Everyone’s a Critic

Criticism is a part of life everyone has to deal with. Parents criticize their children and children criticize their parents. Teachers and students give the back and forth. Friends criticize each other. It is something with which everyone is familiar.

And yet…

Writers are the victims of criticism. This isn’t because they receive more than others. Some may, some may not. This is because a writer is already inundated with crippling self doubt. Some may say that they are not, but the truth is that they just haven’t experienced it yet. Whether it is an area of concern (“I know my dialogue isn’t great”) or the sting of someone else pointing out your flaws, the writer feels…exposed.

Most people have some kind of self-doubt. Writers, we are filled to the brim with it. That’s why it is so hard to show our work to others. Either they tell us what we already know (this needs work = you suck and you’ll never be good enough), or else they lie to us (I like this part = I need to find something nice to say, even if I don’t mean it). Okay, so most of that is in our heads. Which is why when I share my writing, I like to share my first draft. I know it sucks. I know it needs work. I know it’ll never get published.

But I also know that it can only get better. I also know there are some good bits in there, however few and far between they may be. And I also know that I can learn from my first draft, from both the mistakes and the golden nuggets. It’s so easy to be pulled down into a cesspool of anxiety, so don’t sink there. Start there.

I teach, and whenever I have a student absent I will put a zero in the gradebook. It’s electronic, so not only does it update automatically, but the student has access to it. Some of my students struggle, so when they turn in work that is less than stellar, it hurts their grade. This often causes them to turn nothing in. I found out that if they start at zero and turn in something that is only worth 50%, they see that actually working toward a goal isn’t a bad idea after all.

The same can be said for writing. What you put out there may suck. I’m currently revising a novel I finished back in March, and it sucks. But as I revise, it’s getting better. If I gave up, I’d have nothing. Leonardo da Vinci once said that art is never finished, only abandoned. This might sound depressing, but it’s not. Because you are constantly improving. So, please, don’t stop writing. I won’t. I can’t. But I will get better, and I hope you do, too.

Are You Listening?

Before teaching, I went to school for teaching. I didn’t have a problem with the amount of work, but because there was so much to do, I found myself with less time to read for me. Being a writer, this is a problem. But even if I wasn’t a writer, this would still be a problem. I grew up on reading. My mom read to me. I read Treasure Island two or three times a month as a kid. I convinced my parents to spend money on the Scholastic book fairs. Then I grew up, and I started reading older books. Stephen King, Piers Anthony, and more Stephen King. My girlfriend (now wife) got me to read Harry Potter. I gobbled up the Tomorrow series by Australian author John Marsden. I. Loved. Books.

So when I couldn’t read as much as I wanted to, I just stopped reading. It was slow at first, but as I started teaching, my time to read dwindled more and more until I found myself not reading at all. This bothered me. It really concerned my wife who knew how much I loved reading and who was partially attracted to my love of literature. What was worse was that I stopped writing. I knew that I couldn’t be a writer if I wasn’t a reader. So, instead of finding a way to read, I just…stopped writing.

Finally, I gave in. I started listening to audiobooks, and my view of them changed. My commute to my day job is 45 minutes. Before giving in, I listened either to the radio or to silence. Now I listen to books. My reading increased, and thus so did my writing.  In the process, I also discovered a new way to decide what to read: narrator. Some of my favorite narrators include Jim Dale (the Harry Potter series and The Night Circus), Euan Morton (Fool and The Serpent of Venice), and Kim Mai Guest (Anna and the French Kiss and The Girl from Everywhere). I will listen to just about anything narrated by these people.

The problem is that it works both ways. Sometimes I will listen to a book and find myself not liking it. When this happens, I wonder if I dislike the book because of the plot, writing, characters, etc., or if I dislike it because I don’t like the way it is narrated. This concerns me because I fear I am missing out on great stories. I also fear for my own stories. What if I get published and the audiobook narrator turns off readers who think they don’t like my book? Unfortunately, this is the kind of thing that adds to the already crippling doubt that exists in most writers’ minds.

That being said, I like the payoff. I have the opportunity to read literature that I didn’t have time to read before. Any chance I get to read is worth it for me. I am really interested in what others think about this. Do you like audiobooks? What issues do you run into with them? What are your favorite audiobooks? Narrators? I look forward to hearing from you.

It’s Not What You Know…

In the process of cleaning out my closet today(so far there aren’t many skeletons), I came across a business card from one Mary Robinette Kowal. My wife and I were lucky enough to meet her at the first ever NerdCon: Stories in Minneapolis in 2015. We shared a cab with her, talked about reading and writing, found out she is a Hugo award winning short story writer and novelist, and just had an all around good time. We traveled by train, and on the way back we had a stop in Chicago. Mary asked if we would like to go see the museum of art with her (which gave me the idea to make my writer an artist in my first completed manuscript, so thanks, Mary). The best part was talking about the writing process. We talked names, dialogue, and setting. We later learned that she actually teaches a class and is one of the participants of the amazing podcast Writing Excuses. All in all, it was a cool trip.

That year, I won Nanowrimo and finished my manuscript a couple of months later. Even though I did the work of sitting down and typing, I chalk it up to that convention and, more specifically, those interactions with Mary. This isn’t because she’s a great writer or a great teacher, though she is and she is. I attribute this to my lack of contact with the writing world.

I attended a university for professional writing for three years before it closed and I changed my major to education. Most of the other people there were not necessarily that good (though I’m sure I wasn’t, either). The value of the experience came in being around other writers, other people who are as passionate about writing as I am. I realized in Minneapolis that in the interim years since that school closed, I had been longing for, hungry for that connection. Instead, I got six years of working with people who think writing is a hobby. Anyone who writes seriously is familiar with the “advice” other people can give. The one I get the most is, “Oh, you should write about your experience working here.” I also cannot avoid an inevitable eye roll on my part when I hear, “I could write, but I don’t have time/don’t want to/etc.” Writing isn’t taken seriously by non-writers.

Fast forward to October of 2016. A year had passed since the first NerdCon, and my wife and I couldn’t afford to go this year. The advice and community we had received the year before were great, but their effectiveness was starting to fade. Earlier this year I started my second novel, began the revision process of the first, and wrote a few different query letters. I was still missing something, though: community. So I set out to start a writing group. I wanted to get together with other writers and share and comment on what we had written. I wanted to create a community. Instead, I found one: The Fort Wayne Fiction Writers Guild. I attended meetings and started sharing my work and getting feedback, and my writing has improved. Not just the quality, but the quantity, as well. Because writing is the one place where quantity begets quality.

I teach high school English, and I’ve been writing for many years now. I consider myself to be pretty good at writing. What I discovered was that I needed help with writing well. A slew of unique voices help me out every two weeks to become better. And we are a support group. We critique each other, yes, but we also praise each other. We tell each other what works and what doesn’t. We encourage each other. And together, we take the most solitary of tasks, writing, and turn it into a group event. Could I get published if I didn’t have this group of writers? I’m sure that eventually I could. Would I be as good? Probably not. But even if I would, it wouldn’t be worth it. Because, in writing, it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. And I know some pretty amazing people.

The Art of Rejection

Writing a book is hard. Revising it is harder. Sending it out for potential representation is deceptively easy. That’s because getting it back is the most difficult part of the process.

I actually enjoy looking for literary agents. It’s kind of like buying a house. You get to do research, see if it fits your needs, and tell others about your book. The best part is the fantasizing. If you’ve ever looked at a house before (or a car, I suppose), then you probably know what I’m talking about. You imagine yourself living there, thinking about what the living room will look like after you decorate or how to make the most space out of the kitchen. I’m not particularly handy, but I know people who can do this with broken down homes. That’s because what they see is that magic word: potential. To me, looking at possible literary agents is just like that. It is finding the potential.

Okay, admittedly this is not healthy. I know I am only opening myself up for disappointment, especially in the beginning stages. The best thing that can happen at that early point is they will ask for more manuscript. The worst is not to be rejected. The worst is to get no feedback at all.

The thing about rejection is that often times, even with an official rejection, you don’t necessarily get much feedback at all. It makes you start to wonder what you did wrong. I’ll tell you: it doesn’t matter. If they reject you because your writing is bad, take it as an opportunity to improve. If they reject you because they are not interested, take it as an opportunity to find someone who is. Agents and editors don’t reject you to spite you. They have better things to do with their time. And they don’t want to see you fail. They are agents and editors, not just because they are good at it, but because they love books. They want to see you succeed so you can populate the world with more beautiful writing. That is why I have come up with my Rules For Dealing With Rejection So I Don’t Get Discouraged:

Rule #1: Remember that most agents read your query, don’t charge a fee, and respond, even if it is in a form letter.

That’s it. That is my only rule. There are people out there who want you (and me) to succeed. They don’t have a job without writers. So they read what I am sure are dozens of queries a day, hundreds a week, perhaps even thousands a month. Often they reject. And that sucks for us authors, but they also have to deal with writers who don’t take the news so well. I saw a tweet from a literary agent specifying not to pitch to agents and editors on Facebook or with physical queries sent to their homes. He did not say this just as a friendly reminder. He said this because people do it. I even know of an agent who got pitched to in a bathroom!

My point is that rejection sucks. Dealing with rejection sucks. Fearing that you will never be an accomplished writer sucks. Thinking that you are worthless as a writer sucks. I know all of this because these thoughts go through my head each time I get a rejection. The thing is, I don’t fight it. I allow myself to feel bad for no more than five minutes before I remind myself of the most important thing to remember when writing to be published: Everyone’s been rejected. Stephen King put a nail on his desk that fell out because it was weighed down with so many rejections. John Green has been rejected. Hell, even J.K. Rowling has been rejected.

Those writers, and many more, have something else in common as well. They never gave up. And you writers who read this, I hope you don’t give up either. I won’t. I am not going to look at the eight rejections I’ve gotten, but rather at the six responses I haven’t gotten yet. And I am going to fantasize. And write.

Maroon(ed)

“Maroon is strange word,” Jeffrey thought as he looked at his leg. The blood had slowed, but he still lost enough of it to worry about passing out.

“Maroon is a strange word,” Jeffrey said out loud. Nobody responded. Hal was over by the tree nearest the water, so maybe he couldn’t hear. Elise was nowhere to be found. Typical Elise. She probably ran off with Lonnie to give him a piece of her mind, and then a piece of ass. Ashley laid closest to Jeffrey, but her eyes were closed, her lips parted.

In fact, her lips made Jeffrey’s mind think of the word maroon. The dark color adorned her lips, which he had tasted only hours before, when things were still fine. They didn’t taste maroon then. They had tasted like grapefruit.

Jeffrey looked down at his pants, once khaki, now crimson. It made him sad to think that nobody asked if he was okay. The pain wasn’t as bad as when they first landed, but would it have hurt them to at least inquire? “I guess everyone is dealing with the news in their own way,” he thought.

Still, Jeffrey thought that Hal could have been more concerned instead of huddling against the tree. Sure, his daughter was by Jeffrey’s side, but Jeffrey couldn’t expect her to take care of him. She was asleep.

The moon crept up in the sky. “When did the moon appear?” Jeffrey thought. “And When did it get dark?” It was only a sliver, so Jeffrey couldn’t see much beyond his immediate vicinity. He was sure Hal had gone off to find where his wife had gone. Caprice was a little bit loopy, though Jeffrey would never admit that to his fiancee. Ashley loved her mom more than anything. She aspired to be her mom.

Elise and Lonnie still hadn’t returned. They were probably still wrapped in each other’s arms. Jeffrey would never call his sister a bad name (wasn’t slut-shaming looked down on now?), but she had always wanted to “bang on the beach.” Her words, not his.

Jeffrey thought about the birds flying in the sky. The vermillion sun brightened their white feathers, giving a contrast to the fiery sands surrounding Jeffrey. The pain in his hips was gone now. In fact, all the pain in his lower body had vanquished. He felt everything up top, though. If only he could sleep, sleep like Ashley slept. Her cherry lips (or was it grapefruit, he couldn’t remember) parted reminded him of the first time they met.

Hal was back at his tree. Apparently Caprice had decided not to join him. Nobody joined Jeffrey. Were they all still mad at him? Didn’t they know it was an accident? If only Ashley would wake up, she would tell them it was an accident, that it wasn’t entirely his fault.

The moon grinned down on Jeffrey. He thought it reminded him of a cat, but he couldn’t remember why.

The leaves nearby rustled, and Jeffrey heard a “shhhhh” echo off the water. It seemed Elise and Lonnie were done with their frolicking for the day. Jeffrey couldn’t imagine why Elise wanted to hookup with Ashley’s brother. Wasn’t that weird?

Ashley’s cheeks flushed pink. She must have been dreaming about their first time together. It was a doozy. Hal, of course, still sulked over by his tree. Jeffrey tried to shout out to him, but then he thought better of it. No use pissing off your soon to be father-in-law, especially when he was already upset.

Jeffrey’s heart ached. His stomach stopped hurting, though. So did his arms. Now he could lay peacefully and stare at the scarlet sky.

Elise wasn’t talking to Jeffrey anymore, either. He knew she would forgive him. She was like that. Wasn’t that why she was scolding Lonnie? It didn’t keep her from letting him into her pants, though.

As the sun set (or maybe it was rising), Jeffrey couldn’t help but feel sorry for Caprice. She was the one who always had his back. Maybe that was why she wasn’t with Hal. She always defended Jeffrey to her husband, and now Caprice was off alone and Hal sat sullenly by his tree.

There was no moon. The sun shone bright, but the edges of Jeffrey’s vision went to nightfall. “That’s peculiar,” Jeffrey thought.

Jeffrey’s heart still hurt, but the pain was a dull throb now. Ashley would wake up soon. Elise would walk out from behind the trees with Lonnie. Caprice would come put her hand on her husband’s shoulder. They would all make sure Jeffrey was okay. He had laid down for so long he would need time to shake out the pins and needles.

Night and day blurred together for Jeffrey. The sun was fading. Soon the moon would take over. “That would make for a beautiful wedding,” Jeffrey thought.

Jeffrey was sure Hal would forgive him for the accident. That was why they were here. That was why Hal made this awful trip, wasn’t it? Jeffrey knew Hal would forgive him. He’d always wanted grandchildren.

The sun burned brightly in the center of Jeffrey’s vision. As the blackness encircled it, closing in, Jeffrey thought of the color of the sun. It wasn’t yellow. It wasn’t orange. It was more saturated than those. “Maroon is a strange word,” Jeffrey thought, and he closed his eyes.

New Beginnings

Hi, and welcome to my blog, Words About Words. Each week, I will post my thoughts about something related to reading and writing, and my first post is no different. So, if you like what you read here, be sure to follow so you can get more. And now, a little something about beginnings.

This is actually not my first blog. I started one in 2010. It was fun, but it was gimmicky. If you would like to check it out, go to yourdreamsaremanufactured.blogspot.com. Just don’t tell WordPress about my ex. It’s a sore subject.

In the six years since I started that blog, I posted a total of 31 times. For you non-math oriented folks, that’s barely more than five posts a year on average. I just didn’t know what to say or how to say it. I was young(er) then, and I thought I was being cool. I was wrong.

So, why do I think I can do it now? I thought about that as I put this site together, and all I can say is that my expectations for myself have changed. I’m not trying to be somebody cool that everyone wants to know. I’m trying to be me.

You see, I also had a different Twitter account, but I changed that, too. I spent way too much of my time ranting about current events and wondering why very few people were following me. But I recently finished writing a book, and in seeking representation, I realized that a web presence is something agents notice, and mine was awful. I needed to change. I needed to rebrand myself.

This isn’t something new. Every once in a while, I feel stuck in a rut and in need of an alteration of some kind. This frustrates my wife, because this usually comes in the form of changing my appearance (shave my goatee, cut my hair, etc.). But this new change was different. I had let my writing take a back seat for a long time, which I am almost positive is what led to my lack of tack on the web.

So, I created a new Twitter devoted almost exclusively to writing. Then I created this site. I wanted more than just a blog, though, and WordPress offered that. I now have a place to share my thoughts as well as post current fiction I am working on. Now, if an agent does want to know more about me, I won’t be embarrassed by what they see.