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Writer Friends

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Daniel Nayeri is a publishing renegade. There, I said it. He’s an editor at Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also the author, with his sister Dina, of ANOTHER FAUST and ANOTHER PAN. His latest, out from Candlewick yesterday, is STRAW HOUSE, WOOD HOUSE, BRICK HOUSE, BLOW, a collection of four novellas, each in a different genre.

[The] novellas riff on influences as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Mad Max, and the sardonic Death of Pratchett’s Discworld…Strong and assured, these stories seamlessly merge different styles, teasing out and playing with readers’ assumptions about how westerns, fantasy and fairy tales work…provocative and deeply satisfying. (Kirkus Reviews)

After seeing some awesome new promotional stuff that Daniel is doing for his latest release, I wanted to sit down with him and pick his brain about why he’s so hardcore. Marketing is super important. A lot of writers are just trying so hard to get an agent that they don’t realize all the work they’ll have to do once their books are finally under contract. Daniel is a great example of an author thinking hard about his marketing. First, watch his four book trailers for STRAW HOUSE…, then check out our interview, below!

MK: STRAW HOUSE is a collection of genre novellas, which you don’t see much in today’s market, so it was innovative from the start. Tell us more about the why and the how of this project.

DN: I’ve always wanted to be versatile. Someone once said to me, “Daniel, your interests are a mile wide and an inch deep,” and I might have misread that as a compliment. As someone who has worked most of his life in a library or a bookstore, and now as an editor in a publishing house, I spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of stories people love. One thing I’ve noticed is that we get a lot of teens and early adults who just browse around aimlessly, and when you try to recommend something, they just shrug, “I don’t know what I like.” Then you get these middle-aged to elderly people, and they head straight for their section. Ladies who only read Sue Grafton or hyper-violent crime dramas. Men who are working their way through Louis L’Amour or the Aubrey-Maturin series.

That’s always been fascinating to me. I’m fascinated that at some point in their lives, they discovered a genre to become obsessed over. I had my own binges on Raymond Chandler and Cormac McCarthy, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip K. Dick. So I thought perhaps I’d try to show off a little bit of range, and in the process help a few readers step out into genres they might not otherwise discover–and fall in love with–until much later in life.

MK: For the book, you commissioned four “commercials,” rather than book trailers. What’s the distinction?

DN: I think the distinction is that a “trailer” implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. When you watch a “Transformers” trailer, you’re getting an excerpt of the finished product. All the explosions and grimaces and oiled-up models are at the glossiest they’re going to get. But for a book, I don’t think a 30-second video is ever going to give people the experience of reading the story. More often, since I don’t have the budget of “Transformers,” what viewers would get is an inferior experience.

Obviously, I wouldn’t want to introduce people to a story I worked on for four years by shoving my own cruddy AfterEffects skills in front of them. Plenty of authors can do that. They’re amazing with Photoshop, or they have a bullet-proof concept, or whatever. I’m not in that position. I want readers, not viewers. A “commercial,” on the other hand, never implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. No one watches the Old Spice commercials and thinks they’ve actually smelled Old Spice. They just ogle that attractive guy, and laugh at the funny jokes, and associate a certain tone with Old Spice. Later on, they go to the store and smell it. If they like the smell, the buy the product. It comes down to the smell. The only thing the commercial did was get them to pay attention. It’s the same with food commercials. As a former pastry chef, I know the presentation of a dessert is important, but it doesn’t trump the taste.

That’s the distinction I was trying to make. I wanted people to get a sense of the presentation of the book, the tone, the ideas. But I didn’t want anyone to think they got a taste of the flavor. God-willing, the commercials are good enough for them to take the time to read a little of the book.

MK: Take us behind the scenes of the commercials. How involved were you? Any anecdotes?

DN: I was pretty involved, but I wouldn’t say I get any credit for the artistry. I’ve partnered with the guys at Plywood Pictures before. They’re good friends of mine. They’re also insanely busy, so when I asked them to do these videos, it came with a few elements that I think sweetened the deal. First, I think publishers should start spending money on good videos. I think that market should grow, and production companies like Plywood are just the type to do it for them. So they had the opportunity to show their skills to publishers.

I also asked them to do “commercials” instead of “trailers,” the same distinction I parsed above. So they weren’t creatively limited to the plot of my stories. They could pitch their own ideas. We brainstormed and they had these four ideas, and I just tried to make it all happen. I became a production assistant for the shoots, running out to get meals or coffee or whatever. I know I’m not a filmmaker, so I provided manual labor. Every once in a while, someone would go, “And that guy wrote the book.”

MK: What other marketing outreach are you doing?

DN: Well, we had a gorgeous paper-engineered mailer. If you look closely at the picture, you can see where the title has been laser-cut out of the top. It looks like it’s free-floating. Unbelievable work. We also had a gallery showing last week. We had around nine artists from all different styles illustrate any scene from the book. The show went really well, good food, lots of drinks, and several of the pieces were sold, and a couple of them had their first conversations with agents. That was pretty cool to see. The buyers hadn’t even read the book yet. They just liked the work. That was gratifying for me, because sure, they’ll check out the book. But more than that, it presented the artists on their own terms, as artists. They weren’t just there to prop me up, even though I’m certainly grateful that they did me the honor. I wish I could have afforded a bunch of them myself.

MK: How has your publisher, Candlewick, responded to your marketing plans?

DN: They’re amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t be easy to work with. I have random ideas. I’m opinionated. I put my foot in my mouth ALL THE TIME. I barely ever shave. I’m fairly certain I smelled like onions the last time I visited them. [MK: Maybe try some Old Spice?] And still, the Candlewick team listens to my ideas and gets behind the good ones in a way that I’ve never seen before. They are giving away one of the four stories on the Kindle right now (we were number 1 for a few days!). Of course, I don’t email them with a list of demands. They have more important authors on their list, and I’m aware of that. It’s ridiculous to assume I should get the kind of front-end investment that an award-winner or a perennial bestseller should get. That’s a huge misconception.

So I do a lot of early development on my ideas to make sure that if it’s a waste of time, they’re not the ones taking the loss. I pitch them with a plan, with partners in place, etc. But none of it would be possible if they didn’t bring their expertise, their enthusiasm, and their muscle. I couldn’t be more grateful.

MK: What can authors take away from your strategies here?

DN: The biggest “strategy” that I can think of is to have a community and to think of your book as a way to help other people showcase their talents. Let other people shine. As writers, we don’t realize sometimes that artists in other media have huge production hurdles in front of them. If a director wants to make a portfolio, they have a lot of costs to cover to make good films. As writers, we get to show our talent every time we open Microsoft Word. So I think writers can come alongside other artists and say, “Hey, you’re looking for promotional pieces for your work, and so am I. If you provide your talents, I can cover costs, and together we both get to present our work.”

Obviously, I don’t think I broke even with ANY of these artists. Their talent is way more valuable than the dominoes I bought to make a Rube Goldberg machine (in the Wish Police video). But it’s the least I could do. The other part of this “strategy” is to say, “be as invested in the work of your peers as you are in your own work.” You have to curate your peers, because you can’t give time and effort to everyone, but be the guy who *does* favors more often than the guy who *gets* favors, and you’ll find that lots of people are interested in helping out.

MK: What are your plans for future books?

DN: Well, for the most part, I was inspired by Western themes and ideas for this book. Obviously, the Western and Hard-boiled Detective story are distinctly American. Sci-fi and Romantic comedy have broad roots, but I was mostly pulling from western tradition for my own. For the next book, I’m working on four Eastern themes and genres–an Arabian Nights tale, a Chinese Box story, a Ibn Battuta travelogue, and an Anime. I’m really excited about it. My family and I immigrated to the states from Iran when I was 8-years-old, so the East-West relationship has always been a subject I’ve enjoyed thinking about.

Thank you so much to Daniel for this interview and for the crazy-brainy answers. Now go buy Daniel’s book, which came out yesterday. RUN! HURRY! Look how happy-making it is!

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Howdy, readers! Summer has been a bit slow on the blog. Do not fear. After Labor Day, starting next Wednesday, September 7th, the posts will once again be full steam ahead. In the meantime, I’ve been meaning to open the blog up to another critique connection post since early summer, and here it is.

Before I do, let me tell you about the latest Writer’s Digest webinar I’m doing. In July, I offered a picture book craft intensive, focusing very specifically on writing for the youngest readers. It was my first “specialized” webinar and it was an overwhelming success. (Thank you so much to everyone who listened to that one! I’m digging into critiques for it right now!) On September 15th at 1 p.m. Eastern, I am offering a Middle Grade and Young Adult Craft Intensive webinar.

This 90-minute webinar will focus exclusively into the craft of writing fiction for the middle grade and young adult audience. I’ll talk about the marketplace, strategies to really make your novel stand out in the slush, character, plotting, tension, description, setting, voice, submissions, queries, and much more. It’s the first time I’ll be focusing exclusively on MG and YA, so even if you’ve taken one of my webinars before, you will be getting brand new content. You can sign up by clicking here.

The bonus of my webinars, as many of you already know, is that they include a critique from me for every registered student. For this one, I will read and critique the first 500 words of your MG or YA novel (one project per student, please). Instructions for submitting will come when you register for the webinar.

If you’re having scheduling issues with the time or date, don’t worry. By signing up, you will receive a recording of the webinar (emailed about one week after the original webinar date), you will have the same chance to ask questions as the other students, and you will still get your critique. So sign up even if the time or date doesn’t work for you!

This brings us to Critique Connection. I’ve done these posts in the past and leave the comments open so that you can connect with potential critique partners. Here’s what you need to post:

  1. Your genre (ie: fantasy, paranormal, realistic, historical, etc.)
  2. Your audience (ie: picture book, MG, YA, etc.)
  3. A little about your manuscript (practice your one-line “elevator pitch”)
  4. What you want out of the experience (a critique of your XX,000-word mss., someone to read your first 3 chapters, help with your query letter, etc.)
  5. Your email address for potential partners to contact you (I’d type it in the following format: mary at kidlit dot com so that you avoid spam bots.)

Only post a comment for this entry if you are looking for a critique partner. I will leave it up until after Labor Day to get the most exposure for it. And while you’re thinking of getting critique, do sign up for my webinar!

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This past weekend I spoke at the excellent and first ever YA A to Z conference. While the Writers’ League of Texas has been connecting writers to the publishing industry and helping them reach their goals for 30 years, this YA-centric conference is just beginning. If this first year is any indication, I know it will be around for a long time, and you should all look out for next year’s. It was really well-organized, had a great roster of faculty (if I don’t say so myself), and got some really fabulous writers to the show.

I did three panels, some consultations, and still had enough time to explore amazing Austin, see some bats, catch up with an old writing friend and meet some new buddies (including the fabulous ladies from PR By the Book and the Erin Murphy Literary Agency, who were in town on an agency retreat), explore the food scene, play some midnight piano, and get into a little worthwhile trouble. 😉

Speaking of worthwhile trouble, one of my esteemed agent colleagues and friends who I got to hang out with this weekend is John M. Cusick of the Scott Tremeil Agency (whatever bad joke you’re thinking about the name, he’s heard it before…I tried all of them, much to his fascination, I’m sure). He’s also the author of GIRL PARTS (an excellent book) and the upcoming CHERRY MONEY BABY, both from Candlewick Press.

Now, I know you come to my blog to hear me say brilliant things on a mostly regular basis. And I appreciate that. But I’m not the only one who says brilliant things (shocking, I know). On one of my panels on Saturday, this one about Agent Secrets (dun dun dun), my new BFF John said something wonderful and I wanted to share it with y’all (still getting the Texas out of my system). We were talking about character development and relatability, and John said:

Relatable doesn’t mean generic.

Wise words! Storytelling in the Middle Ages would’ve laughed Mr. Cusick out of Ye Olde Hyatt ballroom. A lot of their traditional “character development” included naming some poor shmo John Everyman and then getting all allegorical on his ass. The character was basically a cipher, a blank screen that readers could project themselves onto in the watching of his or her tale.

Now it’s the opposite. Or at least it should be, for the tastes of me and my fellow agents on the panel. Specificity is the key to good fiction, and generalization is where fiction goes to die. The best characters, the ones that stick with me, are the ones who have very specific quirks and characteristics. I am not going to relate to a character because they are very much like me. That’s boring. I know myself, spend all day in my own head, and sometimes just want to get out…that’s why I crack a book. I relate to a character when they are thoroughly fleshed-out and unique, just like I am thoroughly fleshed-out and unique as a person. When I feel like I know their quirks and their particular outlook on life because the author has made those elements really comprehensive. We don’t just love people who are like us: we love loud, larger-than-life, authentic characters. (At least I hope so, ‘cuz that’s what I’ve pretty much been basing my entire personality on for as long as I can remember.) Those are the ones we remember in books and movies, and the people who spark our imaginations when we meet them in real life.

So aim for a really complex character, someone who is exactly who they are. That will pull a reader in so much more than trying to reflect and please everyone with your literary cipher. An example is this: I was reading either a book or a manuscript a few years ago. In it, a character was cooking something while home alone. Some food dropped on the dirty counter and, even though the character knew she was home alone, she glanced over her shoulder before succumbing to the guilty (and, for many people, gross) temptation of picking the food up and slipping it into her mouth. This taught me so much about the character and was so specific that I remember it all these years later. I can’t relate to the shame of eating counter food — I don’t care about the 5 second rule — but it’s so dang human that I could really see a person doing it in real life. And that’s what grabs me in a good character. Well said, John!

Also, I am in love with Carrie Ryan, and with a dude name Jeremy, who chopped all my hair off on Saturday. You like?

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This is a point that I tackled in slightly different terms in my Making Your Writing Exciting at the Sentence Level post from late 2009. It’s something I’ve been seeing a lot more recently, and so I wanted to delve into it again. Writing should strive to be mimetic of the action it’s describing. As with the example of a character being chased in the older post, the short burst sentences portray the feeling of being chased, even as the words describe a chase scene. In the language falling in love example, the long, flowing sentences portray the languor and lush feelings of infatuation, even as they describe it.

When you’re writing, not only should you strive to match your writing and syntax to what you’re describing, but you should also put yourself in the situation in a physical, emotional, and, above all, logical way. Doing all of this will not only work to make your readers feel like they’re part of the situation on a conscious level, but on a subconscious one as well. As always, you should strive to make writing work and blend, not stand out or pull the reader out of the story.

I’ve been reading a lot of scenes that just don’t make syntax sense or logic sense. For example, I find an action sequence unrealistic if your character stops to describe the scene, the characters, the mood, or any of the action in too much sensory detail. Why? Well, imagine fighting some baddies Matrix-style. As bullets zoom by you, are you really stopping to reflect on a character’s sleek black trench? Or describe the marble hall that’s currently getting blasted to hell? No. Action and danger spike adrenaline and tunnel your vision and senses. Or they make one persistent detail stand out. How many times have you heard grief-ridden or traumatized people/characters say, “And for some reason, I remember looking out the window and seeing this random kid crossing the street, and that’s all I remember from that time at the hospital when Dad passed.” You’re only paying attention to the things you need to survive, or sometimes your conscious mind isn’t working at all. So not only does superfluous description during an action sequence seem unnecessary and slow the pacing, I also just don’t buy it.

The inverse is true, too. If your character is paying really careful attention to someone or something, vague description just isn’t going to cut it. If she’s looking into his eyes (is there a bigger cliche?), she most likely wouldn’t find them just “beautiful” or simply “captivating,” but she’d go into detail. This is an easy consideration, and perfectly logical, but it’s just one more small thing for writers to keep in their heads when they’re writing and people do forget

Whenever we describe something, we draw the reader’s attention to it. This doesn’t just apply to how we describe something, it counts for what we describe, too. We are the story’s curator, using all the tools in our storytelling arsenal to guide the reader through the tale. Mimetic writing — imitating the action of what’s being described — is a subtle way to do just that. Description is another related skill. Lately, I’ve been noticing a lot of description missteps. Next week, I think I’ll talk about overdescribing and underdescribing, the twin traps that some writers can fall into as they’re building their stories.

I’ve just come off a very invigorating weekend at the NYC Teen Author Festival — hanging out with friends and colleagues, listening to panels, soaking in the collective brilliance of this industry — and will also come up with a post to somehow distill the experience, though I’m having a hard time articulating exactly what about last week’s events impressed and inspired me so much. A thank you to all the authors, writers, librarians, booksellers involved…and to the achingly marvelous David Levithan for his tireless work and incredible insights, especially on Saturday’s LGBT panel!

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I just spent an amazing weekend at Big Sur with my colleagues, some great editor and writer friends, and a whole gaggle of talented, hardworking writers. How refreshing and invigorating (and, of course, exhausting, but so worth it)! I was especially proud of my workshop groups at this Big Sur because my writers became so close that they were eating together and hanging out long after our scheduled sessions were over. There was even talk of extending the conference connection and forming a critique group after the weekend ended.

This made me think, as I frequently do, about the glory of critique groups and readers. All writers need them, no matter if you’ve never thought so or had unsuccessful situations in the past. Good critique partners and readers are worth their weight in gold, truly. Seeing critique in action made me think of reader Melissa’s question:

What’s the best time to start submitting work to a critique group? Should you wait until it’s finished or submit chapters as they’re written? Also, are beta readers the same as a critique group?

The point of critique of any kind is to get other eyes (ideally, eyes that belong to writers who know what they’re talking about) on your work. How do you do that? First, there are critique partners or critique groups (the name isn’t important). These are other writers who you exchange work and commentary with, ideally on a regular basis. Some writers love working with local groups, but you don’t have to know your crit partners in person…these groups work well over the Internet or the phone, too.

Critique partners or groups work best when writers convene regularly and are committed to one another, so that a core group can stay together over the course of many projects. Critique partners become intimately familiar with your writing, your stories, your strengths, weaknesses, and goals. This kind of continuity lets you get down to business and really get into the nitty gritty of the writing (ideally…you can read more about what makes a great critique partner or group here).

Some groups all want a writer to have a completed manuscript, others will be open to seeing work in progress…sometimes literally as it comes hot off the press (or printer). You should talk this over with your critique partners and make a decision that appeals to everyone.

It can be useful and exciting to get feedback on a project while you’re still creating it. It is even more useful, I think, to finish something, revise it on your own for a few passes, and then bring in your critique partners. A novel changes so much during the writing process, that it may be more helpful for you to work it out and get it written first, before even thinking about feedback and revision.

There is a small distinction, in my mind, between critique groups (or partners…I’ve used both terms interchangeably here) and beta readers. When I think of critique partners, I think of a group that meets regularly, will read whatever you give them, and really drill into it. That could mean reading an entire manuscript, or it could mean reading twenty versions of one chapter as you try to get it right. Critique groups should be very hands on and intense. Beta readers are people who read the whole manuscript and give feedback, but who may not give as much writing/revision/craft advice as your regular critique group. Beta readers are great if you want new eyes on a project, or if you want to hear from someone who doesn’t already know the story (like if you’re writing a murder mystery and really want to see if your red herrings work, but you’re worried whether your critique partners, who already know the whole story, will be able to judge after a few revisions).

Most of the professional writers I know have a regular critique group and then a few beta readers who they reach out to after the manuscript has been revised and polished, just for some quick feedback and a last minute read before it goes to their agent or editor, just to make sure the book is working.

But if you’re just starting out, don’t worry about having a pocketful of beta readers and a five-person bi-monthly, dedicated critique group. Maybe find a partner online (through the Verla Kay Blueboards, or the SCBWI) or at a writer’s conference. If that partner doesn’t work, find another one. I just did a Critique Connection post a few weeks ago, so that might be a place to search. The point is, start finding some critique opportunities and getting comfortable with the practice of giving, receiving, and incorporating feedback from a supportive community of writers. Hone your revision skills. Take it one step at a time. You’ll find the right mix that works for you.

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Today’s guest post comes from the fantastic Chuck Sambuchino of Writer’s Digest and Guide to Literary Agents blog and book fame. He’s celebrating the recent release of this fabulous book, HOW TO SURVIVE A GARDEN GNOME ATTACK: DEFEND YOURSELF WHEN THE LAWN WARRIORS STRIKE (AND THEY WILL). Here, he shares the reason that your sample pages are getting rejected by agents, and I wholeheartedly agree. While I have posted on this topic a few times, maybe Chuck’s take will finally make folks listen. 🙂

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When agents review pages of your manuscript, they may reject you for one of three reasons. First, they may realize that the story they’re reading is in a genre or category outside of what they handle. Form rejection. The second reason they say no is because of poor writing skills: grammar, punctuation, sentence structure, etc. Form rejection. The third and most common reason that good writers get rejected is that their story just plain isn’t ready yet. In other words, it’s good—but simply being good doesn’t cut it. A piece of fiction has to be great to catch an agent’s eye.

Writers are constantly rejected because they’ve turned in work too early. As a writer myself, this is a problem I sympathize with. We work on a story for what seems like an eternity and then you get to a point where you just say, “If I read this darn thing one more cotton-pickin’ time, I will KILL SOMEBODY. I am so sick of looking at this thing that my eyeballs hurt. I am going to send it out and take my chances.”

So you’ve decided to send it out. But is it ready?

When is your work really ready? By that, I mean: When is your manuscript edited enough and polished to the point where you can confidently submit it to agents? I used to think there was no answer to this question, and that each project was so vastly different that it would be misleading to address the subject. But I was wrong.

The best answer I can give on the subject is this: If you think the story has a problem, it does—and any story with a problem is not ready. When I have edited full-length manuscripts (some for SCBWI friends and others on a freelance editor basis) and then met with the writers personally to discuss my thoughts, a strange thing happens. When I address a concern in the book, the writer will nod before I even finish the sentence. What this means is that they knew about the problem and suspected it was a weak point in the story. I have simply confirmed that which they already knew.

For example, some typical concerns were stuff like this:

  • “This part where he gets beat up—it doesn’t seem believable that so many kids just took off school like that.”
  • “If the main character is so stealth, then how come he gets caught by the bad guys here?”
  • “The story starts too slow. We need more action.”

In my experience, writers all seem to know many of their problematic issues before anyone even tells them. So all this brings me back to my main point: If you think your work has a problem, then it more than likely does—and any manuscript with a problem is not ready for agent eyes. If you find yourself saying, “Hmmm. I think the map just being there in the attic is kind of too lucky for the kids,” other readers will likely agree with you—and that is a great example of a typical problem. And every problem needs to be fixed before you submit to agents.

This shows the importance of beta readers—friends who will review the work once it’s written. They will come back to you with concerns, both big and small. You address the concerns in your next revision and send the work to more readers. Once readers stop coming back with concerns, you’re starting to get somewhere. If you think you have issues, or multiple critiquers agree on a problem, then you’re not ready for Querytime. When you and your readers can look at a book and say that all concerns are adequately addressed (and it therefore lacks any major problems), then and only then will you be ready.

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My favorite thing about children’s publishing is that it’s really a community, above all. I don’t know of a more supportive, loving and nourishing group of people, and I’m so happy to be a part of it.

Every now and then, members of our community, friends, and colleagues come together to mount a truly heroic effort in the face of disaster. My client, Amanda Morgan, and a group of other writers (including the fabulous Victoria Schwab) have witnessed the flood devastation in central Tennessee firsthand…and they’re doing something about it.

These wonderful ladies — with donations from many people — are putting on an auction over the next few days. You can check it out here:

Blog: Do the Write Thing for Nashville
Facebook: Do the Write Thing for Nashville

How it works:

Exciting book/publishing/writing-related items are posted every day and interested parties have exactly three days to bid in the blog comments to win the item they want. The highest amount bid by someone in comments wins the auction item. The winner pays by PayPal, gets a receipt for their taxes and receives the critique, book, phone call, or whatever, that they bid on. All auction proceeds go to the Community Foundation of Central Tennessee to provide disaster relief.

Here’s where I’m hoping you come in.

I have donated the following items and they will become available over the course of the auction:

  • one query critique
  • one PB manuscript critique
  • one YA or MG manuscript critique (of one manuscript of 100,000 words or less, please. This one is really special, guys. I have never offered a full manuscript critique before because they are so in-depth and time-consuming. You won’t get another opportunity like this unless you become a client!)

My auction items will become available over the next several days. If you love Kidlit, if you’ve ever wanted to be critiqued by me, if you want a really in-depth look at your manuscript, if you’ve got some spare tax refund cash lying around, even if you’ve never heard of me but love to help people in need…please bid generously to support the writing community and the greater community of central Tennessee.

So check out the Do the Write Thing for Nashville Facebook page and blog to see if you can bid on a critique from me or any of the other fantastic items generously donated by my colleagues in publishing. I can’t wait to see all the good we can do together. Now go and bid on something, the first items have just been listed. None of my items have popped up yet, but keep checking back, and bid on some other goodies in the meantime.

To all the writers who blog and Tweet and Facebook and post on Verla Kay and Absolute Write: please get the word out about this auction and about the items I’m offering (not in an annoying, spammy way, though, please). Even if you can’t bid on an item, lend a helping hand by spreading the word!

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At the last few conferences I attended, people have been very interested in swear words in YA fiction. Now, a brilliant writer I know said to me, when I asked him for guidance on this issue: “A swear word is just another word. It has to be a choice, just like every other word in your manuscript.”

I completely agree. If you absolutely have to use a swear word in your manuscript, if there’s no other word it could be, then use it. You won’t get a squeamish look from me. (You may get an odd glance from a few people in my DFW Writers Conference audience, who apparently gasped when I dropped an f-bomb or two in response to this same question. What? The guy who dropped it first looked self-conscious, so I had to take some of the heat off of him!) You might also alienate yourself from certain libraries, school administrators, booksellers and editors who work for more clean-cut imprints and don’t publish content. There will be parents who are too scared of their kids growing up, who are in denial of the words and ideas that fly around every middle and high school in every town in every country, too.

The thing is, kids are really good at figuring out what’s a good fit for them and what isn’t. If they are reading a book that has swearing or action or other content that makes them uncomfortable, that they can’t handle, or that they don’t want to handle, most readers will skip that part or put the book down. Parents, librarians, administrators and booksellers shouldn’t always presume to know exactly what kind of book is scandalous to what kind of teen reader.

On a recent trip, I was getting really into a story, and dropped an f-bomb. Not loudly or rudely but, you know, sometimes I get carried away. The man in front of us, who was sitting with, no joke, a 17 or 18 year-old daughter, in a college sweatshirt, for Pete’s sake, turned around and hissed, “Can you please not say that? I’m traveling with a child!” He indicated his daughter with an angry nod of the head.

I can guarantee that his scowling teen was 500% more scandalized by being referred to as a “child” in public than she was by a word I said. Words only have power if you give it to them. (Of course, I shut my yap right after that. I may not have agreed with the guy but I’m not a jerk.)

Speaking of which, there are certain times when I don’t think swearing is necessary. If it’s every other word, that might be too much. If it’s peppered in to be hip or cool or edgy, then it will come across as forced. Some people circumvent the issue by creating their own colorful vocabulary that’s supposed to stand in for swearing. If the language is natural enough, this could work, but it mostly feels contrived to me. The important thing to remember is that nobody’s forcing you to do anything, it’s your manuscript. You can swear if you want to but, by the same token, if you don’t want to swear, you can write a clean manuscript and that’s just fine, too.

If, though, as mentioned above, the swear word is a conscious choice, a careful choice, then there’s no problem with it. An editor or agent can always let you know if something is too much or not right. And if you do publish a book with any kind of content — swearing, violence, drugs, drinking, sex — there will always be people who balk.

But you know what? Fuck ’em.

🙂

Come on. I had to.

ETA: WOW! Clearly, this is a very passionate issue. Lest anybody here thought that swearing in books was settled, let them come and read the comments. The use of a swear word or an opinion about swearing, one way or another, has caused certain readers to lose their respect for me. It has caused other readers to gain it. This is powerful, powerful stuff.

My favorite part of keeping this blog and of teaching writers is ALWAYS how much I learn about my own subject matter in the process. In throwing up this post — and its intentionally cheeky last few lines — I’ve had so many new thoughts on the issue of swearing in YA. I’ve delved a lot deeper into this issue in my head. Watch out for another post about swearing in YA on Friday.

Lastly, as one reader pointed out, and to repeat the obvious, this is about swearing in YA fiction. The same rules do not apply for MG at ALL. (I would highly recommend NOT swearing in MG.) Thank you all for the food for thought!

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In light of my recent Critique Connection post, where I’ve let readers who want critique partners climb out of the woodwork and introduce themselves, I wanted to focus on what it means to be a great critique partner today, which was a great suggestion from MY critique partner, Martha, in the comments for my last post. (Thanks for keeping me on my toes, Martha.)

So, if you’ve followed the blog long enough, you know that I can’t put enough emphasis on critique and revision. That’s where writing truly grows. First, because nobody can have a perfect (or anywhere-near-publishable) novel in one draft. At least not when you’re starting out and learning about writing. Second, because you cannot be anywhere near objective about your own work. Even if you’ve had many, many books published, you’ll still get feedback from beta readers. All of the published writers I know do this for their first, their second, their tenth books. And I honestly believe that you learn so much from critiquing the work of others that it should be a required exercise for anyone hoping to get published.

What does it mean to be a great critique partner? You give more than you get. Lots of people go into a workshop or critique situation and sit there until the group gets to their submission. This is a waste of everybody’s time. If you’re going to get valuable critique on your own work, don’t miss out on the valuable learning experience of being able to critique the work of another person and do it well.

What else does it mean to be a great critique partner? You don’t just focus on the what, you focus on the why. Sure, any idiot can say, “This part doesn’t work for me.” But when you articulate why something works or doesn’t work, you’re putting your finger on the writing craft and taking its pulse. Does a section seem clunky because there is too much description? Is there too much telling in a writer’s characterization of someone and you don’t actually get a clear sense of who they are? Is a writer’s dialogue clunky because they use a lot of adverbs and physical choreography in their dialogue tags? These are getting to be more concrete than just saying, “It’s slow” or, worse, “It sucks.”

Great critique partners don’t pass judgment and they aren’t prescriptive. Everyone who sits down at the page has got to start somewhere. Everyone writing today is on a different part of their writing and learning journey than the writer next to them. Good critique partners can see and understand the strengths and weaknesses of a particular piece and a particular writer in the moment, and work with that. They give constructive feedback, don’t judge the overall merit of the work (because you’re all there to improve, right?) and they don’t tell you how to fix whatever issue they’ve identified. A writer friend of mine says, “If they tell you what’s wrong, they’re probably right. If they tell you how to fix it, they’re probably wrong.” Critique groups can be sounding boards for the writers’ ideas, sure, but they should never tell the writer what to do or what to try. That kind of playing around and imaginative work is how the writer learns, on their own, to make their story stronger.

Balance is important in critique groups. You want one or two really amateur writers, but none more than that. You’ll also want one or two people on the other end of the spectrum, and a few in the middle, depending on size. Be careful of getting into a group of people who are all the same level. You need different abilities, strengths and weaknesses, or you won’t grow as much.

Personality is also important. If you don’t like your critique group or trust them, you’ll stop getting any benefits from the exercise very quickly and you’ll start to resent the whole process, which could leave a permanent block on your writing path. It’s okay to try several groups or several people… you want to find a good fit, not just the first person who’ll read your stuff.

Finally, the worst thing your critique group can say is, “It’s fine” or “It’s good.” Even if it’s good, your critique group should always be pushing you to new horizons in your writing. All my published writer friends who are in critique groups get feedback, tons of it, and it helps them take their work to the next level. And those are published authors, even bestsellers! Sure, they could probably get their first drafts published, some of them, but why would they want to?

It’s all about growing and learning and evolving in the writing business. It’s up to you to find partners who are like-minded and who understand that. And once you get their feedback, it’s up to you to use it in your work and do the revisions. I may write a post sometime about processing feedback and using it in a constructive way, but I think I’ve given you some food for thought to start.

And again, everyone, go to my previous post and cruise the comments to see if any critique partners catch your eye. If their email isn’t listed, post a comment. If you want to write your own “Critique Partner Wanted” ad there, make sure to post your email so people can get in touch with you.

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Today, the Revision-o-Rama series of posts draws to a gentle close. I hope you’ve gotten some new ideas and the food for thought has been fruitful for you. Of course, I will keep posting about revision topics on the blog and, of course, you will keep revising into the new year (right?). Now it’s time for me to take a breather, reset back to my “regular programming” and give you all a few ideas for how to proceed from here, as well as recommend some books on revision that I’ve read and found helpful in my study on the subject.

I have to say that the biggest revision weapon in a writer’s toolkit is… other readers. It’s that simple. Writing is most definitely not a solitary pursuit, at least it shouldn’t be. With writing, the following thing tends to happen: the more we write, the more we revise, the more we muck around in the same material over and over, the more blind we grow to it. The most obvious example is missing typos. Our eyes just tend to gloss over the words if we read them too much. Or we know our manuscript has problems but we leave them in because a) we love that part, b) we’re too lazy to really fix it, c) we’re waiting for someone to call us on it, d) we figure that’s what an editor is for.

No, no. As editors tighten their belts and only take on the most polished projects, it has become even more important to revise to perfection before you even seek an agent. (Who will then tell you to — you guessed it! — revise yet again, if they’re the kind of agent who places a  lot of emphasis on editorial work, which I do.) So, since you’re effectively blind to your own work, you have to bring in qualified readers as soon as you’re feeling strong enough to hear their feedback.

Join a critique group if you’re not in one already… there are plenty of writers on message boards and various websites who are just dying to get together and are maybe too shy to ask. Whether you do one online and email manuscripts back and forth or whether you find a group in your area through a writing or arts center, the Internet, Craigslist, etc., make sure the group you’ve got is quality. If they don’t write kidlit, they should at least respect it and want to learn more about it from you. If they’re not published, their work should at least be damn close. The best groups have at least one published or agented writer in the mix. Strive to join those that feel slightly more advanced than your level, so that you can really trust and enjoy their expert advice.

The other great thing about a critique group is that you learn a whole lot about writing just by looking at someone else’s work. If you see a mistake or something that jumps out at you in another manuscript, and you get good about analyzing what works and what doesn’ t — guess what? — soon you’ll be turning that same sharp and critical eye on your own work. (It usually takes a while to translate… anyone can be a critic but actually implementing the same advice toward oneself is the real challenge.)

Even if it’s not a traditional critique group with regular meetings, you should at least hook up with one or two writing friends or take a writing class. Maybe you can make some bonds that’ll extend past the last day. Or go to local or national conferences. There are plenty of writers there that you can befriend and keep in touch with. But the key is getting eyes on your manuscript, and getting eyes that know what they’re talking about (now that, my friends, is a mixed metaphor). Teach yourself to hear their wisdom but take it with a grain of salt. You’ll learn a lot, you’ll also discard a lot, but I can tell you one thing for sure: the more feedback you get on a manuscript, the more it’ll inspire you, the more it’ll spark your own imagination and the stronger it will be.

If you want to do more independent study on writing and revision in general, I can recommend the following books on revision, specifically, and the writing process in general:

BIRD BY BIRD by Anne Lamott
REVISION AND SELF-EDITING by James Scott Bell
WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL by Donald Maass
STORY by Robert McKee
THE SUCCESSFUL NOVELIST by David Morrell
ON WRITING by Stephen King
FINDING YOUR WRITER’S VOICE by Thaisa Frank
NO PLOT? NO PROBLEM by Chris Baty
FINDING YOUR VOICE by Les Edgerton
TIME TO WRITE by Kelly L. Stone

Books on grammar and punctuation:

EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES: THE ZERO TOLERANCE APPROACH TO PUNCTUATION by Lynne Truss (hilarious!)
THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE ILLUSTRATED by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White (stylish!)

Books on writing for children:

DEAR GENIUS: THE LETTERS OF URSULA NORDSTROM ed. by Leonard S. Marcus (highly recommended!)
THE SPYING HEART by Katherine Paterson
THE WRITER’S GUIDE TO CRAFTING STORIES FOR CHILDREN by Nancy Lamb

Books on reading:

READING LIKE A WRITER by Francine Prose

Finally, Maggie Stiefvater did this on her blog with great success, so I just wanted to open it up to you all in case anyone is looking for a critique buddy. You can use the comments for this post as a personal ad to find fellow writers who might be looking for the same. Maybe talk briefly about what you write (What age group is it for? What genre is it? Is it complete?) and what you’re looking for, and we’ll see if we can’t match anybody up so you guys can go off and work together.

As for me, I’m going to take January 1st off, again and drink in the last little bit of holiday time before publishing comes back in earnest (as will I) on January 4th.

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