Wednesday, March 28, 2012

18 WOW Wednesday: Katie McGarry on Listening to Become a Better Writer

Katie McGarry's Young Adult novel, Pushing the Limits, will debut with Harlequin Teen in August 2012. To find out more information, visit Katie at www.katielmcgarry.com or follow her on Twitter @KatieMcGarry
Listen

by Katie McGarry


That’s the best advice I can give to anyone pursuing publication. It may seem like an easy piece of advice, but it may be the most complicated. Listening is what changed my path from writer to author.

Like many other writers, I decided to enter my manuscripts into contests. And like everyone else, I had the dreamy eyed hope that I’d final and that the brilliant agent or editor judging the contest would fall in love with my pages.

Let’s just say that isn’t exactly what happened. In fact, it’s far from what happened. The first couple of contests I entered, I scored near last if not dead last.

Yep, that’s right—I stunk so badly that skunks held their breath.

I had judges who scored me as low as they could without going into negative numbers, all without comments. I had a judge who told me she’d be okay if my heroine died. I’ll admit, that one made me cry—a lot. But then I had a handful of judges who gave me okay scores, but what I loved is that they gave me a goldmine in comments.

You have a fabulous voice, they’d say, but you’re overusing ‘to be’ verbs and you tell way too much. Have you taken a class on showing? Maybe on body language?

One judge went as far to add links for online classes and books that she thought could be helpful.

Now I had a choice to make: I could listen or ignore the comments. I loved my story—loved. It hurt to think that someone didn’t love it as much as I did. My initial reaction was to discount the judges; to say they were wrong.

But the judges were right. I used a passive voice and I told more than I showed. So I listened. I took the online classes. I read the recommended books and became a sponge; learning about the craft called writing. By combining all of that knowledge with my love of storytelling, I wrote a new manuscript.

Now there are different types of listening. While working on my new manuscript, I joined a critique group. I had thought after living through the criticism of contest judges that I would easily be able to withstand criticism from a face-to-face critique group.

That palm sweating anxious feeling I would get when I saw the e-mail from the contest coordinator was nothing like attending my first meeting. My stomach dropped out of my body in the parking lot and my throat practically swelled shut.

My critique partners told me their thoughts on my story and I swear, I was so nervous, I didn’t hear a word they said. The next day, I got out the comments they made on my manuscript and reviewed them.

Sometimes, their comments stung. Why? Pride I guess. I wanted to be right, but in the end, some of their comments were spot on. So I developed a rule, no making a decision on my critique partner’s comments for twenty-four hours.

I found that if I gave the comments time to settle into my brain, into my soul, that I could remove the emotional sting. Just because I may not like the comment, it doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

So, we’ve covered listening to strangers (judges) and listening to friends (critique partners). The most important listening is listening to your instincts.

While comments from critique partners and judges may very well be valid, there are times that their thoughts are not what is best for your story. So if you are caught wondering whether you’re just being stubborn in not taking people’s advice or if, instead, you are following your instincts ask yourself the following questions:
  1. Are you jumping to an emotional response? Did you give yourself time to process before assessing whether or not it works for your story?
  2. Is more than one person telling you the same thing?
  3. Have you studied the craft of writing? Are you reading other works within your genre?
  4. Have you tried out their advice to see if it improves your manuscript?
In the end, I’m a firm believer in listening to your instincts. Storytelling is a gift. The instinct on how to tell those stories is ingrained into those of us who enjoy writing. Learn to listen to that inner voice. Don’t let others tell you aren’t capable of writing a story or that you’ll never get published. Those are comments we should never listen to.

Listen to that small voice inside of you that says you have a story to tell. Listen to that voice that says that you can.

18 comments:

  1. Love the 24 hour rule! Spot on. We writers tend to get defensive first thing without hearing or seeing the whole comment for what it is. So it's always good to settle into the feedback and think it through. Great post. Thank you and congrats on your book!

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    1. Thanks Michele! That's exactly why I wait 24 hours--to give myself time to see the comment as a whole. Thanks for commenting!

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  2. I agree with Michele - the 24 hour rule is great advice. I've rushed to change things, only to have that inner voice tell me to change it back. Excellent post.

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    1. Hey Tosha! I love seeing you here! Yes, I used to definitely rush to change things. Waiting makes me question as to whether or not it really needs to be changed.

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  3. Wow! Mean judges! Soul-crushing critique like that can be difficult to stomach, let alone learn from. Good for you for not giving up!!!

    Congratulations on your upcoming pub date! : )

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    1. Thanks Ara! Honestly, if it weren't for some of those soul-crushing critiques, I wouldn't have figured out the issues in my writing. Those critiques definitely hurt, but were helpful. I do think some of them could have been said in a nicer way though...

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  4. Congrats on the book Katie and well done for persevering. It is so encouraging for us writers still trying to find that publishing deal to hear this kind of advice. Totally agree with you about not reacting to criticism straight away. I always try to look at such advice in a positive way and have learnt quite often it is spot on!

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    1. Thanks Suzanne! Just keep going and try to learn from each piece of advice. Each no is one step closer to a yes!

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  5. Absolutely great stuff here. Ouch, I cringe with you about those initial responses. After a while our skins get thicker, and we realize they knew what "they" were talking about. I'm glad you didn't get discouraged and quit!!!

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    1. Thanks Carol! There were several times I didn't think I was cut out for this business, but I'm so happy I kept going.

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  6. Your 24 hour rule is a great one. It is often difficult to listen if you're in react mode.

    And I agree. Listening is so hard. It requires understanding and accepting the imperfections are there. People are just pointing them out to help fix them.

    I just sent my WiP off to betas. I'm nervous. Very nervous. I have no fingernails anymore nervous. But I'm ready to listen. If I don't listen, I won't learn.

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    1. I giggled when I read this because I've just returned from meeting with my critique group. Having a contract doesn't get rid of those nerves. I still get nervous when someone critiques my writing.

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  7. Superb! It's a familiar story for most of us. I'd even call it part of the process. If it were any other way—like much easier—everyone would be an author, right? Congratulations on hanging in there and reaching your goal. To not try is to fail. Thanks for sharing your story, and enjoy the next part of this ride...

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    1. Hi Deb! Yes, learning how to listen is definitely part of the writing process. Thanks so much for commenting!

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  8. That's what happened to me too. When part of my manuscript was critiqued, I get "you're using too much" this and that. But what other way can I explain something in a sentence without using those words often.

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    1. Hi! It honestly depends upon the words. The best advice I can give is if the person who critiqued your manuscript is someone you know then ask if they can possibly give you advice of how to switch it up. Thanks for commenting!

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