Leggo my ego!

LEGO Eggo

Writers eat criticism for breakfast!

Nope, not a misspelling–I really did mean ego. In this case, I’m referring to it in the vernacular as a sense of self-importance, such that we believe our work and the products of our imagination are unassailable.

This is where the trouble begins. How do you improve your writing? By hearing and acting on constructive criticism. But let’s be honest, shall we? Hearing that criticism can be agonizing, threatening to our egos when we aren’t sure of ourselves. I know I’ve wanted to run away from it sometimes or clamp my hands over my ears as I babble “la la la la la, can’t hear you!” And I know this isn’t productive–not everyone is going to think our writing is the best thing they’ve ever seen, as beautiful and porcelain-perfect as babyskin. If that were the case, all of us would be instant New York Times bestselling authors, right? Well, I don’t see my name on that list. Not yet, anyway.

Writing is an intensely personal process in many ways. Our ideas, our thoughts, and our feelings are poured out into written form, an imperfect translation of the soul, and when someone critiques that translation it can be crushing. We respond violently, defending our ego from the external threat. “They just aren’t able to appreciate me,” we bluster between licks of the wound, “why can’t they see how talented I am?” So we tune out the criticism and slog along, no wiser.

Did you spot the fundamental flaw? What is being critiqued, anyway? Words on a page. Execution. The match with another person’s unique taste. But you, the person? Hardly. It’s like saying a picture of you is the same thing as the living, breathing you and that because someone doesn’t enjoy that picture, you are worthless. And that’s baloney, because there never has been and never will be anyone else like any of us, ever again. As much as we’re all alike, we’re different–and that means you have something to offer.

So let’s turn the process around. Instead of letting our worth depend on someone’s judgment of words on a piece of paper, unhook the two. Start with remembering what you want to say, the joy you take in writing, all of the great things you are. Write it on a piece of paper in fruit-scented markers and hang it over your desk, record it as your mantra and play it back after the twentieth rejection slip comes in, tattoo it on your forearm if that works for you (and please don’t take all my advice literally, thanks very much–I don’t want hordes of angry family members coming after me to demand monetary compensation for the laser removal treatment), whatever works best.

But DO listen to constructive criticism. Does your story’s pace seem slow or draggy? Cut material or use more active verbs. Too much of a trope? Tropes are hard to avoid, but try for a twist that no one would’ve expected. Comma junkie (my personal problem)? Edit the crap out of your piece and yank the commas out as ruthlessly as weeds from your flower beds. Be honest with yourself and consider feedback not as an attempt to brutalize you, but as the means to becoming a superlative writer. How else do you think you’re going to achieve that goal?

And remember, even the most successful writers still receive criticism throughout their careers. Get used to it. It’s part of the gig. Pour syrup on it and swallow it down as you leggo your ego–bon appétit!

Special thanks to Eric Hunter at The Art of LeGogh for the spectacular photo of one of his awesome LEGO creations!

Balance and blunders

Yoga practitioner by the water

Finding balance can be tricky.

Balance. Everyone talks about achieving it, but how does a poor, beleaguered writer get it? What does that even mean?

I’ve been writing fiction for only a few years now, but I’ve learned a few things along the way. Mostly by making mistakes, much to my annoyance. For starters, I had this zany idea that I could quit my day job and write full-time, get my book done and published within a year, probably with one of the first few publishers to see it. Whoops.

First and most important lesson: don’t quit your day job. Writing is probably one of the most difficult ways to make a living out there, when you’re competing with so many other things for people’s attention. Strike a balance between working a job that brings home the bacon and the job that brings you satisfaction. Eventually, it could be the same job, but a lot of hard work and time may pass before that becomes your reality.

Which brings me to my second point: is writing your job or your passion? Work or play? For money or for love? Can it be both? Although some folks have managed to have their cake and eat it too, the paradox is hard to resolve: developing a career in writing takes a lot of work, but it’s the passion, playfulness, and love that gets you to that point. If you’re doing it for money or glory, prepare for disappointment. Short stories commonly sell for 1 cent per word, if at all, and should you manage to sell your novel, don’t expect tons of money in return. Much better to get a small advance and sell enough books to at least cover it, because unless you have a gigantic audience willing to plunk down money on your book (usually not the case), your publisher isn’t going to be too happy with you. Careers are built steadily over extended time periods. I also had to learn the lesson that making writing your job too quickly can kill the fun and your imagination, if you’re not careful. Taking that pressure off yourself and enjoying the process is important.

Having an outside life and interests is important, too. Although writing on top of a day job sucks up lots of time, you probably aren’t going to be too happy if you never see friends or family, become a couch potato, and obsess over your chances of becoming Stephen King. Regular exercise, quality time with your spouse/kids/friends, and gardening or some other healthy outlets are important for a happy life and, I would argue, rich, well-developed writing.

Writing is both art and craft, which is yet another balancing act. You can study, you can read, and you can analyze your performance to improve, which makes this a craft. But it’s also art, something that can’t be captured in a mere how-to book, and that’s what makes it so difficult and so breathtaking. Chasing after the elusive best-seller in a paint-by-numbers approach might achieve temporary success, if you’re seeking fortune and glory, but I suspect authors taking this path tend to fall away and sink from view, leaving little impression on the hearts and minds of others. For me, that’s just not an option.

What’s the takeaway lesson? Balance isn’t easy to achieve, especially when you’re a writer, but it’s well worth the effort. It’s taking a look at the relationships and activities that contribute to your happy life and then devoting time to each of them in a way that works for you. If you need to buy that organizer and pencil in time for exercise, time for a weekly date night with your husband or wife, time to write, and time for work, DO IT! Ask yourself what you need, write it down, and try to incorporate that into your life. I’m not saying it’s easy, we all know that would be a lie, but balancing the scales makes it easier to sit down and let the words issue forth in a clear, easy stream. Writing is enough of a tightrope already!

Spam–or, Very nice stuff here hopefully I learned from it

I miss the days when Spam was a good thing. Not that it ever really was good FOR you, but I thought it was pretty tasty stuff as a kid. Spam sandwiches, fried spam, diced spam in salads, you know the drill.

Now there’s Spam 2.0–virtual Spam. Totally tasteless stuff, literally AND figuratively. I log on to WordPress and find 14 new comments, all of the spam variety, and groan. A platoon of messages from hair removal product peddlers and work-at-home opportunity pushers that tell me how wonderful my blog is, how interesting, how useful…all couched in such generic terms, I feel like I’m reading my horoscope. The perverse side of me imagines that someone’s blog about satanism and how to perform human sacrifices for maximum magical effect is receiving the same crap, and I wonder what the author thinks. “Very nice stuff here,” the spam reads, “hopefully I learned from it.”

But the worst part of it? The cheerfully atrocious spelling, grammar, and punctuation of these missives make me cringe. Imagine someone beating you over the head with a baseball bat and screaming, “So you wonderful! You wonderful! I not know what you saying but you write I like!” then being amazed that you don’t seem to like them very much, because they’ve been so dreadfully clever. Ugh.

I don’t mean to complain (okay, well, maybe I do) but it seems to me that spam accomplishes nothing more useful than pissing off people you’ve never met. Under the right circumstances I can get behind that, you understand, but haven’t we had enough junk cluttering up our lives already? My fragile, overworked synapses just can’t take any more.

Perhaps I’m being too cynical–maybe hairremovalgal42@gmail.com (any similarity to actual email addresses is unintentional and coincidental) really did learn something from my blog post about creating an emotional connection to her characters. I’ll wish her well as I delete her message and indulge in a fresh Spam sandwich to celebrate my contribution to her intellectual advancement.

Can you feel me now? Good!

Okay, just realized that this post’s title could come across rather in a different way than intended, but bear with me here, people. What I’m referring to is emotion and writing that evokes an emotional response, that wrenches your gut and makes you weep or laugh out loud. That’s what I aspire to produce so much of the time, but achieve only part of it. I frequently wonder what makes certain movies or stories so emotionally satisfying and others flat or just plain annoying.

I’ve been following Doctor Who for a few years now and haven’t been entirely satisfied with the newest season until the last episode. When Vincent Van Gogh is transported to the present-day Musée d’Orsay and sees his paintings on display, hears how influential his work has been, he’s moved to tears. And I cried right along with him, feeling that profound joy at knowing one’s work has made a difference. In one short episode, I developed a connection to him and felt much of what he felt–empathy, in other words.

That’s what I think makes for great stories, that strong connection to and investment in what happens to the characters, particularly the protagonist(s) or “good guys.” How many times have you sat through a horror movie with vapid, flat, one-dimensional characters that you don’t care about? I’ve sometimes found myself rooting for the monster instead because I actually had feelings about it!

So how do you evoke feelings for and about your characters? I’m no expert, but I can speak from my own experience, both as a reader and as someone who trained to be a psychologist. Making what a character experiences something that readers can relate to seems important. Losing a loved one, especially when we as readers have come to love that person too, feels like a small death of our own hearts…and sometimes not so small. When a writer allows him- or herself to fully experience their own emotions and allows characters to be themselves, be real people with flaws and weaknesses and desires, those feelings tend to come across on the page and move us as well.

There have been times in the past when I’ve cried or been incredibly happy for a protagonist in a movie or a book, and certain other people boggle at the sight. “What in the world are you crying for,” they say, “it’s not as if they’re real people!” I beg to differ. For me, they’re very real. All stories profit from suspension of disbelief, and when I’m presented with someone who could be real, fully rounded and believable, I fall for it and believe they really are. And I feel accordingly.

So maybe, in the most roundabout of ways, what I’m trying to say is that my job, as a writer, is to help my reader clap their hands and believe in fairies so that the magic doesn’t die. We all know that the world encourages us to be practical, to believe in only what we can see, hear, and touch, and that the ability to imagine dwindles as a result. Perhaps that’s our task, as writers–to break the wicked spell of disbelief and breathe life back into our readers, kissing them awake gently sometimes and beating out a thunderous tattoo in their sleeping ears at others.

So what I want to know is, can you feel me now? I sure hope so. Otherwise, prepare for delicate kisses, soft and light as butterfly wings, or a big bass drum to rouse you from your slumber. I won’t spoil the surprise of which one it will be…it’s better this way, don’t you think?