Recently one of my students came to me with a worry about her manuscript. How do you know when to accept good feedback (Love it!) vs bad feedback (This needs something more.)?
This is a really tough issue. Accept every comment as legitimate and you’ll be endlessly rewriting every manuscript you attempt. You’ll never get it “done.” Ignore everything but the compliments and your writing will never improve. The key is to find a happy medium.
Step #1: Accept the fact that there is absolutely no way on earth to please everyone. It is impossible. That means that some negative feedback is inevitable. But you’ll get a lot less negative feedback if you can …
Step #2: Identify your audience. And when I say identify your audience, I don’t mean something broad like 12 year-old boys. That’s still too broad. I mean that you should be able to say that your work will appeal to 12 year-old boys and girls who are STEM savvy. Or 12 year-old girls who love horses. Or 12 year-old boys who are studying tae-kwan-do. If you can be specific about who your readers are, you’ll know that you need to pay the most attention to feedback from these readers or from people who know/work with these readers. But even then, you won’t appeal to everyone. That’s why you need to …
Step #3: Keep an eye on your original inspiration and goal. What made you want to write this? What was your goal when you began? Does this feedback fall into place with these things or is it contradictory? Only you can say.
It is never easy to decide if you should accept or reject feedback. Sometimes it is a matter of really knowing the person who supplied the feedback. Some people get your work and give reliable feedback. Other people don’t get your work. Ever. If the feedback helps you create a better manuscript, run with it!
As we say in my critique group, it is your sandbox. You just agreed to let me in to play.
One of the best things about the internet is that it gives us a chance to connect with a wide variety of people. Some of these people are even our target readers. You can check out what teens post in chats or the videos that they post on Youtube. Some of my favorites are the Ted videos by teens. These are teens who were passionate enough about something that they managed to make adults sit up and take notice which is no small feat.
Maybe you’re writing a book about a young musician who makes it big. How does a teen break into the music world? Check out Tallia Storm’s Discovering the Storm. She was a 13 year-old musician when she opened for Elton John. This is the story of how she managed to pull that off.
Or you could be writing a book about a young scientist. How do you work when you don’t have access to a lab? How do you acquire the things you need? Angela Zhang, the 17-year-old creator of a nanoparticle, talks about Breaking Down the Unknown while Miranda Wang and Jeanny Yao discuss how the mistakes they made, in discovering a bacteria that can break down plastic, led to future discoveries.
You can access other TedXTeen talks here. Musicians, scientists, writers and more have recorded TED talks. Teens who are into computers, who have survived war and who are great problem solvers have also made their voices heard. You don’t have to chase down your own reluctant teen ager to find out what his or her contemporaries think. Instead, check out these videos and let them both inform and inspire your writing. You may find a story taking off in a whole new direction with a voice of its own.
For his birthday, we gave my son Cards Against Humanity. He’d had a great time playing it with various cousins and at parties but my husband and I had never played. If you write picture books of the cute and sweet variety, this game would probably horrify you. Suffice it to say that my inner 12 year-old boy and I had a blast.
If you’ve never played, each player is dealt 10 white cards. Each card contains a phrase. Then one player is the Game Master (not their term but mine). This person pulls a card from a different deck, the black one, that has either an incomplete sentence or a question. You use a card in your hand to finish the phrase or answer the question. The Game Master then chooses the funniest response and that person is the winner.
Some of the black cards that we drew last night included:
I get by with a little help from ———–. (Winning Answer: my inner demons)
Today on Maury: “Help! My son is ___________.” (Winning Answer: Darth Vader)
Alternative Medicine is now embracing the curative powers of _____________. (I don’t remember the winning answer.)
What don’t you want to find in your Kung Pao chicken? (Again, I don’t remember the winning answer.)
First things first, do not play this game with a writer. A writer knows how to play to their audience. My son quickly figured out that this is why I was winning. When he was Game Master, I’d make sure my response was outrageous and/or disgusting. For my husband, it had to be a bit subversive but also understated and a bit dry.
Now I find myself wondering what stories might result from using some of these as prompts…
Last week, our church sponsored a Family Story Time for the families at our preschool. If you’re a picture book writer, you need to find something like this so that you can spy.
First I watched the kids while Julie read a book about a wild romp through the house — Is Everyone Ready for Fun? by Jan Thomas. The animals start out by jumping on chicken’s sofa. Chicken is less than thrilled with this idea. Jumping thwarted leads to dancing, leads to wiggling, etc. Finally, Julie asked the kids. “What do you think they’re going to do next?”
“Jump on the bed!” yelled one young listener. This response caught on quickly so I didn’t get the others but WOW. The energy that went into listening to this story. They were transfixed but they were absolutely never still — something the author clearly knew would be the case.
Next she played a game with the kids. It was a little like Simon Says in that the kids had to copy some goofy, wiggling activity. This one was a lesson in what they understood vs what they didn’t. Stomping? Awesome! Marching? They had no clue but quickly copied what she was doing.
These kids LOVED books and stories and having fun. But they had the attention spans of . . . preschoolers. If you don’t understand why publishers want books that are 500 words or LESS, then you need to observe a preschool story time.
If you do, you’ll come way with a much better understanding of what your audience wants out of a book and what will keep them happy.
Last month, Peggy Archer invited me to be the Missouri SCBWI PAL author for February. At about the same time, I was asked to write a blog post for Alive Now. Both requests involved answering four interview questions; in each case, I was provided with a list of questions and got to choose which ones to answer. Before I could make my choices, I had to decide what I wanted to do with each interview.
I was pleasently surprised that the Alive Now choices included questions about both my writing life and my faith journey. I can talk about writing all day long, but I find talking about my faith life difficult. Still, it seemed strange to choose only questions about writing. Lucky for me that our pastor had recently discussed creativity and faith. Before his sermon, I knew how creativity impacted my writing but he clarified how it also gives life to my faith. Thanks to Pastor Sean, I chose questions that illustrated how important non-writing creativity is to both my faith and my writing.
Sometimes when you answer interview questions, it pays to start with something surprising and that’s what I did for the Missouri SCBWI interview. I feel like I’m the only children’s writer on the planet who didn’t grow up wanting to write. As much as I loved to read, being a writer never crossed my mind. When I decided to pursue this as a career, I may have thought it came out of the blue. Not, Mom. She was relieved that I had finally figured it out. Because I was a late bloomer, my family didn’t encourage my writing so much as my curiosity.
All interview questions are not created equal. Before you decide which ones to answer, give them some thought. An interview is a lot like an article. Once you know what you want your readers, or listeners, to get out of it, you are ready to proceed.
Do you write boys books or girls books?
Personally, I write books. Some of them are about people. Some are about animals. One is about religion. And I can honestly say that they would all appeal to both boys and girls.
I’m not a complete knuckle head. I can see that some books appeal to girls much more than they appeal to boys. Think Fancy Nancy and Meg Cabot’s Princess Diary books. I’m not saying that no boy will ever read them, but the appeal will trend more towards girls than boys.
The strange thing is that it isn’t as easy for me to name boy books. Sure, there are books that some marketing department or other has skewed boy — The Dangerous Book for Boys comes to mind. But honestly, I’m the one that read it. Not my son. What’s he reading? Right now he’s into the Walking Dead graphic novels. But several of the girls are reading them too.
Why do we believe that boys only read books written by men and books with male characters? My son knew JK Rowling was a woman and he still read all the Harry Potter books. He also read The Hunger Games trilogy and Divergent is on his list. Female authors. Female main characters.
This is one of those things that I find myself thinking about although I have to admit that I don’t have any answers other than some speculations about adults and our need to label things and people.
I write on a variety of topics for multiple audiences. What do I mean by this?
Crafts and activities are one of my mainstays but I don’t write them all for the same audience. The pieces in Gryphon House anthologies were written for preschool teachers. Those on Education.com are for parents who may also use these activities with scouting groups and the like. Sometimes I write things up for the kids themselves. Whenever I write up a craft or activity, it is vital to know who my audience is because this introduces suble differences in how I handle the topic.
When I write for preschool teachers, I emphasize flexibility. The piece is good for a group in that they can do much of it themselves, the supplies are inexpensive and can be prepped ahead and it is easy to clean up. If it is an activity or pretend play, it is flexible in allowing a larger or smaller number of children to participate.
When I write for the parents who read Education.com, I emphasize the educational aspects of the activity. It will hook your child with FUN and they will learn something too. Crafts need to be educational and it is definitely a bonus if they are attractive and can be displayed in the home.
Kids, on the other hand, want something that is fun. They want to show the adults what they can do. If you can make them feel daring, so much the better.
Now think about your current project. Who is the audience? How does knowing this influence your approach or your message? How would that approach or message change with a different audience?
Write about kid friendly topics.
It’s one of those bits of advice that initially seem helpful. But then you find yourself asking — what topics are kid friendly? Let me answer that by asking you a question. What are you interested in now? You may approach things differently than you did when you were 7 or 8, but your genereal interests are probably very similar.
What am I interested in now? History, reading, archaeology/anthropology, rocks, cooking, knitting in particular and crafts in general.
As I child, I devoured history. I didn’t realize that that is what I was doing. I thought I was exploring the ruins and living history sections of the Fort my father and grandfather took me to see.
I didn’t call it anthropology back then but I also dove into any experience that let me see how someone else lived. My parents knew they had better keep a close eye on me not because I would get into trouble but because I would grow so absorbed I would wander off.
I could go on but let’s say that everything I’m devoted to now has a childhood correlation, and I don’t think I’m unique. I’m currently taking an online Human Evolution course taught by Dr. John Hawk of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. In his video lectures he interviews a wide variety of anthropologists and paleontologists. He always asks them how they got into their field. The vast marjority explain that they have been interested in similar things since childhood.
No, what interests you now might not interest every child. But you can’t write for the mass that is “children.” It is too big. They are too complex. Instead, find a topic and write for the child who loves the same things you did.
Cosmos, the television series all about science, appeared in 1980. As a writer, there’s no question in my mind why it rocketed astronomer Carl Sagan to fame. He made science accessible. He made it exciting. He drew viewers in and made them want MORE.
I was just starting high school but this was a great lesson for me as a future writer.
- Take a topic you love. And what’s not to love about science. It is so cool.
- Don’t dumb it down. Sagan introduced the general public to the Big Bang, atoms and the workings of our universe. But he also explained things in terms that people could understand. He made science accessible.
- Make it personal. Throughout the book and the program were quotes. Some from philosophy. Some from religious texts. You learned a lot about Sagan by simply paying attention.
Now if only I could decide if I am anticipating or dreading the Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, or, as I am calling it: Cosmos: The Reboot. Why? Because they have also taught me a lesson and the program hasn’t even aired.
- Choose a reputable publisher. I know. I’m being a snot. But FOX? Oh, golly.
I won’t know until the program airs. I want to believe that this will be amazing but I’m going to have to see it to believe it. Sorry, FOX.
What is new adult? That’s one of the big questions you are going to see discussed on blogs and in newsletters right now. Why? Because editors and agents are asking for it so writers want the parameters. Until recently, I thought of new adult as a genre, but then I read this blog post on Writer Unboxed.
New adult isn’t a genre any more than picture book, chapter book or early reader is a genre. New adult is a segment of the market. Just as there are picture books that are humorous, contemporary, historic, nonfiction, fiction and more, new adult can be all of these things. What sets it apart is the age of the intended reader.
New adult readers are . . . new adults. They are college aged, although this doesn’t mean that they are all in college. They are simply post high-school, meaning 18 and over and most likely no older than 26 or so. Some of them want to read science fiction or fantasy. Others want mysteries. Still others want contemporary a stories.
I’ll admit that when I read these particular lines in the post, I laughed.
Uh, no. Not even close. This is wrong, wrong, wrong. So is the assumption that NA is just YA with sex. No, it isn’t. It isn’t a revamped version of chick lit. It is not only working class characters. It is not only tattooed guys or MMA fighters. Or even just romance. It’s time travel and horror. It’s science fiction and mainstream. It’s light romance, and smart romance and tough romance. Very sexy and not really.
And why did this make me laugh? Because, to date, I have read one book billed as new adult. It is about two college students, one of whom is a tattooed guy who just happens to be an MMA fighter. And, I would definitely describe the book I read as YA with a lot of explicit sex.
I’ll accept that there is more to it than that and that it can be about a wide range of topics. That’s believable. But I’m also going to be much more choosy when I pick out my next New Adult book. Otherwise, my next book might also be my last.