Wednesday, August 17, 2016

A Vital Lesson In Becomming a Novelist: How to Survive the Slings and Arrows of Constructive Criticism

Most of us write our novels in isolation.  The story originates in our heads, and then we write and edit while secluded in our bedrooms, backyards, offices and basements.  During this stage the story, themes and characters make complete sense and we assume that they will be clear to everyone else.  We focus on the novel for countless hours, ignoring friends, family, careers and meals all in the name of our masterpiece. 

Then, at last, we take this masterpiece to a conference or workshop and they tell us:

“I don’t get it.”
"This character isn’t memorable."
"You have way too much dialogue."
"Nothing happens in the first forty pages."
"The magical rules of your world are confusing."
"No one is buying [insert your genre] right now."

But that’s okay.  You’re not alone.  Getting harsh feedback is just a part of being a novelist human. 

However, it is something many of us have difficulty handling.  Going back to your workspace with what was once a masterpiece but now is carved to pieces with feedback can be truly overwhelming.   Where do we even start with so many notes?   

I recently wrote a blog on 10 Things I Learned From “The Novel Year,” A Class At The Bethesda Writer’s Center.  To add on to that, here is yet another lesson I learned: how to handle the reams of constructive criticism your novel will receive.

1)    Don't be That Person in the Workshop

Let’s be honest, we’ve all had moments when we’ve been told how confusing or unnecessarily weird our novels are or how the scenes just aren’t gelling.  We’re sitting, nodding our heads and smiling while on the inside we’re like:

And that's normal.  It makes sense that we'd be upset because we've already spent an embarrassingly large percentage of our lives on this work. 

However, we want to keep all that frustration on the inside.  We don't want to be that person who loses their cool and claims that everyone else is too ignorant to grasp the complexity of our work.

Fortunately this didn’t happen at all during my class in Bethesda (they were all amazing writers), but I’ve seen it happen in plenty of workshops and conferences.  There are three reasons why you don't want to be this person.

1. It's unprofessional.  The only thing people will remember about you is that you're the one who lost their temper while everyone else took their feedback with calm dignity.

2) It makes the rest of us feel awkward.  Seeing someone explode in a workshop is like going to a couple’s house for dinner and seeing them bicker all evening.  Everyone pretends they’re not watching, but they can’t look away.

3) No one is going to want to give you feedback ever again.  If they do give feedback they will be reluctant to be totally honest out of fear that you will snap.  In the end it will be your story that will suffer and that is unforgivable.  You are allowed to suffer but your novel never should.

Don’t forget, you only need to keep your frustration on the inside until the conference/ workshop is over.  While you are with your fellow writers you need to take deep breaths, ask questions (always make sure you understand what they are actually telling you) and thank them.  Then, when you meet up with close friends or a significant other you’re allowed to let off a little steam as demonstrated by Al Pacino Satan in the picture above.  

2)    Don't Be in Denial

You also don’t want to be this guy:

 I'm going to come out and say it.  Your novel isn't perfect.  My novel isn't perfect.  Most novels that are taught as classics in ninth grade English aren't perfect.  We need all the help and guidance we can get.  Ignoring this fact isn't going to help us and it’s not going to help our writing.  (And let’s face it if you’re a real novelist you put your writing way ahead of your own health and mental well being.)

A lot of constructive criticism can be hard to accept, but we need to incorporate it because otherwise our writing won’t improve.  Part of the reason why the criticism stings is because on some level we know that our writing still needs tons of work.

The best way to get over the denial is to implement the criticisms one step at a time.  While you are at the workshop/conference take copious notes.  Ask questions if you can in order to make sure that you actually understand what you are being told.  Some of the feedback will be very broad (“This character doesn’t make sense”).  Asking questions can help pin down the specific problems. 

One thing I have found about feedback is that fellow writers are great at pointing out issues with my writing but almost never give good advice on how to fix those problems.  This could be because they don’t know the world/characters as well as I do, or that they are throwing out suggestions on the cuff rather than taking time to think through the changes.  Nevertheless, still copy down any advice you can get.  Just because you put it in your notes doesn’t mean you have to use it.     

When you get home, take those notes and turn them into a list of things you have to do in order to improve your novel.  Ninety-five percent of the time seeing all of that advice in the form of a bullet point list will make the upcoming work feel considerably less overwhelming. 

This is where you will have to take a step back and take some of the blind passion out of how you feel about your work.  Thinking outside the box is key at this stage.  Obviously you shouldn’t take every piece of feedback you receive, but you should seriously consider them. 

Just think through, “What would happen if I eliminated this character?” or “Would the ending improve if I took out this scene?”  You will be given a lot of advice where your initial reaction will be “Of course I can’t do that!  That will ruin my work!” but it won’t ruin your work to honestly consider the suggestions and to even write a couple chapters where those suggestions are implemented. 

You have already spent countless hours writing the novel, what’s a few more in which you follow through with advice given by fellow writers?  You would be surprised just how much of the feedback you would never consider ends up improving your work.           

3)    Get Excited About Feedback

Don’t forget, the whole point of constructive criticism is to improve your novel.  Of course this is something most of us are aware of but once we truly embrace how much feedback helps we stop viewing it as a way for outsiders to tinker and insult our writing and start to actually get excited about the guidance we’re receiving. 

This especially applies to feedback that might change a large chunk of your novel.  If you’re told that you need to rewrite the last ten thousand pages or completely eliminate a character, you will find yourself actually pumped up about the changes if you can accept that they will make your novel the fantastic piece of literature it deserves to be.  Feedback isn’t a crisis, it’s an opportunity. 

It’s vital that you understand why you’re completing the feedback you are being given.  Don’t just go through making corrections just to check them off a list.  Do your best to understand and accept why these changes need to be made. 

Remember, the reason why you're a novelist is because you love writing.  If you're told to rewrite the ending that just means you get to do something you love twice.  I know that’s cheesy and it’s an attitude that’s sometimes hard to grasp but improving your work will only make you feel better about your art.

4)    Your Novel is Not a Baby

When writers send their work out they often say that it's like, "Sending my baby out into the world."   They don't want to see their baby get bruised, hurt or insulted.  They love their baby and fear for it once it’s out of their protection.

 While I can sympathize with these feelings, it is an attitude we (myself included) need to drop ASAP. 

Our novels are not babies.  They are a work of art in progress and someday they might be a product (sorry, but it's true).  For better or worse people will criticize our writing.  That’s just the way the game works. 

Don’t forget, the novels we send to workshops and conferences aren’t the finished products.  They won’t be finished even after we implement all of the feedback.  Our novels won’t be “complete” until they are actually published.  We need to stop viewing our manuscripts as precious jewels and see them as constantly changing works that will have a number of influences beyond our control. 

If we are told that a character or a chapter or even a whole section isn’t working, our attitude shouldn’t be “But that’s how I wrote it.”  We need to take a deep breath and start listing all the things that can be done to fix this problem.  Even if there are some possibilities on that list you would never use, you should at least consider them.  The story needs to evolve.  Just because you make a change doesn’t mean you have to keep it. 

If you find yourself rewriting the ending and realize that it’s just not gelling, the characters aren’t behaving the way they should and the plot is falling apart, you can always just take a step back and pursue it using a different strategy.  If you ever feel less like you are writing your novel and more like you’re writing cheap fan fiction set in your novel’s world you can always start over. 

You may not get it right on the first or second try but you will eventually nail it on the twentieth or thirtieth.   


I'm going to repeat this: YOU ACTUALLY WROTE A NOVEL!  

With all of the feedback and criticism that you're going to get it's easy to get down on yourself and your work.  However, if you’ve made it to the point where you’re getting feedback then that means that you’ve completed a draft (or at least that you’ve written a large portion of one).  That means that you’ve accomplished more than many people who just go home, watch TV and obsess over their day jobs.  You have followed your passion. 

Don’t become overwhelmed with constructive criticism.  Yes, it's vital if you want your novel to reach its full potential, but you have already accomplished something fantastic, you deserve to acknowledge that.  Accepting and implementing feedback is just the next step in becoming an even better author. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

10 Things I Learned From "The Novel Year," A Class At the Bethesda Writer's Center

This past year I enrolled in a class called "The Novel Year" at the Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD.  The purpose of this class (as you might be able to gather from its title) was to spend a year completing a novel, while receiving feedback and making revisions along the way.

Over the past year my novel The Hitchhikers of the Night Highways has improved immensely.

Now I want to pass on the wealth, I give you ten things that I took away from the class.

First, just to give you some context for the examples I'm going to have below, here is a five-sentence summary of my novel's plot.

Poe Carpenter, as well as his brother and two sisters, have worn masks their entire lives because anyone who sees any part of their skin will immediately die.  When their adopted father accidentally sees Poe without his mask, the four siblings are propelled beyond the barbed wire fences surrounding their property and into a world they only know from TV and the Internet.  Their best hope for survival is to find the man who left them with their father years ago.  During their journey, Poe must protect his family from a world that misunderstands them.  All the while, he is determined to discover what is under their masks, and to find a home where they will be safe and the world will be safe form them.  

Now, without further ado, ten of the many things I learned from "The Novel Year."


One reason I joined the class was because I knew that I had already "jumped the shark," meaning that the story was no longer grounded in reality.  One way I was able to bring the work back down to earth was by eliminating all supernatural elements that weren't vital.  Originally, the main characters' backstories were teaming with surreal creatures; however Hitchhikers is a novel about four kids whose skin kills people on sight.  It didn't need most of the other fantastical elements to tell that story.  So I made the other supernatural beings human (or eliminated them all together).  I immediately knew that I had made the smart move because such a huge change really didn't affect the work all that much.

Even if  your story isn't a fantasy, you might want to examine the work to see if there are any elements that are unnecessarily unrealistic.  This will help keep your work grounded in reality, making the tale easier for readers to follow. 


Unnecessary characters are common in early versions of novels.  They can be difficult to eliminate because by the time we realize they don't have anything to do with the plot, we've grown to like them.  However, unnecessary characters can make a work longer, slower and more confusing.    

Throughout the year I was able to combine or cut about ten characters from my cast.  The focus of my story was the four kids.  All the other characters were only necessary for as long as they were important to the heroes.

Even now, it's not like my novel is Waiting for Godot.  I would say that I still have about seven central characters that appear throughout the novel and a dozen vital characters who they interact with during their journey.  Cutting all of the other characters did sting a little, but they can always appear in other stories I'm writing.   

And speaking of simplifying things....


It should go without saying that there are plenty of exceptions to this rule (as there are to all of these ten points and most "rules in writing.")  However, when possible it's best to keep the dialogue between two people even if more are present.  This will strengthen the tension and will reduce the chances that your readers will become confused.

Very often it is a good idea to have a third character butt in at one point, but for the most part keep those long back and forth strings of dialogue between two individuals.  Otherwise, the reader will feel like they're trying to follow a conversation taking place in a bar room brawl. 


I'm not saying turn your characters into mimes (although that might be a way to get your sword and sorcery epic to stand out to agents), but we all need to go through every conversation in our manuscript and and trim the fat.  The basic rule is reduce your dialogue by 25% but many of us can stand to take out a lot more than that.

Readers don't want to hear our heroes discuss the weather, or backstories that have nothing to do with the plot, or their favorite types of pie.  They want to read dialogue that reveals significant aspects of your characters or pushes the plot forward.  I'm not saying that every line needs to be, "The bomb's in the mausoleum!" but every line should add something to the story.


There is a scene near the halfway point of Hitchhikers where two of the siblings are about to be lynched by members of a town who mistake them for being demons.  The other two siblings are outside the cabin where their brother and sister are being held.

In earlier versions there was a lot of sneaking around with various heroes and villains entering and leaving.  It all became a confusing mess about who was where.  Through rewrites I reduced the action down to what needed to take place in order to move the characters forward.   

i. Characters 1 and 2 are being held prisoner.
ii. Characters 3 and 4 arrive at cabin.
iii. Character 3 enters cabin while character 4 waits outside.
iv. Defying all odds, Character 3 rescues character 1 and 2.

The scene is complex enough without unnecessary running back and forth.  Of course it's very common for early drafts to contain overly complex sequences.  However, while editing we can look at a scene and determine what needs to take place to get the characters from point A to point B and avoid anything extra that will bore or confuse the reader.

As a bonus, removing unnecessary action and dialogue will lower your novel's word count (which these days almost always needs to be lowered).


I'm going to stick with the cabin scene for a moment.  The chapter before characters 1 and 2 (otherwise known as Poe and Shelley) are rescued is the bleakest section in the whole novel.  Even after I reduced dialogue and simplified action, it is still a long chapter told from the point of view of a character who believes that she is about to die.

While the rest of the novel has several moments of comic relief and characters who love each other (it is about a family after all) this portion of the story has very little positive emotion.  In fact the situation is so dark that readers could eventually become numb.  This is criticism I have often had of horror stories.  Obviously there are some exceptions (such as the novels The Shining and House of Leaves and the movie 28 Days Later) but there are plenty of horror stories that have no range of emotion.  The entire work is so dark that after a while the reader becomes used to it.   

One suggestion I received regarding this scene was to give the characters a little hope, that way when the hope is ripped away the situation becomes all the more devastating.

Humorous stories should also possess a range of emotion.  Throwing some darker elements into a comedy will make the funny parts all the more hilarious.


 So far I have made several points about simplifying the story, but make sure that you don't take out so much that the characters become static.

Hitchhikers in particular needed to have active characters.  Not only is it a thriller, it is also a road trip novel.  However, even if your story is neither, you need to make sure that something is pushing the plot forward.

Many writers grew up reading stories from earlier centuries when authors could get away with having their characters sit around and ponder for entire chapters.  From our point of view, a slow pace isn't that unusual.  Unfortunately, modern readers won't put up with these kinds of shenanigans.   

I'm not saying that you should fill your story with car chases and shoot outs (my novel has only one brief car chase and exactly zero shoot outs).   However you do need to make sure that the situation changes and that your characters don't remain stagnant.  Even if you are writing a quiet, down to earth story you can still have your characters learn family secrets or overhear gossip or publicly lose their temper at a funeral.  Stories (like relationships and sharks) always need to move forward.


So here's a generalization that just happens to be true.  If there's just one part of your story that is going to be filled with cliches, it will be the climax.  The reason for this is that while there are a million ways to  start a story (all you need is a problem that drastically affects your characters' lives: a murder, an alien invasion, an affair, a hurricane, a lost pet etc.) popular fiction only contains so many ways to solve a problem.  Most mainstream stories end with the villain being defeated, the guy getting the girl (or vice versa) or the family being reunited.

The first way around this is to give your story an ending where the villain wins, the boy loses the girl, or the parent rejects the child.  However, many of us do want our stories to have a somewhat happy ending because we want to satisfy our readers and (let's face it) because we love our characters.

One way around this is to not be so binary in how the story could play out.  The two most obvious answers to the question, "Does the guy get the girl?" are "yes" or "no."  Everyone is expecting it to be one or the other, but there are countless other, more specific outcomes.   

"Yes, the guy gets the girl but he dies that same day."

"No, the guy doesn't get the girl but he discovers that his best friend is in love with him and they end up together."

"Yes, the guy gets the girl but she turns out to be a demon (either literally or figuratively) and now he has a whole other set of problems."

"No, the guy doesn't get the girl but he fills his life by helping the less fortunate."

And it goes on like that forever.

Another way to give your story a more unique ending is to examine what it's really about.  One of the criticisms I received regarding my original ending was that it was too predictable.  I was told that while the rest of the novel was weird and quirky the ending felt too much like the climax of a James Bond movie.  So I stepped back and approached the conclusion by examining what the story was really about.

Throughout the novel, Poe is obsessed with discovering what is under their masks.  I tried to incorporate that theme into the ending and have the moment of discovery be the climax rather than the moment when they defeat the villain.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that my novel's ending is like the final scenes of 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It isn't that unique.  However, there is more of a chance that it will stand out in the reader's mind.


It's a cliche to say that writing a novel is like going on a journey, but it's also the truth.  Authors very often don't figure out what their story is really about until their third or fourth draft.  While Hitchhikers has more or less stayed the same in terms of general plot, there are themes and ideas that have come up that I never saw happening.

I am currently going back and making sure that these ideas appear throughout the work.  Obviously I don't want to beat my readers over the head head with symbolism, but I do want these concepts to appear as often as it is appropriate.


Like many of the points I am making, this is one that I have been aware of for a long time, but the class did drive it home.

Until you are sending that absolute final version to the publisher, your novel is still in a draft stage.  The story, characters, dialogue and even themes have potential to change.

When a friend, teacher, agent, editor, fellow author or spouse tells you that a character doesn't work or that a chapter is unnecessary (especially if you get this feedback from more than one individual) your first reaction shouldn't be, "Well that's the way I wrote it.  I can't change it.  This is impossible!"  Instead you should accept that this is your story and you can change it however you need to.  After that, make a list of the various things you can do to fix the problem.  Even if your list includes things that obviously wouldn't work, it will still get the creative juices flowing and you will find the answer.
Likewise, if you realize that what you are writing feels more like fan fiction set in your universe rather than your actual novel, you need to stop and examine what the problem is.  Are there characters that just don't fit?  Is this a scene that can be skipped?  Is this something that isn't believable?  It's very difficult but we need to train ourselves to stop, go back and figure out what just isn't working.  If we shut up and listen, our story will tell us.    


This class helped me out much more than I ever expected.  It was undoubtedly money well spent.  As authors we spend countless hours by ourselves, stuck in our own worlds.  However, if we want to make our novel as strong as possible we need to get feed back by finding fellow writers, attending conferences and joining classes like this one.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

My Sock Puppet Show Has Potental To Be More Culturally Significant Than Your Opera.

When I was in seventh grade one of our school librarians (the scary one) implied that the only comic book with any artistic merits was Maus by Art Spiegelman.  Of course she was right to suggest that Spiegelman's opus is a painfully beautiful work.  However, I remember actually rolling my eyes when I realized that she was so narrow minded about such a diverse art form.   

Granted, there are plenty of comic books that are trash.   No one can argue that there aren't plenty of comic book series that portray women as sex objects and revolve around cliche plots with wooden dialogue.  However, one would be able to point to just as many terrible novels, movies, TV shows, works of music and poetry.  Saying that all comic books are about exploiting sex and violence is as closed minded as saying that all TV shows are saccharine sitcoms or all novels are vampire teen romances.  

Many of us try to not be snobbish when it comes to different art forms, but some of us unintentionally (and others intentionally) divided the various mediums into a hierarchy.

Below are some examples of art forms listed from "High Art" and then descending to what is commonly considered "Low Art"













TV shows


Comic Books/Graphic Novels


Comic Strips


Video Games


Puppet Shows


 We could spend the rest of our lives debating the exact order that the above list should be in.  Obviously, it did not include all art forms.  Photography, web design and most forms of music are left out.  However, this more or less gives an overview of the order in which we rank artistic mediums from most to least culturally significant.  

Very often people who prefer "High Art" view comic books and video games with condescension while many who prefer TV and movies don't even bother with opera or ballet because they assume that they won't get anything out of it.

However, for most of my life I have been skeptical of an artistic hierarchy.

And no, it's not just because I grew up reading Calvin and Hobbes.

I have always wanted to ask, "Why would such an artistic class system objectively exist?"

Do supporters of such a hierarchy believe that there are laws of nature that prevent video games from being as spiritually uplifting as the novel Les Miserables or the opera La Boheme?  Do they believe that the human brain processes emotions clearer through some mediums more than others?  What (besides opinions of course) do they believe enforces that one art form will always be superior to another?  That the world's greatest comic book will always be weaker than the world's worst ballet?

Those who believe in such an artistic class structure would probably state that it has to do with accessibility.  When one goes to an opera or a symphony or even many plays they often need to bring extra knowledge with them to fully appreciate the work.  On the other hand if you go to the funny pages it's very easy to "get" that Garfield hates Mondays.

However this argument relies on the assumption that all examples of a medium are equally accessible.  There are tons of examples of films that are nearly impossible to fully interpret.  
 Many non-comic book fans might be surprised to find that there are Graphic Novels that can be a struggle to get through.  One example of this is From Hell by Alan Moore, which is denser than many classic novels I have read.  On the surface it is the story of Jack the Ripper, but it delves into a complex portrait of the various aspects of British society and the endlessly complex history of London.  

And the more you look at the great examples of graphic novels (like Blankets, Persepolis, Black Hole, The Dark Knight Returns and Sandman), the more you realize that From Hell is not a stand alone exception.  We have gotten well beyond the point where calling a work "the best graphic novel of the twenty-first century" should be (but isn't) as much an honor as being the best play or novel or album.    

Someone who believes that some forms of art are "naturally" better than others might argue that some forms of art are simply set at a grander scale.  Operas do tend to have more breathtaking sets and costumes and better trained performers than most sock puppet shows.  Ballets and operas have two to three hours in which to tell a story while comic strips have just a handful of panels.  

However, if we are simply going off of the enormity of a production then My Dinner with Andre and Waiting for Godot would be considered lower forms of art than this movie:

Another common argument for an artistic class system is that the average person could probably list twenty insipid comic strip series, fifty generic television shows and a hundred abominable movies. However, why aren't people able to rattle off titles of insipid, generic and abominable operas?  The assumption is that the world's worst opera is still better than the world's greatest comic strip series.
On the contrary, I am sure that history is littered with horrible examples of "high" art.   Our culture simply doesn't remember them.  I'm sure that an expert in the history of ballet could rattle off at least a few titles that were the ballet equivalent of Batman and Robin.  

We keep getting horrible movies, TV shows and comic book series because things like Sharknado make money.  However, if you're trying to make money for an opera you'd better put on one hell of a show because very few people go to those things for camp value and the returns are often very low for the amount of money put into the production.   

Also, we unintentionally place operas and ballets on a pedestal (while simultaneously complaining that they are boring).  The average person will just assume that an opera is great because it's an opera and will often be more critical of "lower" forms of art.  If operas took the place of movies and had potential to make billions of dollars their "standards" would (ironically) be lowered in order to reach a broader audience.  Then who knows what kinds of operas we would get.

(Full disclosure:  I would see this.)

The whole reason why we have an artistic hierarchy is because of preconceived assumptions about various artistic mediums.  Just because no sock puppet show (that I know of) has ever had as many characters or as complex a plot as War and Peace does not mean that one couldn't theoretically be created.  In all probability, a writer could create a story and script that delves into the themes of love, redemption and the desperate pursuit for survival.  He or she could reference mythology, history, literature and science.  A script could be written that would make us laugh at the cruel ironies of life and weep over its melancholy loss and then the whole thing could be played out with sock puppets.  

Of course many people would find this ridiculous and the artist would be expected to explain why she or he chose sock puppets, but this is only because we have the preconceived expectations that sock puppets are reserved for light, "childish" shows.  The "low" forms of art are often held down because many of us have low expectations of them.

Even today after Maus, Watchmen and Y: The Last Man there are still people who believe that comic books are inherently juvenile or even harmful despite the fact that it is a medium which combines visual art and literature, two things which by themselves are considered "high art."

I truly believe that a masterpiece can emerge out of any medium.  One of the best examples of this is Don Hertzfeldt's works of stick figure animation which possess a clearer window into the human condition than most live action films.

If you have not already seen The World of Tomorrow or It's Such a Beautiful Day I highly recommend them.

The more we look at the artistic hierarchy, the more we see that no medium is automatically superior than any other.  Just because some art forms have produced more masterpieces than others does not mean that these others cannot produce just as many in the future.  The only reason why we don't have just as many emotionally uplifting comic strip series as novels is because we do not set the same expectations for the comic strip medium.  However, we should have those expectations of all art form.   

The best thing for us to do would be to flatten the artistic social class, accept all mediums as equals with their own unique strengths and challenges with equal potential for success. 

This won't just lead to snobs accepting video games and comic strips.  Leveling the hierarchy is a two way street.  If we see all mediums as being equal, then people who would typically avoid operas and ballets would realize that those art forms also have plenty to offer them as well.