Friday, October 25, 2013

Thinking about Critiquing


"...you better pull on your big girl panties because if you want to be a successful writer, you better learn how to take criticism.  You not only have to take it, but you have to turn it around and be grateful that someone cares deeply enough about your words and work to tell you the truth about them." 

I belong to a wonderful writers' group, The Girlfriends' Book Club, an eclectic group of female writers,
whose work ranges from genre to literary fiction.  It's nearly my turn to blog on our group site, and after considering the suggested topic for this cycle: Who reads your work?  Talk about your experiences
during critique, etc., I decided to share this blog here.


Honesty vs. Brutality

As much as I try to be constructive and helpful when critiquing another writer’s work, it does NOT come across as either, for the following reasons: they (the writers) are in love with their work (as they should be); they want to hear praise (I make sure to do that); just the same, no amount of praise is going to ameliorate hard truths, like “This scene does not forward the storyline.  It seems unnecessary to the book’s arc.”  Or “You’ve already said this.”  Or “This dialogue has no subtext.  It’s not believable.”  I could go on and on.  I don’t read for anyone anymore.  For me, it tends to end with hurt feelings.

On the flip side of the coin, I have received editorial feedback like, “I think you should rewrite this from a different point of view.”  “Cut these four pages.”  “Write something better, more beautiful here.”  “You don’t need this.” 

And, truth be told, you better pull on your big boy or big girl panties because if you want to be a successful writer, you better learn how to take criticism.  You not only have to take it, but you have to turn it around and be grateful that someone cares deeply enough about your words and work to tell you the truth about them. 

Like in comedy, delivery is everything.  Start by saying something positive, like, “I like the paper you used.”  “I bet this pen was expensive.”  “Great font you’ve chosen.”

I try VERY hard not to read the work of aspiring authors.  Feelings get hurt. 

Flip the coin: I know who I can trust to read for me, and I am oh so appreciative!

Look for WHERE I AM BORN, Simon & Schuster, 2014/2015.  Buy your copy of The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors NOW.  Sold Everywhere!

*Where I Am Born is the epic tale of two women separated by oceans, generations and war, but connected by something much greater—the gift of wings.

Friday, October 18, 2013

SNEAK PEAK: What is the next novel about??? Where I Am Born...

Above Us Only Sky is the epic tale of two women separated by oceans, generations and war, but connected by something much greater—the gift of wings.  In 1973, Prudence Eleanor is born with wings in Nashville, Tennessee.  Considered a birth defect, her wings are excised shortly after her birth, leaving the ghost of them behind. 
Living on the eastern coast of the Atlantic, the unexpected and unimaginable bubble up from the depths to confront Prudence: She meets her Lithuanian grandfather and discovers a miraculous lineage beating and pulsing with past Lithuanian birds: storytellers with wings dragging the dirt, survivors perched on radio towers, lovers lit up like fireworks and heroes disguised as everyday men and women.
Sometimes where we think we are born is not even close.  It is in finding our birthplace that we have a chance at becoming whole.  

Monday, October 7, 2013

WHAT A LITERARY LIFE REALLY MEANS, Virginia Pye


Virginia Pye, author, River of Dust

This week, news came out that a group of scientists have proven, once and for all, that reading literary fiction increases one’s ability to empathize with others. For some of us in the writing biz, that’s a no brainer. Still, it’s nice to have our sense of things confirmed.
The scientists explained that literary fiction, which shows the interior life of characters, teaches us how people think. Commercial fiction, which they contend focuses more on action, doesn’t achieve this. Over the years, I’ve heard writers and publishing professionals define these types of writing, but never with such authority. Perhaps it helps to be outside the world of books to see it more clearly.
These days, I’m so in the midst of a "literary life" --writing or reading, attending conferences and festivals, meeting fellow writers and publishing professional--that I can forget why I do this in the first place. It makes me wonder, what does a literary life really mean?
Last night, the car radio helped me remember the answer. I sat in my driveway in the dark and listened to the BBC World Service report on literary happenings around the globe. Not a reading by Salman Rushdie in some hallowed, ivy-covered hall. Not interviews with Jhumpa Lahiri or Dave Eggers on their latest books. But instead, reports from distant outposts—villages and hamlets way off the beaten path. And each brief story illustrated the power of literature in a deeply powerful way.
In Somaliland, children crowd around and elbow each other to get their hands on books. This remote region of a war-torn country has set down their guns. Adults and kids alike sit with their heads bent over books. For obvious reasons, their favorite is War and Peace.  
In Afghanistan, women write their stories -- tales that are uniformly horrific and yet they’re eager to share them. Near the end of the interview, though, a teenage girl says she is tired of women writing stories of rape, incest and murder. It is time, she declares, for them to instead write a new history of their country.
A different reporter visits Shakespeare & Company on the Left Bank in Paris, a bookshop crowded, floor to ceiling, with books. Joyce and Stein, Hemingway and Camus, all hung out here. The warren of rooms feels more like a library than a store, a sacred setting of literary history. (I remember my first visit there at age eighteen and have been thankful each time I’ve returned to find it unchanged.)
Mules laden with books make their way across rough terrain to Argentine villages, offering a popular mobile lending library. In Kenya, schools are mobile as well, so that nomadic sheepherding tribes can learn to read and write. In the sandy soil, sheep droppings are used to spell out the alphabet.
In the South Pacific, an elderly British trader is forced to finally toss away his books: Captain Cooke’s travel diaries, Robert Louis Stephenson’s volumes, Robinson Crusoe, James Michener, and dozens of others, have all been ravaged by humidity and bugs. The old trader says, You have to know what you’re up against here. His ruined books seem to illustrate what he means.
And in a city square in Morocco, one of the last dozen storytellers in the country shares a scene from A Thousand and One Nights. For over 1,000 years, stories have been passed down in this way. In a country with a 40% illiteracy rate, the tales are now being digitally recorded and saved for posterity.
These are the stories of literary life that I want to try to remember the next time I check my Goodreads account or Amazon author page. Books, as the scientists have now proven, help us understand the human heart. In settings where life is harsh, that understanding is crucial. Here in the comfort of home, it offers a vital life line to what matters as well. *****
 Virginia Pye’s debut novel, River of Dust, was chosen as an Indie Next Pick by the Independent Booksellers Association. Carolyn See in The Washington Post called it “intricate and fascinating;” Annie Dillard said it’s “a strong, beautiful, deep book;" and Robert Olen Butler named it “a major work by a splendid writer.” Virginia has published award-winning short stories in literary magazines. Her essays can be found in The Rumpus and The New York Times Opinionator blog. Interviews with her are on line at The Nervous Breakdown and Huffington Post. She holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence and has taught writing at New York University and the University of Pennsylvania. Please visit her at www.virginiapye.com