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.
***
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) {}

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.
***
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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Immaturity in Writing

In January, I started reading slush for Masque Books, a digital imprint of Prime Books. And so far it’s been a fascinating peek behind the publishing curtain.

I’ve seen my fair share of crazy fonts and strange formatting, but not nearly as much as I expected to based on the horror stories of the slush pile that get bandied about. What’s surprised me the most is the overall care that’s gone into the submissions. This doesn’t mean they’ve knocked my socks off, but rather that the average submission is much higher in quality than I expected—they’ve been literate, proofread if not perfect, and largely followed the submission guidelines.

That kind of attention to detail is encouraging to see, which is why it’s so heartbreaking to get to the actual story and know within two paragraphs, sometimes sooner, that it’s a no-go. And more often than not, the culprit is immature writing.

What do I mean by that? Well, it’s a catch-all phrase that I use when I see a manuscript that has either sentence-level issues or a lack of sophistication with elements of craft (or both).

Sentence-Level Issues

This can be as simple as a poor grasp of grammar—improper punctuation, run-on sentences, etc. A mistake or two won’t make or break a submission. But they can add up, and when the errors are egregious, it’s that much harder to take a story seriously.

There are also more subtle signs of sentence-level issues. Things like wordiness, filtering, awkward phrasing. I’ve trained myself to write tight, to weed out inefficiencies in my text, to catch mistakes and edit out the awkwardness. When I see project where these kinds of things aren’t addressed, it makes me wonder just how far along the writer is in their journey. Is this their first project and they haven’t quite figured everything out? Or have they just not taken the time to refine their writing to make it the best it can be? I usually go with the former interpretation, and have to hope they won’t give up when they get their rejection, that they’ll keep writing, keep striving until they get their stories out into the world.

Bottom line, every word in your story subconsciously signals your ability as a storyteller to a reader. Sentence-level issues are the one thing you as a writer can control in a highly capricious business, so there’s no excuse not to learn them. And if you haven’t learned them, when I read your submission I assume that you are too immature a writer to competently tell me a story I’m interested in.

Elements of Craft Lack Sophistication

This is even more subjective, but in some ways more detrimental to a submission. Say an author has great descriptive powers, but cannot orchestrate an action scene to save their life. Or the voice of the protagonist is largely spot on, but infodumps and unrealistic dialogue grounds a story before it even gets started. Essentially, there is some aspect (or aspects) of the writer’s craft that screams inexperience, by virtue of it being poorly handled or weaker relative to other aspects of the work.

This isn’t always a fatal flaw—after all, a good editor will work with a writer to improve all aspects of a story. But the problems with craft must be surmountable. For example, a story where every paragraph tells the reader what to think instead of showing them or a clumsy inner monologue that sidelines action in every scene are too insidious to tackle. Other things like a lack of specificity or an overabundance of specificity could be fixable, but the story would have to be worth the effort.

This is where beta readers and critique partners and groups come in, because writers can be blind to their shortcomings.

Bottom line, you cannot afford to ignore the weaker parts of your craft and hope the rest will be strong enough to carry your story. If I see a big imbalance in your abilities as a writer or if the way you handle certain aspects of craft show your inexperience or lack of awareness of what’s acceptable, then I’m going to assume you haven’t matured as a writer and that your story isn’t ready for publication.

Harsh? Yes. Necessary? Also yes. I’ve only recommended two stories since I’ve started slushing, and those were both with big reservations.

So at the end of the day, remember: Writing stories is hard. Rejecting stories is easy.

It’s all too easy to find a reason to reject a story. You’re goal as a writer is to minimize those reasons for “easy” rejections (following guidelines, fine-tuning your prose, making strides with your craft). You want to make it difficult for me to say no. You want me to keep hoping if I turn the page, it will be worth it.

I want it to be worth it. And you can prove that to me by maturing as a writer. It won’t happen overnight. But if you keep writing, keep working, keep striving, you’ll get there. We all will. One day. 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) {}

Collaborative Writing

Over the last few months, I’ve participated in a collaborative writing project with two of my writing friends.

It’s something I was initially hesitant doing. For one, the project is in a genre I don’t normally write in. For another, I wasn’t confident our writing styles would mesh. Plus, the time I spent on the project would inevitably take time away from my own work.

But I did it anyway, and as we’re polishing the initial draft, I can say it was largely a success. How did we keep it from devolving into a game of tug-of war?

Well, for starters, my emotional investment in this project was much lower to begin with. After all, I had to share this story with two other people. So my level of engagement was more in line with the collaborative writing I did in academia—I had a professional desire to get things done and do them well, but I was more than happy to put it aside at the end of the day. In other words, I viewed this as a job or an assignment, not my “art” (whatever that means).

That also meant I was accountable to the other writers I was working with. Excuses that I sometimes use to get out of working on my own projects didn’t fly in this case because I had two other people counting on me to write my portions of the story.

That level of detachment did make it harder to engage with the material initially, but as we got further along into the story, that became less of an issue. The detachment also meant I was also more open to compromise as we discussed the overall story arc and decided on character traits and plot points.

We also stuck to a schedule. We met every two weeks while drafting the story. We started with an initial brainstorming session where we roughed out the plot. Then we would assign each other scenes to write. We would exchange those scenes before the next session, review them, and make big-picture adjustments at the next meeting. Then the process would start all over again. The result was a full draft in less than four months.

It also helped that each writer was assigned a specific POV character, so we didn’t have to worry about handing off that character to someone else and the continuity issues that would stem from that.

Would I do it again? It depends. I learned a lot about my writing through this process and exposed myself to the drafting techniques of other writhers. And it’s encouraging to know that such collaborations can be successful—provided there’s a good mesh of working styles. Plus it was a lot of fun too.

Doing it again would necessitate a time commitment I’m not eager to make at this stage right now. That doesn’t mean some future project won’t be worth the effort.

So if you are contemplating a collaborative writing project, here are a few things to keep in mind:

Find writers you trust.

This means you trust their creative instincts, you trust their ability to do the work, and (it has to be said) you trust they won’t dick you over in the end. It helps that I’ve known the two women I worked with for over a year through our local writing group. Not everyone starting a collaboration will have this option, but the point is to vet the other writers the best you can and go with your gut.

Treat it as a professional obligation.

This means you (and the other writers) need to be accountable to one another. Make goals, stick to a production schedule, brainstorm together—but remember to build in enough leeway so that you can help each other if the going gets tough. Respect each other’s work and each other’s time. Couch story development negotiations in terms of craft and structure, not you own selfish desires for how the story should turn out. There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team’ and all that.

Remember that this is a learning opportunity.

Collaboration is a useful skill to have in your toolbox. It’s also a rare one, because of the difficulties inherent in any collaboration. Use this time as chance to look under the hood at someone else’s writing process—you may glean a few nuggets of wisdom for your own writing. You may also surprise yourself at what you are capable of in the right set of circumstances.

Check out On the Art of Collaboration in Writing from Magical Words and Amie Kaufman’s Three Rules You Can’t Break for more insights into collaborative writing. 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) {}