Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Take 237 and counting

I remember the first real critique I got. I didn’t write new material for days.

It took time to process it, to decide if I was going to be a self-righteous jackass or a serious writer.

It wasn’t even a bad critique. The critiquer – a professional, by the way, a published author – had good things to say. The writing wasn’t the problem. It was the structure of information in the story. She pointed out things I did well, even things she said I did extremely well.

Feedback can be hard to swallow. It’s like handing over your newborn baby to the doctors for inspection – all you want is your baby back and to be told everything is great.* And one of the reasons we don’t like critiques is that we’re struggling already with our own self doubt and self criticism. We really want our egos stroked – we don’t want our fears validated. But once your baby is published, it’s out there for the world to see. You can’t undo mistakes. Your last chance to fancy yourself up before the prom has come and gone and if the lipstick’s too thick and bright and the make-up gaudy and the dress trampy, well, then you’re the prom ho this year.

Editing, critiquing – these aren’t dirty words. These are the chances you get to review everything you’ve worked so hard for and make sure it’s perfect.

I’d much prefer someone tell me in an edit that I made a mistake than to see it when I’m skimming the hard copy of my finished book.

I was looking over something I wrote months ago, making notes. All those lines, squiggles, inserted words? Those are my notes. Things I want to change. Almost every page I’ve read so far looks like that.

Thank God!

Why, you say? Because it means I learned something in the past few months. It means I can step back objectively from my stuff and see room for improvement.

Authors struggle with hitting the wall of self doubt, no matter how many books they’ve written.

That’s one of the reasons I read author blogs. The refreshing honesty balanced by insight from people who really know what they’re talking about is a godsend, because when you begin this publishing journey it’s pretty scary.

And the minute you get somewhere in your career, all sorts of weird stuff starts happening. Which will be the subject of another blog post some other day, I’m sure.**

But this is why I don’t prop myself up as the voice of knowledge about publishing, because I’m still muddling my way through, still learning, and I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I still will make mistakes. Routinely, I find the people who assert they know it all often know the least. Listen to the people who’ve been there, not the people who’ve never gone through the process, or – like me – are just starting the journey. At the end of the day, all I’ve got is my experience and my advice, which people can take or leave. And do routinely. It’s the people with 1,2,3,10 books under their belt that actually know this business.

If you go here and click to view the original post, you can read Miss Snark’s recent comments about editing. She talks about sending your work out to get it marked up to be ready for submission, to be ready for acceptance.

Great advice that everyone should take seriously. Even those of us with book deals.


There have been a few occasions when I submitted short work and there was no editing process. I found out after it was published that it was published. That was hard for me to take, as a former journalist. I was used to getting back copy covered in red ink, and then having one more chance to tweak in the production phase.

What have I learned? When you submit your work, you’d best make sure it’s ready.

Now I’ve got friends that are authors I can turn to. And do turn to, shamelessly. I signed my deal and recruited 7 professionals to read the manuscript. It’s interesting hearing back from them, because they don’t all catch the same things, and that’s wonderful. That’s why I’m glad there are 7 of them. Different people have different writing pet peeves, different styles, different experience, and they all push me to make this a better book.

I’m grateful there are people with more experience, with more talent than I that are willing to share their insights with me. I admire the hell out of them, because they’ve proven themselves not only talented professionals, but generous people.

There are those that seem to feel the way to make them feel better about themselves is to kick others that are “ahead” of them in the game. I experienced that with my former writer’s group. I’ve seen it happen to others.

But that isn’t how I feel. I’m just honoured that I get to run with the pack. It doesn’t matter if I finish in the top 100 or the bottom 100 – when my book is published, I’ll have crossed the first line.

Right now I could name several authors in a heartbeat, each struggling with deadlines, with the muse, with major life stuff that’s impeding their writing. I wish I could carry their burdens for them. Each one has helped me so much, so selflessly, and I feel for them. I want the best for them in their lives and their careers.

A lot of people start out on this journey, and only they know deep down why they’re in the game. I’m here because I love to write. Storytelling is a compulsion, a passion.

I started with the goal to get published. Not self-published, but to have someone else believe in the merit of my work enough to invest in it.

That’s validation.

There will be other goals later. But this is the first major milestone on my journey.

And a big part of the reason I’ve made it this far is because I listened to the person who told me I could do better, instead of throwing a hissy fit, tucking my tail between my legs and running off, sulking, making up excuses for not writing. I licked my wounds for 30 days, and then I grew up.

Think of it this way. When I worked with children, some days I lost my temper. Some days, I was just tired of the discipline routine. There were days I didn’t give 100%.

But the only days I didn’t get paid for were the ones I didn’t work.

That doesn’t mean it’s okay to slack off on the clock – please don’t misconstrue my meaning. But there were also days I’d try a strategy with a child and it wouldn’t work. I’d assess it, take it to the team (a speech pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist, certified teacher, and program facilitator – all educated professionals). We’d discuss it and come up with another strategy to try, then assess the results… That’s the way it went. There was no formula. No absolute certainty that even the plan devised by the professionals would be foolproof.

And if there’s room for improvement in every other job, why would I seriously think everything I write, first draft, is flawless?

It isn’t. My blog posts prove it, but on the average day I can’t be bothered going over them, because this is just me chatting with the world. I’ll spend my time and energy rewriting what’s really important.

I’m realistic enough to know that not everyone will like it. Thank God there are so many different styles of books to meet different tastes. Nothing wrong with that. We find what we like and enjoy it.

But I can at least give people no structural cause for complaint. That the craft is there, the writing is solid, etc. The story might not be for you, and that’s cool. Yours might not be for me either.

For now, I’m taking every last opportunity to re-read my work before it’s set in stone. And shamelessly taking all the advice I get from people who have been so good to me.

Hopefully I can pass on what I learn to others and cheer their accomplishments in time, as well.

My question to you: What was the best advice, or the hardest criticism, you got that later helped you really grow as a person or artist?

Or, you know, we can just talk about the usual. I’m easy.

* Author John Connolly made this observation on his blog, which was down when I was typing this originally. Hence not finishing this post yesterday when I started it. But I’ve re-written it and John’s angle on the baby analogy is a bit different - still worth the read, though.

** Though I’d like to say to those who’ve attacked me that I hope it goes better for you when you’re in my shoes. Truly, because nothing sucks more than being alienated routinely, and when you express frustration over that, you’re the naughty one. It’s a no-man’s land, not yet published but no longer “just” aspiring (as others have put it). You don’t really belong anywhere. I feel more alone now than ever before in this journey, which is really, truly sad. Every sincere good intention is judged, every time you defend yourself you’re unreasonable – it’s so easy to blame someone who must just be getting too big for their britches…

Truth is, I’ve never been so scared, thinking about putting my book out there. Letting go of my baby - a baby I was convinced would never be published.

I wouldn’t wish this petty bullshit on anyone. But I’m also not going to keep bending over for the same people to kick me some more. Life’s too short. Their energy is better spent getting their own publishing deal. Shame they waste it on me.


James Goodman said...

What was the best advice, or the hardest criticism, you got that later helped you really grow as a person or artist?

It's not personal unless it leaves you bleeding. anything else...you can learn from.

Stephen D. Rogers said...


The two biggest "learning experiences" for me so far have been my writing group and Robert McKee's Story seminar.


Erik Ivan James said...

I'm not quite yet to the point of a "for real" critique or edit. But, I have learned a great deal so far from fellow bloggers, published or not.

Lisa Hunter said...

Best advice? One of my writing teachers in college (a novelist and former editor at a major publishing house) had a firm rule: If your paper had a single type-o or grammatical error, it got an F. Her rationale was that in the real world, if you send someone a letter or resume or writing sample that has an error in it, they dismiss you, and she wanted us to get in the habit of checking our work. It was great advice. I know several editors who won't read past the cover letter if it has errors.

Even my husband, when he was a film executive, would reject screenplays that had errors on the first page. He figured that if someone was that sloppy, the writing that followed would be sloppy too.

We writers don't like to believe that piddly things like spelling matter. But they do, and we might as well not sabotage ourselves.

(BTW, I know, I know, blogging has made me the type-o queen of the universe. But I carefully check work stuff.)

Sandra Ruttan said...

James - great advice!

Stephen, my writing group was a learning experience. Just not a good one! But the story seminar - I'd like to take a story seminar.

Erik, I definitely recommend finishing a project's first draft before you go for that critique. Just finishing the first draft is a huge accomplishment. After that, you're pretty invested in getting it out there, so you're more likely to handle the critique.

A tough critique too soon, I think, can shut some people down and make them give up.

Lisa, you're absolutely right. When I went to Harrogate Crime Festival last summer, one panel was with industry experts - agents, publishers. Johnny Geller (Curtis Brown - agency) said right out if there was a typo in the cover letter it was gone. He said it showed that you didn't take your work seriously to make sure you got it right.

One thing a number of them commented on was those cover letter. One of the panelists said they got a letter with an apology at the end that said "sorry it was so long, didn't have time to make it shorter." But the agents have time to read unnecessarily wordy letters?

Writing's all art and craft, but then you get to the querying stage and it's a real business. I'm still fumbling my way through that, making mistakes. That's why I'm thankful for anyone who's gone through the process that will share, admit their own insecurities and give me tips. You can get advice on a regular basis from Miss Snark, from authors like JA Konrath and John Connolly. You don't always have to agree about every little thing to benefit.

And one of the forums I hang out at, Mystery Circus, has a lot of published authors and new authors who share from experience. I've learned a lot over there too.

(And yeah, Lisa, I know blogging is one thing. I don't worry so much about it, but work is work!)

Trace said...

Big one for me: Show, don't tell.

M. G. Tarquini said...

On the occasions I was in the position to sort resumés into 'interview', 'don't interview' piles, I routinely tossed anything that had a typo in the cover letter or the resumé.

If people who aren't trying to get published have to worry about spelling, why wouldn't we?

Most painful critique? Gosh, I've had so many, it's hard to choose...

How about the time a Bunion read one of my manuscripts and wanted to know if all the men were gay?


Or the time one of them told me to get rid of two-thirds of my prose?

Or the backwards writing?

Or, after it had been pared to the bone and the men de-gayed, one asked me, 'Can't you start at chapter three?'

Actually, two of them said that.

angie said...

Hi, don't mean to barge in, but your post today was really timely for me. I fall in the dreaded "aspiring writer" category, and am hoping to finish my first draft in the next month or so.

I hit "the wall" a few weeks ago and have been struggling through the middle section and the big self-doubt crappola. I exchange chapters with a friend who also writes (different genre) and I have to say that his criticism is usually right on the money. On the other hand, I find myself going straight to "oh my god this sucks ass what the hell was I thinking putting this on paper and asking someone to read it" whenever I get feedback that is less than 100% positive. And then I go on to "well if I can't take criticism now, what am I gonna do when I start the query-go-round?"

Mostly, though, I'm always happy that someone has taken the time to read what I've written and then offer comments to help me make it stronger, clearer, etc. There's nothing worse than "I liked it," or even "I loved it, gimme more," because they don't really tell me anything about what I'm doing right or what needs improvement.

I've blathered enough. Just wanted to say thanks for the post. Nice to know there are others (successful writers, too) who are struggling with this.


Sandra Ruttan said...

Trace, show don't tell can be tough! Imagine how long my ms would be if I literally "showed" everything! Sometimes, knowing when to show is just as hard...

LOL Mindy! Yeah, you Bunions are fierce. But it's preparing all of you for professional editing when you sign your big deals.

Angie, you aren't barging in at all - feel free. I'm glad to see people voice their opinions and frustrations. We're all in this together, no matter where we are in the game. Think of it this way - an aspiring author is just an author who hasn't gotten their deal yet.

And believe me, your thoughts and doubts are sooooo much like my own. I can't believe some of the mistakes I've made.

I think it helps to read an author's first book. Go back and read the early Rankin's, read the first book from Laura Lippman - see how they've grown over time. Because, as much as we want it to be perfect first time 'round, we also want each book to be better.

I think everyone I know would go back and change something in their first books if they could...

Toni McGee Causey said...

Absolutely excellent post, Sandra. I think we were separated at birth, attitude wise about editing / support for other writers.

Most painful critiquing experience was when a pro friend had read a script of mine and just lacerated it. His wife (also produced) also read it... and loved it. They are a writing team and so write jointly, and that was the weirdest set of notes I'd ever gotten, because they couldn't be farther apart if they had tried. She hadn't read his, and when she did, she said she smacked him with the script because he had completely taken everything I had done and was making it fit the intention of what he was currently working on. I'm sure it was just his mindset at the time, everything filtered through that frame of reference, but man, was that a bloody awful critique. Thank goodness I had hers as a balance, because I'd read his first and seriously thought about never writing again if I was as far off the mark as he seemed to think I was. I wondered if I even knew how to put a sentence together!

Luckily, that was years ago, and I've had many many good (helpful-but-tough) critiques since then, and great readers I know I can rely on to catch stuff.

JT Ellison said...

My worst -- my college professor who told me I'd never get published. Shut me down for years, the bee-atch.
Best -- I get them everyday, from my writers group, my agent, my mom. Everyone has something to contribute to making me a better writer.
When I was a kid, all of my reports cards said the same thing. JT doesn't seem able to accept criticism. Well, I'm past that. I can sort through the bs and find the gems. Took a while, but now I welcome criticism.

Michael Bracken said...

The best piece of advice wasn't intended as advice.

Many years ago, early in my writing career when I'd sold a few pieces, but not many, an editor returned one of my science fiction short story manuscripts. This was pre-computers. He had torn my story apart and had rewritten and retyped the entire thing. His letter said that he loved the story, but his publisher didn't like science fiction.

Interesting things happened after reading his letter and studying what he had done to my ms.

1) I wrote my first mystery short story, and he bought it. (He also bought my second mystery. I sold my third to Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.)

2) This changed the direction of my writing career from exclusively SF/Fantasy into writing in multiple genres.

3) The magazine later sold to a new publisher and a few years later I sold that science fiction story with all of the former editor's changes to the same magazine.

Bill, the Wildcat said...

Sandra, I might well have gotten my best advice this past weekend. I've been experimenting with a daily word count goal, and the experiment went terrrible! When I couldn't meet my daily goal, I neglected all my other writing and reading outlets out of a "writer's guilt." I mentioned this to World War II writer David L. Robbins this past weekend. He made me realize the idea of a word count goal was a bad idea and that ignoring my other writing outlets wasn't a good idea either, because they can provide unexpected inspiration in my book writing. When it comes to writing my books (what's most important), he said, "Just give it your best minutes." I found such a comfort in that advice, and it really rejuvenated my writing these past few days.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Toni, I'm glad you had that counterbalance too, because I'm looking forward to your book next year!

I have a tough time taking criticism too, JT. I was always a really good student, so the odd time I didn't do well people would really gloat and rub it in my face, and that's hard. It made me never want to think I'd fallen behind someone on anything - always wanted to be #1.

I really had to work on that attitude in college (although I was top of the class, which only caused tons of social problems for me). Perhaps fortunately there've been many people who've really really wanted to have a go at me over the years, who've told me I was a loser and wouldn't amount to anything. I used to believe that. Some moments, I still do.

Michael, great example of learning from a rejection letter. And it sounds like it really helped your career, which is awesome.

And that is good advice, Bill. I work to a word count goal when I'm on a manuscript, but I also have a broader goal that allows catch-up days and I don't sweat it if I'm a bit behind. Partly, because I've never had to write a manuscript to a deadline. But I do try to set realistic goals based off my past experience, so that I am disciplined. Otherwise, I'd get caught up in surfing, or other things or let my mood get the better of me, and I wouldn't get anything done. I can make a million excuses...

But there is real liberation in not guilting yourself over little things. A goal can be motivation. It can also be a killer if you look at it wrong, and I think that's the best thing. If targets hinder more than help, throw them out the window. Do what works for you.

Eileen said...

I was told by a writer that there is a difference between wanting to be a writer and being a writer. It had to do with ass in chair producing writing- not talking about it, reading about it, whining about it. I realized then I spent more time talking than doing. It changed my whole approach.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Eileen, that's really good advice as well.

Man, I should be making a list!

Daniel Hatadi said...

Great to see a self-crit photo from someone else. It's so easy to feel like I'm the only one that does it, even though I know that's not true.

So far, I'd say the critique given to me by Steven Torres has helped the most, and been the hardest to take. But in a period of a few days, it made me realise I had to raise the bar. The second thing I sent him had far less marks through it, and so will everything else I do from hereon in.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Daniel, sounds like you're in my camp. No pain, no gain.

Gabriele C. said...

My worst? A crit given by a self righteous asshole who wanted to show off his wit. And it was my first crit. :(

Fortunately, I can't stand self righteous assholes and didn't fret too much over it. Though he even had some good points; it was only the way it was delivered that pissed me off.

(Sorry for the language, Bonnie.)

Another not so good one was: Don't write omniscient POV. Ever.

I'm tempted to use another nasty word here that begins with an f. ;)

The best advice I got was to merge my descriptions with the action/dialogue. It made something that was pretty good to begin with really shine.

And the one who showed me how to avoid the Dreaded Head Hopping (TM) when writing omnisicent.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

One of my favorite pieces of advice comes from JAKonrath...

*she ducks as Sandra swings a manuscript at her head*...

"There's a word for a writer who never gives up--published!"

Sandra Ruttan said...

It's okay Bonnie.

Check out the comments under my post about Satan.