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?”


Thornbury Confidential – 1st chapter

Chapter 1: Boleian Investigations

It might sound ghoulish, but I’d been waiting for a murder case to come along. I just didn’t recognize that’s what this was right away. A dwarf burst into the office, but I barely looked up from my book. We get all kinds at Boleian Investigations, and an out of breath dwarf isn’t all that unusual up on the third floor.

He put his hands on his knees, gasping for air. “Where’s the wizard? Where’s Boleian?” His words came out in huffs.

I shrugged. “Who’s asking?”

He slapped his hand on the desk. “Cirdore’s dead. Cirdore Forlone. Someone’s killed him in my sawmill!”

You can only work purse snatches and missing persons for so long before your mind craves a challenge. And murder, that’s where the real detective work happens. I’d read some of Boleian’s old files, and there were plenty of times when he could have used another set of eyes and ears, another mind to tumble through the clues. With this case, I could show Boleian that he needed me full time.

To the dwarf I said, “Murder? Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I tossed the novel on the desk. “Let’s go.”

“Wait. Where’s Boleian? I need the wizard, not some elf assistant.”

I brushed the hair from my eyes, straightened my tie. “I’m not some assistant. Just because I’m not a wizard doesn’t mean I can’t investigate a crime scene.” I glared at him. “Boleian trusts me to look after his affairs when he’s— when he’s occupied.”

The dwarf’s eyes narrowed. “And he’s occupied now?” He craned his neck to look at the inner office door.

It was almost five; chances were he’d been at Sharkey’s since three. “Yeah,” I said. “He is.” I grabbed my tattered coat and sniffed the pink stain on the lapel. When had I last eaten strawberry jam? “Besides, if we’re talking murder, I’m your elf.”

As I jogged down the stairs, he tried to keep up with me. “Wait!” cried the dwarf. “Stop just a moment, lad. Murder? Who said it was murder?”

He stood a few steps above me so our faces were level. “You did.” I stared hard into his eyes. Was there something lurking behind that knobbly face?

His eyes slid to the side. “It’s all very confusing.”

“What’s your name, friend?”

“Duri Sholedaz.”

“You own the sawmill on Maple Leaf. I’m Vox. Vox Swift.”


But I’m getting ahead of myself. How’d an elf from the Swift clan end up working for a wizard? I met Boleian of Vedasa the day I delivered a message to him. Life’s funny sometimes. You never know when something small’s gonna become something big.

Day had barely broken the first time I arrived at Boleian Investigations, message in hand. The man who’d hired me paid double the usual rate, so I pushed my other deliveries to the side and put his note at the top of the list.

I’d half expected a closed office – you know the saying, “By moonlight the wizard crafts his spells and only sleeps ere morning’s bell.”

That’s the stereotype anyway. But the sign said “Open” so I pushed at the door. It only opened a few inches then stopped. I pushed harder, gained another inch, and slipped through the door. The morning was bright, and the window blinds cast shadows in the room. As I took a step forward, I kicked a pile of ash, sending bits swirling through the air. It stung my eyes and coated my mouth.

I moved blindly toward the windows, hoping for fresh air, and stumbled. As I turned, I saw I’d tripped over an old man stretched out on the floor. Had to be Boleian – long gray hair, a tangle of a beard and robes of gray and purple. Even in the shadowy light I could see some patches on the robe. Business must not be too good for him, especially if he was sleeping on his office floor.

I coughed and yanked on the blinds. Light streamed in, and that’s when I saw the wild flowers. The old man had a sprig of flowers tucked between thumb and forefinger of his right hand. I didn’t know much about magic then, but I knew that flowers and herbs are popular ingredient in spells – good spells and bad.

On the floor above his head sat a pile of fish bones and near the door, a pile of ash – the pile that I’d disturbed, and my first thought was murder, a magical murder, and I, Vox Swift, lowly messenger, would be the one to solve the crime. In my mind’s eye I could see the certificate that Mayor Ritter would present to me. I was just imagining my acceptance speech when the body groaned.

I hate to admit that I let out a scream and jumped onto the couch. The man groaned again and sat up. He looked at the scattered ash and let the flowers fall from his hand. His eyes burned red with anger, and his voice boomed like a clap of thunder when he said, “Who the hell are you?”

“Don’t hurt me!” My voice squeaked. “I’m a Swift! I didn’t try to kill you! I don’t know the first thing about magic.”

“Don’t be a fool; you couldn’t kill me. But you did disturb my hangover cure.” He scratched his beard, groaned, and fell back to the floor.

I carefully stepped down from the couch with the letter in front of me like a shield. “Are you Boleian? Boleian of Vedasa? A man gave me this and—”

“And you broke into my house—”

“Office,” I corrected him.


“I broke into your office.” I suddenly realized what I’d said. “Wait! I didn’t break in. The door was unlocked. The sign says ‘Open’. See?” I pointed. He lifted his head an inch and peered at the door. I stretched my arm over his body to put the note on his desk. “I’ll just see myself out. No need to tip me this time.”

His hand wrapped around my ankle. “Pass me that bottle,” he said, “and there had better be something still in it, or someone will pay.”

I spied a corked bottle on its side by the window and retrieved it. The old man propped himself up, using his desk as a backboard. The bottle made a loud POP as the wizard pulled the cork free, and I jumped, in spite of myself.

“You’re an elf. How can you not know magic?”

“Well, I know a little theory I guess. From school.” I glanced at the bookcases lining the walls. What I could do with a few spells in my pocket. “Can’t cast though. There’s so much to know. To be a magic user, I mean.”

He drank from the bottle. “But you want to learn?”

“Do you need an apprentice?” I tried to keep the excitement from my voice.


“But you just asked me if—”

“What’s it say? The letter? What’s it say?” He took a long pull on the bottle.

Here I was thinking I might line up a side gig with a wizard, but he slammed that door right in my face. “I don’t know! I don’t read the messages; I just deliver them. Sir.”

“‘Course you read it! Any Swift worth his salt—” he peered at me. “His, yeah? Hard to tell with elves. You all have long hair and smooth skin.” He took another drink from the bottle.

Without thinking it through I tugged my shirt away from my chest and tried to lower my voice. “My name is Vox.” It is my nickname anyway – no one calls me “Voxxa” except my mother.

“Sit down, Vox.” He offered the bottle. “Have a drink.”

I shook my head. “I couldn’t.”

“First you destroy my cure, and now you won’t even have a drink with me?” His eyes narrowed. “Listen lad, who’d you say sent you?”

“A man. A human.” I coughed and tried to drop my voice and keep it there. “Stick thin. Yellow hair, no beard. He said to bring that note to you.”

“Peter.” The wizard held the note to his face and blinked. He sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “Here, you read it,” he said and thrust it at me.

“I couldn’t – I wouldn’t open your—”

“Read it,” he repeated, an edge of menace in his voice.

With shaking hands I broke the seal and read aloud. “Boleian, by the time you read this, I’ll be dead.” I scanned the next few lines and closed the letter quickly.

“What else does it say?” he demanded, but I shook my head, unable to go on. The wizard sat up straight and looked at me. “Peter’s never been that brief in his life. What else does it say, elf?”

I opened it again. “By the time you read this, I’ll be dead. And everyone will think you did it. You will finally pay for what you did to Penelope.”

The wizard was silent when I finished, and then we both heard footsteps on the stairs. The old man scrambled to his feet and put his finger to his lips. He flicked his hand at the door, and it clicked shut. He took one step toward me and stretched out his hand. I shrank away, sure that he was about to grab me. Instead he reached past me for his staff. I let out a sigh of relief, but then with his free hand he grabbed my arm. “You’re coming with me,” he said quietly.


His huge hand covered my mouth. “Not a word, lad. Not a sound. You’re the only one who knows the truth about Peter Bane.”


Truth’s a funny thing. Everybody’s got their own slice of it. Two people see the same scene but don’t have the same experience. Shifting the facts, finding the common truths, that’s what detectives do. But sometimes it feels like an impossible task. Take the Cirdore Forlone murder case – too many facts, not enough truth.

The elf, dead at Duri Sholedaz’s sawmill, cut in half, right before quitting time. I’d never met him, but I didn’t need to – any elf who works at a sawmill is one tough son of a troll. Most elves are nature lovers, as a general rule anyway, but there are always exceptions. I can’t say I long for the forests of my birthplace, but I’d never stoop low enough to kill trees and chop them up. It takes a special sort of a mind to become a butcher.

I’ve never felt especially at home in the forest, even though I grew up in the Olden where there are still trees hundreds of feet tall, and the forest floor is a cushion of fallen leaves. I grew up there, and I left it. But I’m glad to know that it’s there. Elves need a place to call their own. The days still pass in relative peace in the Olden, and as long as the clans pay their taxes and keep the gold and silver mines open, Central leaves them alone.

But there’s nothing for me there – nothing but memories. Besides, Thornbury suits me just fine. The city is a humming beehive – an elf can get lost in the throng. No one asking me questions, no expectations. It has its tradeoffs, though. For months just the thought of the gargoyles made my skin itch. They’re atop almost every building, watching us and reporting trouble back to Central. After a while though I got used to them. You can get used to just about anything, I find.

But what matters most about living in Thornbury is freedom. I just need to make Neryssa understand that. Neryssa, the elf who married my cousin even though she loves me. It was for the best, she said, but things are different now. We could be ourselves behind closed doors and still walk hand in hand in the street because to the city I’m Vox, the male detective not Voxxa, a silly girl from the Olden.

And I’ll wear this disguise for forever, if it convinces Neryssa that we can be together. The life I’ve carved out here, it works; we can make it work. If only she’d trust me, trust my instincts, trust Thornbury in all her glorious, wide-armed indifference.

Until that day I’ll walk the city alone. In the city I can forget her lovely face, sometimes for hours at a time. Other times the loneliness just feels like it’s chewing through your heart, and you need something to hold on to. Thornbury’s there for me whenever I need her. The city opens her arms and takes in all the strays, not just me but all the lonely souls scattered across Varana.

Dungeons & Dragons Taught Me How to write

I moved all my old Dungeons & Dragons journals to my main site today. For four years I played D&D with the same group of women — we called ourselves the Dungeon Divas.

Mid 2007. I hadn’t played D&D since high school (class of ’83, baby!) I had recently gone cold turkey off World of Warcraft and I wanted to find a story just as immersive but not quite as soul-consuming. You’ll have to be the judge of whether or not D&D fit that bill.

I was nervous to play face to face with people — strangers! (Except for Debbie) And really nervous to dive into this crazy world. But we all quickly became friends and allies in the fight to help Cauldron fight the evil that stalked its streets.

Playing my character – Indira, the cleric – was so fun and challenging. Thinking of her motivations, her reactions, her fears and dreams. It was a bit intoxicating. For fun I began to do a little weekly email recap in Indira’s voice that I would send to the group, in case someone had missed the session, they could get filled in before next week’s game.

In December Debbie surprised me with a website devoted to our adventures — was born! Now I had room to really flex my storytelling sinews. We needed pictures and pages with maps! We needed character sketches! Backstories! Secret messages! We needed intrigue, danger, betrayal. The Shackled City provided all that, and we added the spice of our characters.

Retelling the week’s adventure was my Saturday assignment. As I wrote up those sessions, I was teaching myself about dialog and tension, about foreshadowing and comic timing.

For those four years I played and wrote, but I never allowed myself to really think about writing as an aspiration. It wasn’t until April of 2012, after losing a lot of weight and getting fit, that I began to really think about my life. I took long walks where I asked myself, if you didn’t have to work, what would you spend your days doing? If money were no object, what would you try? I finally admitted that I might like to maybe, just possibly try my hand at a little writing. Maybe.

I thought back to those Saturdays when I’d spend the morning crafting the week’s adventure. And so I imagined what it would be like for Indira — my Indira Burningwood — to find herself in a dire situation. I wrote slowly. Inching my way forward, and every time I found myself worrying about what to do next I thought, “It’s an encounter. You got players and NPCs; you’ve got a charisma check or a will save; you got to roll for initiative. …”  and it worked! I was playing a game of D&D with myself as the DM and the players.

That was almost 4 years ago and I still use the same logic with my writing. In fact Thornbury Confidential has such roots in D20 that I included the Open Gaming license in the book. The main characters in Thornbury – Vox, Even, Marilye, Boleian, and Finn – all have character sheets tucked into my draft notes.

Creation vs Editing

penI’ve just started a new novel. It’s exciting, scary, and a little painful. I’ve been revising my murder mystery (coming soon!) for so long that it’s hard to shift into pure writing.

The gulf between creation and revision is deep. In one realm you are trying to let your mind break free and in the other you concentrate on the minutia. Maybe it’s the difference between distance running and rock climbing.

There — I like that analogy: running versus climbing. Running with only a basic idea of your path and plan, versus carefully, painstakingly climbing to a predetermined destination.

I enjoy both aspects of writing. I love the freedom of creation, and I love the constraint of editing. They each use different parts of the brain, and I forget how much I love each of them when I’m away.

There’s the oft quoted idea that there are two kinds of writers architects and gardeners. Yeah, I’m a gardener. When I’m in creator mode I have very little organization. I have a voice, a character, a situation and the tale spins out from there.

yarnWhich makes it all sound so easy. It’s not. It’s a tangle of ideas, voices, theories, if-then statements, locations, scenes, and characters that somehow sorts itself out and becomes a book.

This is my third novel — perhaps it’s too soon to call it that. I’ve had a title — Stalking Horse — since 2013. I’ve written about 20,000 words, and I’ve put it down and picked it up a dozen times in the last 2 years. I finally figured out the problem — I had the wrong person as the main character!

I’m really thankful that this happened with my 3rd novel and not my first. It felt insurmountable — this Stalking Horse problem. My imagination wasn’t going anywhere, and no wonder since it would have been akin to taking a trip with someone you don’t like. Almost every one of those 20,000 words felt like a chore. Now, the words flow freely because I have the right voice in my head. I’m telling his story and discovering all of his traits — his strengths, foibles, fears, and hopes. I have an open road ahead of me and nothing but time.



W-WRITE — A Publishing Strategy

Spend any time with writers, and you’ll hear a thousand different approaches to writing and revising.
Here’s my fool-proof method:

Fancy_Letter_W_(7)W-WRITE which stands for
Tune up


The first letter is the most important, of course. Write! You have to write if you’re going to publish. This can be hard; I’m the first to admit it. I spent years not writing. I wasted years not writing. I wanted to be a writer — some day. And I thought “When we’re rich, when I retire. That’s when I’ll write.” But I’ve always said that I want to die with no regrets. Not writing was a HUGE regret, so I stopped making excuses and almost exactly three years ago today I sat down with my laptop and called up a new Word document. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.

If you are a writer than you know that starting any new project is a leap of faith. Starting the first project? That’s a jump of faith. Sit down right now and get started. Don’t even finish this blog post — I’ll be here when you get back.

Your job is to write 60,000 words. I’m giving you 3 months to do it. That’s about 650 words a day. Some days you will write more, much more. Some days you probably won’t write at all. It happens, and it’s fine. In the course of these 3 months, don’t look back at your writing. Now is not the time to revise. Of course you may need to read back over the previous page or two to pick up the creative thread, but resist the urge to go back to the beginning because that is a trap. You could spend months rewriting the beginning, and that’s useless.

While you are writing, under no circumstances can you show your work to anyone.
Anyone. Not your spouse, your friend, your dog, no one can see it. Well meaning people who know that you are embarking on this grand adventure will ask to see your work. Tell them it’s not done cooking.

Fancy_Letter_W_(7)The second letter is another W. But it stands for Wait. You have got to set the draft aside and wait at least 2 months, preferably 3-4 months before you look at it again. And no one else can look at it either.

During this waiting period, your brain is forgetting the story, forgetting the character’s motivations, fears, and dreams, forgetting all the nuances that you may or may not have added to the story during the writing phase. Time is the only thing that will allow you to return to the draft with eyes that can see the problems, see the gaps in logic, see the confusing parts, and where you need to expand, change dialog, add another character.

Letter rSo let it sit undisturbed while you start another story. When you’ve finished the draft of your second story you are ready to move to phase 3 on the first story:
. Because you waited, a lovely bit of alchemy happened — you are both the writer and a reader. Open up the document and get your editing hat on! As you read, note places that need work and do small edits. The heavy lifting will come with the second read-through. You’ll want to have the full story clear in your mind before you start doing any serious re-writing. And, as you work on your revisions you will be fueled by the knowledge that when you get the revisions done, you can finally show it to someone else.

The_Letter_IWhich brings us to the next letter — I which stands for Invite! Now that you have revised the story, you should ask one or two of your nearest and dearest to read it. Only show it to 2-3 people at most because you will (hopefully) be showered with feedback, and you’ll have more work to do based on their critique.

Remember that some people will not want to read your work — it doesn’t mean they don’t love you. Be prepared as well that someone may say they’d like to read your draft; you give it to them, and they never mention it again. Ever. That’s OK, too. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, or that they are a bad friend. People get busy.

Fancy_Letter_T_(2)Based on the feedback you get from your friends/fellow writers, you will now Tune Up the story. This is your chance to accept or reject all the suggestions that your readers have made. It’s important to note that you don’t have to act on all feedback. As the writer you have final say about the shape of the story and the fate of the characters.

Once you have finished your tune up, it’s probably not a bad idea to have a new person read the story — someone who hasn’t seen it already. This could be another friend or fellow writer, or it could be a professional editor. Because of the hard work you’ve put in, the money you spend on an editor will be money well-spent because he or she can focus on high level aspects of the story and not get bogged down in grammatical errors and logical fallacies.

Letter eAnd now — last phase — you are ready to publish your Ebook! Your story deserves a chance to be shared, so do it!

There are many avenues for publishing, depending on your goals. Maybe you want to make money, or build a readership, or simply make the story available freely for everyone, whatever your plan, there is a platform for it, from Amazon Kindle to Smashwords to Wattpad and beyond! Take some time to decide where you want to publish because each place has its own requirements, and you’ll want to tailor the book file accordingly. You’ll also want to make sure that your story gets the cover it deserves — people really do judge a book by its cover.

Once you are done with this whole process, it’s time to look at your second story! By using this formula you can get at least two, if not three books published each year.

Please let me know what you think of my method and post any questions you have. Thanks for reading.

Time Travelers

True story:

Yesterday was a beautiful sunny day — which is a rare thing in Portland in winter. Like the rest of the city, Debbie and I decided to take a walk along the waterfront, and it was there that we met three time travelers.

They didn’t tell us they were time travelers — I mean, temporal prime directive, right? But it became obvious as they hurried away from us.

We were on the west side, well south of the Hawthorne bridge and three young women approached us coming in the opposite direction. The short one said, “Can you tell us where this is?” And she held out her iPhone. There was a picture on the phone. It was slightly askance, but it kind of looked like this (minus the people):









I said, “Um, oh, yes! That’s OHSU! The waterfront station.” I pointed over their shoulders toward the Ross Island bridge and said, “But you can’t get there from here. You can’t walk along the river to get there.”

The one with short brown hair said, “How do we get there then?”

I’ve only been to the waterfront OHSU a few times; neither Debbie nor I know that part of the city very well. “It’s not far,” I said. “If you walk in a few blocks off the river, you can walk it or grab the Max.”

The brown haired one said, “What’s a max?” I blinked at her. “It’s the streetcar, um like the subway, but on the street?” Debbie nodded saying, “Public transit.”

The short one said, “OK, um so… We–” But before we could point them to the first street off the river, a couple our age jogged by and the woman said, “Moody. It’s Moody Ave. You can get there just down that way. Between those two buildings.” And they jogged away.

Debbie and I glanced at each other and at the three young women. “Yeah,” I said, “Moody — that’s the name of the street. I don’t get down this way much. So, if you turn around…” I shooed them with my arms. “I think she meant that building.” I pointed to a light brick building that seemed to crease in the middle. The short one nodded, and the one who’d not spoken moved her windblown hair from her face.

“We’re walking that way, too,” I said, and we all started moving. “It’s such a beautiful day; it’s OK to get lost, hmm?” I was trying to make conversation, but the women all picked up their pace, and the short one flashed a quick smile.

They pulled away, walking faster, and Debbie touched my hand. “Here’s that little park,” she said and stopped walking. I said, “That was very odd.”

“I know! Those people jogging by? I thought they knew them. Do you think they’d asked for directions already?”

I shrugged. “And where did she get that picture?”

“They’d never heard of the Max?” Debbie shook her head.

“Time travelers.” I tapped my forehead; “Of course, they’re time travelers.”

“And they’re late for an appointment….”

“At the Health and Science University.”

“Where else?” Debbie smiled. “It’s a good story.” She hooked her arm through mine, and we continued our stroll along the river.

Destructive Readers

I’m part of an online community called Destructive Readers. It’s a writing and editing group hosted at reddit. Despite the name, it’s a fairly civil place where writers can get honest feedback and critiques of their writing. I’ve done my share of destroying and being destroyed, and I cannot recommend it enough.

It is hard to find real, unvarnished feedback, and at Destructive Readers you pay for your time in the spotlight by offering your critiques of other member’s work. The symbiotic balance is monitored by the group’s moderators, and they are quick to call out those who ask too often and don’t give enough in return.

Being on the hotseat is uncomfortable; there is no way around that. It’s a bit like having a stranger assess your toddler’s prowess on the playground. You’ve both been sitting there on a bench, watching the children playing, and at one point the person next to you leaned over and said, “Little Sammy fell off the swing, what a clutz!” You nodded sagely and offer your own thoughts; he’s not your kid, and yeah he did fall.

But then the stranger says, “That Katrin, she can’t throw a ball very far, can she?” But that’s your Katrin and she’s only 4, so exactly what sort of throwing arm should she have already? Stupid stranger doesn’t understand your kid. Your kid’s a natural athlete, and your story is perfect. Your story is exactly right, exactly as you wrote it!

And as you sit there looking at your computer screen*, reading a critique of your work, you become uncomfortable: the stranger might have a point. Maybe your writing could use another round of edits. Maybe it does drag there in that scene after the fight. God help you, maybe you do use the main character’s name too much. And just like that, you have grown as a writer. You have become someone who cares more about the craft than about being “right.”

EB White said, “The best writing is rewriting.” That’s all writing is, really. You get the plot down and then you spend hours, days, months rewriting. You polish the scenes until they shine; strip away the excess so that the sentences purr like a balanced motor. It’s hard work, lonely and thankless, and it’s what makes you a writer.

Being critiqued and critiquing has helped me improve my skills. I see my own bad habits as I recognize others’. In turn as I write a new story or edit an existing one, I am conscious of the critiques. I remember that I tend to overuse the structure “As she did X, Y was also happening” and try to find a new way to describe the scene. I hack away at the extraneous physical pointers that pop up like blackberry brambles in my writing. And I certainly red-line the flowery similes.

I’ve submitted my work three times, using Google documents as a way to share the work and easily get edits and comments. The first was the opening 2,000 words of a novella I had written. I felt really, really good about the work, and the critiques I got were sort of what I expected – some simple mistakes, lots of reader confusion about setting, plot and motivation that was easy to improve with the right word here and there, and suggestions to tighten up the prose and structure. Excellent suggestions all, and what I was prepared for because I have a lot (perhaps too much) confidence in my writing.

The second time I submitted, it was a really fresh piece of writing. It was barely a 2nd draft of a short story, and I again submitted the opening 2,000 words. I submitted it so soon because I wanted to try to make a contest deadline. I thought, rightly it turns out, that Destructive Readers would tell me if I was on a good path with the story.

I felt eviscerated by the critiques. Although I am sure there were a few nice comments scattered in the mix, it was a bloodbath. Half a dozen people weighed in and to a person they hated it. I took a day to pout, and then I went back and read the story with eyes wide open. Then I read the critiques. All of them, every word. I opened my draft and the heavily annotated Google document side by side and began to revise. I had survived my destruction.

*Getting critiqued online is worlds better than being face to face with your critic. I abhor in-person critique groups because they are either never useful enough, or they tip into a brutality that would make Lord of the Flies seem like a day camp. Either the group pulls punches on their critique because it is hard to say critical things to someone you know and like, or the bully of the group (and there is always one) sets the tone and all you hear is the bad stuff without a whiff of positivity.

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