Category Archives: The Writing Life

A Little Healthy Envy

While on Facebook earlier this week, I saw a fellow author requesting beta readers for a story she’d just finished. Normally, by the time I see such a post, others have leaped into the breach, and the author has more than enough volunteers. This post was just a few minutes old, so I was the first volunteer.

The story was excellent, impactful and clever and tightly written, not an easy hat-trick to manage. I have no doubt it will find a publishing home. Among my minimal feedback, I included in a comment I only reserve for short stories that really speak to me. “This is one of those stories that fills me with unseemly, writerly envy because I didn’t write it!”

I’m confident I’m not the only writer who feels this way sometimes. I suspect envy over another writer’s excellent work is something we all have to grapple with from time to time. I remember laughing out loud when Pat Rothfuss blogged about a blurb he’d been asked to provide for Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings and one of his suggested blurbs was “Brandon Sanderson’s writing is so good it’s starting to piss me off.”

A little envy and a sense of competition now and then is unavoidable, but it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. As with most emotions in life, it’s what you do in response to them that marks your character. Below, I’ll break down the spectrum of responses a writer might have to this situation.

Writer’s Envy, a bad response: “I’ll never be able to write anything that good or be that successful, so I might as well give up!” If this is your route, you need to get some perspective. Trust me, no matter how confident the writer may feel about the story, at some point they looked at it and wondered why they were bothering with something so terrible. And that seed of doubt lingers on, sometimes even in the face of positive feedback.

Writer’s Envy, a worse response: “I’ll never be able to write anything that good or be that successful, so I’m going to do everything I can to subvert this person and their career!” Sadly, this happens. Don’t be one of the people that makes it happen. Despite what you may think, writing is not a zero-sum game. Have you ever noticed how the more great stuff you read, the more you want to read? We are all in this together, and we can all help each other and make things better for everyone, or we can tear each other down and make things worse for everyone.

Writer’s Envy, a response where everyone wins: “Wow, I’m really impressed with this. I should consider what about it worked so well, and see if I can use what I learn to improve my own writing. In fact, seeing this piece of quality work produced by a peer inspires me to go work on my writing right now.”

Real world example time. When I was back in school getting my engineering degree, I learned that my own department, Aerospace Engineering, was very different than the Computer Science department. Computer Science had a listserv of all its students, and they were permitted to email a certain number of lines of code out to one another to help in figuring out homework programs. It was meant to foster community. Instead, what happened was that certain bad eggs would email out lines of code they knew were wrong, trying to sabotage their fellow students to keep their own class rankings high. What was supposed to be a community of support turned into an ugly morass of paranoia and mistrust.

By contrast, my own Aerospace Engineering department managed to cultivate a tight-knit group of engineers-in-training. The professors encouraged us to work together on homework problems that were too complex by design to be easily solved by one person. This is how engineering works in the real world, and they were trying to replicate that. We students obliged, sometimes staying up all night to finish homework and going out for 4:00 AM McDonalds. The best students often took additional time to help the average students (right here) work through complex concepts they were slower to grasp. It was a tough major, and we needed a good group of guys and gals to get through it with our sanity (mostly) intact. I can’t imagine what it would have been like if I’d had to worry about my peers sabotaging me at every turn.

Writing professionally is a tough gig, too. As Kristin talked about earlier this week, in the age of the internet, everyone’s a critic, and someone who doesn’t know your personally isn’t going to be worried about hurting your feelings. This is the value of a writing community. We learn from each other. We lean on each other. And sometimes, we get a little kick in the butt when we see each other succeed and think “I want to feel that way too.”

 

About the Author: Gregory D. LittleHeadshotRocket scientist by day, fantasy and science fiction author by night, Gregory D. Little began his writing career in high school when he and his friend wrote Star Wars fanfic before it was cool, passing a notebook around between (sometimes during) classes. His first novel, Unwilling Souls, will be available later this year. His short fiction can be found in The Colored Lens and the upcoming Game of Horns: A Red Unicorn Anthology. He lives in Virginia with his wife and their yellow lab.

Community

A guest post by Brandon Plaster.

Lenalia Like many writers, I was caffeinated in a not-so-counter-culture coffee shop the day that I became serious about writing. It’s not that I knew what I was writing at the time, or that there was anything special about the day, mayhaps a Saturday. It was just that I felt the threads of productivity resonating and for whatever reason my stream of conscious was somewhere completely dislocated from my body, having some sort of wild acid-free paper trip. That trip just happened to be perfectly timed.

Co-occuringly, assembling in the minds of several well-placed strangers was the idea of forming a writing meetup. This coalignment of events, seemingly disparate, was what brought about the makings of my first book, Lenalia.

When I attended that first writing session with twitchy eyes and torpid creativity, I had no idea how important the group would become to me. I went in selfish and simple, thinking that it would be a way for me to write consistently and receive critique. Though I certainly cannot undervalue those two benefits of the group, as feedback and consistency are key, the community was so much more.

I spent close to two years attending and helping lead the weekly meetup. The constant flux of its peripheral members allowed for me to experience a plethora of writing styles and techniques while the persistence of its core members gave me insights into how writers evolve their work and themselves over time. My critiques not only allowed me to help others, but it showed me how to analyze story and characters separate from prose. My writing went from playdough to playful, from full of errors to airless and concise. In every interaction I had with the group was another piece of stimuli that helped shape my work and myself.

And those were just the direct benefits. It turns out, the group was full of people. Living, breathing, unique, some odd, mostly even people. People that were striving and struggling through the same writer’s block or character collapse as me. Seasoned and raw writers that helped form a support network, making me realize that writing doesn’t have to be a solitary sport.

So now, even when alone, as I sit sipping on the brewed aromas of a midnight latte, my body withering into the dust that sifts through the hourglass of my life, I can rekindle thoughts of my first community, knowing that it helped define me as a writer.

Guest Writer Bio: BrandonPlaster
Brandon Plaster is an engineer and artist with a passion for storytelling. He is focused on creating media and mediums that engage, entertain, and challenge wide audiences. With a background in Applied Mathematics and Optics, Brandon worked for three years in the space industry on computer graphics, robotics, and radio communication system design, before redirecting his focus to creative human-centered computing.In March, 2015, he released his debut novel, Lenalia.

The Critique Group Waltz: Is Yours in Step?

Having been approaching this Real Fiction Writer gig for something like 25 years, from fits and starts in the early days to the full-time efforts nowadays, I have considerable experience with in-person critique groups. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. There’s almost always some value, but is that overshadowed by hidden “costs”?

Critique groups have infinite permutations out there: genre, format, frequency, membership, etc. But something for new writers to keep in mind—easy to lose track of this in their exultant joy or fear that they won’t be able to find any other group—you are there to serve your writing.

You are there because you want something. Before you join, you should be clear about your goals and aspirations. After you’ve joined, reflect often on whether the group is serving your needs.

Critique groups are great for:

  • Helping fix problems with stories and novels
  • Exchanging industry news and opportunities
  • Increasing your writing skills
  • Camaraderie, community, and mental health

Benefits of Critique Groups (and their evil flip-sides)

“We meet on the fourth Tuesdays of odd-numbered months at 6 a.m. under the bridge. Bring your whole novel.”

The first criteria for determining whether a critique group is right for you is when it meets. The less easy, regular, and accessible its meeting times, the less useful it’s likely to be. I’ve tried groups that meet once a month or less, and they’re just not as useful, especially when I’m writing at a pace that a career demands. If your stuff only comes up for critique once every two or three months, ask yourself if that’s really enough for you.

  • Does the group format allows critiques of what you’re bringing?
  • Does the group meet often enough to form a cohesive unit? Too seldom? Too frequently?
  • Is the location conducive to a safe, open atmosphere?
  • What is the balance of give and take? If you have to contribute critiques on 80k words before you get to submit a single novel chapter, is that really worth your time?

Chicken Soup for the Bedraggled, Desperate, Down-trodden Writer’s Soul

Critique groups can be a great place to receive encouragement and support from fellow bedraggled, desperate, down-trodden writers. Finding your tribe for the first time can be an enormously valuable, uplifting experience. Cultivating them as friends and colleagues can reap benefits down the road as group members make some sales and advance their careers.

However, except for an infinitesimal, lightning-struck handful of the Anointed, a writing career can be best described as The Long Slog, and not everyone handles the daily reality of that with equal aplomb. Like a romantic relationship gone bad, your formerly brilliant group can devolve into a great seething swamp of bedraggled, down-trodden desperation—and suck you down with it. Jealously, resentment, and animosity can emerge in critiques, sometimes so subtly and unexpectedly that you don’t see it at first. Critiques should be honest, but also respectful and tactful. They should critique the work, not the writer. Group meetings should be a safe place for the exchange of ideas, supportive and constructive. You get enough emotional abuse from the rejection process without putting up with poison in a group of colleagues.

Balancing the Balance

One of the keys to a good critique group is that everyone should be at comparable levels of skill/career. However, that doesn’t mean you all have the same skill sets. In one of my current critique groups (I’m actually a member of two groups), two members are copyediting/language clarity vipers, another a gunslinging history expert, another with a fight choreographer’s eyes for the movement of a scene, and another with a firm grasp of a scene’s emotional landscape. This is the nature of an awesome critique group. (This group was a tremendous help in reviewing a rough early draft of Spirit of the Ronin.) Balance, Grasshopper.

However, while a broad array of skill sets is valuable, a broad disparity in skill level is not. When a group is newly formed or a new member comes in, balance can be thrown off. The give and take, the flow of feedback, needs to be roughly equal.

It can be extremely frustrating for a writer with more advanced skills and experience to critique the work of less experienced one, because she could, if she chose, pour hours of feedback into a short story where she can see the innumerable grammatical errors, punctuation problems, scene construction problems, clichés, incomprehensible plotting, false starts—the entire host of regrettable, understandable, and yet rankling newbie mistakes laid out before her like the vastness of the sea. Soon realizing this, she will wonder why, when she has insufficient time to write for herself, she’s spending so much time critiquing someone whose skills are still in the early stages. And the kind of critique that she needs—theme, rhythm, structure, nuance—is often beyond the newbie writer’s critique capabilities.

The flip-side of this for the newer writer is that the advanced writer is giving feedback that he doesn’t know how to use. He gets a manuscript back that looks dipped in the blood of a thousand red pens. And his spirit is crushed.

Building Skills Together

Another argument for joining a group of roughly similar level is that critiquing builds writing skills. It’s basic pedagogy in teaching English composition, and it’s a mainstay of the Odyssey Writing Workshop, of which I am an alumnus. Critique groups can expose your own unique writerly tics—over-description, overuse of “that” or “-ly” adverbs, underuse of plot logic—and help you fix them. Finding problems in the manuscripts of others teaches you how to find them in yours.

No one can critique to a higher level than their own set of skills. Some of the feedback from less advanced writers will be useful—all reader response is useful in some way—but in the end, the more advanced writer will be getting far less in the exchange, and the newer writer may get her manuscript bled upon with a red pen in ways that are unhelpful.

A Rising Tide Lifts All Boats

If you look deep enough, the literary world is filled with critique groups, pockets of famous writers who critique each other. George R.R. Martin, for example, is part of a long-time writers’ group that has been together for many years, and all of them are accomplished novelists. Such pockets exist everywhere, at all levels. If a group works well and remains together over years and decades, there are tremendous opportunities for members to help one another along this most difficult of creative paths. Promoting each other’s books, sharing industry information like anthology calls for submission, and “so-and-so talked to this editor who said…”

You likely won’t be able to join one of those pockets, but you just might become part of your own illustrious literary pocket.

Groups stay together because there is something about them that works for each member. Friendship, feedback, helping spackle over plot holes, giving triage to characters dying of two-dimensionality, and having some folks to thank on the Acknowledgements page of your bestselling novel. Those are the benefits.

Again, reflect on your needs and goals from a critique group and evaluate whether your group is meeting your needs. If you don’t feel like these are anywhere in sight, it might be time to move on. Or form a new group on your own.

About the Author: Travis Heermann

Heermann-6Spirit_cover_smallTravis Heermann’s latest novel Spirit of the Ronin, was published in June, 2015.

Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, biker, roustabout, he is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind, The Ronin Trilogy, The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Perihelion SF, Fiction River, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII. As a freelance writer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online, including content for the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He lives in New Zealand with a couple of lovely ladies and a burning desire to claim Hobbiton as his own.

You can find him on…

Twitter
Facebook
Wattpad
Goodreads
Blog
Website

Your Support Net (Work)

A writing community is made up of lots of different people with different life experiences, different skills, and different connections. If we were all the same, maybe community wouldn’t be so important. If writers were all interchangeable, we might only need community for social time.

But because we’re all different, our community can offer so much more. Nobody can be an expert on everything, and sometimes hours of research can’t make a character or plot point as realistic as a conversation with someone who’s been there.

I’m a pilot. I’ve been contacted by writers wanting to know how airplanes work, whether the maneuvers they were describing would be possible, whether their story “felt real.”

I’m not a doctor, but my husband is. If I’ve got a character with a brain injury or a medical student who wants to date his former patient without breaking professional boundaries, I’m going to run my story by him. And he’s not only my personal resource, either. He’s had a long conversation over coffee with another friend of mine, discussing the physiology of werewolves for her novel-in-progress.

These connections aren’t limited to stories, either. When I said I wanted to do a launch party for some of the anthologies I had stories in, I’d never done a launch before. But Marie Bilodeau had. And using her contacts in the Ottawa sci-fi community, my desire for a launch party turned into On the Brink, a series (that’s right, more than one) of launches for up and coming new authors in the Ottawa area.

When I first started submitting my stories for publication, I felt a little nervous. Much to my surprise, an editor I knew from my fandom days was taking submissions for an anthology. Had I not submitted a story that was of equal quality to the others she selected, I wouldn’t have gotten in. But if I hadn’t known the editor–if I hadn’t kept in contact with her via Facebook–I would never have known that she was taking submissions. (I discovered the Open Call facebook groups, Duotrope, and other market listings, later on!)

In fact, the only reason I went to Superstars–and met the Tribe, became a Fictorian, and appeared in the Purple Unicorn anthology (and upcoming Red Unicorn anthology) was because another writer friend of mine–not a Superstars instructor–posted about it on her blog.

And what goes around comes around–when the same person really needed to talk to a police department in Maine to get correct information for her recent novel, I was able to use my personal contacts to make that introduction happen.

Writers share information. Opportunities. Feedback. Advice. Maybe you don’t know how to do something, but someone else you know does. Or maybe someone else has a main character who’s about to climb Mount Everest, but he doesn’t know a lot about mountain climbing. If that’s what your mom does for a living, you can help that person out.

As with all things, moderation is key. You won’t win yourself long-term support if you’re the person who’s always demanding help without ever giving anything in return. Equally, you won’t build yourself a career as a writer if you spend all your writing time helping other writers instead of writing your own stuff. But when everyone contributes fairly, the writing community becomes a big support net(work), and it lifts us all up.