Monday, June 30, 2014
Friday, June 27, 2014
About three weeks into my first semester in the MFA program at Mason, several of us first-year fiction students formed our own critique group—meeting once a month to review earlier drafts or later revisions of the same manuscripts we were submitting to the larger workshops in the program itself.
There's a little bit of redundancy there. The four of us were all part of the same workshop on campus, so why get together another time in that smaller group to talk an extra time about those same—or at least similar—manuscripts? Part of it was that we'd identified one another as peers who "got" what the others were trying to do, and while others in that larger group (18 people) weren't always giving us the feedback we wanted or needed, the constructive criticism—more focused, more extensive— from that smaller group promised opportunities to really improve our craft in a more strategic way.
That's not to say we sought out each other because we simply liked each other's work and wanted positive feedback; empty and endless praise was never the goal, and we could often be very pointed, if not even harsh with one another. And it wasn't that each of us shared the same approach or aesthetic; instead, we enjoyed the vastly different perspectives and approaches and suggestions—each of us opening up one another's eyes not just to problems with a manuscript but to possibilities. But when I say that we "got" what the others were doing, I mean that each of us was committed to helping a story become the best that it could be according to what the individual author was trying to do, and not according to how another writer would do it themselves.
When people ask what an MFA is good for, I always say that you'll get two things out of it (and neither of them is a publishing contract): 1) a sense of your own writing process, and 2) a set of readers whose judgement you trust. A good writing group serves both purposes.
That group eventually moved in different directions and schedules fractured: marriages, births, transfers out of the area... and importantly (more on this further in the bullet-points) a move toward writing novels, which didn't seem to workshop as easily in the early stages. Today, I only regularly keep up with one of those writers, but even now, eight years later, nothing that I write—a story, a review—gets submitted to the larger world without having passed his approval and feedback. Nothing.
I now belong to two writing groups: one that meets monthly here in Northern Virginia (hi, Alan!) and a second that's looser and further-flung, each of us exchanging manuscripts online instead of in person. (I've also just joined another online short story group, through the Sisters in Crime's Guppies, but since I've been out of town, I haven't entirely gotten traction on it yet.) Often the same bits of manuscript get run past each of these groups, but I always wait until I've finished something to my own standards before submitting it to them, so that I have my own sense of what's working and not and where I want to go. After that, the feedback I get is frequently invaluable—even when completely contradictory at times from one reader to the next... in fact, perhaps most often when contradictory from one reader to the next. It's not just a second set of eyes that's key, but several sets of them, readers bringing a diverse set of responses your way—as diverse as that larger group of readers you're ultimately aiming for down the line.
I guess I've already touched on the things here that I'd suggest in response to this week's question: "Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?" But I want to boil them down into some more direct suggestions for folks considering this:
- Find readers who respect and encourage what you're trying to do—not those who want to rewrite your work the way they'd do it. Different aesthetics and approaches are great, preferred even, but someone trying to assert control of your manuscript or to demean your own approach.... well, that's not constructive criticism, that's just flat-out destructive.
- Bring a full manuscript to critique if a short story (as with me)—or at least be far enough into the manuscript that you know where you're trying to go (if a novel). Too early a draft or too early in the process, before you have your own sense of direction, and the feedback might simply confuse you about where you want to go—and mess up where you end up. And do recognize that critiquing only selected parts of a novel offers its own complications; reading a single chapter will obviously not give you a sense of the full narrative arc ("I'm not sure where this is going. Can you front load it a little more?") or the broader complexity of a character ("I wish I knew more about this person. Why don't you add...?") or even a sense of how small details ("Well, I'd just cut that") will take on larger meaning in the long run ("Oops! OK, keep it").
- Be open to feedback, and then listen to yourself. I mentioned contradictory advice, which ends up frustrating some writers, but I find it often the most productive. Instead of saying "This reader thought this and this one thought that and now what do I do?" I find myself saying, "Here's what this reader took from this, here's what that reader saw, and what was I trying to do? And given those responses, how do I clarify my own intentions on the page?"
- And finally, don't take the feedback personally, as easy as that is to do. The focus should always be on the page, getting that to be its best, and not on the person who wrote that page.
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Writing groups and early feedback - does it help or hinder your process? Why?
If you asked ten writers about their writing process, you’d get fifteen different answers. What works for one writer won’t necessarily work for another, and after having written more than a dozen complete manuscripts myself, I’ve learned that what works for me once, might not work for me again.
Yes, writers can be fickle, finicky creatures with a dependence on coffee and/or bourbon.
However, one thing that remains constant in my writing process is my need for feedback. It’s easy to slop some words down on the page, thinking that I’m saying one thing, when in reality, my work is being interpreted in an entirely different manner (hey, it happens!). I need to understand how my story is coming across to readers so I know if I’m on the right track.
The most beneficial way for me to do this is by participating in a critique group. I give them my words, then sit back to see how they go over (not always so well, I can assure you!). I can find out what works and what doesn’t. Is the plot believable? Are the characters behaving consistently? Is the pacing right for the genre? Do I have ten characters whose names begin with J? Have I dotted all my t’s and crossed my i’s?
Writers can be too close to their work to be able to give it an impartial evaluation. I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting my work “out there” without first sending it through the gristmill that is my critique group. It’s a very valuable—and crucial—part of my writing process.
Without a critique group, I’d be just another writer pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt. Instead, I’m just another writing pounding away at his keyboard, mired in self-doubt, with a critique group to keep me in line.
Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Monday, June 23, 2014
Writers can only scribble (or type) away in their dark corner for so long. Eventually someone needs to read what they've written. Before that first someone is an agent or editor, it's probably best that someone else takes a quick look to see if they "get" what you're writing (and help you get rid of glaring errors). Writing groups are a free way to do that. When they're good--they're amazingly helpful. And when they're not--they can be damaging to a fledgling writer's psyche.
I teach a class at the University of Virginia every semester--either Mystery or Novel writing--and for most of the semester I teach it with a critique group format. Everyone has to read everyone else's writing and comment on it. At first students don't understand why it's important that they critique other work (or listen to what other students have to say about their own). They just want to hear what I think. So I keep explaining how it's so much easier to recognize mistakes in someone else's writing, and how, once they recognize the mistakes, they will learn to stop making them in their own stories. And, by the end of the semester, my students usually "get it." And often they decide to go and create a critique group with the other members of the class.
How do you know when a writing group is bad? That's easy. You leave a session full of despair, not sure if you ever want to write again. People don't offer advice--they rant or belittle the other members of the group. You should run--not walk--and get out of the group as soon as possible. It's not you, it's them.
How do you know when you've found a good writing group? You leave a session full of fresh ideas and concrete ways to fix your piece. You're relieved that someone found a few of your boneheaded mistakes so you can correct them. You know they're helping you make your writing better.
Friday, June 20, 2014
by Paul D. Marks
Well of course the answer to this question is yes and no. How’s that for being unequivocal?
While many people think of writers, and artists in general, as having tortured souls, there’s no rule that says one must be tortured in order to be an artist.
So I wracked my brain trying to come up with some well-known writers whose names people would know who were happy and not tortured.
Zilch. Zero. Nada.
Couldn’t think of one.
We all know of the tortured writers of the present, past and near-past, Hemingway, Anne Rice, David Foster Wallace and possibly the queen of tortured writers, Sylvia Plath. The list is endless. And they created great art. But what about happy writers creating great art? Can it be done? The search for the happy writer continued.
I moved to the next step: checking the internet. And after a lot of searches, using different terms and ways of phrasing things, it seems I found one well-known writer who claims to be happy. Though when you see his name I think you’ll be surprised:
Philip Roth. Author of such happy-go-lucky stories as American Pastoral and Everyman.
According to Roth, and assuming the quote I found is correct ‘cause I never fully trust the net, he says, “I’m happy all the time, but a lot of people aren’t. I write about all those people. People in trouble make for interesting characters.”
So I guess even if the writer is happy the characters might not be and unhappy characters might make for more interesting characters.
I’m sure there’s other happy writers out there, but while the list of unhappy, tortured-soul writers is long and includes plenty of men and women, Roth is the only happy writer I could find.
This leads me to believe that many people who are tortured and scarred emotionally and/or psychologically one way or another perhaps go into writing as a way to exorcise those demons in the same way that it’s said that others with psychological problems go into psychology or psychiatry.
Artists of all kinds are said to be unhappy people: Comedians – most of them – are known to be unhappy in large measure. Lenny Bruce. John Belushi. Richard Pryor. Drug problems, early deaths in some cases. And musicians, from Beethoven and Kurt Cobain to Amy Winehouse and Syd Barrett of Pink Floyd. Fine artists like Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keefe, Picasso, Gauguin, and, of course his pal, Van Gogh – all very depressed. The list in all of these categories is endless. And, of course, writers.
So maybe it is true that unhappy artists and writers – or characters – can reach into the depths of their souls, because they look inward – to touch some common threads that most of us wrestle with in our lives. And through their work we can see a mirror into ourselves and our society through which they can help us put things into perspective.
As for myself, I guess I would have to put myself on that long list of tortured souls. Without going into all the reasons why, I think if you asked people close to me, my wife and others, they would acknowledge that. And I would have to acknowledge it too.
That said, I don’t think a writer has to have a tortured soul. He or she just has to have a soul and enough introspection and empathy to be in touch with it so they give us a mirror to the world – give us something we as readers can relate to and connect with.
In the end, maybe writers – tortured souls or not – are like the pinot grapes that Paul Giamatti’s Miles character talks about in the movie Sideways. We are all, to one extent or another, pinot grapes in a cabernet world. He says:
Um, it’s a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It’s uh, it’s thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It’s, you know, it’s not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it’s neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot’s potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they’re just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.
Thursday, June 19, 2014
Hmmmmm. On the one hand Sylvia Plath, I suppose. But on the other, Ted Hughs. Closer to home, Edgar Allan Poe but also Alexander McCall Smith. And Joyce Carol Oates, who seems to plumb the depths of human misery from a pretty cheerful homebase. And Maya Angelou, whose soul transcended no small measure of torture and ended up soaring.
It depends what we're talking about - mental illness, external hardships, or just existential angst and its attendant gloom.
I've never believed that what doesn't kill us makes us stronger, having seen too many people worn out and ground down by vicissitude. I'd argue that a writer - or radiographer or burger flipper - who overcomes illness or hardships to achieve a finished book - or clear x-ray image or evenly-browned burger - far from having lucked out with acquired strength, has triumphed. But as to whether the books, x-rays or burgers are the better for it . . . wouldn't think so.
But say it's not Plath's or Poe's depression we're talking about. Say it's that low-level existential angst just rumbling along like a Leonard Cohen soundtrack. Misery as lifestyle, because happiness is so uncool. Are writers more susceptible to its dreary embrace than others? Not the ones I've met. Not so far. Female poets are supposed to be the unhappiest writers of all, but the female poets I've met - Vicki Feaver, Kathleen Jamie, Carol Ann Duffy and Sharon Olds - are some of the most exuberant people imaginable, despite producing work that's sometimes plangent, sometimes searing. Perhaps they can visit despair and use it to such powerful ends specifically because they don't live there.
Who knows? I don't have an answer for this question. But if anyone's feeling the tug of melancholy and wants help resisting it, I do have Henri the French cat. [click his name to watch - for some reason the link isn't showing up]
Wednesday, June 18, 2014
Genius with a Side of Pain....by Clare O'Donohue
Does a great writer have to have a tortured soul?
There are a lot of unhappy people who work in artistic fields - musicians, poets, novelists, painters, probably clowns (but who can tell underneath all that creepiness). There is a tendency to link the two things - "greatness" and "sadness" surely go together, we say, as if one created the other.
But are they linked?
A while back, I watched a documentary about the qualities of really successful entrepreneurs. A person being interviewed said that study after study has been done on these people - the Bill Gates and Warren Buffetts of the world - and they all have several qualities in common - things like focus and persistence, adaptability, a love of what they did, etc...
The conclusions of all these studies was that if you want to be successful, you need to develop these traits. Seems logical.
But here's where it got interesting.
The guy in the documentary pointed out that no studies have been done on people who tried and failed. For all we know, he said, these defeated entrepreneurs were also focused and persistent. Maybe they were adaptable. Surely most of them loved what they did. Maybe they did everything that Gates did. And yet they failed.
We don't know if there are qualities that only successful people share, because no one has ever looked beyond them - never asked about the failures or about the people in the middle. The people conducting the studies, he said, choose their conclusion first, then went looking for evidence to back it up.
And that's what I think about "greatness" and "sadness". We put them together because they often are together (like success and focus) and we point to examples like Van Gogh's unfortunate ear issue, or the countless cases of writers and artists dying of overdoses, suicides, or alcoholism, as proof of the link.
But surely there are lots of talented, successful writers who lived normal lives, without excessive angst. I'm sure they've had their share of sadness, but then don't we all - great writers or not.
On the other hand, I have no idea if a higher rate of depression in creative types is due to the fact that depressed people are drawn to creative fields (where there is a higher tolerance for it) or whether being in a creative field makes one really depressed.
So, my best answer is "I don't know." I hope not, honestly. I like to think that greatness comes from honestly, objectivity, openness, and sensitivity - not from a tortured soul.
But then, I'm not a "great" writer. I'm a happy writer.
Tuesday, June 17, 2014
Monday, June 16, 2014
Friday, June 13, 2014
The problem with wrapping up the week's discussion here at Criminal Minds is that I have to find something fresh to add—especially with a question like this one: What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey? But no worries, I thought, I can just pad out my own post a little by recapping all the great advice that my fellow bloggers have already offered, right?
And then I read Alan's post yesterday.
There's been tremendously good advice in this week's posts, and if I'd been starting out the week instead of finishing it, I think I would've zeroed in on several of these: Write a lot (and read a lot); get involved in your writing community (join critique groups, join local chapters of MWA or SinC or other organizations, go to readings, attend conferences, etc.); and don't take rejection—or other people's successes—personally.
So what can I offer beyond that?
There is no "perfect"—which doesn't mean to settle for sloppiness, but....
I'm a huge advocate for revision, which I see as not just an integral part of writing but the most important part of the process. And when I talk about revision, I don't just mean tinkering with the sound of a sentence or finishing up some copy-editing, but being open to tearing something apart and putting it together again—to re-visioning it in a completely new (and hopefully better) way. But while I encourage my student to be open to the possibilities of revision, I've also seen the other extreme, where beginning writers get paralyzed by the idea that it's not good enough, never good enough, no matter how many times they've rewritten and restructured and re-everything'd their draft-eternally-in-progress, aiming for the one, best, right way to do it. I used to do this; occasionally I still do; please don't do this yourself.
One of the most liberating stories I ever heard was about sculptor Alberto Giacometti's work on the 1956 series Women of Venice—the nine elongated bronze sculptures seen below.
Each of the figures here is distinct, and while I'm sure art historians and critics may champion a favorite or two among the bunch, I'd argue that each is wonderful in its own way. But the story behind their creation is what's always stuck with me. As I understand it, Giacometti worked with a single batch of clay, shaping, reshaping, crafting, and then he'd stop and ask his brother to make a mold of what he had. Once the mold was made, he would jump back into it and start shaping and reshaping and crafting that same piece of clay again until he'd gotten something else that seemed... interesting? worthwhile? Certainly perfect isn't the appropriate word, or else why bother with the other eight, right?
There are nine ways to do anything—a hundred ways, a million ways, and more. Don't let the quest for the one way to write something paralyze you.
Find yourself as a writer—and find your reader too. A lot of beginning writers dream of being on the bestseller list—of becoming the next Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or whomever—and as most writers will caution, that's probably not realistic. But the focus in that advice is often on the expectations of fame and fortune. Instead, I want to focus on craft. While you can learn a lot from writing a pastiche of your favorite writer (I talked about this in an earlier post), trying to write like Stephen King long-term—in terms of plot or style, subject or theme—will never make you Stephen King and may even work at cross-purposes to the writer you truly are. My wife, Tara Laskowski, and I actually talked about this earlier this week: the fact that sometimes we ourselves have been so focused on the writer we thought we wanted to be (or thought we should be) that we've missed seeing the strengths of the writers we are. For several years, Tara worked on a novel that spanned three decades in the lives of its characters, and while the book was wonderful in many ways, it ultimately didn't capitalize on many of Tara's greatest strengths as a writer—succinctness rather than sprawl, the focus on a precise moment rather than a panorama, introspection as much as an accelerating plot—strengths which truly came to the forefront when she begin more earnestly writing flash fiction. In my own case, I labored for years as well under the idea that writing short stories was just an apprenticeship toward writing a novel—until I finally came to recognize that maybe writing short stories was where I actually had some real talent, was the way my mind worked, was where I too should be. And fortunately there's a whole community of readers out there who enjoy a good tale like that.
And as a final word, how about this? Don't follow other writers' tips (at least not too religiously). In writing that, I don't mean to discount anything offered this week—again, it's all great advice. But echoing what I've already said here, I do think that it's important to find your own way every step of the way. In the academic setting, I've had writer/professors tell me that I had to write daily or else—and specifically that morning was the best time to write. I've had others suggest writing long-hand first because you feel the words in a different way. And I've seen myriad tips on craft: what to do, what not to do, and why—some of it good (to my mind) and some of it not... also to my mind. The point is: Listen to all the advice, sure, and take what you can from it, but ultimately find what works best for you, even if it means breaking the so-called rules.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
What three tips would you give to a new writer to help them along their journey?
This is Giving Advice to Writers Week on the blog, so, first, to recap:
On Monday, Meredith advised writers to:
1) Write a lot.
2) Be patient.
3) Become part of the writing community.
I agree wholeheartedly.
On Tuesday, R.J. advised writers to:
1) Never look back when writing (to prevent getting bogged down in re-writing).
2) Throw something unexpected into the story, if you get stuck.
3) Immerse their characters into their surroundings, when describing their settings.
More excellent advice.
Yesterday, Tracy advised writers to:
1) Get independent feedback and join a writer’s group.
2) Remember that rejection isn’t personal.
3) Keep writing, no matter how unmotivated you may be (or how much Pinterest might be tempting you).
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Now it’s my turn to pontificate, which is difficult because my esteemed blogmates have mentioned some very helpful hints. However, I shall dig deep and give some advice not yet delivered.
So, writers, heed my words:
1) Read a lot. Not only do you have to write a lot, I believe you have to read a lot, too. Don’t stick solely to your preferred or favorite genres, but read in a wide variety of genres and styles. The more you read, the more well-rounded you will become.
2) Take a writing workshop (or two). Learn from someone who’s done it before. Get a look inside the meatgrinder (steel yourself first!) as you critique other workshoppers’ pages. Getting your own work critiqued will help build rhino hide, which so important for writers.
3) Go to conferences and conventions. Talk to other writers to get a glimpse of their writing process. Form a support network. Meet potential critique partners. Learn about how the craft of writing and the business of publishing relate to each other. Develop your drinking abilities in the bar.
Here’s a “bonus” piece of advice: Learn accounting and the principles of financial investing. You’re going to need that knowledge to properly handle the windfall that comes with being a writer! (Well, all my nuggets of advice can’t be winners.)
Now, go forth and write!
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Anyway, as I was saying.