I did a presentation in a prison recently. (Okay, it was a “Juvenile Detention Facility,” but trust me—it was a prison). I went with the multi-media version of my presentation—including cajon and sound system—because young men sometimes respond better to loud noise than to quiet words. And thankfully, they were into the whole drumming-as-history-lesson aspect. But the part of the presentation that seemed to resonate most of all was an unscripted comment I made about their current situation…
“How many of you like to write, or think you might want to write someday?” I asked. A few hands went up. “Or maybe write songs?” A few more hands. “Or write a stage play? Or poetry? Or develop a TV series? Or start a podcast? Or write a screenplay for a movie? Or…” By the end of it, most of the hands in the room were up.
“Then pay attention.” A few of them looked confused. “Not to me. To this.” I waved my arms, indicating the entire facility—the large common room we were all locked into, the smaller connecting rooms, the correction officers on duty, the yard outside… all of it. “This sucks for you right now. You don’t want to be here. No one does. I get that. But as long as you have to be here, pay attention. Not just to what’s happening around you, but to how you feel about it… how you respond to it… how it informs you, shapes you, changes you. Every day. Maybe make notes about it, or start a journal or write a story or whatever it takes to remember it… Because when the time comes and you go to create that music or book or film or blog, you’ll realize how unique this experience was, and what powerful source material it could be. Not that it’s necessarily a good experience, but it’s a foundational one. One that most of society doesn’t have. So pay attention…”
We sat there for a second, looking at each other. Probably with the same thought in our heads: where the hell did that come from? But I could tell from the nods that they got it, and we went on to another topic.
But the moment stuck with me.
Sometimes the most important events—the ones that help define us—aren’t the big wonderful watershed moments… the graduations, the weddings, the births, the promotions. Sometimes they’re the failures, or maybe the dragging-ourselves-off the-floor struggles after the failures. And sometimes they’re just the crap life throws at us, or the mud it drags us through. The stuff that—if it doesn’t kill us in the process—makes us stronger. Supposedly.
We had a minor-league experience of this sort recently, and while it was the polar opposite of fun during the event, looking back from where we are now—when you know everything turns out okay—there are clearly some valuable takeaways here. Not lessons, exactly. More like a behind-the-curtains peek at what goes on in our brains when we realize that events may be well beyond our control and the outcome may be very not-good. The experience was definitely worth paying attention to, and I’m confident it’ll return at some point—in greatly morphed form—adding veracity to a future work of fiction.
Someone close to me (another writer) had a more significant episode over the past several weeks, medical in nature. I was talking to him a few days ago (he has a long recovery period ahead of him, but he’s largely out of the woods regarding immediate life-or-death issues) and he said he’s documenting everything that happened to him during the apex of the situation. But rather than a nuts-and-bolts recounting of various medical events and tests and diagnosis, etc., he’s writing everything that was going on inside his mind as things unfolded. “It’s not technically accurate,” he said. “Not at all. Some of what was happening to me was nothing but a construct inside my head. But it’s my subjective truth, as it happened to me. That’s what I want to capture.” I have to give him major props for that attitude, and I have no doubt this will be useful to him in the future, on several fronts.
The things we should pay attention to aren’t always single, discrete events. They could be periods in our lives when we’re in a “paying our dues” phase. And—frustratingly enough—these don’t always have a clearly marked beginning or ending. Sometimes it seems like we fade into them, then gradually climb out. And while we’re in the middle of it, of course, we don’t usually know if we’re near the end or only just warming up. Even so, if you find yourself in one of these less-than-perfect periods, you could do well to try and capture the feelings you’re experiencing. As you’re experiencing them, if possible. Soon after, if not. “Write what you know,” as I interpret it, is more about emotional truth than trying to shoehorn your factual daily life into your novel. (In my view, one of the many reasons Harry Potter resonated like it did was that J.K. Rowling stayed in touch with the emotional truth of her previous lived reality… writing away in the back room of the Elephant House… dirt poor and not knowing if she would ever publish, let alone have the level of success that lay ahead of her. And this translated very well when writing a character for whom things were also very unclear and less-than-perfect at the beginning.)
I’m not saying “you need to be poor to write poor,” or any other version of that reductive statement. I’m suggesting that all of us face times when things aren’t going as we might wish, either acutely or chronically. And that staying in touch with the way those experiences feel—to you, on the inside, as you live them—can be very valuable later on, when you’re writing about characters going through situations which may be very different on the face of it, but which may have the same emotional truth underneath it all.
So when life gives you lemons, sure—follow the conventional wisdom. If that’s even possible. But also, take the time to study the lemon grove, seeing all the other lemons in all the other trees. And realize that the “life handing out lemons” paradigm may be unique in the micro, but it’s pretty universal in the macro.
In other words, pay attention. You’ll thank yourself later.
When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.
When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
~ Neil Gaiman
This is a large and complex subject with lots of issues for consideration. (What’s the difference between a critique group and a group of writers who get together to discuss craft and/or business? Does a critique group give you something beta readers don’t? Do betas have any advantages over critters? If you’re a struggling writer, can you realistically expect help from other struggling writers? If so, what kind? Problem identification…? Editorial help…? Moral support…?) And the list goes on—we could do a dozen posts on the subject. But I want to focus on one aspect of writing groups—the mindset of the critic, when giving (hopefully) constructive feedback.
Some context: I don’t belong to a formal critique group. But, as I’ll go into more below, I do belong to an informal, two-person writing support group which has been very useful for both of us, for years. Also, I’ve used a very limited number of betas—like two or three—who are all really intelligent people who (a) read widely, and (b) are good at putting their response to a manuscript into coherent thoughts. I don’t always use them, and I don’t think I’ve ever had all of them read on the same manuscript. But occasionally I’ll go to them for a gut check. What I mainly want is their emotional response to the story—what worked for them, and what didn’t. And sometimes, why something worked or didn’t, if offered. But I’m not looking for specific solutions from beta readers because—unless they can really get inside my authorial mindset—they may have solutions, but they’re very unlikely to fit my vision of what the story’s about.
And that’s what I want to discuss: the crucial difference between helping someone write their book as best they can, vs. telling them how you would write it. The first part (helping the author best realize their vision) may actually be easier for a non-writer to accomplish than a writer (who is much more likely to stray into second-part territory—telling them how you would do it). All of which can become problematic in light of the fact that a writers group is mainly comprised of, uh… other writers. All of whom have ideas about how things should be done (of course they do—they’re writers) and may put forth the details of those ideas regardless of the intent of the author in question.
Example: Let’s say our intrepid writer is working on a contemporary YA and part of her authorial vision for this particular project is having her characters talk the way many teens actually talk, multiple f-bombs and all. There are a couple of approaches the critic could take…
Critter: “Can you think of a way to say it without cursing?” Or: “What I do is write, ‘He swore.’ I’d recommend you try that.” Or: “A good writer could convey the emotion using better vocabulary.” Or: “Do kids really need to hear this language?”
Writer: “Shit.” [Hangs her head.] “Sorry.”
Critter: “What are you trying to do here?”
Writer: “I’m trying to convey what life is really like for a contemporary teen in high school. Like it or not, IRL this is how some teens actually talk, and I’m trying to authentically show that via realistic conversation.”
Critter: “Okay, got it. In that case, I thought scene X had more impact than scene Y, because…” [Explains why they liked X over Y]
Writer: “Thanks. That was helpful.”
It’s really just the old “Seek first to understand, then to be understood” thing. We have to recognize everyone’s coming from a different place, and we have to honor that when giving notes. In other words, help them tell their story—in their own unique way—as well as possible… not your version of it. Otherwise the writer’s work would ultimately read like the critic’s work, and who needs that? (This is similar to the over-simplified notion that one shouldn’t write about anyone with a different background than their own. See the earlier “Authenticity” post on doing the hard work to make your characters unique individuals instead of stereotypes.) So if you’re planning on doing more than pointing out where things didn’t work for you (which is really about 80% of good critiquing in the first place) then you need to get inside the author’s mindset and understand what they’re trying to do, and why. Otherwise it can become an exercise in “Write as I write.”
The little two-person writing group I mentioned is comprised of me and my wife. We’ve both been writing professionally for over twenty years, and we’ve been each other’s first reader since day one. But we always take care to read and comment with the other’s writing goals in mind, not our own. Not too long ago we were discussing ways to up the ante—tension-wise—around a certain scene in something she was writing. I remember laughing and saying if I were writing it I’d just add an R-rated sex-and-drugs scene to show how far off the rails a certain character had gone, but I knew that was totally wrong for the book, the author, and the audience, so I offered a pack of bad ideas (as per usual) and we tossed things back and forth until something finally clicked. Because I knew where she was coming from. (For more thoughts on the benefits of “talking plot” with another writer, see this post.)
Try to keep your ego out of it and stick to the writerly aspects of the story in mind. The most helpful thing we can offer each other (besides encouragement, which is really #1) is simply pointing out where things might be unclear or unbelievable or not working for you in whatever fashion, and allowing the writer to decide how she might fix this. Additionally, try to use positive reinforcement rather than negative, because one of the most important things for successful writing is simply that the writer not feel discouraged. Believe me, nothing kills creativity faster than thinking your work is crap. So avoid making the other writer feel this. (Ex: If you find part of the manuscript exciting and part boring, point to the part where you were engaged and say, “I loved this! I’d like to see more of this during the other part.”)
And finally, keep in mind that a critique is simply one person’s opinion. It’s your job as the writer to weigh things as objectively as possible and try to determine if there’s some truth in the critique. (A good sign there might be is when you already had the vague feeling that something wasn’t right with the part in question… usually our own subconscious knows before anyone else. Another is when you get similar comments from multiple critters about the same part.) But in reality there’s no way everyone’s going to like a given story, even those who supposedly have skill in sniffing out good manuscripts: there are countless stories of professional editors passing on what turned out to be critically acclaimed books.
As I like to point out to other authors when they get a bad review, if you write a book and 99% of the public doesn’t care for it but 1% buys it and likes it, you have a runaway bestseller on your hands.
So… let’s hear about your critiquing experiences, either as critter or writer.
I sometimes talk about leveraging the subconscious when it comes to creating ideas. Here’s one way…
A frequent piece of writing advice is to take in TV shows and movies with an eye on the plotting, the logic being that a detailed analysis of the story as written will improve your plotting skills. Yeah, maybe. But mostly what it’ll do is give you a good understanding of how someone else might plot. Which is fine, but they’re not you, and your ultimate goal is to be the best version of yourself, not the best pastiche of someone else.
Yet I think there can be a benefit to watching your favorite shows with an eye toward plot, if you do it pre rather than post the story event. When I’m watching a show and something is developing, what I ask myself is, What would I—as a viewer—like to see happen next? Sometimes I guess—sometimes aloud, to the consternation of my wonderful wife—and sometimes I’m right. Sometimes not.
An unintended consequence of doing this is that you’re training yourself to look at story with the eye of a reader. Not a passive “feed-me-until-I’m-full” consumer, but an actively engaged reader who cares about the characters and who has preferences about what they might like to see happen to them.
In other words, you’re training yourself to plot.
Not to analyze plot, but to create it. Not based on some idea of what—in theory—other people might want or expect to see, but based on what you—as a fan, as a lover-of-story, as a reader—might want to see happen next.
And the cool part is, this totally translates from watching to writing. As I’ve mentioned before I like to think about plot when I’m running or showering or engaged in some other low-concentration activity. And I typically see my written scenes in my mind like clips from a film. But what I’m really doing when I’m thinking about the plot of a story I’m writing is similar to when I’m watching a favorite TV series… I’m watching a short clip of the story and I’m thinking, “As a viewer, what would I most like to see happen next?” I play different versions in my mind until I get that aha moment where I think, “Now that would be cool to see happen at this point!” A benefit of doing this is that instead of following a pre-conceived sequence of events, at each major turning point you’re getting a pretty direct read of what your subconscious has been working on regarding story direction.
I’m not against outlining. At all. Some very successful writers do it extensively, others not as much. Personally, on the Plotter/Pantser scale I lean about 60/40 toward Pantser. And I think one of the reasons why is that if prior to writing I was asked to decide on some specific plot events that might happen 2/3 the way through the book, my natural response would be, “By the time I’m a couple hundred pages into the book I’m bound to have a better handle on the characters and their story than I do now, so the smart move might be to wait until then.” Basically, I trust that future-me will be better equipped to tell that part of the tale than present-me, because he’ll know much more of the nuances than I do currently.
So the next time you’re in the middle of a manuscript and you’re stuck, here’s an idea: Don’t think about what you think should happen or what you think your target audience expects to happen or what you think other writers might do. Think about what you—as a reader—would be most excited to see happen next, if you were in the middle of reading the book instead of writing it.
And then make that happen.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.