The power and importance of constructive criticism

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When I finished writing my second novel in seventh grade, I was appalled at the idea of an editor suggesting changes to my masterpiece.

“I’m never going to let an editor change my work,” I vowed back then.

Erm … ahem. That’s a vow I’ve broken in the years since.

Even though most writers go through the mood swings of “My latest work is great!” and “This is the most garbage piece of writing in existence,” by the time we hand off a work-in-progress to a beta reader, critique partner, or editor, there’s that voice in the back of our minds uttering a hopeful chant of, “Please like this. Please think it’s brilliant. Please don’t slaughter the page with a red ink pen. Please say it’s beautiful and perfect.”

That’s the fear of rejection talking. Sometimes it takes some effort to push past that fear and bring reason to the forefront. Because reason will tell you, “I’m handing my work off to these people to polish it up. I want it to be its shiny best before I share it with the world. I hope they find it to be a worthy draft, but I also hope they come back with a lot of feedback.”

No draft is perfect in its first form. Not even that book I wrote in seventh grade that I vowed would never see an editor’s touch. (Although, to be honest, it hasn’t seen an editor’s touch. Mostly because it’s such a rambling, random, aimless mess that there’s very little worth salvaging.)

A tale of two critiques

When I attended the 2017 Prairie Writers and Illustrators Day in November, I signed up for a Chapter One critique from a professional editor. A couple months before the day-long conference, I sealed my first ten pages in an envelope and sent it off with a stamp and a prayer. (My prayer mostly being, “Please don’t hate this and tell me I’m a talentless hack.”)

On the morning of the conference, I picked up my critique at check-in. I carried it around in its folder for quite a while before I opened it. After many deep breaths, I delved into the feedback I received on the opening pages of The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.

There was a healthy dose of positive feedback … and a healthier dose of constructive criticism.

My heart sank slightly when I first saw the list of items that needed work. But as I read each bulleted item, I felt as though someone had cleared a path through the dark, murky writer’s forest for me. When I’m in the thick of writing or self-editing, its easy to miss things hidden behind the trees. There are flaws I don’t see. But when a fresh set of eyes takes a look at the story, they can clear out some of the trees and help me see a better path through the story.

In Mt. Dempsey, one of the most crucial bits of feedback I received is that the story is told through Dempsey’s point of view, but the earliest drafts had Dempsey positioned as a bystander. He was simply telling the story and reporting what he saw. Readers weren’t getting to know him on a personal level. They weren’t getting his thoughts or reactions. In a first-person narrative, it’s important to filter the story through the narrator.

I couldn’t see that missing detail. I was bogged down with plot and overlooked a piece of characterization.

That’s the importance of handing writing over to a qualified critical eye. They’ll spot the weaknesses (and no matter how much we don’t want there to be weaknesses, they’re unavoidable). Once those flaws are spotted, we can patch them up with edits.

At the aforementioned Prairie Writers conference, I crossed paths with a local teacher and fellow writer who has since become my critique partner for Mt. Dempsey. Once again, handing pages over to a new set of eyes was nerve-wracking at first. However, having a teacher who works with my target audience on a daily basis brings an invaluable expertise to the table. The devil is in the details, and she’s able to spot little lurking devils such as word choice that doesn’t fit the age group’s vocabulary, falling into the trap of  cliches or stereotypes (such as one scene that falls into the “big dumb bully” trope), and content that isn’t PC for the target market.

There’s also value in learning a reader’s reaction versus writer’s intention. In our most recent critique session, my partner mentioned how she finds Dempsey’s mother unlikable. That’s not the intention (Mama Molehill is meant to be strict, but not cruel). But hearing a reader’s reasons for why she isn’t a likable character helps me to go back and soften the character’s rough edges.

The value of outside eyes & opinions

A critical reading is part of the process for any traditionally published author, who frequently goes through an agent as well as publishing house editors. For independent authors (like me), critiques are just as vital to seek out. Even though independent authors are able to sidestep publishing industry gatekeepers who might otherwise reject a novel, that’s no reason to dodge the type of service they provide. After all, most novels get rejected for a reason. Self-published books deserve the same polishing as traditionally published works, even if that means extra work on the writer to revise, revise, revise.

Authors can be too close to their own story. Impartial readers can spot things like:

  • Inconsistencies. One time I had an extremely minor character whose name I decided to change midway through the draft. A reader spotted a few places where I forgot to replace the name. Whenever I skimmed the pages, I knew who it was, but the name change threw the reader for a loop. If you’re a slower writer like me, it may be weeks or months between writing a scene and then referencing it later in the book. Readers are going to consume the pages must faster than you write them, and they’re likely to catch when story elements don’t balance.
  • Confusion. Just because a passage makes sense to me doesn’t mean it will come across to the reader. I know all of the backstory as well as the intent of everything that happens in the book. Having someone indicate places that need clarification is helpful.
  • Bor-ing. It wasn’t until after I released “Sarah & Katy and the Imagination Blankets” that I discovered the opening of Chapter 16 got bogged down in description and the action screeched to a halt. How did I discover this error? When reading aloud to my nieces, one of them rolled her eyes and drawled, “Bor-ring.” Ouch. As much as the criticism stung, it’s good to have someone point out (before publication, ideally) which spots lose the reader’s interest. As much as I enjoyed describing the scene of the safari, the book would have been much better served if it were whittled down.
  • “This just doesn’t work.” Chances are we’ve all heard the phrase “kill your darlings” by now. But it’s hard to make that decision yourself. Maybe you love a character, but they just don’t fit in that particular book. In your heart of hearts you may even know it, but you keep trying to force it to work. Sometimes you need another person to hand you the knife and guide your hand at slashing away passages, scenes, chapters, or full characters and story arcs.
  • Unintentional messages. Remember my aforementioned Mama Molehill example? How a character or plot thread come across in print may not be how the writer intended it.
  • Accidental harm. For certain writers, it may help to seek the aid of a sensitivity reader. For example, a heterosexual writer incorporating LGBTQ+ characters may want to run the book by a reader from the appropriate community to flag any offensive elements. It’s unfortunately easy to accidentally include a line or scene that misrepresents or hurts readers from backgrounds outside our own experience. I once used a simile in a scene featuring a black character that a beta reader fortunately flagged before publication because the phrase could have been received as racially disparaging. I would never intend to represent another race, culture, or community in a derogatory manner, but intent doesn’t matter once the words are in ink and the damage is done. Another set of eyes can save readers from being wounded by misused words and can save authors from losing trust and respect.
  • The nuts and bolts. Critiques from fellow genre writers can dig into the nitty-gritty elements specific to your genre. Is this plot thread falling into an overused trope? Is the language not age-appropriate? Plus, there’s the obvious little elements such as grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Another set of eyes improves chances of cleaning up the writing. I have a bad habit of omitting words when I’m having an inspired writing session, and when I reread the chapter, my brain tends to insert the word I know should be there even when it’s not in front of my eyes. A different reader is more likely to stumble over my missing words and make a note to add it.

If you’re critiquing for another writer

The University of North Carolina’s Writing Center provides an excellent list of guidelines to assist writers and beta readers in critiquing someone else’s work. The full set of suggestions can be found here. Below, I’ve quoted several passages I find especially helpful.

For each type of critique, it’s important to state your praise, criticism, and suggestions politely, but with the appropriate level of strength. The following language structures should help you achieve this challenging task.

A strategy called “hedging” will help you express praise or criticism with varying levels of strength. It will also help you express varying levels of certainty in your own assertions. Grammatical structures used for hedging include:

Modal verbs
Using modal verbs (could, can, may, might, etc.) allows you to soften an absolute statement. […]

Qualifying adjectives and adverbs
Using qualifying adjectives and adverbs (possible, likely, possibly, somewhat, etc.) allows you to introduce a level of probability into your comments. […]

Tentative verbs
Using tentative verbs (seems, indicates, suggests, etc.) also allows you to soften an absolute statement. […]

Whether you are critiquing a published or unpublished text, you are expected to point out problems and suggest solutions. If you are critiquing an unpublished manuscript, the author can use your suggestions to revise. Your suggestions have the potential to become real actions.

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The woe behind one pink line

As a writer, I love words. I love letters and combining them to build meaning.

But there are four letters I don’t like when arranged in a certain order.

PCOS.

The acronym doesn’t roll off the tongue. It’s an unpronounceable blob of letters that probably don’t mean much to the majority of readers.

But to me, they have a meaning: polycystic ovarian syndrome.

And they have an underlying meaning: fertility struggles.

Woman hand holding pregnancy test and result is not pregnant

It’s not something I’ve talked about publicly. In fact, it’s not something I’ve talked about much at all. Aside from a handful of family and friends, most people who know me don’t know about the PCOS diagnosis.

It’s a mostly invisible health issue. The only outward signs I show are a thin patch of hair on my scalp (yep, hair loss is a symptom), slightly oily skin, and weight gain (which I’m slowly but surely overcoming … six pounds down, about a hundred more to go …).

None of those signs shout to the world, “This person is dealing with a health issue.” Especially since the thin patch of hair can be hidden by pulling my hair into a ponytail and the oily skin can be scrubbed and patted down with a matte makeup.

And it’s not like anyone can see my irregular (see also: practically nonexistent) menstrual cycles. Having four to five in a given year is a plethora where I’m concerned.

And where there are few menstrual cycles, there are slim opportunities to get pregnant.

My husband and I have been trying for several years now to expand our family of two into a family of three or more. Over the years, I’ve tried to keep my eye on the bright side. When we got promotions, I told myself it was good we hadn’t had kids yet because now we would be more financially stable. When we bought a house, I told myself it was good we had “waited” (ha … as if my body had given us a choice) until we were settled into our new home because now we had a spare room to serve as a nursery. Not to mention we finally had a home a family could grow into.

But all of those paper-thin excuses got torn to shreds every time another Facebook friend made an “I’m pregnant!” post and I felt simultaneous pangs of jealousy and guilt over not being happy for them.

The twinges of watching everyone else’s pregnancies pales in comparison to the pains of what I’ve come to call the “ups-and-downs,” though.

Hope spelled out in wood lettersThe ups-and-downs are a regular cycle for me now. A menstrual cycle starts. There’s hope of ovulation. We try to get pregnant, and up go our hopes. Then I take a pregnancy test, and there’s one pink line telling me Not Pregnant, and down crashes hope. Until the next menstrual cycle. Then up again and down again.

The most recent heartbreak was after a third round of Clomid, an estrogen modulator drug used to treat infertility. The husband and I diligently counted days in my cycle, and on Day 21 I had some spotting. Since I read implantation can occur on Day 22 in a standard 28-day cycle, hope radiated from me. Could it be implantation bleeding?!

I waited for Day 28, and then I started counting forward. I told myself I wouldn’t buy a pregnancy test until 10 days later to give time for the HCG hormone to build up in my system in case I was pregnant.

On the tenth day (January 3), I was unbearably excited to go to the store and pick up the pregnancy test. I got out of bed, got dressed, fixed my hair, fetched my coat and purse and keys …

Out of habit, I stopped in the bathroom before heading out the door. (All those years of Mom making us go to the bathroom before getting in the car sticks with me today.) That stop in the bathroom ended my plans to go to the store. Because the toilet paper had a streak of red on it.

Another cycle started. Down crashes hope.

Reset to Day 1.

On the bright side, I suppose, I saved a little money that morning. And I was spared another disappointing two minutes of hoping and praying and pleading for two pink lines to show up on a plastic stick.

Because there are never two pink lines. It’s one pink line. Over and over and over. Month after month after month.

My 31st birthday came and went in the midst of the latest infertility disappointment. Each passing year adds to my silent fear that the opportunity for pregnancy will pass us by once and for all.

But I keep telling myself there will be another cycle. There will be another chance.

Maybe there will be a day when PCOS stops meaning infertility and a baby in my arms means I overcame it.

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New year, same old story

2018 is already more than a week old.

Meanwhile, I’m blinking and flabbergasted, wondering, “Where is the time going?”

A year ago, I set a goal to finish writing “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill” within the 365-day time frame of 2017. A year later, I’m looking at a new calendar but still working on the same ol’ novel. All the while, ideas for new projects are clattering around in my head. It’s getting crowded in there with story ideas.

Today marks the first time I’ve settled in at the keyboard since the holidays concluded. I’m breathing a small sigh of relief now that the Christmas tree is hauled back down to the basement for another year and the nutcrackers and Santa Clauses are tucked away in their respective boxes at the back of a closet. (Although the tree skirt is still in a jumble on the living room floor. At some point I’ll pick it up, fold it, and store it away.) The leftovers are eaten, the fridge is empty (darn it … I should probably grocery shop today), and life is returning to normal.

Phew. Now to get back on track with a regular writing schedule.

I won’t jinx myself this year by saying I plan to finish Mt. Dempsey, but I have a good feeling about 2018 where Dempsey is concerned.

Even though finishing the Molehills’ tale is No. 1 on my writing priority list, a few other projects are in my goals for the year. There’s another middle grade novel competing for my attention, plus a poetry project I hope to tackle in April for the A to Z Challenge. And it wouldn’t hurt to do a better job at keeping up with my blog this year.

So. 2018. Let’s do this.

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A day at the American Writers Museum

Writers and readers alike, rejoice! Chicago is home to a new museum tailored just for us.

The husband and I spent Thursday afternoon absorbing the halls and galleries of the American Writers Museum, 180 N. Michigan Ave.

An elevator ride to the second floor brings you to the museum, which is small enough to tackle in a day but large enough to be worth the $12 admittance for adults (children 12 and younger enter free). Listed below is my review of several elements of the site.

Family friendliness: A+

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The AWM has displays for all age levels, and the abundance of interactive content is engaging across generations. Upon entering the museum, visitors are encouraged to touch the displays. The children’s gallery is the first one visitors are likely to see, and the room is full of children’s books and kid lit-related art and activities. All books featured in displays are available for reading and thumbing through pages. There are games, quizzes, videos, photographs, audio, touch screens …

The facility size is also a plus for families. The entire museum can be covered in half a day, which leaves time for lunch and another activity in downtown Chicago. Prices are especially reasonable for families with young children, since anyone under age 12 can come in free.

Educational value: A

Every school English class and literature class should visit the AWM. This museum is perfect to keep students of all ages engaged while loading them with knowledge.

AWM1

awm4.jpgFor elementary students, the Children’s Literature Gallery is perfect. Larger-than-life murals and illustrations accompany shelves filled with children’s books for all levels of young readers, from beginner to middle grade. There’s also a fun wheel of emotions kids can spin and then act out the emotion they land on in a mirror. The activity is inspired by Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” is which main character Max deals with a variety of emotions.

In the Mind of a Writer hall, kids also will enjoy typing on typewriters — probably a first for most of them. The typewriter ribbons are full of ink, and stacks of paper allow anyone to tap away a mini masterwork.

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For older students (middle school and up), one of the most prominent displays in the museum is the American Voices hall, featuring a timeline of American literature aligning with significant historical events. Each author has a rotating, three-sided display with a short biography and interesting facts. Accompanying these displays are a variety of interactive opportunities, such as a Q&A about who invented five genres and a touch-screen TV allowing visitors to choose from three talks about the development of the American literary voice.

The Mind of a Writer hall offers educational writing tips on the Anatomy of a Masterwork wall and interactive opportunities to write dialogue with the Do-It-Yourself Dialogue Generator, compare your writing habits with famous authors, and play a digital game similar to Mad Libs in which you use a word bank to fill in the blanks of a book passage.

Diversity: A

The AWM gets high marks on two levels of diversity:

  1. The diversity of author voices and backgrounds.
  2. The variety of writing types, including children’s literature, novels, poetry, screenplays, music, journalism, etc.

Overall: A

awm6.jpgThere’s a good balance of representing authors, writing, and reading. The Readers Hall offers a few of my favorite activities of the day, including the chance to rank my five favorite books by American authors and compare those rankings against the books selected by previous visitors. The perimeter of the room also features facts and Q&A trivia about libraries, the launch of kid lit, newspaper readership, the rise of paperbacks, how magazines and literature became accessible to the masses, and more.

In the future, I would love to see more displays added on the literature itself. I felt a strong connection to the authors’ works in the children’s room with behind-the-scenes facts about “Where the Wild Things Are” and a display built around “Charlotte’s Web,” but I felt a disconnect among the adult displays. However, this could be due to an oversight on my part. The nearly 60-foot Surprise Bookshelf display features more than 100 authors and titles, but I didn’t realize the panels of the display slide to share interesting facts about the work or author. I only browsed the titles and authors displayed.

Extra credit

AWM8The gift displays on either side of the front desk may look small at first glance, but they’re full of treasures for readers and writers. There’s a decent selection of literary T-shirts, books on writing, plush toys inspired by famous authors and stories, home decor (I came home with library card coasters and an art print, plus a candle for a friend), mugs, pens, magnets, scarves, writing gloves, notebooks, a couple of games, and another dozen things I’m probably forgetting.

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Home is where the literary link is

A few weeks ago, I had a visit from Susan.

Susan grew up in the house my husband and I bought in April. She was visiting Illinois (she now lives in California) and asked if she could drop in to visit her childhood home. We set up a day and time that worked for both of us, and we spent the designated afternoon wandering from room to room as she told some of the stories Five-Ten (a shorthand name for the home derived from the house number) witnessed over the years.

The stories carried waves of nostalgia and smiles. I was enjoying my role as a bystander to memories when we climbed the stairs and stopped on the landing. Susan pointed to the room we’ve designated as the guest room and said, “That’s the Peck Room.”

I wasn’t sure I heard correctly — had she said Peg? Perk? Peck? So I repeated, “The Peck Room?”

Susan nodded. “It’s named after the author Richard Peck. He slept in that room.”

Goosebumps rippled over my neck, arms, and legs. “Richard Peck? As in, the Richard Peck? ‘A Long Way from Chicago’ Richard Peck?”

Yes. “A Long Way from Chicago” Richard Peck.

As in, the same Richard Peck whose work heavily influenced the storytelling style of my own in-progress “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill.”

Susan, who seemed pleased I recognized his work, explained that her mother was a member of the city’s Friends of the Library group and was pivotal in bringing Richard Peck to town for a presentation. As part of his visit, Susan’s parents hosted his stay at their home.

I, of course, had every intention of continuing the tradition of naming the room the Peck Room. I mentioned to Susan that I wanted to a get a small nameplate to hang on the door designating the room by name.

A few days later, this arrived in the mail:

Peck Room

The family already had a plaque commemorating Peck’s stay. When Susan’s mother got word that Peck’s visit was so significant to my reading and writing history, she sent the plaque back to Five-Ten. It now hangs on the wall alongside the Peck Room doorway.

Another literary twist

This discovery of Richard Peck’s stay in my new home isn’t the only accidental literary link I’ve found between myself and Five-Ten. I wrote a column in August about a book that lived at Five-Ten, changed owners’ hands, and then returned home.

Empire Falls Closeup

The address sticker at the bottom right of the cover shows the book formerly belonged to the house my husband and I bought in April.

The abridged version: The former owner of Five-Ten grew up in Maine and purchased a copy of “Empire Falls” by Richard Russo. She made notes in the margin comparing the town in the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Streator (where she spent another 50+ years of her life at Five-Ten). Eventually she donated the book to a used book sale, where I found and bought it. There’s an address sticker on the bottom right corner of the cover, which is how I discovered who previously owned the book.

Fast forward a handful of years, and I was packing up our rental home across town when I rediscovered “Empire Falls” — and its address sticker. Even though I would be moving into Five-Ten for the first time, the book was returning home.

It’s now displayed in a place of honor on the bookshelf.

Empire Falls

Five-Ten is a literary home. For five decades it sheltered a book-loving family that built shelves for nearly every room, conducted book clubs, and hosted authors. The vibes in these walls are strong for writing.

I hope I can contribute the next phase of literary history to Five-Ten.

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Let’s start at the beginning: A writing update

Books start at the beginning. They have a first chapter, a first page, a first word.

It’s the logical place to start.

That’s also the hardest place for me to begin writing a book.

I usually know what happens in the middle and where the story ends, but knowing where to start is a challenge. The opening chapter is the one I rewrite the most, and the first line is the hardest of my entire writing process.

The opening of “The Mountain of Dempsey Molehill” has been one of the primary causes for delay in completing and releasing the book. The book is linear over the course of a year, told in an episodic manner. Many of the stories in the middle of the book already are written.  But I’ve been putting off the first chapter for more than a year.

Which is why I’m relieved to say …

A first draft of the first chapter is finally written!

Phew.

Sometimes a little motivation makes all the difference. I signed up for an opening chapter critique at SCBWI’s Prairie Writer’s and Illustrators Day, which meant a firm deadline loomed for submission. As a newsroom person, deadlines give me a positive boost.

Dempsey’s story is still far from finished, but now I feel like it’s off to a good start.

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How readers can react to ‘Handbook’ ruckus

On Thursday, YA organizations and social media were buzzing about the New York Times best-seller list.

The short version of what happened: A new teen novel, “Handbook for Mortals,” came out of the blue to bump “The Hate U Give” out of the No. 1 spot on the New York Times young adult best-sellers list. Thanks to some Twitter sleuths, it was discovered the book essentially gamed the system to get on the list, allegedly by having unknown persons call bookstores that report to the NYT and place bulk orders. Meanwhile, print copies of the books were nowhere to be found on major book retailer shelves and were unavailable on Amazon. (You can read more in Entertainment Weekly’s stories about the situation here and here.)

When the New York Times was alerted to the devious path the book took toward the No. 1 spot, the newspaper revised the list and removed “Handbook,” instead pushing “The Hate U Give” back to its 26th week in the top spot.

The drama continued Friday when sharp-eyed write Rick Capone spotted less-than-original cover art and shared it on Twitter.

Handbook Tweet

The dust (mostly) settled by the weekend, and the YA literary universe moved on to other conversations.

But what does this situation mean to the average reader?

The New York Times best-seller serves two great purposes for readers: (1) It measures the top-selling young adult books so we know what others are reading and (2) it’s a list for those looking for fresh reading material. As a reader, I love knowing what others are reading, and I’m fascinated to see what books rise in popularity. Even though I don’t always love the books the majority picks (I’m looking at you, “Twilight” …), it’s fascinating to see the public’s vote for favorite reading material.

Which is why I was rubbed the wrong way when “Handbook” used the system to push its way to the top. It didn’t claim No. 1 by readers buying the book but instead by one or more individuals making deliberate bulk orders. That’s duping the public into believing there’s massive readership for the novel. I’m not naive enough to believe this has never happened in the past on some small scale, and there are likely other ways to influence the NYT list that are beyond my understanding. But I was still disappointed by whoever decided to singlehandedly push “Handbook” into the top slot.

My initial reaction was to resent “Handbook,” I don’t think the proper route is to boycott novel — there’s a good chance the author had nothing to do with the phone calls hunting for NYT-reporting bookstores, and it would pain me to see a writer’s work damaged by scandal that had no direct link to him/her.

Nor do I think the appropriate route is to track it down and read it in light of the publicity it received last week. The cover art still raises questions, and I’m reluctant to give a sale to any publishing firm that would plagiarize another creator’s intellectual property. Not to mention the book hasn’t earned my attention through reviews or a plot synopsis I can’t resist.

So my plan is to put “Handbook” out of my mind for now. My action is to not act in regard to that title.

Instead, if the NYT list debacle irked you as a reader (as it did me), consider reading one of this week’s YA best-sellers. In light of last week’s ruckus, I ordered a copy of “The Hate U Give.” After all, it’s spent 25 weeks so far in the top spot, and the reviews are bursting with praise. It’s a novel that climbed to the top through its merit as a reader favorite and tackling a tough topic in fiction, where young readers can relate and/or empathize.

This week’s top 10 New York Times best-selling YA hardcovers are:

  1. The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
  2. One of Us is Lying, by Karen M. McManus
  3. Lord of Shadows, by Cassandra Clare
  4. Once and For All, by Sarah Dessen
  5. Miles Morales: Spider-Man, by Jason Reynolds
  6. This is Where It Ends, by Marieke Nijkamp
  7. Crazy House, by James Patterson
  8. Alex and Eliza, by Melissa de la Cruz
  9. The Last Magician, by Lisa Maxwell
  10. The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
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