As a writer, I attend my critique group religiously. You may be saying to yourself, “That seems a touch masochistic.” Well, it might be, but it’s necessary. It’s important to put our writing out in front of others because when we’re alone in front of our computer screens we have a tendency to believe that pure gold is flowing from our brains onto our pages.
People often write a draft. maybe they revise it (or maybe not) and give it to their parents, best friends, or significant others. They ask for honest opinions. In most cases they hear that they have written the greatest book ever. These well meaning people are probably sincere, but they probably aren’t writers, and they definitely aren’t removed enough to be honest.
That’s where a good critique group comes in. You need to trust the people in the group. You need to respect them as writers. And you need to listen when they tell you that a scene or character isn’t working.
My rule is if more than three people say the same thing, listen. You have a problem.
Of course, not all critique groups are created equal, but if you look around, you’ll find one that works. Attend a writers’ conference and mix around. Go on line and find a local writers’ group. They are everywhere, and they can be a great support, especially when you’re first starting out.
Another plus, you’ll discover that you aren’t alone in the great big writing world. When you’ve been holed up with your computer for hours, days, and weeks on end, you’ll be happy to discover other humans just like you out there.
Many years ago when I was in college, I wrote a short story about taking our cat Midnight to be put to sleep. He had been our first cat, and I had adored him. One of my friends read it in its embryonic stage and laughed at the concept, so I never finished the story. But the loss was real. The pain was not as vivid and knife-sharp as the loss of my grandmother (which was my first initiation with death), but I never forgot the sorrow of losing the cat and my classmate’s rather callous reaction to the story.
Just today, I was faced with the unfortunate duty of taking the family cat, Oreo, to the vet. Riddled with cancer, she needed to be put to sleep. She was a rather ill-tempered old girl who liked chasing people and nipping at their ankles. She would jump up on the table during diner until I locked her in the pantry, and then emerge to give me a look of disdain before she rubbed against my husband until he gave her ice cream. She would allow you to pet her until she got tired of it, and then she would nip you, as if to say, “That’s enough, human.”
Yet for thirteen years, she’d snuggled with me at night, when I was sick, or whenever I was struck with a vicious migraine. Scientists say that you cannot anamorphize pets, that they do not think like humans or care like humans. It may be true. But scientists can’t explain the bond that develops between animals and humans. Is it just about food? I don’t know. I do know that I feel empty this evening because she isn’t waiting for me. I haven’t had the heart to pick up her toys or her food bowl or water. Tomorrow will be soon enough.
This is the first time I will be without a cat in over thirty years. I’ve always adored them because of their independence and energy, their quirks and yes, affection. I’ve made the trip to the vet more than once, and it never gets easier. Every time I vow, never again, but I know at some point I’ll be driving past the SPCA, and I’ll stop the car.
I’ll feel that pang of loss just before I open the door and go claim another lost baby.
The photo above is of the ballroom of Mar Lodge estate in Scotland. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? You can almost imagine some fairytale figures–maybe Beauty and the Beast–twirling around the ballroom floor under the lights, and vines, and wait–take a closer look.
Hmm. Maybe a little more like something out of the first season of True Detective–missing you, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson–where the Yellow King might hang out. Still an amazing room in a beautiful place, but just a touch more creepy. And yes, I know this room is a celebration of culture, but hey, I write thrillers.
It doesn’t take much for my mind to travel to dark, creepy places. Sometimes if I’m taking a walk along say a river bank, I’ll see a spot where I think a body might wash up and snap a photo. I try to pretend I’m being artistic, but my family knows I’m just trying to get the details right. If you’re going to murder someone (in the literary sense), you need to get the details right. You owe it to your readers. That and a certain creep factor.
You don’t have to go to Mar Lodge to find creepiness in every day life. Your own backyard will do. It’s all in the details.
I’m in the middle of preparing my debut novel, The 8th Circle, for publication, a fascinating process that involves revision.
Oh yes. I did use the R word. After you have polished and polished your manuscript, maybe had it critiqued or edited and polished some more until you finally feel marginally confident that you have something acceptable, and you have secured an agent, and the agent has secured a book contract, an interesting process begins where the editor tells you how much he/she loves your manuscript and asks you to make a few revisions, which turn out to be rather larger than you thought.
This is not a complaint about the revision process, which continues two or three or more times. It’s a blessing to have an editor who cares enough about your manuscript to want you to make it better. Especially today. If F. Scott Fitzgerald hadn’t had Max Perkins, he might have penned The Notable Gatsby or possibly just Gatsby. In all probability it would not have been The Great Gatsby. This is why we now have the great controversy over Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, which most likely was an early draft of To Kill A Mockingbird that Ms. Lee never intended to be published.
I cringe to think of anyone reading my early drafts.
The point is you write drafts and revise them because that’s really how you learn to write. You can take classes on craft and plot and character building, but in the end you learn to write by writing and revising. If you can’t look critically at your own work and take constructive criticism about that work, you aren’t going to improve.
Sometimes it’s tedious. Sometimes it’s fun. Sometimes you want to rip your hair out. At that point, I suggest watching a ridiculous movie. I’ve already recommended Sharknado. Have you tried Mega Piranha? The fish explode. It’s awesome.
Recently, I was struggling through some issues with my second novel. Essentially, I hated everything I was creating: the characters, the plot, the setting. It was all pretty grim. Still, I was pushing forward and feeling pretty grumpy about it.
And then my son came home for a visit. Like me, Michael is a night owl, so we frequently find ourselves talking or watching movies long after my husband has gone to bed. Unlike me, Michael is a connoisseur of bad movies—the kind that don’t make the New York Times top ten. In fact many of them don’t make the theaters at all.
Some of them are unintentionally hilarious. Like Sharknado.
I cannot fully describe the joys of watching Sharknado, especially in the company of a twenty-something who fires priceless commentary at the pace of a machine gun. The movie itself is a combination of horrible acting, terrible CGI, and clichéd (if not totally ripped off) dialogue. In short, it’s amazing.
I haven’t laughed so hard at any intentional comedy that’s come out of Hollywood in years.
I realize it seems mean and snarky to laugh at a movie that (I suppose) was not intended to be humorous. But try to sit through it. Watch twenty minutes. If you have any sense of the ridiculous, you’ll be smiling, if not rolling on the floor.
Now you might be asking yourself, “What the hell does this movie have to do with writing?”
The quick answer: not that much, except that this movie made me realize that what I was writing wasn’t so awful. I wasn’t producing Shakespeare or James Joyce (then again, who is these days?) but I am chugging along. When I finish my first draft and revise, my book will improve. Everything will be okay.
It is definitely a good thing to stop now and then and have a laugh, especially when you’re in the writing doldrums. Recognize that what you’re writing is going to turn out okay if you keep at it, even if (Spoiler Alert) you don’t have any sharks falling out of the sky.
The Philadelphia Writers Conference took place this weekend as it does every June.
I look forward to it every year because it’s a reminder that I’m not alone in my mole hole tapping on the keyboard. Yes, there are fellow sufferers out there. We writers are a masochistic lot. Even those of us who actually have made a living at crafting words spend a good deal of time wrestling with self-doubt and anxiety. Or maybe that’s just me. I’m never sure until I go to a conference and meet my fellow sufferers.
Generally, we are the writers seeking to break through into the world of fiction. We attend workshops in writing compelling characters, creating tension, writing short stories, mysteries and thrillers, and screenplays. They are all wonderful, taught by lovely, helpful writers who speak encouragingly while we take dutiful notes.
We listen to guest speakers, usually those rare creatures known as literary successes, who dole out words of wisdom and hope some of their magic dust sprinkles on us.
We have pitch sessions with agents whom we approach with a mixture of trepidation and awe because they are the gate keepers to the literary world we crave to enter.
I may sound jaded; in fact I’m not. I love conferences. The teachers are usually excellent; the speakers are delightful; the agents are generally quite kind and approachable. The 2015 Philadelphia Writers Conference was a wonderful time as always.
The workshops, speakers and agents, were terrific; however, they were not necessarily the best part of the experience.
I think the most important thing I took away from any conference was the understanding that we are not alone in our efforts. Many others are struggling as well. So always reach out to the person next to you and say hello. Ask what project he or she is working on, exchange contact information, stay in touch. Encourage each other. As writers, we are part of a community. It’s important to be a good community member.