Into the Dreaming Imaginative Fiction from Author, Editor, and Writing Coach Christine Amsden

Making Use of Feedback

Since I recently presented a workshop on this subject at the Muse Online Writer’s Conference, it seemed appropriate to put it up on my blog as well. Here is what I presented — it does repeat what I say in the “Honest Feedback” topic just a little bit:

If you are serious about becoming a writer then at some point you will need to show others your work and ask them what they think. When your pet project comes back, scarred beyond recognition in red ink, you have three choices: You can quit writing. You can decide to be a poor, misunderstood artist and never learn or grow. Finally, you can use the feedback to become an even better writer.

The truth is, everyone has room for improvement, but even after you realize this you may not know what to do with those red marks. Do you always make changes where suggested? What if two people contradict one another? What if someone clearly did not “get it?” Do you compromise integrity to make others happy? This workshop addresses all these questions and more as we seek to make sense of constructive (and even destructive) criticism.

I. Good Critique

Before I get into how to interpret other’s critique, I wanted to briefly discuss good criticism. While you will not always receive great criticism, you should always give it. Also, understanding what makes criticism good will help you to interpret it.

A. Critique the story, not the author: This should be self explanatory but basically, never make any assumptions about what the author thinks, feels, or is trying to do. You are reporting your feelings about a piece of literature, not performing psychoanalysis.

B. Make it an opinion: “I thought Frank was a jerk.” is an absolutely true statement. “Frank is a jerk.” is up for debate. Authors tend to receive criticism better when it is written as an opinion rather than as fact, because it is less confrontational and controversial. If you are the author receiving the feedback, you should always interpret comments as an opinion even if the person giving the feedback was less than sensitive.

C. Look for problems, not solutions: It is usually more useful for an author to gauge your reaction to a piece rather than to hear how you would rewrite it. When you start prescribing solutions rather than diagnosing problems, you may not be in tune with the author’s vision and therefore may not be giving useful information. If you do decide to give suggestions for rewriting, you should always pinpoint the problem (as you see it) first. That way, the author can take the information and use it in a way that best serves the story.

D. Be a wise reader: A strategy I picked up from Orson Scott Card (see his books on writing) that works very well for me is the wise reader critique. Anyone who reads can be trained to be a wise reader, and the information they give is golden. When you read a book, you naturally ask certain questions about it. A wise reader notices when they ask the questions and they write it down for the benefit of the author.
i. Oh Yeah? (I don’t believe this.)
ii. So What? (I don’t care.)
iii. Huh? (I don’t get it.)

II. Getting to the heart of the problem

Whether you receive good criticism or not, you need to attempt to understand what the reader felt was the problem with the story. If your car engine stalled you would not start randomly replacing parts before you understood what was wrong. The same thing is true with writing.

A. Diagnosis: If your reader gave you diagnostic information such as a wise reader critique, then your task is much easier. You know the problem and can move on to what (if anything) to do about it.

B. Prescription: If someone gave you suggestions for change without telling you the problem, you are going to have to work backwards. Ask yourself why they would think the change was necessary. Try to look at it through a reader’s eyes and realize that they may not have been reading the story you thought you wrote. (See ‘C’ below)

C. They didn’t seem to “get it”: They very well may not have. I am often amazed to find out what story people actually read when I send something out for feedback. They aren’t wrong. Keep in mind that the story in your head is a separate entity from the story on the paper. Likewise, the story on the paper takes on a life of its own when read by someone else. They bring into it their own biases and personal experiences. They may think Frank is a jerk because they dated this guy in college named Frank who really hurt them. You cannot always control for that but you need to be prepared for it.

III. Should I make a change?

A. There are exactly two times when you should consider making a change.
i. Resonance: If a comment resonates with you, if it just makes sense based on what you are trying to accomplish with your work (be it a short story, novel, or article) then you should, of course, make a change.
ii. Agreement: If many people agree on a problem or weak spot, you should also seriously consider making a change. You may not agree on the solution that any or all of them offered, but it is typically no coincidence when several people all spot the same issue. It can be hard to decide to make a change in this case, if there is no resonance to go along with it, but here are some things you can do.
1. Put it aside for a period of time and re-read it with a fresh eye.
2. Look for creative solutions to a problem. For example, if many people tell you a section is too long you may decide, instead, to make it longer. I often find that the boredom that causes people to suggest cutting can also be remedied by going into more depth, drawing the reader in further, and really highlighting the importance of a certain portion of a story or novel.

B. Contradictions: It can be frustrating when people disagree on an aspect of a story. When one person loves Frank and another thinks he is a jerk, you may find yourself unsure what to do. Let me start by making some observations that may help you put this into perspective.
i. No one’s work will be universally loved.
ii. The very things that make one person fall in love with your work will make someone else hate it. This is true in all aspects of life. I don’t like raspberries, but I bet most of you do. If you were hosting a large dinner party, would you choose a different dessert to accommodate my dislike of raspberries? Perhaps a yummy apple crumble or a turtle cheesecake? Now I like your dessert option but Brian hates cheesecake and Beth isn’t into apples.

In the end, whether the feedback is contradictory or not, you need to consider the same two questions: “Did it resonate? Do many people agree?” If one naysayer contradicts a group, it is probably safe to listen to the majority opinion. If a group seems split down the middle you will simply have to be the tiebreaker.

C. Compromising Integrity: I bring this up only because many beginning writers ask this question. Should I compromise my integrity to please others? Well, that depends upon what you mean by integrity. Obviously, it is your story to tell and in the end you are the person who will tell it. If making a change to please people will make you hate the story or in some way go against your values, then of course you should not make the change. But don’t be the poor, misunderstood artist, either. If you want to be a great writer then you need to understand that the creative process is fluid and that sometimes you need to let the story decide what it wants to be, rather than forcing it to be what you want it to be.

IV. Responding to Feedback

A. Thank you: This is the only appropriate response to someone who has offered to help you by reading your work. Even if you disagree with everything they wrote, even if they were downright mean in their comments, you thank them and do not argue. Your story has to stand alone when it goes out into the world – you won’t be there to hold its hand and back it up with your own answers to people’s comments. If someone asks a question in their feedback, it is rhetorical. You answer it in the rewrite, if at all.

B. Destructive criticism: It happens. Someone may give you back some feedback that says, “You suck as a writer. Don’t quit your day job.” If a person gives you criticism that is downright mean, you simply ignore it and do not ask for their help again. Throw it away.

C. The follow-up question: While it is not okay to try to explain yourself, your story, or argue with someone who has given you advice, it may be acceptable to ask an occasional follow-up question for the sake of clarity. When I sent an early chapter of Touch of Fate out for criticism, I learned that someone felt Marianne, the protagonist, was unsympathetic. I wrote back to him and asked if he could tell me what had given him that impression. He was kind enough to highlight some careless turns of phrase that made her seem uncaring towards her daughter. I was then able to make the changes that helped me sell the book.

V. Re-critique

A. From the same group: This is almost always a bad idea, in my opinion. Personally, I refuse to look at the same story or part of a novel more than one time. Either you followed my advice in the first place or you did not. If you did take my advice, I will be inclined to like it whether or not it works and if you did not take my advice I will be disinclined to like it whether or not your chosen solution was appropriate. Moreover, I know how it ends – or ended, which might even be worse. I cannot give you a fresh, unbiased opinion on a second read-through.

B. From a different person/people: This can work, but I caution you to remember that your story will never be perfect. As many times as you send your work out, you will receive that many suggestions. You cannot please everyone and that is not your goal – it may be your dream but it is not your goal.

C. When is it done? At some point, you have to decide to stop. It will never be done, but you can stop writing and send it to a publisher. Don’t forget that there will always be other stories, other articles, and even other novels. Growing as a writer happens over multiple pieces, not just multiple rewrites of the same piece. Try new things. Be adventurous. Be done.

Rhapsody Trilogy by Elizabeth Haydon

I just finished reading the Rhapsody Trilogy by Elizabeth Haydon. (Rhapsody: Child of Blood, Prophecy: Child of Earth, Destiny: Child of the Sky) Overall, this series was engaging and kept me reading. This was a high fantasy tale, full of magic and romance. I enjoyed the adventure, I enjoyed the world, but most of all I enjoyed the romance.

I am wary of high fantasy. I find that much of it reads like a D&D game. I can almost hear the dice rolling during battle scenes. Moreover, much of it is the same ill-conceived Tokien-wannbe drivel. I read it because I am enthralled by magic, bu I am usually disappointed and disillusioned.

This series managd to rise above the rest in a few important ways. First, and most importantly, is the issue of character. I enjoy stories with believable, well-conceived, and likable hero/heroines…especially with heroines. Rhapsody’s self-sacrificing attempts to become a martyr did grow wary at times, but she was naive without being stupid, sweet, and innocent despite her whorish past. She was a fun character to like.

Second, there was the romance. This subplot began the trilogy and was compellingly written. I did not believe that I would stay interested in the romance if it drug itself out for three novels, but I was wrong. The tension remained high throughout.

Third, this novel was not a quest. While there were other familiar elements to this tale of high fantasy, I did not have to sit through a frantic search for the magical sword/ring/orb during which time we became intimately familiar with the map the author had drawn.

Finally, the magic felt real and natural. There were no arbitrary and ridiculous rules governing the magic to get in the way. It was not without its price, either.

Alas, though this trilogy was good and I will probably seek out the follow-up books, I will not list this series as one of my favorites. It suffered from a few flaws which, in the interests of fairness, I will also relay.

First, it took me some time to get into the first book. It began with a boy being sent back in time and falling in love with a girl. They have a whirlwind romance and decide they are soulmates, and then, as abruptly as he arrived, he returned to his own time and broke the young girl’s heart.

Then we switch geers entirely to a woman who turns out to have been that young girl, but it takes some time to put that together. She is going by a different name and never thinks of herself as “Emily” again. This break was jarring and it made it needlessly difficult to figure out what was going on when all that had to be said was, “Emily became known as Rhapsody.”

The other serious problem I had with this trilogy was the withholding of information by the great manipulator from the future who was looking back and trying to change the timeline. I was kept at a distance from him until the very end of the last book, where all of a sudden I learn everything that I should have known in that very first scene, when he sent the boy back in time. If I had known who he was and what he was trying to do more clearly it would have increasd the suspense for me.

On a more minor note, I noticed a few too many info-dumps and I disliked the recaps of events that had come before, even across books, since this was not a tirilogy that could have possibly been read out of order.

But with these few reservations, I liked the book. If you like magic, adventure, and romance then I think you will like this book. It was simple, magical fun.

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family

I am only halfway through this book, but I want to throw in something that I am feeling strongly positive about so you don’t go thinking I dislike or am ambivolent about every book I read. I enjoy a great many books that, in time, will probably end up getting a review here. (I wanted to start with books that I read recently.)

Secrest of Feeding a Healthy Family by Ellyn Satter is really having a positive effect on me. I do not often read non-fiction or self-help but with my son starting table foods, I asked my neighbor for help and she loaned me this book. It’s message broke down a barrier in my mind and I can’t wait to get through the details so I can implement the plan in my life.

Basically, her message is to stop trying to control, stop trying to count, stop harping on “the rules” to the point that it drives you to misery — or obesity. She says that borne into all of us is a natural ability to know how much and what kinds of food we need. For our children she recommends giving them a wide variety of food at regular mealtimes and letting them decide how much to eat and whether or not to eat. It may take some time for them to experiment with some foods, but she suggests that eventually they will come to enjoy eating a well-balanced diet with no coersion or lectures needed.

The trick for me is to get back to that point — the point where my body can tell me how much it needs without interference from my brain, “You shouldn’t eat that! Bad!” or “Wouldn’t a salad be better?” She advocates meal planning in which we plan in our favorite foods so we don’t feel deprived but at the same time we have enough variety of food that we eat all the things we need. If you can look forward to your next meal and know that you will let yourself eat enough (not stopping because your brain told you how many calories you just ate), then you will not feel the urge to snack at all hours of the day.

I think she is right. I love bread. I sometimes end up eating bread products all day long. Today I am baking home made bread to go with dinner and I am looking forward to it so much that I have not felt the urge to pop a handful of animal crackers in my mouth. (I often end up popping a handful of animal crackers about ten times — that adds up!)

As with any life changing nutritional strategy, I am sure initial success will shortly be followed by a period of uncertainty and relapses. I want this plan to work, though. This is the first book I’ve read that asks you to TRUST your body instead of thinking too hard about food. It may be difficult for me to give up that control, but I feel in my heart that it is right.

I will stop here and recommend that you go read the book, especially if you have kids. My biggest fear with my children was that they have as hard a time with food as I have had in my life — I hope I have found a solution to that here.

The Eve of Anna

I read The Eye of Anna by Anne Wingate about two weeks ago. I often try to throw in a mystery/detective novel into the mix from time to time and I understood that when it comes to forensic science, Anne Wingate knows her stuff.

I will agree — Anne Wingate does know her stuff when it comes to police procedure and forensic science. Her premise was also good — throw the characters, including a serial killer, into the middle of a hurricane. Shake well.

In the end, I am forced to say that this book is just okay. The serial killer seemed cliched to me with his dislike of “wanton women just like her.” Anne Wingate used his point of view to create suspense but honestly, I think the book would have been better if she had left those scenes out.

If you are particularly fond of serial killers and police procedurals, though, you may like this better than I did.

Edits are back!

I returned the edited version of my novel to the publisher last week. I am relieved, excited, and nervous about it. It’s out of my hands now — but on the other hand, it’s OUT OF MY HANDS! No more tweaking this thing in chapter 6 or reconsidering that flashback in chapter 10. It’s done.

I think it’s good. I think the edits improved the story. I think people will enjoy reading it.

For those of you who are writers, you will recognize the shifting voices of the angel and demon on my shoulders — one telling me I’m great and the other telling me I’m not. For the rest of you, this is normal.

The next step is to wait again. Once the novel comes out, there will be marketing to do, but in the meantime I will just bide my time and continue to work on my second novel, The Immortality Virus. For those who are interested, that novel is pure science fiction. It follows the life of a private investigator, Grace Harper, as she searches for the man who ruined the world some four hundred years before her time (but not too far from now in our time). The rough draft is nearly complete and so far I really like it. I think I have once again inserted a meaningful character story into a science fiction backdrop. I have also been having a lot of fun exploring a future world of my own creation.

As for Touch of Fate, you will know as soon as I do when any new information comes out. Right now, I believe a copy editor is putting all the commas in the right places. :=)

The Five People You Meet In Heaven

I’ve decided to start a section of my blog dedicated to letting you know what I’m reading and what I think about it. I try to read a wide variety of books but you will see more science fiction and fantasy on this blog than any other type of story. I will begin with a book I finished reading two weeks ago for my book club, The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom.

I am not a fan of books that try to imagine, whether for the sake of fiction or non-fiction, what happens after we die. I have almost written such speculation into my own stories many times, but each time I back off for one very important reason: There is nothing I can write or imagine on this topic that will not be a huge disappointment.

This book vividly reminded me of the reason that I do no care for such books. In the end, the revelations of purpose handed down in heaven were nothing more or less than what we humans could have figured out on our own. Maybe that’s all there is to know and if so, I can accept it when the time comes, but for the moment I would rather imagine that there is something more for me to understand than what I could ever imagine here on Earth.

Setting aside that major flaw, the book was a smooth and easy read. Eddie, the main character, lived a full and balanced life complete with flaws and good deeds. There is probably an aspect of his life that any of us could relate to, which made him an ideal character for this type of novel.

The premise is that when you die, you meet five people in heaven that explain things to you. These people may or may not be the ones you expect, but each has something important to contribute. When you are finished, you will wait and be the guide for someone else. (If you’re like me you will spot a math error in this setup, but try to ignore it for the sake of the story.)

As a book about who we are and what our life is for, this is a good read, but not particularly deep or insightful. Give it a chance sometime when you want something light, short, and sweet.

Edits are in!

I’m not going to make this a long post, seeing as how I need to be working on getting the revisions done, but I did want to let everyone know that the edits for Touch of Fate are in. I don’t think I need to do any major rewriting on it, but there is definitely a moderat eamount of revision needed to turn this into an even better novel.

I did just finish reading the novel in its entirety for the first time in over a year. Looking at it from a fresher perspective than the last time, I was pleased to discover that I did a good job. Us writers do like to doubt ourselves, but while I found a few things to nip and tuck and a few places where a little extra description or backstory was warranted, I thought that overall I had written a good novel. I am now tackling the revision with renewed confidence.

Bragging Rights

It’s time to take some bragging rights in regards to my precautious son, Drake.He’s just seven months old and already he’s proving to be a very strong little boy. He started crawling before five months, cruising right on six, learned to pull himself to standing and sitting positions somewhere in all that, and is currently working on standing by himself. (He can only do it for a couple seconds so far.) I just needed to take the opportunity to say…wow!

Now, if only he would talk.

I will be 30 next year…

I turned 29 on June 10th. Apparently, I now have the option of remaining 29 from this year forward.

I will be 30 next year.

This past year has been one of the best of my life. Since turning 28, I had the best baby boy in the world (no bias, of course) and sold my first novel. I have been dreaming of doing both of those things for as long as I can remember.

So why wouldn’t I claim a year that was so full of life?

If I do not turn 30 next year, it will be because I have not fully lived the next year.

Release dates and marketing

Lida Quillen, the publisher at Twilight Times, has recently informed me that the tentative release date for “Touch of Fate” on e-book will be September 15th, 2006.

I am now working hard to put together a marketing campaign. Much of the success of a book, once it has been published, is directly related to how hard an author pushes his/her work. I’ve gotten this far. How silly would I be to let go of my dream when hard work is all that stands between it and me?

I have begun compiling ideas for selling the paperback version of this novel come next Spring, but my focus at the moment is on selling the e-book version, especially now that it has a tentative release date. I am targeting online conferences, making plans to host question and answer sessions (either live or through e-mail), putting my book’s information in the footer of every e-mail I send, and of course, keeping this web page up to date.

With the new release date I would expect to see more activity on this blog. I welcome questions and comments!