Wednesday, October 23, 2013

10 Different Firsts for Authors

When trudging into an unexplored territory for the first time, it’s common to assume what you see is the norm, that you’re not witnessing the exception to the rule, but the rule itself. This is a reasonable assumption and not all that unlikely to be true. So when a writer begins his work and hears all these horror stories about feeling rejected and demoralized, and meets with all these similar feelings, he may believe that all of the negatives of trying to be an author are just something he’s going to have to deal with. And then, one day, he is proven wrong.

1. The first book you actually finished.

May people dream about finishing that first book, but if asked, not many will say they see it actually finished in the next five years. It is typical for the dream to carry us longer than any concept or plotline.

So when it is done, suddenly, one day, without ceremony, we look back on it and think, at least for a moment, “That was easier than I thought it was going to be,” and, more importantly, “I can do it again!”

The first book gives an author the long-sought feeling of accomplishment. No longer is he just one of the masses talking about writing a novel; he’s done it. This first story is a huge hurdle that, after passing, breaks the illusion of the impossible task before him. It sets the standards for the stories after it, delegating an idea of what the author should expect from his other works, including time taken and word count managed.

The author knows now that he really can do it; he wasn’t fooling himself.

2. The first time you like what you’ve written.

I was four books in. Until that time, I would get halfway through a novel and look back dismayed. I would only finish because I forced myself. I kept telling myself I could always change it later. So, when the fourth came around and I was genuinely thrilled as I went, I began to realize just how much I really didn’t like the others. Looking back on it now, they have merits to them that I brazenly ignored, but I didn’t like them, and after I finally started to, I allowed myself to explore and experiment far more with that confidence.

This can be a while, and even when it happens, the lingering doubt may be there. But for everyone who writes a long time, there is always the sudden instance of, “This is pretty good!”

The doubt that comes from writing in general isn’t necessarily accurate. We can be far too critical on ourselves even when we’re in the beginning stages. Despite what people think about the raging beginning author, the problem with not being able to take criticism comes from doubt of talent, not confidence in it. So it is usual for people to take a while to have faith in themselves.

The author knows now that he might actually be good at something.

3. The first time you have fun at a critique.

I avoided most creative writing classes and workshops. Though I wrote all throughout high school in prolific amounts, I barely involved other people. I thought, and at times accurately, that the advice there would be closed-minded blanket rules, and I don’t like competition.

I didn’t really start seeking out criticism until college, which was, by the way the worst place to do it because those competitive bureaucrats I feared were often paid for acting that way. The teachers there—and I do only mean this about them specifically—were the biggest stereotype of “If you can’t, teach,” I’ve ever seen.

They never said anything mean to me. They never said anything really at all, no matter how long they talked.

But by the time I took creative writing my senior year, I had learned enough about the process to be confident, I had begun to understand how to sway the atmosphere of a room and prevent the hostility, and I had already overcome my confusion and insecurity about the writing “basics.”

After my ninth book, I started to enjoy critiques. A part of this came from avoiding people I didn’t respect or who didn’t respect me, by selectively controlling who I was talking to. I understood what I was looking for and I was sick of keeping my work isolated and unread.

One day, I traded books with an old high school friend. We went to lunch and talked about what we thought. I left there laughing, sorry I had to go.

That’s not to say I enjoy all criticism, or that you will ever be completely over reproach. I’m not thicker skinned, I just understand my thin skin better and put up controlled situations to best adhere to it. My point isn’t that criticism will always be fun, it’s that it can be.

The author now knows he won’t be crying for the rest of his career.

4. The first time you honestly compliment something you wrote.

Book 12: I gave it to someone to read. She didn’t, of course, because that’s what happens. But after my years of casually passing out manuscripts that people would ignored, I learned the benefits of nagging, and so nag I did.

After about three months of having it, I said to her, “You need to read it. It’s hilarious!”

It came out of me without even thinking about it. It would have to have, because I had never said anything so blatantly positive in my life. The second after I said it, I was shocked; it hadn’t been me forcing myself to be confident, it hadn’t be me being insincerely persuasive, it was the honest truth.

Whether or not it is hilarious is arguable. Or rather, subjective. But, at least at that moment, I felt like it was. I truly believed it. And even though, had you asked, I would have said I like what I wrote, it wasn’t until that moment that I realized I had never actually said something good about my writing without straining over the phrasing and fearing their disagreement.

Sometimes we feel that no matter how good we are, we’ll never actually be able to recognize it. The insecurity will always be there. But then, one day, it isn’t.

The author now knows that at least one genuinely thinks he’s a good writer.

5. The first time after editing your book, you were actually sad it was over.

This is different than being sad after typing out “The End,” on your first draft. That’s generally sad, and, no matter how unsatisfactory the book has been style-wise, we still often feel connected to our characters.

But in the same way that putting a “real” book down can leave us with grief, our own books can do the same. When so often the reading of our own writing is painful, that connection we feel to the character is lost, and we don’t feel like a true reader. The story’s over, and we’re like, “Next.”

This took me a long time; longer, I think that it does for most writers. Book elven I struggled to read through with very little time on my hands to do any sort of writing, let alone editing. The novel, which was far too long, took me three full days to get through, and I spent most of it cutting down. At the end, I finished just as I had to go to work, and I got up and left to find this sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I thought it to be a dissatisfaction with the ending. I thought there was something wrong with it. There was some reason I was unhappy. But as the day went on and the feeling lingered, I suddenly recognized it to be what it was: I was sad it was over.

We like to not trust ourselves, to think that our opinions and feelings towards a book are too biased to ever really meet up with how a reader would see it. Yet, there are times that, despite seeing far too much of “backstage,” watching how the monster is sewn up, seeing the princess chain-smoking in the dirty alley, it is still possible to believe in the magic.

The author now knows that his book could be a “real” one.

6. The first time you don’t believe a negative criticism even slightly.

It was high school. My play had been performed for the first time. I asked my friend what he thought of it. He didn’t like it, and he had no qualms about telling me it. Maybe because he didn’t want to like it. It didn’t hurt at all. Not immediately, not later, I was never bothered. I was amazed I was never bothered.

It’s not as though that’s common. It’s not as if after that moment I was able to roll with every punch they gave me, but it was still nice. Nice to know that, whether or not it was confidence in myself or a lack of confidence in him, I could truly ignore criticism.

Authors often fixate on criticism with the eternal question of, “Am I right, or am I just too stupid to realize I’m wrong?” People can let the most idiotic of advice influence them, and that is the hardest part of the writing process. So nothing can be more of a relief than when you know, surely and positively, that you are not the one who doesn’t know what you’re talking about.

The author now knows his opinion counts.

7. The first time you couldn’t stop reading what you wrote.

I’m not really an, “edit while you write,” sort of person. I’m not advocating against it, though I know people do. I tend to write the whole thing then edit the whole thing; I usually don’t read what I’ve written until it’s finished.

Then one day, I started a book. Then I stopped it and worked on something else, but that’s a different story. In between novels, I went back through and read all of the beginnings that I had written and never finished, and this story stood out to me. I couldn’t wait to make it.

The words just flew onto the pages, and I’d never been more excited or happy with the results. But what was different, what was weird, was that I couldn’t stop reading it either.

Every day I’d sit down to write. I would open the page and glance at the first sentence. The first then lead me to the next, then to the next. Each morning I would reread the entire thing.

At first, this wasn’t problematic because there wasn’t that much to it. But, of course, everyday it grew and grew, and soon it was taking large chunks of time to get through it. I thought, I’ll read until I get bored and then jump to writing. This was a fairly common process for me anyway—I would get interested in the first page, yet quickly lose interest. But I never got bored, and I would keep reading.

There is nothing wrong with getting sick of reading the same thing over and over again. Some of the greatest books in the world are only interesting when you don’t know what is going to happen. It is common for writers to never have the same obsession as their readers, but it’s really nice when we do.

The author now knows he can write a hook.

8. The first moment you become aware of your writing habits.

For me, diving into the writing world was like swimming through murky waters. It was heavy and hard, I couldn’t see much in any direction, and I was kind of just guessing where I was going. As I said, I did the majority of my work in my teens, which attributed to the claustrophobic fugue state, but it is not uncommon for writers to tackle a novel with little idea of where they’re going or what they are doing. Rather, have done.

My main recommendation to any potential writer is to read what you’ve written. It’s hard, it’s painful, but it clears those murky waters far faster than anything else can. I spent so much time writing and so little time reading it, that it took me many years to start being self-aware.

I would do things that were easily solved by being conscious they were going on. I ended up looking back through and correcting the same exact problems in each and every book that I had written. By the time I had understood these tendencies (which were easily revealed by reading it), I learned to prevent them in the writing process.

Self-awareness struck me like a hard epiphany. I felt the fugue around me even as I was deep in it, but I didn’t know how to remove it. Then one day, it seemed to separate. I stopped worrying about how my writing appeared to other people, feeling as though I knew. I got a good grasp on what I considered “good” writing to be, and what I didn’t want to be doing.

Writing for ourselves requires more knowledge than the brain thinks it needs to know: about literature, about the world, about the way people judge each other. In the beginning we are so overwhelmed by the information we still need, it often becomes a guessing game. But then, slowly and surely, the author starts to know exactly what it is he doesn’t know and can seek the answers easily.

The writer now knows what needs to be done.

9. The first time positive feedback leaves you unsatisfied.

I didn’t seek feedback until I actually wanted it. I didn’t want criticism, I wanted support. I sought it a little, but knew I wasn’t going to receive it to the desired extent, and so barely gave my writing to people.

Then, one day, I was sick of it. I needed more satisfaction than just that by completion. I needed to believe that I was good, and no matter how much the purists hate this, it required external reward.

I would go in and the feedback was positive. Some nitpicks here, some irrationality there, but for the most part everyone had very little to say. No one wanted to be the bad guy, and the ones who did were did—ironically—for the wrong reasons and still said nothing useful.

I was fine with that. At times, I tried to maneuver it that way.

Then, after a while, it just didn’t work. I would get positive feedback and compliments and people honestly liking it. And while that was what I had been looking for, it started to seem like a big waste of my time. I would leave those sessions, instead of feeling happy and exhilarated, annoyed and grungy.

When I, and many others, start, we sought only emotional support. There’s nothing wrong with that. But over time, it’s not enough, and it starts to get to a place where we think, “I don’t want you to like it. I need you to love it!” An author stops going to external places for that support, now out of honest confusion, knowing what he doesn’t know, and unable to figure it out. All of the sudden, he doesn’t need to be told he’s good. He wants to be told how to be great.

The author now knows it’s not about being meant to do it, but being able to.

10. The first time you realize people are taking you seriously.

It’s fairly common for people to belittle their own accomplishments. For some, many of the things they did “doesn’t count.” “I’m not really an author; I’m not published. I’m not really an author; it’s only on the internet. I’m not really an author; I didn’t get paid. I’m not really an author; it didn’t sell very well.”

But over time ambition will have its effect. The little projects add up, and while each of them have a compelling reason they’re not “real,” other people won’t see it that way. You’ll be talking about all that you’ve written, the articles on the internet, the short stories in small literary journals, the tiny awards you’ve won, and they’ll say, “Jesus Christ.”

The change from the obscure aspiring writer to the honored position of True Author is a gradual one, and yet we feel as though the moment will be obvious, that we’ll be sitting there saying, “Now I am a writer.” But it doesn’t come, and one day, while believing people see us as the hacks we feel we are, we suddenly find ourselves in a conversation that makes us realize, “This person is taking me seriously.”

Then, with that, we begin to acknowledge that maybe our work is going somewhere, that all the fears we have are proving to be wrong, and that maybe we do know what we’re doing.

Now the author will know that people are seeing him how he wanted.

I have yet to have that moment.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Five Social Courtesies that Don’t Work in Constructive Criticism

The normal rules of being polite don’t apply to writing as much as we would like. For a lot of beginning authors, their first book is all about breaking those ingrained guidelines and being able to be a sadistic, narcissistic verbal windbag. Good books are all about frustrating the audience, hurting the characters, and expressing those opinions that people don’t want to hear at dinner parties instead of being polite.

But, unlike in novels, in which the conversation is deliberately one-sided, constructive criticism is a two-way street in which the best sessions are about responding and communicating. And yet, people find that the most common courtesies are actually the most offensive in the highly emotional setting.

1. Saying please.

There are three reasons a person would say please:

One, it’s a social tradition. “Please pass the butter.”

Two, they feel like they might have sounded harsh or hostile. “Go get me a pen. Please.”

Three, they really, really want something. “Please let me go to the party, Mom! Please!

None of these apply to giving feedback.

While the word “please” is more commonly used during blanket advice sessions such as writing articles or blogs, I’ve heard it actually spoken as well. The critiquer is talking, and probably has been so for a while, and ends it in, “Please, please don’t do this,” to which the author sits there silently and pretends he’s listening.

“Please don’t use adverbs,” is hard to interpret. Outside of writing, it's not typical to put please in a piece of advice. If Susie is sitting there watching Betty do Betty’s dishes, it would be odd for her to say, “Please rinse them off before you put them in the dishwasher.”

Betty can only interpret that in two ways; Susie said please because she was afraid she was sounding like a bitch, or because it was really important to her that Betty do the dishes right.

In the context of writing—where we are already on the edge of being offended anyway—the author is going to be hurt in either interpretation. When the critic acts like the author should be offended, he’ll just wonder, “Why would I be offended?” If he wasn’t before, he’ll feel like he's missing something, and so will believe the speaker is being more mean than he realizes.

For her to be saying, “Please don’t use so many adverbs,” could just mean that it’s important to her, but that begs the question of why. It implies that it directly benefits her, maybe because she’s really saying, “Please, please don’t make me read anymore adverbs.” It might be the truth, but it’s a pretty hurtful one.

Strangely enough, “Stop using so many damn adverbs,” is less insulting then, “I don’t know if you knew this… but you kind of use a lot of adverbs. Please try cutting down on them.”

2. Putting yourself in other people’s shoes.

The comment I hear a lot is, “Well, I got it, but I don’t know if other people will.”

Generally I try to give my writing out to people who I do think are smart, so I can usually avoid replying, “Good thing you are better at reading than them.”

Critics often want to do their job well, and they legitimately realize that their opinion isn’t as important as what the majority of readers will think, so it is common for people giving feedback to not think about what they think, but what they think other people will think. This also has the added benefit of taking some responsibility off their shoulders. Now they don’t have to express their opinion, but what they imagine other people’s will be.

The problem with it? For one, the author can do that on his own. Yes, maybe the critic is better at it, but then again, maybe not. And in either case, it’s still guesswork, which is why the author wants actual feedback from other people and not just speculation.

Hypothetical people aren’t usually good indicators of opinion. We tend to picture them as dumber, meaner, and less unique than a real individual. Which makes sense because that’s how the individual tends to become in the masses. But when an author is trying to narrow down the already subjective issues, the critic’s own personal opinions—although she is her own unique person with her own unique tastes—are more likely to mesh with fellow readers than her hypothetical view of them.

In a writer’s group, I had a woman tell me that I couldn’t be mysterious because I was writing a Young Adult book (an assumption, by the way), and that my readers were too influenced by the texting and email world to have the attention span.

I said, “YA stands for young adult not young adolescent. The intended age group is late teens to early twenties, meaning that I am a part of the demographic that you are so lovingly referring to. And considering that I managed to pay attention through the entirety of your and my own rant, I think that you might just be off your mark.”

And I am a texter and emailer, and I do have the patience of a two-year-old. And while I wasn’t working on a young adult novel, I do like them. But my biggest problem with them? That most have the writing style of someone who feels they can’t be clever, mysterious, or complicated because I don’t have the attention span. I like the concepts. It’s the simplistic writing will often ruin those concepts.

The problem was that her perception of her readers (she was a young adult writer) was way off, but her actual criticism might not have been. I have the propensity to be confusing and pompous and had she said, “I was so confused I lost interest,” I would have been able to take her seriously (although been pissed she said it that way.) When she told me, however, that she thought people might be confused enough to lose interest, I had no way of telling if she was speculating or projecting.

It’s hard for an author to decipher if a possible problem really is a problem. When the critics keep their own shoes on and say how they feel, it is pretty easy for him, comparatively, to walk around and find out if most people are feeling that way. When writers are taking risks and pushing boundaries, they need specifics. Knowing that they might have gone across the line doesn’t help them. They probably already thought that.

3. Not making everything about yourself.

We all know that guy. The one who, no matter what the subject is, manages to turn everything back onto himself. No one wants to be that guy. He’s annoying and a pain in the ass.

Except that he’s the critic that is the most useful.

Not only does he “stay in his own shoes,” making the criticism clearer and truer, but when the critic talks in about himself and his reactions he won’t be as offensive as if he talks about the author and his “mistakes.”

A lot of criticism comes in the form of, “You did this. Why did you do that?”

Actual criticism I read on a friend’s story: “Why do you keep using ‘the man’? Use his name.

Why are you asking a rhetorical question? Make it a statement.

By making “I feel” statements instead of “You do,” not only is the critic allowing for “This might just be me,” but she’s preventing an argument, which benefits both parties.

“I get confused about who is doing what. Consider using his name more.” The writer can’t argue that she’s confused. He might be able to say that she’s the only one, but that doesn’t make her statement any less true. And this helps him because unlike the first one, in which the problem could be anything—a pet peeve, a confusion issue, a distancing issue, this is just what is obvious, or something that the author can’t even guess—he knows exactly what happened that he might not want.

The problem wasn’t the writer’s action, but the reader’s reaction. It’s not that “you had too many characters,” but that “I was confused because you had too many characters.”

By making the criticism session all about the critic, her opinions become more concrete, more to the point, and clearer to the writer. It is far easier for him to decipher a self-oriented comment than a generalized attack. Having a lot of characters isn’t an issue, but not having a clear picture is.

4. Ignoring the superficial.

People shouldn’t judge books by the cover. Feedback sessions shouldn’t damper styles. The title of the book doesn’t change what the book is. Typos aren’t indicators of quality of concept.

Many critics aren’t trying to be horrible people. They want to be useful and good, and so they do things to try to help the author in the best way they can. But the unfortunate thing is that the critic who is trying to be open minded in a feedback session will ignore the things most important to the readers, or rather, what would be important to her if it had been a random book she’d picked up in the bookstore.

While I respect respecting my artistic integrity, there’s a certain point where that becomes my job, and I would like to at least know about the problems I would be defending, especially because I may not want it to be my style.

By pointing out the stupid things that we shouldn’t care about (but do), the author then has the right to say for himself if that is his style or something he wants to get rid of. Admitting that, though it is irrelevant, the name Freddy is unappealing to me as a sex symbol helps the author be aware what his audience might be thinking and maybe even help him make a decision on something he was already unsure about.

A feedback session needs to contain as much information as possible. And while it is acceptable for the critic to admit, “I know this is stupid,” it doesn’t mean that she shouldn’t say it at all, because many people use superficial and stupid things to judge a story.

5. Keeping your opinion to yourself.

In reading an article about constructive criticism and the Liz Lerman technique, the ending made me nearly fall out of my chair laughing. Written by Jane Friedman, she goes on to explain another woman’s philosophy throughout the entire piece until she comes to the last step:

“Step 4: Opinions

Gosh, I’ve already spilled so much ink on 1-3. Well, what’s to say about opinions?

Oops. Out of time. Got to run.”

Why is this funny to me? Because she’s writing an article about how to give people your feedback and proceeds to use someone else’s opinions throughout. She does manage her own examples, but when she is asked to come up with her own example of an opinion, what does she say?

It’s hard for people to put their mind out in the open, and many constructive sessions fall apart for that very reason. There is nothing I hate more than having someone tell me someone else’s thoughts. I have far more faith in the original words of an idiot than those of a genius through an idiot’s mouth, and I don’t want to hear, “Don’t  use adverbs,” because that’s what your high school teacher told you. I want to hear, “Don’t use adverbs because they’re overcompensating for simplistic verbs,” or whatever.

While many of us feel like no one wants to hear our opinions—if the rants about Facebook politics indicate anything—the reality is that’s why the author is coming to us. He’s looking for a perspective and understanding that he can’t have for himself.

By being able to talk about her own ideas, the critic is giving him what he wants. Sure, she’s opening herself up for rejection and argument, but if he’s a jerk about it, people are already automatically on the critic’s side anyway. And while the person giving feedback has the right to walk away at any point, there are too many people who do it long before the author was ready to stop listening, long before he even argued.

The point to a feedback session is to do what casual society can’t. It is there to help the author understand what he doesn’t like about his work and how to fix it. While in the real world the person who goes about helping people “improve” tends to be a busy-body patronizing prick, when people are looking for improvement, it’s a good thing. Sometimes, by trying too hard not to be that jerk just makes us look like one, and managing to express confidence that we’re not being rude or selfish is exactly what it takes to be helpful.

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Ten Stages of the Writer

One: The Chosen One

First step. The author is beginning to consider writing. He thinks he’d be good at it. He has all these fantasies that are slipping away. So close to being tangible, yet so far, he’d do anything to make them more real.

He also would like the respect of the author position. He’d like to do something worthwhile with his life, something that he could feel proud of. He knows he’s meant for better things than what he’s doing now and he thinks that writing might but that very thing.

But maybe it isn’t. While he would like to prove to himself that he’s not insignificant, he’s not sure that writing is the way to do it. So he is extra hard on himself. He compares himself to the great writers and finds himself lacking. He might interpret criticism, even his own, as proof he isn’t really as valuable as he thinks he is.

This stage is where most potential writers slough off back into the recesses of the real world.

“If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, then you will know I began writing as a result of a teacher. In fact, if I hadn’t had her class in the sixth grade, I often wonder how my life would have turned out. Would I even be writing? I don’t know. I enjoyed a poetry unit in the fourth grade, but that didn’t cause me to write… My ninth grade English teacher called me a genius—not true but a nice stroke to the ego. Even today, my history teacher helps me find sources for my research. I truly believe, no matter how much family support I got, I would not have continued if my teachers hadn’t encouraged me.”

-B.J. Kurtz, author of The Lord of Nightmares

Two: Self-Rejection

For whatever reason, the author is growing from the last stage. While he still is hesitant to call himself a writer, he has written some things. Not much. Hasn’t finished any of the big projects. Maybe hasn’t even finished any of the small ones. He has at least a started novel, if not twenty, and has actually made himself work.

Now it’s time for the self-loathing to kick in.

He thinks it’s important to write neutrally. No one cares about his opinions; they just want an outlet to input their own.

His characters are not like him. They are different. He doesn’t know how they are different—hasn’t pinpointed it yet—but they do not react in the same way he would.

He doesn’t want to be one of those writers. He has to be original at all times. He can’t write about what he wants because it’s already been done. If his tastes are in vogue, then they’re the wrong tastes to have. He has to write about something else.

What he wants isn’t what other people want. Just because he likes something doesn’t mean his readers will. Just because he doesn’t like something doesn’t mean his readers won’t. They are different from him.

Though the self-rejection stage is primarily self-destructive, it can turn externally malicious, harshly judging anyone who resorts to the same tactics as the author, the self-loathing being projected onto his peers.

“I think that NaNoWriMo in some ways still produces people that are using it for reasons other than love of Fiction. It produces a lot of really bad literature and encourages bad writing. I do NaNoWriMo and for my own personal reasons I like it. However, sometimes when I read some of the writing that exists it makes me want to give up my passion for writing just because I get so frustrated.”

-“A.J.” Online Commenter

Three: The Serious Author

Whether or not he actually feels comfortable with saying, “I’m a writer,” is debatable. But now he’s taking it seriously. He has written enough to feel that he might be good at it. He knows he’s going to do it professionally. He is going to get a book published no matter how long it’s going to take—though, of course, he secretly believes it’ll be soon. Probably "within the next year."

While the lingering doubts from The Chosen One stage are still there, it’s not as much about proving he’s meant to do it as it is being able to do it. He starts to seek out constructive criticism, but is still fairly tender on the subject. While he can better understand specific bad-mouthing, if the overall excitement towards his work seems limited, he will get depressed.

This is the point where it stops being a question of if and starts being a question on when.

He starts seeking out writer’s clubs, considers going to writer’s conferences, creative writing classes, and things that earlier mild interest couldn’t motivate. He works on finishing rather than just dabbling. He may even try submitting material. In today’s time, many authors start blogs or self-publishing.

“Today I think it would actually be beneficial to explain a bit about my biggest work; Maverip and its subsequent series. The work itself is one thing that I am most proud of in my life. It took three years to write the first novel in the series, and at the end of those three years I felt like I had finally accomplished something I could really be proud of. I spent three years on this work, not just writing and thinking, but researching. That was one of the most important parts of the novel. I had to look into the vast depth of vampire lore and rip it apart to find what I felt I needed. I have spent the last five years of my life immersed in a literal plethora of everything vampire, and I couldn’t be happier.”

-Damean Matthews, blogger: Life of a College Author

Four: The Good Girl

Similar to the self-rejection stage, the Good Girl/Boy is all about doing things for the “right” reasons and the “right” way.

He is more likely to experiment in outlining, having previously been far too annoyed with the order that he had to (by Good Girls).

While his actual word choice has more opinion in it (people no longer walk, they strut), and the author has probably even thrown away the idea that he has to be neutral for a while, he still balks at pushing his attitude and perspective on others. Having met all of those egotistical, megalomaniacs writers in his last stage, the author doesn’t want to be like that. He wants to be a good person.

It’s not about him. It’s about “whatever you want it to be about.”

He still won’t overtly discuss his opinions.

It’s not about being published, respected, or making money. He only writes for the “love of fiction.”

He just wants to express himself.

He doesn’t write for an audience; he’s not a sellout.

He only writes for an audience, he’s not a narcissist.

All his characters like each other, with the exception of the ones who obviously aren’t supposed to.

His protagonist wants for nothing, is unambitious, and grateful, satisfied, or at least submitted to what he has. It isn’t until someone else tells him he’s worth more and changes his life for him that the story starts.

“I didn’t want to trick anyone. No. I wasn’t trying to trick people!”

-A horrified poet in my writers’ group, being complimented on a twist ending.

Five: The Tolerance Development

It’s not enough anymore. The work is there, the effort has been put in, and everyone has nice things to say about the stories. But the author has developed a tolerance to it. The basic, “You are a good writer,” doesn’t satisfy him. He wants more reaction to what he writes. He wants to be published, or published traditionally, or better read. He wants more excitement, more devotion. It’s been sustaining up until now, but he wants more.

He becomes more aggressive in seeking his career. The tactics pursued vary based on personality, experiences, and snobbery, but now he’s committed. Whether it be querying more, editing more, self-publishing, self-promoting, forking over the cash for writer’s conferences, seeking thorough criticism, and doing things that he’d never thought he’d was above doing, he’s trying now, more than he ever has in his life.

He doesn’t want to be told he’s good. Sure, he likes the buildup, and sure a harsh criticism will hurt him like the rest of them, but it’s not about proof anymore. He knows he can do it. It’s just figuring out how.

Criticism sessions start to be fun. He is annoyed when he leaves with just a bunch of “good jobs.” They are a waste of time.

He starts to understand what he defines good writing as. He has taken off the rose colored glasses, become aware of his own snobbery, the ways he’s been limiting himself, and the unfortunate means that people have to judging literature. He starts to question destiny and begins to believe in luck, but that’s okay, because he knows, if he does it right, he can achieve his dreams.

“First I got really grumpy, and then got very determined to write things that were so good that not even the stupidest most irritating gatekeeper alive could reject them.”

-Neil Gaiman: American Gods

Six: The Doubt

Actively seeking out harsher criticism causes the author to get harsher criticism. He now has the skills that subjectivity starts getting worse. Now, not only is he becoming aware of his work for the first time, he’s becoming aware of how muddled feedback can be.

The more he knows about writing, the more he realizes he doesn’t know. He can’t tell anymore if he likes reading big words or just wants to be the sort of writer who uses big words. He doesn’t know if people are complaining about the obvious or about the problematic.

He doesn’t know if he’s any good.

It might all be up to luck. It might all be up to talent. It might all be up to networking and nepotism.

He might fail.

“You can go to fanfiction or fictionpress, or any other writing website out there, and you can literally see hundreds of thousands of individual works, all made by people who have the same dreams as I. I don’t see how that doesn’t intimidate someone. To believe that you’re going to rise above every other person out there trying to do it is absurdly optimistic and maybe even arrogant, and it’s just not me. I hate belittling others, and to base my life around a career where I have to keep pushing myself and believe that I can be better than everyone else is destroying who I am. But I have to do it… right? If you don’t believe in yourself, why should anyone else?”

-XJ Selman, Writer

Seven: The First Success

He’s had successes before, but they didn’t count. Too small in magnitude or an exception as to why he the opportunity in the first place, he doesn’t really feel that he has done anything amazing yet.

Until now.

This is the first success that he’s acknowledge. Maybe he has to dry swallow it, even force himself to admit that maybe, just maybe, it’s impressive to someone else, but still, he’s done it.

He is officially a writer, and now he has some proof.

“I'm writing a book. With pages!

And there will be pictures on the pages. And words. And maybe the pages will be really aerodynamic or something. I haven't really decided what all of the hi-tech features are going to be yet. It's tough to choose.

Anyway, I've been wanting to tell you guys about this for a very, very long time, and now I finally can!

Touchstone (a division of Simon & Schuster) will tentatively release my book in Fall 2012, which sounds like it's a long time away, but really, it's only the gestation period of two slightly premature babies. And if you're a time-traveler, then it can be as soon as you want it to be. It can be now!”

-Allie Brosh, blogger: Hyperbole and Half

Eight: The Doubt

And just like that, it’s back again.

What if it’s a one-time thing? What if it’s just a fluke? What if this is the only thing he ever publishes? Does anyone really take it seriously? Did he just embarrass himself?

The feeling of accomplishment dies. It wasn’t how he expected it to be. Things are still hard, nothing changed, and all the problems he’s had before are still there. Will achieving his dreams actually be that great? Will all this hard work pay off?

Many authors disappear from the face of the earth in this stage.

“I realize that I’ve accomplished a lot in life and deep-down I know that, but it doesn’t change the fact that I only have a few days a month where I actually felt like I was good at life.  I know I’m a good person (as in “not evil or intentionally arsonistic”), but I’m not very good at being a person. I don’t know if that makes sense and it’s not me fishing for compliments.  Please don’t tell me the things I’m good at because that’s not what this is about.  It’s just that at the end of each day I usually lie in bed and think, 'Shit. I’m fucking shit up.  I accomplished nothing today except the basics of existing.' I feel like I’m treading water and that I’m always another half-day behind in life.  Even the great things are overshadowed by shame and anxiety, and yes, I realize a lot of this might have to do with the fact that I have mental illness, but I still feel like a failure more often than I feel like I’m doing well.”

-Jenny Lawson a.k.a. The Bloggess, bestselling novelist: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened

Nine: The Security

Yes. The second book comes out. Whether or not it’s successful as the first, whether or not it took some time, a new agent, a few hits and misses, the second book is still there. And then the third.

He’s starting to accept he might not be delusional. It has taken a while, but the relief managed to come. The worry is still there, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.

“In 1979, when I wrote WHISPERS, I was less well-known than the young Harrison Ford before he appeared in American Graffiti–and a lot less handsome. I was slightly better looking than J. Fred Muggs, a performing chimpanzee on TV at that time, but also less well-known than he was. Although I had been a full-time writer for several years, though I had a file drawer full of good reviews, I had never enjoyed a best-seller and, in fact, had never known enough financial security to guarantee that I would always be able to earn a living at my chosen art and craft. Writing novels was the only work for which I’d ever had a passion. Although I put in sixty- and seventy-hour weeks at the typewriter, I worried that I might eventually have to find new work. Because I had no other talent, skill, or ability.”

-Dean Koontz, bestselling novelist.

Ten: The Legend

Who knows how these great people feel? What is like to finally be known as one of the “masters,” to have your words repeated and adored, and to be the authorized, unquestioned (usually) source of all writing, to know that you can produce a book, get a publisher and have readers without the horrible effort it took before?

We can only begin to imagine.

But, while we believe they are above us, that they must know they’re great, that they can’t possibility doubt themselves or take criticism poorly, I can only imagine that finding out you are The Chosen One, doesn’t make us question it. Am I meant to do this? Was it hard work or destiny? Will this continue? Do I deserve this?

 “Life is like a wheel. Sooner or later, it always come around to where you started again.”

-Stephen King