Summer ILC, Week 7: The Skill of Receiving Feedback

I’ve gotten a lot of feedback this week. Learning how to give feedback that is stage-appropriate, respectful, and insightful is of course a really important skill to have when you’re working with fellow writers. But we don’t often talk about learning how to receive feedback, which is also a skill that must be learned and practiced.

Most of us remember at least one instance of getting harsh criticism on a piece of writing we’d felt proud of. For many people, the first time this happens is at a young age, which makes it all the more damaging. We internalize that hurt and often carry it with us through adulthood. Writing is deeply personal—so how can we not take criticism of our writing personally?

It’s not easy, but I believe it’s a skill that can and must be learned if you want to improve your writing.

Same goes for any kind of art, really. My big sister has been a dancer since she was three and a dance teacher since she was sixteen. She taught me that when your dance teacher gives you a correction, you always say “Thank you.” She once had a teacher who would stand there and wait until you said it.

Granted, the rules of ballet are much more stringent and well-defined than the rules of writing. You could even argue (and plenty of people have) that writing truly has no rules, since it’s such a subjective art form. On the last day of the PNWA conference, William Kenower talked about two book reviews of the same book. One review said it was skilled writing, the other said it was unskilled writing. And both reviews used the exact same sentence from the book as an example.

So if writing is so subjective (true), and if at the end of the day the only person whose opinion you should care about is your own (also true), why listen to anyone else at all? Why ask for feedback in the first place?

Because no writer is perfect, just as no dancer is perfect. No matter how subjective the art form, you can always learn and grow. If you never listen to the experiences of other people in your field, if you keep your head buried in your own art and insist it’s perfect, you’ll never grow.

When you’re ready and willing to learn, sharing your work for others to critique can still be scary as heck. I know—your story feels so precious and tender, because you care about it so much and there’s so much you in it. If someone tears it apart, it’s like they’re tearing you apart.

Isn’t it?

And here’s where we come to a crucial idea: not all feedback is created equal.

There are as many different styles of feedback as there are styles of writer. As a writing tutor, I’ve spent the last two years learning how to talk with people about their writing—asking open-ended questions, active listening, focusing on where the writer is at in their process and where they want to get to next.

Alas and alack, not everyone who gives feedback on writing has learned these skills.

Say you’re in a writing group with four other people. Everyone in the group shares their work with everyone else and gives feedback. You get back four copies of your piece with people’s comments, and they all say completely different things. What do you do?


1. Say, “Thank you.” If someone is going to the trouble of giving you feedback, it’s usually because they care—at some level, to some degree—about you and your work. I’ve had multiple teachers and peers who’ve told me, “I give a lot of very detailed feedback.” It comes as a warning because getting your paper back with a full page of notes when you only wrote one paragraph can be daunting. “What did I do wrong??” you wonder. “I must be horrible at this!” But that person wouldn’t have taken the time and energy to read your work deeply and give you thorough, detailed feedback unless they feel invested in you. It’s important to acknowledge that and thank the person for their effort.

Even if the person giving you feedback says something in a directive, know-it-all way, like, “This is bad because X. Do Y instead,” and in your head you’re thinking, “You’re a jerk,” or “I’m sure you mean well, but you stink at giving feedback,” or, “That’s terrible advice and doesn’t work for my piece, so I’m not going to do it,” say, “Thank you for the feedback.” (You can always turn them into an unlikable character in your next story.)

2. Listen to all of it, but don’t do all of it. It’s impossible to incorporate everyone’s feedback because the thing Person A said may completely contradict what Person B said. And even if you could, your voice would get drowned out by everyone else’s.

“You can’t make everyone happy. You’re not pizza.” (anonymous)

3. Pay attention to how you feel. (Also, this practice is just plain important in life.) You can gradually learn how to work with the feedback you get based on how it makes you feel. Sometimes you will feel confused—ask your reader for clarification. Sometimes you will feel illuminated—”This person is a genius and I’m so lucky they’re working with me!” Sometimes you will feel baffled—”How could they have so misinterpreted my intent?” Sometimes you will feel defensive, maybe even angry, like a resounding “NO” in your chest.

Learn to spot the difference between feedback that is useful to you at your current stage of the writing process, feedback that will be useful later on, and feedback that just won’t work for your piece. If you’re having trouble telling the difference, try incorporating the person’s feedback and see how that feels. Maybe take a day or two. My genius editor friend Cecilanne had a brilliant insight into how to fix the first two chapters of my novel, and at first I thought, “Nnnnnngh. I don’t know how I feel about that.” It felt scary to consider the change, but I slept on it. The next morning, I thought, “Dang it, she’s so right,” and was excited to make the change.


This week I wrote and submitted my first query to a literary agent. A got a ton of feedback on it, which at times left me feeling overwhelmed and saying, “I was having so much fun this quarter, with every aspect of this process. THIS ISN’T FUN ANYMORE. Screw it, I’m eating two fudgsicles before dinner and no one can stop me.”

I’m so glad I know where to go for support and how to utilize that support when I get it. My friends, teachers, and colleagues are amazing, and I couldn’t do any of this without their help. Well, I could, but it would be way harder and way less fun. So to all of you—Thank you.


If you want more info on how to give and receive feedback, read this awesome article by my friend and colleague Thane:
Use Your Words: Making Room for Agency in the Feedback Process.

Summer ILC, Week 6: Read All the Things!

I checked out a dozen Middle Grade books from the library this past week, and it felt utterly delicious. I can’t believe this qualifies and business research. And I’m right in the middle of Storm of Swords as well, so switching over from that was quite a shock. “I can read an entire book in TWO DAYS? This is awesome!”

In my search for comp titles in the heroine-goes-on-a-magical-quest-to-save-her-family subgenre, I reread Two Princesses of Bamarre. On a friend’s recommendation, I also read Poppy for the first time. I know, I’m about twenty years late to the party, but I loved it. Some of my favorite literary heroes and heroines are mice—Despereaux, Mrs. Frisby, Stuart Little, Ralph S. Mouse, almost everyone in the Redwall Series (Mariel was my first and favorite). I like to think my daemon is a mouse. (My patronus is a river otter.)

I got the rest of the books in order to read what the literary agencies I’m submitting to have produced. For me, this includes:
   Olivia Kidney (Ellen Potter)
   The Puppeteer’s Apprentice (D. Anne Love)

   Deadwood (Kell Andrews)
   The Total Tragedy of a Girl Named Hamlet (Erin Dionne)
   The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart (Jesse Bullington)

   Thirteen Reasons Why (Jay Asher)
   Pip Bartlett’s Guide to Magical Creatures (Maggie Stiefvater and Jackson Pearce)

   The Legacy of the Clockwork Key (Kristin Bailey)
   The Jumbies (Tracey Baptiste)
   West of the Moon (Margi Preus)
   The Mysterious Woods of Whistle Root (Christopher Pennell)


“Adventure is out there!”

Summer ILC, Week 5: Camp NaNoWriMo, Pinterest, and the Pirate Tree

This summer for Camp NaNoWriMo, I was finishing up my revision from last quarter. My word count was about 38,000 and I wanted it to end up at 50,000, so I made 12,000 my goal. With four days left and 8,122 words left to write, I…may not make it. And that’s OK. Either way, I’m going to keep revising until it’s done.

Things I did this week:
– Got up at 6:30 every morning to write for an hour. And every day my sweetie made me tea because he is the best. The first day, I was so full of joy and inspiration afterwards that I danced my way through my morning routine. On the third day, I stared at my screen for the first twenty minutes in a sleepy daze and eventually wrote only 150 words. But it’s getting a little easier every day. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming…

– Connected with the friends I met at PNWA so we could start sharing our work with each other for critique.

-Started a Pinterest board for visual inspiration for my novel.

– Updated my spreadsheet of agents with their respective submission guidelines and how many pages they requested from me. Then I color-coordinated it:
     – red: no pages requested, only a query—submit ASAP!
     – yellow: 4-10 pages—polish up the opening and then send it off
     – green: 50 pages—get as much peer feedback as possible before sending
     – blue: whole manuscript—finish the darn thing first

– Requested at least a dozen books from the library so I can read what’s new in the world of MG and also try to find comp titles (other books that are comparable to mine).

– Discovered that the folks over at The Pirate Tree have been doing all along what I said I wanted to do: writing about social justice and children’s literature. It took all of my self control to not read every darn article while I was at work today.


Next steps:
– Finish Camp NaNoWriMo—write as much as possible, even if I don’t make my goal.
– Write my synopsis and first query letter, then get feedback from my peers
– Send off my very first query ever!

Summer ILC, Week 4: PNWA Conference

What an adventure! I knew that at PNWA I would learn about the industry and make some professional networking connections. What I didn’t know was how much FUN I was going to have! Anything where a bunch of people who are all geeks about the same thing get together specifically to geek out about that thing—Renaissance fairs, anything ending in -CON—the energy and spirit of community is amazing.

I rode up with two other NaNoWriMo folks living in my area, and I used AirBNB to find a place to stay. We arrived around lunch time on the first day, Thursday. After my rideshares and I split up to do our own thing, I began feeling lost, frustrated with my phone, and overwhelmed. So I decided to put down the technology and go make some new friends.

Which is exactly what happened. At lunch, at the first presentation I went to, at pitch practice—everywhere I went, I seemed to make new friends. I have absolutely no idea how people with social anxiety deal with these types of situations, but I was absolutely in my element. “You like a thing?? I like a thing, too! Let’s be friends!” Imagine Pinkie Pie from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but with Twilight Sparkle’s OCD. That’s me.

I learned that hanging out with other writers in my genre doesn’t feel like competition—it feels like community. There we were, pitching to the same agents and cheering each other on.

As for the “pitch block” I’d signed up for, it was an hour and a half long and there were five agents in it who were looking to acquire books in my genre. It never occurred to me that I wouldn’t get to talk to all of them, that I’d spend most of my time standing in line. So I only got to talk to three. The next day, I planned what events I’d go to based on who was hosting them. That way, I got to talk to five more agents. By 3:30 on Saturday, I’d gotten to pitch to seven out of eight agents I wanted to talk to, and of those seven, they all asked me to send them my work. High fives abounded among my friends.

Even though we’d been talking about nothing but writing for the past two days, my new friends and I still couldn’t stop talking about writing on our long lunch break on Saturday. It was that vibe of “Yes, other people who get it!”

The hardest part was “The First Page” presentation, where dozens of writers submitted the first page of their books, the pages were read aloud (anonymously), and a panel of five judges listened. Each raised their hand when they got to the point where they would have stopped reading if this had been in their slush pile, or if they heard a red flag. Very few pages made it all the way to the end before everyone raised their hand. It was utterly terrifying, but they gave great feedback. At the end I asked the two agents in my genre if I should still pitch to them, since they didn’t get to the end of my page, and they said yes. I explained the weird this-doesn’t-work-without-the-visual-cue-of-quotation-marks situation that made everyone say my first page was confusing. After I gave my pitch, they both said yes and thanked me for being brave.


Other highlights included:
– Someone recognized me from a tweet I wrote that the conference retweeted (and I’d been on Twitter for less than a week).
– Drawing Ampersands with a new friend and fellow writing tutor who got super excited when I told her I had a character named Ampersand.
– I shared my snacks with someone and he gave me a copy of his book for only $5.
– Surprisingly tasty gluten-free vegan dinners.
– I won the “Wallowing in Self-Pity” gift basket in the raffle, which I will save for the next time I need it:

– Coming home with a stack of business cards and a heart overflowing with joy and inspiration.


Next steps include:
– Finishing up this revision for Camp NaNoWriMo
– Letting my new friends see it and give me feedback
– Writing query letters and a synopsis
– Querying agents!!

Summer ILC, Weeks 2 & 3: PNWA prep

These past two weeks I’ve been preparing for, as my friend and fellow novelist Heather over at Things I’ve Killed calls it, “the electric hurricane vortex that is PNWA.”

Things I accomplished:
– Met up with Heather on Tuesday and got a lot of my questions answered. She assured me that even though it’s stressful, all the prep work I’m doing is putting me in a very good position. She gave me a ton of great advice as I sipped my red tea.

– Signed up for Camp NaNoWriMo to finish the last chunk of my revision on Frozen Story. I feel sorry for my campmates, since I’ve only written 101 new words. But I content myself with the fact that I’ve still been doing a ton of work on this ILC, it’s just not obvious to anyone but me.

– Wrote a bio and artist’s statement, then updated my profiles on AWP, PNWA, and SCBWI.

– Created a spreadsheet for the conference with the basic info of the agents and editors in my field. (Thanks again, Heather!)


Things I learned:
– There are five agents seeking Middle Grade books in the pitch block I signed up for. Sweet!

– The publishing industry seems to be dominated by ladies. Awesome.

– In 21st-century networking, no one cares if you don’t have business cards, but they do care if you’re not on twitter. So I finally joined. @bethannacook

– Bring snacks. Bring a lot of snacks.

Summer ILC, Week 1: What’s an ILC again? So many questions!


Two weeks ago I walked at graduation, but I have one more quarter left to go at Evergreen before I officially receive my BA! This last project is an 8-credit Individual Learning Contract (Evergreen-speak for doing whatever you want (with faculty support) and getting credit for it.) called A Novel Publication: Learning to Navigate the World of Professional Writing.

I’m trying not to get overwhelmed, but there’s so much to do, and all of it is new to me:
-How do I write a bio for this blog and professional profiles on AWP, PNWA, and SCBWI?
-How do I write an “artist’s statement”?
-How do I find other folks going to the PNWA conference?
-How do I find an agent, editor, and publishing house whose vision and values match up with my own?
-What do I do when formatting guidelines in one book contradict those in another book?
-If by some miracle my manuscript does get acquired, how polished does it have to be upon submission, since I’d keep working on it with an editor anyway?
-If submission guidelines ask for a separate synopsis, does that mean I shouldn’t include a summary in my query letter?
-When should I be working on what (finishing up the revision of the novel, composing letters, researching agents, browsing my local libraries and book stores to research the recent MG market, etc.) and how much of it needs to get done in the next 2 1/2 weeks before the conference?
-It’s 90 degrees—Why isn’t there more ice cream in this apartment??

What I need is a schedule. As previously stated, I work really well when I’ve got a schedule. But this time around I feel in need of assistance in creating this structure. Luckily, I work at a magical place full of super-helpful people who do just that sort of thing.

Phantasmagoriaphasiaphobia

“It’s like a dream you try to remember but it’s gone, then you try to scream but it only comes out as a yawn” Barenaked Ladies
Do people who aren’t writers/writers who don’t get most of their story ideas from dreams feel the same heartbreak I do when that happens?
I often get my story ideas from what I call story-dreams, dreams that are so elaborate and cool that I wake up knowing they need to be turned into stories. Lately my subconscious has been doing this thing where I’ll realize it’s a story-dream and then start writing down the details so I won’t forget them. But I’m still dreaming, so writing things down does no good! Then I’ll wake up, which snaps the magical cord that tied me to that realm, and most of the ideas vanish in a puff of taunting. Those few ideas that do stick around long enough for me to grab my notebook and scribble them down somehow look absurd all by themselves in the light of day. But I keep them anyway, because I remember that feeling. I remember being immersed in the world of the dream, gazing around me in wonder, and knowing, “This. This is what I am capable of. And I can’t wait to share it with the world.”
I can tell I’ve come so far as a writer in a relatively short amount of time when I look at my first NaNoWriMo novel from 2009—seriously, no one is allowed to read that pile of good ideas conveyed through laughably sophomoric words, character tropes, and narrative devices unless and until I figure out a way to fix it. But it’s moments like this that let me know I still have so much more to learn. Because my story-dreams are as unique and elaborate as movies, but when I try to write them down it all falls flat.
For example, I can write that this princess’ home palace-and-city-in-one was a “sprawling city,” but every sprawling city is different. Even the skylines of American cities are unique from each other, and this was nothing like an American city. Or I can write that the wall was “intricately carved,” but every intricate carving is different. How do I convey how the open nature of this wall twisting with vines (or tree roots?) was designed centuries ago to live in harmony with nature?
The fear of not being good enough is, I think, universally human. For this particular aspect of that fear, I made up a word.

phantasmagoria (“a vision of a rapidly transforming collection or series of imaginary and usually fantastic forms, such as may be experienced in a dream or fevered state”)
+
aphasia (“loss of speech, partial or total, or loss of power to understand written or spoken language”)
+
phobia (“a fear, horror, strong dislike, or aversion; esp. an extreme or irrational fear or dread aroused by a particular object or circumstance”)
=
phantasmagoriaphasiaphobia: the fear of being unable to find the words to describe the images seen in my dreams
I might alter it slightly, now that I’ve run across the word agraphia (“loss of the ability to write intelligibly or to express ideas in writing”), which seems more in line with what I want to convey but doesn’t roll off the tongue quite as well. Which do you like better?
phantasmagoriaphasiaphobia
phantasmagoriagraphiaphobia
The ability to look this fear in its face and call it for what it is definitely helps. Fears lose some of their power when you name them. I remind myself of two things:
1. I am getting better at writing, which proves that I will continue to do so.
2. I will never be perfect. It will always be a struggle.
If, in writing my stories, I am a conduit for the divine (shorthand for my vague science-meets-spirituality-meets-agnosticism beliefs), then this struggle is a divine struggle. When I “get it wrong,” it reminds me that I’m human, and when I “get it right,” it gives me a taste of the divine. I consider myself lucky to have something to care so deeply about.

So I keep going, hoping one day to write something worthy of being turned in a Hayao Miyazaki movie (Yes, I know he’s retiring. Shush).

Spring ILC, Weeks 7-9: Being OK with it

Week 7

I started mildly freaking out about how much work I had to do and how impossible it seemed to get it all done by the end of the quarter. I said as much to my faculty sponsor who replied, “Yeah, that’s ’cause you’re trying to do 24 credits’ worth of stuff.” For only 16 credits. Oh, right. Talking helped, and I promised I would only do the minimal amount of homework on my vacation.

Week 8
Kauai. Utter bliss. You know that feeling when you didn’t even realize how much stress you carry around with you every day until you feel it all melt away? Yeah. I felt that by the end of lunch on my first day there. I was brave and had adventures and ate great food and fell in love with the earth all over again. I did my homework for my 4-credit class but didn’t do one drop of work on my ILC, and I felt good about that.

Week 9
Came home still not feeling stressed about all the work left to do. Then I started feeling a little bit of stress about how not stressed-out I was. Brain said, “Hey, this stuff is important! You should be stressing out about it!” Freshly plumeria-scented soul said, “Shhhh.” Eventually I came to the decision that there is no way for me to accomplish everything I said I would when I created this ILC. And that that’s OK, because it turns out I overestimated what I can reasonably get done in ten weeks, and my faculty sponsor assures me I’m not going to lose credit. And it’s not like the work ends when the quarter does. I may not write the academic paper I said I was going to, but I’ll eventually write about it here, because it’s a subject I’ve been thinking about a lot and doing the research was hecka fun. And I may not have gotten through a full start-to-end revision of my draft, but I did a ton of work on it, and I know what I need to keep working on before I start pitching it to agents and editors at the PNWA conference. In summary, I am not Wonder Woman, but I am a wondrous woman.

Spring ILC, Week 6: Is it vacation yet?

Let’s see, how many of my goals did I accomplish this week?

Finish revising the opening scenes and send the revised draft to my contract sponsor: Check!
Write new meeting-Ampersand and meeting-Sinistra scenes: Half-check
Expand outline to include all possible quotes I might want to use: Nnnope
Homework for class: Check!
Make eye doctor appointment: Check!
Use my lunch breaks at work as actual breaks (instead of using them to get more work done), getting out in the sunshine and taking off my shoes and socks to feel the grass on my bare feet: I did that once! Well, one day out of three isn’t terrible.

I tried setting my alarm for 7:30 Monday through Thursday with the goal of writing two pages first thing each day. It worked … once. Today I just turned the alarm off and said “I’ll do it later.” And here it is later and I’ve gotten plenty done (laundry, trip to the grocery store, preliminary packing for next week’s vacation) but no writing. But I did get a lot of reading done this week and sometimes I forget to give myself credit for that. I finished Writing Irresistible Kidlit and started Self-Editing for Fiction Writers for a total of 125 pages. And when I met with Cecilanne this week we actually got a lot of good work done. Yay productivity!

Favorite article of the week: Set Truth on Stun: Reimagining an Anti-Oppressive SF/F by Daniel José Older, an interview with Léonicka Valcius, Carrie Cuinn, Justine Larbalestier, Kay T. Holt, and Andrea Hairston.

I’m leaving for Kauai this Friday with my boyfriend and his family and will return on the 23rd. A 6-hour flight sounds like a great opportunity to get a lot of homework done, until you take into account the fact that we’ll be dragging our butts out of bed at 4:30 AM. I may get some homework done on the flight but sleeping will be priority #1. At least the flight back is at a much more reasonable hour, so that’s a good chance to get some work done. And we’ve only got activities scheduled for every other day while we’re there, so we can spend the other days doing whatever we want. But who wants to do homework while on vacation in paradise? I anticipate being a party-pooper.

Or, I can spend these next four days cramming in as much extra work as possible to make up for it. Which, today, would involve skipping a talk being given at school by one of my favorite teachers ever. Urrrrgh.

OK. Goals for the week, no matter how overachieving they may sound:
-Finish goals from last week, including compiling quotes for my paper
-Write rough draft of said paper (Why did I make that due this week in my self-made schedule?? Oh, right, ’cause it’s Week 7.)
-Write at least two new pages every day, including today
-Homework for class
-Finish packing
-Keep breathing

UPDATE
I forgot to mention, I got the job! I get to stay at the Writing Center for another year or two as Assistant to the Director and learn how a writing center is run. I am so freakin’ happy, y’all.

Spring ILC, Week 5: Panic

How is the quarter half over already? And why does that happen every single quarter?

This week was another tough one. On Wednesday morning on my way to work, I had a panic attack on the bus and had to go home sick, losing all potential productivity for the day. I sometimes feel like I’m juggling too many things (Homework is due for class. Don’t forget Mother’s Day. Yep, still gotta wait to hear back about the job. Oh goody, an ulcer. It’s a beautiful day, I should get outside and exercise. Should I get an iPad?), and this ILC all too easily slips to the bottom of priorities because I’m not accountable to anyone but myself.
Progress has been slow, both grueling and joyful at the same time.
I registered for the Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association (PNWA) conference happening in July, and had to do a bit of research on the agents and editors who’ll be present. It’s an exciting and terrifying prospect. I’m sure I’ll talk about it in much more detail next quarter, as attending said conference will be part of my next ILC.
I also received my dad’s next book in the mail, which always makes me happy. Did you know my dad was a novelist? It’s a pretty cool thing to have in common. Check it out over at The Book of Drachma. The latest installment, The Healer’s Defense, is now sitting on my bookshelf next to the first trilogy, taunting me, waiting for me to have enough time to read for pleasure.
I finally made myself do an outline for the essay I’ll be writing. Research is still the most fun part. Favorite article of the week is Demanding the Impossible: Walidah Imarisha Talks About Science Fiction and Social Change. It’s about her new anthology, Octavia’s Brood, which “collects fiction from 23 political activists and organizers. The writers use science fiction, fantasy, and horror to reflect on the experiences of oppression, the challenges of resistance, and the possibility of new just worlds.” I want to get this book into my hands now and devour it and hang out with everyone who created it.

This week’s goals:
-Finish revising the opening scenes and send the revised draft to my contract sponsor
-Write new meeting-Ampersand and meeting-Sinistra scenes
-Expand outline to include all possible quotes I might want to use
-Homework for class
-Make eye doctor appointment
-Use my lunch breaks at work as actual breaks (instead of using them to get more work done), getting out in the sunshine and taking off my shoes and socks to feel the grass on my bare feet