In Which the Author Interviews the Reader

Once upon a time, a young lady known as Sarnic Dirchi read a book.

“…And I was like, wow,” she says. “This is amazing! I really want to go all crazy questions to the author about so many different things that happened, but I also would love for the author to ask me questions, too! I mean, when I have people read stuff I’ve written, I have a million and a half questions for them. So wouldn’t it be fun if an author interviewed a reader and asked them the questions that they want to know the answers to?”

To that end, S.D. posted a Tweet suggesting that very thing, secretly hoping that the book’s author would take her up on the offer. “Cus I didn’t want to go all crazy fan girl on [the author] and out of the blue message [her] saying HEY INTERVIEW ME AND ASK ME HOW I LIKED YOUR BOOK!, as that would be rather freaky methinks,” S.D. confesses. “But [the author] read my mind and took me up on the idea!”

And that author… *solemn nods*… was me.

Sarnic Dirchi tweet

And that book that inspired it all is, appropriately enough, INSPIRED.

And between reader, writer, and book written, a lovely dialogue was born.

“Reading. Love it to pieces,” says S.D. “It’s always been important in my life…though I didn’t get into serious reading ‘til 4th or 5th grade when I discovered mysteries. Plus it helped that my school started up an A.R. program and I just had to get those points! Whoosh I was off! Tearing through the pages so fast people assume I skim read…which I don’t. I just read fast.”

From there, S.D. went on to become a fantasy fan. “Dragons, magic, different worlds, shape-shifters, epic adventures. That sort of thing. I love stories about the ‘underdogs’ like thieves, slaves, poor peasants and their triumphs at the end.  I do occasionally venture out into other genres, but it’s not often.”

Though not strictly a part of the fantasy genre, S.D. found plenty of fantastic characters in INSPIRED. Musing on muse Lucianíel, she says, “At first he seemed like the ‘father figure.’ The ‘high and mighty’, the ‘all knowing.’ He felt removed from the story; part of it, but not really part of it. The shepherd to the flock, etc. And then he went down the dark path…” Some of Luc’s actions got a real reaction out of her, driving her to cry at the pages, “No! Bad choice! Bad Choice! Don’t do it! … Yikes. Totally scary muse. But oh, the feels!”

Inspired_Cover_Draft_Final_web

While the character of Jean had a smaller role with far less page time, “From the brief glimpses I got of her, I liked her,” S.D. relates. “She seems a lot like me. Taking inspiration from dreams for possible story ideas. Hasn’t gotten quite around to writing them yet in hard form. … Reading her sudden death was what piqued my interest in this book. … If the author is gone…what then? It also sent me to that ‘AH!! I NEED TO GO WRITE!!!… BUT I WANT TO READ!!!’ tug of war when I actually started reading the book for a bit before I decided to keep reading.”

With the special place in S.D.’s heart for shape-shifters, it’s no surprise she enjoyed the character of Abishan. “I love how he was able to change to different cats,” she enthuses. “He wasn’t just a jaguar, he could be a lynx, a lion, a house cat…and then he can turn human like? Oooo! … Most [shapes-hifters], stick to one shape; him, not so. He’s much cooler than that. … [And] he was excellently portrayed like a cat.”

Of Wilbur’s character, S.D. says, “I loved his introductory chapter. It’s just the sort of story that I gravitate to. Farmboy becoming the great warrior! I loved the writing, the scenery, the details. … It’s like Ranger’s Apprentice, but of course, different. And how Annabelle continues to write him, was great. Adventures all around! … I admit I don’t quite get Annabelle’s obsessiveness over [him]…okay I do get it, but the way it came across, I was like O.o But, but there are more characters! Focus on them too! I want to find out their story! However,” she goes on to theorize, “considering she has ‘angelic Luc’ as her other muse…Wilbur seems so much more forgiving. So I often placed them as Ying and Yang in my head. Wilbur is the sort of muse that Annabelle wants. Luc isn’t.”

Uri, she labeled, “…A surprise. Lol, she seemed like such an out of place character in the beginning of the book. I mean, what teenager goes around thinking in biblical verses and signs and such? Especially when she doesn’t come across as the religious sort at first? I really just marked it down as an author’s idea for a character quirk.” Until S.D. reached the revelation of Uri’s surprise backstory, which she declares to be, “AWESOME.”

As for S.D.’s favorite character, that honor goes to Yves. “He’s the sort of character I gravitate to. Quiet. Has a secret. Could be a dark secret. May have a power that could be harmful. To know that he’s aware of it, and doesn’t share. … The mystery of his background, of what his story was? Interest caught, and not leaving until it has an answer. And then to get the answer. ()_() … Yes. [He] is my favorite. No hesitation.”

Which isn’t to say there wasn’t some love left to throw Annabelle’s way. “I totally admire her…for being able to interact with the characters like they’re real people standing right there in front of her. I’ve only been able to do that with a couple of my own, and so to have her so freely having them surrounding her, interacting with her on a day to day basis, doing activities with her, encouraging her when she doesn’t want to do things, or helping her through problems. Wow. Props to her.”

Standout scenes/images for S.D., who loves getting ahold of mental visuals when she reads, include, “Wilbur’s practice yard. Abishan’s jungle. Yves dancing on the bridge and then high above the ground… Oh! And definitely I enjoyed how you described each character. It wasn’t a list of characteristics, but you worded things in such a way that the image just stuck in the mind. It made it easy to keep picturing them and not have to think ‘Wait…what color was Uri’s hair?’ But definitely the one that stuck in my head and had me replaying it for a couple of days afterwards was [*spoilers, spoilers, move along, nothing to see here*] …  I keep repeating that scene, hope it’s not sounding like a broken record, but I really liked it. Seriously, I can’t get that out of my head.”

When asked if she was struck off the top of her head with songs that matched INSPIRED’s cast, S.D. admitted, “I’m not one of those people who matches characters to music, often. …I’m lucky if I know the name to a song…even luckier if I know the artist. Most of the time I just know the lyrics.”

Even so, she was able to come up with a bit of music for a handful of the characters. “When Wilbur is first introduced in the practice yard I think of the song: “United We Stand” from the movie Quest for Camelot. Uri gives me the impression of: “Radioactive” by Imagine Dragons. With Luc a song that comes to mind is called “Home for Me”, by BYU Vocal Point. … But the rest, it’s overall impressions of scenes, most of them, unsurprisingly centering around Yves.”

OneMoreDay_Cover-blog

I owe S.D.’s discovery of the novel to a mutual friend: Kimberly Kay. Says S.D., “When she was working on the One More Day anthology, she talked about you a lot, and if she likes someone, they’re definitely someone to like! Especially if they’re funny, and the interviews between the two of you are great! So I meandered my way over to your blog, Facebook, Twitter…etc. And tada! That’s how I found out about you.” Whether or not that alone would have been enough to make S.D. pick up the book for a read, there was one factor that pushed her over the edge. “The beginning sequence of the book, that you shared on your blog, ending with Jean dying sparked my interest. It sounded like my type of story. What happens when your creator suddenly dies? No idea, but I was about to find out!”

While S.D. enjoyed INSPIRED a great deal, she’s still on the fence about delving into my fairytale novella series. “Knowing what Inspired is like makes me want to try out your Wilderhark Tales, especially Edgwyn’s part of the stories as he is my type of character! But at the moment, the series as a whole hasn’t really struck my fancy. However,” she goes on to say of my someday-beyond-the-Wilderhark-Tales Outlaws of Avalon trilogy, “I would love to read about Will Scarlet and the Robin Hood Gang; again, that sort of tale is up my alley in ‘things I like to read.’”

Regarding the possibility of an INSPIRED sequel, S.D. is of two minds. “I’m totally intrigued to see what crazy antics can happen next! But then I’m like O.o why do you need a sequel? As really, Inspired felt like a standalone book. I was happy with the ending (as happy as a reader can be when they want to know more about characters and don’t get the info they crave…), and that it actually felt like an ending and not a ‘wait another year and you can see book 2!’ sort of thing that’s become all too common. That being said, I’m hopeful that a book 2 will expand out the current set of characters…and introduce new characters. I’d also love to see how everyone has evolved since the first book. So yah! I’ve decided that I would look forward to it. What will happen to them next???”

Also on S.D.’s INSPIRED wish-list, “I wish to read everyone’s stories as a whole! The tantalizing pieces I read in Inspired have me wishing to actually have everyone’s books in my hands. Wilbur, Yves, Uri, Shan. I want more!”

Time will tell what my own muses prompt me to deliver to S.D. and her fellow readers next. I can only hope that getting the chance to chat with the author about the story has helped to sweeten the wait. Her closing words would suggest that is the case.

“Thanks so much for the interview D.S! This was a ton of fun. ^^”

The pleasure was mine, S.D.! You’ve been a wonderful audience, and I am nothing but delighted that reading my work filled your imagination to bursting. Now get out there, write your own masterwork, and do it all over again for some other reader. ;D

P.S. – If any other readers o’ mine out there are ever interested in doing something like this, you know how to reach me!

“Change” or “Believe It or Not, It’s Not the End of the World”

Don’t feel teased; I am still totally going to tell you about my Night of Writing Dangerously (tantalizingly alluded to here, here, and here. In fact, I had planned to make that post this post. But of course, plans “become different or undergo alteration”.

This day a year ago, I was writing a novel – the novel, incidentally, that I had intended to be my 2011 NaNoWriMo project, until the Holy Spirit nudged me to make that November my PerGoSeeMo instead. (Talk about recurring themes: This whole story started with changed plans!) So my novel writing month moved from Nov. 1 – 30 to Dec. 14 – Jan. 14. Not that I’d really made it a point to write the book in a month, mind you; that just ends up being my pace, sometimes.

I was pleased with the finished story, and after a couple read-alouds with friends and the usual hunt for typos, I began sending out queries, hoping to find an agent who loved this idea as much as I did. Don’t get your hopes up, readers – this narrative doesn’t end with that magical “yes” that gets me signed and published and famed throughout the world. But I did get a “yes” from a different quarter.

I’d entered my novel in a “Write Your Own Adventure” contest run by the editors at Cogitate Studios, and to my shocked delight, I was a winner! And my prize was absolute gold: A full reader’s report on my manuscript, plus a query letter critique. Professional feedback for free? Cue the authorial happy dance!

So time passes, I get the editors’ notes, and guess what? They loved the book as much as they thought they might when they first saw my entry. But just because you love something doesn’t mean you think it’s perfect. (There’s a lot that could be said about family and friends, here…) They had questions. They had issues. They had suggestions. And I, as the author, now had some executive decisions to make.

What, if anything, would I change, and how?

I don’t like the thought of change. It’s why it typically takes me so long to go to bed at night, and why I may get up only grudgingly in the morning: I’m reluctant to switch my state of wakefulness for sleep, and vice versa. It’s why I’m really bad about having my plans wrecked, particularly on short notice: I’d thought I knew what was going on with the world, and then the rug gets pulled out from under me!

I’m not arguing that change is not a good thing, because it often is a good thing, even a necessary thing. But it is also, often, a hard thing – particularly when it comes to an author and her literary baby.

Partly for this reason, I decided that I’d start revision on the novel sometime in January or February. Y’know; “later”. As “later” drew nearer, however, I began to feel the pressure of my impending start date. Know what I like even less than change? Pressure. And the only way to stop dreading what I knew, intellectually, probably wouldn’t end up being so dreadful an ordeal, after all, was to just do it. So that’s what I did.

Change: Sometimes it just makes cents.
Change: Sometimes it just makes cents.

Some cuts were stressful. Some additions were challenging. Some alterations were agonizing and got made anyway, and some I deemed, after much consideration, were just as well or better not made. (Remember: You’re allowed to say “no” to suggested changes. As the book parent, you have to do what you believe to be best for your baby – whether that means changing a thing or leaving it as-is. Use your best judgment, and pray your kid doesn’t end up in book juvie.)

The mass revision took my yesterday and today, meaning my intended blog post didn’t get written, but I have no regrets. For one thing, it gave me fodder and motivation to write this blog post while my thoughts and feelings on the experience are still working their way through my system. For another, my novel is better now. Is it perfect? Probably not. The fact that there may be no such thing as a totally perfect book aside, I just know that there are typos, awkward sentences, and formatting issues waiting for my next pass through the text. But the plot and themes and all that jazz is sound, and I think I’m now at lower risk for confusing and/or boring my readers. And I still love my characters and their story. Better yet, the professionals who gave it a read feel the same way. (Words are inadequate to describe how glorious that feels.)

So now it looks like I’m on track to start querying this book again, come the new year. And y’know what would make a great change for 2013? My becoming a published novelist. Let’s see what I can do to make that happen.

“Critique 2” or “What Doesn’t Kill Them Might Just Make Them Mad”

Remember that time when I was all, “I don’t like getting critiques, but I put up with them, because they can be really helpful”? Well, that goes for giving critiques, too.

I went through a brief period where I was giving out writing critiques willy-nilly, and boy, did it drain me. Much of that had to do with the horrendous lack of proper punctuation (which I’ll refrain from ranting about, here), but it wasn’t that alone. There’s probably a connection between this and my aversion to writing reviews; something about how my enjoyment of reading is diminished when I know I’ll have to put together feedback afterwards. But I do like to be helpful (it’s a problem), and so do sometimes find myself offering to read someone’s stuff and offer commentary. And goody, goody for the list-lovers in the house, ‘cause guess what? I’ve got tips!

1. Critic, Know Thy Limits. Do you actually have time to read through four half-done novels, three quick novellas, a kinda-long short story, a poem on a partridge in a pear tree, and jot down in-depth essays on all of the above before Friday? No? Then don’t tell the authors you will! No one likes an oath-breaker. Offer only what you’re prepared to deliver. Don’t be That Critic. (Thanks to this post  of The Undiscovered Author’s for putting the importance of this fresh in my head.)

2. Seek the Forest Despite the Trees. Hiding very well behind formatting ugly enough to shatter a mirror may lurk a story with a heart of gold. If you can find anything good at all about the plot, the characters, the dialogue, anything, be sure to mention it to the authors. Particularly if you’re having a hard time finding anything else that doesn’t kind of hurt your proofreader’s soul, you’ll want to have something to say that will help balance the negatives you couldn’t sleep at night without bringing to their attention.

3. If You Can’t Say Anything Nice, At Least Say It NiceLY. You know that “critique sandwich” people like to talk about? – a negative comment slapped between two slices of positives, lightly toasted, hold the mayo? There may be times when there’s no keeping that ratio up; there simply isn’t enough positive there! But that doesn’t mean you can’t be positive.

Bad Response to Bad Writing: This is awful. I’m not buying the plot at all, the main character’s lame, and… look, bro, you know I love you, but you just cannot write. Please stop.

Less Demoralizing Response to Same Bad Writing: The number of plot twists left me confused; perhaps a little more foreshadowing/explanation in the earlier chapters would help, or you might try trimming off X altogether and focusing more on the main storyline. I also had a hard time connecting emotionally to Robert. Have you considered including a few scenes from his POV? Or maybe you could just get him talking more; I think the love triangle would be a lot more effective if we had a better understanding of his feelings for Jenny… etc., etc.

Difference obvious, right? Yes, the second method takes a lot more time and thought on your part (factor that in when considering Tip #1), but just look at how much more constructive it is! You’ve gone from kicking the writer between the legs and leaving him where he lies to offering him hope for a brighter tomorrow! Wouldn’t you rather be an encouragement? …Wouldn’t you at least rather not wound what you failed to kill and have it come back to bite you down the road? If your answer is “no”, then please, allow me to come up with a polite, positive argument for why you should probably not accept offers to critique people’s work.

Remember, hell hath no fury like an artist scorned.

“Critique” or “What Doesn’t Kill You Might Make Your Work Stronger”

That’s right. The dreaded “C” word. …Um, no, not whatever other “C” word you’re thinking of. Critique, people, critique! “A critical review or commentary, especially one dealing with works of art or literature”! The artist’s best friend slash worst enemy.

Some people wholeheartedly enjoy having their work torn to shreds by others for the sake of personal and professional betterment. (Looking at you, Tirzah.) The rest of us (I’d say “the sane ones”, but, well, then I wouldn’t qualify) would really rather have a perfect world in which no one has anything but complimentary things to say about what we’ve done because, hip-huzzah, we’ve earned that and more! Erm, don’t look now, though, but… the world isn’t perfect. Neither are we. And neither are our books, our poems, our fill-in-the-blank. And sometimes – dare I say, oftentimes – in the interest of taking ourselves closer to perfect, we need someone else to help us see where we’ve stepped off of the creative straight and narrow.

Now, to restate for the sake of clarity: I do not like receiving critiques. At all. But too bad for me, because there are times when I’ve got to deal with them. And to help me through those times, I try to keep in mind a certain incident from not so very long ago…

            * * * FLASHBACK! * * *

Fire Elemental, one-point-oh

I’d just finished a picture of a character of mine, and being really pleased with how it had turned out, I showed it to my mom.

Me: Behold, Mother – my fire elemental!

Dearest Mumsy: Pretty cool, honey. But he doesn’t look so much an elemental as some guy with a fiery background.

Me: But… but… b-but… *mopes*

Fortunately, some of my best revisions are done while moping. I went back to the drawing board (or, more accurately, back to my drawing pad ‘n’ stylus) to make some modifications. And however long it was later…

Fire Elemental, two-point-WHOA!

Me: Betterness?

Mother o’ Mine: And how!

The changes weren’t huge, but the difference totally was. And I don’t think I ever would have thought to add the needed touches if my mom had simply said, “Pretty cool, honey,” and left it at that.

There are bound to have been other examples since then, but this is the one that always comes back to me, that moment when I first truly understood: Critique can be some nasty medicine to swallow, but it can be totally worth it.

There are tons of blog posts, articles, and self-help chapters that deal with different views on this topic (such as this piece on Emerald Barnes’ blog, which first put the notion of eventually writing this post in my head, or these tips I gleaned from the Gotham Writers’ newsletter). Clearly, then, my thoughts are not the end-all, but they’re what I have to give and what you hang around here to read, so here they are, in summary:

1. Gather some reasonably trusted opinions. (Not just anybody knows what they’re talking about or wants you to succeed. Use your judgment.)

2. Keep your defenses down as low as they’ll go, and honestly reflect on the feedback. (And, um, try not to bite your critics’ heads off…like I sometimes do… Yeah, having people all up in your stuff can nettle, but if you followed Step 1, they’re probably just trying to help you.)

3. If a suggestion is way off base, happily ignore it. (Feel free to whistle and strut while fixing a celebratory sandwich.)

4. If what you’re hearing has some merit, take it and improve. (The fire elementals in your life will thank you.)

Floor’s open: What’s your standout experience with critique?