Quality Feedback

I’ve talked with a writer friend of mine lately about some of the feedback she’s been getting on her manuscript. Some of it has been valuable and helped her improve the story in places. Some of it has been…less so. But as a writer, how do we tell?

Not all feedback your receive is going to be good. Not all of it is going to be valuable. And yes, they are very different. We all need constructive criticism to help us improve our skills as writers. Which means we have to be willing to accept it. Easier said than done sure, but when you look at it as an opportunity, it can almost be exciting.

But what happens when you get feedback that you question? There are a few things you can do.

  1. Get a second opinion from a trusted source. Hopefully you have someone who will be honest with you about your work and their opinion regarding what you’ve been told. \
  2. Ask yourself about the reader. Do they typically write/read in your genre? In your age market? Both can make a difference in what their expectations are.
  3. Ask yourself about the outcome. If you use their feedback and implement changes, how does that change the overall story? Are you comfortable with that?

The trick to that last one is that you have to be willing to be objective about your own work to really decide if the change will be a good one. Sometimes that means sitting on the feedback for a day or two and giving yourself time to mull it over. A lot of people get defensive about their work, but if we aren’t honest with ourselves, it will only make the journey take longer.

In the end, the story is still your story. You are the only one who can change it. Look through the feedback. Is it something that more than one reader has pointed out? Then you probably need to take it seriously.

On the other hand, if you find yourself getting feedback that feels wrong, you’ve examined the source, contemplated what the changes would mean for your manuscript and still think it’s just not going to work for you. That’s fine. If it happens a lot, ask why. Maybe you need to be more selective in your readers. It’s not necessarily true that the more feedback the better, if it’s coming from the wrong audience. That’s also when a trusted second opinion is most valuable. They can help you filter out what is usable commentary and what’s not.

But before you can get to the part where you are sifting through feedback, you have to finish your project (totally calling myself out here). Get writing!

Team Effort

I was reading an article recently about how lonely writing can be. It stated that writing is a solitary task. I’ve been thinking about that lately and I think, at least from my somewhat limited perspective, that’s not true. It is true that nobody is going to write your first draft for you. Nobody will volunteer to do your editing or your revising. However, I have a whole group of people who help me, who walk (or rather type) along beside me in my writing journey. I’m anything but alone.

When I first discovered I had a love of writing, I was in a middle school English class. For a creative writing project, I wrote a short (ish) story about a girl who survives the sinking of the Titanic only to grow up and find herself on the ill-fated Hindenburg. It wasn’t quite as macabre as it sounds, and there was even a romantic subplot and a fluffy dog sidekick with suspicious longevity. The story and the writing had a plethora of issues, but for a middle school assignment, it was pretty good. And it opened up the world of writing to me.

In true nerd fashion (I’m owning it), I would write stories with my friends as protagonists and present them as gifts. My senior year, I wrote adventure stories starring my friends. As amazingly dorky as it sounds, they were in high demand. The writing wasn’t going to win any prizes, but it was fun and my friends were entertained. Years later, when college, jobs, and life itself had made writing a thing of my past, some of these same friends–one in particular–would help bring it back.

After I got back into writing for me, I made some friends in a little corner of the internet writing community. They had jumped in with both feet and I was challenged to do the same. My first manuscript was born out of that challenge and one of the people I met then is still one of my CPs today.

Then I joined the writing community on Twitter and met eight more CPs and began learning just how much I had yet to learn about writing. My CP arrangement has changed a bit since then, but every one of those people was important to my process.

Yes, when I sit down to write, I’m writing by myself. But my writing is not a solitary activity. My journey has been full of other people. It began with a teacher who sparked my imagination and continues today with friends who challenge me to grow and be a better writer.

I write on my own, but I’m anything but alone. Writing is a team effort.

 

Self-Care Isn’t Selfish

May can be a busy time of the year. For students, it can mean finals, graduations, awards ceremonies, spring performances, wrapping up sports seasons, and possibly moving into or out of a living situation. For parents, it means being there for graduations, awards ceremonies, etc. For writers, well we stress ourselves out enough all year long.

My point is, this time of year can be just as stressful as preparing for Christmas, but without the big family holiday at the end. The start of summer vacation is inherently less stressful than hosting all of your family for a large feast in a clean and perfectly decorated house lest Aunt Edna wield her snarky, side-eye wrath. I have no Aunt Edna, but you know what I mean. May can be just as stressful, but we don’t allow ourselves the same amount of self-care time. We don’t schedule extra time for bubble baths, sneaking baked goods, or even prayer.

But taking care of yourself isn’t selfish, no matter what time of year it is. It doesn’t mean you can’t or shouldn’t care for anyone else. It means that you need to secure your own oxygen mask before assisting others with theirs.

If you have the time, take a nap. If you have the means, make that doctor appointment. If you have neither time nor means, then do just one simple thing today that brings you joy. Listen to bad (aka really good) music from the 1990s or download a new audiobook from your local library’s app. Whatever. Just remember to put on your oxygen mask.

If you don’t take care of you, who will?

Writing Soundtrack

In my last post about the writing process, I mentioned that novel aesthetics aren’t something that really works for me. I really want them to, but alas. Something I’ve found that does sometimes help me if I’m struggling to get in the right mindset for a particular story is to listen to a writing soundtrack.

Some writers build a playlist to write along to as they start each new manuscript. Since a lot of my writing happens in spurts between errands, chores, taking kids to school and/or practices, etc, I generally jump into writing first and then pick some music when I need it.

And I don’t necessarily go to the same playlist all the time. When I need my writing music, it’s usually for a specific type of scene. A romantic scene and a battle scene don’t call for the same type of background music. Luckily, I can head over to Spotify, Amazon, or Pandora and pick a few songs and let the algorithms do the rest. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s quick and it works for me.

However, if I know I’m going to work on a specific type of scene later, I have been known to put together a purposeful playlist to keep me focused. For really intense scenes, I can’t risk picking songs with lyrics that I love. I’ll stop writing and sing along, which is not productive.

The best part is when the music inspires you. For instance, when I sat down to write this post I had no idea what I would write about. I put on my headphones and stared at the screen. Time ticked away and the screen was still blank. Then I found myself singing along to the songs of my childhood and adolescence. Each new song triggered a specific memory and changed my mood. Then one came on that I realized would be perfect to help me through a scene in my current project. Once that train of thought left the station, this post was just a few stops down the track.

Do you make aesthetics for your projects? Do you make soundtracks? Do you work in complete silence and make everyone leave you alone? That last one is perfectly fine too. Whatever works for you. But if you have go to songs for writing, I want to know. I might have to add them to my arsenal.

The Fallacy of “The Process”

Some writers like to make novel aesthetics to help them visualize their story; others find making such collages a waste of time they could use to write. Some writers like to make extensive outlines so they are never lost in the story once they start writing and can crank out a draft. Some writers just start typing. Some writers scribble in notebooks on public transportation during their commute, others pound away at their laptops after their kids go to bed. Some writers dream up worlds while doing a million and one other tasks while others may stare at the wall but see galaxies instead of shiplap.

The point is there is no one single process. Everyone has their own. It’s important to figure out what works best for you. When you have a routine that fits you, it’s your process, but not the process. It might not work for someone else, even if that someone else is a gifted and ambitious writer.

There are some steps that should apply to everyone. Write. Edit. Revise. Repeat. But how those things happen is very individual in nature. I often do my best work after the rest of my house is asleep, but because I also dislike sleep deprivation sometimes I have to change things up. I know several people who keep a notebook in the bag they carry to and from work and handwrite their notes for each new story. I know still others who get up at the crack of dawn to run miles and miles and then write a whole chapter–presumably all before I ever have my first cup of coffee. It sounds nuts to me, but it works for someone.

I have tried making novel aesthetics. It mostly took up way too much of my time and didn’t accomplish anything. But I have a friend who is awesome with photoshop and the collages she makes help her see the world she’s building a little clearer. Neither of us is wrong. That’s the beauty of writing. It’s not about conforming to someone else’s standard–at least when it comes to a process. It’s about self-expression.

Don’t get bogged down in all the advice like “you have to write at least a few words every day” or “you must finish at least one chapter per week”. It works for some writers, but not for everybody. Even the adage of BICHOK (Butt In Chair, Hands On Keyboard) discounts the very productive time some people spend spinning worlds into existence while on the treadmill.

There is no one process. That’s a conceptual lie perpetuated by bad and/or blanket advice tossed about on blogs and social media accounts. There is only the process that works for you. Daydream. Plan. Type. Speak into voice typing software while scrubbing floors. It’s okay if what you do doesn’t match up with what other writers do. Write, in whatever way you can. Edit. Revise, no first draft is perfect so take the time to mold and shape it into something beautiful. Outside of those steps, the execution of which could look vastly different person to person, your process can include or exclude almost anything you want.

So when you see someone give blanket advice, keep in mind that what works for them isn’t required of you. If you can’t write every day because your schedule doesn’t allow for it, you won’t automatically be excluded from the club. If you can and do write every day of the week, great.

You’re a writer. You do you.

Editing vs. Revising

In English, we often use the terms editing and revising interchangeably. However, when it comes to working on a manuscript, they are not the same. While there are different kinds of edits, most editors are actually pointing out things that the author should consider revising. Editing is polishing up. Revising is deep cleaning.

I’m going to run with that analogy for a moment.

I have two small children. They have a talent for destruction. I generally don’t worry too much about the mess they make with their toys while they are actively playing. But when playtime is over, it’s time to put everything back where it belongs. While they do that, I generally do small, everyday household tasks like unloading the dishwasher, swapping a load of laundry, dusting off the dark wood bookshelf that hindsight says was a terrible idea. That’s editing. Picking up stray toys off the floor and giving things a quick polish.

Two days a week my boys go to preschool. On these days, among 5,000 other things, I generally try to do the bigger cleaning tasks. Scrubbing the toilets. Steaming the mystery stain out of the carpet at the foot of one of their beds. Cleaning out the ears of our large dog–who does not enjoy this process and so participates rather unwillingly–so that his head won’t smell like bacteria and death. This is revising. There is some major dirt that needs to be attacked. It takes time. It can be grueling, and when you’re finished you should feel both a sense of accomplishment and the dread of knowing that this isn’t the last time you’ll have to endure it.

Manuscripts will always need both editing and revising, but they are not the same thing. If you mostly correct typos and fix sentence structure and you’re done in three hours, you were editing. If you spend time beefing up a character arc, reinforcing the themes of your story, making sure the threads of plot and subplots weave together to make a discernible picture, and cutting out unnecessary elements, that’s revising and you probably won’t finish in a single day.

Revising is done largely on your own, while it’s often helpful to have someone else help you edit–like little boys who help pick up toys and sometimes wipe down baseboards, but who cannot yet be trusted with a steam cleaner! And someone who edits your manuscript might also point out something that needs to be revised, so don’t assume that you’re finished after round one.

This week, I was cleaning up our house because my in-laws are coming for a weekend visit. My husband is out of town and won’t return until about two hours before his parents arrive. If you’re wondering, yes, that does have something to do with why my usual Thursday blog post is about 14 hours late. Anyway, before the boys left for school, I had them clean up all their toys and put them away so I could sweep, mop, and vacuum without any obstructions. Then the boys came home from school and toys once again covered the floor. They picked some of them up before bed and the rest they’ll clean first thing in the morning. That’s a lot like what editing and revising can be. A lot of us edit as we go, so we have a pretty clean workspace for revisions. Then we revise our butts off. And then we need to edit again. After that, new people show up, CPs or in-laws, and suddenly we see other things that need to be cleaned! I’m sorry I overworked the analogy, but you get the idea.

All manuscripts need both editing and revising, but they are not the same.

Getting to Know Your Characters

I used to think character interviews were a complete waste of time. I created these people, I know who they are. I know what they look like and how they sound. I hear their voices and the nuance in their language. They take up space in my head. We’re well acquainted.

However. As Rachel from the show Friends would say, “that’s just a fancy but”.

I did take time each time I wrote a scene to get into my character’s head. Yes, they take up space in my brain and now I have to take up space in theirs. Writing is a weird cycle of purposeful insanity, which is why it only works if you love it. Anyway, I realized that the time I took to shake off the world and put myself into the character’s shoes so that I could write in their voice and not mine was basically like a mini-character interview each time I started writing.

“Okay, I’m Livi. I’m overworked, my ex is an inconsiderate manchild who needs validation that I’ll give when Hell freezes over, and I’m in a fight with my best friend. How do I respond? Oh, that’s right. I’m going to down an entire bottle of bourbon, eat greasy foods, make bad decisions and then power through tomorrow like a champ because hangovers are for amateurs.”

That was my character interview. Instead of filling out pages of questions before I ever started writing a draft about backstory, likes, dislikes, hobbies, etc I would go over the highlights before every writing session. In my latest project, I’m doing the full character interview before I ever start. I may end up needing the mini-recap before writing sessions anyway, but if I struggle–as sometimes happens–I’ll have something to flip back to for help.

The point is, just because a character or a story lives in your head, doesn’t mean you don’t need to take the time to get to know them. Even if–no, scratch that, especially so you can understand the parts of the backstory you might not use in the draft. Just because I’m not going to write about the precise moment that Livi realized she needed to leave home all those years ago doesn’t mean I don’t need to know about it. It will affect her decisions and her relationships with other characters.

I need to know what happened to Scarlett’s parents and why she was living with her grandmother to begin with. I need to know about Eitan’s deep need to protect the people he cares about because of the one time in his childhood that he couldn’t. These moments shape our characters. It shapes their personalities, their voices, what drives them. When we come up with a character, they’re not fully developed. How you choose to fully develop them is up to you and your process. But I’m woman enough to admit that I was wrong. Character interviews are not a waste of time if they help you round out your character so they can be multi-dimensional.

Give a try. Google character interviews. There are tons of resources with lists of questions to get you started. Maybe it will work for you. Maybe it won’t. Maybe you’ll end up looking crazy because you’re talking to yourself and answering as if you are more than one person. That’s okay, too. You’re a writer. You’re like Alice in Wonderland. You fell down the rabbit hole the minute you committed to letting that first story out of your head.

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