Friday, July 22, 2016

Friday Feedback: Do You Have What it Takes to be a Writer? Quiz with Amy Fellner Dominy

Hey, shiny campers! Guess what today is? 

It's my birthday!!! 

And in honor of my birthday, thought we'd lighten things up around here just a bit. Because, really, all this feedback is all well and good if you're meant to be a writer. 

But what if you're not? 

Why waste your time with it, then? 

And, anyway, how do you even know?

So, courtesy of my good pal, often critique partner, and amazing writer, Amy Fellner Dominy, we thought we'd give you a little quiz. See if you're really cut out to be sharing your words.

Because, if you're not, well. . . 

Amy has been here on Friday Feedback with me since the beginning of TW, I think, so many of you know her already, and love her like I do. 

But in case you don't, she is the author of several award winning books including A MATTER OF HEART (an ALA Top 10 Sports Book for 2015) and DIE FOR YOU, a dark romance, coming November 8, 2016 from Delacorte Press. 


It sounds amazing, doesn't it? I have read a bunch of it, and cannot wait to read the rest! If you're interested, please pre-order. Nothing helps a book (and author!) more than preorders! 

Okay, so now, let's get to it. Do you have what it takes? Take a deep breath and find out? (Amy will share her excerpt, too, down below):

Do You Have What it Takes to be a Writer?

10 Questions to Consider

by Amy Fellner Dominy

         So, you’re three weeks into Teacher’s Write. You’ve learned so much in such a short time. You’ve begun to experiment with ideas, develop characters, discover voice and setting. Maybe you’ve even felt the tingly rush of inspiration, the goose bumps of an “ah ha” moment. This writing thing is, well, it’s hard work, sure…but it’s also fun.
         But are you really cut out to be a writer? Should you retire to a smoking jacket, an old comfy chair and a keyboard? The answer to that just might lie in the answer to these 10 questions. So take the quiz and find out: Do you have what it takes to be a writer?

1. Can you write absolute crap? 
If so, congratulations! You’re on your way. Most first drafts are truly terrible. The trick is—can you open your heart, pour out what you think is awful and still continue? That’s what a writer must do. It’s only through revision that the work begins to shine. So if you’re a perfectionist or you’re too embarrassed to reveal that very bad beginning, you won’t make it far.

2.  Do you crack yourself up and creep yourself out?
As a writer, you have to write first for yourself. If you’re worried about what everyone else thinks, or what the market is looking for, or what the next big trend is, you’re in trouble. But if you can sit down each day and write what’s in your heart, this could be your dream job.

3. Do you have extremely strong abdominal muscles?
Have you ever seen those guys on TV who tighten up their stomachs and then dare someone to punch them as hard as they can?  Well, that’s what it can feel like to share your excerpt online. (Maybe you’ve already felt this for yourself?) It’s exactly how it feels to send your book out. You’re basically giving a stranger the opportunity to punch holes in your story. Which is like punching a hole in yourself. A writer knows how to tighten those core muscles and absorb the blow. Yeah, it hurts.  Yeah, it leaves you bruised. But then a writer stands back up and readies those abs again.

4. Are you willing to stand naked on a stage and yell, “Look at me!”
In other words, let’s discuss book marketing and promotion.
There’s a joke by Stephen Wright: “It’s a small world. But I’d hate to paint it.” I always think of that when it comes time to promote a book because the world begins to feel like an extremely big place. And it seems to be full  of books. If you want people to know about yours, you can’t be shy. You have to open your arms to the world and cry, “Me Me Me!” (Clothing optional.)

5. Check out this dancing baby on YouTube!
This was actually a test. Did you click over (did you think about clicking over?)  Because what you’ve just experienced is a DISTRACTION. There are a million of them every day and a writer has to fight them off, stay focused and resist temptation. If you want to be a writer, you must turn off social media, tell your children not to bother you unless there’s fire or blood, and you must forego the joy of browsing a well-stocked pantry. Can you do it?  Then you just might have what it takes.

6. Is writing so hard it makes you want to cry?
Yes? Excellent! You’re doing it right. Creating a full-length novel with a unique voice, characters who leap off the page, and a plot that compels the reader to keep turning pages is a monumental task. So if you’re pretty sure you can knock out a novel this weekend, you may have unrealistic expectations. (But if you manage to do it, please let me know HOW!)

7.  Do you love chocolate?
Okay, so this really doesn’t have anything to do with anything. I only mention it here because I’ve noticed a lot of writers seem to have addictions to chocolate—could this be the key to success?  (Could the fact that I prefer an apple fritter to a truffle be holding back my career?)

8. Do you have a muse you can rely on?
If you answered yes, I’m jealous. I’ve spent years hoping mine would show up and I’ve come to the opinion that muses are like Unicorns and a Post Office with no lines. Inspiration is magical but you don’t need it.  Perspiration (which is unpleasant and sticky) is completely necessary.

9. Do you hear a voice in your head, and it’s not kind?
I keep a sign by my desk that reads: “My Inner Voice Hates Me.” Every day, there is my voice, whispering in my head: “You have no talent. Your idea is crap. You should give up and see what’s in the pantry.” My inner voice is mean, and she seems to be part of a worldwide organization of inner voices which plague authors. (Or maybe they plague everyone?) To succeed as a writer, you have to invest in mental duct tape—and use it!

10. Did you write today?
This is the only question that really matters. Did you write today?
Will you write today?
Bad or good, inspired or tired—writer’s write.
Which means that this summer, you’re all writers. J

I hope I’ve given you all something to smile about.

Now back to work.

And to the hard part: Sharing. Since it's Gae's birthday, think we'll keep it fun and light where possible. Share whatever you want, but if you have a humorous section of your manuscript to highlight, all the more power to you! If you don't, post whatever. Really, it's okay. And don't forget to follow the RULES (what works? what doesn't, if anything, and are you compelled to keep reading. And despite my longer excerpt, limit to 3 - 5 paragraphs, please). 

I guess l go first. 

This is from a middle grade novel I've been working on in between other projects, called BAD KAT about a girl named Katie who wants to change her image so she can win the part of the villain in the school play. This is a conversation between Katie and her younger sister, Alison: 

“I need to figure out how to get sent to detention.”
Alison unglues her eyes from the TV to look at me. “What? You?”
“Yes, me.” 
She bursts out laughing, which I find highly offensive. Why does no one believe I can be bad? “Just give me some ideas,” I say.
She glances at Mom, then back at me. I can almost see the wheels of her mind turning.  They’re tiny wheels to fit inside her pea brain. “If I help you, you have to take out the trash for a month.”
“A month!” 
“You want to be bad or not?” 
My eyes narrow and for a moment I bask in a vision of me throttling my little sister. “Fine,” I agree. “A month. Now tell me how you got detention.” 
She glances around me to make sure Mom isn’t listening and then whispers, “I got caught cheating on Michael Alston’s vocab test.” 
“Michael Alston?” I picture the skater boy from down the block.  “He can spell?”
“No.  But he sits next to me.” 
“And that’s your only criteria for cheating?” 
“I was fake cheating.”
I shouldn’t ask.  I know I shouldn’t but… “Okay, I’ll ask.  Why were you fake cheating?” 
“To get sent to detention because Bentley Howard is there.” 
“And Bentley Howard is?”
“Hot.”  Alison manages to turn it into a two-syllable word. 
“I should have known it had to do with a boy.” 
“He’s not a boy.  He’s on the cusp on guyness.  And for all you know, Bentley might be The One.” 
“You’re twelve, Alison.”
“Nearly thirteen.  And I’m not going to end up like you, alone at fifteen.  I mean, you had your shot.” 

Now it's your turn. Share anything you want, funny and light if you've got it. And happy birthday, Gae!

Thanks for having me!

Amy (and Gae)

Monday, July 18, 2016

Friday Feedback: Bonus Monday: When Advice -- or Feedback -- Contradicts

It may surprise (and confuse!) new writers when they get totally contradictory "advice" from readers as to what works and what doesn't. After all, if there isn't an objective truth to what works in our writing and what doesn't, how will we ever know where and when and how to revise?

The answer is a simple but terrifying one: 

Ultimately, we have to trust ourselves.

Having said that, for ME, writing a good book -- a good story -- takes a village. 

I want and need the advice of my trusted BETA readers, my agent, and, ultimately, if I'm lucky, my editor. 

I would be lost without it. But just because I get advice, doesn't mean I always take it. 

To be clear, I always listen to it. 

To be clear, I always listen to it. But I don't always take it. 

Does that make sense? 

Look, if I'm asking someone to read for me, than the simple fact is, their advice is worth LISTENING TO to me. I may not necessarily agree with their suggestion of how to fix something they don't like (and really don't love when people tell me how to fix something unless I specifically ask for that -- rather, I like to hear what their problem/issue is for them, then figure out how I should fix it myself in a way that is organic to the characters and story I've written. Unless I ask. And sometimes, I do ask.

But what if readers contradict one another? One says they love X character; the other says X character isn't working. One hates the opening and thinks the opening should start three chapters in. Another says the opening is their favorite part?

I mean, HELP!!!!

I do have a rule of thumb of sort about advice/feedback, and it's this: If one person I admire (this would include anyone I've enlisted or asked to read on my behalf -- otherwise I wouldn't have asked -- or my agent** or editor**) takes issue with something, I listen (as I said). I take the advice as "food for thought." BUT, if a second or third takes issue in the same place or with the same aspect of story, I know I need to revise. I assume I have not successfully accomplished with my writing, story or character building, what I thought or hoped I had accomplished. 

(Of course, if the one person who has issue with something is my agent or editor, I skip right to step two. Of course my agent or editor's advice carries more weight than a BETA reader's since they are professionals in the business and need to like my work because they are repping it or bringing it to market. But still. What if three BETA readers all love a character that my agent hates (why, yes, this has happened...). Or what if an aspect of story isn't working for a few BETA readers but my agent doesn't voice any concern over it? 

How do we parse through all this conflicting advice?

For sure, there is a hierarchy (with agent and editor coming first), but what must come first and last is the writer's own gut. If it's not working but I love it, I keep going back in. Asking the question: why doesn't he/she love this character or story aspect that I love? What do I think I'm doing successfully, that I'm not doing successfully yet? How can I read and see this more objectively (e.g. through their eyes).

Sometimes, pointed specific questions like that about a particular character or scene can be asked of a new reader, based on prior feedback. "My agent is struggling with this character I love. Might you tell me where the character works for you or doesn't?" That kind of thing. Fresh eyes go a long way in helping us to see what gets lost in our months of repeated revision and rereading. 

But in the end, it does, always, come back to us. I thought it might help to have some advice and  thoughts from a few other authors about how they deal with conflicting feedback and advice: 

From Amy Fellner Dominy (author of the forthcoming DIE FOR YOU, A MATTER OF HEART, AUDITION & SUBTRACTION and OyMG. . . and a picture book or three under contract. . . Amy will be hosting Friday Feedback this coming week!!!

Don't immediately rewrite and don't immediately discount the note.
  • Give yourself some time. Don't immediately rewrite and don't immediately discount the note. Our first response to criticism can be emotional. Wait until you can objectively consider the suggestions and then act accordingly. 

  • Get a second opinion. I'm in a critique group with two very talented, published authors and they will often have completely different notes on the same pages. If they both question the same thing then I know I have a problem. If they both love something, I know I've hit a chord. 

  • If you get conflicting notes (or if you only have one reader), then I try to get to the heart of the comment. What is the actual problem my reader is having? For instance, I recently had a critique partner tell me a scene felt too unbelievable--could I take it out? Well, I could, but I went back in to the section and realized that I hadn't set the scene up very well. I hadn't laid the groundwork for the event that followed and so it felt wrong. Once I built up the moment before, the scene worked just fine and I left it in the book. 
Don't be afraid to ask for more clarity.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for more clarity. Even when I'm working with my editor, I don't always agree with all the notes. If we discuss and she clarifies her thoughts, it always leads to a good solution--one that works for me and works for her. 

From Carole Estby Dagg author of award-winning middle grade historical novels THE YEAR WE WERE FAMOUS and SWEET HOME ALASKA):

I take all feedback seriously. I know even award-winning writers have completely re-written a better book after suggestions of their editors. I accept that I may have to revise 20 or a thousand times to get it right. I especially take seriously all comments that address my acknowledged weaknesses (not following up action with emotional reaction, not getting enough of what’s in my head onto the paper to make sense, and making senility-related word scrambles. I also give suggestions from my editor more weight than I do suggestions from a writing buddy. 

I especially take seriously all comments that address my acknowledged weaknesses. . .

But I know my characters and what I’m trying to say with the book better than anyone else. 

Even when I accept the suggestion, I solve it my own way. 

Even when I accept the suggestion, I solve it my own way. If you’re lucky, you’ll have an editor like mine, Nancy Paulsen. In shaping SWEET HOME ALASKA, for instance, she wrote that I needed another bonding scene between two of my characters, but left it to me to write the scene that felt right to me. At its best, writing is a constructive, collaborative process.

From writer pal Robin Reul, whose debut YA, MY KIND OF CRAZY (Booklist and AAP YA Read n’Rave pick ALA Midwinter), whose advice you will see echoes mine almost to a tee (I swear we didn't check or discuss first)! :

If two people voice the same concern, it’s now an identifiable problem. . .

If one person points out something that wasn’t working for them in my manuscript, I consider it. However, If two people voice the same concern, it’s now an identifiable problem, and I don’t think twice about making the change unless I have a strong reason not to. 

When I have two pieces of conflicting feedback, I consider if there may be other outside factors that might be influencing that reader’s feelings such as personal experiences, stylistic preferences or even their moral compass.

But when I have two pieces of conflicting feedback, I consider if there may be other outside factors that might be influencing that reader’s feelings such as personal experiences, stylistic preferences or even their moral compass. In the end, opinions are subjective and as unique as the reader they come from, so always consider your source. 

In the end the things I am never willing to compromise are character likability (unless intended), authenticity and development of plot and characters. Any point where a reader is getting snagged on those three key elements is always worth considering even if you may not agree with the feedback as a whole.

And, from Liza Weimer, author of HELLO? who hosted Friday Feedback just last week!

General comments:

Be specific on what you want them to read for. Plot? Character development? Copyediting?

Choose wisely and know for what purpose you want your crit partner, crit group, or beta readers to read your novel. Be specific on what you want them to read for. Plot? Character development? Copyediting? etc.

If two of more people point out an issue, PAY ATTENTION and definitely consider changing it! If only one person gives you feedback on that issue, you decide if it has merit.

If someone says their process is the only way to write a novel, ignore them!

If someone says their process is the only way to write a novel, ignore them! Everyone has their process. If it works for you, go with it!

Here are a few nightmare moments: 

1. I had an author tell me that under no circumstances could I include a flashback in the first 35 pages of my novel. Her editor friend told her it was taboo and an indication of poor writing. At first, her comment freaked me out. Then I dismissed it. My flashback was only a few paragraphs and was critical to my story. Needless to say, we didn’t exchange anything after chapter 1. What I learned: Don’t be afraid to push the limits and break rules. If you’re going to do so, do  so with purpose and do it WELL!

2. I had another author take my first chapter, which was written in first person, and send it back to me re-written in third person. She said my novel would be so much better if I wrote it in third person. Thankfully, this comment came AFTER my agent had told me how much he loved it. I never had her read another chapter.

3. A writer friend of mine told me a woman in her crit group argued with her over a character’s dress color. Why should it be blue? Maybe it should be green? The color of the dress had no significance. It was a minor detail, yet it ended up becoming a major discussion around the table and a major waste of time. Needless to say, she dropped out of that crit group.

My best advice:

Know the difference between constructive criticism and criticism. 

Know the difference between constructive criticism and criticism. Constructive criticism is about receiving sound advice: Comments should help improve your story, point out shortcomings, things that are missing or need flushing out and developing. The main goal of someone who gives you constructive criticism is to see you succeed. It elevates, instead of knocks you down. Constructive criticism isn’t meant to hurt or wound you, but to improve your writing. You don’t need to agree with every point, but the purpose of constructive criticism is to get you to think. Constructive criticism should be professional, (and sometimes humorous), objective, thoughtful, and clear. Those who give constructive criticism are not threatened by you. Their words should never be cruel or accusatory. They care enough to be honest, and they're not worried that if you succeed, it’ll mean they won’t.
A critical part of receiving constructive criticism: set that ego aside!!!!!! Be humble!

One of the hardest things I had to do with Hello? was remove one of the characters narrating the story. I had six, there are now five. My agent said six was too much and an editor said six was too much. Jordan needed to go! My initial reaction was to argue. But the most important thing I did was LISTEN to their reasons why. (Mainly, too much plot.) Always ask why if a reason isn’t given or it’s not clear and obvious. After listening to their perspectives, I had no doubt they were correct. Truthfully, their advice scared me. Each Hello?’ chapter belongs to a specific character and intertwine with the next. I ended everyone with either a phone call, text message, or a specific thought about the next character so that the reader would know who was next in the narration. Pulling a character meant I would have to reweave the story and do so seamlessly. At first, it was terrifying, daunting. But I did it! Victory!!!!! Not only was it the right thing to do, but I’m grateful for the advice. (Note: I kept Jordan in the story. But he’s now a strong secondary character.)

Here’s an example of how asking why and explaining why helped me decide to only take part of my agent’s advice. He told me that Emerson, one of the main characters in Hello?, shouldn’t come from a large family. (Emerson has four sisters.) My agent's argument was that having all those sisters in the novel was too much, adding complications and making it harder for readers to follow. I understood his points. But being an only boy with that many sisters had a profound impact on Emerson and influenced him deeply. After weighing the advice and my perspective, I decided the sisters needed to stay. But my agent was also right. The question was how to make it work. And that’s the point: writing it work. I needed to puzzle it out, but I succeeded and am thrilled with the results. 


So there you have it! A bunch of advice to try to help you muddle through that contradictory and, at times, overwhelming advice. Hope it helps! See you on Friday for a fun and light Friday Feedback! Cannot wait!

xox gae

Gae is the author of THE MEMORY OF THINGS coming September 6, 2016 from St. Martin's Press Griffin, as well as THE SUMMER OF LETTING GO and THE PULL OF GRAVITY. THE MEMORY OF THINGS has been named one of the most buzzworthy books of summer by YA Books Central and one of Barnes & Noble's most anticipated reads of the second half of 2106. Preorder your copy today

Friday, July 15, 2016

Friday Feedback: Liza Wiemer and the WHY of it all. . .

Hey, shiny campers!!!

I'm back from the amazing #nErDcampMI and super excited to have met several Teachers Write campers there, at least briefly! What a wonderful place #nerd camps are. Nora Raleigh Baskin and I had a GREAT time, and I urge you, if you have a chance, to check them out and see if there's one popping up anywhere near you!

Meanwhile, back to real life. Luckily, I am super ridiculously excited to have Liza Wiemer here today to talk about the WHY of it all.

Liza is the author of Hello? about which, SLJ said, 

"Readers will appreciate literary references to Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century transcendentalist essayist and poet whom Emerson is named after. Chapters open with Emerson quotes. Savvy popular culture fans will savor references to everything from Frank Sinatra's signature songs to Led Zeppelin to films like Psycho and 500 Days of Summer. The author successfully ties these threads together without weighing down the narrative."

Doesn't that sound good? Okay, well don't take it from me or just them: Hello? was also named a Goodreads YA Best Book of the Month, November 2015, and Paste Magazine said, Hello? is one of the most original novels of the year… If you’re looking for something incredibly different...push this to the top of your list.”

I have it on my Kindle and cannot wait. 


So, without further ado, here's Liza talking about the WHY of it all:

If you’re a parent, a pre-school teacher, or have ever been around two and three and even four-year-olds, you’ve most likely been pestered with “Why?” Why?” “Why?” After a while, it can get annoying. And eventually the message gets through: Stop asking why! Which stifles our natural curiosity. We learn to mind our own business. To stop paying attention. Or if we do notice something different, witness something painful, hurtful or perhaps interesting or amazing, we don’t necessarily stop and ask why.

But “Why” is the most important question. It’s the key to unlocking a story. It creates depth, meaning, and understanding. “Why” is the revealer of secrets, the motivation for behavior, the unveiling of hidden wounds or a unique talent.

Here’s an example -- and with #3 being the piece I'm putting up for "feedback"  -- which illustrates how “Why” can transform a story. It's not from a WIP exactly, but from my own life. Consider this my excerpt. As I reveal more, pay attention to whether answering "why?" becomes the key to motivation, to making the story compelling. 

1. When I was twelve years old, a Mormon who said hello to me saved my life.

2. When I was twelve years old, my family was whitewater rafting in Utah. My fourteen-year-old sister and I shared a raft. A Mormon couple, whose raft had popped, asked my sister and me if they could join us. They said they’d give us five dollars each if we’d help them out. Twenty minutes later, I fell into the water and the man grabbed my shirt and threw me into the raft, saving my life. At the end of the trip, he gave my sister and me the money.

3. After coping with a brutal divorce and hating my mother for breaking up our family, her idea to take a three-week RV road trip with my future stepfather, stepsister, and stepbrother was an omen for disaster.  My fourteen-year-old sister, my seven-year old brother, and I, at twelve, had no desire to blend our family with strangers. To make the situation worse, my mother cleaned out my savings account to pay for the trip. Without telling me! I had at least fifteen hundred dollars; money I was saving for college. This combination set into motion an event that changed my life forever.

 By the time we reached the Teton Mountains in Wyoming, I considered running away and living like Grizzly Adams. To this day, I can put myself into that space, staring out the laundromat windows, longing for freedom. While folding my soon-to-be stepfather’s underwear, my sister convinced me to stay.

            As our grumpy group traveled west, we stopped somewhere in Utah to go river rafting. I partnered with my sister. It was a beautiful day, and as we meandered down the lazy river, we exchanged hellos with a young couple as they passed us by.

Fifteen minutes later, we came upon them, drenched, standing alongside their deflated raft. The man called to us and explained that they’d hit something sharp, tearing through the raft’s skin. He held up the shredded rubber as evidence. “Could we go down the river with you?” he asked. “It’s too far to walk or swim. We’ll pay you. Five dollars each.”

            The question of safety never crossed my mind. He explained that they were Mormons that no harm would come to us. And, if doing an act of kindness wasn’t motivation enough, the promise of money definitely was a strong incentive. My sister and I welcomed them, and the couple took over paddling.

            Twenty minutes later, a storm came out of nowhere. Pitch black. Thunder. Lighting! A curtain of rain pelted us. The raft dipped, dived, and spun out of control with the treacherous torrent. Before I could secure my life preserver, the raft smashed into an outcrop of boulders and I flew into the water. Down, down, down. The current dragged me along. Face toward the sky, I stared up as my back bumping along the bottom. With no control, nothing to grab ahold of, I knew I was going to die. And somehow, I found peace with it. I accepted it.

            Until a hand fisted my shirt and I was thrown into the raft. The man saved my life.

            Soaked to the bone, we finally made it to the drop-off point. The man pulled out his soggy wallet and removed two five-dollar bills. My sister accepted hers, but I refused. “You saved my life. I can’t take that.”

            “But you have to,” he said. “You helped us, and I promised.”

            Shaking my head, I stepped back. No. I couldn’t take payment after what he’d done for me. If their raft hadn’t popped, if my sister and I had been in alone, surely both of us would have drowned.

            The man held out the five dollars. “Please,” he said. “I made a promise, and when I give my word, it’s important people know they can count on me. By taking the money, you’re doing me a favor. You’re allowing me to fulfill that promise.”

            Reluctantly, I took the money. And learned a life-long lesson. Your word is everything. If you can’t follow through on a promise, explain why. Because otherwise your word means next to nothing. To this day, I try my best to only make a promise when I know it’s one I can keep.

            For today's Friday Feedback, share an excerpt that you have transformed by asking why. Make sure you dig deep, then deeper, then deeper still.  I look forward to reading your excerpts!

*Campers, please note that Liza's story is longer than the excerpts you should share for feedback (I know, I know, it's unfair, but it would be too much for Liza (and me!) to have to read and give feedback to. So please limit your excerpts to the usual 3 -5 paragraphs. And remember that anything posted past the end of the business day Friday will not necessarily be read by Liza. Anything posted past midday Saturday won't be read by me as I will already be gearing up for next week's Friday Feedback plus a mid-week post!

A huge thanks to Liza for hosting! If you want to read more about WHY from her, you may go HERE: Create rich characters by asking WHY. And please check out Hello? and order a copy for you and/or your students today!

xox Liza (and Gae!)