Category Archives: guest post

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Globalizing the literary landscape

Hey readers! Today I’m pleased to share a guest blog post from our bright and insightful intern Christa Angelios:

From Mallory Ortberg’s poem “Male Novelist Jokes” to Junot Diaz’s comment in the New Yorker on his MFA program – “that shit was too white” – it’s no secret that the world of literary classics is awash in a lack of diversity. Culturally diverse authors often assume pseudonyms or use initials to make themselves fit in more with what they see as expected of them – because they’re worried the sales numbers will be too low if they use their given names. They’re worried that the American public is simply not interested in hearing their stories, cultural stories.

There are, of course, authors who are pushing against this formulaic assimilation, and proving that diversity does not equal diminishing numbers. Khaled Hosseini’s wildly popular novel, THE KITE RUNNER; Matt de la Peña’s critically acclaimed piece, MEXICAN WHITEBOY; and Junot Diaz’s hailed work, THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, all attempt to diversify the modern literary landscape. Fortunately, my schools have not only respected diversity, but encouraged it. In high school, during my sophomore year, we read Jhumpa Lahiri’s INTERPRETER OF MALADIES along with a selection of short stories by Amy Tan, Sherman Alexie, and Junot Diaz. Diaz came to read at my high school that year, before which the administration begged him to keep his audience in mind and to tone down his presentation and after which the administration stood mortified when he chose to read some of the most colorful stories he had hand. Teachers were torn between admiring his bold rejection of censorship and finding his gall appalling. But despite the fact that the administration cracked down on a lot of smaller spoken-word performances after that, we still read works that broadened our cultural literary palate.

In college, I discovered that folklore held my literary heart. Celtic mythology, Grimm’s tales, and Russian skazkas could entertain me for a lifetime. And when I began writing culturally informed work, taking up the mission Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie expressed in her TED talk to prevent a culture from being distilled into a “single story,” my professors felt compelled to ask the question: what gives you the right to be writing about a culture that isn’t your own? My father is from Egypt, after all, so I have a rich ethnic history to draw from to which I could “appropriately” lay claim, and I admit that Ancient Egypt and the Arab Spring have captured my interest and imagination. But I count myself among what ethnically Indian author Pico Iyer, who feels he has not earned the “right” to call himself Indian because he didn’t know enough about the culture even if it was his ethnicity, calls an increasingly multicultural group for whom “home” is more of an intangible and ongoing project than a place. With no indication that globalization will be slowing down any time soon, what happens when our world becomes full of people who are of every nation – then whose “right” is it to lay claim to a nation’s culture?

These are not questions that the literary world can continue to ignore. Diversity should be recognized and celebrated across the board, not separated out into its own genre of “ethnic” work. In an interview with RonReads, young adult author Jenny Han said of her choice to include diversity in her work, “I want my books to look like the real world, and the real world is populated by all kinds of people.” It’s time the American literary landscape began reflecting the real world, too.

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A couple guest posts by our interns on what they’ve learned so far

A Little More Than Nothing About Publishing by Francis Adams

Today, when Mike asked me if I’d like to write something for the blog, I looked at him blankly, then said, “Sure!”, knowing full well that I had no idea what I was going to write about. After kicking around a few ideas, he suggested that I might talk about a few things I’ve learned about publishing since taking on this internship. After thinking about this for some time, I must say (in the spirit of Socrates) that the only thing I know for sure about publishing is that I know only a little more than nothing about publishing.

But upon further (and only somewhat more serious) reflection, I’ve come to the conclusion that the clearest glimpses I’ve gained into the world of publishing have come in the moments when I am doing the exact opposite of what I am supposed to be doing, or even what is socially acceptable! Let me explain. The truth is, I often find my attention drifting from the narrative of my n’th slush sample of the day, or the reader’s report I am writing, and zeroing in on the things going on around me—whether it be a phone conversation, a quick (or not-so-quick) glance at my fellow colleagues’ monitors (I hope that’s vague enough), or even, in the more extreme cases, overhearing someone interview for a job, or listening in on a meeting. When you’re new to a job, you tend to try to hold as much as possible to the conventional wisdom that tells you to always be focused and attentive to completing the task at hand, or on figuring out what new tasks need doing—in short, don’t slack off–but I have found that it is in the idlest of moments, when I let my focus drift momentarily from the task at hand, that I actually learn the most.

So when I try to pinpoint one thing, one overarching theme if you will, that these little diversions have alerted me to, I am forced to conclude, simply, that communication is paramount in this business. I say I am forced to conclude this only because nearly every glance to a monitor displays either an open email or twitter page, and nearly every phone conversation—especially if it is with an author—seems to be directed towards clarifying some misconception or making sure he or she knows what works, what doesn’t, and, overall what is marketable about the work.

I’d be interested to know if anyone else has experienced this irony—the realization that one has actually learned more by doing the opposite of what one is supposed to be doing, or even what is socially acceptable? If so, maybe it’s worth writing about …

 

The Ingredients of Book Publishing by Amy Hendricks

Before applying to internships, I knew I wanted to get into publishing somehow. Being able to work with books is a dream for any passionate reader, and I was eager to see what it would be like. I never realized just how many people are involved in the production of one book! From what I’ve gathered in the office, there’s the query to be read, calls to be made, publishers to shop around to, emails sent, financial negotiations, contracts to be signed, covers to design, and so so so much more. I’m not sure what I imagined before seeing it in action, but the most important ingredient in the recipe for a book seems to be a supportive team of ambitious agents.

One week in September I was able to help Lauren with the packaging and shipping of some boxes. This day of work entailed unpacking foreign copies of books and sorting then sending them to authors. It was a good day of work, and as someone with a bit of wanderlust it was interesting to see the different covers and titles of the same book throughout different countries. Lauren taught me how to decipher their country codes and send the books on their way, and I spent my commute home imagining the variety of languages these stories would be told in.

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned interning here is that there are so many good ideas out there! Reading queries and helping agents look over potential manuscripts has been an exciting part of this internship, and I am endlessly amazed by the wide range of stories which come into the office. The volume of queries is another thing I didn’t quite grasp the enormity of until I was sent an email with several attached at once. It has been so exciting to read some of these stories, and even if they don’t make the cut it is an honor to read something that has been worked on lovingly by someone.

Something I’ve learned, which pertains less to books and more to what it’s like working in an office, is that baked goods don’t last a long time in the kitchen here. I’ve been able to try out a few new recipes (like today’s White Chocolate Pumpkin Snickerdoodles) on everyone, and am happy to say I never need to cart leftovers home on the train!

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Intern Guest Post: Fan Fiction

Today we’re excited to welcome a guest contributor to our blog: one of our fabulous DGLM summer interns, Morgan Rath! Stay tuned after Morgan’s post to learn a little more about her.

Is fan fiction finally going to get its time in the spotlight? Fan fiction, a.k.a. fanfic, has been populating sites around the Internet for years. It gives writers a chance to create new stories involving some of their favorite people and existing characters. But following a new publishing deal from top publisher Simon & Schuster, fan fiction authors may have their chance to share their stories beyond just the Internet community.

Simon & Schuster’s Gallery Books imprint made a six-figure deal for worldwide and audio rights to a One Direction fanfic piece called After by Wattpad writer Anna Todd. The first book in the trilogy is expected to hit shelves in November, with the second two following in January and March of 2015. The series is about 18-year-old Tessa Young who falls for band member Harry Styles’ handsome looks and love of Jane Austen. The book also features appearances by the other four members of the internationally renowned boy band.

Adam Wilson acquired the series for Simon & Schuster. He said that the publishing house will have to cut out some sections of the book due to its length; however, they are going to try to keep the story as close to the original as possible, while still making modifications to attract traditional readers.

After reading through slush-pile submissions that make you wonder if the writer ever paid attention in high school English classes, I can’t help but wonder if there is some potential in looking to fanfic for the next big hit. The stories, about people and characters that a large readership already loves, will surely have a sizeable potential audience and revenue base. Todd’s trilogy alone has gotten over 800 million reads on Wattpad.

But on the opposite, more realistic side of my thinking, fanfic is not always too well written. I have a very hard time with the notion that fan fiction will become a regular source of new publishable material.

In addition, is it right for an author to capitalize on an already established celebrity? Todd did not personally create One Direction or any of the boys’ personas. But she did dream up the story and supplemental characters surrounding them in the trilogy. And after all, aren’t characters in books generally based on some aspects of the author’s life experiences and acquaintances? We all find ourselves identifying with characters in books. If people were not familiar with the band members, or if the names in Todd’s trilogy were changed, they would just come across as normal characters.

I guess all the fanfic aspiring authors will just have to wait and see how well Todd’s trilogy does in the big leagues. In the meantime, what do you think about the Simon & Schuster deal? Do you believe that fan fiction has potential in the publishing world? Do you think it’s wrong for authors to write about characters they did not solely create?

Morgan Rath is from western New York and currently studying at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. She may be pursuing a journalism degree, but Morgan’s true passion lies in the publishing world. For as long as she can remember, Morgan has loved to read. While most kids would go to the mall to look for clothes, Morgan would find herself spending hours in the Barnes & Noble browsing through all the shelves. When Morgan discovered that she could turn her love of reading into a career, she vowed that someday she would make her way into the NYC publishing scene.

Morgan is particularly drawn to Young Adult novels and Women’s fiction. She also loves a good romance, but nothing too cheesy. However, like any bookworm, her interests expand to all genres. It is safe to assume if you put a book in her hands, Morgan will read it.

If you’re interested in interning with DGLM this fall, or if you know of someone who is, contact Mike Hoogland.

 

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Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade, the finale

Molly O’Neill: It’s our final installment of Everything You Wanted To Know About Middle Grade and Weren’t Afraid To Ask! Michael and I could probably talk even longer about this topic—but when we’re blogging, we’re not signing/acquiring/editing the next Great American Middle Grade Novel, so….priorities!

One thing that I notice a lot about middle grade is that I see the same ideas over and over again, in countless submissions. We’ve already talked about creativity in Part One and Part Two of this series, but I think it’s a point worth coming back to again as we wind things up. Michael, what do you think: if there’s truth to that myth that there are only seven (or 3 or 20, etc, depending which expert you ask) basic plots, how does any writer create a story that feels fresh and exciting and unique?

Michael Bourret: That’s the challenge, isn’t it?  (Dramatic announcer voice) In a world where tens of thousands of novels a published a year, and it seems that every story has been told, how can authors writer something worthwhile, interesting and original? (End dramatic announcer voice.) I don’t think it’s easy, but I know it’s possible. I read new things every day, published and yet-to-be published that knock my socks off. Things that strike me as truly original, even if I can trace back elements of the stories to classic books like The Chronicles of Narnia or Phantom Tollbooth. A story may well be familiar: kid travels from ordinary world to magical one, learns things, grows up. (Which, by the way, is the experience of reading a book.) But that familiar story looks different through the lens of different authors. C.S. Lewis write a Christian parable, whereas Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer created a fantastic world of abstract concepts come to life. A more modern example is a series by Dale Basye that I represent. In the Heck books, a brother and sister are navigating a child’s version of hell. Inspired by Dante’s Inferno, there’s also a good dose of Norman Juster in the wordplay and smart-silliness. But the voice and point of view are very unique, and you certainly wouldn’t confuse it with either of those forebears.  Even if there are, say, a million stories, they’ve all be told already. The details are in the telling.

MO: Michael, it sounds like we’ve come to very similar conclusions: that the details of a middle grade story are so often where the magic is. A lot of time, it’s the details that make a story memorable. In fact, it’s often those same specific details that we remember, months or years after reading a book, rather than the plot itself. So on a craft-level, how does one build a story with the kinds of rich details that make it feel like a story that’s all-new? I think a key to it is being careful that your story does not become too singularly-focused and one-note in its telling. It’s all well and good to drive toward the ending from the moment you’ve begun your story—a story that meanders or doesn’t really know where it’s trying to go can get confusing or dull, after all—but if it’s too predictable, it can fall flat, or a reader may forget it almost as soon as they’ve finished reading it, or a reader may get bored because it’s too obvious where the story is going and there’s nothing really enticing to “find out” by reading more.

One thing that I notice time and again about the middle grade writers I publish, and also many that I don’t publish but that I admire, is the ability of their authors to take a handful of seemingly-disparate ingredients, ones that seem to have nothing in common at the story’s outset, and then weave and wind them together as the story progresses. The subplots that those details form can give a story more depth and range, and they also enliven it and create the unexpected twists and moments that keep you eager to read on. I’ll give two quick examples from my own list to explain exactly what I mean. If you boiled down Kathryn Fitzmaurice’s THE YEAR THE SWALLOWS CAME EARLY to its most basic nugget, it’s a story about something valuable that is stolen, and a young girl who has to deal with the ramifications of that loss. But it’s also a story about cooking, illegal immigration, friendship, bird migration, family, earthquakes, addiction, hair salons, and chocolate-covered strawberries. Those things don’t seem like they should go together—but they do, and learning precisely how is part of what makes the story so memorable. In the same way, the simplest core of Bobbie Pyron’s A DOG’S WAY HOME is that two friends, girl and dog, lose each other and must journey to find each other again. But how does that have anything to do with Nashville’s country music scene, or mapmaking, or a celebrity’s daughter? Those unexpected twisty sidenotes and subplots of the story make it a richer read than if it were simply a straightforward journey from points A to B with no other details in-between.

MB: Yes, yes, yes. I agree with all of those things. Great authors imbue their stories with particular details, both in terms of plot, setting, character and voice, that make them unique, interesting, and singular. What interesting to me is that as a reader, I can easily see the elements of a novel that make it stand out from the pack, and I don’t mean as a trained reader or agent. I think anyone who reads enough can point to the things that really make a book shine. But it constructing a book, writers can find it difficult to inject their stories with the necessary elements. This proves that not every reader is a writer (though as a non-writing reader, that I already knew!), and it also shows how hard it is to construct a book that’s satisfying on all levels.

And, as we’re wrapping up our discussion, I think that’s the thing I most want to stress to authors: while agents and editors are going to help you dig deep and make your book the best it can be, ask yourself if your book is firing on all cylinders. Is the central conflict/conceit compelling? Are the stakes high enough? Is my protagonist interesting/appealing/real? Have I given a good sense of the setting? Is the point of view the best one from which to tell this story? Is the voice helping to tell the story the best way possible? I don’t want you to spend the rest of your life locked in your basement fixing the story over and over, but it’s important to understand how to make your work as finished, polished and compelling as you can. Too much of what I see that is merely good instead of great is just under-baked.

MO: I don’t think I can say it better than Michael just did. There are so many steps to writing, and so many layers of refining involved. And while many exciting things can happen after you sign with an agent or get a book deal, you also become a part of a whole company’s processes at that point, and it can get busy, fast. Before you aim for that, be sure you’ve given enough time to your OWN processes. I think writers rarely get the chance to be as creative as when they’re in the creative stages of developing a new story – so don’t short-circuit your own creative potential by rushing to get to market too fast; in the end you could end up cheating yourself and your potential readers. And the great thing is, especially for middle grade writers, that there will always be new readers emerging, waiting for great stories.

Another thing I’ve been thinking more and more about lately is that, yeah,  we’re all consuming far more information, thanks to the internet, Twitter, etc. But pretty quickly, the seemingly-helpful internet can become an echo chamber of everyone seeing and hearing and talking about basically the same ten things each week that have loped the internet and gone viral. And I’m not convinced that the viral internet is an environment that breeds personal creativity—for a few it might, but for others, it might actually stunt creativity. So be sure you take time AWAY from the things that everyone else is thinking and talking about, in pursuit of the original, the unique, and the things that drive YOU versus all the other writers in the world. Visit new places and read old books you stumble across in used bookstores and talk to interesting strangers and throw yourself into unexpected situations and visit museums and go down bizarre and uncommon internet rabbit holes on Wikipedia or via StumbleUpon…in short, give yourself an environment in which you can try (and fail) in following different fascinations, and in discovering things that refresh your curiosity and sharpen your ability to recognize when you’ve had an idea that’s really special, one worth devoting months and years to as a writer. It’s no coincidence that some of the best writers I’ve ever met are also some of the most curious-about-the-world-and-all-the-people-in-it I’ve ever met, too.

MB: Oh, the rabbit hole that is Wikipedia. I’ve learned more about Morgellons and conspiracy theories that I ever intended. (Also, if you have any novels about Morgellons or conspiracy theories, I can assure you that both Lauren Abramo and I will be interested.) But Molly’s advice is excellent. It’s important to break out of your comfort zones and explore the world. Writers need inspiration, and our increasingly digital world provides opportunities to learn and grow, but it can also become, as Molly so well said, and echo chamber that just reinforces what a writer already “knows.”

I’m a little sad to be wrapping up our conversation on middle grade, but I feel like we’ve both said everything we set out to say, and I hope we’ve answered most of your questions. Since I’m wrapping things up, here are my final thoughts: if you take nothing else from what we’ve written here, I know we both feel that the focus of the writer should be on craft. You may know the market, know the players, have been to the conferences, but that all means bupkis if you haven’t taken the time to develop your work. Because in the end, it all comes down to the words on the page.

Thanks again for reading, and for your patience while we battled sickness and deadlines. You can catch me here, and Molly over at her blog. Thanks!

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Everything you ever wanted to know about middle grade…and were willing to ask

As promised, editor Molly O’Neill and I are going to have a dialogue about middle grade. After a lot of thought, we decided to have a conversation via email that we’d transcribe (minus our distracting tangents). Your questions as we go will help shape the discussion, just as your questions are getting us started, so let us know what you think!

MB: It seems only natural to start with this question (plus, you told me to): What is middle grade? It seems a much simpler question at first glance. If we’re looking at bookstore sections, it’s the 9 – 12 part of B&N. These aren’t chapter books or early readers, which are usually quite short, often in series, usually contain education content, and are aimed at a slightly younger audience, 6 – 8 year olds. But they’re also not teen novels, which are usually categorized as 12 and up (though can be 14 and up when there’s more “content”). YA novels often deal with more “controversial” subject matter, and often involve romantic story lines. But that brings us back to the question, what is middle grade? We can define it by age group, but I’d argue that classifying by content is more difficult.

MO: As you know, I have a marketing background, which means that whether or not I intend it, one of the first things my brain starts thinking about for a book is its readership: who is a book FOR? What kind of reader is it going to reach, and how? Maybe instead of asking “What is middle grade?” it’s easier to think about “Who is the middle grade reader, and what is he/she looking for in a book?”

I think that a middle grade reader is often (and note, I’m speaking BROADLY, here) reading for one of two reasons: to understand, or to escape. Middle grade readers who read to understand look for stories that help them piece together the truths that seem to be opening up all around them, about the world and their place in it, and the connections between themselves and their family, their community, their friends, etc. Or they’re reading to understand about a different time/ place and what it was/would be like to be a kid then. Or they’re reading to just understand how stuff works, period—from the everyday mundane stuff to big concepts like justice and honesty and friendship and happiness and love.

The middle grade reader who reads to escape is the kid who is commonly BORED—like middle-of-summer-vacation-bored!—with his/her ordinary life, yet has no means for alleviating that boredom, or even escaping his/her house or classroom. Or maybe he/she is craving excitement or adventure or entertainment or a sense of power and autonomy that family and school simply don’t offer. So that reader dives into an epic story, or something quirky or witty or fantastical or humorous, in order to escape and live in someone else’s world for a while.

The trick is, most middle grade readers are BOTH of those readers at various points, one who wants to understand AND to escape (I certainly was, anyway). So there’s not just one kind of story that appeals to them, which means that middle grade books can be ABOUT anything. So maybe the line between middle grade and YA maybe has more to do with perspective than content?

MB: As publishing professionals, we’re always asking ourselves the question Molly posed above (paraphrasing): Who is the reader for this book? On the one hand, I sometimes wish writers wouldn’t ask themselves that question, at least not at the outset. Too many times, I get a submission and it’s clear that the writer is writing to a specific market or reader. A symptom of this problem that I see very often in middle grade submissions is “writing down” to the reader. This is can take the form of trying-too-hard dialogue (“Zoinks, bud! We need to skedaddle out of here before our ‘rents come biz-ack.”), narrator-as-character (think Lemony Snicket done badly), or message-driven novels (books written only to teach a lesson). On the other hand, it’s important to think about your reader, especially during revision. I always encourage my clients to be as creative and rule-breaking as they want when conceiving of ideas or writing initial drafts, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t then rein things in based on market expectations. For instance, one of the mistakes I see all too often is a mismatch between the age of the protagonist and the intended reader. A 12 year old doesn’t want to read about a protagonist who’s 8 or 80–they want to read about someone in the same general age group.

How to figure out what the audience wants? Do what I always recommend: read. Go to the bookstore and buy some of the recently-published* middle grade. This will give you a good idea of what the audience is looking for, and just how broad the category is.

*Please, please, please: don’t reference books published decades ago as comparisons for your books. What worked years ago probably doesn’t work now–trends and tastes change. “But The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe still sells!” you say. Classic books sell because they are classics, and I would argue that many of them would not find an audience today.

MO: Oh, I heartily second the need to read recently-published books, even if you’re a great appreciator of the classics! Unless you have a time-travel machine to go back to a different era in publishing to sell your book, it’s today’s market and audience a new book you’re trying to sell it to. Someone asked in the comments about whether there’s a middle grade canon and I think there’s a canon in every genre of literature, even if its an informal one—that’s why it’s so important to read widely, to have a sense of where your book fits and be able to articulate the things that both make it a natural fit within the genre AND a stand-out addition to the genre.

Speaking of problems you often see, I think one of the most common ones I run across in middle grade is “low stakes.” I think this can happen as a result of writers wanting to make a story feel familiar, but when I was a kid, other people’s lives always felt more interesting than my own, so why would I want to read about everyday, average things like homework and piano lessons and third-period math class all over again? I guess I’m trying to say that there can be a fine line between stories that feel familiar and those that feel, well, dull. This is a big reason I often encourage my authors to push past their initial ideas and explore the unknown creative wilds beyond the very first idea/solution/problem/mystery/story point/etc that they think of – because often the really fresh ideas live deep in writer’s minds, not at the very forefront. Like you said, Michael, you can always rein an idea in later, but too much of the middle grade that crosses my desk in submission feels like it never got a chance to be as creative as it maybe could have been.

Of course, sometimes it’s not always the idea that is the magical part of the story—an incredible voice or character can make even the most average story-moments feel vivid and memorable. But that’s just it—memorable is important. I think about middle grade being the time when a lot of readers discover “that book”—the one that turns them into a lifelong reader, or explodes their world open with new ideas, or shares exactly the right truth at exactly the right moment in a way they’ll never forget. You know, any time I tell people at a social event like a wedding or a party what I do for a living, there’s an odd compulsion—people simply HAVE to tell me what their favorite book was as a kid. And as an editor, those are the kind of books I want to publish—the ones that a reader of today will recall decades from now as being “that book.”

MB: I think it’s great that you bring up the issue of stakes, which can be an issue in any sort of novel. What’s on the line for the protagonist? What makes this story important enough to tell? To be clear, that doesn’t mean that you can’t be writing wonderful, contemporary, realistic middle grade. One question we got (perhaps from a client of mine) was, is there room for a “quiet” middle grade novel? I’d argue that the best books, even when they’re not deal with the end of the world or magic, aren’t really “quiet.” They may be a smaller story, with very real, relatable stakes. But if the story is constructed well, and the voice is strong, the writer can make us care very much what happens in these more everyday struggles. While not contemporary, The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt comes to mind.

As an agent, I too have spent my my career looking for those kinds of books. Books that have a lasting impact on readers, that stick with them long after they’ve turned the final page. It’s why I keep hunting for great middle grade.

MO: And as a matter of fact, I think it’s why we’re doing this blog conversation. And it’s getting good! But now we have to get back to work. Check back late next week for a second installment, on Molly’s blog.

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Beta reader basics, a guest post

by Jim

For something a little different today, we have a guest blog post from my wonderful and talented client Jennifer Schubert whose hugely exciting thriller, BROKEN, is out on submission right now!

Jenn contacted me last week about whether we wanted to post on our thoughts on authors critiquing each other’s work. But ours is such an outsider’s perspective on this. My take is that feedback is always wonderful if you can take it in constructively. I’ve never been in the position of taking it since I don’t write, and when I offer it, it’s from a sales perspective. So I thought it made more sense for the expert herself to offer up some bon mots. And happily, Jenn provided us with the below!

Why a beta reader?

Every writer needs feedback. We crave it, for one. That’s what writing is about, the exhibition of the soul, the desire to tell a story and to be judged by it. Every piece of work should be run through a filter, preferably an impartial one, to show where we’re going wrong. Because we are going wrong somewhere. No one is perfect. Everything can stand improvement.

One of the best learning tools is to switch sides and be a beta reader. I’ve learned as much about writing by critiquing others’ works as I have by writing myself. It’s much easier to see the flaws in other people’s work than our own.

How to give a crit without breaking a heart

I’ve been privileged to do a lot of beta reading in my writing journey. I’m a believer in the “sandwich” technique: single out a good thing first, then tackle some of the problem areas, and close with another good thing. Not everyone agrees with this approach, but I’ve found people respond better if criticism is softened with praise, and there’s always something to praise. (An English teacher of mine used to tell people, a bit desperately, “You have lovely handwriting.”)

How to take a crit without throwing a fit

The reaction to a critique ranges widely, but generally falls into two categories. The first group meets a critique, no matter how gentle, with defensiveness. Their reaction is to argue. You, the beta reader, just didn’t understand what the writer was trying to say. Sure, you say, but if you have to explain it to me, it wasn’t very well-written, was it?

The second group says “thank you” and buckles down to edits. A few hours, days, or weeks later, you get the material back and it’s better. You suggest more changes, more tweaks. They go back to work. Maybe the end result isn’t perfect, but they’re willing to work hard to make it as good as it can be.

Like many of us, I started out in the first, or thin-skinned, group. I was fortunate to have a mentor who talked me out of that. Because I wanted to be a writer so badly, I toughened up. Of course hearing that your work isn’t letter-perfect is hard, but the critiquer’s job is to help. Maybe they’re paying it forward. Maybe they believe in you, believe in your work, and want to help make it better.

My question for you is: which group are you in? Are you thin-skinned, or are you tough enough to take a critique designed to help make your writing better? And are you critiquing for others? If so, what are you learning from it?