Embracing the process

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The hardest thing about being a creative person is subjectivity.  You pour your entire soul into a piece of work; a few people will love it, many will be indifferent, and others will take your submission as an invitation to make you feel like a wart on a worm in the eye of a newt.

Last week, I offered my budding query letter up for review on a writers’ blog, out there in front for all the Fiction University blog world to see.  (A query letter is a one-page description of a book with a bit of a bio that a writer submits to an agent when seeking representation & a book deal.)  I took an entire week to get up the courage to read it.  And I got feedback.  Helpful feedback.  But even though it was immensely helpful, it was still hard as hell to hear what wasn’t working.  As I finish my novel, look for an agent, a publisher, and read online reviews once the book is published, I know the scary specter of rejection will be a frequent companion.

I was a Writing Arts major in college. We submitted our work for critique and the students read their comments out loud in class.  Apart from getting advice on being a better writer, I think this process was also useful to prepare us for the rigors of submission.  I mean, it’s hard enough to submit a paper in class and get it back all marked up in red, but to have those inadequacies trotted out in front of the entire class?  Yikes!!  I’ve heard even established authors still get the butterflies in the stomach when they submit work, so I’m guessing that nothing prepares you entirely.  But I believe you can learn how to turn that anxiety into good.

Because it’s that critique, if we can hear it and not let it discourage us, that makes us better, and anything that makes us better at what we love is worthwhile.  Every endeavor has a learning curve, in fact Anders Ericsson, a Florida State University psychologist, posited that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert.  But it’s not just about repetition, according to Ericsson,

“You don’t get benefits from mechanical repetition, but by adjusting your execution over and over to get closer to your goal.”

“You have to tweak the system by pushing,” he adds, “allowing for more errors at first as you increase your limits.”

Ericsson argues the secret of winning is “deliberate practice,”

(From “Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence.” Copyright 2013 Daniel Goleman., https://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/10/08/success-book_n_4059506.html)

In today’s sound-bite society, having the patience to work at something, to hone it, is challenging.  I want to be a perfect writer and I want it NOW! I’m thankful that I’ve been through this process before, as an artist.  I discovered pyrography — “writing with fire” also known as wood-burning — in 2011, and this was one of the first pieces I burned.  It honestly isn’t all that good.

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After a few years, I was still insecure about my work.  Many times when I sat down to create, I asked myself, “What the hell am I thinking, I’m no artist!”  In fact, there were at least two pieces where I realized I was in over my head and had NO idea how to work through a perspective or shading issue.  Those pieces sat for two years before I developed the skills to complete them.

One fortuitous day I found this quote by Ira Glass:

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Well, I’m a fighter, that’s for sure.  So, I dedicated myself to studying drawing, shading, and even took an oil painting class.  Seven years later, I can say I’m very pleased with how far my pyrography has come.  I no longer trace my outlines, I hand-draw everything.  And I feel comfortable working through the sticky parts that just aren’t working.  My latest piece was so much fun, and such a challenge with all the negative spaces and depth perception issues, but I’m ecstatic with the result:

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So, I’ve done this before.  And because I’m a “Jill of all Trades, Master of None”, there can be no doubt that I’ll continue to immerse myself in a gazillion creative endeavors, and will have to continue to strive, work, think, and learn.

When I submitted my query letter, there was a section for readers responses.  All of them were gentle, appropriate, and helpful.  Except for the one commenter, when asked if they’d ask for the full manuscript after reading the query letter who responded, “No. If I was 14 years old, maybe.”  Dude.  Pay attention.  It’s a Young Adult book!

There will be people who love my work, people who hate it, people who don’t care, and people, like the commenter above, who just love to troll.  I hope to take the constructive criticism with aplomb, to take rave reviews with humility, and to remember that we all have our issues.  I know I’ve been less than civil to people when I was having a bad day, so my goal is to accept those crappy comments with grace, and sympathy, in case that person was just having a bad day too.

Don’t let the haters get you down.  Keep on creating, keep on improving, and never let go of that drive to improve, because that’s what makes great art.

Have you experienced critique anxiety?  What helped you through it?

Why writing is like playing poker

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Photo by me

Have you ever had one of those dreams where you are supposed to be doing something, but you discover that you’ve completely forgotten how to do it?  I had a lot of marching band dreams like that: I’m in the middle of the field with the rest of the band, and I’m not even sure how to hold a french horn, much less play it.  Well, my husband taught me poker a few years ago, and it felt pretty much exactly like that.  And now that I’m finally pursuing my dream of becoming a novelist, I’m finding myself in familiar territory.

First, you learn a few basic rules.  Low cards are bad.  High cards are good.  Here is how you construct a sentence.  Verbs and nouns have to agree.

And that’s fine, because you’re a beginner.  But at the same time, you can see all of the nuance that goes into mastering that particular thing you really want to do, and you want to have mastered it yesterday.  When I was a novice poker player, I could see that things like table position, bluffing, raising and re-raising were all great devices, but I had no idea how to use them.  In writing, we hear over and over (and over) again “Show, don’t tell.”  Easily said, not as easily done.  And then there is plotting a story so that it’s exciting.  And making your characters interesting and relatable.  And knowing just how much description to put into your scenes so that your readers get a real feel for the story without being bogged down and having them skip to the next paragraph.

After a while, a funny thing happened with my poker sessions:  I found I no longer had to think about where I was sitting at the table to decide which hands were playable.  I’d done it enough that it had become a habit.  I now have a good sense for when to raise, when to fold, and when to steal.  And I got there by taking one piece at a time, working with it until I felt comfortable, then moving on to experiment with the next skill.

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And so it is with my writing.  I have my degree in Writing Arts, but that was thirty years ago, and believe me, you forget a LOT in thirty years!  I still struggle with “Show, don’t tell.”  I’ve read so many blog posts and books about writing, and as I edit my first novel, I’m hoping the same strategy I used in poker will work just as well with my writing.  For each editing pass, I choose a different thing to focus on, whether it’s making sure my characters have distinct voices or shortening sentences to create a feeling of suspense and excitement.  And by the time I’m done editing this novel, I’m hoping that the seven-plus years I’ve taken to write and edit this one will make Book Two of my trilogy a bit like qualifying to play the World Series of Poker.

I’ll never be a good enough poker player to win the World Series, but I do hope that one day my writing skills will be refined enough that I’ll have fans looking forward to the next installment of the adventure as much as I do.  Until then, thank you for joining me on this journey!

The Seeing of Things: Living in a Mythological World

I grew up in the woods in a time when kids were allowed to wander aimlessly for hours on end without a parent in sight.  And in those woods I saw creatures.  To be fair, a lot of people see creatures in the woods: birds, squirrels, bugs, foxes, wolves, bears, yada yada yada.  But those weren’t the creatures that I saw.  The creatures that greeted me were nothing you’d find in any zoo in *this* world.  If I’m to be honest, here, I must admit I still see them.  Everywhere I go.  It’s a little disturbing sometimes, but I figure SO FAR, none of them have tried to hurt me, so I should probably be fine.  Probably…

I See Tree People…

Whether it’s faces peering out at me from within a twisted trunk, roots reaching for my feet, or sinewy bodies wrapping and twisting, reaching for the sky with their skinny arms, the tree people beckon to me.  I swear it!  Tell me you DON’T see Happy Tree Dude reclining on the hillside here!

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Or these lovely ladies twisting and reaching for the sky?

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If you’ve ever read JRR Tolkien, you might remember the Ents, keepers of the forest?  I assure you they are alive and well in our modern world…although this one looks a little shorter (and more surprised!) than most I usually see…

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The Moss is Alive…

And in case you’re thinking I’m nothing but a tree-hugger, the hallucinations don’t just end there.  Have you heard of moss mice?  The little critters who live in the forest looking all innocent and immobile until you piss them off, then they swarm and mass into a giant ball of moss, cover you from head to toe, then turn you into stone?  No?  Well neither did these poor souls, who just sat down for a little meditation.

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And for crying out loud, if you EVER run across a building that looks like this DO NOT ENTER!!!  Those Moss Mice on the roof are just itching to drop onto your head and turn you into stone!

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And speaking of Stone…

Oh, yes, there’s more.  One day I was minding my own business watching the waves crash on the beach.  I felt eyes on me.  My hair stood on end and goosebumps covered my body, but there was no-one around.  Then I saw him…the Stone Giant who lives at the beach.  Fortunately for me, he was pretty well ensconced in the clay soil so I was able to hightail it outta there before he got me.

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Who knows?  One of these days one of these creatures might actually reach out and drag me (or you!) into their world.

Best keep your eyes open…and report back to me if you see any woodsy, rocky, tree-y, watery, or other well-hidden creatures that the rest of the world has missed…