Friday, August 18, 2006

Dead Horse Pulp

I am probably the biggest proponent of writing critique groups I know of. From personal experience, I know how valuable good feedback is. After years of writing, reading, conferences, and rejections, my first book was accepted—not even close to coincidentally—after it went through the critique process. My writing has improved by light years since I began attending this same group six and a half years ago. I have no intention of quitting; I don’t dare.

The group has morphed over the years as members have moved and we’ve gotten new people; I think it’s stronger and better than ever. Counting, me, three of the original members are still around, and we’ve gotten several others over the years, maxing out currently at eight. (Although it’s a rare week we manage to have more than five of us.) Among our number are three other LDS authors, Jeffrey S. Savage, H.B. (Heather) Moore, and James Dashner.

I am a firm believer that a writer—no matter how talented—needs outside feedback. One simply cannot see holes and mistakes and weak spots on your own. The moment I think I’m too great a writer for a critique group is the moment my work takes a nose dive.

My first few months in the group were difficult, not only because my writing wasn’t stellar, but because my skin was tin foil thin.

Six and a half years later, my skin has thickened considerably. It takes a lot to get under it now. It's a relief to have my critique buddies point out motivation, character, and plot problems—I get to fix them before the book ever hits the shelf. Sometimes I’ll go weeks at a time with great feedback. Sometimes there’s downer weeks where the chapter just didn’t work or a particular scene is going to need some major rewrites.

In 2005 I ran into months on end of bad weeks, with not a single good one to break it up. It got old after, oh, the first four months, to constantly come home knowing I had major rewrites ahead—again. Why couldn’t I just get it right for once? I felt I was losing any touch I might have had before. To make matters worse, two or three members of the group seemed to have a virtual Midas-like touch—even their rough drafts sparkled. I was the only one going home with a manuscript that looked like someone had bled all over it.

I managed to pull out of the funk, mostly by not stopping. You keep going, you keep trying, and eventually it works out. I finally brought some great chapters that just clicked. I was back on the old path of some good weeks, some bad, most in between.

And then last week happened. By the time everyone was done giving me their evaluations, it was clear that my scene sucked, my characters were unsympathetic slimes, and nothing they did made any sense whatsoever. Not happy news, considering that this was supposed to be a romantic scene.

The chapter had at least two major (and I’m talking MAJOR) problems. The group discussed and agreed on them, not only beating the dead horse, but dragging the poor horse's corpse through the streets, and then for good measure, flogging it until it was little more than horse pulp. By the end, I wanted to scream, "Yes, I get it. I really do. Now could you stop explaining AGAIN why I’m a fraud?!"

Chocolate didn’t help, which is saying a whole lot.

By the time the night was over, I felt like a total hack. Who was I kidding? I was sure I couldn’t really write. Forget the fact that my fourth book is about to be released. I would have given a lot to be able to write a rough draft that didn’t stink.

I know better. I do. I’ve been through the ups and downs of writer life plenty of times before. Some of what I've learned:

1. Revision is what makes writing good. Who cares if I’m not the best at drafting? That's like sketching; it's revision that adds the color and shadows and life to the picture. I’m great at revising, and that’s what matters in the end.

2. Authors have tender egos, regardless of how thick their skin is. It doesn’t take much to put a writer on a high of feeling successful and then send the same writer crashing into despair. We’re an illogical bunch. My skin is thick enough that my feelings weren’t hurt at the group’s comments—I knew they were on target. I was just pummeling myself for not being good enough. Which is beyond stupid, because I know I can make the changes the story needs.

3. Time helps. However, it doesn’t heal all wounds when it comes to writing, because you still have to go back and fix the problems. But time does make it easier to not feel so emotional over those glaring blemishes. When the despair settles, you can go back and make those fixes objectively.

4. Again, after the emotions cool, chocolate is a good motivator to slog through the revisions. It's amazing what I can do with a truffle waiting for me other the other end.

And most importantly:

5. When all is said and done, writing rocks. Getting published is one of the coolest things ever. It’s a childhood dream come true for me. And I absolutely love it.

But it would be nice to be able write rough drafts like a certain person.

You know who you are, MH . . .

3 comments:

Tristi Pinkston said...

I feel your pain, Annette!

A couple of years ago, I had a character react too calmly to a stressful situation, and my readers (my mom and sister) just couldn't leave it alone. They must have jabbered about it for fifteen minutes at least, fourteen minutes after I got the message. It only took five minutes to fix the problem, but to this day, whenever that book comes up in conversation, they have to launch into it all over again. Wouldn't it be nice if critics would just let it go after they make their point?

Great blog -- I completely agree with your points.

David G. Woolley said...

Hi:

What soccer team do your kids play for? I do a little coaching (www.UtahRangers.com) and enjoyed your parental reaction to sporting behavior.

Good luck on the pitch and with your new release. Well done Annette Lyon! All the best,

David Woolley

Annette Lyon said...

They play for AF Rec each fall. We aren't pros, but we have fun--usually! Next fall all four of the kids will be in soccer. That will be an interesting exercise in schedule management.

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