Idea Worry

Happy New Year!

I happened across this interesting website that you might enjoy noodling around in. The page I’m linking to reveals the difficulty level of any word: Some of the results are curious. For example, dogged is considered elementary/middle school level, but doggedness is graduate level. Another page may come in handy for naming characters (and children). It’s the Baby Name Uniqueness Analyzer. There’s also a Nickname Finder.

On February 9, 2020, Kit Kat Kitty wrote, I’m having trouble with ideas. Not just coming up with them, but liking them. It seems that lately, whenever I get an idea, I excitedly write down the possibilities, but then I just drop it. I focus so much on how wrong everything could go. The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

I feel like every time I really start thinking about something and what I could do, I don’t want to write it anymore. I’m just so convinced that it’s not worth it, or it won’t work, or it’d be too hard to write and I’d just get lost.

Any advice? And does this happen to anyone else?

I wrote, I think it happens to almost everyone. I’ve added your question to my list.

Erica wrote, My only advice is to try to write the story before you analyze the story. Aso, maybe it would help to deliberately try to write a really bad story so you can get the criticism out of your system?

And Melissa Mead wrote, Oh yes. All the time/ Sometimes it helps to write something that I don’t intend to show anyone. I tell myself “Okay, time to get this junk out of my system so it doesn’t get in the way of anything else.”

Sometimes it is junk. Sometimes it comes out better than I would’ve thought.

My rule is not to be judgmental about anything I’m writing. Ever. Not even after my story or novel or poem is all written and revised. I’m not allowed to think it’s unoriginal or boring or farfetched or any other withering criticism. Of course I let myself notice if, say, the pace is slow or a character isn’t likable when I want her to be. Those criticisms are narrow and useful. Then I jump in and work on whatever the problem is.

This taboo includes liking or disliking my ideas or my story, which is just another form of judgment.

The reason for the ban I put on myself, as Kit Kat Kitty is discovering, is that harsh judgment makes writing much harder, maybe impossible. Why would people subject themselves to such misery? Instead, we can master archery or cook a stew or weed around the tomato plants–which are impossible to do in a clichéd way, and the reward comes more quickly.

But I want to keep writing.

The ban takes practice. We have to become self aware and notice what we’re doing to ourselves. Gradually, we recognize that we’re self-inflicting before the effects set in. We can put a quarter in a very large jar whenever we catch ourselves. We can keep a log: May 3rd, 11:05 am, called myself stupid; May 3rd, 3:47 pm, called my characters flat. Etc. We can congratulate ourselves when we go three days without having to write in the log.

Because the minute we notice, we have to cut it out.

I’m copying a sentence of Kit Kat Kitty’s worrying here: The setting isn’t original enough, the magic system wouldn’t make any sense, or I’m just ripping off the last book I read.

We can put a quarter in the jar for the word unoriginal and then we can get down to considering our setting without judgment. What could be in the backyard in addition to the swing set? We make a list, naturally: a giant face made of wood that can be stepped into through the mouth or slithered into along the ear canals; a small, two-horse carousel; a half-repaired sailboat. You can continue the list. How can we develop our setting in a way that will support our plot? For example, in revising my Trojan War fantasy I’m thinking about how to make the city precious so that the reader will care about its survival, not just the survival of my characters.

We can take the same approach with the magic system. We pay the jar for wouldn’t make any sense and put the worry in terms we can work with, like consistency or effectiveness. What about the magic system is inconsistent or ineffective? How can it enhance our plot?

Same approach even for the rip-off criticism, maybe even more so. We want to be inspired by the creations of other writers, including books, movies, series, and, though I don’t know much (anything) about them, video games. We want them to plant seeds in our brains. Poets do this quite openly. We write responses to other poems or have a conversation with another poem. We incorporate a line from someone else’s poem in ours (and give credit).

For fiction, we can ask ourselves what in the other writer’s story set off the imitation impulse? It may be something we want to explore ourselves. Or it may be something we disagree with and we want to make our case. Or there may be a flaw that we want to remedy. I wouldn’t worry about imitation. Whatever we come up with will inevitably be our own.

(I thought Ella Enchanted was entirely derivative when I wrote it, because I poured into it elements of everything I loved as a reader. I was sure I was going to be caught, but so far I’ve gotten away with the theft.)

I think something else may underlie the self-attack when we indulge in it, and that, in my opinion, is how daunting writing is. Many arts are interpretive. Actors (who aren’t doing improv) interpret the lines provided by a writer. Musicians (who aren’t jamming) interpret a composition created by someone else. That’s easier! (Or so I think, who is neither a musician nor an actor.) Writers have to do it all: characters, plot, setting, POV, voice. The prospect is scary, so we may put off the work by hobbling ourselves. Better, in my opinion, to look unblinkingly at what’s involved, understanding that we’re imperfect writers and a struggle lies ahead.

There’s this too: we can ask ourselves if something has happened, connected or not to our writing, that has brought on the self-attack. It may be that someone has criticized our hair or our way of arranging the food on our plate or our voice quality. Or we ourselves may have done something, unconnected to writing, that we don’t approve of. If we discover the source of our unhappiness, it may detach from any association with writing, and we may be free.

As for ideas, they’re minor in the process, just raw glimmers that have to be shaped. We can’t know how useful they’ll be until we start delving into them and asking many what-if questions–without judgment.

Meanwhile, we can generate ideas about what we’d like to buy with the quarters that are piling up.

Here are three prompts:

• Let’s take that backyard setting. Make a long list of what might be in it, at least twenty-five items, some of them direct steals, like I’m thinking of the rocking chair from the old movie Psycho, which would have to be rotting by now. Vary the tone of the items: make some of them normal and cheerful and some creepy or sad because they bring up tragic memories. When you have your list, think about the plot that might come out of using some of them. Ask yourself who lives in the house, who lives next door. Who’s the mayor of the town. Relax. Don’t settle for one particular idea. Write down whatever shows up. No judgment. Let them germinate. No judgment. Imagine a conversation in the backyard. Write it down. No judgment.

• The evil queen in “Snow White” may suffer from harsh judgment herself. When the mirror tells her that Snow White has replaced her as most beautiful, she can’t handle the criticism. All that comes to mind is killing the girl. If she thinks about the other young women who are likely to come along as she ages whom she’ll also have to kill, she probably accepts her serial murderer future. It doesn’t have to go that way! Help her out and write a story in which she evolves. Extra credit if you also manage to give Snow White a personality.

• This is from Wikipedia’s description of the beginning of the plot of the medieval epic poem Beowulf:

Beowulf begins with the story of Hrothgar, who constructed the great hall Heorot for himself and his warriors. In it, he, his wife Wealhtheow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating. Grendel, a troll-like monster, is pained by the sounds of joy. He attacks the hall and kills and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. Hrothgar and his people, helpless against Grendel, abandon Heorot.

Beowulf, a young warrior from Geatland, hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and leaves his homeland to assist Hrothgar.

Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf refuses to use any weapon because he holds himself to be the Grendel’s equal. When Grendel enters the hall, Beowulf, who has been feigning sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand.

Imagine that Beowulf doesn’t attack Grendle immediately. Instead, the two contemplate each other silently for ten whole minutes, each one having ideas about what’s going to happen. Write the internal monologue of each one. Imagine, say, that one is a battle tactician and the other a deep thinker about philosophy.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Desperately Seeking Critiques

I lifted the requirement that all comments must be modified, but if the serious spamming sets in again (as it may already have), I’ll reinstate it, so if your comments don’t instantly appear, please understand and be patient. I’ll hate having to do it, because I want you to have the satisfaction that comes with seeing your comment right away. And it’s more work for me, and I can’t always get to the comments immediately. We have a spam filter in place. Spam is slipping through, though–one of the mysteries of the internet!

Also want to announce that Transient, my book of poems for adults, was released a few days ago. If you’re an adult (at least high school and up) and you like poetry and you think that themes (among others) of aging and dying friends won’t make you too sad, here’s a link to the website David created:

On May 11, 2016, Mary E. Norton wrote, What do you do when none of your beta readers give any advice so you’re not sure if your writing is good or not? Because whenever I give my writing to someone they usually say they liked it, but no more than that. I just want to know what they liked about my story, what they didn’t like, how they felt at certain times, if it was confusing at some parts, and what characters they liked the best! But everyone just says the same thing, or they just put the story aside and end up never reading it. Its so frustrating! What am I to do, keep nagging them or just let it go?

I feel your pain! When I needed blurbs for my poetry book, I had to chase after poets to get them, and I didn’t want to be a pest! It all worked out in the end, and I’m very grateful for the kind words–but the experience was miserable.

Several of you had thoughts and experiences to share.

Christie V Powell: I had that trouble with beta readers who are related to me (especially my younger sisters). I have started giving them a list of questions to answer. This last time, I gave my sisters the story without the ending, and said they had to answer my questions or I wouldn’t give them the ending!

Sounds like a great plan. Giving readers a list of questions may relieve them of the worry of not knowing what to say. And withholding the ending is genius!

If I were doing this, I would put on my list of questions one or two that solicit positive feedback. I’d want to know what they liked or even loved as well as what didn’t work. Criticism usually goes down easier if it’s leavened with praise.

I’d also be sure to include these questions: Were there any spots where you were confused? Were there any gaps in the story? Were there places where you got bored? I’d ask them to mark those spots.

And I’d ask an open question or two, because we may not always see clearly what’s going on in our story. (We may have much more clarity about other people’s work than about our own.) We can ask, Are there any other things not on my list that bothered you? I’m always surprised by some of the concerns my editor raises.

Kitty: Lots of talk about beta readers here, so if it’s okay to do so (sorry if this sounds spammy, I’m not being paid to promote it or anything), I’d like to recommend a website I use, Scribophile. It’s basically a site where you can critique work for karma (the currency on the site), which you use to post your own work. It works like an actual economy, “buying” and “selling” critiques (with fake money, of course), which I like a lot more than asking people to critique my work out of the goodness of their hearts. You can also find whole novel beta swaps with the group’s feature. (the group The Novel Exchange hosts beta swaps every month or so. I’ve had both some good and some bad experiences with those.) It’s a freemium payment model, but I’ve found that the free basic account is more than enough for me.

It’s a great site, but just a word of caution if you do join. Be careful in the forums, especially the cool hangout chill zone, which isn’t really that cool or chill anymore.

Me at the time: Are the critiques on Scribophile helpful and not mean?

It’s certainly okay to recommend a website if one isn’t profiting from driving traffic to the site. I’ve recommended sites and so have other people. We’re helping our fellow writers!

Lady Laisa: My younger brother is my go-to for an opinion on anything I’ve written. He and I have different taste in our reading material but are still more similar than others I might go to for advice, so I always run my writing past him first. He often picks out any grammatical mistakes I’ve made, which is super useful and points out things he thinks ought to be worded differently. Then I usually have to ask his opinion on a specific character/description/bit of dialogue. He’ll tell me and then I might have him read the excerpt through again to see if he has any new insights. He’s invaluable!

I think mainly you just have to ask questions and prepare for the possibility of having your darling story torn asunder. I asked for someone to read one of my excerpts once (a young lady who does critiques on her blog) and I didn’t mentally prepare myself to have my treasured creation dissected and I kinda lashed out a little. Not something I’m proud of. I mean I actually ASKED for it, and everything she pointed out was correct and I did end up changing things that needed to be changed. But I still felt awful when I saw all the notes and scribbles and changes. Next time I’ll be more prepared though, and can take it better.

So you have to realize that you are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage. People are usually super-extremely-ever-so-very-polite when they critique, but it will still feel like you are coming under attack, and you have to prepare yourself for that. Just a warning.

Lady Laisa later revised her comment: I think I worded that one sentence awkwardly. “You are ASKING someone to tell you what they think is garbage.” A better way to put that, I think is: “You are basically ASKING someone to tell you what parts of your story are garbage.”

Not that I think what you write is or may be garbage, it’s just that when someone criticizes something you’ve written it kind of feels like that’s what they’re saying. And I’ve had to realize that yes, a lot of what I’ve written would probably be better off in the garbage disposal.

I have a little visceral reaction to the word garbage, because it sounds harsh and possibly hurtful. I understand that Lady Laisa wasn’t applying the word to Mary E. Norton’s writing or anyone else’s, but she was applying it to some of her own. Ouch!

I’m trying to think of what writing I would call garbage and the only thing I can come up with is writing that is meant to hurt someone or some group of people. Beyond that, some stories and some writing I love and some I don’t love or even like, but applying the word garbage goes further than I would venture.

I think I’ve said before that asking someone–anyone–if one’s writing is good or not good is the least useful question we can ask. We need specifics or we don’t know how to revise.

There may be a few writers who can do all their own editing and whose work, when they let it be read, is as good as it can be–I won’t say perfect because no piece of writing ever is, in my opinion. But most of us need outside eyes and opinions. I always do.

If I can’t get other writers or a professional editor to look at my work, then someone who is a good reader, who loves to read, is the next best choice. But if we think we may be able to involve other writers, we should go after them. If it’s an exchange, then we don’t feel like a beggar.

There’s something else. With friends or family, as opposed to other writers, we may have more motives than wanting a critique. We may want to be admired or for our worth to be recognized or to be liked. These motives may get in the way of how we ask for criticism and how we receive it.

Here are three prompts, which you can approach realistically in a contemporary world or which you can move back in time or transform into fantasy:

∙ Since we’ve been talking about feeling a little like beggars, your MC is a panhandler on the streets of a major city. Write a scene in which he or she tries to get people to give her money. If you like, write the beginning that leads to this scene and continue on to tell the whole story.

∙ Your MC is a visitor in this major city. He or she–well-meaning, soft-hearted–does something surprising in response to the beggar’s importuning. You decide what that is and write the story.

∙ The above visitor to the city is neither well-meaning nor soft-hearted. He or she is your villain, preying on the vulnerable. Write the encounter with the panhandler and continue the story.

Have fun, and save what you write!

On Being a Writer

Thanks again to Jane Collen for her informative blog post on intellectual property!

Sarah wrote this on the website in January: I’ve loved writing stories for as long as I can remember. Even before I could write actual words, I’d draw pictures and make up stories to go along with them. I’ve always hoped that one day I might be able to be an author.

Now, I’m in high school, and I still love writing. I’m getting to a point where I need to begin thinking seriously about what I want to do. I’d still like to be an author, but I’m not sure that’s possible. I write all the time in a journal, and love it, but I’m hesitant to share my writing with anyone else, because I’m scared of what others might think. I know that when someone sends something to get published, it’s very likely to be rejected. I guess I’m afraid to pursue a career where I might never get anything published and never be successful. So, my question to you would be, do you think I should pursue a writing career, or continue to enjoy writing for my own enjoyment but look into a different career. Any advice you could offer for an aspiring writer would be much appreciated. Thank you!

Let’s start with careers. If your goal is to be a novelist, few people who aren’t very wealthy can graduate from college and devote a year or two or four to writing without some other source of income. During the ten years it took me to get published (nine to get an acceptance), I worked for New York State government. I wrote mostly on the train during my very long commute. So I think it makes sense to prepare for a job while you also continue to write. I’m not a career counselor, but I am certain that good writing is an asset in almost any job. If any of you reading the blog know something about this, please weigh in. You may want to prepare for a career that will use your writing skills directly. Public relations, grant writing, technical writing, and advertising leap to mind. I have no idea what the opportunities are in those fields. There must be more fields for writers, too. If there are career counselors at your high school or college, I suggest you consult them. And again, if you’re reading the blog and write on the job, please tell us what you do.

I say, look for a field that interests you, that you think will be fun to do most days. And – I hope this isn’t presumptuous – cultivate in yourself the capacity to have fun in whatever you’re doing. One of the charms of being a writer, professionally or not, is the ability to stand outside what’s going on. You can satirize it or dramatize it. You can invent backstories for the players, your fellow toilers, the boss, the boss’s boss. You can imagine the meetings that led to the insane employees’ manual.

You may need to decide whether you want the kind of career that will engage you fully, that will demand sixteen hour days of you, or the kind that will let you go home at night and write. There are pluses and minuses of each.

I must confess that I did no such planning. I graduated from college during a recession, and I had been a philosophy major, and I took the first job I could get, which was with an economics research firm, a very bad fit. I took a test for a government job and began to work for the long-defunct WIN Program, placing welfare recipients in jobs. I loved it, because it fulfilled a need in me to be helpful. But it really was dumb luck. Then I got promoted out of what pleased me, and the second fifteen years of my twenty-seven years in state government were only intermittently satisfying. I stayed because I needed the security – not a good reason. However, my job didn’t demand much overtime, and I started writing in my last ten years there, and you know the rest.

The point is, life is full of surprises. The path you start down may be the right one, but if not, you can veer off, change your mind, do something else. I was almost fifty when Ella Enchanted was published.

Onto success. I am extremely lucky (because of the Newbery honor, the movie, the Disney books, the confidence that HarperCollins had in me from the start) to be able to earn my living as a writer. Not many writers do, and they are still successful. Let me repeat that: They are still successful. In the arts, where competition is extreme, success needs to be defined in other than monetary ways. If you’ve written an entire novel, that’s a measure of success. If you’ve gotten something published that is success too. If someone – one person! – has read your work, has been moved by it, even changed, that’s success. You don’t have to have the whole enchilada to be successful. And no matter how much success you do accumulate, someone else will have more.

An aside. You may be thinking that the Newbery honor wasn’t luck because I’d written a good book. But plenty of good books don’t get the recognition they deserve. I once judged picture book texts for a contest. My fellow judges and I had to come up with one winner and, if I remember correctly, one runner-up. The book I loved the most didn’t appeal in the slightest to the other judges, so it was out. From the other ten that I adored it was almost impossible to choose which was best, and yet we had to. If I had eaten a different breakfast on the morning when we decided, if one of the judges had seen a different movie the night before, if the day had been rainy, we might have made a different selection. There was definitely an element of luck.

And now onto, criticism, which is everyone’s lot in life. I confess that I can tolerate writing criticism much more comfortably than I can take criticism of my character or of the stupid things I sometimes do or the thoughtless remarks I sometimes make. Being called up for those really makes me cringe. If the criticism is on target I endure a period of miserable shame.

Some writing criticism I actually like, if it shows me how to improve my work. If it lights a path to a better story, if it inspires new creativity, I’m ecstatic.

And some writing criticism I dislike. If I start to feel that my whole effort was a failure, I find that as hard to tolerate as the personal criticism. But once I see how I can make my story better, the pain fades.

For most writers criticism is essential. Few of us bang out perfect prose, and few of us can see all our flaws. We need an objective eye.

If writing criticism is intolerable to you, I’d suggest you reassess your position. Try to take the criticism in, in a way that’s less painful. You might read some of my other posts on criticism and rejection. However, if you try and you just can’t deal with it positively, then writing professionally may not be for you. You may be happier keeping it as a hobby.

From criticism to rejection. We all experience it, as writers and not as writers. In ordinary life, we get rejected by our first choice school or by a crush or by a potential friend. In writing, rejection is as common as the flu and just as welcome. I’m still experiencing it. Not too long ago my editor turned down a picture book project I wanted to do. And my poetry is garnering more rejections than acceptances. It’s hard not to take it personally, but writing rejection is affected by many factors. One, of course, is the quality of the work. But others may be the market or similarity to something else the publishing house is putting out or the personal preferences of the editor. The problem is, you may never know what the real reason is. It may be impossible not to feel bad, and it’s fine to wallow in your misery – but not forever. It’s important, probably crucial, not to let a rejection make you dislike your work. The trick is to send it back out and keep writing and using criticism to get better.

Whew! Time to get off my soapbox! Here are two prompts:

• Write a journal entry about yourself and your future and your attitudes toward success, criticism, and rejection. Assess yourself. Consider what you think will make you happy in your professional life. Write about what you need to do to get there. Do not heap criticism on yourself in the process!

• You know The Rule of Three? Cinderella goes to three balls. The queen in “Rumpelstiltskin” guesses his name three times. The evil queen in “Snow White” visits her in her home with the dwarves three times. That’s three examples, but there are lots more, because three seems to be a satisfying number. Write a fairy tale about an aspiring writer using The Rule of Three. If you like, turn her into a toad (or anything else), bring in a dragon, an actual fairy, a talking wolf.

Have fun, and save what you write!

April 3, 2013

On December 19, 2012, Seaspray Wonderlust wrote, Just in case you were wondering:
Someone who tells you you can’t do something, someone who you want to think good of you. This person criticizes you and haunts you until you no longer believe in your dream. But, being a BOB, them criticizing you, although they don’t know it, and maybe you don’t, makes you want your dream more, often making you succeed. In other words, 
Do it for BOB!
I noticed you have something in Writing Magic about this, but I think this is a bad problem, and you should- not make a whole post about it, but add it in to your next one. Bearing in mind, BOB sits in his comfy chair eating your compassion and belief while you are sitting and thinking that your dream sucks. When you are like this, BOB, who is not a nice guy, wins. SO do your dream, and BOB will fall out of his chair, and have to go make his own food. Don’t Become a BOB, and don’t let a BOB posses you. Refuse to listen to BOB, and he will go. I know I shouldn’t be encouraging this type of behavior, but Kick BOB out of your head. BOB is an impostor, and an idiot. Prove BOB wrong. You will, as long as you don’t believe him. 
Do it for BOB!

Interesting! There are internal and external BOBs.

I tell this story often when I visit schools and kids ask me when I started writing. I can’t remember if I’ve told it here before or if I put it in Writing Magic. Anyway, I wrote stories in elementary school and junior high (no middle school back then), and high school – until I took Creative Writing with Mr. Pashkin, who turned out to be my BOB. Several years ago I found the folder with my writing from that class. In the beginning Mr. Pashkin wrote nice comments on the upper margin of my stories and poems. Then I came to the one on which he wrote, “You know your problem – you’re pedestrian.”

Pedestrian has two meanings, the less well known of which is plodding, dull, boring. Mr. Pashkin didn’t merely say that my story was boring, which would have been bad enough, he said I was. Up until then Mr. Pashkin had seemed really nice – interested in his students, encouraging, etc., and then BOOM!

I remember believing his judgment. I’m very practical, always was, very down-to-earth, which I equated with boring. Since I agreed that I was boring, I felt ashamed at having been found out, and I never asked him what he meant. Probably he didn’t mean much. Maybe he was just trying to get a rise out of me.

For twenty-five years, I didn’t write. Well, I wrote a musical for children, but I thought of it as just a vehicle for my husband’s music. I didn’t think I had any talent as a writer. I thought my writing couldn’t be anything but dull.

A job finally got me past this. I was assigned to writing the public service announcements and meeting notes for my state government office, and people admired my work. Then I tried my hand at picture books and embarked on the nine years it took me to get an acceptance from a publisher.

So Mr. Pashkin is an example of an external BOB whom I internalized. After I graduated from high school I carried Mr. Pashkin around inside me and didn’t dare take a writing class in college.

Defiance is one approach to dealing with BOB. If that works for you, let him be your motivator. You’re writing to prove him wrong, and you get deep satisfaction from doing so. Every well-crafted scene, every thrilling moment, every deft characterization is a screw twisted into BOB’s soul, a nail in his coffin. Hooray!

The other approach, which works better for me, is to fill my writing mind with countervailing, positive voices from people who admire my writing or even from people I think would admire it. And often I remember my younger self and write for that version of me. I write what I would have enjoyed reading.

Unhelpful criticism is pernicious. It poisons what we love, and we have to guard against it, whether the enemy is someone else or, as Pogo said, “The enemy is us.” Many writers who stop writing, artists who stop painting, musicians who stop making music do so because they let BOB strangle them. Let’s not join their ranks!

Be aware of self-put-downs. In a poetry workshop I took, after we finished an exercise, we’d take turns reading what we’d written. Our teacher imposed a $5 fine on anyone who introduced a poem with a derogatory remark, like, “This isn’t very good.” Or, worse, “This is really bad.” The fine brought us up short, woke us up to what we were doing to ourselves. In your writing groups you can do something like this. And you can ask friends to alert you when you’ve been hard on yourself.

The poems in the workshop were all first efforts. We hadn’t revised. There is absolutely no value gained from dumping on work in its early stages. What I think we were saying to each other is, “I’m not stupid enough to think this is any good,” an irrelevant comment. It’s also a warning to other people to go easy, which isn’t what we want. We want helpful, honest, specific criticism that will help us write better, in this case better poems.

So we also need to be able to differentiate between BOBs and people whose criticism is useful. Sometimes BOBs are sneaky. We think we’re getting something useful, so how come we feel so bad? I’d say if you feel rotten three times in a row after showing a piece of writing to a friend who appears to be kind, figure this is a disguised BOB, and don’t continue showing your stories to this person. You can still be friends. Go ice skating together. Go to the movies. Criticize other people’s books together – as long as the BOB doesn’t make you feel dumb doing this.

And here are BOB prompts:

• Your MC is BOB. He is paid by a foreign power or a neighboring kingdom or an alien civilization to stifle creativity at home. If his treachery succeeds, his homeland will atrophy on the world stage. His cover job is as an arts critic. Write a scene in which he interviews a top artist. Get inside his head. Help him along. At the end of the scene, the artist is riddled with self-doubt.

• BOB decides to pen his own book, since no one else can get it right. Does he approve of his own work? Or is he as self-critical as he is critical of others? (Could go either way.) Is he a good writer? Write what happens.

• BOB is lonely, so he decides he’ll feel better if he has a girlfriend. Write a story about his quest for love.

Have fun, and save what you write!

Togetherness, writer style

I’m posting a day early because I’m traveling tomorrow and may not have a chance.

On November 7, 2012, Kate Phillips wrote, I love writing, and I have a couple of friends who I email some stories so they can give me feedback. Sometimes my friend will say that something doesn’t make sense or is weird, when I disagree. I can’t tell if this is because it really is weird, or if it’s just their opinion.

Sometimes my friends also want something to be going in a totally different direction. My friend really wants the book to say it’s by her too, but I’m not sure about that.

How can you tell when you are co-writing and when they are just giving you ideas? I feel like if we really are co-writing, and if she is really doing half the writing, that it should say it is written by her as well.

Have you ever co-written a story?

When you are just in the beginning of a story who do you consult? I know I should have a professional editor edit it before I try to get it published, but I’m not sure who I should talk to before than.

Do you have any tips about co-writing?

And Michelle Dyck wrote along the same lines, ...I second Kate Phillips’s request for tips on co-writing. My brother and I are going to coauthor a book someday soon, so any advice on that would be good.

Let’s start with co-writing, which I have never done, but which sounds appealing for the pure fun of it. Writing can feel lonely, and having a friend to share the burden is mighty attractive.

Paula Danziger and Ann M. Martin’s two co-written books, P.S. Longer Letter Later and Snail Mail, No More, are epistolary novels in which one character writes to the other, so there are two POV’s. Paula Danziger wrote one, and Ann Martin wrote the other. I’d guess that the two discussed the direction of each novel before they started and as they went along, but then the actual writing was separate.

Other writing pairs I’ve spoken to also have a clear division of labor. The one who’s better at plotting writes an outline and the other fills in with deathless prose. Back to the outliner for edits and back to the writer for the polish. It’s a collaboration, but the two still write at separate desks, possibly many miles apart, and each contributes according to his or her strengths. There may be circumstances where two writers sit together and hash out every sentence, but I don’t know of them. I hope blog readers will chime in with your own co-writing experiences.

If you’re going to try co-writing, I’d suggest thinking about which tasks each of you is best at: ideas, outlining, writing great sentences, dialogue, revision. Then divide the labor. And if your relationship with your co-writer is important, I’d devise some rules for when things get heated, like time apart, like no name calling, and you may not punch your co-writer in the nose! You might decide in advance that friendship is more important than story, and you’ll abandon the story if you seem on the way to becoming enemies. There are plenty of stories out there and not an unlimited supply of friends or brothers.

As for what qualifies someone to be a co-writer, I’d say equality, meaning that you’ve both put in, relatively, the same level of effort. If your friends are just commenting from the sidelines and you’re doing all the heavy lifting, the story belongs to you, and your pals may get an acknowledgment, or, if you’re feeling kind, a dedication.

At the moment I have only one writing buddy, but my preference is for two. If they agree about an aspect of my story, I have to take that seriously. But if they disagree I need to consider both points of view and then take my pick. As I keep writing, the truth may make itself known to me anyway. The proposed direction either bears fruit or it doesn’t.

If your friends are urging you to take your story down an entirely different path than the one you had in mind, maybe they should be writing their own stories. And I don’t like it that they’re making you feel bad and lost. Writing is hard enough without hecklers. We need voices in our heads that are approving, that appreciate us, and love what we write. We also want to be able to take criticism and to be usefully self-critical, but that criticism needs to be specific and constructive.

I do consider all criticism that comes in about whatever I’m working on. No one is a perfect writer, no matter how long she’s been at it. The lot of a writer is perpetual learning, which is one of the best things about our calling: eternal growth. If a criticism surprises me and helps me see in a new way, hooray!

When I’m just starting a story, I may mention what I’m up to and some of my ideas to my editor. I may drop a word or two to friends. Then again I may not say anything to anybody. I may simply start. It’s just me and my computer at that point. It’s too early to get anyone else involved substantively. You certainly don’t need a professional editor at the beginning. Fundamentally, when we write, we have to please ourselves.

Some writers, when they’ve finished a draft and taken it as far as they can in revision, do hire a freelance editor to help make the book as good as it can be. But others rely on critique groups, which is a sort of barter system. I go over your story and you go over mine. No money changes hands. And critique groups can help all the way through a manuscript, not just at the end. I went the critique group route during the nine years it took me to get published. Plus classes and reading books about writing.

Here are three prompts:

• Sleeping Beauty is beautiful because a fairy made her so. She sings prettily, is witty, etc., because of fairy gifts. She’s defined by what the fairies gave her. They come to her christening, but she doesn’t even get a name. She doesn’t want to sleep for a hundred years and awaken to the kiss of a future prince. In your story, send her on a quest to reclaim herself, the self the fairies didn’t allow to flower, the self she never got a chance to know. In the process, she hopes to escape the long sleep.

• Sam is spending the summer with his aunt and uncle and their daughter Tulip, who is his age. Sam is there so he can go to mural camp. This year’s project is to create a mural about a local civilization that faded out a thousand years earlier. Sam’s section of mural features a native girl who helped her family make pottery. He begins having vivid and menacing dreams about this girl and his own cousin Tulip. Take it from there.

• James, Tara, and Penny form a critique group. Tara is writing away, but James is blocked, and Penny keeps revising the same chapter again and again. Write one of their meetings.

Have fun, and save what you write!


On February 3, 2010, Horsey at Heart wrote, ….I sometimes get so caught up with the idea of publishing someday, or showing my work to others, that I think it needs to be ABSOLUTELY PERFECT, even if it’s only a rough draft. It’s annoying, but I can’t seem to stop feeling that way.

This isn’t a question, but I think perfection is a worthy topic.  Thank you, Horsey at Heart.

Seems to me there are people at each of two ends of a spectrum with everybody else somewhere in the middle.  Some believe that whatever they write is wonderful, no revision needed.  This may be a happy state to live in – unless it covers oceans of unexplored self-doubt – but self-satisfaction rarely produces fine work.

Then there are the tormented writers who are never pleased with their writing.  Their critical selves are always powered up, hovering at the elbows of their creative selves, questioning every word choice, reviling every plot decision.  These poor people have a terrible time producing any quantity of work and then showing it to anyone, much less an editor.

The rest of us are too hard on ourselves sometimes, but we can also applaud when we pull off something difficult.  The truth, which I talk about in Writing Magic and have probably mentioned on the blog as well, is that there is no such thing as a perfect book.  It is as impossible to write a perfect book as it is to be a perfect person.

This is a good analogy, because both writing and living are works in progress.  We don’t throw up our hands and stop trying to be decent people just because we know we can’t be perfect ones.  Living and writing require self-criticism, but in both bashing ourselves over the head for our mistakes is a bad strategy, and so is endlessly excusing ourselves.

I’m feeling a little preachy, but I’m going to keep going.  Suppose I tend to be a tad judgmental, and sometimes I may hurt the feelings of people I love.  What I might do (if it was really me we were talking about here) is to recognize the situations that inspire me to rush to judgment and to breathe deeply, maybe be silent for a while and consider if I could try a different response and what that new response might be.

I’ve mentioned that I’ve had trouble in a few recent books with making my main character likeable, and I’m having exactly that difficulty in the one I’m working on now.  So I’m keeping the issue in mind.  Is Elodie annoying the reader right now? I’m asking myself.

Keeping an issue in mind is different from beating myself up.  I’m not thinking, Darn!  I spoiled her.  I’m only asking and then I’m figuring out how to have her not be irritating.

Some of you have been reading the blog for a while or have read books about writing.  You know yourselves as writers, the terrific things you do automatically and the other things that are a struggle.  Keep the struggle issues in mind as you write, as I do, sort of as a checklist.  You can write them down if that helps you remember.  You can think about them as you write.  But if that chokes off your flow, you can bring them in when you revise.

I was in New York City yesterday, my favorite place to walk.  So I was loping along, thinking of the blog and the topic of perfection, and my mind jumped to the scene I’m writing now, which introduces two hermits.  There have to be hermits in the story, or at this point I think there have to be, and I hadn’t introduced any, so I decided I had to go back and write a hermit scene, but I have pretty good forward momentum going, and I resented backtracking and wanted to rush through the scene.  As I walked I realized I hadn’t shown the reader what the hermits look like, and the scene will be hard to visualize without being able to see them, so I started to think about hermit appearance, which was fun.  I am telling you all this because it’s an example of making your inner critic your collaborator instead of the enemy.

On the other hand, the day before yesterday I looked at some of my favorite of my poems, and I didn’t like a single one.  I wasn’t thinking, How can I make this better?  I was thinking, Yuck!  So I decided it wasn’t a good time to reread my poems.  When I’m feeling hopeless while writing a book, when I’m thinking that it stinks or that I don’t know what I’m doing, I tell myself to shut up and wait till I’m finished.  When a story is in the middle of itself it can go any way in the world.  Judging it then is only detrimental.  And judging in a global way while you’re revising is also detrimental.  But it is useful to think, More dialogue here, or, I can trim this, or Show where everybody is here.

And judging in a global way when you’re all finished is detrimental too.  That’s the time to celebrate.

Here is the mantra:  Specific criticism, good; global criticism, bad.

There are two areas, however, where you want to approach perfection before you show your writing around:  grammar and spelling.  English is tricky, and you may not get absolutely everything right, but try.  Make friends with a usage book.  I use two, Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern American Usage and Fowler’s Modern English Usage, although Fowler’s is more British.  And when you look up a word in the dictionary, be sure to read the usage note if there is one.  A great and fun book on grammar and usage is Woe Is I or for kids, Woe Is I, Jr. by Patricia T. O’Conner.

I promised Pambelina to name some writing books I like.  Most of them deal to some degree with the curse of perfectionism.  I think they’re all okay for a middle school audience.  If you’re younger, check with a parent or librarian.  Every one of these books was instrumental in my development as a writer.  My fave is Writing on Both Sides of the Brain by Henriette Anne Klauser.  The others that I love are:  Bird by Bird by Anne LaMott; Wild Mind and Writing Down the Bones, both by Natalie Goldberg; Spider, Spin Me a Web by Lawrence Block; Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande (old-fashioned in expression but modern in ideas).  For writing poetry, if you’re interested, there are The Teachers and Writers Handbook of Poetic Forms edited by Ron Padgett and The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.  This last one is for high school level and above.  If you are writing for children, Barbara Seuling’s How to Write a Children’s Book and Get It Published is excellent.  When I was starting out, I practically wore out the print with my eyes.

No prompt today, except to write – in a positive way – your personal checklist of aspects of storytelling you would like to keep in mind, which you can add to and subtract from as your writing changes.  Have fun!