Archive for the ‘Feedback’ Category

A frosted cake is a lot like a completed manuscript.  If it looks anything like what it’s supposed to look like, people are impressed you did it.  Their untrained eye (and yours too if you’re new to the process) skims over the little details that show your immaturity (or maturity) in the craft.  For a newbie, piping the last detail on a two tiered cake feels just as satisfying as when you type “The End” for the first time.

If you’re anything like me, you can’t wait for the ooohs and ahhhs to start flooding in to confirm your time wasn’t wasted.  Your effort appreciated.  And while that helps with ego, you look to an experienced person to validate your confidence since they understand the true art.  You want someone who knows what they’re talking about to look at what you’ve done and start showering you with accolades.  But wait a second…this shower isn’t made of kudos.  It’s made of feedback.  Sharp quips cutting through your sensitive skin to show you’ve got some serious problems.

This week I finished a two tiered cake for a farewell party.  The guest of honor wanted a flavor I’d never tried before, Black Forest.  I looked up some recipes, came to a consensus of what I thought would make a good flavor combination, and started to bake.  Then I built.  I’m a novice to the tiered cake arena.  While I followed the instructions of others who have done it before me, I added in my own touches too.  And as everybody knows, when you improvise you run a risk of making mistakes and um, ahem, find learning opportunities.  So while the picture above looks like the cake was a success, I will now break down why it wasn’t.

To the trained eye, the structure wasn’t stable.  During construction I let doubt into my thought process and tweaked at all the wrong places. Even though my heart said to stay the course, I pulled off a layer to add more filling for a taller appearance.  The moment I did it, I knew it was wrong.  The cake started to tear and I knew filling wouldn’t give enough stability.  But I was committed.  Not enough time to start from scratch.  The cake must go on.

The morning after, the top tier tilted and I had serious concerns if it would make it to the destination.  I added some additional support and re-piped over the construction.  I crossed my fingers it was saved.  When I pulled it out to serve, my mistakes glared and my concerns had been warranted.  Another baker would be able to see the layers weren’t even, too much filling at the bottom which negated the support for the top, and even the choice of infrastructure was too weak for the weight of the upper cake.  It was aptly named “The Titanic” because it was sinking slowly.  The only solution was to cut quickly before any other bakers entered the room.

The sinking feeling has been there with my past manuscripts.  Times where others were impressed at a completed product, but didn’t look hard enough to see the problems.  The flawed areas where I needed someone with tough love capabilities to point it out so I could cut or correct.  Times when insecurity jaded my view and decisions were made without sound judgement.    The plot structure weak, too much telling, not enough emotional connection with the characters.  Some manuscripts were too flawed to be saved, resigned to be cut up and chalked up to learning.  In their destruction, knowledge replaced experiment and a new project born.

While in cake it’s easier to identify than in a novel, the result is the same.  If the weak areas aren’t fixed before presenting to the world, you can have a mess on your hands.  A crumbling tower of cake and frosting slowly sliding into itself.  The same for a first novel that may get a full request, but will be quickly rejected because of a  weak plot or one dimensional characters.

Both creative outlets have shown me it takes time to craft and build a solid product.  Patience, heart, and experience are the qualities needed to press on and make sure the same mistakes aren’t repeated.  And even when the cake sucks it isn’t too bad because heck, it’s still cake.


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…we’re heading to a workshop.

Last weekend, something cool finally happened to Southern Oregon.  No, it wasn’t The Airborne Toxic Event coming over to my house for a barbecue (even though I have my fingers crossed for summertime.)  Instead, Willamette’s Writer group had the awesome Bob Dugoni teach an all day workshop to novel hopefuls.  I first saw Mr. Dugoni at the conference last August.  After I heard him speak about query letters, I dropped my YA classes and went to listen to two more of his lectures.  He was engaging, funny, and detailed in helping to learn more of the craft.  I love his admission of his mistakes made and how he worked through them.  I’ve been giddy for weeks after signing up to get another lesson.

Let me be clear that this post is no way a reflection on his skill in a workshop.  I gained six pages of fantastic notes.  I’m overwhelmed and excited to dive back into the edit of my WIP.  Mr. Dugoni inspired that.  The rest of the class gave me one page of observations noted for this blog of what not to do at an all day workshop.  As with any good lesson plan, we’re going to bullet points:

  • Senior Center — There were about 60 attendees.  85% of them were over the age of 60.  This is an interesting trend I saw at the last conference.  My critique partner’s hypothesis is it’s the time in your life where you actually have time to sit down and write the novel of your dreams.  Not that I have an aversion to the elderly (my mother might tell you different) but they do distract in some ways.
  • Learn To Turn Off Your Cell Phone — There were three separate examples where the above fact about age came into play for this problem.  When the phones did go off at an outrageously loud volume, the owners had no idea how to shut it off.  As the pre-programmed ring tone played through its whole melody, the owner swatted at the screen or pressed it against their side in a weak attempt to strangle the noise.  In all these occurrences when the owner thought they were out of the distracting woods, the happy chirp of a voicemail echoed in the room.  If you are scared to turn it off because someone might call you with life changing news, then PLEASE learn how to turn it to vibrate.
  • Book Lovers — Just because you love books, it doesn’t mean you should write them.  This was a workshop on how to write a novel.  But person after person wanted to theorize about different authors.  Mr. Dugoni would give an example about one of his novels and a participant would come back with “But (insert author name) did this in (book title).”  I fought every urge to turn around and scream “Are you author name? No? Then shut the hell up.”  You might think I’m being a bit harsh, but these people would not let it die.  That question was just their opener.  Then they would go into some disposition about how that author used some fancy technique in contrast to what Mr. Dugoni said, implying he was wrong.  Now you’re with me, aren’t you?
  • That Guy — It never fails.  In school, at the office, or at a work shop, there is always that guy who knows everything.  In this class, he sat in the last row with a maroon turtle neck under a blue striped sweater with his khaki covered leg crossed over the other.  He scoffed at inappropriate times and wanted to argue every point.  He even had the nerve to barely take one note the entire class.  During a break, he leaned over to another woman and said, “I’ve been writing a long time.  I’ve got this all down.” (Serious quote.)  I’m still waiting for him to drop the name of his published book so I can find it on the NYT bestseller list.
  • WTF Random Stuff — 1)  Chick crocheted the whole time.  Seriously.  2) At every break, someone was in Mr. Dugoni’s face.  Even at lunch one chick slid over pages for him to read.  No, please, never mind he might want to go to the bathroom or get something to eat.  3)  People kept guessing what he was going to say.  Mr. Dugoni would build up a story and someone shouted out their guess at the ending.  Hey, this isn’t a choose your own adventure.  Slow your roll and learn from the class.  4)  A woman made a pretty good dirty joke in one of the exercises about re-writing the sentence “he was quick and small.”  Funnier part was she didn’t even know it even after the class burst out into laughter and Mr. Dugoni turned bright red.  5)  I’m still a sucky student.
  • Me = Awkward — This is a classic equation in my life.  It might be why I’m drawn to writing Young Adult.  But sure enough, as I scooted past a desk, the corner of my pocket caught perfectly on the sharp edge of the dry erase board.  (Please insert extra loud ripping noise)  I’m trying to play it off cool when Captain Obvious next to me screams out “sounds like something ripped.”  Uh yeah, no shit, I just gave my ass a sunroof.  I shimmied back to my seat, wrapped my jacket around my waist, and tweeted about it immediately.  Hubs couldn’t even console me because he was laughing too hard after receiving my text.  (Maybe this belonged under  the WTF category.)

These are the deets of what goes on at a workshop.  Do you feel prepared to attend one yourself now?  At least you have some ideas what not to do.  Turn off your cell phone, want to be a writer, don’t argue with the professional, don’t be a dick, and cover your ass.

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This holiday week, I’m on vacation.  It’s not one of those trips to somewhere exotic or drinking cocktails by a beach.  Instead, I drove 12 hours with my two children to visit my parents in the town where I spent my first eighteen years.  Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of vacation aspects to it.  My children are pre-occupied with their cousins so I am able to edit the current WIP, I’ve been able to meet up with a couple old friends for reminiscing, and I’ve even gotten to see the sun again.  Hands down, one of the biggest perks of my parents’ house is the fact it’s on a golf course.  Not only does it have a beautiful landscape, no traffic noise, and an endless supply of retirees, it allows me to try my hand once a year on the links.

Golf has always been a big part of my parents’ life.  I took some lessons when I was young and occasionally hit a round of eighteen.  As with anyone under the age of sixteen, my fascination was more with driving the cart than practicing my swing.  (That was until there was a terrible accident where I ran over my mother and she never allowed me to drive again.)  Although the best I’ve ever done is par a hole every once in a while, I can usually hit the ball with minimal occurrences of shanking, topping, and making a total ass out of myself.  But this last round, where my mother invited other family to join, was the worst I’ve ever done in my entire life.

When my cousins rolled up in their serious golf gear, I did the smart thing and started the campaign to lower expectations about my play.  They were very reassuring about nothing was expected from the person who only played once a year.  It didn’t help that my cousin’s daughter, the one I occasionally diapered when I tried my hand at babysitting in high school, is a freakin’ golf star.  Seriously, she kicks ass on her college golf team.  On the first tee, all eyes watched as I teed up the ball.  I took a deep breath, remembered the steps of a successful swing, and went for it.  I topped the ball and it barely trickled off the tee box.  My mom gave me the pity offer of a mulligan and threw me another ball.  Repeat process with the exact same results. I gave an embarrassed smile, shrugged my shoulders, and sulked back to the cart. (Mom driving.)

Every shot proceeded to go like this the entire day.  It was brutal.  My mom tried to offer coaching tips, but nothing helped.  Two years ago I would’ve been cursing at myself from the first mulligan.  The whole day would’ve been consumed by anger at how terrible I was instead of enjoying the beautiful weather and chatting with my family I only see every once in a while.

On the second hole, after topping another one and it barely rolling thirty feet away, I said to my mom:

“One thing writing has taught me is everything takes practice.  If I don’t invest the time, I can’t expect to be good.”  I didn’t go on into the fact it’s also given me the “suck it up” power of not being good at something.  Rejections and online board feedback can do that.  Some of the brutal comments from my first book attempt humbled me to the fact the things you want to excel take a lot of time and practice.

I’ve read some wonderful blogs by people who have agents and book deals where they detail how they work really hard.  They remind it isn’t about natural talent where you can open a laptop once a year and write a best seller.  Writing has become a daily thing where I practice, study, apply, learn some more, listen to feedback, look to hang with experienced peeps, and still be okay when I get rejected.  (Even when I’ve topped the ball for the millionth time.)

Mom and I bailed out on the 8th hole to head back to the house to check on my dad who was watching four kids.  (Everyone was still alive and in one piece.)  But on that last hole, I finally hit a drive off the tee.  One that actually went into the air and made it near the green.  Well, the general vicinity.  Mom picked up the pitch shot and the putt and we parred the hole.

Even though I joked we had to exit on a high note, it had nothing to do with it.  The entire day was a success in my eyes.  (Similar to the success in my writing year.)  I took the mis-hits in stride with a smile on my face and a resolve to try again on the next hole.  I appreciated the good things like awesome weather, great company, and my little cousin’s kick-assery.  This year may have not brought the elusive hole in one or a representing agent, but it was filled with steps in getting there.  Hopefully the agent will come before the hole in one.  When it does happen, I’ll let you know.  Drinks on the 19th hole will be on me.

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Cupcake Wars

Most people are aware cupcakes have taken over the world.  There are no more bakeries, there are only a slew of “cupcakeries” lining every street.  Even in my small town, there are four shops that specifically sell cupcakes.  My girlfriend with the rockin’ colored hair (now a bright purple) and I have been sampling from each of them to see who has the best ones.  We purchase a set while on the clock at our regular job and involve our boss on a three judge panel.  What we found in the last month are the cupcakes in this town suck.

In answer to our feeling of superiority over the other bakers who have come up short, we’ve decided to find recipes to make our own concoctions.  My friend started with a ginger cupcake topped with a green tea frosting (because of my recommendation for something different.)  She made a double batch of what ended up being very expensive cupcakes.  She brought them to work, shared with her staff, taste tested with me and then opened herself up to the feedback of the floor. 

It was very interesting to see the room transform into the overly critical French judge from Food Network’s Cupcake Wars.  Some people liked the interesting take of the cupcake and enjoyed the chopped pieces of crystalized ginger in the cake.  Others like the uniqueness of the bright green colored frosting with the subtle hint of green tea.  But then there were the others.  People who spit it out in an overdramatized motion acting like a king who had been poisoned.  Another cried out “that’s disgusting” without a second thought of the baker standing right in front of them. 

It reminded me of the behavior sometimes found on writing boards.  A generous person brought something to the party they had spent time on and poured their heart into.  Feedback was requested.  Of course, you hope the world says it’s great, like something they have never tasted (or read) before, but you are okay if they give you something to tweek it to make it better.  But when people are rolling their eyes, grabbing their throats, and rushing for water, you feel a little deflated.  Different from writing boards, the cupcake creation followed someone else’s recipe and isn’t as personal as a novel which required six months of your life.

My first experience with a critique from a writing board was two years ago and, honestly, before I was really ready.  Some people were nice and tried to help a flawed recipe.  But there were others who were down right brutal.  I remember one famous comment was “I hope your main character dies so I don’t have to read any more.”  Sure, it stung.  And then it made me question if I was cut out for this writing world.  But after a little while it became funny and now it’s something that fuels my continued education to become a better writer.

Did we learn from our taste test with the green tea and ginger?  Sure.  It’s too unpredictable to be a staple recipe.  Like with writing, you have to decide when you are going to edit a work or leave it altogether for a new project.  So we’ve moved on to another recipe, the Irish Car Bomb, and I’m prepping it for tasting in between writing paragraphs on the WIP.  I have hopes it will be better received.  I know it won’t meet everyone’s taste and I’m okay with that.  I just want it to show some progression.  But if nothing else, it’s great practice.  Because even with a bad batch of cupcakes hitting the trashcan or a novel that has to be shelved, there are many things learned to make the next one irresistible.

Guinness cake with Jameson's Irish Whiskey ganache

Bailey's Irish Creme butter cream on top

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There was an immediate request for paper to be folded into the shape of a small, green wise man the moment my son picked up the book Origami Yoda.  It continued in an incessant whine with each chapter, but I held off with the promise I would create it when he finished the book.  Although I didn’t hold out until the very end, he happily finished the book and I folded paper.

As always, I’m amazed with how you can learn to do anything from the internet.  It’s where I started my cookie creating, learned how to fix my washing machine, and most recently learned how to fold Origami Yoda.  Not that the instructions in the back of the book didn’t give step by step instructions, because it did.  But the act of watching the video made it much easier to understand the concept and what each fold should look like.  But afterwards, Yoda wasn’t enough.

The first Yoda and Darth Paper met a sad fate when they were left in someone’s pocket when his pants went through the washing machine.  Their demise was confirmed when two balled up wads of paper got pulled from the pocket.  Tears were shed, a funeral was requested, and the only way to move past the loss was the promise of Mom heading to the craft store for actual origami paper.

What I didn’t know when I paid a large amount for small squares of paper was there would be endless requests for more creatures when I returned home.  After Yoda was revitalized, a “ninja star” was requested.  So I loaded up the internet and thought I could whip out a ninja star in about five minutes.  Thirty minutes later and my blood boiling, I was ready to chuck the whole thing in the garbage. But, I couldn’t give up because we used the only piece of gold paper in the package of one hundred.   Boy stared with wide eyes and checked in every two minutes to see if I was done yet.  The clock ticking in my ear only added to the frustration.

I watched the video time and time again, but couldn’t figure out how two separate pieces went together to form a star.  I tried another video, this one in Spanish, but still no success.  At my wits end, with a clump of hair in my hand from tearing it off my head, I limped together the two pieces and called it quits.  Boy was happy.  He said it looked great.  But I knew it wasn’t the real deal.

Hubs strolled out of the bedroom to see what we’re doing (and what I’d been cursing about.) 

“Oh, a ninja star.  I loved those when I was a kid.  Made them all the time,” he said.  Daughter pushed Hubs back into the bedroom to make another out of plain old printer paper.  In less than three minutes, she triumphantly danced out with a well-constructed ninja star flying out of her hand and attempting to decapitate her brother.

I should have drawn on the lessons writing has taught me when I knew I was in trouble with the star.  Self-instruction and determination only get you so far at times.  There are circumstances which call for a fresh eye and leaning on the support of a community to get to the best product before self-loathing takes over and puts doubt in your mind.   This reminder came at a good time.  The next couple months are going to be important in my novel’s life when I move from finishing a draft to refining it with critiques.  If I let fear of inferiority drive my decisions, I won’t push myself to make something better.  To think I can do that alone is arrogant.  Admitting it sooner will save heartache, frustration, and rejection later.

I haven’t yet asked Hubs to show me how the two pieces fit together.  Instead, I’ve bestowed him the title of “Ninja Star Master” and send the children to him with their multiple requests.  (There has to be some repercussions for letting me hang out there while he sat in the other room hoarding all the knowledge.)  But one day I’ll ask, I’ll learn, and I too will become a Ninja Star Master.

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Everyone knows about my awesome experience with Super-Agent Assistant, Meredith Barnes.  I’ve called back to it many times and stopped every stranger in town to give play by plays.  What also came from the Skype chat was an awesome follow-up e-mail from Meredith’s co-worker and Young Adult Agent, Suzie Townsend.  Ms. Townsend was at the top of my dream agent list even before my awesome experience with the great ladies of Fine Lit Print.  I did cartwheels after hearing from her directly.  (Okay, let’s get serious, there is no way in hell I did a cartwheel, but if I was nine years old and skinny I sure would have.)  However, I did consider wallpapering my work cubicle with it.  Don’t fear; it’s still covered in concert posters and kid art.

But with the excitement comes the pressure.  Now that I have the awesome opportunity of Ms. Townsend remembering my name, I better bring some killer product to go along with it.  So I took a deep look from the vague information I got back from my beta readers on my WIP.  Even though they’ve received countless lectures about “being brutal for my own good,” I continue to get niceties.  Don’t get me wrong, I love them.  They help with my insecurity of wondering if I have a good story.  But I want the best story. 

Here are three pieces of feedback from unlikely sources.  My seventy-eight year old father-in-law said the writing was good but “it will never sell.”  Although I will use this comment to torture him on a regular basis, I had to look for the merit in it.  He said my writing has improved, but it’s too dramatic.  Others said to ignore his opinion because what does he know about Young Adult?  There may be some truth in that, but it doesn’t make his point invalid.  Second was a twelve-year-old boy who read the first page.  He said, “I wasn’t riveted.”  He used this word because his mother taught it to him the few minutes before.  Again, not my target audience, but kept under advisement.  Third, was the boy’s mother who said she skimmed over A story to get to B story.  This prompted me to re-evaluate the tension of A story.  All this action has been over the last two months and I’m starting to worry about…well, about everything.  I’m questioning changes; wondering if the original was better.  Does it really matter?  What if they laugh at my query and shudder at the sample pages?  What if I embarrass myself?

Then I read this blog.  What a perspective check.  She did a great job describing my reaction in the third paragraph although I didn’t get a request for the full.  I really want to impress.  I really want people (especially agents) to like the story and writing.  But I have to get my best piece of work on their desk first.  I’m taking the advice–I’m going to be brave, cut the delay, and hit the send button soon.

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When I’m not typing away on my computer with my latest idea I’m hoping “is the one,” I read everything about writing.  In 2010, I went through books on story structure by an agent, a successful screenwriter (although his hits weren’t blockbuster), and there is still a thick one waiting on my nightstand for when I’m at a low on how to write.  My daily stops hit all the agents’ blogs, writers’ blogs, and any other random story that comes up in the search for “Young Adult Novels.”

In the beginning of my process, I bookmarked every article thinking it would one day be a useful resource.  Now, I only mark the blogs I find funny and inspiring.  But with my book out to readers to check the storyline, my insecurity has me lurking around all the old haunts hoping I know more now than when I started this dog and pony show.  Well, knock me over with a feather when I came across a link to a Yahoo article from 2007 titled “How to Snag a Young Adult Book Agent.”  What the hell have I been doing for the last two years when the damn answer was hiding in my favorite’s folder titled “Writing”?

I revisit the article hoping to get a nugget of information to put me back on track for this next round of querying.  This will be my divining rod to find an oasis of success in this horrible desert I’ve burned the bottoms of my feet from walking a million steps.  Okay, getting a little dramatic, but you get the point, right?  This travel is a huge bitch with little relief.  Back to the article…I pull it up and find this wealth of information.  A 100 word article telling to query an agent in the Young Adult field and “Polish off that query, make that hook the best it can be, and good luck in your quest for representation.”  Really?  That’s all it takes to get a Young Adult agent?  It then lists some agents who take the genre.  Wow.  Worse yet, I bookmarked it like it was some kind of help.

I can at least say I know better now.  Writing a query is more pain than I endured in the 24 hours of labor with first child.  Better yet, it’s similar to the feeling when the epidural didn’t take and they started the C-section without drugs numbing my body.  (Too much?   Yeah, too much.)  I’m going back to the drawing board to start the query from scratch after the scathing reviews on Absolute Write.  Click here if you want to witness the horror.  And when one day when I have agent on contract, I will write an article for Yahoo on how to do it:

“Write a good book, query an agent, and make a million dollars.”

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