On the Critique and Editing Process, and the Support System for Artists

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas of successful writers, contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.” -Sophy Burnham

 

I recently had the immense honor of being a judge in the #SonOfAPitch contest. It’s an online writing contest where participants have the opportunity to be critiqued by other writers and by published authors. The judges then vote their favorite entries into an agent/publisher round. It was a super cool experience for me, and I’m really excited to be a judge again when the contest runs in September.

I’ve also recently started up an editing business, and have already gotten to edit some amazing queries and partials, which is work I’ve enjoyed even more than I thought I would. The opportunity to see the variety of styles and the techniques writers use to draw a reader in—and to actually have a hand in refining their work—is an incredible feeling.

I’m not entirely comfortable with all this, though. I’m putting myself forward as an “expert”, someone who can  help others to grow as writers and find their pathways to success, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but I feel like a horrible fraud.

I don’t want to be one of those annoying, constantly self-effacing people. After all, I am a published author. I have a good English skills; a solid grasp of story structure; and am a nerd with regard to techniques of character development, world-building, and pacing. I have written in a lot of different genres and styles, which gives me a unique perspective, and my long experience as a critique partner and beta reader definitely gives me something to offer in the professional sense.

But none of that stops me from feeling awkward when I’m judging, editing or critiquing writers who are better than I am. The fact I’m published and they’re not is more a function of luck, persistence, and timing than talent or skill. Who am I to tell them anything?

There is one thing I’m confident in being able to offer, however, and it is, in my opinion, the most important thing one can give a struggling artist: support.

Support and encouragement are even more important than brutal and honest critiques. Art is subjective. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and sometimes even what I feel is my best advice doesn’t resonate with the writer, or with other readers of their work.

All my years in critique groups, I’ve often looked at all the advice I’ve gotten—some of it conflicting, indecipherable, or downright painful for one reason or another—and wondered if there is any value at all in the critique process. But when I look at how much my writing has improved because of it, I know that it was worthwhile. Even if some advice didn’t resonate, some of it did, and just thinking about and discussing the craft of writing with other writers has helped me grow so much.

The advice and critiques that have helped me most of all have been from the professionals: the editors, agents, and published authors who have been kind enough to take their time to help me. Get this, though: it’s not because those professionals have always given me the best advice (though they often have). There have been times I’ve gotten an R&R from an editor or agent saying they want me to put the manuscript back the way I’d had it in a previous draft, which hadn’t been working for other agents or critique partners at all. Even the professionals aren’t gods: they’re just people, and their opinions are their own.

Why the professionals’ advice has been so powerful for me is simply because I trust it. Even if their advice isn’t necessarily right for the manuscript, they do indisputably know what they’re talking about. And that fact helped me to see how subjective the art of writing is: it taught me that, just because my book wasn’t working for them, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for someone else. It helped me to not give up, despite tons of rejection. And that is the one and only reason that I am now a published author.

Support is paramount, especially because of how lacking it can be in the general population. People who have never tried to make their living as an artist just can’t understand how difficult and crazy-making it is; how you’re doing this thing that a lot of people think is silly and pointless, but it’s so important to you. You’re putting in all this time, effort, and emotion, with no guarantee that it will ever pay off, and you’re having to deal with tons of hurt and rejection in the bargain. Society tends to tell you that, if it’s making you so miserable, you should just get a job and get a life, without understanding that art is your joy and your life.

I’ve grown up amongst musicians and artists. I’ve seen so, so many friendships and marriages fail because of the financial and emotional stresses involved in pursuing and artistic career. This was a huge factor in why I was served with divorce papers, two weeks ago today, in fact. But it’s worth it for us artists to persist, because of how important this dream is to us, how much meaning it gives to our lives. Even though sometimes we’re reduced to sobbing alone in the dark and wishing to God that we had some grand desire to be a plumber instead of a writer, it’s still so important that we not give up.

So, if I could ever have a hand in encouraging someone to not give up their dream, I would consider myself a success. I’ll keep putting myself forward as an expert until others start to agree that I am, including myself. And if I can make enough money at it, I’ll be yet another example of the fact that being an artist isn’t such a silly dream, after all – it’s just a job. It’s the only job I’ve ever been good at,  the only one I’ve ever loved, and anyone can succeed at a career in the arts if they love it and want it as much as I do.

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#SonOfAPitch: How to Sway My Vote

Hello, lovely #SonOfAPitch participants! I’m so incredibly happy and proud to be included as a judge in this contest. Writing competitions have helped me so much. I’ve gotten more than one contract offer through pitch parties like #PitMad, and the amount of advice, confidence, and support I’ve gotten in other contests like #PitchWars and #Pit2Pub, not to mention the invaluable critique partners I’ve met in the feeds, have made it possible for me to be where I am today. The opportunity to pay it forward a little bit has more significance for me than I have the skill to describe, but perhaps with help from these lovely online writing communities, I’ll gain that skill someday 🙂

That being said, being a judge is just as difficult for me as judges and mentors in other contests have always said, in all those tweets I’ve hung upon and over-analyzed trying to discern whether they referred to my manuscript. It’s so cool to read all your entries, to have a small window into your brilliant and imaginative stories. And it’s doubly cool to see how the critiques some of you got in the first round have helped to sharpen and refine your pitches and beginnings. The ability to gracefully and skillfully accept and apply critique advice is a huge part of the craft of writing…and one of the hardest parts.

It’s SO cool to read your entries that, even though I’ve just gotten started, I can already tell that I’m going to have trouble choosing which entries to vote for…since I already have more than five on my list.

The wonderful Katie Teller has said that participants may try to sway the judges. Since I need some swaying, I thought I’d give you an idea of how to do that in my case.

Now, I’m not going to say that I don’t like interacting with y’all on the feed, because that’s one of my favorite parts of this contest. I’ve talked to some really nice, smart, interesting, and funny people, and the kindness you’ve shown me has been doubly nice, because of some stuff that’s gone down in my life this last week. I would like to think that people would want to talk to me whether I was a judge or not, though 🙂 And, of course, I can’t just vote for people because they’re nice, because I don’t have enough votes to vote for all of you.

Similarly, even though I really hope you all like my writing enough to follow my blog and/or buy my book, it’d be pretty damned cheesy for me to vote for people just because they did. Gah. Even just thinking about doing that gave me the shudders.

So, what would help me make my decision is if you would tell me about the diversity in the manuscript you submitted. If there isn’t any (and it’s not a deal-breaker for me if there’s not – diversity is important to me, but plenty of my favorite books aren’t particularly diverse), then tell me about a diverse character you’ve written about in another manuscript, or plan on writing about someday. Alternatively, you can tell me about your own experiences as a diverse person, or about your favorite diverse character in someone else’s novel.

Now, to be clear: to me at least, diversity isn’t just racial, ethnic, or cultural, (although I do really enjoy those types). It can also be socioeconomic, religious, sexual identity, or neurodiversity (that last one you’ll know, if you’ve read many of my other blog posts, is the type that I’m most familiar with). The literary world is replete with books expressing the points of view of middle- or upper-class, straight, neurotypical white people (even a lot of books with diversity seem to be told from this point of view), and I think we’re finally starting to appreciate the immense value in seeing the world from other viewpoints, not just in nonfiction, literary fiction, and “issues” books, but in genre fiction of all types. I love novels that are just great stories that happen to be told from a diverse viewpoint.

I just want to get people thinking about this issue if they aren’t already. Seeing your thoughts on this subject could definitely sway my opinion when I’m teetering with indecision between two manuscripts. And, besides that, if I could ever claim the honor of having spurred someone to explore and write from a diverse viewpoint, or of giving someone encouragement to write about a character that shares their own diverse viewpoint (even though the writer may feel, like I do, that their own diverse viewpoint is pretty darned unpopular)…well, I’d be frigging happy as heck about that.

You can tweet your thoughts on this subject to me directly (I’m @Lidsrodney), with or without the #SonOfAPitch hashtag; or, if your thoughts don’t fit in 140 characters, you can leave a comment on this post. If you don’t want to post your thoughts publically, you can DM me on Twitter or email me (you can find my email on the “about” page on this blog).

Thank you all for participating, for reading, and for all your wonderful stories and thoughts. And good luck to each and every one of you in your writing careers.

Invisible Friend Jesus and the Divorce

flowersI sat quietly on the couch, concentrating on taking one breath after another. I’d scrubbed the floors, the bathrooms, the countertops; scoured kitchen grease off the overlooked crevices of the canisters; I’d written, or tried to, and spent hours editing other people’s manuscripts, losing myself in their stories; but I hadn’t been able to work feeling into my limbs, or into anywhere else in my body or spirit. I felt like my brain was taped up with bubble wrap and packed in a forgotten crate somewhere.

Invisible Friend Jesus sat quietly beside me. He didn’t have the air of someone waiting for me to speak, and for once he didn’t distract himself reading Cat Fancy or trying to knit. He didn’t ask me if I was okay, or tell me everything would be alright. If he had, son of God or no, I would have broken his jaw, and I’m sure he knew that.

“I knew this was going to happen,” I said. “Ever since you told me, way back almost a year ago, that I should just stop trying to fix things and let you handle it, I knew. I mean, it didn’t take a genius to figure out what was going to happen, the way things were going. But I still fought so hard against it. I didn’t really believe or understand you, when you told me to stop struggling. It didn’t make sense to me that I should just ‘let go and let God’, because how could I just give up personal responsibility when I knew I wasn’t acting right?”

He stretched his arms over the back of the couch and gave me his little smile. “People have a lot of ideas about what it means to ‘act right’. Think about it this way: when you’re writing a story, what does it mean for a character to ‘act right’? Does it mean they always have to do the ‘right thing’? That they’re always selfless and kind and morally correct?”

“No, it just means they have to act in character.” Invisible Friend Jesus lifted an eyebrow, and I winced. “So that’s my character? A bad person? And you’re cool with that? I thought religion was supposed to be about rising above your base nature to become a better person.”

Invisible Friend Jesus sighed, settling further into the couch cushions and crossing his legs. “God made each and every one of us in his image. It’s a slightly distorted image, true, because the physical realities of living in this world can surely twist a spirit out of whack. But still, God knew us in the womb, and loves each and every one of us just the way we are.”

“So that means that there is no sin? That we can just do whatever we want because it’s ‘in character’?” I scowled incredulously. “I’m sorry, Invisible Friend Jesus, but that’s not very enlightened.”

His smile got gentler and more amused, and he tapped his long fingers on the couch back. “That’s not what I’m saying. We sin when we do things against our true nature, things that separate us from God—who is our true nature, since we’re made in his image. God is big and complicated; He is all things, and there are a lot of different ways of being one with Him, depending on a person’s personality. But, like I said, the world is a messed-up place. It can get in the way and separate us from God by causing us to act out of hurt, anger, greed and loneliness. It can cause us to do things that hurt ourselves or others.”

My eyes filled with tears again, stinging and burning since I’d cried so much already, and I sniffed and dried them on my shirt. “I really tried, Invisible Friend Jesus. I tried to do the right thing and not act in hurtful ways. But I couldn’t get myself to stop… I tried to make him happy, but I couldn’t…”

I pressed my chin to my chest and squeezed my eyes shut as my body shook trying to contain and control all the bullshit I was feeling. Invisible Friend Jesus took my hand. I could feel the scar on his palm, and the callouses on his long fingers from all his knitting, cross-stitch and other weird projects.

“Listen, Tinkerbell,” he said. “When you were drinking like a lunatic and spending all that time away from home, what did you do?”

I sniffed. “I got better. I mean, I had to work at it, and pray myself half-crazy, but I got better. I’m really proud of myself for it.”

“And you should be. How about when you first moved to California and you were really angry, frustrated and fed-up, yelling at everyone all the time?”

I wiped my nose on my wrist, but didn’t bother with my eyes anymore; they felt swollen to the size of softballs and I didn’t want to touch them. “I worked at calming down, and got a lot better. But Invisible Friend Jesus─”

“You’re not perfect, it’s true, but luckily no one who’s rational expects you to be. Nobody’s perfect. Not even me.”

I giggled, which made a snot bubble swell and burst out of my left nostril. Invisible Friend Jesus burst into snorting laughter for about five minutes, because he’s a jerk, but he finally got himself to stop and conjured a tissue from the pocket of his white suit jacket.

I blew my nose and looked at him with a furrowed brow. “But you are perfect, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He rolled his eyes. “No, I’m not. Have you read about some of the stuff I did? I was kind of a dick sometimes.”

I gazed at him thoughtfully. “Yeah, I always wondered about that stuff. You know, calling gentile women dogs, and all that.”

He winced. “I was having a bad day. But I got over myself and cured that lady’s daughter anyway. The point is, I’m a human manifestation of God, and humans are imperfect. I’m God’s way of knowing, and of showing the world, that He understands what it’s like to be human. That he knows how hard it can be, how hurtful. How it can break you sometimes and make you act in ways you aren’t proud of, and how sometimes you end up in situations where it seems like there is no way to ‘act right’, and so you just have to muddle through the best you can. But God loves us, not in spite of, but because of all that because, in the end, being human is a beautiful thing.” He gazed at me with his little smile. “So, anyway, enough about me. You were able to quit some of your self-destructive and hurtful behaviors…”

I grimaced. “But some of the other ones…one other thing in particular…I tried to stop, but it was like I couldn’t. I could only ever last a few days.” A lump rose up in my throat. “If I could have just…I mean, I really didn’t want to destroy my life like this.” I pressed the soggy tissue into my eyes, fighting back sobs.

Invisible Friend Jesus squeezed my hand. “Let me ask you one thing, Tinkerbell. How do you feel right now?”

Tears streamed down my face, and he handed me another tissue. “How do you think I feel? Shitty. Angry. Devastated.”

“Yeah? Well, I mean, that’s understandable. You were just ambushed with divorce papers after almost ten years of a relationship, and two years of…well, you know. Let’s not get into the details again. You’re bound to feel messed up about it. But how else are you feeling?”

I wrapped my arms around myself. Invisible Friend Jesus scooted over and put his arm around my shoulders, and I hid my face in his neck. I got snot and tears all over him, but he didn’t seem to mind. I took deep breaths, and I thought about his question: How DO I feel? My brow furrowed. “I feel…actually, I feel better, to tell you the truth.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I mean, I’m pissed off and stuff because of, you know, how it happened, and how I tried so hard for years to make him happy, only to just fail and fail and fail…but, you know, other than that, I’m lighter. That pain and worry and guilt and desperation—all of it—it’s gone now. I feel peaceful.” I sat up, wiping my nose again. Invisible Friend Jesus gazed back at me with his serene little smile.

“That peace is where God is. That’s how you know you’re in the right place, doing the right thing.”

I scowled. “So God meant all that shit to happen to me? He wanted me to suffer like that?”

Invisible Friend Jesus rolled his eyes. “You know better than that, Tinkerbell. God doesn’t want people to suffer—God is the peace that helps us endure suffering, and avoid it when we can. But suffering happens no matter what. It’s just the way the world is. It’s a complicated and beautiful experiment…it’s part of what makes life life. Because, think about it: would you really want to read a story where nothing ever went wrong? Where there’s no conflict and tension? One of those stories where the perfect little characters hug and kiss and dance around baking cookies all day?”

“Shit no. I hate critiquing those stories. There’s no point to them. And I guess maybe you’re right, that it’d be boring to just sit around blissed out doing nothing all day.”

“It wouldn’t be life if it were like that. You’d never learn or grow or experience anything.”

“You’re right. But I mean…am I just here to entertain God? Give Him a good story? Is the Divine Plan just some sort of dramatic screenplay?”

“I’ve told you before the Divine Plan is a conspiracy theory, and you’re not here to entertain God. You’re here to entertain yourself, and write yourself into the best story you can. Your life may seem like it has a complicated narrative arc, with a lot of senseless and random shit happening, but you need to remember, the plotline doesn’t depend on just you: everyone is the main character of their own story, and those stories are constantly interweaving and clashing and shaping each other. It’s up to each person to learn and grow, find beauty and meaning, and craft their own narrative arc amidst the chaos. And sometimes, the plot that one person wants…well, sometimes the other characters don’t cooperate. That can be painful. It can suck ultimate shit, frankly, but the story goes on, and I know you, Tinkerbell: you’re a hell of a storyteller and you’ve got a lot of plot left in you.”

I wrinkled my nose, a grin creeping across my face. “Yeah, I got a few ideas for the next scene.” I pulled my knees up to my chest, settling back against Invisible Friend Jesus’ arm. “My life has crashed and burned more than most people’s it seems like, and I’ve had to start over more times than I’ve wanted. But, you know, this time, I don’t feel obligated to anyone—except my kid, and that doesn’t bother me, because she’s my little partner in crime. I love mobbing around with that girl, she doesn’t cramp my style except in the ways that it needs cramped. But, I mean, I don’t have anyone telling me what I need to do next, no dude that I feel obligated to follow around and try to make happy. I know the next scene isn’t going to be easy, but it’s cool that I get to write it the way I want this time. You know, as much as possible anyway. What I do next is my choice, and no one else’s.”

Invisible Friend Jesus’ smile widened, and he raised his chin. “True. Choose wisely, though, Tinkerbell, within the confines of your special brand of Tinkerbell wisdom, or you’ll just get bored with it or worse.”

I nodded, smirking. “Just help me out, because I get some crazy ideas sometimes.”

He laughed, stretching out on the couch with his back against the armrest and his bare feet in my lap. “Will do.” He got out his phone and started tapping away and scrolling through the Internet. “How about Utah? Or Puerto Rico? You could get a little apartment overlooking the ocean, write like Hunter S. Thompson, maybe teach English or whatever.”

I snort-laughed. “You’re an enabler, Invisible Friend Jesus.”

He shot me a smile over the top of his phone, but didn’t say anything.

 

Forming Lasting, Effective Critique Relationships – Revisited

To celebrate the lovely #SonOfAPitch writing contest, I wanted to revisit my post on forming lasting, effective critique relationships. Peer critiquing is a big part of this contest, and I think one of the best things that will come out of this is a whole bunch of new critique partnerships. Critique partnerships are SO important in the life of a writer; not only can they help you grow as a writer, but they can help you grow as a person. Some of my CPs have turned into amazing friends. We are there to support each other through all the ups and downs of being a writer, and I know I, for one, would not be where I am today as a writer or a person were it not for those friends (some of whom I met in Twitter contests like #SonOfAPitch).

However, critiquing and accepting critiques is definitely an art, and forming lasting, effective critique relationships can be very difficult for this reason. I wanted to impart some of the things I’ve learned, in hopes they will resonate with and help others.

I have been in a lot of critique groups and partnerships, and I owe so much thanks to my CPs and betas. I would never have gotten Love or Money or my upcoming Other Place series published if they hadn’t been there for me. I hope you have CPs as good as mine; if you don’t have them yet, try finding some on #SonOfAPitch!

Most articles on this subject concentrate on what you should and shouldn’t do as the person receiving the critique; however I’m mostly discuss what you should and shouldn’t do as the person giving the critique. I have never seen anyone kicked out of a group for getting defensive, etc. while receiving a critique. I have, however, seen people kicked out for the way they give critiques. Being a good critiquer is a difficult skill to master.

I will reiterate, however, that we shouldn’t get defensive, try to “explain” the manuscript, or interrupt the critiquer while receiving a critique. We shouldn’t…but of us probably have and/or will at some point. When you feel defensive, take a deep breath and try to center yourself before responding —and you should only usually have to respond “thank you!” If it’s an online critique relationship, you often have the luxury of taking a few hours (or even a day) before responding, and you should use that time if you need it so that you can avoid damaging the relationship. If it takes you longer than that to center yourself after receiving a critique, the critique relationship needs to be examined: either the person giving or receiving has issues.

If you are a critiquer on the receiving end of a writer’s defensive tirade about your critique, at least try to give the person a second chance, because we all get defensive sometimes. Be gentle with the person, if you can. If they’re acting badly enough that you can’t, once again: the critique relationship needs to be examined.

So, here is my advice about forming good critique relationships:

1. Find Good Critique Matches

This is often the most difficult step. Even if a person writes well, and/or is published; even if they write in your same genre; even if you love them to death as a person, that doesn’t mean they’ll make a good critique partner for you (and keep in mind: learning to be a good critique partner yourself is a huge step towards finding good CPs. No matter how awesome your own writing is and how nice you are as a person, if you’re consistently off-putting with your critiques, you’ll have trouble finding CPs).

I’ve found that the best critique partners are people who:

a. Have a working knowledge of the conventions of your genre, even if they don’t write it themselves;
b. Have knowledge of the path you’re seeking to publication, whether that be through an agent, a small publisher, or self-publishing, so they can give advice not only on the writing itself, but on ways it can be made more marketable in that venue;
c. Are, of course, good critiquers, who give clear and insightful advice in a pleasant way, and;
d. Their advice resonates with the writer not ALL the time, but A LOT of the time.

You’re probably not going to find a single person, much less a whole group of people, who fit all these criteria all the time—at least not right away. But if each one of you makes contact with at least one #SonOfAPitch peer critiquer who gave advice that resonated with you (on your pitch or other pitches), you might find a gem of a CP.

2. Read your partners’ pieces like a reader, not a writer.

This is truly, in my opinion, the most important part of being a good critiquer. Most of the bad critiques I’ve given and received, as well as most of the advice I give below, stems from the critiquer’s failure to read like a reader. Instead, they read like a writer, searching for ways the writer has violated the “rules”, or for other technical flaws.

My favorite technique to avoid this problem is, I read the piece through once without stopping. I don’t make copious notes. I pretend the work is already published, and that I have no hand in changing it. If, when I’m reading, something bugs me—interrupts the flow of the narrative, or pulls me out of the story—I mark that section. I don’t give the actual critique yet, so that I don’t interrupt my reading. Then, after I’ve read it through once as a reader, I go back as a writer and try to determine what, exactly, bugged me about the passages I’d marked.

Using the above technique will prevent us from looking for things to critique, without allowing ourselves the chance to become immersed in the writer’s voice and story. We’re writers, so if we see a grammar error or that a writing “rule” has been broken, we’re going to want to mark it. However, it’s not important whether or not the writer follows the “rules”: what’s important is whether or not the writing flows, is vivid, and makes sense.

3. Always assume your critique partner is employing a technique or device intentionally.

Don’t immediately assume your CP isn’t intelligent enough to know what they’re doing. For instance, if a character speaks or acts in unexpected ways, or if the plot takes a bizarre turn, certainly point out that it caught your attention, but assume there’s a reason for it. The writer may need to make that reason clearer if it is catching readers off-guard, but if you just tell them to change that part entirely (or, worse yet, rewrite it yourself), they’re just going to think you don’t “get” their writing, and will either dismiss your critique, get defensive, or try to explain it to you instead of making revisions that might make their writing better while still adhering to their vision.

4. Don’t give style critiques.

This is tricky, because from our subjective points of view, there’s a fine line between a style we don’t enjoy, and what would simply be considered bad writing.

For instance, some people are very descriptive. This style was more in vogue in ye olden days; Dumas could spend three paragraphs describing the embroidery on a minor character’s doublet. He also gratuitously employed deux ex machina, and the most dramatic, ridiculous cliffhangers known to man.
There are very few serious critics that would say Dumas is a bad writer. However, if you write in his style nowadays, you’ll likely be laughed out of the room. Is this right or wrong?

Well, both. It’s perfectly acceptable to tell a critique partner that, in your opinion, their descriptions are slowing their pacing. But, do try to be objective about each piece, and ask yourself: is this a type of writing that someone else might enjoy? We can all probably agree that a writer doesn’t need to describe the arrangement and appearance of every piece of furniture in the house. Nor is it advisable to introduce the reader to every character with a long list of physical and personal attributes, accompanied by a heaping portion of backstory. But I’ve read page-long character descriptions that I thought worked within the context of the story’s voice and structure. It all depends on who’s reading and who’s writing.

Similarly, short sentences are in fashion lately; but have you ever read anything by Charles Dickens? That man could write a sentence that twisted like a mile-long rollercoaster track. And he was good at it.

Also: sentence fragments. Some people use them to great effect. Others, not so much, perhaps.

There is no right or wrong way to write. Even if a person’s style isn’t fashionable at the moment, or isn’t to your taste, that doesn’t mean they need to change it (and, once a writer’s style has matured to a certain point, they probably can’t really change it). All you can do is humbly tell the writer when something isn’t working for you. If they continue to write in that style, don’t harp on the same issues, group after group. Look for other ways in which the writer might grow in skill, and help them to become the best writer they can be, while staying true to their personal style. If you really just think someone’s style is terrible, though…or if they’re what you would term a terrible writer, and are making no progress in improving…the critique match may not be a good one. However, I have never had a CP whose writing hasn’t improved over time. It takes longer for some than others, but I LOVE watching my friends get better at writing (I hope they feel the same way about me). It’s a beautiful process to watch, and learn from, because sometimes a person’s style grows on me, and I’m able to grow as a critiquer when I watch their style develop: it helps me to see the difference between a style I don’t care for and what is simply bad writing, and I’m able to apply that knowledge to my own writing, as well as to other critiques.

5. Don’t apply writing “rules” arbitrarily.

I cannot say this enough: it is never, ever a valid critique to say, “You should take this out/change this because it violates [writing rule].” There are no true rules to writing. Adages like “Show Don’t Tell”, “Don’t Use Passive Voice”, and “The Road to Hell is Paved with Adverbs” exist because they will, indeed, make your writing better if you are mindful of them. But—and I have seen this happen many, many times—they can also make your writing worse if they’re applied indiscriminately, and can cause much frustration and confusion if you apply them arbitrarily and without elaboration in your critiques.

So say, for instance, that you get a piece from a CP that starts off with the main character waking up. It goes through her whole routine of getting dressed (with lengthy descriptions of each clothing item and where it was purchased). It rambles on about her making breakfast, tells you how she likes her eggs, then has her sitting there, sipping coffee, and recollecting a huge fight she’d had the night before with her mother. It tells you, furthermore, that the fight occurred because the main character is a very stubborn and willful person, and her mother is condescending and cruel.

This, of course, breaks a billion writing “rules”. It’s not a helpful critique, though, to just chant, “Show Don’t Tell, Don’t Info-Dump or Frontload with Backstory, Don’t Give Unnecessary Details,” etc. Instead, tell the writer why the piece didn’t work for you. Get to the reasons why the “writing rules” exist in the first place.

In this example, you could say, “The beginning didn’t really hook me. The pacing was off, because there are details included that might not be important to the plot or character development—like, unless her egg preference is important later in the story, you don’t need to include it now. You might want to show us the fight with the mother (if it’s important to the plot), instead of telling us about it. That way, you can show us through dialogue and action that the characters are willful and condescending, etc., instead of saying it. That method of character development makes people more invested in your characters.”

You need to tell the writer why the piece isn’t working—not just that it has broken the rules. One reason for this is that if you simply tell a writer things like, “Don’t info-dump,” they might not be entirely clear on what info they’re dumping (even seasoned writers can have blind spots about this sort of thing sometimes). Additionally, if the info is something the reader needs to know, the writer might dismiss your critique as you just not understanding their story. They may not realize that what you meant by “don’t info-dump” is that the pacing at the beginning was off for you, and they need to work that necessary information in a different way, or in a different place. You will both have missed an opportunity for that person to grow as a writer.

Breaking a writing “rule” means nothing if the why doesn’t occur; I have read pieces that begin a lot like the one I described above but, because it was appropriate within the context of the voice and the story, it was actually compelling for me. If I had been on the lookout for broken writing “rules”, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to get lost in the story, and I might not have realized that the pacing was fine and that the writing was good, despite the broken “rule”.

The same concept applies for things like use of adverbs and adjectives. Some writers overuse them in early drafts, but some of them add to the writing, and are consistent with the writer’s style. Do not cross adjectives or adverbs unless they are redundant and unnecessary—unless the adjective or adverb was already implied by the dialogue or narrative (or could be with slight revision).

I also want to talk about passive voice: I have seen so much confusion (and have been confused) by people saying, “Don’t use passive voice,” when there is none in the piece. For instance:

The hat was worn.
This is passive voice. The person/thing doing the action is unknown or hidden. This sentence should be changed to “Sally wore the hat,” unless there is a compelling reason why the reader should not know who is wearing the hat.

Sally was wearing the hat.
This is NOT passive. “Was wearing” is past continuous tense, and you could cause a lot of confusion and frustration by calling it passive. Some people are also against using the continuous tenses, but one of my pet peeves is reading pieces that are convoluted and murky because the writer has meticulously avoided any use of the continuous tense.

Also: “Kill your Darlings”. I have seen this adage wielded like a weapon, seemingly to get writers to cut out all the best bits of their work. The point of “Kill your Darlings” is not to homogenize your writing and remove all traces of personal voice. The point is, you shouldn’t be averse to removing a particularly good or clever bit of writing if it is unnecessary to the story, and interrupts the flow of the narrative. If it adds to the narrative, even if just to set the scene or develop a character more vividly even if it doesn’t much advance the plot, you should probably leave it (depending, as always, on context).

In summation, when you apply any writing “rule” indiscriminately, you run the risk of making the writer feel like you’re lecturing them on basic writing techniques, and of having them walk away with no clear idea of how to improve the piece.

6. Don’t waste too much time on formatting issues, nitpicking “nonstandard” usages, or even correcting grammar.

This one is hard for some people. We are writers, after all, and our eye starts twitching if someone neglects to use an Oxford comma, or thinks “alright” is a word, not to mention the catastrophe of misusing “there, their, they’re”.

I once was in a group with a man who gave me an impassioned fifteen-minute lecture every time I used the three-dot ellipsis format. He insisted that, if ellipses come at the end of a sentence, they should have three periods followed by the sentence’s natural punctuation. I finally gave in, since I was tired of listening to him. Then, when I signed with Limitless Publishing for Love or Money and The Other Place series, they had me change all my ellipses back to the three-dot format. Imagine my joy.

There are many different style guides and schools of thought with regard to things like punctuation, formatting, and formal usages. If someone subscribes to a different school than you, it’s not your duty to evangelize them. (I’ll come out of the closet here and say that I use “alright” often, especially in dialogue. I know it’s nonstandard in the U.S., but I have very good reasons for doing it. If you nitpick this fact in group, you and I are going to spend the whole two hours arguing, because we’re writers, and these are the things we care about. Don’t let it happen, people).

Additionally, while part of the function of a critique group is to catch the odd grammar snafu here and there, it is not its purpose to teach grammar to any of its members. If someone is a chronic grammar-offender, point out the nature of their transgressions once, and perhaps direct them to an online or community college course. Then let it drop so we don’t spend the whole allotted time blathering on about that shit.

Advice on How to Apply Critiques


Now that we’ve covered how to be a good critiquer, let’s talk about how to apply critiques.

It is sometimes difficult to absorb the (sometimes conflicting) advice we get from critiquers, and to apply it to our work. My method is this: I listen politely (or with relative politeness—my natural baseline of rudeness is pretty high) to all critiques. If I’m having particular problems with a piece, I will gather dozens and dozens of different critiques. I will never prompt a critiquer by telling them what my specific worries are, because that can make them look for that problem and find it, even if they wouldn’t have seen it otherwise. (I do, however, sometimes ask leading questions after they’ve given their critique, to fish out any issues they may have that they didn’t think important enough to mention).

Then, I weigh the advice based on the following criteria:

1. Did the advice resonate with me? That is, did it make sense and seem like good advice?

2. Did more than one critiquer have a similar issue? Or, did they have different issues, but with the same section?

3. Is the critiquer a member of the target audience for my piece?

It’s usually best to address these questions a few days after the critique, after it’s had a chance to sink in and any butthurt has healed. We can get defensive, even when we’re not supposed to, and that can affect our ability to see a piece of advice objectively and know if it’s good or not.

Even if the advice doesn’t resonate with you, you might want to reconsider applying it anyhow if more than one person had the same opinion. And if a certain section is bugging a lot of people, even if they state different reasons as to why, it’s probable that you should revise that section, one way or another.

Even if your critiquer isn’t in your target audience, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a valid opinion about your work. But it can make certain types of advice less trustworthy. For instance, when that 80-year-old who only writes technical pieces tells you that “you can’t have characters in a YA novel use foul language”, or “teenagers don’t talk/act like that”, you can safely ignore them. And perhaps laugh at them behind their backs, although that’s kind of mean.

Thus concludes my long list of advice. Do you have any other advice or experiences you’d like to share? Please comment below, because non-spam blog comments make me giggle and bounce in my seat with happiness.

We Need Diverse Books: The Politics of Writing Diversity

Note to readers: I use the term “neurodiverse” in this piece. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, it refers to people generally called “mentally ill”. I prefer “neurodiverse” for reasons I will explain in the article. Thank you for reading.

Writing is a complex art. Words can be interpreted in so many different ways, depending on the background, culture, and experiences of the person interpreting them. We have to be aware of this, especially when we touch on emotional subjects such as diversity. However, if we have political concerns in the forefront of our minds when we write—if we are walking on eggshells trying not to offend anyone—we run the risk of self-censoring, of watering down our characters and stories so that they lose their vibrancy and impact. They become soulless sermons that exist only to convey a moralizing message, and lose the beauty of art. I am going to explore how to find a balance when writing diversity.

I’ll start out by telling you about myself, so you all to know where I’m coming from. My name is Elizabeth Roderick. I’m the author of many diverse books, and am myself a diverse person. I have a novel published, a racially-diverse LGBT romantic thriller titled Love or Money. I also have a series contracted, The Other Place Series, which is about a young woman trying to kick heroin and get her life together, and a young schizophrenic man attempting to make it as an artist. The first two installments of that series are set to release on May 31, 2016 and July 5, 2016.

My personal diversity is neurodiversity. I’m very high-functioning, but I have suffered from bouts of psychosis since I was a teenager, and have had a series of doctors and psychiatrists diagnose me with every letter in the alphabet.

So, now that you have some idea where I’m coming from and what my “expertise” is, let’s get to the subject at hand.

A blog reader recently took issue with my article on Writing Complex and “Mentally Ill” Characters. He is a disability advocate, and had a problem with some of the terminology I used and concepts I presented. It was his first time reading one of my blog posts, and so he lacked context: he didn’t know I was speaking as an insider (which is my bad: I’d gotten so tired of talking about my psychosis etc. in other blog posts, that it seemed like tedious overkill to mention it again).

Furthermore, the reader, as a person with a physical disability, was sensitive to things potentially harmful to disabled people and their cause of equality. I can relate. You can get tetchy about that sort of thing when you’re constantly dealing with the fact society is set up to exclude people like you, and will discriminate and even physically harm you just because of who you are. If you think this is an exaggeration (a viewpoint many seem to hold), ask me (or the disabled guy I was arguing with, or any other diverse person) for personal anecdotes.

I am happy to say that this man and I worked it out, and we ended up Twitter friends. But it made me examine the language we use in speaking about diversity, because of how tricky it can become. In fact, this man, in taking me to task for my language, used language in referring to neurodiverse people that insulted me. The irony made me laugh out loud at the time—which I was glad about, because I needed a laugh.

He insulted me by referring to neurodiverse people as “disabled” and “mentally ill”. I understand that these terms are valid ones in their way, and I will use them on occasion. For instance, I’ll use “disabled” when pulling the ADA card, when the police or business owners harass or otherwise discriminate against my best friend, who is schizophrenic (he’s an incredibly sweet, intelligent guy, but his way of expressing himself can seem rambly and disjointed to people who don’t know him and his mind, and they often get nervous and think he’s dangerous and/or on drugs). In these cases, I’ll bring up the Americans with Disabilities Act and remind them my friend is part of a protected class of people, and they could be liable to penalties and other action if they discriminate against him.

Despite occasionally making good use of the term, however, neither I nor my best friend, nor any of my other neurodiverse friends or family, are mentally disabled, in my opinion. We definitely have our struggles; my best friend is on SSI for his schizophrenia, and I surely could meet the legal criteria as well if I needed to, though I definitely have an easier time in a traditional work environment than him. But I feel the disability is more society’s than ours, because all the neurodiverse people I know are incredibly productive in the right environment. (For a further exploration of this difficult topic, you can read my piece On Madness and the Nature of Reality).

At any rate, if you call me or my BFF disabled, we will take offense.

I also use “mentally ill” on occasion, because most people don’t know what “neurodiverse” means, but I feel it’s a misleading term to be used in general. Sure, when I’m in the midst of a psychotic break or in a deep depression, I’m certainly ill, the way my body is ill when I have the flu. The rest of the time, I’m not. I may be, as a lot of people behind my back (or occasionally to my face) have said, “a little bit off”, or “eccentric”, but that’s not a frigging illness, people. We weirdos are what make life interesting.

Notice I used the term “weirdos”. This was one of the terms the blog reader took offense to: I used the term “weird” in referring to my complex and neurodiverse characters. I used the word fairly unthinkingly it’s true. That’s partially because I was raised thinking “weird” was a compliment, rather than an insult: it’s part of my culture. I like being called “weird” instead of “off”, “mentally ill” or even “neurodiverse”. I also used it because, in context, I wasn’t referring just to neurodiverse characters, but also “complex” ones, so I used a catch-all term I felt was aptly descriptive.

For the reader, though, the term wasn’t apt; he was reading it as a physically disabled person, and he feels a kinship with all those he considers disabled, which for him includes the neurodiverse. I can well imagine why the reader doesn’t want to be called “weird” for using crutches or a wheelchair, especially because he hails from a different country where the term doesn’t carry the same colors and connotations that it does for me—a grunge-era girl from Seattle (I want to add here, for illumination, that the actual DSM diagnosis for Autism, and for other so-called mental disorders, contains the word “odd”, referring to “odd behavior”; for me, “weird” and “odd” are interchangeable, but “weird” is more common in my local vernacular. There’s no better word I could have used without sounding contrived, formal, or self-censoring).

So, what is the answer? Should I have changed my voice and not used the term “weird”? Or should I have used it along with a convoluted caveat, thus destroying the flow of the piece? Well, in this case, I kept the term, but added a caveat at the beginning of the post to give readers context about me.

When we are writing stories, however, we don’t generally have this option; most readers aren’t going to plunge into the story knowing the writer’s background and beliefs, and so might misinterpret our narrative as being ignorance, bigotry, or an outsider’s point of view.

Before I get to how I deal with this problem in fiction writing, I’ll talk about another way we can touch off political angst in writing about diversity: how we present concepts relating to diverse people.

Another thing my blog reader took issue with was the fact I said you could make readers relate to your complex and neurodiverse characters by showing they had a special skill. In my reader’s mind, this technique reinforces the stereotype of the “magical autistic person”.

Autism is another form of neurodiversity that I have some personal experience with, and I completely agree with my reader that it’s incredibly aggravating to pick up a book that touts diversity in the form of an autistic character, only to find that character is a clone of Rain Man. My problem isn’t with the fact that those characters have a special talent, however; my problem is with the lack of insight and creativity on the authors’ part, which in turn reinforces tired stereotypes.

A large number of my neurodiverse friends and family have extraordinary talents, though. I, myself, while I won’t claim any measure of talent, was able to write thirteen novels in two years during an episode of mania, during which I needed very little sleep and was able to focus on writing to the exclusion of pretty much anything else. I’m told that this is part of my “illness”, but to me it’s just the way I am, and it’s something I’m actually proud of. So I don’t want to censor myself from writing about neurodiverse characters with special talents: I feel like talents are something we should be proud of. Neurodiverse people get so little respect from society in general, why should I be shy of writing about one of the things some of us are respected for? And, frankly, why would I write about any character, diverse or not, who is boring and without any talent? (I shouldn’t say that. Great books are written about “boring” people).

My reader did make me second-guess myself, though. I don’t want to reinforce tired or unfounded stereotypes. In his words, he thought my piece didn’t “anticipate how clichéd a view of disability normie [this is how he refers to non-disabled, neurotypical people] writers have, how they’ll view what you wrote through misconceptions.” It made me take a second look at the schizophrenic main character in my Other Place series, and think about how people will view him. And this is something we should always do with our diverse characters, at least after we’ve written their stories: do a bit of second-guessing.

My schizophrenic character, Justin, is an incredibly talented painter, and The Other Place Series are magical realism books. Justin’s artistic career takes off in a way artistic careers very rarely do in real life: very, very quickly. Also, his connection with one of the other characters is close almost to the point of telepathy at times. I try to show the reader in subtle ways that this is intentional “magical realism” hyperbole (an accentuation of the bizarre things that happen in real life, without reaching the level of fantasy), but such things are notoriously misinterpreted by readers. People could definitely interpret the sort of “magical” world in my novels as me trying to say that neurodiverse people are somehow magical.

The reason I wrote the novels this way is twofold: it’s a compelling way of telling the story and presenting the concepts I’m trying to illuminate clearly. If I had written the books in a more realistic manner, readers might see only Justin’s struggles, and none of the beauty, magic, and mystery of his world. Because, and this is the other reason I wrote the books as magical realism: I think a sort of magic actually does exist in the world. I know, I know: I’m prone to psychosis, but that doesn’t automatically mean I’m wrong.

These books were how I processed and explored the fact that I’ve seen some fairly bizarre shit in my life, and I believe that, at least in some cases and in some ways, neurodiverse people’s inability to relate to “mainstream” society helps them to see the world more clearly, and to tap into something unexplainable. The psychic/psychotic connection and the blurred line between illusion and reality isn’t a new concept; it’s older than the bible, and it’s shared by a lot of my neurodiverse friends in different ways. This idea has been presented in a trite and flippant manner at times, and very well at others. I think I have a unique perspective, and that’s one of the reasons why I wrote these books; I just have to be sure I handle the subject with enough skill so that I don’t reinforce negative or false assumptions by non-psychotic people.

So. How do I keep readers from misinterpreting what I’m trying to say? The simple answer is, I can’t. No matter how careful you are, you’re always going to have people who don’t “get” what you’re trying to communicate. And the more important your message, the more risk you’ll run of being misinterpreted, and of pissing people off.

That isn’t to say that we should throw all caution to the wind and not be aware of political concerns when we write, but I think having those concerns front-and-center in your writing, and self-censoring, is a huge mistake. I think it can actually be counterproductive, because that sort of writing often isn’t very compelling, and the only people who will read it are other advocates for the diverse community: you’ll be preaching to the choir, which gets you next to nowhere. At the very least, I don’t feel it’s the way I can best get my personal point across. Others will feel differently, and so I’ll leave the other methods to them.

My personal technique is to not self-censor or be concerned with political issues at all during my first draft. Since I’m never sure what my underlying message is going to be until I’m done with the book anyway, it’s not difficult for me. Then, once I know what I’m writing about, I’ll examine not my characters or concepts, but the beliefs and messages presented in the book from many different angles, so I can anticipate people’s arguments and misinterpretations. Then, when I’ve made sure my reasoning is sound, I’ll tackle revisions. I won’t censor the characters or my voice, but I’ll try to make sure my concepts are presented as clearly as possible by subtle tweaking.

I’m proud of my point of view, and I say what I want to say to the best of my ability. The more compelling I can make my characters and stories, I know the more people I’ll be able draw in, and the more likely they’ll be to give me the benefit of the doubt and listen to what I have to say, even if they don’t agree with me in the end. If my opinions and viewpoints are well-reasoned and come from experience, it won’t keep the critics from hounding me, but I’ll be able to answer them with my chin high.

The long and the short of it is, we have to understand our characters and our stories, and we have to show readers their beauty and truth so they understand them, as well. We won’t always be successful, and we will likely endure criticism, but if what we have to say is important enough to us we’ll persevere anyway. That’s pretty much what making art is all about, in the first place.

Note to readers: If you are a non-diverse person thinking about writing from a diverse perspective, you might want to check out my piece Writing What You Don’t Know, or David Gillon’s Piece, Creating a Disabled Fictional Character.  Also, if you are writing a book from the point of view of a non-diverse character whose goal is to somehow “save” a diverse character from themselves or their situation, or if the main plot of the book is that non-diverse character’s “coming to terms” with another character’s diversity, I’m going to write a whole different blog post on that, and there are plenty others already written, which you should search for.

*Release Day* The Dangerous Gift By Jane Hunt

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The Dangerous Gift FRONT COVER

 

Blurb 2016- 2

 

After a tragic plane crash kills Jennie Taylor’s guardians, she returns to her childhood home—and her first love, Jared Stewart.

At just eighteen years old, Jennie had left the Unicorn Ranch in Texas to seek a life in the outside world. But she wasn’t just running toward independence. Heartbroken and confused, Jennie fled her home after Jared harshly rejected her on the eve of her birthday.

Now she must choose between making a new life on the ranch she has grown to love, or returning to her simple but empty life in England. The choice seems obvious at first, but nothing in life is simple…

Jared is forced to share control of his beloved ranch with the woman he wants but can’t have.

When Jennie receives an anonymous note, she goes to Jared for support. But what she finds is more than she was prepared for, driving the two further apart than ever. When an old friend is murdered and suspicious accidents escalate, endangering Jennie’s safety, Jared becomes her reluctant protector.

Jennie knows Jared is hiding something, but does he really want her gone from the ranch? And if so, could he be the one behind the ominous threats?

Determined to prove Jared isn’t involved, Jennie turns detective. Can she succeed in her courageous but reckless investigation…or is the truth a dangerous gift she won’t survive?

 

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Author Bio 2016- 2

 

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‘Writing has touched my life in every decade. At fifty, I took a risk and made writing my career, fulfilling a lifetime ambition.’
I enjoy writing blogs, book reviews and especially stories. Vivid imagery, atmospheric settings, strong females and sensual males are essential for my stories. Everyday life and ordinary people inspire me. How would someone react, if faced with something extraordinary? A thread of romance runs through my all my books, whether they be suspense, fantasy or historical.
I want to let my readers escape their lives for a while, experience new places, new people and most importantly, new emotional lows and highs My favorite parts of the writing process are; finding a person, event or place that makes me want to write a story about it and the writing itself; when your fingers cannot type fast enough, to transcribe your thoughts.
Family is very important to me. My two children are my greatest achievement to date.
I am an animal welfare supporter and regularly use social media to promote animal welfare issues.

 

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