Before You Publish Your Book, Write Yourself A Bad Review

blog post review yourselfI don’t mean write a review to put up on Amazon or Goodreads. I mean sit down and really think about what other readers will not like in your story. If you read that last sentence and you’re thinking to yourself, I don’t need to do that. Everyone will love my story. I love my story. My beta readers love my story. Stop. Even if you and your beta readers think your story is ready to be out in the world, still take the time to write that bad review. Doing this will save you much grief in the long run and will make you a better writer.

Intellectually, we can accept that not everyone will like our books. We talk about it with other writers. We joke about putting our worst reviews on tee shirts and wearing them proudly. One of mine would say “Mostly harmless MacGyver-esque foolishness.” I actually love this, because yes, there was a lot of MacGyver influence in that book. Foolish is in the eye of the beholder.

So we tell ourselves we don’t care about reviews and we try to quiet the little Trumpish ego voice inside us that whispers we won’t get many negative ones because we are amazing and people should throw rose petals at us everywhere we go. Never mind that most of us writers sit around by ourselves in our pajamas so we are unlikely to be anywhere near adoring rose petal-throwing fans. Or we tell ourselves that anyone who doesn’t like our stories are just clueless or they hate everything or _________ (fill in the blank.)

When the first scathing review or even minor criticism hits, we are gobsmacked. (Love that word. It comes from “gob” which is supposedly ‎“mouth” in Irish / Scottish Gaelic.)

Back to the writing of a bad review. I’ve read many books I hated. A few I’ve really, really hated.  In analyzing why I’ve loathed certain books, I’ve begun to see why other people might hate my own. The most recent book I did not finish was a popular fantasy book, beloved by many. To me, it was so wordy and overwrought with purple description, I fought the urge to ransack my bookshelves for some Hemingway to cleanse my palate.

If you put long descriptions in your stories, certain readers will love it. Others will write reviews about how the story dragged or how they skipped over certain parts or couldn’t finish. If you write fast-paced action-packed books, again you’ll have some readers who love it. Others will say there is no character development or the book was just a lightweight read not really worth their time or it was too fast for them to follow.

So critique your own books in terms of your style, but don’t stop there. Take a long hard look at that style. Are you actually too wordy? Or are you too overly focused on stark action? Read some popular books in your genre, especially the first few chapters of those books. If you have twice as much backstory or detail as a good detail-rich example, you’ve probably got too much. For the other extreme, read the first three chapters of a popular action-packed adventure, then ask yourself what you know about the characters and their world. Compare your own and see if it measures up or if you’ve just thrown in a bunch of plot points.

Do your characters actually seem like real people or are they some idealized version of who you’d like to know or be? Are they memorable enough? Reviewers concentrate much of their focus on characters. What can be said of yours?

Most important, know your flaws. I know my biggest flaws. I am bad at physical descriptions of characters. It’s something I continually struggle to improve. I also hate writing endings so I rush them. In writing children’s fiction, I struggle with wanting to write realistic stories versus how best to portray such things to young readers. In writing adult fiction, I struggle with my own impatience to get the story done. I have others, but that would take up too much room for me to list them all!

It’s easy to convince yourself readers won’t notice your flaws. Ha! So not true. I’d rather know in advance that someone is going to discuss in great detail my character’s flaws. If I put those flaws in on purpose, I won’t care what a reviewer said. If I didn’t intend them to be there, then that means I need to do a better job in the next story. There’s always the next story.

And if anyone is interested in MacGyver-esque foolishness, check out WILDFIRE RUN.

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Ten Tips Writers can take from Star Wars

 

Star Wars Tips for Writers

Even if you don’t like Star Wars, and I know a few people who don’t, it’s hard to ignore the fact that the first Star Wars movie created millions of fans, myself included. The photo above includes only a few of the Star Wars objects we have in our home. I’ve pretended I was buying them for my son, but now I can admit I love them too. I’ve been a fan of Star Wars for a long time and have learned much about storytelling and adventure fiction writing from watching the movies over and over. (I probably don’t need to specify I mean the original trilogy only. We don’t acknowledge the later three films at our house.) When I do school visits, I bring along an R2D2 as a reminder that emotions in stories can be conveyed many ways, not just through dialogue alone. I’m not saying there aren’t flaws in the movies, but here’s what they did right, and what writers can learn to make their stories into ones thata readers love:

  1. Add in bits of humor.

Star Wars Chewbacca Chess

Humor is not the first thing a person thinks of when it comes to Star Wars, but it’s a key component to appeal of the film. I’m not talking slapstick humor, but the little bits of dialogue that round out the characters as more than just action heroes. We may not remember every accurate hit on a tie fighter, but I bet most viewers remember the chess scene between R2 and Chewbacca along with C3PO’s comment, “I suggest a new strategy. R2. Let the Wookie win.”

  1. Make your sidekicks out-of-the-ordinary.

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Best friends and sidekicks are a staple in film, but often they are just there to avoid having the main character talk to themselves for the whole movie. Star Wars took the idea of a sidekick and went to the extreme, including two who speak languages the viewers can’t understand and turning the standard robot into a fretful fussbudget. (Note-It is possible to go too far in your quirky sidekicks. I’ll just say Jar Jar Binks and leave it at that.)

  1. A touch of romance never hurts.

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Many adventure stories go way too far in trying to add in romance in the middle of extreme danger. It’s completely unbelievable in movies and stories when a couple takes time out to gaze into each other’s eyes while they know a bomb or something is about to destroy everything, so the tiny hints of attraction between the characters in A New Hope are just enough to add a little interest.

  1. A team is better than one lone hero.

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Many readers and viewers want to identify with a character, so the more choices, the better. The interactions of an ensemble cast of characters can make most stories far more interesting than just one lone hero off to save humanity all by him or herself.

  1. Characters’ flaws make them real and relatable.

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There are some books where the main characters are so annoyingly good at everything that it would be refreshing to see them trip over their own feet once in a while. Perfect characters distance themselves from readers and viewers. Star Wars avoids that trap. Princess Leia was just enough like a bossy older sister to add in a touch of humanity to a member of planetary royalty. Luke, as naïve farmbook, was not your standard cool and collected young hero, and Han, preening in his scoundrelness, was refreshing in his ability to not take himself too seriously.

  1. Make your bad guys more than just bad.

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It’s obvious from his first appearance that Darth Vadar is one really bad dude. Being able to strangle someone without touching them is fairly extreme on the evil abilities scale, but once we get that he is the bad guy, we’re also teased that there is a bit more to Vadar than just “evil guy wants to rule the world” trope. We don’t get Vadar’s whole back story for a long time, but in the first movie, there are hints, particularly in the confrontation between Obi-Wan and Vadar, when he says, “I’ve been waiting for you, Obi-Wan. We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master.” That’s enough to make the viewer curious as to the backstory. It doesn’t take much and that’s a good thing to remember. In writing, you don’t want to infodump the antagonist’s whole miserable life on the reader right away, but hints here and there give some depth to the character.

  1. Create a world readers want to visit.

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I’m not much for dive bars in real life, but if I was ever in Tatooine, I’d make a beeline for the Mos Eisley cantina. Even the grittiest of worlds can pull on readers. It’s not like we want to live there forever, but compelling world building in your stories will make the readers long to explore, even if just for a couple of hours. It doesn’ teven have to be fantasy or futuristic worlds. Enough interesting details can convince a reader they really want to visit your story’s fictional town in North Dakota so they can order a mouthwatering cheeseburger at the equally fictional Bea’s Diner.

  1. Get readers wondering what happens next by creating a string of mini roadblocks.

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I’ve heard that building tension in a story works best using a stair step effect, where there are a series of hurdles to overcome that increase in seriousness and difficulty. A good example of this are the scenes on the star destroyer where Han and Luke are trying to rescue Leia. Each step forward leads them into new predicaments. It’s “Now What?” for viewers as we wait to see what happens next. When the characters jump into the garbage chute, you expect them to face something bad, and it comes when the creature pulls Luke under, but only a few seconds after he survives that encounter, they face being flattened as the walls move together. It’s a definite edge-of-seat moment.

  1. Include a ticking clock.

starwarsdeathstar

Even if your story doesn’t involve your heroes being blown up in an explosion, there are ways to add in a ticking clock to solve the main problem. Adding a time limit where Bad Thing X will happen in your main character doesn’t solve Major Problem A helps to keep the pages turning.

  1. Craft an ending that leaves readers wanting to follow the characters into the next part of their lives.

StarWarsCeremony

This may be the most important takeaway of all. So many times I hear readers say they hated the ending of a particular book, and that leaves them not wanting to read more by that author or to reread the book. Or even if they didn’t hate it, they just don’t care enough to feel much emotion for the story when it ends. Endings don’t have to be all happiness and light and unicorns, but I know I’m disappointed if I feel like the characters just sort of wander off into mundane ordinary life when I’ve closed the cover of a book.

If you are interested in other films that can inspire your writing, check out this post AIR FORCE ONE Thumbs Up, OLYMPUS HAS FALLEN, Thumbs Down: https://deegarretson.wordpress.com/2013/10/01/air-force-one-thumbs-up-olympus-has-fallen-thumbs-down/ on

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Cover Reveal – BEEN THERE DONE THAT, coming 11/15 from Penguin/Grosset & Dunlap

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Lots of writing news coming this year! First up, I am very excited to have my work included in a middle grade anthology, which I think will be great for teachers, homeschoolers and parents interested in encouraging their children’s creative writing: BEEN THERE, DONE THAT: Writing Stories from Real Life, edited by Teacher and Editor Extraordinaire Mike Winchell.

Here’s the description: “Where do authors get their ideas? And how do they turn those ideas into stories? This anthology looks at the process of taking real-life experiences and turning them into works of engaging fiction. The collection features award-winning and bestselling middle-grade authors who provide both original fictional short stories as well as the nonfiction accounts that inspired them. The contributing authors include Julia Alvarez, Karen Cushman, Margarita Engle, Dee Garretson, Nathan Hale, Matthew Kirby, Claire Legrand, Grace Lin, Kate Messner, Linda Sue Park, Adam Rex, Gary Schmidt, Alan Sitomer, Caroline Starr Rose, Heidi Stemple, Rita Williams-Garcia, Tracy Edward Wymer, Lisa Yee, and Jane Yolen.”

For my Iowa friends and family, my nonfiction piece features my dog Kitty, who you may remember was not the best dog in the world. In fact, she was mostly untrainable, though I loved her anyway. :)

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For Authors: School Visits are a Good Opportunity to Embrace Your Odd

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I was shocked to read Shannon Hale’s post about her experiences during school visits, where sometimes only girls are expected to attend, because Shannon writes what are labeled “girl” books. Here’s her post if you haven’t read it: http://shannonhale.tumblr.com/post/112152808785/no-boys-allowed-school-visits-as-a-woman-writer

I don’t have that problem, because apparently I write “boy” books. I get a different sort of reaction during school visits, but more about that later. I didn’t realize there was such a thing as “boy” and “girl” books when I started writing. My first book felt like it should be written from the POV of a twelve-year-old boy, so that’s what I did. It didn’t occur to me as it would be considered an odd choice by some. I wrote my second book from a boy’s POV too. I’ve discovered that for whatever reason, I liked telling some of my stories that way.

I know I don’t look the part of an author who writes adventure stories featuring boys. I sometimes get very surprised reactions during school and Skype visits when I tell the students about myself: how much of a Lord of the Rings geek I am, how I love science fiction and adventure movies, and how sometimes I would rather be outside instead of writing. Apparently, these are boy characteristics in our society, not middle-aged suburban mom characteristics. (Yes, I am a suburban middle-aged mom, not one of the Kool Kidz, but wow, do I click with teachers and librarians, something that seems to escape some marketing considerations.)

After the surprise though, I can see some students out in the audience who light up and become more engaged in my talks. I suspect it’s those who have been feeling like they don’t fit in, for whatever reason. Schools can be hard places for odd kids. Though I loved school, there were some who considered me strange. It didn’t bother me, because I came from a family where quirkyness was normal. (My father was the perfect stereotype of an eccentric inventor.) I know many children find their oddness a burden though. They don’t realize their quirks may be their greatest strength later in life. I know I never would have become a writer without mine.

I’d encourage other authors to let kids know about your own quirks. Don’t try to fit the mold of “successful children’s author who writes _______(fill in the blank)” Show them you aren’t a stereotype. Tell them if you were an odd kid. They’ll find it interesting. Your reader don’t care if you fit a mold or not. I’ve decided that if by sharing things about myself, I can help just one kid to feel a little better about themselves, that’s a good day. My new motto is “Odd is Good.”

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Sidekick Characters – C3PO’s role in Star Wars

c3poI’ve learned so much about storytelling from studying the original Star Wars’ movies-as well as given myself an excuse to watch movies as part of my job-and one of the things I’ve discovered is the value of a good sidekick character. There are many different kinds of sidekicks, and they can serve different purposes. C3PO is great as a sidekick for many reasons. First, he’s not what we expect. Though most of us have no idea what a sentient android would act like, I can bet no one pre-Star Wars imagined one as a nervous fusspot with a bit of an ego. Too often a sidekick is the friend who is there only to give the main character someone to talk to, and that’s just boring. Sidekicks need distinct personalities of their own, and their own goals and conflicts. C3PO certainly has a distinct personality and his goal is to do his job as an interpreter droid, but his conflict is that he is thrown into very dangerous situations that go against his expected role.

Second, a good sidekick can provide an alternative perspective on situations that arise. C3PO acts as a contrast to the brave main characters of Star Wars, who leap into danger without a thought. It’s C3PO who often acts more human than Han, Leia and Luke, something the viewer doesn’t expect. Androids aren’t supposed to experience fear. A good example of this is the scene in which he is afraid to go outside the Millennium Falcon when it’s inside the space slug. When he says, “I think it might be better if I stay here and guard the ship,” he’s not only saying what a normal person would probably want to say, he’s also unintentionally funny. And that’s CEPOs third strength as a sidekick. A little humor can add tremendous value to an adventure, to modulate the tension, and to make the viewers (or readers) want to be part of the action. C3PO doesn’t know he’s funny, and that makes him even funnier. The audience knows he is incapable of guarding anything.

While C3PO particular blend of characteristics couldn’t and shouldn’t be duplicated, considering why the character works so well reminds me to take care in creating my own sidekick characters.

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Great Writing Advice from Kurt Vonnegut

VonnegutI found these two tips from Kurt Vonnegut which really struck me:

  1. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  2. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.(from Vonnegut’s book BAGOMBO SNUFF BOX: UNCOLLECTED SHORT FICTION)

This advice seems so simple, but is so easily forgotten. Tip 1 is most useful when writing a first draft and figuring out the characters. It’s too easy to add in a character to help the plot, but without fully fleshing out that character. I’ve been guilty of this myself. Not anymore!

And for the second tip, what a great thought to keep in mind when revising. Knowing how to revise is a long learning process, and getting the pacing right is vital, so analyzing the purpose of each sentence will cut down on unnecessary bits that drag the story down.

Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction 

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Why I Encourage Beginning Writers to Write Fan Fiction

harrypotterI do frequent Skype visits with classes, and often the students are working on creative writing units. As a parent and a parent volunteer in classrooms, I know creative writing isn’t easy for a large number of students. It just seems overwhelming to some to pull together characters, plot, setting and theme. That’s why I recommend new writers try their hand at fan fiction. Now, I didn’t even know what fan fiction was until about four years ago when I heard other writers discussing it. So for those of you who don’t know what it is either, here’s a brief description: Fan fiction is where you use the characters or world in an already published book or television show or movie, to write stories set in the same world or with the same characters. It’s not fiction to be published, unless the original work is out of copyright, or is something that has never been copyrighted, like fairy tales.

A writer writes fan fiction because they love the world of the story and want to see it continue. It’s also an excellent way to practice writing. Many published writers got their start writing fan fiction. The benefits of it are that a new writer doesn’t have so much to juggle. Using existing characters gives a basis. You know the character’s habits, quirks, friendships, etc., so you can focus on plot. This can take some of the pressure off. And if the world of the story is already a complicated one, like the one in Harry Potter, you can add details but don’t have to embark upon the complicated task of worldbuilding, something else that is very daunting and difficult for new writers.

So if you are a writer, child or adult, struggling with writing, why not give it a try? And keep in mind, writing only improves with practice, it doesn’t ever get worse!

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