Humble Pie

With the exception of certain universal life experiences, no other process has been quite as humbling as learning how to write well.

Knowledge is proud that it knows so much; wisdom is humble that it knows no more. William Cowper

For one thing, everyone thinks they’re an expert on writing, by virtue of the high literacy rates in our society and the sophisticated narratives that populate our entertainment, our news, even our interactions with one another. Add to this the critique process that is often necessary to strengthen a writer’s craft and their work—a necessary evil but one that often shakes the resolve of many beginning writers (as well as those at every stage of their career).

Image courtesy of Jaypeg on Flickr

Criticism can be brutal, confusing, and sometimes even helpful, but I believe only a humble writer can learn something from it. You have to be open to the process, and that means you need to set your ego aside.

Then there’s the whole rejection thing, and how you’ll probably accumulate dozens or more rejections for every acceptance you get.

Success is not a good teacher, failure makes you humble. Shahrukh Khan

I’ve wrestled before with the idea of the arrogant writer, and still believe that writers are guided by the hope that our words have meaning rather than the expectation that they do simply because they’ve been recorded.

I’ve never had a humble opinion. If you’ve got an opinion, why be humble about it? Joan Baez

After all, our first amendment right to write is a privilege not every one in this world enjoys. To have the time to indulge in writing is another privilege not everyone has.

I know that writing has humbled me. Not only in what I do and do not know, but also in the knowledge that the odds are so very great. Each and every time someone further along in their career takes a moment to reach out to me, I am humbled.

Am I alone in feeling this way? What is it about writing that has made you humble?

Invisibility of Progress

Improvements in writing ability are often hard to detect. So much of what is “good” is contextual—dictated by a particular project, the audience you’re writing for, or even market trends.

I’ve talked before about How Do You Know if you are ready for publication. Although it’s related, that’s not exactly what I want to talk about today.
Instead I want to focus on all the invisible things writers do in the hopes of bettering their craft, expanding their professional network, and positioning themselves for success to the best of their ability.
Image courtesy of Penywise of Morgue Files
Objective measures of success in this field are pretty self-explanatory. You’re either published or you’re not (however you choose to define it). When you’re “not” published, chances are you’re doing a bunch of things other than writing in the hopes they will pay off in some small way in the future.
For example, I haven’t sold any short stories since last fall. If you are looking at my output objectively—well, there isn’t any by that definition. Instead, so much of what I’m doing these days is invisible. And I’m still trying to figure out what that means.
These invisible activities include:
Reading slush for Masque Books – Beyond occasional mentions here on the blog, it’s something I do to strengthen my ability to evaluate projects, diagnose writing problems, and gain insights into the editorial process. I won’t be able to learn these things overnight—this requires a commitment of months if not years to see the benefit from this type of activity.
Joining an invitation-only critique group – The meetings are intense and panic-inducing. I’m learning tons, making good connections, but as with any critique group, feedback is only as good as the projects I bring to them. Workshopping novels (and short stories to a lesser extent) can be a long process outside of development time.
Submitting to higher-tier markets – I have three in rotation right now that I truly believe in. And I’ve been aiming high. My sales last year gave me the confidence to target higher-tier markets. Personal rejections? Check. Second-round bumps? Check. Agonizing ‘You just missed the cut’ notices? Oh yeah. And the worst part is, all this means longer response times.
When non-writers ask me about my writing these days, it’s hard to explain how all these invisible activities fill up my time and contribute to my work. But they do mean something. They are valuable. They just go largely unseen because they don’t conform to objective measures of success.
I just have to believe they’ll add up to something that cannot be ignored one day.

What aspect of your writing life is invisible?

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Feedback, But When?

Feedback is an essential part of the creative process. Well, at least mine! How else will you know if your intentions match up with the reception of your work? Today, I’ll talk about the different stages of a project where it might be appropriate to solicit feedback.
In-Progress Feedback
In one of my writing groups, the work I share is almost always a work-in-progress. It’s literate, but it’s usually a snippet from a novel or a short story that still needs some fleshing out. In this case, I’m actively looking to my other group members for assistance in how to flesh the story out, what I’ve overlooked, and ultimately whether I’m on the right track or not. Just realize not every writing group is geared to workshopping this kind of early stage writing. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Critical thinkers, other writers.
Developmental Feedback
I’d call this feedback on anything that’s been drafted and fleshed out, but hasn’t fully cured in a version you are confident in submitting somewhere. In other words, you’ve gotten to the end, but the ride is still a bit bumpy (not in a good way). Here, I’m looking for macro-level adjustments (micro is good too) that I can make so the story can gel into a finalized draft. At this stage, I want people who understand the big picture but also the aspects of craft that will help me realize it all on the page. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Other writers, particularly those writing in your genre.
Polished Feedback
This is feedback on a polished draft that you think is the best it can be. You know, all those checklists when you’re trying to decide if you’re ready to submit or not? If your answer is yes, it’s still a good idea to get another person (or persons!) to take a look. You might burn a few weeks only to get your readers’ blessing to send it out, but it’s better to know you are sending out your best work than being surprised by some issue that was overlooked at other stages. And when you only have one shot with agents, you want everything to be as good as it can be. 
Best critiquers at this stage: Readers of your genre, other writers.
Public Reception
So let’s say your story/novel/what-have-you got published. Yay! At this stage, there’s still a couple metrics you can use to see how your work is received and ways to use its reception and apply it to your next story. Obviously things like sales figures are important. But so are reviews. I’m not talking about the reviews your mom/critique partner/best friend wrote. I’m talking about the reviews written by strangers who have no personal investment in you or your story.
Seth Godin says the worst feedback is indifference. Some stories and novels get published, and just as quickly vanish into the ether. Now some of this can be attributed to poor marketing and positioning, and sometimes a story just doesn’t have the impact it should. And sometimes, you are lucky enough to get reviews that help you to understand what worked and what didn’t in your story. Elizabeth Spann Craig talks about this in Handling Reviews from Mystery Writing is Murder. Give yourself time for the sting to wear off, but even bad reviews can be instructive (so long as it’s not coming from someone with an ax to grind).
One of my published stories was not received in the manner I had hoped for, and I learned a lot from seeing those reviews of my work. It forced me to analyze my assumptions in writing that particular story as well as my assumptions in who the story’s audience was, and so on. Despite the short-term disappointment in that story’s reception, that was a hugely valuable experience, and one that will shape my work to come.
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So obviously, you need feedback, and at what point you solicit it and from whom will be dependent on your writerly network and your own needs and comfort level with the critique process.
Personally, I try to get feedback at each stage of a project, if possible. In my goal to write faster, I’ve found that In-Progress Feedback is extremely helpful for heading off mistakes in a story that would need significant retooling if they were found much later in the process. However, for that to be successful, I think you need to be:
1)     very used to critique and,
2)     very clear in your own head with what you’re trying to achieve with your work.
Especially because rogue comments can easily affect the trajectory of a story and your confidence in it at the early stage of a project. It should also be said that if you’re sharing early work, you are sharing it with writers who:
1)     you trust
2)     understand that it’s an early draft, and
3)     can provide constructive criticism (not all critiquers are alike in this)
Your mileage may vary, of course. But I’ve found this work for me.

Happy writing (and critiquing)!var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); try { var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-15029142-1”); pageTracker._trackPageview(); } catch(err) {}

The Pros of Professional Development

While the blogosphere is a fantastic resource—rife with informative posts on craft, publishing, and other aspects of the writing life—it can get overwhelming and, at times, repetitive. Not that repetition can’t be helpful in crystallizing some aspects of craft. But too much, and my brain starts saying I’ve heard this before and I tune out.
When that happens, the act of learning, of actively improving, becomes passive. For this writer, that means I start to feel complacent. Not a good place to be.
I had been feeling this way recently—after all it’s been just under a year since I attended Taos Toolbox—so when I saw my local SCBWI chapter was hosting a NY agent for an all-day workshop, I signed up, hoping to be reinvigorated.
I was nervous as I always am when owning my writer persona in an unfamiliar environment with (gasp!) strangers. For the morning session, the agent presented an overview of essential craft elements for children’s books. Then the afternoon was all about the business side of things. It was a very informative session, and unfortunately I signed a waiver that doesn’t let me get any more specific than that.
The workshop would haven been tremendously helpful for me a year or three ago. As it was, I’d say didn’t learn anything “new.” Instead, I learned the relative importance this agent placed on different aspects of craft and business. Much of the content I had been exposed to before, though not as systematically all at once. Hand in hand with the workshop, I paid for an optional critique that didn’t uncover any fatal deficiencies in my writing. So at this point you may be wondering what I actually got out of a wasted Saturday and a c-note.

1. It’s Worth Checking In Sometimes

It is entirely possible to reach a point with your craft where you simply don’t need all the handholding you once did to stay productive. The writing is going well, you’re in the zone, this one’s going to sell, and so on. And that’s all great. But when you’re holed up in your cave, sometimes you can lose sight of what your writing really needs.
By attending a workshop like I did or engaging in some form of professional development to put you and your work out there, you have the opportunity to evaluate your writing through someone else’s eyes. On the business side of things, the publishing world is changing so rapidly every day, you can’t afford to not pay attention to opportunities to help put all the changes into perspective.

2. Don’t Underestimate the Value of Knowing You’re On the Right Track

You remember that critique I got? It let me know my opening for a new project was on the right track. That is invaluable. Looking back at where I was with past projects and knowing they wouldn’t have received this kind of feedback at this stage, shows just how much I’ve improved. Doesn’t mean it’s perfect, doesn’t mean there aren’t things I can do to strengthen my story. But it’s now a question of calibration, not wholesale revision. And that’s a huge difference (and a huge confidence boost).

3. Professional Organizations Provide Superior Opportunities

Now, this assertion is grounded in my personal experience. I’ve tried a lot of different things, including:
Local, grassroots style writing groups like those you find through Meetup.com or your local alt-weekly. You can find some good individuals, but too often the group includes people who don’t know what they’re doing or have a different focus (say self-publishing when you have your eye on the Big 6).
Classes at the local community college or university. Again, you might find some serious individuals, but many of these people are just testing the waters and haven’t screwed up the courage to take the plunge. The teachers at this level can also be suspect in their ability to teach or inspire. Note, I am not talking about MFA programs and the like.
Regionally-focused writing organizations. The ones near you may be different, but the one closest to me serves as a catch-all for writers not represented by other organizations. Mine has a lot of writers writing memoir and literary fiction, and their classes and workshops cater to hobbyists and beginners.
Residential workshops like Taos Toolbox. Expensive, but being surrounded by a dedicated group of peers, and being instructed by individuals who have lived through publishing’s ups and downs is priceless.
Local chapters of national writers groups like RWA or SCBWI. These organizations are far more likely to have classes and workshops for the intermediate and seasoned writer.
I can say with absolute certainty that you get folks who are a lot more serious about learning their craft at organizations and workshops with a targeted focus like genre. Not one of the thirty people in the workshop I attended had stars in their eyes that they’d be the next JK Rowling. Everyone was aware of the years of hard work and the smart choices it takes to succeed in publishing.
Now, I’ve held off joining any of the membership organizations. Partly because it’s another cost in a field with too little money for writers as it is. Partly because I was a little too in love with the idea of the “lone writer” for a long time. And partly because I felt I had to “prove” myself in a genre before I could presume to join an organization dedicated to it. Imposter syndrome, much?
But now? I’m in a place where I’m reasonably confident in my abilities as a writer. I’m also very cognizant of what I don’t know as I contemplate what’s next for me. That’s where the support of a national organization becomes invaluable. I’m still debating which one is best for my career long term, but I can no longer ignore the benefits they can provide.

What about you? Have you had a recent professional development experience? How did it go?

Happy writing!
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Rough Crit

Criticism is hard to take sometimes. But if you are actively seeking it out, there’s no better way to improve and hone your craft in my opinion. It means you take your work seriously and want to grow as a writer.
It also means you are guaranteed a rough crit session from time to time. So here are some tips for how to survive an in-personcritique when it seems like your colleagues or fellow workshoppers are out to get you.

During the session:

1) Don’t get defensive

I repeat: Don’t get defensive. Getting defensive leads all too easily to getting angry, which can lead to things being said that cannot be unsaid.
If you find your hackles rising, find a way to channel that feeling into something productive. Me? I’m a notetaker. I write down all the bad things someone raises about my work during critique sessions. Even the things I don’t agree with. Something about the process of notetaking adds a crucial bit of separation between me and what’s being said, allowing me to compartmentalize the negative stuff and move on.

2) Don’t try to justify

We’ve all been in that situation where a writer says something like, “Well, what I was trying to do in that scene…” or “My intentions were…” et cetera. This often leads to a lengthy monologue where the writer explains why the story is the way it is, refuting every issue raised during the session along the way.
This is a waste of everyone’s time. If you try to justify what you wrote—preferring your words to a reader’s honest reactions—you’re basically saying your critiquers’ reactions to your story don’t matter. Which begs the question why you are soliciting critiques in the first place.

Note that this does not mean you can’t ask someone for clarification about why they felt the way they did about your work. You can. But be wary if you find yourself protesting too much.

 

3) Don’t take your bad crit out on others

I’ve been in roundtable critique sessions where a writer responds to a harsh crit by being harsh in turn out of spite—not raising legitimate issues with the work under consideration. Don’t be that person.
If you can’t be civil in the aftermath of a rough crit, excuse yourself, take a time out, do whatever it is you need to do to find balance. It may not seem that way when your critiquers are tearing apart your work, but they are trying to help you. Don’t do something that will jeopardize their future good will.

 

After the session:

1) Give yourself some time

If you aren’t ready to dive into the negative feedback, that’s okay. Read a book, work on another project, do whatever it is you need to do to be in the proper headspace for processing feedback.
Taos Toolbox had a very large critique component. I deliberately refrained from looking at what my colleagues had to say about my work until I got home. Why? Because I knew if I looked at the written feedback it would distract me from my main goal of the workshop: making real connections with fellow writers. I didn’t want my interactions tainted by the critiques—that’s the one who got too heavy-handed with their line edits or that’s the one who hated my MC—instead of getting to know them on a more personal level. It also gave me time for their suggestions to sink in, and when I got home, I was more open to making changes.

 

2) Understand who is giving you feedback

In other words, not all critiquers are created equal. Just because someone writes a lot or well doesn’t mean they automatically give good feedback. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t have a lot of publishing credentials doesn’t mean they won’t have any insights into your work.
Some things to ask yourself when weighing feedback:
How much experience does this person have with critiquing?
Do they write in my genre?
Do I like their style/storytelling abilities?
Are they a writerly type to avoid? – Inexperience, ignorance, and ego can all be problematic

 

3) Understand what you are getting feedback on

You’d think this is a no-brainer, but you’d be surprised. Whatever you submit or send in, right? Here’s the thing. You know, consciously or unconsciously, what kinds of questions you have about your story. And whether you ask for specific feedback or not, the issues your critiquers raise can surprise you.
There’s nothing worse than expecting macro-level feedback and getting your story put through a line editing meat grinder. Or expecting help to polish a final draft, only to have your story premise dissected. That’s not to say those things can’t be helpful—usually they are. But if you aren’t expecting it, those kinds of crits can be devastating.
So double-check your critique expectations. If there’s a large deviation between the feedback you expected and what you actually got, ask yourself the following:
Did I specify my critique expectations? 
Sometimes it is as simple as saying your story is an early or a final draft—often that will cue the critiquer to respond accordingly. Other times, you may need a second opinion on a problematic element (say structure or characterization). You want to make sure you tell your critiquers that. It may not help—they could forget or get distracted by another aspect of your story, but at least you know you tried to get the right kind of feedback for your story.
Did I inadvertently trigger one of my critiquer’s hot-button issues? 
People will respond in unexpected ways to your work. If you hand an atheist a Christian romance, well, that could lead to a very interesting critique. People with different worldviews and life experiences are great to have in a writing group—but those very differences can lead to surprising results in practice as well.
It usually comes down to knowing the people you are exchanging work with. As someone who’s spent a lot of time reading and writing romance, I can be very critical of those scenes. One of my writing friends is an interior designer, and often her comments pick apart descriptions of interior spaces and architecture. Similarly, scientists get cranky when you fudge scientific details or resort to handwaving in speculative works.
So if a critiquer is overly sensitive to an aspect of your story, ask yourself why. Usually it is because they have firsthand knowledge or expertise on a particular subject. Instead of getting defensive, use their knowledge to strengthen your work.
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I hope this post results in less stressful and more useful critique sessions. For more on this subject, check out 5 Ways to Get Good Revision Notes.
Happy writing!

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