Category Archives: Critique

Tough Love

image_tough-love-a-lifelong-giftI planned to write about my struggle with the query process this time around, but something happened this week that bumped that topic* from the roster. Tuesday night, I had to give a healthy dose of tough love to one of the members of my writers’ group. And now I’m wondering if either a) she will actually absorb some of what I said and be better for it, or b) I will never see her again.

It’s been building for a while. This member, I’ll call her Shelly, joined our group about six months ago and since then we have been reading the first draft of her manuscript, which purportedly comes in at a whopping 150,000 words and still doesn’t have an ending.

Prior to joining our group, Shelly had only shared her work anonymously on writers’ support websites, and she was clearly uneasy when she submitted her first chapter to us. It’s hard to put your work, and ostensibly yourself, out to be judged. But we all loved her first chapter. It was dark and mysterious and utterly intriguing. She seemed heartened by our praise and our desire to read more.

As the chapters kept coming, we noted issues of plausibility, repetition in scenes, unnecessary details, and other things that I absolutely expect while reading a first draft**. Submission after submission, we gave her the same critiques, the same suggestions, but none of our feedback ever seemed to make it into subsequent chapters. There may be some selfish interest at work here, but it’s a bit frustrating to critique into a vacuum. After all, hadn’t she joined the group in the interest of improving her writing?

During our meetings, she readily acknowledged that her novel needs work, but repeatedly made statements such as “But I don’t know how to fix it” and “But I need for [insert random scene] to happen that way”. When we questioned the plausibility of certain plot points, she responded with complicated explanations as to how it was actually possible. The real issue was that she listened to five people express the same concerns, and instead of making a note to address the problem, spent five minutes essentially telling us why we were wrong.

But the real topper came along with her last email:

Yeah, just think of these [two chapters] as a rewrite of the last. Or if you have a really bad memory, you can think of them as new… You guys ever seen Groundhog Day?

I actually rolled my eyes when I read this. She was essentially warning us that the next two chapters would be exactly like the last. So why the hell was she submitting them?

This week’s meeting was much like those in the past with one exception: someone finally spoke up. One of our members, Gus, ended his critique with the following statement: “In this group, we are here to help each other in whatever capacity is most beneficial to the writer. I’m not sure what your process is, but as a reader, I would like to see a lot less repetition of the same issues submission after submission.”

BOOM!

Shelly looked like she’d been slapped in the face. I tried to soften the blow but also back him up.

“I’m not sure how beneficial it is for you to hear the same comments with each submission, so perhaps it’s best if you take some time to revise before you share your next chapters.”

This only seemed to make matters worse. “But I can’t revise until I finish the book. I can’t go back, and also I don’t even know how to fix it.” I pointed out that she is currently sitting on about fifteen chapters’ worth of our feedback, but she shook her head. “But I can’t go back. I have to write the ending first.” 

Gus suggested she write a synopsis of the ending, that way she could start revising from the beginning in good conscience. “But I can’t,” she insisted. “I have to write the ending.”

We went around in circles for some time, with each suggestion met by an adamant “But-“ or “I can’t-“. Then Shelly said maybe it wasn’t even worth finishing her book since clearly none of us like it, since we’re always pointing out how many problems it has.

Finally, I had to level with her.

“For the last fifteen minutes, everything that has come out of your mouth has been negative and self-defeating. You can’t do anything until you finish your book but you don’t know how. You know you need to revise but you aren’t going to do it until you finish the book and anyway you don’t know how to fix it. You have already decided that there is no hope and you immediately dismiss any suggestion we make. Why are you so determined to self-sabotage?”

This got her attention.

failureOf course I already knew the answer. We are all afraid of failing. We are also afraid of succeeding, and in some ways, even more afraid to let ourselves believe we are actually capable of success. Shelly is essentially telling herself – and now us – that she is going to fail. Don’t get your hopes up because this is going to suck!

Words matter. A lot. The words we read, speak, and hear inform who we are and how we see the world. And when you tell yourself that you are a failure, you will believe it.

I leaned in toward her, pointer finger extended. “Stop telling yourself that you can’t. Stop shitting on yourself and your work. Stop it!”

I’d like to say that in that moment, Shelly had a huge life-changing realization and we all hugged and everyone left much happier. In truth, I did see the shock of recognition spread over her face, if only for a moment. I had called her on her shit and she was temporarily without words. Alas, deeply ingrained destructive habits aren’t so easy to break, and she responded with, “But that’s my M.O. I don’t know how else to be.”

On our way out of the café that night, I told Shelly to call or text or email me if she wants to talk more after she has time to think about our discussion. Because I get it. I have spent a fair amount of time in introspection and therapy to finally get the “worst critic” voice in my own head to shut the f*ck up. Mostly, anyway.

Our next meeting is scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, and I hope to see her there. But it’s in her hands now.


*Although believe me, the struggle is real.

** Which is why I generally do not let anyone read my first drafts.

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Big Night

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Ten weeks after I submitted the entire fourth draft of my novel to my writers’ group, my big night finally came: the group critique.

In the weeks leading up to it, one member of my group kept asking me if I was “ready for my Big Night”. The truth was that I hadn’t given it much thought. Most of the group has already read an earlier draft (albeit piecemeal over the span of more than a year), and I’ve incorporated much of their feedback into this latest version, so I was feeling pretty confident in its marked improvement. But Gary’s repeated questioning made me wonder if I shouldn’t worry. After all, he’s been through the group critique before. Maybe he knew something I didn’t.

I approached the meeting with some trepidation but resisted the urge to have a stiff drink beforehand. The booze would calm my nerves, but it would also dull my senses and I wanted to make sure I recorded down each and every even slightly relevant comment.

I needn’t have worried. While each member had a number of recommended tweaks and clarifications, overall the group feedback was very positive. As one member, Jeremy, put it: “Aside from all of my little comments and suggestions, I think you should start sending this manuscript out to agents starting tomorrow.”

This is a major milestone in the lifespan of all novels: it’s ready for the query process. This is also one of the most terrifying milestones in the lifespan of a novel. Now I must leave the safety of my writers’ group and my beta readers to subject myself to a whole new level of rejection. No longer can I waffle on about “family and relationships and stuff” when someone asks me what my book is about. I no longer have an excuse to avoid the dreaded query letter – the longest one page masterpiece a writer will ever write.

Next Time: The Query Quandary

 

 

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Send in the Trolls

One of the first rules of the Internet is Never Read the Comments, especially when it comes to something you have written. As most of us have witnessed first hand, there’s something about the relative anonymity of the comments section that transforms people into hate-spewing cretins. People routinely misinterpret – often willfully it seems – each others’ words and then clamber up onto their virtual soapboxes to preach their version of the gospel. Or call you a goddamn stupid motherf*cking a$$hole licker. Or, you know, whatever.

But sometimes it’s impossible to resist reading the comments.

trolls

Pretty sure they’re telling me to kiss their respective asses.

A few months ago, I wrote a story for xojane.com* about the time I spotted an old flame making balloon animals at Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco. This guy had 1) broken my delicate eighteen-year-old heart, and 2) once been a moody and pretentious aspiring filmmaker, so there was some satisfaction in seeing him surrounded by sugar high children. My story received hundreds of comments, ranging from amusement to solidarity to irritation. Some accused me of pettiness and insensitivity. One commenter was outraged that I was picking on balloon artists.

Over the last two years, I have written and recorded a number of short pieces for the Perspectives segment of my local public radio station. This experience has taught me that even public radio listeners can be over-reactive, albeit while using more polite language. My tribute to my former-hunter-now-elderly cat inspired a heated exchange between an angry bird lover and a defensive cat supporter. When KQED aired my analogy on the nature of prejudice and race relations, let’s just say I was grateful not to get any death threats. Two weeks ago, I was at the station to record my latest piece about staving off a panic attack at 13,000 ft, and the segment editor joked, “I’m sure the commenters will come up with something. Perhaps self-indulgent?” We laughed and I prepared myself for whatever would come.

In this day and age when it seems that everyone has a righteous opinion on just about everything, what does it say that my piece did not receive a single comment, good or bad? To most creative types, the worst reaction to our work is indifference. While I have received positive feedback from friends and acquaintances, I admit that I am somewhat distressed that my writing failed to inspire even one listener to indignation.

I really ought to stop checking the comments section. Seeing that “0 Comments” is breaking my heart.


*For the record, the bordering-on-cheesy heading and subhead were not mine.

 

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Readers vs. Writers

The Reader

The Reader by Dorothy F. Newland

I workshopped my novel through my writers’ group for over a year – revising as I went – before handing over a fresh draft to my first pool of beta readers. And with one exception, my beta readers were just that: readers, not writers.

When it comes to critiquing a story, writers can spot a “missed opportunity” a mile away, and can always point to at least three things they would do differently. If given the chance, a passionate writers’ group could tear the works of Hemingway, Dickens, Austen, even Shakespeare to pieces.

But readers – at least the ones I roped in for this round of reviews – appear to take more of a 30,000 foot approach to novel critiques, and I’ve found it both illuminating and entertaining how different the feedback has been from these two groups.*

For instance, my writers’ group expressed concerns about the believably of the relationship between two of the central characters. Pam and Keith are so different from one another, with completely different backgrounds. What drew them together? What kept them together?

However, when I asked my beta readers if Pam and Keith’s relationship felt genuine and believable, the answer was a unanimous yes. One reader said, “I’ve met too many seemingly mismatched couples to think this is unbelievable or uncommon.“

On the other hand, while my writers’ group praised my ability to create distinct voices and personalities for each of my four central characters, my beta readers were less sure about this accomplishment, and several commented that they could hear my voice coming through the characters. It is important to note that, with one exception, my beta readers are close friends and family. My writers’ group members are not. One friend summed it up this way: “I think I know you too well to be able to answer this question.” Fair enough.

Last week, I saved a copy of my novel, this one entitled Small Legends V4. And one of the first items on my list of revisions is a common comment among both the writers and the readers: “The ending was very satisfying, but it was all resolved a little too quickly.”

Clearly I have some work to do. Time to get back down to business.

 


*In fairness to my writers’ group, they did read the novel a few chapters at a time over the period of a year, so it does make sense that they would focus more on the nooks and crannies than the overall story.

 

 

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And Then There Were Five

I recently wrote about the impending demise of my writers’ group, at least in its current form. One guy was mad at another guy, and then a third guy jumped on board, and suddenly the rest of us had to pick sides. Awkward, to say the least. But I wasn’t prepared for how much this discord would affect me. I had a weight in my chest and unease in my belly not dissimilar to that feeling you get when you know you’re about to be dumped, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Dread.

Let me rewind a bit.

The backstory: Gus emailed a few members of the group the previous week, asking if we shared his view that the group’s founder, Eric, had been increasingly negative and unhelpful in his critiques. He also missed a fair amount of meetings. While I didn’t have a problem with him, others did. A few more email exchanges, and Gus and another member Jake decided to start their own group. Anyone who wanted to come was welcome. These two guys in particular have provided me with a lot of valuable feedback over the last two years, so I decided to go with them.

Gus’ and Jake’s plan was to wait until the end of our next meeting to tell Eric they were leaving, and that it was likely others would go with them. When the time came, I skedaddled out of there. I wanted no part of that conversation. I was certain Eric had no idea what was coming at him, and would probably be shocked and upset. The situation reminded me of the cruelty of middle school: one day someone is your best friend and the next, she isn’t speaking to you. And you have no idea why.

(Shudder.)

After the meeting, Gus emailed everyone to apologize for his part in the drama and to reaffirm his hope that we would join in the new group. I responded that I would, as did a couple of others.

The next morning, I received the email from Eric explaining his side of the story. It was clear that he was indeed surprised by Gus’ and Jake’s departure, and felt the need to defend himself against their assertions. The uneasy feeling in my gut deepened as he made his case for why the rest of us should remain in his group, and touted his solid track record of recruiting new members. The clincher was his comment that yes, he does often miss meetings due to his travel schedule and therefore he “would need a co-facilitator that would help me run the group, preferably Lisa, if she decides to stay.”

My stomach took another turn.

In response, I expressed my regret at having to choose a side and wished Eric well. I hadn’t instigated any of this, yet I felt terrible for abandoning him. I felt even worse when several days later, the one member who had yet to pick a side decided to stay with Eric. He couldn’t bear to be yet another person to jump ship. While I was crushed to lose him – he’s writing a great novel and I’ve always valued his critiques – I understood his decision and wondered if I shouldn’t have made the same one. But at the end of the day, I joined the group to improve my writing, not because I felt sorry for someone.

macarons

Never underestimate the healing power of delicious.

So the eight members are now five and three. I approached the first meeting of the newly formed five with some trepidation, worried that I wouldn’t be able to shake my bad feelings, that the group was now ruined for me. But then Gus said a heartfelt thanks for our support during this uncomfortable time and gave each of us a box of the loveliest macarons from his favorite bakery to show his appreciation. And I knew everything was going to be okay.

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Breaking Up the Band

It happens all the time in rock bands: one member starts turning up late for shows, blackout drinking every night of the week, and/or just being a belligerent asshole. If this member is, say, the bassist or the drummer, the rest of the band will probably kick him out and release a statement wishing him a successful stint in rehab.

But what if the problem child is the band’s founder?

The founder of my writers’ group is getting on other members’ nerves, and one in particular – I will call him Gus – who emailed me last week to ask about my feelings on the matter. Have I noticed our founder’s shift in attitude of late? Have I noticed that his critiques are increasingly condescending and mean-spirited?

In truth, I have not. He can be blunt sometimes, but it hasn’t bothered me thus far. What I have noticed is that our founder – I’ll call him Eric – takes a heck of a lot of long vacations, which results in sporadic attendance on his part. This wouldn’t be a big deal if I was a short story writer, but when it comes to critiquing a novel, it’s difficult to provide valuable feedback on chapter 20 when you’ve missed everything after chapter 5.

breakup-heart.jpgGus sited a few recent examples of Eric’s bad behavior and negative critiques, one of which had bordered on accusing Gus of stealing story ideas from other writers. Gus said he had already spoken to a couple other members, and they were getting fed up too.

I took a diplomatic approach and suggested that Eric may not be aware of his behavior, and perhaps a calm and rationale conversation would set him right. But for Gus, it was too late for diplomatic measures. He had made up his mind. He would leave the group.

I am not one for indulging unnecessary drama, and I did wonder if Gus wasn’t being a little oversensitive. But then another member, Jake – who is as levelheaded as they come – said that he agreed with Gus and would leave with him. As he said, “Writing is hard enough without people routinely telling you your output sucks.”

During my time in the group, Jake and Gus have consistently attended meetings and have consistently delivered valuable feedback. I may not have any particular issue with Eric, but majority rules. If they go, I go with them.

So we’re breaking up the band. Tonight at the end of our meeting, Gus and Jake will take Eric aside and tell him they are leaving the group. And that other members plan to come with them.

I don’t particularly like the middle school “I don’t want to be your friend anymore” vibe to this approach, but Gus and Jake are convinced he will not leave on his own. So we will dissolve and reform as a kinder, gentler version of our group, one that doesn’t involve Eric.

But make no mistake, this sends a strong message to the other members: misbehave and we will shut you down.

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Just Hit Send

For more than a year, I’ve workshopped the third draft of my novel through my biweekly writers’ group. At long last, we’ve come to the very last chapter. I am both excited and a little nervous. Whether a novel’s end is happy or sad or somewhere in between, the most important thing is that it is satisfying. Many a time, I’ve torn through a great book only to be disappointed when the ending comes up short, leaving key issues unresolved. Even worse is when the final chapters tie everything up into a tidy little unrealistic and uninspired package. And I do not want my novel’s ending to fall into either of these categories.

send-buttonI’ve spent the past several weeks fiddling around with the last few paragraphs of my final chapter. Tweaking a word here or there, and then putting it back. Alternately congratulating myself for my cleverness and questioning whether the members of my writing group will even understand the ending.

Of course, one of my main goals in joining my writers’ group was to get constructive feedback on my novel – both what is working and what is not. And if my novel’s current ending doesn’t work, the group will help me to identify the trouble spots and then I can improve them. Simple as that.

But I so desperately want them to love it! And this is why I have yet to hit the Send button that will thrust my final chapter out into the waiting inboxes of my writers’ group.

UndoIn the past week alone, two friends/soon-to-be beta readers have asked when my full manuscript will be available, and each time, I felt a little stab of panic. I explained that I’d planned to read through the manuscript again before sending it out, but clearly I am trying to buy some more time. I want my novel to be as good as it can be before my beta readers take it on. I want it to be DONE.

But that’s the point: it’s a work in progress. It won’t be done until it’s in print. And even then, a book is never really done. I recall several years ago attending a reading by the author Melissa Bank, who admitted that even as she reads passages from her novels on book tours, she nearly always changes or omits a word or two. Even as she is reading her book aloud, she is still editing it!

As writers, our work is never done. At some point, though, we must move on to the next unfinished project.

And it’s time for me to just hit Send. Woosh!

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Readers!

I’m in the home stretch on the third draft of my novel! With just a few chapters left to revise, I’ve started to prepare for the next phase of the process: identifying my non-writer Beta readers.

To clarify, I’ve already had several Beta readers in the form of my writers’ group, who – over the past year and change – have given me both encouragement and valuable feedback. And of course there’s my BFF and uber-talented artist/writer Mari, who is my trusted First Reader for every novel, essay, or story’s initial exposure to the world outside of my head.Love Reading

But non-writer readers are a different story, and identifying the right ones can be tricky. It is crucial to select readers who: 1) enjoy reading 2) enjoy reading your genre 3) will be forthright and detailed in their critique while never forgetting that your writing is an essential part of you, like your lungs or your liver. Insensitive or dismissive comments can be hurtful, but even worse, they do nothing to help improve the work.

Our natural inclination is to reach out to our loved ones. They already adore us, so of course they will also adore our writing, right? Maybe, maybe not. I once made the apocalyptic-scale blunder of asking my then-boyfriend to read an early draft of my novel. Not only was he was not a novel reader by nature, he was so unsure of his own ability to provide useful feedback that he simply avoided the whole exercise*. As my manuscript gathered dust on his bedside table, my faith in both my writing and my relationship took a major plunge. If the man who was supposed to love me had no interest in my work, then who would??

These days, I make sure to communicate my needs and expectations to my readers (as well as to my boyfriends). My ultimate goal is to write a kick-ass novel, one that all kinds of readers can enjoy. But I’m going to need a little help.

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* For the record, we were in our 20s and had not yet mastered the fine art of clear communication. Actually, I’m still working on that…

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Little Victories

A few weeks back, I set off on a week-long creative retreat in the Sierra Foothills with four friends and four dogs. No phone, no Internet, no cable = no distractions, right? I dusted off the mostly complete draft of a young adult novel I wrote in thirty short days four long years ago, excited to take a break from my novel-in-progress and revisit what I remembered as a rough but fairly clever storyline and interesting, layered characters.

After the packing and the driving and the first night of food and drink and socializing, I got down to business. For about half an hour, anyway. Barely one chapter in, I was bored by my own story. In my defense, I was lounging on the deck with my feet up, surrounded by sunshine and dense woods, dogs and friends – of course, I was distracted! And anyway, it was just the first chapter.

How was I supposed focus on my laptop screen with this view?

Tucked away in the trees. How was I supposed to concentrate while surrounded by this view?

But as the days went on, I spent more time dozing on the deck or trying to rally my friends to go wine tasting than reviewing/editing my novel. Was it the quiet natural setting? The fact that I was overdue for a vacation? Or perhaps my novel and its characters simply weren’t interesting enough to keep even my own attention.

It was a rather depressing thought.

But then halfway through the novel and mere minutes away from setting aside the “creative” part of this retreat, I read the following chapter and felt—if not fully redeemed—at least encouraged that my novel wasn’t a total snoozefest. I’ll take the little victories where I can get them.

The setting: College dorm party the last night before everyone goes home for the Thanksgiving weekend. Sooni is our heroine, along with friends Anne and Gretchen, and boyfriend William. Gretchen is planning to visit her boyfriend Marc, who is studying in London, over the Christmas holidays.


Sooni Greene (Working Title)

Everyone was in good spirits, except perhaps for Anne, who wasn’t as excited as the others to be going home for the long weekend. Although her mother and younger sister had invited her to join them, Anne had declined in favor of a pre-cooked meal and football with her father.

“The last thing I need is to have the two of them stare at me all day,” she said.

Gretchen, on the other hand, was too busy counting off the days before she left for London to notice Anne’s mood. “I can’t believe it’s less than a month now,” she said, beaming.

Sooni thought she saw the expression on Anne’s face turn sour as she finished her third beer and went in for another. Shortly after that, Anne left the room without a word.

Gretchen and William were chatting animatedly about 1960s menswear, a topic that Sooni had nothing to contribute to. William was detailing for Gretchen the exact cuts and fabrics of the wardrobe he had inherited from his grandfather, who apparently was quite the dresser in his time. Sooni did not participate in this conversation, but was pleased that her boyfriend and her friend were getting along so well. She sat back in her chair and looked around the room. She recognized several of the attendees as Gretchen’s neighbors, but did not know most of them by name.   A short girl with what seemed to Sooni like a larger than normal chest caught her eye, and then meandered over to where Sooni was sitting.

“Hey Sooni, how’s it going?” she asked with a beer-soaked smile. “Are you going home for the weekend?”

Sooni nodded, sipping from her beer to try to buy herself time to remember the girl’s name. It was something like Katie or Cathy or- Katrina. It was Katrina and she was in her U.S. History class.

“I’m going home tomorrow,” Sooni said. “What about you?”

Katrina grabbed a nearby chair and sat down next to her. She talked happily about her family’s plans for the weekend, which seemed to involve a great deal of both pie and football.

“Because my brother’s at Berkeley, you know. On the football team,” she said. “By the way, do you know where Anne went?”

Sooni was a little thrown. She didn’t know that Katrina and Anne knew one another, had never seen them exchange a word. She glanced around the room for Anne, but couldn’t locate her among the crowd.

“I don’t know,” she said. “She was here just a little while ago.”

“Oh, okay,” Katrina said, half rising from her chair. “I’ll see if I can find her.”

That was odd, Sooni thought, watching her go. Sooni turned back to Gretchen and William, who were now talking about their favorite old time movie stars.

“Hey Gretchen,” Sooni interrupted. “Is Anne friends with that girl Katrina?”

Gretchen grinned slyly. “I wouldn’t call them friends, exactly,” she said. “Katrina has been following Anne around like a lovesick puppy ever since they hooked up after that art show a few weeks back.”

Sooni furrowed her brows, confused and also a little hurt. Why was this the first she had heard about it? Anne usually had no problem sharing the most intimate details of her sexual encounters, but she had said nothing.

Gretchen seemed to pick up on her thoughts, because she quickly added, “It was the night that you guys went to the planetarium, remember? Anne dragged me to this terrible art show because she didn’t want to go alone, and then ended up drinking a bunch of the free wine and making out with Katrina. To tell you the truth, it was sort of a nightmare.”

William, who had been quietly gazing out into the crowd, spoke up.

“Anne is quite the handful sometimes, isn’t she?” he said. Gretchen’s face fell slightly. “I mean, she’s witty and interesting and all,” he went on. “But she’s also a bit of wild card, no?”

Sooni knew that this was true. She’d had similar thoughts. But Anne was her friend, and she wasn’t going to trash talk her.

“Anne’s all right,” she said, a little louder than she had intended. She cleared her throat. “She has a big personality and all, but she’s…well, she’s an artist.”

William burst into laughter.

“I swear, Sooni,” he said, “you should major in International Relations.”

Gretchen laughed at this, and then Sooni couldn’t resist joining in with a smile of her own.

When Gretchen left to go to the bathroom, Sooni and William scootched closer to one another, holding hands and watching the party. They often did this, whether at the DC or on the lawn by the student union; they could sit in silence for twenty minutes at a time, watching people go by.

When Gretchen returned, she looked tense. When Sooni asked her what was wrong, she shrugged her shoulders.

“Anne,” she said.

“What do you mean?”

“She’s drunk. And not in a good way.”

Sooni was about to ask what had happened, but then Anne appeared in the doorway and sauntered into the room. Her mouth was smiling, but her eyes were hard. She focused right in on Gretchen.

“Didn’t mean to run you off,” she said. Her voice was quite slurred now, and Sooni wondered how much she’d had to drink. Or if she’d had something else, in addition to the beer.

Gretchen did not respond, or even look at Anne. She kept her eyes resolutely focused on the two girls across the room that were trying on each other’s shoes.

“Oh, are we pretending that I’m not standing right in front of you?” Anne said, her smile spreading but her eyes growing colder.

“What the-“ Sooni started, but Anne talked over her.

“It must be hard for you,” she said, in a mock concerned voice. “I’m sure you get lonely with your loyal boyfriend thousands of miles away, but no one’s stopping you from having fun in the meantime. And I don’t hold people up to the same high standards as you do.”

Gretchen narrowed her eyes but still said nothing.

Sooni watched this interaction, completely perplexed. She couldn’t imagine why Anne was goading Gretchen on this way.

“Anne,” Sooni said sharply. “What kind of thing is that to say to someone?”

She felt William stir beside her, but did not look over at him. She fixed her stare on Anne, but Anne waved her away with one flailing hand.

“You’re not part of this, Sooni,” she said.

Before Sooni had a chance to react, Gretchen was up on her feet.

“I’m going to bed,” she said, looking only at Sooni and William. “I hope you both have nice Thanksgivings.”

And then she turned and walked out the door, completely ignoring Anne, who watched her leave.

Then Anne screwed up her face and clutched at her stomach, like she was in terrible pain. Sooni and William were on their feet in seconds, their arms around Anne, leading her out of the room.

“I think I’m gonna-“ she said, but she was too busy throwing up on the linoleum in the corridor to finish her sentence.

“Looks like she had the pasta for dinner,” William said as he and Sooni attempted to hoist Anne back up into a sitting position. Sooni ignored this comment and concentrated on getting Anne’s hair out of the line of fire.

Anne threw up twice more, and then looked up at the audience that had gathered.

“Oh fuck me,” she said, attempting to stand up on her own. She looked at Sooni with heavy eyes. “Get me out of here. Please,” she pleaded quietly.

“We will,” Sooni said, “but we’ve gotta clean up this-“

“I’ll do it,” William said. “You get her back to her room before the RA sees her and kicks her out of the dorms. I’ll clean this up.”

Sooni stared at him, feeling both gratitude and a little shock. “Are you serious?” she asked.

“Go on,” he said. “I’ll come by later.”

Sooni wrapped her arm around Anne’s waist and helped her onto her feet. It was sort of like being in a three-legged race with a one-legged partner, and it took Sooni several tries to get Anne to walk in sync with her. Finally, they made it down the elevator, out of the building, and into their own. Maria had already left for the long weekend, so Sooni dug the keys out of Anne’s pocket, used her shoulder to push the door open, and then dragged Anne to her bed.

Once she had Anne situated and placed a trashcan next to her head in case of further vomiting, Sooni closed the door and collapsed onto Maria’s bed.

“Why do you do these things, Anne?” she asked, exasperated. “I mean, why the hell were you trying to pick a fight with Gretchen? It’s just plain bitchy.”

Anne looked at her through half-closed eyes. “Yelling at me isn’t going to make me feel any better,” she said in an uncharacteristically small voice.

“Well, I’m sorry but your feelings are not exactly on the top of my list of concerns right now,” Sooni exclaimed. “Do you even appreciate the fact that William is back in Stanton Hall right now, cleaning your puke off of the floor? Just because he’s a nice guy?”

It was the first time Sooni had ever raised her voice in anger around Anne, and even in her inebriated state, Anne seemed to pick up on the significance.

“I’m sorry,” she said quietly. “I just…I just…”

And then she did something so unexpected, so completely out of character that Sooni’s annoyance instantly dissipated. Anne started to cry.

Sooni sat next to her on the bed, and put her hand on her shoulder. “Why are you crying?” she asked.

“Isn’t it obvious?” Anne asked through her sobs, covering her eyes with her hands.

Sooni thought for a moment. She knew Anne was less than thrilled about the holidays coming up and all the particular familial tension that came with them. But something else must have triggered this meltdown. Anne’s mood seemed to darken when Gretchen was talking about Christmas and going to London. And now that Sooni thought about it, she could remember other times when Anne had reacted similarly, getting bent out of shape whenever Gretchen talked about Marc. The look on Anne’s face would go from annoyance to resentment to- jealousy?

“Holy shit,” Sooni breathed. “How long have you been in love with Gretchen?”

Anne did not respond but crumpled into renewed sobs. But suddenly everything was making sense to Sooni: why Anne hadn’t wanted to be roommates with Gretchen, why she roundly abused the notion of long distance relationships, or relationships in general. Was this why she so often got drunk and picked up on random girls when they went out, to try to make Gretchen jealous? Or was it to distract herself from the fact that she was in love with a straight girl whom she could never have?

“Wow,” Sooni said aloud. “Does she know?”

“God, I hope not,” Anne said into her pillow, her voice muffled and slurred. Then she suddenly sat upright, and Sooni had to draw back not to get hit in the face by the side of her head. “And that asshole Marc,” Anne said, tears still streaming from her swollen, mascara-ringed eyes. “She talks about him like he’s a fucking saint and a poet, but he doesn’t love her. He treats her exactly as what she is to him, a cute girl to fuck when he comes home from college for a visit. Whenever she’s not around, he sticks his dick into anything that stands still long enough, and Gretchen has no fucking clue.”

“Are you sure? How do you know this?” Sooni asked, shocked.

“Because he tried to fuck me,” Anne replied. “And at least three other girls I know of. He is a complete and utter scumbag.”

“When did this happen? And why didn’t you tell her?”

Anne shook her head. “Don’t be naïve,” she said, although not unkindly. “No one wants to hear that shit. And I’m sure as hell not going to be the messenger.”

“Poor Gretchen,” Sooni sighed. “And she’s so excited to see him.”

At this statement, Anne lunged toward the trashcan and proceeded to throw up again. Sooni quickly reached over to pull her hair out of the way. After a moment, Anne rolled onto her back and looked up at Sooni imploringly. Her face was streaked with tears and eye makeup.

“I feel like shit,” she said. “Do me a favor and kill me now.”

Sooni had to stifle a laugh. The situation, although far from funny, struck her as so bizarre, she almost didn’t know what else to do.

“I’m not going to kill you,” Sooni said, stroking Anne’s hair gently, her fingers lingering over the purple streaks that never seemed to fade. “But I am going to get you some ibuprofen and a glass of water.”

After she had rinsed out the trashcan and watched as Anne dutifully swallowed the ibuprofen, Sooni took off Anne’s shoes and jacket, and pulled the covers over her.

“You know, I wasn’t so sure about you at first,” Anne mumbled. “When Gretchen brought you around. But you’re a good friend, Sooni.”

And with that, she passed out.

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Long Live the Editor!

Over the past week, I’ve spent a good chunk of time reading a 300-page manuscript for my writers’ group. The novel is a work in progress for sure, flowing well in some places, meandering in others (in fact, I just made a note to cut Chapter 10 all together). But this is precisely the point of having others read your work; often they can see what you cannot. This is why all writers need editors.

Not all writers agree with this. I’ve perused a fair number of literary agents’ blogs and submission guidelines, and have picked up on a common message: Do not send your first draft. Or even your third. I’ve also heard that many agents and publishers dread the month of January, since it routinely brings with it an onslaught of slapdash National Novel Writing Month manuscripts.*

Editing an English language documentBut what about those writers who have “outgrown” editors? There are a number of authors who have attained enough popularity and status as to make them almost untouchable. For instance, while I can’t know the intimate details of Stephen King’s writing process, the epic length of his books points in the direction of “less is more” when it comes to editing**. Stephen King is big money. If he tells his publisher not to change a word, his publisher won’t change a letter.

Tom Wolfe is another one. For years, I’ve heard what a great writer he is, and his sales numbers appear to reflect that popular opinion. However, when I picked up I Am Charlotte Simmons a while back, I was surprised by his dull characters and rambling narrative***. Worst of all, Wolfe’s then 70-something-year-old voice repeatedly bled through the narrative of this story about college kids (my favorite was when he explained the drinking game of “quarters”, which he set off with quotation marks each time). I barely made it through 100 of the 800-page book before I set it aside, shaking my head and thinking, “This is what happens when a writer gets too big for an editor.”

While I shrugged off Wolfe’s novel, I was crushed to have a similar realization about an author I actually really like, an author who I have in fact praised more than once on this very blog. Wally Lamb’s first novel, She’s Come Undone, is everything I aspire to in my own writing: Sometimes distressing but always compelling. Redemptive, but not in a Hollywood ending sort of way. Genuine. As is standard practice with a first novel, I imagine that his publisher had him work very closely with an editor on this book, and to great effect.

But a spot on Oprah’s book club and a few bestsellers later, that editor was noticeably absent in Lamb’s most recent novel, We Are Water, which examines a number of touchy subjects including gay marriage, interracial love, and sexual abuse. I will say this: the characters are complex and many layered, and the storyline is intriguing and topical. But the dialogue feels forced and unnatural, at times more like a series of speeches being delivered to the reader than a conversation between two people. In clear violation of the golden rule of writing – Show, Don’t Tell – most of the back-story is delivered in the form of monologues that go on for pages and pages without a single scene or exchange. The opening chapter is a stilted Q&A session between an awkward journalist and an elderly artist, neither of who are significant characters in the book. And don’t get me started on the overuse of ellipses to signify that someone is about to have a flashback…

It’s heartbreaking when a good book goes bad. We Are Water had so much potential, but left to his own devices, Lamb failed to transform his characters into real people and their stories into real lives.

Everyone needs an editor. Period.

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*I wonder if November – the month when all the NaNoWriMo’s are hard at work – is actually the best time of year to submit.

** This is not to talk smack about Stephen King, who is actually a pretty darn good writer when he puts his mind to it.

*** To Wolfe’s credit (or his editor’s), his grammar and sentence structure are beyond reproach.

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