Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to Criticize Constructively

If you've ever been involved in a critique group, put your work up for public critique in a forum, or submitted to contests, you're probably familiar with the term "constructive criticism."
The definition of constructive criticism, from "criticism or advice that is useful and intended to help or improve something, often with an offer of possible solutions."

Raise your hand if you've experienced criticism that was not, ah, quite so constructive.

Yeah, I thought so.

If you're getting your work out there, bad critiques are unavoidable. But you can take steps to make sure your notes on others' work are as constructive as possible.

One method is the sandwich technique. This means to buffer each piece of negative feedback with two compliments.
comic: sandwich method of criticism
Okay, maybe not quite like the graphic. But the sandwich method can be a way to soften the blow of relaying legitimate problems with the manuscript. If you don't tell the writer anything but the parts that weren't working, he or she will probably feel like you hated everything about the work, which usually isn't the case.

Another important point to remember when critiquing is to be specific. There's very little worse than getting notes back on your chapters or manuscript like "I just found the main character very unlikeable" or "the plot seemed unbelievable." 

Of course, it's great to give the writer your gut reactions, but then follow it up by pointing out specific parts in the manuscript that caused that reaction (e.g. "After he punched his grandmother in the face, I found that I didn't like him much anymore"). Rule of thumb: specific feedback gives the writer things to fix.
Very specific sign
Be specific. Very specific.
And finally, be polite. Apply the golden rule and ask yourself honestly how you would react to notes like the ones you're about to send. Are they helpful? Do they mention what you liked as well as what you didn't? Are they specific? 

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Winner! Win a Teen Beta Reader Contest

The teens have spoken, and the winner is....

Valora by Mia Kim

"It's very suspenseful; it makes me wanna keep's really interesting. Also, it talks about how they went into World War III."

Tied for runner up are:

Kids of the Kingdom by Mike Saunders

"It's interesting and suspenseful. Keeps the reader on edge."


Journey to Magic by A.K. Madison

"It is a wonderful, interesting, and creative book that keeps readers want to keep reading."

Thank you to all who entered the contest; it was a great opportunity for these reluctant readers to have a voice in the creation of what will be written for them. The kids are also writing more detailed notes on the manuscripts, but it will probably take a while for them to complete. When done, however, we will mail the notes to any of the writers who email me their addresses.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Villain of the Month: Cain

In considering classic villains, it only seems appropriate to look back to the first human villain of the Judeo-Christian tradition on which so much of western literature is based. Cain (Qayin). The slayer of Abel (Hevel). 

While there are many additional sources and resources (who hasn’t written about this tale that comprises only eight verses of the KJV Bible? Certainly not Steinbeck, Baudelaire, Shakespeare, Blake, Dante, or so so many others), today I’ll stick to the Koren Jerusalem Bible translation of the stories in honor of Passover.

In case you’ve somehow missed the story, a recap: essentially Hevel was a “tiller of sheep” and Qayin was a “tiller of ground” and when Qayin brought his offering of “the fruit of the ground” and Hevel brought his offering of “the firstlings of the flock and of the fat parts thereof” to the Lord, the Lord did not give equal responses. “…the Lord had respect to Hevel and to his offering: but to Qayin and to his offering he had not respect.” The response from Qayin? Then from Lord again? “Qayin was very angry, and his face fell. And the Lord said to Qayin, why art thou angry? And why art thou crestfallen? If thou doest well, shalt thou not be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin crouches at the door, and to thee shall be his desire. Yet thou mayest rule over him.” Interesting exchange. So what does Qayin do? “And Qayin talked with Hevel, his brother…” Let me repeat that line. 

“And Qayin talked with Hevel, his brother” 

I’m just going to throw this out there, but I think that all great sibling rivalry, or even all great jealousy stories, are stories that flesh out and modernize that conversation between the two brothers. What happened? Aren’t we curious? 

Aren’t we even more curious when immediately after that line (really—there is nothing else) in the same sentence even, “and it came to pass, when they were in the field, that Qayin rose up against Hevel his brother, and slew him.” The end. Murder done. 

Showcasing some serious psychopathic tendencies (see previous posts on sociopaths), when asked where his brother is, Cain utters the classic line “I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?” I can just see an old-time Nancy Grace replaying a clip of that line over and over the way we’ve repeated the refrain over and over for thousands of years. We’ve always been horrified at sociopathic tendencies.

We’ve also always been drawn to them. 

So my Passover challenge to you (if you choose to accept it) is to quickly write out that conversation. What did one brother say to the other? How did Cain approach him? What is a compelling source of Cain's anger? Hints at backstory? What was Abel’s first response? Was he condescending? Entitled? Kind? I have a feeling that it might make for some interesting layering for anyone writing a Jealousy or Sibling Rivalry tale…

PS If you do happen to complete the challenge, I’d love to read anything anyone’s willing to share (either via email to or posted in comments, and if you manage to knock my socks off, I just might send you chocolate from a favorite chocolatier.) ☺

PPS Winner of the "Win a Teen Reader Contest" Will be announced tomorrow!!!!!!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Gender Differences in Writing Dialogue

According to a article by Thomas Rogers, there is linguistic proof that men and women do speak differently, or at least that is the claim present in Duels and Duets by linguistics professor John L. Locke. So next time you sweep through that manuscript to fine-tune your dialogue, you  may want to keep these proven traits of male/female communication styles in mind in order to create more authentic dialogue...

Female Characters:
  • “Women are likely to look for common ground when they are talking with other women and tend to produce overlapping remarks in conversations.” Have your female characters help each other tell a story, and feel free to have them cut each other off mid-sentence for authenticity.
  • “The connective tissue in women’s groups is the divulging of personal and sometimes intimate information about the life and the relationships of the speaker and other people.” If you want two female characters to bond, have them divulge personal information. Can also be used to show that one is ready to bond when another isn’t, or as a way to show a disconnect between a female attempting to bond and a male character not realizing it.
  • “One study of gossip showed that gossipers were concerned about women who are bad housekeepers, and women who are bad mothers, and women who are promiscuous. Those things are all threats to each woman in a community; therefore they have every good reason to want to talk about those things.” In YA, the policing of sexual promiscuity is rampant with gossip. Are the others listed here relevant? Perhaps personal appearance takes the place of domestication? Either way, examining the motivation of gossip as a means of creating and policing community may enrich the gossip dialogue you write.
  • “If a woman has done something to cause another woman anger or hurt, she’ll scream or yell at them stridently. It’s a targeted form of opposition that’s designed to cause that individual to back off or to change their behavior in some ways.” Female anger scenes may involve yelling, but yelling should most likely derive from someone overstepping bounds that the victim feels the need to protect.

Male Characters:

  • “Both men and women need to know if men are dominant or subordinate. Men need to know because they are very hierarchical in their organization. Women also need to know that, too, because dominant men, or high-status men, have unusually good access to everything women want.” So if female characters have the overarching motivation of communicating in order to bond, then male characters may generally be communicating in order to establish a hierarchy, and dialogue should generally reflect these tendencies.
  • “It’s symbolic, playful, stylized. In its purest form, it looks quite a lot like a performance. But the disposition to duel sort of seeps into everyday speech too — like if two guys, for example, come up to each other, and one of them says, “Hey, you old son of a bitch. How the hell are ya?” and maybe insults him a little bit about his bulging midriff, or his thinning hair, or some weird shirt that he is wearing.” When writing male dialogue, one way to show the need for hierarchy might be through clever insults.
  • “By using unusual words or rare words or words in a creative way, men can give everyone, including women, the impression they’re intelligent…Words used in a clever way are almost like the colorful feathers of a peacock — a display of what biologists would call fitness information that relates to their ability to reproduce.” Even if a character is not the brightest, a mastery of colloquial language might count for showcasing “street smarts.”

Monday, March 18, 2013

Writer's Resource: Character Templates

Think about some of your favorite novels. Chances are, the really good ones, the ones that stay with you, feature very complex characters. They have reasons they act the way they do, and their emotional reactions change according to the situations the writer throws them into.
Katniss Everdeen
Katniss Everdeen: a great example of a complex character!
Okay, so we know it's important to have fully fleshed-out characters. But how do you keep track of all the little details? Maybe your main character starts to swear a lot when she gets nervous. Maybe she tears up easily or always checks her makeup when she thinks no one is looking. Maybe she hates boys with blond hair (or loves them!). And what about her past? Did she grow up in a loving family or an indifferent one? Did she have lots of friends or keep to herself?

A great way to keep track of all this stuff is with character templates.

If you use Scrivener (my writing software of choice), they're built right into the novel template (and it even lets you drag in image files!):

If you're not a Scrivener convert, you can also find lots of printable/save-able character templates on the web. Here are a few to try:

Character Template Sheet by Rin Chupeco (especially good if you prefer tons of detail!)

Obviously you don't have to fill out every blank, but templates can be a good way to get you thinking about the little details that will flesh out your characters.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Writer's resource: websites vs. blogs and why you should buy a domain name

Websites vs. Blogs

Blogs are about connecting with like-minded peers that share similar interests. In the writing world, they offer a way to connect to the writing community and trade information (and support, of course!)

Once published, your readers might want to engage with you on your blog. But in all likelihood those readers will also be writers, because the content of your blog and the network you've built prior to publication has been focused on writing. And that's perfectly okay.  That means your blog is attracting the exact audience you set out to attract. (Yay you!)

For the rest of your fans, you'll want to have a website where they can learn more information about you and the books you write.

When should I start a website?

If you read my post about your brand vs. your product, then you know that in the writing world your brand is the name you publish under and your products are the books you publish.

Author websites are no different than brand websites like and There are tons of places on the web consumers can go to for product info, but a brand website acts as a central hub housing info about all the products that fall under a given brand.

Some writers choose to start a website when they're on the hunt for an agent or publisher. In that instance, their audience is not their ultimate readers, but the agents and publishers they hope to attract. The content on their website should be developed with this audience in mind.

I have the utmost respect for writers who do this, and I do think it can be a useful way to showcase your marketing acumen and writing portfolio to agents/publishers.  BUT I personally don't think you need to have a website until you actually get published. This is just my opinion, and I know there are others out there who can offer a different and completely justified POV.

Once you have a publishing deal a website is critical, because you'll need it to grow and maintain a fan base. Fans of your work will want to learn more about you and learn what other books you've written or when your next book will be released.  While there are lots of other places readers can go for book info (Goodreads, Amazon, etc.) your website is the only ownable platform where you can establish your brand - you drive the content, and you control the message about who you are. It will also be the only one-stop-shop location with all of your product and brand info in the same place.

I should note that all of your public assets - blogs, Facebook, twitter, etc - are branding tools.  The difference with social media is that the content, to some extent, is out of your control. For example, you can't control book reviews, and people can post negative comments on your blogs or mention you in tweets in ways you can't influence. But the content on your website is 100% owned and operated by you.

So why the hell did I just buy if I'm not yet published?

buying a domain name when you aren't yet a published author
I promise I'm not talking out both sides of my mouth!  But yes, I am a proud digital land owner even though I'm not yet published.  The reason is because I know that some day my publishing dream will come true (do you hear that dream? You WILL come true!) And when that day comes, I will want a destination site for my readers to learn more information about my books. And I want to make sure that I can leverage my brand name when I do that.

There can only be one, but sadly there are many other Stacy Stokes in the world who may want the domain (That's right, I Googled myself...and may or may not have checked out the other Stacy Stokes...(Stokeses?  Stokesi?)) Anyhoo, when I saw that my website name was available, I made a preemptive strike and chose to purchase it.  

If you happen to have an unusual name you may not need to do this, but for the majority of us there is probably someone else in the world who may want to buy the same domain as you, and for that reason it's can't hurt to think ahead.

If by some chance your domain name is taken, you might want to consider something such as For those of you who are fans of Lauren Oliver, this is what she did. The key in cases like this will be developing an SEO strategy so that you can ensure your fans can search and find your site. Although, to be fair, you should think about your SEO strategy regardless.  My post on Blog SEO strategies can help, although with websites content will always be key for driving natural search (feel free to post a question if you want me to elaborate.)

How can I become a digital land owner like you, Stacy?

Remember all those awkwardly sexual ads that ran during the Superbowl? Turns out they're actually a viable and useful company that sells domain names. The typical cost to buy an unused domain is around $10-$20 per year. Not too shabby. I'd recommend going to their site to see if your domain name is available.  If it is, it's a small annual investment to ensure you've secured the domain name you want when your magical publishing dreams come true.

So what about you? Do you have a website? Blog? Both?

Monday, March 11, 2013

Industry Month In Review: Conference Call

Niagara Writers/Illustrator's Retreat
Mount Carmel: Niagara Writers/Illustrator's Retreat

This month's Industry Month In Review is more like Industry Month Fast Forward.  Reading articles about tips and tools for the trade is great, but if you're like me, most things go in one eye and out the other (apologies for the somewhat disturbing visual).  I find I learn the most in an interactive environment where I'm not just spoken to, but engaged in activities and diving into my own creative work.  

So it's with great pleasure that I had the opportunity to interview Jackie Garlic-Pynaert, who's YA & Children's Writers and Illustrators workshops include the Niagara Writers/Illustrators Retreat, B&B Garden Party Writer's Workshop, and most recently Novel Gurus held earlier this month in Delray Beach, Florida. 

These workshops are smaller, intimate affairs that allow writers of all levels to learn from one another as well as top-tier faculty including agents, editors and authors. Here Jackie talks about what started it all and her upcoming Niagara conference.

JP:    Tell us a little about yourself

JGP: I’m a writer and a pillow maker (that’s right, I make pillows, fancy ones, and I just opened my own little shop on etsy featuring my creations. Shameless plug, sorry, I’m just so excited!). I am also a teacher (in the regular system for 16 years, but now I mainly teach writers about writing) and a public speaker and conference co-coordinator. Wow…that’s seems like a lot, doesn’t it? Basically, my work centers on the things I love the most; writing, teaching and being creative. 

JP:    How did you get into conference/workshop organization?

Jackie Garlic Pynaert, Delray Beach, Florida
Jackie (center) with fellow attendees at Novel Gurus
JGP: I guess it all started because I’d been travelling State side for about three years attending writing conferences and wondered why we don’t have something just as wonderful going on here at home? As well, I’d gotten to the point in my career (as a writer) that what the larger conferences were offering, was no longer meeting the needs of me, or my friends, at the stage we were at in our writing journeys. We were in that precarious place where you are no longer a beginner, but you have by no means risen to the top. Some of us were agented and others were querying favorably but still not being picked. We all knew we needed to work on craft and to be challenged through more serious critique sessions, but nothing like that was being offered. I think it was when I attended Big Sur hosted by Andrea Brown Agency that the lights really came on in my head. That was the first conference I’d ever been to where multiple critique sessions were offered and rewrite critique sessions were mandatory. Taking that model and the wonderful critique circle model I’d participated in for several years out in Nevada at their retreats, I decided to combine what I found useful at both events and create a new event that would address the needs of me as well as my friends, those ‘in-between writers’, as well as the seasoned veteran and the newbie. From there, I literally stumbled on the venue (I was lost, looking for another venue, pulled into Mount Carmel’s driveway to ask directions, and fell in love) and the rest is history.

JP:    Big conferences versus little workshops?

Debbie Ohi
Author/Illustrator Debbie Ohi
2013 Niagara Faculty
JGP: Although Niagara is technically billed as a Conference and Retreat, it is small enough to still have that small workshop feel. I think the major difference between a smaller event like Niagara and a larger conference is the amount of ‘Faculty Face Time’ the attendees get. People complain all the time at the larger conferences about feeling invisible and not being able to get any time with the faculty. They complain the size of the event makes it hard to connect with people, especially industry professionals, who’d rather run from the attendees it seems, than take a moment to chat. Attendees are often kept at a distance from the faculty at larger events, in an effort to keep them from inundating them with questions, because after all, we do want them to come back, don’t we? But at smaller events like Niagara, there are less people, so right away the faculty feels relaxed. Also, Niagara by design is a retreat, meaning everyone eats, sleeps and hangs out with one another all weekend long, faculty and attendees alike -- like great big kids at a summer camp. This gives attendees plenty of time to chat with faculty and vise versa, so that urgent feeling that you have only a small window of time to pitch your book before the faculty disappears, completely goes away. I also think smaller conferences lead to more natural discussion between faculty members and participants, which leads to more invited and organic pitching. At Niagara there is also the added bonus of being able to purchase twenty minute private one-on-one critique sessions with a faculty member, for an additional $45, where an open discussion of your manuscript’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as the scope of your overall synopsis, occurs. Lastly, I’d say the benefit of smaller conferences is the host’s ability to make attendees feel welcome. With fewer people to worry about, a real atmosphere of friendliness and inclusion has a better chance of being established.

JP:    Who do you think would best benefit from Niagara?

JGP: Hmmmmm (taps chin)….I’d say, everyone. Everyone who really loves writing, who strives to improve their writing, who’s goal it is to produce quality writing, writing that rises to the top, whether it be through the traditional publishing model, or the newer self publishing avenues. After all, everyone wants to put out the best possible product they can, regardless of their venue, and that takes a lot of work, immense study of craft, exposure to quality critique, and constructive informed criticism, and Niagara offers all of that (along with some invaluable information about marketing and the industry). I also think anyone yearning to know more about the American Publishing Market should attend Niagara. With so many top-notch members of the faculty hailing from the States all under one roof, you can’t go wrong.
Niagara Falls

JP:    What makes Niagara special?

JGP: I think I might have addressed that somewhat in answering number three, but I’ll add this, I think it’s the people. The quality of staff that agrees to attend Niagara are some of the biggest names in the industry. And the attendees are top-notch dedicated writers and illustrators, who really challenge themselves and strive to create quality work year-after-year. Establishing such a dynamic is invaluable at a conference, and I’m so very lucky to have such people attend, I really am. I also think it’s a great place to get face time and lots of it, with an acquiring editor and agent(s) in the industry (two agents this year!) that you can’t get anywhere else.

JP:    When should our readers be marking their calendars?

JGP: May 3-5.  It’s a great place and a great time, with great food…did I mention the food? Shout out to Steve here, the venue’s caterer…omg…there are no words…anyway, do join us! I’d love to see you there!

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

How I Got My Agent!

I am so, so, so excited to announce that I'm now represented by Jennifer Azantian of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency!

I've always found "how I got my agent" posts to be very motivating--so in the hope that others might feel the same way, here's mine. (Fair warning: it's long!)

THE LONG-TIMERS is the third novel I queried. I started writing seriously in 2010 and banged out what I thought was a pretty decent YA paranormal novel by the end of the year. I sent off a whole bunch of email queries (75 or 80, maybe? I remember it was a lot!), to pretty much anyone who represented the genre. This shotgun approach resulted in a handful of requests to read fulls and partials, and while every single one ended in a polite form rejection, it was enough to convince me I wasn't completely nuts.

Figuring I'd probably do better with another genre, one that wasn't quite so saturated, I decided to try writing a MG sci-fi novel next. As with my first manuscript, I got a handful of partial and full requests, but each one ended with a polite rejection.

But around this time, I lucked into my first real critique partner (hi Laura!). We met through our husbands and discovered we both wrote YA, so we decided to meet once a week and work through our previously completed manuscripts, critiquing a chapter a week.

Holy crap. Seriously, if you've never had a real CP, one who's also a writer, one who's willing to dig into your work and discuss it with you for hours, you NEED ONE. My writing improved immensely after just a few months of weekly meetings.

In late 2011, I figured I'd try my hand at another YA manuscript. I'd just finished the first draft of THE LONG-TIMERS when I stumbled across an agent's blog post promoting the 2012 Big Sur Writing Workshop--which was only a six hour drive away from where I was living at the time. The idea of going to an actual writing conference terrified me, to be honest. I wouldn't know anyone there. I'd never had more than one person actually critique my work. I'd have to meet (and talk to!) live agents. But somehow I screwed up my nerve and signed up. And I'm so glad I did! The conference was amazing. Not only did I meet my future Thinking to Inking co-bloggers there, but I also had actual conversations with several agents and got amazing feedback from editors and fellow attendees.

Just as I was finishing up the revisions from the conference and getting ready to start querying, I found out about a Twitter pitch party and signed up for an account. Suddenly (seriously, I still can't believe how fast this happened), I was a member of a thriving, awesome, incredibly supportive Twitter writing community.

I started querying THE LONG-TIMERS in June of 2012. This time, I was determined to query in small batches. This turned out to be really smart, because I got some tremendously helpful feedback early on which helped me make the manuscript much stronger. While I was waiting for responses, I entered contests--and to my surprise and delight, I started getting lots of requests! One of these was the Gearing Up to Get An Agent (GUTGAA) blogfest pitch contest, hosted by the lovely Deana Barnhart. I was thrilled when I made it to the agent round of the contest and even more thrilled when I got multiple agent requests to read partials--one of them from Jennifer.

I had over three times more requests to read material for THE LONG-TIMERS than my previous two manuscripts combined, but then the rejections started to roll in. Most of them were personalized--a big change from my first query attempts--and they were incredibly nice (I'm convinced literary agents are some of the nicest people on earth). But almost every rejection said the same thing: I really like these specific parts, but I'm not connecting with the whole thing/don't love it enough to represent it.

Well. As you can imagine, I felt a little discouraged. At the end of November, Jennifer emailed me to say she had loved the first fifty pages of the manuscript and wanted to read more, but I told myself not to get my hopes up. She probably would be another in the string of agents who liked it, but didn't like it enough.

So when I got Jennifer's email telling me she loved it, I just about fell off my chair. When she called me to offer representation, I was bowled over by her passion and excitement for the manuscript. I am beyond thrilled to be working with her and so happy that I finally found the exact right advocate for my work.

The moral of this particular story: get yourself out there! If I hadn't gotten together with critique partners, gone to conferences, and hooked up with a larger writing community, there's no way I'd be writing this post today.

I am incredibly grateful to the friends who helped me get to this point: my wonderful first CP Laura; Jenn, Stacy, and Lauren (seriously the nicest co-bloggers/critique partners I could ask for); Erin and Andrew for the great critique notes; Dee and Summer for being amazing and awesome and incredibly supportive; and my husband Gavin, who's stuck by me through all this craziness and makes everything possible. I love all of you guys!

Stats (because I know I always like to see them, heh):
Queries sent: 55
Rejections: 31
No-response: 13
Partial requests: 14 (9 from contests, 3 from queries, 2 from in-person pitches)
Full requests: 15 (8 from queries, 3 from contests, 4 upgraded from partials)

Monday, March 4, 2013

Curious Lives of Teenagers: Bullying

When high school seniors in Southern California were asked what kids could do to avoid being bullied, here are some of their responses:

  • Avoid social networking sites that can send messages anonymously
  • "No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."
  • Being popular is overrated
  • Get involved in clubs, sports, and extracurricular activities to meet new people.
  • Learn how to take a joke (laugh it off)
  • Don't trust a lot of people; get to know someone before you trust them.
  • Don't be arrogant
  • Be arrogant
  • Have a Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram
  • Be funny
  • Compliment others
  • Take compliments
  • Don't be mean
  • Dress reasonably
  • Don't be loud -- until you're 100% comfortable
  • Never let them see you sweat
  • Wear clothes you feel good in, it shows
  • Be up to date on youtube videos
  • Throw a party
  • Don't use a rolly-backpack.
  • One-strap your backpack.
  • Respond to bullying in a way that seems confident, but unaffected.
  • Go to Mammoth, and for months after keep referencing "Mammoth."
  • Don't go to Mammoth, but for months after reference "Mammoth" just by saying the word and smiling.
  • Don't call the Principal by his formal name. Use a nickname.
  • Get followers/likes on Instagram.
  • Get a popular kid to vouch for you. Do what it takes.
  • Go to the basketball games.
  • Be optimistic
  • Be yourself, but tone it down a bit at school if you're really extreme. There are trade-offs.
  • Don't provoke a bully
  • Learn the vibe of the school
  • Be good to a lot of nice people so they can get your back later.
  • Seriously, learn how to be funny.
  • Find a few cool people to help you get through it
  • Know that when a bully bullies you...they're "wrong." The insults are lies.
  • Find a teacher or counselor you trust to talk to.
  • Be confident in yourself, but not cocky.