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Tip Tuesday features writers' tips on craft, research, querying, blogging, marketing, inspiration, and more. If you'd like to send in a tip, please e-mail me at agentspotlight(at)gmail(dot)com.

Hi Everyone! Natalie here today. I have a great tip by Ari Magnusson the author of BITOIPA, a fantasy that also deals with the contemporary issue of bullying. More about the giveaway after Ari' awesome tip.

Embrace Criticism

The biggest lesson I learned in writing my novel Bitopia was to seek out criticism. To embrace it. To beg for it if necessary. I had shared the draft of the book for years, hearing all the praise people had for it but turning a deaf ear to the improvements people suggested. Yes, I did hear the criticism, but I always had someone else’s positive opinion at the ready to counter it. And since at least a couple of people really liked the whole book (so they said), didn’t that mean that some agent somewhere would, too?

After years of rejection, I realized that I was getting nowhere precisely because, deep down, I was treating criticism as a negative statement about the book and my writing instead of embracing it as an opportunity to make the book better and grow as a writer. And when I revised the book, I was simply applying the same judgments to the text that I had employed when writing it. So I pulled out all the feedback I had received on the book, and when I reread it with an open mind, I clearly saw how I could improve the book.

After I finished rewriting the book based on the feedback, I asked anyone who would read the manuscript to tell me what he or she didn’t like. I no longer needed or wanted to hear what was good; now I wanted to know what could be improved. I received a wealth of criticism and carefully considered every comment, no matter how incorrect or preposterous it might initially have seemed. And the approach worked—Bitopia was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best of 2012, an achievement that would not have been possible without all the suggestions for improvement that I received.

If you find yourself in a similar position to mine—where constant updates and revisions don’t seem to be resulting in progress—consider how you treat criticism. If you believe that you are honestly open to it, then test yourself; pull out feedback that you received in the past and recall whether you had dismissed it outright or carefully thought through how each suggested improvement would change the story. And if you are truly open to criticism, seek it out and embrace it when it comes.

The following types of individuals can be great sources of criticism:

·         Writing group members. My writing group is a wonderful and “safe” place to share new work. We kick around ideas, suggest new directions and alternative endings, push back on criticism and see if it remains standing, and feel comfortable admitting when something doesn’t work. Join a group and truly listen to what the members have to say.
·         Friends who aregeneral readers.” I’ve found that friends are usually reluctant to make suggestions unless specifically asked to help find places to improve, and then they are thrilled with having the freedom to criticize. Tell friends that you want to know where improvements can be made.
·         The target audience. Perhaps the most enlightening feedback came from a group of 5th-grade students. I used my network of friends to find a schoolteacher who read the book to her class and sent me their wonderful comments. Find opportunities to share your work with the target audience and listen to their feedback.
·         Asuper reader.” I have a friend who reads everything and anything: romance, mysteries, YA, nonfiction, classics, anything with two covers and sheets between. She devours books. And because she reads so widely, she knows stories. She knows what works and what doesn’t and can clearly explain why. Although a rare breed, find a super reader if you can. Try a local librarian or bookstore owner; they could serve as a super reader or help you find one.
·         Subject matter expert. Since my novel deals with bullying, I sought out a nationally recognized bullying expert to review the bullying scenes and confirm that the advice provided to readers was solid. Not only did he make wonderful suggestions to improve the scenes and fine-tune the advice, but he also gave me his feedback on the entire book as a reader, and provided me with an in-depth education on bullying. If your book deals with a specialized subject, engage an expert.
·         Editors. I hired three editors for my book. Who says I had to stop at one? I used my network of writing friends to find editors (I’m lucky—my sister is an editor) who charged reasonable prices. Each provided a unique perspective on the book, so I found using more than one worthwhile.
·         Agents. I got great feedback from two agents. I paid for the first one’s time at a writing conference, and he proceeded to shred my main character. The second agent was considering representing my rewrite and over a couple of months provided great feedback on the opening (I cut a full chapter based on her suggestion) and dialogue. I asked her for titles of books to use as examples, which she provided, and although she decided not to represent the book, I walked away with invaluable improvements to the book. Always approach exchanges with agents, whether at conferences or should they express interest in a manuscript, as an opportunity to learn how to improve your work.
·         Proofreaders. My proofreader is awesome. She knows grammar like Einstein knew physics. But she also asked, when I hired her, if I was open to editorial input, and she made great suggestions. Let anyone who is looking at the book know that you are open to suggestions for improvement. 
·         Family members. Not only do I have a professional editor in my family, but I also have the unofficial Attila of Literary Criticism: my mom. This woman, who once wrote the word “BORING” in big red letters across the top of a chapter and continues to bring up how terrible that chapter was years after the fact, contributed suggestions that resulted in one hundred and twenty-seven changes to my novel. In my opinion, the ultimate test of openness to criticism is the ability to receive it from a family member without it affecting your personal relationship.

Embracing criticism worked for me once I accepted others’ comments as opportunities to improve the story. And now I can’t get enough of it. I don’t need to hear what works; I need to know about the problems—where pacing is slow, where actions seem forced, where dialogue is clumsy—because that information will help me to improve the material and, I hope, help me become a better writer. I fully accept that the first draft of a book is the best that I can do on my own, but the best that I can do for the book itself is to seek out insights and suggestions that others have for what would make the best story. 

Thanks Ari for sharing your advice. You can find Ari at his website.

Here's a blurb about BITOPIA from Goodreads:

Named to Kirkus Reviews' Best of 2012!

When you run from bullies, you never know where you might wind up…

Bitopia is a wonderland of fantastical foliage and mysterious creatures. It’s also a place where Venators lurk, vile creatures that relentlessly hunt children. So the children of Bitopia, the only human inhabitants, are forced to live in a high-walled city for protection, a medieval metropolis of cold and shadow where time passes but no one ages, a place of no escape.

Like all the other children of Bitopia, Stewart arrives there unexpectedly while fleeing from bullies. And, like all Newcomers, Stewart dreams of finding a way back home. Risking exile from the city and the protection that it offers, Stewart and Cora, his Finder, discover a clue to escaping, one that presents them with a terrible choice: face their greatest fear and risk death, or be trapped in Bitopia forever.

A fast-paced adventure that addresses a fundamental element of bullying-fear-and provides readers with an example of how to deal with bullying on their own.

Ari has generously offered a copy of BITOPIA for a giveaway.  To enter, all you need to do is be a follower (just click the follow button if you’re not a follower) and leave a comment by midnight on March 2ndI’ll announce the winner on March 4th. If your e-mail is not on Blogger, please list it in your comment.

If you mention this contest on Twitter, Facebook, or your blog, mention this in the comments and I'll give you an extra entry. International entries are welcome.

Here's what's coming up:

Tomorrow Casey and I have a super awesome 3000 follower mega giveaway which includes a HUGE book giveaway. You won't want to miss it. 

Next Monday I'm interviewing Carrie Harris about writing humor and platform and giving away her new book BAD HAIR DAY and BAD TASTE IN BOYS. Carrie has a great knack in creating funny, really likeable characters. I went to her book signing for BAD HAIR DAY and discovered she lives in my town. I was SO excited to find that out and I'm excited to share her books with you.

Next Wednesday I'm thrilled to interview Shannon Messenger about her new YA book LET THE SKY FALL. I'm part of her blog tour and the tour is sponsoring a giveaway. And because Shannon's my friend and I loved her book, I have a giveaway too.

And don't forget our Tuesday Tips and Casey's Thursday agent spotlights.

Hope to see you on Monday!


Steve MC said...

Three editors - wow. You were definitely serious about getting your writing as good as it can be.

I'm lucky to know a few super readers, but have yet to check my target audience. Thanks for the tips!

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Target readers can be essential! I recently had the opportunity to read my most recently sold manuscript to my 5th grade class. Not only did I gain valuable insight through their comments, but they even suggested a solution to a revision point my editor wanted!

Great interview, Ari and Natalie!

Daisy Carter said...

Excellent advice! I've always embraced the negative crits - maybe because I got used to it in art classes. So, I whole-heartedly love negative feedback. Er, okay, maybe not WHOLE-heartedly, but, you know....

LTM said...

Bitopia sounds great! And bullying is such a timely subject. This is great advice, btw. Learning to take and then turn around and USE good criticism is a skill. Thanks, Ari & Natalie! <3

Kelly Polark said...

Congrats on Bitopia!
And yes, actually hearing the critiques and using them wisely is key! Thanks!

Searching for the Story said...

Being an agent and manuscript editor has completely changed my perspective on writing. It's productive, I think, to view your manuscript as both a personal expression of art and a commercial product. If you want to get to the point where anyone reads the art, you need to do some editing with the commercial product in mind.

Sophie said...

Thanks for the tip, Ari! I love how you describe that letting go of the ego's need for confirmation was the beginning of your breakthrough. Because ultimately an artist serves the work, not the other way around.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Three editors sounds like you got loads of amazing feedback. Its a great idea.

Bitopia sounds like something I would love to read.

The Pen and Ink Blogspot said...

Three editors!!!!!! Awesome share. If anyone is kind enough to help me out by reading my manuscripts I welcome the feed back and I love criticism because it's all about improving the book. I am so grateful for my critique group and for the random readers I've picked up who were willing to read Second Chances and give me comments.

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Unknown said...

This sounds like a book I might really enjoy.
I tweeted about this contest.

Ari Magnusson said...

Thanks so much for the tweet!

Ari Magnusson said...

I think you are so right in calling target audience feedback “essential”; the group of 5th graders who read and responded to my original manuscript suggested a fundamental change to the book. And lucky you to be both an author for and a teacher of your target audience!

Ari Magnusson said...

I think you bring up a great point; it is never easy to hear negative criticism (it stings!), even when you know that the criticism will make for a better book. But while I find that the process can be painful, the end result is worth it. As the comment from Sophie (below) says so succinctly, the idea is to serve the work (and, by extension, the reader).

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Darlene said...

I love children's books that contain teaching moments. Bullying is such an important topic. Thanks for the giveaway!

GFC: Darlene
darlenesbooknook at gmail dot com

+1 for tweeting: