A Season of Changes

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Wow, has it been a long time! I’m sorry for the incredibly long silence!

I promise I have a good reason for it.

Most of you probably know that I got a new job recently, and that required a pretty substantial move. I am now ensconced in my new digs near Davis, California. The chinchillas made the trip with me, and are all glaring at me from the other room (I still owe them playtime tonight).

I am still a wildlife rehabilitator, but I am now focusing more on oil spill preparedness and response, which is a new area for me to grow into. Once I’ve got the basics dealt with, I’ll find one or two local groups to scratch the itch of traditional rehabilitation. But for now, I’m still trying to dig out from under the boxes.

All those boxes also mean I haven’t had much time or energy for writing. In fact, I’ve done very little since I got the Cliff beta sent out in early October. I know the general wisdom is that a “real” writer will keep writing even through major schedule upheavals such as this, but I’m really not too concerned – and I’m definitely not beating myself up over it (and honestly, if you’re in a period like this, I urge you not to panic about it either. Things are always knocked off balance when your entire life changes!).

I’m finally starting to feel a little more stable, my new office/library is taking shape, and I’m starting to feel the pull to write again. I’m excited to delve into my beta readers’ feedback on Cliff, which I hope to have out to agents by sometime in February. As a Christmas gift, I also got tuition to Holly Lisle’s “How To Write A Series” online course (recommended to me by the lovely and talented Phoebe Kitanidis), and The StoryMatic, both of which I’m excited to try out.

So Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and I guess I’d better get started!

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Anyone Interested in Beta Reading?

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This month, I’ve finally gathered up enough energy to get back into my revision of Cliff with No Edge, and I’m just flying through! I’m pretty confident I’ll have it ready for beta readers by the first week of October. Very exciting!

But that also means I better send out a call and start compiling my list of willing test subjects readers. And you, lucky friend who just happens to be within my social media sphere, qualify! If you have any interest, please read on for more details.

Here’s how it works:

Beta readers agree to read the nearly-finished draft of my novel and give me comments to help improve it. There are no special requirements – beta readers need only be people who like to read and who want to help me improve my book.

I will send out a list of questions along with the book. These questions are there to answer specific questions I have about the reading experience. They aren’t meant to limit your feedback in any way. They are more of a tool to help you think critically about specific aspects of the book (think third grade book report: “what character was your favorite, and why?”)

The book will be provided in a Word document so that you can use the “track changes” and “comments” functions if you so desire. If you want a different format, I can probably swing it, just let me know. If you don’t know how to use “track changes” or “comments,” I can probably show you!

Beta readers get to read my book before it is completely finished. That means I love them most of all my friends, but it also means they’ll have to read a pre-publication-quality book with errors and problems. They have to promise to point out these problems and errors with complete honesty. They also have to promise they will still love me even after seeing “the” misspelled for the fourth time.

Speaking of misspellings, although I will always appreciate every word of feedback I receive, there is no need for beta readers to get too down and dirty with my prose (grammar, spelling, punctuation). Final polish & copy editing is a whole separate ball game, and happens after I have made all the content changes for the book (why spend tons of time on a section I might cut?). At the same time, I promise that I have been over the draft several times already, and it should not be painful or unintelligible.
A couple notes on content: Cliff with No Edge is an adventure fantasy, and has magic, action scenes, and a different world and culture. It also deals with some heavy subjects. There is violence, both in the “fight scene” sense and the domestic violence sense. It is not, in my opinion, overly graphic, but if you are sensitive to these topics, it may not be for you. Check out the “sneak peek” section for an idea of the intensity level.

I hereby set this deadline: I will finish and send my book to beta readers by October 5. This means that beta readers will have 6-8 weeks (think end of November) to read and respond about the book. In December, I will begin the next revision. That means I will appreciate and read late feedback, but it will be less useful to me depending how far into the revision I am.

If you would like to be added to my beta reader list, just let me know! I can never have too many opinions at this stage, so the more the merrier. Message me, tweet me, post on my wall, leave a note in the comments section, whatever. I will need your name and email address to send you the file. If you have expressed interest to me in person, I didn’t have a list then, so I probably don’t remember – sorry!

Thank you all for your wonderful support!

Critique Tips Part 2 – The Snowflake Effect

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Welcome back for the second installment of critique tips! In this series of posts, I’m sharing some insight derived from my own critiquing experiences. If you’re reading this, you’ve probably read my previous post on this subject – but if not, I invite you to check it out.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

The Snowflake Effect
Let’s be honest. When we turn something in to be critiqued, we all secretly hope our readers will return with nothing but praise. Academically, rationally, realistically, we know that’s not what will happen. We probably know enough to at least say that we don’t want that. Being intent on improvement and serious about developing our professionalism tends to strengthen our understanding of the value (and necessity) of a solid critique.

But we love what we’ve written, and somewhere in our hearts we long to be told that it’s perfect and we’re special snowflakes. Or pretty ponies, or glimmering unicorns, or whatever term your kindergarten teacher used. When we hear that it usually takes decades to break into publishing, we can’t help but think “not for me!” We’d rather identify ourselves with those exceptionally talented/lucky/special people who sold their first book for a trillion dollars. Who wouldn’t, right?

But depending on how well you squash that tendency, actually hearing people criticize your work can be anything from disappointing to devastating. Maybe you get defensive, maybe you get depressed. There’s a whole gamut of negative reactions that can appear when we believe people are dumping on our manuscripts (and by extension, ourselves and our dreams). When we’re in this state, what we hear isn’t helpful feedback and we can’t use it effectively.

Critiquee:

This is mainly up to you to solve. I can (and will) suggest some things that can help externally. If you try them, you probably won’t be labeled as the difficult person in the group. But to actually approach critiques with a grounded, stable attitude – the kind of attitude that will let your writing grow from the offered criticism – you’ve got to want it.

It’s like learning to be confident. It isn’t about what other people say or do – it is about your reaction to it. You can change your own reactions/actions, you have no control whatsoever over other people. Taking a critique well is a sign of maturity and professionalism. Ask yourself: “How much do I want to be taken seriously as a mature, professional writer?” If that’s what you want, criticism can’t crush you. You also can’t dismiss it out of hand.

Learning to value yourself and your work in the right way is something you have to live in order to learn. I’m not qualified to teach you that. But I suspect that this is one of those situations where “faking it” can sometimes help you make it.

I suggest that if you feel strongly at all, whether it is Hulk-like defensive mechanisms or overwhelming hurt, you say nothing. In fact, I subscribe to the say nothing school of critique-receiving anyway, strong emotional involvement or not. It’s too raw. Take notes, sure. Listen carefully. You may ask for clarification, but not if you’re using it to argue – you know the difference!

Then go away from it. Don’t come back until you can do so calmly (sometimes that means I let things sit in a drawer for a couple months). When you’ve got some distance, you’ll be able to analyze people’s comments more effectively.

This does not mean put it away forever! Don’t use this as an excuse to let your stories die from neglect. If you have a tendency to lose confidence after critique, give yourself a time limit. Put it on your calendar – in two months, force yourself to revisit that story. You’ll find that when you read it through again, it’s better than you remember. At the same time, you’ll probably suddenly agree with some of the comments your critiquers made.

If this is a real problem for you, try submitting something you either 1) don’t care much about or 2) haven’t polished up yet. I find it is much harder to look for feedback on something you thought was done.

Remember – you actually are a special snowflake. We are all a unique combination of skills, talents, and willpower. That means you are worthwhile, your work is worthwhile, and you can and should demand that your critique sessions remain respectful.

It also means that you are learning, just like everyone else, and you don’t get to magically skip all the time and effort it takes to write well. Give yourself permission to make mistakes (see perfectionism), and then take a few deep breaths. You don’t need to be defensive or scared. You asked for help, the people giving you feedback are doing their best to help you – take it in that spirit, and then use it to succeed.

Critiquer:

In critique groups, the snowflake effect tends to manifest externally as a defensive, argumentative response to feedback. Obviously, there are many other ways it can affect the writer personally, but they have a lot more to do with how a person feels about themselves, their work, and their success. You are much less likely to be in a position to notice – much less respond to – these other manifestations. So for critiquers, it is all about the defensive writer.

Honestly, this isn’t up to you to solve. You offered up your feedback in the best spirit of helpfulness, honesty, and humility. You did your best to word your critique as kindly and clearly as possible. You would have been completely blown away to receive a critique of that quality on your last story.

Maybe that’s a little much. But you tried. You certainly didn’t intend any offense, and you really believe in the comments you gave. You honestly want to see the critiquee’s story succeed. Good. That’s all any of us can do.*

So in reality, no – you can’t solve this problem. But you can keep from feeding into it. It doesn’t have to be a big dispute, it doesn’t have to leave you (or anyone else in the group) with negative feelings.

Because you care about the critiquee and his/her story, and because you take pride in doing a good job, it is easy to get emotionally caught up. Maybe you feel guilty, resentful, or frustrated when a critiquee wants to argue or dismiss what you have to say. Maybe they dared to call you “wrong.” Ouch.

Disengage. Don’t respond. Be the bigger person. However you want to put it – just let it go. You don’t need to defend yourself. I’m not saying not to clarify a point or participate in some other totally valid form of interaction. I’m simply saying that it isn’t your piece – it isn’t your responsibility. Their manuscript is their problem! If you have been kind and clear (please don’t read this as license to be harsh or cruel), let it go.

They heard you; they have your written notes. If they’re being defensive in the moment, they still might take your advice once they’ve had a chance to process it. And if they don’t – again, not your problem. Maybe they have a completely different vision for their work than you do, maybe they just don’t want to be awesome. It doesn’t matter to you – there is literally nothing at stake for you here.

If you want to take it a step further, try to understand why they might react that way. If you’ve ever put up a manuscript for critique, you’ve probably felt what they’re feeling. You’ve probably received feedback that is waaay off the mark (at least in your opinion). You’ve probably worried that your work is crap, or dreamed of becoming an instant bestseller and resented those who insisted on pulling you back to reality. Remember those feelings, stir up that empathy, and use it to resist your argumentative instincts. You’ll be doing everyone a favor.

*By the way, if you don’t feel this way, if you don’t want other people’s work to succeed, then examine why you are involved in critique at all. This is a destructive place to come from, and you probably are not doing anyone – others or yourself – any good.

10 Ways to Annoy a Wildlife Rehabilitator

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10. Show her a leaf, and ask her what kind of bird it came from. Laugh uproariously.

Hahaha – no.

9. Be shocked when you discover she isn’t vegan/vegetarian/pacifist/shamanist/communist/(insert political or religious view here)

Honestly, the only safe thing to assume is that we’re doing this because we feel responsible to help alleviate some of the pain humanity unwittingly visits on innocent animals by hitting them with our cars and cats and windows. Even that is an assumption, but it probably won’t result in items thrown at you.

8. Tell her how you love animals. Except for rats. Oh, and raccoons. And opossums. And bats. And coyotes. And squirrels. No wait, you like squirrels, just not when they’re in your yard. I mean, after all, they belong in the forest.

What you meant to say is you like convenient, photogenic animals. Like eagles. Everyone likes eagles, right? Oh, except they might carry Fluffy away if you were to let him out without a leash… so no. No eagles either.

7. Talk about how you could never hurt an animal, so you relocate them instead.

As well-meaning as the relocation was, it probably just killed that animal. Our rehabilitator is wondering if she should do her civic duty and tell you that, or if she should go ahead and enjoy her salad with the guilt dressing… Ah, but duty never sleeps.

6. Ask if you can adopt a bear. Laugh uproariously (or don’t, that’s creepier).

No. No you can’t.

5. Ask her how to solve a wildlife conflict, and then spend an hour trying to get her to say “ok, it sound unsolvable, you’re justified. Call the removal service to come kill it – oh, and I know one that does it for free.”

You asked, and you got an answer. Probably several. The truth is wildlife conflicts often have easy solutions, but even easy solutions require some amount of work from the human. The animal certainly isn’t going to do it. The definition of crazy is doing the same thing and expecting different results – and crazy isn’t something a rehabilitator is trained to cure. That’s a psychologist. Now let the poor rehabilitator eat her sandwich.

4. Tell her you know she’s just in it for the money. Laugh uproariously. Then ask when she’s going to get a real job.

Don’t you just love it when you’re chasing your dream and people tell you it is worthless/childish? Sooooo uplifting.

3. List all the animals your outdoor cat kills. Use the phrases “in his nature,” “just birds,” and/or “he’s meant to be outside.” Also tell her how you always let the animals go, because you “didn’t see any blood.” Expect praise.

This is like describing your crack habit to your doctor and expecting him to be happy/accepting about the horrific things you’re describing and optimistic about your future health. Since that poor rehabilitator would just like to continue peacefully eating her lunch, I’ll bring you up to speed:

First, cat trauma is sneaky and devastating. Not only are they adorable, furry little killing machines, the majority of cats carry a bacteria called pasturella in their mouths. Pasturella kills most animals within days, sometimes hours. All it needs is a teeny, tiny little opening in the skin. So though there might not be blood, if the cat’s sharp-incredibly-sharp teeth or claws left even one tiny mark, the bird is dead.

Second, the epidemic of non-native predators (cats) is incredibly damaging to our native ecosystems and the cats themselves! Thus, outdoor cats are a one-two punch to animal-loving, ecologically-minded people.

2. Describe how you once “put a mouse out of its misery” by smacking it with a shovel. Repeatedly.

I’m pretty sure smacking things with shovels – or any other blunt instrument – adds to their misery. And maybe I don’t want you around when I’m eighty.

1. Tell her all about the animals you illegally kept and raised

Every person seems to have a story about how they found baby raccoons/birds/bunnies when they were kids, and their parents let them raise them. And every single person seems to be incredibly shocked to find that not only was that irresponsible, it was illegal. Even more shocking is that these stories don’t seem to bond them with the people who spend incredible amounts of effort to raise wild animals the right way – having obtained the necessary permits and education. I mean, it isn’t like you just told them that a) their jobs can be done by children and b) the laws and ethics they base their lives around are more like… guidelines. Stupid guidelines.

All joking aside, I don’t want to discourage questions, or the free exchange of ideas. Nor is anyone condemned because of misconceptions or past mistakes. That’s how we all learn, after all – and when you become a rehabilitator, the most important part of your job is educating people.

It’s just that sometimes, I find it frustrating how prevalent certain beliefs are in our society. And even more frustrating how often I am cast into the role of “nut” so people can continue to cling to their ignorance. To me, rehabilitation isn’t about “animal rights” – it is about our responsibility to the planet God gave us, and the inhabitants He gave us power over.

It is a selfishness like any other when we know what the right choice is, but we don’t make it because of pride (we can do it, and we’re willing to stake an animal’s life on the accuracy of an internet search), or because the solution is inconvenient (but then we’d have to buy a chimney cap, and who’s going to install it? Not me), or because the right decision deprives us in some way (if we give it up, we won’t have the cuteness in our house anymore).

So if you do care about animals, I encourage you to do what you can to help them out. The things that make the difference aren’t hard. Try planting native plants, using appropriate bird feeder hygiene (if you have to have one). Use humane conflict resolutions instead of removal, and keep Tiger inside (yes, inside). Take injured or orphaned wild animals to your nearest wildlife rehabilitator – no matter how cute they are. Teach your kids how to love animals with their actions, as well as their words, and help spread the knowledge. And if you really want to make me proud, volunteer at a wildlife rehab center – we always need the help!

July Already?!

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You see that interrobang in the title? Yeah, that’s right. I’m a little shocked to realize my last post was back in May.

Not that I’m a reliable poster, I never really intended to be, but still. That’s a long break! Especially when I left you with a promise for other posts in the critiquing series. That’s actually part of why I haven’t posted. Those posts require research, thought, and revision, and I’ve not been up to tackling that.

It’s been a weird month. I have gotten very little accomplished. I stalled out on my Cliff rewrites. I didn’t feel like I had anything worth saying via social media. I struggled to keep up with and attend crit group. I didn’t do much of anything writing-related, actually.

I could blame work – summers there are nuts, and kind of suck the energy from me – but that would be a cop out. I could blame the nice weather and my obsessive tendency, which recently latched on to my garden (hey, I could post on that!) – but that isn’t right either. And I could blame King’s Mark, as the launch sucked me back in time and broke my concentration.

Nope.

I just stopped and started wandering around. I just read The War of Art by Steven Pressfield, which talked a lot about fear. Maybe I was letting my fears surrounding the current project get in the way. I have high hopes for Cliff, and other people seem to share those hopes, and that’s a little intimidating. Or maybe I lost balance for a while, focusing on some recent personal/job-related difficulties overwhelm me. Probably both.

But now I’m going to get back on the horse.

Critique Tips – Perfectionism & Voice

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In a writer’s life, critiques are as unavoidable as death and taxes. And like death and taxes, feedback and editorial remarks are often a source of stress, fear, and general unpleasantness. But there’s no absolutely no reason this should be so.

In fact, I’ve come to believe that critiques are the single most useful learning tool available to a writer. Not only that, but the ability to give and take feedback seems to be a hallmark of the serious writer. So it would be beneficial to learn how to deal with giving and receiving feedback – and I think I can contribute to that conversation.

In this and the next few posts, I’ll be sharing a few things I’ve learned from my own critiquing experiences*. Hopefully you find something useful. Let’s get started!

Perfectionism

I feel pretty confident stating that perfectionism is problematic whenever it shows up, no matter the circumstance.  It is born of fear and ego – a fear of rejection that presses you to pursue unreasonable standards, and to project a facade when meeting those standards proves impossible.  Perfectionism can sometimes push you to excel, but more often it freezes you in place, makes things feel hopeless, torpedos your self-confidence.  I know this because I battle with perfectionism all the time.

In writing, perfectionism can keep you from submitting or finishing a story.  It can prevent you from even starting.  When seeking feedback on your stories, perfectionism can be the root of guilt, fear, and poor productivity.  It can prevent you from seeing the good in your stories and stunt your growth as a writer.  When the impossible standards of perfectionism extend to judging other writers’ work, they can result in harsh critiques that do more harm than good.

Critiquee: 

Bringing what you think is a perfect story to a critique group is a waste of time.  Praise is not what you want.  It isn’t helpful.  You aren’t trying to impress them.  You want to get their feedback early enough in the process that you will be able to use it to strengthen the story.  That means don’t bring a final draft.  At the same time, it is hard to see beyond grammatical and awkward sentences to the story beyond.  It is considerate and good form to bring a story you’ve cleaned up enough to be readable.

Recognize that your critiquers are there to support you.  They are writers in the same position you are, probably with many of the same hang-ups.   Let yourself be vulnerable by showing things a little earlier than you are comfortable with, and you might be surprised by the new ideas that can be sparked by the conversations about an unfinished piece.  Learn to have confidence that you can fix anything – it helps me to keep in mind that I have as many drafts as I want to fix things.

Last, there are people out there who are not interested in other people’s success.  There are also people you will not mesh with, whose critiques (even with the best of intentions behind them) are honestly unhelpful or destructive (note that I do not mean they give you their honest, sometimes-negative opinions).  You are justified in putting distance between yourself and these people.  There is no point in maintaining a critique partnership that does not help you to grow as a writer.

Critiquer:

If you are a perfectionist, it is easy to get frustrated with pieces that do not meet your personal standards.  But you aren’t reading for pleasure.  There are going to be things wrong in the piece, that’s the whole point.  Trust that the writer will be able to use what you’ve given them to bring their story up to scratch (and even if they don’t, it isn’t your story).  Be patient with the errors you find, even if the errors repeat over and over again.  We all have blind spots, and sometimes we need them pointed out many times.

In addition, think carefully about how you phrase things.  If you have a penchant for harsh self-speak (argh, this sucks, I suck, I’ll never get published), then it is likely to come out in your comments on other people’s work.  Honest is necessary, harsh is not.  It has helped me to learn to view my comments as opinions and suggestions, not rules or corrections.

The Voices in Our Heads

The problem with writers giving critiques is that we’ve all got loud voices in our heads.  When I read a phrase that I would have constructed differently, even if it is technically correct, I’m trained to rearrange it to what is most pleasing to me.  That’s my voice, or my predilection for certain words and phrasings and story structures.  I spend a great deal of time cultivating my voice, because it is one of the few things that belongs uniquely to me.  I like it, depend on it, and trust it above all else.

It is really hard to ignore, even when it is comparing apples to oranges, measuring someone else’s work.

Critiquer:Try to recognize that the story you are reading is distinct from your own writing.  Consciously admitting that is important.  It is going to make it easier to let go when the author makes choices you wouldn’t.

That doesn’t mean you don’t say what you’re thinking, point out the option you saw, talk about the thing that rubbed you the wrong way.  If you can separate out a problem that is bigger than your opinion, do so – grammar, spelling, punctuation, character development, plot, etc.  If you can’t, point it out anyway – the critee can decide if he/she agrees.  But try to remember that if it isn’t some solid rule of the English language (and sometimes even if it is), right and wrong don’t enter into it.  And as always, don’t stake your happiness on whether or not they take your advice.

Critiquee: Yes, you have your own voice.  Trying too hard to write to other people’s tastes will probably result in stiff, derivative prose.  But it is easy to fall into the trap of dismissing rephrasing suggestions or vague notes like “awkward” in the name of voice.  Your voice requires development, just like every other aspect of writing – it doesn’t spring forth fully-formed and gleaming with glory.  If you are too inflexible, you won’t learn what does and doesn’t work.

Unfortunately, it is really difficult to see these things in the moment.  There have been instances when I am so unaware of how the words play outside my head that I pig-headedly ignore the excellent advice of my excellent critique group – only to flinch at the awkwardness during a later reading.

Time and multiple critiquers will help.  Give yourself plenty of time between writing and rewriting so that some of the puppy-love can wear off.  When you do sort through your notes, pay close attention if multiple people comment on the same thing or you have a strong negative reaction (I find when I read a comment and immediately want to scream WRONG! it is either abhorrent to my soul or absolutely spot-on).  Consider every note seriously.  You might still reject them, but at least you took some of the emotion out of the decision, and that’s usually the best you can do.

If you do find your text devolving as you work in suggestions from other people, you might need to give yourself permission to disagree.  You have to have confidence in yourself and your words, enough to know whether a comment rings true to you or not.  Sure, you run the risk of making the “wrong” decision – but this is art!  It cannot be designed by committee, and it will not be yours until you learn to take risks.

*I want to send a special thank-you to my current writing group, the Cloud City Wordslingers. I am extraordinarily lucky to be a part of a group with such talented and dedicated writers. My work would suffer enormously without their feedback.  And if they were the only critiquing experience I had, these posts would probably not exist!

King’s Mark Launched!

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My novel King’s Mark is now available!  If you like magic, adventure, and a touch of steampunk (or if you’re simply interested in what I’ve spent the last two years working on) you should check it out!

Nearly a century ago, the immortal King disappeared. Now, his Marked servants are hunted as demons and his land is falling into chaos. Three Marked have survived: a sheltered river princeling, an exiled mercenary, and a charismatic street urchin. Faced with overwhelming odds and blessed – or cursed – with a magic they cannot control, these three must fight to save the people and land they love.
Right now King’s Mark is available in any format from Smashwords and for Kindle at Amazon.  It will be available from Barnes and Noble, Apple, and just about every other ebook vendor (in many countries) within the next week.
I also want to send a huge thank-you to everyone who has helped me along the way!  You are all incredible, and this would not have happened without you.  If you want to continue to help me, please feel free to use (and distribute) the coupon code below to get a free copy of the book from Smashwords, and leave me an honest review on the site of your choosing.  At this point, reviews are worth far more than treasure – even if they aren’t entirely positive – so be candid!
Coupon for FREE ebook of King’s MarkVP62E (expires 5/22/13)