Critique sandwiches

tsj-maras-sandwich-january-30-2015
Image from thesocialjeep.com

Next time you see a writer, you may want to offer a sandwich. If you’re meeting with a group of writers, bring a platter of sandwiches.

I’m talking about the sandwich method of critique recommended by Eva Marie Everson and Janice Elsheimer in Word Weavers, a small book describing how Word Weavers International began as well as how to start and function within a local chapter.

Simply put, the sandwich approach places constructive criticism between two layers of positive praise, like meat between slices of bread. You begin a critique by noting something you liked or something the writer did well. Then you point out things that could be improved, suggesting ways to do that. Conclude by saying something positive about the piece.

word weavers
The Des Moines Word Weavers and guest speaker, taken when I (unfortunately) was not present.

My Word Weavers group employs the sandwich method. We try to couch constructive criticism within encouraging comments. This allows us to affirm each other while honing craft.

Over my years as a writer, I’ve participated in many critique experiences. And I must say: some people are better at this than others.

People frequently skip right over the first slice of bread and get right to what they view as the meat. They point out every typo and awkward construction, often repeating what others have already said. Then they end with a negative comment, leaving off that last slice of bread. What happens when you try to eat a sandwich without any bread? It can be pretty messy, can’t it?

The sandwich approach is not unique to Word Weavers; other organizations also utilize it effectively. On this page, Rob Kelly writes about using it in his Toastmasters group and describes the three steps of the method. Some writers within the business community, such as Roger Schwarz, suggest replacing the sandwich method with a more direct approach.

Functioning as an effective team leader in a corporate context, however, is very different from assessing someone’s speaking or writing. In those situations, sandwiches remain palatable and nourishing food.

Writers work primarily in isolation. They don’t have a boss coming by to give them a verbal pat on the back. They don’t receive promotions or performance awards. They may see some sales reports, but they rarely see people actually reading and enjoying their books. Most only occasionally hear compliments about something they’ve written.

While writers differ greatly in personality and self-esteem, their artistic temperament makes them in general a sensitive bunch. Most feel vulnerable within a critique context. It takes courage to share something you’ve written for public view and criticism.

Because words gestate in the womb of the writer’s mind before the finished product is birthed, authors often view written work as their “baby” (see this post on the Birth of a Book, relating how my Matthew juvenile fiction series came into being).

Who wants to offer their precious baby on the altar of criticism? Who wants to see it slashed and bleeding before their very eyes?

Harsh criticism not only seems like an attack on the work, it also feels like a personal attack against the writer. Authors pour themselves into their work. Writing isn’t a hobby or a 9 to 5 job for them. It’s their lifeblood. They eat words and drink inspiration. They bleed ink.

Many writers become reluctant speakers. They know it’s a necessary part of the marketing and promotion they must do. Perhaps they feel God is calling them to share some of what they’re learning. It’s wonderful to travel and meet other people, but timid speakers may prefer to stay home and weave words.

When critiquing someone’s writing or speaking, it’s easy to point out the faults. It’s more difficult to think of something encouraging to say. But it’s far more important.

Writers require affirmation. How can they know they are doing their work well if people don’t tell them? They may frequently remind themselves that they’re working for the Lord, not for men (Colossians 3:23), but how will they know that effort is effective if God’s image-bearers don’t share ways their hearts are touched?

If you have an opportunity to critique a writer, don’t discard the bread and throw only meat, as if the writer is a ferocious beast in a cage. Think about what you can say that’s positive, express criticism in a constructive way to help the writer improve the work, and then end with a bit of praise that will stick in the writer’s mind. Such a sandwich will provide the nutrition necessary for joyful growth.

Advertisements

Dedicating Matthew, Take Three

Wes-me-1What fun to place the final Matthew in the Middle book into the hands of the grandson to whom it’s dedicated! The first book in the series, Matthew Muddles Through, is dedicated to my oldest grandson. The second book, Matthew Makes Strides, is dedicated to  my second grandson. And this third book, Matthew Moves Ahead, is dedicated to my third grandson. The boys are all brothers, sons of my oldest son.

Matthew began as an experiment in a creative writing class, but grew over the years to a vibrant book boy. This third novel, Matthew Moves Ahead, includes the following “Birth of a Book” section at the back:

My book boy Matthew grew for more years than his age. Although Matthew is eleven, his story is thirteen.

He was an experiment, conceived in a fiction writing course I took in 2002. I challenged myself to write in a point of view very different from personal experience. Could a boring and sedentary mature woman write the first-person perspective of an imaginative and active young boy?

I named that embryo Caleb to reflect the faithfulness and zeal of the biblical believer who urged the Israelites to fight the giants and enter the Promised Land (Numbers 13:30), and who at eighty-five years of age remained eager to fight for the Lord (Joshua 14:6-12). Military matters interested Caleb, the middle child in a minister’s family, who befriended a Vietnam veteran named Fred Winters.

The initial short story began with Caleb washing his toy soldiers in the bathroom sink and went on to show him playing a basketball game with his older brother, while Dad spoke to Mr. Winters in the kitchen. I hadn’t planned that basketball game. It just happened.

I loved this imaginary family. And my instructor loved the story, calling the scene with the two boys playing basketball in the cold “beautiful.” He suggested I submit another Caleb narrative as my next assignment.

That second short story described the chaos of a Sunday morning when everything goes wrong. Later that day, Mr. Winters shared a glimpse of his tormented past, and Caleb witnessed to him about the truths of God’s word and how those things are worth fighting—and dying—for. The story concludes with the two going upstairs for apple pie.

Readers of Matthew Muddles Through will recognize these stories in Chapters 10, 14, and 16 of that book.

My book boy grew in the womb of my imagination until he was born in 2007 as Matthew Henry Vos. Exactly like parents who decide on the right name once they see the baby, I knew this was the perfect choice.

But the poor fellow experienced a sickly childhood, suffering through innumerable surgeries and lengthy hospitalizations. Blog reflections on these can be found on my website: glendafayemathes.com.

Plans for his entrance into society changed from one novel to four, to three, and back and forth between four and three a few more times.

Matthew survived preliminary auditions in 2009 and flew to the big city in 2010 to make a name for himself, but returned home feeling rejected. Occasionally I visited him while he languished in recovery.

Until Thanksgiving of 2013, when my oldest grandson asked, “Grandma, did you ever finish that story about Matthew?”

Well! If my grandson wanted to read Matthew’s story, I wanted to give it to him before he lost interest. And he was almost a teenager. I determined to place the first book in his hands for his thirteenth birthday.

I did.

Matthew now lives in the hearts and minds of more readers than I’d ever imagined.

I love hearing from readers. Moises read the first two books and has been begging his day for the third one for months. Recently I received this message from Moises (age 9), who lives in California:

Dear Glenda Faye Mathes,

Thank you for the books you wrote. They are very good books. I liked them a lot! They are the best books I have ever read! I liked them because they are Christian and Reformed. I liked them too because they were very interesting! There were no bad words or bad pictures in them! I learned not to be selfish, to obey our parents, not to get angry at them, and to help others whenever they are hurt!

Moises

After church services, Asher often came up to me with shining eyes. “Mrs. Mathes, Mrs. Mathes. We’re reading your book!” Only all summer, it was: “Mrs. Mathes, Mrs. Mathes. When will your next book be ready?”

It’s finally here, Asher. Enjoy.

Wes-me-3
Wes was happy to receive his signed copy of Matthew Moves Ahead. What do you like about the books? Please comment below.

Matthew is moving ahead!

MMAFew things thrill a writer more than holding a hard copy of a finally-published book. It’s a rush to see your name on the cover, but it’s also such fun to see how the colors and artwork look in real life. With all three of my Matthew in the Middle books, I’ve been pleased that the actual books look even better than the PDF cover files. Ken Raney, over at Clash Creative, did the artwork for all three novels in this series and he did a fabulous job.

What a pleasure to receive this afternoon my first hard cover copies of Matthew Moves Ahead, the third and final book of the Matthew in the Middle series! All three novels are now available on Amazon: Matthew Muddles ThroughMatthew Makes Strides, and Matthew Moves Ahead. Check them out!

If you enjoy them, please leave a review. Any reader can review a book, and it’s easy to do. It takes only a few minutes, but it means a great deal to the author because reviews drive ratings and sales. And being able to pay for groceries thrills a writer almost as much as holding a hard copy of a published book.

Matthew Moves Ahead!

M Moves Ahead frontMatthew Moves Ahead, the third book in the Matthew in the Middle series is now available on Amazon!

After three long years of waiting, Matthew Vos is finally going to the Cadet International Camporee! He’s earning money to buy supplies, but the lawnmower slips from his grip and cuts through a customer’s garden. Matthew’s hopes wither like the sheared-off plant tops. What more could possibly go wrong? And will the Camporee turn out to be all he’s imagined?

Click over to Amazon and check it out! Better yet, put a copy in your cart. Read it. Write a review. Spread the word. Buy more books. Give them as Christmas gifts. Tell your friends to give them as Christmas gifts. Not sold yet? Consider these endorsements and their sources:

I love this kid. Of course, I love Matt’s fondness for The Accidental Detectives books, but I also love his humorous voice, active imagination, and fledgling faith. Glenda Faye Mathes crafts vivid scenes and authentic dialogue that draw me into the story and into Matt’s head. Because Matthew Moves Ahead in realistic ways that reflect universal childhood disappointments and joys, readers will love Matthew, too.

— Sigmund Brouwer, best-selling author of over 40 novels, including many series for young readers and Thief of Glory, Book of the Year Christy Award 2015

‘He leaned over the table and contorted his face like speckled Silly Putty.’ This playful line (one of so many) from Matthew Moves Ahead aptly demonstrates how well the author pegs fun, insightful, and altogether natural word pictures. Reading through a brief period of Matt’s everyday life is much like living a brief period of your own. The young boy in the heart of Glenda Faye Mathes is us—and he comes to life with rich and believable detail, warmly testifying to God’s love in real time.

— Norm Bomer, God’s World News, Senior Editor (retired) and author of Sons of the River: A Nebraska Memoir

What an adventure! Matthew Moves Ahead is a delightful story and a great addition to the library of any young boy, especially a Cadet who has actually participated in an International Camporee. Glenda Faye Mathes has obviously done a lot of research and accurately portrays Kamp Kananaskis details, even down to menus and devotions. The characters develop well as the story progresses, and the reader will see Matthew’s cadre grow into a unit of close friends by the week’s end. All in all, it’s a tale well told.

— G. Richard Broene, Executive Director, Calvinist Cadet Corps

I’m thrilled and thankful for these amazing endorsements from men with specialized expertise. And while I’m a little sad to bid adieu to Matthew, I’m happy to announce this final novel’s availability.

The Matthew in the Middle series is aimed at middle grade readers, ages 8-12, but can be enjoyed by any age. Other novels in the series are Matthew Muddles Through and Matthew Makes Strides, both also available on Amazon.

In the course of the series, Matthew develops relationships with people very different from himself. He discovers the pitfalls of being a hero and how to overcome fear and anxiety. And he grows in his faith as he lives more and more for Jesus.

What inspires creativity?

Photo copyright Glenda Mathes 2006
Photo copyright Glenda Mathes 2006

How does a writer fuel the creative muse? What role could poetry or music play? Could sermons or scripture generate creativity?

For years, I’ve believed poetry–or at least being familiar with good poetry–elevated prose. The instructor for my first creative writing course (more than 20 years ago) taught a unit on poetry before teaching prose, saying, “If you know how to write poetry, you’ll write better prose.” He was right.

Being able to recognize assonance, consonance, simile, metaphor, and a host of other literary techniques makes you a better reader. And being able to judiciously implement technique enlivens any writing. I’m not advocating going through your manuscript and thinking, “How can insert a literary technique here?” Rather, a literary mindset leads to fresh ways of expressing thoughts and techniques that tumble into the manuscript unsought.

My Word Weavers meeting this week discussed the place of poetry in prose writing. One of my fellow Weavers recalled advice to begin each day or work session by writing a poem. This reminded me of poets John Piper and Edward Taylor. Oh, you thought those guys were ministers? Yep.

Piper is a contemporary Christian minister of Desiring God fame, the ministry name drawn from his bestselling book. He often prepares for writing sermons by crafting poetry. His poems can be found on the ministry website. He gives some great advice for how to begin writing poetry here, recommending Ted Kooser’s The Poetry Home Repair Manual and Mary Oliver’s A Poetry Handbook for beginning poets. I’m not familiar with Ted Kooser, but the title intrigues me. And I’m very familiar with Mary Oliver’s poems, some of which are among my favorites, especially this one with its beautiful conclusion: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do/with your one wild and precious life?”

Edward Taylor may not be as familiar. He was a Puritan minister and poet and “one of the finest literary artists of Colonial America,” according to this biography. He became my friend many years ago, when I discovered him in this collection.

When I hear a vivid sermon by a passionate preacher, I often feel moved by my personal muse. Some of my best poems have been inspired by sermons. Reflecting on Scripture or other devotional material before beginning my work day can trigger creative energy.

My most creative thoughts arise from my daily early morning quiet time, lying in bed and communing with God in what I call “the votive silence” (you can read my 2006 reflections on how I came to adopt that phrase here). My joke, based on something a fellow participant said at a writer’s mentoring retreat several years ago, is referring to this morning time as being “sack-religious.”

Until this morning, I hadn’t considered music instrumental in fueling creativity. In fact, I thought it too distracting, believing I could accomplish more without jarring notes or someone else’s words drawing me out of my creative process. I even commented about this recently on a Facebook thread. Today I found this post on “Finding Your Way To ‘Other Time'” by Doug McKelvey over at The Rabbit Room website. McKelvey is a songwriter who also writes juvenile fiction, such as The Angel Knew Papa and the Dog (another intriguing title).
And the music clips he links into his post definitely intrigue me. I haven’t taken time to check all of them out, but I’ve listened to enough that I believe I may have to adjust my thinking about music fueling muse.
What do you think? What fuels contribute to your creativity?

Grace Awards 2014 Winners ~ in Faith Based Fiction

Congratulations to my friend, Susan Lawrence, for her well-deserved win with The Atonement for Emily Adams in the Women’s Fiction/General Fiction category of the 2014 Grace Awards.

You can read the announcement here: Grace Awards 2014 Winners ~ in Faith Based Fiction.

Here’s my interview with Susan in May of 2014.

Susan is an extraordinary storyteller and a humble, godly Christian woman. Her writing shines with authentic characters responding to trauma in realistic ways.

If you still need more reason to buy Atonement for Emily Adams, you should know that proceeds and royalties go to Pour International, to help build a home for abandoned children and babies in Swaziland.

Matthew has moved ahead

My book boy Matthew has moved into his final phase. He’ll leap only a few more hurdles before crossing the finish line.

Matthew Moves Ahead is the third and last novel of the Matthew in the Middle series. My wonderful online critique group reviewed all the chapters in it, and I’m finalizing end matter prior to submitting it to the proofreader. I’m seeking endorsements. The artist is working on the cover. I hope hard copies will be published this summer, perhaps in July.

The first two books in the series, Matthew Muddles Through and Matthew Makes Strides, are already available on Amazon, and I’m excited for the third one to join them. Writing this series has been quite a process, with Matthew sometimes sidelined for long periods of time. (You can read more about that here and here.) I recently took some time to reflect on how my book boy was born.

Several young boys (and some girls!) have asked about this final Matthew book, and I’m eager for them to hold it in their hands and turn the pages.

Here’s hoping Matthew clears those hurdles and soon rejoices in the winner’s circle!

Dedicating Matthew, Take Two

Logan-MMS-2The second novel about my “book boy” Matthew is dedicated to my second grandson, Logan. During this past week, I had the opportunity to present a copy of the book to him.

Putting a copy in his hands was almost as much fun as writing this stimulating story. Others who’ve read the book find it exciting as well. This is what Douglas Bond, who’s written Duncan’s War and other works of historical fiction, says:

Glenda Faye Mathes writes with energy and intentionality. When she writes about a coming tornado, it feels so real, I start glancing nervously out the window. Young people will feel like the author knows them, is inside their heads, so intimate is her knowledge of her readers. This is a frank and honest portrayal of a preacher’s kid, but one that speaks to the extraordinary challenges and joys of ordinary growing up. Highly recommended.

This is a huge compliment, coming from the author of engaging nonfiction and many intensely thrilling novels.

Another excellent writer provided a second meaningful endorsement. Simonetta Carr, author of Christian Biographies for Young Readers, writes:

Well written and captivating, this book—as the previous one in the series—takes us through the everyday life of Matthew Vos, an inquiring and thoughtful fifth grader who faces many typical challenges of a middle child and “Preacher’s Kid.” There are surprises along the way, and important lessons as Matthew strives to overcome his fears and to be more like the heroes he admires. I was impressed by the author’s ability to describe in a very plausible and heartfelt manner the inner thoughts of a young child. Although the book is set in a specific situation (a Dutch Reformed community in 1996 America), many children in different circumstances will easily identify with Matthew’s feelings and struggles.

Simonetta’s books are beautiful with rich illustrations. They include the San Diego Book Awards finalists, John Owen and Lady Jane Grey, and winner of the award, Anselm of Canterbury.

Receiving these wonderful endorsements from excellent writers thrilled me, but I also hoped the book’s portrayals of military aspects and heroism were realistic and compelling.

Paul T. Berghaus is a West Point graduate and U.S. Army Chaplain, who has been deployed in combat situations and currently serves as Ethics Instructor and Infantry Chapel Pastor at Ft. Benning, GA. He writes:

Matthew Makes Strides quickly captured my attention and provoked thoughts and emotions that are sympathetic with those of several characters in the story. Glenda Faye Mathes does an excellent job portraying the trauma, excitement, and relief of events where great danger and courage are present. Her chapters are rich in narration, imagery, momentum, and emotion. They also contain a good amount of humor to guard against overly heavy intensity. I am thankful that she is writing Matt’s story and sharing it with readers of all ages, and I applaud her for taking up topics of fear, loss, courage, and authentic masculinity.

In his communication with me, Chaplain Berghaus confirmed that my portrayals in the story exactly captured the characteristics and emotions of military veterans and memorial services. He even noted how the military veteran helping Matthew cope with being a hero brought healing to the veteran himself. This subtle theme may escape most young readers, but I was delighted when an experienced military man recognized it.

Logan-MMSI’m so thankful these people enjoyed and appreciated this second novel in Matthew’s story, and I hope my all grandsons and you will too!

You can find Matthew Makes Strides, as well as Matthew Muddles Through, the first book of the Matthew in the Middle series, on Amazon.

Discovering Delight blog tour

Discovering-Delight-front (1)I recently received news about an amazing Cross Focused blog tour of Discovering Delight: 31 Meditations on Loving God’s Law.

I’m thankful to David Woollin and the other folks at Reformation Heritage Books for their efforts in promoting my work. And I especially thank God for these wonderful reviews!