Reading Books ‘On Writing’

How many of you read books on writing? I do. All the time. I know there’s a lot of writers out there who don’t, and honestly, I don’t get it. If you want to become better at something, you study it, right? So why is writing any different?

I hit a huge snag this weekend with the revisions to my novel. As I explained it to the cashier at Barnes & Noble yesterday, “‘Well, last night I realized that my plot . . . well . . . um . . . my plot sort of needs to exist.”  And it’s true! I have huge issues with the plot. So that’s why I made the 1 hour, 15 minute trip to my nearest favorite bookstore. To find a book specific to my genre that would give me a kick in the head and make me look at things a little differently, so I can hopefully get it sorted. (Starbucks had nothing to do with it. I swear.)

Which made me think about all the books about writing I’ve read over the years, and which are my favorites. (I own at least two dozen; I know I own 2 copies of at least 3 different books.) I thought I’d share with you some of my favorites today.

9781439156810_p0_v1_s260x4201.) On Writing, Stephen King — This goes without saying. If you don’t have a copy of this on your bookshelf, well-thumbed, with scribbled notes in the margins and highlights everywhere, then you SHOULD. I don’t care if you don’t read Stephen King. I don’t. But this man is a best-seller for a reason. Everything you need to know as a beginning author, you’ll find here. Everything you need to remember as an experienced author, you’ll find here. But I think the most important thing you will take away is this:  perseverance. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/on-writing-stephen-king/1120113549?ean=9781439156810

9781599631677_p0_v2_s260x4202.) The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide:  How To Give and Receive Feedback, Self-Edit, and Make Revisions, Becky Levine — LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. I read it cover to cover when I first got it. Not only does she share with you how to choose the right critique group for you, she teaches you how to give constructive feedback to your fellow writers, and provides (glaring and funny) examples of Really Bad Writing. Not only that, but she gives you pointers on how to critique for different genres. A must-have. Even if you don’t belong to a critique group, this will help you revise and edit your own works. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-writing-critique-group-survival-guide-becky-levine/1113517421?ean=9781599631677

9780061965616_p0_v1_s260x4203.) Unless It Moves the Human Heart:  The Craft and Art of Writing, Roger Rosenblatt — This isn’t a book about writing per se, but it is a short memoir of Rosenblatt’s experiences with teaching an MFA course on creative writing at Stony Brook University. The exercises he leads his students through – and the insights they glean from each other – make this a must-read. If you teach anything at all, but especially writing or composition, then you will love this. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/unless-it-moves-the-human-heart-roger-rosenblatt/1103373250?ean=9780061965616

9780684857435_p0_v1_s260x4204.) The First Five Pages:  A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile, Noah Lukeman — This was one of the first books on writing I ever bought, and it’s still one I turn to. I used it extensively when I taught creative writing last year. Although my copy is out-of-date in some things, like querying agents, most of the material is still SO valuable. For instance:  “Agents and editors don’t read manuscripts to enjoy them; they read solely with the goal of getting through the pile, solely with an eye to dismiss a manuscript . . .” Lukeman’s goal (and he’s been an editor himself) is to show you the pitfalls, and ensure that your manuscript can’t be dismissed. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/first-five-pages-noah-lukeman/1103851764?ean=9780684857435

9781599631349_p0_v1_s260x4205.) Writing the Paranormal Novel, Stephen Harper — I re-read this about once a year on average. I own two copies. If you write paranormal or urban fantasy, you need this book! Harper has an engaging and funny writing style, the work is up-to-date with recent examples, and he covers everything, from developing characters and setting to avoiding cliches, to making sure your magic systems really work. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-the-paranormal-novel-steven-harper/1100389663?ean=9781599631349

9781402293528_p0_v2_s260x4206.) Writing Great Books for Young Adults, Regina Brooks — Brooks is a founder of Serendipity Literary Agency, and this book was THE textbook for the Writing Young Adult Fiction course I took at Oxford University last year. If it’s good enough for Oxford, it’s good enough for you, yes? If you write young adult fiction, you need this book on your shelf. Brooks focuses on how to find the “voice” of a young adult protagonist, how to find characters to fit your story and vice versa, how to pitch to agents, and what you can and cannot do within the genre. This is the newest version, published in October 2014. http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/writing-great-books-for-young-adults-regina-brooks/1118620185?ean=9781402293528

Do you have a favorite writing book (or two or three)? If so, share them! Feel free to post them in the comments.

Being a Good Beta Reader: Writing Good Critiques

It’s easy enough to tell someone how to give a good critique. But unless you see them for yourself and have practice writing them, it can be daunting.

So I wanted to share a few snippets from a friend’s story I edited earlier this year. This is Deb Dockter’s YA novel Deadly Design, coming out next June from Penguin (YAY!! Happy step-mom dance!) FYI, you can follower her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, and find her on her website, www.debradockter.com

When I edit and critique, I do a little of everything. I’m a grammar Nazi, so I always (naturally) look at spelling, punctuation, run-on sentences, fragments, etc. I also love a perfectly-crafted sentence, so I’m constantly looking at ways to improve them, make them more clear, give them more punch. I’m a firm believer that every paragraph needs to move the story forward and contain one major thought, so I will often give suggestions on how to rewrite them. I’m also looking for ways in which characters act out of character, and comment if there seems to be no reason for them to do so. And then, at the end, I will sum up with my own thoughts about the novel, where it’s heading, overall story arc and character arc, and whether there are plot holes.

And before you ask, YES, I’m every bit as hard on myself as I am on others — even more so. Last fall when I taught Creative Writing, I took drafts of my own novels, complete with red and purple and green ink, for my students to see. They were suitably frightened. 🙂

So without further ado, here’s an example of a paragraph I suggested rewriting. This was the original:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean. He’s the quiet but tough guy. He doesn’t need anybody else, doesn’t care about what anybody else thinks. He’s a bad boy.” She gives me a sideways glance.

I consider this, then nod in agreement. “Yep, that’s me. I’m bad to the bone.”

I suggested it could be:

“And you,” she says. “You’re like James Dean.”

 “James who?”

“Dean. James Dean?” At my blank look she says, “Seriously? East of Eden? Rebel Without a Cause?”  She gives me a sideways glance. “Really?”

I shrug. “Rebel without a cause. Yeah. That’s me.” (But, that’s just me – my suggestion – I have an idea most teens even today will know the “bad boy” reference from James Dean and maybe the movie title.)

The italics are my comments to Deb. She can take the suggestion or not; I’ve given my opinion. And if you’re writing a critique, it’s your responsibility to give your opinion. That’s why you’re there, after all.

Here’s an example where I’ve found a paragraph that I think isn’t quite right, but I can’t figure out why I think that.  I make a note of it, and then I offer an opinion on what it could be:

“Don’t come if you don’t want to.” His mouth was full of cornflakes, and there was a tiny dot of milk on his chin. “Your mom and I have always been understanding about you not wanting to go watch your brother. But this is his last meet, ever. He wants us there, all of us. But if you think you’ll sleep all right tonight, not going, then by all means, stay home.” (something about this paragraph reads funky – I think it’s the two middle sentences, structured exactly the same.)

Again, it’s always up to the author as to whether they think you’re right or not. But as a critique partner, you have a duty to let them know that something isn’t quite right there. If it reads funny to you, chances are it will read funny to others.

Here’s an example where I’ve commented on plot and structure:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (I haven’t gotten the sense yet in this version that he is in love with Emma. I did – really did – in the old version. We saw it. But I don’t get that at all yet here.)

By this time, I’d read about 25 pages of the new version, and I’d of course read the old drafts; therefore, I had a different viewpoint than someone who may have just picked this up for the first time. Deb and I have critiqued for each other for a few years now, so we know each others’ characters and plots, and we feel comfortable making comments like this. But let’s say this was the first time I’d ever read this. What I might say instead here is something like:

Cami isn’t in love, and I can’t have Emma so we leave the star-crossed lovers alone and see who can get score worse at mini golf or who can shove their most Milk Duds in their mouth at one time. (Question:  Is Kyle in love with Emma? You’ve hinted at it — on page 10, for example — but I don’t see it clearly. He doesn’t come right out and say he’s in love with his brother’s girlfriend. And that’s a LOT of conflict to keep bottled up! If he is, let us see it, and let that conflict spill over into the story.) 

There. I’ve asked the question, pointed out a potential flaw, and given the author a reason to fix it — to improve the story.

If you know the story well, and the author, you might also feel okay with suggesting small things. Particularly if you get to know the characters well and see an opportunity for them to do or say something that could add context or depth to the story, or at least would be more in keeping with who they are. Like this:

“Could you go wake him up?” she says. “Emma’s coming over this morning, and I’m sure he’s not going to want to be in bed when she gets here.”

“Sure.” (perfect opportunity for a snarky remark like “Actually, I was sure he’d love to still be in bed when she got there,” or something. :))

As a critique partner, one of your jobs is also to pick up on the small mistakes that the author may make. If you’re a writer, you know how close you get to your own story; it sucks you in, and you start to miss things. Sometimes big, glaring things. 🙂 You skip over mistakes, and gloss over plot holes (“I’ll fix it later!”). But that’s why you have beta readers. Or you get into a big rush to finish it, and you make silly mistakes that you don’t catch later. Like this one:

She tilts her head and smiles at me like I’m the world’s biggest pain in the ass. “As you are probably aware, today is May 15th. In approximately seven days, the love birds will be graduating from high school. They will then commence living in a dorm in Manhattan, while they attend the University of Kansas.” (BOY, it’s a good thing you have me here! Manhattan is K-State. Lawrence is KU!)

So as a beta reader, if you know the fix to a mistake, tell the author! Don’t assume they’ll find and fix it later; give them a hand. 🙂 Obviously, if I didn’t know Deb as well as I do and didn’t feel comfortable teasing her, I’d phrase this differently!

And, of course, always be supportive and kind! It’s as easy as making smiley faces when you find something you like, or writing “Good girl!” in the margins when the MC does something you like, or even just dashing off “LOL!” at the end of a paragraph:

If I was a girl or gay, I’d be instantly smitten. I’d be sending him a friend request on Facebook and moving quickly from acquaintance to stalker. I can’t help but wonder if his name is made up, a way to keep the would-be Triagon worshippers from finding his high school and setting up surveillance across from his locker. (LOL!)

So I hope that helps you figure out some ways to give constructive criticism. Next week, I’ll follow up by giving you some examples from my own novel — things my beta readers pointed out to me, and things I pointed out to myself. Like I said, I’m much harder on myself than they are!

(All quotes are from Debra Dockter’s young adult novel Deadly Design, to be published June 2015 from Penguin. Keep an eye out! Again, you can follow her on Twitter at @debdockterYA, or her blog/website at www.debradockter.com. You can also follow me on Twitter — @RobynNHill.)

Giving Critiques: A Few Hints

It’s that familiar, sick feeling. You want to run and hide, even if the only available place is in the sewer drain.

“Would you mind reading this and telling me what you think?”

Does anything strike fear in the hearts of people more than this? Well, except for police sirens. And being asked to speak in public. Job interviews. Spiders. I digress. Your friend/co-worker/acquaintance/fellow writer/family member has just asked you to read their work, and comment on it.

What do you do?

You could accidentally burn the manuscript in the fireplace. Or flush it down the toilet.

Or you could learn how to give constructive criticism.

I’ve been a beta-reader for a good friend for a few years now; I’ve taught creative writing, and I’ve edited others’ works. I’ve had my own manuscripts critiqued by betas. I’m also a peer reviewer with Quality Matters, which is a comprehensive program that reviews online courses for instructors and colleges, and makes recommendations on how to improve them based on eight standards. One of the things reviewers learn to do is provide quality, constructive feedback on each standard. And as I was doing a review this past week, it struck me that these skills are the same skills beta readers need in order to give quality, constructive feedback on manuscripts. So here’s a few hints on how to make your next beta reading experience better — for you, and the writer.

1.) Read thoroughly. I know it sounds like a cliche, but the fact is, not everyone does read things thoroughly. However, you can’t properly critique what you haven’t properly read.

2.) Be balanced. Just as the universe has yin and yang, just as you can’t have a mocha latte without whipped cream, your review needs to have both good and bad comments. A good way to do it is this:

“I really like this paragraph — it’s tight, has a lot of tension, and we really see Bobbie Joe getting into the action. But I’m a little lost on where we are. Could you include more setting here — maybe Bobbie Joe could interact with something in the environment, or see someone moving in the trees, or whatever? This would ground it and make it more alive to readers.”

By starting with the good, you offer encouragement. By offering a suggestion, you cushion the blow. By saying this will do x for the readers, you let the writer know you’re on their side, and that you’re only offering this criticism in order to make their work better.

3.) Be constructive. I know you’ve heard this since fifth grade, and no one’s ever told you exactly what it means. What it means (to me) is this:  pick up only the most glaring things, and then offer solutions as to how to fix them. They may take your suggestions, they may not. That’s up to them. And in the end, it’s only your opinion, after all. Maybe they have this same MS to three other people, and none of them thought that one thing was wrong. Or maybe they ALL did! Either way, be true to yourself and your gut feeling. Someone has asked you to help them. Help them to the best of your ability.

4.) Don’t deconstruct — or demolish! If you called in an interior decorator to come paint your living room and put up new drapes, and you came home to find that they’d knocked down half a wall, put in French doors, changed the hardwood floors to shag carpeting, and installed a water fountain where the fireplace used to be, you’d be pretty darn pissed off. (I hope!) Same thing with this manuscript you’ve been entrusted with.

This is someone’s baby. Sure, maybe the MC’s name changes five times in the first three chapters, and maybe the plot has holes so big you can drive a coach-and-four through them, and maybe the setting is supposed to be Kansas, but there are palm trees and white sand beaches. Fall back on your positive. “Your description of the beach is fantastic — I really felt like I was there! But I thought this was set in Kansas — did you change the setting to Hawaii? If not, you might want to double-check that Kansas has beaches and palm trees.”

It’s possible that the entire thing might be so bad that you need to call the writer and say, “Look, I think you should put this away for a month or two, and then revisit it. I’m not sure it’s ready for anyone to see right now. ” Give them the chance to fix their own mistakes first. But. Be aware that they may not take this well. At all. Been there. Done that. Sometimes, writers get so blind to their own faults that they simply believe they don’t have any faults. If they get too belligerent, it’s time to take a step back and tell them this isn’t going to work at this time.

5.) Don’t make it about the grammar. If you see things, mark them. Especially if you see that the person makes the same mistake over and over, or — as happened to me this year — you see that the writer has made a tiny spelling error that would totally change the plot of the book! 🙂 Now, if the writer specifically asks you to do copy editing or line editing, then by all means, if that’s your gig, go ahead. But for the rest of us, the writer is probably wanting the big-ticket items.

What are the big-ticket items? For me, they’re plot, characterization, continuity, and overall satisfaction. As my beta readers are working on my latest manuscript right now, these are the things I’ve asked them to focus on. Does the plot hang together? Are there holes in it? Do the characters act consistently? Do they ever do anything you didn’t understand? Is the story easy to follow, or are there places where I’ve skipped something, or not explained something clearly? Did you ever not understand how we got from Point A to Point N? And the big one:  did you feel satisfied at the end? Were all the questions answered, all the loose ends tied up? Did the ending meet expectations? Why or why not?

I’m always grateful when people mark the grammatical errors, but I need my betas to focus on the big-ticket items — what Becky Levine calls “big, overall issues” in her book The Writing and Critique Group Survival Guide. This is one of the best books by far I’ve found for not only learning how to do a critique, but also for improving and critiquing your own writing. Get it. Seriously. 🙂

If your writer is serious about improving, they’ll receive your comments graciously. They may not agree with them, and that’s their right, as it’s ultimately their work and their choice. However, if you make the comments positive and balanced, offer suggestions that don’t step on toes, and prove that you’re solidly in their corner, then the sting of the criticisms will be greatly diminished.

Hopefully.

 

Here’s a link to the book:  http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Critique-Group-Survival-Guide/dp/1582976066/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1410714031&sr=1-1&keywords=the+writing+critique+group+survival+guide It really is fantastic!