“I think it boils down to one’s view on feedback,” I answered.
Now, I believe feedback is essential because it is nearly impossible to view our own writing objectively; we might as well try to fold water.
Why is it hard to see our writing objectively? Well, because we wrote it. And what we write is always clear and makes perfectly good sense….
I’m joking, of course.
But seriously, as writers we often lose sight of the fact that our readers don’t have ESP and can’t know what we’re thinking. (Hell, sometimes I don’t know what I have in mind when I write something.) In short, the connections between the dots that we perceive as writers aren’t always there for readers. And then there’s the issue of grammar, and typos.
Yup, feedback is handy.
A thornier issue is when to get feedback.
One guideline is that the farther along you are in the process of a piece, the more it makes sense to get feedback. The reasoning is simple: just as too many cooks spoil the soup, too many writers spoil the book/story/play. Normally, you don’t want a book to be conceived and written by committee. The result of too many opinions too early on can be stalemate, a freezing of the creative process.
But where do you get feedback?
There are several online writing groups from which you can get feedback, usually after giving some yourself. Better yet, you can join or start an in-person writing group. I have one that I wouldn’t trade for the world. It is small, and close-knit, and I trust and respect the people immensely.
Finally, what kind of feedback should you seek and, just as importantly, give?
Here is something I came across while reading Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind: “I find that writers who are really working are kind. They know what writing is about, how hard it is. They have compassion.”
While this may not always be the case, I believe it certainly should be the case. And if we want something badly enough, we can create it. This is the type of person from whom I solicit feedback: a compassionate, hardworking writer. And this is the type of person I seek to become.
Just make certain to take all feedback with a grain of salt. As a general rule, if the criticism is not coming from a compassionate place, don’t put too much stock in it. Some people have axes to grind and there is always the chance they are ready to use you as a sharpening stone.
A final suggestion. If, out of a group of five, one person suggests a certain change, you may not want to give it as much weight as if 4 or 5 do. Also, try not to focus on 1 negative comment to the exclusion of 99 positive ones. And whatever you do, don’t let one loud-mouthed person sway you more than a number of quieter folk.
“I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today, life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow. I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things: a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights. I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents, you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life. I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as making a ‘life.’ I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands; you need to be able to throw something back. I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart, I usually make the right decision. I’ve learned that even when I have pains, I don’t have to be one. I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone. People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back. I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn. I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I was a senior in college when I took a course in ethics and norms in international relations. The woman who taught it was named Marilyn McMorrow, and from her I learned one of the most important lessons I’ve ever learned about writing.
Dr. McMorrow had the good sense to tell me to write what I meant, not what I thought I should write, and to write it in a way that was natural to me, not in a manner I thought it should sound like.
This came as a revelation. You see for years I’d been trying to mimic the turgid prose found in academic writing. And here this professor was telling me just to write what I meant. This sage advice helped my writing at the time, freed me up, and made my years in graduate school a little less unbearable.
I’ve recently come across some advice in a book that was written in the 1930s—Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write: A Book About Art, Independence and Spirit. Carl Sandburg called this book, “The best book ever written about how to write.” No wonder. It has quickly taken its place among my favorite writing books.
Why? Because it essentially offers the same advice I was given in college. Ueland says:
“And so from now on, if you want to write, for example, about a man who is suffering from boredom, just quietly describe what your own feelings are when you have been bored. This is all you have to do. Don’t say the boredom was ‘agonizing, excruciating,’ unless your own boredom was, which is doubtful. That is all you have to do to infect, to convince your reader, to make him think it is good description, because it seems true.”
This promises to take away the performance anxiety that often accompanies attempts to write quality prose. Just say what you mean, and as long as you mean it, it will be felt by the reader. Simple, yet incredibly powerful.
This was also Tolstoy’s view of what constitutes art. In his much criticized essay, “What is Art,” he wrote that, “The business of art lies just in this—to make that understood and felt which, in the form of an argument, might be incomprehensible and inaccessible.”
And if it wasn’t something expressed in such a way that a sensitive seventeen year old boy could see and understand it, Tolstoy didn’t want any part of it.
Again, the admonition to write honestly, as you yourself have experienced something.
This is the goal: to convey to the reader whatever it is you feel or think in as clear and direct a fashion as possible.
But there is something more here. Writing honestly reveals what Ueland calls the Third Dimension, or the personality of the writer that exists behind the words on the page:
“On the paper there are all the neatly written words and sentences. It may be completely objective, with ‘I’ not written there once. But behind the words and sentences, there is this deep, important, moving thing—the personality of the writer. And whatever that personality is, it will shine through the writing.”
Thus, writing conveys the type of person you are. No matter how elegant and stylish your writing, if you are a jerk, it will come across when you write. You are the person behind the words.
What this says to me is that writing is far more than an avocation or occupation, it is a device that conveys who you are as a person. Viewing writing this way makes me take a look, not just at my vocabulary, but at myself. It makes who I am more important than the words I write. Hopefully, by following this suggestion, I can get in touch with my inner self, the seat of all good writing.
So my thanks to Doctor McMorrow, Brenda Ueland, and Tolstoy, for reminding me that writing honestly is, indeed, the best policy.
When I first started writing I worried about it a great deal.
I worried because I didn’t feel I had a distinct style. You couldn’t read my writing and identify it as Matthew Peters, the same way you could read a passage from Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald, etc. and identify it as such. Not that I had any pretensions of ever writing like such greats, only that my stuff couldn’t be identified as mine.
Then I came across a quote by American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham that really made me think. Graham said, “There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.”
To me, this says several things. First, there is a life force, an energy, a quickening that courses through us, one that is translated into action. I’m not sure what this life force is, or even what to call it, but I know it exists. Christians call it “God,” Indians “prana,” and the Chinese “Tao.” The ancient Egyptians referred to it as “ka,” and the Romans “numen.”
Homer invokes a similar life force in Book I of The Odyssey:
“O Divine Poesy, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sustain for me this song of the various-minded man who, after he had plundered the innermost citadel of hallowed Troy, was made to stay grievously about the coasts of men, the sport of their customs, good and bad, while his heart, through all the sea-faring, ached with an agony to redeem himself and bring his company safe home. Vain hope – for them. The fools! Their own witlessness cast them aside. To destroy for meat the oxen of the most exalted Sun, wherefore the Sun-god blotted out the day of their return. Make this tale live for us in all its many bearings, O Muse.”
This prayer, for indeed it is one, is also known as the Invocation of the Muses, and as Steven Pressfield notes in The War of Art, there are worse ways to start a writing day than by invoking Homer’s words.
So we have this life force. But there is much more. For this life force is expressed through each and every one of us. And the way that it is expressed is unique, for there is only one of us in the world.
What this tells me as a writer is to throw off attempts to write like somebody else–Camus, for example, or Stephen King, and to just tell the story as it courses through me. As Jerry Garcia used to say, “It’s the music that plays the band.” In the same way, it’s the story that reveals itself through the writer. “Let the world burn through you,” said Ray Bradbury. “Throw the prism light, white hot, on paper.”
I’m coming to realize that style is not something to be pursued directly; instead, it is something that will happen naturally over the course of a writing career. In this sense, style is a lot like happiness: it is a byproduct of doing the work.
These days I’m trying to relax, not worry about who I sound like, and just tell the story. Sometimes I still need to remind myself that this is okay. Indeed, it is more than okay: for me, at least, it is the key to writing and eventually developing my own style.
Have you ever worried about your writing style? If so, what helped allay your concern?
Some writers suggest having a daily word count (DWC), a set number of words you work toward before calling it a day. According to this logic, a DWC helps you achieve your writing goal by making it realistic. And by concretizing an actual target, you know exactly what it takes to achieve your objective.
I, myself, use a word count. I try to write 500 words a day. And I try to take weekends off. At that rate I completed two novels in about three years, including editing and the time it took to secure publishers.
I know my goal is far lower than that of some writers, who advocate writing thousands of words a day. But I think such high goals are unrealistic for most of us, and serve to discourage one from even trying. Moreover, setting such a high DWC risks sacrificing quality for quantity. I firmly believe that producing a little quality material is better than producing a lot of crap. And if it’s one thing we suffer from today it’s an abundance of crap.
A word count is vital in another respect: It is a commitment to put words on paper.
And putting words on paper is what it’s all about.
Many people (myself included), have written bestsellers in their minds. But in order to have a chance of anyone reading your writing (if that is your goal), you have to produce copy. What I love about copy is it gives you something to work with. If you write 500 words a day, at the end of five days you have 2,500 words to your credit.
And I like the credit and debit analogy.
Every word we write is a potential credit; it is a furtherance of our goal to complete the novel or short story or play or poem. Every day we don’t write is a sort of debit to our writing account. It is much better to deposit than to withdraw.
I also like what Anne Lamott says about writing, how it’s about paying a debt of honor to all those who have gone before. Think of all the incredible words that have been written over the centuries, and often under much more trying circumstances (certainly technology-wise).
How do you feel about establishing a word count? Do you use one or would you consider using one? If not, why not?
I’m eager to hear from you.
For this Meet My Main Character Blog Tour I was tagged by Mary Clark. Mary is a writer specializing in memoir, historical fiction, literary fiction, and poetry. Her books include: Tally: An Intuitive Life, All Things That Matter Press, August 2013; Children of Light, a poetry novel, Ten Penny Players on Scribd.com; and Covenant, historical fiction novelette, Kindle ebook. Her poetry and fiction has appeared in Jimson Weed, Waterways: Poetry in the Mainstream, Lips, East River Review, and other literary publications. Currently, she is working on a memoir of the years she worked at St. Clement’s Church on West 46th Street in Manhattan, in the neighborhood colloquially known as Hell’s Kitchen.
Now, to the questions that are part of this blog tour, and that refer to the main character in one of my works in progress:
1. What is the name of your character? Is he/she fictional or a historic person?
The name of my main character is Daniel Stavros. He is fictional.
2. When and where is the story set?
The story is set in the present day south. The exact location is left indeterminate to give the story a universal and contemporary feel.
3. What should we know about him/her?
Daniel Stavros is dual diagnosed, meaning he has a mental illness and is chemically dependent.
4. What is the main conflict?
Daniel fights to maintain his sobriety and his sanity in an increasingly chaotic and confusing world. At the same time, his alcoholism and mental illness provide the potential for him to find salvation. While in detox, he meets a strange woman who challenges his understanding of the past, present, and future.
5. What is the personal goal of the character?
Daniel’s goal is to survive.
6. Is there a working title for this novel, and can we read more about it?
Conversations Among Ruins.
Here is a blurb:
Conversations Among Ruins is a portrait of a young man’s descent into madness, and the potential of finding salvation there.
While in detox, Daniel Stavros, a young, dual diagnosed* professor meets and falls in love with the cryptic Mimi Dexter. But Mimi has secrets and, strangely, a tattoo identical to a pendant Daniel’s mother gave him right before she died.
Drawn together by broken pasts, they pursue a twisted, tempestuous romance. When it ends, a deteriorating Stavros seeks refuge at a mountain cabin where a series of surreal experiences brings him face to face with something he’s avoided all his life: himself.
Though miles away, Mimi’s actions run oddly parallel to Daniel’s. Will either be redeemed, or will both careen toward self-destruction?
*The term dual diagnosed refers to someone suffering from a mood disorder (e.g., depression) and chemical dependency.
Here is an excerpt:
Stepping off the elevator, Stavros realizes the rooms have to be very big because the doors are very far apart. Again following Mimi, he strides down the hallway, making no sound on the Axminster carpeting. When they reach the last door, Mimi slides the key card in and out so adeptly he knows she’s done it on numerous occasions with different—no, he isn’t going to think about that.
He’s only taken a few steps into the room when he stops. “This is as big as one of the houses I grew up in.”
She drops her luggage behind him, takes his bag and sets it next to hers.
Not knowing exactly what to do, he steps carefully across the room and perches on the edge of a club chair. “There’s more furniture in here than in my entire apartment.”
“Wait until you see the bathroom. You could give a party for your hundred nearest and dearest in there.”
“Come in,” she says in response to a knock at the door, her voice rippling in the quiet of the enormous room.
A waiter enters with two bottles of wine on a tray which he sets delicately on the table by the window. “Will there be anything else, Miss Dexter?”
“No, I think that’s all. Thank you.”
The door closes soundlessly.
“Why don’t you open a bottle and pour us some,” Mimi’s voice floats back to Daniel as she vanishes between the silk drapes.
The bottle clatters against the glasses when he picks it up. Once he manages to open it, he slops some of the deep ruby liquid on the table. “Shit,” he mutters, setting the bottle down, using the side of his hand to wipe the spill onto the burgundy carpet. At least it won’t show. A glass in each hand, he walks across the room like a tightrope walker and goes through the curtains.
There is just enough light to see Mimi leaning back on a cushioned lounge chair. The quiet is broken only by the sound of waves lapping against the beach. A thousand stars dapple the sky. From the horizon a luminous pathway beckons. Stavros leans on the railing and Mimi comes to stand beside him. Their bodies gently touch. Afraid to look at her, he stares over the water. He wants to caress her, but can’t, despite the alcohol, the sound of the sea, and the light of the stars.
Then she does what he cannot. She puts her wine glass down and drapes her arms around his neck. She kisses him slowly and deeply and then they are on the bed.
The stars still glitter in the dark cobalt sky when Mimi reaches for her bra and panties. “Here,” she says, tossing him his clothes on her way to the bathroom.
He looks at the clock: 12:37. As the last number changes, he pulls on his boxers. He hears the shower running, a lonely sound, like rain falling on a headstone.
She emerges a few minutes later, clad in her underwear, her hair wet. She picks out a sheer dress, cornelian, and slips it on. “They do ironing here,” she says, fussing with her things, avoiding eye contact.
“I don’t know.” She rubs her hands on her bare arms as if she’s freezing.
He doesn’t know the rules to this game—although he’s played it his whole life with all of his heart. Suddenly he has an idea. “Well, if we’re leaving, I just want to say one thing.” With an unsteady gait, he goes over to the cigarettes lying on the table, shakes one out, and sticks it in the corner of his mouth. “Happy Birthday,” he shouts, in a high-pitched, dopey voice. “Damn, I wish I had a corn-cob pipe and a magician’s hat to complete the ensemble.”
She surveys him. “Oh my, God, you’re pathetic,” she exclaims, then bursts out laughing, displaying the brilliant ivory teeth of the rich.
He laughs with her. Because he is pathetic, and he knows it.
When the laughter dies, he says, “So you’ve seen it, then.”
“It’s what Frosty the Snowman says when he first comes to life. I love those old Christmas specials. Frosty, the Snowman,” she croons in her sandpapery voice, closing her eyes, gyrating her hips in slow, rhythmic movements, “was a jolly, happy soul…” She continues to sing and it’s all so surreal: the Christmas song in June, love-making’s passion followed by sudden coldness, the undulating movement of hips and breasts as this mercurial woman dances in the warm summer night. The balcony doors are still open and she has her back to the water. At the end of the song she stretches out her arms and tilts her head to the side. In that moment, silhouetted against the dark night, she looks crucified. Humming softly, she dances barefoot toward the balcony. She glides past the table, picks up the open bottle and beckons with a crooked finger. He watches her pour ruby liquid into glasses.
He joins her, and when she leans over the railing, he reverently places his hand on her tattoo—almost an exact replica of the pendant his mother gave him right before she died.
“Still want to go?”
She reaches behind her and rests her hand on the back of his neck. “Yeah, but not from here. Not yet anyway.”
He turns her around and dances her slowly back to bed.
7. When can we expect the book to be published?
It will be published soon by All Things That Matter Press.
As part of this blog tour, I have tagged four very gifted authors. They will be making their main character posts in about a week:
Kimberley Clark lives by the idea that everyone should have a bucket list of things they want to accomplish in life, but not only to have a list, but attempt to mark off as many items as possible. One goal that was high on hers was writing a novel and having it published. This idea of writing a novel wasn’t new to her, but an inevitability, as her love of reading books and watching movies inspired her to create her own stories. When the day came that she finally did start to write, she realized that this was going to be something that she wanted to do more than once, emphasized by the fact that her first novel was to be Book 1 of a trilogy, and that there are many more stories waiting inside her head ready to be created. Her hope is that people not only enjoy her books, but are inspired by them as others have inspired her. Kimberley was born in Sydney, Australia, and currently resides in the Gold Coast hinterland.
Nicole Maddalo Dixon was born in Philadelphia and now lives in Bucks County with her husband. Nicole began writing at the age of 6 when she wrote a children’s book complete with drawings. Currently she is published with Sunstone Press out of Santa Fe NM, and is the author of Bandita Bonita: Romancing Billy the Kid, Book I.
Chris Hoerter writes books for young adults. His current project is about a runaway whose sister wants to sacrifice him to bring back the souls of the dead.
Seraphina Nova is a published fiction author and playwright. She received her BA in English/Theater from Concordia University in the Twin Cities, and went on to earn an MFA degree, in Dramatic Writing, from Smith College in Massachusetts. She also received a second MFA degree, in Directing, from the University of Idaho. She has travelled all over the world, worked as a volunteer teacher and AIDS worker in South Africa and Kenya, and she’s had several of her plays produced across the country. She currently teaches graduate Literary Theory at Tiffin University and Composition and Film and at several other colleges. She resides in Minneapolis.
I have been asked to participate in a blog tour by the wonderful YA Fantasy writer Chris Hoerter. Please stop by and read Chris’s blog. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it as much as I do.
The My Writing Process Blog Tour works like this: I have four questions I must answer about my writing process, then I nominate two or three bloggers/authors to join the tour. They will answer the same four questions one week later.
So, on to the questions:
1. What am I working on?
Currently, I have two novels slated for publication. One is a literary novel, Conversations Among Ruins, which I’ll blog about next week. The second novel, and the one I’d like to focus on here, is a religious thriller called The Brothers’ Keepers.
2. How does my work differ from others of its genre?
I think The Brothers’ Keepers differs from others of its genre in two ways. The first is the amount of research that went into the book. I drew on my research skills and my background in political science and history to write a novel that is as grounded in fact as possible. This is not to say that some of it is not made up, but what is made up certainly exists within the confines of historical possibility, more so than other novels of the genre. Second, the book, although a thriller, is less of a car-chasing shoot ’em up–though there is some of that–than a cerebral thriller, which consists of solving a historical mystery/puzzle.
3. Why do I write what I do?
I write what I do because I have a passion for history and am fascinated by the origins of Christianity.
4. How does my writing process work?
I research for several months before I write a word. Then I try to come up with a two sentence tagline, like I discussed in a previous post. I do character sketches for the main and tertiary characters. Then I try to expand the two-sentence tagline into a paragraph, then a whole page. Once I have this I start sketching out scenes, both action and sequel (for more on this, please see here and here, respectively). I actually try to write linearly, that is from Chapter One until The End. The rough draft is often much longer than the finished product. With the help of my awesome writing group I do two or three edits on the rough draft before showing it to beta readers. After getting their feedback, I make more revisions, and then pass that version to another small group of people. Only after a manuscript has gone through five or six revisions do I start thinking about shopping it around.
Now, I get to tag two fabulous bloggers/authors, so here it goes:
If you enjoy whimsical tales that feature kittens, bunnies, or fairies, it is probably best you avoid Kat Hawthorne. In fact, it is an odd Hawthornian story indeed that does not involve at least one character losing a finger (or something better). If, however, you like dismal, dreary, dark, dastardly (or many other words that begin with the letter d) fiction, and are strong of will and character, then you may do well to check her out. After all, they’re only words.
Marsha R. West writes romantic suspense where experience is required. Her heroes and heroines, struggling with life and loss, are surprised to discover second chances at love.
But as a recovering alcoholic, I’ve often wondered what it would be like if someone invented a pill that would keep me from drinking, or at least allow me to drink like a normal person.
Well apparently, I need not wonder.
According to a recent article on the homepage of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “Several medications can help people with alcohol use disorders maintain abstinence or reduce drinking.” See here for the full article.
If these medications—such as Campral and Revia—work as effectively as claimed, the implications for treating alcoholism are enormous.
As one researcher says, “The health implications of preventing return to drinking and reducing alcohol consumption are substantial. Modeling studies have shown that such improvements would result in significant reductions in alcohol-attributable mortality, costs from health care, arrests and motor vehicle accidents.”
Unlike Antabuse, the newer medications are said to reduce cravings, not just make you physically ill if you drink. So these medicines do mark a significant improvement over the older ones. And, if used in conjunction with other treatment options (e.g., individual counseling, group therapy, etc.), they do seem to offer hope.
That having been said, cravings are only one component of the complex disease of alcoholism. As currently understood, alcoholism is a product of biological, psychological, social, and environmental factors.
Medications such as the ones mentioned risk treating only the tip of the iceberg. Furthermore, in this pill happy culture of ours, it may happen that people come to rely too much on these medications, or see them as a substitute for treatment options like cognitive behavioral therapy that go beyond simply controlling cravings.
For if alcoholics avoid the underlying work that needs to be done to address the core components of the disease, then only the symptoms will get treated. This would be like taking cold medicine to treat a cold.
And medications like Campral have been around a while—ten years in the United States, a quarter of a century in some European countries. It would be interesting to determine the overall impact such drugs have made on alcoholism and alcohol-related problems since the time they’ve been in circulation.
Let me say that the thought crossed my mind while reading the article that maybe I could do some controlled drinking, that with the help of Campral or Revia I may be able to drink like a normal person. Fortunately, I know to think this thought through, and play the tape all the way to the end. But it can be a dangerous thought for me, and for others, to entertain.
Do you think such medications constitute a positive development in the treatment of alcoholism, or that possible overreliance and wishful thinking outweigh the alleged benefits?
Both involve passion. Both involve time. Both entail a good deal of acceptance.
What I’d like to focus on today is that both writing and loving involve making a decision.
A person must make a decision to love someone. I’m not talking about lust, but about the continued support, nurturing, and commitment that defines a love relationship.
In the same way we need to make the decision, sometimes daily, to love, so, too, must we make a commitment to staying the course in producing the written word.
So writing, like loving, is a choice.
Writing, like loving, is also an active verb. I make it clear that I belong to a writing group and not a writers’ group, because I need to remind myself that I am actively doing something–writer, to me at least, sounds more passive and inactive. To me it is the same difference as saying I am a lover, versus I love (someone or something).
Is this just a matter of semantics? Well, in some ways it is. But we are writers and words are important. Conceiving of yourself as actually doing something gives you more voice in the matter and more choice in the long run.
But I think it is important to maintain the distinction between making a decision to write and what comes about as a result, which is often beyond our control. I can decide and I have control over whether to write. When it comes to what exactly I produce, well, I don’t believe we are fully in control of that, nor should we try to be.
What is incredibly exciting about all of this is that today you have a choice. You can make the decision to write. How powerful is that? You have the power to choose whether you sit in front of the keyboard or with pen in hand and allow yourself to become a channel for the creative flow which we talked about last time.
Writing and loving are decisions and choices we make, not just things that happen to us.