Embracing the process


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.


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:


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:


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?

Finding Inspiration in the Weird

As a writer, I’m always looking for inspiration.  Fortunately, Mother Nature is a wonderful muse, especially when she presents us with creatures just as wondrous as any the most imaginative among us could invent!

Aye Aye

Take for example, the Aye Aye, cutest critter in the animal kingdom.  OK…maybe not so cute.  In fact, I’d say it might be the ugliest animal on the planet, and the Aye Aye’s looks alone are pretty deserving of the title “weird”. AyeAye

The Aye Aye uses echo-location to find prey, similar to bats and woodpeckers. They engage in what is called “percussive foraging”;  they knock on a piece of wood and evaluate the resulting sound for presence of prey (most often grubs and bugs).  Once they’ve located dinner, they gnaw a hole in the wood, then use their super-long middle finger to fish out the insects.  In some areas, the Aye Aye is considered an omen of pending death; if one points its middle finger at you, you are marked for a visit by the Grim Reaper.  Alternately, an Aye Aye might also sneak into your home and puncture your aorta with that long middle digit.

The Aye Aye can knock 8 times per second, which is many times faster than a speeding vacuum cleaner salesman.  I was surprised to find out that these gorgeous creatures are MUCH bigger than I had thought – they can grow up to three feet long, with a tail as long as their body!  It was thought to be extinct in 1933, but was rediscovered in 1957.  Perhaps it was just wishful thinking by the scientists from 1933?

Barreleye Fish

Speaking of odd-looking, most of us have seen pictures of Anglerfish, with their toothy grins and a handy little fishing pole hanging out of their forehead.  However, I contend that the Barreleye Fish is the oddest looking sea creature around.  The fishy body is pretty typical, it’s the head that belongs in a Sci Fi movie:  it has barrel-shaped, tubular eyes which are enclosed in a transparent dome.  The eyes are typically focused upwards to detect prey above, but they can rotate them forward as well.  Our fishy friend also is the only vertebrate that uses mirrors as well as the lenses in its eyes for focusing.

BarreleyeFishAnd to put another nail in the weird coffin, the Barreleye has bio-luminescent organs, which are used to confuse predators by breaking up its silhouette in the water.  This is why Barreleye fishes often conduct raves in the deeps of the ocean. (It could happen!  Or was that just a dream I had?)



Another odd critter that’s all wet is an amphibian called the Axolotl.  I love saying their name:  Axolotl, axolotl, axolotl.  Just rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?  These salamanders, also known as “Mexican walking fish”, are closed to being extinct in the wild, but they are bred widely and kept as exotic pets.  They are “neotonous” (which means that the adult retains juvenile features); in the case of Axolotls, they never form lungs, instead keeping their gills (which are on the *outside* of their bodies) and continuing to live an aquatic life.Axolotl

The coolest thing about the Axolotl is their ability to regenerate: they can re-grow many parts of their body, including some parts of their brain!  I’m thinking that regrowing parts of the brain might be helpful for those of us who may have done a little much partying in college…

Duck-billed Platypus

Finally, what could be stranger than a semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal with a duck’s bill, a beaver’s tail, otter’s feet, and a venemous spike on it’s hind foot?  The Platypus (also known as the Duck-billed Platypus) is so odd that when it was first discovered in 1799, scientists thought the animal was an elaborate hoax.

Platypus.jpgSimilar to dolphins and the echidna (also called the “spiny anteater”), the Platypus has electro-receptors in its head, which it uses to detect electric fields generated by the muscle contractions of its prey.  Hm….wondering if we could make a horror movie starring a Platypus?  The tagline could be “Just. Don’t.  Move.”

Do you have a favorite oddball-life creature?  (And by the way, brothers and sisters don’t count…)

Why writing is like playing poker


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.

ace bet business card

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!