Approaching Feedback

Feedback can be rough, especially when you are first starting out. And I don’t just mean the nasty one- and two-star reviews, or snide comments on social media (I’ll get to those). I mean the constructive criticism from your beta readers, sensitivity readers, and editors.

FEEDBACK IS A DISH BEST EATEN COLD

When you first create something, it’s your baby.  Whether you are blind to its faults or overly-aware of them, most constructive criticism smacks, no matter how kindly-put. The best way to resolve this with the best results is to distance yourself.

As I suggested in a previous post, after you’ve finished your manuscript, re-read, and corrected the small issues, it’s time to send it out to your beta readers. As you receive their feedback, make any changes you fully agree on. Everything you are hesitant about or anything that smacks, let it simmer for a few days or a few weeks. This allows emotional responses to take a backseat, and rational responses to take over. When you are ready, re-read the area(s) in question with the suggestions in mind. Maybe even make the changes and save it as a different file (with a very different file name!). Test the suggestion out and see how it works. Phone a friend. Test alternatives. You may find you like it better, or don’t like it at all. You may even tweak their suggestions into something you are more receptive to.

Keep in mind: You don’t have to make any changes just because someone suggests it, even if they are a professional editor! They are simply giving you food for thought.

Aside: If you receive feedback from more than one person – or from a sensitivity reader – saying that something is problematic or potentially harmful, I highly recommend changing it, whether you recognize it as problematic or not; In most situations, you won’t see the issue, as it is outside of your scope of experience.

“Critical” Feedback
Now, time for critical feedback: Negative reviews, nasty remarks, etc. The easy, off-handed answer is: Don’t approach B9GlMoOCUAAQFGLnegative feedback. Of course, that’s not an easy or practical answer. This [lack of] approach can also be harmful, as negative feedback, however snidely-written, can have nuggets of useful criticism. It just might be a matter of translation and extraction.

A better way of putting it should be: Don’t argue with negative feedback. Then, as Mark Twain puts it, you have two idiots instead of one.

The Benefit of Critical Reviews

Besides having some salvageable constructive criticism, one critical review can prevent more critical reviews. If someone mentions something bothered them, other readers who would have felt the same will pass on the purchase. Likewise, someone may appreciate that certain thing, and invest in your book. I’m seeing a lot of this on Diversity Twitter recently (Oh, the presence of a gay man offended you? Let me have him!).

I also know a few people who will not purchase a book unless it has a few two- or one-star reviews. It gives them a fuller picture of the benefits and flaws. Keen readers know how to vet reviews; Trust them to recognize a nasty or biased tone.

Subjectivity

Feedback is, generally speaking, a matter of subjective taste. Good reviewers acknowledge this.  For example, the Immerse or Die review for COLOSSUS from @Jefficus (which is not nasty at all, just critical):

http://creativityhacker.ca/2017/01/18/colossus-by-jette-harris-626/

He has a couple of pet peeves concerning sentence structures. After reading his review and re-reading the prologue, I recognized what he was referring to. I was even able to apply his feedback as I re-read Sweet NOTHING, which I had just finished. I thanked him for his feedback and told him how useful it was. (He can pry my parrallel declarations from my cold, dead hands, though! 😛 )

I am not perfect, of course. The one time I responded to negative feedback, it was a beta-reader who hoarded all of his negative feedback just so he could write a negative review, which in my eyes made it a personal issue (but probably still the wrong move). Despite that, I still took the few nuggets of potential constructive criticism and will keep them in mind for later.

Defense Mechanisms

Taking the constructive from the negative, in my case, is more of a defense mechanism than anything else. I have anxiety, so I tend to mull over things far too long and let them cut far too deep. Convincing myself that some good can come of it allows me to put is aside easier. (I won’t lie, that review got under my skin and effectively halted my progress on the Heather Stokes novels.)

On that same note: If someone gives you a one-star review and cites the way your characters take their coffee, you have my personal permission to dismiss that review (this is not what I originally wrote, but I’m trying to make a conscious effort to keep my posts clean).

And as always, when you read that *one* negative review, it may help to go back to the *many* positive reviews you have, or speak with a mentor, or an enthusiastic reader – or all of the above, whatever it takes. Nolite te bastardes carborundorum!

 

I hope you were able to salvage some nuggets of useful information! If you have an experience you would like to share, or some additional advice, I would love to hear it in the comments below!


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Meet the Book: Sweet NOTHING

Thomas Granger and his forbears have been a thorn in the Wilkinsons’ side for generations. Or have the Wilkinsons been thorns in the Grangers’ side…? Nobody knows, and that suits them just fine, until Tom comes to burn down Nathan Wilkinson’s wheat field, and is met by Wilkinson’s headstrong eldest, Elizabeth. The blood feud spanning four generations is called to court, resulting in an ultimatum: Thomas Granger must marry Elizabeth Wilkinson, or serve time for attempted arson and assault.
Now Granger is trapped with a wife he believes seeks to ruin him, so he will ruin her first. Elizabeth is trapped with a husband who refuses to acknowledge her, so she will win his esteem. They engage in a battle of wits, where the weapons are subversion, tears, as well as many unforeseen circumstances.

SNCover (2)This concept rattled around in my brain for several months before I started working on it. The original idea involved a lot of malicious coercion, and letting the idea sit for so long, and misplacing my initial notes in the process, let to those plot devices being forgotten and neglected in when I finally sat down to write. I chose it as my July CampNaNoWriMo project (the results of which you can read about HERE).

This project was different because I sat down determined to write it chronologically. All of my other projects have been written by jumping to the scenes that come to mind most prominently. I wanted to try something different, and see how it worked.

It worked splendidly when it came to the bulk of the story, but it suspect it also contributed to burning out near the end of the narrative, leading to a weaker ending. Fortunately, I had a small, strong army of beta readers attack the first draft. I will be revising soon using their feedback.

Something else different that I intend to do with this novel: Traditional publication. Since the content is highly marketable, I will be querying Sweet NOTHING. So cross your fingers for me!


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Break Your Give-a-Damn

Writing is an anxious job. We are creating content that could potentially be read and discussed by many. Maybe even your family. Maybe even your co-workers. Maybe, just maybe, even that person you’re crushing on, whom you based your romantic-interest character on.

Oh, my.

There are so many possibilities, and to many writers the idea is crippling. This anxiety brings writing to a full stop. And not just new writers, either (I hate the phrase “aspiring writer,” but that will be a different post), but most writers at some point for each project are hit by the thought “What if ____ reads this? What will they think?” or “What if someone reads this and thinks _____?”

These thoughts have a time and a place, and neither of those are during your first draft.

Pause here to address potentially sexist, racist, ableist, homophobic, etc, material, because these are VALID concerns: All of those considerations, and efforts to avoid them, should be done in the planning stage. After the text is written, revise potentially-harmful content, and consult a sensitivity reader for possible slips.

I have a moderate anxiety disorder, and a large amount of time has been devoted to worrying over how COLOSSUS will be perceived, ranging from How should I address representing rape in such a raw fashion? to What if _____ reads this and hates it? I wasted hours of writing time fretting over these things, discussing them with my friends, and not writing.

Most writers have this experience, and I am here to tell you: Those whispering worries in your mind are useless. You know that, but I know it also helps to hear someone else say it. Those thoughts are inflated fears, unlikely situations, and if you continue to fret over them, all you are going to do is play through the worst possible result, which is also the most unlikely outcome.

(To wit: I actually sent COLOSSUS to the actor who inspired Avery Rhodes, and you know what? He never read it. So all that fretting I did  over what he would think was literally a waste of writing time.)

Somehow, while you write your first draft, you must convince yourself that you do not give a damn. These fears are literally not important, and need to be pushed aside or overwhelmed with encouraging self-talk. Take a bit to engage fully in something else: focus on breathing, cook, sing, talk with someone about anything else, watch peppy videos (I suggest the Word Nerds), or read author interviews. Once you’re done, sit back down and get back to writing.

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Breaking your Give-a-Damn is important for two reasons:

1.) Caring too much about someone else’s opinion stifles your progress, no matter what the end result might be. There is most likely nothing wrong with your narrative, and there will be nothing wrong with your book.

2.) No two people read the same book: It could touch one person so much, it saves their life; It could make another person throw their Kindle against the wall in a rage. You are not responsible for either of these results.

This is especially important when it comes to follow-up novels and sequels, because there is a lot of pressure for it to be as good if not better than the first. The only thing is: This pressure is not from others – it’s from yourself. Brush off the feeling that this piece needs to compete somehow. It doesn’t. Approach each project in a vacuum; Block out everything else.

Your time is the most precious thing you have, and wasting it on fictional future drama is one of the most stressful and least productive things you can do. Break your Give-a-Damn, sit down, and finish that draft.

 

If you have any other tips for overcoming anxiety or pushing through, please comment below or @ me on Twitter!

 

Need an extra push? Check these out:

Sara Bareilles – Brave 

Your own personal writing cheerleader.

Please add your own motivational songs, videos, or memes in the comments below!


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Reread, Revise, Rewrite

As an editor, I’ve seen manuscripts in varying states, from almost perfect first drafts (L. M. Bryski’s Book of Birds) that only needed light revisions and proofreading, to garbage fires of already-published works that should be completely rewritten (after a great deal of soul-searching and sensitivity training).

When I wrote my first novel in 2006, a romantic suspense entitled Perfect Words, I had no concept of revisions. I queried a greatly-flawed first draft and didn’t listen to my friends’ feedback about its plotholes. It wasn’t until I started writing again in 2014 I began to research and learned that “great novels are not written, but re-written” (I don’t recall who said that).

All writers need to sit down knowing that your first draft is merely a skeleton, not an entire body. When you complete that first draft, I recommend setting it aside for a few weeks and working on something else. If you’re still in the zone and don’t want to put it aside, that’s OK as well, but accept that it means you’ll have to go through this step twice:

 

REREAD

This seems obvious, but let me clarify: Read through the entire manuscript all at once. As writers, yes, we’ve read our manuscript a million times! But those reads are generally piecemeal, and so that we can continue writing, so it’s never a complete read-through. I recommend putting it aside, because you’re less likely to get bored or gloss over details.

Many others recommend going through strictly as a reader, not a writer or an editor, but I personally would not be able to do that. I recommend as you reread, pick at any typos you find, repetitive words or phrases, inconsistencies, etc. This makes a cleaner draft for your alpha and beta readers.

But it’s probably not time for an editor yet.

 

REVISE

CbL6WT2W8AIR_IJAfter you reread your first draft, you may feel the need to revise it a bit. Remember to reread again (at least those scenes), because revisions are also a great time for typos to sneak in when you least suspect them. When you finish these revisions, or if you don’t feel compelled to revise just yet, send your manuscript to your beta readers. After you receive their feedback and chew on it for a few days, then it is time for revisions.

Revisions come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, whether it is adding a scene to explain
something, adding sensory details throughout, or fleshing out your side characters. Besides listening to feedback, I recommend reading articles, such as what makes characters come to life, why readers quit books, and how to write a good chapter ending, as well as author interviews. You never know where inspiration will come from.

Aside: One of the best articles I’ve read was how a writer based a character on her high school bully. The character turned out flat and one-dimensional. In fleshing the character out, the writer began to feel sympathy and pity for her former nemesis. This helped me develop the character of Witt in COLOSSUS.

To tackle revisions, I recommend making a check-list of assignments. For example:

  • Add sensory details
  • Add characterization
  • Make dialogue sound more natural

Skim through your draft and indicate places you need to make these changes (if they’re big changes), or just change them. For COLOSSUS, I printed out a draft and used differently-colored highlighters for each assignment, wrote the revisions out on paper, then added them to the draft.

NOW it is time to send your manuscript to an editor.

After you receive your editor’s feedback, make the revisions you agree on, then sit on the rest for a few days, maybe even weeks, then reread and revise again. The distance will help you look at your manuscript less as a baby you need to preserve and more as something you wish to cultivate. (I actually recommend taking two weeks to a month between all of these steps, but I know enthusiasm rarely allows that.)

 

REWRITE

OH MY GOD PLEASE NO DON’T MAKE ME REWRITE THIS THING

OK, I won’t. But it needs to be acknowledged as an option, and sometimes the best path to take. You may even do this in lieu of extensive revisions. *GASP*

Rewriting has two ends of a spectrum:

  1. Throw away the original manuscript and start over again with the same idea.
  2. Literally re-write, almost word-for-word, including your improvements.

Most rewriting will be some form between these, such as consulting the original draft on occasion, but using fresh words.

Rewriting is not as daunting as it sounds, nor is it as time-consuming as writing the first draft, or even the entire revision process outlined above.

I first realized rewriting was a viable option when I was finishing up Phoenix Rising – FLINT RANCH. I wrote each scene freestanding, and not in chronological order, so when I put them all together, it felt disjointed and inconsistent (Jed’s dialect, Thatch’s personality, etc). After beta readers and my editor read it, rather than attempt to fit a square peg into a round hole, I decided to rewrite it, almost word-for-word, to smooth it out. Since it was only 17k words at the time, it was an easy endeavor, but made me realize how beneficial the method is. The end result was almost-perfect and published soon thereafter. (Most readers say FLINT RANCH is better than COLOSSUS by far.)

Two Guns is in a similar situation where it is disjointed, and it feels like there is too much going on. I’ve decided, rather than hack at it until it resembles a publishable story (which is what I’ve already done), I’m going to completely rewrite it, using method #1. This is my April Camp NaNoWriMo project, and I will keep y’all posted on my progress.

 

After all this, of course, send it out to some fresh beta readers. Nothing compares to fresh eyes.

 

Do you have any other advice on the revision process? Drop your tips in the comments below, regale us with your revision battles, or give a shout-out to your editor!

If you don’t have an editor yet, check out my editing services!

Speaking of shout-outs to our editors: Mine is named Michael Keenan. He’s worked with me on COLOSSUS and FLINT RANCH. He is thorough, thoughtful, and makes me laugh.


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Build a Writing Team

 

Since I’m horrible at choosing blog topics, I’ve decided to write a series of short advice posts for aspiring writers. You may contribute to these posts by submitting your own advice or asking questions!

My first piece of advice is to build a team. Even if you are an introvert, nothing will benefit your writing more than engaging with other writers and readers (even if your “engagement” is reading blog posts and book reviews).write-now-journal-4632-09

Your team will look different based upon your needs. It may even change based upon your project, which stage of the project you’re on, or it may change over time as you mature.

First and foremost, I recommend finding a coach, a mentor, someone to help guide you through the writing process. My mentors are Stephen Moran and Joe Lansdale. I realized they gave great writing advice and answered questions readily, so I nurtured those interactions.

You should also have teammates. These will be other writers, what Angela D’Onofrio calls the “writing tribe.” This is a network of writers – large and loose-knit or small and tight – with whom you can grow with, exchange banter, writing advice, get opinions, and encourage one another. Camp NaNoWriMo is an excellent way to find others to write with.

Nurture fans. In industry lingo, this is called “building a platform.” These are your readers. To attract them before you publish, I recommend having a blog (such as this one) or Wattpad, on which you can share your content and writerly or readerly experiences. (Note: I recently discovered having a well-established book blog is also the best way to encourage publishers to send you ARCs!)

Both your writing tribe and your platform may serve as beta readers, who provide invaluable feedback pre-publication. If your beta readers are part of your writing tribe, nurture that relationship by beta reading their content, or posting reviews on their published works. If they are part of your platform, find out what type of content they love and share it with them. Engage with them and show how much you value your opinion.

If your team looks different, let me know how!

Tell me about your team in the comments section, or tag me (@JettimusMaximus) on a Twitter shout-out!


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Nurturing the Writing Habit

squirrel-of-judgment

Almost all of the professional writers I’ve seen advice from, foremost among them being Stephen King, says the most important aspect of writing – specifically, of finishing a project – is to get your butt in the chair and get writing, to create a routine, a schedule, because this is a job, no matter what non-writers think.

Now, I am aware this seems easier said than done for those who have dayjobs and family obligations. Note: I said seems. Carving out this routine is more like getting blood drawn or jumping off the high-dive: the anticipation makes it far more difficult than it actually is. I wrote earlier about time management in the second half of my New Year’s Resolution post, so I will leave the tips about setting alarms and making appointments with yourself there. Today I’m going to talk about setting.

When I first started this blog, I had gone from teaching middle school to working a desk job. The downtime was inconsistent from day to day, but I was always in the same chair at the same desk, and that made all the difference in the world. (When I was teaching, they discouraged us from sitting down or staying behind our desks.)

When time is difficult to manage or predict – or you really just don’t work that way – setting becomes the best reinforcement.  Have somewhere where you can go just to write. If space is an issue, get a lapdesk you can decorate, or find a way you can modify your existing workspace (lighting, candle, propping up a backdrop, etc). Sitting down in this workspace should provide a visual cue that it is time to start writing, akin to Pavlov’s bell ringing.

In order to nurture the visual cue, you must sit and write. Do not sit with your materials out and stare at the blank page. Write anything. It is also important at this time not to get on the internet, unless you are doing research. I have several tips on getting started, but here are some methods you can use if you’re having trouble:

  • Outline – Even if you generally consider yourself a panster, create bulletpoints of your story and where it might go. Create it knowing that it can, and most likely will, change.
  • Freewrite – Just start writing about anything related to your story. Illustrate a character, follow the plot, or jot the type of response you desire from your readers. I find freewriting especially useful when I have a rough idea what I want a scene to look like, but don’t know how to start narrating it.
  • Character outlines – These were my favorite exercises in school. Describe a character’s appearance, history, relationship to other characters, what makes that character tick. You may even draw the character.
  • Worldbuilding – This is like a character outline, but for the setting.
    • Even if your setting is a real time and place, this is important. Your setting should never be interchangeable (unless that is the point of the narrative, in an everyman man). What makes this setting important to this narrative? (I justify setting COLOSSUS in Atlanta here.)
    • If your world is fictional, it is important to know more about how it works than what goes into the book. A lot of worldbuilding details are extraneous and too many could bog down the narrative, but it is important to know them inside and out.
  • Experiment – If you’ve already gotten started, and you’re just stuck, now is the time to play. Remember, the goal is to write anything, whether it ends up in the draft or not.
    • Change POV / narrator (first person to third, one character to another)
    • Change narrative tense (past to present)
    • Thrust your characters into a vastly different setting
    • Explore an incident in a character’s past or future
    • Lock two characters in a room together
    • Have your character react to a historical event
    • Choose one character and kill their dog, mother, or another loved one

Once you have sat and written for several minutes on a few consecutive days, it will be easier to get into “the zone” when you sit at your workspace, but carving out that time, even ten minutes a day for three to five days, is essential to developing the habit.

A NOTE ON EXCUSES

I’ve had a few people make comments about how they don’t have time to write. No arguments, no intervention, they just don’t. When it boils down to it, these people just don’t want to write, for whatever reason (or they concealing a darker explanation, but that aside…). They like the idea, but they’re not willing to clutch at it.

If you really want to write, put the excuses aside. Stay up an extra hour, or wake up an hour early. Keep a legal pad in the bathroom and steal a few more minutes than you normally would. These little efforts add up. No excuses.

My Most Common Editing Advice

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As some of you know, I am a freelance editor. I offer both copy editing (proofreading) and developmental editing (story feedback, to put it briefly), but I never quite stay in one lane or the other unless explicitly directed. Below is a list of the most common feedback I give, as well as a few other pointers:

First and foremost: Always, always, always re-read your work. Re-reading is the best way to catch the most glaring mistakes, such as an instance where you repeated yourself (She said with a gasp, “Over there!” she gasped.), repetitive words or phrases, or other inconsistencies. I know you are thinking, I’ve read this thing a million times, but what you did and what I’m describing is probably not the same: While writing, we’re reading things piecemeal, or we start reading, then get bored (yes, because we’ve read it a million times). What I’m referring to is allotting time to read it all the way through, as a reader would, in as few sittings as possible.

editingNote: Never send an editor your first draft. You should re-read and tweak it at least once before you send it off. For agents, wait until after at least one round of heavy revisions after your editor has returned it. You can get away with sending unrevised first drafts to beta readers, but it would be courteous to clean it up a bit for them beforehand.

For my own revisions, I refer to Nat Russo’s checklists (especially for words to ctrl+f and delete). I recommend bookmarking these. A few other notes are below:

Show, don’t tell: Describe the physical symptoms or responses associated with emotions rather than saying, “I became angry.” Say, “I clenched my fists” or “My face flushed with rage.” This will be especially useful when describing emotions like lust, anger, and fear. This gives the reader a familiar physical sensation they can relate to; It makes the book come to life. (for more on this, I recommend checking out Angela Ackerman’s line of books) Likewise, include sensory language. To make a book an experience, hit three of the five senses in every scene. I have other posts on this specific topic here, here, and here (as if it’s important or something).

Perception filters: Remove the character from between the reader and the action. Rather than saying “I heard tires squeal” or “I saw people dancing,” say “Tires squealed” or “People danced.” (These examples are plain and stark. Build the scene with more description of what this would look like.)

Said tags: There is a great war over the use of said tags, which is anything that states a person is speaking (He said, she groaned, I replied, etc.). I recommend using them like salt, just enough to follow who is speaking without getting lost. Also, use a tag if it’s not obvious how a line is conveyed (“whispered”). Allow the action that frames the dialogue, as well we the words being said, to imply how the words are said. Too many tags, in too many forms, tend to be jarring and slow down the reader.

Pronouns: (Re-reading will also help with this issue) If it’s obvious who is doing what, use a pronoun. Don’t use names too often, because it tends to sound repetitive. You run into issues, however, if there are more characters of the same gender in the scene. It may be necessary to kick around how best to phrase your sentences; Spend some extra time on it.

Contractions: Re-read all dialogue aloud. It’s OK is a character does not use contractions as a part of his manner of speaking, but don’t be arbitrary. More than one character like this makes the dialogue feel awkward or unnatural. Real speakers use contractions, and you want your characters to sound like real people.

“It” sentences: Avoid beginning sentences with “it,” unless you are referring to something identified in a recent sentence. It is OK to break this rule occasionally.

Cut most adverbs: Opt for verbs that convey how a thing is done, rather than a weaker verb and an adverb. Especially avoid using a strong verb and an adverb, because then it sounds redundant. For example: “I screamed loudly.” Screaming is already loud; Emphasis is unnecessary unless you say, “I screamed as loud as I could.” Even then, you can refer back to “Show, don’t tell,” and scream “to the point my throat felt like it was tearing.” (If you’ve ever screamed like this, I’m sorry.)

On that same note, avoid “just then / instantly / suddenly / without warning.” These phrases tend to slow down the action rather than speed it up. However, using the proper verb helps the reader feel the necessary urgency.

Active voice vs. Passive voice: Active voice is “[Person] [action verb] [thing].” For example: “Jim threw the ball.” It’s very straightforward. Passive voice either does not have [Person] (whether the person is unknown), or [Person] is not identified until the end of the clause. This could build suspense, or it could just be awkward. For example: “The door opened.” We don’t know who opened the door. Spooky. “The door was opened by Jim.” This sentence is unnecessarily long and awkward. One example I assisted a friend with recently was “A string of obscenities were yelled by Jim” (content modified, of course). Putting this into the active voice would be “Jim yelled a strong of obscenities.” The active voice is shorter, but stronger and less awkward.

Cause and effect: Whenever writing action, always consider that every action has consequences. I recently read a manuscript in which someone was thrown into the wall, and that was the end of that. We don’t know the condition of the wall afterward (the could be a gaping hole in the drywall), or where the someone ended up (sliding down the wall and crumpling to the floor), or how the other characters responded (gasping and running to break up the fight). Whenever something dramatic happens, and others are in the immediate vicinity, it’s important to know how they respond, to paint a fuller picture of the event.

All of this being said, these aren’t something to keep in mind for the first draft! For the first draft, just get the story out. Once it’s done, that’s when it’s time to arm yourself with your highlighter and red pen. For COLOSSUS, I printed out a later draft and highlighted passages specifically to elaborate on brief descriptions and add sensory details. (This is a bit extreme, but I could use the printer at work for free.)

 

If you have any pet peeves you’d like to add to the list, please comment or @ me on Twitter!

 


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