Forgetting to fall

11 years. That’s how long I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo.

It’s weird to look back at my life and think of things that have happened in that span of time. New job. Marriage. Childbirth. Friends coming and going. Multiple iterations of the iPhone. And yet, every November, I start with a blank page and a stack of notes and write until time runs out. I spin straw into, if not gold, then at least yellow thread that I can maybe weave into a tapestry that I will eventually sell for gold.

At the beginning of the month, someone I follow on Twitter was trying to decide whether to try writing a novel when they already had too much on their plate. I told him, “Sometimes you get to the edge of the cliff and think, ‘Maybe I could fly.'” And he asked, “But what if I fall?” I said, “To paraphrase Douglas Adams: the trick to flying is forgetting to fall.”

If there was ever a year when I was going to fall, this would have been it. My job ramped up such that I had extra work on top of being on call for about 12 hours every day. I’m teaching two creative writing classes. I lost two days to driving back and forth from Georgia, plus the days in between where I didn’t want to totally ignore family. I was sick for a week while my husband was out of town, so I was single parenting while trying to extract some kind of sea urchin from my throat.

I also had a whole week of vacation all to myself. My first time off this year, in fact. It happened to be the week I was sick, but that meant I had the luxury of drinking hot tea and writing at a leisurely pace instead of struggling to make word count.

And make no mistake: for most of the month, it was a struggle. Every morning, I got up early to write for a half hour. Every day at lunch, I went down to my car and wrote. Every night, after doing work for class, I wrote for about two hours. I budgeted my time like a miser counting pennies, even set alarms on my phone to go off at different points during the day to remind me of what I needed to do when. That alarm tone is going to haunt my dreams for probably the next 11 years.

But I didn’t do it alone. My husband took over bedtime duties. My mom babysat on weekends. Netflix filled in where necessary. I went to write-ins at least twice a week, and sprinted with friends online every night. People even sent me pep talks–you know who you are, you glorious, fabulous people. Sometimes it takes a village to write a novel, and it is my privilege to have a damn fine village.

Every year that I do this, I remember that I can do it–relearn how, even–and this year doubly so. And here I am, 50,000 words later. Spinning straw. Forgetting to fall.

Can’t wait to see where I’ll fly next year.

The verdict?
  • Awesome (0)
  • Good (0)
  • Okay (0)
  • Boring (0)
  • Bad (0)

How to apply critique, part 2

So you’ve given your work time to cool off and you’re ready to dig in and get dirty. Again, there are no shortcuts and no consistent maps to follow, but generally speaking, here are some tips to maximize effectiveness.

1) Take notes before, during and maybe after.

You probably already have notes, sure, but more things may occur to you as you read and revise. Maybe even after you’ve finished a revision and are, say, trying to relax in a hot shower before bedtime. Don’t rely on your memory to supply and store this information, because your memory is a fickle friend and will bail on you at the worst possible moment.

How you take the notes is up to you. Write in the margins of a printed version, or on a separate sheet of paper. Use the Comments feature in the word processing program of your choice. Plaster your wall with sticky notes. Create a wiki or a story bible. Dictate to a recording device or your spunky personal secretary. But be as clear as possible or you’re setting yourself up for a “what’s in my pocket” riddle game later.

2) Pay attention to what you’re doing.

This seems like a really obvious thing, but it can be surprising how automated our actions become sometimes. If you quickly rip through your work “fixing errors,” you’re less likely to internalize the rules and reasoning behind those changes. Slow down. Focus. Think about the why and the how, and the ways everything connects. The more conscious you are of what you’re doing now, the better your subconscious will be able to apply these lessons later.

3) Proceed in the way that works best for you (this time).

Everyone has their own process, and you have to figure out yours. Maybe you like to go in order, starting at the beginning and moving through until you reach the end. Maybe you prefer to skip around, tackling the easiest problems first and leaving the hard nuts for last–or vice versa. Maybe you compartmentalize by edit type, dealing separately with typos, dialogue, description, structure and so on.

There is no right or wrong way to do this, except in the sense that you want to try to avoid duplicating effort or getting mired in a pit of “I can’t do this” despair. If one approach isn’t working, try another. What works with one project may not be ideal for another.

The verdict?
  • Awesome (0)
  • Good (0)
  • Okay (0)
  • Boring (0)
  • Bad (0)

How to apply critique, part 1

One of the most difficult things to do, as a writer, is revise. It’s bad enough when we’ve only got the voices in our head telling us stuff, but add to that the opinions of our peers and it can quickly become a too many cooks situation. It takes a lot to make a stew, and you don’t want yours to end up a huge pot of yuck.

So what’s a writer to do when faced with a plethora of critiques? There are no perfect answers and no shortcuts, but there are some things you can consider when developing a plan of action.

1) Is everyone saying the same thing?

If most or all of the people who read your work have the same comment, you should probably give it more weight than a comment only offered by one person. That isn’t to say you should edit by committee, or that one person can’t be right when ten are wrong, but the consistency of a reaction can be a strong indicator of its validity.

2) Who is giving you the feedback?

Some people are better readers, better writers and/or better editors, whether from natural ability or extensive experience. Some people are more familiar with the genre conventions of whatever you’re writing, and some are new to the neighborhood. Some people are your friends and don’t want to hurt your feelings. Comments from a seasoned pro in your genre are likely to be more useful than ones from a buddy who doesn’t write.

That isn’t to say you should only seek out a narrow range of beta readers, or that you should always embrace a critique from an authority figure, or that you should immediately discard feedback from a friend, relative or perceived noob. Bad advice can come from anyone, and good advice is still good no matter the source.

3) Is the advice right for your work?

One thing I noted in my “how to critique” post is that readers should ideally summarize what they read to be sure they’re on the same page as the writer. If the summaries don’t match, either the writer needs to work harder to communicate better, or the reader’s comprehension level wasn’t good.

With that in mind, sometimes you’ll get advice that isn’t bad, but isn’t right for YOUR story or poem. Maybe it doesn’t mesh with the themes you’re trying to explore. Maybe it changes the tone in a way you don’t like. Maybe it introduces plot elements you don’t want to handle. It’s your job to set your own goals and work to meet them, not to change your story to make it what someone else thinks it should be.

Always remember: it’s your work, and you should only use feedback that takes it in the direction YOU want it to go. That direction can change, and that’s okay! Sometimes we want to go to bad places and part of the process is figuring out those places are bad and we should go somewhere else instead. But it’s always your choice in the end.

Also remember: as personal as it may be, your work is not you. A critique of your work is not a critique of you as a person. It’s also not an indictment of you as a writer to admit that you can do better. Everyone makes mistakes, and everyone has room to grow.

The verdict?
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  • Okay (0)
  • Boring (0)
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How to respond to critique

This is both easier and harder to nail down, because what can seem perfectly reasonable to one person may look petulant or rude to another. But as with all my diatribes here, I aim to simplify matters so you at least have some baseline from which to proceed. And while this is geared towards online groups, most of it is generally applicable.

1) Thank the person for their time.

Whether you are happy or sad or angry or indifferent to their opinions, you must acknowledge that this fellow human has taken the time to read your work and offer you feedback in an effort to help you improve it. This is Being Polite. It is a vital skill to have in the world of writing and the world at large.

2) Answer any questions that are specifically directed at you.

In certain workshop styles, the person whose stuff is being workshopped sits quietly while everyone else talks, taking notes and absorbing the conversation. Sometimes a reader will ask a question, but it will be rhetorical or directed at anyone else reading it. Sometimes, though, you will be directly asked to clarify something or provide essential information, say about your goals or some back story not included in an excerpt. So, do that.

3) Ask any questions you have about the critique.

If you don’t understand what someone is telling you, it’s not going to help you improve your work, so it’s reasonable to want clarification sometimes. You can also solicit more feedback that is specifically tailored to your own concerns–say, whether a piece of dialogue sounds natural, or a character’s choice seems reasonable. But watch what you ask and how you ask it: there’s a difference between “Was my theme clear and consistent?” and “Didn’t you see the part where I…?”

4) Thank the person again.

Seriously though, manners. Even if you think they are poop from a butt and you’re never going to listen to their advice.

That’s it. That’s all you have to do. Be gracious, be considerate and be open-minded. We’re all digging in the word-mines together, and we’re all dirty and tired, but we all want to help each other strike gold.

The verdict?
  • Awesome (0)
  • Good (0)
  • Okay (0)
  • Boring (0)
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How not to critique like a jerk

You may have a handle on general approaches to critique and what should be covered, but you may still need to work on your delivery. It’s not that your every opinion needs to be offered to the writer on a pillow accompanied by scented candles and chocolates, but you also don’t need to punch them in the face with your Knuckles of Wisdom.

1) Use “I think” or “I feel” statements.

Even if you’re a writing master, a ninth degree writing black belt, your opinions on someone’s work are still that: your opinions. They may be widely shared, but they’re still subjective, so own them. Don’t talk about how “the reader” or “the audience” perceive something; first, because you don’t speak for everyone, and second, because it sounds pretentious as hell. Save it for your college professor and your next review for the New York Times.

2) Do unto others…

Treat everyone with the same respect you believe you deserve. Look at what you’ve written and put yourself in the writer’s shoes. How would you feel if someone said this stuff to you? “I’m tough, I can take it.” Don’t be a silly goose. It’s not about proving your skin is thicker than anyone else’s, or trying to toughen them up. If it makes more sense to you, think about whether you’d say the same things to your mother, your grandfather, your boss at work. If you wouldn’t, because you’d get grounded, beaten up or fired, then don’t say it to people here, either.

3) Don’t be a doomsayer.

If you show up like a nasty protester with a critique that is essentially a sign reading “THERE IS NO HOPE” then you’re wasting everyone’s time. You don’t have to have solutions for problems you raise, but your attitude should convey that you believe the writer will be able to find those solutions. If not in this story, then in the next one. There’s a world of difference between saying “This is bad” and saying “I believe you can do better if you keep trying.” Because again, you may be a black belt, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a little stronger, a little faster, a little more resilient. Progress is always possible.

4) Don’t make it all about you.

Many of us like to talk about our own work; it’s natural and normal, and often entirely inappropriate in the context of a critique. Maybe their story is like one you wrote; nobody cares. Maybe their character reminds you of one of your characters; nobody cares. Maybe you see a writer having a problem similar to one you’ve faced and solved, so you’re tempted to get all anecdotal and tell them all about how you journeyed through the Mines of Mediocrity to find the Sword of Sharpwits and answer the Riddle of Really Nobody Cares Why Are You Still Talking? Just give them the solution and how you think it applies to their story.

5) Don’t rush.

The writer probably took time and care to put their work together, so why would you think it’s okay to read it quickly and crap out a critique? First impressions are important, but so are second thoughts. Try to read each piece at least twice: once as a reader, once as a reviewer, or both times as a reviewer but reevaluating your initial reactions as you go through it the second time.

6) Don’t be dogmatic.

There isn’t one right way for anything to be written. Treat each piece as its own unique entity, and instead of trying to force it to conform to some predetermined idea of a Platonic ideal for story or poem, consider how it can be revised to become the best version of itself.

7) Don’t be offended if the writer doesn’t take your advice.

It’s their work, not yours. All you can do is offer suggestions, like offering delicious food to a cranky toddler. They may eat it, they may ignore it, they may throw it at you, but in the end it’s their choice what they do with it. If they are routinely dismissive of your critiques and you genuinely think they are being foolish or rude, great news! You don’t have to keep critiquing their work. Because unlike a toddler, you are under no obligation to care about whatever mess they make of things.

tl;dr? Be excellent to each other. Wyld Stallyns rule!

The verdict?
  • Awesome (1)
  • Good (0)
  • Okay (0)
  • Boring (0)
  • Bad (0)