Thursday, July 28, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with The Rejectionist

(Or, Helping Someone Move Forward)

Perhaps you know our next guest for her fashion sense, her desperate attempts to save tiny creatures, her erudite ability to educate the masses, or her tales of boosting office morale. Or maybe you love her because she knows what it's like to be a writer, or because she cohabitates with an English-speaking, guest-posting cat. (*waves at Lola pants*)

Maybe you simply know her as Le R. That's right, author friends. The Rejectionist is our bestest of friends today, and she's going to talk about being a critiquer. THAT'S RIGHT I SAID CRITIQUER WHICH IS NOT A WORD IF YOU RELY ON SO CALLED PUBLISHED DICTIONARIES BUT IF YOU LOOK IN THE RIGHT MARGIN OF THIS BLOG YOU'LL KNOW IT REALLY IS A WORD.

Now that we're in the spirit, author friends, feast your eyes on the fabulous Le R.

The Rejectionist is a writer, freelance editor, and publishing industry escapee.
She blogs at


NEA: Who, as one of your critiquers/beta-readers, have you learned the most from, and what did you learn from him/her?

Le R: I learned about editing from diving into it, really. I worked for a literary agent who was a former editor, and was very hands-on and intensive in terms of editing client work, so I learned quite a lot from watching that process. I work as a freelance editor now, and I learn a lot just from working consistently, and I read style manuals on the side. (I'm not joking! It's real nerdy.) Editing is a very, very different skill from writing; there are a lot of great writers who are terrible editors, and plenty of great editors who are not especially good writers. I think the ability to tell a story and the ability to see a story don't necessarily have much to do with each other. The thing that is most delightful to me, whether I am editing someone's novel or someone's college essay, is the detective work of figuring out where they want to go and what is preventing them from getting there, and also the feeling that I am doing something useful for someone who may never have had anyone look at their writing with real attention.

That skill definitely carries over into my own writing--I see all kinds of things now that I never used to notice, things like using the same adjective twenty times in a single manuscript. I always end up deleting a couple hundred adverbs. I think the most useful thing that I've learned, though, in terms of my own writing, is to be tremendously ruthless and to welcome tremendous ruthlessness. I have one dear friend who I trade work with and who I basically share a brain with, and she is not at all shy about telling me when things aren't working. I find that quite useful, and it also means when she tells me something is good, it's good. It is a rare treat to have someone read your work well.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

Le R: Don't look for the story you want to read; look for the story the writer wants to tell.

NAE: When you critique someone's work, what is your process?

Le R: I'm a multi-tasker--for whatever reason, I do well with the written word, and I can look at larger structural issues and nitpicky grammar business at the same time. When I edit professionally, I look at both, and I'll usually focus most on editorial work on the first pass, and then go back through to make sure I didn't miss any smaller problems or typos or what have you. In a perfect world, I would read through first without marking anything up, but I don't always have time.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

Le R: It sounds sort of corny, but I think I gravitate toward the writer. I read so, so many query letters and manuscripts when I worked in publishing, and I read so much unpolished work now as a freelancer, and you develop--or at least I have developed, I don't know if this is always true, not everyone used to be a social worker--this weird ability to see the person producing the work. You can tell a lot about a person by the way they frame a story. I don't mean that in a sinister way--just that I try to think in terms of what would be most useful to that particular person. I don't have to worry at all any more about whether something is "good" or "publishable" or "salable"--it's not my job to sort things, it's my job now to help someone move forward, and anyone can move forward with their writing. So that's how I try to think.

If someone is at a very basic level, where they may not have even a rudimentary understanding of grammar, I can help them get their writing to a place where it at least makes sense grammatically; if someone knows how to put sentences together, but their plot has no internal logic or their characters are all one-dimensional, I'll work on that. Sometimes with student papers, there is a lot of gently noting that their teacher is probably going to figure out they cut and pasted the same sentence forty times throughout their paper to up the word count. I always point out things that people are doing well (even if it's "You used a comma correctly here! Great job!") because if you have never had anyone critique or edit your work before, and it comes back to you with so many comments it looks like the editor hemorrhaged all over your magnum opus, it can be a real shock. I try to remember that. It doesn't cost me anything to be kind, and it means a lot to people. Editing is this funny combination of roles, something like being a shop teacher and a psychotherapist and a witch all at once.

NAE: If there is another question you think I should ask, what is it, and what would your answer be?

Le R: I don't know what the question would be, but I will tell you that I hate copyediting bibliographies with the fire of a thousand suns.


Thank you, dearest R, for the fantastic responses. Figuring out what the writer is trying to do with the story is key—one of the most basic yet most important tasks of a skilled critiquer.

(We loves Le R, Precious. We loves her.)


Tuesday, July 26, 2011

3 Mistakes I Made as a Newbie Critiquer, Unveiled

(Or, Don't Do What I Did)

First of all, vacation was lovely, thank you to all commenters who left me sunny vacation wishes. On our last evening at Bass Lake, we went on a pontoon ride and watched the sun set. Sigh.

While on vacation, I did a lot of thinking about when I first started writing four or so years ago. And what I did? Was to make a lot of mistakes. Thanks to all my writer/critiquer buddies along the way, I now make less mistakes.

So I thought I'd share some of my transgressions with everyone, especially newbie writer/critiquers just starting out, hoping to help others avoid these mistakes, commiserate with those who have, and/or help someone else feel not-so-badly because my mistakes are the worst.

Mistakes upon Mistakes.

Scenario: In the summer of 2008, I decided to write a short story, post it for critiques, and reel in my praise. My goal was to get feedback on my writing because I wanted to write a children's book, but I knew I should brush up on technique first because my sister (the real writer) told me I should. The forum that I had joined required that I critique five other stories before I could post my own.

Mistake the first: I read five stories and wrote up some notes on each. I rated each one basically the same, because really—who was I to tell someone how to use their art? I corrected some misuse of words and such, but I dared not go any further. I'd never even seen a good critique before, and yet I went in and left my empty comments. My biggest mistake? Not researching how to provide helpful feedback before leaving comments on a living, breathing person's work. Those writers needed something that I didn't provide: the needed to know where to hone their craft so they could improve. Sniff. I am so sorry, writers. I failed you!

Mistake the second: The story I subsequently posted brimmed with clever quips, humor, and a serious message. The mom and kid characters pulled directly from my own life (write what you know, right?). And people were going to read something I wrote. My art. Of course everyone would love it.

Until they didn't. Sure, they had some nice remarks on the clever quips, humor, and serious message; but overall, the feedback (in retrospect, very thoughtful and right on) devastated me. Story arc? More interesting subject matter? What?

After about three reviews, I killed it. I deleted it from the forum. I did—it's true. Me and my weakened ego limped back to our muse and said, WTF? We're not great? You mean, it's not that we didn't know what we wanted to do with our lives until now—to find that we were talented writers yet to be discovered? Heh? These people who have said bad things about us, perhaps they didn't know good writing when they read it—which is why they are on the forum themselves, they need help. Ha.

My biggest mistake here? I wasn't ready to develop yet, and I didn't know it until it happened.

In fact, anytime that I resist feedback, I now know that I've got to sit back and wonder why: Does the feedback miss its mark, or hit it entirely? (The words "hit it entirely" echo here.)

Mistake the third: Once my ego and my muse recovered from this incident, we went back and posted another, more interesting story. We wanted to become better and stronger, and we were damned sure were going to do it. And now we'd be ready for the sting of feedback. And sting it did, but this time, we took a collective and deep breath. WE CAN FIX THIS, we said. So we did. We fixed everything that anyone mentioned, no matter how big or small. Perplexed were we, however, when some comments from one critiquer contradicted comments from another. What to do; what. To. Do?

Ugh. My biggest mistake, this time, was that I'd swung all the way to the other side. I still did not know how to use feedback to my advantage. I hadn't acquired that internal filter yet.

So now, I sit on critiques. After I'm calmly able to answer the question, Does this feedback miss it's mark, or hit it entirely? I move on to the next thing: If I change this part of my work, am I making it better or worse? Is it right for my story? Is there another way to approach this issue to fix the identified problem?


Oh, sigh of sighs. My muse, my ego, and I are so glad we've earned our big girl panties.

Feel free to share your newbie mistakes. (Please. It will make us feel better.)


Thursday, July 14, 2011

And We Have a Book Winner

(Or, Anita. Grace. Howard!) 

Our lucky winner of Medeia Sharif's debut YA novel, Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. and a signed bookmark is none other than Anita Grace Howard! Congratulations, Anita. Please email your snail mail address to mkaley3 (at) Thanks to everyone who participated in the give-away, and especially to Medeia Sharif for the signed bookmark.

In other news, I'll be on vacation for the next week or so, visiting lovely Bass Lake in Indiana with my family. My time away will look a little like this:

A fine thank you to Jessica Lei who helped me with a new blog layout, and to Kat Brauer who took the picture in the header, a beautiful sky in Japan.

I'll see you in a couple of weeks. Keep on critiquing! If you need some place to go for a critiquerly fix, visit Authoress's blog for her July's secret agent posts.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Critiquerly Interview with Author Medeia Sharif

(Or, Release-Day Give Away: Bestest. Ramadan. Ever.)

I met Medeia Sharif several months ago, during the Write-Hope auctions in March, which raised money for the younger victims of the tsunamis in Japan. Medeia's day 8, item 1 caught my eye, and I ended up winning her 50-page critique. Lucky me! Except, I didn't quite have 50 pages to send her because right after winning the auction, I decided to re-do my WiP in first person. (I know, I know. Bad me.)

Shortly thereafter, I decided to re-do some of the main plot elements. And change some characters around. And then? My WiP turned into a completely different story. Medeia faithfully checked in with me, always understanding that I needed just a few more weeks. And well, when all the faerie dust settled, my first 50 pages were finally ready for her just about two weeks ago. And my patient little Medeia, even though I'd come dangerously close to the release date of her debut YA (Bestest. Ramadan. Ever.), provided me with a timely, intelligent critique. Sigh.

To summarize, Medeia is fabulous because:

1. She donates her time to a worthy causes
2. She worked through a wonderful critique for me
3. Her debut YA novel has just been released
4. She seamlessly used critiquer in her interview below

Whew! Oh yes, let's not forget the best part. If you are able to show as much patience as Medeia (while she waited for my first 50), you'll find the give-away contest at the end of this post. *cue: standing ovation*


Medeia Sharif is a Kurdish-American author and high school English teacher.
She received her master's degree in psychology from Florida Atlantic University.
She lives in Miami Beach. Bestest. Ramadan. Ever. Is her debut novel.
She's got a terrific website/blog, she's on Twitter, and posts to Tumblr.


NAE: After a writer gets back an in-depth critique, what would you recommend in terms of a review/revise process?

MS: I would sit on the revision notes. I never dive into revisions right after a critique. I need time to digest the information. I let things stew for a week or two, and after my mind has wrapped itself around the revision notes and my own thoughts regarding the big picture of the manuscript, I'm ready to revise.

Not too long ago I received copious notes from several readers. I thought, "What am I supposed to do with this?" and "Revising will take too darn long." I felt overwhelmed. Once I let some time go by, I was able to redo my outline, plug in necessary changes, and comfortably swing into motion.

NAE: What is the one piece of advice you can give to someone trying to develop his or her critique skills?

The best way to develop critique skills is to watch others critique, whether they do it verbally or through note-taking. Both online and in person I observed how other people gave feedback. After my observations my critiques became more detailed and, based on people's gratitude, more helpful. And as time goes by, I'll get better at critiquing since I'm still learning about the process.

NAE: When you critique someone's work, what is your general process?

MS: If it's a chapter, I read it several times. If it's a longer piece, I'll read it once or twice at a slower pace. I line edit as I go along—I can't help it when I see an error—but I know I don't catch all the mistakes since I'm more focused on the story than the grammar.

NAE: Is there one specific thing that you gravitate toward while critiquing?

MS: I'll take note of everything, but I gravitate towards plot and pacing. This stems from being a plotter; before I start a WiP I spend quite a bit of time creating spreadsheets to see where action turns.

Question added by MS: What qualities should one look for in CPs?

Right now I receive critiques from people who are in various stages of writing. They are newbies, unpublished but have been writing for years, agented, soon-to-be-published, and published. All of them provide valuable input. They're dedicated writers who are sincerely interested in the writing and publishing process. Basically, you need to find people who have a passion for writing and who keep up with the market. In addition to craft, CPs should be able to discuss trends, age levels, genre, and other concerns that affect a manuscript. They'll all be at different levels of the critiquing spectrum, but you need to have a few seasoned critiquers in the bunch to lead and inspire everyone.

Thanks, Medeia!

Give Away Contest & Rules

PRIZE: A copy of Medeia's YA debut, BESTEST. RAMADAN. EVER. along with a signed bookmark (no, not signed by me, silly. Medeia signed it!). This prize is a matching set. So gorgeous together. Oh yes, you want this. Your friends will be so, so jealous.

TO ENTER: Just leave a comment!

That's it. The contest ends Sunday (7/10) at midnight, CST. Winner will be selected via random number generator. Good luck!