Monday, February 28, 2011

Virgin Readers and the Need to Say No

I’ve been saying “no” a lot lately, and I feel kinda bad about that. I’ve been saying “no” to several people emailing me, asking me to read their manuscripts and give them feedback. I know that my no is the right thing for me, and obviously, I don’t just email back a “no” but a very (I think) kind explanation of how I simply don’t have time to read every manuscript people want to send me, how to read a novel for someone takes an enormous investment of hours and energy, how I already ruthlessly guard my own writing time and can’t allow other commitments to encroach upon it, how I have a handful of trusted writer friends I exchange work with…but I feel bad because I know how valuable good feedback is for a writer.

I’ll talk about how to find your own trusted writers friend in a moment, but first, I want to talk about how valuable good feedback is for a writer. How valuable? So valuable I can’t imagine being a writer without it.

I’ll write a whole first draft of a novel before I show anything to anyone. It takes a full draft for me to feel the story truly belongs to me, for me to discover all I’m trying to accomplish with the story, to really know what my novel is about. Once I finish a first draft, I let it sit at least a week, then I’ll re-read and embark upon a first revision on my own. My first drafts are long, indulgent, and full of repetitive dialogue, so that first revision is usually about going back and cutting dialogue (I once cut a first draft in half solely by tightening up flabby conversations), consolidating and/or cutting scenes that fulfill the same purpose, and cutting any scenes that don’t move my plot (and my main character’s motivation) forward.

Then, and only then, do I allow my “first wave” of readers to see it.

What do I want from readers? I want—no, I need—them to tell me what’s working and what’s not. I’ve been working on this novel for over a year at this point (at least that’s usually the case) and I’m too close to it to really see it. I know what I’m going for, what my intention is, but it’s impossible for me to tell what’s on the page and what’s only in my head. So, especially with a first draft, I need readers to tell me what’s confusing, what’s missing, their honest reporting on how they feel about the story.

So, for example, I recently gave a first draft of my second young adult novel, Strange Katy, to three readers (well, four, because my parents deserve to be listed as two separate people!). I was so overwhelmed with gratitude to learn that they all found Katy to be bizarrely naive and that “she misses a lot of stuff” and noted the specific places where she did. When I told this story to a group of beginning writers recently, several of them look outraged. They asked me if I was angry at those readers. They seemed surprised when I said “No, not at all, I was grateful!” The students said, “But weren’t you crushed? Weren’t you hurt?”

No. Again, I was grateful. I want to know that my protagonist seemed dangerously naive so I can fix it. I don't see my character as naive at all, but as I reread with these reader comments in mind, I could see that Katy was pretty clueless on the page.

Critiques and suggestions that work—that are presented honestly but kindly, with the goal being to help me make my story as strong as possible—never crush or hurt me, but inspire me and get the wheels turning.

So, then I worked nearly another month, rewriting and strengthening the manuscript based on the initial feedback…before giving the manuscript to two new readers (and to my parents again, who, bless their hearts, both read the revised manuscript in three days’ time…and then took me to breakfast to discuss it. Am I lucky or what?). It was important that I gave the revised version to two virgin readers as well. This way, without telling them what the first readers said, I get to “test” to see if I corrected the problem (sometimes I go overboard and overcompensate). It can be difficult for readers to truly clear their minds of previous drafts.

This time Katy seemed kickass, not naive (yay!) but there were some other fabulous notes including: 1.) Katy seemed too intent on the mystery of what happened rather than truly mourning her dead friend, 2.) some inconsistencies in “the rules” of Katy’s extra-sensory “gift,” and 3.) my usual early-chapter mess of backstory dumping.

All. Such. Valuable. Stuff!!!

Of course, I thought Katy was grieving. She only exists in my head, after all, and when I think of her she’s floundering in an icy pit of sorrow…but was that on the page? Nope. Sure enough, it wasn’t (thank you, Kristi!) And I thought I had everything about Katy’s ability to communicate with animals crystal clear, but were there inconsistencies from scene to scene? Yep. Sure enough, there were (thank you, Sharon!) Is all of that fixable? Yes!

And I adore this stage. It feels like tinkering, like taking something complicated apart and putting it back together in better working order. I will stay up way too late into the night because I honest-to-God find this part so much fun (and frankly, so much easier and less fraught than making the story exist in the first place).

My dear friend Rachel is always my first and one of my last readers. We know each other well enough that she can be very blunt on a manuscript. She may circle a phrase I tend to overuse and write: “Stop it! You’re killing me with this!” Now, if someone I didn’t know well said that, I might want to punch them, but Rachel makes me laugh, the same way Kristi does by prefacing a really helpful suggestion with, “This is really bitchy, but—” But you want writer friends you trust to be bitchy or snarky when it’s called for.

Better your writer friends now than other readers later, right? The last thing you want is an agent or editor rejecting a manuscript for issues like the ones listed above. Or, if you’re lucky enough to get that far, to have readers or reviewers of a published work criticize it for the same implausibilities or inconsistencies.

I can’t stress enough how grateful I feel toward my trusted writer friends who read for me.

One young enterprising writer who emailed me asking me to read her novel responded rather saucily to my (I thought) very kind and gracious explanation of why I couldn’t. She asked how was she supposed to find trusted writer friends to read for her if I refused to do it? She was trying to establish such trusted writer friends by contacting me. So, what was she supposed to do if I wouldn’t read her work?

Well, she could do what I did: I took every writing class I could find in my area. I went to writers’ conferences, both local and far away. I went to the writers’ groups that meet in local bookstores (and which are listed in the store calendar of events). At all of those places, I looked for connections with other writers. I paid attention to other students and participants who were writing the same kind of fiction I was, whose writing I admired, whose senses of humor seemed in sync with mine, who seemed sane and friendly. If I was in a workshop setting with them, I paid attention to the feedback they gave (to me and to others)—was it insightful? Specific? Delivered in an honest but kind way? Delivered in the spirit of wanting to help the writer achieve their story’s potential?

At the Antioch Writers’ Workshop, I met several other writers I could be in touch with year round, not just during that one week workshop. Someone invited me to join an already established writers’ group that met weekly. After several years, I left that group, when life, schedules, and circumstances made it not what I needed anymore, but I stayed in touch with many of those writers. A handful of us still meet, not on any organized schedule, but whenever one of us has finished a draft and are ready for feedback. Same goes for writers I met while earning my MFA in creative writing (one of those workshops is in the photo).

When you have writer friends like that, you will read for them whenever they need it, and you rest assured that they will for you when you need it. Sometimes the timing is inconvenient, but it doesn’t matter: it’s what you do for each other. That’s a serious commitment to each other, built over many years.

When I’m able to, I lead workshops where I teach good writers how to give supportive, useful notes to each other and how not to be total assholes as they do it (seriously, the first class involves a section called “Don’t Be the Asshole”). My goal is always to bring writers together, to help them find connections. I’m thrilled as I can be when I learn that a group continues to meet and share work when our course is over. Honestly, it makes me do a little dance of happiness!

Just as with all things in the writing life, it takes time to find your readers. Just like writing a draft takes time, and rewriting that draft takes more time.

Impatience will not serve you in writing.

One of my favorite quotes on the wall of my office is from Goethe:
“Do not hurry. Do not rest.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

Tricks, Treats, and Writerly Bribes

Several days into February, the momentum of New Year's resolutions slow for many people. The cold, gray days make it hard to feel motivated. If you're looking for inspiration to stick with writing goals, hopefully this post will provide. Last week, eleven talented writers talked about their writing routines. Today, those same writers (and one additional one!) answer the question: Do you have any "tricks," "bribes," or methods you use to keep yourself on track with writing goals?

Dayton, OH
"My bribery is simple and oh, so sweet - chocolate. I treat myself with something small after my daily writing session (think M&M's, Hershey Kisses, etc). When I hit a really major milestone, like submitting pages to my agent or editor, I splurge on a high-calorie treat, like ice cream. The triple-dipper Reese's Pieces sundae from Friendly's is a fave. Chocolate ice cream, of course. I'm always looking forward to the treat as I write.

As far as keeping myself on track with writing goals, I spend time writing (or revising, or journaling) every day. Weekends, holidays, and birthdays are often work days for me. This makes me sound like a masochist or something, but really, it's because I love the writing so much, I just feel compelled to do it. Unless, of course, I'm stuck. Then it's painful, but I'm dying to get myself to the other side, so I dig in even though it hurts."
Boston and Minnesota
"Sheer unadulterated fear of blowing a deadline. No, that's not true (although I do try to meet deadlines as a rule). When I'm working on a book, I don't really have a choice: I have to be writing it. I think about it all the time. The characters drag me around by the hair otherwise."
Midway, KY
"I love, love, love the television and will watch anything--commercials, reality TV, talk shows--pretty much whatever is on so I have to cut off the television. Lately I've been watching the clock and give myself a treat every hour or so. Sometimes it's a glass of water, a snack, a 30 minute TV show, feeding the dog, FB. That activity is not allowed to take up more than 30 minutes before I return to my table."
MATTHEW GOODMAN, author of THE SUN AND THE MOON: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists and Lunar Man-Bats in Nineteenth-Century New York
Brooklyn, NY
"I don't have any special 'tricks' that I employ to cajole myself into becoming more productive. I tend to write very slowly, and if I kept a regular word count I think I would start to get depressed. But here's a rule of thumb that I do keep in mind: If you write only a page a day, every single day, at the end of a year or so, you'll have yourself the draft of a manuscript."
Grand Rapids, MI
"I set mini-deadlines for myself along the way to keep my mind focused. And I have at times bribed myself with chocolate! I also set a daily word count goal and I treat it just as seriously as any task I ever had during my day-job days. I treated writing as a job long before I was paid to do it."
Newport, KY
"To keep on track with my writing goals I work hard at not allowing myself to get stuck or sidetracked. But it's not all that easy! If the muse is off taking a bath, I don't panic or start mindlessly searching the web. I try to use that time to edit previously written chapters and to sharpen character sketches. Before long the muse returns and I'm back into full writing mode."
Los Angeles, CA
"I give myself a shot of bourbon when I finish a draft, no matter what time of day it is! Aside from that, as I recently blogged, I raced a colleague to complete a script, and I meet Katrina on iChat most mornings to check in and build a little solidarity. It's 7:00 A.M. her time, so I offer no pity when she complains of being tired. (I meet with her because she is the most dedicated, driven, consistent and persistent writer I have ever come to know, and I SO need that mojo in my life right now.) When I'm on script, it really never leaves me. Writing is a full time job when you're on deadline, meaning it's with you 24-7, no matter what else you're doing. I like to reward myself with movies, exercise, video games -- anything that provides an escape from my brain. I also like to stop each day leaving a scene I know well or am excited to write as the first piece of business tomorrow. I stop short, so when I settle back in the next day, I can quickly build momentum. But most important to me of late, has been the support of my writer friends. Nothing beats the real and true support of your colleagues in arms."
"Chai tea is an effective bribe; sometimes, chocolate is required. But my main motivation is the work itself -- I love doing what I do, and if I didn't work hard at it, I'd have to do something else, work for someone else. So I show up every morning, even if I'm not in the mood. When a book starts to come together, to take its finished shape, that's the greatest possible reward -- no matter how much you tore your hair out over it along the way."
Outside Boston
"Yes, I allow myself the gift of watching a late night movie with my husband. If I don’t feel I’ve put in enough time that day, but I have done some good work, I’ll reward myself with a phone call to my best friend or my sister. Neither write and both know how to make me laugh until I have tears."
Chicago, IL
"Negative reinforcement. I have a word-count goal I try to meet every day. If I give up before I get there, I end up moping around feeling terrible; wanting to avoid that feeling is usually motivation enough to keep going. I have recently started using this software called Concentration that blocks websites during a set period of time (Twitter, Facebook, Gmail, etc.). It kind of feels like the world is ending for the first five minutes. But then I get over it and really do get to work, amazingly. Distraction is our biggest challenge, I think. We are capable of a lot if we can just stay on task!"
Milwaukee, Wisconsin
"Writing's hard, and can be painful and depleting, but...I think of it the same way I do a long-term relationship, say, a marriage. Their are ups and downs and crying and yelling and eating a whole chocolate cake when things aren't going well. But there's also this profound sense of joy when the words and I click. When I succeed in moving what's in my heart down to the page, it feels heady, like falling in love for the first time. To me, that's a damn good payoff. (I also go shopping every Friday afternoon and buy myself or somebody I love a little something as a reward for working my heinie off:)"
Chicago, IL
"My writing goals vary depending on what the current work is (revising a scene is different from generating a first draft, for example) but in general I try to shoot for 500 words a day. So checking my word count is probably my main “trick” to staying on track with the long-term goal of writing a novel. There have been times when I think, "all righty, let's pack it in now" but checking my word count (what, only 417?!) provides visual evidence that I could stand to stick it out a while longer. More often that not, going back to it leads to another surge of writing, and I end up with quite a bit more than 500 words."

And here’s a bonus from Emily Gray Tedrowe...

"On this subject, I thought I’d mention a great resource for all of us: the Paris Review collection of interviews with writers: These used to be behind a pay wall but recently the entire archive was made available online—it’s a treasure trove of insight into process and routine. I find browsing around here truly inspirational. One other visual source I personally keep close to hand is Jill Krementz’s beautiful collection of photographs, The Writer’s Desk. John Updike, gazing out the window! Mona Simpson, feet up on the desk! These intimate portraits capture a lot of the beauty and mystery of what goes on at a writer’s desk…and then remind me it’s time to get back to work at my own. Katrina, thank you for including me! and I love the idea of a blog whose purpose is to inspire during these frozen days. Kind of like the literary version of paperwhites."

HUGE THANKS to the wonderful writers who participated here. I appreciate you taking some of your valuable writing time to help inspire others! Okay, everybody…now go WRITE!