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I have news.

After multiple rewrites and bone deep revisions, I have finally finished Swimming North.

I sense a little skepticism from some of you, and I can’t say I’m surprised. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve announced, “I’m done!” with great jubilation, only to realize that the true story had escaped me yet again.

David still looks at me askance when I say I am done. He tells me he will believe when I actually submit it to an agent. I suppose I can’t blame him – we have been at this landmark before. In fact, at times the writing of this book has resembled a Groundhog Day Adventure, with me tearing at my hair and lamenting over the need for yet one more rewrite.

Swimming North has tested my commitment more than any other writing project or task I have set for myself.  For one thing, there has been the grief – the loss of the friends who inspired it in the first place. But there is more. Always, since the beginning of our journey together, this novel has refused to fit neatly into any clear genre, has morphed and twisted from one shape into another, escaping my best attempts to find its natural form.

As I read through it now ghosts linger between the lines – eliminated scenes, beloved phrases, characters who lived through the course of several drafts only to find themselves excised before the end.

It should not surprise me, I suppose. As MC Escher said, “Are you really sure that a floor can’t be a ceiling?” This is the essence of Swimming North – the idea that every life, every story can be seen from another perspective, that reality is not Single but Many, and perhaps is limited only by our ability to perceive.

Even now, when I know it is done, I can think of several other ways to tell this tale that I have not yet tried. But enough is enough. As my main character Vivian knows – too many realities can make you insane.

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.

Outside my window today, the world is beautiful and white. The cat curls into the chair next to me, recovering her composure after a disconcerting encounter with snow. As for me, I inhabit a small bubble of peace in the middle of work, holiday baking and decorating, and the other real life pressures that have chosen to present themselves during this very busy month of the year.

There’s a manila envelope on my desk addressed to me in my own handwriting, containing a dream that once again has returned to me rather than reaching the desired destination. It sits there as a reminder, not yet put away, that dreams perhaps would be better invested in other aspects of my writing and my life.

Long ago, an exercise meant to be taught to my counseling clients taught me a very important lesson, which I’m about to share with the rest of you. Maybe you know this already – it seems simple, on the face of things, and yet most of us live our lives disregarding a simple principle that makes a world of difference in the thought processes.

Make a quick list of the things you worry about. Mine would look something like this:

1. Finances

2. Getting senior to college next year

3. Finding an agent for Filling in the Blanks

4. Finishing Swimming North

I won’t bore you with more. The next step is to break each one of those elements down into units of responsibility. For example:


Q. How much of this is my responsibility right now?

A. About 60%

Q. How much time do you spend worrying about it every day?

A: Not a lot. A few minutes here and there, more when I’m paying bills.

Q: Are you doing everything you can to fulfill your part of the responsibility?

A: Yes.

This is a fairly healthy ratio of responsibility/worry. Now let’s look at finding an agent.

Q: How much of this is my responsibility right now?

A: About 50%, I guess – the part about getting the queries out to appropriate agents.

Q: And how much time do you spend fretting about it every day?

A: Do I have to answer that? (A lot)

Q: Are you doing everything you can to fulfill your part of the responsibility?

A: Yes.

And here there is a problem. The reality is, I only have control over maybe half of this process. I can research, I can send out the query letters. That’s it. I can’t make an agent fall in love with my book. And yet, I’m expending a tremendous amount of my energy on worrying and fretting and angsting about this. Where the energy rightfully belongs, is on the things that are under my control, and that are my responsibility. Energy expended where it doesn’t belong takes away from proactive and productive work on other fronts, rather like spraying a fire extinguisher into the air when there’s a fire in my kitchen. Nothing productive is done, and I get burned, along with everything else that is important to me.

Writing another and better book, now, that is another story. Fully 100% of that is in my power. Any energy I expend toward the writing of that book goes directly to an effective place. I can learn, I can study, I can perfect my craft.

That said, I think it’s time to move on with the day. Time to go to the storage unit, and load the trash into the truck for a trip to the dump. Time to do some Christmas shopping. And later, time to finish editing this draft of Swimming North and get ready to move on to querying.

“All experience is an arch where through gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades forever and forever as I move.”  Tennyson, from Ulysses

I’m sitting at the desk in my fully customized mudroom, reflecting on the nature of the Elusive Writing Goal.  This mysterious creature, the EWG, flits across every town in every country across the face of the planet.  It is a chameleon creature, ever shifting, ever changing, and has beckoned many a weary writer onward to an untimely death.  Some have ignored its enticements completely, enduring the consequences of  a bleak and unsatisfying life.  Others have quested to the ends of reality and beyond, losing themselves and their sanity in a never ending pursuit of perfection.

A problem, then, for the conscious writer.  What is the safest way to deal with the EWG?

Ha! Safe? If you consider yourself to be a writer, abandon the concept of safety at once.  Myth, my friends, pure myth.  We are risk takers, venturing off of the established paths.  We delve into the nature of human emotions, one of the most dangerous pursuits known to man.  We spin our minds and souls into words and send them into the public domain where anybody might read them. 

All in pursuit of the mysterious EWG.

What does your EWG look like?  Can you even answer that question?   When you think you have captured it at last, it morphs between your very fingers and slips away, hovering in the distance, daring you to catch it one more time.  

At the moment, mine has alighted on my shoulder and is singing promises in my ear.  Almost, it says to me, almost.  A little more polish on this manuscript, just a little more, and then you can send it out to agents.  

Even under the enchantment of the EWG I recognize the hidden dangers in this casual statement.  Agents.  A promise of rejection; a hope of validation.  And always, unspoken between the EWG and me, the hope of a published novel just out of sight around a corner in time.

I know that the instant I believe this MS is done, the sweet little EWG will grow claws and scales and become a dangerous beast.  Foreknowledge is not much protection, however, and so I linger in this phase of the almost done.  I am cherishing a sense of completion before the novel is complete, because when it is I will believe that it is not.

And still, even knowing, I will pursue the EWG into the weekend.  We will polish Filling in the Blanks, one word at a time.  And when this month is done, we will query.  That’s what it says to me now, and I am compliant, complicit, to follow the margin that fades “forever and forever as I move.”


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