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Crit Cred

Is it just me or should those who perform critiques be required to follow a code of ethics? (btw I did say I was heads down all this week to work on my book but I just had to get this in). Let me explain: whether you are a beta reader, a critique group member, a critique partner or an agent at a conference, agreeing to perform a critique should require a few standards. Specifically, what types of things NOT to do. I’ve had my work critiqued a few times so I know what my responsibility is as a writer: don’t take things personally, learn from the comments, make needed adjustments and incorporate only what is really useful. But what about the one who is giving the critique? It goes beyond just being constructive and pointing out both the good and  the bad, it also requires and I emphasize, requires, some credibility standards. This is especially true if the person performing the critique is getting paid to do so, as in the case of agents at a conference (yes they get paid because the author has to pay for the critique as part of the conference).  If you have hired someone to critique your work, as in an editor, it is within your rights to demand a credible critique. Just because someone has the credentials to critique does not mean they are necessarily credible. Personally, if I am shelling out some dough for you to comment on my work, I want the most for my money. The following are two inexcusable practices I’ve seen done that really should not happen in a quality critique.

Premature questions – I know you have all seen this in your manuscripts: the person uses track changes and before reading the entire 10-20 pages (or whatever the number) they stop prematurely and add a comment about something they usually find the answer to later on in the read.  If you are performing a critique and you ask a premature question, have the courtesy to go back after you’ve found the answer and remove the comment.

Skimming – This should be a cardinal sin for anyone who performs a critique. We writers can tell when you have only skimmed the material. How? Because you end up asking questions again, this time because you skimmed the part that would have answered that question. This is especially insensitive and down right sinful if you are an agent getting paid to read for a conference. I’m not saying all agents do this, but many do, so I say to them, either agree to read fewer pages so that you can commit to doing a good job, or don’t do any critiques. It is not our fault that you did not have time to read the entire submission – most agents get these manuscripts well in advance of the conference. If you want us to be professional when we submit, be professional when you critique.

So now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, I must say that some critiques I’ve had were great; very well done. But for those of you who are skimmers and premature-question-askers, p-l-e-a-s-e cease and desist!


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Lessons from SWA

Just left the Southeastern Writers Conference on St. Simon’s Island. As is the custom at such events, there was the usual advice: don’t think you are going to get rich writing, and write what you love, blah, blah, blah. But what I really want to share is the important stuff that came out of this one.

First, children’s book author Lola Shaefer shared her 25 questions to ask your characters. This helped us to really think about who they are through a personal interview. Those questions were things like what is the character’s favorite color, does she have siblings, what does he fear, etc. It really helped me think critically about who I am writing about.

Then suspense author Michael Wallace told us 9 ways to fix a scene that is not working, first ask:

1. Does the character have a goal for that scene?
2. Is the main or sub character passive?
3. Can someone who is passive pick up more of the load?
4. Is there strong enough opposition to the goal?
5. Make a character act on faulty information (dramatic irony). Reader knows something character does not.
6. Raise the stakes in the scene. Protagonist faces an obstacle that prevents her from getting closer to the goal.
7. Try to mix up your characters who may not get along with each other.
8. Add a ticking clock; a deadline for accomplishing the task.
9. Things get worse but not because of a No answer. In other words, instead of the attempt failing, let it work but let the result be different than the character expected.

Finally, historical fiction author David L. Robbins showed us the 5 levels of POV, which was extremely helpful in turning a ho-hum sentence into one that delivers. He uses the example sentence written with 5 different approaches:

1. Action – John ran across the street.
2. Internal – John could not wait to get across the street.
3. Intent – John hurried across the street.
4. Voice – John scooted across the street. (as is typical for his personality)
5. Thought – John thinks, ‘I’ve got to get across this darn street.’

The higher the number, the deeper the POV. With each level you are moving from what the camera sees (Level 1), to things only the protagonist knows, thinks, or remembers (Levels 3-5). He suggests you number your own work to see where your sentences fall among the levels.

Robbins also emphasized the need to not just ‘kill your darlings’ but to never give them life in the first place. Essentially, he advised that we keep the non-cooks out of the kitchen: if they do not play a role in moving the story forward, they should not be there taking up space.

The conference goes on for a few more days, but my husband and I had to get back. Even though I only got one day in, it was worth the trip. I intend to start applying all the tips I received as soon as we start the ride home.

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Copywrite Love

I know, I know. Copyright is misspelled. But that is intentional because today we are going to discuss your right to copy certain aspects of other people’s writing. You heard right. I don’t mean plagiarizing; rather, duplicating similar things. For instance, titles. Say you came up with an awesome title for your book and discover someone is using it. Titles do not fall under copyright law. Besides, no matter how hard you look it is inevitable that someone else has used or will use that same title. All you can do is hope yours does not get confused with theirs. If it is a different genre you will be in better shape since the book’s focus is not the same. This was not so big an issue pre-Internet when the likelihood of someone finding both books next to each other on a bookshelf was rare since books were shelved by author. But now, as with sites like amazon, the book titles can be searched in alphabetical order and your book will show up right next to ‘that other book.’ That is why I make a practice of typing my planned title in Google and seeing what pops up. Then I go to amazon and B&N to do the same thing. Then I go to Books In Print. After all that, if I don’t find my title I’m good.

But there will be times when your title is not only very similar but the contents are as well. As in the case of my new book on cooking, The Real Book on How to Cook. There are a few other books out there with ‘how to cook’ in the title but that does not bother me since my book title is not exactly like the others, and it’s a known fact that cookbooks by nature are all basically the same, so there are bound to be similarities. My book does not contain recipes, while most others with my title do. My book is a primer for brand new cooks and most do not focus on the newbie. My book also provides illustrations of the tools you need to cook while most of these books illustrate the final result. Some also illustrate techniques. My book provides tips my mother passed down to me, along with advice from cooks I interviewed. That is not in any other book but mine. No matter, in a genre like cooking it is almost impossible to provide anything earth shattering-ly (is that a word?) new.

Another area that you can ‘copy’ is quotes. Free quotes are floating around everywhere and there is a large chance if you use one it will be found in another work. That also goes for ‘sayings’ that just about everyone has copied (otherwise why would they be called sayings?). I have even used phrases from old, somewhat obscure movies in my work and did not worry about copyright. For example, if one of your characters says,  ‘may the force be with you.’ that is OK. It is not under copyright. Actually by now it’s also considered a saying. But really, you should  avoid being corny or using too much slang or well-known expressions because you are supposed to be creating your own style. Even so, such things are not outlawed.

The things you need to be careful of are song lyrics, quotes from news services, as well as outright lifting material from other works. All this is copyrighted material.

The best rule of thumb is to do your homework, be careful, then just pour out your passion and don’t worry what others are doing. After all, there is room for us all.

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Caveats and things…

Ok I am about to say something I NEVER thought I would say: I am done self-self-publishing.

No, that is not a typo. I did not say I was done self-publishing, I said I was done self-self-publishing. Let me explain the difference.

When I first self-published in 2008, I wanted to learn everything from soup to nuts about the process, so I decided to forego using services such as Lulu and Authorhouse. They were offering to do all the legwork…for a fee of course. I figured, ‘why give them the money when I can probably do this myself?’ And I was right. After a few missteps I did save a lot of money and learned how to do it all myself.

Well it’s 2013 and I just finished self-self-publishing my last book. I saved even more money this year than I did in 2008, but I’ve also learned a few things I would like to share with you.

Just because I can does not mean I should – This is especially true for my first book, which I edited myself. What a nightmare! Not just proofing and the like, but research, fact-checking, permissions gathering. It is all necessary, in fact, crucial to the success of your book. You need an editor and maybe even a researcher because guess what? All this is time consuming. Problem is I must continue do some of these whether I self-publish or not. RATS.

Self-self-publishing also means finding and working with your own cover designer and book layout ‘person’ (there has to be a better name for these people.) Not only do you have to get contracts signed, negotiate pricing, and provide them with the bar code, the back cover copy, the images (if you have particular ones you want used) and, most importantly — the vision — you must stay on top of every little thing in case they miss it (see the blog post Are You Inviting Me In?). This too takes time.

Cheaper is not necessarily better – Don’t get me wrong I love to self-publish, but there comes a time in every SPA’s life (self-published author in case you don’t know) when we have to come to terms with the non-monetary costs. I spend more time away from my husband when I’m working on all of the above. I hate spending time away from my husband, OK? The time I spend doing all this work I could be WRITING…right? And handing this over to someone else would certainly make life easier and more enjoyable.

So yes, I am going to continue to self-publish but I’m going to be smarter about it. First, I am only going to self-publish ebooks (duh, what a concept, huh?) so that all I have to do is write it and format it for epub; that I can do pretty easily, quickly and for FREE. I can create my own ebook covers in Photoshop, again, for FREE. Second, if I want to put out a paperback again I am going to get a publisher. Until then, the only cost I will continue to incur is for my editor —  who I absolutely cannot do without — and the occasional illustrator.  So, my caveat to ‘I’m not going to self-publish anymore’ is taking my extra ‘self’ out of the process.

Whew! Ok rant over. I feel better already. 🙂

BTW my paperback cookbook is The Real Book on How to Cook. Coming to amazon.com real soon.

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Other Side of the Game

Just wanted to share another example of great lyrics and how they tell a story with few words; not even ‘big’ words. It’s just truth. And truth is what you want to convey in your fiction. This is an excerpt from Erykah Badu’s  “Other Side of the Game.”:

“Me and Baby got this situation.

See, Brother’s got this complex occupation.

And it ain’t like he don’t have education.

‘Cause I was right there at his graduation.

Now I ain’t saying that this life don’t work.

But it’s me and baby that he hurts.

Because I tell him right he thinks I’m wrong,

But I love him strong…”


Just from reading that you can immediately figure out what this guy does for a living, what their relationship issues are, and how he treats her. Just from those 8 sentences. Love it. Try writing your scenes in sentences like this and then proceed to actually write the paragraph. You can say so much with so little. It’s a great way to practice.


Character Flaws

Have you ever met a person who seems almost perfect? I mean, not perfect, but they just didn’t seem to have any flaws in your eyes? Maybe it was the first time you discovered ‘boys’ (or girls) and that kid was just dreamy! Great hair. A beautiful smile. Eyes in the right place. There was nothing wrong with them. Now, let’s say it was someone of the same sex (as in a friend). You had freckles and he didn’t. Or you had crazy hair and hers was long and silky. You wished you had those characteristics and you may have even tried to emulate them, fussing in the mirror for hours.

Well, if you are a writer, you can do that right now by creating characters with qualities and  physical attributes you’ve always wanted. But what’s even cooler is you can also give your characters flaws and then make them disliked or mistreated in your books! That might be kind of a harsh way to get back at that girl or boy you envied, but if that’s what it takes to make your characters real, I say GO FOR IT!

Our protagonists can’t be all goody-two-shoes or else they’d be boring. They must have some kind of inadequacies, quirks, idiosyncrasies or whatever you want to call them. I don’t know about you but no one I know is without sin. So, make the most of your writing by making your characters lifelike.

One way I do this is to think of a person in my past; someone I knew pretty well, and turn that person into a character. If I do this I instantly know how that character is going to act or react to just about anything I put in his way.

I also do a sort of character development process. Some interview their characters, others write out long descriptions of likes and dislikes, but I just think about certain situations I want to put them in and then write down how they’d respond.

For instance, I wrote a character who was really a guy I worked with in TV. He was smart-alecky, eccentric and really neat (as in neat). He was just what my book needed and the perfect foil for my protagonist, who thought she knew everything.

When you sit down to ‘get to know’ your characters, think about the process of making a new friend: first you get their name, then you start talking. They tell you where they live, what kind of work they do, then you start discussing stuff like restaurants, waiters, nail technicians…and that is where the personality differences emerge.

Do that with your characters and you’ll find out just what they’re really like. I bet you’ll turn out much better characters that readers will just love (or love to hate).


Cool-Phrase Envy

Ok, I admit it. I am a victim of envy. Cool-phrase envy to be exact. You know it. Your eyes are taking their leisurely stroll down Sentence Street, not really paying attention, then BAM! You’re smack up against a cool phrase. After regaining their composure, your eyes run back over it ’cause it was way too cool to read just once. What’s crazy is most times it’s so simple…and that makes it killer. One of those ‘you-would-have-said-if-you-could-have said’ phrases, but likely not as well as they said it.

Alas, I’m gonna get over this personal problem and get my envy under control. I’m already enrolled in a 3-step program that helps writer’s like me. It recommends I take these actions:

1. Love your envy – Give accolades to the writer (then take notes if they offer tips).

2. Replace your envy – Spend 15 minutes a day rewriting a cool phrase to describe it another way.

3. Share your envy – Your critique group would benefit from finding a new way to say something.

It may take some effort, but with the proper application I should recover in time to apply what I’ve learned to my next book.

Hmmm…maybe then I can cause some cool-phrase envy of my own.