Monthly Archives: May 2015

in which I go to BEA

Next week a thing is happening called BEA.

It is big. It is bookish. And I will be there!

And you might be there too! And I want us to be friends!

I will not be at BEA in an author capacity–I’m going as part of my day job–HOWEVER this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t LOVE to meet you and talk about author things. Or not author things. Mostly I love talking about Star Wars and sweaters and Mary Shelley best of all. But also we can talk about THIS MONSTROUS THING. If you want.

So if you are going to be at BEA and want to get in on the monstrousness, here’s a few ways you can:

  • If at some point you happen to stop by booth 3246, I might be there selling other people’s books…but I would love to talk to you about mine1
  • There should be galleys of THIS MONSTROUS THING at the Harper booth at some point probably, and if you get one and come find me I will sign it for you/write you a secret code inside of it and also give you exclusive cool monstrous Frankenstein-y swag!
  • If you don’t get a galley but still come find me, I will give you swag and probably a hug. Though maybe not because sometimes hugs make me uncomfortable
  • I am going to try to be at the blogger-author meet up happening on the 28th at 3 pm. And maybe at some other things too. But that’s all I know of right now. If there are other partying and shenanigan things I should be at, tell me!

So come say hi! I am anxious but excited about BEA (anxcited, a word I’ve found myself using over and over again during my debut year) so please make me less anx and more cited by coming and saying hello.

  1. You will know me by my ferociously red hair, my round glasses, and the eccentrically patterned textiles I will likely be wearing.
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in which Mackenzi and Anna-Marie talk about being critique partners

An essential part of the writer life is the critique partner relationship. What is a critique partner, you might ask? It is generally a trusted friend, usually a fellow writer, who you swap projects with, read each other’s work, and give feedback on how to make it even more awesome. 

Recently, my beloved CP Anna-Marie McLemore (whose novel, The Weight of Feathers, is stunning) and I did a joint interview for the Fall Fifteeners on the ins and out of a critique partner or CP relationship (you can read the original interview here!). Except we’re novelists, so we got a little long winded and had to cut a lot of the brilliant things we said. Because everything we say is brilliant.

So here is the deleted scenes from our conversation, some additional thoughts on how to be the best CP possible. Anna-Marie’s answers appear in pink, mine are in green. Sorry our favorite colors clash so badly. 

ThisMonstrousThing hc c. finalJPG TheWeightofFeathers2

On how to find your CPs: 

AM: How I connected with my CPs is a mix of in-person and online. Mackenzi, you’re a great example of meeting a CP online, because I first got acquainted with your work through The Writer’s Voice Contest, and then we started talking over Twitter. I read your entry and immediately thought, “I want to read that!”How did you connect with your CPs, Mackenzi? And do they all read your work at the same time, or do you stagger?

M: I remember being very glad you reached out to me, because I read your entry and had the same ZOMG I WANT THIS reaction to your book, but I was still very new to the writing community and too shy to reach out. Plus you just seemed too cool for me. Which I still sometimes think you are.

AM: I couldn’t possibly be too cool for you! You have a mechanical arm and an endless supply of obscure facts about historical figures! Okay, I’m done interrupting…

M: I am lucky to have done a great MFA program and found some writers through that who I’m now in a writing group with. We meet every two weeks, talk about writing and life, and read and critique each other’s stuff. It’s a much more casual relationship, because we have the MFA background together and have been friends in addition to critique partners. Giving feedback is very different when you’re sitting across a plate of French toast from someone than it is over the internet. I love my writing group in person because they are highly brainstormy, and I love being able to talk out problems with them. They are the people I go to when I get stuck.

On what to look for in a CP: 

AM: Mostly I first connect with CPs because I adore their work. Their stories are brave, unexpected, and intensely memorable. If I admire a writer as much as I do my CPs, I know there’s a good chance they can help me make whatever I’m working on so much better. With you, Mackenzi, I was struck by how efficiently and vividly you depict time and place, and this became the first of many things I’d come to admire in your work.

Connecting with CPs this way also means there’s a good chance I can be helpful to them. When I critique, I start with what I like about a story—what’s strongest, what’s working, at least for me. It’s not because I’m trying to be nice, it’s just how I work. And if what I’m saying resonates with the author, I try to help them figure out what’s getting in the way of the things that are strongest and most engaging.

That’s not to say that you can’t critique a piece you don’t love. Far from it. Even with stories I don’t quite connect with, that’s usually where I start—what’s working. And this is why it’s helpful to have multiple points of view. Maybe the plot thread that stuck out to me as out of place is the thing everyone else goes wild for. Maybe the scene I loved isn’t serving the story as well as it could. Different POVs are invaluable.

On how to be a good CP: 

M: The first thing I’d say on this subject is if you’re entering into a CP relationship, be sure you’re willing to take feedback. We’ve all had that CP or writing group member or MFA student who argues with every piece of feedback they’re given and doesn’t really seem to want anyone to tell them anything except how good their story is. Don’t be this person. But also recognize that not every piece of feedback you’re going to get is going to be right for your story. I’ve also had CPs who took every piece of advice I gave them and applied it and it always made me uncomfortable, because it’s their story. They should be making changes that serve their story. A CP relationship is a mix of being open to hearing what other people have to say about your writing, and going with your gut.

On how to know if a CP relationship isn’t working: 

AM: You may not know exactly what you want to do right away, but CP comments should give you a sense of looking at the story with new eyes. If feedback from any one CP repeatedly makes you feel drained it’s probably destructive, and it’s probably not working. The biggest red flag in a CP relationship is if you don’t feel safe. If you don’t feel safe giving them your work, or if you don’t feel safe being honest about how you’re reading their work, then something’s wrong. Whether you both want to work through it or whether it’s best to part ways of course depends on the situation.

On how to end a CP relationship: 

M: When I was first starting out, writing was such a solitary practice for me. I wrote things, I read things, I revised things. Then as soon as I started showing it to other people and getting feedback, I thought, “WHY HAVEN’T I BEEN DOING THIS FOREVER?!” Other people could help me identify and solve the problems!? SIGN ME UP. Showing other people my writing and having them help me make it better had literally never occurred to me. So I went sort of crazy and was suddenly wanted to show my work to everyone and solicit their help.

Which, as you can imagine,  backfired. I ended up showing my work to a lot of people who just weren’t the right people for me to be showing it to. For a lot of reasons. It wasn’t that I thought my work was perfect and they were giving me feedback and I didn’t like that. It was just that something felt intangibly off to the way they reacted to my manuscript. And it was mutual–I didn’t love their stuff either. Reading it didn’t get me excited. I didn’t want to help them make it better. I just felt meh. And as a result, we weren’t giving each other good feedback. The things I was getting from them didn’t’ feel like it was helping me make my book better, it felt like them trying to rewrite the novel the way they would if it were their novel.

Some of these relationships naturally petered into nothing–we just stopped sending each other stuff. Some of them ended with mutual “I don’t think this is working.” One ended with a writer straight up telling me she thought my stuff was no good.

And so then I went back to not showing anyone my writing ever.

I think it’s important to be honest but kind when a CP relationship isn’t working. I have a friend who I was once CPs with, but turns out in spite of being friends, we’re not good critique partners. We were honest with each other about how it just wasn’t working, returned to friendship with no hard feelings, and still support each other any way we can.

For me, writing and being a critique partner and in a writing group has been a long process of learning who is worth listening to. Which sounds mean and haughty, but hear me out. Some people are going to *get* your writing–they’re going to understand what you’re trying to do and help you do it better. Those are the people you should be listening to and soliciting feedback from and listening to opinions from. Like you said, you want to be taking feedback from people who make you feel excited about the pile of flaming garbage that revision often is.

That was a long story.

On how to deal with professional jealousy: 

AM: In terms of professional jealousy, what I’ve more often felt with CPs was intimidation, a sense of, “they’re so incredible, what right do I have to critique their writing at all?” It’s not quite the same thing, but it can be just as lethal to a CP relationship. Early on, I was so in awe of the writers I was exchanging work with that I held back on suggestions because I felt presumptuous. But it wouldn’t have been presumptuous — suggestions were exactly what they wanted, and what they were asking of me! It took a little while for me to understand that they were just normal people, and that their books did not spring from their brains fully formed and ready for copy-editing. Just like me, they needed other writers to make it happen.

The professional jealousy can be hard but it’s also a natural thing. If you’re crippled by jealousy or can’t be a good CP because of it, that might be a sign the relationship isn’t working out or has other deeper problems. Because if you really care about someone and their work, you’ll be happy for them. You can still be a little jealous. But you’ll be happy. I remember when you signed your book deal, Anna-Marie, it never occurred to me to be jealous. In spite of the fact that I had been on sub for a year and was in the throes of “everyone has a book deal but me” despair. So maybe if you can’t handle good things happening to your CP but not you, maybe you should find a new CP.

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in which I am raised as a Jedi

On this occasion of my favorite holiday, Star Wars day, aka May the Fourth, let me tell you about how I was raised in the Jedi order.

Not by my parents—everyone knows that Jedi are taken from their parents at a young age. Though they were always tolerant to supportive of my Star Wars obsession, they were not the people who raised me as a Jedi. My parents weren’t even the first people to show me Star Wars1.

I was raised in the Jedi order by the neighbors’ kids.

When I was in fifth grade, a new family moved not quite into our neighborhood, but neighborhood adjacent. There was a boy my age, and a girl my sister’s age2. Our friendship was unlikely—I was right at the age where Boys and Girls Can’t Be Friends Because that Means You Have  Crush on Him and That’s Gross. And all four of us were just a very unlikely combination. They were from the south, abrasively polite, and said “Yes ma’am” and “no sir” to the adults, while I called all my friends’ parents by their first names and had a smart ass streak. They were not Mormons, like most people in my Utah community. They thought the mountains that I had grown up with were the most amazing things they had ever seen. I thought those mountains were pretty average. They had a hyperactive Labrador and an above ground trampoline, while we had a borderline comatose malamute and parents with a fear of dangerous fun.

But they also loved Star Wars as much as the MT and I did.

And so Star Wars became the first common language of our friendship.

jedi

Look at the tiny jedi! And get a load of MT in those Yoda ears.

For the better part of two years, the MT and I saw them most days, tumbling through an elaborate universe that was partly George Lucas’s, partly of our own making. We bought lightsabers and coordinated Halloween costumes and Legos and action figures. While our parents hiked behind us or walked through an amusement park or a convention centers, we ran ahead, just a little too old to be playing pretend this aggressively in public. We even wrote a brilliant musical parody, The Sound of Blasters, which ran for one magnificent night in their backyard4.

I spent two years living as a Jedi knight with this family and the boy I will always think of as my first best friend.

And then the next year, they moved away. As quickly and mysteriously as they came.

It was a delirious, wildly happy two year period for me, and when I look back on my younger self, I can point to this time with them as one of the many reasons I write books for young people. Because I spent those two years more in love than I ever have been since, both with Star Wars and with these neighbors next door. I loved Star Wars like I couldn’t love anything anymore because at some point in your growing up, you get told you can’t love things *that* much anymore, and I loved those kids like I can’t anymore because even the most vanilla life will give you some well-earned trust issues. But when you’re a kid and a teen, no one tells you not to love things that much.

And that’s why I love young people, and why I love writing for them. Because they love things. I think of the way I loved Star Wars. And the way I loved those neighbors who lived in Star Wars with me. I want to write for people who are that open and willing to love.

  1. Though I have a distinct memory of going to Media Play, back when people bought music at stores, and sitting at one of the tables with my dad and watching Empire Strikes Back for the first time.
  2. And then they also had a middle son who fell awkwardly in between us.
  3. If you would like to talk about magnificent parents who never forced gender norms on their kids, when I said I want to be Queen Amidala one year and then Anakin Skywalker the next, they never batted an eyelid at either of these things. I have excellent parentals.
  4. And included the legendary YMCA parody, YODA, of which the first line was “YODA! Been living eight hundred years, I say YODA, he’s got them big old green ears.”
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