I’m sitting at my desk, staring at my screen. Specifically, staring at one paragraph in my novel. A paragraph that sort of gets at what I want to say…except, not really, no. The idea is firm in my head, but the words that will make it clear, understood, those are out of reach.
Or maybe, I’m beginning to suspect, they don’t exist at all.
My water cup has run dry, so I get up. Go downstairs. The rain has stopped, so I open the door and stand on the porch. The dog runs past my legs, and I breathe deep the smell of warm wet grass and dirt.
And I know what I want to say.
Just like that the words are in my head, perfect — or at least, perfect for now. I write them out, plug them in, and with a little bit of jamming they fit into the story. Not a one hundred percent fit, but I can sand them out later, when they’ve settled more, and I’m not quite so proud.
Right now it’s a relief to have found something workable. I sigh, and take a satisfied sip of water.
And I look at the next paragraph.
I keep trying to listen to audiobooks, and I’ve been listening to more music, but when walking the dog and doing the dishes, podcasts are still my favorite way to pass the time.
My Favorite Murder
My newest favorite podcast is My Favorite Murder with Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark. This is a true crime murder podcast where two ladies from LA describe their favorite murder (or murder attempt survival) stories that I found after the hosts had a guest appearance on the Cracked podcast. It’s a bit morbid, I know, but murder stories are fascinating (it’s why I have a hard time changing the channel when I come across a Law and Order marathon) and Kilgariff and Hardstark are having so much fun talking about everything that I get almost as much enjoyment out of just listening to them talk. Some of it gets really brutal (like Episode Seventeen, oh my god) so be prepared for that if you go to listen to this.
I’ll also just add that listening to a story about a pregnant lady fighting off a would-be murderer/baby snatcher is really good motivation while you’re running on the treadmill.
American Icons: The Disney Parks
Studio 360 recently replayed their episode on Disney and the Disney Parks on NPR, so I downloaded the whole thing for a car trip with my husband. Because if you didn’t know, we really like Disney Parks, and my husband particularly loves learning about the history of WDW and the like. If you have any interest at all in Disney, it’s a great listen. There are sound bites from people who love and hate Disney (Carl Hiaasen refusing to take his grandchildren to Disney World is kind of great), a story from a woman who played Snow White for years, and a gay love story involving a Disney dancer and a Prince Charming.
What podcasts are you listening to? I’m trying find some book podcasts, but I have trouble finding anything that I’m able to get really into, so any recommendations on that end would be fantastic.
Work load wise, I didn’t get a lot done this weekend.
I did some editing/rewriting for myself, one day. But I didn’t write any blog posts, I didn’t do any critiquing.
Yesterday particularly, you can’t say I did anything towards bringing my story to completion.
So what did I do?
I ran for two miles.
I watched The Mindy Project while I sewed beanbags.
I ate leftover barbecue on a porch.
I sat on the beach for two hours, reading, running my feet through warm sand, taking pictures of speckled rocks, staring at the ocean while I ate an apple and listened to families shout at each other and dip their children in sea water for the first time.
Work load wise, I didn’t get a lot done.
But I don’t think I wasted much time.
I’m not always sitting at my desk. I’m not always just writing pages of story. But there are lots of things that I do that I think count as writing.
- Trolling thesaurus.com because that one word is only almost correct, and I can’t remember the right one.
- Scribbling illegibly in my notebook as I try to work out my character growth/plot point/back story or whatever else is just barely out of my reach.
- Staring out the window. Watching that crow strut her stuff or just the wind through the leaves.
- Lying on the couch. Staring at the ceiling.
- Walking the dog, muttering to myself. (Probably scaring away the neighbors.)
- Cleaning the refrigerator.
The story doesn’t stop just because I’m not hunched over the laptop, I’m not done working it out just because I’m chopping onions or going to bed. If I can get into it enough, it just keeps churning, it just keeps untangling itself in my head. It keeps — I hope — getting better.
What non-writing do you do when you’re writing? Do you think you’re just as productive as when you’re churning out a thousand words in one sitting?
So a couple months ago I finished polishing up my manuscript, and sent it to my critique partner and posted it in my critique exchange group. I’d finished inputting criticism from the last round of critiques, and I thought to myself, “I’m in a good place.This will be easy.” Not that I believed that there wouldn’t be problems — of course there will be problems, there are always problems — but there would only be a few. Things I could fix in a few weeks. Then I’d clean it up again, and boom, off to agents I go.
While problems of plotting aren’t getting mentioned (thank goodness) and there don’t seem to be overwhelming instances of my characters not being up to snuff, my to-do list for this manuscript keeps growing, and growing, the more I read my criticisms. And I realize my original goal of being ready to ship out by the end of June was laughably naïve.
I know I can’t let myself get hung up on everything that critique partners tell me. Sometimes you just have to leave a piece of advice behind.
But, you have to take some of it, too. Especially when there are persistent problems — wishy washy character, descriptions that don’t go far enough — that you know about your writing, and that people are still noticing when they read it for you.
I want to be done. Not because I’m sick of my story (I wouldn’t have gone through this many revisions if I was capable of getting sick of it), or because I have other ideas (I do, though), or that I just don’t want to do the work (though yeah, I’m lazy). No, I want to be done because I don’t want to do it forever. I don’t want to be caught spinning my wheels, rewriting and editing the same things over and over again, never reaching a real stopping point. I don’t want to put of getting published. And I don’t want to keep finding so many problems that I decide my story is unfixable and quit on it altogether, burying it as far into my drawer as I can.
I don’t want to get frustrated, and leave my story unfinished. I want to see it through to the end, and make the best attempt that I can to put it out into the world.
To do that, my story, my characters, my writing, have to be as flawless as I can make them.
Which, unfortunately, means I’m not done, as much as I wish I was.
As a writer, it’s really wonderful to have people who are willing to take on the time consuming task reading your work and giving you feedback. Outside eyes can see where things aren’t working, can look without sentiment on the parts that have become too precious to you to know if it’s really good or not, and they can reaffirm decisions that you were hoping, hoping, hoping were the right ones when you put them to paper. And, possibly most important, they can give you a perspective you didn’t know you were missing, rounding out your stories, and your characters.
But it can also be a little too much.
The problem with so many new voices is that there are so many new voices. If more than one person is looking at your story, you’re bound to get more than one opinion on different parts. Or one reader will find they don’t like one bit of your story that you always thought worked, that reads to you like one of the best bits of the manuscript. You get a list of things you feel you should change, to the point that you feel you’re rewriting everything every time a new critique comes in. It’s overwhelming, and makes you feel as if you’ll never, ever get this damn story finished.
It’s really important, when working with critiques, to take readers’ opinions of your work seriously, to accept that you’ve made mistakes that other people have found, and now you have to take the time to fix them.
But it’s also important to remember that you don’t have to take every single bit of advice you’re given. When your book finally makes it out in the world, it’s basically an impossibility that it will be universally beloved. No matter what you do, or how you change it, someone will think that it doesn’t work, that it fails, even if others love it. Some of that opinion will have to do with your own skills and the quality of the work, and some of it will have to do with that person’s point of view and life experience and how that causes them to relate to what you’ve written.
I have a problem with internalizing every critique I get, and trying to apply a fix to my manuscript. It’s how I wind up with stories that get rewritten too many times, that get changed one way and then back again, stories that never feel quite done. I love getting all of these opinions, knowing what’s boring or preachy or what is good or clear or exciting. But I also have to trust my own self on some things: that this bit of word choice is what I want; that this flashback does add to the development of my character; that the timing of this joke works just fine. When I agree with the criticism, when I can’t ignore it, I’ll change the wording, I’ll work out the puzzle — it’s something I actually enjoy doing, after all. And I’ll give every bit of criticism its moment, analyzing it, weighing whether or not it will make my story better.
But I won’t make it perfect for every individual who ever picks it up — it’s not possible, and it’s not something I would expect when people take in my critiques. I’ll take what works for me, and make my story the best in my own eyes.
How do you deal with critiques? Do you ever have a problem with suggestions you disagree with? How likely are you to change a large chunk of your story based on what a critique partner says?
Super Carlin Brothers is a channel I’ve watched off and on, but I’ve finally subscribed to on my YouTube account. Most of the videos I’ve watched focus on Pixar and Disney, plus some great videos breaking apart Harry Potter. They talk about the Pixar theory, the history and meaning of things like Inside Out and Beauty and the Beast, and basically out loud have the conversations that churn in my own head, waiting for someone to talk at.
Taking a different turn, I’ve also started watching the YouTube channel The School of Life. Their About page states they are “devoted to emotional education” and they are great, talking about overcoming childhood or bad inner voices, or how romanticism is bad for love in general, with beautiful animations to illustrate their points. I’ve only just started digging into this channel, and there are some videos about philosophers and writers and…oh my goodness, there’s a video called “In Praise of Hugs“, gotta watch that…
I’ve also been watching Lady Dynamite, the Netflix show starring comedian Maria Bamford. My husband and I both love her — I tried to listen to her to make packing go by faster when we were moving, but I was laughing so hard I couldn’t see or move. I was a little nervous about the show, though, because her comedy is weird, and sometimes comedians don’t translate well into their sitcoms. But no! This show reflects Maria Bamford so well, with random fourth wall breaks, sudden surreal moments, and frequent shots of her pugs. She even manages to jump between three timelines in an amazingly clear way (an issue she addresses in the show through a conversation with Patton Oswalt) and is so funny in a way that I can’t really explain, because you just have to see it. Oh, and it’s about her past and continuing battle with anxiety and depression. We’re halfway though it now, and it is a great time.
Anxiety gets in the way of a lot of things.
It makes it hard to get out of bed, to set down at the computer and write even so much as a dumb little blog post. It makes it hard to leave the house, to get chores done. It’s even hard to just sit on the couch and read a book, because why, what’s the point, isn’t there something else you should be doing.
Anxiety makes it hard even when you manage to do these things. I edited for two hours, but what’s the point, there’s so much more to be done. It makes it hard to feel accomplished, and easy to feel frustrated as you fall into that awful spiral of comparing yourself. I look at my to-do list with all of its checked boxes, and I still feel like I haven’t done a thing. I might as well just stand in the shower, or lie on the floor, clutching my stomach.
I’m lucky, though. I have things that have to get done, and an anxiety that is just mild enough that I can do those things at least. I have to walk the dog. I have to buy groceries. I have to make dinner, fold laundry. I have to sit at the desk and pick up a pen, because even if I rip out every sheet of paper I mark, or write just two sentences and fill the rest of the page with swirls and doodles, because going just one day without doing that is worse pain than my anxiety knows how to inflict.
And as I move, my body calms. I can do one more thing, then another. I can go to one more store. I can clean the counter top. I can write one more page, edit one more chapter. It can take days to stop thinking so much on how much I’m failing, how little I’m doing. But I know that this feeling — this awful, bothersome, eternal feeling — isn’t forever, and if I keep pushing through it will fade until I almost (almost) can’t see it anymore. Then I can look back, to meals I’ve made, to piles of read books, to notebooks and journals full of words and ideas, to email chains between me and critique partners, and I can see that I have done something, despite everything inside of my getting in the way.
There’s a collection of locks on the chain link fence over a bridge in Boston. We passed by, on our way to the T, and even though we had a place to be, and people to call, I had to pause, just a moment, to appreciate the sight. Some of the locks are old ad rusted, some are new and shining. There are plain cold metal ones, and ones that are bright purple or green or heart shaped. Most of them are clumped together, so when looked at from the right angle and distance they look like rigid, shimmering fish scales, while others float to the side, or hang above, the old owners tall or clever enough to get them up above the rest.
I don’t know why these are here, if there’s a general purpose or if every single person just left a lock for different reasons. Out of boredom, because they were sad, because something had made them angry, or because the sight stunned them for a moment and they wanted to be a piece of it. Or maybe they wanted to ditch a lock they didn’t need, and this seemed like the place to do it.
All those little chunks of metal together, either forming garbage, or something beautiful, depending on your point of view.