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During the Great Writing Crisis of 2009 (okay, it spilled into 2010, but let’s keep it simple) I learned a lot of lessons on writing and life. Let’s hope I learned them by heart and they stay with me long enough that the jealous gods of writing don’t feel compelled to teach me again.

On the off chance I might help somebody else avoid the same pitfalls, I’ll try to articulate my experience for the rest of you. The topic for the day is criticism. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t take criticism well. I need it, I seek it, and have been known to go to pieces under the weight of it. Yes, my mind clearly understands that it’s only opinion, and that I, as the author, have the final say. I know that some criticism should be ignored. I’m not very good at this. Some of my writing friends know all too well that I have a tendency to lash out in response. And when the last of the critiques came in on Swimming North, I found myself seriously doubting my ability to put two words together in a way that anybody would ever want to read.

Let me stop right here to thank my beta readers and crit partners, and any passing random bystanders who may have read or commented on the WIP. Your insights and comments have been invaluable. This little learning experience is not about you – it is all about me.

Criticism is like dynamite. It is an essential tool in the quest for polished and publishable writing, but should be handled with the utmost respect and only while wearing full protective gear.

  1. Make sure that the person you are handing your beloved manuscript to is a trained professional who understands the explosive nature of that little red stick, and exactly what happens when you put a match to the fuse.  Or at the very least, somebody who has experienced a few explosions of their own and has a healthy respect for the risks involved.
  2. Terrorists like dynamite. There are people out there who will blow your work to smithereens with great glee, in order to meet some twisted agenda (conscious or unconscious) of their own. Not everybody who wants to read your work has your best interests at heart.
  3. Don’t hand out the dynamite to too many people at once. You know that old adage about ‘too many cooks spoil the broth?’ Yep. It’s true. Everybody has an opinion. Some of them are awesome. And if you have a whole group of intelligent, perceptive readers, each with valid but highly conflicting opinions on what you’ve written, should be writing, or how any of this writing should or should not be done, it’s easy for the entire ms to get blasted into inchoate fragments.
  4. Don’t hand a stick of dynamite to somebody, fuse already lit, and expect that it won’t explode. Other writers are, for the most part, not going to just read your unpublished work and hand it back without comment. We can’t. We’re not wired that way.  H.G. Wells wrote, “No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” I think there is some truth to this, and I’m not saying it is a bad thing. I’m just saying – be prepared. If you want that unadulterated rush of enthusiasm about how wonderful the ms is, give it to kind friends and family members. Don’t give it to me – I’ll want to help you make it better. And I’ll swear to my dying day that I gave you feedback with the best of intentions. And I’ll mean it.
  5. Wear protective gear. Explosions can be dangerous. Never start handing out the dynamite until you are aware of the risks. It’s possible the ms won’t (and shouldn’t) withstand the critique. It’s possible that the blast will knock out a major support or two, and you will have to do some serious structural repair. If you, the writer, are not prepared to engage in the work of cleaning up the mess, don’t facilitate the explosion.
  6. Give yourself time to grieve a little. Any time explosives are involved in a process of construction, something is going to dramatically change. There is loss here. Words, subplots, plots, characters can be blown out of existence by a well placed charge.  Take some time to let the dust settle before you make decisions about your course of action.

Well, that’s about it for my thoughts on critiques, except to remind you to be careful out there. Watch this site for the next post on The Ever Present Danger of The Green Eyed Monster, or alternately, focus on your own writing and your own goals if you don’t want to turn into a lunatic.

Honesty time.

The last couple of months have been hard slogging, and I realize that my Blog has suffered somewhat under the onslaught.  Digital Dame commented, in a conversation at another blog site, that she misses the weekend challenges.  So do I.  I also miss the long, unscheduled days off, a sense of freedom, and uninterrupted time to write.  

A week ago, my favorite public horoscope said something like this:  you’re trying to look relaxed while standing on a dock with one foot on a boat.  The boat is moving away from the dock, and you’re going to have to commit to either the boat, the dock, or fall into the water.

Which is a pretty accurate description.  Unwilling to abandon either the boat or the dock, I have predictably ended up thrashing about in cold water, still undecided whether to swim for the safety of the dock or the adventure of the boat.

Actually, it’s more complicated than that, but at least it’s an image to begin with.

Emotionally, I’m still struggling with the suicide of my very good friend.  My job brings me into contact with other suicidal people on an almost daily basis so there is no way of avoiding or silencing my grief.  And as a professional the questions I ask myself  involve more than the usual “how could he do this thing?” and progress to the “how come I didn’t stop him?”  My novel in progress, Swimming North deals with suicide, the type of work I do, and contains a character, Zee,  loosely based on my friend.  He and I had long talks about this novel.  He introduced me to Vivian the Penguin who inspired the whole thing, as well as Escher and certain interesting concepts of reality.  So, while the man is dead, the book and the ideas live on.

What is difficult, apart from the emotional process of grieving, is this: the book is a novel.  The character of Zee is fictional, whatever might have inspired it.  And this conflicts with a tendency to turn it into a monument to the real man and a discussion of philosophical ideas, both of which will kill the fiction dead if I indulge.  So, there is that.

As I mentioned before, a couple of good and insightful readers of my once completed novel Remember made comments which inspired a complete revision.  I’m about halfway through this process.  It’s been painful at times – a rather bloody and ruthless slaughter of hours of hard work and polished words.  And uninterrupted stretches of writing time have been at a premium.  But I do believe it will be stronger in the end, so it’s worthwhile.

On the home front, my partner is still unemployed.  My job is becoming increasingly difficult as the economy calls for tighter budgets.  Over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been working on the newsletter for my association – Washington Association of Designated Mental Health Professionals – I’ve been becoming increasingly angry regarding the lack of value that is placed on the mentally ill in my state.  Not something most of my readers will care about, I suppose, but Washington has less psychiatric beds per capita than any other state in the nation.  Since a big part of my job involves trying to put people into non-existent beds, this is a constant cause of frustration.  I spend hours with vulnerable, hurting, sometimes dangerous people, and expend a great deal of creative energy attempting to solve problems that are simply not solvable.

Which leaves precious little creative energy for writing and blogging.  I resent this.  And so sometimes when I open my Blog and click on New Post, I often look at the screen blankly and can’t think what to say.  There is simply too much.  Weekend challenges, the last few times I’ve tried, simply added to that sensation of one foot on the dock and one in the boat.  Writing has to fit into the corners and crevices of my life right now. Always crowding out some other thing that needs to be done.

Don’t get me wrong – I make time for it, as my family could tell you.  Today I really must find time for some household cleaning activities.  I plan to carry on with the revision of Remember.  There are errands to be run in town.  And, I’m on call again, meaning whatever I plan is likely to be interrupted by the ringing of the phone.  

It’s not all bleak in my world, I must point out.  Outside my windows, spring has finally managed to break through.  It gets so green up here sometimes it seems unreal, a Hollywood set design with special effects.  I’m going to my first writing conference in a couple of weeks.  I’ve refrained from taking on extra shifts in May, so hopefully will have a little more time for writing and relaxation.

As always, please feel free to use this site to share how your writing and querying and living is going.  Inquiring minds want to know.

“Most people are settling for less than their potential, for less strength, energy and vitality than they both can have and deserve. To accept life anywhere below our fullest potential is to be living in the gap, blindly accepting “what is” without ever deeply considering “what could be.” ~ Shawn Phillips 

The paradox continues.  Is it possible to live a mindful life, accepting the current reality with grace, while simultaneously setting goals to change that reality and strive for something different?  Where is the balance point between pursuing your potential  and living in the present moment, with its griefs and joys and challenges?  

On the one hand, I want to to “be a bold participant rather than a timid saint in waiting, in the difficult ordinariness of now” (Ted Loder).  At the same time, Tennyson’s poem Ulysses has always been like a battle cry to me:  

“…yet all experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades for ever and for ever when I move.”

And even though that untravelled world draws me, I have come to accept that there is no possible way I will live long enough to experience everything I want to experience, to accomplish all that I desire to do.  But that doesn’t mean I’m going to settle for a humdrum existence.  Tennyson again:  “as though to breathe were life!  Life piled on life were all too little…”

When I do not challenge myself, when I settle, I become flat and life tastes stale, insipid.  Despair begins to lurk. The less I do, the more I rest, the less energy I have and the less I want to do.  When I set challenges for myself, even when I do not reach them, still I have more energy, more focus, both for the task at hand and for the rest of my life.  All reality sharper and clearer, with the pain greater maybe, but there is also greater joy.

And maybe that is an answer in itself.  In Tennyson’s poem, the aging Ulysses gathers up all of his old travel companions, and they set sail once more, determined to pursue adventure until the day they die.   It’s the journey that matters.  Writing a book is an epic adventure in itself.  Seeking publication is another.  All of it tied in with the rest of life, with the joys and the griefs, all of the events, little and big, of the reality we are moving through.

Life as a quest.  I like that.  When knights ventured out on quests, there was no guarantee they were going to find what they were looking for.  The idea was to pursue the goal as long as your were able, to conduct yourself with honor, to fight to your very last breath, and never, ever, turn aside.  Which, fellow writers, should be our quest as well:  to write the stories that are given to us to the best of our capacity, and to fight the battle of seeking publication.  We can’t all be Lancelot.  It doesn’t matter.  All that was asked of the lowliest knight was to conduct himself with honor and fight to the death.

So, this morning I’m reminded of Pilgrim’s Progress – if you ever waded your way through that book, you’ll know about the Slough of Despond, and the Giant Despair, and various other distractions and obstacles along the way.  Of course, Pilgrim was on a journey for the salvation of his soul, and I’m merely trying to get a book published, so I suppose it’s not quite fair to use his allegory for my own purposes.  Not being one to follow the rules, I think I will do so anyway!

I am stumbling along, a little dusty and wounded, done with resting but still working on “refilling the well” as Julia Cameron would say.  Swimming North is 1000 words farther along, and that’s after writing and immediately deleting 300 words that were just wandering down the garden path.  I’m also working on my old YA fantasy novel, the one I cast aside due to fear of querying and rejection and trying to get published.

This is not a simple project, because the electronic files for the entire first half are corrupted, so I have to retype from the hard copy.  There is a beauty to this, as it turns out – the perfect occupation for a temporarily burnt out writer who still wants to feel like she’s working but is having a hard time creating anything new.   It’s a decent story, and I can make it better.  Apparently, if there is an ‘easier place to break in’ in this publishing economy, YA is it, so here we go.  I’m not abandoning the other novels, just adapting my plan.

Anybody else get anything accomplished over the weekend?  I am still off today, and hope to finally reach that elusive 55K on Swimming North.  May your muses be kind and generous and your fingers accurate on the keys.

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