On Making Sense of Critiques

Let’s be honest: taking critique can be tough. It’s something every writer needs to learn how to handle, and it only happens with experience.

 

Sometimes I go in to a critique knowing that there’s something—an exchange of dialogue, a transition, rushed action—I need to work on. It’s encouraging when readers agree it’s an issue without my prompting them. I trust myself as a writer more because I’ve identified a valid problem. Simply hearing my readers put the problem into their own words can get me closer to a solution than I would have reached on my own.

 

Other times, I learn that readers aren’t connecting to the part of the work that means the most to me, or that they don’t understand what the piece is trying to be about. That stinks, but when I accept it, it always makes the piece stronger.

 

There are two important things I’ve learned recently:

 

  1. You can recognize the issue a critique presents, without agreeing with the proposed solution.
  2. Sometimes the reader isn’t the right one for your piece.

 

Some of my critiques have given me great ideas for how to remedy issues in my manuscript. Others have clarified where the problems lay and I’ve decided not to use the suggested solutions, because they were not aligned with the larger purpose of the novel.

 

This is not a decision that can be made emotionally or reactively. It’s not about whether or not the critiquer was “right”—it’s about what best serves the novel.

 

I usually still change something, since there was something disengaged the reader. It may be a sign that I need to rethink what I believe the novel is trying to be about.

 

The farther I get into my current novel, the more I understand what it is—not just what I want it to be. In the years I’ve been working on this manuscript, some elements have stayed the same, but become sharper. Others have changed dramatically. The more willing I am to let go and let the thing move on its own, the faster I make progress toward a more cohesive and more engaging novel.

 

As far as point 2, consider that my novel falls into the category of “foodie fiction.” Early on, I had a reader suggest I cut a scene in which the main character is cooking a meal. This reader thought the scene went on too long and wasn’t important for the rest of the story. In fact, it is a pivotal scene in establishing the character, and one I’ve gotten good feedback on from my first round of submissions.

 

Was the scene not right for my novel? No, the novel wasn’t right for that reader. And that’s okay. It wasn’t the kind of thing he’d read before, and he didn’t connect with it. That doesn’t mean much of anything other than that.

 

By learning to make better use of critique, I am gaining confidence in my ability to identify and fix issues in my writing. My novel doesn’t need to be for everyone. It does, however, need to be the best version of itself for its audience.

What Lauren Oliver Learned While Writing a Novel

I am thrilled to have had the opportunity to interview New York Times-bestselling author Lauren Oliver on her experiences as an editor, a writer, and the founder of literary incubator Paper Lantern Lit.

 

In October of last year, I heard Ms. Oliver speak on a panel at the Boston Book Festival. She discussed her writing honestly and humbly, and I left inspired, encouraged, and wanting to know more. I’m excited to share our conversation here, as the newest installment of this publishing-professional-turned-novelist interview series. Grab a pen, because you’re going to want to take notes.

New Author Photo

 

Before you were a published author, you were an editorial assistant at a YA imprint. What did you learn there that fueled or challenged your own path to publication?

Before I worked as an editor, I was writing long and structure-less books tedious in their description and characterizations. Working for a commercial YA imprint actually taught me about story for the first time—about the need for tension and resolution, about the way that the components of narrative work.

 

You still work with authors as one of the founders of Paper Lantern Lit, a literary incubator. How does working with other writers’ work encourage your own writing? 

I just like being immersed in the field. I have a great macro sense of the industry because working at PLL requires it, which helps, I think, to keep my antennae up. And working with creative people inspires creativity. As humans, we’re emulators and sponges: we absorb the attitudes of the people around us.

 

PLL develops ideas and then pairs them with talented writers to craft manuscripts. How does this method relate to the way you write? Do you always have an outline first?

I don’t. I very rarely begin with an outline, although I always do develop some kind of outline to work from or within ultimately. Otherwise I end up reverting to kind of meandering ruminations about the nature of people. Nobody wants to read that.

 

I was fortunate to hear you speak on a panel titled “Fiction with a Twist” at the Boston Book Festival in October 2014. There, you remarked that you’ve gotten tangled up in reactions and sales of your books, and you intend to spend time becoming a better writer. Part of that will entail becoming a student again, enrolling in graduate classes. What in particular are you looking to retrain in yourself, and how?

I just want to get better. I want to get better, and I want to be able to separate what I’m doing from my expectations of its commercial success in order to take more risks and push my boundaries.

 

You said at the festival that you read very broadly. Are there certain genres or titles you intend to study as part of the “retraining” process?

No, although there are books I’ve been meaning to read or re-read—Chris Adrian’s short stories, for example; Love In the Time of Cholera; Wolf Hall—so I’ll tackle those. But I’m always reading so widely and with such voraciousness, it’s not so much a question of my reading habits as it is my writing habits.

 

Do you have a single writing process or a different procedure for each of your audiences (middle-grade, young adult, and adult)? What did you try to figure out what works for you? Are you satisfied with your process, or do you intend to change things as you “retrain” yourself?

My writing process is the same, roughly, in that I always write my way in to the world and the characters before thinking overall about structure. I am trying to get even more granular on a sentence level, to read everything out loud in revisions, to be merciless about what I cut. And I’m trying to get smarter about research and the way I use it.

 

At the festival, you said you always feel you are attempting to do something you’re not quite qualified to do. Do expect that to change? What aspect of writing will always be a challenge, and what do you think you are capable of mastering, or at least improving upon?

I hope it doesn’t change, honestly. I hope I’m always stretching myself and trying to be ambitious when it comes to my work. If you’re not attempting to grow, what’s the point, really? I think that progress probably looks like punctuated equilibrium—I might “master” an element of storytelling for a period of years only to have a completely and revolutionary new feeling or response or reaction subsequently that leads me to become a neophyte again.

 

It was encouraging to hear you say that writing is a calling—you simply have to do it—and that you are looking to restore the joy for yourself in that. In which part of the journey of writing a novel do you find the greatest joy? 

I mean, there is a joy embedded in the daily practice itself. There is joy in getting a sentence right, in getting a character right, in nailing down a detail. The joy and the difficulty are intertwined, I think.

 

I can’t wait to read your next novel, Vanishing Girls, due out March 10, 2015. It will be your tenth full-length book published. What did the experience of writing and publishing the other nine contribute to making this one what it is?

I think it’s obvious from the evolution of my books that over the course of my career I’ve become increasingly interested in things I tended to dismiss at the start, like detailed world-building and the way structure informs story and vice versa. I’ve tried to refine and distinguish the characters’ voices in Vanishing Girls, and that preoccupation is even more evident in my next book.

 

Anything else you’d like to share?

Thanks for having me!

 

Where can readers find you online? (Website, twitter, goodreads, facebook, tumblr, etc.)

All of the above! All of my info is on www.laurenoliverbooks.com, including information that directs you to my social media.

 

Thank you, Lauren!

New Year’s and All That

Here we are, at the dawn of 2015. I must be intimidated by multiples of five, because that number feels so much more dramatic than 2014 did. It sounds like a Year Something Happens. And maybe it will be. Or maybe I need to take the significance of dates less seriously.

My family is young yet, and we are still establishing our traditions. On New Year’s Eve, I brought up the topic of resolutions, and was surprised to find that not only my husband, but also our four-year-old had something in mind. My husband has a plan to get more sleep, which I am totally behind. My son has resolved to play every day, but also to work . . . hard. Our two-year-old was on board for the playing part, but didn’t mention the work. Good goals all around.

My goals are more plentiful and strongly influenced by the nesting impulse of the third trimester of a pregnancy. I intend to complete a revision on my first novel in the next two months, before our next child is due. In September or October, I’d like to run another half marathon. And in November, I want to win NaNoWriMo again, this time with a middle-grade or young adult novel. In the meantime, I’ve compiled a sizable reading list, which prompted a satisfying bookshelf reorganization (see nesting, above). I want to edit my NaNo novel as well, but haven’t set a solid goal for that work.

I would love to see something I’ve written get published this year. But having experienced the process of submission and rejection last year, I am more comfortable with the time it will take to produce writing of real, honest quality. I am getting close; I am on the way. I hope that with more experience, my writing and editing will become more efficient, but I realize that will only happen with practice.

So this year is about continuing the journey I’ve been on for the last four years. Or perhaps better, the journey I’ve been on my whole life.

This year, I will read. I will write fiction. I will write cards to friends. I will edit. I will participate in my writers’ group. I will continue blogging here. I will keep building my freelance business. I will do what comes naturally and I will challenge myself. I will keep moving forward.

I will be a writer.

Distractions Away, Latte on Hand

Lately the hardest part of writing for me has been using the time I have well. Okay, so maybe not just lately. Maybe that’s always a challenge.

 

There are a million things I could do, sitting in front of my computer, alone, in a study room at my local library. I tend to start my writing sessions with lunch or a mid-morning snack, so there is an accepted settling-in time. But once the food is away, it can be like jumping into a giant pool without checking the water temperature. (This is a bad analogy for those more adventurous than myself.)

 

Once you get in though, it’s worth it, isn’t it? Time flies by and before you know it, the lights are turning off in the library and it’s time to head back home. It’s when I force myself to jump in and stay in that I get the best results, and usually it’s a high that lasts for a couple of days.

 

With that, then, it’s time for me to jump in to this week’s work! Happy writing, friends!

 

P.S. Anyone out there considering NaNoWriMo this year? I’m thinking of using it to make progress on my current WIP—not exactly the point, but 50,000 words is enough of a goal for me. I’d love some company!

Head Down, Power Through. Repeat.

There is no secret to doing something well. You simply have to do it, do it consistently, and do it often. I have been reading more and more about the craft of writing, most recently “The Getaway Car” by Ann Patchett, which is included in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage, which should be at the top of the list of required reading for serious writers, if such a thing exists.

 

I am committed to improving my outlining. It’s something I didn’t do enough of with my first novel, and felt the repercussions of when I went back to revise. I’ve read about Save the Cat! and the Heroic Journey, and I’m trying to apply them to the new ideas I have. And you know what? It’s hard. But as I tell my three-year-old son, it’s good to do things that are hard, because then we know we can do them. And then we do them again, and again, and again until we can do them well.

 

My writing assignment today was to complete an outline for a contemporary YA novel I want to write. I’ve tried a couple of times in the last few weeks, but let myself get distracted when it got hard. Not today. No internet, no editing, just spit it out until it’s done. I allowed myself the out of adding in aliens, if that’s what it would take to get it done.

 

Once I sat down with a focused goal—finish one draft—it wasn’t so hard. I actually wrote two separate versions, because I wanted to add in another aspect to the first, but couldn’t let myself go back and rewrite. I knew if I did, I’d never finish. And I didn’t even need aliens!

 

Three years into it, I’m finally noticing growth in myself as a writer. I am more willing to just keep going to get a draft out and then start all over again next time I sit down, if that’s what I need to get the story out. I’m not worried about what I throw out, because I know the ideas (mostly) get better the more I work on them. I’m still a little terrified of one particularly ambitious project, but as Patchett writes, only the writer herself can make herself get any better.

 

Head down, power through. Repeat.

The Editors God Gave You

Another post on gratitude, as Thanksgiving approaches!

 

* * *

 

I am blessed to have a family that is very encouraging in my writing. They help me make quiet time to work, they read my pages, they pray for my success. And sometimes, they even help me figure out what happens next.

 

When I got my last round of feedback from my agent, I was determined to answer all her questions as thoroughly and as quickly as possible. In order to do that, I enlisted two of the people who know me best in the world—my mom and my husband.

 

Sometimes getting family and friends involved with writing is a bad idea, but these two are gold. They aren’t afraid to tell me when something doesn’t work, and they are great at offering practical advice on how to resolve problems in the text. I think it’s because they know me so well that they can point out when an edit I suggest isn’t going to read the way I intend it to.

 

I recently sat them both down to talk about my upcoming revision. We made a pot of tea and broke out a box of cookies. I read the feedback I’d received aloud and then mostly took notes while they offered suggestions for how to fill in the holes and up the stakes in my story’s arc.

 

They had so many good ideas. I am grateful for them, but did start to think that they were writing the story better than I could. Was I still the writer here?

 

Yet when our session came to an end, they were both grateful that I was the one who was going to input all the changes. The brainstorming was the easy part, they said; making it happen on the page was the real task.

 

Thankfully, I feel the opposite way! The writing itself is a task I’m excited to complete. I’m learning that if a story is meant to be read by a wide audience, then having more than one mind on a manuscript is not a bad thing. After all, no matter what is suggested, it’s ultimately the author’s decision as to what lands on the page. And with my own private think tank to urge me on, those are decisions I’m happy to make.

Storytelling in GRAVITY (SPOILER ALERT)

This weekend, for the first time in . . . a really long time, I went to the movies. With two small children, this is a rare treat. My husband picked the movie—Gravity—and I was happy to go in with almost no knowledge of what the film was. Apart from it starring Sandra Bullock and George Clooney almost exclusively, and the suggestion that it made commentary on some big-picture questions on life, true happiness, etc., I had no idea what I was getting into.

 

For the first half hour, I wasn’t sure how I felt about this. The idea of space kind of freaks me out, and I thought my husband knew this (oops, he forgot!). But once I let myself fall into the film, I found my mind spinning as to what was going on and how readily I could relate. The experience was arresting and one I’d highly recommend—especially for storytellers.

 

What struck me most was how little I knew about Bullock’s character, and yet how engaged I was with her. I kept waiting for a flashback, for a scene to visually depict the snippets I was getting and fill in some of the blanks. As time went on, I realized I didn’t need a lot of those spaces filled in. The suggestions were strong enough, and my imagination did the rest. The screenwriters did an excellent job of including only what was most important and most relevant, and leaving the rest out.

 

It won’t surprise you that I have never been to space, and yet, I had such an intimate reaction to this story. This, I think, is one of the most effective secrets to good storytelling: for a story to be universal and timeless, it must be thoroughly entrenched in its own time and space. The more specific it is—without becoming irrelevantly technical—the more real the created world feels.

 

The classics we read in high school, the movies we watch over and over again, even the picture books we read to our children are not great because they’re trying to be something to everyone. Rather, they tell their own specific stories with particulars, and the strongest themes find their way to light through that.

 

In every good story, there’s a lesson for the storyteller. What stories have you learned from lately, readers?