The Art of Giving Constructive Criticism

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toastmastersOne of the many reasons I joined a local Toastmaster’s chapter is to develop the ability to offer constructive criticism. While becoming competent in oral communication is a fundamental goal of membership in the organization, so is learning to become a better listener. Cultivating this valuable skill  makes it possible to offer thoughtful feedback on someone’s speech, but it requires genuine interest and focused concentration. At our last meeting, I took on the task of speech evaluator for the very first time as part of my effort to ease into the act of making my first speech (called an “Ice Breaker”) by starting with smaller roles first.

To say I was nervous about standing up in front of the room and making an oral critique would be a monumental understatement. There is definitely an art to providing meaningful, useful criticism designed to help a speaker acknowledge both their strengths and weaknesses in order to become an even better communicator. While I realize I have a very long way to go in this area, I appreciated the positive reviews I received from others in attendance, including the speech giver.

While Toastmasters focuses on the development of competent communication and leadership qualities for individual members, the same principles hold true for the written word. As an author and book reviewer, I understand this well.

Writer's BlockFirst, to take on the author part: I fully understand that as much as I strive to develop themes through my plots and character development in any given novel, not every reader is going to “get” them. We all process entertainment in the form of the written word (and on film and other mediums) though the prism of our own unique experiences, after all. When I sat down to write Water Signs, I never set out to produce a tawdry romance novel, but instead a coming of age story in which sex and attitudes about sex play an integral role. My main character struggles to balance her morality while living in a society that has all but abandoned the “old-fashioned” values with which she was raised. At the same time, she’s human. She experiences the normal desires that go along with being a young woman (and as the story progresses, an older and wiser one). Hence, her inner turmoil often manifests in self-defeating and even frightening ways (e.g. anxiety disorder). Having a much more worldly boyfriend complicates her own personal growth journey and relationship with main character, Ken — not to mention other guys she dates along the way.

However, I never intended the book to be perceived as yet another cheap, formulaic romance where meaningless dialogue and a canned plot provide filler in between raunchy, explicit love scenes. Up until now, no one (at least no one that I am aware of) has viewed it that way. Most readers (those who have contacted me personally and/or posted reviews) have perceived Water Signs as a contemporary romance with plenty to say about the modern dating scene and other realities of current times.

Let me clarify: I am seeking thoughtful criticism; I’m not expecting the whole world to fawn over my book, fall in love with its two main characters, or give me nothing but 5-star reviews. That’s completely unrealistic, not to mention a hindrance to my own growth and improvement as a writer. I do, however, appreciate it when someone takes the time to point out the good (even if it’s simply an acknowledgment of better-than-average writing skills, use of literary technique, or story pacing) while (as I am learning to do at Toastmasters) identifying areas that need improvement.

Which brings me back to my dilemma.

Are some reviewers just more thoughtful than others? Or is it all a matter of perception based on their own personal experience (and not so much what the author was attempting to say through plot and characters)? Perhaps it’s a combination of both? Can a reader who does not fit the parameters of your target audience even offer a balanced review to begin with?

WaterSigns2.jpgAll are important considerations.

Nevertheless, we as authors simply cannot control readers’ perceptions of our work — nor should we even seek to do so. While I am incredibly disappointed in the characterization of my book as a “bodice ripper,” perhaps it will attract a whole new audience. Who knows? Guess I’ll just have to wait and see, although my guess is that readers of Harlequin romances will most likely dismiss Maddy and her entire family as hopelessly out of touch and prudish.

Unlike speeches, books are much more subjective – unless of course, they are truly unreadable due to things like poor grammar and lack of a coherent plot – for which perhaps a 1-star review is appropriate. For the record, no one has accused Water Signs of either of these, although privately someone told me they hated my characters — to the point of wanting to take an ax to them. That was definitely a first.

Given that most others have had a completely opposite take, this is very perplexing. Whether you hate it, love it, or fall somewhere in between, referring to Water Signs as a bodice ripper completely misses the point. Which circles back to every author’s conundrum: we cannot control how others perceive our work because – as with many experiences in life – readers bring along their own preconceived ideas. In the case of my novel, maybe it’s about time a reader presented a different take on the story – whether I agree with it or not.

When I write a book review, I make an effort to specify the positive aspects, e.g. a hard-hitting scene, a particularly compelling bit of dialogue, or the writer’s remarkable talent for drawing the reader into the story through the use of descriptive prose — whatever elements I can honestly rave about. If there are things I don’t like, or believe could use some improvement, I point them out in a constructive way. At least, these are my goals when I sit down to write a critique. Am I perfect at it? Not at all. That’s where Toastmasters comes in, along with the practice of reading and reviewing books regularly. Learn and improve by doing.

As I move forward in my own professional development with Toastmasters, I hope I’ll not only become better at critiquing (and giving) speeches, but also reading and reviewing books.

As for my next meeting role, I’ll be the evening’s “Ah, Um Counter,” which means I’ll definitely be listening closely to all speakers. And as my involvement in the organization progresses, I hope to eliminate my own bad “Ah,” “Um,” and “You know” habits.

Stay tuned….and keep on writing!

 

 

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Great Reads, Great $2.99 Kindle Deals for Labor Day Weekend

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Love your freedom, a good read and a great deal? This Labor Day weekend the authors of the CLFA want to facilitate your reading enjoyment while keeping your wallet full and happy with special $2.99 Kindle deals. With a variety of genres from sci-fi to contemporary romance to dystopia, there is something for everyone. Support talented artists who tell compelling stories and love the USA!

Visit Nocturnal Lives for a complete run-down on all participating books. And don’t forget to like the CLFA on Facebook.

P.S. Water Signs is on the list. ;)

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Latest Reviews of Water Signs

My first novel is now on sale for $2.99 in Kindle format while I dedicate myself to completing the sequel this year. In the meantime, I am thrilled to have recently received the following reviews:

Water Signs is one of those rare books that makes you feel like you want to meet the characters in person. Yes, they are that real. It is beautifully written with passion for our country and romance. It is one of those books that is just like a good movie, where you hate to see it end. Speaking of more…please Daria, write the sequel as we are left sitting on the edge our seats wanting more. Madeline Rose and her charming husband Kenny will enrich your lives with their love for each other. Yes, a perfect romance does exist.

WaterSigns

I fell in love with Rose from the very beginning and couldn’t wait to know more and more about her story. I am rooting for her and hope the author will consider writing a sequel. I would like to be informed if she does. Her writing style kept me engaged and intrigued. I appreciate an author like DiGiovanni who has a keen knowledge of English language and who writes as if you were right there with the main character. Kudos to you!

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Water Signs on Kindle for $2.99

WaterSigns2.jpgBetter late than never, my 2008 novel Water Signs is now available on Kindle for $2.99. It’s been an interesting journey, navigating through this brave new media marketing world over the past six years. Although I haven’t actively promoted the book in a very long time, I recently realized that 1.) My network of contacts, friends and clients has dramatically increased thanks to platforms like Facebook and Twitter, providing a large new base of potential readers, and 2.) Now that I’ve completed two ghostwritten books and have a handle on social media projects for clients, I can make the time to (finally) finish Sea To Shining Sea.

One of the many benefits of being an independently published author is that you can never really penetrate your market; therefore, there are endless opportunities to reach new readers. And what better way to pave the way to sequel success than to have my audience fall in love with (or in many cases, all over again) Water Signs just before the sequel’s release?

If you would like to download Water Signs to your Kindle for $2.99, click here. For insights into the book’s various themes, literary techniques and characters, click here.

Thank you to everyone who supports my writing — I appreciate you! :)

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A Review of Underlake by Kia Heavey – A Spellbinding, Supernatural Coming of Age Story

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Just posted on Amazon:

Although I’m decades older than Underlake’s target audience, I was thoroughly captivated by Kia Heavey’s mesmerizing tale of teen angst with a supernatural twist. Unlike the usual pop culture tropes we see today, however, the main character Katie Welch’s internal conflict

Author Kia Heavey.

Author Kia Heavey.

stems from having a strong moral compass in a world where most parents have ceded responsibility. In Katie’s upper-crust clique where money is a substitute for time and attention, the prevailing wisdom is that “kids are going to do it anyway.” Which is why Katie’s Manhattan friends — lacking any clearly defined boundaries — are thrust into adulthood at hyper speed.

Therefore, Katie’s organic “old-fashioned” values and inherent longing for a mother who imposes discipline is at odds with her (materially) pampered lifestyle. Although she doesn’t realize it at first, her mother’s insistence on spending a summer in the rural upstate New York resort town of Underlake will ultimately transform her life and validate her belief system. Although she’s only 15, Katie is wise beyond her years and in a culture of moral excess, it was refreshing to read a portrayal of a young teen who recognizes the importance of slowing down and enjoying one’s childhood and adolescence.

Once the story unfolded in its pastoral, lakeside setting it began to weave elements of spirituality and the supernatural with beautiful prose, imagery and and an intriguing leading man, John Howe. The author kept me guessing right up until the turning point of the plot, which was refreshingly unique and completely unexpected. Without giving away any spoilers, I’ll just add that as I turned the pages leading up to the final sequence, I found myself hoping Katie’s faith would be rewarded. A master storyteller, Kia kept me in suspense until the end.

While the book celebrates traditional values, it never once devolves into didactic preachiness. I sympathized with Katie but I could also understand her mother’s tortured dilemma. I felt sorry for her privileged friends who are just kids in need of direction and parental affection, struggling to understand their proper role in the world. And in the love affair between Katie and John I saw all of the elements of a genuine courtship — a quaint practice that seems to have been all but discarded in a society where meaningless hook-ups are the norm, not the exception.

Infused with vivid detail, sympathetic characters, a haunting landscape and an aura of mysticism, Underlake combines contemporary sensibilities with timeless morality and champions the conquering power of love and forgiveness. I highly recommend it for readers of all ages.

A few months ago, I interviewed Kia on Writestream just before Underlake’s release. Click below to listen.

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