I recently found myself in a writing rut. A hectic home life, a stressful and stressed-out world, and somehow writing became both trivial and inaccessible. I could not connect with my creativity, and it felt self-indulgent even to try.
Over dinner, a wise friend suggested a poetry challenge. Write a poem a day for thirty days, to clean out the spiders of doubt and despair, and to get my creativity flowing again.
Huh, I thought. Poetry.
I’ve written poetry off and on since college. I’ve never let anyone read it, not even my wife. But this wouldn’t need to be shared. This was about healing, not productivity or entertainment. And April, being National Poetry Month, certainly seemed an appropriate time for it.
I quietly decided to give it a try. The only rules I set were that each day I had to write a poem at some point before midnight, and that I was not allowed to read it after I closed the document.
I wasn’t sure how it would go, and so for the first week, I didn’t tell anyone that I was doing it. As the days stacked up, though, I became more confident. And then I began to have fun. Poems allow for such freedom to play with language and with white space. Amazing things came up. I would open the blank document expecting to write about one thing, and almost immediately, something entirely different came to my fingers. That’s what I’m worrying about? Who knew?
Some days were harder, particularly as I happened to choose the month we were moving back into our not-quite-fully renovated house. So, sometimes the poems were really short. On the day we moved, I wrote a haiku. Other days I wrote longer and more nuanced pieces. The topics varied. Some were intense, others light. The key was that I didn’t judge myself for what I wrote—for how good it was, or how many words I got down. I allowed myself to experiment and to explore my thoughts.
I started this in late March, so my thirty days are up today. It’s been both fun and illuminating. I’ve gotten back into the groove of daily writing, which feels wonderful. I have a moment each day of reflection and creativity, which I don’t believe I will be able to relinquish. My creativity has been primed, and I have a few new ideas for stories and writing projects. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve found a way to remember that writing is, for me, healing. I know that writing is a business, but that’s not all it is. It is a sacred practice, a way to connect with myself. And if I allow it to, it can save me.
For those looking for more ideas about writing and reading poetry, Laura Shovan, the wise friend who started me on this journey, has a wealth of information on her blog, including, this month, an amazing lineup of interviews with verse novelists. And if anyone is inspired to try a month of poetry, here are some prompts to help you get started.
But finding critique partners is only half the battle. If you want to have an ongoing, productive critique relationship – and write your best novel! – you also need to know how to be a good critique partner.
So, now that you’re exchanging on the reg, how can you make sure that you and your new critique partner can go the distance?
Unfortunately, sometimes even the best critique partnerships fade. Changing genres, differing schedules and mismatched priorities can all derail you and your CPs.
But you can help ensure a lasting and nurturing CP relationship by using some of these techniques for giving (and receiving!) good critique:
Use the compliment sandwich. Nobody likes to hear a litany of their mistakes. It’s demoralizing, and it doesn’t make you want to ever let that critical eye near your work again. The critique sandwich is a great way to soften the bad news and help valid criticism land. The formula: Compliment->needs improvement->compliment.
EXAMPLE: I love the way you describe this scene using so many sensory details. I really felt like I was there! Can you use some of those details to heighten the emotions of the characters? The dialogue felt flat compared to the lush scene-setting. It’s so, so close!
Ask questions. Questions are a great, neutral way to draw out anything you want to see more of or challenge a writer to new heights. Ask questions about anything that’s not clear, sure, but also consider asking questions when you think there might be more to a moment than is currently on the page.
EXAMPLE: For a scene where a couple is having an argument at a diner: How does he react to what she is saying? Is he mad? Sad? Surprised? What is happening around them during this fight? Do people notice? Or are they trying to keep their voices down? Are they having any physical reactions to the argument?
Point out what they’re doing right. If you notice you’ve gone several pages without commenting, it may be time to pause to tell the author why you’re not. A simple “Amazing tension here” or “Heartbreaking, raw and real!” lets them know when they’ve knocked it out of the park. And sometimes that information is as helpful as knowing where you’re going wrong.
Brainstorm, but not prescriptively. It’s inevitable you’re going to have some great ideas about your CP’s story, and you’re going to want to share them. Try to avoid using language like “You should…” or “I would…” Instead of pushing them to embrace your ideas (which may not take the story in the direction they want to go), say, “What if…” Make it clear the idea is theirs to run with, not you imposing your own ideas/aesthetic on their story.
Avoid vague, unactionable comments, such as “not sellable” or “too quiet”. Instead aim for more empowering statements, like, “How can you make this scene pop more?” “I wonder if there’s more energy you can inject into this opening.” Or “What do you think could make this story really jump off the shelves?”
Know your CP’s goals. Some writers really just want to write for themselves and don’t care about getting published. Others are determined to get an agent who brokers a major deal. And still others would be satisfied with something in between. Sometimes, a writer has been working on a story too long and just doesn’t have the energy or the passion to do what needs to be done to take it from good to great – and that’s totally valid! Critique to motivate them to higher heights, but not against their own goals.
Receive critiques with grace. When it’s your turn to have your work critiqued, try to take your ego out of the equation. When you work so hard on something, it can be wrenching to hear that someone doesn’t understand or appreciate it as much as you do. But if you can put your ego in the backseat and view the critique with gratitude, you’ll have what you need to make your story the best it can be. And if it really is a bad critique…let it go and move on. Just because you didn’t reach one person, doesn’t mean you won’t reach many others. (Caveat: If multiple people are pointing out the same problem, take that seriously. You probably need to do some work on that.)
Critiquing – especially with new partners – can be nerve-wracking. But if you approach it with a service mindset, reminding yourself that you are there to help another author achieve his or her goals, then that will lead to kinder, more effective critiques…and hopefully, long-lasting and productive critiquing relationships!
I’m revising manuscript number five of my not-yet-illustrious writing career. The story is complete, has been read one critique partner and revised, and is ready to go to beta readers. This story has heists, fight scenes and even kissing (new for me since my prior stories were middle grade), and I’m very excited about it. I dream of agents begging me for this manuscript…if they get past the first five pages.
The story’s good, but the start…meh.
With past manuscripts, I’ve polished my first pages. Changed my start from the bus on the way to summer camp (which apparently rates as low as waking up in bed for interest level), to something more active. But I wasn’t looking for small improvements here. I’d really like manuscript five to be “the one,” so I pulled out all the stops on rethinking my first pages. I don’t want okay first pages. I’d settle for good, but not before trying for great.
Can I get to great?
Not sure. I hope so. (The gremlins are whispering probably not even as I write this). But I thought I’d share what I learned by trying.
What had me worried about my opening pages? Critique partners said they were “really close” but not quite there. I tried:
starting just before my main character’s life changed (two different ways),
just after her life changed,
a flash forward to near the climax for the “How did I get here?” effect,
a flashback to the incident that set the chain of events in motion,
the first confrontation with the bully, and
the first confrontation with the other main character/love interest.
I was pretty desperate for a set of first pages that would draw cries of “YES! THIS!” from critique partners and propel the reader into the manuscript. But kept getting the same very kind, sympathetic response. “Really close.”
What did I do wrong? In retrospect, it’s easy to see that some of my starts were destined to fail.
“No action,” said the critique partners.
“Scene 1 is too disconnected to scene 2.”
“What does this scene have to do with the story you pitched in your query?”
I felt in my gut that there was a set of great first pages for this story out there somewhere. There was this one scene, the scene the 2nd or 3rd in the manuscript depending on which first chapter option I was trying at the time, that worked. Critique partners said, “Things really started happening here.” I knew if I could just introduce the main character enough to set up this scene, that I could pull the reader in. But what words would do that, without getting my query slotted into the form reject pile before an agent ever got to that great scene?
I complained to the Pennies, because that’s why you have a writing group, so someone can pat you on the shoulder when you need it, and I found out something interesting. Julie Artz, whose lovely, heartfelt middle grade story I’d read months before, said she’d been through five versions of her first chapter. In fact, each of the first four chapters of her story had at one point been her first chapter. What? I felt like slightly less of a loser for sweating version after version of my first pages after that. Tara Lundmark, who I met at WriteOnCon when looking for more feedback on my pages, said she’d written ten different first pages for one of her stories. Armed with this knowledge, I dropped the angst and decided to just give in to as many rewrites as it took to get it right.
At this point, I’ve written 8 different versions of the start of my story, as well as polishing several versions, including the one currently titled “Chapter 1” in Scrivener. This is what I learned through the process of trying to make the start of my story un-put-downable.
1. Don’t Fall in Love with One Set of First Pages.
I was stuck on Version 1 of my first pages for hours even after being told by trusted CP’s they weren’t right. I was stuck on Verion 2 for weeks. I loved the setting and how those pages developed my character. Allowing myself to get stuck on that idea blocked other ideas for how to start the story from flowing. Once I decided to not settle for meh, the ideas flooded in, as demonstrated by the fact that I ended up with 8 different starts. And, really, what’s the harm of trying something different? I wasn’t going to delete those words I loved, just tuck them out of the way. I could always go back to them if my new start wasn’t better.
2. Look to Master Books for Ideas.
Okay, admit it, you laughed at that flashback start. Everyone knows not to start with flashbacks. Except when they work. I was pulling ideas from master books. Both Harry Potter and Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo start years earlier in their main characters’ lives. The idea for trying a flash forward came from Twilight and Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. Flashbacks and flash forwards can be done well, just not by me, at least not for this manuscript. But turning to master texts for ideas is great prep for brainstorming the start of your story.
3. Get Fresh Eyes.
I am blessed with wonderful critique partners who love me even when my words aren’t working. My closest critique partners had been hacking at this story idea with me from the idea stage, seven months before I hit my first pages wall. So when I got stuck, I wasn’t the only one too close to the story to see the pages clearly, they were too. That was stressful! Who do you turn to when that happens?
I found a couple great options: Adventures in YA Publishing holds a monthly first five pages workshop that is fabulous. (We also host our 4 on 400 contest monthly, but I can’t sub to that one!) WriteOnCon hosts an online writing conference with forums for posting your work and exchanging critiques with other writers. If all else fails, you can find a new critique partner. Someone I met on the WriteOnCon Forums asked if I wanted to exchange chapters, and since we’d already critiqued each others’ first five page and her comments were helpful, it was an easy decision. Just what I needed! A new reader who knew nothing about my story and had no worries about disappointing me.
4. Remember that Your First Pages Aren’t Your Only Pages.
I was jealous of Gita Trelease’s gorgeous first pages. They’d been right from soooo early in her revision process. Then, I was reminded that she was sweating her climax. The grass may look greener over by your critique partner’s writing desk, but there are weeds in everyone’s lawn.
Also, eventually you need to let those first pages rest so you can fix up the all the other pages in your manuscript. Don’t worry, they’ll still be there for you to take another look at later.
So, after writing 8 versions of my first pages, workshopping at Adventures in YA Publishing and WriteOnCon, and polishing the final pick, are my first pages unputdownable? Sigh. No. But they’re pretty good. Good enough that I’m going to take my own advice and move onto revising the rest of the story.
Maybe version 9 of my first pages will come to me while I revise.
Or maybe I’ll figure out how to polish this version until it’s unputdownable.
DON’T STOP HERE! If you made it through this post, I bet you’re a writer. And if you’re a writer, you’ve written some first pages and have something to say on this topic. HOW MANY VERSIONS OF FIRST PAGES DID YOU WRITE FOR YOUR WORK IN PROGRESS? WHAT HELPED YOU FIND THE RIGHT START FOR YOUR STORY? I’m no expert! Let’s learn together. Leave comments below!
REBECCA J. ALLEN writes middle grade stories that blend mystery and adventure and young adult thrillers with heroines much braver than she is. She’s on Twitter and her website is here.
LAUREL DECHER writes stories about all things Italian, vegetable, or musical. Beloved pets of the past include “Stretchy the Leech” and a guinea pig that unexpectedly produced twins. She’s famous for getting lost, but carries maps because people always ask her for directions. You can read THE WOUNDED BOOK, her adventure story for young readers on Wattpad. Or find her on Twitter and on her blog, This Is An Overseas Post, where she writes about life with her family in Germany. She’s still a Vermonter and an epidemiologist at heart. PSA: Eat more kale! 🙂 Her short fiction for adults, UNFORESEEN TIMES, originally appeared in Windhover.
Welcome back to my series Basic Marketing for Authors. In the last blog post of this series, Creating Your Brand, I mentioned there are many uses for your brand including social media, promotion material, and websites.
Today we are focusing on websites. A scary, but necessary part of your platform and career-long marketing. (Who am I kidding? It’s all scary!) Okay, you have your brand. How do you use that to create a website?
Step one: take a deep breath.
Step two: Buy a domain.
What is a domain? It is an easy to remember name that hides the technical IP address for web pages, and the easiest way for people to find you is by using your name. For example: halligomez.com. I am fortunate to have a unique name that was available (that’s the first time I’ve ever said that!) If your name is unavailable, try a similar variation such as gkbyrnebooks.com.
Step three: Decide on which company will host your site.
What is hosting? It is the business of housing, serving, and maintaining files for websites. You rent space on a host computer which assigns an address for files to your domain so anyone can find your website on the Internet.
There are many choices and most have similar features, so it may require a little research to find which products and services best suit you. Keep in mind some products are free and some cost money.
Step four: Choose a template and theme.
What are templates and themes? A template is the layout of your website, or where you put pictures and words (think of it as walls and furniture in a house). A theme is the design of your template/website, the specific colors, pictures, fonts, and words you choose (or paint and decorations).
Before choosing the template and theme, you must decide what your website will be used for. Marketing your books with cover reveals? A calendar of events? Blogging? All three?
All templates and themes have customization options, some offer basic changes while others allow you to be more creative. There are many companies, each offering a dizzying number of templates, so take your time and find the one right for you.
Step five: You have your template and theme, you’ve incorporated your brand, now you have to decide what to put on your website. This is a list for published and unpublished authors, although not everything will apply to both.
Your bio including a professional headshot (Ugh! Painful.)
Links to your social media profiles
A contact form for readers to subscribe to your website and for you to collect emails to send notifications of those very important announcements like your publication date(s).
Book cover images and brief descriptions of your book(s)
Reviews of your book(s)
Links to major online retailers selling your book(s)
Contact information for agent or publicist
Obviously you want your website to be a place for readers to find your books, but until you have some to offer, or before your next one is published, what can you do to engage readers? A few suggestions are promotions, giveaways, writing tips, daily/weekly/monthly inspirational quotes, games, and blog posts.
Which brings us to the question I hear the most when writers are creating a website: to blog or not to blog?
The answer has been consistent throughout the industry. If you are going to blog, you need a new post at least once a month. Once a week is even better, but a lot of writers have other jobs, families, and necessary activities such as breathing and showering (not necessarily in that order). Keeping up with a weekly blog is difficult.
No matter what format you chose for your website, it is important to remember who your audience is and will be. Before you have published books, your audience may be other writers and agents (I’ve heard some agents look for your online presence, including a website, and others do not.) When you have book(s) published, your audience will include readers, parents, teachers, and librarians.
I love to check out writer websites! Please comment and provide a link to yours.
HALLI GOMEZ teaches martial arts and writes for children and young adults because those voices flow through her brain. She enjoys family, outdoors, reading, and is addicted to superhero movies. You can find her on Twitter.