Thursday, March 27, 2008

Words To Write By?

From the Communion antiphon for today's Mass... You are a people God claims as his own, to praise him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light...alleluia! Now, insert the word writer into this text, and meditate: You are a writer God claims as his own... Is that awesome, or what? Janny

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Can't Resist This One...

Never read books you aren’t sure about morally, even supposing that these bad books are very well written from a literary point of view. Let me ask you this: Would you drink something you knew was poisoned just because it was offered to you in a golden cup?
— St. John Bosco

Have You Hugged A Critic Today?

It’s interesting sometimes, the view from this side of the desk. We’ve talked about this before, but I’ve encountered a couple of brand-new wrinkles, one of which poses an interesting scenario for those of us who occasionally struggle with this “brave new world” of electronic communication. You already know that you need to be careful what you say online, because people are listening. And some interesting things can happen because of that listening. This notion isn’t new; it’s the basis for the rampant paranoia that frequently masquerades as “caution” in our writing circles. But if we flip over that paranoia—if we actually start thinking in terms of “who might be looking at my blog, and why”—this notion, and the reality it represents, can bring about some pleasant surprises. As an example: I have no active web page URL anywhere—but my blog URL is on my resume, for the express purpose of showing potential clients, future employers (who knows?), and other publishing professionals that I not only can handle cyberspace, but I’m trying to be a quality contributor thereto. The results of this? Well, if I send in a resume for a freelance editorial gig, odds are very good that before the contact person e-mails me back, he or she has already gone to the blog and checked it out. I know, because when I check my statistics, I see the evidence of said reading, and this has happened enough times now that it can no longer be considered a fluke. It’s probably an indicator of the quality of this blog that once these people see it, they’re e-mailing me to ask about my availability for a phone interview. :-) This tells me that your blog can be not only an adjunct to your web page, but an effective substitute for one, and probably a more attractive and effective one in the case of writers or editors. If someone asks for a writing sample, all I have to do is copy and paste a blog post into an e-mail. The really unfussy ones will just ask for the URL where my writing appears, and they’ll read for themselves. It’s a whole new way to do business, save time, and give them an instant picture of who I am, how I write, and how I conduct myself in public. Not bad, for a few seconds in cyberspace. But this week, I also discovered another use for the blog: as a teaching tool, in and of itself. And I’m not even talking about the specific blog posts themselves—although I certainly try my best to make those instructional—but to the comments. Yep. The comments. On most blogs, the comments section can be a dicey place. Crazies have been known to surf widely, post erratically, insult freely, and spam comboxes, to the point where you may have myriad fans of your blog who never look in your combox. It’s just not worth the hassle of weeding through the nonsense to get to thoughtful conversation. On the other hand… I don’t often receive mail at my day gig; my authors and I communicate largely by e-mail, in some instances by telephone or by fax. Even our proofreaders who prefer “hard copy” to “track changes” will send their hard-copy page corrections via fax. So, unless it’s a Christmas card or something else wonderful from an author, I rarely have things addressed to me at OSV. When I got a package early this week, then, I was surprised. I was even more surprised when I opened it and found a book, and a note, from an author whose work I had criticized at some length, months ago, in the comments section of this blog. I admit, I opened the note with some trepidation; I’ve received more than my share of damning-with-faint-praise under the guise of such letters, and this week has been one of many challenging ones of late…so I wasn’t in the mood to be grownup and mature should that prove to be the case. You can imagine my surprise when I read a thank-you note—for my criticism. Yep, you heard right. I pointed out what I saw as glaring weaknesses in an author’s work…and she thanked me for it. She looked over the first several chapters of the book in question, thought to herself, “Yep, I can do better than that,” and proceeded to revise—based largely on the comment-conversations I and a couple of others had had about her writing. She’s self-publishing much of her work now, which means she has the option of making changes much more easily than with even a small press…so she took the opportunity to do so, and she wanted to give me credit for “inspiring [me] to continue to improve.” That would have been impressive enough—but she didn’t stop there. She also thanked me, by name, in the acknowledgment section of the new version of the book. Now, if you don’t already know this about me—or haven’t figured it out by now!—I am, as I often put it, “a sucker for lavish praise.” Everyone loves to be praised, of course, but I think I love it even more than average; so anytime I’m thanked on a page of a book, it’s an occasion to remember for me. I’ve had other authors do it, although not nearly enough times so it’s in any danger of “getting old” (as if being praised ever can). But I have to admit, this is the first time I’ve been thanked, in public and by name, for something I’ve said in what in essence can be a “throwaway” part of a blog. That, I think, says something important—even encouraging—to all of us. It’s one thing to recognize intellectually that everything you say can be heard by someone, and that what you put online stays up pretty much forever. It’s another thing entirely to realize that someone whose name you “take in vain” might be reading one day…might examine what you say and how you say it…and might have that resonate enough that your words become a learning moment for all concerned. That notion is heady stuff. And truth be told, that process is actually, in the end, why I’m here. To teach the craft—both to others and, in the end, to myself as well—since the best way to learn how to do anything better is to teach it to others. But getting thanked for those efforts may just make someone’s day. Be it a critiquer, an editor…or even some fool just holding forth in her combox. :-) Thoughts? Janny

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Right Business...Wrong Job?

All my life, I wanted to be in books; as Chip MacGregor so engagingly puts it, he wanted to be a “book guy,” and I was the female equivalent of that. I read a book about how books are put together when I was very young and thought, “Now, there’s the business to be in. How much better could it be than to be in the book business?” Deciding what aspect of “the book business” to be in was part of the fun, I suspect. Had I dreamed of a dusty little shop on a dusty little corner, I would probably have become an indie bookstore owner, happily peddling my latest finds…or I would have run a (decidedly cool) used bookstore somewhere in the hinterlands, like an acquaintance of ours did in Rogers Park. But I have no retail aspirations, in that sense—except to do my annual share to contribute to Barnes & Noble and Borders’ stock with a book-buying trip every few months. I did, and still do, want to write and sell novels; occasionally I actually do write one (!), and occasionally, I pitch some of those products to various Big Name Publishers Who Can Make My Day With One Phone Call…but so far, none of them has. (I may be one of the few authors you’ll ever know who actually got a phone call from a Harlequin editor to chat with me on why she wasn’t going to request more of my book, so I guess there’s a dubious claim to fame there. :-) But, I digress.) More than once, I have thought about (and still consider) becoming a formal, in-the-front-of-the-classroom writing teacher. I’ve taught writing workshops online, and I’ve done one-on-one coaching as well as tutoring English composition, so I do have a bit of an idea what that life might be like. A few things deter me from doing that right now…one of them being trying to write a resume that effectively sidesteps the “Master’s degree required” bit of the job description. I may be a master at many things written, but the degree I ain’t got. A bit of creativity, and I might be able to set that up yet. But when I got the chance to be a real, live Book Editor, I figured I had taken a giant step forward into nirvana. Didn’t even matter that I’d be editing nonfiction, rather than the novels I had dreamed of doing…because I’d made enough living off nonfiction in the ensuing years that I knew I could handle it competently, and I also knew it didn’t have to be the be-all and end-all of what I did with my writing talent. I’d have plenty of energy left “after hours” to be creative on my own…right? I’m here to tell you that that ain’t necessarily so. That issue, we’ve touched upon before, and my trying to get that aspect of things in order is a work in progress. But what I was muttering about yesterday, as I took my 3 PM laps in the warehouse, was something I find myself feeling frequently after we have one of our periodic meetings about The Publishing Business and Where It’s Going. We had another one of those yesterday, over lunch, when staff who had attended the O’Reilly “Tools of Change” conference reported back on what they’d heard, what they’d learned, and the directions publishing was going to go…whether we all liked it or not. I don’t mean for that to sound negative—after all, I’m on board with lots of elements of “Web 2.0.” I was one of the few people in the room (if not the only one) who had heard of Library Thing before that presentation yesterday; and I’m also one of the few people in the company who blogs with regularity. But what I found distressing was the concept that content isn’t king anymore…what people do with the content, how they get at it, how they manipulate it, paste it together, chunk it, and how much of it they can get for free, is. This is distressing not because people aren’t reading, in some cases a lot; they are. But because to me, these proclamations only emphasize the rapidly-degrading attitude of people toward the folks who create that content in the first place. Yes, the “free content” is almost always used to entice people to buy—putting aside for the moment the web-wise but morally-deficient kids who will gladly hack into any site so they can get everything possible for nothing. But apart from hackers and other crooks, in the context of how this “new approach to content” affects authors, the one thing I heard that disturbed me more than anything else was a comment along the lines of what new demands or expectations publishers might have of authors. Apparently, in a nutshell, word on the street is that it’s “ask for the moon” time when they sit down with authors or authors’ representatives to talk about “rights;” increasingly often, authors come to the table ready to effectively “give away the store” to have their content “out there.” (Sounds suspiciously like the self-publishing business, only worse.) Publishing’s days of producing great work, finishing it, and sending it on its way are fast coming to an end; today, it’s all about “sharing content” and “giving the consumer what he/she wants.” All good ideas—since that makes everybody happy, right? The only problem was, I heard nary a whisper about the artist’s compensation for all this new, exciting use of content. In some circles, the author/artist who asks about such things is even presented as a backward, ignorant bit player who “just doesn’t know how to adapt.” In this brave new publishing world, that’s a death knell for one’s career, because authors who aren’t as “fussy” are out there…and those authors, and what they produce, represent a “fabulous opportunity.” I heard a lot of talk about authors’ blogs, self-promotion, and being “willing” to “work with a publisher” to “optimize revenue streams.” What I didn’t hear was any equivalent enthusiasm about how the authors would share in said revenue streams. And that was chilling. It points up, yet again, the obvious—something I can forget about most of the time when we all seem to be “on the same page”—which is, as long as I sit on this side of the desk, in some ways I’m not part of the solution, I’m part of the problem. When I see what I do from an author’s point of view, something as inherent to me as breathing, I don’t always like what I see. It’s a depressing state of affairs to find yourself feeling like you’re in the right business, but wearing the wrong “hat.” It tends to make you mutter to yourself during an afternoon walk. Other than muttering, though, I’m not at all sure what I can do…and that’s a little disheartening, to say the least. Thoughts? Janny

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

This I Will Not Do…and Why

As a fiction writer, I tell stories using elements of real life—at least as I see it. And, no matter how we try to disguise it and/or enter into a character’s POV to do so, in the end, that’s what we do as writers…paint a picture of a world as we see it. Sometimes that world is angry; sometimes that world is unhappy; sometimes that world is difficult to spend much time in. Some of us write works that are unrelentingly harsh, bitter, nihilistic, or otherwise despairing—at least ostensibly in an effort to get a handle on what we’re all up against.
On the other hand, many of us, especially those of us brought up through the ranks of romantic fiction, write stories in which good triumphs, love conquers, and people can live happily ever after.
That, too, is reality.
People do find illumination at the ends of tunnels. People do find love in this life, even lifelong, enduring love. People do go through trials…but many people do triumph over them; far more people triumph, or at least cope successfully, than succumb to despair (or there’d be way fewer of us).
I fall into this “happy face” category of writer, both by natural temperament and by choice. If given two alternatives, I will pick the more positive one. If given a glass, I will tend to see it as half-full. And if given the choice of what words to put on the page—which is always my choice—I will put words that are wholesome, clean, and positive.
Words that will shed light, not cast darkness.
Words that reflect who I am as a Catholic Christian and the choices I make because of who I am.
Therefore, by definition, some things will never be in my books: vulgar, obscene language, soul-searing (unredeemed) depravity for its own sake, and juicy depictions of monsters, multi-legged creepy things, or unrequited gore…plus one additional thing that, I have come to realize, must constitute my particular line in the sand: My books will have no—count ‘em, no—depictions of sex on the page.
Nada.
Period.
Ever.
Now, those of you who know me know that, as a rule, I dislike erotic literature. I don’t even like things that aren’t called erotica but instead are classified as “hot”, “sensual,” or “racy” books. As a rule, the very few I’ve looked at over the years were thinly disguised porn with a loosely constituted pretense at a plot. The reason for the book was sex, period; it was the ultimate hypocrisy to call it anything else. So in a way, this news won’t be “news” to any of you out there.
But you may wonder if I’m not throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, if it’s necessary to make such a blanket, public pronouncement…or if I’ll change my mind someday and have to eat the “ultimate hypocrisy” words myself.
In answer to the second question? Nope.
How can I be so sure?
Many of us who write sex scenes in books do it despite ourselves. We tell ourselves it’s the only way we can write “realistically,” we tell ourselves the development of a relationship would “logically” go to this point, and that we owe it to our readers to show them that, just as we show them the other aspects of the push-pull that is a good conflict.
But many of our reasons why “it” has to be there, in the end, are based in shame and guilt. In some cases, our consciences bother us about writing the stuff; in others, the “eeww” factor creeps in, and we just don’t feel comfortable writing about something so private and close to the bone.
Our culture, ever solicitous, is more than ready to help us “get over” these “problems”; several years ago, the RWR even had a long, detailed article about “how to get in the mood” to write a sex scene—containing ingredients that were identical to the kinds of things you’d do if you were planning a seduction.
 In the end, many writers were seduced. Some of them went unwillingly, but they “bit the bullet” and “did what they had to do.” And ever in the wings were the veteran authors to encourage them, ladies who could write “hot” without blinking an eyelash, once they’d “gotten used to it.”
Now, look back over those last couple of paragraphs, and tell me what the difference is between getting “ready” to write, or “used to” writing, a sex scene…and the rationalizations we give ourselves before and after any other sin. Go ahead, I’ll wait.
Not much difference, is there?
Shouldn’t come as a surprise, since my faith tells me in no uncertain terms that even reading sex scenes/erotica/”hot” stuff (much less writing them!) is an occasion of sin.
To many people, that sounds repressive. It sounds like the Church “has a problem with sex”—or that I do. Neither is true. If anything, the Church treasures human beings’ sexuality more than our culture does, and thus, She doesn’t want us cheapening it by reducing it to a spectator sport. The Church, in the end, is also only reinforcing the natural common sense and natural law we all have at our cores; the fact is, something in us recoils, even if only very slightly, at this stuff.
That’s why it’s so often referred to as “naughty,” with a wink and a smile. Only there’s nothing to wink and smile about. It’s referred to as “wrong” because it is. Many of us are just dancing as fast as we can around that uncomfortable fact.
What the culture doesn’t tell us is that we’re supposed to feel uneasy writing this stuff on the page. We’re supposed to feel ashamed of taking other people’s clothes off and watching them have sex. Human beings, even nonreligious ones, are wired this way. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have to take courses and read articles about how to stuff our feelings, neutralize our guilt, and “get over” our shame. But the fact is, in most locales, it’s still considered a crime to do in person what we’re encouraging people to do in books.
“But it’s fiction,” you may cry. “It’s pretend. It’s not like these are real people!”
Oh? But what do we all aspire to in our fiction, if not to write real people?
The brain can’t tell the difference. That’s why pornography works so powerfully on one’s chemistry. That’s why it can be so addictive…because your brain doesn’t know the difference between a vividly written, well-crafted picture of two (or more) imaginary people having sex, and hiding behind motel room walls with a peephole. It has the same effect on you…and that effect’s not a good one.
To its credit, the romance industry has done its best to try to differentiate between “pornography” and “romance,” between “softcore” and a “relationship story.” But one look in any dictionary reveals their spin is just so much Swiss cheese reasoning:
Pornography: 1. the depiction of erotic behavior (as in pictures or writing) intended to cause sexual excitement. 2. material (as books or a photograph) that depicts erotic behavior and is intended to cause sexual excitement.
That’s not a Church document. That’s Webster’s.
And it’s a specially hypocritical irony that an industry which unhesitatingly tells its members to get good dictionaries, and use them, doesn’t point them in that same direction when “romance” gets called “softcore porn.” Instead, the romance industry reinvents words, redefines them, and brags that women who read their books “have more sex.” That’s considered such a worthy end in and of itself that once again, with the proverbial wink and a smile, only “rightwing repressed religious nuts” would dare to have a problem with it.
Some people would maintain that the problem isn’t sex on the page; it’s sex between unmarried characters. That sex scenes, in their proper moral context, are perfectly fine. Even Christian authors will say, “My characters are married, so the sex is OK. Why shouldn’t I show that on the page?”
Well, let’s look back at the definition of pornography again. Does it say anything about whether the people are married? If it does, I don’t see it…and so I fail to see how putting rings on your characters makes it any more “okay” to write something on the page “intended to cause sexual excitement” that it does if they happen to not have tied the knot yet.
And please, let’s call this spade a spade and admit that’s what we’re doing. There are a hundred ways to show “character development” without having to be between the sheets to do it. A writer who wants to avoid leading others into impurity will choose one of those alternates, not play the game of “How much can I get away with.” In a way, it’s identical to using foul language: if you have to resort to a sex scene to put some excitement into your book, you’re falling back on the crutch of a lazy writer.
Married or not, the sex act is still supposed to be private. It’s still supposed to be an intimate encounter. It’s still supposed to be something that other people aren’t allowed to watch. Merely because the characters you write “doing it” aren’t living in sin doesn’t change any of those facts. It merely gives you a loophole, another rationale, and one that—if you’re not careful—can “sound good” even to the most moral of us.
Don’t be fooled.
Pornography is still pornography, and my faith has always forbidden me to engage in it. I’ve flirted with that line, I’ve been tempted to cross it at times, and part of me knows in her heart of hearts that if I wanted to make a living writing “dirty books,” as one author so frankly put it, I could do so. I certainly have enough talent to write those kinds of things just as vividly as I write anything else.
And many of the writers who succumb to this pressure are fine, talented storytellers; they’ve just been hoodwinked. They’ve been told somewhere in the submission process that “We need more sensuality in this book,” or “We need the characters to consummate this relationship on the page,” or the like…or else the book won’t sell. The author weighs her options, really wants to sell, knows other publishers will likely demand the same thing of her…and gives in.
 Once again, it’s a decision made by fear. And we all know how wise those decisions are.
Bottom line, my writing belongs to the Lord, just as the rest of me does. So if I’m going to claim any kind of legitimate Catholicism here, the very least I can do is obey the Commandments—not to mention the basic natural law that’s part of me anyway.
I don’t want to have to stand before Jesus at the end of my life and try to explain to Him why, with greed aforethought or out of a misguided fear of “never selling anything,” I sold out so thoroughly on obeying Him. I don’t want to have to explain to Him why I put something on my pages that not only was sinful in itself, but may well have led countless others into sin. That’s a conversation I don’t want any part of.
So, bottom line, it’s just plain easier on my eternity to do things this way.
It’s not an easy stance to take here and now. It won’t make selling my books easier to the great majority of publishers. But if I have to choose between Him and them…it’s no contest.
I’m not going to quote Martin Luther very often on a Catholic blog(!), but in this case, no one could say it better: “God help me, I can do no other.”
Thoughts?
Janny

Thursday, March 06, 2008

To Critter or Not To Critter, Part 3

Last time, we talked a lot about how to critique someone else’s work; this time, let’s talk about some caveats to apply to subjecting yourself to the critting experience. If you’ve already decided that the tactics of the first author we talked about won’t work for you—that you do, in fact, want another pair (or many pairs) of eyes looking at your stuff—then what should you expect out of the critique? Or do you have a right to expect anything in particular? That question may seem a little odd. After all, you’re not just picking any civilian off the street to read this material. Ideally, you have some relationship or other with the person who’s about to read and comment on what you’ve done. Ideally, you have some reciprocal respect for one another. It can be assumed, then, that you have a right to ask for certain things from the critique and get them. Right? Maybe. Maybe not. We don’t live in an ideal world, writing-wise or otherwise. And if there’s one complaint that arises out of critique groups more than any other, it’s the lament from the author who didn’t get what she wanted or needed from the critiquing experience. Either the group or the partner “didn’t get” what she was trying to do, ignored her requests entirely/gave her feedback on peripherals without touching the “big stuff,” or trashed her work and basically told her not to quit the day job. None of these things, obviously, is particularly helpful on the surface…but they may in the long run help this author way more than she suspects. How? 1) If a reader doesn’t “get” what you’re trying to do in the work, 99% of the time, the fault is not the reader’s but the author’s. Sound harsh? It’s not. It’s plain reality. We’re in this thing to communicate, and if that communication fails…guess who’s responsible? Yes, there are critiquers who are obtuse, and who “won’t get” something that’s plain on the page. There are readers whose vocabulary level isn’t up to ours, and they’ll flinch at words our kids knew in seventh grade. There are people who just plain don’t read very well, and they’ll miss things. There are people for whom subtlety is a waste of time; if it’s not as clear as being hit by a two-by-four, they won’t understand it. But that, ladies and gentlemen, is our public. That’s who we’re asking to plunk down hard cash money for what we’ve put on the page. So we owe it to them to, as much as is in our power, reassure them that they didn’t waste that money. Which means that, in the end, what matters isn’t so much our lofty vision as whether we can actually convey that vision clearly enough for someone else to catch it. When we do, magic happens. If a critiquer indicates that we fell short of that clarity—no matter how stupid the comment seems to be—we’d do well to at least consider it. I personally know authors who say, “If one person tells me to change something, no matter how wrong I think they are, I owe it to both of us to give it a second look.” That person who “doesn’t get it” is a reader, too. A reader you’ll want as a fan, if you’re in this to make any money. (!) So if you can make changes that help more readers “get it,” it’s no crime to consider doing so. That’s not “dumbing down” your work unless you’re deliberately choosing elementary words when better ones would do, or something else that makes you cringe in the doing. But be aware that some things that might feel like “dumbing down” are actually things that increase the clarity, the sharpness, and the vividness of what you’re portraying, and you’ll be happier with the end product in the long run for having done them. 2) If a critique group ignores what you’ve asked for—and gives you feedback on little nitpicky things instead of looking at the “big picture”—it’s frustrating. It’s maddening. It feels unhelpful. It’s not. Once again, it pays to step back from the “Well, that was a waste of time!” sputtering and consider what this group of people is actually telling you. Usually, it’s “I’m not advanced enough to give you what you’re asking for…but I’ll give you what I can.” I distinctly remember, about a year or so into belonging to my RWA chapter, thinking that something someone read was just fine…then, hearing more experienced authors take some aspects of it apart, and as they did so, I’d think, “Well, yeah, that could have been better.” At that point in my life, I wasn’t advanced enough as a writer to know that what they were pointing out were various storytelling or craft weaknesses; just the fact that they could see them, and I couldn’t, started to educate me. A year or so after that, someone read something, and all of a sudden I could feel “holes” in it. Things nagged at me. Things bothered me. Things didn’t make sense. And I’d been stopped, as a reader, by those things. That’s how I knew I’d come a little further along the path: I could tell something was wrong. But what to tell the author to do? I was at a loss. Fortunately, once again, more experienced authors’ comments became valuable, because they saw the same things I did, but they could offer advice on what those “trouble spots” meant, and some possible solutions to them. I’ll tell you honestly, I was in awe of them at that point. I didn’t know how they did that…! …until one night when all the pieces fell into place. That night, someone read a piece in the group, and as usual, I made note of the places where things didn’t seem to ring true, or go correctly, or stuff seemed out of order somehow. But then, even as I marked the things in the margins, I found myself scribbling questions. Suggestions. “I’d like your heroine better if she______”. And I knew a miracle had occurred. Because not only was I picking up on craft things…but I actually had some clue how to fix them! Yes, it was an epiphany. But it took me several years to learn enough about the writing craft so I could adequately give that author helpful information, rather than just vague generalities about “For some reason, this isn’t working for me.” This is the place in the craft continuum where critiquers give you line edits when you’re looking for story arc (they don’t even know what a story arc is); mark where they think you misused a comma but have no comments on character depth (they’re out of theirs); or who tell you your characters are “getting along too well” and “there’s no conflict” because the characters aren’t spitting at each other. On one level, their “help” isn’t doing you any good. On another, though, it’s a gentle reminder that we’re all on a very, v-e-r-y wide spectrum of ability, recognition, and articulation when it comes to finding the trouble spots in a work, much less knowing how to fix them. Remembering that—as well as keeping in mind that, once again, they may not have “gotten” it because you didn’t put it there clearly enough in the first place—will help keep the frustration in perspective. Six months from now, those same people may give you something so sparkling and insightful you’ll wonder who replaced them with more intelligent clones. The answer is, no one did; if you’re lucky, they replaced themselves. :-) And if you remember to keep your humility in place, you’ll often get an unexpected and very pleasant surprise; a critiquer won’t give you what you ask for, she’ll give you what you actually need. Serendipity, in that case, is a wonderful thing. However, there’s one thing none of us needs, either on the giving or receiving end… 3) Trash talk. Now, let’s get something straight right away: I’m not averse to trash talk per se, in its proper context, and all done in fun. Heck, I think I’ve made an AOL buddy for life out of some guy in Lansing, Michigan, through nothing but a trash talk session back and forth about Big Ten football. :-) (I sometimes wonder if this guy really realized he was talking “smack” with a gray-haired middle-aged lady.) And any football fan of any stripe would have just loved to be in my office during the last week before Super Bowl last year, where trash talk reached absolutely poetic heights. (!) There’s nothing wrong with making “dumb blonde” jokes about the other side, bragging on one’s own team and disparaging another’s, or poking fun around any subject or event as long as it’s something considered fair game and OK to play with. People’s work, however, is not and should not be in this category. Unfortunately, you may find yourself in a situation where someone in your critique circle thinks it’s funny or “smart” to sharpen a rapier wit on other writers’ egos; you'll be able to tell when this is happening, because the comments aren’t craft-specific, they’re personal. They’re personal slams about your genre, your treatment of the work, or your talent level. And that, in what’s supposed to be a relationship contributing to your professional growth, is out of line. Should you find yourself in this scenario, run, do not walk, away from that group. This kind of thing will not help you. It will not make you “strong.” It’s not a good test of how “professional” you are to ascertain how much cruelty you can stand. It’s just plain mean, there’s no place for it, and if you are in a group that allows for it, they’re not going anywhere you want to be, either. Sometimes it can be tricky to find a good critiquer or good group to share your work with. So what to do? Look everywhere, in a wide variety of spots and sources, for people with whom to share work: writers’ groups you belong to, online workshops, writers’ web sites…there are a zillion routes to take; sometimes, all you’ll need is one trusted person to look things over, and other times, you’ll want a lot of feedback from a lot of varied personalities. Some groups have critique-partner matching services; sometimes the best recommendation simply comes to you by word of mouth. But when you find a good critique situation, one that makes you do your best work and still enables you to rejoice in the process…it’s worth its weight in gold many times over. I’ve tried to be that for other writers; I hope I can continue to do so. Which is a subtle way of saying I’m almost always available for critiquing…so feel free to ask! Thoughts? Janny