In one of those Facebook memories, I was reminded of something from two years ago that was a strange new adventure for me. Sitting at the Downtown Montrose Starbucks, where I am sitting as I blog today, I was editing a short story hours before submitting it to a critique group. It would be the first time I would share a work of fiction to anyone I actually knew. In fact, the group I was meeting with included published writers, and this was the first time I shared something with actual professionals.
Spoiler alert, it didn’t go well. The most memorable critique (and it was meant and received in a supportive way) was “this is unreadable.” That may have been the harshest critique, but it followed a majority of negative comments.
It didn’t discourage me. Well, it did, but it made me get to work to hone my craft. Take the feedback, and get better. I had a sense of purpose from the process. Picture if you will, the timeframe. I had been living in California for a year by then, and six months into house payments the squeeze of the cost of living was starting to circle me. While I was enjoying myself, I started to repeat a motto:
“It’s time to start turning my hobbies into profit centers.”
Okay, maybe that comes across blunt, blunter then it should. I have hobbies, and I like to do them because I enjoy doing them. It’s just that until recently, I never really tried to exploit them. Which, come to think about it “exploit” doesn’t sound any better. I wasn’t expecting to go running to the bank, I just wanted to take my free time and my investments in those hobbies and make it so they were still fun with at worst make it no longer a losing effort. The fall before, I took long strides to expand my band judging skills, including venturing into winter color guard (something that might be a blog later this week as I get into that new season). Trying to explore what I could do through writing was something completely different.
Honestly, I am a long way from doing anything that suggests I can turn a profit on writing. My interest is in writing a novel-length story. To do that first, you have to type up a novel-length story; which is way harder than it sounds. I’ve mentioned I participate in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) every November, and have accomplished over 50,000 words on five occasions. I can honestly say that those attempts resulted in completing one novel – and it sucks. I’ve actually worked on four novels throughout that time, but struggled with a full plot, or put myself in situations where I scrapped ideas for a number of reasons. As a great meme once said:
“Give a child a book and they will be happy for a month. Teach a child to write a book and they will be tormented their whole life by self-doubt.”
Joining the critique group was my next big jump into this process. Editing. Let me tell you, editing is hard; especially for someone like me. I tend to visualize a story and tell it based on what I see. The problem I face is getting the words on the screen to match both what I visualize and what I thought I told. I”m sure if any of you read my blogs before you have seen more than a few grammatical or typographic errors. I obviously wouldn’t have done that on purpose, heck I might even though I wrote those items correctly. A critique I got often early on was to read what I wrote out loud so I could hear what the issues are. It never worked for me because when I read it, even to myself out loud, I was saying what I wanted the words to say not what they actually said. A word speak app has helped with that, but I battle some common issues (like I wait for that “you are mixing up tenses” every time I submit to the group). Web tools help like Grammarly has been a lifesaver — I even use that for work e-mails and reports. As a friend I know from another writer group told me:
“When I finished my first novel in college, my professor said, ‘good job, maybe in 10 years you will be done editing and be able to publish’,”
All of this is what comes before the final stages of preparing a novel, which is honestly more of a dream than a step along the way. There are editors who do the hard sweep of everything. There are beta readers who look at the whole of the book for feedback. Then you go into the brutal failure rich world of publishing.
I plug away regardless, putting together what I can when I can to share with the critique group. Their varied backgrounds lead to great commentary and critiques. Some are a prolific young adult or romance novelists. Some are short story specialists. Some are into SciFi, some into fantasy. Some focus on the hard details of what I submit, picking away at each inconsistency that needs to be resolved. Some look at the conceptual flow to see if the story is entertaining or interesting. Some focus on pacing. Some focus on character. Some just tell me “you’re mixing up your tenses”. In return, I do my part and give my feedback to what they submit when I can.
I’d like to sit here and say that the person who found my work to be unreadable at my first submission had changed his heart, but I can’t. Sadly he had a sudden illness and passed away just before New Years. Before then, I had consistently shared my thanks for his feedback, which remained honest – good and bad. That’s all you really want from a critique, honesty. Because if you know what works and what doesn’t you’ll always get better. Because as I say all the time in my real job:
“It’s not what we do wrong, it’s what we do about it.”