Critique helps you see your work with new eyes and shape it into what you always wanted it to be, only you weren’t able to get it there on your own.
People say that writing is an isolated activity, but good writing requires company. Company that you ultimately love and cherish and value, and this perspective towards criticism, ultimate improvement requires humility. This writing humility is never more essential than when we try to capture an experience outside of our own.
I was trying to write the wrong book, for the wrong reasons. My goal was to write the best book ever, so that my mother would be proud. So that teachers who made me feel quite small and thick would see that I was smart. So that friends, colleagues, strangers would applaud.
So that I could prove that voice wrong, and perhaps silence it. But I was paralyzed with fear.
Then, five agonizing years on, it came to me. Just write a book I’d love to read. Not “like” to read. But love. Not for my mother, my acquaintances, critics, even readers. Just for myself. A private edition. I looked on my bedside table and found all sorts of books from nonfiction to classics, to history and biography. And traditional crime novels. My first great love.
There are mistakes I can’t help but make. I have this bad habit of typing the same error over and over again, until it’s a Groundhog Day of poor spelling. Perhaps it’s a good thing that I know what specific words, or grammar rules, get me into trouble. But it’s a long slow process to fix errors on my own, without relying on spellcheck or other editors to do it for me.
It took me 3 years to spell ‘judgment’ correctly. It wasn’t a word I typed much in my daily life, it wasn’t even a word I thought about. So it was especially embarrassing when I found out, at my law office, that it was a word that I consistently spelled incorrectly, always adding an extra ‘e’. Worse, it wasn’t even technically a spelling mistake! It’s an accepted spelling of the word but it wasn’t accepted practice at my work.
At my old firm, we entered lawyer dockets (which are a daily breakdowns of time spent on file-work) into an old accounting system from the 80s. How did I know it was from the 80s? There was acid green font on black background and the letters were squared and pixelated. You could only Tab from field to field. Judging by the reactions of the accounting staff during my training, pressing enter was likely to cause the apocalypse. The biggest challenge was if you completed a docket, there was no way to edit it. Errors could only fixed at the end of the month, when the prebills were sent out to the lawyers and then combed for mistakes.
So every week at work I would enter dockets, trying to be both careful and quick. The problem was that, not only is it it a monotonous job, lawyers use initialisms instead of writing out full phrases. Each lawyer has their own shorthand. Eventually you learn the standard phrases that are used by lawyers in order to save time, in fact most times it’s the same 5 or 6 phrases reused over and over again. Ideally this repetition made it easier, since you could just turn off your brain and type. The problem was once you made a mistake you were doomed to repeat it. We had one phrase that would pop up every week: “sent email to client about judgment”. Without fail, I would have a spelling mistake. That extra ‘e’ always slipped into the word ‘judgment’ unnoticed. I couldn’t even see the mistake anymore. Judgement. Judgement. Judgement. Judge-ment.
It’s a small error, one easily corrected in Word after-the-fact, but it’s one that I would make without fail. It took years before I consistently spelled it correctly. We’ve moved onto to newer and shinier accounting software, one that actually spellchecks, but I’ve become wary of my own abilities. I’ve learned to embrace my paranoia, because there are times when I’m typing quickly and I accidentally substitute words that should never be substituted. Sometimes these words are easily mixed up:
compliant ≠ complaint
definitely ≠ defiantly
Then there are the other words, the ones that are soo close on the keyboard, that you may not even notice the mistake:
whole ≠ whore
Yes, I’ve mentioned this mistake before. But imagine the panic of realizing you’ve typed the word ‘whore’ instead of the benign ‘whole’. Trust me, that’s not a mistake you want your bosses to remember.
We rely too much on that red wavy line underneath our words. It tells us that we’ve made a mistake so we don’t focus on the other words in the document. You stop reading and just scan from red wiggle to red wiggle. If you know your predisposition toward certain errors it can help you self-edit in the future. You can’t, and shouldn’t, rely on a machine to do your editing for you. There’s been tons of articles about the evils of spellcheck. I don’t want to be part of that chorus. Writers, of any type, need to be aware of their words and their own errors. It took me 3 years to identify and rectify one spelling mistake. But doing so, made me much more aware of my own blunders.
For extra reading: Daily Writing Tips, Judgement or Judgment? (for the record, I forced myself to add the extra ‘e’. Progress!)
The act of balancing one’s work writing with one’s personal writing is insanely tough, because the former has to naturally come first, since people are paying you for it. And then when it’s time to come home and do the writing one has to do, just to get it out there, it’s so tough. There are a million things competing for your attention, even when you’re in your 20s and can get away with sleeping only three or four hours per night, and spending time with loved ones or taking a nap or just going out to a restaurant for dinner will whittle that time away until it’s time to go to bed.
(The most practical advice I’ve heard on this for the rest of us came from screenwriter Tony Gilroy, who recommended taking the most mind-numbing job you could find, the better to make getting home and writing seem almost like a reward, though that doesn’t counter the exhaustion problem. But that’s neither here nor there.)
I love deadlines, I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by
I always got my work done in school. I’m not saying this as a bragging point, but that I didn’t realize that it was optional.
When it came to school deadlines, I always handed my work in on-time. There was varying degrees of quality of course, but I never pleaded an extension and I never handed in work early. Deadlines were hard, fast, immovable objects.
I was terrible at remembering them. There were many caffeine-fueled late nights because a deadline crept up on me. I would attempt to schedule everything in my agenda, but I always relied on the peer pressure of my friends to keep me on-track. I can easily say that I spent most of my education learning that there is a marked difference between:
- writing something down,
- remembering something, and
- actually completing the task.
Those are tasks that I still struggle with. Which is why I find it funny that I’m not only in charge of setting deadlines at my work, I’m also in charge of updating them and making sure that they are completed.
Law firms work on a “bring-forward” (“BF”) system, a calendaring system meant to show upcoming deadlines that you can update and keep track of. The deadlines that I monitor aren’t just a daily or weekly, they span months and hundreds of clients. Dates and timelines become unwieldy when keeping track of as little as what needs to get done today, tomorrow, and next week.
I’m proud to say that (so far!!) we’ve never missed a deadline at work—though there were a couple times we came close. When deadlines become your job, you quickly learn that you need to love them. You need to get a little obsessive. Not only do we use a firm calendaring software but I also create weekly deadline charts and a daily list. There are times when I wake up in the middle night remembering a task that didn’t update.
For my work life, I’ve pretty much mastered the art of completing deadlines. When it comes to extracurriculars like my writing, not so much. I’ve tried different types of goal setting: time-based, word counts, dailies. The trouble is sticking with what works. I am the most consistent and the most efficient when working with some sort of peer pressure. This is why NaNo and other monthly challenges work best, as there is an element of public shaming if you don’t complete your daily goal. That’s not to say people are trolling your profile and watching your updates but having your progress graphed online creates a form of accountability.
Writing programs like Scrivener have session goals that can be set up so you can track your progress, but without outside encouragement, and no penalty in opening the program but leaving the screen blank, I don’t work as hard nor as well. I can set all the deadlines I like, but if I’m not doing the work then they’re useless.
I’m lucky to have friends that are interested in writing and reading. The casual “how’s that book coming along” burns a fire under me more than any online chart could. I want to reach my goals so that I have something my friends can read and experience. Having editors and readers affects my schedule, knowing that they are waiting for the next draft forces me to become a little more obsessive about completing writing deadlines. What I’ve found most important is something that should have been apparent from the start. Not everything needs to be a big deadline. It doesn’t always have to be writing a chapter, sometimes the deadline can be as small as re-reading you work or doing a grammar check. What’s critical is staying engaged with your work. The moment you let one deadline slip by, the more likely you are to let more get by you.
It doesn’t make how many calendar events I create, how many times I tell myself to use my spreadsheet, it’s still difficult to finish my goals. The key to self-imposed deadlines is to find the best way to make yourself accountable. There’s no showing your work—at least not until it’s several drafts in—or proving word counts. It’s up to you and whether you keep your word. Using my social circle as a watchdog makes it easier to follow through with self-imposed deadlines and tasks. Sticking to deadlines is one of the most important skills you can develop. Find what makes you to stick to self-imposed deadlines. I want to say something trite like follow-through produces character, but I think it’s simpler than that. Follow-through just produces.
When I was younger, maybe about 10 or 11, I kept a bug-out bag tucked in the back of my closet. I didn’t call it that, of course, I’m not a hard-boiled detective. It was my Fire/Earthquake survival bag, filled with only the most important clothing and books.
I tend to over prepare. There never was an earthquake, or a fire, or a miscreant who breaks into the house for the sole purpose of kidnapping little girls. But I kept still kept the bag packed. When I got a little older and the most important aspects of my life shifted from the material to the personal (books, writing, and photos instead of clothes and dolls) I mapped out extensive scenarios where I would grab my prized possession and be able to slip out of my room well before lava could burst through the door.
I don’t know if I could still call it being over-prepared. Perhaps I’m a tad neurotic, maychance a little obsessive.
I was talking about book planning with friends, both of whom I trying to rope into finishing stories and start publishing them, and I was surprised how strange my planning processes looked to them.
I’m not a mathematical person, but I like breaking down my work into concrete numbers. There’s something satisfying about having a goal and being able to surpass it. This is why I love using a yearly spreadsheet to keep track of my writing.
When planning out my writing there are two important things I take into account: word count and deadlines.
For my last novel I started by breaking down the planning like so:
Total Novel Word Count: 75-80K
Chapter Word Count (Est.): 4-5K
Start Date: August 5, 2013
Goal End Date: November 30, 2013
Knowing that I wanted 4-5K chapter lengths allowed me to further break down the structure of the novel. I already knew the Urban Fantasy genre well which meant I knew what tropes needed to work with to appeal to readers. I also played around with a mix of the 5-Act Structure and the 8-Act Structure.
Planning out the structural beats that I wanted to hit allowed me to create a more detailed outline.
Set up/ Exposition
Rising Action/ First Major Conflict
Potential Solution/Greater Conflict
Resolution of Minor Problem/Complication for Primary Objective
The Last Argument/New Solution for Primary Objective
Breaking something into it’s most basic outline, gives me a measure of control and it also makes my work easier. I don’t need to spend hours thinking up plot or looking for new conflict, I have the beats down and all I need to do is tailor my work to fit that. I know that there are writers that would find this process a little souless, I don’t. It frees me from worrying about the big picture, so that I can focus on the sections that matter most to me.
I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.
It makes sense, then, that in the romantic-comedy world there are many specimens of women who—like Vulcans or Mothra—do not exist in real life.
Last week I had a Skype chat with a close-friend. It was a chat I was both dreading and anticipating.
Why? At the beginning of January I sent my novel to the first round of beta-readers. Sonya and Liz are close-friends of mine that I’ve worked with in the past, Liz edited my essays in University (that is, when I finished them ahead of schedule) and Sonya was my right-hand lady during the last NaNo. They know my quirks and my faults. Having them take the first glance at the completed draft was like putting the iron fist in a velvet glove - it would hurt, but I knew they’d try to soften the blow.
Pressing the send button on that email was probably one of the most nerve-wracking experience of my life. My fiction writing hasn’t seen the light of day since my grade-school short stories (I mean beyond the fanfiction that’s published in the bowels of the internet).
I spent December cleaning up as much grammar and spelling as I could. I added in some extra scenes and tried to look at the piece critically. I polished as much as I could, knowing that once the document was sent, it was out of my hands.
I asked both Sonya and Liz to primarily focus on substantive and structural editing. Although I know the genre and I know the necessary beats to hit, I’m fairly biased when reading my own work. Having outsiders look at the progression of both the plot and characters was a huge boon.
Sonya sent an email outlining the various scenes and character development that she had concerns with. Letting me know what elements worked and what needed more tweaking. Liz talked it out informally over Skype, focusing on the thematic and the overall structure. I loved having both of those interactions, I was able to sit down and address the problems formally with Sonya and hash-out my structure problems with Liz.
It was interesting that they both had very similar critiques and both had the same suggestions for the potential follow-up. Which I hope bodes well for my novel. Beyond the occasional plot/character slip-up (such as forgetting my main character had nephews not nieces), I need to develop the relationships a little more and finesse some descriptions. I’m drafting out new scenes to add and working on embellishing them before heading out to the next round of beta-reading/editing. They’ve agreed to do stylistic editing next to help me with some word choice and spelling errors that slipped by.
Once it’s sent off for the second round of editing, I’ll be focusing on prepping my work for my two biggest challenges, the two editors that my writing lies in fear of. The first is my mother, who doesn’t know the genre but knows mythology and grammar like the back of her hand. The second is another another close-friend who not only knows the urban fantasy genre but has probably read every urban fantasy novel there is. Both of them aren’t afraid to give the tough advice. My theory is, if my work can pass muster with those two, I’ll be able to handle any outside critique that comes my way.
The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.
Scientifically accurate storytelling is hard. Few creative individuals take the time to work out the details. You see, science fiction that operates in the universe we actually live in not only feels true, it also feels honest…
Knowledge of and use of science reveals amazing revelations, curiosities, and unexpected truths that can enrich and guide story telling. Therefore, whenever I find a bit of science fiction that rings true to me it is a rare cherished event