Monday, August 29, 2016

Knowing When to Retreat

I was lucky enough to attend a two-week residency at the Golden Apple Studio two summers ago. My sister, a well-respected and talented artist in her own right, and her successful, and very handy-to-have-around-the-house-and-residency husband, own the retreat and built it from the ground up. Golden Apple sits on the Atlantic Ocean in Maine, and if you ever have an opportunity to attend, you won't be sorry. You can find more information at http://www.goldenapplestudio.com.

Here I am at the Golden Apple Studio artist residency.
Wait a second; that's not me. That my old, dusty, manual
typewriter find (thanks to my daughter, Dennae).
Well, I had the old and dusty part right. 
I had a dual professional purpose in attending. I needed to work on the first book of a second series I'm writing, and I also wanted to try out the new camera I'd just been given by my insanely generous brother. Not only did I manage to nearly complete the book, but I also took in excess of 1400 pictures. My third reason, though, was personal. I wanted to spend time with only my muse (along with new friends, family, and food) to re-evaluate the direction my writing career was heading and to decide if I needed to make adjustments. But if it were not for my sister's and brother-in-law's generosity (also insane) in inviting me, I would never have been able to afford both the tuition and transportation to attend in the first place. And that, my friends, would've been a great tragedy. I learned so much more during those two weeks than just what I was able to complete on my book or accomplish with my camera. So much.

Residencies, retreats, weekend getaways--there are several names used for those occasions when artists of all kinds carve out the time needed to recharge, rest, reinvent, review, and work on projects that need completing or begin new ones. I expected, and experienced, all of that. What I didn't expect, however, was how four strangers from different backgrounds, ages, experiences, world views, religions, and lifestyles could bond as we did. I may never see any of these women in person again, but I feel tied to them in a way I never could have felt if they were merely LinkedIn contacts.

I was one of two authors in attendance, and we were joined by two artists. Our days were spent in our individual studios, with breaks for breakfast and lunch and a wonderful communal meal at the end of the day. We were free to wander into the other studios to observe what they were doing or to stay holed up and work until our stomach growled and the upcoming meal was announced. I did some of each. During the two weeks we were each invited to present to the other three artists and our hosts, Shelley and Greg, a mini program showcasing what we were all about as creative artists. Both Yvonne, the other author, and I read from our manuscripts. The artists, Anne and Erin, showed us past and present work from their portfolios. I was blown away by how much I appreciated work in genres I would never have taken the time to ponder before. Believe me, it was humbling.

I've not had a chance to return to Golden Apple, but I hope to someday. In the meantime, I'm planning to create my own retreats on occasion. As with most people these days, and authors are no exception, life has a way of sucking out all the energy and creativity from our souls. What little time I have left at the end of the day is too often spent playing mindless games of FreeCell on my Nook, rather than working on my latest chapter (or writing a blog post, for instance). From time to time, I need an uninterrupted period of time when I can let loose my creative urges and do what I hope I do best--write.

Let's face it. We all need a respite once in a while. A weekend at a hotel is one way to enjoy a mini retreat. Sharing a room with a colleague saves money, and working side by side keeps us on track. Hotels often have lounges or cafes that would work just fine when the urge strikes to get out of that room. My personal favorite would be a week in a cabin deep in the woods where only the birds can witness my struggle with the written word.

How about you? Have you been on a retreat? What would be an ideal getaway for you?
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4 E's of an Effective Critique Group

by Lisa Lickel

Critique Groups aren't for everyone, or for every writer, for that matter. But groups that meet regularly for encouragement, craft growth, and marketing exchange, not to mention the chance to talk shop with others of our ilk, has benefits to being a solitary author. Here are five backbones of effective groups.



Four E’s of Effective Critique Groups

Eclectic
Groups of people who come together for a common purpose such as critiquing each other’s writing but have different perspectives are surprisingly strong. Writers of non-fiction, poetry, historical fiction, romance, or thrillers, should be able to read and comment on work that is not a carbon copy of their own. Poets are experts at distilling language and creating rhythms and patterns that make any kind of writing sing. Non-fiction authors see facts in a way that fiction writers may sometimes gloss over too readily. While it’s good and important for all writers to step outside of his or her own box, there is also a good argument for writers of like material to be able to exchange ideas. Good writing is good writing no matter the style or type, and the same basic understanding of how language works, rules and when to break them, applies. Be wary of critique partners who continue to back away from discussion because they don’t care for or understand a genre.

Engaged
Effective critique groups meet regularly, whether in person or online. Critique partners agree how to work with each other, and keep their commitment to the best of their ability. At some point, vacation or other appointments interrupt a schedule, but good groups commit to each other, at least for a season of time. Beware the writer who attends only to have his or her own work critiqued, or the opposite, the writer who only wants to critique others.

Educational
Authors have different gifts and abilities. A critique should not be confused with an edit, although there is some crossover. One author may have a good handle on mechanics such as punctuation, another may see the big picture or find the holes in the story. Another may be good at brainstorming when a member is stuck, or see repetitive or clichés to fix. Critique partners should listen and respect individual styles without resorting to rewriting for a group member.

Encouraging
Image result for creative commons clip art writing groupsCritique is not another word for criticism. In fact, one definition of critique is “to find the merit.” No matter how much work an author’s submission needs, the foundation of an effective critique is help each other grow in craft, a job which will never be finished. Groups should set common goals as well as individual member goals. One goal may be to help each other publish, so members would share information. Another may be to find marketing outlets, or to find an agent. The goal may be as simple as learn how to write better dialog, good cliffhangers, or finish a project. No matter the dynamics, good, effective critique groups encourage each other and never disparage another’s work, or make any issues personal. Remember, successful authors want thousands of strangers reading their work. One or two differing opinions on a small scale is merely good practice.

Below is a sheet of Guidelines, which may be copied and distributed to your individual group.
Clip art from Creative Commons

Suggested Guidelines for Effective Critique Groups

Critiques should be constructive in nature, not overtly negative, and never personal. A good discussion should not devolve into arguing or badgering or overly defensive behavior.

·         If you have time, read the submission straight through before commenting

·         Think about what you enjoyed about the submission and which parts gave you problems

·         Comment on the portions that made you stop reading or confused you—was it the punctuation or word choice or point of view or research?

·         Comment on areas you liked

·         Remember, if you question a word or statement, it’s up to you to find the proof. Check spellings in a the dictionary, or do a quick Internet search if you are not sure the author is correct in facts. Give your supporting resource

·         Offer suggestions for different usages but do not rewrite for the author

·         If you are comfortable with mechanics, point out problems with punctuation or spelling or grammar or other problem areas such as overused words/phrases or proper tense; other formatting issues such as proper em dashes, quotation usage, paragraph and line spacing

·         Point out style problems and offer suggestions if you are comfortable; style errors include stilted dialog or dialog that doesn’t seem to fit a character, telling vs. showing, overly long exposition, flabby or missing transitions, wordiness, head hopping amongst characters or for nonfiction, not answering a question or missing information

·         Comment on story problems, offering suggestions on inconsistent story line, character development, character trait errors such as sudden name or eye color change, discrepancies in factual information with supporting resource, overuse of narrative or monologue, overuse of italics, dashes, ellipses; issues with clichés, stereotypes, unbelievable plot lines, pacing and flow of the story according to genre, proper length, and proper denouement; for poetry, articles, and other non-fiction, comment where you feel comfortable, such as did the end meet the need, were there proper attributions where needed, did the flow work for the subject

·         Find something positive to contribute to the discussion, even if the submission is not the type of work you would normally read

·         Authors should listen to/read the comments and consider the merits of each critique without resorting to an attempt to please every position or every reader’s taste


From Lisa J. Lickel, 2016
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Friday, August 26, 2016

Review: "'Trickle Down Theory' and 'Tax Cuts for the Rich'"

by Thomas Sowell (Hoover Institution Press, 2012)

Reviewed by Donn Taylor

      I'm recycling this review because it is directly pertinent to issue in today's world and because it behooves us as writers to get basic facts right.

     Sowell's title repeats two often-repeated shibboleths of today's political spin. In this very short separately published essay, the distinguished economist and Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell examines both concepts in the light of historical reality. His overall finding is that neither of



the two concepts is supported by reality.
First of all, among economists there is no "trickle down theory," for the term is a political term used to argue against a caricature of what economists have actually said. What economists have argued is that at times "existing tax rates are so high that the government could collect more tax revenues if it lowered those tax rates, because the changed incentives would lead to more economic activity, resulting in more tax revenues out of rising incomes…."
            Sowell continues by documenting what actually happened when high tax rates were lowered in the 1920s and under presidents Kennedy, Reagan, and George W. Bush. "What actually followed the cuts in tax rates in the 1920s were rising output, rising employment to produce that output, rising incomes as a result and rising revenues for the government because of the rising incomes…." Sowell cites actual figures showing that "people in the higher income brackets not only paid a larger total amount of taxes, but a higher percentage of all taxes…." Further, the "hard data" show that "both the amount and the proportion of taxes" paid by those with lower incomes went down, while "both the amount and proportion of taxes" paid by those with higher incomes went up. And the higher the income, the sharper the increase.
            Consequently, Sowell shows, the political caricature that these were "tax cuts for the rich" is false: tax rates were cut for everyone, everyone profited, and the government received more revenue—a win-win for all concerned.

            Politicians can be expected to falsify truth to serve their own purposes, but it is more disturbing that leading journalists have repeated these falsifications and some historians have enshrined them in history books. Sowell quotes several of these and contrasts them by quoting the actual persons (e.g., Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon) who were misrepresented. He also follows these and similar misrepresentations through the Reagan and Bush administrations.

            Sowell's writing is clear and easily readable. But perhaps its most impressive feature is his extensive documentation. The number of pages devoted to end notes equals about one third of the number of pages of text. The documentation leaves no doubt that the author has thoroughly researched his subject.
            The result is a thoroughly readable explanation of the historical truth about an important and much-misrepresented subject. It should be required reading for everyone who intends to vote in any local or national election.
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Wednesday, August 24, 2016

NOT SO RAVING REVIEWS?



Got bored. Didn't finish this.

These five little words literally ruined my day and several days following. Five words! It was a review of my novel, Women of Washington Avenue. She gave me two stars. I didn't know what to do with this cold slap in the face. I wanted to get angry, but I knew how ridiculous that would be. Everyone has different tastes. 88% of my reviews were 5 stars.

As the day wore on those five little words still haunted me. So I did some sleuthing and checked out her other reviews and found she has only reviewed five books, including mine. Five stars were awarded to a book about a liver-eating mountain man. Another was a WWII survival story, also five stars. Then there was a five-star book about the Navaho code. 

Well, no wonder.

Obviously she liked historical books, which prompted another question. Why the heck did she buy a feel-good book about four fifty-something friends who were too old to be young and too young to be old getting a second chance at love? Of course she got bored. Even worse, none of my gals ate liver. Maybe she heard me speak at a conference and took a chance on me. I'm sorry it didn't work out for her. 

All kidding aside, I had to step back and give some grace. It would have been much better if this person had been more gracious, writing something like, not my style of book and given two stars. But she didn't.

Years ago I entered my historical manuscript in a Publishers Weekly debut novel contest. It had won second place in a previous contest so I felt pretty good about it. I made the first two cuts in this contest. But then reality hit. The reviewer SLAMMED IT. At least he took the time to give the reasons he didn't like it. After I stopped the bleeding and recuperated, I took another look at his review. That's when I learned how to turn a negative into a positive. 

So what should we do with a bad review?

  1. Look for any merit in the critique. There may be some credible adjustments that need to be made. The PW reviewer said my protagonist was whiney. Hmmm, come to think of it, she was pretty much a brat.
  2. Realize not everyone is the same. My bored reviewer is a perfect example. My friend, Normandie Fischer, got a weird review recently. The person gave her book, From Fire Into Fire, one star and wrote, 'unread.' Unread? Really? Thankfully, Amazon deleted the review, but not before Normandie's fans came to her defense. 
  3. Never explain or defend ourselves. We shouldn't give any credibility to the negative review by our hurt feelings. 
  4. Don't give up. A bad review is one person's opinion. It certainly does not mean we cannot write. Again, learn from it. 
  5. Re-read our  good reviews. 
I just gotta tell ya, there is a bright side to my two-star review. She only gave John Gresham's book a one-star. Hey, that counts for something, right? 





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