The Company of Others

Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. ~ C.S. Lewis

cs lewis

Want to be a better writer? Seek the company of other writers.

While you are writing, write for yourself alone, but when you’ve made the best story you can make, you must solicit the opinions of other writers – how else do you improve?

Ask

I love the CS Lewis quote for this very reason. Asking for critique, getting another writer’s take on our work makes us better writers. Not because the others will rip our work to shreds but because they will invariably see things that you cannot.

Beyond the mundane grammatical missteps and misspellings, another writer will notice a place where you can heighten tension or notice a spot where you underwrote the scene. Beta readers are great to tell you what plot points are confusing; other writers point out thematical opportunities, character holes, pacing issues, and the like.

Give

Find a community – online or in person (maybe both!) – and join the discussion. Here’s how to become a better writer and valued member of a writing community: give 90% more than you receive. Yes, about 90% of the time you should be critiquing other people’s works and about 10% of the time you should be asking for input on your work.

Not everyone will do this – there are always people who will extract what they can and not give back fully. Eh, let them alone. They have their own journey. For you, jump into critique with both feet and enjoy it! Learn from it and from the company of other writers.

No one is going to steal your writing. Only you can write your story so don’t be worried about sharing your work in the world. Story ideas are in ample supply, so don’t let that worry keep you from joining a group.

Accept

Don’t be afraid of criticism. If you do plan to share your writing with the world at large, if you’re thinking you want to make a go at being a “writer” than you need to be prepared for people – hopefully not many! -to dislike your work. It happens and it’s fine. Have you loved every book you’ve read? Have you even liked every bestseller you’ve picked up? No, of course not! And so it will be with your work, too. Jumping into the writing community is great way to become a better writer, but it’s an even better way to develop a thick skin.

Three ways to be a great critiquer:
1. Give praise and suggestions in about equal measure. There are always good things to say about a piece, even if you find it as a whole to be problematic. People need encouragement – new writers especially.
2. Offer concrete ideas. If you think a sentence reads awkwardly, give your take on how it could be rewritten. If you think the section is doing too much “telling” versus “showing” (think voice-over narration versus bullets flying action), give an idea of an action to replace the narration.
3. Read as a writer. This is hard sometimes, but beta readers are ample; other writers who will read and critique, not so much. Treat the story like your own; edit it as if it were your own, and hope that others will do the same for you.

Getting the most out of having your work critiqued:
1. Listen, but don’t respond. In most in-person workshops, the writer has to listen to the full critique without interrupting. Most of your critiquing might happen online, but cultivate the ability to hear the critique without responding, even silently. This is so hard to do! I know. Believe me, I know.

A mistake that many new writers make is to try to explain. A critiquer might note a section and say, “Why did James leave the bottle? Is that significant?” and the writer will literally respond to the comment and say, “The bottle is a metaphor for his marriage.” Great. Put that in the story. Craft the scene so that the reader makes that connection. That’s what the comment is prompting you to do.

This reminds me of a story – I was at a poetry reading once and an English lit. professor was sharing a few of his poems. He read a powerful poem about his wife surviving breast cancer. The poem was good, and the last line was great — something like “in the shower my fingers find the seams and I smile a survivor’s smile.” But then he ruined the poem – absolutely, positively ruined the poem by pausing, looking over his glasses at the audience and saying, “The seams are, of course, her scars.” Well no shit, professor. So glad you cleared up that mystery! I would have been perplexed for the rest of my life.

2. Don’t get derailed. There’s a phenomenon in critiquing (in any kind of feedback, really) called switchtracking. It’s what happens when you react to the critique by critiquing the critique. (That’s a mouthful!) Basically, instead of hearing and absorbing the feedback about your story, you genuinely focus on how the information was conveyed or on how you think that person could be nicer in the forums or on how they don’t even read fantasy so why are they critiquing your piece anyway? Mostly this is subconscious – you think, “I need to help this person be a better critiquer.” and you don’t recognize the side benefit of no longer focusing on the bad things they said about your story.

3. Incorporate but also reject – not always in equal amounts! I’m not suggesting that every comment is golden and needs to be incorporated into your story – in fact, it’s important to learn to reject some feedback, too. You need to learn to hold fast to your vision of the story. An easy example would be someone telling you to set your story about migrant workers on Mars. That could be either the greatest idea of all time or the stupidest thing anyone has ever said to you. And the beauty is that you decide! You decide who, what, where the story happens.

Hold fast to your vision, but try out suggestions! People love the opening line of Thornbury Confidential (“It might sound ghoulish, but I’d been waiting for a murder case to come along“) but it used to be on the third page. A critiquer highlighted it and said, “This would be a fantastic first line.” Never would have occurred to me, but she was obviously right!

Writing is solitary work; editing doesn’t have to be! Find a group, become a valued part of the community, and get critiquing already!

Why Names Matter

If you hear a voice within you say ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced. ~ Vincent Van Gogh

blank journalThe Chinese poet Lao Tzu wrote, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Your writing journey doesn’t begin when you put words on paper. It starts earlier than that: it begins when you claim the title Writer.

You have stories within you; you must otherwise you wouldn’t be here, reading this right now. You have stories within you, but maybe you can’t get them to come out. Maybe you jot a few ideas down. Maybe you don’t even get that far – you shrug your shoulders and say “Some day.” Some day I’ll write that novel. Some day.

Start Now

No one is guaranteed a tomorrow. If you have a desire to create stories, you must begin now, today. And to begin this journey you need to do two things. First you need to say aloud, “I am a writer.” And second you need to ignore the voices in your head telling you that you are not a writer. These are two separate acts, designed to handle two parts of your psyche.

Names matter and if you claim the title “Writer” for yourself, it’s like a magic spell. Say “I am a writer”, and it’s true! The phrase “I am” is powerful. You are staking a claim to time to think, time to dream, time to write. You may feel foolish affirming your identity as a writer, but it is vital.

For some time you will be the only one to acknowledge this truth about yourself. As you begin to share your work with others, they will help you affirm this mantle you’ve claimed, but no one can claim it for you. It must come, like creativity itself, from within.

Writers Write

For a long time I had to have a second part to my mantra because each time you sit down to write it is a leap of faith unlike anything else in life. To combat the fear I would say, “I am a writer. And what do writers do? They write. So get going.” I had to do this every. single. time. For about a year. Was it tiresome? Yes. Did it help? Decidedly. I completed a novel. It wasn’t very good (more on that later), but it was the best story I could tell with the tools I had available.

vincent-van-goghThe second part of the strategy is learning to ignore the negative voices in your head. As the Van Gogh quote above illustrates, ignore the voices; they will fade. Notice I didn’t say “The voices will go away.” I can’t promise that. I can promise that with time their volume decreases, and their import in your life dissolves.

Build confidence by Doing

Each word you write, each paragraph completed dampens the voices a little more. As you write each day, your skill and confidence grows and that also tunes out the voices because the voices are fear-based. I guess ultimately they think they have your best interest at heart. They want to protect you from the mean old world. Isn’t it better to stay safe in this dark room than to venture out into the scary world? That’s what the voices say. That’s what they promise: safe, beautiful stagnation.

Dare

Dare to create. Dare to tell your stories. You won’t likely be very good at first, but practice does make perfect. In the same way that you can’t sit at a piano as a novice and start playing a concerto, you can’t sit down with notebook or netbook and create a bestseller. You learn and practice and fail and succeed. It’s a journey, a glorious journey.

When I sat down to write what would become my first novel, I had just three things. A burning desire to write, the bones of a story, and years of exposure to great storytelling. I would argue that’s all you need. The first one will get you over the worst of the doubts. The second one will keep you coming back to the page, and the third one is your basic toolbox. I went time and again to one of my favorites – JRR Tolkien – when I needed an example of how to put an action in the middle of dialog or how to do a paragraph break in the middle of a speech or how to set up a description of a setting.

If you hear a voice within you say ‘You cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced……
Van Gogh’s quote presupposes that you have a yearning to create. If you didn’t, there would be no need for the voices to tell you not to. The fact of the negative thoughts, that alone tells you what I cannot – it tells you that you are a writer. Take that name; wear it proudly; dare to dream. It is a journey worthy of you.

True North

Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb…. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. ~ Calvin Coolidge

Perhaps it’s unusual to look to a president for writing advice, but Silent Cal sums up the grit you need to write. That writing is lonely work is a cliche, except that it’s true. And even more, writing is screaming into the void. You have no idea, as you are putting words on the page, if anyone will ever read them. There is no guarantee – especially given the sheer volume of words being churned out for Amazon Kindle alone – that anyone outside your immediate family will ever read your work.

Forward motion

You have to put those thoughts out of your head during your writing time (and try to keep those thoughts away even when you’re not writing!) You must face true north and keep moving forward! Persistence will serve you well. The difference between Stephen King and your friend who says that he’s got a million great ideas is persistence. King has famously talked about his rejection letters. We all get them and that’s fine; it’s part of the process. The way to become a better writer is to write. And that means persistence of action and determination of purpose.

Goals

Writers need goals. Set a meaningful goal for yourself – something do-able but just slightly uncomfortable. If you think you can write 500 words during a session, set your goal to 600 words. Set a goal to write a first draft in six months and then map out the word count you’d need to have a 60,000 word draft ready in six months. If that seems too easy, great! Nothing wrong with easy. The point is to finish the draft.

There will be days that you don’t want to write. It will feel useless, pointless, fruitless. Too bad! Do it anyway. No self-fulfilling failures here. We are determined to create a new piece of art. We will persist in our quest to tell our story. We will not be discouraged.

Discouraged. What an interesting word! The absence of courage. We don’t think of it quite that way when we use the word. We’re not thinking in terms of being courageous or fearful. We mean that we’re feeling down and dejected, but as Coolidge put it in the opening quote, persistence is the key! I can’t think of a more courageous act than creating art because you want to see it. You create something that didn’t exist before! It’s nothing short of a god-damned miracle, when you think about it.

Courage

I still need courage pretty often – I’m not exactly a huge success in the book world (not yet anyway!), but my feelings when I sit down in front of the computer are different than when I was writing that first novel. Every day of creating that first story felt like I was walking a tightrope – and I’m afraid of heights! My hands would shake sometimes from the emotion of it. The bad thoughts in my head – the fears that we all face when we dare to raise our hands – I had to push them away. Sometimes it felt physical. I had to consciously, forcefully think a new thought. I had to consciously, forcefully turn myself back to true north and start typing again.

I’m here to say that it gets easier. My compass tends toward true north now. I rarely have to battle self doubt – not while I’m writing anyway. Persistence and determination are mostly baked-in now. I persist in creating new stories, and I’m determined to share them with the world. And as I think about it, that makes me a success.

The world is full of people who want to be writers, of people who are “working on a novel”, of people who started stories and haven’t finished them yet. That’s all fine; we each have our journey. For me, writing is one of the most important actions I take on a daily basis. It’s one of the most fulfilling parts of my life, and I want other people – people who crave that experience – to know that it is attainable.

Write For Yourself First

“Literature is strewn with the wreckage of those who have minded beyond reason the opinion of others.”
~ Virginia Woolf

Virginia_Woolf_1927

While there could be many reasons why someone starts writing a piece of fiction and then never finishes it, one big factor is other people. Other people! Whether people we know or the faceless specter of The Reader, other people and their opinion, reaction, perception can derail even the most motivated of writers.

The Virginia Woolf quote comes from A Room of Own’s Own and whatever else the essay may do, this powerful quote transcends gender and circumstance. We must write first for ourselves. Write the stories that you want to read! You see that advice in lots of places, but you usually don’t find out why it’s important.

Writing is hard work. Writing with an eye to publishing is even harder because you have to revise and polish and rewrite the piece several times. It’s a marathon. It’s being trapped in an elevator for a day – you better like the people you’re trapped with because otherwise it’s going to suck. So if you dislike your main character, that’s a problem. How in the world are you going to devote the effort needed to write the best story you can if you can’t stand to be around that character?

It’s foolish to imagine that you will complete every story you begin – ideas are not created equally, after all. It is, however, paramount that you complete a story. I see too many people who say, “I’ve been working on my novel for ten years.” They haven’t finished even a first draft of it. For whatever reason, they remain stuck – literally in a rut that they cannot surmount, and each day the rut gets deeper making it harder and harder to ever escape.

Writing short stories is by definition different than writing a novel, and I am the first to admit that I went about it all wrong. I would advise first time writers to start with short fiction and graduate to long form. Ray Bradbury famously suggested that a new writer write a short story a week for a year as a good foundation for writing. You may prefer, as I do, the long form, but you can learn a ton about writing using the Bradbury method.

What is nice about short stories is that you can complete one with fairly small amounts of pain. You write 5,000 words with a beginning, middle, and end. You edit it, revise, rewrite. And it’s done. You have completed a work – start to finish. And you didn’t stop and rewrite the opening before you finished the first draft. And you didn’t have to quit your day job. And you didn’t put the story on hold while you spent months researching trade practices of 6th century Bedouins. And you didn’t suffer a crisis of conscience about writing a story about a magic-using girl truck driver while people are struggling with real issues like poverty.

You had an idea; you created a main character, some motivation and some challenges; you wrote a bunch of description and dialog, and Bam! there’s a completed work of fiction. Completing a story has built in motivation for you to write more. Tell more of this character’s story; explore this universe more fully; branch out into mystery or horror or romance because you are a writer. You wrote a story that you wanted to read. You created something that has never existed before, and you did it for yourself. Bravo.

While the applause dies down, take a moment and re-read the Woolf quote. She uses the words, “beyond reason.” Don’t entirely discount other people’s opinion of your writing, just don’t let it paralyze you. Likely anyone who is kind enough to read your work will have both good and bad things to say. There will be a passage they love and a scene they hate. They’ll love the opening and not understand the ending. And they might have a really good point! The ending might need work.

So in order to do the thing that we love to do – write stories – we need to write what we want, tell the story in the way that makes sense to us, write it the best way we know how, and then absorb what other people say about it. As you write more and open yourself for critique, you will write better first drafts, and become a stronger writer.

The work comes first. Complete the story. Edit the story, then share the story.

Imagination Wanted

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” — Stephen King

Sign on the door says: “Imagination Wanted”. Some days, I will walk through that door with confidence to spare. Some days, not so much. It’s easy to imagine that other writers — writers like Stephen King — spend their days in an imagination-fueled dream while we fiddle around with fonts (or worse – close the computer all together!) and wait for an idea to hit us.

You can’t wait for imagination to find you — you have to look for it, and the best way to look for it is to write! When I started writing I had one idea. I knew I wanted to tell the story of how two women fell in love while trying to save the princess (sort of). And as I started writing out that story, it grew and blossomed and, and more ideas hit me, every day, every hour. I jotted them down and went back to The Soul Thief.

Imagination is alchemical – the more you call upon it, the more it hangs around. As you begin to flex your writing muscles daily, imagination sticks around to see what you are up to. It might contribute an idea or two, but it might whisper a brand new idea in your head.

The second draft is where imagination really plays her part. The first draft — that’s just you telling yourself the story. But in the second draft, you get to relax and enjoy (and by that I mean embellish) the scenery. You know where you’re going, right? So you can begin to hang some clothes on this skeleton of a story.

What was that? You said that this idea’s been done a hundred times, a thousand times? Yes, but — you haven’t written this story. Your story is uniquely yours. Take the basic idea of a knight saving a princess. If it’s my story you can bet that the knight is female and the princess, she might not want to be saved, thank you very much.

And even if the story’s been done before, so what? There is nothing wrong with using an established universe as a springboard to your own worlds. Many writers like me have used Dungeons & Dragons (take a look at all those Dungeon Divas posts) as a launching pad for our own endeavors. What matters is that you’re telling your tale. Maybe it’s a spin-off of Harry Potter, or Star Trek, or Twilight, but it’s still your story.

Imagination wanted? Imagination is at your elbow, ready to explore whatever realms you want.

Frustrations of a First Draft

“The first draft of anything is shit.”
― Ernest Hemingway

HemingwayA first draft is just you and your imagination; it’s just you telling yourself a story, and that can be frustrating or even paralyzing. Some aspiring novelists never make through a draft because they can’t allow themselves to write badly.

I am not an outliner so the first draft really is me discovering the story as I stumble through, and I have to remind myself of that every time I begin a new story. Once the concept settles into my thick head I’m fine. I nestle down in the fictive dream, and then I quite enjoy the wonder of it. But I realized if I, after 4 years of serious writing, have to wrestle with this concept, what must new writers feel?

So the purpose of this post is to say Relax and write badly. It is the only way that you’re going to get words on the page and ultimately that is what any writer — every writer — needs: words on the page. This is why I’m a fan of NaNoWriMo. The whole point of it is to keeping going forward until you have 50,000 words. First draft or Bust — that should be the NaNo motto.

It’s all fine to say these things. It’s quite something else to have to live through it. There’s another famous Hemingway* quote that also applies: “Writing is easy, just sit at the typewriter and bleed.” It certainly feels that way some days — each word is painful; each thought has to be plucked from your brain.

I have two tricks to combat the reluctance to write badly. First, if you are truly good and stuck, grab a pen and paper. You might still have the urge to edit, but you can’t fiddle with the prose very much — it is quite fixed on the page. Added benefit that later, when I transcribe it to the computer, I can do light editing. It feels a bit like cheating.

The second trick is to think aloud with a recorder. You can get a recording app for your phone. At first you may feel self-conscious about it, but since I rarely listen to old recordings, I’ve learned to get past that. Thinking aloud can be transformative — you will make connections you couldn’t see before. You’ll spin out ideas, plot devices, even dialog as you talk through the story. You’re not technically getting words on the page, but I usually end a brainstorming session eager to write.

If you are an outliner, if you plan the story out ahead of time, it’s even more imperative that you allow yourself to write badly. I imagine that it might be harder for outliners to do that because the story structure is so clear in their heads and writing is just such messy business. All I can say is trust the process; trust your imagination to get you through the first draft.

Much of my advice is for novelists — I went from writing poetry to writing novels. No need to go half measure! — but the same principles apply for short stories. Drafting a 3,000 word piece can be just as painful as drafting 50,000 words.

The key is to remember that this really is just the first pass at the story. As I wrote those words I realized that for some writers that’s the most depressing thing I’ve said so far. They want to write it once and be done. No one does that. Every work of fiction (and nonfiction!) you read has been edited half a dozen times at least.

The sequence goes like this (for me at least):
First draft = get the story down
Second draft = expand the story and flesh out characters
Third draft = world building, adding foreshadowing and backstory
Fourth draft = polish for continuity and tweak structure
Fifth draft = final polish for beta readers
Sixth draft = fix all the stuff that beta readers found
Seventh draft = fix all the stuff that new beta readers found
Eighth draft = let Debbie read it
Ninth draft = fix the stuff that Debbie found and publish!

See? Easy*

*That’s a joke.

The Art of Stealth Writing

I’m working on a series of posts best categorized as “An Adventurer’s Guide to Storytelling”. As I’ve been slogging away at this writing thing, I’ve formed so theories about how best to be a good writer.

The first piece of advice I got was also the best — Don’t show anyone your story until it’s done. Pretty simple, right? I still remember when Debbie said it. I had confessed to her that I wanted to really try to write fiction. That was a scary moment — saying my dream aloud to the person who matters the most to me and committing to actually doing the hard work of making it happen.

She’s got a degree in creative writing, so she knows a thing or two about the creative process, so once I sat down to actually write she said, “You’re going to want to get my feedback, but write until you think it’s really, really done and then show it to me.” I nodded as though this made sense to me, and I let my imagination begin to spin out the start of what would become The Soul Thief. I probably wrote for an hour, maybe two, and I was thrilled with my progress. And naturally I wanted to show it to Debbie. Was I on the right track? Did she get the Lord of the Rings reference? Was it too much? Did she like the main character? What about the…..?

She smiled and said, “Remember what I said earlier about not showing your writing until it’s done?” I explained that I was writing a novel — a novel — and that it could be months (years) before I’d be done. “It’s not fair! You write short stories” I said. “Maybe just take a peek at the first chapter?” I felt desperation rising.

She explained that having someone else read your work gives you a sense of accomplishment, and when you are a thousand words into a hundred thousand word endeavor the last thing you want is a sense of accomplishment.

I thought back to other false starts I’d made — the murder mystery series I’d planned to write when I was in my 30s. I’d written a scene, showed it to a friend and never went back to it. If memory serves she didn’t laugh as much as she should have. I thought about the coming of age novel I’d started in high school, the SciFi novel, the alternate history with the wolves….  every time I’d written a few pages, a few chapters at most, and then went looking for someone to read it and tell me that it was worthy — that I was worthy.

Not this time. This time I was going to follow the advice of my brilliant wife and keep my writing to myself.

shadowAnd that is how I cultivated the art of stealth writing. No one except Debbie knew that I’d taken up this crazy idea. I’d spend my weekends writing away on the novel and Monday morning, when people said, “What’d you do this weekend?” I’d shrug and say, “We just hung out. You?”

On writing forums and the subreddits I follow, I often see new writers posting a first chapter or few thousand words of a project and asking for feedback, and I understand that impulse, and it’s so easy! It’s so easy to go to Critique Circle or /writing and say, “How’s my writing? Am I any good?” But it’s such a trap! You might get the gamut of responses from “brilliant” to “meh” and then what do you do? How do you get back to that dreamspace of story when you know that McDuck45 thinks it’s derivative? How do you do the hard work of editing if someone named SloJo thinks it’s perfect just like it is?

Practicing the art of stealth writing gives me the incentive to keep going to the very end of the story, and then beyond to the second draft, and the third, etc. And these days I don’t show Debbie the story until I’ve polished it to a high gloss. And because I like to write and then wait, and then edit, that means that it’s usually a year before she sees the story I’ve been working on.

Stealth writing becomes easier with time. Once you’ve been writing steadily for a few years you know that a first draft is always a mess and it’s easier to resist the urge to solicit feedback during the early stage; you know that it’s crap and that you just have to keep at it until it’s not crap.

The time to ask for feedback is when you think that it’s the very best story that you could write. Then you hand it to your brilliant wife and you say, “What do you think?”

 

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