Repeat after Me: Your Book is NOT Your Baby

WHAT’S PLAYING: Duffy “Warwick Avenue

A while ago, I resolved to put off having children until I was financially and emotionally stable. I’m well on my way to accomplishing the first task. As for the second…well, let’s just say that I’m not going to be on the cover of Sanity Fair anytime soon. In fact, I’m pretty sure that by the time I’ve worked through all the kinks and snarls in my mind, I’ll be so far past menopause that any eggs I have left will be hardboiled.

But while I’m more than happy to defer childbearing, lately when it comes to my writing, I’ve suddenly turned into some sort of crazy stage mom. Every word is precious, and any hint of criticism is a personal attack. This is a problem, especially now that I’m about to put my book into the hands of my beta readers.

The scenario will probably play out something like this:

WHAT THEY SAY: “I like the book, but I think this scene could use some tightening.”

WHAT I HEAR: “You’re ugly and stupid, and your mother dresses you funny. Oh, and your writing sucks.”

I guess this sort of reaction is natural. I’ve poured so much time and energy into this project that in some ways, it’s more “mine” than any child could be.

But, by investing so much of myself in this book, I’m not doing it, or my self-esteem, any favors. As a writer, I can’t afford to get so wrapped up in writing the book of my heart, that I lose sight of my true purpose: to tell a good story.

The truth is that this book is just a book. Yes, I’ve cried, sweated, and cursed over it into the wee hours of the night, but it’s still a creation, not an extension of my self-worth.

Still, if you happen to walk by and see me weeping hysterically while clutching papers to my chest and howling at an uncaring sky, just… look away.

My First Critique

WHAT’S PLAYING: LeAnn RimesHow Do I Live” (iPod stuck on country music today…the music of pain.)

“A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.” – Richard Bach

I got the first round of notes back from my new mentor/editor last night, and they were BRUTAL. We’re talking “I must hide my face because I am not worthy to be seen by other people” brutal.

The worst part is that I deserved it. I was so excited about my story and working with her, that I neglected the actual writing part. I rushed through one draft and then sent it off without even bothering to check it over. And the result was a 9,000-word mess peppered with inconsistent characters, setting and details.

For example, I decided to set the story in Mississippi during the summer, August to be exact. And then I turned around and had my protagonist dressed in friggin’ sweater. In August. In Mississippi. The sweater was necessary to the story, but the location and time of year wasn’t. I just threw them in and forgot about it. When she pointed it out, I felt like a complete moron.

 

At least she thought the writing was good. I just need to pay more attention.  It was hard to hear, especially coming from her. I’ve wanted to work with this particular editor for over a year. And now – after she finally makes time for me in her busy schedule – I had to and blow it by making a series of rookie mistakes.

Ah well, the good news is that she’s still willing to work with me. Apparently, she still has high hopes for my work.

Now all I have to do is prove her right.

 

 

How to Get Past Crises of Confidence

WHAT’S PLAYING: Sam and Dave “Thank You”

I don’t have very much confidence in my skills as a writer. As a nuclear chemist? Absolutely. As a friend, sister, daughter, cousin, human being, etc.? More or less. But when it comes to writing, I can never tell just how good – or bad – I really am. Maybe it’s because art is so subjective. There’s no real measuring stick by which I can observe my skill level. (Chemistry is so much easier. If the lab blows up or I die of radiation poisoning, then I’ll know that I screwed something up.)

Case in point. Here is an abbreviated transcript of my latest breakup:

Him: “Jacqui, I’m leaving.”

Me (typing): “OK, have a nice time.

Him: “No, I mean I’m leaving for good. I’m breaking up with you.”

Me (still typing): “Uh-huh.”

Him: “I have a new girlfriend, who is five years younger and fifteen pounds thinner than you are.”

Me (absently): “Sounds like a keeper.”

Him: “Would you please look at me? You’re the worst girlfriend I’ve ever had!”

Me (still typing): “You’re probably right.”

Him: “By the way, your writing sucks!”

Me (turns away from computer and bursts into tears): “You bastard!”

(OK, maybe it didn’t go quite that badly, but you get the point.)

It’s strange really. I’m not particularly sensitive when it comes to other things. In fact, I usually respond to criticism with a snappy comeback or (failing that) an extended middle finger. But when it comes to writing, one negative comment, no matter how minor, is enough to send me into a tailspin. It’s as though someone finally pried my head open and let all the crazy out.

Sometimes I think my writing is good, better than good. I’ve studied with some of the best writers and editors in the business. I’ve tried to take in every lecture, homework assignment and piece of advice and apply it to my own writing. And on a good day, I can almost convince myself that I’ve succeeded.

Then, there are the bad days.

The days when I go back and read the same passage I’d read earlier, only to find that it’s bad. Really bad. Like “Oh my god, I wish I was illiterate just so I wouldn’t have to read this shitty writing” bad.

Writing is one of my chief joys in life, and more than anything, I want to be able to do it well. I don’t know if I’ll ever completely get over my crises of confidence, but I’ve learned a few tricks that help.

1. Stop. Sometimes the best thing to do is take a breath and push away from the computer.

2. Get active. Some might recommend walking or running, but I like to take my frustrations out on a punching bag, or better yet, a sparring partner.

3. Get inspired. This could be anything: a favorite book, an inspirational quote, even some positive feedback from your peers or mentor. Anything to reignite that spark of creativity.

4. Keep writing. And remember that, when it comes to writing, everything is fixable.

And, last but not least:

5. When all else fails, get drunk and try again tomorrow.

Of course, if you’re anything like me, then you’ll probably do this list in reverse order.

Cheers!

Book a Week Challenge – Week 4

WHAT’S PLAYING: Lady GaGaYoü and I

Vacation is over, and now it’s time to get back to work. This week’s book is “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood.

A dystopian classic, “The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of Offred – not her real name, but a patronymic given to her by the new regime in an oppressive future America– and her life as a Handmaid. Forced to provide children by proxy for infertile women of higher social status, Handmaids undergo regular medical tests and a monthly Ceremony in which their Masters attempt to impregnate them. As the novel progresses, Offred learns that many people bend the rules of the theocracy, even the ones who helped to put them in place. People who fought the hardest for a return to “simple values” refuse to live by them, rendering the theocratic government even more intimidating for its hypocrisy.

Offred’s shadowy memories of her husband and daughter provide relief from the brutality of her new life. But these remembrances are tenuous, made all the more indistinct by Atwood’s lyrical prose. Facts appear to merge into one another. History becomes immaterial. Despite the horrific regime and unimaginable tortures she endures, Offred’s voice is reflective. Rather than bitterness and rage, there’s a sense of ennui about her. She’s not completely passive though. Throughout the narrative, she shows flashes of contempt, desire, slyness, and, of course, anger. The mosaic style composition works well, but can also make the story hard to follow. All the same, Atwood’s astonishing skill as a writer and brilliant characterization kept me turning the pages.

This book scared the hell out of me: the idea that women could be reduced to nothing more than invisible, powerless vessels. As my father is fond of saying, “There’s nothing more dangerous than a man with good intentions.”

Bottom Line: Fiercely political and bleak, yet witty and wise, this novel is a must read.

Favorite Line: “Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it….The newspaper stories were like dreams to us, bad dreams dreamt by others….We were the people who were not in the papers. We lived in the blank white spaces at the edges of print. It gave us more freedom. We lived in the gaps between the stories.”

What I learned: As much as you can, strive for relevance. The book is a classic because it speaks to something deep in the human psyche: fear of the loss of freedom, basic human rights and liberties. It’s powerful stuff, made even more powerful by Atwood’s skill.

Coming up next week: “Poison Study” by Maria V. Snyder.