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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Accepting (and Giving) Criticism--Some Great Guidelines

Criticism is part of being an author. In fact, we even have a special name for one type of it: editing. I mean, think about it. Editing is, in its broadest form, a type of criticism. However, the best editors manage to share their suggestions in such a way that they don't seem like criticism at all! And those are the types of editors we all hope to work with--compassionate to our self-esteem yet focused on helping us create a better product.

But some criticism comes out of the blue. From readers, from other authors, and from reviewers. Some is valid and useful. Some criticism, however, is downright destructive.

Recently, a site for motivational speakers fielded a question. Seems this particular speaker finished a presentation and someone unknown to her offered a on-the-spot critique. She wondered how she should have responded.

I thought Paul Radde's comments about how to handle that situation were worth re-posting here--yes, they were intended for a speaker, but every writer can benefit from this as well:


If the feedback has begun and you are momentarily blind-sided, and they (the persons offering feedback) are adamantly continuing with the feedback, you can deflect what they are saying by referring to the rules of feedback: coming from a contractual source, e.g. a supervisor when requested, or when in a position to receive it, in private. With presence of mind, you could request that you would be much more able to receive what they had to offer when you could concentrate on their comments completely.

Should they persist anyway, you could ask that colleague what his/her intention is in providing the feedback right now.

Even so, there are only two kinds of legitimate feedback:

* confirming: specific and detailed description of what the recipient did right in recognition of their accomplishment, or to recommend that they continue.

* corrective, re-directive, focusing: specific and detailed description of a better direction, practice, or how to get back on track.

The other kinds of feedback are not appropriate:

* demanding: stated regarding something that the recipient cannot correct or change, and so constituting a denial of reality...

*denouncing: stated with the intention of belittling, demeaning, or putting down the recipient.
It’s the intention, tone, and content.

* general: so lacking in specificity and precision as to leave the recipient lacking in any direction, correction, or value to take from the statement. General feedback is worthless.


Here are a few ideas of my own:

What is the person's intention? Is the person offering feedback because he/she really has something to share that he/she thinks you can use? Or does the person have an agenda?

What is the person's background/training? Okay, you don't have to be an expert to offer an opinion, but someone with a very narrow scope of experience might not have the best platform from which to offer a thoughtful opinion. I especially shudder when someone starts a criticism with "I do a little blah-blah-blah and I wanted to offer you some feedback." Usually, it's a veiled attempt to play "I can one-up you."

How does the person support the criticism? Can he/she point to an example? Can you confirm what he/she is saying or give it accurate consideration?

How emotionally charged is the criticism? Is it a rambling attempt to put you down? Look for emotionally worded critiques. An example might be, "That book will NEVER..." or "You don't EVER..." or "I can't BELIEVE that..." Those capitalized words are all clues that the speaker/giver of criticism is responding to an emotional issue and not to your work.

How willing is the speaker/critic to defer criticism to another time? In my opinion, anyone who keeps hammering home a complaint or who doesn't take timing into consideration, is probably someone with an ulterior motive. I've noticed that if the person just can't stop criticizing or can't wait to tell you his/her opinion, it has more to do with that person that with the project.

What's the language the criticism is couched in? For example, if you tell me, "I think I'd feel more emphathetic to your protagonist if you did such-and-such," that's a lot different from "I hated your protagonist because..." In one case, the critic is offering me a way to improve. In the other, he/she is leading with a strong emotional response.

Our work is out there for all to see and remark upon. But some remarks are worth hearing and some are meant to be daggers in the heart. You can't give both sets of information equal attention. If you do, it will seriously hamper your ability to keep writing!

Paul Radde is the author of the definitive book on meeting environment, available at Once there click on "Products," scroll down to "Books" click on SEATING MATTERS.Want a preview? Click on "Articles" and read "How to Get YourAudience the Best Seats in the House," from Professional Speaker Magazine.Workshop advised for meeting professionals, CPE, affiliates, chapters.

Friday, July 17, 2009

70 Library Holds on Cut, Crop & Die

That's me and Marsha Ramey, from Sachs Library here in Chesterfield. Marsha was kind enough to set up a meeting with her book club, a lovely group of ladies.
Here's an email from an attendee:

> Joanna,
> Thank you for your lively and informative talk with all of us at
> Sach's Library on Wednesday,the 15th of July.
> It was so interesting to hear about the publishing industry and your
> own personal experiences as an author.
> And what fun your Kiki books are! I am patiently waiting for the Cut,
> Crop and Die
which is on hold at the library- I am 40 of 70 holds!!
> Thank you again and I wish you and your family all the best in your
> new adventure to Washington, DC.
> You will love it there, too.
> Nancy Stratte
I wish there were more copies of my book, but...
An author friend told me, "Joanna, you don't WANT them to have a lot of copies. That way people will be forced to buy them."
But I see it a bit differently. The more people who get "hooked" on my series, the better the sales of each successive book will become. And that's my focus...future sales and fans.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Report on the Digital State of the Book Nation

Gordon Burgett is a publishing industry sage. Here's a link to his discussion of a report on the future of digital publishing.

An important point--the report notes that any digital product will be able to stay current, because it can be updated quickly and easily. But, a print product will become dated.

This is very important. If you are writing a book with a lot of links, or even with an addendum with references, these can quickly become obsolete. Even product references can become antiquated. I've experience this as people who own copies of Scrapbook Storytelling have emailed me trying to find various suppliers who, alas, are no longer in business.

Now that doesn't stop me from adding product references in my books, but it does mean that the public's ability to contact you or to visit you on your website takes on new importance. People do know how to contact you, right? Make it as easy as possible, is my mantra. Even when I email people back to to say, "Sorry, those suppliers are no longer in business," I've taken the time to further my relationship with the person writing the email. Usually people will tell me how surprised they are that I personally have responded.

Why shouldn't I? Oh, sure, it takes time, but I figure it's the least I can do. They spent money and time with my product. I owe them a response.

Also note that POD (print on demand) technology continues to improve. Many years ago, a Japanese concept call JIT (Just In Time) sourcing revolutionized the auto industry. With JIT, a car manufacturer such as Toyota could order parts and know they'd arrive "just in time." This saved the cost of warehousing. Now, you might think, "So what?" But let's use a little imagination, shall we? Suppose are an American manufacturer who has ordered all the parts to build a month's worth of cars. You have to unload those parts from a carrier (+ labor/workman's comp for a job prone to injuries), warehouse them (+ labor, + insurance on the building, + inventorying supplies, + knowing where the supplies are, + rent), store them until used (+ cost of overhead and any damages if there's a leak in your roof, insurance), then ship them to your factory floor. Compare this to: the parts arrive and are taken directly to the factory. Hello!

It's the same with books. If you print them all in advance, they must be boxed and shipped to your warehouse. If the warehouse is damp, if the books get rained on during shipment, if the number of books in the book isn't the correct amount to send out in any one order (and they need to be repacked), you have incurred costs in addition to publishing your books.

Oh, don't look for everything to change overnight. Some time ago, the music industry introduced kiosks where folks could order sheet music and have it printed as they waited. The prediction was that there'd be a kiosk in every music instrument store. It hasn't quite happened. But on the other hand, more and more scrapbookers are storing their photos digitally and printing them out as they need them, either at home or through vendors.

There's a change coming to this industry. It bodes well for all of us...but as to who will be the big winners and losers, well, we'll just have to wait and see.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Guest Blogger Neil Plakcy

Please welcome my friend, Neil Plakcy--

1. Tell us about yourself. I know you teach, Neil. What do you teach and where? How does that work with your career as an author? What sort of impact has this had on your writing schedule? What have you learned through teaching that you apply to your work?

Though back in 1988 I signed up for the new Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at Florida International University just to learn to write better, I can see that my classes also taught me how to teach writing. Taking workshops with great writers like Les Standiford, James W. Hall and Lynne Barrett forced me to write and rewrite. I also learned how to take a more analytical approach to writing as I came to understand the basics of character, dialogue, scene, plotting and so on.

Today I teach writing at Broward College, #3 in the country in the number of associate’s degrees granted. (My campus is halfway between Miami and Ft. Lauderdale, with a very multi-cultural student body that ranges in age from teenagers to mid-life career changers.) Over 60% of our students enter lacking basic writing skills, so I teach two levels of developmental writing—sentence to paragraph and paragraph to essay. I created my own approach to freshman composition, using writing about food to build skills in narration, description, and research. I’ve also taught writing about literature and creative writing.

My favorite is a literature course on mystery fiction, where we read academic essays about the mystery as well as short stories and novels in three genres: amateur sleuth, private eye, and police procedural. The students love the chance to read great contemporary stories, and I enjoy exposing them to the mystery and hearing what they have to say about it.
Teaching is a great gig for a writer. Three of my courses are fully online, so my schedule is very flexible, and I can carve out writing time every day. And guiding students to write better has impacted my own writing—I hear that “teacher voice” in my head saying things like “Wait—you’re changing point of view!” or “This paragraph is awful long.”

2. Tell us about your new book--the characters, the setting and a bit about the plot. How does it fit in with your other works?

The elevator pitch for my first mystery, Mahu, was “gay cop gets dragged out of the closet while investigating a dangerous case.” Once I’d finished that book, though, my hero, Honolulu homicide detective Kimo Kanapa’aka, told me that his journey had just begun. I came to see “coming out” as a process, rather than a single event, and looked for cases Kimo could investigate that would challenge him and move him forward.

In subsequent books, Kimo has traveled paths common to many gay men, particularly those who come out in their 30s, as he does. In Mahu Surfer, when he went undercover to discover who had been killing surfers, he began by making gay friends and getting more comfortable with himself. In Mahu Fire, he met fire inspector Mike Riccardi while investigating a bombing, and fell in love.

In Mahu Vice, the newest in the series, he’s discovering that the path to true love has more than a few twists and turns. Called to an arson homicide at a shopping center built by his father, he is forced to work with Mike again, nearly a year after they broke up. Tension rises as the case gets more complex and he and Mike rekindle their attraction.

But will the same things that drove them apart a year before doom this renewed relationship? What was going on at the acupuncture clinic where the victim, a teenaged Chinese illegal immigrant, was working?

Prostitution, gambling and immigration are all hot-button issues in Hawaii, as in many places, but the isolation, multicultural community, and tropical heat in Hawaii conspire to raise the tension level for Kimo and Mike as they figure out not only whodunit, but where their relationship can go.

3. Your books feature gay characters. In the beginning, did this make it harder to get a publisher? Or was it easier because you had a niche market? Has this influenced your marketing attempts, and if so, how? Does this ever pose any challenges at signings?

I didn’t realize I was writing for a niche when I started. I didn’t even know that the niche existed! Like many beginning writers, I was woefully undereducated about the business side of publishing. But I learned. When I approached agents at first, many thought that the idea of a gay detective was too radical. So I had to do my research, and discovered a thriving niche. (There were 18 nominations last year for the Lambda Literary Award for best gay men’s mystery, for example. Mahu Fire was a top-five finalist for that award.)

My first agent targeted all the publishers she thought would be interested, and every one of them turned me down. When I’d just about given up, I met an editor at the Miami Book Fair who told me his press was expanding their gay genre fiction line (mystery, romance, horror, etc.) and encouraged me to send the manuscript to him directly. That’s why I say my career has benefited from both hard work and luck. And of course, the harder I work, the luckier I get!

Booksellers tend to have an idea, even if it’s narrow, of the audience they can bring in for signings. For example, I’ve tried without success to convince a chain bookstore that I know a lot of older gay men who read who live in a neighborhood south of Miami. But they say gay books don’t sell at that store, so they won’t offer me a reading.

Maybe the books aren’t selling because they aren’t bringing in authors and marketing to that community. Or maybe they’re right, and I’m wrong.

It was much harder to set readings up with my first publisher, a small press; one independent bookstore owner told me “You’re one step above self-published,” even though that press published 200 books a year, had a big marketing department, and offered co-op advertising. Now that I am lucky enough to be published by the biggest GLBT press in the country, Alyson Books, I get great distribution and booksellers know my titles.

Interestingly enough, I got much more negative reaction when I was in graduate school writing about Jewish characters than I’ve ever gotten writing about gay ones. When I wrote humorous stories about dumb Jews (I have a lot in my own family, so I’ve got lots of material) people were really offended.

4. You have a robust online presence. Tell us about that. How do you compare the online community with other writing communities?

I started coming out myself just as the Internet began to boom, so the ability to seek out GLBT people, news, and online communities has been important to me for years. While I love volunteering with the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and attending mystery conferences like Bouchercon, Sleuthfest, and Left Coast Crime, the ability to stay in contact with other writers more than once or twice a year, or even once a month, is very important. I belong to a local critique group, but I also email stories and chapters to more far-flung colleagues, and I enjoy being part of their lives through Twitter and Facebook, too.

I think there’s also a degree of intimacy you can develop with an online friend that harder to duplicate face to face. Even with my closest writing friends in Florida, we might meet only at events or exchange the occasional email or phone call, because we all have busy lives. I can spill my heart out over a rejection to an online friend, though, and get commiseration back right away, as well as suggestions on where to market next.

5. You recently won a "Lefty." Tell us what that's meant to you and your career.

I was absolutely thrilled to win the Hawaii Five-O award for best police procedural at the 2009 Left Coast Crime festival. I grew up watching that show, and it still influences my writing. It was fun to receive the award in Hawaii, because my books are set there, but the best part was that the voters were fans rather than critics. My publisher donated copies for the book bags, and throughout the conference I had people come up to me and say, “I just started reading your book and I love it!”

As far as my career goes, I don’t think it means much. If it had been an Edgar…. though now I can be introduced as “Award-Winning Author Neil Plakcy!”

6. You've been very involved with SleuthFest. How has that benefited you? What would you say to someone considering coming to the conference?

Any writer’s conference is a great chance to network, learn, and be energized, and I think Sleuthfest does a great job on all those fronts. Inspiration is a funny thing; it often comes when you’re not expecting it. I’ve gone to seminars and workshops just out of a sense of duty or obligation, and walked out with fresh ideas and a desire to get back to my computer as fast as possible. I’ve also loved meeting the writers, published and unpublished, who attend, and swapping stories about writing. So personally and professionally, Sleuthfest has been a great event for me.

Sleuthfest has a terrific core of volunteers, so just walking in the door you know you’re going to be welcomed into a wonderful group of writers. And how can you beat South Florida in February?
About Neil Plakcy...
Neil Plakcy is the author of Mahu, Mahu Surfer, Mahu Fire and Mahu Vice, mystery novels set in Hawaii, as well as the romance novel He edited Paws & Reflect: A Special Bond Between Man and Dog and the gay erotic anthologies Hard Hats and Surfer Boys. Plakcy is a journalist and book reviewer as well as an assistant professorof English at Broward College's south campus in Pembroke Pines. He is vice president of the Florida chapter of Mystery Writers of America, and afrequent contributor to gay anthologies.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Writing Scenes that Create an Emotional Body Blow

Note: I was so impressed with this that I asked Christine if I could share it with all of you. Okay, even if you are writing mysteries, you still need to move your readers.

Is your pencil ready to take notes? Should be, because this, my friends, is a master class in the art of writing well. joanna

by Christine Wells

I think all of us writing romance have heard of emotional punch, haven’t we? One of the most important tasks of any romance writer is to evoke emotion in the reader. Today, I’m going to talk about the mother of all techniques for evoking emotion–the emotional body blow.
This is a crucial moment in your story where an event floors your hero or heroine emotionally. There are many ways to set up an emotional body blow.

WARNING some of the examples below might be SPOILERS:

The character longs desperately for something they can’t have and then has to stand by and watch someone else get it.


In WICKED LITTLE GAME, my heroine, Lady Sarah, desperately wants a baby and can’t have one, then finds out her blackguard husband has fathered a child with another woman.

In SENSE AND SENSIBILITY, Elinor is in love with Edward, then not only does Lucy Steele tell her she is engaged to him but she treats Eleanor as a confidante.

The character has a secret fear about themselves confirmed by someone else.


In Georgette Heyer’s DEVIL’S CUB, Mary, who believes she is not good enough by birth and breeding for the Marquis of Vidal, hears Vidal’s mother say exactly that.

In Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s LADY BE GOOD, Kenny Traveler lets everyone thing he is lazy and irresponsible, but when Emma jumps to the wrong conclusion about him abandoning his own child, it cuts him to the core.

Something the character fears and anticipates actually comes to pass.

This often precipitates the ‘black moment’, where it seems that all is lost.


In PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, while Lizzie defends her family against Mr. Darcy, she is secretly afraid he’s right about their vulgarity. Her fear is realized when Lydia runs away with Wickham.

Someone they love sees them as they truly are.

When a love interest zeroes in on the truth of a hero’s character–what Michael Hauge calls their “essence” as opposed to the “identity” they’ve built for themselves, this can come as a severe blow. You would think it would be a good thing, but for a character who has repressed his or her essence for so long out of a need to protect themselves, it can be terrifying.


Dain in Loretta Chase’s LORD OF SCOUNDRELS. When Jessica tells him she loves him despite every effort he makes to push her away, Dain cracks open inside. It’s a very powerful scene because it leaves this big, hard man totally vulnerable.

In Georgette Heyer’s VENETIA, when Damerel tells Venetia the story of his disgrace, she strikes at his heart when she takes his side.

The hero or heroine reverts to their identity when the going gets tough, dealing their love interest a body blow.


In VENETIA, Damerel has shown Venetia in a thousand ways that he’s a rake and not to be trusted but she has seen beneath that exterior and falls in love with him. When the outside world closes in and tells him it would be a disgrace for her to marry him, he pushes her away, resuming the persona of the heartless rake. The devastation Venetia feels is underscored by a sense of unreality. She knows the real Damerel. Why is he behaving like this?

A great technique to use when delivering the body blow to your character is to do it when it seems the character is making progress toward their internal or external goal.

In the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE example, the blow comes at the point where Darcy and Lizzie begin to understand one another during her visit to Pemberley. It’s like that technique actors use when they answer a phone on television. If the news on the phone is bad, they are smiling when they answer it, so the viewer can experience that powerful change in emotion when suddenly, the smile slips from the actor’s face.

As an exercise, try writing a scene where your character is dealt an emotional body blow. Ask yourself what they want most and show someone else receiving it. Ask who they want to be inside and have another character confirm to them that they can never be that way. Give them a disaster that strikes at the heart of who they are. This will often be a turning point in the story, the time when your character decides to be brave and take a step toward their goal, or thinks that it has all become too much to deal with, and retreats.

This isn’t an easy technique to do well, but it is enormously satisfying when you do!

Christine Wells is the author of Wicked Little Game. You can learn more about her at