Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The Art of Criticism: How to Be Constructive

Guest post by Beaux Cooper
Reposted from her blog at www.beauxcooper.com

I recently had the keen, stinging displeasure of being critiqued in a social media discussion for one of my writing prompts. It was a rather painful experience that took me some time to shake off. While I like to claim I have thick skin and can take the brunt of constructive criticism, I honestly have no patience for high horsed riders storming through my castle gates with unsolicited, attacking critiques. And I did the worst thing possible - I engaged him in a one-sided logical discussion. My mistake. In the future, I will remember to brush off these types of interactions and move on with my bad ass self.

Looking back and having had some time apart from the incident I can see that what he had to say could have been valuable, but any bits of truth that did exist were so shrouded in his attack that it rendered the information useless. His way of delivering his thoughts completely denied him any validity in what he had to say. No where does it say that you have to be mean to get your point across, yet it seems that in today's age of internet trolls and Facebook status debates, that's all we see and do.

I suppose this comes with the territory of posting your work online and sharing it with the world, but still, there is a better way to convey your perspective. Even the unsolicited ones. In a small effort to aid in the fight for useful, encouraging criticism I've put together a few tips to keep in mind when offering advice to your writing friends.

Five Ways to Offer Constructive Criticism:

  1. Make Sure They Want Your Advice - All too often we are eager to give our two cents and offer our opinion on everything. Online forums and social media have trained us to let loose our tongue when we are disgruntled and I've seen this overflow into other aspects of life. So when you've read something, ask the author if they want your advice and what kind of advice they want to receive. If they say "no thanks" or "just grammar and sentence flow" be sure to respect their choice. It isn't personal and it has nothing to do with their belief in you as an authority on the matter.
  2. Aim to Build, Not Destroy - If nothing else, do this. There is a huge difference between being critical and being constructive. When you spot a mistake, are confused, see incongruities point them out to the writer, ask questions, and even offer suggestions on how to get around the issue. Stay away from statements that are attacking or "tough love" oriented. You're strictly there to be a second pair of eyes beyond the writer's; there is no reason to belittle their ideas, skill, or abilities. I know this seems like common sense, but as a whole we are losing touch with this idea completely.
  3. Choose Your Words Wisely - Here's a rule of thumb: If you wouldn't say it to their face, don't say it in an email, text message, or in the margins. This isn't a confessional where you don't have to look the person in the eye to say your piece. Rather, this is someone's writing, their art, their baby and they are looking to improve it. To do this we must take the emotionalism out of our words and be direct. Offering sincere advice like "this sentence sounds funny," "reword this," "is this the right word to use?" or "this seems out of character for this character" are all excellent and informative. Remain on this vein instead of calling something "stupid," or "nonsense."
  4. Be Honest - I can't stress this one enough. If a friend or client has come to you and asked you to review their work and offer advice, don't tell them it is amazing if it isn't or skirt over the uncomfortable bits where you didn't like it. Remember to focus on what is right about the piece as much as, if not more than, you focus on what might need to change. As my seventh grade humanities teacher always told us: two warm fuzzies for every cold prickly.
  5. Follow Through - This person has come to you for advice and if you have agreed to give it then do so. Don't let it drag out over months. Be honest with yourself about the time commitment involved when editing or reading a novel versus a novella versus a short story versus a poem. If you can't give them your full attention long enough to offer worthwhile critiques then kindly pass. As a reviewer, editor, or beta reader it is okay to say "no" when life can't afford you the time. 

Beaux Cooper is a writer of contemporary literature, children's stories, and fiction. Poet for everyday life. Dreamer and education magpie. Her debut novel, Dust, is due for publication in mid-spring. Her website is www.beauxcooper.com.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016


guest post by Sheila Bender

As a poet and memoirist, I have studied flash fiction to gather strategic ways to write essential life stories. I am a believer in the idea that telling one’s life story effectively and movingly can be done in fragments because fragments evoke moments and when collected, as poems and essays are, the moments of perception accumulate into a whole.

Here are three strategies that I have used from my readings in flash fiction.


The short story writer Bruce Holland Rogers offers a short-short story in which he writes in the voice of a social service worker interviewing a woman whose boyfriend has abused her child.

Read the story "How Could a Mother." Then ask yourself whom you might interview to get out an important story of your life—your grandfather, grandmother, ex-boss or husband, for instance. 

What persona would you adopt for being the interviewer? It doesn't have to be an animate being--you might have the piano or brooch you inherited ask questions of your ancestor.

For example, you might take something that annoyed you about the person and have that thing be the interviewer: “The Naked Cardboard Cylinder He Always Left on the Toilet Paper Holder Interviews My Ex-husband.”

Sometimes the best way to examine truths of your own experience is through characters, inanimate or animal or plant, whose beings create a fictional dream in which we can explore human problems. 


Jim Heynen writes short pieces that examine human nature and what we do about it. My favorites of his stories are the ones he writes about “the boys” and their adventures and traumas while growing up on farms.

You can read one of them online: “Ice Storm.” After you do, think about incidents in your childhood when you thought differently than the adults around you. Write the story of when you demonstrated behavior that was in keeping with your feelings even though the adults would not have understood. Let the details show the experience as Heynen does. 


The epistolary (letter) form is a device used by fiction writers. 

One of my favorite novels in letters is The True and Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Elisabeth Robinson. 

On this USA Today website you can read two of the letters from the book – in this excerpt the main character, Olivia, is writing to her sister, first as a little girl before her sister is born, and then as a woman whose career is failing. In the longer letter, she is writing to a friend and at the end of the letter, reveals news about her sister.

Either of these letters might stand alone as a flash piece. I think they are good models for how you might tackle writing about your life, whether in a young voice or your current adult voice. 

Here are some questions to consider in finding your own topic: 
  • Who would you like to address that you have not met yet? 
  •  What would you like that person to know? 
  • Who might you write to about your life’s joys? Where would you be sitting as you write and what do you observe from where you are that helps you associate to past or present joys? 
  • Who might you write to about your life’s difficult situations? Where might you be writing from that would put you in transitional moment, a moment that you are moving from one situation to another and can open up about a big change in your life? Might you be on a plane like Robinson? Might you be on a train or sitting in the passenger seat of a car? Might you be in a waiting room at a doctor’s office? Find someplace to imagine you are sitting or remember you did sit, and write the letter, drawing from the action around you to create the setting, mood, and platform for associations. 


 Once you get going on flash nonfiction, you may become addicted to it as a form. Be sure to read in the genre for more ideas.

Brevity Magazine is an excellent source for examples. The flash authors also blog about the craft at this website.

Lynn chimes in:

The writing group I belong to (we call ourselves the Gang of 5) recently read a piece by William Zinsser titled, How to Write a Memoir, in which he encouraged us to "write small" and to "look for small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory." 

I think in this blog post Sheila has offered us a number of ways to hone in on some of those small memories. Next up for me: take these 3 strategies to the Gang of 5 and see what we come up with. 

Thanks, Sheila!

Sheila Bender is founder of WritingItReal.com, a community and resource for those who write from personal experience. A poet, memoirist and personal essayist, she offers online classes and often teaches at writers’ conferences.

Sheila's two newest books are now available on line under the Writing it Real banner: Writing In A Convertible with the Top Down and Sorrow’s Words: Writing Exercises to Heal Grief.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Publishing Perspectives: A Conversation with Nancy Curtis, High Plains Press

High Plains Press, located near Glendo, Wyoming, has published 40 books since its beginning in 1984. The company now publishes about two books a year and focuses on history of Wyoming and the West. Poetry has also been an unexpected success for High Plains Press. They publish an occasional slim volume of poetry, under the series title “Poetry of the American West.” 

Books published by High Plains Press have won four Wrangler awards for poetry, a Spur Award for non-fiction, and several Willa awards. Curtis and High Plains Press have received the Wyoming Governor’s Arts Award and the Western Writers Lariat Award for support of authors and books.

We interviewed High Plains Press publisher Nancy Curtis to ask about getting published and about the changing publishing landscape.

How did High Plains Press get its start?

About 30 years ago, the only two small press publishers in Wyoming I knew of folded their tents, and I started thinking about filling the vacancy as a regional publisher. I'm the kind of person who likes to be "certified" before I do something, so I went to the University of Denver Publishing Institute which is a month long course on just book publishing, all day long, every day. I did not see any reason why I could not apply the things I learned about New York book publishing to an operation on a much smaller scale, and I thought I could do it as a home-based business. So I started High Plains Press. The first book I published was a Western Writers of America Spur finalist in the cover design category. That got the press some publicity, and I started getting good submissions from experienced writers.

We've found what we can sell best from where we are is Old West nonfiction connected to Wyoming. So cowboys, outlaws, lawmen, homesteading women, and history have become our bread and butter. We've also had some success with memoirs and poetry.

What qualities in a book make you sit up, take notice and consider it seriously for publication?

I heard an editor of a small press say once that they liked to publish the first book on a subject, the best book on a subject, or the most important book on the subject. That is what we'd like to do. The editor also said "they also did all those other quirky books the editors liked." Sometimes we too like to take a chance on a quirky book. I like to learn, so I like a book that teaches me things I didn't know about Wyoming history and culture.

What are the biggest or most common mistakes you see authors make? 

I think it is a rare person who can put it all together. The more I know about books, the more I realize how hard it is to write one. Some writers have stories to tell, some are good at organization, some are research whizzes, some can write flawless sentences, some can spell, some like finding or taking photographs, some can put together a good narrative thread, some know all the footnote forms, etc. But it is a rare author who can do it all. Authors need to be aware of their weak areas and seek help and keep learning in those areas. There is a learning curve to writing a book and almost no one can just sit down and write one without study and pain.

I heard on TV once a good selling author say that he got a new word processing program. So to learn it, he went to the basement and wrote his first book. It made me mad. It devalues the work of writing and puts it in the category of typing.

I had an author tell me the other day I could put his chapters in whatever order I wanted. He said James Galvin didn't tell a story chronologically so he didn't think chapter order was important. I want an author to give thought to the person reading the story and to have a good reason for the book to be in the form it is.

When I look at a manuscript I have to try to determine if I can make back my expenses. I pay for the editing, the design, the cover art, the printing and binding, the marketing and I have to believe that I can sell enough copies of the book to make my money back. I wish authors would ask themselves who was going to want to read the book. And the answer can't be "everybody" because if it is "everybody" then it is probably really "nobody."

To sell a book, I need to be able to say what the book is about. I can't get a bookseller to stock the book by saying "it is little stories about the author's life growing up in Wyoming." If I can say the book contains new and exciting information about Butch Cassidy or it is a photo-intensive history of the sheepwagon or it is a biography of a little known but important frontiersman, at least the bookseller knows what it is.

What are the biggest challenges you face as a publisher?

The changing marketplace. And I just don't mean just Amazon and ebooks. I'm all about relationships. So I am frustrated when I build a relationship with a book buyer at a gift shop or a travel stop or a wholesaler and then suddenly they are gone. We work hard to convince book buyers that our books will sell: that they are good stories, honestly told and professionally produced, that readers like, and that we ship the right titles on time with reasonable terms. Then that person is gone on to work in the coal mine, or that store closes, and we start over.

The publishing landscape seems to be changing with more self-publishing and electronic publishing options. Where do you see the future of traditional publishing going?

I think they are just alternate ways of delivering content. Radio didn't die when TV came along. Movie theaters haven't closed with the introduction of streaming. But I think certain kinds of books are likely to be kept on a shelf and other types are more disposable and are more likely to be read on a Kindle. I do give thought to whether a manuscript will make a book that is a keeper.

As far as self-publishing, we all know examples of successful self-publishers. But publishing in the broad definition is not easy. Getting a book in print is much easier, but there is much more to publishing than ink or toner on paper or converting a manuscript to an ebook format.

But publishing is fun because I get to learn new things and work with authors who are fascinating people.

Visit High Plains Press online at www.highplainspress.com.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016


post by Lynn

The clang and jangle of the holidays is still ringing in my ears, drowning out the soft murmurs of my Muse. I try to write, but nothing comes.

This happens whenever my normally-quiet life gets loud for a while, whether because of travel, hosting company or attending conferences.

The only way for me to get right again is to experience silence.

Deep, soft silence.

Don’t get me wrong—I love going places, being with my favorite people and learning. I scramble around in the world enthusiastically… for a while. Then I am depleted and I need to go home and be quiet.

I concur with author Anne D. LeClaire who said in her book, Listening Below the Noise,

“Every soul innately yearns for stillness, for a space, a garden where we can till, sow, reap, and rest, and by doing so come to a deeper sense of self and our place in the universe. Silence is not an absence but a presence. Not an emptiness but repletion. A filling up.” 

Fortunately, winter is a good season for silence.

The snow drifts in and muffles the distant whir of truck tires on Highway 30.

The bay of a neighbor’s hound floats up and is dispersed in the expanse of winter sky.

Even the jabber of the sparrows on their flights from blue spruce to bird feeder seems muted, as if the ice crystals in the air are sweeping up the sound.

I know if I absorb the silence for a time, my head and heart will clear.

In silence, I mull over and make meaning from my experiences.

In silence, the words come.

Can you hear the silence?