Accepting a Knife to the Kidneys (With a Smile)

Taking a knife to the kidneys with grace is an art form. And by knife to the kidneys I mean, of course, taking a critique. I’ve ranted before on the different type of critiquers and how some of them honestly just aren’t helpful and I still believe that. Critiquing is an art that’s learned, (a talk for another time.) Unfortunately for all of us who spend gratuitous amounts of time giving thoughtful critiques, accepting criticism is also an art form.

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So, what not to do when receiving a critique (some of these are obvious, some less so.)

  1. Never argue why you’re right and they are wrong. There is no need to change for their opinion, but they took the time to give it. Calling them out on being incorrect is unappreciative, rude and shouts to the world that you think you know best already (and if that’s true why did you ask for a crit?)                                                                                                                woman-315006_1280
  2. Don’t Insult or depreciate the critique in any way. Even if they are downright rude to you. Starting a firefight won’t help you. Realizing they are wrong and you don’t have to listen… that will help. But you don’t need to tell them that, in fact, you shouldn’t.
  3. Don’t take advice by the letter. Guess what? If you are getting peer critiques, chances are they don’t know any more than you do. So if the advice doesn’t gel or disagrees with the advice of others, ponder it, tuck it away for later and then forget it. And it’s just fine to take pieces of advice and not others.                                                                             book-730479_1280
  4. Don’t inform them what other critiquers think. I’ve noticed a trend of authors defending themselves (not saying they are right, but holding up a shield) saying “my other critiquers didn’t think this.” Okay… fine… What’s your goal in telling your critiquer this? Either you make the critquer feel bad because you’ve essentially just told them their opinion is wrong. If they choose to crit again, they will feel self-conscious and not do as good of a job. Or you’re insulting other critiquers to them by calling them unobservant. Which makes your critiquer wonder what you say about their crits behind their back. Point is, yes a little complaining about crits is okay, but you don’t do it in direct response to a comment in another critique.
  5. Remember that everyone is in a different stage in their writing and critiquing abilities. Don’t assume because something is short it didn’t take effort. Or discount all their advice because they quoted grammar rules incorrectly. They may not be grammar geniuses, but I bet they know how a piece of work makes them feel.

Now, if I do a list of don’ts, there must be a list of dos, so here goes.

  1. Do say thank you. Even if you didn’t find a single thing of use (you may when you look back, or you may not. Still thank them.) And take the time in your thank you to let them know you read the crit and heard what they said (unless you have a prior relationship established and feel it isn’t needed.)
  2. Keep in mind that writers helping each other is reciprocal. Does that mean you need to crit for crit? No. But it does mean that as a member of the writing community you should try and honestly give back as good or better than you receive.
  3. Expect it to hurt. Yup. Even glowing kind crits… hurt. Especially if they are good. The pain doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that they are critiquing badly. As writers, words are your babies… It’s going to hurt having someone tell you when they are wrong.                                            woman-801711_1280
  4. Appreciate quality partners. I know I have a good crit partner when for two weeks they’ll send me rave reviews on chapters (notes on punctuation, repeated words, a sentence that didn’t flow, reminders about paragraph breaks but overall wonderful.) Then on the third week they’ll rip the chapter to shreds. It means that they aren’t looking to tear me apart, but they also aren’t throwing marshmallows at me. I would swim upstream the Nile river surrounded by crocodiles for these folks.                                                       girls-926784_1280
  5. Be clear when requesting critiques what you want help with. If you have done this and people ignore your requests, put the advice you didn’t ask for aside. Use the advice you did ask for. It is that simple.
  6. If someone goes above and beyond for you, let them know you appreciate it. I put this separate from basic thank yous because it is. I had a crit partner online pick up my story when it was halfway through on the website’s cycle. She took the trouble to go back and read (and do light crits) on the first ten chapters in order to give better crits going forward. Again…Nile River and crocodiles. These people are irreplaceable and hard to find and should be treated that way.
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That is my take on receiving a blade to the gut. I know that there will be points of dissension. A lot of that comes from each writer appreciating different things. I will try to go into that more when I talk about giving critiques- it’s all tied in together.

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The Best Writing I’ll Ever Do

You know what the worst is? No? Well, how could you there are a bazillion answers to that. At the moment, I’m talking about rewriting. Now let me be clear, there are different kinds of rewriting. Most of them are not awful at all. Like:

When you decide a scene doesn’t work and cut it. Then you have to rewrite

When you decide a scene no longer makes sense because of other changes so you rewrite parts.

When you decide a scene isn’t adding enough so you cut it and add in some sort of one line transition.

Now all of these don’t suck. They aren’t always fun, but they don’t suck. I have a magical folder on my computer called ‘deleted scenes’ in which I hold these little gems. I never look at them again but having them there keeps there from being a little hole in my soul.

What sucks is when you LOSE your work and have to rewrite it. For me what happens then is whatever I wrote becomes the best writing I ever did, will ever do. It is impossible I can ever write that so well again. In fact, I might as well give up writing because to write that again would only be a shallow imitation of real art.

Why do I feel this way? If you know, I’d love to be educated. All I know is logic doesn’t have any part of the madness.

This week I lost one of my notebooks, in which there were several scenes I had not yet transferred to the computer. I obsessed. I turned the house upside down. I sat at my computer and pried approximately five words out of myself over a solid hour before quitting.

This morning I found that notebook and read the scene. It’s awful. Terrible. Just… I don’t even want to put it on the computer.

On the upside, since I couldn’t get any real writing done last night I got a huge laugh out of doing character interviews with some friends on CC. And did a final edit of my synopsis before sending out some queries today.

But I think I’ll frame that awful scene. Literally frame it on my office wall and stare at it next time I lose/delete something I can’t retrieve. Maybe I will believe tangible proof that just because it’s gone doesn’t mean it’s good.

Oh and my phone is still broken so now I get to decide if I’m going to dredge up some internet pictures of find some highly inappropriate picture from my personal stash to tack onto this.

Taglines and Editing

Who knew that writing twenty words could take a week? Well… most author’s doing this longer than me. This week my quest was to write my logline, and to a lesser extent my pitch. Read a couple articles, jumped in wrote it. Read a couple more, rewrote every word (well almost.) Then I shared it with people and those two words that remained from version one disappeared (along with most of version two.)

But after hours and hours of work, and embarrassing myself and imposing on everyone near me in my acquaintance. I have a logline I’m happy with (bets on how long it’ll last?)

On an intergalactic voyage, a devoted mercenary must protect her prince while unearthing dangerous secrets of the galaxies’ godlike rulers.

The pitch was easier in some ways because I had a query letter to draw from. Yay! How often does something turn out to be easier than you feared? Now I just have to memorize it… oh and say it in front of agents and editors… no sweat… right?

Elevator Pitch:
My book is about Taln an insecure mercenary whose greatest quandary in life is whether to sharpen her knives or spy on her beloved employer. That is until her employer is blackmailed into investigating eon old secrets on a voyage across the stars. As forgotten truths about genetic manipulation and slavery emerge, Taln must learn opening her heart can make greater changes than throwing her blade in order to push past prejudice and free a race who has only ever known slavery.

And now back to editing. Ah, the beauty of editing. When I started writing I never thought I’d enjoy ripping my baby apart but I honestly do relish the feeling of a major revision. It’s the little niggling edits that drive me crazy. It’s hard to put creativity and passion into double checking commas and question mark usage.

Anyhow, apologies for the belated and odd ramblings of the week. With fifteen chapters left to comb through I admit my mind is stuck in my novel.

And because I saw it, and its true:

Though I think the artist should try typing with a three year old trying to climb up the back of their chair.

I am a Rock

Currently, I’m listening to Simon & Garfunkel on repeat, in specific I Am a Rock. I’ve never met anyone else who does this, that is, listens to a single song on repeat for hours at a time. But for me there is nothing better than finding that single song that speaks to your soul in its current form because when you find that one song that for whatever illogical reason just fits… it’s the most powerful catharsis I know of.

I couldn’t say why it’s one song or another, but I’ll hear a song and it’s like the world stands still, I often break into tears trying to sing along. Most recently it was Lord Huron’s She Lit a Fire and then respectively Ends of the Earth. Before that, Hozier’s Take me to Church and Bleacher’s Shadow.  But it can be all sorts of music, country songs, folk songs, pop songs, a few time numbers from Broadway musicals.

I’m stuck in my work, have been for weeks. I can’t seem to get past all this advice pouring in that basically comes to ‘you can’t succeed, it’s impossible and you aren’t that good.’ Which every writer who researches and works to get better hears. Mostly from well-meaning sources who are trying to stress how hard the publishing industry is.

To ward off disappointment?

But when you know how tough success is, being repeatedly told not to get your hopes up, that your not ready, that this or that or the other isn’t good enough…crushes something inside you.

You get trapped under the weight of everything you ‘need’ to do. Pinned under the doubts and the fear. The query letter, the synopsis, the pitch, the writing books, the constant reworking of your work (which even after revision you can still always find someone who thinks it’s godawful.) And occasionally into all this, the thought creeps ‘Maybe I should just give up. I’ll never do this.’

I’ve spent weeks teetering. Not able to give up or to get anything done. I knew I needed something, anything to lift me, to remind me that even if no one but me (and my mom and husband) believes in me, I can do this.

Getting Little Cracks published gave me that boost for a while, but getting published once feels like a fluke in my heart. Which I know is whiny and silly since so many authors try for so long and don’t even get that far. I read somewhere that the brain tends to disregard data that occurs once as extraneous. Your mind doesn’t let you believe until there is a pattern.

But you don’t need a metaphorical giant to free you from the crushing weight of doubts. A breeze can lift it, if you just happen on the right breeze.

So I’m sitting in this self-made hole of doubt and inaction…and Simon and Garfunkel comes on the radio. I’m singing along and my voice just fails and all these emotions bubble and I know I’m going to be okay. That I can be both a rock and an island. I know that pain won’t kill me…now I know that isn’t the point of the song…but it doesn’t matter what the point is. It only matters that at that moment, that song, that rhythm, those words broke the stasis.

mmm…point of this week’s little rant…music is beautiful and powerful because it touches emotions not logic. It moves past your guards and touches the tender places where even words fail to penetrate. And that I hope all of you find your ‘song’ when you desperately need it. Because no matter what the facts are in your life that make progress feel impossible, a course exists that will bring you to your destination.

And that sometimes it’s not our brains that need convincing but our hearts. I love what I’m doing and writing this for the first time in weeks I remember that. I don’t write this blog, or my novel or anything because I have to. I do this because it’s my music.

The Know-it-all, the Skimmer, the Ego-stroker, the Drama Queen and the Sparrow Fart

“That’s not how I do it,” I would whine.
“Well, how you’re doing it isn’t working,” my mother/father/brother/ husband responds
“But it does work…it worked before. I don’t know what’s wrong now.”
I’ve had the preceding argument so many times in my life that both my loved ones and I have it memorized. Taking advice has never been my strong suite. No one will admit that faster than me.
My resistance doesn’t extend to professional advice (except when my husband tries to teach me about computers.) I take advice from books just fine. As a teenager, I even took advice from insane quizzes on the internet (those never served me well.)
The crux of the matter is that nothing burns like admitting a loved one is right and I am wrong. Or I thought so until I started taking advice from complete strangers, with no qualifications beyond those I could attach to myself. Yes, for those of you who are any sort of artist this may sound familiar. The idea of a peer group of people who have not made it into the industry all advising each other… and on the internet where certain types of advice seem far more common than in any face to face group.
Recently, I’ve been taking a lot of advice from other would-be authors. At first, the process was productive as I hammered out some of the basics to clear up my narratives. However, over the past few months, I’ve become increasingly frustrated with the process.
My issue? Listening to people who from a logical standpoint are in no position to give advice, who don’t seem to realize that the dynamic needed for a peer group to is respect, equally contributing partners and encouragement.
There are four main types of advice givers that grate on me.
The first is the know-it-all. The person who instructs as if they are an agent or editor, with no (orvery little) regard to support or encouragement. These well-intentioned souls only offer criticism. Sometimes, they don’t even give you examples of how to fix things, they just make sweeping statements about your pieces faults. If you question them invariably, their response is ‘An agent or editor wouldn’t tell you how to fix things, you’d be lucky if they even told you what was wrong. I’m just being realistic.’
They aren’t. The reason this method is infuriating- they aren’t agents and editors. Professionals who I solicit can and should be able to give know-it-all advice because I went to them specifically. They have a professional opinion that you as an artist are seeking out.
The second type of well-meaning advice giver is the skimmer. They don’t really look at your piece. Just enough to make a few comments, misunderstand a bunch of stuff and the criticize you for not being clear. What they really want is your advice without taking the time to earn it. In my opinion, the skimmer is the worst because unlike the know-it-all, they don’t want the best for you.
The third type is the ego-stroker. These are usually either people that just aren’t quite as advanced, but sometimes this happens if you stick with a certain partner for too long. They become afraid of offending and get too nice. This is the easiest to take because often it doesn’t happen every critique…and hell sometimes a little encouragement is needed after the other stuff!
Last, is the drama queen. They will find one or two aspects of your story they don’t like, latch on and exaggerate how awful it is, how much it bothers them. They will find a way to claim they are confused about every paragraph because apparently they have no comprehension whatsoever of metaphors. Or they will decide that they don’t like your character and spend the entire time telling you how flawed/irrelevant/non-sensical the characters actions are.
Drama queens are the easiest to take because they are so easily ignored.
All of these types minus the skimmer have one thing in common, they are all legitimately trying to help. And despite my natural proclivity for resisting advice, I listen to them all and take what I can. I’m sure that some people are equally annoyed by my advice. And I know looking back (I never know it’s happening when I’m doing it) that I’ve given critiques in each of these styles at least once.
Now a bonus, there is actually a fifth style of nasty advice giver. These people don’t want the best for you. At best, they don’t give a flying sparrow fart if you succeed. They serve up canned rants, drill how hard the industry is and how you’ll never succeed, they judge you and your work without looking or with barely a glance. I’m not saying these people want you to fail, they aren’t evil, they’re just more concerned with being heard than with helping.
The same way as a child, I was more concerned with being heard than with being helped.
The odd part about all of it though is that learning to give advice and seeing how absurd people who ‘know how it is’ sound when really they don’t… Is teaching me how to take advice. How to listen and try. To put aside what I think because I don’t want to be a know-it-all advice taker.
And hopefully, my new attitude will transition over to when my techie husband gives me computer advice…after all he actually does know more about the topic than me.

For anyone who is part of critique circle who I may have worked with, none of these types are based on any one person.  Despite the frustrations voiced here, I have yet to encounter someone who was truly just cruel or working with malicious intent.

What Standardized Testing Taught Me

None of the Above.

That was my all-time favorite answer when taking a bubble test. Sometimes ‘All of the Above’ was equally enthralling.

I did well on standardized testing. I know, I know, surprise for a little white girl in a white collar neighborhood, right? Despite scoring in the top 25% even in my ‘bad’ subjects, I am only now realizing how deeply I internalized the truly awful lessons these test taught me.

Now I’m writing a personal assessment. This is not meant to stand for anything greater. But as a writer, as a thinker, as an adult struggling to deal with the real world it is amazing how the one lesson I took away from those tests so stunted my growth.

What was that lesson? Never double check answers. Never take my time and never for any reason follow a questioning line of thought. Why you ask? My young mind always made the mistake of questioning. I wanted to look deep into everything, study it from every angle, eliminate the impossible, then explore all the possibilities left. I liked to play with information like a cat.

And then came the bubbles and the trick questions. Where well-meaning test purposely tries to lead students off track. The problem with this was I’d get the answers right on first try. But if I did as the teachers suggested and when back to check my work (or God forbid took my time) I’d think too deeply. How were they tricking me, I’d wonder. Two cats added to two cats in a white room equals four cats, obviously…so it can’t be four cats. And my inquisitive mind would try and justify why two cats was actually the right answer…or six…or YAY All of the above. Some could have died, after all, cats can be territorial maybe they attacked each other. Or bred. Was I trying to be a smartass. No.

I was trying to make logical sense of why a test would want to trick me. And I was doing what came naturally- investigating.

I learned, though. I learned from practice tests that I scored significantly higher if I went as quickly as possible. No big deal in and of itself, but the lesson was terrible.

The belief rooted in me that there was something magical about a first try. Something quintessentially unbeatable in a first attempt that a second attempt, though it might correct some errors, would only cause more. This meant college term papers always written the night before they were due. It meant writing a novel and then being afraid to revise because the ‘essence’ of my story would disappear and leave me with shlock.

It is only this year, at 31, that I am beginning to overcome my misconception that somehow revision is damaging to a product. Funnily enough, this year is also the first time I’ve had a story published.

Now, I have no idea if there is anyone else like me. I’m sure this isn’t a common issue. But isn’t that part of the overarching issue with standardized tests? They don’t account for the ‘individual’ experience. The little girl who can convince herself that e) all of the above is the only correct answer, despite the fact at 2) 4 cats is obviously correct, gets lost in the shuffle. Not saying I’m Einstein but how would he have done with this? According to the laws of these tests, nothing would ever be invented because thought is discouraged.

This little rant was inspired by an article I read. If you are interested:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/17/mom-the-religious-reasons-my-kids-wont-be-taking-common-core-tests/?postshare=231429581271881