Craftsmanship: Building Your Skills as an Artist

Remember when you were a kid and you drew that first picture that you were really proud of? Like when you were five or eight and actually worked really hard to make something beautiful for your mom or teacher or whoever?

As for me, I drew all the time as a kid, but the first time I remember being really proud of myself was when I was twelve years old and I drew a picture of a horse running through a fenced pasture, a lush forest just outside the fence. I drew every blade of grass, every scattered wildflower. My mother, who loves horses, raved about this beautiful drawing.

Objectively speaking, that picture was garbage. I’m sorry, but it was.

I look at it now and I see all the weird little mistakes. (How many joints does a horse’s back leg have?) It was great for a twelve-year-old, and I worked my little fingers off for a week, but if I still drew like that, I certainly wouldn’t be parading it around to all my aunties and displaying it prominently in my home. It was good for then, but I had to keep building on those skills to keep them good in the now.

Maybe you don’t draw. Maybe your hobby is soccer. Or ice carving. Or cricket breeding. Your interest was piqued and then you started dabbling in it a bit, and a bit more the next week, slowly building up your skills until you were willing to be seen in public with it. Or maybe you’re not quite that far. Maybe you’re still building.

So how does one build a skill, and writing in particular? (I assume that’s why you’re here anyway.) Here are four tips for honing your craft.

Practice You can’t become a skilled violinist without ever picking up a bow, and the same is true for writing. First drafts are pretty much all rubbish anyway, but you’ll find that your drafts will get higher and higher quality the more you produce. Write in long form and short, write under deadlines and without- just write.

Critique Go through your past work and learn from your mistakes. Don’t be cruel to yourself (and don’t put up with beta readers who are) but recognize the places where you have room to improve. Likewise, critiquing for other writers will also hone your skills and give you insights into the writing process itself.

Edit Don’t be a one draft wonder. There is no first draft so genius that it can’t be improved with careful editing. And with every edit, you teach yourself how to be a better writer, which will come out in later writing as well. Even stories that get scrapped altogether are never wasted.

Study Check out the masters at work. Read widely in a varied diet of genres, even if you don’t ever plan on writing in them. Make note (mental or otherwise) of the things that you admire and think about how you can emulate those traits. (That’s emulate, not copy. Plagiarism isn’t cool.) Also study the basics- get a good grammar book and check yourself. Find a craft book to inspire and guide you. (I really enjoyed Stephen King’s On Writing and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. I have a list of craft book recommendations here!) Don’t let yourself get complacent and think you have nothing more to learn!

These four practices will help you build your skills. They’ll help you recognize when you’re using the passive voice, when your word choice is weak or your phrases clichéd, when you’re showing instead of telling, when you’re maybe leaning a little too heavily on adverbs (ha). Looking back on my early writing drafts, I can easily spot where I was getting bogged down in purple prose. But at the time, those were some of my favorite passages. It took years of reading and writing and building my craft to realize they were a problem. And only years of reading and writing and building my craft will give me the skills to realize the other problems I have that I don’t even know about yet.

Have more tips for improving at writing? Let me know in the comments below! And until next week, happy writing!

Receiving Negative Feedback

critiqueA few years ago, I sent a novel out to some beta readers, smug in its excellence.  Normally, I’m a total mess when I have novels out, but I was pretty sure this one was flippin’ fantastic.  In another week or two, the raving praise would start rolling in.

Not quite.  One beta liked it, another was meh, several didn’t even get back to me- and one darling boy tore it apart, front to back.  He said it was cliché and meandering, the characters petty and unrelateable, and that I was lazy.  Lazy.  But thank goodness he told me.  After a few weeks of smarting, I realized he was right.

Giving someone negative feedback isn’t the funnest thing you’ll ever do, and neither is receiving it.  We get awfully attached to our stories and sometimes a critique of our work can feel like an attack on ourselves.  Rest assured, it’s not.  As we talked about last week, it’s important to know when there are problems with our story, especially the kind of problems that we don’t notice ourselves.

When someone gives you feedback, any feedback good or bad, it’s the greatest kindness they can do your story.  Letting you know what works helps you figure out what your strong points are, and by extension, how to strengthen the whole document.  Letting you know what doesn’t work gives you a heads up to problems before the stakes are high.  Remember, you only get one shot to impress an agent/editor/reader/whoever.  Once they decide to put your book down, they likely won’t pick it up ever again- or anything else you’ve written.

Still, favor or not, it stings a bit.  Here are three tips that might make taking criticism a little easier, and help you to use your feedback to its fullest.

Don’t argue.  Especially don’t argue if you just got the feedback two minutes ago and are hot to defend your honor.  Negative feedback takes a little more time to process than positive, so be sure to give yourself ample opportunity to do it.  Thank the readers graciously for their time, take a little time yourself, and then address the feedback directly only if you need clarification- if you’re not sure what a note means, if you have specific questions that the reader didn’t address, if you think the reader missed something important that would change their opinion.  Explain things, if you must, but learn to accept that some parts of your story just won’t tickle every reader’s fancy, and that some parts just suck (temporarily!).

Listen carefully.  Listen especially carefully if multiple readers are saying the same thing.  I know that all of us writers are sensitive introverts and unappreciated geniuses and all that, but we goof up sometimes.  We rely on clichés, or we mess up a fact check, or we get too focused on a neat world mechanic or a fun side character, or we hinge our entire plot on a choice that completely flies in the face of all our character development to that point.  It’s far easier for an unattached reader to pick up on those oopsies than the person who wrote it over and over so many times they want their eyeballs to fall out.  So when your readers have a problem with something, especially more than one of your readers, give it the attention it deserves.  Because chances are, editors and paying readers would have the same problems.

Trust yourself.  Remember that you are the author and you know your setting and your characters and your story better than anyone else in the world.  If a reader insists a change be made that you just aren’t comfortable with, don’t feel like you have to do it.  Authors get things wrong sometimes, but so do readers.  Don’t let your story become somebody else’s in an effort to please them.  Be pliable enough to recognize and accept good advice (even if it means a ton more work, oh my gosh), but strong enough to be true to your own vision.  Work to clarify the point, massage the prose into better form, whatever you need to do- but don’t warp your work into something you don’t love.

Negative feedback can hurt like the dickens, but so can exercise.  Exercise with an actual training coach is often more painful- but also a lot more effective.  Let the coach do her job, and get your sore butt to the gym.  You’ll be better for it in the long run, just like your story will be better if you accept the help your beta readers are willing to give, and then put in the work to make your story the very strongest it can be.  If you can do these three things, contradictory as two and three may seem, you’ll be well on your way to whipping your story into its very best shape.

How about you, lovely readers?  What do you do when you get negative feedback?  Any tips for the rest of us?

Giving Negative Feedback

feedbackI beta read a lot.  In fact, I probably beta read almost as much as I read published books and stories.  A lot of the stuff I read is really good- some of it fantastic.  But some of it is also merely decent, and some of it downright dismal.

I’m not sure if it’s easier to give or receive negative feedback, but you will do both throughout your career (and your life), and it’s best to learn to do them gracefully.  This week, I’d like to write about giving negative feedback, and next week about receiving it.

This post outlines my personal style of giving feedback.  Yours may be different, and mine probably isn’t ideal.  (I’d love to hear some of your ideas in the comments section at the end!  Pretty please!)  But this is the practice I’ve developed over the years and I think it’s served me pretty well.

When beta reading, I tend to return feedback in a fairly standard set of sections, whether my reaction was positive or negative.  When I didn’t enjoy the manuscript so much, I find that the standard format helps me to draw my own attention back from all the stuff that I hated and look at the document more objectively; more professionally, if you will.  Depending on the document, there are usually between four and seven sections, but they mainly focus on the following three aspects:

Writing Class Stuff  This area helps me pull my attention from all the stinky stuff because of its relative objectivity.  Are the characters’ motivations clear and understandable?  Did I find the worldbuilding believable?  There’s usually a fairly clear answer.  I’m pretty passionate about books (I have been known to fly into the occasion book-throwing, arm-waving, ranting fit that sends my husband fleeing for the door…), so having dispassionate things to write about first clears my head a bit.

Nitpicks  This is where I put the complaints that didn’t come up in the first section(s).  After calming myself down, this is easier to address in a way that won’t break someone’s heart and make them swear off writing (and me) forever.  In documents that need a lot of work, it’s not helpful to point out every single teeny weenie error and pet peeve; it’s hurtful.  Just pick the biggest problems- the things that bothered you the most, the things that messed up the story the most- and focus your attention there.  Remember, we beta to help writers make their stories the best they can be.  Railing on absolutely everything wrong discourages and overwhelms authors.  Not quite what we’re going for here.

Positive Aspects  This is where I put all the stuff that I liked about the story.  I always end reviews on an encouraging note.  Who among us doesn’t need a little encouragement?  Plus, knowing what they’re doing right helps a writer to know their strengths, which they can then extrapolate out into the rest of the story.  Try to note as many positive aspects as you can, but for pity’s sake, don’t lie and say you liked something unless you honestly did.

And then I close with an invitation for further conversation.  My reviews tend to be fairly long and in-depth, but it’s preeeeetty rare that an author doesn’t take me up on the offer.

I don’t always use this format.  If a manuscript is pretty polished and I have little broad commentary to make (or if it’s a short story), I return feedback as line-by-line notes.  And of course, if a writer sends along a list of questions with the manuscript, I answer them.  (Beta readers should always respect the author’s wishes.  If you’ve been asked to focus on story and character development, but instead you focus on spelling and grammar, you’re not helping.)

No matter how you format your review, always keep these things to keep in mind:

Be positive!  Even when you’re saying technically negative things, try to put it in a positive light.  This manuscript is someone’s baby and they put a lot of work into it.  Nobody’s work is perfect, and if it was, they wouldn’t be asking you for help.  Take pride in the opportunity to take something very important to someone, and help make it better!

Be honest!  These authors want to be professionals, so have the courtesy to treat them that way.  As important as it is to be positive, don’t ever lie in your review.  Misleading an author about the enjoyability or marketability or whateverability of their manuscript will only lead to more heartache further down the road.  Honest feedback is more important than warm fuzzies.

Be specific!  We’re not here to tell the author what to do or how to do it, but we are here to point out problems.  Even broad problems such as a meandering plot can be addressed using specific plot points.  Point out the problem and trust the author to find their own solution.

Be open!  Open yourself up to conversation.  Authors love to talk about their stories and explain their ideas, and it will give you further opportunity to elaborate on your notes- especially important if you had to do a lot of truncating in the name of staying positive.  Offering to continue the conversation helps the author feel their story is valued, and allows you to continue to help fine tune in a less formal (read: less intimidating) format.

Giving negative feedback is scary business, but everybody knows its value.  Negative feedback is what helps writers to fix the problems that we can’t see.  It shows us our weaknesses so that we can strengthen them, and helps us see where our stories need work- which is super valuable when we’ve already read it twelve times ourselves and just want the work to be done.  As un-fun as giving negative feedback can be, it is probably the kindest gift a beta reader can give a budding author.  Give it thoughtfully and truthfully, and your authors will thank you.

So what about you, readers?   How do you give useful, encouraging feedback on manuscripts that need a lot of work?  Let me know in the comments!

Writing Events!

I wanted to recap on a couple writing events I participated in earlier this year, but they were both small enough that they didn’t quite merit a full length post.  So rather than taking the time to expound meaningfully on each one and really dig into it, I’ve decided to be lazy and crowbar them together!  (Plus this is my last full week before we take off for our three-month-long roadtrip through the Lower 48.  Oy, so much to dooooo.)

Panel Poster



Earlier this year, I helped to organize an author panel and workshop in Fairbanks Alaska, riding on the coattails of the statewide librarian’s conference taking place that same week.  The panel featured Carole Estby Dagg, author of The Year We Were Famous and Sweet Home Alaska, and local authors Cindy Aillaud, Lynn Lovegreen, Jen Funk Weber, and Marie Osburn Reid.

The turnout was pretty small, so we all managed to wedge in around a few large conference tables, and it was all very snug and casual.  The panel was more of a round robin, with the authors- or anyone else present with writing or publishing experience- sharing tips and advice.

Here I’ve picked out the best advice for you!  (Ain’t I sweet?)  Common core, at least in Alaskan school districts, has upped the need for informational stories for children, so there is a high demand for fic-informational (also known as faction).  National SCBWI conferences are awesome, and check out for even more networking opportunities.  SCBWI itself is very helpful for non-agented writers, but agents can get a much better deal than an unrepped writer can.  Take your time, and write what you love.

Following the panel, I ate too much candy and then Carole Estby Dagg presented about the stages of writing, from selecting an audience through writing and editing, and on to publication and marketing.  She approached the topic through the lens of her own work as a writer of historical fiction.

While I love a gal who plugs research so heavily (because research! I love it!), I think the most relevant thing that I pulled out of her presentation was the Shrunken Manuscript technique.

Shrink your manuscript to the tiniest print you can read.  Cut out all the open spaces: paragraphs, section breaks, everything, until it’s crammed onto as few pages as possible.  Then get three highlighters.  Everything with high emotion, highlight in red (or whatever).  Everything with high conflict, highlight in blue.  Every major plot point, highlight in green.  Then lay your whole manuscript out.  No matter how much you love them, any spots without color need to be either cut out or amped up.


AWG Reading

Just a few days after the SCBWI stuff, I attended an AWG meeting.  It was actually one of the meetings I usually skip- a chance to read some of your own work and get feedback.  But I had a short story competition coming up and I wanted a test audience for the piece I was planning to submit.  So why not?

I’d never done a critique group thing like this before, so I wasn’t sure what exactly to expect.  I managed to position myself in the seating circle so that I went dead last, which afforded me the perfect opportunity to chicken out, or for the meeting to run out of time, or all kinds of exciting possibilities.

None of which materialized.

I took my turn in the hotseat and read a short story I’d been prepping for a writing competition.  Historically, I have always been a terrible reader when it comes to my own works.  I stumble on words, read too fast, too quiet.  I get nervous.  But I knew this going in, so I had read it through several times out loud.  I find it’s harder to suck at reading when you memorize the piece instead. 😛  So the reading didn’t go as terribly as I’d been anticipating.

After I finished my reading, I whipped out my notebook.  The others in the group had lots of excellent questions and suggestions that really helped me zero in on what was working in the story, and what could use a bit more tweaking.  It was great to get some alternative perspectives on the piece, since I’d so thoroughly exhausted my own.  But on top of that, they were all very encouraging, and meaningful encouragement is sometimes hard to come by in this line of work.

In the end, though, the critique must have done something right, because the piece took first place in the competition, leading to many a happy squeal.  So maybe consider trying a live critique some time, even if you never have before.

Until next time, happy packing writing!

Parting Jill with Money, and Other Miracles

fresh_bread_loavesAnyone who knows me well knows that the only things I willingly spend money on are secondhand books and delicious, delicious foodstuffs. I am more or less the absolute tightest of tightwads in Fairbanks, if not the whole of the Northern Hemisphere.

In January, I was floundering in the depths of writing depression and wanting to throw in the towel, and wanting to cling to the towel forever, and wanting to at least maybe put the towel in a closet somewhere for a few months, and being generally indecisive and pathetic. I was drowning. I wasn’t making any writing headway and I felt like the only way to make that stop was to just sink and be done with it all.

Amongst the zillions of newsletters, blog posts, and announcements clogging up my inbox (it seems I check my emails less when I’m depressed too) was a notice from the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators that they were doing a ten page manuscript critique with various literary agents and the deadline was coming up soon. I get notices for these things all the time, but always ignore them. But I figured there wasn’t any harm in just checking how much it cost, right? Maybe this was the lifeline I had been hoping for.

Fifty whole dollars. If this says anything about my brain, I think of dollars in terms of the food they can buy me. (Not even kidding. This is absolutely true.) Fifty dollars can get me nine and a half gallons of almondmilk. Fifty dollars is twenty-eight heads of romaine lettuce or, if I’m feeling really fancy, fourteen pounds of arugula. Fifty dollars is fifty-eight pounds of whole wheat flour, which is enough for seventy-six loaves of fresh, hot bread odiferizing my house. Fifty is a lot of dollars.

After the smelling salts burned awareness back into my nostrils, I came to and swore it off. No. No way. Fifty bucks? Think of the groceries! But my husband was a little tired of the nightly tirade about my worthlessness and stupidity and general suckage, and gently encouraged me to just try it. So I figured, ‘Okay. I’ll call it a birthday gift. Maybe I do need this.’ I flung my credit card at SCBWI and ran away sobbing.

A few days later, I chose my critiquer, signed up for the casual group critique as well, sent in my packet, and then did my best not to think about it for the next few weeks. I was so successful at this endeavor that a fresh email from SCBWI caught me by surprise (a mere two days after the pep rally with Paul Greci and the AWG). Cringing, I opened the email to see what my seventy-six-loaves-of-bread dollars had gotten me.

It wasn’t glowing- she didn’t rave about it and beg me to sign with her on the spot. But it wasn’t a let-down either- which is really saying something because when I get in the dumps, I’m hunting for let-downs. My critiquer kindly balanced what was good (and there was more than I was expecting) with what was bad (and there was actually less than I was expecting). She gave me gobs of inline edits, and even more in general thoughts, hopes, problems, and what she loved and wanted more of.gollum27

Like I’d guzzled too much soda, a little bubble of hope welled up in my belly. Maybe the story wasn’t garbage. Maybe I wasn’t garbage. Grumps the Goblin (the voice in the back of my head- he looks like Gollum but with more and pointier teeth) assured me this couldn’t possibly be true, but there was one more chance to test it out. The group critique.

Since a mere handful of us live in the scattered wilds of Not-Anchorage, Alaska, we gathered in a Skype meeting to pick at each other’s scabs. But I didn’t find myself bleeding. Once again, I received generally positive reviews with only a few problems that I already knew about. Even the gal who didn’t like fantasy had good things to say about it. (Take that, Grumps!) Upon request, I shared the critiquer’s review and got another round of feedback, and came out of the whole ordeal feeling shockingly happy.

The icing on the cake? One of the ladies in the critique group- the one who doesn’t like fantasy- emailed me later and told me, “You know, that last line in your critique sounded an awful lot like an invitation to query.” I had thought so too at first, until Grumps had convinced me otherwise. But hearing it from another person opened up the possibility again. Maybe it was. Maybe I should try regardless.

I’m not saying you should all rush out and throw dollars at the first Writer’s Digest class you can find. Flinging money at problems isn’t always the best solution. But in this instance, paying an agent to look at my stuff and tell me it wasn’t trash was helpful. Between this and Paul Greci’s presentation just a few days before, I finally felt ready to start working on publication again. And that extra bit of confidence and encouragement was definitely worth fifty bucks.

Digesting Feedback

Jean-Honore Fragonard, painted 1770 Aaaaaaaah, feedback. So delicious. So painful.

Last month being our unofficial Beta Appreciation Month (and extra love to everyone who helped with the posts!), it seemed appropriate to now discuss what to do with all that yummy feedback your betas have given you. Particularly when it’s not what you expected, or particularly yummy.

Betas all approach manuscripts differently. Some blow through it within a week, others (ahem) could leave you waiting in the silence for months. Some give a general overview of the entire book, a simple assessment of whether or not they enjoyed it. Some go into exhaustive detail about absolutely everything, flagging every dangling participle and missing Oxford comma, and whining that so-and-so’s beard is two shades lighter in chapter twelve than it was in chapter one. Most beta readers fall somewhere between these extremes. They often cite specific examples in the text for their comments, talking about what was good, what was bad, and what could be improved. A good beta reader will both praise and criticize, but will always be constructive. And most beta readers understand that you are waiting in agony for their response. (While you, of course, understand that this is a free kindness from a person with a job, a family, etc, a life, much like your own.)

It’s easy enough to know what to do with your notes when they are brilliant and sparkling with praise and insight. But sometimes the notes are not what you thought they would be. Sometimes, they are disappointing, even vaguely insulting. Whatever the case, do not take them personally. Whether your readers are singing praises or throwing tomatoes, remember that they are not there to assess you. Betas are assessing your manuscript and, unless they’re completely self-absorbed, they want you to succeed as an author. Before anything else, be grateful- even if you didn’t like what they had to say, express your thanks for their willingness to read your work. They took the time to do you a favor and you should acknowledge that.

And then don’t despair. Roll your sleeves back and toughen up, kitty. This game ain’t for sissies.

Read any notes you received carefully. Check them against the manuscript itself so you know exactly what the reader is talking about. (Even though you probably have your entire manuscript memorized by now.) And unless it’s obviously, patently wrong, don’t change anything just yet. Think on it. Mull it over. You are the author and nobody knows your book or your characters like you do. Just because one of your betas didn’t like whatever passage doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be mutilated or cut.

If you find you disagree with a reader, compare the complaints with notes from other readers, too. (Or ask them! Betas love to chatter about the books they’ve read. Picking author brains is a rare treat!) If something is a problem for a sizable chunk of your current readers, it’s probably going to be a problem for a sizable chunk of your future readers, too (including agents, editors, book reviewers, and, eventually, paying customers). But if your other readers didn’t have any problems (or loved it), you may be able to chock it up to a difference in taste. After all, you can’t please everyone.

Sometimes the problems aren’t just a specific scene, though. Sometimes your world building is too vague, your character two-dimensional, your pacing off, or some other major issue that will require a massive overhaul of the entire manuscript. This can be exceedingly daunting. Don’t. Be. Sad. Be happy that this came up before you threw a lame manuscript at your dream agent like a noob. Just understand that your rewrite is going to take more work than you initially thought, and rejoice that your manuscript will be that much better when you’re done.

And smile! Your notes won’t be filled completely with darkness and woe! Even if there is a giant barren patch in the notes, don’t despair. In this situation, no news is usually good news and this can be taken as indirect praise. If your beta isn’t leaving notes, odds are there’s nothing to worry over. It’s when the writing is poor or the story is dragging, even if nothing is overtly wrong, that beta readers tend to be at their most nitpicky. Lack of nitpicks is a good thing.

Also remember to take heed of the positive notes. This is the tastiest part of your feedback! This means that things were just too awesome to pass without comment. These are shining examples of things that you are doing right. When getting a manuscript ready for publication, it’s just as important to know what is working as it is to know what isn’t working. After all, if you don’t know what the readers like and want, you won’t be able to give it to them.

Finally, keep dialogue open with your beta readers. As mentioned earlier, they are usually willing (and eager) to answer questions, as well as ask you a few of their own. Ask them what they thought of a particular passage. Ask them to read a scene you rewrote that they might like better (or worse- you need to know either way). And be sure to jot down any questions they had that they forgot to put in their notes. Talk back and forth about it. Beta readers tend to want to stay involved in the writing process and you would be wise to include them.

Once you have all these little duckies in a row, that’s when you start beautifying your manuscript. Don’t change things until you’re sure they need to be changed. But once you’re sure, don’t hesitate. Editing is a painful process, but a necessary one. With someone else to help you know what needs a little love, it makes your job that much easier.

The Beauty of the Beta

I am shameless in getting my friends to do my work for me. So on this, the second week of Beta Appreciation Month, instead of presenting you with a lecture about whatever I think is important today, I ambushed a bunch of my beta readers, all of whom are writers themselves and share their works with others, with the sort of question nobody likes to be asked: “Heeeey. Wanna help me with something?”

And mostly, shockingly, they did. (Betas are like that.) I asked them what the most rewarding aspect of betaing is, as a reader or a writer. After a bit of clarification and caveats, the answers started coming in. So kick back, enjoy, and feel the love…

Melanie Francisco: “I highly recommend authors to both use and be a beta reader for one reason; it makes you a better writer. In my experience the only way to get better at telling a story is practice. Being a beta reader honed my editing skill set, making my rewrites stronger. By helping other writers I explored constructive criticism and learned to walk the line between help and hurt. It also toughened up my skin for the critiques I got back.

“By letting others review my work I found plot holes, mistakes, and style deficiencies. By correcting these mistakes I make my readers experience better. I write for me, but I submit and release my work for readers. Betas are invaluable in making my reader’s time with my story great.”

Liz Onstead: “Hmmr. I’d have to say the friendships that are formed. From fanfic to novels, I’ve made good friends by beta-reading.”

Madison Dusome: “As a receiver: another set of eyes can spot inconsistencies (in plot, motivations, dialogue, etc) that I can’t – major bonus. I learn how other people read my story, and what they think is funny, sad, etc – what they think my story is about. Sometimes that’s hard to know. I also get to hear what’s boring/sucky – then I can make it better!

“As a giver: new books, yo! When Jill publishes sometime down the road, how cool will I feel?! Also, seeing what other writers do wrong/right (and actually thinking about that) really helps me analyze/write my own work.”

CM Schofield: “Why do I love beta reading?

“I get to read exclusive books that no one else has read. As if that wasn’t enough, there’s someone who you can madly ramble at about said book who actually wants to hear it all. And who doesn’t love talking about books they’ve read?

“Additionally, it’s very rewarding to think that I’m a part of the process for what could one day be a published novel. To have helped someone even a little on their journey to publishing is a wonderful feeling. The writing community is welcoming and supporting and I love being a part of that.”

M Elizabeth Tait: “I haven’t been a beta reader for very long, but I’ve found that I enjoy it more than my leisure reading. I recently read an essay by Mortimer Adler titled How to Mark a Book. He compared reading a good book to eating a steak. You buy the steak and now own it, but you don’t actually “own the steak in the most important sense until you consume it and get it into your bloodstream.” He continues on to say that books must be “absorbed into your bloodstream to do you any good.” I can’t be an effective beta reader unless I’m taking notes, unconsciously incorporating that book into my bloodstream.”

Anyone else out there have a soft spot in your heart for beta readers/reading? Let us know in the comments!

Conference Lessons, Part I: The Five W’s

I’m assuming most of my readers have heard of the Snowflake Method. It’s more like a planning method than an actual writing method, so I don’t know what the pantsters think of it, but I came across it recently and I think there’s some real merit in it.

At the Alaska Writers Guild fall conference, I had a few sessions and a workshop with Lisa Cron, and she had a similar method, but a touch difference. In a lot of ways, it seems much more succinct than the Snowflake Method. She called it the Five W’s, and it probably seems pretty similar to most of us.

Ms Cron suggests that using her planning method, much like the Snowflake Method, will help keep down the necessity for rewrites, make you a more confident writer, and, when you are writing, your story will be more compelling. (Reminder: Lisa Cron wrote the book Wired for Story, which is all about the neurology behind the entertainment we get sucked into. She’s awesome. Her book is awesome. Her presentations are awesome. If you find any of this information useful, I suggest you get the book or go to a session. Plus she’s just fantastically nice.)

So let’s dive right into the hows! Because I’ve got NaNoWriMo coming up and I need to get cracking on my prep work. Without further ado, the Five W’s.

What-if, Who, Why, World-view, When

Got all that? It probably looks pretty familiar. The idea is to take these questions and apply them to your story idea before you start writing it into a book. So tackle this one at a time as you work your way through the bones of your story.

What If- This is the external conflict, the arena of the story. This should always be about what happens when someone’s expectations were not met. It implies that something has gone wrong or will go wrong which causes trouble. Your what if scenario could be: “What if the internet shut down? What if the earth’s magnetic poles switched? What if my parents showed up for a visit a week before expected?” Make it as crazy as you like. Whee!

Who- Who is our protagonist? Whose skin are we wearing as we navigate this problem? Your who could be: “A thirty-five year old man living in his mom’s basement without human interaction for the last decade. A rising-star geophysicist and mother of three. You. A golden-maned shiatsu imported from China.” Whatever. Have fun with it.

Why- Why is what’s happening in your What If scenario going to matter to your Who? If you can make it really matter to your protagonist, it will matter to your reader. (Assuming your reader likes and sympathizes with your protagonist. If not… maybe go back to your who make make him/her less odious.)

World View- How does the protagonist see his or her world and how does that change over the course of the story? Knowing your character’s world necessitates knowing the past, sitting in the present, and projecting into the future. We have to be able to get into the protagonist’s head. And one of the things that has to be in the character’s head is the misbelief, the fatal flaw, the whatever you want to call it- something your protagonist is WRONG about, some way that he or she can evolve to be a better person at the end.

When- When does your story start? This should be at the last possible moment, the time when tomorrow becomes today, when the protagonist no longer has a choice and must act. At what point can the protagonist no longer ignore the problem, the ticking clock, and has to deal with it? And finally, how does it end?

If you’ve got all this figured out in advance, you’re ready to pound out that first draft. Personally, I’d probably throw in a plot arc as well, but that’s just me. I’m a plotter. How about you? What else would you add to this prep line-up?

(PS- And those of you in the critiquing mood, I have a query letter that I’m hoping to send off later today. If you wouldn’t mind taking a peek at it and letting me know what you think, I’d be much obliged. As always, thanks for reading!)

Conference Fun, Part II: The Awards Ceremony, In Which I Win and Fail

The day after the car ride made in heaven, we went in for breakfast in a hotel conference room filled to capacity. I am not shy and quickly found myself a table of peer-looking people to accost. We exchanged the typical greetings. Names, cities. Genres, pitches, how we felt about Twilight. (Not kidding. Twilight came up four times over the two days of the regular conference. Fifty Shades of Grey came up thrice. Shockingly, Chaucer came up zero times.)

We quickly established the undying bonds of literary comradery (aka- exchanged Twitter handles). They’re all super cool and it was great to meet them and hang out with them throughout that day and the next. We had meals together, went over notes from sessions and workshops and critiques, and had a generally good time. And there was snark. Oh, the snark.

Saturday was also the day I went over my critique with Lisa Cron, which was great. Fifteen minutes was not enough time, but she did help me clean up a few points of confusion and let me know that my query was utter garbage. (She’s right. It’s utter garbage.) Since I was the first critique after lunch, she, being the phenomenally nice lady that she is, let me start a few minutes early and pick her brains a bit more. We determined that I talk too much about setting and not enough about emotion. So… something to work on.

That evening was the awards ceremony. I knew I was being awarded the Doris J. Dearborn scholarship by her son, Barry Dearborn, so I got all dolled up and Barry put on a tie. We made a fetching pair, I’m sure. I said a few words that mostly amounted to gushing gratitude (I’m so bad at public speaking. It’s terrible. Can’t I just write a short story about how the event made me feel and call it good?) and happily sat back down with my pals. The scholarship paid for my attendance at the conference, my critique, my Friday workshop, and a year’s membership in the Alaska Writers Guild.

But then my name got called again! Each of the three critiquers was told to select up to three of the best manuscripts from their pool to be awarded Most Promising Manuscript. Lisa Cron selected mine and apparently felt so strongly about it that she refused to pick another two. So I got each of the two awards that I possibly could have qualified for, and was the only person of the evening to get two awards. There were a total of eleven awards handed out that evening. I was so giddy I felt light headed the rest of the evening.

One would think this would grant me mythic confidence. One would think this would make me feel perfectly justified in approaching any ol’ agent I wanted to. One would be wrong.

After the award ceremony was over, I took pictures with Barry Dearborn and with Gretchen Wehmhoff, the Guild president, and started eying Deborah Warren, who happens to be the agent of my kids’ favorite books. If I had any right to approach an agent, I figured now was the time. I was a double award winner, for crying out loud! The double award winner! So I inched closer. But she was talking to other people, so I puttered around the skeletal remains of the buffet. But she was still talking. So I went and talked query letters with the Conference’s chairperson, Brooke Hartman, who is awesome. But Ms. Warren was still talking to people who were not me.

I gave up and went outside with Mary. But as we were loading into the car, she kicked me back out and told me to go talk to the agent. So I slunk back inside. Folks were walking up to shake my hand, to congratulate me, to ask about what I was working on. But not Ms. Warren. She was still talking. So I edged closer, standing almost close enough to reach out and touch her lime green jacket, thereby absorbing some of her magical literary powers.

But I didn’t. Instead, I skittered back outside, where Mary was sitting in the car, casting me a rather stern look. Cheeks burning, I crept back inside.

I glanced at Ms. Warren again, still talking and having a great time, absolutely oblivious to my plight (or at least too polite to stare). I poked my head into the empty conference room, pretending I was looking for something, and then went back out into the hall where the few stragglers were still talking.

By this point, I felt like a total creep. I mean, seriously. I was being a stalker. I opened the door, took one step, saw Mary, and retreated back inside. Oh, golly, I was being flanked! There was nowhere to go! Ms Warren was still chatting, her group breaking up and heading for the elevators, but the conversation never stopped. They never paused. And I never interrupted. And so I slumped in defeat back to Mary’s car in the half-empty parking lot and decided I would pester Ms Warren tomorrow.

But we all know, my darlings, that tomorrow never comes. I found out the next morning that she wasn’t attending the second day, that my ship had sailed, and that she had very little, if any, idea who I was. Sigh! Alas…

But… I’m probably going to query her anyway. So, we’ll see?

Pitch Party Overview

For anyone who missed all the excitement this last week, a few friends and I got together and had our (First Annual?) Pitch Party! It was fantastic. We got lots of helpful feedback and had a lot of fun. And since it was so much fun, I’m doing an overview so that other people can relive the awesomeness. Lucky you!

As stated in the previous post, participants prepared two pitches. The shorter pitch could be no longer than 140 characters. The longer could be no more than 100 words. Shorter pitches were posted on Twitter, while longer pitches were posted in the comments here. But for archiving purposes, it’s been requested that I post the shorter pitches as well. Here they are, in no particular order!


So after the shuffle of posting both on Twitter and on this blog, we got down to brass tacks and starting the critiquing portion of the Pitch Party. I moderated and we went through each of the eight pitches and said what we particularly liked or disliked, ways they could be improved, things that were confusing, etc. All in all, I think it was pretty helpful. 140 characters isn’t a whole lot of space, but I think folks did pretty well cramming in as much information as possible.

Just for our eight short pitches, we were at it for at least an hour and a half, if I’m remembering right, so we decided to pick apart the longer format ones on our own time (since some of us were nursing sick children and on other continents and other such lame excuses). As our closing, we voted on our favorite pitch and the winner was Madison (@_vajk), who nudged out Cel Writing (@CeluthWriting) by one vote. For the longer format, Liz (@LizOnstead) snagged the prize for her elegantly crafted pitch, while Tia (@tiakall) posted the most comments by a long shot, and was also, by the way, the only participant who commented on every single pitch. Which is awesome.

As stated, each of our lovely winners will be awarded with a exceedingly nifty and finely crafted postcard which I think will get through customs.

I think I speak for all (most? some?) of us when I say this really was a blast and very helpful, and I plan to polish up the pitch a bit more and give it another go. And by the way, if any of you lovely readers have any critiques to add, PLEASE, we would love to hear them! I know I speak for all of us on that one. You can post any thoughts to the comments below about the short pitches above, or go through the longer pitches in the comments of the previous post.