It’s that time again! Actually, it’s not, but you can smell it in the air: that smoky melange of burnout, hope and desperation that is National Novel Writing Month. Though I’m probably not participating this year, here are some links from last year to help you gird up for your journey through jacked-up word counts and mutual despair!
For preparation and planning ahead, try out The Hailstorm Approach, your guide to prepping in seven days or less.
Writing novels is hard, and requires vast, unbroken slabs of time. Four quiet hours is a resource that I can put to good use. Two slabs of time, each two hours long, might add up to the same four hours, but are not nearly as productive as an unbroken four. If I know that I am going to be interrupted, I can’t concentrate, and if I suspect that I might be interrupted, I can’t do anything at all. Likewise, several consecutive days with four-hour time-slabs in them give me a stretch of time in which I can write a decent book chapter, but the same number of hours spread out across a few weeks, with interruptions in between them, are nearly useless. – Neal Stephenson
Whenever I read Neal Stephenson’s books (I’m making my way through REAMDE at the moment), I often find myself stopping and checking the dictionary, or Wikipedia, or both, to figure out what he’s talking about. Not that Stephenson is particularly difficult; he just happens to be as dense as Gibson and equally fond of charming-but-colossal infodumps: “The protagonist was playing a game of World of Warcraft. He sent his dwarf in to mine some gold. And now, an extensive historical overview of geology and the mining industry to lend this moment context.”
I appreciate Stephenson’s attention to detail. Having recently finished with a long run of indie novels, REAMDE has called attention to how much detail many other authors skip over for the sake of expediency. Not Stephenson. Before that gun on the mantlepiece gets fired, you can be damn sure you’ll know everything about its manufacture, capabilities, and mechanical quirks. (The only reason this works is because Stephenson rarely does it gratuitously. These trifling details serve the story.)
Anyway, while picking my way through REAMDE, I found myself interested in Stephenson’s mention of the “flow state,” a mental state of mind which one of the characters — a ridiculously profound fantasy author — must achieve in order to get his work done. Since being ridiculously prolific is something I’m in favor of, I decided to find out more about it… and now I feel kind of ridiculous that I’d never heard of it before.
The “flow experience” is defined by psychology professor Mihály Csíkszentmihályi by six factors:
1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
2. merging of action and awareness
3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
4. a sense of personal control over the situation or activity
5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding, also referred to as autotelic experience (Wikipedia)
All of these add up to a state that a lot of creative types think of as being “inspired” or “struck by the muse”:
These exceptional moments are what I have called “flow” experiences. The metaphor of flow is one that many people have used to describe the sense of effortless action they feel in moments that stand out as the best in their lives. Athletes refer to it as “being in the zone,” religious mystics as being in “ecstasy,” artists and musicians as “aesthetic rapture.” (Psychology Today)
In a curious bit of coincidence, my research into flow found this article, which linked the flow state to the “10,000 Hour Rule,” which I wrote about in yesterday’s blog post:
According to pioneering research by Anders Ericsson at Florida State University in Tallahassee, it normally takes 10,000 hours of practice to become expert in any discipline. Over that time, your brain knits together a wealth of new circuits that eventually allow you to execute the skill automatically, without consciously considering each action. Think of the way tennis champion Roger Federer, after years of training, can gracefully combine a complicated series of actions – keeping one eye on the ball and the other on his opponent, while he lines up his shot and then despatches a crippling backhand – all in one stunningly choreographed second. (New Scientist)
The New Scientist article goes on to talk about the possibility of dramatically shortening the time required to obtain such mastery through acquiring the “flow state” — although, as I said yesterday, I’m less interested in tracking hours than I am achieving greater creative output.
Does all this sound mind-numbingly clinical yet? Boy, I sure hope so.
So in reading all this, I began thinking about my own obstacles when it comes to achieving the “flow state.” Here’s what I came up with.
1) Regular practice. The wealth on contradictory advice on how often and regularly one should write is well-heeled, so I won’t regurgitate it here. In my work, however, I find my gears rust up pretty fast. A few days without writing, and it’s a huge struggle to really find my groove. I started this blog in no small part to address that concern and compel myself to write daily no matter what. It’s turned out to be slightly wanting in terms of execution, but that’s how we learn from our mistakes, I guess.
2) Poor planning. This is basically the cause of 1). My least productive days are the ones where I get up, check my email or voice mail, and then basically react to things until all the time is gone. The days where I block out writing time and stick to the plan are far more productive. I’m sure there’s some clichéd adage about failing to plan being a plan to fail… oh, wait, that’s it.
3) Distractions. This is the big one. And now, an annoying autobiographical interlude!
Years ago, when I moved out on my own, my first place was a beaten-down old house in the middle of nowhere. There was no life within a quarter-mile in any direction. I lived on a blasted plain of dead grass and abandoned farm equipment. Now, of course, it’s all been developed into cracker-box condominiums, but back in the day, I was Robert E. Howard. It was just me and my little Apple II. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t even have a working phone.
I lived there for about three years, and in that time, churned out a huge body of work. All of it was garbage — I was young, stupid, and completely ignorant of proper storytelling craft — but I did nothing but write, in no small part because writing was all my little computer did. It had no games, no Internet access. It was a glorified typewriter.
Now, I’d love to say “and that’s the way it was and I liked it,” but in truth, I really love the information age. I love having oceans of data at my fingertips. I like not having to hoof it to the library to do research on some trifling factoid that’s holding up my story. I think the twenty-first century is awesome. But I have far more distractions now than I did then. Creating that kind of isolated environment doesn’t come easy anymore. It means forsaking not only the telephone and the doorbell, but email, Twitter, Facebook, G+, and the churning Sargasso of yummy information that beckons one like a siren onto the jagged shoals of farting around.
For me, finding the flow state means shutting out all distractions as much as possible. Some people can write on buses or in crowded coffee shops. Not me. I’d have to wear earphones and probably blinders. My attention is too easily diverted from the work. My best stuff comes when I slam down all the mental bulkhead doors and quarantine myself with my writing. Only then, after a lengthy struggle, does the flow state happen.
Of course, I’m not about to say that my experience is universal. I stopped writing in groups and at coffee shops because it doesn’t work for me. I think too much about what other people are writing. I worry about how much coffee I have left. I tune in on other people’s conversations. I can’t achieve that lovely fugue where the world recedes into fog and all that’s left is the page. I need to be alone, with nothing to pull me away, for the surly muse to emerge from her abattoir.
But that’s my experience. What’s yours? Can you write amidst distraction? How do you cope with it?
While chatting with my partner-in-crime Tracy McCusker of Dusty Journal this afternoon, we started talking about the hoary old guideline of 10,000 hours to master your writing (or whatever skill you’re attempting to master). At which point she dropped this delightful bomb of bitterness into the conversation:
If I see that 10,000 hours, I CAN MAKE YOU DO IT QUICKER tidbit on another blog, I am going to hate-spew a geyser.
First of all, 10,000 hours? That’s a handy approximation that may or may not be supported by scientific testing. Instead it is provided as *whatever kind of metric* everyone can use! But bam! with my SHAM-WOW WRITING COURSE I can cut that down to 8,000. What a bargain?!
Disclaimer: I haven’t read Outliers, the Malcolm Gladwell book in which the “Ten Thousand Hour Rule” is first mentioned, and I don’t really have a problem with the rule by itself. I believe the myth of “overnight success” is one of the most poisonous lies in our profession. I do, however, think that obsessing over the raw numbers themselves is a mistake. If you’re truly seeking mastery of your craft, there are better places to put your focus than how many hours you’ve clocked.
1) Make mistakes.
There’s a reason all the books on writing tell you to write every day, or at least as much as you can. It’s because all the theory in the world won’t teach you anything until you dive in and start getting dirty. The 10,000 Hour Rule is less about the hours themselves than about cultivating passion, routine, and a wish to learn from your mistakes. Of course, you can’t learn from your mistakes if you don’t start making some. So strap on your helmet, get in there, and start screwing up.
2) Fail outright.
One of the shaggiest adages from life’s Barrel-O-Advice is that “you learn more from failures than from successes.” There’s a terrific Ira Glass quote about this that sums it up more beautifully than I ever could, so I’ll just post it here.
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit.
Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work.
Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
Note that Glass doesn’t mention “hours” at all, but rather a body of work. Of course, building a body of work takes time, but the work matters most. Time is the means. Work is the end.
3) It’s not the hours, honey, it’s the mileage.
Say you were to write twelve books, all featuring the same plot, the same characters, and the same basic story arc. Maybe you change a few details here and there, but essentially you write the same book twelve times. Have you really gotten any better? Have you learned anything? If you have, it was probably by accident. The hours you spend should not be comfortable hours, breezily covering the ground you know well. Push yourself. Write something scary and exhilarating. Make some mistakes. See how it all fits together?
4) It’s not a numbers game.
Seriously, no Hours Police are going to show up at your door in overcoats and porkpie hats and chastise you for not putting in enough time. If you have indeed turned out a book before it was sufficiently polished, or sent out a query before you really have it nailed, your time deficit is likely to be reflected in unhappy readers, poor reviews, and rejection slips. Again, the real point of all those hours is to fire up your passion and your drive, not check off ten thousand tiny boxes with a #2 pencil.
5) Find what works for you.
Of course, all writing advice is ultimately disposable, including the advice you’re reading now. Maybe you’re a prodigy with enormous talent and you’ll make the squishy, uncertain status of “mastery” in 5,000 hours. Maybe you’re busy and unfocused and it will take 20,000. Either way, you’ll get there when you get there.
Which is not to say you should just relax and assume it’ll all work out — quite the opposite. One of the biggest lessons you learn as a writer is what a cruel and cunning enemy time is. His arsenal of weapons (deadlines, fatigue, scheduling conflicts) is enormous and daunting, and you’ll have to fight him every step of the way.
Don’t focus on how long you’ve been fighting. Learn to fight smarter and fight better. And above all, keep fighting.
I have a close friend who’s been going through a very tough time. The kind of tough time that would reduce most other people to a quivering pulp. He’s under pressures I can barely imagine, and is still such a fantastic guy that he takes the time to sit down and listen to my problems.
So when I told him that I’d been having a hard time getting any writing done, he asked me: “what are your emergency minimums?”
He went on to explain that long ago, when his free time suddenly diminished dramatically, he decided on a few “emergency minimums” for his daily routine — things that were important to him that he would do every day / week / month, no matter what. It might be something as simple as a daily meditation, or a bit of reading, or an exercise routine.
He wouldn’t make excuses for himself, or put these things off indefinitely and then feel bad about putting them off. He wouldn’t mourn that he wasn’t able to put as much time as he wanted into his projects. He didn’t concoct elaborate schemes with catchy code names. He’d plan, and then put a little time in, wherever he could, without fail.
And at that point, I had to confess — I didn’t have any emergency minimums. I didn’t have any minimums at all. I had planned to fail by failing to plan, as the platitude goes.
I have clinical depression. I’m on medication for it. My therapist once classified me as “high-functioning” and in general, that’s true — I have it a lot better than a lot of people who struggle with depression on a daily basis. Thanks to medication and therapy, I get through most days just fine.
But there are bleak days when I don’t feel “high-functioning” at all. I’m not talking about feeling a little grouchy, or in need of coffee. That’s a daily occurrence I’m well-equipped to handle (hint: the solution is coffee.) I’m talking about a gray fog being drawn across all of reality, where your own psyche becomes a schoolyard bully who has singled you out for an extended ass-kicking.
I’m not mentioning this to throw a miniature pity-party, complete with kazoos of despair, but rather to give some context. I’m just saying, there are days when even writing the crappiest blog post imaginable might as well be the twelve labors of Hercules. My fiction all starts looking like the worst dross a rabid chimp ever typed by accident. In short, the thought of neglecting one’s work, of just letting it go until things brighten up, becomes downright seductive.
This is not uncommon among writers. Ours is not a special snowflake of pain. Sometimes it’s life, or depression, or fear, or good old-fashioned laziness.
Any writer will tell you that writing daily is essential. Hell, I’ve said it, probably with a lot of pomposity and finger-wagging, too. I talk a big game (like many a blogger), but my money and my mouth often occupy different space-time continua. Balancing writing with our daily lives is something we all contend with, to some degree or another. We all have our excuses, legitimate or not.
This is where emergency minimums come in.
So I’m going to start setting some modest goals. Not sweeping, punch-out-the-universe goals, but manageable tasks that I can reliably complete. I may not be able to spare four hours a day for writing, but I sure as hell can spare thirty to sixty minutes.
A person can get a lot of work done in that time. Or not. But the point is to do the work.
When people ask me for writing advice (and God knows why they ask me in the first place) the first thing I tell them is: go find some books on craft and read them. There are plenty of great ones:
On Writing, by Stephen King
The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes, by Jack Bickham
Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell
The Art of War for Writers, also by James Scott Bell
And so on. I firmly believe that passion and intuition will only take you so far. There is a craft and a design to good fiction, and it’s not always subjective and elusive. Not every piece of fiction should slavishly follow a wildly complicated, Robert McKee-esque diagram — but there is, all the same, a formula, and even if you don’t want to follow it, you’d be well-advised to at least know what it is.
But there’s a limit.
Like a lot of writers, my shelf groans with how-to books on writing. I have more of them than I’ll probably ever read in their entirety. I have more still in my Amazon wish list, and have gone so far as to ask people not to buy them for me because I already have too many, thus defeating the purpose of a wish list. Now it’s a list of dread and moral horror.
The first four books I put on my Kindle? How-to writing books. All free, because man, if there’s one thing we writers know how to do, it’s how to give our advice away for nothing.
I’ve spent many hours reading up on craft, and it’s served me very well. But there comes a point where you have to set the driver’s manual down, get behind the wheel, and start causing some accidents.
Learning Can Be Resistance
I’ve talked before about Steven Pressfield’s notion of “resistance,” the sneaky deceiver that creeps into our subconscious like Gollum and cranks out excuses for us not to write on its tiny jack-in-the-box of failure. As Pressfield points out, resistance isn’t always obvious. It can take the form of things we think are productive, like:
Creating elaborate filing systems
Drawing up a four-page backstory for that cabbie in our novel who shows up in one scene and is immediately shot
Drawing plot diagrams
Reading about drawing plot diagrams
In other words, self-education on writing craft can itself become an obstacle.
Learning Can Paralyze You
A lot of writing advice is flat-out contradictory, especially when you read around the blogs of your writing peers. Everyone has a process that works for them, and while some elements of fiction are universal and axiomatic, others are highly subjective. If you take everything at face value, you’ll soon find you can’t pen a single paragraph without violating someone’s deeply revered First Rule of Writing.
Does all that information you’re absorbing convey any benefit if it paralyzes you into not writing? Not really, no.
Learning Takes Time
As I said above, you can read the driver’s manual all you want, but you’re not going to really start learning until you get behind the wheel and start the engine. Theory is just theory. It doesn’t mean anything until you put it into practice. I think it’s vital that writers learn the tools of craft, but every hour spent reading writing advice is an hour spent not using those tools. The rubber’s got to meet the road sometime.
How Do You Know?
So are you learning, or stalling, or possibly both? Fortunately, there’s a handy measure that can, beyond any doubt, determine whether all that sassy, irreverent writing advice is doing you any good. Ready? Here it is. In your mind’s eye, check one of the following boxes:
If the answer is “no,” then yeah, you’re stalling. Shut down the browser, put down the book, and get to work. It’s as simple as that. Optimally, take some of the stuff you’ve just learned and kick it into play. Find out if it works for you — because hey, maybe it doesn’t.
Just keep writing. That’s the game we’re all out to win, and, to butcher a WarGames quote, the only winning move is to play.
There’s a scene from the Coen Bros. movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? where the main characters — themselves fugitives from the law — pick up a lone hitchhiker, a young blues guitarist named Tommy Johnson (based on the famous Robert Johnson). When they ask Tommy why he was at the crossroads, he told them he sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to “play this here guitar real good.” In astonishment, another character asks “for that you traded your everlasting soul?” To which Tommy replies: “Well, I wasn’t using it.”
For the past couple weeks, that’s a bit how I’ve felt about my writing.
To explain. I started this blog for a number of reasons: to connect with other writers and readers, to share what I knew, and to learn from others. Anywhere you read blogging advice, you’ll read this mantra: share yourexpertise. For the most part, readers don’t care what you had for lunch, or that killer hangnail, or how you’ve tried nothing and you’re all out of ideas. They want some utility. They want some meat, or they’ll just click away.
About two months ago, my life got busy. These things happen. Illness, work woes, you find out your downstairs neighbor is a vampire and next thing you know you’re schlepping it to Home Depot to get some lumber for stakes and you find out the wife donated all your good knives to Goodwill because “six knives is enough for anybody.” Whatever, woman, we’ve got a Nosferatu downstairs. Do you want to get bit? Is that your problem? Next you’ll be telling me you donated my steel collar and leather pants — no! I told you, those were for vampire hunting!
Well, anyway. The point is, I stopped writing. Neglected it entirely. And there’s only so much you can say about the subject once you’ve stopped, especially on a blog devoted to the subject. “Hello, and welcome to my writing blog of writing. Speaking of writing, who’s doing any? Not me, that’s for damn sure. So, who wants to talk about pancake syrup?”
Of course, one could argue that I could still blog about writing, even if I wasn’t doing any at the moment, and so that’s what I did. But it started to make me uncomfortable. I felt like a Mennonite trying to sell iPads. “So, here’s this thing… you probably want this. Somebody does, anyway, God knows why, but… I don’t know, it has apps, or the wi-fis, and… some birds are angry for some reason… look, just buy it so I can get out of here.”
What’s the point of dispensing advice? I wasn’t using it. I began to feel that if I wrote one more motivational article, my personality would split, and I’d turn into an evil doppelgänger of myself, flicking peanuts at the mirrors at my local pub before staggering off to throw tires at myself in a junkyard. Yes, a Superman III reference. That’s what we’re down to now.
The point is, I felt like a hypocrite. And so the blog stalled out. My presence on Twitter became notable only for its rarity, as friends and followers invoked arcane chants to summon me, like Yog-Sothoth, from the abyssal depths, so that I might live and tweet again. Mostly by calling me short or grumpy. Which is very unfair. I am not the least bit short.
I’d love to tell you that I did something romantically self-destructive during my blogging hiatus, like living on Scotch and cigarettes while I cranked out a gritty tale of a writer living on Scotch and cigarettes while he cranked out a gritty tale. Or possibly reading 50 Shades of Gray. Grey? Gray? Anyway, I did neither of those things. I mostly watched a lot of television, which is just the regular, stupid kind of self-destructive. No cachet to it.
But finally, I realized I was being foolish. I started this blog because I wanted to talk about writing, not to fulfill some holy calling. I’ve never had a desire to become a guru of any kind. Yeah, blogging is about sharing your expertise, but it’s also about sharing yourself, your thoughts, your personality. I’m not some robotic dispenser of motivational platitudes. I’m just me. And if I’m not writing, well, there’s a simple solution to that, isn’t there? We must remember that we are human, and as humans, we dream, and when we dream, we dream of money. Wait. That isn’t the message I wanted to convey at all.
In summary, this is a very long-winded way of saying I’m back. So! Speaking of writing, who’s doing any?
One passage in particular from Ava’s piece stuck out to me:
You need to understand that if you really want to be a writer, you’ll need to go through this process many many times. And sometimes you’ll get tired. And sometimes you’ll get bored. And sometimes you’ll wonder if you’re wasting your time with your current WIP and if you should start on something else or if you’ll really be able to survive a couple rounds of revision.
In the past, I’ve been rather infamous for starting new writing projects mid-stream. I’d start a story, get to the middle act, then find something new. I’d finish a draft, then let it sit while I started something else. As recently as this year, I’ve found myself vacillating between projects, trying to decide which one was “right,” starting new things, while finishing nothing. Eventually, all forward momentum ground to a halt while I waffled so hard you could have poured syrup on me and served me at iHop. For cannibals. Serving meat waffles. I used to play bass for the Meat Waffles. Look, nevermind.
A Problem of Perspective
Sometimes there are perfectly valid reasons for abandoning a writing project. Often there are perfectly valid reasons for swapping that project out for a new one. But if you find yourself creatively stalled while you try to juggle two or more projects in the air, maybe it’s time to stop and think about why you’re juggling and not, you know, writing.
Finishing is Fear-Inducing
Finishing a novel can be scary as hell. Yes, there’s the rush of satisfaction and accomplishment you get from writing THE END, too often followed by crushing doubt and insecurity. Finishing closes a door. It makes a commitment. It says “okay, that’s the best I can do” — whereas shoving an unfinished piece of writing in a drawer says “well, maybe I can do better later.” And that’s perfectly valid, assuming later ever comes.
But an unfinished work can take on its own sort of romance, if we let it. A mediocre book is just a mediocre book, but an unfinished, unwritten work of unalloyed genius, well, that’s a joy forever, isn’t it? But if you’re serious about being a writer, I suspect you don’t want your body of work to consist entirely of imaginary books.
Starting is Sneaky
On the other hand, starting a new writing project is often its own kind of rush. It can become an addiction. A new project doesn’t have the plot snarls, impenetrable character motivations, structural issues, and glaring flaws of that work-in-progress. Sometimes, when we find ourselves facing a mountain of difficult work, it can be so much more appealing to just go build another mountain, convinced that Mount Totally-Awesome won’t face those same problems.
Maybe that’s the right decision. Maybe you get midway through a book and find out it’s truly unworkable — but maybe you’re just being lazy. In case no one’s told you (today), writing is hard work. Writing a novel can be a true-blue bitch-kitty. Abandon a story if you truly feel you must, but don’t do it to dodge the work.
Perfection is Persnickety
As writers, we thirst to have our writing soar, to transcend, to change lives. No one sets out to make a dull and mediocre book — we set out to make the best damn book we can write (or at least, I sure hope so). Facing down a book’s flaws can be nerve-wracking.
Sometimes it’s easier to put a book away, hoping that it will somehow sort itself out while it’s sitting in the drawer. You know, you’re sleeping soundly, and all of a sudden the little pages start coming to life, marching across your desk while Night on Bald Mountain plays and sentient fountain pens scrawl heartbreaking passages in flawless calligraphy. How’s that coming along for you? I can’t seem to get it working no matter how much peyote I take.
Nothing’s perfect. Your novel’s going to have flaws. And ultimately, that’s for the best. Because if it didn’t, that’d mean you’re either as good a writer as you’re ever going to get, or it’s all downhill from here. And who wants that? Embrace imperfection. Face it. Accept it. Do the best work you can.
Leave that unfinished book in the drawer for awhile if you need to, but do so with the knowledge that its problems will still be right there when you return.
Resist the Resistance
Not all works-in-progress are reedeemable. Some deserve to be abandoned. Maybe they’re flawed in ways too big to fix (or ignore). Maybe a better idea really has come along. Maybe you’ve decided you don’t want to tell that particular story after all. These are all fine and good. If you’re going to abandon an existing project for a new one, just make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons.
So you’ve finally done it. You’ve completed your writing project. Your baby. The Story You’ve Always Wanted to Tell. And now you’ve put your writing in the hands of your loving beta-readers or peer editors for perusal. Breathlessly, you await their criticism, craving the keen insight they will no doubt bring to your —
Hey, wait a minute? What do you mean my protagonist is flat? Where do you get off saying my writing style is weak? The plot’s muddy? Your mom’s muddy!
Criticism. As writers, we say we want it. We want it hard, fast, and honest. And in our heart of hearts, we’re sure we can take it. But taking criticism of our writing is not always as easy as it looks. Even when delivered thoughtfully and reasonably, criticism can rub the wrong way and inspire anger and acrimony.
There’s no magic bullet to avoid having your feelings hurt by even the most well-meaning reader. But there are ways to soften the blow.
1. Do you REALLY want it?
First of all, be honest with yourself about why you asked for criticism in the first place. By “criticism” did you mean “praise”? No, seriously. Think about that before you answer. Sometimes writers just aren’t good at taking criticism, even when they think they are. Sometimes they’re just not ready. Are you looking for encouragement, or are you looking for the tough love that’s going to make your fiction writing better than it is now? It’s okay if you’re just looking for a boost, but you’d better know that going in.
2. Have a goal in mind.
Now that you’ve established that you do, in fact, want your work to be criticized, ask yourself what you want to get out of it. Do you want weak story points identified? Proofreading? Notes on characterization, structure, prose style? You may end up being disappointed if you give your work to someone hoping for in-depth character notes and getting back a bunch of typo corrections instead. Know your goals, and most of all, communicate them.
3. Buck up.
Yes, taking criticism is hard. Having your work lambasted is less than fun. Everyone wants to hear that their work is revolutionary, heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding, a masterpiece. But it probably isn’t. Check your ego and learn to accept that you’re not going to bowl them over the first time, every time. Which brings me to my next point:
4. Hey, YOU ASKED.
Closely related to #1. Chances are, no one came in your house, printed off your manuscript, took a red pen, laid into your writing, and sent it back to you anonymously. Most likely, you asked for criticism, so don’t take it out on the critic when they, you know, do what you asked of them. If you’re just going to respond to criticism with the vow that you’re not changing one god-damn word, congratulations, you’ve just wasted your reader’s time and your own.
5. Ask questions.
You don’t have to take criticism at face value and accept it silently. If you don’t understand or agree with a particular point, ask for details rather than getting defensive about it. Ask your reader why they felt the way they did. Describe your intent and find out if you communicated it properly. Don’t tell your reader they’re wrong for interpreting your work a certain way — that’s not up to you. Instead, get to the heart of it so you can address whatever problems there might be. Taking criticism doesn’t have to be a one-way street. Make it a dialogue.
6. Realize it’s not personal.
Unless you have very poor taste in friends, chances are your critic isn’t out to destroy you psychologically. They’re not pointing out flaws in your work because they hate your guts and wish you would fall under a dump truck. They’re trying to make your work better. You don’t have to agree with them, but it pays to respect their time and their intent.
7. Know when to stand your ground.
Finally, you’re not obligated to change your work to suit your readers — especially since they’re likely to give you very conflicting advice. “Taking criticism” doesn’t mean accepting all criticism as gospel. If you do the requisite soul-searching and truly think a criticism doesn’t hold water, discard it and walk bravely down your chosen path. Just make sure you’ve thought about it carefully.
Many years ago, I attended a showing of The Phantom of the Opera. What does that have to do with writing motivation and your rough draft? Stick with me.
If you’ve ever seen the play, you’re familiar with that bit where the Phantom bellows out the final verse of “The Music of the Night” and reveals the female lead’s creepy-ass animated mannequin. During the performance I watched, the double was hidden beneath a sheet, which the actor had to yank away at the climactic moment. But just then, some yahoo’s cell phone rang out, the actor’s hand slipped, and the sheet didn’t come off.
The actor did the only thing he could do. He tried again, and this time the sheet came off. The moment wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough — it had to be.
Even though this anecdote is about performance art and not writing, it’s gone in my list of motivational stories for a specific reason: Screw-ups happen, but the show must go on. A writer’s rough draft is likely to be full of little problems: continuity errors, poor characterization, a plot that flatlines. An actor working live on a stage doesn’t have the luxury of just stopping when things get tough — writers, unfortunately, often do, unless they’re under a deadline.
If you’re going to maintain forward momentum and beat procrastination on your work, you’ve got to learn to work through the temptation to stop and get everything perfect.
This is something every beginning writer seems to struggle with. You want your first draft to be perfect, so you stop writing and go back to fix your mistakes. Forward momentum stalls while you try to perfect the writing you’ve done, instead of generating new words. Soon, your motivation starts to flag. You put the story away. You attend a writing workshop. You abandon the idea. You write a blog post about your writing problems instead of confronting them. You take up hang-gliding. Your rough draft languishes while you look up motivational quotes on the internet. You know, that sort of thing.
Been there. Done it. Fiction writing can be like a minefield of distractions.
So how do you keep your motivation strong and keep writing even when that rough draft seems like it’s actively mocking you?
Accept imperfection. You’re not a machine. No one’s first draft is perfect. Everyone quotes Hemingway for a reason. Realize you’re going to make mistakes and just keep writing. Remember: forward momentum.
Resist the temptation to edit. The first draft is for writing. The second and subsequent drafts are for editing and revising. Stick to your guns and just keep writing.
Don’t let your ego drag you down. Writers tend to be a fussy, neurotic bunch. We see imperfections in our work and we take it so damn personally. The quality of our writing suddenly becomes the quality of ourselves, and that first draft suddenly becomes some terrifying referendum on our personality. Don’t let it.
Remember that a first draft is just the beginning. It’s a common rookie mistake to hang everything on that rough draft as if it’s the ultimate goal. It’s not. You have a lot more work ahead of you. Sorry about that.
Mistakes happen. The show must go on. Keep your head down and keep writing.
Even the most well-meaning friend can unwittingly undermine you with a destructive or demoralizing piece of advice — even when it’s technically sound.
By way of example: I recently started passing around a fantasy novella I’ve been working on to some beta readers, with the intent of releasing it for free as a promotional piece for my book. Here is the full range of the advice I got:
1) Don’t release it for free, people will devalue your work.
2) Don’t sell it, people love free.
3) Release it now, it’s totally ready!
4) Don’t release it now, it’s totally not ready.
5) Don’t release it at all, it will sabotage your later efforts.
6) Your novella has to be BETTER than your next book because of [some sales principle I don’t really understand]
7) Your novella can’t be better than your next book because people don’t expect an author’s quality to go down over time.
In terms of the narrative, advice was equally split. Everyone had a favorite character. None of them picked the same one. Too much romance. Not enough romance. Tone down the action. Crank up the action. And so on.
Now, all my friends are fine people. And clearly, they all want to be supportive. But if I tried to implement their suggestions equally, I’d quickly lose my mind, because it can’t be done.
This sort of contradictory advice is all over the blogosphere, too. I’ve read more vehement debates about the free / 99 cent Kindle issue than I care to think about. Some of it is market-driven. Some is just cynical. Most is utterly subjective.
All any of us can do is stick to our convictions, move forward, and always keep learning. And that’s no real revelation, but sometimes it’s easy to forget.