Sunday, September 12, 2004

Any Old Words Will Do


It's 1:41 a.m. and I'm hard at work on a corporate copywriting project. I have to admit that when I was a starry-eyed teenager sitting at my blue portable typewriter and dreaming of making my living as a writer, things like curriculum, press releases and advertising copy never entered my mind. For that matter, neither did newspaper stories, or even articles. Fiction loomed large in my mind, closely followed by what I did not then know were personal essays. I called them ramblings, because they were nothing more than random personal expression, and in those days no one ever dreamed that there'd one day be a market for them. At least no one I knew.

That was pretty much all there was...except of course, Rick Springfield's biography.

A funny thing happened as time went on, though. I began to realize that playing with words was...well, playing with words. Writing fiction and personal essays without restriction is great, but there's something to be said for the challenge of sculpting an interesting story out of a local business selling power washers or the ten billionth fundraiser at the local hospital. There's something to be said for being left alone in a room with nothing but words, and for having it be your job, your obligation, to focus entirely on those words. What could be better? It's like eating ice cream for a living, except that instead of getting fat and unhealthy (and eventually sick of ice cream), you just keep honing your craft and toning your mental muscles.

It doesn't get much better than that, I don't I'm cheerfully back to writing teacher's manuals, with no regard for the fact that it's 1:52 a.m. Tomorrow when the alarm goes off, I'll only be ten feet away from "work."

Friday, September 10, 2004

Setting Free the Words

RockStories: September 2004

There's a thread running on one of my online writers' groups about our "internal editors" and the potential benefits of the "Novel in a Month" challenge that runs annually in November. Some of our members have participated in the past and found it very helpful for the simple reason that the high word-count goal compelled them to just keep writing without stopping to fuss and bother and edit and agonize.

Once upon a time it would have surprised me to learn that people didn't just blow through their first drafts, worrying about the technicalities later. That's the way I've always written, and on a day when I can devote 4-6 hours to writing, I churn out several thousand words.

It was actually my "day job" that enlightened me as to what was going on. I teach, train, write curriculum and training materials, and provide law school admissions consulting services for a national test prep and admissions company. One day, I abruptly noticed a common thread between many of my writer friends and my admissions consulting clients...they thought someone was peeking over their shoulders while they were writing!

Not literally, of course, but the inhibition factor was the same. Admissions consulting clients couldn't get a draft, or even a paragraph, down on paper because "that's not what they want to hear," and "I'm not sure how that's going to sound." Well, of COURSE you're not sure how it's going to sound! How could you be, when you didn't write it down? One writer actually told me that he consciously censored what he put down on paper, thinking about how it would be received if/when it were read by his family. For most, I believe, it is not quite so conscious.

So this brings us back, I think, to the place I began. Just write. Sit down at the keyboard, take out a piece of really is that simple. And then remind yourself that you're alone in that room. Go ahead. Write it down. No one is going to see it unless you show it to them.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

The Danger of Positive Feedback

RockStories: September 2004

Several months ago, an acquaintance offered to do a "cold read" of the first five pages of my novel-in-progress. This came about because he'd critiqued some folks in a forum we both frequented and drawn some blood, and while everyone was up in arms about how mean he was, I found myself thinking that he'd be an ideal reader. I was always one of those annoying kids who liked the professors everyone warned you to avoid because I always learned something in their classes, and I figured the same might apply with critiques.

Thing was, he liked it. He had a few suggestions, but by his own admission they were minor ones. He said that if I'd been a paying client, he would have refunded my money. That was nice, but it wasn't what I'd come looking for. As I recently told a new writer in another forum, pats on the back are nice, but they're not constructive.

So the other day, when I was accused of writing "mindless mental floss," my feelings were mixed. That doesn't make anyone feel good, of course, especially not when it comes from someone whose posts indicate that he's pretty thoughtful and well-read. On the other hand, there was a little surge of "now we're getting somewhere." I'm a pretty good writer, but we can all get better, all the time, right? This was a pretty high-end forum I'd been posting in, and maybe the "big boys" were going to tell me why I wasn't in their league. Yet.

Well, overnight my initial critic reversed himself. Said he'd missed the point, and that I shouldn't change a thing about the story but should edit it and try to sell it forthwith.

And it was nice to hear. It really was. Anyone who writes (compulsively, not just because he's been hired to write) knows that our words are near to our hearts, and we like for people to like them. IS THIS GOING TO MAKE ME A BETTER WRITER?

It's almost funny. Message boards, writers' groups, forums, etc., are full of writers defending themselves, asking for feedback and then fighting back when they get it. Still, I think there must be others like me, who aren't saying "What do you think of my story?" but "How can I make my story better?"

If the answer is, "You can't" then I'm in no position to complain...but where else do you go? Thoughts on that would be greatly appreciated, as it's my next mission (once I meet the four deadlines I have this week and finish moving): to find ways in which already-pretty-good writers can keep improving their craft and getting useful feedback.

Sunday, September 05, 2004

The Art of Critique


One of the things everyone in "my" new writers' group agreed on was that we should do critiques. Critiques can be tough--on both parties. In the online writers' group I've been involved with for a few years, we don't do critiques, but sometimes a member will ask on the list for feedback on a piece and then send it by email. I always let people know up front that they shouldn't ask me to critique something unless they're ready to hear the truth.

That seems fairly obvious; you wouldn't think anyone would ask for a critique unless they wanted to hear the truth. What it boils down to, I think, is that people do want the truth...but they want the truth to be positive. I think that most people, when they say, "Be honest," mean it. They think they can take a little criticism amidst the praise for the things they know they've done well. The problem, of course, is that the reviewer doesn't always agree that they've done those things as well as they thought.

Good critiques can be hurtful and require diplomacy, to be sure. On the other hand, a critique that isn't honest or that contrives praise is worthless. I've heard of writers' groups that have guidelines like, "say one positive thing for every negative thing." Forcing balance sends a false message. On the other hand, criticism should be constructive. "This sucks," isn't an especially helpful comment, even if it does. It's hurtful and, more importantly, it offers nothing in the way of direction as to how to create something that doesn't suck.

We talked about this during my first writers' group meeting, but it's a process I haven't dealt with personally in many years. I tend not to ask for critiques, simply to write and submit. I decided that it wouldn't hurt to refresh my memory on what it was like to be on the receiving end, so I posted a short story on a site I know to be frequented by critical and intelligent readers. I chose a short story because I have published very little fiction, and never a short story.

(I do, however, have some of my short fiction on my website at )

The first response I received called it "mindless mental-floss." Hm. Apparently he missed my memo. He raised a question in my mind, though, about whether I'd effectively communicated what I set out to communicate. I'm waiting to see if others pick it up.

Meanwhile, back to non-fiction.

Saturday, September 04, 2004



Earlier this summer, my local library asked if I'd facilitate a writers' group. They'd had some requests for a group at the library and were willing to set it up, but didn't know how to get it rolling.

Knowing from experience that people come to writers' groups with very differing expectations, I sent out a questionnaire in advance, and I learned something very interesting--most people wanted to join a writers' group, at least in part, so that they'd write!

It shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. Several years ago, when I was just reimmersing myself into writing after many dry years and my first book was just a vague idea that had been dancing at the edges of my brain for twenty years, I joined a writers' group for almost the same purpose. It wasn't so much that I needed motivation to write as that I needed to find the right frame of mind. Creative immersion can be tough in a world that requires us to show up for work, do the grocery shopping, make dinner, answer the phone and decline to switch our long distance to AT&T every hour, clean the house, help the kids with the homework, call the plumber...

It's easy, under those circumstances, to put it off until tomorrow. The great idea that pops into your head in the shower might survive until it's quiet at the end of the day, but after putting in an eighteen hour day, the motivation to sit down and write it out might be pretty low. You might tell yourself that it will keep until tomorrow--and maybe it will. But maybe tomorrow won't be any different.

The years when I let that happen were good ones in many ways. I went to law school and practiced law, taught college, had a child. Life was good. But there's no question that I let something important slip away, something I was fortunate enough to call back and build a career on in my thirties.

I'm doing workshops, now, with teenage writers, showing them how to start publishing their work now instead of dreaming of someday. My hope is that with enough encouragement early in their lives, they'll build a place for writing in their lives that will remain impenetrable when grown-up responsibility intrudes. I know, though, that the world is full of responsible grown-ups with jobs and families who haven't quite let go of that dream. I like to think that some of them might, someday, read one of my articles or an interview I've given or listen to a talk in a library and say, "Hey, it's not too late for me, either!" That, in the end, is what this blog is all about. If you're a writer, you're a writer. It's in your blood, and it hasn't gone away just because you took a dozen or so years off to get on with your life. If you harbor secret dreams, take out a piece of paper. Sit down at the keyboard. It really is that easy.