Friday, July 31, 2015

You Can't Please Everyone

Hard yet strangely comforting truth #1: we will all get negative feedback on our writing at some point.

Hard yet strangely comforting truth #2: not all feedback, good or bad, is useful.

Whether we’re talking about reviews for a published book, or rejections from an agent or publisher, or critique from a professional or feedback from a Beta or CP… not everyone is going to agree all the time.

One person might love your characters and think they are so flibbin’ fantastic it’s insane and the next person might hate them, call them dull or stupid or just plain unrelatable. Who’s right? What do you do?

What about when you get one terrible, horrible no good at all review/critique /etc that makes you pull your hair out?

This is the reason why you need to get multiple readers for your work. Every. Single. Time. Even once you’re a successfully published author (maybe especially then) you still need multiple readers with multiple viewpoints.  Because there will always be people who don’t “get” you, your writing or your story. Maybe even someone who’s loved your previous work.

You can’t please everyone.

So what do you do when you get that negative review? One you totally don’t agree with?

First, you get a second (or third or fourth etc.) opinion, maybe asking them to look specifically at what the last reviewer pointed out.

If you hear the same feedback again, they might be on to something.

If you don’t, the first reviewer may might be wrong—in this particular circumstance for this particular story. Even an agent or an editor can be wrong.

BUT… no matter what, never ignore a well-meaning critique. No matter how we react to feedback—love it, hate it, get is but still hate it, have absolutely no idea how to fix it, want to punch them in the face through your computer screen or kiss them for being so spot on it’s insane— you must take it into consideration. Why? Because they might be totally completely right and you are just too stubborn to see it.

If a critique doesn’t hit you square in the face making you say “DUH!!” or “Ooh!”, then let it sit. Don’t react. Don’t respond. Give yourself a little distance.

Then really think about what they were saying and why. Maybe reread, specifically looking at what they pointed out and try to see it through their eyes. A lot of times there is *something* wrong, or at least something that can be improved on, they might have just suggested the wrong fix or their comments came across wrong, or again, you were just too stubborn to see clearly. 

Or, maybe they were wrong. Maybe they have a different viewpoint or different expectations and want your work to be something you don’t want it to be. That’s okay. That’s just a difference in opinion.

Sometimes the words you use don’t click for them, don’t inspire the kind of image you were looking for. Play around and see if you can find a new way to get your point across, but if you can’t it’s entirely possible that they just aren’t the right audience for your story so don’t stress about it too much. 

This is your work, not theirs.  Do what’s right for you.

It’s a balancing act. Opening your mind to possibilities of the critiquers suggestions so you can really consider how to fix it, and being true to your own creative muse.

Just always remember, that no matter who it is suggesting changes, it’s okay to say no.

There is no right or wrong answer, only what is perceived to be the best way to express a thought, image, character, emotion, story etc. What you think is best, is not always going to be what others think is best. Learn from what your peers say, and grow but never let them change you, not really.

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Power of Positive Critique – The Sandwich Method

I hate having to tell people what they did wrong. It’s hard and I don’t like disappointing people. And that is one reason why writing is so great--it’s subjective. Writing doesn’t have a lot of right and wrong to it. So when you critique you can focus on feedback that is telling the writer what’s not working for you as the reader. That said, if feedback isn’t delivered with care, it can be debilitating to a writer, especially one just starting out. This is why I love the sandwich method.

Yes I said sandwich, but unfortunately it’s not the eating kind. It’s the critiquing kind. So let’s decompose the sandwich method. In a standard sandwich you have the bread and the meat/veggie center. The bread is the good part. It’s got to be there otherwise you can’t have a sandwich. So when you critique someone it’s always helpful to start with something you liked about their work. Between characters, concept, story, setting, voice etc. you should be able to find something good about the work you are critiquing.

After first slice of bread comes the core of the sandwich. This is where you need to decide if you are a turkey sandwich, a ham sandwich, a BLT or something else. (I’m starting to get hungry) What goes on the sandwich is the things you want to discuss, what worked, what didn’t what might need some tweaking etc. You may choose to make this a turkey sandwich only and focus on just one issue that needs a lot of work, or you may decide you want a turkey with all the fixings, in which case you might discuss a lot of things you noticed. Just make sure you pile that sandwich with care. If you put the wrong combination of items it might not taste good. Or if you pile too high, the whole sandwich might topple over. Just like this…

I know that’s a bacon sandwich and what could honestly be wrong with bacon, but look at the structural integrity of that sandwich (sorry, I’m an engineer). That thing is a few strips of bacon from toppling onto that dirty table, and who wants gross bacon? Certainly not me. The same goes for meat of the feedback. If you pile too much on at once you risk knocking over the writer’s feelings. People have a threshold on how and what they can handle, so make sure you aren’t serving them a sandwich they can’t eat.
Yeah, I know, it’s all about the bacon. But you can’t have a sandwich without the top piece of bread. And that bread is again the good stuff. (Yes better than the bacon I SWEAR!) So make sure you cap off your feedback by again saying something nice. Start with good and end with good. If you do that, you’ll reel the writer in with what they really need to focus on without crippling them. Otherwise you might end up like this guy…
And we all know things didn’t turn out so great for him. So stick with the sandwich method. It allows you to deliver feedback in a nice way that will help the writer see what needs work without sending them home sad and hungry.

How do you like to give and/or receive your feedback?

Friday, July 24, 2015

Beyond Prose: Novels in Verse, with author A.L. Sonnichsen

There are so many ways for us to tell our stories.

1st Person, 3rd Person, past tense, present tense. Pictures, or words, or a combination. Graphic novels, split perspectives, unreliable narrators. One of the most important decisions we make when taking on a new project is not just what the story is, or who the characters are within it, but how we tell the story.

And one of the most powerful, challenging, intriguing (and currently hot) ways to tell a middle grade story is through verse. A novel written is verse doesn't follow the rules of paragraph and sentence flows with the freedom of poetry, and it can make for a totally unique and intense reading experience.

I'll never forget the first middle grade novel I read: Love That Dog, by Sharon Creech - a timeless masterpiece that still circulates constantly in my library, fourteen years later. I was blown away by how Creech fired my imagination (and broke my heart) with her spare, spot-on verse. It wasn't just a different way to tell a story, or a new (to me) way, or even a better way...for that story, with that voice, it was the best way. It was perfect, and it gave the story of Jack and his dog Sky a lift and a poignancy and a power that it wouldn't have had if it had been written in straight, paragraph-chained prose.

Middle grade novels in verse are also super hot right now. Last year's Newbery Medal winner, The Crossover, and the National Book Award winner, Brown Girl Dreaming, were both written in verse. Other recent notable novels in verse are Inside Out and Back Again (also a National Book Award winner), May B., Out of the Dust (okay, it was 1997, but it won the Newbery!), and Serafina's Promise.

The best news? Kids love novels in verse, especially reluctant readers. The pages aren't intimidatingly full of winding sentences, endless paragraphs, or monolithic block of texts. The story is told in approachable, bite-sized nibbles of delicious, potent verse. Kids look at that open page with its inviting white space and freeform, eye-catching text and they say, "Hey, I can read that!" And then they do.

If you haven't read middle grade novels in verse or haven't considered verse for your next (or current) WIP, you're really missing out on a stellar way to tell or read a story.

One of 2015's most beautiful middle grade debuts was also a noteworthy (complete with starred reviews!) addition to the pantheon of middle grade novels in verse, Red Butterfly by A.L. Sonnichsen.
Here's the official blurb:
"A young orphaned girl in modern-day China discovers the meaning of family in this inspiring story told in verse, in the tradition of Inside Out and Back Again and Sold.
Kara never met her birth mother. Abandoned as an infant, she was taken in by an American woman living in China. Now eleven, Kara spends most of her time in their apartment, wondering why she and Mama cannot leave the city of Tianjin and go live with Daddy in Montana. Mama tells Kara to be content with what she has…but what if Kara secretly wants more?
Told in lyrical, moving verse, Red Butterfly is the story of a girl learning to trust her own voice, discovering that love and family are limitless, and finding the wings she needs to reach new heights

Ms. Sonnichsen was gracious enough to answer some questions about her writing, her beautiful book, and novels in verse.
MGM: Your debut novel, Red Butterfly, is written in verse. What made you decide that this would be the best way to tell this story?
I wrote the first draft in prose, but knew I had to make some major changes, so planned to rewrite it. It was around the same time that I read OUT OF THE DUST by Karen Hesse. I had a feeling that my main character, Kara, would love to speak the same way as Billie Jo, so when I tackled the rewrite, I tried verse. It worked perfectly!

MGM: What do you think are some of biggest challenges to writing in verse, and what are its greatest advantages or opportunities as a storytelling method?
All good writers try to be efficient in their use of language, but verse bumps up the challenge. That's probably the hardest part--staying brief, but still making sense! My favorite part about writing in verse, as opposed to prose, is that you can skip things and nobody notices. It's like crossing a river on stepping stones rather than a bridge. I can focus on one tiny detail, write a poem about it, and discover that it's important to the forward momentum.

MGM: What are some of your very favorite MG novels in verse?
I have quite a few! I already mentioned OUT OF THE DUST, by Karen Hesse, but there's also HOME OF THE BRAVE by Katherine Applegate, MAY B. by Caroline Starr Rose, and INSIDE OUT AND BACK AGAIN by Thanhha Lai. I highly recommend all of them!

MGM: What advice would you give to someone who was thinking about (or trying to) writing a novel in verse?
First, read lots of novels in verse. Then, when you're comfortable, experiment! See if it fits your protagonist's voice. I don't think it works for every protagonist, but some really do speak more clearly in verse. You won't know unless you try!

MGM: Can you share a bit about your inspiration for Red Butterfly, and how it connects to your own life?
There have been so many inspirations for this book, but they're all linked to the eight years I spent in China while my husband was teaching at an international school. I got to volunteer for an organization that worked with the local orphanage, and I ended up bringing home a baby from that orphanage. We fostered her for six and a half years before we were able to adopt her. Because of that experience, I have lots of friends with adoption stories. One friend asked for my advice for his mom, who was fostering two girls, and that was the seed of inspiration for the first draft of Red Butterfly. In trying to figure out how that scenerio would work out fictionally, I used another friend's adoption journey as a precedent. I saw how the orphanage officials had dealt with her situation and reasoned that they might do something similar in Kara's story.

MGM: What was your road to publication like? Any words of wisdom for someone struggling with that process right now?
I came very close to giving up on Red Butterfly. I had an agent for a unsold previous book, but she didn't connect with Red Butterfly, so I had to find new representation. That was a tough period in my writing journey. When the rejections started piling up in my search for a new agent, I seriously considered shelving the book without giving it a proper chance. Thankfully I had writing friends who came to the rescue and encouraged me at just the right moments. I've been blessed with a wonderful new agent who found the perfect home for my book at Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers. People have told me not to give up, because when you're closest to giving up, you're also closest to reaching your goal. That was true in my case! The darkest point in my writing journey was right before dawn. Some days in this business are just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. Keep moving forward, focus on improving your craft. You'll get there.

MGM: What's up next for you? Do you have plans for any more books?
I have few pots simmering at the moment. They're not big secrets, but they're all sitting on editors' desks waiting to see if they're good enough to be brought to life. I'll tell you briefly about two of them. One is another verse novel about a boy in 1920's Canton who runs away from home to join a Chinese opera troupe. The other is a novel in prose about two kids who time travel. They've both been a lot of fun to work on so far!

Thank you for the interview, Dan!

Monday, July 20, 2015

MG Minded Talks - Genre

Welcome to another installment of MG Minded Talks! We will ask each of the bloggers a series of questions and they will share their responses. This month we are talking about genre. Here's the questions:

1) What genre is your current WIP in?

2) Do you always write in this genre? If not what other genres have you written in?

3) What's your favorite genre to read?

1) MG fantasy

2) No I write MG/YA fantasy and sci fi (in various forms, superpowers, sci fi/thriller, space opera to name a few)

3) I read what I write, MG/YA fantasy and science fiction

1) YA contemporary

2) NOPE! I started out writing YA fantasy, but also have written some MG fantasy, historical, planning some possible steampunk. Some thriller. I write anything YA/MG.

3) actually, fantasy is usually my favorite. I do love some contemporary but fantasy was always my first love


1) The one i just finished: YA Contemporary. The one I'm getting ready to start: MG Contemporary

2) Generally, but my first manuscript was a MG fantasy.

3) I love reading contemporary and horror.

Tom T.

1) Current WIP is Adult...YES..that's adult black comedy...I am absolutely bonkers..

2) Nope, this is the first time I'm attempting it and it's an absolute headache. I normally only go for MG or YA Adventure as that's what I started with and feel most comfy writing.

3) Fav Genre? I really can't's all across the board. Lately it's been Fantasy / Sci-Fi.

Dan K.
1) Current WIP is MG Humorous

2) Yes

3) Adult Thriller

Tom M.
1) My current WIP is MG horror.

2) I'm pretty grounded in all things MG at this point, though what genre inside of that depends on which story wants to be told the most. My last MS was MG contemporary with a literary slant, my next one will be a MG satire.

3) As far as what I like to read: For fiction, it's less about the genre and more about the story and the writing. For nonfiction, I like reading biographies and oral histories.

1) Current manuscript is MG Superhero Adventure.

2) I've also written MG Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror and adult Fantasy and Horror. Basically, I'll write anything that includes adventure and an fantastic premise.

3) Fantasy, Sci-Fi, and the occasional psychological thriller.

How about you? What genre's do you typically enjoy reading/writing?