Help in a Writer’s Hard Times

get by with a little help from my friendsHard Times

The last several months of work on novel #2 have been pretty miserable. I felt like I was dragging every word out of my brain by its heels, kicking and screaming. When they finally landed on the page, my only thoughts were self-bolstering phrases like:

This is terrible.

Can this get any more boring?

The story isn’t going anywhere.

Craziness

I went a little crazy. I spent a bunch of time on outlining schemes and re-writing. I wrote three new openings for the book. Still, I wasn’t happy with it. I even flirted with starting a new book altogether.

The Cavalry Arrives

At last it came time for me to submit my stack of pages to my critique group. As it turned out, their evaluation was radically different from my own:

“The writing is compelling and beautiful.”

“Another great episode.”

“What a powerful story.”

“…mastery of revision, and fluent writing style.”

I was floored, in a good way, like when you finally work up the courage to ask that out-of-your-league person out and they say “yes.” The positive feedback was a huge shot in the arm. Now I am writing with a positive outlook on the work and all the joy I had when I started it.

Objective Views

It’s wonderful how an objective view (or views) of your writing can change it for the better. Often such views are editorial and corrective, pointing out weaknesses you need to fix, and that’s always good. But sometimes, the objective view can just be encouragement. I don’t find writing lonely, but I do find it solitary, and I’m grateful for capable people I can reach out to for help on a regular basis.

Your Thoughts?

If you have some ingenious way of getting objective feedback on your writing, I’d love to know about it, and so would the other three people who read this blog. Please leave a comment. Thanks!

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P.S.: I wrote a novel ( get it here ) called Trouble Spots. Now I just need somebody to read it. Here’s the skinny:
Grieving over his dead parents, newly homeless, and bereft of his beloved younger brother, Colin Davis, aspiring writer and compulsive smartass, is certain life can’t get any worse, and it probably can’t. But then there’s the afterlife… When an injury sends Colin’s body into a coma, his soul awakens in the claw foot tub intended for the Limbo-bound, but a demon dressed like a Bible salesman tricks him into entering Hell instead. Colin’s one avenue of escape: Thin Spots, unreliable portals between realities that are as likely to land him in the lobby of a Ramada Inn as in the caldera of an active volcano. His quest to obtain the one means of controlling Spots, the Golden Bough, puts him on a collision course with Satan, who wants the Bough to launch a war against an unwary Heaven. To get the Bough and save the universe (and, incidentally, his brother), Colin, with the help of Hell’s queen, her handmaid, and a scholarly angel, embarks on a quest across the ocean of Limbo to beg Heaven’s unwilling angels for help. When the angels refuse his plea, Colin decides victory is a do-it-yourself deal, where the terms are a deep breath and a dive into the hottest flames Hell has to offer.

Get it here. 

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The Writer’s Abstract Feedback Loop

Feedback LoopWriters are legendary for trying to avoid sitting down to work, and once we’re there, keeping our butts in the seat is like being chained. When we’re done, we leap up like joyous gazelles (in my case, more of a joyous water buffalo, but you get the idea).

Murray, the news writer character on the old Mary Tyler Moore Show, said something like “I like starting my writing, and I like finishing my writing, but I don’t like the writing part of my writing.” Lawrence Block gets into this, too, in Telling Lies for Fun and Profit, when he talks about how writers are the only artists who seem to have a level of, if not aversion, a sort of nagging unwillingness to do their work.

Not all writers are the same, of course, and I’m sure they vary widely in the level and manner in which they experience the phenomenon. Isaac Asimov would happily write from dawn to dusk, even on vacation, while Mr. Block, at the time of writing his book, stated his preferred stint at the keyboard was about three hours.

To paraphrase Block again, a musician will work all day in a studio, say, and then go out to play for free in a jazz combo for half the night. Visual artists are always picking up the brush, chisel, mouse or whatever, in their off hours. Performing artists like actors and dancers pick up extra work or take extra classes just for the sheer enjoyment of it.

So why aren’t writers more often the same way about plying their craft? I had an idea about this the other day, and having an idea for me is so rare a thing I thought I’d share it.

The other arts I mentioned all provide the practitioner with some kind of concrete object to work with. For example, when a visual artist is working, she first conceives the idea to, say, put a stroke of red paint on the canvas. At that point, the stroke is right in front of her, a concrete object. She can look at it and think, “That’s perfect,” or “That should be longer.” Musicians can hear their notes. Performers can get feedback from directors, fellow performers and audiences.

Writers, on the other hand, are never dealing with concrete objects. Instead, we are always dealing with symbols for objects (and everything else): words.

Let’s say a writer is composing a sentence describing a sunset.

  1. He starts with the sunset in his imagination. Nothing concrete there.
  2. He writes the sentence. Nothing concrete here, just a string of symbols. It has meaning, but it’s still just symbols.
  3. To react to the sentence the writer reads the symbols and reconstructs the sunset in his imagination from there.
  4. Once the written sunset is reconstructed, the writer compares it to the original, which is even less than symbols, a tissue woven of thought.
  5. The comparison results in an adjustment to the original imaginary image, the image symbolized by the words, or both.
  6. The writer adjusts the symbols (words) on the page to reflect the adjustments.
  7. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What the writer is doing here is recreating the object for herself, over and over, as many times as necessary, to get the desired results. Several of these reflections and reconstructions may take place in the span of a second, often not even perceived by the writer as they are taking place.

All this is stressful on the writer’s poor little noggin! The feedback loop, without anything concrete to support it, is simply tough to maintain. A rare few writers appear to do it without much effort, but most of us get near the keyboard and an unconscious alarm bell goes off: “Not that again!”

Is there anything to do about it? The only thing I can think of is to self-edit as little as possible while you’re drafting, but even then, the feedback loop is going on at a subconscious level—that’s my hypothesis, at least. Aside from that, just practice good work habits and give yourself every advantage you can. The stress of the abstract feedback loop comes with the territory. It’s the price we pay for creating worlds all our own.