Tag Archives: writing

Is writing narcissistic?

While the holidays’ spirit of compassion and giving still lingers, I thought it might be interesting to talk about a point that came up this year in the blogosphere’s discussion of NaNoWriMo: whether many of the participants are being narcissistic by churning out words that perhaps no one wants to or ever will read.

I posed the question to The Spec’s bloggers, and here’s what they said:

Linda Joy: Writing can be a way of expressing oneself, which can increase personal growth and increase confidence. Years ago I had a clinical depression, and writing was a method I used to open a window of light and climb out of the darkness. Never judge anyone else’s writing…until it gets published.

Greg: Writing a book isn’t any more narcissistic than riding a bicycle around the block.  The narcissistic part is trying to get your book published–that’s more like riding a bicycle around the block, naked, while shouting, “Hey, everybody, look what I can do!”  To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, the writing process is natural and healthy as long as you do it in private and wash your hands afterward.

Parker: I agree that novel-writing can be a narcissistic undertaking for some. Many people have it in mind to write a novel someday not for the joy of creating a story but for the glow of accomplishment or recognition. NaNo may serve those individuals, but it also serves writers who have a true passion for stories and language but just need the encouragement to finish a draft.

PJ: This isn’t a NaNo issue; it’s about publishing (or the global economy) overall. Everyone already has a cell phone, but people buy new ones all the time. I bet the old ones would work fine, but people still want something more. They want the iPhone, and not the old, crappy model, but the new 4G one that has an app to warm your toilet seat for you. Do you need your toilet seat warmed? It doesn’t matter. It’s just the newest and coolest thing to have. Are cell phone designers narcissistic because they design their product to offer this toilet warming app? No. (And I know this because I used to be one.) What we were trying to do with each new generation of microchips and phones was meet what the market wanted.

So why are books any different? Older novels totally serve as reading material. We could have stopped publishing new books in 1980 and no one would ever run out of reading material. But the new stuff meets new trends and offers new bells and whistles. It tries to hook in ways never before thought of. And many times it succeeds.

Chris: Reading a novel can offer an escape, but writing one can help you explore yourself. That kind of narcissism is all right, even valuable — so long as you don’t expect people to read something just because you wrote it.  You have a right to write, but not a right to be read.If you want to be read, you have a responsibility to produce something that people want to read. If you don’t have the time, energy, or skill to do that, then enjoy writing for yourself and don’t get caught up in the idea that publication has to be the final result. I think writing becomes narcissistic only when we start believing that people should be fascinated by our words simply because they are ours.

What do you think? Would the time, money, and energy we spend on stories be better used to save the world? Or when can writing be altruistic?

— Joni, who admits that writing can feel both like a lovely indulgence and a way to step beyond her own little self

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SFF in verse?

I recently critiqued the beginning of a YA fantasy novel in verse that is set on another world. At first I thought, wow, cool idea. I haven’t seen verse fantasy, other than in Lisa Schroeder’s books with ghosts — but you could do some great stuff with imagery and sparse verse not only about the “is it there or is it not there” nature of ghosts, but about the sparse nature of space itself, for instance, or a mysterious technology where the blank space — what you didn’t know — was as interesting and important as what you could know.

Still, Lisa’s books are squarely set in a world we already know, and as I read a bit farther into that fantasy manuscript, I had some doubts about the use of verse. That was not because the author didn’t do a bang-up job of what was there, but simply because I wanted to know more than was on the page about almost everything.

To me it seems hard enough to write sparsely but evocatively about a world we know. And I think good verse depends even more than prose on what the reader brings to the words, images, and allusions on the page. So it might be tough to depict a place, society, social conflicts, survival hazards, dress, transportation, food, etc., we don’t know in a way that will allow readers are to really see, feel, and experience it. Maybe for SFF, the reader typically wouldn’t have enough foundation, unless you’re writing about something that’s pretty well-trodden ground (e.g., dragons or wizards).

Then again, maybe there’s a balance between enough verse to accomplish that while keeping an appropriate pace. I suppose if prose can find that balance, verse should be able to, right?

I think it’s a tough but interesting challenge, and I hope to have the author share a bit more information about her background and approach here — stay tuned, I hope!

In the meantime, are there fantasies or sci-fi in verse that I’m not aware of? Would you try it? What could help it work?

— Joni, who thinks writing in verse would be cool, but tends to fall on the much wordier end of the spectrum

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When Writers Don’t Read

The other day I was stunned to hear Oprah say on her show, “I don’t watch TV as a rule.” Huh?? You work in television, woman! Why despise the medium that provides your platform?

Her comment reminded me of a piece of advice that was recently discussed on the blue boards: “If you write fiction, don’t read fiction.” In other words, stop reading fiction, especially contemporary fiction, once you become a fiction writer. A lot of writers chimed in on this topic; some conceded they don’t read fiction while they write, although no one claimed to have given up fiction altogether.

I understand why writers might want to avoid reading another writer’s work while they’ve got a project going. They don’t want to accidentally adopt another writer’s voice, or they want to avoid the temptation of stealing someone else’s ideas. Or else they want to make more time for writing by sacrificing their usual reading time. But this method sounds a bit torturous to an avid reader like me.

Lev Grossman, the Alex award winning author of The Magicians, has also contemplated this method. He wrote about it on his blog back in October:

I can’t function as a writer unless I’m reading somebody else — somebody better than me — and stripping off parts and reverse-engineering special effects and so on as I go. Maybe I need somebody to compete with, or just somebody to remind me that things that seem impossible are in fact possible (for other people).


I’m inclined to work the same way. Reading a chapter of someone else’s book is like  taking a shot of espresso–it keeps me going. It puts me in the right frame of mind, like the author is sitting there with me waiting for me to jump in with my own story. I’ve even written while listening to a book on tape. Sounds weird, but you’d be surprised at how it gives you the sense that now is the time for storytelling.

I grant that this is just one method, and it might not work for everyone. Still, giving up fiction altogether is an extreme measure to take against accidental plagiarism. I’m of the mind that writers are meant to influence each other, that writing is a conversation, that you take from the classics and the myths and also from your contemporaries. How in the world could I write a story about aliens if those guys back in the 50′s hadn’t started that ball rolling? How could I write a quest story if I’d never read The Hobbit or Harry Potter or The Dark is Rising? How could I embrace my quirks and oddities if other writers of new science fiction weren’t coming up with crazy ideas about two cities existing in the same place at the same time or a guy living at Disneyworld? Stealing ideas is wrong, sure–but being influenced by them is the key to being part of the conversation.

I also hate to think what happens when we stop buying each other’s books. That lack of camaraderie only weakens the industry a writer hopes to belong to. And it means we’re not discovering some wonderful literature that’s being produced in our own time. Certainly there are gems to be found in classic literature (and I love to discover them), but today’s novels can also be timeless with the added benefit that they  address today’s issues (classic novels addressed the issues of their time and are still timeless, right?).

If you need space for your own thoughts while you write–okay, take a break from reading for a time. But I don’t see how abandoning fiction altogether makes sense for a writer. I have to assume that a writer writes because she loves stories. So why wouldn’t she also read stories?

Write books because you love stories; read books for the same reason. Don’t despise the medium you work with.

Parker Peevyhouse

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When Is a Deadline Not a Deadline?

“I love deadlines. I like the wooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

–Douglas Adams

Deadlines are a double-edged sword. They can provide the motivation for success or invalidate an otherwise excellent effort just because it wasn’t completed by an arbitrary date. For example, I was supposed to post a blog entry here on October 15th and cap the day by triumphantly emailing a final revision of Galaxy Games #1 back to my editor. As you can see by the date of this post, today is October 17th.

Of course, I’m not conceding defeat. Deadlines are open to interpretation and, as speculative fiction authors, we should be able to find a magical hourglass, time portal, or other suitable loophole.

What does it mean to say a manuscript revision is due on, say, October 15th? If a proper time on October 15th isn’t specified, I should be able to hit the send button in my email program at 11:59:59PM and still have a comfortable one-second margin to spare.

Or actually, because no time zone was given, I should be allowed to keep working for nearly three hours after midnight, here on the East Coast, and still be within my deadline on Pacific Time. If I need additional hours after that, there are more time zones further west–Alaska Time, Hawaii Time, or all the way west to the International Date Line. As long as it’s still October 15th somewhere on Earth, my submission is still good and timely.

So let’s say it’s early morning on October 16th, a Saturday, and I could theoretically still meet my October 15th deadline. Except that I’m pretty sure my publisher’s offices aren’t open over the weekend and my editor won’t be at her desk. For all practical purposes, getting the book in on Sunday night would be just as good as getting it in on Saturday morning. I could even deliver the manuscript on October 18th at 8:59:59AM Eastern Time, just before the start of business in New York on Monday morning, and still be within the practical range of an October 15th deadline.

But wait! All this time I’ve been assuming that my deadline was set according to the Gregorian calendar. Friday the 15th of October by the Gregorian calendar is also October 2nd by the older Julian calendar, which means I can work for almost two more weeks and still have my work in on October 15th by somebody’s calendar.

I could do that, but I’m sending it in today instead. It’s October 4th, Julian, and I’m waaaaay early because I’m the kind of diligent worker who gets things done. So there!

—Greg, always on time in his own universe.

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

 

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Revision Week: Greg’s Q&A

These are some of the answers I came up with for my friend Kate Messner, who is writing a book on revision for students, using input and examples from different authors with different methods of work. I’d been thinking a lot about revision anyway, because the first book of the Galaxy Games series has been through many revision cycles over the past year, and will be revised at least once more before being put in its final form. I’m looking forward to Kate’s book and I will be posting my whole set of revision Q&A on my website.

Are there times during the revision process when you need to step back and do more brainstorming?

There are lots of times when additional brainstorming is necessary in the revision process. For me, this might start with asking a “what if” question. “What if a character did this instead of that?” or “How can this other character come back into the book later on?” or “Wouldn’t this chapter be better if I added some clowns?”

A seemingly small change might ripple through the entire book so you really need to think about all the consequences before you commit to doing it!

How do you brainstorm titles?

Brainstorming titles is especially challenging for me. I use working titles to avoid committing myself until the last possible moment. Sometimes the working title becomes the final title, but sometimes not.

For the brainstorming part, I think about what the book is about and make a list of words that might fit into a title. For a book about playing sports, my list might start with game, team, goal, field, champion, pitcher’s mound, and so on. If my book is a giant mutant squid, the list might be squid, tentacle, calamari, mollusk, etc. So if a story is about playing sports against a team of giant mutant squid, I might end up with a title like Squid Games, The Tentacle Team, or Mollusk on the Mound. Easy!

What kinds of outlines and organizers do you use? Do you ever use maps, timelines, calendars, or other specialized planning strategies that you can describe?

I rely heavily on chapter maps and timelines but every book has its own challenges.

The Penguins of Doom was written in the form of letters with lots of themes and plotlines going on all at once. I ended up making index cards for each of letter and juggling them around until they made sense. I included plot and theme on each card as well as the word counts, to make sure I put enough short letters between the longer ones. And since I was writing the letters out of order, I color-coded them: green for ones that were complete, yellow for ones that were in progress, and red for ones I hadn’t started yet.

In the first book of the Galaxy Games series, I cut between events happening in the United States, in Japan, and in outer space. It was important to keep track of the passage of time, since it might be the middle of the night for one set of characters while others were awake and eating lunch. I picked one event that had to happen at a certain time on a certain day, and set every other scene as became “X hours before” or “X days after.”

How do you deal with the theme or central issue of your book during the revision process?

Part of the revision process is identifying the theme and making sure it’s presented in a balanced and natural way that doesn’t come off as preachy. The best is when an issue can be presented from multiple viewpoints, with nobody being entirely right or entirely wrong. I want readers to explore the topic and make up their own minds. The characters might also change their minds or struggle to find the best among a bunch of imperfect solutions, which is a good model for how a reader might consider that theme as well.

When you’re revising and you come to a part of the book that seems to need richer details and more description, how do you approach that? What strategies do you use to make sure you have specific details to make your writing real? And where do you draw the line? How much detail is too much?

Sometimes I read books that include a page or two of description for every room the characters walk into. I always used to skip over those parts and imagine the story taking in some place that had meaning to me, like my grandparents’ house. Lots of old time mysteries and ghost stories seemed to take place in my grandparents’ house.

That experience taught me to be minimalist about description and include only things that matter to the story. I tend to add more details in the revision process wherever I find ways to use description for a specific purpose, like showing a character’s interests by describing what’s hanging on his or her bedroom walls.

I also try to include sensory details other than sight. What does the inside of an alien spaceship smell like? What is the texture of the floors? What do the food dispensers sound like? These are questions I ask during the revision process because the first draft is more about what happens than exactly how it happens.

How do you make sure your characters feel real and well-rounded when you’re revising? What do you do with people who feel flat? How do you choose names for characters and give them specific characteristics? Do you have any special character-building strategies you’d like to share?

Character names are tricky. Sometimes I’ll go by the meaning, like with Septina and her siblings in The Penguins of Doom, whose names have Latin roots that correlate to their birth order. Or I’ll make some connection to history or popular culture, as with Septina’s family name, Nash, which is a tribute to a notable mathematician named John Nash.

Sometimes I’ll pick a random name as a place-holder in the first draft and use search-and-replace to rename the character during the revision process. If you do this, make sure the original name is spelled the same each time and confirm every change to make sure you’re only changing character names like Nash and leaving alone words like “gnash” or places like Nashville.

My characters tend to evolve personalities as I write and many times they will surprise me. As a result, I might have to return to an earlier scene because I’ve come to realize that the character would think, speak, or act differently than I’d originally thought.

Sometimes I write outtake scenes that don’t go into the book, but allow me to explore how a character would act in a different situation. If I cut a scene from the book, I keep it in a separate file instead of getting rid of it entirely, because it just might provide some insight that I’ll need later.

Do you ever try writing in different points of view? And are there specific things you need to watch out for when writing in first person vs. third or vice versa?

For point of view, I like to imagine I’m filming a movie and need to decide where to put the camera. I might need multiple angles to take in all the action, or it might work best to have the camera hover over a single character’s head and follow them around for the entire book. Sometimes the best way to tell the story is to cut open the main character’s skull and surgically implant a camera in their cerebral cortex, and that becomes a first person story. You need to figure out the point of view early in the drafting process because it’s very difficult to change in revision.

When you’re writing in first person, how do you make sure you’re channeling the character’s voice?

The most important thing about writing in first person is realizing that your character’s mind is the landscape you’re exploring and that nothing can ever happen outside of that. You can’t describe a thing the character didn’t personally experience without some reasonable explanation that they read about it, had it described to them, or otherwise learned about it afterward. The same thing applies in a third person narrative that’s tightly focused on a single character.

One more thing I learned while writing The Penguins of Doom is the importance of a viewpoint character having a purpose and a perceived audience. Septina’s voice came out differently when she was writing letters to her parents than when she was writing to a friend. She sounded different when she was apologizing for something, explaining something, or asking for something. It made me realize that we all talk differently in different situations and adjusting for that can help a writer identify the parts of a character’s voice that stay consistent over time and audience.

Of course, all of these answers are subject to future revision. :D

—Greg, who has his revision pencil ready for another go!

Greg R. Fishbone

Greg R. Fishbone

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Revision Week: Targeting Word Count

Welcome to our week-long discussion about revision! You’ll hear from several of us on the topic. I’ll start off by discussing revision for word count.

After writing a manuscript about a brother and sister who travel with a ghost hunter TV show, and try to help the ghosts, I developed a series proposal and sent the proposal and manuscript to an editor I knew. Imagine my delight when I got a call from him, just a month later. Imagine my ecstasy when he said, “I love it. I want to buy it.”

Now imagine my reaction when he said, “It needs to be twice as long.”

Granted, the manuscript was less than 20,000 words, but the plot worked, and I had a nice fast pace, focusing on action and dialogue. But since I was pitching The Ghost on the Stairs as the first in a series, it had to match Aladdin’s series guidelines for ages 9 to 12. So I had to add 15,000 words, while keeping the story fast and active to reach our primary target of reluctant boy readers.

I’m probably in the minority in having to expand rather than cut my work. Many authors wind up with sluggish, overwritten manuscript and have to cut them down. Short stories, picture books and easy readers are even more challenging, as they typically have tight word counts. But I have also critiqued other writers’ stories that fall into an awkward in-between length—too long for an early reader, but too short for a middle grade novel. One way or another, we often have to adapt to publishers’ needs or market trends by trimming or adding to our work.

Adding material and trimming are very different skills, so I’m going to focus on the first in this post. The trick to expanding your work is to add complications that will make the work more exciting—in other words, add plot, not description or random action that doesn’t affect the plot.

In my Haunted series, siblings Jon and Tania travel with their mother and stepfather’s ghost hunter TV show, and discover Tania can see ghosts. In each book, they have to figure out what’s keeping the ghost here, then try to help her or him move on. In the version of The Ghost on the Stairs I sent to the editor, people already knew the ghost’s name, and why she’s stuck here grieving. To expand the manuscript, I made the ghost story more vague. Jon and Tania have to do detective work to discover her name and background.

These added complications gave me about 70 more pages. The editor read those revisions, but found a new problem. Some scenes lacked drama. He wanted it spookier, with the ghost more active. I realized that some of my “detective” scenes didn’t directly involve the ghost at all. For example, I had the kids do research in the public library. They find information, and leave, with no drama. To keep the ghost involved, I moved their research session to the hotel’s business center—right next door to the ghost—and finished the chapter with another dramatic ghost encounter.

New material must make the plot more interesting, rather than slowing it down. Complications should be dramatic, scary or emotional. By adjusting the number and complexity of complications—essentially adding or removing plot—you can shorten or lengthen a manuscript.

This can sound odd to the beginning writer or non-writer who imagines that a story is what it is, and couldn’t, or shouldn’t, be changed. But the more you write, the more you discover how many options a story idea gives you. What seemed to be a picture book works better as a short story. A short story idea grows into a full-length novel. An epic novel is more manageable when broken down into a trilogy. Discovering what your story can be is part of the fun of writing!

Chris Eboch with Haunted books

Chris Eboch with her Haunted books

Chris Eboch discussed expanding a story by adding more plot in her personal blog in several posts this last April and May.

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A spec fic soundtrack

Before getting a published, I created a music blog. Four years later, and I still post almost daily. Me being me, I relate things heavily to music, both in life and fiction.

Yet I find it very difficult to write with music playing. The quieter, the better. I’m easily distracted that way. Still, music is a huge influence in my writing (and in my reading, too). I often construct mental soundtracks for books I’m writing or reading. Nothing creates mood like music.

For sci-fi, it’s gotta be symphonic, synth-flavored rock music. Something like Muse, before they went all Twilight. Dramatic, electronic sweeps. Lots of crescendos. I’m all about the drama. Or, for those more thoughtful books… icy, moody electronica.

I know a number of writers are into this, even posting a tracklist for the “soundtrack” to their work on their website or blog. So I wonder, what music do you associate with different spec-fic books? The Hunger Games? Ender’s Game? Feed? And what about you published authors? Is there a song or songs that influence your work? And do you work with music playing? I’ve known writers who crank up instrumental soundtracks while drafting action scenes. I’ve never tried that personally, but it could be an interesting experiment.

Nick lives in a world where growing up and becoming an author is every bit as cool as being a rockstar.

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Roundtable Discussion: Reacting to Reviews, concluded

We conclude our discussion of how we react to reviews of our novels.

Joni Sensel

I’m always hoping for a review from the major professional journals (Kirkus, SLJ, Booklist, etc.) and read those with my breath held, reminding myself that any review from them is better than none. Because I generally respect those opinions, even if I don’t agree, I think about them. I’m not sure they’re all that helpful for future work, because most reviews I’ve seen focus on criticisms specific to a story, not to a writer’s work or skill in general. But you never know when a little seed in the subconscious might grow into better work.

As for most other reviews, I’d have to say that I used up my curiosity and authorly neediness on my first two books and now I tend to avoid them. If a blogger sends me a link, particularly if it’s someone I’ve crossed paths with online, I go ahead and look, because anyone who goes to the trouble to alert me is pretty professional. I can expect a sensible review with valid food for thought, and I can actually enjoy any positive comments because, again, I can respect the opinion. I have not found the same thing always true of random opinions that I merely stumble over, and I have absolutely no patience with or respect for those who can’t bother to get my name, the book title, or key character names correct. That’s why I’ve turned Google alerts off — that, and the fact that I also found that even one “but” in a blog review that included “I liked this a lot but…” ruined my evening and outweighed everything nice the reviewer might have said. (Jo’s comment that others see our reviews as more positive than we do is right.) And the few wacky rants I came across upset me too much.

So I admit, I’m both a review wimp and a review elitist. Of COURSE I love to hear when people like my work, and my very favorite thing is to see a post or have an e-mail conversation with someone about a thematic, symbolic, or craft element that nobody else has noticed or mentioned. But otherwise, I focus mostly on the pro reviews and those of a handful of the semi-pro bloggers we’ve all heard of.

Readers, what importance do you give to reviews when you are either reading or writing books?

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Roundtable Discussion: Reacting to Reviews, cont.

We continue our discussion of how we react to reviews of our novels.

P. J. Hoover

So far, I’ve read most of my reviews. I’m sure I’ve missed one here or there as I don’t actively seek them out. But when the Google Alerts hit me, I generally check.

The good reviews are great. I read them over and over and cherish every word. I even read things into them to increase the happy feelings they give me. As for bad reviews, there are two kinds I’ve run across. There are the bad reviews that actually look at something critically and analyze it. These type of reviews recognize that any book has merit, and these reviews point out the merits along with the aspects which could be improved. As an author, I know I have room to improve. If I didn’t think I had room to improve, there would be an issue. So a critical analysis of my work is fine. As for the bad reviews that do nothing but slander a book and spout how horrible it is and how the author shouldn’t even be writing, I ignore these. I might read them once, feel a bit bummed for an hour or so, but then I recognize the review for the unprofessional bunch of words it is and move on. I am even able to laugh at these.

I’ve been very fortunate in the review department, having received far more positive reviews than negative ones. But the negative ones (especially the really bad ones) do say one very good thing: there are people besides my mom and my friends reading my book. This means I’m done something right in the world of marketing. And this is a good thing.

K. A. Holt

I enjoy reading reviews because I’m really interested in how people perceive my book. I want to know if they really get what I was trying to say. Most of the time they do, sometimes they don’t, and other times it seems like the reviewer had some preconceived notions going into it. Great reviews can brighten your day, and bad reviews give you something to joke about. (At least hopefully you can joke about them – after you’re finished going “uuuugh” into the phone to your best friend.)

Really, though, the reviews I look forward to most are the ones from the kid readers themselves. It’s one thing to read what Publisher’s Weekly or Kirkus or a big name blogger has to say, but it’s quite another to hear directly from your target audience. Those are the reviews I really take to heart.

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Roundtable Discussion: Reacting to Reviews

This week we answer the question, How do you react to reviews of your writing?

Linda Joy Singleton

I have a Google alert for my book titles, so I usually know when I’ve had a review. I want to know what’s going on with my books.

Whenever I get a review, I hold my breath and read through with hope. Usually reviews make me smile. But when I get a negative review, I tell myself this is just one person and that everyone has different taste in books. Still…there have been a few times when reviews stung. When words hurt bad enough to make me cry, I give myself permission to wallow in misery for a day or two. Then I shake it off and get back to work on the next book.

Fortunately most reviews — more often from bloggers these days – — say wonderful things that make me feel great. The reviews I value most by reviewers who enjoyed reading my books as much as I enjoyed creating them. For instance, a review from SLJ for DEAD GIRL WALKING (2008) was a favorite because the reviewer contacted me after writing the review to say how much she enjoyed my book. That meant a lot to me, and I was very glad for the opportunity to thank her via email.

Jo Whittemore

I absolutely read all my reviews, and I weigh them both (though I probably shouldn’t) the same. The good ones I squeal over and post on Twitter, Facebook, my blog and my website. The bad ones are a little more complicated.

First, I must read the review no less than ten times to make sure I’ve remembered the crushing words by heart so I can use them against myself later when I’m having a pity party over some other book-related issue.
(Example: “I can’t believe my library won’t carry ‘Kittens in the Meat Grinder’! But then again, The New York Times did call it ‘A tragic tale.’”)

Second, I subject the words of the review to my own interpretation, followed by looking up any of the negative words in the dictionary, just to make sure there isn’t some other interpretation of “makes me want to end literacy”.

Third, I send the review to my critique partner, my mentor, my friends in the writing community and ask them what THEY all think. When they’re able to see the positive bits that I didn’t, I relax a little and pull the good snippets out for a blurb.

Note: I’ve never gotten these particular negative reviews. I’ve also never written a book called “Kittens in the Meat Grinder”. Hamsters work MUCH better.

Join us tomorrow when we continue this discussion…

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