If everyone is getting along, you’re doing it wrong. (aka How to keep your reader engaged.)

Oh, look. A post on writing.

I’ve been meaning to do a post on writing for weeks, folks, but then I feel like I’m obligated to tell you ALL THE THINGS about my book release (like about the party —>) and I don’t want to make your blog feeder explode.

Anyway. Let’s talk about keeping your reader engaged.

I don’t have the attention span for books that require slogging through pages and pages of narrative until it really gets good. This is why I won’t pick up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, despite the fact that so many people have said the book is amazing once you get past the first hundred-and-fifty pages or so.

I’m sure it’s stellar. Millions of people can’t be wrong. But hearing about a slow start is such a turnoff for me. I’m not one of these people who has to read an entire book. If it’s not working, I put it down. Or I scroll to the next book on the list on my Kindle. I think this is why I’m drawn to YA. It feeds my need for constant stimulation.

1) I try to end every chapter with a question of where the story is going. It might be a cliffhanger ending to the chapter, it might be a decision a character has to face, it might be unresolved conflict. Whatever, every chapter has to end with the reader wondering what’s next.

Here’s the end of a chapter from Spark:

“I’m sorry I didn’t make it to the library.” Layne gestured to the mess around them. “I was busy.”
“It’s cool,” he said, feeling a flash of guilt that he’d assumed she was standing him up. “Let me know if those dicks mess with you again.”
“Why?” she said, her voice flat again. “You gonna rumble under the bleachers?”
“What does that mean?”
“Nothing. Forget it.” She shoved the last of her papers into her backpack. She tapped her brother on the arm, and then signed. “Come on, Simon.”
Gabriel studied her, nonplussed. “You’re mad at me?”
“Maybe if you thought with something other than your fists, you’d be passing math on your own.”
Gabriel stared, having no idea what to say.
And in that moment of silence, she picked up her backpack and rounded the corner, without once looking back.

It’s not a cliffhanger, but the conflict is unresolved. Open ended. If you feel satisfied at the end of the chapter, that is not a good thing. (Unless it’s the last chapter of the book.)

2)  I pay keen attention to how I feel about writing the scene. I cannot overstress the importance of this. You ever find yourself writing something, and you’re saying to yourself, “I can’t wait to get through this scene so I can get on to the good part!”

Trust me. Your reader is thinking something very similar. Or they’re just putting the book down.

If you’re bored with what you’re writing, your reader is definitely going to be bored. If I find myself drifting, or leaving a scene to go set up my Peapod order, or skimming Twitter, then I know I’m not engaged.

Sometimes you can just delete those scenes. Do you really need a connector scene between the boardroom and the bedroom? Do you need to show the train ride home, or can you just go from that scene in the office to the woman holding a champagne glass in front of a fireplace? Readers will make leaps of logic.

If you need the scene, but you’re still bored, it’s time to throw a wrench in the works. I joke about lighting someone on fire, but it’s true: if everyone is getting along, there’s no conflict, and conflict is what drives your novel. 

People think they want to read about people getting together. They don’t. People want to read about conflict with the potential for people to get together. Remember the first few seasons of The Office, when Jim and Pam were seeing other people? Sparks were practically shooting out of my television. Remember that episode of The Vampire Diaries when Elena calls Stefan and tells him that she knows he’s only being a cruel bastard because he can’t help it, and she’ll always be there for him, but then she goes and kisses Damon?

Really, it’s a miracle my living room didn’t catch on fire.

If everyone is getting along, you’re doing it wrong. 

3) I use the delete key like a weed-whacker.

If you’re in the middle of a fast-paced scene, get rid of extra words. GET RID OF THEM. Go on. Delete them. Nothing is worse than reading a scene like this:

The man had a sword in his hand and he was coming down the hill rapidly, as if the devil himself were chasing him. His feet coursed through the grass with a whisper that was completely at odds with the murderous expression on his face. Jane shrank back in terror, fearing that her desire for a few moments of solitude had been her undoing here, and she would regret this moment as long as she lived–if she could live past this moment. 

I mean, honestly. It was painful for me to write that. (I made it up on the spur of the moment.)

The man came flying down the hill with a sword in his hand. Jane ducked, thinking, Holy crap.

The delete key is not your friend. It’s your bitch. USE IT.

What are your writing tricks? How do you keep the reader engaged?

~~~
 

What makes you pick up a book?

I’ve been thinking about the books I read, and why I pick them up.

I’ll admit: I’m a review reader. But I usually go back and read the reviews after I’ve read a book.

If I see a lot of people mentioning a book on Twitter, I’ll download the sample to my Kindle. Same goes for a blog review that piques my interest. (I found Beastly through a blog review, and it’s one of my favorite books.)

Even still, this is only sometimes. Like if I have my Kindle handy, or if I’m not in the middle of reading something else.

We all talk about word of mouth. That’s what sells books. You could have a hundred good reviews on Goodreads, but if people aren’t actually telling someone else to read your book, it doesn’t have as much weight. If I’d looked up Boy Toy on Goodreads and read the mixed reviews, I might not have read the book. But I asked my buddy Sarah Fine for a recommendation, and she said to read it.

I read it. I loved it. You should too. I actually read it twice.

But see? Even that doesn’t carry as much weight unless you know me. Even if you know me, it doesn’t carry as much weight unless I say, “YOU. You must read this book.”

I don’t read a whole lot of contemporary YA, unless it’s on the heavier side. I enjoy Simone Elkeles, Gail Giles, things like that.

But last year, every time I turned around, people were saying, “You have to read Anna and the French Kiss.” So I knew I had to read it.

I read it. I loved it. (It’s by Stephanie Perkins. You should read it, too.)

When both Sarah Maas and Bobbie Goettler told me I needed to read Unearthly, by Cynthia Hand, and these are two people who live on opposite sides of the country and could not be more different, I knew I had to pick it up.

I read it. I loved it. (Are you sensing a theme?)

I might not have picked up any of these books if people hadn’t practically shoved them into my hands and said, “HERE. YOU. Read this.”

Everyone reads books they can’t put down. What, in a book, makes you not just review it well, but press it into the hands of someone else? What makes you sit up and say, “HERE. YOU. Read this.”

For me, it’s the understanding of human nature, mixed with an element of surprise. Not the jump-out-and-say-boo kind of surprise. Just something unexpected happening to people I genuinely care about. It’s about a book I can’t put down, not for a minute, not even when I’m feeding the baby. It’s a book that I’ll stay up late to read.

I’m not saying it’s easy to write books like that. I’m just saying that’s what makes me recommend a book.

What about you? What works? What doesn’t?

Look, it’s been a week since I’ve blogged

Here’s what’s going on:

I received my editorial notes from my editor. They are awesome, but I wanted to get the revisions done quickly, so I’ve been relying on my husband’s good nature to get them done in time.

I needed to request blurbs from people I don’t know. It felt like asking complete strangers to watch my kids for an afternoon. Luckily, everyone I asked was incredibly awesome. Honestly, I always think writers couldn’t possibly be nicer, and then you all ARE.

I’ve been working on the sequel to ELEMENTAL. My goal is to be done by the end of August.

I’ve interviewed two policemen for the aforementioned sequel. Policemen, I’ve found, are just as nice as firemen, and they love to talk about their work. My favorite part of last night’s conversation was when I was asking detailed arson questions, and the officer interrupted me to say something like, “Now, this is for a book scenario, right? Not real life?”

HA. God help me if anything in my general vicinity catches on fire.

Oh yeah, and I’m growing a human being inside my body. I keep forgetting about that. Nine weeks to go! Or is it eight? Totally having second baby syndrome here.

What have you all been up to? Does any of the above sound interesting? Want to hear about editorial notes, or blurb requests, or interviewing professionals for your work? Want to hear some cool fireman/policeman stories? Want to tell gross pregnancy stories?

Here’s a non-gross pregnancy story for you. On Sunday, I went to Target. While I was there, I saw a changing table (in a box) on a clearance shelf. Because it was half off, I picked up the box and put it on the cart. Please DO NOT TELL MY HUSBAND THAT I DID THIS. (Watch, this will be the one blog he reads.) The box weighed about eighty pounds.

So anyway, at the register, the girl asked if I wanted help getting it into my car, and I said yes. I was worried I’d pulled something lifting the box in the first place. Then the girl at the next register asked how far along I was, and I said, “Thirty-one weeks.”

Her eyes bugged out of her head and she said, “Wow! You’re huge for thirty-one weeks!”

Huh. Thanks.

I almost said, “You’re huge for not being pregnant.”

But I’m a writer, not a stand-up comedian, and honestly, Glen Burnie, Maryland is the last place you want to start a catfight. Or any fight, really. (A few years ago, I went to Wal-Mart at 4am on the day after Thanksgiving, and stood in a mile long line to get a coupon for a cheap television. The girl in front of me had two huge burly guys with her, and I was alone. She looked me up and down and said, “Girl, you crazy. You ain’t got no man with you?”)

I’m rambling.

Any good news to share? Bueller…? Bueller…?

Kid Rock taught me something about writing. No, seriously.

So, last night, Mike and I were watching The Daily Show. You know, the one with Jon Stewart. This was my husband’s selection. I was just watching until it got to the end so we could watch an old episode of Medium on NetFlix.

Remember, Mike = love of politics. Brigid = trying to keep up with politics for her husband’s sake.

Then the featured guest on The Daily Show was Kid Rock, and I rolled my eyes at my husband and said, “I’m really not a fan of Kid Rock.” I mean, I like that song with Cheryl Crow, and I guess I like that one about summertime, but I’m really not a fan of grungy screaming music, like Badwitdaba. And I’m definitely not a fan of grungy dirty men. It’s just not my thing.

But we watched anyway, because my husband loves Jon Stewart, and you know what was interesting? Jon Stewart started talking about how much he respected Kid Rock, because Kid Rock knew his business. He knew what went on in music production, he know how to handle himself on tour, and he took good care of his kids and was a good father.

After watching that clip, I have new respect for Kid Rock.

But I keep thinking about the part where Jon Stewart was amazed at how much Kid Rock knew about the business. When he asked about it, Kid Rock said that he’d started out sweeping up in a record company. He learned all the terms and grew from there.

But I think it’s more than that. I think there’s a tendency, once you start getting somewhere, to forget that there’s one person in control of your destiny: YOU.

Just because you have an agent or a book deal doesn’t mean you should forget about the publishing industry. I still read industry blogs every single day. I read Publisher’s Marketplace to see what’s selling. I read agent blogs to see what they’re looking for. I read editor blogs because they’re jaded and funny. NO! I’m totally kidding. I read editor blogs because I’m curious what they’re looking for, and they have a different insight from the agent blogs.

I read links about new e-Book advances. About new e-Readers. About self-publishing phenoms. About teens having books banned in their schools. About what people are reading. I read the local news, and not just for my locality. (I love going to CNN and reading all the US links. And I mean all of them.) I want to know what’s going on in the world. You want to know where you can really get some good ideas to jumpstart a story? Read some local news articles. In Incendiary, the sequel to Elemental, I wanted to write a scene at a party where some kids would be goofing off with fire, using aerosol cans and a stick to make a homemade blowtorch. I thought to myself, “Would kids really be that stupid?”

And then the next day, there was an article on CNN about teenagers messing around with aerosol cans and a bonfire, and getting injured.

So yes. Kids would really be that stupid.

But I digress.

There’s a natural tendency to get to a point and let the experts handle what they handle. And that’s okay. There’s a reason you want an agent and an editor. They are your experts, and their opinion matters a whole lot. (I’m so lucky to have such great ones.) I don’t keep up on industry news so I can nitpick and second guess. I keep up on industry news because I want to be as informed as I can. I want to be a professional artist, not someone who has to be dragged out of a ladies room at 3am, coked up with hair a mess, with a handler hissing, “You have to be on Regis and Kelly in three hours!”

I want responsibility. 

I want to be in control of my destiny.

In short, when I grow up, I want to be just like Kid Rock.

 (Here’s a link to the clip of the show, if you’re curious: http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-july-12-2011/kid-rock)

YA Cliffhanger Trend: Friend or Foe?

So I’ve been reading a lot of YA lately. (Hello, my name is Brigid, and I’m a bookaholic.)

I’ve been reading so much YA that I’m waiting for my husband to bring the hammer down and tell me to stop buying books on the Kindle. (I’m sure he regrets the day he bought me that thing. You mean I don’t need to leave the couch to buy a book instantly?)

But there’s a clear trend in YA for ending on a cliffhanger. Not just a cliffhanger, almost to the point where the entire first book is almost completely setup, and when you finally get to the climax, the book ends right there. You have to wait for part two.

Elemental is the first book in a series, and while there are open threads at the end, the story arc of book one is complete. The second book (tentatively titled Incendiary) follows the path of a different brother, and it, too, will have a complete story arc with open threads.

I’m not sure I’m a fan of this latest trend. When the first story arc is wholly complete but there’s a driving need for a second book, I love it. (Like The Hunger Games or Hex Hall, both of which I enjoyed greatly.) When the book obviously can’t stand alone, I hate it.

What about you guys? Do you like this new trend? Do you hate it? If you’re a writer, do you feel the need to end on a cliffhanger just to keep your readers reading?

I put a poll in the sidebar if that’s easier than commenting: ——>

Plagiarism and theft, and why I don’t worry about either

After my last post on critique partners, I received a great email, with a great question. With her permission, I wanted to respond on the blog:

I’ve been considering publishing since last year, and I think I’m going to quit [my critique site] soon. It was pretty fun and helped me learn a lot, but it’s gotten to the point where posting online is no longer a good idea. I’m not really afraid of the little girls plagiarizing my stuff (which often is the case) as I am of the James Freys of this world.

For that matter, while I read your post about finding good CPs (which was a godsend, btw. I’ve been mulling over the need for CPs for a while), I saw you mention two writer forums where you used to hang out and swap critiques in. I don’t know if it’s because of the close encounters of the 3rd type with online plagiarism, but joining those forums is something that gives me the heebiejeebies. I know you persisted in the forums until you scored gold, and it’s not like I’m cutting corners. I’m merely and simply put: a coward. 

 I’m still hovering over that cliff between not starting the publishing process (revise, research, network) and starting it, so that’s also an obstacle I’m putting on myself. If I hauled my ass to finally get started and begun networking with people, the possibility of finding a CP that way would also open up.

 I edited the hell out of her email to lose any identifying details, so if there are any grammatical inconsistencies, they’re all mine. Bear with me, it’s 5am while I’m writing this post.

My boss said something to me the other day that popped into my head when reading this email: Other people rarely think of you as much as you think other people think of you.

In other words, I think there’s more of a tendency to worry about online plagiarism than there is actually evidence of it.

First of all, what’s the point? If you look at plagiarism cases that have hit the press, like James Frey, Cassie Edwards, and Kaavya Viswanatha, they all have one thing in common: they stole from published authors.

Seriously, this is a big distinction. They stole something that had already made it through the rounds of publication. They stole proven words. They didn’t go scouring the message boards looking for unpublished manuscripts. That’s like being an amateur designer and having someone break into your house to steal the half finished clothes you were sewing. Why bother? They’re not done, they can’t really be replicated, and who even knows if they’ll be a success?

Now, I know there are people on message boards who steal story ideas all the time, and then post them as their own. I remember a few years ago when I’d posted parts of my vampire story, and two days later, this other guy posted his vampire story, and said, “This was inspired by another story I read here on the forums.” And then he basically rewrote my scene his own way. I was pissed. I was furious. Seriously, I was ready to spit nails.

But you know what? His story was completely different from mine, despite having the same idea. He couldn’t write in my voice any more than I could write in his. My story didn’t sell. His story didn’t sell. Any harm done? No. As my husband likes to say, you make your own stress.

It’s just too much work to steal an untested manuscript, make it your own, and then submit it for publication. What happens when you’re going to have to write a sequel? What happens when you have to go through and revise, and the revisions aren’t in the right voice? And not just that, there are so many other creative steps along the way. The query letter. Brainstorming with your agent. Writing a synopsis. Writing an outline for the sequel. Chances are, even if someone steals your stuff, it’s not going to look very much like your stuff when they’re done with it.

The natural inclination is to think that our stuff is kinda, maybe, possibly amazing. Yeah, there are self doubts, but you’ve gotta have some confidence, too. I’ve said before, writers have to be a little bit arrogant to make it through this publishing game. You do. There are so many opportunities to get knocked down, if you don’t have a little arrogance to push you through, you’re never going to make it.

So let that confidence start now. Put some stuff out there. See what you get. Don’t be stupid about it: I never sent anyone my entire manuscript without knowing them first. I’m a chapter-at-a-time kinda gal. Even then, I wasn’t worried about plagiarism; I didn’t want an unpolished version of my MS floating around somewhere, so if I did sell it, there wouldn’t be evidence of crappier writing sitting on the internet.

And if you’re worried about your ideas being stolen? Well…isn’t there some saying about there only being seven stories in the world? I’ll admit, when I started writing Elemental, I was a little worried. There aren’t a lot of books out there about controlling the elements. I mean, there are, but they’re not exactly breaking the shelves at your local Barnes & Noble. I was worried about someone picking up my idea and writing their own. I felt fresh and original and new, and I didn’t want someone else snatching up my opportunity.

But then I realized that controlling the elements wasn’t that original. Anyone could write about that. Just like vampires aren’t all that original, or kids in a wizarding school, or writing about the south in the sixties. It’s the execution that makes a good story. It’s the characters, the passion, the moments that drag you along and won’t let you put a book down. People might pick a book up because of the idea, but they’re going to keep reading because of the writing. Just like that guy who was “inspired” by me on that message board years ago: he took my idea, but he didn’t write the same thing.

I’ll finish with Bobbie’s comment from the critique partner post the other day, because as always, she’s chock full of wisdom:

I’d just add to your list here that you have to BE a good critique partner to get a good one. It kind of goes along with your “Don’t be lazy” advice. But if you expect someone to take your writing seriously, you have to take theirs seriously. You have to decide their writing matters as much as yours, that their goals are as important as yours. (This attitude also helps you to be thrilled–rather than envious–as your partner progresses in the business.) When you step it up a notch, so will your more serious beta readers. I likely never would have come to care or think so much about scenes like the one with Gabriel and Michael if you hadn’t cared and thought so much about my characters’ scenes. You have to give at least as much as you want to get.

On a side note, Online Writers Workshop is another great site for finding critique partners. I’ve gotten some great help there as well as some hardcore, ego-crushing feedback, so you have to be prepared for that honesty you’re talking about.

So there you have it. Go out and be confident. (And careful.) And if you see someone steal your stuff and post their own version? Don’t be mad.

Be flattered.

~

How to find a [good] critique partner.

If I were to have a FAQ section for email inquiries, this would be at the top, right above the request for my banking information because I’ve inherited 500,000 USD from a prince in Nigeria.

(I mean seriously. Does anyone fall for this? And why don’t they use the dollar sign?)

I have two main critique partners.*

1) Bobbie. Bobbie has been there since the beginning. Since I thought it was acceptable to query a 130,000 word vampire novel. Since I had no idea how to make every scene move the plot forward one step. Since before I knew about Miss Snark and every other blog out there. Bobbie is one of my closest friends and I tell her everything. I’ve known her for five years, and I’m so frigging lucky, because she’s insanely insightful. I’ll tell her I’m struggling with a scene, and I’ll get back this in depth character critique like:

So you’re unsure of where to go now? How to resolve the moment between Michael and Gabriel? I can see how it’s a pivotal moment and you want to play it right. You can’t have them hug it out or Gabriel won’t need the fire as much as he does now–it’s his escape. If all is well on the home front–or even heading there–he won’t have the need for release. I like that Gabriel’s immediate feeling isn’t anger but a sense of betrayal. He seemed to be feeling, before Hannah showed up, that he and Michael could at least be civil to one another and act like brothers now and then. To come home to this accusation would be painful and more isolating.

I think you need Michael to be suspicious, and I think his character would be. But the fire started before he left the house. Hannah could confirm this. But Michael’s suspicion might at some point make Gabriel question whether Garrett is the arsonist. And even if Michael comes to believe Gabriel didn’t start the fire, he’s still going to suspect something’s going on, and Gabriel’s secrecy is going to bring more tension to their relationship.

I mean, you can’t pay for critique notes like that. Sometimes I feel inadequate when I read her stuff, because I can’t see all the angles like this. I feel like a caveman writing things like, “Um. This guy seems angry.” Seriously, I don’t know why Bobbie puts up with ME.

It didn’t start out that way, of course. I’d posted a chapter on the critique site www.mywriterscircle.com, and she left some good comments, along with the line, “I would read more of this.” So I looked up her profile, sent her an email, and said, “Would you really read more of this? I have half a book.”

She read it, she liked it, she sent me some of her stuff. I read it, I liked it. We clicked right off the bat, and the timing was good. We were both beginners, and we were both at the same stage of the writing process.

A lot of that was LUCK. Kind of like love at first sight.

2) Alison: I’ve known Alison for about a year. She sent me a message on Absolute Write when I had a post up offering beta reads, and because I say yes to just about everyone who asks me to crit a manuscript, I told her to send over the first chapter or so. Then I completely forgot that I accepted, and I felt like a total heel when she emailed me 10 days later to ask if I got her email. (I blame my Blackberry.) But I could tell right away that Alison had some serious writing chops (see my last post about her recent signing with an agent), and I gave her a bunch of constructive criticism and sent it back.

That’s usually a make-or-break point with a critique partner. I’m always honest, and I never sugar-coat anything. I’ve had people get back a critique of twenty pages, and move on. Alison wrote back that it was finally the feedback she’d been looking for, and asked if she could send more. I liked her writing and her style, so I read more. And more. And more. She kept offering to read something of mine, but I was agented at that point, with a book on submission, so I was a lot more careful sending things out. Finally we’d been working together long enough that I trusted her enough to send something her way. (You never know what freak is going to post your book on their blog or something.) Alison’s critiques were awesome! Spot on! She picks up on things that I never would, especially when she guesses where the story is going. I remember in one of the earlier drafts of Elemental, she made the comment, “You have all these water bottles popping up everywhere! I can’t wait to see what you’re planning on doing with them!”

I read that comment and was like, “Uhhh…I’m not doing a damn thing with them. People are thirsty.” But it was a great point, and I took out some of the references. Alison is great at picking up on foreshadowing that might not be intentional, or seeing links between characters that I might not have seen. It’s every bit as insightful as Bobbie, just in a different way.

I owe a lot of my success with Elemental to these ladies.

I know, I know, you’re saying, “Shut the F up about your amazing critique partners, and tell me how to find some of my OWN.”

Reading the above, it seems like I just got lucky and found two great people and POOF, my writing life was easy. Brigid has everything! A book deal! Great critique partners! An amazing agent! An awesome editor!

Yeah, whatever. You want to know how many beta reads I did before landing on two people with whom I really clicked? I just went through my email, searched for “beta,” and counted the individual email addresses.

Eighty-six.

And that doesn’t count beta reads I did directly on message boards like Absolute Write and My Writers Circle. (I do a lot on my lunch hour. Hey, a girl needs to do something while eating.) That doesn’t count people who might have used the words “Crit” or “Critique” instead of “Beta” in their email.

That’s also over the course of five years.

The point? That’s a lot of people. A lot of time. A lot of reading.

Finding a great critique partner is like finding a great husband. (Or wife.) It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to take hard work, and compromise, and a solid base of trust.

Some tips:

1) Don’t be lazy. If you were going to a bar to pick up men (or women), you’d take a shower, wear nice clothes, and try to look your best. Do the same thing when you’re sending your stuff out for critique. Now’s the time to be on your best behavior. Sometimes people would email me and say, “I know it’s full of grammatical errors and misspellings, but I’ll fix that stuff later. I just want to know if the story is worth the time to fix it.” I mean, come on. If you don’t know if it’s worth the time to fix it, why is it worth my time to read it? Don’t send out crap.

2) Be honest. Not just with others, with yourself. Maybe someone is AWESOME at critiquing your stuff. If you hate their writing, you’re not going to want to reciprocate. That’s not fair.

3) Critique a LOT. You know those advice columns where people write in and say, “I’m so depressed, I’ll never find anyone. I hate going out and playing the dating game. There must be another way.” Don’t you want to hit those people? Dating is how you find a life partner. Critiquing a lot of stuff is how you find a critique partner.

Kind of like writing a book, finding a critique partner is something that sounds easy in theory. “I can write a compound sentence! I’m destined to be a great author! Here’s where to send my check!” vs. “I’m a really nice person! My writing is amazing, so I’ll quickly find someone amazing to read it! At 3am! In five minutes!”

Everyone can find a great critique partner. They’re out there. I was, Alison was, Bobbie was.

All you have to do is put yourself out there. You know, with a little lip gloss.

~
* I’m not listing Sarah Maas, who is an awesome critique partner, because we only met because we’re agency sisters, and our relationship doesn’t really apply to this post. I just got lucky with Sarah. Wait. That sounds dirty.

Don’t discount corny

Currently reading: A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah Maas (but that one’s not published yet) If it helps, I just finished reading My One and Only by Kristan Higgins and it was AWESOME. (Contemporary romance.)

So the other night, I went for coffee with a woman who coached 3-year-old soccer last fall. We met up to talk about writing, because she wants to be a writer. Since I can talk about books and writing until I’m blue in the face, I was happy to go. And I had an awesome time.

She’s a high school English teacher, and she was telling me about a project where her students needed to write a short book for grade school kids. Like first graders. She told me about one boy who wrote a story about a kid who was bullied, so he went and learned Tai Kwon Do, and then he was able to come back and kick the bully’s ass.

She explained to the student (and I’m paraphrasing here) that they couldn’t give a first grader a story like that, because the parents would be on the phone in a heartbeat. So she had him rewrite it, where the bullied kid learned Tai Kwon Do, and he went with the intention of beating up the bully, but instead, they become friends.

And then she kind of rolled her eyes and said, “You know, corny ending…”

But I said, “No! That’s great! Don’t discount corny!”

Yes, it’s cliched. Yes, it’s been done a million times. But if you can pull of corny, there’s something deeply satisfying about it. When something is corny, we’re really just calling it corny because we don’t want to acknowledge that it’s really something kinda moving. Right? If your husband comes home and starts smooching all over you and telling you how much he loves you, you’ll push him away and giggle and tell him to stop being so corny. (Or silly. Or whatever.)

But really you love it. Come on. Don’t lie.

I just read Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and there’s a character named Tiny. He’s almost flamboyantly gay, but you can’t help but love him. Every time he says something wise, you expect it to sound over-the-top and not take him seriously, but because he takes himself seriously and doesn’t back away from sounding corny, it just plain works. (Fantastic book, by the way.)

We’re always looking for ways to be new and different. No one wants to seem cliched. I get it.

But don’t discount corny.

I mean, look at this. The whole movie is really crap, but who wouldn’t love this moment? Even if they won’t admit it?

You don’t know what you’re talking about. (Or, how to handle criticism.)

I was telling a friend the other day that you have to be a little bit arrogant to make it as a writer. Not a lot arrogant (the world doesn’t need more of those), but at least a little. It’s true: with the amount of rejection writers face, you’ve got to have the cajones to keep putting yourself out there.

Being a writer is not for the faint of heart.

But what if it’s not just rejection? What if it’s criticism?

I’m the first one to admit, I’m a competitive person. When I was in high school, if I wasn’t the first student to finish a test, I’d get upset. I went to an all-girls high school, but if it had been co-ed, I would have been one of those girls crusading to do everything the boys could do. Not because I have any desire to play football (as if), but because I love competition.

So when you’re competitive, you’re doing what you love (writing), and someone says, “Yeah, this part right here, it’s just not working for me,” that hurts.

There are a lot of levels to this.

Trust.
If Tamar (my agent) tells me something’s not working, then I know it’s not working. I trust her implicitly. When I was outlining my sequel, I wanted to have two brothers fall in love with the same girl, thinking it would create conflict between them. She shot that down, and I’m so glad she did, because now the conflict will be more about the brothers growing apart as one finds a relationship, and it doesn’t feel as cheap-and-easy as the first idea did. It’s more subtle, but in the end, I think it’s going to be a lot more powerful.

If my husband tells me something’s not working, I take it with a grain of salt. (Sorry, honey.) Yes, I trust him, and yes, I value his opinion, but he doesn’t read YA, and he doesn’t understand the craft of writing. If he reads a scene and says, “Hon, no guy would ever say that to another dude,” then I know I need to make a change. But if he says, “Why can’t you just add a monster?” (or some completely random guy thing), then I know to smile and nod and keep on writing my way.

If a friend tells me something’s not working, I slow down and think about it. 

Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up, I think. If the person is truly a friend, it’s easy to get offended. You want your friends to love every word you write. It’s very, VERY hard to accept criticism from people you love. By nature, we want to impress our friends and family. We want them to think we’re great writers. It’s a blow to the ego to hear something didn’t work. Do you know how hard it was to tell my family that my first novel didn’t sell, and now we’re on to the next one? You know the looks. The ones that say, “Maybe Brigid isn’t a good writer after all. Aw. What a cute little hobby. She thinks she can write.” Here’s where that little bit of arrogance comes in handy. Those looks are enough to make you curl up and cry.

If a critique partner (or a random beta reader) tells me something’s not working, I have to trust my gut.

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading lately. I think I’ve looked at 10 manuscripts over the last two weeks. (No, I don’t have much of a social life. Why do you ask?) I throw my advice out there, for what it’s worth, and if the person wants to take it, great. If they don’t, that’s completely fine, too. I’m okay either way.

But when critique partners tell you something isn’t working, you really have to step back and see if there’s some merit. Complete strangers are going to be the most honest. Conversely, when it’s a complete stranger, that’s when the knee-jerk reaction of “This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about” starts to kick in.

Control the knee-jerk. Control it. Step back and listen. Since this person is a complete stranger, I always have to remind myself that it’s not a personal attack. They don’t know me! Why would they spend hours going through my manuscript just to tell me off? But since it’s writing, it’s personal, and it hurts.

I always read my crits in two pieces if they’re coming from a complete stranger. First, I read through all the comments, let my blood pressure fly off the meter, and then close the file and have a cup of coffee. But then later, I start to think about the comments. Maybe she was right, and the hero was a little too wussy right there. Maybe he had a point, that I needed a little more oomph to that fight scene. Maybe this character is a complete bitch, and I just didn’t see how she was coming across.

Here are my rules for handling criticism:

1) Do the gut check.

This is absolutely the number one rule. If your initial reaction is to reject that idea, but you have a feeling in the back of your head that it’s right, it’s probably right. With the first novel, the one that landed me an agent, people kept telling me that it took too long to get to the action. I needed to condense the first five chapters. I didn’t want to do that — I loved those chapters. But I had a feeling in the back of my head that they were right, that I was going to need to fix them.

When I signed with Tamar? I had to condense them.

This works the other way too. If someone recommends a change that comes out of left field, let it roll off your back. 

2) If it’s a matter of clarity, fix it.

No matter what. If one person trips over your phrasing, someone else will. This is such an easy place to dig in your heels and refuse to fix it. (“What kind of idiot doesn’t know that I’m being funny?”) But it’s also a silly place to dig in your heels. Rephrase. My issues of clarity always get fixed, no matter who’s criticizing.

3) Consider the source.

This is a tough one, and it goes along with the gut check. Like I said above, when my husband reads my stuff, I know where he’s coming from. When a fellow writer reads my stuff, I know where they’re coming from. But you never know if someone is having a bad day, or if they have a bone to pick or a chip on their shoulder. Take criticism with a grain of salt.

4) Say thank you.

If someone gives you their time, appreciate it. Even if they’re an idiot. It’s still their time, not yours. (All my recent beta partners have been awesome. But some people aren’t so lucky, so I had to throw this out there.)

5) Don’t be afraid to discuss!

When I send my critiques out, I always tell people I’m happy to talk out the changes I recommended. I love discussing what’s working (and what’s not) and brainstorming new ideas. It’s rare that people want to discuss anything, which is a shame. I never critique to be cruel or mean, and if an idea isn’t working, I’m happy to learn where the writer is coming from, and maybe brainstorm ideas to make the story stronger. I love writing, and I love the whole process. I’m always happy to throw ideas back and forth. It’s one of my favorite parts of this whole writing gig.

How about you guys? I know there are thousands of writers out there, cringing from criticism. Do you have any tips for how to handle it?