Posts Tagged ‘critique’

Diversity Dilemma

Wednesday, March 23rd, 2016

I’m afraid to write this post. Why? Because it’s about diversity in YA fiction, and writing about diversity is almost as scary as writing diverse characters. There’s a sense that you need to walk on eggshells, that at any moment you’re liable to say something offensive, un-PC, or just plain wrong.

The call to write diverse characters is everywhere, but when you’re not LBTQ, disabled, or a Person of Color, doing so is stepping into a minefield. No one sets out to create a character who is a stereotype. But when you’ve been fed those stereotypes all your life through the media and the institutionalized biases that run rampant in our culture, they can be hard to see beyond. Even worse, you may think you’re writing an authentic character, unaware that you’re reinforcing one of those very stereotypes.

A related problem occurs when you intentionally try to write against stereotype. The thinking goes like this: There is a stereotype out there of the young black man who is an unemployed, drug-dealing thug. Therefore the young black man in my book needs to aspire to a law degree from Harvard, speak the Queen’s English, and spend his spare hours doing volunteer work at the local hospital. Your character then becomes just as cardboard as the original stereotype, and what’s more, if your book’s setting is a crime-ridden inner city, downright unbelievable (is it okay that I said that??). This whitewashed, pardon the irony, version of your character is nothing but a knee-jerk reaction to the original stereotype, and therefore calls attention to that stereotype.

So how does a straight white woman like me go about creating characters who are very different from her? I don’t know, but I imagine that the answer lies in a combination of research, beta readers…and a bit of trust in our shared humanity. Through research, I can learn about the cultures of those different from myself, and once I’ve finished a draft, beta readers can reflect back to me any insensitive material I’ve unwittingly introduced into my work.

But the most important tool I have is empathy. Our skin colors and sexual orientations may be diverse, but my characters and I share primary human emotions and universal life experiences. If I can tap into the deep well of my feelings and experiences, I know I will find a connection with my characters whether they’re black or white, abled or disabled, straight or gay.

So I pledge to move forward boldly and do my best to bring diversity to my YA fiction. The danger of leaving deserving teens without books that reflect their backgrounds and experience trumps my personal fear of getting it wrong.

How to Improve Your Writing (and avoid bad relationships)

Monday, October 13th, 2014

You know when you start dating some new guy, and you think he’s amazing, but your friends keep warning you that you’re in for trouble, but you’re so enamored that you can’t see it? So you ignore their advice and let yourself get involved until one day you catch him cheating on you or charging stuff on your credit card and you realize they were right. Yet when it’s your best friend who has hooked up with a loser, it’s totally obvious that he’s a soulsucking leach that she needs to dump at the first opportunity. Why?  Because you’ve got some distance.

Well, the same principle goes for your writing. When it’s your own story, it’s difficult to see the flaws, and you ignore any negative feedback you get because you’re sure it’s not your work that’s the problem, it’s the critique group partner or agent or editor who just can’t see your genius.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to get the distance you need to view your work objectively: spend some time critiquing other writers’ manuscripts. Take any opportunity you get to review fellow scribes’ works-in-progress, and you will come across the same faults that other people have been pointing out in your masterpieces for years – only because they’re in someone else’s manuscripts instead of your own, they will suddenly become visible.

Let me give you an example. Over the years, I’ve gotten the feedback that I tend to add authorial commentary; that I don’t let the characters words and actions speak for themselves. I denied this, of course. But recently I critiqued a manuscript in which the writer did exactly the thing I’d been accused of doing. For goodness sake, I thought as I read his work, he just spent an entire paragraph showing me why the main character is like a stray cat. I get it. He didn’t need that final sentence spelling it out. And just like that sinking feeling you get when you see another woman’s name on your boyfriends frequently called numbers list, I knew that I had been guilty of the same writing faux pas.

The good news is that, in the same way that you can dump two-timing lovers, once you become aware of your writing blind spots, you can correct them. So now, I jump at the chance to critique other writers’ work because I know that doing so will help me improve my own.

What about you? Have you ever become aware of flaws in your writing through critiquing someone else’s work?



Odds and Ends

Monday, January 7th, 2013

It’s a new year, so it feels like time to take care of a few odds and ends. First, I’m getting excited about my appearance at the Olympia Timberland Library this Friday at 6:30 p.m., along with YA authors Megan Bostic (NEVER EIGHTEEN), Jennifer Shaw Wolf (BREAKING BEAUTIFUL), and Kimberly Derting (THE BODY FINDER series).


The title of our program is “Writers on Writing,” so it promises to be informative as well as entertaining. Our books will be available for purchase and signing after the talk, so please come  on out if you’re in the area. We’d love to see you!

Second, I’m anxiously awaiting feedback from beta readers on the latest draft of my WIP. I’ve gotten one response already, and she loved it! A quote from her email:


HELEN! YES, I’M SCREAMING OVER HERE! I was up all night with your revision because I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. It’s really perfect. I loved every part of it. And the tension is so thick throughout, it kept me turning pages. (or scrolling) I would absolutely pay to read this – and I will when it gets published – I’m going to have a copy of the hardcover on my shelf. This has to be published. 
Pretty strong praise, but I’m trying not to let it go to my head. I’ll wait and see what my other two readers have to say, then do another revision addressing their comments and any weak spots I find when I read the draft. Then, and only then, it goes off to my agent.
Lastly, there’s a lot of talk in the air about New Year’s resolutions. I don’t tend to make them, since my life is rife with rules and structure, anyway. But this year, I want to remind myself to keep a sense of play alive in my work. What’s the point of writing if I don’t enjoy it?
Any odds and ends you’d like to get off your chest? I’m all ears!

Getting the most from a writing critique

Thursday, December 27th, 2012

I’ve been thinking a lot about critiques, partly because my WIP is now in the hands of beta readers, but also because I’ll be leading a critique group at SCBWI WWA’s Great Critique in a couple of weeks. There is definitely an art to giving critiques, but I also think there is an art to receiving and responding to them. Here are my tips for getting the most out of a writing critique:

Listen: It might seem kind of obvious that you’d want to listen while someone is critiquing your manuscript, but I’ve found that many writers (myself included, when I’m being critiqued), are so busy defending their work or explaining what they were trying to do that they end up doing more talking than listening. Try, just for the length of your critique, to set your defenses aside. Be like a sponge, soaking up as much feedback as you can. You can disagree later, but for now, just take it in. I like the idea of listening for the gold nuggets: keeping your ears, mind, and heart open for the tidbits that could totally transform the way you approach your story.

Consider: You’ve truly listened to what the person critiquing you has to say, so now it’s time to consider their feedback. Some of it you’ll agree with, some you won’t. But be very careful before discarding a piece of feedback. First of all, ask yourself why you’re discarding it. If it’s because you’re positive that the person doing the critique just didn’t get what you were trying to do and their comment is totally off base, then of course you should go with your gut and ignore it. But if you’re choosing to ignore the comment because applying it to your work would change everything and require massive rewrites, think again. Sometimes what a story needs is a true “re-visioning” – and if you don’t do it now, you may well be doing it for an agent or editor somewhere down the line.

Another thing to ponder before discarding a comment is whether there’s some part of it that holds an element of truth. This goes back to listening for gold nuggets. Is there a gold nugget hidden in a comment that you otherwise disagree with? For example, if someone critiquing your story says, “It really didn’t work for me that this character was female – I think you should consider making the character male,” your initial instinct will probably be to close down and disregard the comment. But instead, try listening for the gold nugget. Would your story benefit if you gave this character a little more male energy, even if you choose to keep her a female?

Apply: Now that you’ve considered your feedback and decided to ignore any comments that really don’t fit for you, it’s time to apply the feedback that does ring true. The important thing here is to not just apply it to the short section being critiqued – often just the first few pages of a story or novel – but to ask yourself how the comments on this first section can reverberate throughout the manuscript.

Let’s  hope that I’m able to follow my own advice when the feedback on my WIP comes in!

Do you have any tips for receiving and responding to critiques? I’d love to hear them!

Odds and Ends

Friday, June 8th, 2012

Today is a red letter day for me, because this afternoon my critique group is meeting to give me feedback on my WIP. I’m so nervous and excited that I’m having trouble focusing, so I thought it would be a perfect day to catch you up on a couple of odds and ends.

First of all, I wanted to share a photo from the Teen Author Reading Night at the L.A. Central library a few weeks ago.

As you can see, I’m reading a scene from FLYAWAY. I tried a different scene than I usually read at events, and it has now become my favorite. On my right is Ron Koertge, author of STONER AND SPAZ II,  and on my left is Cecile Castelluci, author of THE YEAR OF THE BEASTS, who is also the organizer of the reading series.

Second, I wanted to share a couple of highlights from my visit to Garfield High School this Wednesday. It was the largest crowd I’ve ever spoken to – 90 students! – and the school’s black box theater is the coolest space I’ve ever presented in. It’s also the first time a bookstore has sponsored my visit – I was happy to have someone from the University Book Store in attendance.

My favorite question of the day was, “If you become a super-famous author, would you consider writing your autobiography?” A close second was, “Have you thought about making a movie of your book?” All of the questions the students asked were heartfelt. I loved their enthusiasm and thoughtfulness.

Last of all, I want to remind those of you who live in Seattle that I’ll be performing on Tuesday, June 12 at 7 p.m. with my husband, Steven Bishofsky, as part of the Ballard Writer’s Collective live storytelling event, Ballard Jam, at Egan’s Ballard Jamhouse. We’ll be telling the story of how cancer brought us together, with musical interludes by Steven. It’s going to be sweet and inspiring – I hope you can make it!