Tag Archives: lists

Writing Critique: The Good Questions

Responding to writing is something I know a thing or two about. During my years as a teacher, I conferred thousands of times with young writers about their work. I taught workshops for teachers about how to teach young writers, and I contributed to books about running Writing Workshops in elementary school classrooms. Plus, I have my own experience as a writer of stories for children, giving and receiving feedback in critique groups. With all of this in mind, I’ve started a list of some of the most helpful questions (and comments) a writing partner can contribute. These are the questions that can crack open a story and give it room to grow.

  • “I’m not clear what’s happening in this part.” Almost always, when someone says this to me in a critique, it’s about a part of my story in which even I am not clear about what’s happening. One of the most helpful things a critique partner can do is shine a light on a part that the writer wishes could be left alone, in the dark (because it’s so much easier that way!). These are the parts that the writer doesn’t know what to do with, and that’s why the light is so important.
  • “What does the character want?” All the beautiful prose in the world will not save your story if the character is not searching for something, whether it’s the answer to a mystery, a priceless work of art, comfort, or all of the above. The character has to want something.
  • Note whether there is balance between the action, the backstory, the dialogue, the inner dialogue, the setting. Often writers are really good at some of these things, but completely forget about the others. For example, I tend to write stories that start off with some action and lots and lots of dialogue. I need a critique partner to remind me to locate the characters in a specific place, and to give a little backstory.
  • “The character(s) isn’t consistent across the story.” If the character is super shy for the first half of the story, and then suddenly turns into a social butterfly, it won’t sit well with the reader unless there is a good reason for the change. The story I’m working on now has a character who flies into a rage quite frequently during the first chapter. Then, in the second and third chapter, she becomes very easily placated. Since I’m still at the beginning of my writing process, I’m still casting around for the shape of her personality. It was good to hear that feedback during my critique so that I can keep that in mind going forward. By the way, secondary characters should also feel like real people who behave with consistency.
  • “The metaphors aren’t working.” A reader will likely lose interest if your metaphors are forced, or don’t match your story’s tone. The language in general should match the story’s tone and subject. Your language creates atmosphere and setting for the book, and gives the reader countless clues about the book’s meaning.
  • “This scene isn’t carrying its weight.” If a scene doesn’t move the story forward, or contain a significant revelation or reversal, cut it out. Or, if it’s a great scene with a great setting and it’s important for another reason, make it count by adding a transformation or reversal.
  • “What are the subplots (or what are they going to be)?” I’m still mastering the fine art of the subplot. What I do know is that they are the harmony to the main plot’s melody. They are absolutely necessary for your story to be complex enough to hold a reader’s attention. (On the other hand, your critique partner might point out that there are too many subplots, and it’s making your story overly complicated.)
  • “Have you considered reading your dialogue out loud?” In my writing workshop yesterday, one member suggested to another that he read his dialogue out loud, to hear the spoken language. This is something that I’ve heard from several other authors, and that I’ve tried myself. It’s a powerful revision tool, and not just with the dialogue parts.
  • “Do you think you could start the story any later?” The story should start as close to the action (inciting event) as possible, especially for anyone writing a book for children. Too much backstory up front can kill a story’s momentum. One can always weave in backstory later, but, as a rule of thumb, you actually need much less than you think.
  • Turn any of the above critiques around to make a compliment! Writers need praise, and lots of it! Praise – the honest variety, please – encourages us to keep going, and it also shows us what is working. Sometimes this is the best feedback of all. If a writer knows what is working, she can use that awareness to fix up another part that isn’t looking so hot. So, by all means, if the dialogue sounds natural and the metaphors are hauntingly beautiful, and the character is rich and consistent, do not leave that out. It’s almost hard to give too much praise.

Another thing that I often include in critiques (because a critique partner once said this to me, and it was so lovely) is: “Your book reminds me of [title of a wonderful book that is similar in tone or subject to the manuscript at hand].” An unpublished writer is usually hoping to one day be published, and it does feel ever so nice to have one’s work compared to a book that is already out in the world, occupying shelves in books and libraries. It’s a reminder that all books start out as nothing more than a bundle of marked up pages.

How to Love a Poem

  • Read it. Out loud.
  • Love the obvious parts. Underline them.
  • Read it again. Out loud.
  • Read it each evening before bed, like a meditation.
  • Lean on the obvious parts to bring out the obscured, the subtle, and the mysterious.
  • Underline those parts, too.
  • Enjoy finding something new each time you re-visit the rhythm, spaces, and text.
  • Delight in discovering the complexities within those obvious parts you loved at first.

And that is how to love a poem, or anything.

A poem by Jack Gilbert from his book The Great Fires. It means something different, and more, to me each time I read it.

Highlights and Interstices

We think of lifetimes as mostly the exceptional

and sorrows. Marriage we remember as the children,

vacations, and emergencies. The uncommon parts.

But the best is often when nothing is happening.

The way a mother picks up the child almost without

noticing and carries her across Waller Street

while talking with the other woman. What if she

could keep all of that? Our lives happen between

the memorable. I have lost two thousand habitual

breakfasts with Michiko. What I miss most about

her is that commonplace I can no longer remember.

Five Must-Read Blogs

Young Adult Fiction – YA, to those of us in the know – is all the rage right now. With Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay recently released and following in the age group-transcending footsteps of Harry Potter and Twilight, everyone seems to agree that it’s okay for a grown-up to read a kid’s book. Even the New York Times Book Review concedes that adults – even smart, literary adults – need have no shame about enjoying YA.

What a relief.

As someone who has been reading YA books for quite a while (I started when I was about ten and I haven’t stopped yet), I’m glad that my reading habits are finally on trend. I’m very much enjoying watching some of the most talented storytellers in the publishing business get the rockstar treatment.

Sometimes, I can’t get enough of my favorite authors between the covers of their books. Fortunately, many authors write wonderful blogs. Here are five of my favorite blogs by YA authors. These are a must-read if you are interested in YA fiction, want to learn more about how to be a fiction writer, or simply love reading the musings of interesting folks.

  1. Kristin Cashore, author of the best-sellers Graceling and Fire (Graceling), blogs about everything from the fun – trapeze lessons – to the political – gay rights – at This Is My Secret. Her blog is always thought-provoking and has, I’ll admit, sometimes even moved me to tears.
  2. Maggie Steifvater’s newest book Linger (the follow-up to the wonderful Shiver) debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller List this summer. Read her blog The World According to Maggie for funny, inspiring, and PRACTICAL advice on how to draft, revise, write a query letter, and, most importantly, make the time to be creative.
  3. Laurie Halse Anderson’s writing is powerful and haunting – from her YA fiction like Wintergirls
    to her historical thrillers like Fever 1793. And her blog Mad Woman in the Forest is pure inspiration. It is a community of writers with Anderson herself at the helm, equal parts teacher and cheerleader. In August, Anderson encouraged her readers to join her in a month-long challenge to write for fifteen minutes each day. If you have a writing project that’s stalled or you’d like to jump start your creativity, I highly recommend partaking. The challenge can happen any time at all – just start with Day 1.
  4. You know Sarah Dessen for her best-selling books such as The Truth About Forever and Along for the Ride. But do you know Sarah Dessen? Her blog is a personal and funny account of motherhood, writing, and life. She doesn’t sugar coat or pretend that she doesn’t watch TV. In fact, she’s a very vocal fan of Friday Night Lights. Like I said, she’s real. And I love her for that.
  5. John Green is the author of several books including Looking for Alaska and the co-author (with David Levithan) of the recent Will Grayson, Will Grayson And he happens to have the funniest and smartest vlog (that’s video blog to you) in the world. John and his brother Hank – the “nerd fighters” – roam the world making stream of consciousness videos “to decrease the overall worldwide level of suck.” They also post videos to their  vlogbrothers YouTube channel.

It is important to have heroes and mentors, and the writers listed above are a few of mine. I hope you all know – or know of – people who are doing something that you aspire to do, perhaps a few steps (or, in my case, a few hundred steps) ahead of you. Seek out people who inspire you to be better at whatever you aim to do – whether it’s writing a book, running a faster race, baking a cake, or standing up for your beliefs.

YA Beach Reads

My friend Peter asked me to submit a new list for his site Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations. I like Peter, I like Flashlight Worthy, and I like making lists, so I didn’t have to think too long before I said yes.

Because it’s summer, Peter is highlighting lists of books that make great beach reads. Like anyone else who adores reading, I don’t want to read bad books, regardless of where I am. So, a beach read must be a wonderfully entertaining, well-written book. For most people, a beach read is not something you want to work very hard at – for example, I would never choose to bring my copy of The Divine Comedy along with me to the beach. (Others might disagree with me, but my beach read would never contain footnotes!)

Not surprisingly, I chose my books from among the enormously inclusive YA genre. (Have you met me? That’s pretty much what I read these days.) The books are not fluff, though, not at all. They are smart, sometimes even serious (two are about what happens after we die), and all entertaining. I’d take them to the beach – or anywhere else – in a heartbeat.

Check out my list of 7 Beach Reads You Can Grab Off Your T(w)een’s Shelf, and then check out the rest of the Beach Reads book recommendations at Flashlight Worthy.

Balloons in the Bathroom

I’ve mentioned that I enjoy making lists. This week, I have a pretty typical sort of to-do list happening in my notebook. Items like “buy diapers,” “roast veggies,” and “vacuum rugs” feature prominently. Then, somewhere down near the bottom of the page, in small – yet hopeful – print: “First draft of baseball girl story.” “Write new Huntress chapter.”

Not surprisingly, those tiny, polite items on my list don’t seem to get finished. I’ve come to realize that if I relegate my writing to I’ll-do-it-when-I-have-spare-time status, the opportunity never materializes. I’m thinking a lot about time management these days, so I was glad to see Young Adult author Maggie Stiefvater provide her view on the subject on her (quite excellent) blog. Lately, I’ve been falling neatly into that category she describes of people who claim not to have any time to write because they have kids. Not only do I tell myself that I ought to devote the bulk of my time to Winnie, but I also tell myself that I need to spend my time and energy making sure our home looks a certain way and that we have home-made baked goods and dinners and the like. My idyllic image of parenthood is getting in the way of “me-hood,” and it could quite possibly be the most efficient means of procrastinating that I’ve ever come up with (and, believe me, I majored in procrastination).

There are balloons in the bathroom, for goodness sake, and that’s not even the half of it. (Also, please don’t ask how they got there. The truth is, I don’t know.) Time to give writing top billing on the ol’ to-do list, eh? I’ll get to the balloons – and the vacuuming, and the cooking – but they’re closer to the bottom of my list now. So they’re gonna have to wait, and in the meanwhile I’ll just say it’s festive and leave it at that.

Lists, Lists, Lists

It’s hard to imagine life without lists. On any given day, I have to manage several different aspects of my life: my home, my work, my friendships, and Winnie’s needs. Making lists of all my to-do’s helps me make sure I get it all done without having to wander around muttering to myself:  “A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter…” (**See below**)

My notebook is full of lists. Lists of groceries and chores. Lists of letters to write, lists of ideas for blog posts, story concepts, phone calls to make, gifts to buy.  I love crossing off the items on my lists, and am not even above writing something on a list that I’ve already done only so that I can then draw a line through it. It’s a way of tricking my mind (not too hard to do, it turns out) into thinking that I’ve gotten started.

Lately, I’ve been writing lists of books.  You can find a long-ish but ever-growing list of books that I want to read here. I also love writing lists of books that I have already read. I have published several of these at Flashlight Worthy Book Recommendations. Making lists lets me share some of my favorite books with a group of folks beyond my immediate circle of reading buddies.  It’s also a valuable exercise for me.  Making lists gives me a chance to reflect on books I’ve enjoyed, forcing me to pinpoint what exactly it is that I like about them, and drawing lines between books that are similar for a variety of reasons.

I recently published a list that was particularly fun for me to make: Pairs of Titles to Entertain (and Educate) Your Curious Toddler. The list includes five pairs of children’s books. For each pair, I started with a beloved fiction picture book and matched it with a complementary non-fiction text.  It was a very teacherly thing to do, I admit. Winnie inspired me one day when she was looking at the book Monarch Butterfly by Gail Gibbons, and pulled out Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar Pop-Up Book to look at right next to it. She literally looked back and forth between the two texts, obviously making connections between the two. I thought a lot about that, and how Winnie is really at the perfect age for non-fiction because of her intense curiosity about the world. Many people have a deeply ingrained preference for fiction.  Somewhere along the way, we learned to think of non-fiction as learning (groan) and fiction as entertaining. Win doesn’t have any of those prejudices, though. It’s a great quality, one on which I’m determined to capitalize.

Check the list out if you are so inclined. Just because I’m not reading this week doesn’t mean you can’t.

**Note: I recently found this video of the original Sesame Street cartoon that I referenced in this post. (Did you get it? Did you? If you were born in the late 70s, you probably did.) I remember this cartoon so well. Okay, so not as well as I’d thought because I remembered the words a little differently. But, for anyone interested in a trip down Nostalgia Lane: