Giving Critique to Others

Today I will be interviewing author and book critic, Sandra Dallas, for a post on Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers blog. The interview will be published on Friday. Ms. Dallas has several books in print and impressive awards won. She used to be a bureau chief for Business Week. Her book reviews often appear in the Denver Post. The focus for our interview will be about writing book reviews. This also made me think about how I review work, and so I thought I’d share my process with you.

Critique notes on my latest chapter

Group polishing efforts by my critique friends

NOT READY FOR PRIME TIME

You may wonder why I don’t tend to write reviews for Goodreads or Amazon etc. To me, these public forums are where you can build a reputation for critiquing. Unfortunately, because I’d like to be honest when I review work, I wouldn’t give a lot of my friends the five stars they want and need.  I would reserve such high praise for books like To Kill a Mockingbird, or Jaws, or Gone With the Wind. I gave a friend three stars once, and I think I really hurt her feelings.  As my mom used to tell me, “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” So, I don’t tend to review books publicly.

Privately, I can be more open with my writing friends. Here’s how it works:

WHY IS CRITIQUE IMPORTANT

When I started writing, seriously writing, I was in my twenties, and majoring in journalism or Mass Comm in college.  I wrote for each of the university newspapers where I attended and typed out assignments with a wonderful electric typewriter one of my family members gave me for a high school graduation present.  Those were the days!  But while everything I wrote was published (the papers were desperate to fill their columns), little editing was done, and no rewrites were required. Kind of like blog posting today.  This isn’t the way to improve writing.

When I joined Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, more than ten years ago, I was certain that everyone would be impressed with my writing and encourage me to go straight to the publisher with the next Great American Novel . . . WRONG!

I think I cried (well, at least sniffled) on my first reviews, and several times since. But with the tears came greater and greater knowledge of how writing works. Lesson: don’t write in a vacuum. Feedback is so important if you want to get publishable work done.  My friends (and yes, I consider my critique group full of friends) taught me grammar, punctuation, story structure, character building and so much more, all through the gentle prodding and questions about my work. I would not be publishable without them.  Here are some other lessons about reviewing others’ work they taught me:

SAY SOMETHING NICE

Oh yes, there are terrible submissions out there, but there are no reasons or excuses for being rude to a writer.  So, when I review another’s work, I start by looking for something good to say. Even if you can only say that the page was well laid out, find the good.  It’s easier than you think (unless the dog just barfed on your carpet, you’ve had a fight with one of your loved ones, and dinner got burnt.  On those kind of days you may want to keep your karma home).

JUDGE THE WORK, NOT THE PERSON

This one is trickier. The way to avoid hurting the author more than you have to, is to avoid the words “you should.” Instead of saying “You need to work on your attributions,” I try to phrase the criticism more like, “Josie seems like a good character. What if when she talks, you were to put a period at the end of her words, and then write a sentence about what Josie is doing while she talks?” It may take a little longer, but the feelings saved are well worthwhile.

CHALLENGES

This is the word I write on the reviews I do. “Challenges” to me indicates that the author may have some opportunity to polish work without actually saying “there’s a problem.” A challenge is an invitation, a problem is a condemnation. At least this is so for me.

And I try to avoid writing out more than three or four challenges.  In football, when a better team crushes their opponent, it’s called “piling on” and the team that does that is not necessarily thought well of.  Same is true in writing.  You can find fault just about everywhere you want to find it, but are you doing anyone any good, by pointing out every flaw?

CLOSE ON A POSITIVE NOTE

Writers tend to have fragile souls. We pour out our emotions with bravery onto the page. Very therapeutic at times.  But when others see your work and comment on it, it’s like standing naked in front of a crowd. No need to embarrass a writer by only pointing out the flaws in their stories and emotions.  End on a note about them as a writer.  Things like, “I see a lot of talent in you,” or “your work shows great promise,” are seldom anything close to a lie, and helps your author walk away saving a little self-dignity.

What about you?  What’s your favorite tip on reviewing others’ works?

PS – ON VACATION

I’ll be taking a little break next week for a short summer vacation, and will return Wednesday, July 9th.  Thank you for hanging in with me all these Wednesdays, and I’ll talk with you again soon.

Daisy Update: Yipee!

My friends, it’s official.  I received word from my editor last week that Five Star Publishing will produce Sliced Vegetarian.  Yipee!  I am so excited. So what does all of this mean in terms of getting out to the bookstores and library shelves?

Book Offer from Five Star

Whoo Hoo!!

Step One: Contracts

Within the next three or four weeks, I’ll receive the legal document that forms the agreement between Five Star and me.  In this document they’ll outline where, how, and in what form(s) Sliced Veggie will come out, what royalties are involved, who has what ownership rights to the product, what the legal obligation is for getting the book out in specific times, copyrights, editing limits and obligations and more.  The contract is intimidating but well worthwhile.  Hopefully by August, this contract work will be done.

Step Two: Blurbing and Input

As my book is handed off to marketing and other people within Five Star, I will be asked for things like the back of the book blurb, cover ideas, profiles of the main characters etc.  While I have been working on this all along, the official work document may take a couple of weeks.  That puts us into the later part of August.

Step Three: Editing

If this goes like last time, there will be at least two rounds of editing.  The first will be someone who will read the book for glaring errors in plot and general content. He or she will either give it a go signal or return it to me for corrections.  At any rate this is about a month of back and forth.  Then things, from the author end, go quiet for a couple of weeks.

A second round of editing will take place that’s more detailed. This line editor will go through the book word for word, looking for spelling, grammar, or punctuation challenges. He or she may also comment or question details about passage of time in the story or other layers that aren’t obvious on a first read.  That will probably take another six weeks or so.

Hopefully editing will be complete by the end of November.  But, with all of the books Five Star has to produce, these “deadlines” are not carved in stone.

Step Four: Rough Production

In this step, I think the editors, marketing people, and all the magicians at the publisher’s will be making decisions on how the cover will look (authors giggle over the fact that they send in a lot of good ideas, but the cover never truly ends up how they would expect), where in the market it will be placed, how it will be promoted from their end.  They’ll also work on the ARCs, or Advanced Reader Copies.  I’ll get about 40 of these for my own promotion work (hint: if you missed the last writing contest, now might be the time to sharpen your pencils-heh, heh, heh!). Guessing I’ll get ARCs sometime around June of next year.

I would appreciate your help when the ARCS to come out. If you know book reviewers who have popular blogs or columns in newspapers near you, I’d really appreciate their contact information.  The same goes for library media purchasers.

Step Five: The Waiting Game

There will be months of waiting after the ARCs ship.  I’ll have one last time to make corrections, but mostly, at this stage everyone will be looking for feedback from the big names in publishing–Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly.  I’m also hoping for positive feedback from Gumshoe Press and others who were kind enough to review Faith on the Rocks.  I’ll be using this time to send out news and promotions.

Finally: The Launch

I’m not 100% sure, but I believe Five Star launches books twice a year.  My best guesstimate is that Sliced Vegetarian will hit the shelves December of 2015, but please don’t hold me to this.  I’ll keep you up-to-date on what’s happening as we go.  Meanwhile, I’ll need to have been working on Pot Shots all along, so hopefully that book will be ready to submit to Five Star just after Sliced Vegetarian comes out.

OTHER NEWS

E-Book Autographs

I have electronic signing now.  How cool is that?  There is a website called Authorgraph, in which you can request electronic signatures for some of your favorite books or authors.  Go to the site, and simply request an autograph by clicking a button under the book you’re interested in.  The request is sent to the author who then scribbles his or her name using an artwork software.  This way, you get the “real” author connection.  If you bought Faith online, please click that button, and I’ll be happy to send you an “authorgraph”.  Then you can start a collection of these.  Something fun to do.

Presentation Coming

If you live in the Denver area, I have a book talk coming up.  Hope you can join me at the Lakewood Arts Council gallery on Saturday, July 26 at 1:00 pm.  I’ll be reading, selling, and signing, and doing an art project with regards to either murder or Daisy’s adventures.  Should be fun.

Details:

Date: Saturday, July 26
Time: 1:00 – 2:30
Place: Lakewood Arts Council Gallery
85 South Union Street – Suite B
Lakewood, CO 80228
Details will be kept posted on this site until the event.

Wishing you a great week.

 

Oops! No Contest Entries–Things To Resent

Hi my reading and writing friends,

Story Engineering, by Larry Brooks

Now’s your chance–write!

I had hoped to bring you some great creative writing from our community today, but I guess people didn’t have time to write a short story that had two characters in it with the theme of “resentment.” This closes our writing contest of a story on resentment.

That’s okay.  We’ll just play with the pre-writing of such a story today.

Resentments

When I get a theme for story, I love to start with–you guessed it–a brainstorm.  So, just as Story Engineering suggests, I’ll brainstorm a list of things I resent:

  • It’s not fair that I care for my pets the best I can and they still have accidents, and health issues. And then the vet can say “pay for all these tests, but there’s no guarantee of a diagnosis.” What if a vet took their kid to a doctor and got the same line?
  • It’s not fair that just as I’m starting to grow up a little, I look in the mirror and see an old woman with more wrinkles than a pile of clothes forgotten in the laundry machine.  What if you could put yourself through the wash and come out like one of the no-iron materials–all fresh and new every seven years or so?  What would that “washing machine” look like? How would it feel to be wash & dried?
  • I resent corporations that make bottom line profits more important than product safety.  What if corporations could be put on trial for such things as murder or negligence (okay, so technically, now that the Supreme Court has given corporations human status, I suppose they could). Who would be a jury of their peers?  If the federal government arrested, say, Wyeth Laboratories, would the pharmaceutical world come to a standstill as Lederle, Johnson & Johnson, and ten other corporations get called in for jury duty?  I like this idea.  Just makes me giggle.
  • It’s really not fair that artists don’t get paid well, just because they work in fields everyone dabbles in for hobbies.  Think of it.  Writers, painters, musicians, actors, comedians, dancers and more are important to the meaning of our lives.  Yet they still have to have “real” jobs to pay the bills. What if football had to be viewed live because no television crew was there to produce the game? What if all the boxes on grocery store shelves were printed with black words on a white box, because no graphic artists and ad copy people could afford to work in their chosen fields?  This sounds like a future-focused sci-fi to me.

The next step in this process would be to choose one of the ideas above, and give it a little “character.” I may personally resent the things above, but my protagonist doesn’t need to be me.  I love the idea of a jury of corporate peers, so let’s play with that:

Character One:

CEO Bradley Common (yes I let a name pop into my head for this) is mad.  Why? Because he has 5,426 unread emails in his in-box, twelve management meetings, 2 take-over bids to exercise and now, he’s been called in for jury duty.  Brad’s corporate lawyer can’t get him out of this because a new law says you must follow the spirit of the “request” for jury duty and actually show up.  Now Brad hates Sunco Corp, who’s on trial–not for the crime of accidentally giving thousands of people skin cancer with their failed sunblock, but for wasting Brad’s valuable time. Brad needs an exit strategy, like yesterday.

Character Two:

District Attorney Laura Steele is fed up  with these prima-donna executives.  She’s going to throw the book at Sunco and make them an example.  US made products must have higher standards than in recent years.  Besides, she’s been using Sunco skin care products for years, and now she’s noticing misshapen moles on her skin.  She looks over the man in front of her, making his excuses to the judge. Hmm. Bradley Common. What a jerk.  He’s head of Jargon Pharmaceuticals, one of the biggest chemical companies in the world, and it’s rumored, between the questionable cosmetic products and the seven divorces,  this guy is a real lady-killer.

Now, You Take Over

I’ve played with themes and characters with you this morning.  To be honest, this has been an off-the-cuff writing session, so I’m sure that you can find lots of problems with the writing.  But still, try playing with this.  Who will be your protagonist, Bradley or Laura?  Why?  What MUST they do in order to WHAT (achieve their goal), and how will they GROW as a result of this journey?

Decide whether this will be a thriller, a comedy, or even a romance. Maybe you’ll stay in the notion of a future-focused sci-fi.  Be creative and have fun.  No contest this time. Just our thanks to Larry Brooks for his terrific book, and maybe you’ll write a story that a fiction magazine will publish.  Good luck.