Friday, July 1, 2011

Toxic Feedback. We've All Received It. Joni Cole Tells Us What to Do About It

We’ve all experienced it. A brutal critique of our writing that has sent our little hearts a-fluttering and our self-esteem plummeting to the floor.

It is every writer's hope to find a supportive community in which to nurture our writing. Joni B. Cole, a writer, writing teacher, essayist and a 2011 Pushcart Prize nominee, wants to help writers find this creative utopia by learning to give as well as get better feedback. She hopes to achieve this through her book, Toxic Feedback.

Why did you decide to write Toxic Feedback?

About twelve years ago, in one of the writing workshops I teach, I learned that several of the participants were either refugees from previous classes where they had experienced toxic feedback, or were closet writers terrified to go public.

At that first meeting, I did a timed writing exercise and then invited participants to share what they had written. As usual, the panic was palpable. I remember one fellow in particular whose hands and voice shook as he read his exercise aloud.

Where was this fear coming from? Years of doing my own workshop had taught me that feedback doesn’t have be something writers dread or endure. In fact, when the process is managed properly, feedback is nothing but positive, even when it’s critical.

Seeing that writer’s hands shake as he read his piece aloud, I didn’t exactly think in that moment—hey, I’m onto a good book idea here. But it did register that this issue was real and really mattered. Almost every writer in that room, including me, had experienced toxic feedback at some point. And that’s when it hit me. This isn’t right. I wanted to do something about it.

What kind of a resource do you hope Toxic Feedback can provide for writers?

The general goal of the book is to raise people’s consciousness about how we give and receive feedback in the writing realm, and the world in general. Put another way, my goal, lofty as it may sound, is to help writers write more, write better, and be happier.

When does feedback get toxic?

My definition of toxic feedback is anything that undermines the writer or the writing. Which is not to say that negative feedback (or constructive criticism, to put it more nicely) is inherently toxic. In fact, far from it. Writers actually want to hear what they are doing wrong in order to fix it. But constructive criticism can easily turn toxic if the feedback provider gets lazy, or forgets that the exchange is all about what the writer needs right then, to move her work forward.

For example, writers can handle specifics; it’s the generalities that bring them to their knees. Yet too many feedback providers toss off easy (and dismissive) responses: “I don’t get it…” “This is boring…” Another example: red-penciling a manuscript to death—even if your heart is in the right place—usually comes across as toxic. Remember, some writers can choke on a crumb, so don’t get carried away with your brilliant insights. If you deliver your feedback in measured quantities, and with appreciation for what the writer has already achieved on the page, then she is much more likely to actually hear your feedback, and process it more effectively.

What are your tenets for providing feedback?

Here is the most important one: spend as much time (if not more) on positive feedback. What specifically is working in the text? Where were you blown away in the story? What passages exemplify good writing? Obviously, this kind of positive feedback is lovely for the writer to hear, and for that reason alone it’s important. But more to the point, positive feedback is hugely instructive in helping the writer build her story from its strengths up with confidence and direction.


Joni B. Cole is the author of the forthcoming book, Another Bad-Dog Book: Tales of Life, Love, and Neurotic Human Behavior (PublishingWorks), Toxic Feedback: Helping Writers Survive and the anthology, Water Cooler Diaries: Women Across America Share Their Day at Work.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Three Examples of Great Hooks

I've written some about story hooks in previous posts. Here are three wonderful examples of excellent story hooks from the winners of Narrative Magazine's Winter Story Contest.

Now I know why these stories won...

Read the hooks for yourself:

Christmas Eve
by Kevin A. González
“TWO DAYS AGO, my father was making French fries and started a fire in her kitchen. It didn’t spread too bad, but the cabinets all melted and the stove was a total loss. When I heard the sirens from the pool, I knew it was my father: it’s not the first place he’s burned down.”

Maine Night
by Debra Spark
“IN NORMAL FAMILIES, a late-night phone call means only one thing: tragedy. A drunken mishap. A car crash. A heart giving out. Maybe a decapitation or a roadside bomb, the twenty-first century offering an escalating range of horrors. But the Pearlmans are not a normal family.”

by Viet Thanh Nguyen
“EVEN AFTER A WEEK in Saigon, Vivien would appear no more of a native than on the day she arrived. On the streets, she was easily mistaken for a Korean businessman’s frazzled wife or a weary Japanese tourist, her frosting of makeup melting under the tropical glare.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

Brainstorming Consequences for Your Characters

Here's a really wonderful post I found on Jurgen Wolff's Time to Write blog about mapping out different options for consequences to your character's actions.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

How to Write a Scene with Cecilia Russell of How Movies Work

Writing compelling scenes is the basis of any good screenplay, novel or short story for that matter. But how does one do this?

Practice, practice, practice

According to Cecilia Russell of How Movies Work, the only way to get better at writing scenes is to practice

“It’s like playing scales for a concert pianist, or practicing a putt for a golfer," says Russell.

“One of the things that used to mess up my ability to write was the idea that I needed to 'know' what I was writing in order to write something. So not true. Writing characters, dialogue, conflict, subtext, action narration doesn’t require a story. It doesn’t require a reason to write. You don’t wait to practice your craft when you are in a situation where you have to perform. You practice so you can perform. Big difference.

“Also, there’s something magical about practicing writing without an intended product. For so many of us, especially those who are producers and professional copywriters, we’ve been to school in structure, [told to] outline heavily before you start writing. For some, it shuts down another avenue for accessing your story – writing purely through character.

“When you let your characters speak, roam around and find their internal direction you can often find your story that way too. The characters are more liberated to act when they aren’t constrained by your roadmap.”

The tennis match

In order to practice writing scenes, Russell came up with all the different types of scenes that she typically reads in scripts. 

One of these basic conflict scenes between two or more people Russell calls the “tennis match.”

“One character serves up the problem, the other character answers, deflects, lobs, changes the problem or loses the point. There’s two people NOT talking about the conflict. Then there’s pure action. There’s a scene that creates tension and suspense. A scene that introduces and reveals character. Another where a character is challenged to change his/her core wound (what we call the internal character flaw that’s the core of the hero’s journey). As a writer, you want to know how to do every one of these scenes artfully. It’s so much easier if you practice before you are ‘in the game.’ "

What are the components that need to be in each scene?

According to Russell, each scene needs change.

“Something needs to change or be different between the beginning of the scene and the end of the scene, whether that’s emotional, informational or physical. Sometimes it’s all three.”

- Every character has to have a desire or a motivation.
- They need a willingness or lack of willingness to reveal their desire or motivation.
- Conflict must occur. Either as a result of the characters’ actions or differing desires or as an outside conflict (a bomb explodes).
- The end of the scene reveals a new conflict that will need another scene to resolve it.

Other tips for showing more in scenes and telling less?

Russell advises:

1. Imagine having to write your story without dialogue. How would that change your scenes?

2. Play with character who lie and missing information. When a character lies or has limited knowledge, the writer has to SHOW how they are lying. The story tends to reveal itself in action, not words.

3. Remember the audience is smart and looking for story connections. If you show a gun, you assume someone’s going to use it. If a character says they are happier than they have ever been in their lives, you assume that something bad is going to happen. 

Learn more about the workshops that Cecilia Russell offers on her website Her next scene writing class starts next Wednedsay night, June 22cd, 6-9pm. It's online, $279 for 9 weeks. Click here: to get a 20% discount: $237!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Who Says Fiction Authors Can't Be Great Marketers?

Let’s face it, as fiction writers we can be some of the worst businesspeople on the planet. But we don’t have to be. With a savvy marketing campaign, you can even learn to market your fiction writing.

I listened to a great webinar last night by Emily Craven of E-Book Revolution. I will blog some of the other things she said about e-publishing in another post. But for now, here are some of her tips about marketing your book as a fiction writer.


Join interest groups and promote your work there.

My two cents worth: Don’t abuse this or you’ll come off as spammy. You have to become part of the community, comment on others writer’s work too. It can’t be all about you (even though many of us narcissistic writers would love it to be).

Free stuff

Yes, everyone likes free stuff. With the purchase of your novel or short story collection, why not include a free short story? Once you create a fan base, your fans will be dying to get their hands on more of your work.

Why not also give away free audio copies of your book? It’s a great way to create a buzz around your work.

And when you’re writing that new book, consider also giving away a free chapter online that people can read.


Shoot a trailer of your book or pay someone to do it for you. Then post that trailer on youtube.

Engage your audience

I just found something interesting on author Jim Brown's website. Brown offers turning you, the reader, into a character in his next novel if you sign up for his newsletter before he’s done with the book.

These are all but a few of the ways for us as fiction writers to market ourselves.

More About the Hook and Plot Structure With Story Deconstructionist Larry Brooks

I recently discovered writing coach Larry Brook's website, Storyfix. Brooks offers some great tips about the hook, which you, if you read my blog, might have deduced I've been studying a lot about lately.

Says Brooks: "The mission of a hook is to grab the reader early – very early – by establishing dramatic tension or posing a question (a can of worms) that compels further interest and promises a rewarding ride.  Sometimes it’s huge, sometimes more subtle."

Brooks continues to deconstruct other aspects of plot as well as the hook, utilizing Kathryn Sockett's The Help as a model.

I recommend Brook's site as a great resource for writers who want to learn more about plotting.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Give Your Characters At Least a Few Good Qualities

In response to a post I wrote yesterday, I have an example of yet another film that has very poor character development because the characters have no redeeming qualities.

It's a French film called Student Services -- or  Mes Cheres Etudes (en français) -- written by Emmanuelle Bercot. This movie chronicles the life of a student who gets into prostitution in order to pay the bills. I watched the film as I am always interested in what Europe is producing in terms of movies on topics such as the sex trade, as I wrote for magazines such as Playboy while I lived in Spain, and so I was immersed in this sort of writing myself.

Well... The characters are not likeable in the least. The main character's boyfriend is awful. I suppose Bercot wanted to show what an ass the boyfriend was as a reason for the main character's turning  to amateur prostitution to make ends meet.

In my opinion, however, if Bercot would have made the boyfriend just a little more likeable, instead of just a boor who demands his hashish and turns away from his girlfriend while she is trying to pleasure him because she didn't pay the electricity bill, Bercot still could have gotten the viewer on the main character's side. It would have been just a bit more lurid to watch a girl who actually had a tolerable boyfriend get into hooking. Or more deep and twisted. What if they were truly in love with one another? Perhaps the main character even could have had the misguided desire to use prostitution as a means to make her relationship with her boyfriend work.

While I lived in Europe, I was constantly being told how only Europeans have the huevos to delve into the dark side of life, as we Americans just can't go there. Our American movies are only happy, while European movies are deep.


Now that I have more understanding about what it really takes to make a good story, I think one can still journey through the dark side of life while making the inhabitants of the story more three-dimensional, with, dare I say, some good characteristics, not just depressing ones.

None of us are totally good -- nor totally bad. Even the crazy man who lives across the street from me and sometimes yells obscenities... He still has some redeemable qualities. (Of course, I have to be in an evolved state of mind to see them.)

Give your characters some good qualities, or suffer a one-dimensional story.