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Posts tagged ‘writing Young Adult historical fiction’

Handling Feedback About My Novels, by Carolyn Meyer

Over the past months I’ve written sequentially about character, plot, narrator, voice and dialogue – all the particular challenges of writing a historical novel for teens. In practice all of these happen more or less simultaneously. Eventually the day comes when you’re ready to send your novel out into the world. You ask for an opinion, but what you want is praise. Anything less is a disappointment – or even infuriating. They just didn’t get it!

Maybe your first reader is your spouse or child. They’ve watched your struggle, and they love you. So you probably won’t get an honest opinion. If it isn’t honest, it isn’t useful.

Friends are also unlikely to give you the feedback you need. Some writers rely heavily on writing groups. I tried one early in my career and found that none of us was skilled at giving constructive criticism. I didn’t know if I could trust what I heard, and eventually I quit.

Now with an established career I have a signed contract before I write the book, and I send what I believe is a finished manuscript directly to my editor. I’m relieved – but I’m also anxious. I want her to pronounce it perfect. But what if she hates it?

So far that hasn’t happened. I’ve never had a contracted novel rejected, but I’ve also never had one accepted without a lot of revising.

Months pass before I hear back. The response is usually a detailed letter that begins, “Dear Carolyn, I have finished reading (fill in the title), and I love most of what you have written.”

The key word here is “most”. What exactly does the editor not love? Sometimes there are structural problems, so chapters should be cut or moved. Sometimes characters need more development. Sometimes the beginning doesn’t pull the reader in quickly enough. The one I get the most often is: “But how does the character feel?”

Years ago my reaction was to feel wounded and my instinct was to argue. Eventually I learned how to work with the advice. Luckily I’ve always had editors I trust. I can accept most of the suggestions, if not all, and make the revisions. The process goes back and forth over a period of weeks. In Mozart’s Shadow required four revisions before the editor and I declared ourselves happy with it.

Once the book is published everyone waits expectantly, and a little worriedly, for word from the reviewers. The reviews aren’t always stellar. Reviews of Cleopatra Confesses were mixed. Some reviewers wrote admiringly, while others picked it apart. After the professional reviewers, many of them teachers and librarians, come the readers themselves. They’re not just teens: More than half the buyers of YA books are said to be over 18. People aged 30 to 44 account for 28% of the sales – and they post their comments online. Adults want more adult material and may be dismissive of YA books for younger readers. Young kids don’t always know how to write useful reviews, with their comments ranging from “best book ever” to “borrrring”.

You can learn a great deal from an editor’s criticisms, but once a book is published there is nothing you can do to change it. Reading reviews, especially when they’re snarky, can give you heartburn. It’s best to ignore the bad ones, enjoy the good ones and keep on writing.

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Carolyn Meyer’s author website: www.readcarolyn.com

Carolyn Meyer’s bio page

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In Mozart's Shadow: His Sister's StoryMary, Bloody MaryThe Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-AntoinetteCleopatra Confesses     Deadly Little SecretSaraswati's Way

Writing Teen Novels
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A Novelist’s Responsibility To Readers, by Elizabeth Wein

My husband the businessman often talks about a thing called ‘duty of care’.  Here’s the Wikipedia link to its usage in English law, which is generally what he’s referring to.

Loosely speaking, as the article says, ‘a duty of care arises where one individual or group undertakes an activity which could reasonably harm another, either physically, mentally, or economically.’  On the simplest level, when you drive a car you have a ‘duty of care’ not to endanger anyone with your driving.

On a more subtle and complex level, a writer also has a ‘duty of care’.  Maybe the risk of physical harm isn’t there, but throwing radical ideas at people can be dangerous in a different way.  Author contracts often contain a clause where the author must assure the publisher that his or her work ‘contains no recipe, formula or instruction injurious to the user.’

In writing historical fiction, I feel that I have a duty of care to present my readers with an accurate picture of the past.  Any misrepresentation on my part won’t be physically harmful, it’s true, but I feel that it could be developmentally harmful.  I don’t like the idea of people going around repeating inaccuracies based on something I’ve written.  I want to generate my readers’ interest in the subjects I’m interested in, but I don’t want to be considered the ultimate source or authority on those subjects.

I check almost everything, including my word usage.  I flag things I’m not sure of.  I work with a slang dictionary to date things; I spend hours checking up on single items.  What did the Special Operations Executive use for their sabotage operations in Occupied Europe?  It turns out they were pioneers in the use of plastic explosive.  But did they refer to it as plastic explosive?  How did they transport and detonate it?  What color was it then – the same as now?  Was it made out of the same stuff? Was it effective?  Once I’ve found the answers to these questions, how much can I actually talk about without giving information that might count as a ‘formula or instruction injurious to the user’?

I sometimes envy fantasy writers who build their own worlds with their own internal integrity without these hurdles to narrative flow.  It’s possible JK Rowling stopped writing and spent two solid days figuring out the mechanics of floo powder, but I don’t think it’s likely.  Even if she did, there’s no ‘duty of care’ in getting floo powder right or wrong.  Successful worldbuilding in a fantasy novel is in the author’s hands, not laid down in the annals of history and the laws of physics.

I have to confess that part of the reason I get so bogged down in fact-checking is because I really enjoy it.  It probably takes me longer than it should because I get distracted finding out other things that are loosely connected to the subject I’m looking up.  Reading about early aerial photography makes me want to go and research 19th century ballooning.

Probably the best thing about doing research for historical novels is that it often generates plot.  Once you start digging, you run into all kinds of interesting and often exciting facts you didn’t know existed.  ‘Thinking’s like archeology,’ Jamie Delano writes in the comic book series Hellblazer (volume IX). ‘You scrape; beneath your trowel, shape starts to form.  Forgotten secrets come to light.  ’Til finally you reveal the face of perfect beauty—the plan.’

For good tips on detail and fact checking in writing historical fiction, check out Alison Rattle’s article here: http://hotkeyblog.wordpress.com/2012/11/06/dont-get-lost-in-the-archives-a-bit-of-advice-for-historical-fiction-writers

***Write with New York Times bestselling novelist Elizabeth Wein in Hobart, Australia in November 2014

Elizabeth Wein’s author website: www.elizabethwein.com

Elizabeth Wein’s bio page

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United States (and beyond)

    

United Kingdom (and beyond)

    

Australia (and beyond)

Code Name VerityA Coalition of Lions     My Brother's ShadowMary, Bloody MaryAcross the Universe

Writing Teen Novels
www.writingteennovels.com

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