Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Escaping The Vacuum

My mom has said on more than one occassion that when I was growing up she didn't know if I had the biggest ego in the universe or no ego at all.

I think that's a trait many writers share.

On one hand, we have the hubris that our words are not only important enough to put on paper, but that other people should take time to read them.

On the other hand, we are constantly in fear that we suck hard.

Unlike stage actors or musicians, where feedback is live in front of a group of people, writers get very little in the way of approval from their audience.

Sure, there are reviews. And if we're lucky enough to get published, there can be fan mail. But during the months it takes to write a book, we're usually working in a vacuum. The writing process is solitary, and feedback is often internal and fiercely critical.

This lack of confidence in our own abilities makes us work harder to make the book better, but it also causes a lot of worry and stress. We all face a perpetual teeter-totter of thinking what we just wrote is pretty good, then thinking it will never be published and the world will realize we're frauds.

But it doesn't have to be that way.

I've extolled the value of peer groups in the past. Having friends, family, and peers critique your writing is the fastest way to improve. But it works for more than the finished story.

Asking a trusted peer to read a work-in-progress can be a huge help. It can clear up nagging doubts, get you through a part where you're stuck, force you to regroup, and aid in motivation. A writer friend saying "This is great" ranks only below "I love you" in the most important words you can hear.

I'm lucky that I have half a dozen professional writers on speed dial, and if I get stuck, they're happy to help me out. Naturually, I return the favor. It's a combination of tough love, enabling, and a mutual admiration society, and it is one of the true joys of this business.

Don't have anyone to help you when you're wallowing in despair? Here are some tips to find that special someone.
  • Join a writer's group. Most colleges, libraries, and bookstores have some sort of weekly or monthly gathering of writers. If they don't, offer to start one.
  • Next time you're among writers (convention, conference, writing class, literary talk) introduce yourself to them. If you find someone with similar interests, offer to trade manuscripts.
  • If you're a published writer, and have published writer friends (you can meet them at book fairs and writing conventions, usually at the bar), ask if they'll swap WIPs with you.
  • Show your non-writer friends to critique like a writer. I have a download on my website that teaches how.

Book don't have to be written in a vacuum. Talking with peers can be encouraging and inspiring, even if it only amounts to a few kind words to help you trust yourself.


Mark Terry said...

Just one word of caution: for some people, any criticism during the actual writing of the book can make it self-destruct. If you're one of those people, wait until you're finished.

Therese Fowler said...

Totally agree about the perpetual teeter-totter!

Mark makes a good point, and I'll add another angle: having written one novel and shared it in-progress in MFA workshops, I found that sharing a wip can be counterproductive if the reader isn't sure (or doesn't care) where the author is trying to go with the story.

Too many cooks risks spoiling the stew.

However, I've found that talking about the story with other writers (or savvy readers) while it's in progress can be hugely beneficial.

Anonymous said...

How funny--I was just trying to explain the ego thing to my husband last night. Not sure I explained it well; perhaps I'll direct him your way so he can read this, too. As for no immediate gratification coming from my writing, that's why I blog. It's small consolation when I'm slogging away on my wip, but I still treasure all those people who comment favorably on any of my blog entries. As for not having a good critique partner, that's been an issue for me lately. It's one thing to ask someone to read a few chapters, but quite another to ask them to read and critique an entire novel, and then get it back to you in a timely fashion so you can get it sent out.

Erica Orloff said...

It's in the ethers. Just blogged about this today.

To me, you get out of your group or critique partners what you put into them. Like a marriage, or a long-term friendship, it takes nurturing. You don't have to be these people's best friend. In fact, that can complicate things (in my case, one of my group IS my best friend and a tremendous writer, and it works for us). But you have to be honest and communicate openly, try to leave your ego at the door . . . etc. You can spot a toxic group or critique partner, just like, if you have your head screwed on straight, you can spot a toxic person and hopefully run the other way.

My group is invaluable to me--they give me discipline (I have to produce pages), and they alert me to those writer lessons I'm still struggling to learn. 15 or 20 books later, I'm still learning. That's what life is all about.

Jp said...

Weird, I just blogged about this today myself, from the perspective of being on the teeter-totter. Maybe a crit group is the right answer. I used to be a member of critters and found it very helpful, but ultimately Day Job demanded way too much of my time for me to be critting three stories a week to get one critted every other month. Can anyone make recommend any other good groups?

Rosemary Nissen-Wade said...

Being a performance poet helps – we get the same kind of instant feedback as actors. And yes, blogging helps too.

But talking about a wip? Depends. I was once married to a writer who found that if he did that, he never wrote the thing!

Steve MC said...

Ralph Keyes has a chapter on this in his excellent "The Courage to Write." It starts off with this quote from Toni Morrison: "Solitude, competitiveness, and grief are the unavoidable lot of a writer only when there is no organization or network to which he can turn."

It's a personal choice, and while I wouldn't recommend anyone talk about a work until it's done, getting an objective view on it later can be key.

The one thing to be clear about at the start is that you actually want honest feedback. Anyone can give compliments - it's the ones who can see where your work can be improved, and get that across, that count.

And even then there's often hard feelings. Tennyson once went to a friend's for lunch and afterwards showed him a poem. His friend said, "I shouldn't publish that if I were you." Tennyson bristled. "If it comes to that," he said, "the sherry you served was downright filthy."

Anonymous said...

I respect your position and am glad it works for you. Personally, I've never been a fan of book building by consensus. It reminds me of the old Q&A:

Q: Do you know what a donkey is?
A: No, what?
Q: It's a horse built by a committee.

That said, however, feedback can be very valuable when offered by readers after the book is completed and has been read. Did they like a character? Why or why not? What did they like most about the book? The least?

Book clubs are great places to explore issues like this and then use what you learn in your next book.

JA Konrath said...

I'm not sure brainstorming and advice amounts to book-building by consensus.

Soliciting input to get over a hurdle is helpful. But one of the requirements is mutual admiration and respect.

Jude Hardin said...

In my experience, sharing work before the first draft is complete usually ends up with a lot of maddening tail chasing. Or it brings the work to a screeching halt. It is nice to have someone to bounce ideas off of sometimes, though.

I've never found a critique group that works for me, but I'm sure there are some good ones out there. For a newbie writer, though, I think time is best spent reading a lot and writing a lot.

Jerry Waxler said...

I found that it took some time to learn how to work critique groups into my writing life. And once I did, the benefits made it well worth my while. I wrote an article about my experience with critique groups at one of my old sites. I've got to move it over to my blog. Thanks for the great blog, by the way. I'm adding it to my blogroll.

Article on critique groups

Best wishes,
Jerry Waxler
Memory Writers Network

Joe Moore said...

"On one hand, we have the hubris that our words are not only important enough to put on paper, but that other people should take time to read them."

In many respects, we are all guilty of indulging in Vanity Press.

Unknown said...

All good advice.
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Conda Douglas said...

I'm fortunate too, to have an excellent writers' group and to have good and generous writer friends. But as others have shared in different ways, I've found I can't share my brand new baby w.i.p. and be effective at listening to what others have to say. I need to wait until those new, precious words have aged a bit and I've gotten a touch of objectivity.

T. M. Hunter said...

I barely have enough time to get the writing done with the day job. I'm with "jp" above, a critique group would be immensely helpful, but how does one find the time to do it correctly (critiquing the others while getting your own work critiqued)?

Carol Burge said...

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Here are the rules:

Link to the person that tagged you
Post the rules on your blog

Share six non-important things/habits/quirks about yourself

Tag six random people at the end of your post by linking to their blogs

Let each random person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their website

Thank Maria Zannini at
for starting this. :)

Stacey Cochran said...

Can anyone make recommend any other good groups?

If you're in the Carolinas, I currently serve as Organizer for three speaker-centered groups: Raleigh Group, Charlotte Group, and Wilmington Group.

Newcomers are welcome, and it's completely free.

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