Tag Archives: writing habits

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.

Begin Again (Again)

So, here I am. Beginning again (again) on this blog. Beginning again (again) a new book. The draft of my YA novel, along with all the notes and scribbles and doodles, is tucked away in a basket under my desk. It feels good to get away from it, as I’m sure it will feel exciting to get back to it in a few months, so I can look at it again with fresh eyes.

Even though the novel is not in its final stage, the draft is done. Done. Finishing a project has never been my strong suit, and I couldn’t be happier that I reached that goal. I’d rather finish something terrible than write something mediocre or even great that languishes, unfinished, in a notebook or a laptop.

One way I’m forcing myself to finish work is by forcing myself to share it, by submitting short works of fiction at least once every quarter. In the first quarter of this year, I submitted two pieces, both to print publications. There are also some amazing online fiction journals that I’ve been reading. I’d never realized before how much quality work is being printed exclusively online! It’s inspiring and humbling. If you’re interested in reading and writing fiction, here’s a list of some of the best sites for reading and submitting.

Finishing work, sharing work, submitting work. Beginning work. That’s the kind of writer I hope to be going forward. The kind that begins again, and again, and again.

Show Your Work


“Show your work.” When I was a teacher, I must have said those exact words a million times. Easily. There are a few reasons I wanted my students to show their process, rather than simply writing down an answer.

By looking at a student’s work, I, as the teacher, could identify much more easily the concepts with which he or she needed extra help. I could also give a student credit for any work that was done correctly, even if the answer was not right. Showing the steps of the process can actually help a student get to an answer, because it breaks down the problem into smaller, more manageable chunks and gives the student a place to begin.

Most importantly, a person who writes and shares his or her process becomes more aware of it, and more reflective about it.

The night I read Show Your Work by Austin Kleon, I was so jazzed to get started that I couldn’t sleep. Sure, revealing my efforts and work at all stages of the process is a terrifying prospect. By doing so, I hope to become more aware of my process, to reflect more about it, and to be a little less lazy. Nothing like announcing to all your friends and family that you’re writing a book to motivate you to write the book. We all behave better when other people are watching.

I’ve written before about how much Kleon’s work has inspired and motivated me. I’m grateful for his brief, powerful, practical books that have had such an impact on my creative journey. And perhaps that is truly the most important reason to show one’s work.

The Jacket Copy Assignment

Last Saturday was the first class in a 2-month long novel writing course at Portland Literary Arts, taught by author Emily Chenoweth. Other than those two facts, I know very little about what to expect from this experience. That’s part of what makes it so exciting. Before heading out, I had the usual first day of school nervousness: Will they like me? Will I like them? What should I wear? Where is the bathroom?

I haven’t done something like this – something completely new, completely on my own – in quite a long time. It’s exhilarating.

Emily sent the class an assignment to complete before our first class. She asked us to read examples of jacket copy from any novels we had close at hand, then write copy for the jacket of our own book. It was an interesting experience, writing jacket copy for a book that’s not yet written. I re-read my first attempt, and realized that I was still focused completely on the concept, rather than on what actually happens in the story. Understandable, given the fact that I haven’t written the story, and have very little idea of what will happen.

So, I started again. As I was writing, I realized: Emily’s tricking me into writing an outline! In the past, I’ve written scenes more or less at random, figuring out later how to string them all together. The problem with this, of course, is that I find myself with large gaps, and no ide how to fill them, or I write myself into a corner and end up having to throw out large amounts of writing. I know that throwing out work is always part of the process of creating. But, I wonder if better planning might help me to throw out less. As I wrote my jacket copy, I found myself making decisions, changing my mind, rewriting. And since I was only working with three paragraphs, rather than three pages – or three hundred pages! – the process of playing around with the story felt fun rather than painful, doable rather than overwhelming.

The jacket copy assignment is helpful for those of us reticent about outlining, but hoping to get a little clarity about an idea for a novel. It might even change my mind about planning in general.

Here’s what I ended up with for my work-in-progress, titled Nana’s Bikini.

 

Ginny had been looking forward to her trip to Italy for months. She planned on two weeks of sunning, eating gelato, and making out with boys named Fabio. She certainly didn’t plan on going to Italy with her dour, old Nana.

Now, Ginny’s dream trip is more like a nightmare. Nana walks for miles a day, barely needs to stop for food, and has a seemingly insatiable appetite for stained glass! All Ginny can think about is how to ditch her grandmother and have a real vacation.

It’s not until the travelers get on a train going the wrong direction that the trip starts going right.  In crumbling hotels and beach-side shacks, Ginny sees glimmers of the adventurer that Nana could be. The trouble is, she’s buried beneath layers of cardigan sweaters and sensible shoes, and Nana seems to want to keep her that way.

Nana’s Bikini is a story about mis-matched travelers, about growing up, about letting go, and about gelato. Lots and lots of gelato.

Since writing the story, I’ve tried a few different methods to help me plan Nana’s Bikini. Which does beg the question: Is planning the new procrastinating? Or, an extremely valuable use of time that will pay off in clarity and focus down the road? In writing, it’s not clear what will work, what will benefit the story, what will benefit the process. And that’s part of what I like about it. Making an outline might help. Staring at the trees might help. As I become more prolific, I’m figuring out what tends to work best for me, but writing a story is still a magical chemistry. I’m always tinkering with the balance between the ingredients: the practice of discipline and living with a wide-awake mind.

Playing with Dolls

Two rather serious looking character dolls.

On Mother’s Day, Win presented me with a kit for making wooden figures. She hovered as I unpacked the teeny wooden dolls and acrylic paints, eager to get started. I decided to indulge her; clearly, this was a gift she’d given me with her own enjoyment in mind.

Win had no shortage of ideas for her doll. In fact, she painted it quickly and started on another. Soon, a small flock of wooden figures accumulated on the table, while I was still starting at one bare wooden piece. Finally, I conjured an image of Marin, the main character of the Young Adult book that I’m writing.  I dipped my brush in brown paint and started with the hair.

I have been writing the novel, called Weaving the Sea, for two years. I thought that I knew what Marin looked like. I knew that her clothes would be the plain, rough peasant clothes she chooses over the splendid finery that would be more appropriate for a girl of a noble family.  I knew that her hair would fall in unruly curls.

But, there were other details that I didn’t know until I began painting. For example, I didn’t know that she would wear a red cape, which had, of course, belonged to her father. More interestingly, I didn’t know that her curls would be streaked  with thick ropes of silvery white, a physical manifestation of the mysterious magic that hums through her.

This was such a fun way to explore and discover my character that I repeated the process with Brocht, another important character from the same story. I found that, similarly, there were details that I knew would be present (his dark hair) and others that I hadn’t expected (his bright blue military uniform and his general emo look).

The Marin and Brocht dolls have become an inspiring presence on my writing desk. The characters feel real to me now in a way that they didn’t before because making the dolls forced me to make choices about the characters. And, even though the process felt too playful to be called work, the dolls have moved my writing along in important ways.

I went to the craft store and bought more paints and more dolls so that I could bring this project to my writing group. If I was still teaching in a classroom, I would do this with students, too. I’d ask them to make dolls of the characters in their own writing and of the characters in the books they read, as a creative envisioning practice. It might not be a powerful tool for every writer, but approaching a story from a different direction, and in a different medium, will at the very least give the writer a break and a fresh eye on her work.

Making Do

I take pride in making do. As if it is a testament to my inner iron, or to my frontierswoman spirit, I proudly go without. Who needs a dishwasher? I’ve got hands, haven’t I? A car? An elevator? See, I’m just fine without all that stuff that other people think they need.

Ah, but I’m not bragging. There’s danger in all that pride I take in my own (perceived) virtue. See, sometimes I go without things like sleep. Or time to myself. Or the help that I can’t bring myself to request. And who does that serve? No one. Sometimes I’m so busy being fine that I forget that being fine is not the point. The point is to flourish.

And, in order to flourish, I need to give myself permission to want and need and dream and demand. To be the happy and creative and balanced person that I am at my best, making do won’t do at all. The list of things that I need is not long, but it’s also not negotiable: Time. Space. Sun. Rest. People (the right ones, of course).

Starting this month, I have been attempting the radical. Instead of being so busy and put-upon that I can’t engage in anything exceptional or creative, I’m going to prioritize my creativity and let the rest slide.  I’m making fast, simple food. I’m dropping off the laundry. I’m turning off my internet connection more often. Rather than making do, I’m making myself do.

The other day, I walked in the park and couldn’t stop noticing the trees. They are a gorgeous sight this time of year, with bright green leaves unfurling and buds of every hue opening like eyes waking to the new morning. The branches reminded me of a particular hand position that a yoga teacher taught me a long while ago. The palms face up and fingers extend, signaling openness and readiness for giving and receiving. As I walked I felt my fingers mimicking the trees’ gestures, turning toward the sky, opening to possibility.

So far, I’ve been surprised how even the slightest shift in attention and effort reaps rewards. I’ve arranged for some additional child-free hours, which frees my schedule to focus on my creative projects. I’ve joined with an excellent writer and awesome person in a writing critique partnership, which gives me the motivation to work on my book every day. Time, space, sun, rest, and people. Opportunities abound, and my palms face the sky.

No Vacancy

My mind is more crowded than the heated pool at the Forks Motel.

Five months ago, I challenged myself to a week-long reading deprivation, inspired by Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way. Perhaps a week does not seem to you like a long time to go without reading, but for someone like me who begins to hyperventilate if she’s got free time and no reading material, it seems interminable. Anticipating a week without reading – no magazines, no books, no blogs, no catalogues – is like trying to imagine getting through a week without talking. As in, not impossible to do, but darn difficult. And I couldn’t figure out what the value was. Reading’s a good thing. Right?

Reading is something I take for granted. If I’m eating a meal at home alone, I read. If I’m up early, I read. If the babe is taking an extra long nap, I read. At night, I read. (Sometimes all night.) Reading is a crutch, so I don’t have to think about how I spend my time, or figure out whether there is something more important for me to be doing.

During my reading deprivation, I filled my time with other activities: knitting, thinking, writing letters, sleeping, going for walks. It was refreshing to change my routines; I hadn’t realized how staid they’d become. But, there was another, more surprising, outcome of my reading deprivation. My imagination – no longer populated with the worlds and characters of another writer’s creation – went into overdrive, creating worlds and stories of its own. Walking down the street, thinking about nothing in particular, I found myself suddenly struck by images, stories, characters, and memories. I scribbled away, filling pages of my notebook.

I count this as one of the more important lessons I’ve ever learned about my writing (even though it might seem embarrassingly obvious): that there must be space for it, in my schedule and in my creative mind. When I spend all my free time reading, not only do I not have the time to write, I don’t have the energy for it. I might as well hang a “No Vacancy” sign in my brain. My mental real estate is so taken up with thinking about the stories that other writers have created that I do not have the creative juice left to craft my own.

In these too-short lives of too-finite days, choosing to do one thing is always not choosing to do another. What do I really want? What will I be known for? Much as I love books, I don’t want to be known for being a really good reader. I want to be known for having the strength to attend to my own dreams and tell my own stories. I think of my friends who inspire me daily with their dedication and focus: Tara, who has given up countless evenings of relaxing or socializing to realize her dream of being an actor and comedian; Simone, who sacrifices so much of her own time and resources to nurture her non-profit organization; Julie, who schedules the rest of her life around her wonderful writing. They – and many others who are out there living their dreams – remind me that sacrifice is always the way, and there’s isn’t any other. My big dreams will never be more than that until I  make a habit of choosing to make them real. As one of my first steps, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this November and, if I want that to be successful, I’ll have to choose writing, many times, over many other activities, even when I’d rather not. Especially then.

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.

Olé to You Nonetheless

I’ve already written (here and here) on this blog that I enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. I resisted reading it for so long – it just seemed so everywhere, so trendy, so Oprah – but, when I finally did, I found out why readers of all types (yes, though, mostly women) love it. My life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s… yet, it is. Reading her story made me think deeply about my own life, about love, about our expectations for ourselves and each other.

And, here she is again, making me think (darn her!). Oh, yes, and inspiring me, too. On her website, Gilbert posted this Ted talk she gave last year about creative genius and where she thinks it comes from. And, you know, my life is not like Elizabeth Gilbert’s, with its awards and accolades. Yet, it is. There is much overlap in any creative life – much to hope for, much to fear.

The speech is funny and inspiring, a morsel of encouragement for a fledgeling, just-trying-to-make-a-go creative type like me to tuck away for a day when the harvest is low. She really gets going toward the end. Here’s my favorite bit:

“If your job is to dance, do your dance. If the divine, cock-eyed genius assigned to your case decides to let some sort of wonderment be glimpsed for just one moment through your efforts, then olé. And if not, do your dance anyhow. And olé to you nonetheless. I believe this and I feel like we must teach it. Olé to you nonetheless, just for having the sheer human love and stubbornness to keep showing up.”

And, if you’re interested in watching the whole thing:

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.