Time for a Little Criticism

I am now at a sought-after point in the writing process. I have both completed a rough draft of my latest manuscript in the Bobby Navarro mystery series, and I have edited it as well. Now, I would probably want to change something any time I read a story I’ve written, so I can never tell if it is the best it can be, or not. At some point, I need outside feedback—criticism. My reviewer may end up thinking the whole thing was a colossal failure, or fell apart completely at some point. It’s wait-and-see time. Believe me—not easy.

In everyday life, we talk about being willing to listen to criticism. In writing, we talk about having our work critiqued. In either case, no one is eager to hear their creative efforts are crummy, their brilliance banal, or their talent tenuous. I’m no exception, but I do feel that constructive criticism can be a highly valuable commodity. However, getting the most from a critique of our work requires more than just letting others have their say. Here are five components of making criticism constructive when you are on the receiving end.

 1.        The first requirement for making criticism constructive on the receiving end, is to listen to it, and resist temptation to defend what we did. It’s not an argument. The goal is not to decide who wins. Learning from the criticism is the sought-after goal here, and that is only accomplished when the emphasis is placed on hearing, and understanding, what the criticism is. Similarly, it’s important not to succumb to another temptation, explaining why the behavior, writing, whatever, was the way it was in the first place. Just listen, get it straight, and take it under advisement—with sincere appreciation.

2.       That last part—with sincere appreciation—is very important. It’s not easy to accept criticism, but it should be appreciated. That doesn’t mean surround yourself with nags and nasty enemies. It does mean that criticism can help you improve yourself or your work, and is a valuable means toward that end. There are a lot of things written on how to be a good this-or-that. There are usually no books written about what we, as individuals, are doing wrong. Good criticism is worth a lot, treat it accordingly.

3.       Do something with the criticism once it’s received. A wonderful thing about computers, is that it is so easy to save numerous versions of our work. We don’t have to throw out the original, to try something different. Too wordy? Try cutting down, and examining the results. Someone suggests getting rid of a passage of particularly beautiful prose? Cut it. One click can save the treasured bit of writing. Chances are, you will never use it, but it hurts less to cut something, when we know it is saved should we ever find a better place to use it. The important thing, is to try seeing how the effected portion of writing works when revised.

4.       Have more than one source of feedback. If you receive a difficult-to-take bit of criticism, it can be more convincing and easier to take if you hear it from more than one source. I once had a whole writing group tell me a piece I had written was terrible. I had thought it was great. Hearing it from the whole group was convincing, even though disappointing. On another occasion, one reader thought a story was the best I had written, another thought it was the worst. Who can say? Receiving criticism is a learning opportunity. Multiple sources offer a greater opportunity for you to learn, and that’s what it’s all about.

5.       You own the final product. Accepting criticism does not remove one’s own responsibility for the final product. Simply making suggested changes, without working to understand them and the reason for their suggestion is disrespectful to oneself and one’s own work. Sometimes the criticism is best rejected, although the rejection should be saved until after the criticism has been received, understood, analyzed, and tried-out. But, in the end, you own the results, and must accept that ownership in an informed and responsible manner. By the way, when you keep in mind that you have the final say, it makes it easier to pay attention to whatever criticism you are dealing with.

 So, with all this in mind, now I’ll have to wait and see what happens, and then get back to work on producing the finished manuscript so I can put Bobby Navarro back on the road. And, speaking of being on the road, I recently saw this beauty.  Any thoughts?

A Time to Cheer

I had hoped to finish the rough draft of my current novel by Christmas, but I told myself and others my goal was to finish by New Years, because you never know what might pop up to get in the way. Happily, I have finished the rough draft. It’s a great feeling. Of course, last time I finished the rough draft of a manuscript, I ended up completely rewriting the whole thing. I had lost my voice. I had been reading Robert Parker, one of my favorites, and started sounding like a cross between Parker and me. I don’t think that will be a problem this time, but it’s always nerve-wracking to await someone’s response to what you have written. Of course, until then, I have a lot of work to do editing and tuning the present manuscript. Nevertheless, I’m excited to be on track for getting this Bobby Navarro sequel out this coming spring/summer. And, for a few days, it’s time to celebrate.

Of course, when the draft was finished the other day, I enjoyed glass of scotch. That was the official celebration. One of the things I’m aware of when I come to the end of a manuscript is that I feel eager to finish it, but reluctant to let go of the characters and the story. Afterwards, there is a mixture of feeling relief, accomplishment, and loss. The nice thing about writing a series, is that I will be able to work with the main character again. Last night, I had ideas running through my head about another Bobby Navarro story when I was supposed to be getting to sleep, but that’s not what I meant about looking forward to working with my protagonist again.

I remember a Kathy Bates movie, Misery, when a writer celebrated the end of his manuscript with a single cigarette and a glass of wine. Of course, if you saw the movie, you know what came next. I wouldn’t want to have been in his shoes.

Now, I am taking a little time to let the manuscript cool off before beginning the editing process. In the meantime, I have the chance to ride my own motorcycle, play a round of golf, and maybe do some hiking. That’s the advantage of finishing a draft while in Florida. Yesterday, I took a ride down an unfamiliar road that turned out to have a wildlife management area, Du Puis Management Area along one side of the roadway. The area offers hiking, biking, fishing, hunting, and even camping. It’s not far away from where we are located, so I’m looking forward to visiting there again.

Over the past months, I have enjoyed hearing from some of you who have visited my blog, and I look forward to bringing more news of Bobby’s travels and adventures in the coming year. Thank you for your support.

 I wish you all happy holidays, and a great year ahead.

Glenn Nilson

A Mystery for the Times

We spent this past week making final preparations for, and then completing, our semi-annual trek south. The first day out was unusually warm and pleasant. Although we got on the road no earlier than in past years, we both felt it had been less stressful this time. Better organization. We enjoyed a beautiful fall drive through the hills of New York and Pennsylvania to reach our first night’s destination. Then had snacks, a drink, and a pleasant dinner. By that time, we were curious how the election was going, and spent the evening transfixed by the unexpected results. Well, not completely unexpected in that this election seemed beyond belief all along.

Since election night, I have found it impossible not to dwell on the whole, arduous affair. That’s why this blog is so behind my expected posting date. It took time to gather focus. Now, we’ve largely unpacked and settled into our place in rural Florida, and I’m thinking I need to get back to my current novel, another in the Bobby Navarro series. It’s a story with a victim, a killer, and an amateur detective, and you can be sure good will win out in the end. After all, it’s not a Greek tragedy—it’s a murder mystery.

I love a good mystery. I don’t consider them merely entertainment, escape or, as some do, a lesser form of literature. Of course, a good mystery is entertaining, and can take us away from the cares and stresses of the day. That’s a plus in my book. Good mysteries can also inspire us to think about things we might not have even known about before, or introduce us to a setting with which we are totally unfamiliar. Mysteries do include meaningful depictions of bad deeds and events, and often of bad people, but are not usually filled with gratuitous sex and violence intended merely as cheap thrills. They are neither simplistic, nor hopefully, duplistic, while presenting a cast of characters to be sorted out as to who’s guilty of the murder, and who is not. But, there’s always more to the story than simply whodunit. That’s what makes them worth reading.

A good mystery can make us think about social issues and the morals and values we believe this country has struggled to achieve. I’m glad I’m a writer—a mystery writer. Writing good mysteries is one way to oppose bigotry, hatred, violence and greed in a format in which good ultimately prevails. Something for the times.

Village Bookstores and the Green Toad

I hear bookstores have become a rarity. For a writer, this is not a good thing. For a reader, it is saddening as well. I still like small bookstores—village bookstores. This Saturday, Lesley Diehl and I did a book signing in the Green Toad. It was fun bringing my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, in my latest publication, Murder on the Mother Road, to both new and returning readers via the signing.

The Green Toad is a bookstore in nearby Oneonta, New York, and is a terrific instance of what a village bookstore can offer. Next door to the Green Toad, is the Latte Lounge, a coffee shop. The two businesses made a large opening in the wall dividing them, allowing customers to drift from one to the other. The Green Toad has some very comfortable easy chairs as well, and you can bring an espresso, latte, or whatever, from next door, sit down and start reading the book you just bought, or are thinking about buying.  It’s a comfortable, homey, and thoroughly inviting setting.

In addition to a great selection of books, the Green Toad carries an array of perfect gift objects. Of course, books make wonderful gifts, too. One man bought a book from each of us as gifts for his mother. As a people-watcher, I was interested to see who visited the store, and how they went about locating a purchase. Oneonta is a college town, and I was delighted to see a large number of young people, who appeared to be students, at the bookstore. There were older people as well, and a few parents with their children.

As the days turn chilly, and people are less likely to take coffee, snacks or lunch sitting at outdoor tables fronting some of the eateries along the street, the Green Toad will become even more inviting. What better way to spend a little time, than cozying up to a good mystery and a cup of coffee where you might also bump into a friend you haven’t seen in a while. Village book stores, like village libraries, are a treasure, both in fond memories and current busy lifestyles.

Village Life and the County Fair

This is the week of the Otsego County Fair, and the fairgrounds are down our street, within walking distance. Living near the fairground make it an even bigger event, since we see farmers and vendors bringing their livestock, camping trailers and equipment to set up several days before the opening. Usually the night before the opening, the carnival trucks haul in the rides and booths for their event late into the night. This year, gathering storms and predictions of bad weather intensified the drama, and we were concerned for opening day. As it turned out, the weather was kind, the crowds came, and it was a great day for opening the fair. We were able to get our errands run in time to join the crowds for an annual treat of fair food. Pulled pork stuffed potatoes were a repeat from last year, and we topped that off with a new treat (for us), deep-fried Oreos. No diet worries in that. . .right? Of course, we walked around and looked at all the animals and checked out exhibits. The topper for the evening was the great fireworks display, which we enjoyed in the comfort of our own backyard. We look down the stream and get the best view of the fireworks imaginable. Sunday, we will help out by hosting the one-room school house exhibit for a couple of hours. It’s kind of fun. I actually have some one-room school house experience in my own background.

I haven’t yet had my series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, go to a county fair, but he did go to a Rendezvous reenactment in Murder on the Mother Road, and was gearing up to help his ranch cook friend compete in a chuck wagon cooking contest in Murder on Route 66. I think there’s a similarity. These events are longstanding celebrations of community, family and local history. Having a protagonist attend such an event can be an important statement of setting and character as well. Bobby Navarro is not your typical tourist, but he can still appreciate an event of this sort. I can use the event, and his reaction to it, to build my reader’s understanding of who Bobby Navarro is, without ever having to spell it out.

 

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Outdoor living-outdoor work

When I think of outdoor living I usually envision hiking, camping, fishing, and outdoor recreation in general. I’m just completing a couple of backyard projects, redoing a fence around our garden and making a surround for the mulch pile. Since I decided to bury some half inch mesh to keep out the burrowing critters, I dug a trench a foot deep around the entire garden to handle that part of the project. Somewhere along the way it seemed like a lot of work. Certainly not recreation. On the plus side, it looks great now, and we have vegetables planted in the raised beds inside the fenced area. Now I’m looking forward to fresh salads and meals on the deck. That will seem more like outdoor living. Of course, being outside brings its advantages. You get to see more wildlife, if you stop to notice once in a while. Yesterday we discovered a nest belonging to a pair of Baltimore Orioles. That has been a treat. Golden finches have been visiting the yard as well. They are so brightly colored this time of season. I haven’t seen them nest yet, and have wondered if they tend to nest in small flocks the way they seem to go about their normal daily routines.
I haven’t decided whether my Murder on the Road series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, is interested in birds yet. It’s funny, but the writer can give a protagonist some traits, but others seem to emerge. At least, that’s how it has worked for me. When the protagonist’s traits show up, seemingly on their own, they fit the character well. That’s important, so I think I’ll let the bird thing evolve on its own. I do see Bobby appreciative of migrating geese because he shares their wanderlust. I think he would find crows and ravens interesting because they are at home in the woods, on the plains, or in the desert, another shared quality. Since I’m setting my next Bobby Navarro mystery in Florida, Bobby will be seeing some birds he doesn’t normally encounter. I’ve got to give some thought to his reactions to them. Actually, I’m suddenly just curious to see what they turn out to be.

Lettuce in the garden

Lettuce in the garden

On the Move

This weekend I’m helping my son move. Had been hoping to do some camping, but the move has had to come first. We should have more opportunities for camping later in the season, if it comes to that. I love camping, and I’ve been enjoying my son’s reports about camping in North Carolina. Beautiful country! I have a friend who once told me he thought the only people who travel and camp-out were young people trying to take a family vacation with very limited income. I never accepted that perspective, and still don’t. Camping out is great for what it is, and I’ve certainly done it when I could afford a nice motel.
My series protagonist, Bobby Navarro, agrees with me…(go figure). He finds that camping is a good way to get centered. I couldn’t agree more. It has the effect of stripping away all the stuff that is fun and nice otherwise, but not necessary when it comes to getting back to basics. And part of getting centered involved finding out what is essential. It also allows you to re-connect with the earth, usually in a good way. It even lets you take a break from electronics and all the ads I keep getting on the internet.
As a mystery writer, I think our protagonists need a way to ground themselves, or get centered, or whatever you would like to call it. For Bobby, there are two ways, camping and riding his motorcycle down another highway. I couldn’t agree more.