ending- just grammar and logistical cleanups. Then I can take my novel for a spin. By then, I’ll have travelled the route many times. I know it well.

NaNoWriMo… 2 Months Later

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was in November, and you may remember that the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during between November 1st and November 30th. I boldly (or insanely, depending on how you look at it) took on the challenge.

Since I typically write picture books and middle grade novels, I adapted the challenge for my needs. My goal was to write two middle grade novels in November, totaling 50,000 words.

So how did it go?

I finished the first draft of one brand new novel, about a brother and sister who discover a portal in their hall closet that takes them to 1983. It was quite fun to write, since the girl in the story is 10 years old, and I was 10 years old in 1983. (Go ahead, do the math. I dare you.) I really enjoyed adding in many references to 80’s hair band music, parachute pants, big hair, the Atari and other “new technology”. I’m sure some of it will end up being removed in revision, but I enjoyed it just the same.

So, one novel draft down. Check! Unfortunately, this first novel came in well under 25,000 words. So I wasn’t at the halfway point yet. Sigh.

This was when I decided to ignore the word count, and write until I was done. Good plan right? I began writing the second novel, a continuation of another novel I have in revision. In this draft, a 13-year old girl travels with her dad for two weeks as he completes his cross-country truck driving job, hoping to experience “the world,” and become a better writer.

I got a good start on this second novel, and then life got in the way: birthdays, Thanksgiving, family visits, etc… all wonderful things that ended up putting a halt on my writing progress.

So in the end, I did not meet the 50,000 word goal. And I’m okay with that. I now have 2 novels to revise, and one to finish writing the first draft. The draft is just bursting to get out of my head, so I just have to make the time to finish it.

Perhaps this will be the year of the novel for me. Wouldn’t it be a great year if I could start it in revision, and end it with an agent? Let’s cross our fingers.