Friday, July 27, 2012

How to Deal with Criticism

For all American Idol Fans :)
We all get it: “Your story is pretty interesting, but I hate the ending.” Or, “Your characters don’t seem real. In fact, they’re quite cliché.” Or even, “I fell asleep in the first five pages.” As writers, criticism is a part of life. Let’s face it: not everyone is going to love your story. So what do you do? Here are a few suggestions on dealing with criticism.

1. Cry and eat chocolate (in moderation). 
  • There’s nothing wrong with feeling bad about getting negative feedback—in fact, it’s perfectly normal. So don’t be afraid to be disappointed. One caution, though: don’t wallow in your misery. Have a cry, eat a bit of chocolate, then move on.

2. Talk to someone supportive, who can remind you what you loved about your story.
  • Sometimes criticism can blind us to our story and make us think that the whole thing is rubbish or that we should scrap all of it. But remember, just because you received negative comments doesn’t mean the entire story is trash-worthy. So instead of throwing it out, talk to someone who likes your story and get your passion for the story back.

3. Distract your mind from your writing by doing something entirely different. 
  • Paint a portrait of your puppy. Plant petunias. Practice piano. Bake scones (and send me some!). Learn to knit or crochet. Do something productive, but make sure it’s not related to your writing.

4. Don’t look at or think about the criticism for at least a few days to a week. 
  • Give yourself time to sleep on the feedback. During that time, don’t go near your writing. Don’t read it, don’t edit it, and definitely don’t throw it away. Just let it hibernate for a week or so.

5. Use the criticism! 
  • Once you’ve waited a few days and occupied your mind with other things, you’re ready to return to your story with fresh eyes. Read the criticism and see where it might be true. Then edit your story using the feedback. Make sure you keep a spare copy of the original version, in case you don’t care for something you’ve edited.
  • Honestly, although it’s difficult to edit something that we’re in love with, this step is the most crucial for the growth and improvement of your story. For myself, I’ve found that when I accept feedback and radically alter something I’ve written, it always comes out much stronger. Sure, it’s tough hearing your work criticized as “vague” or “flowery” (I’ve gotten both), but by the end of the editing process, I hope that you will be able to see that the criticism really helped propel your writing to the next level.

The hardest type of criticism to deal with is outright rejection without any reasons being given. If you don’t have any comments to work with, then follow steps 1-3 and then try to analyze your story by looking for weak parts that might have led to the rejection.

Criticism is tough. Still, I’ve found that it’s one of the most helpful and necessary steps in any writing. I’ve even grown to enjoy it over the years. What about you—is there anything you like about criticism? How do you deal with rejection?

From the Pixar film "Ratatouille"

Friday, July 20, 2012

Market Research - What? How?

Market research means gathering information about a particular category of products—in our case, information about books in the genre that we want to publish. It’s scouting out the opposition, so to speak. Here are 3 suggested steps for conducting market research for your story. Pay close attention to the questions in step 3—they’re the meat of this post.

1. Identify the genre of your book.
  • Are you writing young adult fantasy or thrillers? Mysteries or chick-flicks? Picture books or poetry? Dystopian? Scifi? Steampunk? Whatever it is that you write, try to identify its niche (or, in the case of a cross-genre book, identify the two or three closest genres).

2. Look at bestseller lists and select the top 5-10 most popular books in your genre.
  • For this step, the more books you identify and the closer they are to your story the better. However, only pick as many books as you have time to read and study. Whether or not you’re planning to self-publish, be sure to gather a sample from the top self-published books in your genre.

3. Read the top books you picked and study them using the following questions.
  • First, read them just for the entertainment value. Notice the places that make you laugh or pull on your emotional heartstrings. See if the ending satisfies you or leaves you hanging.
  • Then, take a closer look at the components of the book: are the characters male or female? What’s their age group? Their profession? Their goals and dreams? What about the characters’ names—are they strange alien names with numbers, old-fashioned Dorothy and Maude, or something new and quirky?
  • Next, what about the plot of the book—is it fast-paced or slow-moving? Does it end abruptly? Is the villain vanquished in the end, or does he/she survive to fight another day?
  • What about the setting—where does the story take place? What details made the setting feel compelling or vivid to you? Was there a sense of being enveloped a new world?
  • Take a look at the details of the formatting of the book: how long are the chapters, roughly? Are they specially formatted? What sort of titles do they have? Is the book divided into parts? What typeface does the book use? What colors are in the cover, and does it feature a person or art or computer-designed graphics?
  • Is it part of a series or a stand-alone book? If it’s in a series, how many books are there in the series?
  • In what media are the books available—libraries? Bookshops? Smashwords/other online ebook stores? Were the majority traditionally published? For self-published books, how successful were they? If you have access to information on how these books were advertised, pay close attention to that and take notes.

You can also repeat steps 2-3 with books that weren’t in the bestseller category, this time asking “What prevented this book from being a bestseller?” and “What did these books do that the bestsellers didn’t, and vice versa?”

One last caveat: your goal for your writing might not be to write and publish an incredibly popular bestselling book. In that case, you’ll need to re-define “success”: does it mean being a bestselling author? Does it mean being less popular but receiving rave reviews from everyone who reads your book? Once you’ve set your goals, look for books that have achieved what you want to achieve (preferably in your genre). Then, using those books, ask the questions in step 3.

Now for you: have you done market research before? Any interesting results? Any tips or advice for those just starting out?

Friday, July 13, 2012

Costs & Benefits of Self-Publishing

At one point or another, most of us will face the question that could determine the path of our writing career: “Should I try to publish traditionally or self-publish?” Right now, I’m debating about that question myself, so in today’s blog post I’ll consider the costs and benefits of self-publishing. Of course, every writer’s journey is different, and what works for some may not work for others. With that in mind, here we go.

Costs of Self-Publishing
  • Lack of credibility. This is the single greatest drawback to self-publishing: when someone asks you, “So I hear you’re a published author?” you’ll have to reply, “Yes, I self-published.” And then you’ll hear the inevitable, “Oh. Then your book must not be that great.”
  • Marketing yourself. While this is a drawback in that it takes more effort, energy, and boldness on your part, it also leaves room for a lot of freedom for you. You can market yourself however you want to. Additionally, keep in mind that most traditionally published authors are expected to market themselves to a great extent.
  • Need for a certain amount of technical knowledge and connections to graphic designers, ebook formatters, etc. To be perfectly honest, self-publishing takes a bit of expertise—not that much, but a bit. I’d recommend finding a mentor who’s done it before to guide you through the process.
  • Bearing the expenses yourself. It shouldn’t be that expensive—depending on whether you advertise at all and how much you pay for the graphic designer and other features—but you’ll still be paying out-of-pocket. And, sad to say, it might take a very long time before the profit accumulates enough to cover even a portion of your costs.
  • Not as much editorial guidance. In traditional publishing, you’ll work with a professional editor to make sure your manuscript is truly the best it can be. With self-publishing, though, you need to find your own test-readers and line-editors and any other feedback that you need.
  • No advance. I know most of us are not in it for the profit, but still…the thought of a nice tidy sum to reward all that hard work seems pretty beguiling. However, just to warn you, most advances for new authors are not that substantial anyway – especially when combined with positively feeble royalty rates (amounting to just a few percent per copy sold).

Benefits of Self-Publishing
  • Control of elements like the cover, the title, the plot, the characters, the publication date, and so on. In fact, when you self-publish, you get to control absolutely everything. No more boring (or worse, completely mistaken) cover disasters here!
  • A large percentage of the profit. Compared with miniscule royalty rates in traditional publishing, when you self-publish, you get most of the profit (even 80% or more).
  • No waiting on others—the responsibility for progress is in your hands. This is both a scary thought and a motivating one. It's up to you.
  • No need to wait for months or years of anxious querying to secure an agent and then have to face another round of months or years to secure a publisher.
  • You can market your book however you want to, whenever you want to.
  • Self-publishing is very flexible for length and genre of the book. If you have an out-of-the-box story that might not sell in traditional publishing, try self-publishing.
  • All the rights. Forever. This includes the rights to sequels, to individual characters, and, yes, to movies.

Of course, there are many more considerations in self-publishing; this list is just the tip of the iceburg (to use a cliche). If you're interested in reading more on the subject, I found Aubrey Hanson's article about self-publishing very helpful.

What about you--what do you think are the greatest drawbacks and/or blessings of self-publishing?

All pictures courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.

Friday, July 6, 2012

It's All in the Details

The details you use in your story could be the most important part of your writing, because they are what brings your story alive to the reader. Without physical details, we wouldn’t know that Harry wears round spectacles or that Mr. Tumnus carries an umbrella.

To illustrate my point, let me show you a few examples. Which of the following makes the scene come to life in your mind’s eye?
A girl and a man walked down the street.
Two people walked down the sidewalk along Main Street: a little girl with serious brown bangs over her eyes and a middle-aged man, his charcoal suit hanging on him lopsidedly.
A 5-year-old girl wearing a floaty pink dress, her blue eyes wide, held her father’s hand as he led her down the cobblestone street of Paris, past Nicholas Flamel’s house.
In both of these latter versions, we can see the people and the place much more clearly. It would be even more clear if we could add another sentence describing the sensations of taste or sound or touch or smell that the two were feeling. In other words, the subtle placement of physical details in all five senses is the key to bringing your writing to life.

Easier said than done, right? Wrong! Here are some obvious places to inject more details into your writing:

1. In Names

We’ve been talking a lot about names the past few weeks (here, here, and here). Well, that’s because they’re so important—in real life, when we meet someone new, we typically learn their name. It should be the same in writing. Names are the one universal part of human experience. So use them!

2. In Character Descriptions

Introduce new characters by giving us more than just hair color/eye color. Sure, their physical appearance is important, but as someone once told me, “You don’t choose to be pretty. You’re born that way. It’s what you do with your looks that counts.”

So, in the same way, go beyond a character’s looks and focus on a key detail like a favorite concert t-shirt or the Beats headphones and pink iPod a character incessantly uses. Doing so makes that character come to life as a multidimensional person. For fantasy, use the wooden carved necklace a hunter never takes off or the moon-white earring of an assassin or the curved scars on a princess’ cheek. All of these little details can cut to the core of the personality of your character in seconds.

3. In Setting

Introduce each new setting using a minimum of two senses (usually sight would be essential). That means every time you have a new scene or your characters go to a new place or even enter a car, you should take a few seconds to describe the white leather lining of the seats, the peeling aqua paint, the smell of Chinese takeout lingering in the baby’s car seat. Let the place become real in your mind’s eye, then describe it so your readers can be engulfed by your story.

4. In Dialogue

Pepper your dialogue with gestures and descriptions. Make your characters interact with the setting: have your cleanliness-obsessed astronomer fiddle with her bottle of sanitation gel. Let your Rangers move around, checking that the horses are saddled properly, that the sentries are distracted.

Also, give your characters habitual gestures and hand motions to illustrate their speech—make your evil villain’s sidekick have a nervous habit of nodding, or maybe have your drama queen fiddle with her eyebrows when she’s nervous.

Whatever you do, add detail. Go back to each page of your writing and make sure you’ve added the necessary physical details so that, to your readers, your writing happens in a real place with real people. I guarantee you that you’ll learn a lot more about your story and your characters than you expect.

Can you think of any details you’ve read in stories lately that really stood out to you? Or what about in your own writing—written any cool details you’d like to share?

All photos courtesy of PublicDomainPictures.