Thursday, August 9, 2012

Friday Feedback: Take Your Advice and . . . Think About It?

So, a friend of mine -- a writer with several traditionally-published books under his belt -- asked if I would take a look at a YA manuscript of his (his first in the genre).

The manuscript has been getting great "plot" feedback from agents and editors alike, but they are, thereafter, rejecting it -- mostly on claimed issues with the story's "voice."

As such, he specifically asked me not to worry about little problems with story or structure or dialogue, but to just see if I could figure out what is wrong (if anything) with the voice.

So, here's the thing: I'm reading, knowing his credentials far exceed mine, and I'm seeing problems everywhere in the first 30 pages -- concrete problems that have nothing to do with voice (though might amount to why voice isn't working for them). And, so, I'm questioning myself.

"Who am I, compared to this more successful writer, compared to editors and agents alike, to think I might actually "see" more concrete things wrong with this manuscript?"

Worse, when I know that writing advice is subjective.

I like what I like, and I don't like what I don't like, and as objective as I try to be, that truth is going to seep in to any critique I offer.

Even professional reviewers can't avoid this truth, or how can one explain the same book getting a stellar Kirkus review, while the School Library Journal or VOYA review is, say, less so? (*coughs*). Doesn't it mean that those readings are subjective?

So, here's the million dollar question: when seeking feedback, Who do you believe?

What advice do you take?

IMHO, there are really no definitive answers, but I do have a rule of thumb. All well-intended, constructive criticism is, of course, food for thought. Sometimes, no more than that.

But, if two or more people I admire (writing or reading-wise) take issue with something in my manuscript (or, in the case of my agent or editor, it only needs to be that one person), I deem it more than food for thought. I deem it something that needs my focus and consideration.

I may not agree with how or why they've taken issue -- or their potential suggestion, if any, for how to fix it -- but I do believe that it means as the writer, I may not have done my job communicating what I was hoping to, as well as I thought I had.

I need to go back with fresh eyes and look at those parts again.

So, for example: In my current manuscript, one of the "bits" that plays out throughout the story happens to be a favorite part of several of my BETA readers. I got repeated positive feedback about those parts. My former agent loved them too.

So, imagine my surprise when my current (and forever) agent commented that he found those parts occasionally to be a bit "twee."



My first thought was to ignore him -- I mean, it's like five against one, right?!

But as I thought more about it, and held sight of my rule -- I thought, maybe I just haven't done those parts quite as well as I thought I had. Maybe my BETA readers are forgiving, and my agent is rightfully not.

So, now, on revision, I will look again with fresh eyes and an open zen-like ( ;)) mind.

And, the best I can do for my friend, is offer up what I "see," how I feel when I read, and know he will take it for whatever it's worth.

But, here's the bottom line. I've said it before, and I'll say it again. WRITING IS SUBJECTIVE. Reading is too. Critiquing is too.

For as many readers (agents, editors, reviewers) as like your book, there will always be detractors, someone who doesn't. Some readers will connect with your book, and some just won't. It's personal, but it isn't. So, hold on to that. In the end it's your story. Your voice.

Only you can decide.

So, here we go, peeps. Just you and me and Friday Feedback. You know the RULES. Here's a bit from the manuscript I'm working on now. Just a rough bit from the early middle. The main character is a 17-yr old boy, and a very good artist.

"So, then. . .” She lifts my portfolio and rests it on the table. “I didn’t open it, but I really wanted to.” She laughs, apologetically. “It’s just that I hear that you’re good.”

I shift on the couch and press against the headache that’s forming at the bridge of my nose.
“Ah, I see you’re not offering to help with my curiosity. Fair enough.” She winks to let me know she’s just playing, and slides the portfolio off to the side. There’s something real about it – her – how she’s honest, rather than therapist-like, which makes me feel badly that I’m not in the mood. She pulls her clipboard back onto her lap. “No worries, really, I’ll live. I promise. But, maybe Monday you’ll share?”  She flips the sheet over and writes a note on it. The portfolio sits there, its handle dangling over the table’s edge.
My eyes flash to the small piece of masking tape wrapped around its handle, the words Kee ha Wo scrawled in Sarah’s handwriting. My stomach twists. I’d forgotten about that piece of tape. It’s mostly brown smudge now, my grip erasing letters over time.
Kee ha Wo. It reads like some cryptic Chinese phrase. But I know what it said. I remember.
           It was a double entendre, the day of the MOMA, on the train. She had whispered it in my ear, and the next week, I found it taped there on the handle like that. She had burst out laughing when I found it, loud enough that Mrs. Tarantoli gave us a look from her desk.
Kee ha Woo. I remember every single word Sarah said.

- gae

p.s. if you missed Kate's Teachers Write! Quick Write yesterday, and you're a participant, you shouldn't have. You can find it, and chime in your letter here:

p.s.s. No sad goodbyes here from me to my Teachers Write! campers (I refuse!!). Friday Feedback isn't going anywhere just because summer may end. Come back and play any Friday, and your students are welcome too. xox


  1. Gae,

    Great post! I really enjoyed your excerpt - here's why: because I want to know more about Kee ha Woo, I like the tension between Sarah and the main character, and I love this line - "There’s something real about it – her – how she’s honest, rather than therapist-like, which makes me feel badly that I’m not in the mood." I also like the flow of dialogue and details - I wish that I could do that with my own writing.:) What is the MOMA? You have me very curious!

    Here is my excerpt:

    “Call the police,” is all I can say, before the tears are running down my face. The confidence and bravery are gone, and are replaced by the reality of the situation. I have punched a kid, possibly knocked him out, I have smashed a bag, which I am still holding and look into to find rolls of toilet paper and whip cream canisters, across a kid’s head, and I have gotten revenge by physically fighting. I have never done anything like this in my whole life. This was not the retaliation that Grandma wanted me to give back to the beach bullies. The reality is that I have let her down.

    Knowing that Grandma is going to be irate with me, I tell her the whole story between uncontrolled sobs of crying. Grandma is shaking her head, but she is listening to every word that I say.
    When I get to the end, I have no more sobs left in my body, but before I can collapse into a chair, Grandma hugs me tightly and says, “Thank you for helping me, but I never want you to fight physical for me ever again. You may have really hurt that boy. Even worse, he could have really hurt you again. I never want anything to happen to you. Next time, let them throw rocks at my house, I won’t hide in a closet, I will call the police.” She lets go, pats the top of my head, goes to the phone, and calls the police station. She has forgiven me.

    Before I can say anything to Kalie, she grabs me and pulls me close for a hug that is even tighter than Grandma’s hug. My sides actually hurt, but I don’t say anything about the pain, but I do say, “I am an idiot. You must think I’m a big crybaby beans who goes around fighting and then cries to his grandma. This person you’re seeing tonight isn’t me.”

    She pulls back a little bit to look me in the eye, and replies, “You are not a crybaby beans. You are one of the bravest people I know. You defended your grandmother tonight. You are only crying because you wish there was another way to defend her. I know that you don’t like to fight, you are one of the sweetest people I know, but tonight you had no other choice. I have never punched anyone in my whole life, never even thought about it, but if I was in your shoes tonight, I would have done the same thing.”


    1. I really like this. I can feel that he is shaken and somewhat surprised by what he has done. For some reason calling her Grandma isn't working. I'm not sure why. It doesn't feel personal enough. They seem very close. I love where you are going with this.

  2. Andy, I LOVE this excerpt. I feel the emotion of it. It feels like the perfect balance of dialogue, action, and other business/stage direction. :) I could go back and do the TEENIEST tiniest super speed flash edit and have it shine even more, e.g. (you will barely know what I took out, just a few spare words, and added some em dashes for clarification -- you know me, I hate spare words! ;):

    “Call the police,” is all I can say, before the tears are running down my face. The confidence and bravery are gone, replaced by the reality of the situation. I have punched a kid, possibly knocked him out, I have smashed a bag -- which I am still holding and look into to find rolls of toilet paper and whip cream canisters -- across a kid’s head, and I have gotten revenge by physically fighting. I have never done anything like this in my whole life. This was not the retaliation that Grandma wanted me to give back to the beach bullies. The reality is that I've let her down.

    I'm so proud of you. Of this excerpt. I feel it. I'm not distracted by outside business or direction. Good work!

    p.s. The MOMA is the museum of Modern Art. I guess I have to call it by its full name. I'm such a haughty New Yorker that I always assume people know our major museums by their shorter names. ;) Thanks for letting me know. As for the Kee Ha Woo, that you can't know and will have to read to find out.

    As always, makes me happy to see you here on Friday Feedback.


  3. Wow, you could hear crumbs hit the ground in here today. I loved this excerpt Gae. I felt her headache and wanted to know what Kee Ha Woo means. I felt her insides and I liked that she liked the therapist but wasn't willing to share yet.

    I don't really have anything written that I want to share. I've been writing book reviews for MiddleWeb which are hardly exciting fiction excerpts. I'm headed out of town tomorrow, but wanted to be sure to stop by. xoxo I will be here this year on Fridays for sure.

    PS Hi Andy!

  4. I am so glad Friday Feedback is here to stay :-) I have added it to my bookmarks just in case the reminder doesn't keep showing up on my Facebook (I LIKE reminders!)

    I was trying to clean my classroom all morning. I have junk everywhere. Let me find something to share ;-)

    (seriously, only 370 words.. not that bad)

    Some internal clock woke Lira up. She didn’t want to be awake. She wanted to stay in her warm bed and sleep the rest of the day. Someone entered the pavilion, closely followed by the smell of sausages.
    Lira untangled herself from the blankets and put on her robe. She walked to the table where a servant from the Goddess’s camp was setting out food. She grabbed one of the sausages earning a disapproving look from the woman.

    “Don’t you think you should wait for the others?” The woman complained.

    Sleep deprived and grumpy, Lira replied, “Do you know who I am? What I can do? I’ll eat any damn time I want to.”

    “Humph, with that attitude I can see why you weren’t wanted in the Temple.” The woman looked down her nose at Lira.

    Lira felt she restrained herself exceptionally well by replying only with words. “I have spoken with the Goddess. She personally told me that she was aware of my abilities.”

    The woman stared at Lira, her mouth dropping open. Cassie and Melinda entered before the woman could say anything else. Cassie dismissed the woman with a wave. Melinda and Cassie joined Liraat the table and ate.

    “Was she bothering you?” Cassie asked. “I’ve known her a long time; ignore her if she upsets you. She’s like that.”

    Lira felt a wave a guilt that must have shown on her face. Cassie’s eyes narrowed, “What did you do, Lira?”

    “I didn’t do anything. I just told her that the Goddess had personally told me that I was acceptable. It just so happened that the Guardian had already staked his claim.” Lira looked from Cassie to Melinda. They were both staring at her in the same way the serving woman had. “Well not that exactly. But it’s what she meant.”

    Cassie recovered from her shock first. “When did this happen Lira?”

    “When I went to the Guardian’s Temple. It was the day he marked me.”

    Cassie nodded. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. That news will spread like wildfire. It’s not everyone who talks to the Goddess.” Cassie laid her hand on Lira’s arm, delving her with her powers.

    1. Nanette, I like this scene very much. Love all these little glimpses of Lira. Keep going!

  5. Hi Gae,
    Great writing! I love your sentences - they're the right length and they don't contain any unnecessary words. I am very intersted in the un-therapist like therapist and why the MC is there on the couch. I'm guessing it has to do with Sarah and I'm worried that there's been some sort of tragedy involving her.

    I was so in the moment of this emotional piece and when I read the section of the memory where "she burst out laughing" it threw me for a minute. But then in the next section you take the reader back to that previous place. A place of sadness or do that really well.

    I SO know what you mean about the differences in feedback. I’ve gotten mixed reviews on my first pages and changed them…again. I know the FF readers are probably getting sick of reading Harold, but I know how important the first page is when trying to hook a reader, or a potential agent. So bear with me one more time and let me know if this beginning has more “hook” potential. Thanks! And Andy - why are you up at 5 am? It's summer!! :)

    They say that middle school is where you make all of life’s major decisions and I had already made a couple: get a spot on the undefeated Comets’ roster and get rid of Harold McGee. Making it on the county’s best baseball team would take some time, but today was the beginning of the end of Harold.

    “Any kid would be lucky to have a friend like Harold,” is what my mom always said when I complained about something he’d done. It didn’t matter if he’d beat me at NCAA12 for 46th time. Or killed me at Texas Hold’em for the 23rd time. No really. He kept track. Each time he beat me at anything, he’d write down the date, the game, and the score in a green composition notebook that he carried around.

    But Harold’s favorite form of humiliation was telling anybody who’d listen about “the incident.” “Jake, remember the time,” he’d start whenever somebody was around, “when we were nine and we were in my tree house and you wet your pants?” He’d conveniently leave out a few important details—like the neighbor’s two very big and very hungry dogs had gotten loose and were barking below and I spilled, in a very unfortunate location, the lemonade his mom had given us. IT WAS LEMONADE!

    That’s why on the first day of sixth grade, I cracked open the door and looked outside. The bus stop was empty. So far, so good. I’d figured Harold’s mom would drive him this year like she did when he was in kindergarten. Harold has trouble when it comes to new things. Well, that’s one of his problems.

    I walked toward the stop and from behind I heard, “Hey Jake! Jake! Wait up, Jake! It’s 8:03. Bus Number 6 will be here at 8:07.”

    I walked faster and called over my shoulder, “Thanks for the update, Harold. I didn’t know I was so early. Tomorrow, I’ll sleep in a whole 4 minutes.”

    Thanks!! In my other version I start with "On the first day of sixth grade, I opened the door...". It's possible that starting with an action is better.

    1. First, Dana, thanks for all the nice words about my excerpt.

      Second, I think this is a strong opening. I want the word couple to be two. I already made two: because that's how many Jake tells us. Also, instead of get rid of (which sounds like kill or mean) how bout something a bit softer like "ditch" . . . the problem with either and all is that the don't make Jake so sympathetic from the get go. What about "find a way not to be hounded by" or something like that, which makes Jack sympathetic? Harold is more sympathetic once we know he sort of cant help himself, which makes Jake seem downright mean if he starts by saying he's trying to get rid of him? Once we get to know him better and see his vulnerability then it wont be as much an issue. Does that make any sense?

      I'm also having the same struggle with Howard seeming to want to outright humiliate him - seems wittingly with intention? So Howard to seems less sympathetic than I've seen him be in all the other parts, like at the busstop with the baseball cards. Having said that, I think this piece is totally well-written; I'm just worried that we want to like or feel for both these boys when we first meet them? In fact, now that I see Nanette's comment below, I think we're sort of saying the same thing. If H doesnt know he's humiliating him, that's another thing...??? gae

    2. omg, how many typos can I have in one comment?! Jake not Jack, and they not the... well, hopefully you can make your way through my totally ineloquent ramble.

    3. Thanks Nanette and Gae!

      I get what you're both saying. Harold doesn't mean to humiliate, he's just telling a story, but Jake isn't cutting him any slack. It's important that the reader like and sympathize with both boys.

      I feel really good about the rest of it - it's just this darn beginning!

    4. Dana-
      What about "free myself of Harold McGee."? To my ear it sounds a bit like Jake would be trying to shake Harold off for a bit and assert his independence as they begin middle school. It also leaves open the likelihood that Jake's attempt either won't work or he will decide Harold deserves better from him. Just a thought...

  6. Gae - how do you decide who to listen to and who to ignore?

    I think there is some feedback where you hit your forehead and say "duh". That stuff is easy to incorporate. Then you have feedback where someone says "I don't like/remember/understand this" and you shrug and say "maybe they missed something earlier, but I think it's fine."

    I'm trying not to freak out too much on the beta reader side. Now if I can just get an agent someday, or better yet a publisher... I might listen to them more.... maybe :)

    Your voice in the segment you posted today seems very authentic. I'm definitely hoping that he shows her what's in his portfolio soon!

    - - - - - -


    I hate excerpts like this. I really want to know what happened just before!

    At first I feel like he's still standing over the knocked out kid... maybe you should say he's inside? (or maybe you say that in the paragraph right before)...

    I love his uncertainty. Does he accept this or somehow feel better about it later? I love him for doing it. I want him to know that.


  7. Hey Dana... very nice. I have one quick question...

    But Harold’s favorite form of humiliation was telling anybody who’d listen about “the incident.”

    Does Harold actually look at this as a form of humiliation? I might say... Harold always manages to humiliate me when he talks about "the incident"....

    I just don't see Harold realizing how humiliating the whole thing is.

  8. Oh, man, I feel better that you're all here!!! :) I was entrenched in revisions, and then ran off for a bird emergency (don't ask) and now must get dinner to family and tend to a hubby who is feeling a bit blue. Will be back here later tonight or possibly tomorrow evening to feed back. Love to all.


  9. Nanette, I only ask for the opinion of a very select few people, and sometimes for different things. My friend Amy is a phenomenal plotter... she's the person I go to and say, "don't tell me how beautiful my writing is, tell me why my story isn't working." Or my friend Annmarie who's a reader NOT writer. I ask her global questions - "what's working overall, are you caring about the story?" and she's an awesome proof reader." I think you can only pick a few trusted people to listen to or you'll get ten different opinons. Pick someone who likes your "voice" so they're not trying to change your voice or rhythm or style to yours. Pick someone you think is a good writer, plotter, or a reader who reads books you agree are good stories that you would want to read. And only a few. Or you'll get as many opinions as readers. Does that help?

  10. Not really. I'd have to find someone!

    I have tried to find people... but when I read what they wrote... yikes... not my style at all.

    Can I just send notes to my favorite young adult fantasy authors and ask them to help me? Even if I never met them?

    I tried getting some of my co-workers to help out. The English teachers are not interested. One even dared to say she doesn't like reading fantasy because the names are too weird. I know names like Lira, Jarvin and Barth are not the most common... but I swear I didn't think they were WEIRD. *sigh* (and yes she knew the names of my main characters)

    Oh well... Maybe once school gets started and settled I'll have more time for writing, I mean editing.


    1. I'm not sure if your question about notes to your favorite writers is serious or not, but if it is, no, you cannot do that. Writers are all swamped with read requests (and obligatory book reads) from their closest friends and critique partners...the best way is to build your own small circle of writer friends... did you pursue the critique thing through Kate's TW posts?! Or, there are writers who do that as a side job, for example, I know KL Going used to. Her fees at the time were really reasonable and she did a wonderful critique of the novel I was writing at the time. So maybe something like that. Another way is to enter it into a contest like the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award, etc. and connect with someone on the forum whose excerpt you admire... it might take a while but as you entrench yourself in the biz more and more, you'll find people.

    2. Nanette-
      Try to hook up with the locally sponsored affiliate of the National Writing Project. There should be one near you. If you can't find one, you can e-mail me and I'll try to help you. I'd also be willing to read. Let me know what you think and we can e-mail or message on Facebook.

    3. Mary, I'm not sure what the trick is to find an e-mail on this place.

      Closest thing I find in the National Writing Project is about 45 miles. They don't seem to have much in the way of events. The professional development they offer seems to be directed towards writing teachers, not novelists.

      I've tried to connect to some other writers but just don't have much luck. Maybe it is easier in a larger metro area. The few I have met up with write children books or memoirs.

      One of the problems (duh) is the shear size of a novel. Looking at a chapter is one thing, but a whole novel? yikes. I fear I'll be sticking to online unless I want to start driving. Most of the "meetings" I see are evenings. Hard to do when you have to make lesson plans and show up to work the next day when it would be a 2-3 hour drive round trip.


  11. Dana, I've rewritten the opening to Frankie Sky at least 4 times completely. Whole new chapters. We'll see if this one sticks. Beginnings are either there magically and stick, or take work to find the right one. You'll get there. Maybe a run or swim or whatever your thing is that's not looking at the story, will help it to come.

  12. Gae-
    So glad to know FF will not fade away with the warm summer days. Thank you for everything!

  13. Thanks, Mary. FF was here before TW and will be here after, so long as anyone is actually participating. :)