6 Reasons You Should Critique for Others While Revising

Did you miss me? I know I threw that four years of querying post out there and then deserted the blog for a couple of weeks. My family went to the Lake of the Ozarks, and then I had a week of craziness catching up with some deadlines. But I’m back!

So, I’m in the midst of revisions yet again, and I’ve also been doing quite a bit of critiquing. I’ve always felt the best time to critique for others is when you’re revising your own work, and I really thought I’d posted on that before, but I couldn’t find it, so here are six reasons you should critique for others while revising yourself.

1. It helps you think more critically.

As one of my current characters would say: Duh! But here’s the thing: when I go a long stretch without reading anyone else’s work for the purpose of offering feedback (reading for fun doesn’t count), I get out of the habit of looking at it objectively. Yes, as I’m reading that published book, I’ll notice a typo and I might notice if I would have commented on a particular plot point or characterization if I’d been that author’s critique partner, but I’m not reading each page looking for ways to improve the book. When I read for someone else, I’m trying to help him/her make that manuscript shine, and that triggers something in my brain that spills over into my own revisions. No matter how much I put myself in a revision mindset–and I love revising!–I always have better ideas when I’ve been critiquing recently.

2. It convicts you when you have the same issue in your own manuscript.

For some reason, seeing your issue in someone else’s manuscript makes it so much clearer in your own, like a spotlight shining on that particular scene or character weakness. For example, I remember reading for someone and spotting a believability issue that suddenly made me realize I had the same problem in my own MS. It wasn’t even something any of my readers had pointed out yet, but I knew I had to fix because eventually someone would notice and I’d have a hole to repair. Something along the lines of: Why didn’t Character A just ask Character C about this? Ha! We all have one of those at some point, don’t we?

3. It reminds you if you’ve skipped a step in your revision process.

If I’m reading someone else’s manuscript and I notice one of my crutch words/phrases or see an issue with inconsistencies, it reminds me to go through my own manuscript to look for those. Or sometimes to read certain sections aloud again to ensure the voice matches the character. These are all steps I take in my own revision process, but often critiquing reminds me I should do them again for my own.

4. It inspires you to new heights.

I mentioned this in my post on What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Querying, but I have the privilege of working with some pretty amazing CPs and writers at this point in my journey. Several of them are agented, a few have book deals, and I’ve even read for other writers who are published. (Not the books that are published but their other projects that hopefully will be!) So when I read for them, I’m often inspired to take my revisions to a whole other level. I’ll see how Writer A used a particular metaphor that was so perfect for her character and think how I need to apply that to my character or read a particular description and realize I should beef up my own descriptions. So, thank you, friends, for inspiring me!

5. It opens you up to other worlds.

I don’t know about you, but I live in my own little world much of the time. Even with the books I read to keep up with the market, I still lean toward a certain kind of story, so critiquing often leads me to read something I might not have otherwise. That’s a good thing! I need to have my world shaken up every once in a while, to experience some other types of characters who might need to enter my characters’ worlds at some point (maybe not if they’re aliens or dragons, although you never know). It’s broadening to get inside another writer’s head for a while.

6. It keeps you from getting too tied up in your own story.

Perhaps others will disagree with me on this one, but then I did work for a PR agency for ten years, where I jumped between a dozen clients in the same day. I think it’s helpful to escape my characters for a bit each day and see what some others are doing. What are those other voices like? It helps me to ensure mine are still unique and staying true to their story.

So, if you’re in the midst of revising and you’re stuck or even if you aren’t, go ask someone else if you can read for them. It’s a great way to focus your own revisions. At least, it works for me!

Anyone else have thoughts on how critiquing helps you revise?

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What I’ve Learned in Four Years of Querying

It’s here! I have officially been querying for four years. (Actually it was July 11, but since that’s a Saturday this year, we’ll just consider it today.) And in a strange coincidence, four years ago I sent off my first round of queries and then we packed up and drove down to Springfield, Mo., to visit family. This afternoon, we are driving to Springfield for a family wedding (although I have not sent off a round of queries, so it’s not completely the same). Anyway, I’ve experienced many ups and downs during the process and learned a ton. You can read about each year in succession, as I try not to repeat the lessons of previous years in the current year’s post. Here are links to the others:

What hasn’t changed is that I remain optimistic. I know I will find the right fit for my writing. So without further ado, here are the new things I’ve learned in the past year.

You don’t have to spend as much time researching agents … because you already know them so well. I’ve gotten to the point where many of the agents are like old friends. I’ve been over their profiles, watched their Twitter feeds, read their interviews, etc., so many times, that I know their preferences like the back of my hand. So when it’s time to send out queries, I don’t have to spend a lot of time reviewing before I put together a query for them. Sure, I still check the agency website to make sure nothing’s changed, but I don’t have to spend the hours I used to scouring the internet for information about them to make sure I get the personalization just right.

The caliber of beta readers and critique partners you work with gets higher and higher. The longer you’re in the writing community, the better the chances are that the writers you know have gone on to get agents and even publishing deals. For my last manuscript, I had three pre-published authors and two agented authors read for me. (And after reading, another reader got a book deal, and another landed an agent.) Most of these were writers I knew back when we were all unagented. We started out in the same place, but we’ve grown together. I figure it’s only a matter of time before I see my name in the acknowledgements page of a published novel :). That’s the nature of this long journey.

Just because an agent requested from you before doesn’t mean that agent is still the best fit for you at that agency. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to go with the agent you’ve been in contact with before, the one who’s shown an interest in your previous work. BUT, it’s possible that agent isn’t the best fit for what you’re writing now or for your complete body of work. I did some serious thinking before I started querying my last project. My first instinct was to go with the known, but the more I studied the bios and interviews, the more my gut told me to go with Agent B at a couple of agencies, even though I’d had requests from Agent A. And you know what? I got a request from Agent B.

This can also be something to consider with all the moving around that agents do. If Agent A has requested from you before but Agent B moves to Agent A’s agency and you’ve always really wanted to work with Agent B, don’t automatically think you have to submit to Agent A because of that past correspondence. Make sure you’re submitting to the agent who is the best fit for you now.

You might think you know the agents out there who are the best fit for your work, but you really don’t. I realize this point may seem at complete odds with my first point, but hear me out. I participated in a few pitch contests this past year, and I was shocked by a few of the agents who expressed an interest. A couple of them were newer agents I just didn’t know much about yet. But some were agents I knew about and just hadn’t considered because I’d pushed them further down the list for previous manuscripts. But you know what? I shouldn’t have done that.

Querying is about what’s the best fit for my career now, not in the past. I’ve changed as a writer over the past four years. I started out focusing on middle grade, but it turns out I have more of a young adult voice. I realized I was ignoring agents who didn’t do middle grade; that was a mistake. Because my current MS was YA, my next MS was YA, and the one I was considering after that was YA, too. So … the MG issue probably isn’t coming up anytime soon. My point is that you shouldn’t discount agents or curtail your list too much. Now, I’m not saying send it to agents who don’t rep what you write. Absolutely don’t do that. But make sure your priorities fit your current career goals and not your past goals.

The more thoroughly you research agents up front, the fewer requests you’ll get further down your list. I’m not saying you won’t get requests from the agents you don’t include in your first few rounds because some agents just don’t put much information out there about what they’re looking for. However, if you order your spreadsheet the way I do, you start with the agents you think are most likely to be interested in your manuscript, so your request rate is likely to be higher in your earlier rounds of querying. Don’t let that discourage you! I’ve learned there are always a few agents who surprise me in later rounds of querying and move up to earlier rounds when I query the next manuscript. (I wrote a whole series of posts on How to Research Agents. If you click on the first one, it includes links to all of them.)

You can tell by the rejections when you’re getting close. I heard this truth back when I first started querying, but I didn’t understand what it meant. I get it now, because the tone of many of the rejections has changed. Often they arrive with a tenor of hope: “I know another agent will snap you up soon!” This might sound like a really nice form rejection, but I know it isn’t because the rejections on the earlier manuscripts carried the more generic “Another agent may feel differently.” (I actually mentioned this in the Year One post!). Now, just because several agents say this doesn’t mean it will come true, but it still gives me hope. Maybe sometimes I go back and read through those rejections for a pick-me-up :). I’ve never said that before!

You start to consider other options. Don’t get me wrong–signing with an agent is still my goal. However, my mind is more open to other possibilities and other paths to publication. I know I’m not alone in this. I have writer friends who have been querying for years without signing with an agent who decided to submit directly to publishers or even self-publish. I still believe that if I keep at it, eventually I’ll succeed with an agent. But I’ve also started to realize that the path may not be as straight as I expected it to be. For someone as linear as I am, that’s a bit difficult to wrap my mind around, but I’m getting there.

You have greater confidence in your gut. I’ve written about this separately, most recently in a post on subjectivity, but I’ve gotten better about knowing when to implement feedback–whether from agents or CPs–and when to file it away. In the early days of querying, I was likely to jump on the tiniest bit of feedback and revise, regardless of whether I was 100 percent on board with it. Today, I’ll set aside feedback that doesn’t resonate with me, even if it’s from someone I greatly respect. In many ways, it’s harder to ignore honestly given feedback you can’t buy into than to use it, but I’ve been on the end of revising a way that didn’t feel right to me before, and that resulted in an MS that didn’t read right for anyone. I’m not sure you can get to this point of trusting your gut without those years of experience, so my guidance here is more a reassurance that you will get there.

Ok, I think that’s about it. I’ve been collecting these thoughts all year, and I may start collecting them for next year as early as tomorrow :). For everyone else who’s on this journey with me, hang in there! It’s all about finding the right fit for your work at the right time. And to my friends who continue to support me, thank you! I appreciate every one of you.

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YA Review: TRUST ME, I’M LYING by Mary Elizabeth Summer

I started reading TRUST ME, I’M LYING on the plane back from Alaska, continued in the summer school carpool pickup line, and then breezed through the last 40 percent in a single night. I probably would have read that first 60 percent much more quickly if I hadn’t been trying to catch up from vacation. In any case, I am now anxiously awaiting the next installment of this series, which is accurately compared to Ally Carter’s Heist Society series.

Trust Me, I'm Lying by Mary Elizabeth SummerJulep Dupree tells lies. A lot of them. She’s a con artist, a master of disguise, and a sophomore at Chicago’s swanky St. Agatha High, where her father, an old-school grifter with a weakness for the ponies, sends her so she can learn to mingle with the upper crust. For extra spending money Julep doesn’t rely on her dad—she runs petty scams for her classmates while dodging the dean of students and maintaining an A+ (okay, A-) average.

But when she comes home one day to a ransacked apartment and her father gone, Julep’s carefully laid plans for an expenses-paid golden ticket to Yale start to unravel. Even with help from St. Agatha’s resident Prince Charming, Tyler Richland, and her loyal hacker sidekick, Sam, Julep struggles to trace her dad’s trail of clues through a maze of creepy stalkers, hit attempts, family secrets, and worse, the threat of foster care. With everything she has at stake, Julep’s in way over her head . . . but that’s not going to stop her from using every trick in the book to find her dad before his mark finds her. Because that would be criminal.

Here are the five things I loved most:

1. The voice – I was hooked from the very beginning, and the voice is so perfect for the character. This might seem like a strange sample to share, but for some reason this particular paragraph stuck out to me as I was reading. It’s from an action scene, when Julep has just been rescued from a burning building, but you just get such a great sense of her character.

“I shudder as I pass through the back door and into the crisp, ice-cold air of the alley. I cough and hack and wipe off black stuff, and all the while I’m breathing in the sweetest, most delicious scent of gradually decaying garbage and rat excrement. I’ve never been so happy to see an alley in all the days of my life.”

2. The romance – I love the way she’s all twisted up from the moment she meets Tyler. Isn’t that how teen romance is supposed to be? Plus, this gives me another opportunity to showcase the voice.

“Wait, what did I just say? Crap! I meant to say, ‘it’s nothing’ or ‘just a prank’ or anything else that would put him off. Not ‘it’s freaking dangerous and you should definitely be interested now.’ Is some errant part of my psycho-girl psyche trying to show off for him? Without permission? I mentally smack that part of me back in line. Unfortunately, it’s not in time to avoid piquing Tyler’s curiosity even more.”

3. The cons – I love a good caper. I don’t care if it’s believable or not, but for the most part, I bought the cons Julep and her friends pulled. Sure, some of them were outrageous, but that’s what makes it fun.

4. The mystery –  In addition to the cons, there was also a mystery woven throughout the story, a set of clues Julep’s father had left her to follow. Part of the fun was that the reader had no idea what they led to, so it was sort of a double mystery.

5. The twists – I actually chatted with Ms. Summer on Twitter, anticipating one of the twists, and she warned me there would be one everyone expects and several that would catch me by surprise. She was so right! For the last 10 percent of the book (I was reading on my Kindle), I was saying, “No! What? No! Seriously?” These were good twists, folks. Some planted and some not, but wow.

On that last point, I’m really holding my tongue (fingers??) here. If anyone wants to discuss, email me! But definitely check out this book.

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On Balancing the Urge to Slap a Character or Root for Them

I read a number of frustrating books over my vacation, but before you think that means I didn’t like them, I’ll point out that I wrote a review about one of them earlier this week :). Why was that particular book frustrating? Because the girl kept missing out on opportunities where she could have fixed a particular problem, and yet I completely understood why she did.

I just finished reading another book where I was even more frustrated with the main character. In fact, I wanted to reach into the book and slap her. Ok, I’m not actually that violent (unless you ask my brother circa the 1980s), so maybe I’d just shake her and say, “Come on, girl! Get over yourself!” But at the same time, I was still rooting for her to figure things out and finally achieve her happy ending. I wanted the guy to forgive her for all the times she’d messed up, and the author did an excellent job of making me buy into both characters enough to believe that could happen.

In both of these examples, the key was making me care about the character and continue to root for them even when I disagreed with their actions. It’s funny how sometimes what you’re reading validates what you’re writing. I’m in the midst of revising from a second round of comments on my WIP, and I was trying to decide how to address a couple of readers’ reactions to a particular character. Reading these books solidified for me that the character’s actions aren’t necessarily the issue; it’s whether readers will still root for him. They can be ready to deliver a good slap as long as they’ll forgive him in the end.

So now the trick is to ensure I pull that off. I’m still working on it :). But at least I have some good examples as a reference!

Who are some of your favorite frustrating characters?

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YA Review: THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND by Kasie West

I’m back from Alaska! Well, I actually returned last week, but I spent most of that catching up. So, Alaska. Disney is amazing at everything, so the cruise was fantastic. I basically stayed inside as much as possible due to the cold, but when I did venture out, the scenery was breathtaking. Best way to see a glacier?DSC02623 From inside your cabin with a balcony. We kept the door open and I came in and out of the cabin, reading for a while and running out if my husband alerted me to another amazing view. I don’t think this picture can possibly capture how cool this was. We visited another glacier as well (much colder as it was off the ship), but this one was larger.

Ok, so you came here for a review. I read a lot in my cozy cabin :). I haven’t yet decided how many reviews I’m going to post from all that reading, but THE FILL-IN BOYFRIEND demanded one. As usual, let’s start with the description.

The Fill-In Boyfriend by Kasie WestWhen Gia Montgomery’s boyfriend, Bradley, dumps her in the parking lot of her high school prom, she has to think fast. After all, she’d been telling her friends about him for months now. This was supposed to be the night she proved he existed. So when she sees a cute guy waiting to pick up his sister, she enlists his help. The task is simple: be her fill-in boyfriend— two hours, zero commitment, a few white lies. After that, she can win back the real Bradley.

The problem is that days after prom, it’s not the real Bradley she’s thinking about, but the stand-in. The one whose name she doesn’t even know. But tracking him down doesn’t mean they’re done faking a relationship. Gia owes him a favor and his sister intends to see that he collects: his ex-girlfriend’s graduation party — three hours, zero commitment, a few white lies.

Just when Gia begins to wonder if she could turn her fake boyfriend into a real one, Bradley comes waltzing back into her life, exposing her lie, and threatening to destroy her friendships and her new-found relationship.

Here are the five things I loved most.

1. The premise – Basically I’m a sucker for any story where people have to pretend to be together for some reason, so I knew going in that I would get pulled into this story. But also, what kind of guy dumps a girl in the parking lot at prom? And then tries to get back in with her later? That description just screamed “read me” and I obliged :).

2. The fill-in boyfriend – Yes, I am leaving out his name on purpose. If you read the book, you’ll understand why. Anyway, I really loved his character from the moment he appeared. I could see why Gia couldn’t get him out of her head :).

3. Bec (fill-in boyfriend’s sister) – At first Bec seems to be a stereotypical outcast, but it quickly becomes apparent that she’s someone entirely different, and I loved that about her. She was such a great foil for Gia.

4. Gia’s growth – I loved the way Gia discovered herself in this story. She starts out very unaware of how she appears to others, thinking she’s a fairly well-liked person by the general population. As she sees herself from others’ points of view–particularly Bec’s–she begins to realize her life isn’t as perfect as she thought. There’s one moment that’s particularly gut-wrenching, but you’ll have to read it to find out.

5. The romance – Love, love, love how the romance builds from this chance encounter and a series of misunderstandings, friendship, and … that’s all I’m saying. These two are perfect for each other, even though it takes them a while to realize it. (Well, of course. Otherwise, why would you spend that time reading?)

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I just realized that three of my favorite things about this book were characters. How about that?

If you love contemporary YA romance, definitely go pick this one up! And in the meantime, I’ll leave you with my fill-in boyfriend from the cruise. Don’t we make a cute couple?

 

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Revising for Vacation!

When I was in college, my roommate always cleaned our dorm room or, in later years, our apartment before we left for a break. She said she wanted to return to a clean place. (Hi, Liz!) I didn’t totally get it when we were in college, but I do now. And of course I’m going to apply it to writing.

I’ve been working through the comments from my second round of readers for my work-in-progress, and I’m leaving for vacation tomorrow.* I really didn’t think I’d get through them before I left, but I did. Woohoo! And I imagine the satisfaction I feel is similar to how my roommate felt–that when I return, I won’t be returning to a mess.

I’m not finished with this round of revision. I had three very lovely readers this round, and while a number of their comments lined up, they also offered some unique opinions that I’m still considering. But I at least made one pass through the whole manuscript and will have a decent revision to work with when I return. That’s something to be excited about.

The other day, my five-year-old said, “Mom, I’m sorry you won’t be able to work while we’re on the cruise.”

She was completely serious. Hey, at least she understands I love my work, right? I assured her that I am able to take a vacation. Well, now that I’ve tied up this task, I’m ready to pack up my bags and go party with Mickey Mouse and all the Disney princesses in Alaska. See you in ten days or so!

*As usual, here is my disclaimer to any crazies (not you, my regular followers) that my house will not be unattended while we’re gone. House sitter, alarm system, dog. Got it? Ok.

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MMGM Interview & Giveaway: THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING by Krista Van Dolzer

Happy Memorial Day! I hope my fellow Americans are enjoying the day off.

I’m thrilled to feature THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING on the blog today. It’s especially appropriate since The Writer’s Voice is in progress right now, and I was on Team Krista in 2012, the first year the contest happened. It was such a great experience, and Krista has remained a mentor and friend to me far beyond those few weeks. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this book, and one of you lucky readers can win a signed copy, too! But first, let’s talk about the book …

The Sound of Life and Everything by Krista Van DolzerTwelve-year-old Ella Mae Higbee is a sensible girl. She eats her vegetables and wants to be just like Sergeant Friday, her favorite character on Dragnet. So when her auntie Mildred starts spouting nonsense about a scientist who can bring her cousin Robby back to life, Ella Mae doesn’t believe her–until a boy steps out of the scientist’s pod and drips slime on the floor right before her eyes.

But the boy is not Robby–he’s Japanese. And in California in the wake of World War II, the Japanese are still feared and mistreated. When Auntie Mildred refuses to take responsibility, Ella Mae convinces her mama to take the boy home with them. It’s clear that he’ll be kept like a prisoner in that lab, and she wants to help.

Determined to do what’s right by her new friend, Ella Mae teaches him English and defends him from the reverend’s talk of H-E-double-toothpicks. But when the boy’s painful memories resurface, Ella Mae learns some surprising truths about her own family and, more importantly, what it means to love.

As usual when I do an interview, the questions are centered around the five things I loved most.

1. It’s fantastic how you seamlessly wove in historical tidbits that adults have probably heard somewhere–for example, that the general public didn’t know President Roosevelt was in a wheelchair until after his death. Was it challenging to figure out where these would fit? Did you have a file of historical facts you wanted to include and couldn’t?

I didn’t have a file of historical facts, but now I wish I had!

For the most part, I researched the 1950s in general, then drew on that working knowledge as I drafted individual scenes. For instance, the scene in which I mentioned President Roosevelt has a reference to wheelchairs, so I tried to think of someone in a wheelchair that Ella Mae would have known. President Roosevelt came to mind, and it was only as I was fact-checking myself that I discovered the general public didn’t know the full details of his condition until after his death.

2. The message that there are two sides to every conflict (or war) and that individuals shouldn’t be judged by ethnicity is especially appropriate today. There were so many nations involved in World War II. Why did you choose to tell the story of a Japanese character versus German? Was it strictly because he would stand out so much physically?

Yes, the primary reason I made my regenerated man Japanese was because he would stand out so much physically. I wanted the characters to be able to have an immediate reaction to the way he looked.

3. I loved how much of an impact Takuma, as a single person, had on so many lives. Takuma struck me as culturally appropriate but not stereotypical. How did you go about developing his character?

I’m so glad you thought Takuma was culturally appropriate but not stereotypical! I spent quite a bit of time researching Japanese culture in an effort to get his character right. One thing I learned is that Americans tend to value independence whereas Japanese people tend to value interdependence, being a small part of a larger and more important whole. That quality suited the character I wanted to develop.

That said, Takuma’s character has changed from draft to draft. In my earliest drafts, he was very much like Mary Poppins—practically perfect in every way—so a critique partner suggested that I make him less perfect to give him more dimension. It was a valid point, so I tried to apply it, but the changes I made just never felt completely right. I went back to his old character, and though he is somewhat one-dimensional, I stand by that decision. I’ll let you decide why you think he is the way he is. (For the record, my mom and I have very different explanations, both of which are valid within the context of the story.)

4. The voice felt so strongly middle grade despite the seriousness of the situation, particularly in regard to Ella Mae’s roller-coaster emotions about her friendships with both Takuma and Theo. Did her voice come naturally to you, or did you have to really work on keeping her at that age?

Ella Mae’s voice came so naturally that I’ve started to wonder if I was a twelve-year-old girl in 1952 in another life :). I’ve worked on this book off and on for the last four years, and no matter how much time I spend away from it, I can always pick Ella Mae’s voice right back up. Of all the characters I’ve written, Ella Mae is my favorite.

5. I really loved the ending, and I don’t want to spoil it for anyone, so I’ll make it a more general question. Did you know from the beginning how the story would need to end, or did it surprise you as you were writing?

I’ve always had a very clear idea of how this story was going to end. As soon as I wrote the first chapter, I knew exactly how I was going to write the last few chapters. Not everyone likes the ending—one editor in particular rejected the manuscript precisely because she didn’t like the way it ended—but in my mind, it always had to end this way.

Thanks, Krista!!

If you haven’t already picked this book up, do it now! But I am giving away a signed copy to one lucky winner. North America only, please. Click on the Rafflecopter below to enter. Good luck!

Click here to win a signed copy of THE SOUND OF LIFE AND EVERYTHING

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