Life in Writing Hell: Being Critiqued

I don’t care what anybody says, its hard to have your work critiqued.  I know, I know, its not personal, and we shouldn’t take it as such, and blah blah blah.  Do you know anybody who doesn’t take critiques personally?

And yet, learning to be critiqued is an integral part of the writing process, because from good critiques we learn so much about our work.  For the same reason that we take critiques personally, its hard for us to be objective about our own work.

Last weekend when I was in LA, my Nashville friend Walt was attending the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators conference.   I went over to the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza to meet him, where a glass of Ravenswood Zinfandel cost $10 (I buy a bottle for less than that at Fred Meyer).  We had a blast, and Walt was really excited that he had an appointment with an editor who had read his work ahead of time.

She gave him quite a thorough critique, and emailing with him about it made me think again about the nature of critiquing and what a delicate balance it requires.

It’s also on my mind because I’ve recently been rewriting my first chapter in order to spiff it up to send to an agent.  This chapter went through my critique group and then I rewrote it according to their comments.  I hadn’t read either version in a couple months, so it was illuminating to pull both versions out and have a look at them.

The original version had a drive and force and energy that was completely lacking in the second version, which by contrast felt dead and lifeless.  (Let me just point out here that I love my critique group, and their advice is generally stellar.  I blame all the lifelessness on operator error)It was pretty amazing to see the difference.  Now here’s the crucial thing–my task today has been to go back and fix the plot problems that led to the rewrite in the first place without editing the life out of it. 

A wee small task.

Actually, it went pretty well.  I think that sometimes we have to go way far off on a bad tangent in order to get the yayas out, so to speak, and be able to come back to the center.  Sometimes we throw the baby out with the bath water in rewriting, when all that is really needed is to scrub that baby a bit harder in a couple places.

The other thing that often happens in critiquing is that someone will make a comment that doesn’t quite ring true, yet from that comment stems an idea that you implement that works perfectly.  That’s the magical alchemy of critiquing. 

And the overall point to this?  You da man.  You’re the one who felt the impetus to pull the words out of yourself and put them on the page.  You’re the one who got up early or stayed up late to writer.  You’re the one who ultimately knows what advice to take and what to reject. 

So listen to your critiquers, but learn to know when to accept their advice and when to ignore it.  And figuring that out is probably a post for another day.

Blog Carnivals

One of my blog catalog friends, Jimbozs2000, has started a blog carnival.  Its pretty cool, all the moreso because he picked up one of my posts.  Head on over to his blog and check it out.  You’ll see me if you scroll down a bit and you can also lclick on the Why I Write heading.

While you are there, check out some of the other great blogs he has linked to.  A lot of them are people from blog catalog, which in my not-so humble opinion is the most user-friendly and fun blog networking site.

By the way, Jimbozs maintains about 10 blogs.  I’m not quite sure how he has the time to keep them all going.  I am in awe!

Courage and Good Writing, Round Two

The post I wrote last week on courage and good writing seemed to strike a chord with lots of people.  In it, I repeated the question that Carol Harper, one of the Mayborn workshop participants, asked me:  does courage equal good writing?

I wrote that courage doesn’t necessarily equal good writing, yet courage is a necessary precursor to all good writing, because it flat out takes courage to sit down and put words on paper, knowing that you will eventually be judged on what you have written.

My bud Renny from Norway, asked the question, how do you find the courage then?

Well, honestly.

It’s a damn good question.  I’m not sure I have the answer. However, I will write what little I do know about continually finding the courage to express oneself.

For starters, I think it is important to remember that the risk of not expressing yourself far greater than the risk of expressing what is within.  In other words, if you have a novel or a screenplay or a literary non-fiction work smoldering within, and you don’t let it out, you create bad juju.  You’ll get resentful and bitter and angry, and if you don’t turn that resentment and bitterness and anger against others, you’ll turn it against yourself.  Either way, its not pretty.

So now that we’ve established that writing (or creating any work of art) is better than not writing, what’s the best way to conquer those fears, screw up your courage, and get to it?

Oh, God, I hate to be the one to tell you this…but the best way is to just do it.  I know, I know, it sounds trite and facile and all that.  But it is true.  The best way to get the courage to write is to write one word, and then another, and then another.  Until you have a whole page, and then another page, and then a chapter, and then a book.  It’s the snowball theory.  Once you get it rolling, it picks up a lot of snow as it goes along.

Courage is cumulative.  It is generally made up of many small acts.  The feats of bravery that get all the glory are the big bold actions.  But just as important to me is the kind of courage that involves listening to the still, small voice and doing its bidding.  The kind that involves rising every morning to face down the demons of your past traumas and transmute them on the page.

And the best–and only–way I know how to gain that kind of courage is to find it one small step at a time.  You can do it.  I know you can.

Mayborn Wrap-Up

Did I mention that the Mayborn was chock full of informative lectures and panels?  I know I’ve talked about my fabulous, amazing workshop, and the Oprah Incident, and a few social events here and there.  But lest you think that the entire conference was held in the bar, I now present a run-down of a few memorable presentations.

I loved Melissa Shultz.  She started the conference off on Saturday morning with a lecture on free-lance writing that had lots of meaty information.  She presented Ten Keys to Success in Free-lancing, ranging from "establish a plan" to "learn how to market" to "be an armadillo" (i.e., learn how to take rejection).  I especially liked her advice that sometimes you might want to generate a concept for a potential client.  For instance, a client may not understand that he needs to utilize good SEO techniques to drive people to his website. Once you explain SEO to him, perhaps he will hire you to write it.  Or maybe you can convince a small business owner that she needs a newsletter.  It pays to be creative in conceptualizing.She also gave me a couple good tips about the business side of things and reminded me I need to be much more organized on the book-keeping.  If I pay attention to her, maybe next year it won’t take me a whole day to go through receipts come tax time.

Melissa shared several websites for free-lancers and I list them here:

American Society for Journalists and Authors

Media Bistro

I had the opportunity to get to know Melissa a little at the Joyce Carol Oates reception, where we had a fine time talking about mid-life crises, and more the next day.  She is also a literary agent with Jim Donovan Literary.

For a good interview with Jim Donovan, click here.

I also enjoyed Rob Kaiser, who is the writing coach for the San Antonio Express-News.  He did a great lecture on Impressionistic Writing.  Kaiser says that Impressionistic Writing is "not beholden to the timely or the famous but to truths of the world that transcend those things." 

I just loved that.

He talked about how, really, with the right treatment any event or person can become a story and he urged writers to "stick to the sights and sounds of a scene as you saw it," and then with your own sensibility turn it into a story.

Here’s my take-away quote from his presentation:  "Electronic media is the mirror on the living-room wall that reflects back at us but print media can be the impressionist painting."  Nice.

Christine Wicker wrote Not in Kansas Anymore and also Lily Dale, The True Story of the Town That Talks to the Dead.  She says she writes about the "nut factor," or what people really want to know about the story.  That you’ll find the meat of the story when you figure out what it is that people really want to know.

On the difference between journalism and book writing she says, "If it happened and it’s interesting–that’s sufficient" for a journalist to write about.  However, for an author, "interesting is not enough.  You have to know what your readers care about."

She also made what I thought was a great point–that one thing the reader always wants to know about is the author of the book.  That sometimes that can be the thing that pulls readers through the pages.  Think about it.  Isn’t that true?  If you are reading a novel, aren’t you always glancing back to the author photo, reading the bio, wondering how closely the book echoes the author’s life?  And if you are reading non-fiction, aren’t you wondering how the story was researched and written? 

Finally, I want to talk about Erik Calonius, who wrote The Wandered: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy that Set Its Sails. He gave such a great talk on the process of writing his book, how he discovered the story, how he researched it, and how he shaped the narrative.  And even though it was Sunday morning and I could barely see, I hung on every word.

Does Courage Equal Good Writing?

One of the participants in last Friday’s Mayborn book manuscript workshop, Carol Harper, asked me a question via e-mail today. 

Does courage equal good writing?

I love this question because nobody’s ever asked it of me before, and in all the years I’ve been pondering writing and talking about writing, I’ve never heard it discussed.

Carol raised the question, I believe, because in our workshop we discussed several memoirs which covered intimate, personal matters.  There was quite a bit of talk about the courageousness of the participants.

Perhaps such talk, and the word courage, is cheap.  It’s like I often point out to new writers–they need to get away from the generalities and into the specifics.  Courage, to be sure, is a generality.   It’s also the word Dan Rather used to sign off his newscasts with until everyone reacted with such hilarity and mirth that he had to quit.

Maybe that right there tells us something about how we view courage.  But back to the original question.  Does courage equal good writing?  Another reason Carol might have asked me that question is that in talking to an agent about the memoir form, he said something along the lines of what is important to the writer is not necessarily of interest to the reader.

So, what takes enormous courage for the writer to put down on paper does not automatically become good writing. 

Here’s what I believe (you knew it was coming eventually):

I believe that every time any one of us sits down to put words on paper, it is an act of courage.  If we are sitting down to write about painful personal memories or events, it takes even more bravery.  It is hard, damn hard, to put yourself on the page for the world to see–and judge, because you know they will–over and over again.

Writing in and of itself is an act of courage. 

But once we’ve mustered the strength and valor to face the blank screen or the empty page, there’s another act of courage required, and that is the courage to learn how to best present the information so that it is of interest to the reader.  That’s a different kind of courage, the courage to learn and change and transform what doesn’t work on the page into what does. 

Transforming what doesn’t work to what does is the life work of some of us, maybe all of us.  I like to think that practicing on paper makes it easier.

Bottom line?  No, courage does not equal good writing per se.  But courage is a necessary precursor to all good writing.  So in a way, courage does equal good writing.

And maybe the word courage isn’t so cheap after all.

At the Mayborn: Workshopping

It wasn’t all about Nan Talese and Oprah at the Mayborn last weekend, far from it.   While the lectures and panels and discussions and networking comprise the meat of the conference, the side dishes are the workshops.

Conducted all day Friday, they follow the standard workshopping procedure of every MFA program in the country.  (Actually, I’m making a huge assumption there.  The Mayborn follows the workshopping procedure used at the Spalding MFA program, which writer-in-residence George Getschow and I both attended.)

The workshops are designed to be supportive and nurturing, but that doesn’t always happen.  I’ve been in many a workshop where personal feelings take precedence over exalting the work.  However, I have to say that this particular Mayborn workshop was one of the best ever–and it wasn’t because of me. 

It was because of my awesome group:  Michele Myers, Anita Tipping-Wheeler, Dawn Youngblood, Marilyn Brand, Anna Louise Bruner, Lane Devereux, Carol Harper, Donna Johnson, and our wonderful token male, Stephen Eric Levine.

This was a group that brought such deep respect for the work and the process to the table that we bonded quickly and were able to get right into nurturing, supportive, and constructive critiquing.  Bear in mind that several participants had written courageously intimate memoirs.  In one case, the piece was gut-wrenchingly personal, and this was the first time the author had ever submitted anything for others to read.  The bravery that takes simply awes me.

What usually happens in workshops is that several themes emerge, and this one was no different.  Thought it might be helpful to take a look at those.

  • Start Far In
  • Over and over the group pointed out how a work could be improved by starting farther into the story, or starting with a gripping scene to pull the reader in and then filling in with back story.  Remember, you don’t have to explain everything or write chronologically.  Hook the reader, and then tell us the details we need to know.
  • Know The Purpose of the Book
  • Why are you writing this manuscript?  What story does it tell?  Why does this story need to be told?  Why are you the one to tell it?  Answering these questions can help you to designate the theme of the book, and that in turn can help you with structure.
  • Complex Characters
  • Over and over again in the May born pieces I marveled at the complex characters that people had constructed.  The writers showed the characters with all their foibles, without judging them.  The writers were not afraid to deal with paradox in their characters.  For instance, a charismatic faith healer who had multiple families–yet was a stalwart advocate of Civil Rights as he wandered the south.  Or a troubled adopted daughter who was rescued by a stable family–and ended up rescuing the mother of that stabled family in return. 
  • Dialogue and Memory
  • We talked a lot about how to write dialogue when recreating scenes in non-fiction.  How does the non-fiction writer use dialogue when he or she may not be able to remember what was said years earlier?  Not sure we ever came to a consensus about it, but the gist was that some lines are so memorable you always remember them, and beyond that, creating dialogue to go with the feel of the scene is okay.

So, I’d like to thank my group again for being so wonderful.  And congratulations to our very own Donna Johnson, whose manuscript, "Holy Ghost Girl," won the grand prize of the contest!

Oprah/Mayborn Controversy Video

The infamous Nan Talese comments about Oprah are now available for your viewing pleasure here. 

She didn’t even talk for that long, but I guess people don’t usually diss Oprah, hence the whole world is now weighing in, once again, on the brouhaha.

Here’s my own personal opinion (I know you were waiting for it).    I think that Nan Talese was grandstanding a bit, and that her comments sounded defensive.  If Oprah’s people did indeed treat Nan Talese as she said they did, and I have no reason to believe they didn’t, then their own actions were reprehensible.

However, let us not forget that all of this brouhaha is based on bad behavior to begin with, okay?  As a writer, I believe in truth, through and through.  How can you not?  That is the absolute bedrock core of what we do as writers–tell the truth, and that goes for writing both fiction and non-fiction.

It is important to remember that truth for each of us is different.  If 12 writers wrote an account of the same event, every account would be completely different because each of them would see a different truth.  But that is not the same as presenting material as truth when it is not.

I have heard–and again, I don’t know for sure that this is true–that James Frey originally tried to sell his book as a novel, but the publishers (and by extension, Nan Talese) told him they wanted to put it out as a memoir because it would sell more books. 

That’s bad behavior, folks.  Sorry, but it is.  And thus, she has just a wee bit to be defensive about.   

What amazes me is how and why we’re still talking about it, a year and a half later.  There’s something about this story that strikes to the core of our beliefs about honesty and disingenuous and betrayal. 

By the way, you’ll notice once again that I’m not linking James Frey to Amazon in this post.  I have no interest in helping him sell more books.

Mayborn, Round I Don’t Know What (And Don’t Forget Oprah)

Nan Talese is the best thing that ever happened to the Mayborn Conference.  The publicity about her remarks dissing Oprah is all over the place, most notably at the Time magazine website.  Head on over there and check it out.  You can easily find it because last time I checked, it was the number one most emailed story.  Apparently the Oprah and James Frey story has legs.

Okay, now that you are caught up on all the good gossip I can tell you about the conference.  I’m going to do somewhat of an overview today, and then post on individual lectures and events over the next few days.

I think I already mentioned that the conference is held at the Grapevine Hilton in Grapevine, Texas, 180pxgrapevine_flag just a little bit away from DFW airport.  It began for a few select attendees on Friday.  These attendees were select because they submitted their manuscripts to be workshopped and got in.  There were five essay workshops and two book manuscript workshops, of ten participants each.

I had the pleasure and honor of leading one of the book manuscript workshops.  We had such a great group.  We rocked.  We honored and supported and held the energy through some pretty intimate readings and discussions.  I love my group.  It was such a powerful experience that I’m going to devote a whole post to it.

Friday night was the Texas Barbecue night, though they had some fancy name for it that I can’t remember.  Let me tell you, those Texas boys can make a fine barbecue.  Good stuff.  That night, the delightful Mary Roach, author of Stiff, and Spook, spoke.   I loved hearing her story about how her very first piece was published in the crappy shopper section of some random newspaper.  I always think fabulously successful writers like her are sprung into the world fully formed, so it was nice to hear about the humble beginnings of her writing career.

All day Saturday and half the day Sunday, were the panels and lectures.  George packs them in.  I mean, sometimes there is barely ten minutes for a bathroom break.  But I like that–lots of bang for the buck.

One of the highlights of Saturday for me was a VIP reception for Joyce Carol Oates and other bigwigs.  They poured wine and beer liberally, of course. 

Ahem.  Not a good idea to send me to an event where they pour wine liberally.  I chatted with the managing editor of the Fort Worth paper, is it the Star Telegram?  We talked about why it is that most newspapers cannot regularly handle writing narrative journalism.  Not only is it an issue of having writers who can write literary non-fiction, it also takes a certain kind of editor.

Since I live in Portland, I’m lucky, as the Oregonian is one of the few newspapers with a huge commitment to the form. 

It’s really interesting to me to attend a conference full of journalists.  I’m usually off in cyberspace, the blogosphere, or writing fiction.  I love hanging out with newspaper types, as I find it very grounding.  It is so established and historic and traditional.  That said, the most wonderful person I met at the reception was a novelist.  Her name is Jane Roberts Wood, and I think once again its one of those "I came late to the party" type things.  Oh lord, we had fun talking and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t because we were both happily drinking red wine.  I’m ordering her books from Amazon today, and if they are even half as wonderful as she is, I’m going to be desperately in love with them.  Jane rocks, that’s all there is to it.   Here’s a photo of her:

Jane72I wandered up to the dinner, sloshing wine merrily all the way and sat with Stephen Eric Levine, who is, get this, a storm chaser.  He was the only male in my workshop and he’s got a good manuscript going about birthing your dream.  He has a tour company which takes people off in search of tornados and the like.  I am terrified of tornados beyond all reason but I still think its really cool.

And, well, the rest of the night there was a wee bit more drinking.  Certain people plied poor innocent me with more wine.  Not that I was the only one drinking too much, oh no.  The group from the Mayborn closed down the bar and then we all moved out to the lobby to hang out more.   Those journalists, damn they know how to drink. (Okay, there may have been an attorney involved also, but I’m witholding his name to protect the un-innocent.)

And may I just remind everyone how awful it is to have a hangover?  Especially when you have to get up early the next morning to listen to the lecture of one of the people you were drinking with?  (Though he was smart enough to quit drinking himself and go to bed at a decent hour.) And then when you later have to attempt to navigate two airports through a weather crisis that delayed half the flights in the southwest?  And when you end up having to stay at a hotel in Albuquerque and getting up at 4 AM the next morning?   Ouch is all I can say.  Ouch, ouch, ouch.

But, damn, it was all worth it.  Lest you think it was only worth it for the good time, that is an evil rumor that is simply not true.  I learned so much and most of all I was completely inspired, both by the lecturers and by the wonderful people in my workshop.  And to prove it, I’ll be writing more about the meat of it in the days to come.

Mayborn Writers Conference & Oprah controversy

I’m in LA after the Mayborn Writer’s Conference and will do a full report on my travels tomorrow.  I’m also planning a mini-series about some of the presentations.  So check back in!

Meanwhile, for a look at some of the controversy that got stirred up (or, as my friend Leigh calls it, the "Oprah smack down,") go to the CNN website.