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Posted originally on April 21, 2010, but the content has since been slightly edited for better context.

 

The art of writing — though on some days, writing feels more like a science experiment gone wrong — is a slippery slope. The faster you try to scale the incline, the faster you lose your foothold and scramble downwards.

I believe writing is something that you discover, experience and learn over time and with patience and perseverance.

As I gather information about literary agents, editors, submission guidelines et al, I keep hearing two words – loud and clear – again and again. Critique Group. That seems to be the mantra today in the writing business, and rightly so!

As the publishing industry stands today, most of the houses are refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. In plain speak, they are not accepting manuscripts that come directly, if they are not exclusively requested by them, from the author. They will only look at manuscripts that reached their tables through a literary agent. This guarantees, for them, that the manuscript has gone through at least one round of checking for marketability and viability, along with some editing.

Literary agents, I hear, in turn want to make sure that the manuscript that they consider has at least been objectively reviewed. And this is where our two magic words come in.

A critique group consists of, as its name suggests, a group of people (writers in this case) who come together to critique each other’s work, objectively. Now, that last word is key. So, who constitutes a good critique group for you? A group of writers who are serious about writing, and are willing to be interested in your work enough to be critical about it.

Choose a group that fits your personality and your expectations of the level of critique. This is very important, or you’d be left being part of a group that does nothing for your learning process. It also helps to have the various members of the group writing for different age groups and in various genres. This provides for a better scope of learning.

I have been part of a face-to-face critique group for several years — I’ve been lucky enough to find peers (now my dear friends) who enhance my writing experience in all aspects. This may not always be the case. In which case, try different groups until you can find one that suits your needs.

Online critique groups are in now. And why not? They have some advantages (along with disadvantages, of course) over the traditional group. They eliminate the need for meeting in person at a fixed time – you can work at your own pace and time. The same point may also sometimes work as a drawback. Due to lack of a restriction in meeting time, others things may bump critiquing down the list when your plate is full.

It is also advised that you belong to more than one group in order to get as varied and in-depth an input on your work as possible.

This is what my critique group has been for me when it came to my writing:

–          My support group

–          My coaches

–          My cheering squad

–          My fellow-students

–          The harshest critics of my work

And I wouldn’t want them any other way. I have been fortunate enough to find a group where everyone is serious about writing and is committed to the mutual growth of every member as a writer.

In short, your critique group is a big part of your writing family.

Here are some basics that my group follows implicitly:

When you are offering a critique:

  • Begin the critique you’re offering with positive feedback.
  • Any comments (even the negatives you bring up) can and should be made constructively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear kid gloves every time you offer a negative comment, but it doesn’t hurt to modulate it.
  • Offer your opinions as such and not as hard facts, because they are just that – your opinions.
  • Critique the work and not the writer. Refrain from using words like: “You said here…”. Instead, say, “This character sounds older than his age.” etc.
  • Remember that if a character expresses debatable opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the author subscribes to those opinions.

When you are receiving critique:

  • Be open-minded. You are asking for feedback, so be prepared to hear both positive and negative comments. In fact, be hopeful that you will receive more of the second kind, which will help you better your work.
  • Remember you are not your work – learn to effectively divorce yourself from your writing. This will allow you to receive comments/critiques much more openly.
  • Be respectful of others’ opinions. You have asked for them.
  • Finally, week after week, if all you hear is “Wonderful work”, “Nothing amiss” etc., then it is time to look for another group.

Did you notice something?

The principles above do not necessarily apply to only writing. They hold equally well to any other situation in life.

Consider the following scenarios, for instance:

–          You are required to review a technical document written by a peer.

–          You are discussing right and wrong with your child.

–          You are trying to pitch a new idea to your boss.

–          You are bargaining for a car at the dealership.

Aren’t the above rules relevant to these settings, too?

I think that’s the beauty of belonging to any group that thrives on the principle of give-and-take. It provides you with the discipline needed not only to have a better life in a particular field, but a better life. Period.

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Below is some good advice I gleaned over the past few months, talking to/communicating with fellow-writers, reading blogs, perusing books on writing, and attending talks and conferences.

Almost all of the points sound simple enough to be obvious, and some of them border on being trite. However, sometimes, saying out loud something I already know makes it more immediate, and I begin to pay better attention to it.

  • Write Anyway: One of my readers had left this advice in the comments of this blog a while ago. (Thanks, Sharmon!) I think it makes a lot of sense to keep writing even when you feel like you’re not doing it right. That way, you’re not leaving a chink open for writer’s block to edge in. Also, once you write a scene or a chapter, even if you think it’s not up to par, you can always chip it away or embellish it later and transform it into a full-bodied scene. In case you can’t do that, think of it this way: you’ve learned how “not” to write via this exercise.

 

  • Always Carry a Notebook and a Pen: You never know when you may come upon an incident or a quote that you’d like to record to use later in your writing. Or, it may even happen that when you’re waiting for your train at the subway or at a café for your chai latte, inspiration strikes. You don’t want to cast about for a paper and pen at that point; you wouldn’t want your finicky muse to move on because of unpreparedness on your part, would you?

 

  • Develop Your Own Routine: Most successful and prolific writers have a set routine they follow for writing. This is easier to do if writing is your day job, but even otherwise, it’s best if you could develop the discipline of a strict routine and write every day.

 

  • Read Voraciously: Read as many books as you can, especially in the age group and genre you’re writing. Notice what works and what doesn’t in each of those books. This is by far the best, and cheapest, way to learn how to write.

 

  • Get Involved in the Writing Community: Immerse yourself in the large community of writers out there, be it via blogging or attending conferences or becoming a member of writing societies or being part of a critique group or all of the above. All these motivate you to keep forging ahead. Not only that, but they also help you make connections which in turn provide you with opportunities to learn.

 

  • Enjoy Your Work: Deadlines, self-imposed or otherwise, are good. However, don’t let them corner you; enjoy the whole process.

 

  • KISS: And when it comes to the actual writing itself, KISS: Keep It Simple and more Simple. (Okay, actually the second “S” stands for “Stupid,” but I like this version better. Otherwise it sounds as if writers should dumb their writing down for readers, which would be wrong counsel.) Use words sparingly. Choose the most effective path of writing to convey your point.

 

This list pretty much applies to any kind of writing, not just writing non-fiction or fiction. If you’ve ever written a story, a memo, an essay for college admission, or a letter to someone, chances are you’ve used one or more of these principles.

What would you like to add to this list? Words of caution, encouragement, opinions, admonitions, you name it, anything is welcome!

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Recently, I began to read chapter books (younger middle grade) for research purposes. I started with books by the prolific author, Judy Blume.

I instantly observed a trend in these books. The more I read the more obvious the pattern seemed. Finally, it got to the point where my research came down to reading for the sake of noticing the trend rather than the content and how the plot is handled.

I realized then that I needed to get the question burning inside me answered before I could get back to reasonable research mode.

That’s when I decided to pose the question to Laura Backes, one of the editors of Children’s Book Insider Newsletter.

Here’s the question I posted in the chat forum in CBI Clubhouse (by the way, this site holds a wealth of information about writing for children. If you haven’t checked it out already, you should!) and Laura’s answer to it:

  • Hema : Laura, as a novice to writing children’s fiction, I come across the phrase “show, don’t tell” quite a bit. However, now that I’m reading chapter books (by Judy Blume, among others), I notice that for this age group, most authors tell more than show. The narrator is usually made to give a funny account of the incidents rather than showing them. Is this the norm for this age group, or is it a case of “established authors get away with breaking rules, but not unpublished ones”? Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Thanks!

 

  • Laura Backes : Hema: Good question about “show, don’t tell.” First of all, if you’re reading novels that were written before the early 1990’s (as were many of Judy Blume’s) then there will be more telling. That’s just the older writing style. Today, editors expect authors to do more showing. And if the story is written in first person, then essentially the entire book is the narrator’s dialogue. Telling takes place more often in dialogue.

“Showing” is most important when describing a character’s traits (don’t say she’s “sweet”, show us her sweet nature through her actions), a character’s feelings (avoid phrases like “he felt sad” or “she was scared”; instead, use body language, action and dialogue), or in describing the physical aspects of a person or setting.

Ah! So, it was not the age group for which it was written, but the “age” of the book itself that dictated the style that I observed.

As Laura so rightly points out, writing style seems to have changed quite a bit over the past few decades. In the past, it was not such a no-no to just make one of the characters (or the narrator) “tell” a bit of the back story, while “showing” for the rest of the book. But, not so now!

Writers have to be extremely wary of falling into the trap of telling a story as opposed to showing it. (Hmm… does it mean that the word “story-telling” should be changed to “story-showing”?)

I’m not saying that this new trend is bad; not at all. “Showing” an incident makes it stand out better than “telling” it. This technique also makes the book better and interesting — it keeps the writing more active, even if the method itself is a little harder to master.

I began to mull over how this shift in writing has come into existence, and why it is so rooted in the publishing industry (I never noticed how this works in adult books, but I’m guessing it is about the same, but I’ll stick to children’s literature here) now.

I came up with the following reasons as to why this writing model may have become the vogue:

  • Children have so many ways to entertain themselves (aka distractions): video games, T.V shows, interactive toys, and movies to just name a few. Yes, there are books, too, but they don’t figure at the top of this list for the majority of the kids. Why? Because they are the least interactive of the lot.

So, books have some stiff competition and cannot afford to be considered boring even for one page, or they’ll be set aside for better entertainment devices. One way for books to avoid being overlooked is to get as close to being interactive and sensational as possible.

 

  • Children these days are so used to everything (toys, shows, movies) imagining things for them ready-made that they are prepared to tax themselves a little less than the previous generations by reading something and imagining it for themselves. “Showing” helps them picture what’s going on in the book a little more easily.

 

  • From parents’ perspective, a DVD costs almost the same as a book. If a book fails to grab the attention of their child, then why not spend the same amount of money wisely on something (like the DVD) that does successfully keep the kid’s attention?

 

  • All things considered and with the economy the way it is, agents, editors and publishers do not want to back up any book that may not have captured the imagination of a large audience, and does not promise to keep the attention span of the children and their parents for a long time.

Basically, the parameters of what makes a book “good” have changed and are evolving every day.

A couple of decades from now, we may see technological advances that we cannot even imagine today. I wonder where that leaves books?

What changes and trends in writing styles do you suppose those advancements will demand from writers?

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I mentioned in my post last Monday that I happened to go to an Agent/Editor Day ten days ago, held by the local chapter of SCBWI.

I already shared with you my impressions from the topic discussed by Rachel Orr, the agent from Prospect Agency.

Now I present my impressions of what Margaret Miller, the other speaker for the day, had to share with all the writers gathered to hear her talk.

Margaret Miller is an editor for Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA, having moved there from Harper Collins Children’s Books in summer 2008. Authors she has worked with include Dan Gutman, Daniel Pinkwater, Philemon Sturges, Ann Rinaldi, and Kathy Lasky. At Bloomsbury, she will focus on middle grade and Young Adult fiction, with a few select picture books.

Margaret’s topic for the day was:

Working with an Editor: Your Bill of Rights – What to expect when you’re working with an editor when you, the writer, decides to submit your work directly to an editor at a publishing house without the aid of a literary agent.

Margaret basically explained the nuts and bolts of the relationship between an editor and an author at various stages of the book’s life:

  • Before a writer submits his/her manuscript to an editor.
  • When a writer gets an offer from an editor.
  • During the editing process.
  • After the editing process is finished.

She had this to say about what an editor means to an author:

  • an advisor
  • a champion
  • a therapist
  • a cheer leader
  • the one person who will read your manuscript with the utmost attention

She encouraged writers to:

  • keep their relationship with their editor professional (it means do not call her every single day, please!)
  • choose an editor who will help them to fulfill their vision for their book and
  • choose a literary agent to represent them, if possible.

One point that Margaret made in the course of her talk heartened me, because it is one aspect of the publishing industry today that keeps me awake at nights: book promotion by the author.

Let me explain.

Looks like in this technology-crazy world (sorry, I know that’s a strong statement, but isn’t it true though?), everybody’s attention is being pulled in several directions every second. So, most everyone is, whether willingly or unwillingly, trying to promote themselves and/or their products.

Authors and their books are no exception. Even if each publishing house has its own publicity and sales force, authors are expected to work hard at self-promotion and also at publicizing their books.

This includes school visits, making use of internet as a tool, book signing tours etc.

I hear everywhere these days how important it is to brand yourself, as an author, in order to promote your work. This means hosting your own web site in addition to blogging, face-booking, tweeting, and networking in all sorts of ways that you can think of.

That is all well and good, but the amount of time that an author has to put into publicizing his/her one book is time that the author spends on:

  • not working at her craft
  • not putting time into his next project
  • not working at improving her style and content
  • not networking with a very important group of people: his core critique group
  • not taking some time to relax and rejuvenate herself, before she can tackle all those ideas hammering at her brain

Yes, these all worry me.

That’s why I loved what Margaret had to say before she went on to answer questions:

It is good to network, but not networking won’t necessarily make or break your book.

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That title caught your attention, didn’t it?

Did it make you think that there was an editor and an agent dueling for my manuscript? Ah, a woman can dream aspire, can’t she?

But that is not at all what’s happening. I happened to go to a conference last weekend, held by our local chapter of SCBWI. It was an Agent/Editor Day.

Rachel Orr, a literary agent from Prospect Agency, and Margaret Miller, an editor from Bloomsbury Children’s Books USA, came to our chapter, and spent valuable time:

  • providing critiques to some local writers of children’s literature and
  • providing information and encouragement to a roomful of writers

It was a very interesting day for me. I hadn’t been in a room choking with so many like-minded people in a while. Whichever way I turned, I could, without much effort, decipher the looks in the eyes, and the words spilling out of the mouths.

Nobody had to explain the jargon to anyone, and nobody had to stop and ask “You know what I mean?”

It was as if there were a hundred of me (looking and sounding as different I as I could get) aspiring for the same thing. It was most inspirational and uplifting and humbling all at the same time.

My Impressions of the guest speakers:

I haven’t had a chance to meet with either of them in person and hold a conversation, but from having heard them address us all, I’d say they are funny, witty and quite down to earth.

Prospect Agency’s web site says this of Rachel Orr:

Rachel Orr joined Prospect Agency in 2007 after eight rewarding years editing children’s books for Harper Collins. She enjoys the challenge of tackling a wide variety of projects and is particularly looking for middle-grade and YA novels right now, as well as the next big picture-book illustrator.

Rachel values her close relationships with authors and believes that nothing feels as good as a fresh, clean line edit.

Rachel chose a wonderful topic, and a very timely one for me, since I’m in the midst of a revision for my novel. Here are my impressions from what she had to share with us:

Topic: Character and Voice

The character in a book should be:

– Likeable: Make them likeable, but not entirely good and picture-perfect. Make the antagonists agreeable, too.

The characters should be likeable enough to make the reader want to go on reading the book.

– Changeable: Books should show how the characters grow. The change in them could be driven by one of an internal, external or a global change.

Original: Make the characters well-rounded and not flat.

–  Believable:  Characters should be true to their age, gender and the time period in which they live.

In a nutshell: The more the author understands a character, the more the reader will.

Voice: The voice of a character is what sets it apart from the others in the book.

– Catch phrases, rhythm and dialogue, when used in the right manner can help set the voice of not only the characters but the book.

Margaret Miller also chose a very interesting topic to share with us:

Working with an Editor: Your Bill of Rights.

I’m going to share with you all my impressions of her topic, next week.

I’m going to end today’s post on a small anecdote (if it can even be called that), that you all may appreciate.

Four of us were returning to the conference venue after lunch, when suddenly, one friend exclaimed, “This is why writers get killed all the time!” I was startled out of the discussion I was having with the other two ladies, and quickly looked around.

She was right! The four of us were so immersed in our own world that we had stopped dead, as one body, in the middle of the road and were swapping stories with each other oblivious to how we were offering ourselves up for possible annihilation.

Okay, so annihilation was just a little dramatic, but hope it helps make my point.

Not just writers – isn’t this the case when any two meet, who are of the same mind?

I find it most exhilarating when I look into a pair of eyes, not my own, and surprise the dream – the same one that I have been cherishing – smoldering in them, patiently biding its time.

 

P.S:

  • I have a topic quite as interesting, but of a very different sensibility, lined up for you this Thursday. Please be sure to tune back in!!

 

  • I’m going to blog only two days a week from this week onwards – every Monday and Thursday. I enjoy blogging, almost a little too much, if I have to be honest :0). Lately, I have realized, however much you may deny the fact, that there are only 24 hours in a day.

And there are only so many words within that time period that your brain can willingly put to paper. The time has come for me to divert a little of that time and some of those words into finishing my novel.

Hope you’ll all forgive me this indiscretion and still keep popping by my blog, as you so kindly have so far, and continue to root for me? Thank you!

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I have never been more in awe of whoever it was that had coined the phrase “Ignorance Is Bliss”. Truer words have not been spoken. That person must have been knee-deep in documents related to the world of writing when s/he had an epiphany and yelled those words out.

No, seriously, the more I research the publishing industry and the business side of writing, the more I become aware that it is an infinite ocean.

The art of writing – though on some days, writing feels more like a science experiment gone wrong – is a slippery slope. The faster you try to scale the slope, the faster you lose your foothold and scramble downwards.

I believe writing is something that you discover, experience and learn over time and with patience and perseverance.

As I gather information about literary agents, editors, submission guidelines et al, I keep hearing two words – loud and clear – again and again. Critique Group. That seems to be the mantra today in the writing business, and rightly so!

As the publishing industry stands today, most of the houses are refusing to accept unsolicited manuscripts. In plain speak, they are not accepting manuscripts that come directly, if they are not exclusively requested by them, from the author. They will only look at manuscripts that reached their tables through a literary agent. This guarantees, for them, that the manuscript has gone through at least one round of checking for marketability and viability, along with some editing.

Literary agents, I hear, in turn want to make sure that the manuscript that they consider has at least been objectively reviewed. And this is where our two magic words come in.

A critique group consists of, as its name suggests, a group of people (writers in this case) who come together to critique each other’s work, objectively. Now, that last word is key.

So, who constitutes a good critique group for you? A group of writers who are serious about writing, and are willing to be interested in your work enough to be critical about it.

Choose a group that fits with your personality and your expectations of the level of critique. This is very important, or you’d be left being part of a group that does nothing for your learning process.

It also helps to have the various members of the group writing for different age groups and in various genres. This provides for a better scope of learning.

I have been part of a face-to-face critique group for almost a year — I’ve been lucky enough to find my peers (now my dear friends) on my first try.

I’m told this is not always so. In which case, try different groups until you can find one that suits your needs.

Online critique groups are in now. And why not? They have some advantages (along with disadvantages, of course) over the traditional group. They eliminate the need for meeting in person at a fixed time – you can work at your own pace and time. The same point may also sometimes work as a drawback. Due to lack of a restriction in meeting time, others things may bump critiquing down the list when your plate is full.

It is also advised that you belong to more than one group, in order to get as varied and in-depth an input on your work as possible.

This is what my critique group has been for me when it came to my writing:

–          My support group

–          My coaches

–          My cheering squad

–          My fellow-students

–          The harshest critics of my work

And I wouldn’t want them any other way. I have been fortunate enough to find a group where everyone is serious about writing and is committed to the mutual growth of every member as a writer.

In short, your critique group is a big part of your writing family.

Here are some basics that my group follows implicitly:

When you are offering a critique:

  • Begin the critique you’re offering with positive feedback.

 

  • Any comments (even the negatives you bring up) can and should be made constructively. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to wear kid gloves every time you offer a negative comment, but it doesn’t hurt to modulate it.

 

  • Offer your opinions as such and not as hard facts, because they are just that – your opinions.

 

  • Critique the work and not the writer. Refrain from using words like: “You said here…”. Instead, say, “This character sounds older than his age.” etc.

 

  • Remember that if a character expresses debatable opinions, that does not necessarily mean that the author subscribes to those opinions.

 

When you are receiving critique:

  • Be open-minded. You are asking for feedback, so be prepared to hear both positive and negative comments. In fact, be hopeful that you will receive more of the second kind, which will help you better your work.

 

  • Remember you are not your work – learn to effectively divorce yourself from your writing. This will allow you to receive comments/critiques much more openly.

 

  • Be respectful of others’ opinions. You have asked for them.

 

  • Finally, week after week, if all you hear is “Wonderful work”, “Nothing amiss” etc., then it is time to look for another group.

Did you notice something?

The principles above do not necessarily apply to only writing. They hold equally well to any other situation in life.

Consider the following scenarios, for instance:

–          You are required to review a technical document written by a peer.

–          You are discussing right and wrong with your child.

–          You are trying to pitch a new idea to your boss.

–          You are bargaining for a car at the dealership.

Aren’t the above rules relevant to these settings, too?

I think that’s the beauty of belonging to any group that thrives on the principle of give-and-take. It provides you with the discipline needed not only to have a better life in a particular field, but a better life. Period.

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