Seton Hill University

The importance of good critique partners

I have finished it.  The draft of World Maker, my third manuscript.  It took under five months to write over 92,000 words.

Before I move to the meat of this entry, I need to thank my husband, Chris.  His enthusiasm for the project and help in other ways has been one of the main reasons I tallied such a high daily word count these last weeks.  The night I finished, he stayed up late to read the last chapters hot off the press and talk them over with me.  He is important to me and my writing, and by saying what I do below about my fabulous critique partners, I in no way mean to neglect him.

SO . . . I have two critique partners I first worked with in graduate school in Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program.  We have remained friends over the years since graduating in 2006, but some of those years were thinly populated with word count while we each dealt with our individual lives.

Then one of my partners, Diana Botsford, made an opportunity happen for herself.  She wrote a book called Four Dragons, set in the Stargate universe.  I was privileged to be a part of that writing by critiquing chapters as she went along.  I was quite inspired by her example to get back into writing.

I’ve talked elsewhere on this blog about returning to graduate school to finish my second manuscript.  At the SHU WPF alumni’s In Your Write Mind retreat, which coincided with my graduation, I met with an agent who requested a partial and went on to request the full.  I wanted to make a few revisions to the completed thesis, based on feedback from my graduation residency, and he graciously gave me the two weeks I requested.  I did a two-week all-nighter to get it done, and every single day my other critique partner, Rhonda Mason, was there to receive and edit copy for me.

That second manuscript ended up being a pass for that agent, but my first round of queries yielded three additional requests for the full.  This was big news for me, and my critique partners made much of it.  That got me even more excited about writing.  While I waited to hear from the requesting agents, I started thinking about what to write next.

I came up with World Maker, which I began writing on September 22, 2011 and finished on January 16, 2012.  Although the word count was produced in four months, the novel took five months because I spent the first few weeks working out plot.  Actually, total completion time will be more like six months.  When I finished the draft I immediately revised it into a second draft.  It’s with beta readers now, and I will revise again when I get their feedback.  (And although this post is about my fabulous critique partners, I have to say I have a great group of beta readers.  Thank you!)

What happened in our little critique corner of the universe was a giant snowball effect.  Our writing fueled each other’s writing, both for its content and word count.  Diana finished her second Stargate novel, The Drift, on January 16th as well.  Rhonda is some 50,000 words into her science fiction romance, Empress Game.

We all three write quite different things, even though we all consider ourselves speculative fiction writers (and Rhonda, aka Katherine Ivy, is a published Romance writer).  But there is a commonality to our writing that I’ve been trying to put a finger on.  I know I enjoy reading what they write, and I have become a very particular reader lately.

To me, these ladies are ideal as critique partners because 1) they are actual writers with a similar level of experience critiquing, 2) they have excellent critical eyes and make valuable comments that give me the tools to evaluate what I write, 3) they know when I need the hard truth and when I need to hear encouragement, and they make encouragement sound like honest praise, 4) they give of their time and expertise as much as demand mine of me, so the critiquing and helping is reciprocal, 5) they are my friends and care about me and what challenges I face as I walk this road to becoming published.

I cannot overstate the importance Rhonda and Diana have had in my development as a writer.  And I cannot thank them enough for being the writers and people they are.

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A page a day

You know how sometimes you have to learn certain lessons for yourself?  No matter how many times the advice is given to you previously?

I’m spending less time on this blog the last few weeks because I’ve been using all my word count in my work in progress.  It’s kinda like NaNoWriMo, only it takes me longer than a month.  Since September 22nd, I’ve completed 50,000 words of a projected 90,000-word story, most of which has gotten done between last month and this.  I truly hope to be finished with the first draft by the end of January.

My first novel took me something like six years to write.  The second took another five.  Both required help from graduate school structure, mentors, and critique partners.

While my second novel goes through the process of finding an agent for representation, I’ve started manuscript #3.  But my writing process is totally different.

I used to have to “warm up,” so to speak, before I could write.  I had to clear my email and check certain other sites and generally procrastinate before I felt ready to write. (I recall more than one game of spider solitaire being a part of this process.)  Once I was warmed up, if I didn’t have at least two hours or more ahead of me, I got frustrated and blocked and couldn’t write.  I used to think if I didn’t complete a major chunk (a chapter or two) in a writing session that it wasn’t even worth my time to sit down and write.

Not so anymore.  I wake up early every weekday morning and most weekends with the goal of getting a page done, even if it is a page of total crap that needs to be rewritten the next day.  For the first month or two, a page is all I accomplished, and it seemed like such a paltry thing, but it was enough.  Lately I rarely leave the computer without at least 1,000 words complete, and usually much more.

I think by forcing myself to get out a page, I forced myself to plot.  My difficulty writing had always been that I just didn’t know what should come next.  When I forced myself to write a little something every day, I forced something to come next.  And that lead to another next and another next and another next.

During my time at SHU I was told that if I wrote a page a day for 365 days, I’d have a novel.  (I’m sure this advice should be attributed to someone specific, but I remember it as advice that was simply passed around.)  A year sounded like such a short time compared to the five or six it took to do each of my first two manuscripts.  Finally following that advice has led to me getting a manuscript done (well, not yet, but I’m on track and confident) in six months.

My advice?  Get your butt in the chair and dive “write” in!  A page a day is all it takes!

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Where I’m at Part 3: agent search for Wishstone

I finished Wishstone a few years ago as a fantasy novel set in ancient Greece.  I pitched it to exactly one agent, an agent who many authors dream of calling theirs.  She requested sample chapters and sent a personal, professional, and helpful rejection a couple of weeks later.

It was around this time that my husband and I were trying to have a child.  I will not share the details of those years, but let it suffice to say there were a lot of doctors, procedures, hopes, and disappointments, disappointments, disappointments.  It was all I could do to keep my teaching career (and myself) from falling apart.  I did not write.

After (hooray!) my son was born (well, months later—I was pretty busy with him for a while), I decided to revisit Wishstone.  By this time there had been a dramatic change in the world of young adult literature.  I was still in touch with friends from the Writing Popular Fiction program.  They knew that my stories centered on teenage protagonists, so they suggested Wishstone might be better suited for this expanding young adult market.  I had serious doubts.  First of all, it had been a huge leap for me to write a fantasy at all.  Although the lines between science fiction and fantasy often blur and they require some similar skills, I had never been interested in writing about magic.  Likewise I had always considered myself as a writer for people like myself, i.e. adults who had grown up immersed in a spec fic world.  Writing for young adults requires a particular talent for resonating with people who have fewer years of life experience and interests/needs I have (mostly) outgrown.  I did not think I could do it.

Then I read Kristin Cashore’s Graceling.  (Kristin Cashore, if you ever read this, thank you for being the writer you are.)  Graceling is marketed as young adult.  The story addresses themes such as the use and abuse of power, personal responsibility, and redemption.  It is a coming-of-age story to be sure, but it is not filled with the angst I associated with young adult literature.  Reading Graceling made me think that maybe I could convert Wishstone.

I returned to Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program for a second degree.  They converted their MA program to an MFA program, which interested me because it would give me an additional credential to seek a teaching position in higher education.  I revised Wishstone as my MFA thesis by cutting the POV of the 42-year-old man and leaving the entire story, minus the prologue, in the POV of the 16-year-old girl.  I also added a love story to replace the one I lost by refocusing the POV.

I’m in the process of submitting Wishstone right now.  This summer I revisited Prosorinos to see if it could get the same YA conversion as Wishstone, but it’s complexity, I think, makes that impossible.

So, since I’m waiting to hear about Wishstone, I’ve started this website and have begun work on a completely new novel.  I’ll keep you posted . . .

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Where I’m at Part 1: from teaching to my first thesis

This three-part post is probably more appropriate to the “About” button, but for my own sake, I’m starting by defining where I’m starting.

In high school I would have been surprised to be told I’d end up as an English teacher.  I was pretty set on a career in science.  I did, however, enjoy English and took electives in creative writing and journalism because I liked to write.  It didn’t matter much to my career plans at the time that I won a major book award as a junior and a major English achievement award as a senior.  I was accepted at Dartmouth, and I was going to be a biochemistry major with a future in cancer research.

Then in my sophomore spring, the deadline for Dartmouth students to declare their majors, I took a course on contemporary issues in education.  It changed everything.  Once I decided I wanted to teach, it suddenly became clear that the subject I needed to teach was English.  I did the whole English major and education minor in my final two years.  I got a job and taught English for fourteen years.

Throughout my public school teaching, I sometimes regretted that I didn’t choose a medical research path, especially when it seemed like all the care I gave and work I did went unappreciated—or worse, actively railed against.  (Many of my students, and some of their parents, didn’t feel the same way about plagiarism/cheating that I did.)  For the most part, though, I really enjoyed my job and was content to teach and coach track and field, and advise a class and a club, and serve on committees, and mentor new teachers, and all the other things that went along with my teaching life.

Where I worked, a teacher could receive a pay raise in three ways: 1) yearly contracted cost-of-living increases, 2) moving up a step (which means a pay raise for each of the first few years teaching until you reach a particular year), 3) becoming more educated.  I stood to gain a bit of salary by getting a master’s degree, which I didn’t mind doing since I enjoy being a student.  The problem was that a traditional degree would mean a lot of time commuting from where I lived, and I already worked a six-day week from dawn until, often, into the dark.

I found a program at Seton Hill University called Writing Popular Fiction and wrote to the director asking how many graduates of the program were actually published.  She replied that the program was pretty new so there weren’t any yet (or maybe she said there was one—it was a super low number either way).  This was back in 2004.  Seton Hill’s Writing Popular Fiction program is low residency, which means students only have to travel there for one week twice a year.  The program is unique in that it stresses popular, as opposed to literary, fiction.  Although I adore much literary fiction, I wanted to write a science fiction story, and the answers I had received to inquiries at other grad schools left me with the impression science fiction would not be accepted with open arms.  At Seton Hill it was embraced.  Now there are more published authors from the Writing Popular Fiction program (some award-winning ones and some with large national and international followings) than I can count.

Long story shortened, my experience at Seton Hill changed my life.  Until that time, I had not really considered a writing career seriously.  I didn’t know what a writer’s life entailed.  I didn’t think I had enough talent.  I graduated from Seton Hill with a completed science fiction novel of over 160,000 words.  It’s title is Prosorinos, the name of the planet on which it’s set.  I thought maybe I could be a writer.

On to the next post . . .

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Our language has wisely sensed the two sides of being alone. It has created the word loneliness to express the pain of being alone. And it has created the word solitude to express the glory of being alone. — Paul Tillich