On Writing a Novel: Critique Partners*

critique

(*This post will be about Critique Partners. I know, I said it was going to cover more topics. Critique Partners are too important. They need a whole post.)

Revision is now complete. You have read through one more time for good measure. You are about to write your query—

Hold on. You are not ready just yet. Reel that trigger finger in and holster it.

Everyone has a first reader, many writers are already blessed to have Critique Partners — don’t forget to show them love, good Critique Partners are manuscript currency— and some are at the point where finding a Critique Partner is the next logical step in their writing journey.

Critique Partners: What are they? Where do I get one?

Critique Partners — or as they will be referred to henceforth, CPs— are other writers that you exchange manuscripts with, giving and receiving feedback.

It wasn’t until I was on the fifth draft of Redhunt (FYI: There is now a 6th. Revision isn’t over until the book is printed.) that I began seeking readership outside my husband and a few close friends.

CP Tip #1: Find an online community of writers and connect with them. Check out writer’s groups in the area. Take a workshop. Reaching out to other writers is the best way to find one you might connect with.

I took a workshop through Mediabistro taught by the illustrious Nova Ren Suma. Beyond Nova’s invaluable critique and feedback on pages from Redhunt, there were eleven other students giving feedback. I loved all the awesome people I met through this workshop, but a few of us started exchanging work and haven’t stopped since. In many ways, that workshop was the best $600 I have ever spent.

Pro Tip: You may not have sold a book, but technically you are a business operating at a loss as you pursue publication. Classes for writing are totally deductible.

CP Tip #2: If you can’t find someone who writes in your genre — sub-genre if you write YA — at least find someone who likes to read what you write.

I have three CPs and none of them write YA high fantasy. Susan writes Adult magical realism and YA urban fantasy. Sam writes YA paranormal and contemporary, and Jess writes YA paranormal and contemporary. The thing we have in common is our love of YA and our enjoyment of each others genres.

CP Tip #3: There are all kinds of CP relationships. Learn what works for you and them, and how to get the most out of critiquing each others work.

Besides my three CPs, I frequently read and exchange notes with screenwriter and Middle Grade writer Alex, as well as Courtney, who writes upper YA/NA. I am buds with YA writer, Sara Biren, who has a critiquing and editing business (and shares my love of the Ruby Red Trilogy).

Not to mention, I occasionally give feedback on queries, synopsis and read pages from some local writer pals and others I have met at various locations. And whenever possible, Lindsay Cummings and I hang out and write, talk through book problems, and read pages.

All these CP relationships are different, and come with different levels of commitment. Make sure you are clear about what you expect before you embark on a new writing friendship.

CP Tip #4: When you find a CP (or many), be generous with feedback, be kind with criticism, and don’t rewrite the book for them.

As readers, it is very easy to jump on a CPs manuscript or critique it into a book the writer just is not writing. There are many ways to tell a story, but when you are the writer, you are telling the story as only you can. As a CP, you must embrace the writer’s vision while helping them to strengthen the prose, see plot holes and other drafting problems, and present options for revision. The most valuable critique involves asking questions that will prompt the writer to find a solution.

CP Tip #5: Along those same lines, when you receive critique DO NOT argue with your Critique Partner.

Not every piece of feedback is going to resonate with you. Reading is “incredibly subjective” as you will be reminded countless times when you begin querying. And you know what? It’s true. The purpose of critique is to illuminate your manuscript in a way you as the writer couldn’t. Every note has merit because your CP is a reader — a much more forgiving reader than you will find in an agent you cold query or a teenager at Barnes and Noble —and whether or not you ultimately decide to revise is up to you.

Pro Tip: Some things are worth fighting for. Others are worth letting go. Those things are the barnacles on the belly of your manuscript.

CP Tip #6: Have fun with critique. I am so close to one of my CPs (though I love them all equally) that when she goes on vacation for a week and I don’t hear from her as much, I find a Susan shaped hole in my heart.

Here are some famous CPs (and a pic of Susan and me thrown in!):

Next up: Polishing and Preparing to Query

 

 

On Writing a Novel: Revision is not a Four Letter Word

revision

Revision is a bloodbath. It is an assault on words you vomited — eked, spit, sweat — onto the page during drafting. It is where you get to the heart of your story. It sometimes involves massive cuts, sometimes surgical edits. Sometimes it is about character, and others about prose. It is a process, and while there is no one infallible way to revise, there are some truths universally acknowledged.

Write Tip #1: You must read your entire manuscript, from start to finish. There are no exceptions.

As you begin to read your manuscript, you will consider carving out your eyes with a melon baller as an alternative to reading anymore. Push past that and separate yourself from the hope that your first draft isn’t total shit. Even if you are a seasoned and stupendous writer, your first draft will have cringeworthy moments.

This read through is to identify the Global Problems. World building, themes, arcs — these are all Global. Focus on those first. Are they all working? Did you drop a thread somewhere in the middle and never pick it back up? Are character arcs satisfying? Is the voice consistent?

Once you have read and unearthed the large problems in your manuscript you can make a plan.

Write Tip #2: Do not begin cutting and slicing before deciding on a plan of action that will address the problems in your manuscript. Then write it down.

Break your problems up into categories. Define them by character. Divide them by plot point. I cannot tell you how best to organize the list of issues you will likely uncover.  It will all feel a lot more manageable if you organize it in a way that helps you relate to the story with fresh eyes.

If you focused on plot in the drafting stage, try organizing your revision by character arc and internal goals. If you were all internals and forgot plot points even existed, focus on the story structure.

Write Tip #3: Take it one step at a time. It is easy to get overwhelmed during revision, breaking it down into bite size pieces is how you avoid that.

During a recent revision I had to cut a character. Not kill her. Cut her – remove her from the story entirely. The first step was extracting her from every scene she was featured in. Then, I made notes with Track Changes to remind myself that the scene would need to be reworked later. I did this throughout the entire manuscript until all evidence of her existence had been edited away. I was then able to go back and revise the now chopped up scenes all at once.

Write Tip #4: When the first set of revisions is complete, and before sending it to critique partners, read it again, this time focusing on Local Problems.

Local Problems — grammar, punctuation, word choice and narrative flow. Local problems have a big influence on how the manuscript reads, and while they might not be as glaringly obvious as Global Problems, they are just as important.

You will never be able to make everything perfect, and even with reading and rereading you may not notice all the problems in your own manuscript. Print and read your draft aloud. When you stumble on the prose, examine why.

Write Tip #5: Give it to readers and begin work on another project. At some point you will take a draft as far as you can on your own, and a fresh set of eyes is essential. While those eyes are perusing, take out a Shiny New Idea from the vault and ask yourself what if?

Next up: Handling critique, revising on feedback, and preparing to query. 

To check out previous posts in this series follow these handy links ::

Planning and Research

Drafting until it’s Drafted.

 

November, where is your sting?

nano

The internet — or the section populated by aspiring and established writers — is abuzz with preparations for NaNoWriMo. For those who are not writers, let me explain. NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, and it is about just that: Writing a novel, however bare bones it may be, in one month. 30 days. 50,000 words.

Last November I was gearing up for another edit on my as-yet to be published novel, Redhunt. November of last year was also the beginning of the end of my family’s time living in NYC. We were grappling with some tough decisions, decisions not really made any easier by my own internal struggle with a novel that had become a major thing in me and my life. Add in our souring relationship with a city that still held our attention, but not our best-interests, along with a  heaping amount of homesickness and the realization that home was decidedly different, and, well…you catch my drift.

Plus, my birthday is November 3rd. I am a person who lives in conflict with the day of their birth. I want the fact of my existence to be celebrated, but I don’t want to be confronted with the things left undone at the end of another year. I wasn’t always this way. In my teens and early 20s, I was actually quite the ambitious birthday haver. There was my 17th birthday, when I had an Academy Award themed costume party. Or my 24th when I threw a joint Murder Mystery Dinner Party with my birthday buddy Sam. But as my 20s have gone on, a switch has been flipped that makes my insides writhe in panic as my birthday approaches.

So, consequently, I usually approach November fighting anxiety armed with liquor and snark. I hide out or argue. I grumble. And all of this tends to last until I start getting excited about Thanksgiving, and pie, and family interactions out of a movie that have no actual bearing on reality or the family I really have. That leads right into more grumbling and usually extended Gilmore Girls viewing sessions and coffee spiked with Baileys.

All that, and it’s not even Christmas yet.

But not this year. In the throws of romancing a new novel, and in the thick of filming a short film, my usual moody, broody ugliness has become something different.

It has been a long time since I have been able to face November with more than a scowl and some empty threats. But as I, and the rest of the writing community gear up for NaNo, and November reminds me how I hate it and love it, threatening another Thanksgiving where I want to hide in the kids playroom with a bottle of whiskey and a puzzle, reminding me there is still no word on my novel, there is still no certainty that this year I will be braver, or smarter, or skinnier; I don’t flinch.

I make fake blood. I sew a coffin cover. I write 5,000 words in a week. I let anxiety settle around me, driving me forward not holding me back.

I realize I’m not alone. Not in wanting to be further along in my writing journey than I am. Not in dreading the last birthday in my 20s. Not in any of it.

Right now, writers all around the world are sitting at their computers, or are working at their day jobs, or are chasing their toddlers, and they are all feeling as wondrously uncertain and filled with anticipation as I. What NaNo reminds me of is that at the core of everything we do we nurture a simple, visceral need to connect. To know that this game is played by others. That we move along the road, not alone in our misery, not separate in our celebration, but as a part of the larger, the greater, the wider. That what we want is also what someone else wants. That what we see and feel, is felt by others.

Knowing we aren’t really alone in the struggle against sagging boobs and underachievement allows us to stop fighting the losing battle, and get to the one we can win. And so this year, November taunts, but I can’t hear her jeers over the sound of my writing playlist and encouragement from fellow writers huddled in the trenches beside me.

My Two Cents on Starting

Most days I think I’m a good mom, and an improving writer. I think I can cook, but I can mix drinks better. I think I am pretty, but only now that I’ve grown my hair out. These parameters keep me from being too wrapped up, too vain, or too emotionally stunted. I sharpen because I believe I am not perfect, nor am I a train wreck.

I recently read an article by author Julianna Baggott. Now, it should be said, that I have a girl crush on Julianna. Maybe I should call it a writing crush, since it stems from how deeply I identify with her voice. Her communication style. Her writerness. Whatever I call it, I heart her.

In the article, which you can read here, Julianna puts forth a method for writing your first novel. She calls it a loophole. It began for her as a way to trick herself into writing by pretending it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t about creating a masterpiece, it was about getting fifty pages done and out. She suggests writing is about wanting to turn the page, for the writer and the reader.

This rang very true for me. I have discussed before that this is my first novel, the MANUSCRIPT I am revising now but not forever. Before writing the manuscript, I had mostly worked in the medium of screen-or-stage playwriting. I had attempted, after completing a feature length screenplay and then not knowing what the hell to do with it, a novelization of my screenplay. Ultimately, I was burnt out on that story and needed something new.

When I sat down at my computer sixteen months ago with a voice in my head, I didn’t know what I was doing. There was no plan. There wasn’t even a concept. There was an inkling. A whisper.

I don’t consider myself a naive person. I live in Brooklyn and haven’t died yet, for goodness sake. But about this I was. I believed I could do it. And why not? It was just a novel. Geez. I had written a screenplay, so a novel couldn’t be much harder.

Had I read anything about writing a novel before I started, done any preparation at all, I would have failed. I would have psyched myself out. I’m such a fool I flippantly professed to anyone who would listen that I would finish in a year.

I just wrote. I kept writing when I wasn’t sure where I was going. I kept writing when I was angry at my characters. I kept writing when words flowed like cold honey. I just flipped the switch inside me and wrote.  As Julianna said in her article, I kept turning the pages. 

I finished the first draft about six months after I began. It was 70,000 words and a lot of it was shit. Some of it was brilliant. Some of it was acceptable. 30% of it was garbage I wouldn’t wipe dog poop off my shoe with.

I’m being hyperbolic, but you get it.

So, the advice I would add to Julianna’s (who knows way more about this than I do) is this: Be naive. You can’t lose if you put blind faith in yourself. You all know I hate losing, so if I’m saying this…

Believing you can’t fail may seem like you’re setting yourself up for crushing disappointment, but it’s a wonderful place to begin. Self-doubt and the knowledge that you will never be good enough comes later, when your beta readers rip your heart out, or the rejections from countless agents come flying to your inbox.

Begin naive, you can’t fail.

Road Trip Wednesday: #161 What’s in a name?

rtwRoad Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. We ,the bloggers who love YA Highway, post our response and then link it in the comments of the YA Highway site. Pretty fun!

 This Weeks Topic: The list of top baby names in 2012 had us talking about naming characters. How do you decide on names? Would you ever name a character after a friend/family member/ex?

I have always loved the meaning of names. Not because my name has the most awesome meaning. Rebekah means, almost everywhere you look, “to bind“, although the link I’ve included does try to improve the connotation a little bit. I’ve accepted this over the years. When I was pregnant with my son, there was never another name option other than Samuel. Samuel means “God heard”. He did hear when he gave me Sam, so it fits.

Naming characters in my writing is a different process, for me. The name of a character isn’t always a choice, or something I plot out. I tend to get a name stuck in my head in the early incarnation of the idea, and getting it unstuck is nearly impossible later on.

As the character develops, the name begins to feel like a part of their identity. Sometimes the name meaning turns out to be  ordained, connected to who that character is or what they represent in the story. I love when this happens organically. I also love when I begin to understand the character more because of their name. When you meet people in life, they introduce themselves to you with a handshake. You see shades of who they are, you know pieces of what their life has been, and you know their name. Over time, you get to know a person better and their name becomes synonymous with who they are to you. My relationship with my characters is very much this way.

In the case of my novel, some of my characters names are not actual names at all. This is always a fun thing to have happen because it feels like you’ve discovered something no one else could, and you’ve gone to a place truly separate from the framework of your own world.

There are different kinds of writers out there, this is true of every art form. I’m the kind who doesn’t plan much, at least not in the first draft. I don’t always know who a character is, or is going to become. I don’t always expect the character to turn out the way they do. I think this makes my discovery of the movements in my work a lot more exciting for me. It also means I have to do a lot of  revisions. That’s fine, I’ve accepted this is my writing personality and it will never change. Just like I’ve accepted I don’t really have any power over how my characters are named.

To Prologue or Not? (And other thoughts.)

Sometimes my brain, my plot, and the route to a decision, look like this.

During this last revision process I began to think a lot more about the techniques of storytelling I was employing in my manuscript. In the first draft — which I completed in May 2012— there was no prologue, however there was a brief and vivid flashback which ran rather long. I had this idea that if I did a prologue I would be taking the easy way out, doing something I was seeing in a lot of YA fiction I was reading. I wanted to find a new way to give this aspect of the story to the reader.

In my second draft — which I completed in late July — I wrote a brief prologue. I was never satisfied with it, but it felt necessary. I felt trapped by this convention, a feeling I really hate. For that draft though, there were other, more pressing issues to address.

Come around to the third revision — which I completed in the first weeks of October — and I found myself at a crossroads. Something about the prologue (I couldn’t tell you, maybe the tone?) felt wrong. I couldn’t help it. It read well, it operated as a prologue should operate, but I found myself dissatisfied.

In the midst of this dilemma, I was also trying to steer the novel away from comparison to a certain massive trilogy many of us love and read. The reason for this was twofold: 1) The comparison was being drawn because of setting, and 2) No one needs to try to live up to that. One of my readers helped me understand, in her very brilliant teenage way, just what was doing this in the early pages of the manuscript. Thankfully, I was happy to listen to her critique. (An aside, finding really awesome readers is maybe the most important thing about revising efficiently.)

Solving my prologue issue as well as the unwanted comparison problem turned out to have one and the same solution. I reworked the lay-out of the book and added a world-building scene to set the tone I was looking to set. Now, will there always be comparison’s we don’t want from readers and critics and people who read what other readers and critics say? Yes. Will I ever be utterly satisfied with every decision I make as a writer? Not likely. Can I accept both of those things? With a healthy dose of petulance, maybe, and a full glass of wine, maybe more.

Description begins in the writer’s imagination, but should finish in the reader’s.

— Stephen King, On Writing

In the end, I hope future readers will manage to see beyond the imperfections that are unavoidable, to the great stuff inside. I believe in my story, my characters, and the world in which they reside. I have done my best to convey that. Now I have to wait to see if I’m right.

Inner Life of a Writer, Some Thoughts

I have talked at length about my obsessive nature with friends, family, my dog. No mental health professionals yet, but I never rule out a logical progression. By discussing it down to it’s finer points (and yes, I realize this is the very definition of obsession) I have concluded that I may never really get away from it. Or at least not as long as I write. John Updike said this:

The refusal to rest content, the willingness to risk excess on behalf of one’s obsessions, is what distinguishes artists from entertainers, and what makes some artists adventurers on behalf of us all.

It couples obsession with art, making the obsessed, when in pursuit of creative truth, a hero rather than a villain. Following obsession to the very point of insanity is a scary place I am sure. I am not there, nor do I expect to ever be, but I felt the gentle nudge to the edge of the cliff. The abyss below is where many authors reside.

Why does this happen? When an author begins to submerge themselves in the chasm that is their creative process, a lot of things can come undone. It unleashes the mind to explore, and often times, the mind has a hard time reigning itself in. I was speaking with a friend about this recently, also an artist, and he laughed at me. “So, your writing allows your obsessive behavior and your schizophrenia a proper outlet?” I very inscrutably said, “Well, yes.”

When I was in the final weeks of this last revision, writing stuff I didn’t want to write but that I loved, breaking down barriers I had put in place to keep myself comfortable, building on my world, I found it very difficult have conversations with people at the end of a writing day. I was turning into Gollum and my manuscript was my one ring.

Anyone who saw me while we were visiting Texas, in those last few days, can probably attest to the shift. When I was done I felt like I could finally see people. Like I was a horse removing blinders after a long race. Oh there you are, world I live in, friends and family. I had almost forgotten what you look like. I became Frodo with his task completed.

(Note: I realize this pic of Frodo is when he goes off to eternity with the Elves, which is a little morbid. But he’s finally HAPPY!)

For me, writing is both an outlet — as my friend put it — but also a cell in which I am prisoner. You may read that and at once declare concern, but don’t be hasty. When I am a prisoner to the words, I am alive inside. So when my warden releases me, and I am expected to reenter society and contribute, part of me longs for the cell again. The writer in me is never fully sane unless writing. I love my other hats. The mom hat. The wife hat. The friend hat. I relish that there are people in my life who love me and enjoy my company, and who I love and enjoy as well. I take great pride in teaching my son something new. But always, the writer hat is in my pocket, folded up and ready to be unfurled. You don’t turn that off, you just try to contain it. (For this reason, among other law related ones, I do not take mind-altering drugs. I don’t need help unleashing the monster inside.)

So, what about you? Do you have an obsession in your life that you also kind of love?

And…done!

Last Tuesday afternoon I had the immeasurable pleasure of texting both my agent friend and my husband (who had already returned to New York) that my revisions were finished. A whole bunch of Awesome! and Wow, well done! followed. Then the panic set in. What had I done? I finished!!!!!!!!!! My OCD rose up and began to line-edit (again!) and beg for mistakes, work needed, moments with my characters to fill me up until I begin the sequel. All of these things are, of course, completely unnecessary. There will still be work because I am not a copyeditor, an editor, or my agent friend. I am just the lowly, obsessed author with a brain that won’t be still.

Today, after reveling in my rechecking, I sent my manuscript to my agent friend for a read. I’ve been spiraling since, and excited. Revisions are a funny friend. They make you feel like you are losing your mind, lost in your own world and out of control. This revision has seen me scrutinizing every scene to the last word, asking myself the hard question that no writer wants to ask: is this moving the plot forward? My answer was sometimes no, and sometimes for scenes I truly, absolutely loved.

I have had the question asked, over the last month of revisions, what is my next step?  My simple and untempered answer is: I don’t know. I have ideas, a swirl of ideas in a brain filled full. I have plans, and hopes, and scope, but I can’t tell you the order. I can’t be in control of that and I am utterly grateful for that fact. For now, I sit in a place of completion. This revision feels like a real end. And I feel like Winnie-the-Pooh here (only sub in my manuscript and a glass of wine):

RTW # 150 — There is a season, turn, turn, turn

Road Trip Wednesday is a ‘Blog Carnival,’ where YA Highway’s contributors post a weekly writing- or reading-related question that begs to be answered. We ,the bloggers who love YA Highway, post our response and then link it in the comments of the YA Highway site. Pretty fun!

This weeks topic is: How does your writing (place, time, inspiration) change with the seasons?

First, I want to say I had a wonderful time at the Austin Teen Book Fest and will try to do a post about it by the end of the week. Look forward to that!

Now on to the question. I like this question. I have always been highly susceptible to change in weather. When it’s sunny, I feel happy. When it’s gray, I feel introspective and gloomy. When it’s cold I imagine myself burrowing into a cave like a bear and emerging with a renewed vision come spring (also thinner because I’ve been hibernating and not eating). I love the colors of fall, and the romance of winter, and the clarity of spring, and the laziness of summer.

When I began working on my novel — exactly one year ago this week — fall was upon New York City. Fall in the northeast is a rhapsodic time. Poems can (and have) been written about it. Painters flock to the city and the surrounding land to capture the brilliance, this tangible proof that beauty can and always will be possible. The world is transformed, by leaves aglow from light like fire, by softened sunlight, or even by the reemergence of sweaters, stockings, and little wool caps.

I was very influenced when creating my world by the atmosphere of fall. I still am. My book takes place in late fall in a woods much like you would find sprawling across New England. Even as winter, spring, and summer have come and gone since I’ve been writing, in my mind I’ve tried to hold on to autumn.

So, I guess, to answer the question completely: I am not very influenced at all. I carry a season around with me as long as the project lives in that season. My manuscript is over 300 pages, but still it is just barely winter when it ends. As I come to the end of these revisions (my third round) I also come to the beginning of fall. Full circle, maybe even completion.


I’m the Map!

Map-Maker, Map-Maker, make me a map, build me a world, ink it all out!

Or draw it with a Wacom tablet and map-making software. Whatever, I just need one.

Today, after avoiding any tactile pre-writing, plotting, or the like, I finally broke down and bought myself a sketch pad. Now, I cannot stress to you how very poor an artist I truly am. I generally avoid graphite and paper without lines. (Who am I kidding? I generally avoid paper and pens, even the erasable kind.) In my manuscript there is a point where a map is presented to the protagonist. This map is described, in some detail, by the protagonist as she lays out the boundaries and scope of her journey.

I needed a visual of this map. My husband is an artist, both fine and of the tech-variety, but I am not. He may someday, should it become necessary, make me a map that looks way prettier and shinier than my own crude version. But my own version, for the purposes of storytelling and needing to make sure the image in my head is the image written in the manuscript, will do just fine.

Now, you are probably hoping for a the scanned sketch. Sorry, again, I am neither artistic nor super tech savvy. We are also in Texas where we have no printer/scanner/mind-reading devices at our present disposal, so my assurance that I have made a map and it is pretty bad will have to be enough. For now. When my book is published, I hope there will be a beautiful, clear and not-at-all smudged with my fingerprints map included in Chapter Seven where she (protagonist) first sees it herself.

Until then, here are some fun maps of fictional worlds that my map in no way resembles. Enjoy!

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