Open Wounds

Critiqueing

There Ain’t No Sanity-Clause

I’ve thought about this a lot.

There are a lot of writers out there writing about how to write novels, how to write stories, how to write right, how to write wrong.

I’ve written some posts about the writing process in this blog and as a guest poster for some friends but no matter what angle I write about I just don’t think I’m bringing much new to the discussion. The best of them, like Andrew Smith’s “How to Write A Novel parts 1-4 and counting…) make me laugh at the absolute insanity (there ain’t no sanity-clause) that is the world of publishing and the writing life (whatever that is).

But I keep feeling like there’s something I can offer. I’m just not sure what I can bring to the table.

Salt and pepper?

Artichokes?

Brussel sprouts? Okay I really don’t like Brussel sprouts so let’s not talk about them ever again. Seriously. I can eat just about anything but brussel sprouts. I get a gag reflex just thinking about those little green balls of sprout. So let’s stay off the brussel sprouts.

Here’s two bits of advice I can give. It’s not much but it’s only January 20th so work with me.

Both bits of advice you’re heard a million times before – I’m sure – so I’ll try to give each a different context to make them sound important and fresh. Or at least not stale. I’m not sure why I’m stuck on food analogies but hopefully they will work their way off… the table.

The first bit of advice comes from a man named Pattabhi Jois who died in 2009 and was one of the great yogis (not as in bear but as in the yoking of the physical and the spiritual) of our time – and developed the style of yoga called Ashtanga yoga. I never met him but I wish I had. I have been to yoga studios that he taught in and spoke in so I got to soak up some of his vibe but that’s about it. Still his influence on yoga in the 20th century has been great.

Anyway I digress. Whenever students asked him when they would achieve the next level of anything in their yoga practice (or their life) he would say, “Practice and all is coming.” I think it works the same way for writing.

The other bit of advice I’ve been told and passed on to others just like many many other writers is if you want to be a writer you need to read – a lot. The only thing I can add to that is to read everything, not just the classics, but all genres, good writing and bad writing. I say this because it has worked that way for me. Everything I read is like a short course in how to write, what works and what doesn’t. I can’t help myself. If I was a Brussel sprout farmer I would see all food through the lens of a brussel sprout. As I writer I read on two levels, for pleasure, and to understand why I like or dislike what I’m reading. This can be summed up as, do what works for you as a reader and don’t do what doesn’t.

For example, I read Robert Jordan’s first book in the Wheel of Time Series (many friends recommended it to me) and was driven crazy (there still ain’t no sanity-clause) by the number of characters that muttered. He muttered. She muttered. We muttered. They muttered. You familiar muttered. So… I try not to have characters mutter. I also learned from that book (I only read the first book in the series so I can’t say if this is so about the other books in the series) to make sure that things happen in my writing. Jordan was a beloved writer, just not by me. Little happened in that first book and it was a long book for little to happen in. So… having things happen is good. Not having things happen is bad. I try to make sure when I write that things happen.

So this year I’ll be trying something new on my blog in my own personal attempt not to mutter, to make things happen, not to eat brussel sprouts, and to bring back the sanity-clauss.

I’ll be writing about the books that I read during the year and telling you what I learned from reading each of them. And if there’s one thing I know about my own writing it is that I have a lot to learn.

Maybe this is something I can bring to the table.

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L is for Láthe biṓsas (Live hidden)

I might be stretching here but we’re almost half way through the alphabet and I’m still talking Greek so there’s something to say for that.

Live hidden is from Epicurus. He said this because he believed that politics troubled men and didn’t allow them to reach inner peace. If you’re watching the republican primary or have Barak Obama’s campaign on your radar perhaps you’ll agree. It’s like watching a train wreck and not exactly good for serenity now. So Epicurus suggested that everybody should live “Hidden” far from cities, not even considering a political career. I’m not saying everyone should be anti-epicurian on this political career thing but I do wonder how this works in my writing.

Once at a writer’s group (a long time ago in a galaxy far far away) I had the group take parts from a play I was writing that took place in Rome just about the time of Julius Caesar’s death at the hands of Brutus. I know. It doesn’t sound funny at all but I was taking a side-show perspective of a laundromat far down the block from where Marc Antony makes his speech and they were translating it back through the crowd by whispered word of mouth so that the folks in the cheap seats got a garbled message. Anyway, it was comedy. Slapstick. Pratfalls. One of the writers commented to me during the feedback round, “I can’t wait to see what you do with this piece when you give it the deeper meaning I know you’re striving for.”

There was no deeper meaning.

I was just trying to be funny.

Maybe it was the Caesar thing that created high expectations – or the echo of Shakespeare’s words. I don’t know but I nodded and said, “Yes… a deeper meaning.” And of course wondered, did I have to have a deeper meaning and should I just give up and throw the play away before someone got hurt?

I know, if I’m honest, I write fiction based on my values and life experiences – where else can my ideas come from?  But these are tempered by the needs of my characters. They are filtered and so they become both mine and theirs. Some represent me and some don’t (or better not – but what if they do?). I set out to tell stories. I don’t usually set out to be engaged in politics. But if I do, the ideas will certainly be welcomed into the fracas.

Did you know that Roman laundries used urine as bleach? It gets the whites whiter. Now what kind of political statement is that? What’s the deeper meaning in pee?

What do you do with your political ideas? Do they work deliberately into your stories or do they… live hidden?


F is For Phobos (Fear)

Phobos is the Greek God of Horror and Fear. Interesting. It’s also the name of one of the moons of Mars. Ph is the sound of F in Greek and there is no letter F. I didn’t know that until a few moments ago. Onward.

As a writer what do I fear? What makes me wake up in a cold sweat, shivering? Here’s my list – writer specific:

  • Not getting published.
  • Getting published (I know, I know. But sometimes when you get what you ask for its scary. Hey, I’m a neurotic New York Writer. What can I say.).
  • Having writer’s block.
  • Not having writer’s block. (because I’m thinking… when will I get writer’s block?).
  • Getting a bad review (I’ve gotten rid of my Goodreads bookmark from my toolbar. I had worn it out from obsessively checking it. It’s like crack for writers.).
  • Red pen marks (this is a hold-over from high school).
  • Having to do social marketing (I’m getting over it but only slowly. I’m still not friendly with Twitter but at least we’re acquaintances. And I’m starting to know Facebook on a first name basis.).
  • Letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it be more likely to occur just like the old tale that says if you want something let it go?).
  • Not letting go of the need for publication (if I let it go will it not occur in which case this is a catch 22 and I’m screwed.).
  • Losing my electronic manuscript and not having backed it up.
  • Sending out emails that get lost in the electronic maelstrom of computer generated life and not knowing that they never reached their destination.
  • Having to look for an agent again (don’t have to, it’s just a fear…)

What’s on your list?


Of Egos and the Red Pen of Perfection

This is the final question from a CW Post student from my reading there last month.

How do you deal with a returned and edited manuscript? It’s perfect when I hand it in.

The woman who asked this question was terrific. She knew exactly what she was asking and knew the answer but wanted to know how to deal with the red pen of perfection. Most of us think our work is perfect or close to perfect when we hand it in. Otherwise, why would we hand it in? Then an editor gets ahold of it and either slants it with language they like, find ways to make it better, punctuates it in another style, or challenges us with new questions that we have to answer in order to make the piece complete.

I knew exactly what she meant. Man did I know what she meant. Even though by this time in my writing career I’m accustomed to revision after revision after revision I still hate to see an editor’s red marks on my manuscript. It hurts. There’s no way around it. Why do they want to change my words or punctuation or thought process as filtered through the words on my page?  Usually it’s because… it could be better.

I think every writer gets to the point when they’re working on a book that they just don’t want to see it again – ever. I love my books, but I also want them to be finished. I always get to the point that I don’t want to work on them anymore, even if a little part of me knows there’s more work to do. For me it’s usually a good time to let the manuscript sit like for a month or three or six. Even a week’s break after an intense period of time with a manuscript can give a whole new perspective on the piece – especially if it’s not working – and I realize it’s not working – even if I don’t want to admit it out loud.

But feedback is always difficult to take in if it’s negative and if it’s true. Either one. Now saying this – know that sometimes editors are wrong. The same goes for fellow writers in a critique group and your life partner (but my wife is always right about my work – she just is). You just have to follow your gut as to what needs to be added to your manuscript, what needs to be cut, and what needs to stay the same. Over time working with someone on different projects you learn to figure out what to ignore and what to listen to.  And as a writer I think each of us learns to shape our work and give it structure that is true to what we’re trying to say. Your sense of structure – of beginning-middle-end – tells you you’re on or off target with what you’ve written.

So how do I deal with a red-inked manuscript? I take a deep breath, read through the edits, accept what’s better, and cross out what’s not. It sounds simple but it’s really a lot harder than it sounds, because it will only work if my ego is in check and I can honestly tell what’s better and what’s not. And the ego, my ego, is a tricky writing partner. But the subject of ego is for another post and a brand new, rollerball, red ink pen of perfection.


How Lawrence Block Saved My Ass

A writer friend of mine and I were talking recently about her present writing project and, being interested in her project and wanting to help her out, I offered to read a sample chapter for her. She said yes,with a big smile and we were off and running. Before I left though I turned to her and asked, “Okay. What do you want me to do?”

“What do you mean,” she said, still smiling but straining a little.

“You can ask me for what you need when I read it and I want to make sure I help you out so… what do you need me to do, in addition to reading it?”

She looked at me for a long moment, then , smile disappearing, said, “I don’t know. I mean…what do you mean? I never thought about that.”

“I can critique , look for strengths, look for weakness, line edit, read and give overall impressions, look at narrative structure or character, read and tell you I love it, read and tell you to send it out immediately – does that help? I want to help but I want to help you the way you need help.”

The smile appeared again. “I never thought about it that way. Let me think what I need and I”ll let you know when I send the manuscript to you.”

“Excellent. I’m excited to read it.”

This was not the first time I”ve come up against this. In a writer’s group I was in once we allowed each other to ask for what we wanted in a critique – since critique means different things to different people. One new writer auditioning for the group said to me, “But what good is it if you don’t get feedback that tells you what needs to be improved?”

I said, “Sometimes you need just to hear yourself read a piece out loud or get an audience reaction (facial, verbal, energy, laughter, snickers). It all comes back to what you need. Not everybody needs a knife taken to their work.” He didn’t like this and decided not to be a part of the group – probably for the best.

A couple of years later I was working on a memoir of my time working at Gay Men’s Health Crisis doing HIV/AIDS work and it was very painful stuff to put down on paper. At a writer’s retreat I decided to read some of it out loud to the other writers. I asked for what I wanted before I read. I was used to doing this by then so I did. I just wanted to hear what it sounded like. It was too personal to be critiqued yet and I said so. When I was finished reading, one writer raised her hand to comment and when I called on her she started to take it apart. I stopped her in the middle of her fourth or fifth sentence and said, “I don’t want a critique. I’ll take a question about the material – ” and she interrupted me. “But you need to hear -” and that’s when Lawrence Block saved me. He said (yes, he was one of the writer’s at the retreat – the Lawrence Block of Matthew Scudder, best seller, fame), “Didn’t you hear what Joe said? He said he just wanted to read it out loud.”

There was scattered applause, like softly popping incendiaries. Then I took my seat back in the group and another writer took the reader’s chair.

Thank you, Larry.

Ask for what you need. You’re allowed.