Monday, August 25, 2008

A Hand To Hold Onto

by Judy Clemens

“Shakespeare’s plays are bad enough,” Tolstoy told Chekhov, “but yours are even worse.”

A voice of constructive criticism from one writer to another? Probably not. Perhaps there really was a rivalry there, and Tolstoy was letting off some steam. But what if… What if Tolstoy really was trying to help? He certainly does seem to be going about it in the wrong way.

As a writer, I have many people approach me, wanting help for the book they’re writing. Sometimes they’re just starting, and want to know how you actually do it. Some are in the middle and need encouragement to get to the end. Some have actually finished a book and want information about the next step. The most frustrating of these folks, of course, are those who say they have this fantastic idea, they’ve been working on it for twenty years, their friends love what they’ve done, and they know it’s going to be the Next Great Thing. What I want to tell them is that if they want it to have any chance of that, they really need to get their butt in a chair and get it done. But of course I don’t. I give them the more PC, and more helpful, speech about how perseverance is what gets the job accomplished.

But what about those people who really are trying, and really want to get better? They deserve the help and encouragement I received when I was in their shoes. After all, a key way to learn is to ask questions of those who know the answers -- or at least can say where to go to find someone else who knows!

I can’t, like any author, read every manuscript of every person who asks me. It would be nice if I could, but then I’d never get my own writing done, and I can’t say my publisher would be very happy about that. (Neither would I!) But every once in a while I have a friend or student who needs another eye, and I’m happy to do the honors, because it really is an honor to have someone entrust their “baby” to you!

So how does one go about critiquing a manuscript in a way that’s helpful? Here are a few suggestions drawn from my experience as a critic and as one being critiqued:

Remember that this manuscript is of huge importance to the writer. She loves it and has invested a lot of time in it. That in itself is a gigantic accomplishment and one to be praised.

Try to find positive things to say about the manuscript as you go along. Continued criticism without a few pats on the back can get depressing, or even maddening.

BUT…don’t be just a cheerleader. It will not help the writer if all you do is say their work is great. They need you to tell them when things don’t work, and are counting on you to do so.

Yes, typos are important. Nobody wants those, and it can kill a manuscript submission. But even more important are issues of character, plot, and theme. Are the characters real and consistent? Does the plot conclude in a satisfactory manner, without loose ends? Is the theme worked through the entire book?

When you’re done critiquing the manuscript, ask the author what she has questions about. Perhaps she’s worried that a certain aspect of the storyline doesn’t make sense, or that one of the characters is too wimpy, ugly, or strong? Make sure you give the author the opportunity to find out the answers to her burning questions.

Try to be timely. You have made the commitment to help the author. Sure, you have your own work, but it’s only respectful to give the author something within a reasonable time frame. After all, we each have our own experience of waiting by the mailbox for months!

Finally, remember that critiquing someone’s manuscript is a privilege, as well as an investment in the industry. Choose your commitments wisely, and honor them. It is through these kinds of interactions that we can all make our business better. And give us all more books to enjoy.

Do you have a critiquing tip to share? Please leave your ideas in the Comments section. The more aspects we think about, the better critics we can all become.

Judy Clemens
SinC Vice President
Author of the Stella Crown mystery series

Monday, August 18, 2008

We Are Family…

Last week, I attended my niece’s wedding in Homer, Alaska—a very long way to travel, but a beautiful event. After the ceremony, I reminisced with one of my sisters-in-law about my wedding in 1992, waxing nostalgic about cooking the food for the reception, leaving the church in a grubby minivan with my new blended family, and the storm that came up and flattened the tent in the back yard after the party. Her strongest memory was the bride (me) dancing with my family at the reception. We’d hired a renegade DJ who wasn’t much interested in sticking with our play list. After a series of dreadful musical selections, he did manage to squeeze in my brother’s request from Sly and the Family Stone: “We are family, I have all my sisters with me!” Then my new husband literally pulled the plug to the DJ’s amplifier.

That’s how I feel as my year serving as president of Sisters in Crime winds down—the family part, not pulling the plug. It’s been a lot of work, but a wonderful party. We have an amazing organization, founded over twenty years ago by a small group of brave women who weren’t satisfied with the status quo. I’ve seen that same spunky spirit wherever I’ve gone this year, from Anchorage to Denver to Washington to Boston to online. Sisters are everywhere, answering questions, volunteering for projects, pitching new ideas, mentoring the newcomers. I couldn’t be prouder of the work done by the board of directors and many other volunteers.

Back in 2001, before my first book was published, I’d never heard of Sisters in Crime. I contacted Hallie Ephron about doing some events together, as we both featured psychologists in our series. “You have to join Sisters in Crime!” she told me firmly. I’m so grateful that she insisted, because now you’re all family—and I mean that in only the nicest way!

If you’re coming to Bouchercon in Baltimore, don’t forget to sign up for the Sinc lunch on Thursday. Come celebrate as Judy Clemens is installed as our next president and fills us in on our exciting plans for the year.

Roberta Isleib
SinC President

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Year for the Books

by Mary Callahan Boone

I can barely believe that my first year as Library Liaison is winding up. What a year it’s been!

During this year I was lucky to be able to coordinate Sisters in Crime’s booths at both the Public Library Association Conference in March and the American Library Association in July.

I knew the SinC booth was popular with my fellow librarians—well, I knew that when I’ve gone to ALA as an attendee, I’ve spent a lot of time dropping by the SinC booth (shhh, don’t tell my director, she’s sure I was attending that panel on “Dewey or Don’t We? Cataloging For the Masses”).

Even so, I wasn’t fully prepared for the numbers of librarians who seek out the SinC booth as a “must visit” while they’re at these two conferences. The reason for this isn’t a mystery at all: it’s due to the graciousness and generosity of SinC members like you!

Thanks to everyone who sent promotional materials and books to be given away in daily raffles.

Thanks to Barbara Fister in Minnesota and Jeff Sherratt in California who gave over their homes to chaos–receiving and storing all those boxes of promotional materials.

Special thanks go to the SinC members who staffed the booths at these two conferences, and to their publishers who donated a carton (and sometimes 2 or 3 cartons!) of books for you to sign and give away. A number of you traveled to be at the conferences, but many of you were members of the local chapters where the two conferences were held--Minneapolis for PLA and LA and Orange County for ALA. Local chapter members made us out of towners feel at home and (very important!) recommended where to eat and where to avoid eating. You were all enthusiastic about promoting SinC, and gracious to each and every librarian who came to by the booth.

PLA is held every other year and so won’t be on tap again until 2010. But ALA is an annual conference, and in 2009 it will be in Chicago. Keep an eye on the newsletter, the listserv, and the blog for information about how to be involved with ALA in Chicago. Or send me an email at any time to I hope to see many of you there—authors and fellow librarians.

Can this first year be topped? I’ve no doubt it will be, because Sisters in Crime is a great organization, made up of so many great people. I can barely wait to see what all 2009 will bring!

(Photos: Carl Brookins and Jo Dereske at PLA and a pretty darn happy librarian and Alexandra Sokoloff at ALA.)