“Dude, that is wicked.”

I had my first group of teens gather to read the first four chapters of my MS this afternoon. I was so nervous this morning it was hard to think. Couple that with the already killer sinus headache and allergy attack that hit me when I woke up and it was a hectic morning. But even all of that couldn’t dampen my excitement. This was the first glimpse I would get at the intended audience and their reactions. I prepared myself to take whatever they had to say, even consider rewriting if they had the same comments or problems with certain areas or characters.

It started off smoothly as I handed out each chapter with instructions to be honest, be clear, and don’t worry about my feelings. Take notes in the margins, I said, and circle things that cause you concern or puzzlement. I left them to sit in the room as I busied myself. I eventually came back into the room and read, wanting to watch the reactions. It was priceless.

I could tell by the pages they were on just where they were in the story. They giggled in just the right places. They called out, “Hey, who’s on page 18? Did you read that? Awesome!” I watched one girl with her eyes wide as she read a section-just the reaction I wanted.

We read through four chapters, which is two more than I had planned. After each chapter, they came right up for the next, eager to continue, finally disappointed that there weren’t anymore. Then it was time to get down to the nitty-gritty.

“I want more,” I heard. “It’s not fair to only let us read a little bit,” another said. Perfect! They wanted more and loved what they read. The notes on the pages dwindled after the first few pages as they got so engrossed in the book that they forgot to take notes. Perfect again!

One of them asked if I would just e-mail the book and didn’t care that it wasn’t completely edited yet. “Couldn’t you just send it anyway? I want to read the whole thing.” Perfect again!

There were great suggestions about clearing up a few instances where descriptions needed a little help, but for the most part, there were no complaints and no negative reactions to anything. At one point, I watched as one of them was reading a part I had just added this morning. I wanted to ask for a reaction to it after everyone had read it. “Dude,” she said, looking up. “That is wicked.” Perfect again!

So, this meeting will not be the only meeting. They are all willing to come back for more and would have gladly read more right there. My favorite comments:

“I can already tell this is one of those books I would read over and over again.”

“I totally love the main character. I get her.”

I could list them all here since you know for sure I have them locked in my brain forever. And the positive meeting with these wonderful people gave me the confidence and kick in the butt to get this thing done and off to agents. It won’t be long now…

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To Comma or Not to Comma, That Is the Question

For those of us educated in the journalism field it’s a no-brainer. We were taught to follow the strict rules of The AP Stylebook and the answer is clear–do not add that serial comma for fear of having a journalism professor rip up your paper or your editor look at you as if you’re an idiot. The use of serial commas in the newsroom can be summed up in one word-Never!

But after many years in the newspaper and magazine arena, my sights turned to books. I began to edit books slated for publication in New York. That meant making sure that the style of the publishing house was followed, not my previous editor at the paper. I was told that the style to follow was The Chicago Manual of Style. No problem, I said, thinking it would be easy to convert a few things. What I didn’t expect was the slap in the face staring up at me from the page-the serial comma was there, plain as day, and smiling, “I’m back!”

Now what? Of course I put it in there, it’s needed if Chicago Style and the publisher say it is. But with all my being it was forced out of me. For a short time it hurt to put it there. I left it out because it was my habit and had to go back and reread my work to put it back in.

After some time I realized something strange had happened-I was adding the serial comma automatically. I no longer had to think about it, or reread material to find out where I left it out. My good friend, a former newspaper editor, tells me it kills her to see my e-mails with those commas. She feels the way I used to. I don’t notice them now, but I do notice when I’m reading whether there is a serial comma or not. If there is, I like to think it justifies my new habit. If there isn’t, I assume there’s a classically trained journalist around somewhere.

What’s your take on this? Are you a publisher, agent, editor, or writer? What do you think about this comma? I’ve asked this question on Twitter and got some great responses. (Pro and con) I think it’s a personal, professional, and touchy choice. (Notice the comma???)

Journal, Diary, Notebook, Whatever!

I have always heard that keeping a journal is a great way for writers to expand their writing and knowledge. I am so impressed when I hear of people with volumes of journals filling their bookcases. Thoughts, drawings, clippings, etc. It looks wonderful, it sounds inspiring, I covet them, I want them-I just don’t want to make them.

I tried keeping a diary when I was young. But having a brother who was sneaky meant that anything I wrote would be found. So I destroyed it and stopped. Later on, when I lived on my own, I tried again. I wrote about my dreams, my ambitions, etc. But it felt like a chore, not something that was helping me to grow. Of course, I don’t mind writing stories, essays, etc.-I look forward to it. But writing my own thoughts down in a book nobody will ever see and something I don’t want anyone to see seems like a waste of time. I guess you could say that this blog is a bit of a journal in some respects. But I’m not telling my deepest, darkest secrets to you all (and I know you wouldn’t want to hear them anyway.)

I’m not talking about a writing notebook where writers record story ideas, quotes, etc. That kind of “journal” makes sense. It’s something a writer will use, refer to, update, etc. I’m talking about adding your dreams, fears, thoughts, and more. I just don’t want to write them down (and no, it’s not my brother’s fault.)

What do you do? Do you write in a journal every day? Does it make you feel comforted? Do you go back and reread it later? How does it make you feel? I’m curious about the mind of a journal writer mainly because I don’t possess that kind of thought process.

My stories, my feelings, my thoughts are in my work. I don’t think you can write fiction and not have something of yourself in there. Unless you’re writing about mass murderers and let’s hope it’s not you in there. But as far as writing my thoughts and feelings in a personal notebook, it’s just not appealing. I wish it was.

Tell Me What You Think, Gently!

I jumped out of my comfort zone and joined a newly established writing critique group last night. It will be the first group I’ve joined and where I truly want feedback-which is a very scary proposition. I had to ask myself over and over, and even all the way to the meeting, whether I really wanted the honest and sometimes painful comments of strangers. Do I really want to know what they think? Well, the answer to that is yes. How can I entertain thoughts of publishing something without getting feedback beforehand? But even though I want feedback, I am still an artist with a thin skin. I want them to be nice.

I know, I know, I have to develop a thick skin if I want to be in this business. And so far, the non-fiction writing and editing has paid off just fine. But then again, critique of a non-fiction work is mainly about facts, not style. What I’m looking at now is critique of my style, form, imagination, technique, etc. and that’s touchy.

At a loud, crowded coffee shop downtown, we began our meeting by introducing ourselves. Two teachers, two freelancers, one person without writing experience. Seems like a well-rounded group from different walks of life. All younger than me, but that’s usually the case these days. After deciding on times and dates for future meetings, we got down to the mats.

We began critiquing a novel excerpt (not mine). It seemed to go well, although we are all still evaluating just how much we should let go. Should we be brutal? Should we be kind? Should we be technical? I think that will all wash out in the next few weeks and I’m hoping we will all become comfortable with the opinions of others. There were a few tense moments when the word “overbearing” and others were thrown out. But I loved that part since it signaled that this group was willing to get its hands dirty. I’ve never been in a group like this and I’m not sure on the etiquette yet, but I want the gloves off at this point. If I’m willing to open myself up, I’ll take what comes my way. (Throw some tips at me if you’re in a group or have been in the past. I would love a few tips of the trade, so to speak.)

My work is up next week and that will be the true test – Can I take it? My first thought is, “Sure, I’m a grown up. I can take it.” But deep down, I want to please, I want kindness, I want them to adore it. But, I guess I do want them to be truthful and honest since this is my chance to clean up before sending it out to the real experts.

As you can see, I’m in a quandary about this new adventure. It’s a great feeling to get your work out there and get honest feedback, but it’s also a step into the rain without an umbrella. Will it pour or sprinkle? I’m so happy to have one person in the group I know and I respect. The rest of you, please be gentle! At least in the beginning…