Another Set of Eyes

I’ve spent quite a few months in inactivity. My creativity hasn’t dried up, it’s just taken a sabbatical. Hopefully, somewhere nice and warm, like the French Riviera.

As an artist and a creative person, when the well threatens drought conditions, you start to worry. The worry turns into a bigger monster, into self-doubt and self-loathing. You begin to second guess your choices, your methods of operation, your intelligence, and your stamina. All of that conspires to make the largest black hole of negativity that will swallow you whole if you allow it to.

If you allow it to.

If your writing life pitches to these historic lows, there’s only one thing you can do: Get another set of eyes. Meaning, find someone else to read your work, to offer honest commentary and critique, even to read and gush. Yes, these are times when even your mom or your sycophantic employee will do. When the stakes are that low, you need all the uplifting you can scrounge up.

It’s not going to be easy. You may have to beg someone. Not your mom, of course, she’s always going to love you, but that employee who claims to love your writing while rolling her eyes behind your back, yes, you might have to beg her. You may have to barter one skill for another. Find another writer and offer to do the same. It doesn’t have to be a long term critique-partner commitment. What you need is short term. The idea of a set of different eyes works for everyone – we as writers ALL feel deficient at some point. Plus, I find it interesting to read the WIP of others.

In my case, I turned to my Editor for Life. I try not to bother him too much, as he has other clients, most of whom are NOT tied to him in a lifetime commitment. This time, the urge to cry for help was overwhelming.

We normally email, occasionally text, but this time he wanted to Skype. (I don’t really like Skype, but what the hey? At this point, I was willing to try anything.) Our first meeting was a blur. I couldn’t understand what he was trying to tell me. The next was the “light bulb” moment. I saw clearly what vision he had for my novel. It’s “okay”, it just needs a little je ne sais quoi. It was as if my writing block needed a tow truck to pull it out of the mud. I’m not on the highway yet, but I’m on my way.

So, thanks to another set of eyes, I’m on my way to (yet) another rewrite. Thanks to another set of eyes, I’ve found the spark that was missing in my writing. Thanks to another set of eyes, I’m back on my way.

Yes, writers are a solitary bunch. But if you don’t have that other set of eyes, you might as well fold up your tent and go home. Because even if your ideas are fabulous and your technique is flawless, you don’t know everything.

Regrets and Resolutions: A Writer’s End of Year

I honestly don’t understand how some published authors are so prolific. Especially mind boggling are those who have small children, businesses or day jobs, health problems, and the like. My life (especially the last few months) is at times so chaotic, it’s sweet relief to fall into bed at night. As a result, writing as taken a definite back seat.

Yet I try to squeeze out some writing time on a regular basis. I could be doing other things, like being more productive in my business(es) (totally boring), working out (uber boring), or maintaining my house and yard (not so boring, but time consuming). I could promote my writing more, but I’d feel like a huckster on a street corner peddling apples. Plus I’m too laid back (i.e. lazy) to do real promotion. I’m an artist: you either love my work, or you don’t. No hard feelings.

If I have one writing regret of 2012, it’s that I haven’t written MORE. Unfortunately, life threw me a couple of obstacles this year, and precious time was taken up by other more pressing matters. Maybe I was hoping the Mayans were right and I’d have no qualms about my absenteeism if I didn’t wake up on the 22nd.

Of course, that didn’t happen. The sun came up the next day.

2013 is starting early for me. Like TODAY.  My writing resolutions are as such:

1. Write more. I know. I say this all the time, but I need self-flagellation on a regular basis. Perhaps I should pencil that in on my calendar? While I’m throwing that idea on the fire, perhaps blogging more would be a good idea too.

2. Write more carefully. (Excuse my probably bad sentence.) Use what I’ve learned over the last few years to prevent writing mistakes before they happen. That way I won’t have such a heavy burden when it comes time to…

3. Edit more carefully. I’ve been working on Finding Cadence since 2007. I’m on my sixth edit, and I’m amazed to find errors and awkward phrasing even now. While I’m not exactly pleased as punch with Virtually Yours, the book served a purpose, mainly to remind me that editing never ends.

4. Study more. I love the Savvy Authors web site. So far, I’ve taken two classes and found them to be most helpful. The support and feedback are wonderful.

5. Network more. While I don’t write genre romance (my work does have romantic elements) I belong to the RWA and the Greater Detroit RWA and I’m a terrible member. I need to attend more meetings. I might need to branch out and find a serious critique group.

6. And finally, finish all of the half-baked projects I have hidden on my hard drive. I’ve got excellent ideas and compelling stories, but they won’t finish themselves. Time is short; I am old. I really need to start writing as fast as I can. After all, if someone with children under the age of 5 can do it, I should be able to.

For writers, writing is life. It’s the air we breathe. We have to channel our imagination somewhere, or we turn into tortured souls.

Leaving now to find my source of oxygen.

Critique and Rejection

How apropos that this article from Query Tracker landed in my email inbox today. What do they call it? Kismet?

A couple of days ago, I received a critique on the YA story I’ve been working on forever. I had begged my Editor for Life for said constructive critique, as I had never written anything in the genre. (Usually, Mr. ED provides me with written direction as to development and an opinion on whether the story will fly, but not this time. This time, he and his fellow editor oohed and aahed and implored me to hurry up and make the changes and submit the novel to an agent, post haste.) But since I insisted, he passed my draft to a reviewer.

When the review came back, he prefaced the email by telling me a few things. One, he doesn’t agree with the assessment. Two, Nameless Reviewer reamed me a new “b***hole,” or two.

Still, I’m no shrinking violet. I encourage critique, especially if it is constructive. Plus, I asked for it.

And the review? Scathing doesn’t quite describe what I read.

And guess what? I survived it.

Nameless Reviewer brought up several good points. One being that my technology was dated. Yes, yes it is. I started writing this novel in 2008. That’s four long years ago. I rushed to complete it because I wanted to finally finish it. It was the one piece of work that I already had 50K worth of words and was closest to finishing.

There were other technical issues that I totally agreed with. She reviewed my first draft. My first drafts are typically horrible, if not downright obnoxious. Especially true of a first draft that took me four years to finish. And I tried too hard. When I wrote the beginning, I had ‘dumbed’ down my main character. Teenagers these days are rather savvy and more sophisticated than what my character exhibited in the first few pages of my book.

However, I have to disagree with her on the rest of it. She thought it was an unbelievable tale and that my character was unlikeable. I am in contact with 14 to 18 year olds all day long. I see what’s going on. My teenage character is rather spoiled and not very likeable. I wanted to portray her as such in the beginning, because in the end she finds her better self.

Plus I based the character and her antics on my Real Life daughter and her friends. My Real Life daughter can come off as 1. spoiled, 2. bitchy, and 3. not very likeable. But my Real Life daughter can be very compassionate, is fun, smart, and talented.

Why do I blather on about this?

Well, for one thing, I’ve sent out queries and I’ve been rejected. I’ve submitted my work for various contests and have had mixed results. Some people like what I write, and some people don’t. Similarly, I feel the same way about some novels. There are too many books out there, and I can’t expect to like every one, or to have everyone like my work.

I like what Jillian Medoff said about writing as an art. It is an art. Like any artist, writers build their body of work. They grow and learn new concepts; they build a gallery of pieces that (hopefully) show a positive progression of improvement. I’m thinking of a gentleman I know from the Michigan Silversmith Guild, who is holding his 50 year retrospective in Kalamazoo. He was not proficient at metals when he was a college student, but what he creates now is nothing short of stunning and amazing.

Critique is not meant to tear down, but to point out various avenues not apparent to the artist. This is my take. Rejection can only be felt by the beholder, not by the artist. If you feel torn down and rejected, it might be time to start working in earnest.

Things to Do With Your Critiques

As many of you know, I’ve spent the last few months editing my first massive attempt at literary fiction. This was begun after a full 15 months of marination. I believe the common judgment is to let your creation steep for a couple of weeks or a month, tops. I take that back; I did attempt a preliminary edit not long after typing those lovely words “The End” but I was so horrified by my work (terrible, truly obnoxious), there was no way I could continue. I barely made it out of taking the “ly” and other adverbs out without a severe case of vomiting.

Once I had an entire year of putting my book on the back, back, back burner, I finally overcame my embarrassment and opened the file. What I noticed is that the story is good and solid. Lots of plot twists, a lot of angst and conflict, many scenes. Someone should be able to make it work. Besides, my more commercial venture was in the good hands of an editor, and I really didn’t want to start a new book before November. (I’m an ardent supporter of NaNoWriMo. Fabulous tool.) So I rolled up my sleeves and set off to work.

Editing, as many of you know firsthand, is not for the weak of heart. It’s grueling. You not only have to make your sentences and paragraphs crystal clear and tight, you have to have the courage to slice and burn, and slice again. You can defend your voice, but not your sloppy writing. You have to listen, to other readers, to other writers, to people in the know.

Meh, what do I know? I’m still aspiring, remember?

I decided to let my critique group look at the first third of my book. It’s about 150 pages and 13 chapters right now. I’d like to cut out at least 25 pages and a chapter or two. It’s getting tighter, but it’s not wound tight enough for me.

For those of you thinking this post has to do with creatively thought out physical things to do with your critiques, I will humor you:

1. massive bonfire.

2. 450 paper airplanes.

3. 450 origami cranes.

4. wallpaper the daughter’s room.

5. use pages to line a path in the garden.

6. recycle.

Now that we have gotten the hilarity over, I can discuss what to really do with the critiques. 🙂

Three of my crit partners felt the same way about the book. They all claimed to like it very much. They each brought up the same points in the same places. It was uncanny and quite weird. They also did not give me any guidance as to what to cut. Seems like they liked the internal dialog Cadence is having with herself. I can’t say I don’t like it, but I’d like the story to move along a little quicker. Some interaction with the other characters would help. When I started the novel, I couldn’t write dialog at all. Like Cadence, I was frozen by my inability. The dialog is coming easier these days, but I have to admit that I think in linear terms. If you’ve ever read any Anais Nin (or any writer from her era), the stories are told with very little dialog. (Yes, I know it is old fashioned.)

The fourth woman gave me what I really needed: certain paragraphs to take out completely. I may not agree with all of her suggestions, but I’m listening. She also pointed out some pretty obvious errors as to time, spatial elements and direction in the first couple of pages. Now how did I not notice them? (Answer: Too close to the book, duh!)

Her eyes were very good. She saw where I stated things twice (sometimes more than that), and her red highlights were welcome. Although she left me apologetic notes next to the red, “Sorry, it’s my POV.” or “Sorry. You told me you wanted to slash.”

So now the critiques are side by side by side by side, and I’m thinking long and hard about my next step. Should I deconstruct Part I or plunge on through Part II?

Critique is a Writer’s Best Friend

I’ve been scribbling furiously and typing to the point of renewed carpal tunnel syndrome for the last three years in an attempt to put my ideas into novel-length words. The tally? Two finished, two in various states of disrepair and a sequel being sketched out ‘for later.’ One full manuscript made its way to an agent, the other full – my first – is so completely incoherent and massively wordy that I’m going to have to disassemble it and start over. In between are two blogs and several short stories, several contests (one where I placed!), several reviews and rants.

Fiction writing is different from editorial writing, business letter writing, poetry, text writing and writing stormy missives to your Congressmen. It’s different from writing love letters to your spouse and chiding email to your children. Fiction writing is a strange and wonderful animal all to itself.

I dropped out of college, so I was unable to obtain a sheepskin for my forays into English/journalism/art. I went to college during the mid ‘70s, so I’m not sure how much book learning I remember. I’m the first to admit that I am clueless, but I’m a quick study.

In my quest to finish my novel explorations, I’ve learned a few things. The one BIG thing any fiction writer is needs a supportive critique system. I don’t care if you are a well-known and well-published author — a fresh pair of eyes often lends a perspective the writer may be unable or unwilling to view. There are Rules for Writing (of which I was oblivious). Of course, after immersing myself in rules, I attended the San Francisco Writers Conference and learned at a workshop how to break the rules.

At some point, the aspiring author is going to want to get out of her pajamas, leave her cave and set about finding legitimate critique for her work. It happened to me.
Critique will point out more than spelling errors or problems with grammar or misplaced punctuation. (I don’t know about you, but I cannot proofread my own work.) A thorough critique will outline structural deficiencies, like problems with time line or story line, overuse of certain words or – God forbid – the dreaded cliche.

Do NOT make the mistake of giving your work for critique to family members or friends who are less than brutally honest. Of course, your mom is going to love your work and thinks your book will be on the New York Times best seller list for a year. Duh! You may want to utilize friends and families as readers in order to determine that your work will or will not put them to sleep. However, for the purposes of critique, find professional help.

For a long time, I relied on online friends who share my same passion for writing. They have pointed out the obvious flaws in my work, and led me to the library for reading material on writing the right way.

Online writing friends may be in the midst of their own manuscripts – and if they are like me, they are world-class procrastinators – so the fledgling writer may have to pursue other outlets for critique. When it comes to writing web sites, be sure you read the Terms of Service and be wary of any critique service that charges a fee. There are plenty of writing web sites that do not charge a fee. The big names include ReviewFuse, Romance Divas or The Next Big Writer, to list a few. I was also invited to a small Ning group (Writers Collaborate), and there are more out there.

The downside to online groups is that many other writers join to get critique as well. I am not well-versed in critiquing work other than for the obvious misspelling or simple sentence structure. The only other thing I can add is “I like where this is going and want to know more.” While a hook is important, some writers want an in-depth deconstruction.

I am a busy woman and can’t commit to creative writing classes, but I have always been interested in finding help in the flesh. I was recently invited to a small, in-person critique group of some members of the Greater Detroit Romance Writers of America. I am the fourth person. In such a small group, it’s far easier to communicate ideas than it is in a larger forum. The other women, most of whom don’t necessarily write romance, are helpful and one was an English teacher in a past life.

As with any relationship, if your group offers unhelpful criticism – and that does happen – it may be time to find another group. A writer needs to feel safe and that any points made are not done out of meanness or spite. On the other hand, if you truly want to better your work, a certain amount of outside perspective will be necessary.

My quick tips:
1. Don’t take it personally. Your critique partner isn’t trying to make you cry, he/she is trying to help you.
2. Try revising the trouble spot in a few different ways, instead of plowing through with the first thought in your head. You may find the second or third (or eighth) idea is the real gem.
3. Really listen to the suggestions. You’ll learn a lot and it will improve your writing.
4. Put your work away when you feel overloaded and come back to it later. It will look strangely different once it’s been marinating for a few days/weeks/months.
5. Finally, don’t lose your voice in the edit. Your voice is your most important asset. There may be occasions where you feel the critique is not valid. If the words work, listen to your head. If we all followed the rules and all wrote the same, it would be a pretty dreary world.