Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The 6 Stages of Accepting Feedback by Dianne K. Salerni

I’m currently waiting on an editorial letter for my latest manuscript with equal parts eagerness and dread.

Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, and the edit letters from my HarperCollins editor have been amazing so far. She helped me turn The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark into much better books. Based on reviews for The Eighth Day, she also saved me from making a big mistake with one of my characters.

But when I see that email in my In-box I tend to hyperventilate with anxiety. I’m betting I’m not alone in that, right? Whether the feedback is from a critique partner, a trusted beta reader, or critique won in a contest from a blogger/writer you don’t even know, do you reach for a brown paper bag to breathe into while you read?

For me, there are usually six stages of reacting to feedback on my manuscript.

Stage 1: No! She’s wrong! She is absolutely and completely wrong about this!

Stage 2: Crap. She’s right.

Stage 3: But I can’t fix it! Changing this will have a domino effect and make the entire plot unworkable. It cannot be fixed!

Stage 4: Oh, wait. I see how to fix it.

Stage 5: You know, this change is pretty good. I’m liking it.

Stage 6: This is brilliant! Why didn’t I do it this way in the first place?!

I’ve come to accept these stages. I also understand it’s not possible for me to skip the scary and upsetting ones, even though I know the later, more positive stages are coming. The trick is NOT to shoot off an email to the person who gave you the feedback while you are in the throes of Stage 1 or Stage 3!

I’m prone to shooting back an email during Stage 2, although I usually wish I’d waited until Stage 4 so that I can thank the person for the feedback, ask for any clarification needed, and already have a plan in mind for revisions. (I feel foolish when I’ve sent a note to my editor whining complaining explaining that I don’t know how to handle the changes when the next day I’ve got it figured out!)

Over time, I’ve also learned something important about addressing issues raised in a critique or editorial letter. I had trouble putting the idea into words, but luckily, Neil Gaiman did it for me:

Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong. ~ Neil Gaiman

You have the option of ignoring the feedback you get from critique partners and beta readers. Less so for agents and editors. But you should carefully consider every bit of feedback you get – especially if more than one reader comments on the same thing.  Listen to what they’re saying. Figure out why this element doesn’t work for them, and keep in mind that they can’t always pinpoint the reason themselves. You’re going to have to be the one to figure it out. Address the issue in a way that makes sense for your story. Most of the time, your fix will be better than the one they suggested – and will get you to the glorious Stage 6 faster.

Change happens. As a writer, learn to embrace it. Just keep a brown paper bag handy.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Pixar's 22 Rules of Storytelling

Happy Monday, everyone!

My apologies for this super short post, which is basically just a link to somebody else’s post, but I found it so helpful and interesting I couldn’t not share. Emma Coats, story artist at Pixar, compiled Pixar’s 22 Tips for Writers, which was posted at PR Daily last week (link below).

Tips #2 and #12 really resonated with me, but I think they’re all great food for thought.

Hope you enjoy and share them around.

Happy writing!

photo credit: silkegb via photopin cc

Friday, July 18, 2014

Evolving Your Dream (aka Don't Write Another Harry Potter)

This is by no means a blanket statement, so please don't take it as such, but in the publishing world, once a house or literary agency gets a big hit, let's use Harry Potter as our example, by and large the last thing they are going to do is take on another series or even a stand-alone about a school for wizards. Reasons: A) It's been done. B) Think of it as a conflict of interests. This could lead to some awkward conversations with the house's or agency's bestselling author and they are not going to risk losing said bestselling author by signing another author who's writing a "look-a-like" series. I mean, let's be honest, would you? C) Once a series is a runaway hit in the market, readers tend to mark that type of book off their list and move on, making the read-alikes, though maybe just as good, secondary to their earlier counterpart and always compared to it. Like I said though, there are exceptions to this rule, but when we're talking about a school for wizards, a camp for Greek demigods, vampires that sparkle in the sun, or an ancient clan of warrior owls, I'm darn sure you can tell me the title of each series, even if you haven't read them, which is saying a lot.

All that said, this post isn’t meant to discourage you from writing the book of your dreams. Just maybe, you need to reinvent your dream. In other words, take it to the next level so it becomes your own and incomparable to other authors. When you listen to music from thirty years ago and you hear those old school drum machines in the background, you may think how basic or even simple it all sounded, but back in the day, that music was the height of technology, ultra cool, but guess what, music went to the next level, and the next, and the next. Technology went to the next level too. Gone are the Amiga 3000's that could sink a small boat and in their place have risen tiny compact machines with awe-inspiring power that fit in the palm of your hand. Even cooking has evolved. Think of food from the seventies. I remember seeing a picture of my mom at a dinner party holding an appetizer that looked like plastic pink marshmallows on a stick, now compare that to what chefs think up today like Kobe beef skewers with Thai chili sauce. What a difference! Everything evolves. Shouldn't writing evolve? Shouldn’t our stories evolve? Instead of retelling the same idea (and I'm not talking about the retelling of fairytales, completely different topic), why not take an idea and make it completely our own?  

So, your book about a boy who goes to a school for wizards has already been done. Now what? Write it anyway? Sure, you could do that. You may even get lucky, but man, your chances are slim to nonexistent. But what if you completely switched things up? What if being a wizard was completely normal, the more wizardly you were the better, and if you weren't a wizard you were sent to school to be a domestic, destined to forever wait hand and foot on those who were born with gifts you were not given? How could you make that MC special? What could make your book shine? Think about it. What could a young servant learn living in the house of a great wizard? What secrets might unfold? How could he become special? And if this book's already been written, I apologize...I'm thinking of a story on the fly here! ;) 

What am trying to get at is you don't have to kill your original idea. You only need to nurture it a little and let it transform into a brand new story, something that's all you. Be your own catalyst. Evolve that dream and turn it into an amazing first-time-ever reality for your readers. Make your next story the one twenty years from now other writers will wish they'd have written.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Scary Tales for Summer Nights by Kell Andrews

Anybody can scare a middle-grader with age-inappropriate scenarios. But what makes a book frightening within a strictly middle-grade world view?

Once my first book came out last month, I braced myself for reader reactions. One thing that I was surprised to hear is that Deadwood can be scary for the youngest middle-grade readers.  I didn't know I was writing a scary book -- suspenseful, yes, but scary? It's not violent or graphic by any means, and I have a low tolerance for gore even as an adult. And it's about a tree -- not high on anyone's list of spooky things.

Then I realized that the scariness comes from the supernatural occurrence in an otherwise realistic setting. A book is scarier if it seems as if it could really happen in the reader's world. At 2 a.m., what seems scarier: a tale of a harmless ghost that hums sweet nursery rhymes in the hallway, or a book about a ferocious dragon that terrorizes a medieval village? (Trick question: nursery rhymes are naturally scary.)

But as a principle of spooky tales, familiarity makes frightening, whether the suburban school settings of R.L.Stine or "it happened to someone my cousin knows" of urban legends and campfire tales.

In honor of campfires and short summer nights that seem long, here are ten scary tales for middle grade readers.

The Mostly True Story of Jack by Kelly Barnhill
What makes it scary: Normal Iowa town with strange magic just below the surface? Yes please!

Doll Bones by Holly Black
What makes it scary: A doll made from the ground-up bones of a murdered girl.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
What makes it scary: Bod is a boy raised by ghosts  -- but it's the living humans that are really dangerous.

All the Lovely Bad Ones by Mary Downing Hahn
What makes it scary: Spiteful spirits awaken in an isolated inn when Corey and Travis play practical jokes.
Well Witched by Frances Hardinge
What makes it scary: Ryan, Josh, and Chelle steal a coin from a well. Now the witch of the well is making them pay it back, and the price may be too high. 

The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher
What makes it scary: Every kid has a weird teacher now and then. But Sophie and Grace's is really up to something creepy.
The Sinister Sweetness of Splendid Academy by Nikki Loftin
What makes it scary: Ravenous teachers and memories that fail in a truly nightmarish scenario.
In the Land of the Lawn Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales by David Lubar
What makes it scary: Can you laugh when you're scared? Yes. In these warped campfire tales normal kid situations take abnormal, Twilight Zone twists.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
What makes it scary: A monster shows up at midnight. But he's not the most terrifying thing Conor must face.
The Kneebone Boy by Ellen Potter
What makes it scary: One of the creepiest things about this modern gothic tale is a narrator so unreliable, we're not even sure which of the Hardscrabble children it is. 
A Drowned Maiden's Hair by Laura Amy Schlitz
What makes it scary: Phony spiritualists enlist orphan Maud in their scheme -- but the danger and ghosts turn out to be real.

What are your favorite scary middle-grade books, new or old? 

I'm offering a special shout-out here to Jane-Emily by Patricia Clapp, which was the ghost story that scared my childhood friends and me no matter how many times we read it.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Stopping the Midnight Madness: Jennifer Bohnhoff on Historical Fiction

They say the devil is in the details.  Even though it was thirty years ago, I remember the day I showed my sophomore English class the old, (1959) movie The Diary of Anne Frank.  We had just finished reading the book, and as I threaded the 35mm film through the projector, I thought about how seeing the story was going to enrich their understanding.  We had just gotten to a scene in which the Frank family cowers in their attic hideaway while Allied planes bomb Amsterdam when one of my students left her seat and scurried over to me, bent in half so that she wouldn’t block the picture from the screen.

                “Mrs. Bohnhoff, I don’t get it,” she whispered.

                “What don’t you get?” I whispered back. 

I was probably glowing with joy as I anticipated her question.  Maybe she was wondering how the Frank family could deal with the emotional vulnerability of staying in an attic when everyone else was hidden away in underground bomb shelters.  Or why the Allies would bomb the Netherlands when it was occupied territory and therefore filled with non-Axis-supporting civilians. 

But no.  You can imagine my surprise when she asked why there were midnight madness sales going on.  Wouldn’t the bombing scare away all the customers?  It took me a while to figure out what had bedeviled her: in her experience, the giant search lights that streak across the sky are intended to draw people into Kmart midnight madness sales, not help anti-aircraft batteries blast bombers out of the sky.

If we want our children to understand the great sweep of history, we need to make sure they understand the minutia.  Otherwise, those details will bedevil them and they will miss the point.

The best way to teach the minutia of history is through historical fiction.  Tarry Lindquist,  a Washington State fifth-grade teacher  who was been recognized by the National Council for the Social Studies as National Elementary Teacher of the Year, says that historical fiction  “hammers home everyday details,” providing “visual and contextual clues to how people lived, what their speech was like, how they dressed, and so on. When accurately portrayed, these details are like a savings account that students can draw on and supplement - each deposit of information provides a richer understanding of the period.”[1]   

When students read historical fiction, they begin to absorb historical details without even realizing it.  Students learn about the period’s geography, the size of towns or cities and modes of transportation.  They learn about the period’s governmental and social organization, distribution of wealth, social classes, religious beliefs, and laws.  They get a sense of the manner of dress, types of food and entertainment.  Students may be focusing on plot and characterization, but they are learning about an historical period and depositing information in their intellectual savings accounts so that they won’t draw on their own limited experiences and misinterpret those details like my student did.

Historical novels give life to these details in ways that textbooks can’t.  A history textbook, pressed to get all the dates of important offenses and names of key politicians and generals in World War II, is unlikely to give more than a mention to wartime rationing.  The textbook is not going to discuss “sleep-sickness,” a lethargy caused by malnutrition and too few calories common among civilians and POWs, nor is it going to explain how the details of rationing became the organizing force in many people’s lives.

In Code: Elephants on the Moon, my middle grade novel set in France during WWII, the protagonist goes to town every afternoon, looking for cards in merchant windows announcing that  “meat was allowed to Category A, which encompassed most adults including Maman and Barbe, or that Category J3, those aged 13 through 21, deserved extra bread from the Boivin Sisters, or milk from the lecherie.  Of course, just because she deserved them didn’t always mean Eponine got them.  One could only buy what the stores had to offer.  If the shelves were empty, so was her stomach.”  Reading this helps students understand the hardships of war on a more personal level than they would have gotten from a textbook.  It might even compel them to do some research, further deepening their understanding of the period.

Once students have a firm grasp of an historical period, they can then consider the relevancy of the past in relation to their own society. The students can begin to see how a study of the past helps them to understand the present.

Civil War historian Bruce Catton believes that, by recreating the past, the historian is also creating literature: “the historian has to face the fact that he is engaged in the literary art . . . what he writes is finally going to have the effect of expanding his reader’s horizon. It is going to move the reader emotionally just because a true account of man’s unending struggle with destiny is always moving. To discharge his obligation fully - to meet the challenge which the writing of history presents - the historian must always bear in mind that he is for the moment acting as an artist.” [2]

The writer of good historical fiction recreates the past with an immediacy and attention to historical detail that neither history textbooks nor pure fiction can achieve alone.

Even the minutia of history can compel students to ask big questions.  When I was researching my Civil War novel The Bent Reed, I learned that women of the period dipped shirts into water in which the potatoes had been boiled before ironing them because the potato water provided the starch that stiffened the shirts.  While I did not include this detail in my book, consider how it might lead to a discussion on the use of resources in modern society.  How many things do we throw out that could be used in some alternative way?

An historical novelist who creates a compelling story draws a reader in and helps the reader not only discover the period, but realize the importance and usefulness of studying history. Students who grasp the significance of historical details begin to understand that that an understanding of the past is a means of dealing with the challenges of the present and the future.  They may begin to realize that they can help shape their destiny and, in doing so, help shape the destiny of others.  Students who aren’t bedeviled by interpreting the world around them through the lens of their own limited experiences might just perceive the terror of remaining in an attic during a bombing raid.  At the very least, they won’t go in search of midnight madness sales while death rains down on them.

The author, proving she's old
enough to understand history.
Jennifer Bohnhoff is a middle school social studies and language arts teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  Her World War II novel Code: Elephants on the Moon is now available as an ebook at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords and will be available in paperback in August.  Her Civil War Novel, The Bent Reed, is scheduled for publication in September.

[2] Bruce Catton, Prefaces to History. New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc. 1970. p. 91