Weekly Musing: Bad Education

“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.
Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”

The above quote is attributed to William Faulkner and it’s a great piece of advice for both readers and writers. As a reader, it’s frustrating as hell when you read a poorly written book. Your rage bubbles up, you stop reading the book, or continue reading to see if by some miracle the author gets his or her shit together, or you throw the book across the room. Bad books make you appreciate the good books and the talented authors behind them.

I’d argue as a writer, you gain more benefit from reading bad books rather than good ones and the classics. I’m not saying reading only bad books; just realize they probably provide as valuable of an education as the good books. Yes, great books can show you how to really dig deep into your character’s soul. Show you the power and loveliness of the written word. Show you how to immerse you reader into a world they won’t want to leave.

But bad books have more value, in my opinion, because they don’t intimidate a writer. By being bad they can show you what NOT to do. Analyzing where you believe the author dropped the ball can boost your confidence knowing your writing is better than drivel not even worthy of lining a litter box. Use poor prose to push yourself to do better.

That being said, reading shit novels can also mess with you because you realize an editor, a publisher, an agent somewhere read a draft and went “Yup, we think we can sell this.” Some incredibly bad books have sold stupidly well, making their authors rich, while great books written by more talented authors languish.

As a writer when you read an awful book, carefully examine what about it bugs you. Is it the author’s use (or misuse) of the English language? Is it because the characters are underdeveloped and act inconsistently? Is the plot trite? Are you having problems visualizing the world? Is that world uninteresting? Are the descriptions laughable or confusing?

After asking yourself these questions and others you draw up, look at the answers. Use those to improve your own writing as you revise. If you use beta readers, pose those questions to them upfront so they know what to be on the look for as they read.

Also keep in mind that you don’t have to apply analysis to everything you read. Trashy or bad books can be a joy to read, sometimes more than great books. Reading for the pure pleasure of reading is the same as writing for the sheer joy of it. Not everything written has to serve a deeper purpose and can be for the hell of it. At the end of the day, as long as you read you’re learning whether consciously or subconsciously.

Weekly Musing: Critique Group Dos and Don’ts – Writer Edition

A component many writers groups offer are critique sessions. This is a time set aside where an agreed upon number of pieces, be they a short story, poetry, or chapters from a novel, are submitted to the group for feedback. While the person critiquing the piece has a responsibility to be honest and fair, the author bears some responsibilities when submitting the piece. Below are a few things I’ve noticed within writers groups I’ve been a part of. Seemingly simple things I wish every author would do as it would set up critiques to be about the content instead of other issues.

So here are some suggestions for an author when submitting work for critique:

Don’t submit an unedited draft – First drafts are garbage. Doesn’t matter how long you’ve been writing, doesn’t matter if you’re a published author or not, your first draft is going to be a tangled mess of ideas. Because you are still trying to figure out what the story is, it’s not the draft to submit to your critique group.

What I mean by unedited is at very least clean up the grammar and spelling as much as you are able to. Most writers struggle with grammar and spelling. There are plenty of books, websites, and classes to help improve.

If I’m reading a piece and I have to stop to remind you put a period at the end of a sentence, to capitalize where appropriate, how to use (or not use) a semi-colon, etc., then I can’t concentrate on the story itself. When it comes to the story itself please go through your rough draft at least once to organize your thoughts. Make sure scenes are in some kind of order. Submitting a draft and admitting it’s in no particular order, and it’s not intentional or experimental, is frustrating as the reader. It’s not my job to cobble together the sequence of events.

Format the manuscript in the industry standard – It is easy to find via a simple Google search of what Standard Manuscript Format – Short Story and Standard Manuscript Format – Novel  looks like. Often publishers will even include a link on their Submissions page. NOTE: Times New Roman or Courier New are the accepted fonts.

To make life easier for you and for any potential reader, format your work in the industry standard from the very first draft. You can even set up a template in Microsoft Word for this. As a reader it’s frustrating tapping the writer on the shoulder to remind them of something as simple as Standard Manuscript Format.

In addition to putting your piece in the accepted industry standard, make sure you understand how to properly denote a scene break. Sometimes I see blank lines in between paragraphs. I have no idea if there’s a formatting problem that wasn’t caught or if there’s a scene break. I know I’ve read several novels where this was how a scene break was noted, but the industry standard is three *, sometimes you’ll see three # used, centered with double-spacing before and after. Also, learn how to use Window/Orphan Control.

Clearly note chapters – I’ve read a few pieces where it wasn’t until several pages into the story I came to a page saying “CHAPTER TWO” that I realized everything I read up to them was chapter 1. For me this changes how I read and analyze the piece. When I read a short story I’m looking to see if it’s a complete story. When I’m reading chapters from a book, I’m looking for something else. Does this chapter tell me a piece of the larger story? Should it be in the novel and at this point? Is there too much backstory? Am I intrigued enough by the character(s) to keep reading? Make it easy on your reader, note those chapters.

 

Putting your work out there for others to read and critique is a nerve-wracking endeavor. Your heart beat speeds up. Your hands get clammy. Sweat breaks out on your brow and/or your armpits. Your stomach is in knots. It’s a big step as you let others see what you’ve been working on for months or years. To make it easier on yourself, put forth your best effort. Correct the grammar and spelling, format the piece correctly, and learn to self-edit. I want to focus on your story. I don’t want to be distracted by easy fixes, things all writers must learn to do unless you want your work to be rejected without being read. It takes a lot of work to edit and revise. For many writers it’s not their favorite thing in the world, but it’s a necessary evil. Make the critique of your work easier on yourself. Allow the reader to focus on the content and how to help you improve.

Weekly Musing: Under Pressure

This musing is going to be more of a rant session. Over the past few months I’ve noticed more than a few things which didn’t used to bother me now do. Most are things I can ignore, but some annoy me so much I’m struggling to get past them.

Gripe #1: Stop with all “You Should Be Writing” memes. I don’t care which steely-eyed, vaguely threatening pose of a celebrity you’re using, just stop it already. Stop trying to guilt-trip people. Yes, I’m looking at FB, but that doesn’t mean I’m not writing. Taking breaks are good no matter what your profession is. Your brain and body need to recharge and sometimes looking at cat videos helps. Or maybe that particular time of day you’re scrolling through social media isn’t when your brain is ripe for writing.

I know the memes are meant to be humorous, and I do see it as such, but the message it sends is clear: You’re a lazy SOB. Why aren’t you writing at this moment? Don’t you know you’re not a real writer unless you spend uninterrupted hours banging out words? You’re taking a break? Yeah, right. Don’t believe you. Get back to work!

Somewhat related are memes and infographics humorously trying to show the percentage of time a writer spends actually writing vs. staring at the wall, looking at cat videos, distracted by social media, binge watching any TV show, etc. You get the point. Again, these are funny, yet like the memes telling me I should be writing it sends a similar message.

Gripe #2: Word count updates. I get it. You’re justifiably proud for writing 2,000 words on your WIP. Or that you’re 45,000 words into your new manuscript. Or perhaps bummed because you had to cut 10,000 words. But must you brag about this frequently? Fantastic you’re writing. I am too, let’s be honest, most people don’t care or don’t understand what the big deal is.

Out of curiosity a couple of years ago I tracked my word count. It was fascinating, yet also a little discouraging. Seeing days with 0 words made me feel as if I hadn’t done anything. I felt like putting notes next to those days explaining I was doing research, or was ill (I tend to be one of those people who when sick, their brain just shuts down), or some life thing came up. Though when I saw what my daily average was, I still felt as if it wasn’t good enough. Not compared with writers I know who are flat out machines. I’m not a machine; I don’t work fast due to being a perfectionist.

Because it made me feel guilty, I decided to never track my words again. Hell, I don’t even know how many words my current WIP is. Only short stories do I pay attention to the word count because I need to know for when I’m searching for a place to publish it. What matters most to me is to work as much as I can that day. Realizing, too, that research counts as writing. Or that my subconscious is working. Pen to paper isn’t the true tell of the tape.

Gripe #3: Group think. A pattern I’ve seen in a lot of writing advice is how writers should, no, need to seek out others’ input. I agree we shouldn’t completely write in a vacuum, but I see people going overboard turning a work into a group project. I’ve seen in my critique group, and unfortunately actively participated in this, where as a group we discuss different ways a writer can fix their story. It goes beyond constructive criticism or answering specific questions the writer has.

This is why I have a slight problem with the idea of beta readers. I’ve beta read for a couple of people and it’s a lot of work. What I have to constantly remind myself is are my suggestions related to the work or what I personally would do different? Is this suggestion helpful for the author? If the author asks specific questions, are my answers constructive? Of course a beta reader can be helpful if a writer is struggling with something and asking for help isn’t bad. None of us are great in all areas.

I see writing as an individual expression. When it gets turned into a community piece it risks losing the writer’s voice. The writer is the one who knows the story and knows the characters. Sometimes too many people reading and responding to a manuscript confuses the writer and muddies the narrative. I’m concerned with all this outside input modifies an author’s individual voice and style to conform to what is “right”.

This concern about group think is one of the main reasons why I don’t participate in write-ins. Besides not really getting any work done, I simply cannot concentrate with that many people around. It messes up my ability to immerse myself in my story’s world. Also, I’m a pretty independent person, a perfectionist, and a massive introvert. It’s great people ask for help when stuck. But I worry about are you fixing it to please someone else?

 

These gripes have made me realize we writers need to be kinder to ourselves and each other. We are bombarded with noise on every aspect of writing. It gets to people in a negative way, losing its helpful intent. We need to put less pressure on ourselves. Writing and publishing are already stressful enough without added external forces trying to guilt us. Writing is a job, yes, and must be treated as such, but it’s not the only thing in life. So let’s stop giving the impression it is and that to do or think otherwise makes you less than legit.