Post-Workshop: What To Do with All the Great Feedback You Get

I was recently asked what I do with all the great feedback I get from my fellow workshop students in the fiction writing program at Hopkins. It’s such a great question, isn’t it? I’m in this fantastic program, with incredibly talented writers, and I’m supposed to be using their feedback to hone my skills and produce high-quality stories. But at the end of each workshop session, I’m usually leaving with 20 pages of typed, single-spaced feedback, all of it from different perspectives and sometimes giving contradictory advice.

Here are some of my thoughts, but I’m hoping others might share their ideas and insight from their own workshop experiences, too.

I try to look at workshop like I’d look at any other discussion or dialogue, real or fictional. There’s text and there’s subtext. The text (both written and verbal) is extremely helpful, but for every part of text, there’s a whole iceberg of subtext underneath, and that subtext is just as helpful, if not more helpful. The way in which people make comments can sometimes be even more important to me than whether someone lists three aspects to be improved or four aspects. If people are drawn to adamantly defend their position on a character, that says they care and I’m onto something. If people are drawn to look for far-out interpretations, it means I’m being too subtle and I pulled them out of the story by making it a puzzle to solve rather than a story to enjoy. If every single person in the workshop understands every single element in the story, it probably means I’ve made everything too obvious. But these are all usually communicated more in subtext than in text. Or so it seems to me.

People might have a problem with something on page 9, but sometimes I know the cogs of the story enough to know that why they are having that problem on page 9 is because I messed up on page 5 and didn’t include what I should’ve included. If everyone agrees wholeheartedly (but somewhat robotically) about how a character ticks, they may be saying this as a good thing about the story, but I might realize that the character is too easy to figure out, and then it’s really easy to sway those feelings on the next draft, with only 20 or so additional words.

The subtext is important to me. Not that I don’t like the text itself. The combination is crucial. Without the text, it’s like the iceberg is completely submerged and I’m totally blind. That’s why any and all feedback is helpful to me.

Or, to use another analogy, it’s like most people in the audience at your magic show can tell you when they’ve seen the card you were trying to hide, and some people might be able to suggest that it’s the angle of your hand that’s screwing up the trick, but it’s only the person that knows the trick and has practiced the trick that can tell you the real problem: that you pause in the middle of your banter at exactly the wrong moment and you draw attention to your thumb knuckle, which needs to be tucked more tightly by being drawn closer to the first knuckle of your pinky. In short, there are different levels of advice; the broad advice (85% of my audience can see I’m screwing up) is very helpful, but that deep advice about the thumb position and banter is a gem.

I try out most of the advice I get from workshop, whether those suggestions are based on text or subtext. I consider the advice and see if I can objectively figure out how that change would affect my story. Sometimes it’s easy to imagine because I’ve already tried it in previous drafts and I know it didn’t work. If I can’t imagine it, I almost always try it, treating it like a writing exercise. I save multiple drafts and think about “trying something out” rather than “changing my story” because I can always go back to the original file if the change doesn’t work. Worst case scenario, at least I’ve still learned a new technique. If the advice is something I really find myself balking at because I can’t imagine it at all, I try to remember that I’m being pig-headed and make myself try it. Sometimes the ones I can’t initially imagine at all are the ones that end up working the best.


What I Learned about Writing and Self-Publishing a Kids’ Book

coverTwo aspects of self-publishing always worried me.

  1. Without agents and publishers as gatekeepers, would it be too tempting to publish a product before it was ready?
  2. Was the process of self-publishing going to be a huge hassle?

Creating a Compelling Product

I always thought it would be fun to write a kids’ book. I’ve certainly read a lot of them. In fact, for a few sleep-deprived years when I had no time to read novels, I sustained myself on the bedtime stories I read to my kids. I’d ask my college literature students what they were reading, and when they got embarrassed and said all they had time to read was Dr. Seuss, I’d nod adamantly.

Besides, I liked the way I could count on the best of these books for a happy ending that felt right but not cheesy. I envied these authors because, in my own attempts at writing adult fiction, “happy” and “cheesy” were awfully hard to separate.

When my older son entered kindergarten, we were introduced to the Junie B Jones books. I loved how Junie B’s voice was able to disguise the moral of the book well enough that kids didn’t have time to put on their moral-lesson-deflector shields. They were learning without even realizing it. Bwahahaha!

Since I have sons ages 6 and 7, I wanted to explore the world of a kindergartner through a boy’s perspective. That’s why I created SuperDylan, a five year old boy trying to find his place in the family. He’s sassy, but he’s got a sweet side, too. As one reviewer wrote, “Impossible not to love, Dylan deals with his role in the family with occasional frustration, frequent bewilderment, and just enough harebrained schemes to make readers of any age laugh out loud.”

After much revision and editing, I researched agents and sent SuperDylan and the Powers of Just Right out to my top 10 agents. I got one rejection, but heard nothing from the others. I know I was supposed to have sent it out to more agents and gone to conferences to meet agents, and so on and so forth. But I didn’t want to. The book was a fun, simple book, and I wanted a fun, simple publishing process. So I shelved it. I got it out every month or two over the next year, re-read it, and felt sad that I hadn’t made the effort to put it in the hands of readers who would enjoy Dylan as much as I did. That’s when I started to consider self-publishing.

I was lucky enough to enlist the help of my brother, a talented mechanical engineer who had been sketching as a hobby for years. Maybe he’ll help draw some basic poses for me, I thought, and then I’ll just somehow miraculously make this work.

Grant’s an amazingly generous and helpful guy, so he said yes. He drew up some initial sketches and we talked about how cartoony (versus realistic) we wanted these characters to look. As soon as the characters and styles were determined in these first sketches, the book took on a life of its own in Grant’s hands, and what a wonderful re-birth it was. He envisioned the 12 color illustrations in a much better and more creative way than I had.

In the crucial epiphany scene, Grant thought to meld BabyNate and the hamster Chubster.


He added angel wings and a halo to show Dylan’s attitude while being lectured by his mom.

image009He used unique perspectives so that even the pictures of the bookshelves and the laundry room boxes (two illustrations with no characters at all) communicated a feeling.

image008He’d send me the illustrations and I’d literally laugh out loud when I opened them.

We sent the book out to a few people to read before we put in on Amazon (many thanks to Jeanne Ford, Sherri Woosley, and Kate Benchoff!), and then we looked over it another 50 times to make sure it was the best book we could make it. We were ready!

Self-Publishing on Amazon through Createspace and Kindle Direct Publishing.

The actual process of self-publishing your product can be done in less than a half hour, especially if you don’t have illustrations or are particularly good with MS Word, so now I understand why self-publishing can get a bad (though unfair) name. Self-publishing is easy and fun to do, but if you do it, you have to be your own critic and really hold yourself up to a high standard.

The self-publishing process itself is a series of mesmerizing green traffic lights.

We used Createspace to publish the print version of the book. It ran us through a series of idiot-proof screens where we listed the basic information. There was a royalty calculator and there were many additional options for help. Since we designed our own cover and formatted our own interior, the process was free, but Createspace offers add-ons for people who need help with these processes.

We used the measurements they provided for the cover file, and then Createspace used that cover file to create the thumbnail for our book.

The interior file is an MS Word file converted to a pdf. We submitted our files to Amazon;  they checked for inappropriate content and major formatting issues and they got back to us in less than 24 hours. Then we had the options of viewing the book online and also ordering a print proof through the mail. I would recommend doing both. A few times, we had to adjust the dpi of the illustrations, and I managed to screw up the dimensions of our first cover, but these little bumps in the road were relatively small. Once we approved the new proof, our product showed up on Amazon in less than an hour.

Createspace imported our files to Kindle Direct Publishing so we could create our Kindle version of SuperDylan and the Powers of Just Right, but the interior needed to be a little different. The interior file of the Kindle version is a Word file, saved as a filtered HTML file and placed in a zip file along with all the image files. This is pretty easy, especially if you download the free e-files “Publish on Amazon Kindle with Kindle Direct Publishing” and “Building Your Book for Kindle.”

At first, Amazon wouldn’t allow us to sell the print version for less than $8 because of the color interior. This was a bummer because we really wanted to sell the product for more like $6. We knew we wanted full color, but we wanted an affordable price, too. When we originally published it, the book was listed at $8.99 (our royalties were set at $1.18) and we were a little disappointed with the pricing. However, only a few days later, Amazon changed the price of the book to $5.33, and it appears we’re still getting the same royalties.

Now we’re thrilled to offer a full-color, quality early reader chapter book for under $6. We’re excited to see our work enjoyed by others. And best of all, we got to work together on a project that makes us smile.

This Doesn’t Mean that Self-Publishing is Right for Every Project

I have a very different project in the works, an 80,000-word novel about hoarding. I’ve been working on it for about 3 years now, and I’ve put more hours into it than I’d ever be willing to admit. As you might imagine, I have less of a “we’ll just see how it goes” feeling about this one. If I put it on Amazon and sold a hundred copies, only to realize that was pretty much the end of the line for the book, I would be disappointed.

However, with the SuperDylan book, I know that self-publishing was the right option. I’m able to share this lovable character with others without waiting years and years to find a publisher.

As we prepare book 2 in the series, SuperDylan and the Night Horse, to be released in time for Halloween, we are still laughing with Dylan and his family, and we’re still loving every minute of the process.


Where You At, Language? (Part 1 of 3)

It’s almost impossible not to notice text-speak clumsily butting its way into other modes of conversation. I often hear people say “LOL” and “WTF?”; I mean, they SAY it. They SAY double-u-tee-eff. This amuses me, since the abbreviation takes longer to say than the original.

I’m less amused about the current tragic state of the apostrophe. And I’m not talking about tricky stuff, like being able to smoothly show that Sara Jones and her entire family own a mailbox. I’m talking about sentences like:

My grandmothers house is brick.


The executive start’s the meeting at 11:00.

Gahhh! No!

The apostrophe is dying, and people are trying to revive it by placing it as the penultimate character in every word that ends in an “s.” It’s one thing to forget an apostrophe, but the second example shows a basic lack of understanding about apostrophes.

I can’t help wonder what English will look like in another 50 years. Maybe Taylor Mali has a point in Speak with Conviction. Maybe we’ll be even more afraid to make declarative sentences. Maybe we’ll just use question marks as our only form of punctuation. Like, you know?

The executive start?s the meeting at 11:00.

Yes, that looks better, doesn’t it? I mean, it makes as much sense as the version with the apostrophe, doesn’t it?

But if we look at language as an ever-changing entity, maybe we don’t have to feel as doomsday about this. We hold precious what we know, but possibly, as we gripe about what texting is doing to our language, we are oversimplifying what’s happening.

In Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer writes:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge

With-inne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho

That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge

Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,

And spedde as wel in love as men now do; (Part II, lines 22-26)


This is exactly the type of smooth-talking language you hear out in the singles clubs, right?

The translation? Chaucer’s basically saying that, back in ancient Greece, which is the setting for Troilus and Criseyde, men used some pretty crazy words to hit on their ladies.

In Modern English, the passage reads:

Remember in the forms of speech comes change
Within a thousand years, and words that then
Were well esteemed, seem foolish now and strange;
And yet they spoke them so, time and again,
And thrived in love as well as any men (translation by George Philip Krapp)

I love this. Since we know he was very aware of the protean aspects of language, I picture him fully realizing the irony this excerpt would hold for future readers. Chaucer’s language, which we now call Middle English, is so archaic to us that we need a translator. Chaucer helped birth a language that later became archaic, but I wonder if he would be primarily saddened or fascinated by what happened to his little baby as he sent it out of the nest to make its own path in the world. His language isn’t dead; it has just changed, a lot.

Over the next few posts, I want to talk about what Peter Elbow and Jennifer Egan have to say about language. But even more, I’d like to hear what you have to say about language. Is English decaying? What do you expect of English in the next 50 years? If you anticipate its decay, do you see any silver lining?




“What We Talk About When We Begin to Drink Vodka, Smoke Weed, and Hide in Closets” by Sarah Lum at Literary8

If you’ve read any of Best American Short Stories (BASS) 2012, you’ll most likely enjoy the blog at Literary 8, which features a new review of a BASS story every day for the next month. Some of the reviews are both funny and insightful.

Today’s review by Sarah Lum, “What We Talk About When We Begin to Drink Vodka, Smoke Weed, and Hide in Closets” is of Nathan Englander’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” which is based, in part, on Carver’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

So… there’s a lot of talking, about a lot of things. Check out the blog for a variety of different voices as 8 readers review 4 BASS stories each. Good stuff.


You Gotta Grow a Pair (of Vocal Chords): Voice in Fiction Writing

Regardless of point of view, the voice of a storyteller is just that: one voice. It isn’t the voice of no one, nor is it the voice of everyone. A story is told by one voice, allowing a reader to co-experience through the eyes of one particular person.

A voice that tells a subjective story is arguably the one powerhouse writers have over film, and the more I learn about fiction, the more strongly I believe that the quality of fiction all goes back to the strength of the narrative voice.

As Emily Dickinson said, Tell all the truth, but tell it slant.

I want a narrative voice that grabs me by the throat, submerges me, and holds me tighter, tighter, tighter. It should make me see more than I wanted to see and to see myself in a way I never thought I would. Even though that voice may be unreliable at times, even hateful at times, I want to trust that voice to always be true to itself.

Some of my colleagues and I discuss our most hated thesis statement in ENG 101 essays: “There are many similarities and differences between Subject A and Subject B.”

What? In what way is this an interesting statement? It’s so vague it can be applied to everything. There are many similarities and differences between a pen and a pencil. There are similarities and differences between a wooden table and a wooden pencil. There are many similarities and differences between an artichoke and an aardvark.

Right. This is stunning information. I’ll need a while to ponder this.


Not seeing the connection between a compare/contrast essay and a piece of fiction? Well, come closer and let me tell you a secret. Yes, closer. This one is a doozy. Here it is:

There are many similarities and differences between a compare/contrast essay and a piece of fiction.

Or, let me say it this way: Both essays and stories must feel urgent. They are not reports. While we can break them into parts (an essay is comprised of an introduction, thesis, body paragraphs, and conclusion while a story is comprised of exposition, rising action, climax, resolution) they are more vital than the sum of their parts. They must matter, not to everyone, but certainly to someone.


Here’s what happens in a lot of beginning fiction:

Story A is a story that follows an arc of rising action until the climax, and then the resolution both resolves the conflict while opening the topic for further thought. The writing is competent and clean and the reader is supposed to come away from the story believing that life is imperfect but precious. The narrator is, for the most part, likable. The narrator’s faults are equivalent to an interviewee answering the question “What’s your biggest fault?” with the statement: “My biggest fault? Yes, regrettably, I tend to work too hard.” The interviewer sighs and shakes his head in a fake acknowledgement of the courage it took the interviewee to come clean like this. Yet another over-achiever in the interviewee chair. The horror.

Come on now.

Be an individual. Glimmertrain accepts under 20 stories a year. They receive 15,000. You have to distinguish yourself from everyone else.

A story written for everyone in a voice unwilling to cause any discomfort or disagreement is a story that, ironically, will do very little to interest anyone. Or, as Nietzsche says, “Books for the general reader are always ill-smelling books.”

Voice is all about distinction. Voice is one specific mouth urgently whispering into one specific ear.

And sometimes, even once you’ve found your voice, it takes a while to find the right ear. Keep searching. Don’t try to compensate for a broken link in communication by mumbling.

80/20 Rule in Creative Writing

A friend recently told me about the 80/20 rule, and how it applies to what people often mistake for talent.

It takes 20% of your effort to reach 80% of your true potential, but it takes 80% of your effort to reach that last 20% of your potential.

Think about it for a minute. It’s so true, right? The initial learning curve is steep, but that plateau is a bitch. It just goes on and on, with little change in altitude.


So, if you happen to be mired in the guck of creativity right now, maybe that’s because you’ve passed the first stage and moved onto the second.

And… if you put enough soul-blood into your work, hopefully someday you’ll be lucky enough to have people jealously scoff at your natural born “talent.”