Guest Post: Karen Kane on Analyzing Feedback

By Karen Kane
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

How you use feedback can make or break your story.

Which feedback do you follow?

Which feedback do you ignore?

Most importantly, how can you make sure the feedback you do use deepens your writing, and not derails it?

Here’s what I know about feedback: you are in charge.

You are the gatekeeper for your stories. But to be a discerning gatekeeper—to know what feedback to use and what feedback to discard—you need to know yourself.

For me, knowing myself meant recognizing I didn’t yet have what researchers Carol Dweck and Ellen Leggett call a “mastery-oriented mindset.”

Dweck and Leggett studied how children handled putting together a difficult puzzle. Some children had a fixed mindset in regard to their abilities. Those children had pre-determined their skill level, and decided they were helpless to change that skill level and improve. But other children, also not good at solving the puzzle, were determined to become good at it.

Difficulties for mastery-oriented children were simply challenges to surmount; where as children with a fixed mindset “viewed their difficulties as failures, as indicative of low ability, and as insurmountable.”

I realized I had a fixed mindset about my writing skills.

When I received critical feedback, I often felt frustrated and helpless.

What was I supposed to do with feedback that wasn’t prescriptive? How was I supposed to make my story better with feedback if my writing skills were immutable?

Learn more about Charlie & Frog
(Hyperion, April 2018)

Learning about Dweck and Ellen’s research was a paradigm shift for me. I decided I could and would learn the craft skills needed to become a better writer. I would figure out what was working and what wasn’t working in my stories. I would have a mastery-oriented mindset.

Here’s something else I recognized in myself: I tended to abdicate my power to other people.

I wanted others to find what was wrong in my writing, and (most importantly) tell me how to fix it.

How you do anything is how you do everything—and I began to notice how this trait showed up in other areas of my life. It manifested in how I looked to other people to tell me the right way to parent or eat or decorate my home.

I didn’t believe I could make the right choices for myself. I didn’t trust myself to live my own life. Once I started thinking in terms of “mastery-oriented mindset” rather than a “fixed-mindset,” I began to feel empowered.

I saw that other people don’t have the “right” way—just their own way. And I, too, could figure out my own way, in my life and in my stories.

What do you need to know about yourself to figure out your own feedback process?

Start looking within yourself. You are the window into your writing.

Still, maybe you receive feedback and you aren’t sure if it’s right or wrong for your story. Or you don’t know (yet) how to change what’s not working.

Take that feedback you are not sure about and change it into questions about your writing. Similarly, if something isn’t working in your story, ask yourself why it isn’t working.

Write those questions on sticky notes. Keep them with you during the day as you do laundry, commute to work, eat lunch. Tell the universe you are listening. You are open for answers.

Sometimes I write down a plea—“Help me! I don’t know what to do about X.”

Then I wait. It’s hard to stay with the questions and not force answers. We are so programmed to know and to know Now.

But expectant waiting is part of the journey. Not knowing can be a good thing.

Listen to what poet Wislawa Szymborska says about people following their passion:

“Their work becomes one continuous adventure as long as they manage to keep discovering new challenges in it. Difficulties and setbacks never quell their curiosity. A swarm of new questions emerges from every problem that they solve. Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know.’”

Sometimes the best stuff emerges when we say, “I don’t know,” and face this not knowing with an open and curious mind. What are we not seeing? What can help us see?

When needed, it’s imperative you are gentle with your writing and with yourself. Let your writing and yourself get stronger before you allow critical minds to delve in. Remind yourself that you have to write badly first into order to write well.

Telling myself that is the only way I can write. Otherwise I would be paralyzed.

Part of your job of gatekeeper is to only let in feedback that your story (and you) can handle at each stage.

Jane Kurtz,
photo by Jen Candor

Writer Jane Kurtz, when working on a new story, will sometimes say to a reader, “I only need to hear what’s working at this stage,” and “which parts would make you keep reading?”

Eventually, of course, the time must come for a writer to open herself up to what Peter Elbow calls that “cold critical eye . . . ruthlessly discarding or changing anything that is not right.”

But that’s when you will use your mastery-oriented mindset as you sift through this critical feedback: figuring out what to keep, what to discard, and changing comments into questions.

Now you are using feedback to find the true essence of your writing, the true essence of what you are trying to say.

Lev Vygotsky said, “Through others, we become ourselves.”

Through others, our stories can also become themselves—as long as we are attentive gatekeepers, allowing our stories to be deepened, and not derailed, by feedback.

Cynsational Notes


Kirkus Reviews described Charlie & Frog (Hyperion, 2018)  as, “An enjoyable read that artfully mixes adventure, heart, and cultural competence.”


Karen Kane’s path to Charlie & Frog led her from a small village near Rochester, New York, to the bustle of Washington, D.C. The people she met along the way inspired her writing with their warmth and humor, especially those in the Deaf community.

Karen graduated from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf and received her MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

When she’s not writing, Karen spends her days as a sign language interpreter at Gallaudet University or lost in the stacks of her local library.

Charlie & Frog is her first novel.

Guest Post: N.H. Senzai on Writing About War for Middle Grade & Escape From Aleppo

By N.H. Senzai
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

The reason I love writing for the middle grade audience is because at this age kids can still suspend belief and journey with you through a story as long as you create believable plots, authentic characters and dialogue that rings true.

However, you need to hook them in quickly, so my first goal is to create a story that “reels them in.”

Once they’ve signed on to follow your protagonist, you can present heavy topics, such as war and conflict, as long as it’s age appropriate and presented in a nuanced manner.

At its heart, my new novel, Escape From Aleppo (Paula Wiseman Books, 2018), is an adventure story about a girl, Nadia, who becomes separated from her family as they flee war in their home city.

Stranded alone, Nadia has to overcome her fears, make alliances with strangers and come up with creative solutions to solve the challenges she faces so that she can reach the Turkish border and find her family.

I chose to write about the Syrian war after much deliberation as it was a tremendous responsibility to accurately portray the horrors of war while also sharing the country’s rich culture and history.

But as a writer I feel that we have a moral obligation to tell our readers the truth, no matter how difficult.

With the advent of social media and a 24-hour news cycle, kids are exposed to current events and have probably heard about the Arab Spring and the conflict in the Middle East.

However, they probably don’t know much about its root causes, such as colonialism, religious sectarianism etc., that led to this terrible point in history.

But, if given the facts in the right context, they have the ability to weigh and analyze serious topics and can come up with their own conclusions.

Frankly, we shouldn’t be afraid of shocking them about how terrible humans can be to one another, whether around the globe, or in own back yards. Without sharing harsh realities, in a way digestible format for that age group, you cannot hope to dissuade a future generation from committing the same crimes over and over again.

Aleppo before and after the battle, from BBC News

When writing Nadia’s story, I didn’t want my reader’s only frame of reference of Syria to be of war and of refugees fleeing death and destruction.

Aleppo is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, predating the Pharaohs, occupied by Alexander the Great, the Romans, Ottomans and the French. It’s a truly unique city whose destruction over the course of the war has been heartbreaking.

Through flashbacks and Nadia’s reflections as she makes her way through city, I wanted to showcase Aleppo’s beauty, architecture, culture, history and food through her eyes.

I also wanted to show how normal Nadia’s life was before the war and how she was like any other teen around the world; she had a loving family, friends, supportive teachers, a cat named Mishmish (which means apricot in Arabic) a sweet tooth, a passion for Arab Idol and a dislike of Algebra.

Carmen, Nadia’s favorite Arab Idol Contestant

In showing the two sides of the coin, life during peace and conflict, I wanted to illustrate how anyone’s normal, everyday life can be turn upside down in a matter of moments.

As Americans, whether we consciously realize it or not, we have a particular connection with refugees; at one point of time, most of our families sought refuge in this country. They arrived from all around the world, fleeing war, persecution, famine or just hoping to find a better life for themselves and their children.

If we pause to reflect on that connection I hope that we can share in a common humanity. So, even though Nadia is from a “faraway place,” my hope is that no matter how different the characters in Escape From Aleppo may appear, readers can walk in their shoes and realize that people, no matter where the live, are intrinsically the same. They have similar hopes, dreams and desire to live a peaceful, meaningful life.

Nadia is more like us than we think – at the end of the day my greatest wish is that my readers build bridges of understanding with others, rather than walls.

Cynsational Notes

See the reading group guide for Escape from Aleppo from the publisher.

Booklist gave Escape From Aleppo a starred review. Peek: “Filled with kindness and hope, but also with the harsh realities of the horrors of war, this heartbreaking book is a necessary reminder of what many people live through every day.”

N.H. Senzai‘s previous books include the award-winning Shooting Kabul (Paula Wiseman Books, 2011), Saving Kabul Corner (Paula Wiseman Books, 2015) and Ticket to India (Paula Wiseman Books, 2016).

She grew up in San Francisco, Jubail, Saudi Arabia, and attended boarding school in London, England, where she was voted “most likely to lead a literary revolution” due to her ability to get away with reading comic books in class.

She has hiked across the Alps, road-tripped through Mexico, swum with barracudas in the Red Sea, taken a train across the Soviet Union, floated down the Nile, eaten gumbo in New Orleans and sat in contemplation at the Taj Mahal.

She also attended U.C. Berkeley and Columbia University, while pursuing her passion for writing. She once again lives in San Francisco with her husband, a professor of political science, her son, and a cat who owns them.

Gayleen says: Other titles focusing on Syria include:

  • Refugee by Alan Gratz (Scholastic, 2017) The story of three refugees: a Jewish boy in 1930s Germany, a Cuban girl on a raft bound for America in the 1990s and a Syrian boy journeying to Europe in 2015 (middle grade).

For more titles related to war and peace in children’s and young adult books, check the resources on Cynthia’s author site.