Monday, May 21, 2007

Be Careful What You Pray For, Third Part…or, No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

For years, I’ve enjoyed a certain ability to help people with their writing. I have some skill in editing, some skill in storytelling, a pernicious and truly frightening grasp of spelling and grammar…and I don’t hesitate to use them. But I didn’t come to this spot overnight. And no one does. Which leads me to a few words about an incident I had over the weekend. If you spend enough time online, you get to know people. Their styles. How they work, if they work, if they really care about writing or if they’re just hanging out. Doesn’t take much more than oh, say, three or four excursions into a chat with someone to tell where they are on the Writer Spectrum. Some of us don’t care if we write for anything but our own amazement, and that’s fine. Many times, these people who’ve decided to do this thing for fun are among the happiest of us (!)—but also, curiously enough, they can tend to be the most understanding of the ups and downs of the writing life, and just how hard it can be to make it in this business. Maybe that acute understanding is precisely why they don’t pursue it as a business/career. They know how hard it is, and they don’t want to work that hard. God love ‘em—they do us all a great service with their positive attitudes, their sheer enjoyment, and sometimes their safe shoulders. (Not to mention their occasional chocolate!) Then there are all the rest of us. We want to sell our work, to progress in the craft of writing so that we eventually get a) past the form rejection postcards, into the b) realm of longer notes, encouraging and sometimes even signed by an editor…and inviting us to send something else (!), and finally, c) to a sale. Or many sales (from my keyboard to God’s ears). Those of us in this group are also in a wide spectrum of ability and experience. We’re all over the place. But there are certain things we learn, over time. We learn that our high school English teachers didn’t necessarily know whether we could write. Those who thought we could, and those who told us we couldn’t, are often equally right. It’s what we start doing after high school that ends up counting. :-) We learn that if we’re ever going to grow as writers, someone besides our mothers and best friends needs to read what we do and offer us feedback. We learn that sometimes that feedback isn’t very polite, or doesn’t spare our feelings. If we’re lucky, we learn that our worst “enemies” probably help us grow the most. We learn that sometimes that feedback is just plain wrong, but it’s still worth listening to because it can often point to a potential reader problem. We learn which people in our lives are really good at pinpointing what will improve and strengthen our work, and which of them aren’t really good at that…yet. (This doesn’t mean they might not get good at it. This whole craft is a work in progress.) But above all…we learn that writing is work. Note: this doesn’t mean it’s not fun, or that it need be drudgery, or that it has to somehow “hurt” to be “real art.” Few things are more irritating than hearing either whining about how “hard” the “artist’s life” is, or how now that you’re “serious” about writing, “it’s not fun anymore.” If you’re hurting, see a helper. If it’s not fun, get out of the pool. Sometimes that’s the kindest thing you can do for yourself, not to mention everyone else. But make no mistake about the other side of this, either. Writing is work. It’s hard work. It’s the second-most fun you can have with your clothes on (music is first), but it’s also work. Succeeding in this work takes time. And commitment. And effort. It also takes something the athletes among us know well—something called coachability. And that’s where many people fall down on the job. They simply aren’t coachable. If you tell them their writing needs work, they tell you they’ve done that work. Only problem is, the writing shows no improvement. Which means that somewhere, there’s a disconnect. Somewhere in there, they’re lying to themselves. And that special form of denial is not a good place to spend your writing life. I had an incident over this weekend that illustrates this to a tee. A particular writer acquaintance of mine sent me a message late Saturday night asking for advice/help/etc. We had a long IM conversation, during which I got sent a link to the potential publisher she was thinking of…and then a second link that I thought would take me to another publishing site. Instead, it took me to a chat room where she was hanging out with her friends. Now, keep in mind, this is 11:30 PM and counting. And I’ve been up and on the road that day since 5 AM. I’m in fact in my hotel, winding down after Day One of some family stuff. Good family stuff, but still…tiring. I don’t mind talking writing for a few minutes before I go to bed. And that’s what I thought I was doing…talking one on one with this gal. For a few minutes. Instead, I end up in this room with these people yakking—people who obviously think I’m there for a visit!—and I’m wondering where the focus of the first gal went to. So after pretty much resisting sticking around in the chat room, I exchange a few other words of advice with her, and we call it a night, okay on both sides. Or so I think, until I get home from my trip, boot up my e-mail and discover this woman has written me to tell me that I have done something not even a destructive parent could…I have convinced her she has no talent. So after claiming 50 finished books, she is going to stop. She's going to destroy it all, and stop writing forever, because she obviously is never going to be published, because no one cares for anything she'd want to say. Boys and girls, can you spell overreaction? What had I said to so totally finish her off? That she needed to go back to her synopsis, strip back everything that wasn’t central to her story, and see what she had left. She had gone into numerous side trips, most of which were backstory, and I told her that. I also said something along the lines of, “No one is going to care about your characters unless you give us a reason to. So find those reasons. Tap into those. There’s your story, not all this detail about haunted castles and ghosts and curses and all the other stuff. Latch onto the story.” I had good reason to say this. She had supposedly sent this material to 30 other places, editors and agents, and she couldn’t figure out why none wanted it. So I told her. I wasn’t necessarily gentle about it, but neither was I brutal. I was frank. The way I always am…and most of all, the way this gal knows I am, because she knows me. And I probably was less patient with her than I could have been, had it not been 11:30 PM (when my body thought it was 12:30 AM!), had I not been basically led down the garden path into this chatroom, where I had no intention of being… …and if this whole thing wasn’t just another manifestation of this gal’s lack of ability to take advice and actually use it to improve. You see, she was going to use my editorial services, not too very long ago. She was going to pay for them and everything. (!) As soon as she got a certain check she was waiting on, we were going to go for it. That was December of 2005. She never executed that agreement. Prior to that, she sent me a query letter and synopsis and asked my feedback. I was glad to give it. Only problem was, prior to her getting the feedback, she sent the thing off, flaws and all. And then she was surprised when it was rejected. She has received critiques from many of us, specific, pointed stuff, aimed at helping her get better. Only when she submits her material to us again, supposedly revised…it’s no better. This woman claims that at times she’s spent 12 hours a day at the keyboard. But 12 hours a day at the keyboard is just exercise, and not very good exercise at that, if you can’t discipline yourself to stop believing your friends who say your work is “wonderful” and start believing people who are really trying to help you, even if what they’re telling you will only “slow you down” to put into practice. The fact that those people see the same errors over and over again should tell you something. And that something isn’t that those people are too picky. Nor is it that anyone is saying you have no talent. But raw talent does nothing for you unless you’re willing to be coached. Really willing to be coached. You also need to be willing to take the time to grow. Not to try to force it, to try to adhere to some timetable you have in your head, or the like. Goals are fine, but they take time to get to. And if you're not willing to give yourself and your work that time, you'll only spin your wheels. As my dh and I learned long ago in music school, it’s not just how long you practice. It’s how well. It’s how intelligently. If you claim to want publication, part of that intelligence is a generous dose of humility and patience to go with a work ethic that could shame a Puritan. If you can’t muster up the intelligence, the humility, the patience, the work ethic and give it all time enough to take root, for growth to occur…maybe the answer is that you really do need to quit the "business" end of this and just do it for entertainment. But the one thing you don't have the right to do…is blame someone else for that. Needless to say, I won’t be trying to help this person anymore. That’s a shame, but it’s also freeing. As I said to my own crit partner, “There may be a lot of clueless people in the writing world—but boy, is it nice to know I don’t have to fix ‘em all!” Amen, and amen. Life's too short to play denial games. If you aren't going to run with the big dogs, it's okay to rest on the porch. Just don't project onto other people reasons for decisions you make yourself...either by your conscious effort or by your unwillingness to do the work needed to get to where you say you want to go. Thoughts? Janny


Deb said...

Oh, man. I cyber-spoke to this writer after you did, and found myself trying to explain conflict in a literary sense. It didn't work. I told her conflict is not two characters fighting. I told her conflict is the "what your character wants and why your other characters stand as obstacles." Didn't work. I sent her a snippet of one of my sold pieces as an example of "backstory dribble." She commented on it and didn't get it at all.

There are times when you have to shake dust and move on. It's a shame--I've spoken with this writer on quite a few occasions, and I like her--I just don't like the fact that she never says, "Hmmm...I'll try that" to ANYTHING. She merely tells you how many keystrokes she's put into this particular MS.

Hey, if that were the criterion, I'd be as rich as JK Rowling by now.

My take,

Donna Alice said...

I don't know the person who you spoke about but I know lots of "horror" stories about being crit partners, etc.
With my own experience, I try to be honest and I'm upfront with people about that. If I can't get into the story, I'll say why. But I usually try to find something NICE to say too and encourage the writer. What is a crit but an opinion? I've had ms. where I got five crits and had five different opinions. Eventually you have to trust yourself and what you wanted to write.
That's not saying that if part of the ms. is unclean someone can't point it out--or if you make some glaring mistake comments aren't welcome. (My WRITING can always be improved and I've been helped by a lot of crits.) I've also tried to help other people but there are some people you just can't help. They don't want advice and don't even try to rework something so it reads better. It's frustrating.

If I find people aren't willing for some give and take--I don't stick with them long. I need crit partners willing to share and not "good job" everything I write.

On the other hand, I've been brutalized myself by some harsh crits--not about the writing but about attacks on a character. In one sense you need to develop a tough skin and in another, you need to KNOW your own story.

All this is probably totally nutty but I just went to a graduation of 90 5 year old and I'm blurry eyed.

Paulette Harris said...

I think we have all met people like this.
The main thing is to help them find whether they want to sit on the porch or move on into publication.
I honestly don't think that people really understand the work involved.
The more I learn about the writing world,the more what I find out what I don't know.
I really need to have feedback and how to apply it in my writing life. The critiquing of others is hard for me because I don't always have the wherewithall of how to explain where they have missed the boat. I am working and studying hard on this area of my writing.
Our sister is correct, sometimes we have to just shake the dust off our feet and move on. Otherwise, this will bog us down in our own work for Jesus. He knows our hearts, that is the main thing. He knows that we want to help others, so then we must pass the responsiblity of what we gave them, back to them to do with as they please.

Hope this helps someone else.

In His Service,
Paulette Harris