Monday, March 30, 2009

Class of 2K9 ... or Why You Should be Mad at Sarah

I'm a bad person. Michelle reminded me today that this blog post was overdue.  I've already had chocolate, so even the most severe punishment will be survivable ... but it would be also be suitable. You should have heard about these folks before now. 

Please allow me to introduce the Class of 2K9.

The Class of 2K9 consists of 22 middle grade and young adult authors whose debut novels are being released this year. I got a chance to listen to five of them discuss their experience as 2K9 members at the Festival of the Book. They were: 

Ellen Jenson Abbott, author of Watersmeet
Lisa Greenwald, author of My Life in Pink & Green
Edith M. Hemmingway, author of Road to Tater Hill
Ann Haywood Leal, author of Also Known as Harper
Fran Cannon Slayton, author of When the Whistle Blows

They began by reading a brief portion from their debut novels. By the time the last author finished, I was thinking how unusual it was to actually enjoy readings from five different authors. Normally, there's at least one bit that makes you think, "Meh."

(I'm going to digress a moment, but bear with me- it'll make sense in a minute.)

For those of us still trying to finish novels, getting published seems a million miles away. But another panel at the Festival made it very clear that getting published is just the beginning. The publisher publishes your book- but publicity? That's gravy. 

The Class of 2K9 is making their own gravy, so to speak. They pooled resources to create a website, print publicity materials, and hire a publisher. They promote themselves as a whole, and in doing so, have better chances of being invited to various venues. 

What stood out to me most was the comaraderie between these women. You couldn't get one of them to talk about only her book. (Crazy, huh? I'm not even published and my novel is a favorite topic of mine.) Each mentioned other members of the Class. In fact, the entire Class is actively promoting member Albert Borris' Crash Into Me. Albert suffered a stroke several months ago, but that's not kept people from hearing about his book. 

We all know how important it is to have a support group in the writing process. The Class of 2K9 showed me it's possible to have that when published as well. I could go on and on, but I'll not waste your time any longer. 

Go read more about the Class of 2K9 and the women whose stories I enjoyed so much. 

And please don't be mad that you had to wait so long.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Scenes with Many Characters

It's so exciting! I'm writing the final chapters of my book--you know, the ones where all the action happens and everything gets resolved. Practically every character in the book shows up for these scenes and well, I keep writing myself into sticky situations.

I find myself trying to turn each scene into a two-person dialogue and ignore the rest of the characters. They're just standing around the room watching. You'll never miss them, will you?

I think I slip into doing this because two characters, even three, are manageable for me. I'm scared of more people. Maybe this mirrors how I am in social siturations, but let's not get into that.

So, I need help. How do you juggle five, nine, fifteen characters in a scene? They all want to do or say something at the same time, but there's not enough room on the page, or in my brain.

I welcome any and all tips, tricks, advice, or thoughts on how to do it. Or examples of writers or books that do it well. How do you avoid making a tangled mess?

Friday, March 27, 2009

McDonalds and World-building

The one time I was able to travel abroad, I visited Ireland. And I needed the University of Virginia to help pay for it. (Ahhh, a J-term trip.) I was significantly older than many of the students on the trip. Since I'd been of drinking legally for quite a while, getting hammered wasn't at the top of my list.

Nor was visiting McDonald's. Yes, there was a McDonald's in Galway, and yes, some students ate there. But I hadn't come to Ireland to experience the familiar. 

What I remember of Galway is the little pub the locals attended. You had to climb a cramped staircase to reach a second story room. There, musicians would pull their chairs in a circle, settle their pints beneath their chairs, and make music your blood danced to.

There were trees enough in Ireland, but I remember the palm trees on the Claddagh that grew within view of the North Atlantic. I remember an ancient tree that grew beside an even older church. The tree had a holy spring in it, and all sorts of coins and prayers were tacked to its trunk. Tiny baby clothes were fastened there as well. (Travellers believed that leaving a sick infant's belongings at the tree would bring healing to the child.) 

So what does this have to do with writing? We've ruminated on ways to make characters compelling. How can I make my MS's world intriguing?

Bruce Coville quoted another author's observation on the Harry Potter series. He said one of the reasons the series was so popular was that the world was just plain cool- readers always discovered something. Harry didn't just snack, he ate Bertie Bott's Jelly Beans and hoped he didn't get the ones that tasted like vomit.

I have a tendency to just describe the world my characters are in: trees are here, mountains here, house here. First drafts are often mind-numbingly boring because I can look up from the MS and see the exact same things.  I'm learning that making a fictional world interesting means including culture as well. I need:

Unique customs or roles. Lisa's WIP includes magic. Witches have different roles, one of which is healer. No surprise there. But another role is that of secret keeper. Just mentioning that made me feel that I was in a distinct place. Bridget is writing a story about a troop of chimps. I didn't know that only males slept on the ground at night- but they do, and suddenly I'm interested in a little female chimp that's going to spend her nights on the ground. 

Names with history. My WIP takes place in a mountain country, so I've done a lot of research based on Switzerland. Did you know that in one valley, they had different names for three kinds of avalanches? Being that specific gives a word weight- I'm dealing with people who have observed (and avoided) avalanches for generations.

Lore. Someone once pointed out to me that America's mythology includes stories of the immigrant who becomes rich and/or powerful. We don't recognize it because we're in the middle of it, but it's true. Every country has its stories that show people their place in the world and point them towards worthy goals. So, what stories did your characters read/hear growing up?
Regions have their own stories. (Back to Switzerland research again.) Did you know there's an entire portion of (not just Swiss) folklore devoted to people who trick the Devil into building or preserving a bridge? You wouldn't get such stories on flatlands, but you'd expect them in the mountains.

What I remembered most in Ireland was the unique. I remember the pub, not the fast food joint. I saw plenty of trees, but I remember the palms. And I still wonder about the infants whose clothing was left on the tree at the holy spring. 

In the same way, I want to make my story's world unique. I don't want prop trees and mountains and houses because my characters have to be somewhere. I want to take the time to develop a real world, and I want to limit narration that describes ... McDonald's- those things my readers have already encountered. 

If I succeed with that, I think readers will want to linger in the world I've made. Any other ideas about making a world compelling? 

Thursday, March 26, 2009

After Lunch at the Virginia Festival of the Book

Sarah and I went to the panel on Polishing Your Pitch. Ron Hogan and Bella Stander first reworked some written queries, and then took "elevator pitches" from audience members. They showed the audience how to boil down a plot synopsis and get to the meat of the book in a couple of sentences. Using the mantra "tell and sell," they said that you have to get three points across: introduce your protagonist, what is happening, and why it matters. Use short words. Three syllables or less with plenty of verbs and few adverbs will give a pitch more punch.

Agent Deborah Grosvenor, publicist Elizabeth Shreve, and Chuck Adams of Algonquin joined Bella and Ron for the next panel: "What About My Book? Navigating the Industry Now." The main differences in publishing since the economic downturn are that advances are smaller, but more likely to earn out, and decisions are taking longer to come through. Publishers are cautious. Like most of us with our personal finances, editors are buying, but more carefully. Smaller publishers have the advantage because historically they haven't overspent on advances. Publicity is becoming more the responsibility of the author rather than the publisher.

Deborah Grosvenor stuck around for the agents roundtable in the late afternoon. Ken Wright and Rosalie Siegel joined her. They spoke about what they are looking for. Ken said it was a lot about voice, which is a subjective thing. They all agreed that the most important factor in getting an agent is good writing.

To me, that's the best advice out there. Write well. Help each other write better. The rest will come with hard work and persistence.

Monday, March 23, 2009

How Lucky Are We?

We live in a wonderfully literary community here in the Charlottesville area. Once a year, for the past fifteen years, the Virginia Festival of the Book has been held right at our doorstep. Attending requires no more effort than child care arrangements and a drive downtown.

After we got some coffee and browsed the book fair in the lobby of the Omni Charlottesville, Alison, Sarah, Steph and I attended the Great Beginnings session. It was the most efficiently run first pages panel I've seen. Middle grade author Fran Cannon Slayton read the first page of each of a dozen or more manuscripts. Then Fran and her fellow Moseley Writers Andy Straka, Deborah Prum, and Jennifer Elvgren offered comments. The pace of the session moved quickly with short readings and concise feedback. The tone of the feedback was honest, but gently encouraging. Their advice: avoid clunky construction, create a well-depicted character with a strong voice, add some quirkiness and humor, foreshadow, and throw in some conflict.

After the session the Slushbusters met up with Ellen Braaf, Mid-Atlantic Regional Advisor of SCBWI. We chose a favorite local spot for lunch and talked about critique groups. Naturally.

The afternoon was just as busy as the morning, and we'll post more about it as the week goes on.

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Voices in My Head

I should have known not to stay up so late revising my submission for this Tuesday's Slushbuster meeting. 

I slept restlessly after 5am- lots of scattered images that were somewhere between dreams and thinking about the day. Anyway, I rolled over at some point and realized that I was listening to two of my novel's characters talking to each other. Pretty cool- sort of like that moment when you dream in another language. Then I muzzily wondered if I should wake up and write the conversation down. 

I thought about it, then realized the conversation was pretty mundane- the equivalent of discussing the shopping list. So I went back to sort-of sleep. But really ... writing and editing before I actually wake up?

It's been that kind of day. 

Virginia Festival of the Book

This is one of my favorite weeks here in Central Virginia. Charlottesville is host of the Virginia Festival of the Book. I attended the first of the events in "my book bag" last night. Several of the Slushbusters are meeting up tomorrow to spend at least part of the day wandering around downtown, listening to panels discussing everything from first pages to agents and marketing. We'll drop by the book fair and see what's new. We plan to meet up with some SCBWI folks from Charlottesville and Northern Virginia as well. The best part about all this is that most of the events are free. If you're anywhere in the area and want to spend some time in the company of authors, editors, agents, and most importantly at this event, readers, check it out.

I'm sure we'll be blogging about it next week.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Cats and the Queries

I finished my middle grade novel about six months ago. I’m trying to adapt one of my favorite picture book stories into a middle grade novel length. The story never worked as a picture book since too much was going on for a PB word count. But lately, whenever I sit down to write, the queries get in the way.

A voice in my head says, “You have a book that you spent a year and a half on, and it’s sitting here, without representation. Send out a query.” That sounds reasonable. So I figure, hey, I can take twenty minutes out of my three hours of writing time to send a query. It’s email. I can copy and paste. I already have a working list of agents I want to query. Twenty minutes. Right.

First I have to review the individual agent’s website and submissions guidelines. Then go back and rework the query letter “template” I have for this particular manuscript. The one with the synopsis it took me a month to get right. Then I start the email. Copy and paste the first 10, 20, or 50 pages of the book into the body of the email. Which messes up the format entirely. It was double spaced Times New Roman, but now it’s all over the place. Paragraphs are squashed together, while the extra hard returns between chapters are a gap as wide as the Shenandoah Valley. Why has this happened? I sigh. I “select all,” click on Times New Roman and 12 pt, and try to get it back the way it was. Why is one paragraph still squashed? Aaaugh! I get the format right, but have accidentally deleted a paragraph. And twenty minutes has turned into an hour and forty five.

It is not helping that the cat keeps jumping onto the desk. She has a cat bed in the window, mind you. Two feet from the desk. But no, she has to sit at my elbow, alternately nuzzling my arm and the computer screen. I throw her off. She jumps back up. Steps on some keys. Did she just change the font again? And before anyone suggests I kick her out and shut the door, I'd like to mention this is the loudest, most demanding cat my husband has ever met. And he volunteers for the SPCA. He's seen a few cats in his time. She's been known to howl outside a closed door for hours.

And so it goes. Which is why I haven't finished my chapter for critique this week.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Compelling Characters

Thanks to the recent flurry of blog postings, I've been thinking a lot about character--the ones I'm writing and the ones I have most adored to read.

Piggybacking on Sarah's post on quiet characters (March 10th), here are a few of my thoughts on what makes characters compelling, quiet or not.

1. They fail and keep trying. We don't want to read about people who get everything right the first time, nor do we like characters who give up too easily. Success in the end is so much more rewarding if we've been with the character through failure after failure. And that's how they learn and grow. Hence, a satisfying character arc.

(Sounds simple, eh? But right now I'm having a hard time allowing my mc to fail. I just don't want to write those scenes, or I rush through them so quickly they become eyeblink failures. I haven't figured out why yet, but I'm working on it.)

2. They have unique reactions to situations. I love it when a character surprises me, when they do something I wouldn't have thought to do. It makes me want to keep reading to find out why. On this, the author must deliver. It's not enough to tell me, "she lashed out because she felt trapped." Show me the buildup, so I feel it physically with the character. Then, when she slaps her own mother, I'm surprised, but I understand what drove Miss Mabel Clark to do such a thing.

3. The strange things that happen when I compare them to myself. When I read a character and find nuggets of myself there, especially those things I'm not proud of (or too proud of) or quirks that I try to keep hidden--that I find compelling, particularly when it's something I didn't even realize about myself until the author worded it so beautifully.

Or, there's the flip side. When a character is so utterly different from myself, their mind working in a completely different way, I want to keep reading to find out what this fascinating creature will do next. Of course, there's lots of in-between, but I'm always looking for myself in characters, and the compelling part is either finding it or so totally not finding it.

Which brings me to the thing I need most from a character in order to like them:

4. I need to understand them. Or at least feel that I'm beginning to. This is what the author must do--make me understand. Because the moment I start understanding a character, I feel connected, and it is this connection that makes me keep reading. (I will keep reading for other things--intriguing ideas, a dynamite plot--but it's not the same as caring about a person.)

Even if the character does horrible things, I can roll with it as long as I understand why (and it's a plausible reason). Even if they're completely wrong, I'll likely stick with them as long as they have some fervor to their belief. In Les Miserables your sympathies are with Jean Valjean, the escaped convict who didn't do anything all that bad. But you can also completely understand Javert, the by-the-book police officer chasing the "dangerous" convict. And it's because Hugo made me understand Javert.

I'm sure I have more criteria for likable characters, but I'll stop for now. And of course, we're all different. I have hated some characters that other people seem to love. (I couldn't stand that mamby-pamby Kite Runner mc and would have stopped reading if it weren't for the story.)

But really, I'll stop now.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The trouble with IDEAS

I'm feeling peevish. I have a cold (again) and as I was running down the comments section of Nathan Bransford's blog, I saw an anonymous comment that didn't improve my mood.*

Nathan mentioned Janet Reid's Query Shark and a new query critiquing blog. Anonymous commented that such sites were a great way for people to get free book ideas by modifying, or even stealing, concepts they saw in a query. 

There are many different kinds of ideas. 

Eating chocolate is a good 'idea'. 

Finally realizing how to write that crucial scene in your MS is an 'Idea'. 

But it seems A is thinking of an IDEA, that IDEA = story.

That's what peeves me. Stories are not just IDEAs or Ideas or ideas. (I've typed 'idea' so many times the spelling is looking all wonky.  But I digress.) Yes, a story begins with an idea (any variety), and a good one, too. 

But a story happens when some shmuck actually gives that IDEA a world to live in, gives that world texture and sound and smell. The author then fills that world with characters whose lives extend beyond the timeline of the story. The author uses her own self- her soul, her heart- to give that story a voice and cadence that communicates the world she created. 

And then she starts editing. She listens to critiques from people who clearly don't understand what she's trying to do. After she eats a bit of chocolate, she realizes they have a point. So she revises her story again, and again, and again. 

We haven't even gotten to the part about finding an agent or editor.

Notice how I stopped writing about IDEA a few paragraphs back? Because IDEAs have little to do with actually writing a story. Two folks could have the same idea (even IDEA) and come up with two different stories because their worlds are different, their voices are different, and their craftsmanship is different.

So please, don't tell you me you're a writer that hasn't actually written anything- but that's okay because you have an IDEA. Please don't worry about someone stealing your IDEA. 

Worry ... think ... sweat ... about writing. That's your story.

*Dear Anonymous, if, for some reason, you wander over to this humble blog, please know that I'm merely using your comment as the stepping stone to a rant about a larger frustration. You may be a decent person and a stupendous writer, and I freely acknowledge that this rant may not reflect you in any way. I sure hope it doesn't... 

More on Character

One question that comes to mind with all this talk about character is: Are the standards for mc likability different in children's fiction or when the mc is a child?

Even with a child we probably won't tolerate whininess or undue stupidity. But as far as character arc goes, aren't most stories about children coming of age stories in some sense or another? The character growth often seems pretty clear, or clearer than with adult characters. Children can't help growing from new experiences. It's what they're built to do.

Adults seem to have to be dragged into it kicking and screaming. And that's the set-up for the reluctant hero. (I'm a sucker for a good reluctant hero.)

Really, my question is: Do we want anything different from our child mc's than our adult mc's?

In some ways I feel our child mc's have a harder time than adult ones. They have to act like children in order to be believable, but they also have to delve into adult problems, concepts and philosophies in order to be interesting to an adult audience (which we also want from our children's literature).

And one more question: Who are your favorite child characters?

I'll start. I love Scout. And as a kid, I especially loved Kate from the Good Master.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

And You May Ask Yourself, "Well, How Did I Get Here?"

If you had told me three years ago that I would be the techie person for the Slushbusters, I would never have believed you. For years I shared a desktop computer with my husband. The only reason we had a computer was because of him. I had to ask for help. A lot. Inserting a picture or changing page orientation was beyond me. Track changes? Never heard of it. Any time I had to do something hard, like sending a digital photo or an attachment in an email, I needed him. I lived in fear of clicking the wrong box whenever the computer wanted to install updates.

As soon as I started taking my writing seriously, I got my own laptop. Hello, learning curve! Within three months I had dislodged my wireless card while traveling (Yikes!) and had to call tech support, who walked me through a hardware repair. Talk about empowering! After disassembling my keyboard, my computer and I had a much more intimate relationship. I realized that a “can do” attitude was all I needed to learn so much more.

That’s how I wound up starting the blog. (By the way, I highly recommend Blogging for Dummies.) And setting up the Skype. And suddenly, in the middle of our meeting the other night, I found myself showing the group the Google Analytics that tracks blog hits. They thought it was pretty high tech stuff. I guess it is, but it no longer strikes me that way.

I’m hoping that the same thing is happening to our writing. That the stuff we read in other books, and wonder, “How did she do that?” is somehow sinking into our brains. The spot-on dialog, the gripping, well-paced plots, the flawed-but-loveable characters. I hope one day, each of us will be at the center of a group which is thinking that about our work, and all we have to say for ourselves is that we had a “can do” attitude and a need to know how, and somehow, over time, we got there.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Quiet characters

So first off, I should say we had a great meeting this evening. (Thanks to Michelle for attending to the technical difficulties with Skype.) Lisa was happy; Daylight Savings doesn't begin for a bit in the Netherlands, so she joined us at the early hour of 11:30 pm rather than the normal half-past midnight. 

But let's talk about me.

And quiet characters. I like them. They're interesting and conflicted and there's so much going on inside! My main character in The Looking Glass, Elsbeth, is quiet in the first few chapters. She's quiet anyway, but it counts more in the first chapters because I want readers to, you know, read. 

So I've been thinking about how to make quiet characters engaging. It started with Nathan Bransford's post on unsympathetic characters where Merry Monteleone commented that she also didn't like characters who "aren't strong enough for the task until midway through the novel."

Some of us begin our novels with 40 pages of throat-clearing. Others have 40 pages of figuring out what to do with the MC. So, like Pooh, I thought, thought, thought about some favorite quiet characters of mine: Anne Eliott (Persuasion), Sara Crewe (A Little Princess), and Ani (Shannon Hale's Goose Girl). Here's what I came up with for keeping quiet- even weak!- characters interesting.

1. They should have some strengths- even if they aren't recognized, even if they don't use them. Anne Eliott holds her family together. She's a sensible (though mostly ignored) voice at family discussions, and has a better understanding of her family than they do. Ani knows animal speech. It doesn't help her with life at court, but there's a sense- right from the beginning- that she possesses a powerful gift. Anyway, I had patience with both Anne and Ani because I knew they had some substance. I wanted to be there when their worlds encountered that substance.  (Why does that remind me of something hitting a windshield?)

2. They know they're weak.  Ani knew she couldn't interact with people as a princess should. Her distress that she couldn't make small talk with members of court, speak persuasively , or defend herself kept me reading.  It immediately introduced internal conflict. This is very different from characters who are upset about bad circumstances. Upset about circumstances = whiny. Upset that weakness caused circumstances = intriguing, at least for a few more chapters.

3. They're quiet because they choose to be. I still remember the first time I read the scene where Miss Minchin boxes Sara's ears, and Sara just looks at her and laughs. I almost wanted to have my ears boxed just so I could respond the same way. (Almost.) There's a big difference between someone who can't respond to a situation and someone who won't. I think the key to making such scenes work is to have significant provocation, and a clear sense of what the MC is doing instead of responding. (In Sara's case: what if Miss M had just struck a real princess?) If the reader doesn't know how the MC is handling the provocation, the MC will seem vacuous. 
(Can I add a pet peeve here? Please, please, don't let your MC's consistent internal response be snarkiness: someone puts her down and she has a scathingly sarcastic reaction in her narration, or to her friends, or in her diary. Sarcasm is fun to write, but it seems an easy- and often overdone- way to make a MC interesting.)

That's what I have so far. It's helped me to concentrate on what Elsbeth, my MC, is doing, rather than what she isn't. It keeps (I hope you agree, Slushies!) her an active, engaging character, even if she isn't saying much.

And please, I'd be happy to read your thoughts on how to keep a quiet character interesting. I need all the help I can get.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Fantastic Diaries

Yesterday I was in Den Haag again for a reading and talk with Leila Rasheed, the author of Chips, Beans and Limousines and its sequal, Socks, Shocks and Secrets. The books are about the fantastic diaries of Bathsheba Clarice de Trop, whose super-starry world might not be all that it seems. The third book will be out soon.

Leila read selections from her books--very funny, sweet, and real--then talked a bit about her path to publication, which is a complicated story. But she got there eventually, and her books are lovely. Check them out!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

But when do you ask the question of publishing?

I don’t think we should leap too early in defining if work is “publishable.” What is or is not publishable changes from year to year, and from editor to editor. The greatest proof of that is all the awful books that find their way onto the shelves of the world amidst the great ones. And even the great ones had to start somewhere:

“So far this story isn’t really interesting.”

“Really? You think?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s exciting at the beginning, but once she stops the dad from killing the pig, it’s just about a kid taking care of her pet. We’ve seen it before.”

“But it’s going to get better. You see, the pig is lonely, and he finds out he’s destined for the dinner table. So he befriends a spider.”

“A spider?”

“Yes, a spider. Harriet. Or maybe Charlotte. I haven’t decided. But the spider helps him by writing words in her web.”

“How did the spider learn to write?”

“Um…I don’t know. But she does. And she writes nice things in her web about the pig. Compliments, you know? People think it’s a miracle and decide to keep the pig in the barn instead of the smokehouse.”

“What age did you say this was for?”

“Middle grade. Why?”

“Sounds kind of graphic for a kids’ story. And I don’t think anyone’s going to believe that a spider can write.”

Okay, so my point is that no matter what the work is, I don’t think whether or not it can be published should be determined based on the first few pages of an early draft. Period. I think the time to question the marketability of work happens much, much later. At the end of the writing, when the group has had their say and read many drafts of the work and doesn’t have anything more to add, then I think we can ask, “Would you publish this?” Meanwhile, we have to write the characters and the stories we love. Because if we don’t love them in the first place, they’re never going to be good enough.

The Art and Heart of Critiquing, Part II: But Would You Publish It?

I once read an editor's blog about the question of how you know when a piece is ready to submit. This editor said that you should only submit something when everyone in your critique group is so excited about it that they can't wait for you to submit it, when they are bursting with enthusiasm about the piece, when they can hardly think of a way to make it better.

Personally, I think that's a load of crap. It's a nice idea. But even though I have loved many Slushie stories, I don't know that I could say THAT about many of them. I doubt that everyone would say that about my pieces. And for that matter, there aren't that many published books that I've read that I can't think of a way to make better. Oh, sure, lots of classics and the really good ones, but they're in the minority.

My point is that if we held by this rule, none of us would ever send anything out. Some editors might say, "Good, less slush on my desk." But we are all good writers. By the time we finish with a piece, it is almost always good.

But would I publish it? Now there's the question.

Each of us in the group is like a different editor. We have different styles, different tastes. While I may think So-and-so's book is beautifully written, I'm not bursting with enthusiasm about it. Why? It's just not my thing. I'm sure others in our group would say that about my book. Fantasy just isn't their thing. It may be well-written with a tight plot and compelling characters, but still it may not light up your dashboard because you're looking for something else.

I'd like to find seven editors, sit them down in a room, and see if they're all bursting with enthusiasm over the same books.

However, I have to agree with Steph. If we're really serious about getting published, it may be a good question to ask. If for no other reason than to learn and grow from the answers to the follow up question: "Why not?"

Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Art and Heart of Critiquing

Critiquing can be a touchy thing. Rejection letters, no matter how thoughtful, are always rejections. And critiques, no matter how delicate, often involve little stabs at the heart--over and over again.

Our last meeting sparked a flurry of emails about our responsibilities to our fellow Slushies and whether or not there are things we should not comment on, like the publishability of our work, which in turn sparked debate over what we’re all in the group for anyway. All in all, good conversation.

Here are excerpts from my emails. Hopefully other Slushies will share their thoughts as well.

I think that we are all in this group for a variety of reasons, some of them overlapping and some not. At different stages each of us may be really on a roll, working on a big project we intend for publication, or in between projects, or in a slump, or targeting specific skills to work on, or simply playing with words.

As far as I'm concerned all of those reasons and more are perfectly valid, and we should support each other in what we're trying to do. However, it may not always be clear what each of us is coming for, so the more specific we can be about the questions we ask our fellow Slushies, the better our feedback will be.

The way I grow most as a writer is through all those comments that make my heart sink when I first hear them, the ones that I want to sweep under the rug and dismiss because obviously my genius has been tragically misunderstood. But if I sit with them for a while and wait for the heart-sinking to stop and take a good honest look, that's when the real growth happens. That's when I'm a real writer. That's when I decide the truth for my story and me. Often as not, I do end up dismissing comments, but only after a good honest look at them.

I may regret saying this sometime down the line, but I'm going to say it anyway. If a Slushie were to say to me that she thinks I could be writing something better than this, or that I should put my energies into something else, or that I should take my writing in such-and-such direction....well, though I might whimper a little inside, I would welcome that feedback. We are each in a position to see each other's work from a unique perspective. I look to the Slushies to help me be a better writer, and I hope that includes choice of topics. If a Slushie said to me, "Lisa, I would love to see you write a more realistic story about a kid living in the Netherlands," I would think about that very seriously. Of course I may always say that I'm writing what I'm passionate about and I don't want to write realism. But at least you've spoken and I've heard you and we are thinking about the whole process of writing and not just the words that make it to the page.

To me, critiquing involves everything from grammar to story, style to character, revision to query, and hopefully one day to contracts and book signings. I want the Slushies with me every step of the way.

Stay tuned for more on this topic. Next installment: But would you publish it?