Category Archives: Writing Advice

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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These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

A couple of weeks ago, I co-presented a stimulating session entitled “How to Write a Cover Letter that isn’t Boring”* as part of a day-long marketing boot camp. When the program organizers requested that I discuss “writing tools and resources” as part of the presentation, I got to thinking. What are a few of my favorite things? And since I’m a giver (not unlike Oprah minus the $10,000 refrigerators and $500 face cream), I will share them with you here.

Wordle.net (free) Wordle creates a visual representation of the most used words in your text. Businesses often use this as a tool to delve deeper into a client’s vision and mission statements, assuming that the most often used words are of particular value to the company. But I use Wordle to determine which words I use too often. For instance, I was horrified to find that “like”, “just” and “little” are among the most common words in my novel. There is no excuse for such lazy writing. I did a search for each instance and weighed out the necessity of each word in context. Of course, now that I’ve cut back on those pesky qualifier words, I may find something even worse lurking around the corner.

Small Legends Wordle

Like? Just? Little? Back? WTF??

 

Hemingwayapp.com (free) I use the Hemingway App more often for business than creative writing, but it is handy for both. Simply paste your text into the site and receive a color-coded critique to rival that of your high school English teacher. The app highlights sentences that are difficult to read, use passive voice, or include the most dreaded of all writing faux pas, the adverb. It also determines the grade level for overall readability. The app does not suggest how to “fix” these issues, but leaves it up to the writer to make a judgment call. After all, we need not all write like Hemingway.

Hemingwayap

What’s so bad about adverbs anyway? And so what if my sentences are hard to read? Maybe I don’t want anyone at less than an eighth grade reading level to read my book! Harumph!

 

Visualthesaurus.com (paid but trial subscription available) Visual Thesaurus is a nifty tool that creates interactive word maps, building off of a root word to offer related words and meanings. The sidebar provides definitions by: nouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs. While the tool doesn’t perform miracles beyond those of a regular thesaurus, the interface is easy to use and fun for us word nerds.

Visualthesaurus

I’m surprised it doesn’t branch to “procrastinating” or “pulling out ones own hair”.

 


* A rather boring title that I promptly subtitled “Always Judge a Proposal by its Cover Letter”. Total marketing nerd humor.

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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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To Blog or Not to Blog

“I thought you were going to try to get that piece published,” a writer friend said to me. This was just about a year ago, and I had recently posted a work-in-progress — a personal essay about the stigma surrounding public displays of emotion — on my blog. My intention was to continue to work on the piece until it was ready to submit to online literary journals. As far as I was concerned, publishing it “as is” on my blog was a kind of dress rehearsal.

But my friend set me straight at once. “Never post anything on your blog if there is a chance you’ll want to publish it,” she said, exasperated by my naiveté. She explained that most journals don’t accept submissions that have been published elsewhere, even in part. And that there is no point in lying about it since editors Google every piece prior to publication; if they find you out, you’ll be blacklisted forever.

I hopped right onto the Internet and scanned through the submission rules of several journals. They all said essentially the same thing: We accept only original material; we cannot publish anything that has appeared elsewhere, even if it’s just on your personal blog.

Keys

Not only did I feel like an idiot, I was disappointed that I had already blown my chances of publishing my essay before I’d even finished writing it. Luckily, I later found an online journal that didn’t object to its debut on my blog. But I’d learned an important lesson.

Since then, as I ponder the theme of my next post, I am faced with the difficult task of determining which topics are a) interesting enough for my blog, but b) not so interesting that I may want to submit them for publication elsewhere. To put it crudely, I must be careful not to shoot my wad.

This here blog post was going to be about the “all genders” bathroom sign I saw in the San Diego airport and the power of words. But since I may want to publish an essay about this topic in the future, instead I am blogging about the trials and tribulations of blogging.

See, I’m learning.

The Kill Pile

Scrap. Scratch. Leftovers. Tidbits. The Drawer. All writers have a name for the file where they stash the beloved but ill-suited lines, scenes, and even entire chapters they have cut from a story. For my novel-in-progress, I named this file The Kill Pile.

Most of the time, I quite enjoy deleting unnecessary or out-of-place text from my work. It’s like cleaning out your closet and then admiring all of your favorite clothes without the distraction of that shirt with the oil stain or the adorable pants that no longer fit. But then there are the pieces that are hard to let go of, even if they border on unwearable. For instance, I have a pale pink sweater that looks great with my skin and has these cool little flower appliqués that are feminine without being girly. However, my sweater also has a decent-sized hole just below my right boob. Months after discovering this, I continue to wear the sweater and pretend to be surprised each time someone points out the hole. I just can’t seem to get rid of it, even though I know I should.

Deleting a great line or scene from my novel is 100 times more painful than giving up my sweater. But no matter how much I may love a particular turn of phrase or exchange between characters, if it detracts from the story, it’s gotta go.

edit

From Echohub.com

 

While I rarely revisit my Kill Pile, I find comfort in knowing that it’s there. And as I inch closer to the completion of the third draft of my novel, I thought I’d take a moment to honor just a few of the many lines that otherwise may never see the light of day. Perhaps it’s also time for me to stash that sweater in the back of my closet; out of sight but still there if ever I should want it.

 

* * *

I am sitting on a cushioned wood chair in a warm kitchen. My feet don’t touch the floor, but it doesn’t matter because I’m eating an oatmeal cookie. I love oatmeal cookies. The old woman is at the stove, humming what sounds like cartoon melodies. Bugs Bunny songs.

If I close my eyes, I can see her lemon-colored sweater, the beaded chain on her glasses, the few remaining streaks of deep brown hair on an otherwise white head. She smells like wax paper and roses, and her fingers are short and stout, the backs of her hands perfectly white except for a sprinkling of light brown spots, like freckles that have been smudged.

She pats me on the head, like my Nana does sometimes. She drinks tea out of China cups patterned with blue flowers while I play with the marshmallows in my hot chocolate. She calls me Sweetie. Would you like some toast, Sweetie?

* * *

“My aunt got in a car accident on her way to the airport one time,” Alisha said. “Just a fender bender but they had to pull over and exchange insurance and everything, so she missed her flight. She was all pissed off, because she was on her way to some important work thing. BUT as it turned out, the airplane that she was supposed to be on caught fire mid-air and went down over the ocean somewhere and everyone who didn’t die on impact ended up drowning or being eaten by sharks.”

“What a crock of shit,” Sara grumbled. “I saw that in a movie once or twice or a hundred times. And pass me the fucking joint if you’re just going to sit there.”

“Can you actually crash into water?” Marisol pondered, picking at a small hole in the knees of her jeans. “I mean, you can crash into dirt or cement or a mountain, because they’re solid. But water isn’t solid. So wouldn’t you just sort of sink into water?”

“At a fast enough speed, the water is as hard as cement,” Alisha said. “And depending on what angle you’re coming from. Like if you dive into a swimming pool headfirst rather than doing a belly flop.”

Sara shook her head. “I still say its bullshit regardless of the angle of the plane.”

“Anyway I thought planes were designed to float now,” Marisol said. “In the event of a water landing. The plane is supposed to float long enough for everyone to get out onto the boats.”

“It depends on how fast it hits the water–” Alisha started.

Sara groaned. “Can we kill the physics lesson for now? You know there’s a reason why I’m an art history major.”

“Because you like to get high and play with finger paints?” Marisol joked. Sara made a face but didn’t argue the point.

* * *

When I got home that evening, a little drunk and burping up wasabi, I found that my home had been exorcised. All of his jeans, t-shirts and underwear were missing from the shelves. His five million wrinkle-proof shirts had disappeared as well, as had his razor, toothbrush, comb, and shaving cream. Everywhere I looked, there were gaps left behind like missing teeth.

* * *

In a family full of teachers, Patrick had chosen to go to architecture school. “I’m kind of like the off-white sheep of the family,” he explained.

* * *

How to Stay Awake During Long Solo Drive to Los Angeles:

  • Three double cappuccinos by noon
  • Open up all of the windows when passing through Coalinga*
  • Whatever you do, do not listen to pubic radio

*slaughterhouse capital of the West

 

 

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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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Life is Unfair. Keep Writing Anyway.

When I was 16 years old, I won first place in the short fiction category of a very small, very local writing contest targeted at teenagers. The prize was $50. This was the first and last time I received payment of any kind for writing fiction.

I figure I’m up by $50 on a lot of writers out there.

Many writers never make a penny off of their work. And those who do often supplement this income with day jobs or less fulfilling freelance work. Some rely on their spouse’s or partner’s income to pay the bills.

A small number of writers were born into wealth and can dedicate their every waking moment to crafting their novels.

Life is unfair. The end.

But of course this isn’t the end.

Last week, Salon.com ran an article by Ann Bauer titled “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from. And like any thing on the Internet that features a comments section, the response was immediate and fierce.

WritingSome commenters applauded Bauer for coming clean that – although she is a published writer with a decent list of credits to her name – her income from writing alone doesn’t come close to a living wage. Others raged against her for calling out two unnamed writers for what she saw as a lack of disclosure regarding their inherited wealth and connections. One example: An aspiring writer asked one author how he had paid the bills during the 10 years he spent writing his latest novel. The author – who comes from a very wealthy family – responded that it had been difficult, but that he’d also written a number of magazine articles during that time. The implication was that 1) he was struggling to get by, just like the rest of us, and 2) writing a few magazine articles will pay enough to support your family while you craft your masterpiece.writer

The commenters’ vitriol ranged from Fuck the 1%! to How dare you point fingers at the “privileged” when your writing is largely funded by your husband?  But I didn’t feel that Bauer was suggesting the author was obligated to discuss his personal financial information, or that she was simply bitter he was born into money. Rather, I felt that she was calling him out for being disingenuous, for suggesting to the aspiring writer that his success was based almost purely on drive and determination.

But whether the author has billions in real estate or $37 in his checking account, he has to write. A lot. He has to work damn hard to develop his craft. Just like the rest of us.

writing officeWriters, like any artists, create because it is in our blood. It is a compulsion. It is part of who we are, whether we write late at night in our pajamas while the rest of the family sleeps or once the nanny ushers the kids off to school. The vast majority of us would continue to write even if we were 100% sure that we’d never earn a cent from it.

Does the billionaire have a distinct advantage over the working mom? Hell yes, he does. But like I said, life is unfair. There is no bliss, no inspiration in resenting someone for having more time, more money, or more connections than you do. And at the same time, there is no value in feeling guilty for having money, or because your spouse or partner brings home the bulk of the income, so long as the two of you made this career/lifestyle choice together.

What troubles me is seeing writers turn on one another (and at times, themselves) rather than coming together to call out the increasingly flighty publishing industry, as well as the general lack of value our culture places on creative professions. Writing is hard work, much harder than most of the paying jobs I’ve held in my life.

And after all, we are all in this together.

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PS. For the record, I strongly dislike the term “sponsored” as it suggests that the writer is being supported by a parent or a Sugar Daddy/Mama, not his or her spouse or partner. And I find that not only condescending but also sorta icky.

PPS. I was not born into wealth and I am my only source of income. One could argue that I was born into privilege because I grew up in a middle class suburb and had parental support through college. Then again, one could argue just about anything if one sets his or her mind to it, which is evidenced by the comments section on just about any thing posted on the internet.

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Critique or Critic?

My high school drama teacher set the class with what appeared to be a straightforward assignment: form groups of three and share a story about either your favorite or your least favorite teacher. We launched into our tales of terrible teachers: The time that Mr. Marrett, in a snit, threw an eraser across the classroom. Mr. Philbrook’s “creative” use of a 10-pound rock as a hall pass, forcing his students to haul the thing with them every time they went to the bathroom. And my own story about the time Mr. Nicholson refused to help me with my AP English essay. His justification: “No one is going to help you with your work when you are in college.” Oh, how I loathed Mr. Nicholson…

By a show of hands, it was immediately clear that out of our class of 25 students, a mere four or five of us had taken the positivity high road and talked about a teacher whom we liked. The rest of us had jumped on the teacher-bashing bandwagon. My drama teacher then revealed the lesson of this exercise*: when given a choice, our natural inclination is often to focus on the negative.

This truth abounds when it comes to critiquing someone else’s writing. Each time I read a piece for my writers’ group, I must make a conscious effort to note both what is working and what is not, to underline the clever phrases as well as the awkward ones. I try to put myself in the other writer’s position – what kind of feedback would be most helpful? What will inspire him or her to rush home after the meeting and start revising? After all, we are there to improve our writing, to learn from one another.

Thou shall not use passive tense!

Thou shalt not use passive tense!

Of course, not everyone sees it this way. Some people seem to equate “critique” with “critical”, and behave more like the self-appointed Grammar Police or the Plot Development Marshall.

My friend Jen recently told me that she no longer reads aloud in her ongoing writing class whenever a new crop of students joins the group.

“There’s always at least one person who feels the need to establish him or herself by ripping everyone’s work to shreds,” she explained.

“Perhaps it’s like beating the crap out of someone your first day in prison,” I suggested. “Maybe they think everyone will take them more seriously if they come out swinging.”

Just last week, a new member to my writers’ group beat the crap out of my chapter. She began her written critique with this disclaimer.

My comments will reflect a lack of familiarity with what has been revealed before this point in the narrative, and for that I apologize. I hope that they are helpful to you, in any case.

This seemed a fairly reasonable statement to make, since she was coming in at Chapter Ten of my novel. She went on:

I’m not as much an appreciative reader, I guess, as I am a critical reader. I think of my function as to be something of an encouraging small voice asking how to make the narrative better. As I result, I need reminding to applaud that which is going well.

So far, this sounded pretty on par with my own philosophy. But as I read through her critique, it became clear she still had some work to do on the “applauding” portion of the program. Comment after comment, she had nothing but negative remarks:

This is cliché… This is vague and repetitive… I hate adverbs… Melodramatic… I’m beginning to lose interest because the telling is flat… Bland word choice, cliché structure.

It went on and on, until this final summary statement:

Not enough happened in this section, and the action that occurred was obliquely written, smothered in cliché, and sometimes vague and lacking drama. Even the ending: passive and oblique. Could be sharper, could be more briskly written. Could be more specific in the rendering of the moments and descriptions of the people and action.

By this point, I was laughing aloud. What on earth was I supposed to do with this onslaught of profoundly unhelpful commentary? Pronouncing a piece of writing as cliché, vague, and melodramatic is not, strictly speaking, a critique; it is criticism without the benefit of thoughtful insight or suggestion. And frankly, it’s kind of mean.

For the record, I received largely positive feedback from those members of my writing group who have read my novel from the beginning. Sure, they had suggestions for tightening up some of the sentences, clarifying vague statements, and the like. Their comments inspired me to sit down at the computer as soon as I got home. The new member’s comments inspired me to recycle her “critique”.

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*I’m guessing his bigger message was “Stop doing that.”

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Writing What You Don’t Know

If writers took the old adage “Write What You Know” to heart, I’m willing to bet that nearly all modern protagonists would be writers struggling to craft a literary masterpiece, balance the demands of their day jobs, relationships, and families, while battling the sometimes crippling self doubt that comes with being a sensitive, creative type. And really, there are already plenty of novels that fit this bill.*

There’s a reason why there aren’t more novels about plumbers or dry-wallers. When was the last time you read a book about a 50-year-old assembly line worker in a chicken processing plant in Missouri? I will venture a guess at an explanation: most fiction writers know very little about the best way to strip a chicken or replace a leaky flush valve.14045-write-what-you-know-that-should-leave-you-with-a-lot-of-free-2_380x280_width

I am not above this literary sink trap. But if I only wrote about what I know, I would quickly run out of material.

My current novel-in-progress, Small Legends, centers on four main characters. Although I’ve never been 1) a post-feminist mom trying to find her place in a time of changing gender roles, 2) an artistic yet angst-ridden 19-year-old boy, or 3) a 30-something woman with commitment issues (okay, I might relate to that last one just a tad), I can understand where all of these characters are coming from. However the fourth character – a middle-aged, blue collar lineman who works for the electric company – is completely out of my realm of experience. Middle-aged men are somewhat of a mystery to me (which probably explains why I’m still single) and if I worked on the line, I’d probably fall to my death from the utility pole before I had a chance to electrocute myself. So yeah, he’s been a challenging character.

Another topic central to my novel’s plot: Parenthood. I do not have children. I do not particularly like children, with the de facto exception of my friends’ children. But I am attempting to write about the feelings – the good, the bad, and the ugly – that my characters have for their children. I am attempting to create genuine parent/child relationships, and quickly realizing that I should really pay better attention when friends and co-workers talk about their kids.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise when a member of my writers’ group – a mother of two – gently called me out for subscribing to another familiar adage: Children Should Be Seen And Not Heard. “How are the parents able to have so many uninterrupted conversations with a rambunctious four-year-old boy in the same house?” she asked. “Where is their son all this time?”

Duh. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that the parents might need to interact with their child every now and again. Because I wasn’t putting myself in their shoes, I was sort of putting them in mine – an elementary party foul for writers.

I took her questions to heart and rewrote the next chapter to incorporate significantly more face time with the four-year-old boy, including a brief but telling exchange between mother and son that another member – a middle-aged man and a father – declared “beautiful”:

As my stomach grew, Nate took to spending more and more time talking to the baby growing inside of it. He decided that if it was a boy, he would name it Pinocchio, after one of his favorite Disney characters, and if it was a girl, Alice, after his other.

“I like peanut butter,” Nate stage-whispered, his face about an inch away. “And goldfish crackers.”

“What about string cheese?” I suggested. Nate looked up at me as if he was surprised to find that I was still attached to my stomach.

“Mommy, you’re not supposed to listen!” he complained, frowning.

“Okay, okay. I’m sorry,” I said. “I won’t listen anymore.”

He moved even closer so that his lips brushed up against my sweater when he whispered, “And string cheese.”

I pretended not to hear.

I am learning, it seems, once scene at a time.

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*Exhibit A: Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon, in which a frustrated writer is seven years and 2,500-words into a novel that he can’t seem to finish. Either Chabon is a master for pulling this off so beautifully or I’m a sucker for a good story about the struggles of my fellow writers. Probably both. Stephen King also famously writes about writers (Misery, Tommy Knockers, Bag of Bones), but takes their struggles far beyond rejected query letters and writers’ block.

 

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Quid Pro Quo?

Of the many milestones in the life of every novel, short story, or poem, one of the most crucial is the first time a writer allows his or her infant yet already beloved work to be viewed by others. At this key juncture, it is crucial to select the right early readers: literate, compassionate, and totally honest. They must be willing and able to provide specific, constructive feedback in a way that inspires you to keep revising*. In short, your early readers should either be people you trust implicitly, or who you are paying well.

So imagine my surprise when barely an hour after meeting Bill, the newest member of my writers’ group, he sent me a somewhat desperate email entitled “You are well read and I need help!” It said:

I am in a quandary and without someone’s input may have to stop writing until I’m clear. this clarity may never come. I would appreciate it if you would do me the ultimate favor and read what I have … and help me see clearly and focus my direction.

HelpEarlier that evening, the group critiqued an excerpt from Bill’s novel-in-progress about a man obsessed with reading the private diaries of the recently deceased. While his writing style was erratic and difficult to follow – shifting from short, stunted sentences to stream-of-conscious meanderings, and then back again, all within the span of a few paragraphs – his premise was at least interesting.

I’d given Bill what I hoped to be the aforementioned honest yet compassionate feedback that would inspire him to move forward with his work. But now he was asking me, practically begging me, to read and critique the entirety of his novel.

I am frozen, he went on. I realize this is an unusual and off the wall request but I don’t know where else to turn. my friends can’t help. thanks for listening.

I contacted the rest of the group to ask if anyone else had received a similar request. They had not. I wasn’t sure if I should take this as a compliment or feel a little creeped out. Had Bill been so impressed by my critique that he now sought out my unique wisdom? Had I perhaps led him on in some way, been too kind with my comments? Or was he simply desperate for validation, and I seemed the least likely of the group to tell him off?

While the credo of most writers’ groups is for the members to learn from one another, Bill’s distressed email didn’t sit right with me. I couldn’t help but feel a little used. It was like having a stranger at a party strike up a conversation with me only to then ask for an introduction to my best friend. It seemed that Bill was only interested in what I could do for him.

The following day, he sent another email. And then another, this time with his novel attached.

the tenses are all off and I haven’t had the time to do transitions but that’s what you get with a first draft. it’s only 137 pages a quick read. do I cut bait or fill in?

It was at this point that I wrote him back. I told him I was unable to help him, that my hands were full with my own projects at present. I encouraged him to set his novel aside for a little while, until he could come back to it with a fresh perspective. I did not hear from him again.

The other members of my writers’ group decided to rescind Bill’s invitation to join due to the quality – or lack thereof – of his writing and the fact that some thought he had been unnecessarily harsh in his critique of another member’s work. His emails to me, I was told, were the literary icing on the cake.

Although I was admittedly put off by his neediness, I still felt sad for him. We all get a little lost along the way, and can only hope that when we do, someone will be there to offer a helping hand.

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* The alternative to revision is, of course, crouching in a dark corner and drinking gin.

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