Monday, August 31, 2015
Friday, August 28, 2015
"Twelve-year-old Hoodoo Hatcher was born into a family with a rich tradition of practicing folk magic: hoodoo, as most people call it. But even though his name is Hoodoo, he can't seem to cast a simple spell.
When a mysterious man called the Stranger comes to town, Hoodoo starts dreaming of the dead rising from their graves. Even worse, he soon learns the Stranger is looking for a boy. Not just any boy. A boy named Hoodoo. The entire town is at risk from the Stranger's black magic, and only Hoodoo can defeat him. He'll just need to learn how to conjure first.
Set amid the swamps, red soil, and sweltering heat of small town Alabama in the 1930s, Hoodoo is infused with a big dose of creepiness leavened with gentle humor."
Sounds great, right? (purchase links are at the bottom of the page)
Mr. Smith graciously agreed to answer a few questions about this compelling book as well his writing journey and process. Enjoy!
DG: HOODOO sounds like such a unique, original story. If you were pitching it to a middle grade reader, how would you describe it?
RS: You like scary stuff, right?
You like stories where kids become heroes and save the day, right?
You like books that aren’t too long and you can finish pretty quickly, right?
Great, sounds like you’d like to read Hoodoo!
DG: What was your journey to publication like? Did you have to deal with lots of rejections and setbacks?
RS: Wow. Well, anyone can visit my blog at strangeblackflowers.com and search the archives to see my road to publication. I’ve always been a writer, and I left a career in advertising as a writer when I got my book deal. When I was in the corporate world, I pretty much forgot about writing fiction. But one day, all that changed.
My younger brother, who was working in a Barnes & Noble at the time, turned me on to some good kid’s books: The Sabriel series by Garth Nix, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and many others. Once I read these books I rediscovered the love I had for the kind of books I read when I was a kid. I set out to writing again, but instead of literary fiction, which was my preferred type of book, I started writing kid lit. After that, I never looked back.
HOODOO is my third novel but the one that got me an agent and a book deal.
I knew that rejection would be par for the course, setting out on this journey. The advice you’ve all heard is true: keep going, keep writing.
DG: Tell us about your writing process...are you an outliner or a pantser?
RS: I am The God of all Pansters.
Can’t outline to save my life.
Scrivener? How the heck do you use this thing?
No, I like what George R.R. Martin has to say on the subject. Something about being a gardener and not an architect. I have to see where the story is going organically, while I’m in a kind of fugue state. Only then can I begin to put the pieces together into a narrative.
DG: HOODOO looks deliciously creepy...did you have any inspiration or tricks to get your mind in the "HOODOO mood" when you were writing it?
RS: Do you mean aside from walking around my neighborhood dressed like the Grim Reaper?
No. I just tried to write what I would find scary, whether you’re a kid or an adult.
DG: Why did you choose to write middle grade?
RS: Interesting. I don’t think I chose it. Hoodoo just turned out that way. Once I realized it was MG, I made sure to keep my reader in mind. I have another MG book in my contract, too. I love MG, but also want to write YA as well. I do remember that time as a kid, though, when you’re discovering the wonder of books and the places they can take you. That is a wonderful feeling and it is unique unto MG books.
DG: What are some of your very favorite recent middle grade reads?
RS: Hmm. Good question. I haven’t read a lot lately because of the impending Hoodoo release and also working on my second book, but let me tell you what I’ve picked up lately:
Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Doll Bones by Holly Black
I’m also actually re-reading the Harry Potter books and am amazed at how much I’d forgotten. And, um, I’m looking forward to reading a book called the Honest Truth.
DG: Your book is SO close to coming out...after the long wait for publication, what are you most excited about?
RS: Honestly? I am most excited by getting it behind me and moving on to the next thing!
Maybe it’s looking at it on a bookstore shelf, or perhaps seeing someone reading it somewhere.
I feel curiously numb, Dan. Maybe it’s a writer thing. I’m sure you can relate.
Oh, I just thought of something. I’m looking forward to being on some writing panels/events. I think that will be fun
DG: Quick: an aspiring middle grade writer wants advice on making the dream happen. You can only go give them two pieces of advice and have 20 seconds to do it. Go!
RS: Write as much as you can, if not every day, whenever you have the chance. Read MG books. And then read some more. Share your work with writers you admire and trust.
DG: Finish this sentence: "The middle grade reader in your life will love HOODOO because..."
RS: …IT’S SCARY!!!
Wanna check it out? Here you go:
Monday, August 24, 2015
1) How do you prefer to give your critiques? On a line by line basis vs big picture? Focus on the positive? Something else?
2) We as writers are told we need to develop a thick skin, but how do you deliver constructive feedback in a way that doesn't completely cripple a writer's spirit?
3) What have you learned from critiquing others work?
1) I focus on big picture and focus on the positive. If I can find something that will help them improve craft, I bring that up.
2) To me the worst critique is the critique that gets people to stop writing. Lots of us are dealing with newish writers who are really only going to get better by writing more. Sometimes "constructive" criticism causes people to stop writing.
1) I feel the most comfortable giving big-picture crits. Pacing has always been a strength of mine. But I'll give line edits any time a CP wants them.
2) By keeping in mind that stories we critique aren't our stories. They belong to another writer and our job isn't to change the story, but to help it to be better. In doing that I always make sure my crits align with what the writer wants to say. That doesn't mean I won't suggest major changes to characters or plot, but I only do that to ensure my CP is going to be able to tell his or her story the most effectively. I'm also a big believer of adding in comments to lines or scenes I love. Not only do we need to know what isn't working, we need to know what does.
3) I've learned so much about building character relationships and dialogue. My CPs are incredible writers and I always feel blessed when I get to read something of theirs.
1) I tend to be better with line by line. Even if I'm doing big picture, I always end up commenting on awkwardness of lines, my reactions as I go, and correcting mistakes. I feel bad not telling people about mistakes I see for fear they and/or someone else missed them.
2) I use the sandwich method. I always start and end with something positive. It's never hard to find at least two nice things to say about someone's work. I tend to be blunt but not harsh about the feedback I deliver what's working and what's not and possible suggestions for fixing things. But i always remind people that my feedback is one person's opinion and to use what works for them and ditch the rest.
3) Oh my gosh, so many things. What my strengths and weaknesses are. How to build up to stakes. How to set scenes so they are more visual. How to make characters that have depth and feel real. And it's increased my strengths in pacing, tension, and writing action scenes. Critiquing others also helps me see what areas I need to work on.
1) It depends on who it is and what they want. I'm okay with big-picture comments or pointing out things line by line. I'll highlight things I think are working, and sometimes offer open-ended suggestions in spots when alternatives might be explored.
2) If I ever feel I need to make a comment about something that doesn't work for me, I'll remind the writer that it's just my opinion about that one element and not an overall comment about the work. And I'll be sure to temper that by highlighting more positives in other places.
3) The biggest thing I get from critiquing someone else is being able to look at my own work with a more critical eye.
1) big picture mostly, but I point out what I see as I go.
2) I point out what I think needs work and explain why. They why is big. It's never that you are just a bad writer, it's gaining new perspective. It's learning. "If you do this, instead of this the reader will be able to...." that sort of thing. Anything subjective I tell them that I might be wrong, if they don't or agree they can/should find another set of eyes for a second opinion, or they might be able to come up with a better solution than me.
3) tons! Just a few examples:
- Not everyone agrees. Some writing styles don't mesh. Some folks have a different idea of what makes good writing (like following all the rules or breaking them for style/voice purposes)
- Starting in the right place is an art. Starting too soon, or with too much detail is boring, starting in action is confusing. Conflict right away is needed.
- Also that the story should be moving towards something we can see coming (even if we don't know what "it" is yet, or you surprise us with a twist). Things just happening isn't good enough. It needs to build to keep the reader interested. (Some things you " know" already but you need to see it for it to sink in.)
1) Big picture. I'm terrible at critiquing line-by-line. I end up swimming in the story instead of eyeing the water for fish out of place.
2) I never give the "constructive criticism" part of a critique until I've delivered the "what's great about this" part. No work is without some merit, and, in my experience, if you tell someone what works before you tell them what doesn't, they take it much more as "how to fix it" than "OMGIAMTERRIBLEIQUIT!"
3) How to think critically about story, even if I didn't make it up.
1) Typically I give critiques by reading it as I would any book, letting stew a little bit, then going back and really thinking if the whole thing flows and makes sense in terms of big picture. I'm all about continuity, and making sure things connect the way they should, as that's the core of the story. You need to make sure that works before anything else. In my editorial letters I'm always just going off that, and I'll write notes in the actual MS but as Jason A Rust said, I'm atrocious at line-by-line also. Also...sandwich method for me - postive-negative-positive
2) SANDWICH METHOD. I learned the hard way what it takes to take and accept constructive criticism. Go-go art school
3) I've learned more from critiquing someone else's work than any other "book" on writing methods. Seriously, catching someone elses mistakes, and seeing what they do better than you improves your craft 10 fold
Monday, August 17, 2015
I think I'd be fairly qualified to act as a mentor or even just offer critiques to other writers, with the advanced education degree and the English minor and the decades of instructional experience, along with my own reading and writing background. But even if I were to put all of that on a little laminated business card to proclaim my level of assumed expertise as any kind of mentor or critique partner, it wouldn't mean all that much. With whatever background I have, all I could hope to offer anyone would be an opinion. Hopefully something of an informed opinion, but an opinion all the same, and one that wouldn't necessarily be any more or less valid than anyone else's. In the end, that's all critiquing is.
There are very few, if any, absolutes when it comes to evaluating art. You could ask five different critique partners to read your work and have them come back with five drastically different takes, then you could query fifty different agents with your revised manuscript and have forty-nine of them pass for different reasons. But as we all know it only takes one, and if you get that one yes, then YAY! Someday you and your agent will find yourselves out on submission, patiently waiting for what could easily result in seventeen different editors passing for seventeen reasons that have nothing to do with each other.
All of that subjectivity is important to remember when you enter a contest like Pitch Wars, or even as you search for a compatible critique partner. Contest mentors and critique partners want to help you realize the full potential of your manuscript. In doing so, they'll point out the strengths of your writing along with things they think could be improved, even if sometimes you don't like hearing it. I can think of times I've received feedback and had the knee-jerk reaction of, "But wait, NO, you missed the point! I know you said, 'Do this differently in this part,' but that's already exactly what I was doing! How can you not see that?!" Only later did it occur to me that if someone else didn't understand what I was trying to do, I hadn't gotten the job done yet.
If someone tells you something about your manuscript and you don't necessarily agree, it's still a good idea to at least give some serious thought to what they had to say, even if you don't end up taking their advice. But if you keep hearing feedback from different readers mentioning the same improvements to be made, you probably want to give your work another look, even if it means venturing into the "kill your darlings" territory and exploring things about your manuscript you hadn't thought about before.
Ultimately it's your work, and it's up to you to decide how to prepare it for the contest you're entering or the agents or editors on your query list. But if you're fortunate enough to make the cut for something like Pitch Wars, or you find critique partners or Beta readers willing to look at your writing and offer their opinion, take in what they have to say with an open mind.
Outside of a (thankfully) select few, these people are going to be in your corner. They are investing themselves and their time in your work, because they want to see your writing become the best version of itself that it can. The smartest thing you can do is take advantage of that.
Friday, August 14, 2015
I’m not going to mince words or tap dance around the pink elephant blowing bubbles in the family room last Thanksgiving*…I’m probably the last person in this particular sliver of the Milky Way you’d want to come to if you got a manuscript or some other work and need a critique. I mean, if your options are me, Simon Cowell, and Donald Trump, I guess I’d do, but totally only in that “lesser of three evils” kind of way.
Technically, I think that’d actually be one of those “lesser of one MG writer and two arch demons” situations, but let’s not split hairs.
The point is, if you want a good critique, I shouldn’t be your first stop. Believe me, I know a good critique partner when I see one. In fact, I have several excellent critique partners
imprisoned in my basement, who I’ve apparently befuddled in some kind of inexplicable mystic thrall which keeps them willing to continue reading my scribblings despite that fact that I’m about as helpful a “partner” as a T-Rex is at a team LEGO building competition.
The problem is, when I read a book or watch a movie, I tend to have a singular, binary reaction to it. That is, I either love it or I hate it. And while love and hate are fantastic sources of conflict for a story, they aren’t so helpful when it comes to making something better.
“I LOVE this! It’s like rainbows and pixie dust are dancing in my head! Don’t change a word!”
“I HATE this festering pile of armadillo puke! It makes me want to burn things. ALL the things! You need to change every word!”
See? Not so constructive.
But if you do this writing thing for long at all, you’re soon going to want another person’s opinion of your work. But nobody wants to be the kind of leech who asks someone to critique their own stuff and then seizes up like a startled clam when asked to return the favor. Seriously, that’s how Bond villains get started. One day it’s, “Sorry, no, I don’t feel comfortable critiquing your ode to Jessica Rabbit” and next it’s, “I’m going to unleash my plasma sharks into the world’s oceans, which will destabilize the currency markets allowing me to rule from atop my mountain of actual gold bars!”
Anyway, in the interest of making sure I didn’t end up sporting an eye patch and a fancy polyester suit, while spending my weekends shopping for Secret Subterranean Hideouts, I figured I needed to get a handle on how to read someone else’s stuff and give them useful feedback. Here, then, are the things I try to keep in mind after reading something I’ve been asked to critique:
- Be Upfront – I’ve finally gotten to the point that I’m happy to read something for a writer friend, but only if I deliver my caveats first. This doesn’t have to be the legal fine print of a car commercial, but you do want to set expectations. I always tell whoever I’m reading for what it is I’m good at, and not so good at, when it comes to critiquing. While I don’t particularly like admitting that my eyes fly over misspelled words in a story like a squad of F-18’s at the start of a NASCAR race, but the fact is that I’m terrible at copy-editing. Seriously, I even need a proof reader for my tweets. My brains sees what it wants, not necessarily what’s on the page, and it’s only fair that my critique
victimpartner knows that. Likewise, though, I do well when it comes to evaluating plot, and pace, and picking up odd character threads within it. As long as all parties know what to expect, everyone is happy.
- Be Selfless – This is critiquing business is important, and it’s not about you. In fact, let’s repeat that, because it’s something most people (myself included) struggle with these days and it’s sorta basicall critical: This. Is. Not. About. You. It’s not about what you want from your writing or even what you want from the story your reading, it’s about helping your critique partner developer their story into the Most Fabulous Awesome Story possible. Put yourself aside, then, as you make your way through the critique, and focus on what’s important.
- Be Specific – Telling someone their story has less conflict than an aisle full of Strawberry Shortcake figures isn’t giving them anything to build on. Even if their story does need more conflict, a good critique means offering examples and suggestions. For instance, “Hey, that part when Muffet sits on her tuffet all day and enjoys the sunlight is great – I loved that we learn about her obsession with curds and whey there – but it kind of drags a little. Maybe toss in a visit from a lizard or a mouse or spider or something to spice it up and keep the reader on edge!”
- Be Honest – This is kind of a no-brainer, but you’re not helping anyone if you can’t be square with them. Whoever you’re reading for wants to query or submit the very best work they can create, and if you offer a critique that glosses over parts that need serious work but might be difficult to discuss, you’re not helping anyone but yourself. And if that’s all you wanted to do with your day, you could have stayed at home and binge-watched Netflix.
- Be Thoughtful – As a human, there are few things worse than bearing your soul to someone else and getting a kind of “meh” reaction in return. In fact, for every first “I love you” in life that’s met with “I need to pick up the dry cleaning”, a puppy morphs into a bridge troll. And let me tell you, a writer sharing their work with you is every ounce that same defenseless, soul-bearing experience. Don’t give them the feedback equivalent of “meh”, give them something with meat, something they can really chew up and digest. Think hard about what could make their story stronger, and would keep you turning from page to page to page.
Is this all likely to make you Critique Partner of the Year? No. Actually, I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing that’s real. But a thoughtful approach to a critique, even when you know it’s not you’re a-game, is, at least, likely to help your critique partner developer a better manuscript. And at the end of the day, isn’t making sure we all help each other share our best stories with the world pretty much the whole point of all of this?
Well, that, and making sure you keep from getting the critique cold shoulder yourself.
Did you ever suffer from Critiquing Cold Feet? How did you go about conquering it?
*Was that pink elephant only at my house? I knew I shouldn’t have sipped Aunt Edna’s “Coke”