Making it easier to keep your writing resolutions

If you’re like most Americans, you’ve probably muttered a New Year’s resolution or two within the past week or so; if you’re like most aspiring writers, one or more of these resolutions probably had to do with sitting down and pounding out that novel or nonfiction book that has been nagging the back of your brain for quite some time now.

Or, if you were virtuously pounding away already, perhaps you resolved to buckle down and get queries and/or submissions to agents out the door.

Or, if you were reading my blog last month when my hard disk melted into a wee black puddle, perhaps you resolved to make backups on a weekly basis. Or daily.

All of these, of course, are laudable goals, and I’m here to support you in achieving them. However, as those of you who have been reading this blog since this time last year already know, I’m not a big fan of New Year’s resolutions: I think that they put unnecessary pressure on people at what can be a rather depressing time of year, at a time when they are frequently already exhausted from dealing with friends, family, and other loved ones who can be irritating to the point of madness. Add to that the endless advertising yammer urging us to seize the moment to become thinner, stop smoking, go to the gym, nab a new job, etc., and it’s amazing that anyone makes it to Lent without running amok and, depending upon the resolution du année, chowing down on all the chocolate in town, inhaling everything flammable, Krazy-Gluing oneself to the couch, and dropping out of the workforce altogether.

Or maybe I just like being told what to do a whole lot less than other people.

In any case, I think there’s ample reason that the average New Year’s resolution lasts only three weeks. However, I know some of you out there have taken the pledge plunge, and I want to spend the next couple of days dealing with the most common problems such resolutions encounter.

#1 on the hit parade of resolution-stymiers is the simple fact that pressure to produce pages within a short time frame (such as, say, those first three weeks of resolution) has a nasty habit of exacerbating writer’s block. For a lot of aspiring writers, finding the time and energy to sit in front of the computer is not the hardest part of the process by a long stretch: it’s the intimidation of that blank screen, that bare sheet of paper.

It’s conquering the fear of starting.

If you feel this way, you are certainly not alone. Many writers have terrific ideas, but find themselves stymied once it is time to commit those ideas to paper. They worry that they are not talented enough, or that no one will be interested in what they have to say, or that their writing is not important enough to take time away from all of their other obligations. So they just don’t start, or if they do, once they do clear the time from their busy schedules, they feel guilty for not utilizing every nanosecond of it with productive keystrokes.

Obviously, you’re never going to find out for sure how talented, interesting, or important you are as a writer if you don’t make the time to write in the first place, but ultimately, I suspect this fear isn’t a rational phenomenon as much as a matter of conditioning. Americans are trained from birth to work as hard as possible, and to feel that there is virtue in slogging through quotidian workplace tasks, because there is a paycheck attached to them.

Since the rewards of writing tend to fall into the very, very long-term range, writing feels like a luxury by contrast – which, as any lifetime writer can tell you, it isn’t, if it’s really in your blood.

I’m not the first to say this, of course – and unfortunately, even encouraging statements like this can induce guilt or feelings of inadequacy in sufferers of writer’s block. “If I were really meant to write,” the blocked writer scolds herself, staring in frustration at the blank computer screen, “my fingers would be flying right now.”

Not necessarily. Blank screen-staring is a vital part of any successful writer’s job description. The pros call it processing.

Resolvers: do not, I beg you, conclude from a few isolated bouts of block that this is not the life for you or stop trying to write after merely a week or two of effort. Do not conclude it even if it goes on for weeks or months at a time, or if you find yourself making excuses about why you can’t write today. This type of block is common, I tell you, and transcends boundaries of talent.

As does coming up with creative ways to prevent oneself from sitting down to stare at that infernal screen. Heck, about a third of the working writers I know can’t make themselves sit down to write until after every iota of the housework is done, right down to the last folded t-shirt and balled-up sock. For some reason, writing for them seems to be a perpetual when-I-have-time-for-it phenomenon.

I’m not going to lie to you – if you find that you’re not sitting down on a regular basis and writing, it’s going to take an awfully long time to produce something publishable. If you are waiting until you have an entire day free of work, laundry, and other obligations, you may well be waiting for quite a long time. Most Americans work far, far too much (and in return receive the lowest amount of vacation time in the industrialized world) to have a lot of leisure time available to give free rein to their creativity.

I could parrot other New Year’s advice-givers, and blame every difficulty upon a lack of willpower. I could, for instance, order you crabbily to turn off the TV/DVD/iPod/radio/other electronic distractions, but my God, there’s a war on. I would be the last person to advise you to be LESS aware of what is going on in the world around you at the moment. And I have to say, your distractions have my sympathy. Chances are, by the time you collapse in front of the TV, you’re pretty exhausted from work, keeping up with the kids, etc.

But, as much as it pains me to tell you this, it probably will not get your book written to expend your few leisure moments daydreaming about the month-long vacation at a mountain cabin that would permit you to dash off a first draft in its entirety. Even professional writers, the ones who are making a good living at it, seldom have huge chunks of completely untrammeled time at their disposal. Life is obtrusive, after all.

If you can afford to take such a retreat, great. There are plenty of artists’ colonies and secluded bed-and-breakfasts that would simply love to shelter you for a period of limited, intense work. (Check out the back of Poets & Writers magazine, where many fellowships for such retreats are advertised.)

But I would bet a nickel that the very idea of arranging your life to disappear for a month’s writing retreat feels impossible right about now. You’re a responsible person with obligations. If you have kids, it’s hard to imagine disappearing for that long; if you have a demanding job, it may well be impossible. Not to mention the need to pay your bills throughout this theoretical retreat.

So it probably behooves you to make the most of the work time you already have – and to make a commitment to using it productively.

If you have been able to carve out an hour or two per day, or a few hours at a stretch each week, good for you! Yet the need to make the most of every second can in and of itself can be intimidating; as I mentioned above, if you waste your scarce writing time, you feel terrible, right? (Which, incidentally, is why most writers are so sensitive to our kith and kin’s remarking that we seem to be sitting in front of our computers staring into space, rather than typing every instant. Reflection is necessary to our work, but it is genuinely difficult sometimes NOT to fall into a daydream.)

Here’s one trick the pros use, one that I find works well for editing clients writing everything from bone-dry dissertations to the Great American Novel. It seems disappointingly simple, but I assure you, it works: play the same piece of music at the beginning of EVERY time you sit down to write. Not just the same CD, but the same SONG. Preferably one that reminds you in some way of the project at hand.

It may drive you crazy at first, but be consistent. Before long, your brain will come to associate that particular song with work – which in turn will help you sink into your work more quickly. After awhile, you can put on other music later in your writing sessions, as long as you always begin with the same song. Your brain will already be used to snapping immediately into creative mode.

I do this myself, so I can give you first-hand assurance of its efficacy. While I was writing the early drafts of the novel I am currently revising, I put on the same Cat Stevens CD (hey, I was writing about hippies) literally every time I sat down to write – and now that I have finished the book, I can’t hear THE WIND without moving instinctively toward my computer. My next novel’s soundtrack is being provided mostly by Joe Jackson and Elvis Costello. And even now, I can’t hear more than a bar or two of Yaz’s UPSTAIRS AT ERIC’S without falling into musings about my long-completed dissertation.

I tell you, it works, if you give it a chance. And it carries a fringe benefit that’s paying off in spades for me right now: even though I’ve been working on many other writing projects in the interim since I finished the novel, I was able to snap my brain back into hippie novel mode again almost instantly. Thank you, TEASER AND THE FIRECAT.

Tomorrow, I shall pass along a few more tips on how to evade the writer’s-block blues. In the meantime, keep up the good work — and not just because you resolved to do it because a calendar told you so, but because you believe in the story you have to tell and your ability to express yourself well.

Getting the feedback you need, Part IX: on beyond “I hope you like it.”

Welcome to the final installment of my ongoing series on steps you can take to improve the feedback you get from non-professional first readers – for those of you just tuning in, that’s any pre-publication reader for your book who is not paid (by you or anyone else) to give you feedback.

In other words, the vast majority of first readers.

Yesterday, Tip #11 advised you to give your first readers a list of questions, preferably in writing, at the same time as giving them the manuscript. That way, the readers will know what to be reading for; you will get your most important questions answered, and less experienced first readers will have the guidance they need to keep from floundering about in the text, desperately searching for something helpful to say. That’s a whole lot of birds with one relatively small stone, isn’t it?

So far, I have presented Tip #11 as requiring merely effort, honesty, and advance planning to pull off, but in practice, it also requires a fair amount of chutzpah. Far more, in fact, than simply shoving a manuscript at a willing friend and murmuring some gentle platitudes about hoping he enjoys reading it. It requires not only taking one’s own writing seriously enough to demand useful feedback, but putting one’s wee foot down and insisting that other people do so as well.

Personally, I find this empowering, but over the years, several of my loyal, intelligent, talented advisees have informed me that they find Tip #11 far and away the most distasteful of the lot. They consider it pushy, if not downright presumptuous: empathetic souls, they feel that creating and handing over such a list implies doubt about the first readers’ reading ability, if not actual intelligence.

If anything beyond “Just tell me what you think” feels overly dictatorial to you, consider this: there is not a literary contest in the world that does not provide written instructions to its judges on how to evaluate contest entries. Screeners at agencies are almost invariably handed lists of desirable traits to seek as they read through submissions, as well as lists of criteria for instantaneous rejection, as are editorial assistants at publishing houses.

Which begs the question: if experienced professional readers work along pre-set guidelines, why should amateur readers be expected to perform the same task without guidance?

To turn the question around, haven’t you ever noticed how first readers new to the task almost always have difficulty giving specific feedback, even if they loved the book? Haven’t you noticed how they tend to freak out a little if they are asked pointed questions? Heck, haven’t you noticed how often this is the case with readers of published books, too? Ask for a detailed analysis of any written material, and most readers will suddenly find it difficult to breathe.

As a former professor, I can tell you exactly what that panicked flash in their eyes means: it’s the fight-or-flight response of a student suddenly tested on material he thought would not be on the test. From the unguided reader’s POV, being grilled by an anxious author is like a pop quiz on material read for fun. Nip this anxiety in the bud: give your first readers a study guide, so they’ll know what’s going to be on the test.

Writers are far less likely to have this response, of course, for obvious reasons: we were the folks who got As in English. Hand us an essay question about a book, and we’ll go on for hours, won’t we?

But just for a moment, try to identify with the huge majority of the population that does not have this instinctive response to being asked to product a book report.

Do you remember that professor in college or that teacher in high school who used to madden you at exam time with vague questions, ones so broad that they essentially invited you to spill out every minor fact you had managed to memorize? “Compare and contrast the Renaissance with the Middle Ages,” for instance, or “Was the League of Nations a good idea?” or “The Emancipation Proclamation: what were the arguments on both sides?” Or the ever-popular ploy of giving you a quote, and asking you to relate it to the reading? Perhaps something along the lines of this little gem:

“There is no ‘objective’ or universal tone in literature, for however long we have been told here is. There is only the white, middle-class male tone.” — Carolyn Heilbrun, WRITING A WOMAN’S LIFE
Relate this quote to the works of Jane Austen, James Baldwin, Dave Barry, Truman Capote, Charles Dickens, Jeffrey Eugenides, Norman Mailer, Yukio Mishima, Anaïs Nin, Philip Roth, Edith Wharton, and Marvel Comics. Make your answer text-based, and use specific examples.

Students look at this sort of question and wish that they would be struck by bolts of lightning on the spot – which, in essence, they have. “What the heck does “relate” mean in this context?” they wonder, surreptitiously sharpening their pencils into weapons of mayhem.

My dissertation advisor used to favor rambling quarter-page ruminations on the nature of life, without out ever articulating a question she desired students to answer. I like to call this the “what color am I thinking?” school of test-giving, because it requires the students to guess, with virtually no guidance, what the teacher wants to see in the essay.

My high school biology teacher, more vague than most, simply walked into class on the day of our big plant life exam, handed each of us a three-foot-long stretch of butcher paper, and told us, “Show me everything you know about plants.” Was it an invitation to draw lilies for an hour, or an entreaty to write haiku? No one knew until after the exams were graded.

It drove you nuts in school, right? Well, first readers given no guidance by the authors who have handed them manuscripts often feel as annoyed and helpless as you felt when faced with those kind of vague exam questions, especially if they’ve never read a manuscript (as opposed to a book) before. The format is substantially different, for one thing (if that’s news to you, please see the FORMATING MANUSCRIPTS category at right), and let’s face it, it’s an intimidating thing to be faced with the task of evaluating the creative output of someone’s soul.

Unless, of course, you are being paid to do it. If it’s any consolation for those of you who were told that your English degrees had no use in the real world, virtually every editorial memo I have ever seen has been a “What color am I thinking?” document: the manuscript is not quite right for these reasons; now go away and show me what the plot would be like with most of the major elements removed. Junior editors at publishing houses took those essay tests, too, and aced ‘em. And now, bless their hearts, they have transformed those bsing compare-and-contrast skills into a life’s work.

For the reader who is not also a writer, the implied obligation not only to point out problems but to suggest viable solutions can be completely overwhelming. Following Tip #11 will decrease everyone’s stress levels – and providing written parameters for criticism at the same time that you hand over your manuscript is an easy way to minimize the potential for future misunderstandings. Even just one or two questions will be helpful to your reader.

There’s no need to turn it into a major research project, or to inundate your readers with ten-page lists of questions. Stick to a simple 1-2 pp. questionnaire about the book, highlighting the areas you feel could use some work. For the sake of your ego, it’s also a dandy idea to include questions about parts that you know you have pulled off well. (For an excellent example of a simple list, check out Mary’s comment on yesterday’s post.)

Be as specific as you can – questions along the lines of “What did you think of my protagonist?” tend to elicit less helpful responses than “Was there any point in the book where you felt the tension lapsed? At what point did you feel most interested in the plot?” I always like to add some offbeat questions, to make the process more amusing for the reader: “Did anything in the book make you laugh out loud?” and “What in the plot surprised you most?” can provoke some revealing responses.

If you are uncomfortable with the idea of a questionnaire, make a few specific requests, either verbally or in writing. Verbally, I have found that coupling very pointed suggestions with compliments works best:

“You’re always so good at foreseeing plot twists in movies – what do you think I could do to make my book’s plot more astonishing?”
“You’re the best cook I know – I would really appreciate it if you would keep an eye out for sensual details that did or did not work. Did I bring in the senses of smell and taste enough?”
“Look, I’ve never done time, and you have, so I would love your feedback on what is and isn’t realistic in my portrayal of prison life.”

Remember, this is an exercise in getting you the feedback YOU need, so the more honest you can be with yourself and your first readers, the better. If you are feeling insecure, it is completely legitimate to say:

“Look, this is my baby, and I’m nervous about it. Yes, I would love it if you flagged all of the typos you saw, but what I think would help me most is if you told me what is GOOD about my book.”

And finally, all throughout the process, observe Tip #12: Be HUGELY grateful for your first readers’ help.

Yes, I know, I sound like your mother (are you sitting up straight?), but honestly, this is a situation where politeness really pays off in both the long and short terms. Here is a wonderful person who has – for reasons of friendship, bribery, or idle curiosity – agreed to devote many, many hours of her time to giving your manuscript a good, hard reading. She has let you blandish her into that most difficult and dangerous of tasks, telling the truth to a friend.

And if that’s not an occasion for sending some flowers, I should like to know what is. Not only to be polite, but to be instrumental: if this first reader turns out to be a good one, won’t you want to use her for your next book, too?

Keep up the good work!

Getting the feedback you need, Part VIII: eliciting the specifics

As my ongoing holiday gift to you, my readers, I have been running a series about how to get the most from non-professional feedback – which, let’s face it, is the vast majority of the substantive feedback aspiring writers get. As those of you who have queried or submitted are already aware, the agent or editor who gives concrete feedback to a rejected manuscript is rapidly growing as extinct as a bespectacled dodo speaking Latin and writing in cuneiform on the walls of a pyramid.

Sad, but true, alas, and thus it’s not the most efficient use of your energies to resent an obviously form rejection when it is sent to you. But how on earth is a writer to know what needs to be changed (other than the current super-tightness of the fiction market, which is making agents all over Manhattan yank wee hairs out of their already-troubled scalps) before a book looks yummy to the folks in the industry?

You could, of course, always pay a freelance editor to run through your work with a fine-toothed hacksaw, but most aspiring writers are reluctant to shell out the dosh for this service. After all, pretty much everyone who has had the self-discipline to write an entire book did so while living on the hope of other people paying to read it; to most writers, the prospect of paying a reader to struggle through their prose is pretty distasteful.

And even though I make a hefty chunk of my living being paid to do precisely that, I’m going to be honest with you here: most editors at major publishing houses, when asked at conferences if getting professional help is necessary, will get downright huffy at the notion. Good writers, they will tell you, need no such help.

This sounds very noble, doesn’t it? Until the 50th time you hear this exchange, when it dawns upon you that perhaps these editors hear the question as a critique of their ilk’s propensity to perform line editing, rather than as evidence of a writer trying to figure out how to navigate the publishing world. (Editors get cranky at the mention of the fact that they do a whole lot of things other than edit these days.) Oh, and their definition of a good writer is someone who never makes grammatical or spelling mistakes, is intimately familiar with the strictures of standard format, has a metronome implanted in her brain so that pacing is always absolutely even, has never written a bad sentence, and plots like a horror film director.

In short, the writer they have in mind when they give the advice has an internal editor powerful enough to run Random House. For those of us who have not yet had Toni Morrison surgically implanted in our brains, blue pencil in microscopic hand, an extra pair of eyes can be very helpful.

However, if you are not getting feedback from someone who is being paid to do it (i.e., an agent, editor, writing teacher, or freelance editor), or members of a writing group with experience working on your type of book, or a writer in your chosen genre – which is to say, if you are like 99% of feedback-seekers in North America – then you are almost certainly going to be seeking feedback from first readers who have no previous experience in manuscript critique. When the writer does not set out ground rules to guide inexperienced first readers, trouble often ensues.

All of which is a long-winded way of introducing the single best thing you can do to head off problems before they start — Tip #11: Give your first readers written directions for feedback.

Ideally, these directions will include a list of specific questions you would like answered about the reading experience. Providing a brief list of written questions may seem a bit pushy at first, but believe me, if your reader finds herself floundering for something to say, she will be immensely grateful that you gave her some advance guidance. And you, in turn, are far more likely to receive the kind of feedback most helpful to you than if you remain politely mum.

Coming up with specific questions will also force you to figure out what you in fact do want from your first readers. You may discover that you actually do not want feedback; maybe you want support instead. Maybe you want recognition from your kith and kin that you have completed a project as major as a book. If so, it is important to recognize your desires before you hear any critique from your first readers – if you were seeking praise, and your reader thought you were looking for constructive criticism, both you and your reader will end up unhappy.

Bringing your expectations into sync will substantially raise the probability of the exchange being positive for everyone concerned – as long as you are honest with yourself about what you really want and set realistic goals. Hint: “I want for Daddy to say for the first time in my life that he’s proud of me” might not be the best reason to hand dear old Dad your manuscript. But “I want the experience of my work being read closely by someone I know is not going to say anything harsh afterward” is every bit as praiseworthy a goal as “I want someone to tell me how to make this book marketable.”

The trick lies in figuring out precisely what you want, finding a person who can deliver it, and asking directly to receive it. And if that sounds like sex-column advice to you, well, there’s a reason for that: everyone is looking for something slightly different, so the more straightforwardly you can describe your desired outcome, the more likely you are to get what you really want.

I cannot emphasize too much that it is PERFECTLY legitimate to decide that you actually do not want dead-honest critique, IF your first readers that in advance. If upon mature reflection you realize that you want to show your work to your kith and kin in order to gain gentle feedback in a supportive environment (rather than in a cut-throat professional forum, where your feelings will not be spared at all), that’s a laudable goal — as long as neither you nor your first readers EXPECT you to derive specific, informative revision feedback from the experience. “Don’t worry about proofreading, Sis,” you can say. “I have other readers who can give me technical feedback. Just enjoy.”

If you want to be a professional writer, however, you will eventually need to harden yourself to feedback; the rather commonly-held notion that really GOOD writing never gets criticized is a myth. Not only does professional writing routinely get ripped apart and sewn back together (ask anyone who has ever written a newspaper article), but even amongst excellent editors and publishing higher-ups, there will always be honest differences of opinion about how a book should run.

So the sooner you can get accustomed to taking critique in a constructive spirit, the better. And the happier you will be on that dark day when an editor who has already purchased your manuscript says, “You know, I don’t like your villain. Take him out, and have the revision to me by the end of next week,” or “You know, I think your characters’ ethnicity is a distraction. Instead of Chinese-Americans from San Francisco, could they be Irish-Americans from Boston?” or “Oh, your protagonist’s lesbian sister? Change her to a Republican brother.”

You think these examples are jokes? Would you like me to introduce you to the writers who heard them first-hand? Would you care to know which one I saw on a major publishing house’s letterhead within the last three months?

Yes, good critique can be invaluable to clarifying fuzzy places in the book, but in terms of your entire career, it’s helpful to think of non-professional feedback as spring training for when you’re playing in the big leagues. While you are testing your throwing arm with the non-professional catchers, you will get better practice take the time to set out exactly the questions you want your first readers to have in mind while they read.

Okay, so maybe that wasn’t the best analogy. If you were trying to completely rewrite a book at an editor’s behest by the end of next week, your analogy-construction skills might be a trifle warped from overuse, too. The fact remains, you will get better feedback with a written list of questions than without it.

Do I hear some disgruntled murmuring out there? “Whoa, there, baby,” I know some of you will say. (And just whom do you think you are calling baby?) “I won’t get to set up guidelines for readers who buy my book after it is published. What’s wrong with just letting my first readers pretend to be those book-buyers, so I can work with their completely spontaneous reactions?”

Pretty smart question, cupcake, and one that richly deserves an answer – in fact, one with many parts. In the first place, buyers in bookstores will not know you personally. Their reactions, unless they happen to meet you at a book signing or write reader reviews on Amazon or someplace similar, will forever remain a mystery to you.

Your first readers, on the other hand, do know you, and presumably will be interacting with you in future social situations. They will probably want to be considerate of your feelings – which automatically renders giving honest critique even of excellent writing much harder for them. That’s going to kill pretty much all of the spontaneity of their reactions right off the bat.

Second, when a non-professional reader is, as I have been pointing out, doing the writer a great big favor. Good first readers are charming, generous people who deserve every piece of assistance a writer can give them; it is only fair to let them know in advance what kind of critique you are hoping to see.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the response of readers who buy your book will come after it is too late for you to revise it. By contrast, your first readers are giving you feedback early enough in the process to influence the book before it goes to press, and generally before it is seen by agents or editors. The better their feedback is, the easier it is for you to incorporate – and the more specific your questions can be at the outset of the reading process, the more likely you are to receive great, useable feedback.

Tomorrow, I shall wrap up this series. In the meantime, it’s a brand-new year: why not celebrate by backing up your documents onto a Greatest Hits of 2006 disk? Or at least back it up to your iPod?

Oh, and keep up the good work!