How to Take Criticism Like a Pro

This post on professionalism in writing is so good, I had to share it with you. The perfect follow-up to my post on beta readers. What do you do with that criticism you hope to receive? Read on…

Kristen Lamb's Blog

Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller Image via Flickr Commons, courtesy of JonoMeuller

One of the greatest blessings of being an author and teacher is I meet so many tremendous people. I feel we writers have a unique profession. It isn’t at all uncommon to see a seasoned author take time out of a crushing schedule to offer help, guidance and support to those who need it. I know of many game-changers, mentors who transformed my writing and my character. Les EdgertonCandace Havens, Bob Mayer, James Rollins, James Scott Bell, Allison Brennan are merely a few I can think of off the top of my head.

J.E. Fishman is another, and he offers a very unique perspective because he’s worked multiple sides of the industry. He was a former NYC literary agent, an editor for Doubleday and now he’s a novelist. His newest book A Danger to Himself and Others

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How to Get the Most Out of Your Beta Readers

Hey friends! Today I’m a guest blogger at The Creative Penn. Head on over there to check out how writing takes the same dedication and discipline as training for an athletic contest. And now, beta readers…

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Yesterday I finished my first revision/editing pass through my novel manuscript and sent it out to seven people to read. These are the first of my beta readers (another smaller group will read it in another month) and they are going to help me see my story as, well, as a reader would the first time through.

It’s important if you ever hope for your writing to see the light of day, whether you publish it traditionally or self-publish, to have someone read it before everyone reads it. Preferably lots of someones. If you are working on something that you want to show an editor or an agent, you really don’t want that person to be the first to read your novel.

When you write a book, even if it doesn’t take too long to draft it, you are still too close to your creation to accurately assess how a first-time reader will experience it. So beta readers can give you important feedback. But if you want to get feedback you can really use (and not just your mom’s adoring praise–sorry, Mom) you need to choose your readers well. In my group of seven, three are fellow writers, one has been a book marketer for fifteen years, two are avid readers (well, they’re all avid readers), and one I don’t really know about in terms of reading and writing, but his important function is his gender. You see, I want a good mix of industry professionals and everywomen and everymen, because every reader can give me unique feedback.

My male reader is important because he can tell me if I have a male character doing or saying something that a guy really wouldn’t do or say (I read a LOT of books by women and see a lot of movies and TV episodes where male characters say something only a woman would say).

Two of these readers are African American, which is important because I’m fairly sure there are more black characters than white in this novel. They can point out where a character may fall into an unintentional stereotype.

One of my readers is a historic preservationist and knows everything there is to know about old houses, furniture, and American history in one of the time periods in which the story takes place. She can tell me if there is a historical inaccuracy.

The reader who is a marketing professional is used to evaluating books for publishing boards and therefore knows what weaknesses might keep it from publication.

The readers who just LOVE to read can tell me if the book held their interest, dragged, was confusing, etc.

To guide my readers into giving me feedback I could use, I asked them to keep some simple questions in mind:

1. Note any place where the story is dragging or you find your mind wandering because it’s getting a little boring.
2. Let me know if something is confusing.
3. Let me know if you saw a surprise coming a million miles away.
4. Note anywhere where you are jarred out of the story for any reason.
5. Don’t worry about commas, but if you see a typo please mark it.
6. Are there characters you particularly like or dislike? Why?

And I gave them an ideal deadline for comments so that I could move on in the revision and editing process. My next group of readers will include a friend who is a sociology professor who studies race and class closely and another author who is both male and African American and has written books that have urban settings and urban problems. These readers will offer me an important critical view of the social structures in my novel.

If you’re thinking of having others read your work, I encourage you to do some thinking about what sort of feedback you need most. And then give your readers the okay to be critical. We don’t improve when we’re only praised (though it’s nice to be praised). Divorce yourself from your story a little and trust that the reader coming to it fresh is going to see things you can’t, and those are things you need to know about and take into account when you revise.

How about you? Have a good or bad experience with early readers? Care to share?

The Intentional Writer: Finding the Time, Space, and Inspiration You Need To Write

I’ve mentioned it a few times on the blog and now here it is. Inspired by the presentation I gave at the Breathe Christian Writers Conference last October and bringing together some of my best blogging and writing about writing, I offer you The Intentional Writer.

Intentional Writer ebook CVR FINAL

It’s available on Kindle now and I will soon be working on formatting the print edition. Here’s the description of what you’ll get inside:

You can make creative writing a regular part of your life—without making it a rigid daily requirement.

If you are trying to make creative writing a more intentional—and yet not tyrannical—part of your life, The Intentional Writer will help you to pursue your goals, hone your craft, and get your work out there into the hands of readers. This entertaining and informative book will help you analyze your motivations for writing, put yourself in the path of inspiration to keep your ideas flowing, deal with both internal and external distractions, reshape your surroundings and your schedule to aid your process, and take your work from first draft to final publishable product.

From encouragement and insight to the nuts and bolts of storytelling and editing, you’ll find something in the following pages that will change your writing rhythm for the better.

Finding Your Story’s Triple Point

Remember in high school chemistry class when you first learned about triple point? No? Let me refresh your memory. The triple point of a substance is the temperature and pressure at which the three phases of matter (solid, liquid, and gas) coexist in a kind of equilibrium. It’s not any of the three and yet it’s all of the three at the same time. Mind blown. In our class we used to annoy the teacher by asking what the triple point of human flesh was.

Here’s a handy chart:

chart

The triple point of your story (and I’m just making this up here, folks–it’s not a real thing so don’t bother googling it) is when all the right elements of your story come together and you reach the point where you can really take off writing. It could be research, outlining, and a sudden burst of inspiration. It could be characters, plotting, and finally landing on the right point of view. It could be just the right combination of procrastination and pressure (looming deadlines!) It might be a hundred different factors finally converging and giving you the perfect kick in the pants you’ve been waiting for.

In the Bartels household the past couple weeks there’s been a lot of flirting with literary triple points and I think I’ve just reached mine.

Ah, the happiness and contentment one can feel with a good start on a big project. I’m two good chapters into a new novel, one that has been brimming with possibilities in my mind for some time but which has had several false starts and one fairly detailed and then discarded outline. I’ve been struggling not with characters, themes, or plot, which are all firmly implanted in my mind and loosely drawn out in a series of notes, but with form. It was the last piece of the puzzle I needed in order to really get started, to reach the triple point.

Any time you are trying to tell a story in the present that has parallels to and lessons to learn from the past, it can be hard to decide the best method for revealing the important parts of the backstory–especially if the backstory spans a long time period. I’m personally dealing mostly with 150 years of a family history. It feels like a lot to wade through to decide what is most important and determine the best method for slowly uncovering that information in the course of the narrative. But my husband (who is also a writer) is working on a new novel where the backstory covers centuries and crosses oceans. But he too is right there, hovering at that triple point.

I’ve had a few aha moments in the past few days, moments that rendered my earlier outlining fairly useless, but moments that may not have happened if I didn’t first try something that didn’t quite work for me. Luckily, I’ve been able to salvage most of the writing, removing chunks to save for later in the book and revising the remainder to lay the right hints and focus on the right thematic elements. I did kill some darlings in the process, but of course that is inevitable.

Now I feel some real inertia and the road ahead looks pretty clear. The trick will be to harness that and make the time needed to use it wisely.

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What are you working on right now? What problems are you facing? What happy moments of clarity have you experienced? Have you ever experienced the exhilaration of reaching your story’s triple point?

Your Novel as a Garden: 14 Ways Writing Fiction is Like Growing Your Own Veggies

I’ve once more been in the throes of novel revision during the past couple weeks, adding subplot and subtext, honing here, shaping there, putting everything just so before sending it all off to hands waiting in the cybersphere. At the same time I have been forced to pay closer attention to my vegetable garden as the heat and rain combine forces, spurring on quick growth and a crop of weeds that must be eradicated.

It occurs to me, as I consider these two activities, that writing a novel is much like plotting out and planting a garden. If you start with nothing, just a bit of land and some muscle power and some seeds and plant starts, you can, through hard work and sweat make bare dirt into food. You can make this happen…

Growth

And if you start with nothing, just a blank Word doc and some brain power and the barest germ of an idea, you can, through hard work, make bare creative impulse into engaging fiction.

In fact, here are 14 ways writing a novel is like growing your own vegetables:

1. You till the soil. You prepare your mind to be receptive to writing ideas (these are your seeds) so that when the seeds are planted it is into a mind that is already at work helping them to grow. In gardening this means removing rocks, adding nutrients, and loosening the soil. In writing it means removing obstacles to creativity (like, say, forgetting to worry about the state of your house or waistline for awhile), adding muse-bait (taking more walks in the woods, traveling to some interesting places, or playing hours of Mario Cart–whatever helps you think creatively), and loosening up your writing muscles (by blogging, writing short stories, writing poetry–heck, even a Twitter tirade could get you loose).

2. You plan the layout. You can’t just dump a bunch of different seeds together and expect your garden to grow. You have to plan. For some people that may look like lots of drawing and erasing and drawing again on paper, scouring reference books for light requirements and companion plantings, and whipping out a protractor and one of those chalk line thingies. For others it’s just getting everything in line in your head before diving in head first with a shovel. Whatever your method, whether you’re a compulsive outliner or a free associating free spirit, you need to have some idea of your goals and how all the different parts of your garden will interact with each other. Otherwise you end up with a big mess on your hands come August and a lot of extra work as you try to fix your errors.

3. You plant the first seeds. These are the cold-hardy seeds that just need some thawed ground and the strengthening spring sunlight to get started. They’re your strongest ideas, the ones you can’t get out of your head, the ones that persist despite bad weather and not writing them down. Don’t worry about a late frost. Just get those suckers in the ground so they can get growing. Seeds don’t grow unless they’re planted. Your garden, your novel, will never happen if you don’t take a leap of faith and trust that the strongest ideas will survive.

4. You water. Here’s where you give those seeds a little push. When you write, what is it that helps you develop your ideas into something approaching a story? Whatever that is–giving yourself a word count or time goal, doing character sketches, etc.–do that.

5. You wait. Put your work away for a bit and let things start to happen. In the garden, beneath the soil where you can’t see, roots and shoots begin to grow. In your mind, the same thing happens when you put your writing aside for a while, get some distance, and let things develop beneath the surface.

6. You plant the next wave of seeds. While you were waiting, I bet you got some new seeds, didn’t you? Plant those when the time is right. Some seeds can’t be planted until the soil is warm. Some ideas don’t occur to us until we’ve already gotten started and the story gets going.

7. You water. Again. Keep an eye on those little ideas you’ve planted and don’t let them struggle for life on their own.

8. You wait. Again. No matter how much we may want to sometimes, we can’t force a garden to grow and we can’t force a good story to develop faster than it should. Time is a writer’s best friend and we should try to work with it.

9. You plant some baby plants. Remember that scene you cut from your last writing project? That subplot you’ve been dying to find a place for? Those are your baby plants. They’re already pretty far along and sometimes you can find just the right place to plant them in your current writing project. Don’t force them in if there’s not enough room for them. But sometimes they’re just what you need to make your garden whole and productive.

10. You water. Again.

11. You wait. Again.

12. You weed. Ah. And here is where it can get tricky, time consuming, and hurt your back. Sometimes you won’t know what’s wanted and what’s a weed. Very early on, it’s really hard to tell sometimes because seedlings can look very much the same. But if you let all these ideas develop a bit (through watering and waiting) eventually the weeds will show their true colors. Those things that stick out, don’t belong, and aren’t productive? Pull them out! And when you look over your work again and find that a new crop of weeds has popped up, pull those out too! Don’t let weeds take over your garden or your crops will suffer (and it will just look like one big mess).

13. Repeat steps 10 through 12 as many times as necessary. I’ve lost count on my first novel MS. But the number of times isn’t important. What’s important is that you  repeat these steps as often as is necessary in your particular story garden.

14. Finally, you harvest. At some point, if you have been diligent and attentive, you will have a harvest. A lovely, verdant, productive garden that you are eager to share with others (because you can’t keep all that great food to yourself!). What you do with your harvest is up to you. Self-publish? Find an agent? Give it away for free?

But one thing is sure: you’ll never have anything to share if you don’t plan, plant, have patience, pull up the weeds, and put your back into it! So get out there and get dirty.

The Deadly Act of Revision

The Butterfly EffectDuring the past week I took the plunge and switched a novel-length manuscript from 3rd person limited omniscient over to a 1st person point of view. I knew I needed to do it, but I wasn’t looking forward to it because it meant a lot of changes.

A change in narrator means not only a change in personal pronouns but (in this case) subtle changes in voice, phrasing, and vocabulary. It can change the way you describe a scene. It can change the values you place on various elements of the story. It can change the past and it can change the future. It can change everything.

It can mean throwing out a significant amount of good writing. But as painful as this whole process can be, it is also a great teacher. And I shall not presume my learning days are done just because I’m long out of college. (Oh my, it has been twelve years.)

You know the butterfly effect? One tiny event in one spot causes untold numbers of events that would not have happened, or would have happened differently, had it not been for that one tiny event half a world away? That’s the kind of thing that happens when you replace the word “she” with “I” in a novel.

Big revisions are not for the faint of heart. You lace up your boots (or, for those of you write historical romances, your corset), take a blind leap into the fray, and hope that with persistence and intelligence you will come out on top. And a little luck probably doesn’t hurt either.

In the meantime I am also writing and taking notes on a new series, coming up with story arcs and subplots and characters. Lots of planning, planning, planning. Very different in process and in tone from my first finished novel, but it is something I started thinking about doing a decade ago and now I’m finally ready to start bringing it into reality. I love brainstorming and throwing a ton of ideas out there, ready to be plucked later. It has me excited and feeling rather happy. Which is a nice relief when the revisions of earlier pieces gets tedious.

What are you working on?