Friday, November 30, 2012

Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving

First, a huge THANK YOU to those readers who linked back to our Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving posts and/or wrote thankus of their own:

Linda at Teacherdance.

Betsy at Teaching Young Writers.

Linda at Write Time.

Ramona at Pleasures from the Page.

Margaret at Reflections of the Teche. And a second post.

Leanne at Leanne Pankuch - Children's Writer.

Stacey at Two Writing Teachers.

And Jan, thanks for sharing your thanku in our comments section, too.

Woot! So fun and inspiring to read all of your lovely and touching thankus. We appreciate your participation.

Gosh, I don't know about the rest of you, but I'm having a hard time believing that tomorrow is December 1st. What happened to November?! Well, one good thing about flipping the calendar page is that tomorrow is "Take your child to a bookstore day." So please visit a local bookstore, if possible, and spread the love.

This is my last post for awhile, so have a happy holiday season and a beautiful and blessed 2013.

Happy writing!

Jill Esbaum

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

A long-over-due ThankU...

What fun to see my October 12, 2011 Thanku post blossom and bloom in such original and meaningful ways.
What an honor (and surprise!) to be a Thanku recipient too.

Thank you, Carmela, and my fellow TeachingAuthors, for growing this idea.
And thank you, our TeachingAuthor readers, for both nurturing the concept and transplanting the poetic form via your students, colleagues and website visitors.

As for who receives my Writer Thanku this year, I really and truly grew a very, very VERY long list of all those who helped me become a Writer, especially a children’s book writer.
Alas, the bounty of companions who kept me traveling my Plotline boggled  my brain.

Mentors, such as Barbara Lucas.

Teachers, such as Bernice Rabe and Charlotte Graeber.

An entire international society of children’s book creators! 

Editors (Assistant, associate, senior and executive.)

Publishers, such as Holiday House and Sleeping Bear Press.

Children’s Librarians, such as Wilmette, Illinois’ Lynn Persson.

Booksellers (of the independent kind), namely Pat Wroclawski and Jan Dundon.

Reviewers, including Ilene Cooper and Mary Harris Russell.

Academicians, such as Drs.  Roxanne Owen and Marie Donovan.

The Kiddos for whom I write, of course (last, but not least).

It turns out, the World in which I do my heart’s work each day gave me Everyone – thus Everything - I needed and wanted.

So, here’s my sincere Thanku, a cornucopia of thanks, to those who continue to keep me keepin’ on.

The Children’s Book World!

Seeders, feeders sunning all

                                     Seekers of story.

Good News!  There’s  still time for you to share your  writing-related Thanku with us in one of three ways on or before November 30:

(1)   post a comment to one of our posts
(2)  send an email to us at teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com, OR
(3)  write a thank-you blog post of your own and then share the link with us via 1) or 2).

Feel free to copy and paste the image below into your blog post. We'd love if you'd also link back to this post and invite others to participate.

We’ve got a horn of plenty waiting!

Esther Hershenhorn


Monday, November 26, 2012

My Teacher, My Mentor, My Friend

Like Mary Ann, I am alas incapable of incorporating Esther's cool thanku format as I acknowledge the teachers who have inspired me on my journey as a writer.  For one thing, there are too many to thank.  For another, there's just too much to say (and I've never been very good at following the rules, I must admit).

There's my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Micklos, who helped me to believe that I could write -- and who also taught me the scientific method that provided the backbone for my first novel.  There are my wonderful high school English teachers, Mrs. Weingarten and Mr. Bennett, as well as the one (he who shall not be named) who taught me everything NOT to be as a writer or a teacher.  There's my first editor, Olga Litowinsky, who was generous and demanding and funny and smart.  Then there are my Vermont College advisors. 

Randy Powell had two small children, a full-time job, and a writing career, yet he took the time to write me amazing 10-page editorial letters each month.  From Randy, I learned that hard work pretty much trumps all. 

I worked with the inimitable Jane Resh Thomas the semester that I was writing my critical thesis, and my biggest takeaway lesson that semester was honesty.  I remember Jane recounting with regret that she had become a nurse based upon the fantasy world that the Cherry Ames books had cultivated.  Jane said indignantly, "Books lie."  As a parent, I often remember her words about the harm we do when we keep the truth from children who need to hear it.  And coming from a soap opera background where it's second nature to go for the easy shock (back-from-the-dead, serial killers, demonic possession!),  I learned from Jane that I must always put the emotional truths of my characters first. 

Susan Fletcher was my mentor in my last semester, when I had cancer surgery and radiation.  In her compassionate way, she inspired me to work as hard as I ever had.  Read anything she has written, and you will see how her kindness spills onto every page.

Children's book writers are, by nature, a nurturing lot.  Soap opera writers, not so much.  With hefty-ish salaries and limited jobs to go around, backstabbing tends to be the way of the world.  So while this blog is ostensibly about writing for children, I feel compelled to use this space to give profuse thanks to one Frances Myers Newman.  I was a lowly intern and then writers' assistant when she was a seasoned scriptwriter at DAYS OF OUR LIVES. Fran fought for me to get my first job.  When I was fired, she prevailed upon friends to help me to get another job.  She and her husband, Roger, gave me continuous feedback and encouragement, support and friendship.  When my husband and I were on the cusp of either parting ways or entering a serious relationship, I asked her advice and took it without second thought.  And here I am -- eight years married and two kids later.  I tell Fran that I would have no job, no husband, no kids without her.  She thinks I exaggerate.  I do not.  Fran taught me a favorite expression of her mother's that I will forever carry in my heart. "God is the good in each of us."  And God has been very good in giving me the gift of Fran and her family in my life.

April, we are all so thankful for Gary's recovery.  (And yes, we are fond of induced comas on soap operas, but I've never known anyone in real life who'd been in one.)  God is good, indeed!
-- Jeanne Marie

A reminder from Carmela:
You're invited to share your own writing-related thank-yous with us. You can do so on or before Nov. 30 in one of three ways:
1) a comment to one of our posts,
2) an email to us at teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com, OR
3) by writing a thank-you blog post of your own and then sharing the link with us via 1) or 2). Feel free to copy and paste the image below into your blog post. We'd love if you'd also link back to this post and invite others to participate. (As the lovely Linda Baie has done on her TeacherDance blog.)

Your thank-you needn't be written as a Thanku, or even as a poem, but if you're posting it as a comment or email message, please limit it to 25 words or less. We'd especially love for teachers to send us thank-yous written by their students. We may share some of them on the last day, November 30, along with our round-up of links to Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving blog posts.

Friday, November 23, 2012

My husband's alive! What are YOU thankful for? Write a Thanku for Poetry Friday!

Howdy Campers ~  Happy Poetry Friday!  I hope your Thanksgiving was all that you hoped for.  Mine certainly was...

But first, Franki and Mary Lee of A Year of Reading are our Poetry Friday hosts today--thank you, ladies!

And speaking of thank you: for two weeks, we TeachingAuthors are extending the celebration of Thanksgiving by giving thanks to those who've made a difference in our writing lives.  We'd love you to join us: in a Thanku or in prose, 25 words or less, due November 30th.  See Carmela's most recent post for the specifics.

I've taken a break from blogging these last few weeks; this is the most incredibly appropriate topic with which to dive back in.

In a nutshell, on the afternoon of Monday, October 29th, my best friend/husband collapsed and stopped breathing.  After 11 days in the ICU, he is fabulously, miraculously, terrifically, fine and dandy.(October 29th is also the date that Hurricane Sandy struck.  We didn't notice.)

My husband, apparently, has all sorts of angels keeping him on the grassy side of our galaxy. 

Angels, angels, angels.  I picture them pushing him back, denying him entrance on that October afternoon.  

Today I thank all those angels...and the humans who saved his life. I've been thinking a lot about the movie Sliding Doors, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.  The movie itself wasn't my favorite, but the premise was wonderful.  Essentially the movie splits into two stories--in one, she barely makes it onto a London train. In the other, she misses it.

There are so many to thank for putting my family on this train.  My 23-year-old son (aka my rock.)  Relatives. Friends.  Strangers. His friend and partner who started chest compressions.  The police officer. The paramedics who did that paddle thing on him.  Twice.  Everyone at Little Company of Mary hospital--wow.  Those awesome ICU nurses never sit down.  

(Everyone, except, perhaps, the cheerful man who greeted me in the ER with a form to fill out, before I knew if my husband was dead or alive.  I've had the experience of going to a hospital and being informed my father had died.  I was 22 then.  This time I knew what to ask.  I looked him in the eye and said evenly, "You are handing me a registration form.  That means he's alive, right?"  "Oh, no," he said brightly, "we register everyone.")

I want to write a Thanku to the people who invented and perfected therapeutic hypothermia, a protocol in which the patient's body is cooled and placed in a sort of medically induced coma for a few days, to let the body rest and to prevent further damage to the brain and heart.

I just looked up this treatment in Wikipedia and see that I owe thanks to a whole slew of folks who developed this over the ages, beginning with Hippocrates.

Here, then, is my Thanku to all of them:


Together, you rolled
the snowball down the hill that
saved my friend.  Thank you.

I especially want to thank Dr. Robert Chang, who was in charge of my husband's care.  He is accessible, caring, direct, genuine and brilliant.
                                             WRITING WORKOUT--
                                           Who would you like to thank?

Now it's your turn.  We're focusing on those who helped us in our writing life, but you can see that I've interpreted this broadly.

1) Who has helped you on the writer's road?

2) Write a Thanku or a 25-word-or-less thank you in any form, poetry or prose.

3) Share it with us.  You can do so in one of three ways:
a) a comment on one of our posts,
b) an email to us at teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com,
c) by writing a thank-you blog post of your own and then sharing the link with us via 1) or 2). Feel free to copy and paste the image below into your blog post. We'd love if you'd also link back to this post and invite others to participate. 

4) And don't forget to send it to the person you're thanking!

 And thank YOU, Frankie and Mary Lee of A Year of Reading, for hosting Poetry Friday today!

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

A Thanku and a Tetractys for Day 6 of our Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving

Here in the United States, many people are preparing to celebrate tomorrow's Thanksgiving holiday. As we busily cook, clean, grocery shop, and/or travel, it's easy to forget the purpose of this holiday--to take time out to say "thank you." So last year, when Esther shared a new poetry form called a "Thanku" (a thank you note written as a haiku), it inspired us here at the TeachingAuthors to dedicate a series of posts to expressing gratitude. This year, we've designated Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving, Nov. 16-30. In our posts for these two weeks, we're focusing on expressing writing-related thanks, for either a writing teacher/mentor, or for an author whose work we admire, as suggested by Sherman Alexie in his Top 10 Pieces of Writing Advice:
When you read a piece of writing that you admire, send a note of thanks to the author. Be effusive with your praise. Writing is a lonely business. Do your best to make it a little less lonely. 
Before I post my gratitude for today, I want to remind everyone that you're invited to share your own writing-related thank-yous with us. You can do so on or before Nov. 30 in one of three ways:
1) a comment to one of our posts,
2) an email to us at teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com, OR
3) by writing a thank-you blog post of your own and then sharing the link with us via 1) or 2). Feel free to copy and paste the image below into your blog post. We'd love if you'd also link back to this post and invite others to participate. (As the lovely Linda Baie has done on her TeacherDance blog.)

Your thank-you needn't be written as a Thanku, or even as a poem, but if you're posting it as a comment or email message, please limit it to 25 words or less. We'd especially love for teachers to send us thank-yous written by their students. We may share some of them on the last day, November 30, along with our round-up of links to Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving blog posts.
And now, for my thank-you: Today, I'd like to thank and pay tribute to my marvelous mentor and fellow TeachingAuthor: Esther Hershenhorn.

Esther was the Regional Advisor for SCBWI-Illinois back when I first began trying to write for children. If not for Esther, I doubt I would have persisted in my quest to become a published children's author. She encouraged me to connect with fellow writers (some of whom became my critique group) and to step outside my comfort zone by volunteering to help with SCBWI events (which allowed me to meet editors and agents). Esther always shared her time generously when I asked her advice, whether by phone, email, or in person. And when I finally got my first novel published, she was one of my biggest cheerleaders and supporters.

For this post, I'd planned to write a Thanku in Esther's honor, but Susan Halko, a former student of Esther's beat me to it by emailing us the following Thanku:
Esther Hershenhorn!
Thanks for your words of wisdom
and inspiration.
Great job, Susan!
Instead of competing with Susan's lovely Thanku, I've written a five-line tetractys (see definition below) in Esther's honor:


          Selfless teacher,
          But most important of all, a "true friend." 

[A tetractys is a five-line poem in which the syllables per line form the series 1, 2, 3, 4, 10. Euclid, a mathematician of ancient times, thought the series had mystical significance because 1+2+3+4 = 10. ]

In case you're wondering, "true friend" is in quotes because it alludes to the ending of Charlotte's Web:
"It's not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both."
And so is Esther. 

Happy writing, all, and Happy Thanks-Giving!

Monday, November 19, 2012

The Story for the Trees

     I'm sorry, dear readers, but I simply can't master the haiku, or as the rest of my TA's are sharing with you in the next several posts, the "thanku."  Ironic, actually, because the subject of my thanks post taught me how to assemble the "bones" of a story.  Up to that point, I belonged to the Theodore Dreiser School of Writing . . . more is better. I like to create whole worlds when I write.  Sometimes my worlds contain way too much extraneous detail that doesn't "move the story along."

     "Does it move the story along" is the mantra given to me by my Vermont College mentor, Marion Dane Bauer. I was writing Yankee Girl in the Vermont MFA program and I was determined to recreate the world of 1964 Mississippi as accurately as possible.  Marion showed me I was burying my story in words, details and characters that just weren't necessary.

     I was not a particularly willing student. I like lots of detail in my stories. Marion, on the other hand,is the Hemingway of children's literature. She writes simply and to the point, not a word wasted (which is also a good description of Marion-the-person.) Finally, Marion suggested I read her book, On My Honor, a Newbery Honor winner. (I learned that information from the book cover, not from Marion.)

    If you ever need a blueprint for how to "move a story along," read On My Honor. In under a hundred pages Marion introduces her two main characters, sets up a moral dilemma and ratchets up the tension to a spare but shocking climax, and a satisfactory, but complex conclusion. Each action, each word flows into the next, not a word wasted.

    So to prove that I've learned my lesson, I am keeping this post short. Thank you (if not a "thanku") to Marion Dane Bauer, for showing me the way out of my "word wilderness."

    Who to you want to "thanku"?  Let us know.   See Jill's last post for details.

    Oh, and one more person I am thankful for!   It's been a tough writing year for me, but knowing that every other Monday someone out there is logging on to TeachingAuthors to see what I
have to say. You have kept me writing. Thank you!

     Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, November 16, 2012

Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving!

Hello, readers! With Thanksgiving almost upon us, it's time to kick off our annual Two Weeks of Thanks-Giving celebration.

Please join us in penning a writing-related thank you. You may write your thank you in prose or a poetry form, but we especially hope you'll try a thanku – a thank you in haiku form. (See Esther's post last year explaining the Thanku form.) You might express your gratitude to a writing teacher who helped you along the way. You might thank a writer whose work you admire. Classroom teachers, Carmela issued you a special challenge to give your students the same assignment. Read about that in her original post.

We invite all our readers and fellow bloggers to share their thank yous with us. You can do so in one of three ways:
1) a comment to one of our posts,
2) an email to us at teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com, or
3) by writing a thank-you blog post of your own and then sharing the link with us via 1) or 2). Feel free to copy and paste the above image into your blog post. We'd love if you'd also link back to this post and invite others to participate. 

Please keep your creations to 25 words or less. You have until November 30. On that day we'll post a round-up of links to all the participating bloggers' posts.

Meanwhile, here's a little background on my thanku. When I was green as grass, two particular writing mentors provided steadfast friendship and cheerleading. Their encouragement made tolerable my many, many rejections. I'm sad to say that both of these nurturing souls have passed on, but, David R. Collins and Mel Boring, this one's for you:

                                                             Your steadfast support
                                                     sparked hope in this newbie heart
                                                               and made me believe.

For those of you who entered our book giveaway hoping to win an autographed copy of my new book, Angry Birds Playground:  Animals, my husband just chose a name out of a hat (okay, a measuring cup). And the winner is....
                                                                    Kristen Larson

Kristen, I'll be contacting you soon.  :)   THANK YOU to those who entered.

Jill Esbaum

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Angry Birds, Part 2

Part of the back matter in Angry Birds Playground:  Animals was to be a double-page spread filled with activities meant to assist parents in helping their children take learning beyond the pages of the book. I'd need 20 or so activities. I tried to think of this task as little as possible while I wrote the rest of the book's text. Eventually, though, the writing of those pages could no longer be ignored. But, hey. There were dozens of animals in the book. Surely I could think of 20 activities that kinda-sorta had something to do with featured animals, or find some on the internet I could adapt to my purposes.

The first one I thought up was for kids to balance a ball atop their feet, similar to the way penguin parents keep an egg up off the ice. Was that even physically possible for little kids? It's been awhile (a long while) since my own kids were in the target age group (4-6 year olds). I needed help. I needed beta testers.

I immediately though of Jacob and Joshua, sons of my Iowa author friend, Becky (I'd be happy to send you details about Becky's fabulous books if you want to e-mail me privately, but I'm not including her last name here in order to protect the boys' privacy on the sometimes creepy internet).

The boys were up for it, so I flooded Becky's e-mail inbox with activities as I wrote them. Jacob and Joshua gamely tried SO many. The ball balancing didn't make the cut, but here they are (along with their sister, Anna), testing the milk carton boats they made....

For months, their mom kept a secret. A couple of weekends ago, I saw the family at a book festival and was finally able to hand Jacob and Joshua copies of "our book" and watch their reactions when they saw their names on the dedication page. Jacob turned to hide a smile. Joshua clasped the book to his chest and jumped in stompy circles.

Could anything be better than that? Well, maybe. Toss in a little serendipity....

The pandas on the cover are adorable. But since there were no pandas inside (long story), I was feeling a little "meh" about it. Until Becky saw the book and instantly went melty over the cover. See, her entire family traveled to China in 2010 to adopt Joshua. In her own words:  "Before we met Joshua, we were able to send him one package [orig e-mail included photos]. Do you see the stuffed panda? It was one of our first gifts to Joshua. He slept with it, and carried it all the way home to Iowa. His brother Jacob loved the panda so much, he picked one of his own to be his special souvenir. When our family first saw the two pandas on the cover of Angry Birds Playground, we all had the same thought. 'Look, it's Jacob and Joshua!' My mother even commented on the pandas when she first saw the book. Pandas remind us of Joshua's birth country, and both Jacob and Joshua love them."

Suddenly, two little pandas were exactly right.

Remember to enter our giveaway to win an autographed copy of Angry Birds Playground:  Animals. For contest details, see Monday's post. The deadline is 11pm (CST) tomorrow (Thursday), and the winner will be announced Friday.

Jill Esbaum

Monday, November 12, 2012

Close Encounters of the Angry Bird Kind

A few years ago, I fell into one of those "right time, right place" opportunities – a picture book manuscript my agent submitted to National Geographic Kids miraculously brought an offer to author a series of softcover nonfiction books for 4-6 year olds. I had great fun writing five Picture the Seasons books before the series was discontinued.

Luckily, my editor thought of me again this past April, asking if I'd be interested in a project that required a steep learning curve and called for somebody who a) was comfortable writing both fiction and nonfiction, b) could devote a month or two to this project (during which there'd likely be no time for a personal life), and c) could write quickly.

I replied, "Sure, I can do that!"

(Note:  "Sure, I can do that!" is my standard answer to most any editorial request. Whether or not I'm actually confident that I'm able to do what they're asking is irrelevant. A willing attitude and an internet connection make it possible to teach yourself just about anything, right?)

A week later I learned project details. The book would be a *takes a deep breath* 128-page hardcover fiction/nonfiction mashup featuring the Angry Birds on an around-the-world adventure, during which they'd meet and learn about dozens of real animals as they searched five distinct habitats for their eggs, which their pig enemies had stolen, with back matter the likes of which I'd never tackled before. I'd be choosing the habitat locations and about 40 animals, writing nonfiction info about each, funny dialogue for the Angry Birds - each with their own personalities, chapter intros, and the general storyline launching the birds on their adventure, recapping their trip at the end, then wrapping up their story.

I was in over my head, and I knew it. Sheesh, just reading the above paragraph again now makes my heart rate rise. This was a massive project, and I had no idea where on earth (literally) to begin.

But then I remembered the anecdote Anne Lamott tells of her childhood, the one in which her father gave writing advice to her brother, who was struggling to write a school report:  "Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird." Couldn't be much more appropriate in this case!

By one week into the six it took to research and write the book, I was having the time of my life. This book stretched me as a writer, taught me how much work (from so many people!) goes into a project like this, and pushed me into places I hadn't imagined I could go. And what writer wouldn't love knowing the project she's working on in May and June is scheduled for release six months later?! (I waited five years for my last picture book, Tom's Tweet. Totally worth it, but still.)

Which brings me to today. I'm happy to announce that my newest publication, Angry Birds Playground:  Animals (National Geographic) has hit bookstore shelves. I hope you'll take a look. It's targeted to kids 4-6 years old, but fun for older readers, too. The book follows the Angry Birds through the Amazon rainforest, the Mojave desert, across the Pacific Ocean, to the grasslands of Tasmania and Tanzania (thanks to a confused sea turtle, the Birds have to visit both), and both the Arctic and Antarctic (thanks to a confused Angry Bird, who is certain that penguins live in the Arctic). They meet caimans and sloths, lizards and bats, otters and whales, black swans and Tasmanian devils, lions and elephants, seals and penguins. Pandas? Um, no. I'll tell you about that Wednesday.

To win an autographed copy, all you have to do is enter our drawing.

Entry Rules

You may enter the contest one of two ways:  1) by posting a comment below OR 2) by sending an email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com with "Book Giveaway" in the subject line.

Whichever way you enter, you MUST give us your first and last name AND tell us how you follow us. If you enter via a comment, you MUST include a valid email address (formatted this way:  youremail [at] gmail [dot] com) in your comment.

Contest open only to residents of the United States. Incomplete entries will be discarded. Entry deadline is 11 pm (CST) Thursday, November 15, 2012 (yes, this is a short one!). Winners will be announced Friday, November 16, 2012. Good luck!

Jill Esbaum

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Problem of Conflicting Feedback

A big "thank you" to all who entered our latest giveaway. We enjoyed learning about your favorite chocolate treats. :-) The winner of the 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market is:
Sandy Brehl
Sandy blogs at Unpacking the POWER of Picture Books. Congratulations, Sandy! And thanks again to Mary Kole for her guest interview.
And now to wrap-up our current TeachingAuthors' topic: critique groups, and critiquing in general. Last Friday, Jill opened the discussion with some excellent tips for when you're critiquing a manuscript in a group setting. Mary Ann focused on advice for one-on-one critiquing. Jeanne Marie emphasized the importance of looking at first drafts at the "global level," instead of nitpicking them. And both Mary Ann and Jeanne Marie talked about the value of asking a writer: What made you decide to write this particular story?/Why did you choose to write about this topic?  Today I'd like to share a bit about what to do when you receive conflicting feedback.

In the facilitated critique workshops that I teach, we follow the critiquing model I learned at Vermont College. The format is described in this guest post by Lyn Miller-Lachmann. There are two unique aspects to this format that are specifically designed to help keep the writer from getting defensive:

1) The author remains silent while others discuss his or her work. When you think about it, this makes sense. When you submit a manuscript to an editor or agent, you're not there to explain the choices you made. The manuscript must succeed on its own. Also, an author who remains silent is more likely to really hear the feedback because he or she isn't sitting there thinking about how to respond to what's being said. 

2) After a round of sharing positive feedback regarding what's working well, instead of telling an author what's "wrong" with the piece or what needs "fixing," critiquers share questions about the manuscript.  I've found it takes some practice for my students to learn how to express their comments in question form, but here are a few examples:
      “Is the narrator a boy or a girl?”
      “What time of day is it? What season?”
      “What happened to the dog?”
      “How did the narrator feel when that happened?”
      “Why did the mother react so strongly to such a minor accident?”
      “Why didn’t the mother react more strongly?  

I do allow my students to preface their questions with an “I” statement to indicate points in the story where they were confused or found something unclear. For example:
      I was confused here. I thought the narrator was a boy. Is the narrator a boy or a girl?
      I couldn’t picture this scene. Is the main character sitting or standing here?
      I didn’t understand exactly what this sentence means. Could you clarify?

However, not all questions are appropriate. I discourage critiquers from trying to tell the author how to "fix" the story via their questions. As critiquers, we may not see or understand the author's goals. Therefore, I believe questions like "Why don't you get rid of the mother character?" aren't as helpful as "What purpose does the mother character serve?" The first question puts the author on the defensive. The second question leads the author to think more deeply about the story. It may be that the mother is important, but the author hasn't shown why clearly enough yet.

When I facilitate critique workshops, I remind students that all feedback is subjective, including mine. Just because I'm the "teacher," that doesn't necessarily mean my comments are "better" or more valuable than anyone else's. I also encourage students to share their opinions even if they disagree with me and/or with their fellow students--it's important for a writer to know different readers may react differently to the manuscript.

So, when you're the author, how should you handle contradictory feedback? My advice is to latch on to the feedback that feels "right" or "true" first. For example, let's say that while drafting your piece you wonder if a section of dialogue sounds too mature for the character's age, but you leave it as is. Then, when you bring the piece to critique group someone asks: "How old is this character? I think his dialogue sounds old for a 9-year-old." Even if another critiquer responds, "I disagree. His dialogue sounds just right to me," I'd go back and revise the dialogue.

On the other hand, if you're not sure which feedback feels "right," you can go one of several ways. You may decide to go with "majority rules"--what do most critiquers agree on?  OR, if there's someone in the group whose opinion you particularly respect or tend to agree with, then you might go with that one individual's response, even it it's the minority opinion. In the above example, if the person saying the dialogue sounds "just right" is a third-grade teacher who works with 9-year-olds on a daily basis, I wouldn't revise. OR, you may decide that the contradictory feedback is a symptom of a deeper problem that requires you to go back and revise something earlier in the story. Perhaps your character is precocious, and mature dialogue is part of his personality. In that case, you may want to go back and check whether his dialogue has been mature for his age from the very beginning. If his precociousness is important to the story, you might want to include other signs of it, besides his dialogue.   

Keep in mind that the more critiquers you have, the more likely you are to get contradictory feedback. Sometimes, that's a good thing, but not always. I've seen writers revise over and over again thinking they will eventually satisfy all their critiquers. The problem is: You can't please all your readers all the time.  If you don't believe me, go to Goodreads and look at the reviews for The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Alongside this bestseller's many 4- and 5-star ratings, you'll see reviews with only 1-3 stars.

As I said earlier, reading is subjective. While critique feedback can be invaluable, in the end it's your story, and yours alone.

Happy writing, and Happy Poetry Friday! Today's Poetry Friday round-up is at hosted by Ed DeCaria at ThinkKidThink.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Global Critiquing

I have used this space many times to lament the fact that I am a writer on an island -- critique group-less, feedback-less, buddy-less.  But as I'm sure most of us know, one thing worse than having no input is having input that sends us astray.

We've all been there, right? We've seen critique groups whose members are too intense, too lax, too hoggish; they are too vague; they are too nitpicky; they don't "get" your stuff, or you don't get theirs.  They have more time to devote to their writing than you do, or perhaps they have less.  They live too far away; they meet too frequently or infrequently.

Even worse is the damning critique experience: the editor at a conference who treats you like a clueless newbie; the teacher who gives you a bad grade for trying something a little different.  My friend, an actress, says at least when someone is critiquing your writing, he or she is not critiquing YOU.  But still, when we write, we are exposing our souls to the world.  And our writer psyches must be treated with care.  (The cardinal rule of critiquing -- always start and end with something specific and positive to say!)

With my community college students, I introduce a vocabulary word in each class.  The first word we discuss is "subjective."  I want them to understand that as a teacher, the worst thing I could ever do would be to crush their creativity or confidence.  In a required class, many students do not come to learn, and they do not care to revise.  For those who do, individual feedback is the most important component of our coursework.  But students must learn that I am not the final authority; they have to be the chief arbiters of what is right for their work and what is not. 

When it comes to peer review, some student writers are terrific critiquers.  On the other hand, some do not take the job seriously.  Some are just dead wrong.  As a teacher, I may often myself be dead wrong.  Thus I try to approach first draft revision on a mostly global level.  I find myself constantly asking my students, "Why did you choose to write about this topic?"  The answer is often the key to a successful essay.

In TV writing, we are advised to distill our pitch into a one-sentence "log line."  Fiction writers should be able to do the same.  In expository writing, of course, this summary is called the thesis statement. 

My classes are currently working on research essays and developing working theses for an essay that is supposed to propose a solution to a societal problem.  One of my students, a Navy veteran, read his to the class this week: "Military body armor is responsible for a vast number of injuries to personnel."  I found this quite a startling statement.  In search of more detail and a proposed solution, I probed further. HOW was military body armor inadequate?  My student stated that in fact, it was overly adequate; that many soldiers who would have died in previous wars were surviving attacks with grievous, lifelong injuries.  "So," I asked, "Are you saying it would be better if they died?"  He looked me in the eye and said, "Sometimes."  It was easier to talk about body armor, of course, than it was to talk about traumatic brain injury and PTSD.

I asked him what he proposed as the solution, and he said more drone strikes and less hand-to-hand combat.  In short, his essay was not really about body armor at all.  What he really wanted to say was, "Please send fewer men and women into harm's way."

As writers, we often lose sight of the main thread of our story; as critiquers, we often get hung up on details that should be dealt with later.  A good first draft critique is about distilling a story to its essence -- nothing more, nothing less. --Jeanne Marie

Reminder from Carmela: the deadline to enter for a chance to win a copy of the 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market is 11 pm (CST) TODAY, November 7. See Esther's post for details.

Monday, November 5, 2012

How to Critique and Still Have Friends

     I've been in critique groups over the years, but for various reasons, I'm not in one right now. That doesn't mean I'm not critiquing. I still teach my young adult writing classes and occasionally will critique adult writers for hire.  So I'm taking a slightly different path in this discussion, non-group critiquing.   Here are my suggestions in working with one person at a time (some of them also work in group situations, so I am not really getting off topic).

     Being critiqued can be a traumatic experience. I've had people (professionals who should know better) literally treat my work as if it were bird cage liner.  On the other hand, I've had critiques that said that my work was the best thing since Harry Potter. I suspect the critiquer gave my work a once-over-lightly if they read it at all. And, as my husband says, you don't learn anything by being told how great you are.

     This is not to say that critiques have to be all negative.  They do have to be specific.  Saying "I like your protagonist" is all well and good but really doesn't tell the author anything.  Why do you like that character? Is it their personality, the way they think or talk or their relationship with another character?. Be specific.  It's always good to know that something is good and why

     The same thing works in reverse. Saying "This scene just doesn't work for me" tells me nothing.  Often the author already knows that scene doesn't work.  They are looking to you for suggestions.  My rule of thumb is if I don't have any idea how to fix something, I don't mention it.  Or, if the author backs you in a corner and says "The scene by the old mill stream isn't working, what can I do?" I throw it back in their lap.  Why do they think it isn't working?  Talk about it a little back and forth.  You two will either come up with what is wrong with the scene (or character or whatever) or you will decide the old mill stream scene isn't moving the story along.  One of all time favorite movie scenes comes from Tootsie. Bill Murray is a playwright working on a piece called Return to Love Canal.  Throughout the movie he keeps spitballing ideas with his roommate Dustin Hoffman for one particular scene that comes to be known as "The necktie scene." (By the way, the movie audience never learns what the necktie scene is about.) At last, Bill tells Dustin, "I've solved the problem of the necktie scene.  This time I'm writing it without the necktie."  Great writing advice.  Sometimes if something is giving you that much trouble, it doesn't belong in your story (or play) to begin with.

     Asking someone their opinion of your work is a lot like asking "Does this outfit make me look fat?" I have tried to take as much fear and loathing out of the process as necessary.  At the start of a session I remind the writer that he is already a writer; working together, he will become a better writer.

   I always ask if there is something in particular the writer wants you to look for in their work.  Do they want to know if their characters are believable, the plot plausible, is it overwritten?  I learned to ask because I have a tendency to point out every little inconsistency or flaw when all the writer wants to know at that point is if the main character is likable/interesting enough that you want to read the whole story.

       If your author doesn't have any particular questions, I try to stick to the Big Picture items...inconsistencies, missing transitions, failure in logic, vague characters etc. As I said before, if you don't know how to "fix it," don't bring it up.

     Most importantly, respect your author's vision.  I read a lot of stuff that left me wondering "What were they thinking when they wrote this?" So I ask, "What made you decide to write  this particular story?  Hopefully the answer is not  "because pirates/werewolves/dystopian fantasy is hot right now."  If they really like and want to write about one of those topics, great. Just remind them that by the time their manuscript has wound it's way through the publishing labyrinth, that topic will probably not be quite so surefire.

    What I've often discovered is that the story the author has written (and isn't very good) wasn't the story they meant to write.  Don't get me wrong. I'm not playing Freud here.  I try to approach the subject as gently as possible.  I once asked someone why they had written a picture book about talking organic vegetables.  After a little conversation, it turned out that what the writer wanted to write about was the sense of community after 9/11.  She wanted to write about a community garden and the sense of healing that it gave the gardeners.   I don't know if she ever went back and wrote that book.  I hope she did.

     You know the best thing about critiquing?  It is so much easier to see the flaws in your own work by recognizing them in someone else's.  You are not only helping someone else improve their work, you are helping yourself as well.

    Don't forget to enter our latest book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the 2013 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. Entry deadline is 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, November 7, 2012.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, November 2, 2012

Let's Talk Crit Groups

Writing is a solitary art.

                                          Paul Hoecker, 1888

But if you're writing for submission, fresh eyes are invaluable. Critical readers who aren't as close to (or  as invested in) a work often have an easier time spotting its weaknesses. This is a GOOD thing. But take care; nobody likes to have her work ripped apart. If you're new to critiquing, here are a few tips on giving feedback to other writers.

Let it simmer. Read a manuscript soon after receiving it. Make a few notes, then, if time allows, put it away for a few days. When you give it another look, you'll notice things you missed in the first go-round and have a better understanding of it as a whole.

Take note of:  characterization, setting details, dialogue (realistic?) & dialogue beats, sensory images, consistent point of view, voice, showing vs. telling, overall story arc, openings & endings.

Give as good as you get. Spend the same time and energy on others' manuscripts as you expect them to give yours.

The Critique Sandwich. Always begin and end a critique on a positive note. It's awfully easy, after a period of time together, for group members to jump right to the "this isn't working" part of the process. That's a dangerous practice. Members feel ganged up on, resentments build, and your ship's sunk before anybody has even sighted the iceberg.

Avoid putting a writer on the defensive. Never begin a crit with anything like "You shouldn't have..." or "You didn't..." or "Why didn't you..." Not everybody's skin is rhino tough, and those phrases feel like personal attacks. Instead, talk about the piece itself, using non-threatening language like:

          "I wondered why the main character chose to_______"
          "I wasn't sure of__________"
          "A reader might need a bit more___________"

When in doubt, channel Aretha:  R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

May all of your critiques leave you feeling challenged and inspired, and have you dancing off to revisionland.

                                                           Antoine Pesne, 1745

Or at least put a little spring in your step.

Jill Esbaum

Remember to enter our book giveaway to win a copy of the 2013 Children's Writers & Illustrator's Market (Writer's Digest)!