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My drug of choice is writing--writing, art, reading, inspiration, books, creativity, process, craft, blogging, grammar, linguistics, and did I mention writing?

Monday, April 9, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Writing Part 8

Part 1 Part 2 Part 3Part 4 , Part 5 , Part 6, Part 7

So we've said that writing is a process, it involves several aspects of prewriting, reading, actually doing the writing and revision.  What's left?  When writers talk about writing are they really talking about anything else?

Writers get (and give) feedback.

"I don't get it," Willbehuge says.  "I've sent out like three hundred stories, and they just keep getting rejected."

"I'd be willing to take a look at them if you want," I say.  "I kind of like giving feedback."

"Nah, that's okay," Willbehuge says.

"Got your own peeps?" I ask.

"I don't really show people my work," Willbehuge says.

"Uh...but you said you submit it," I point out.  "Isn't that showing someone."

"Yeah, but I don't know them."

"I mean how do you know if you need to clarify something or if there's a problem?"

"I read it several times.  I'm sure it's perfect.  I just can't figure out why no one wants to publish it!"

"Maybe because it's not actually.....  Forget it."


If you think about writing for a second (and I just mean normal ol' "writing" not the three hundred part opus I've been writing) it's pretty incredible.  I have at my disposal forty symbols.  Twenty-six of them are letters and fourteen of them are punctuation.  They consist of curves and lines and dots in recognizable patterns. By laying down these 40 symbols in different combinations, I can take an image in my head, and put it into yours.  We don't have to even be in the same time zone, hear each other, see each other or anything.  That's pretty incredible if you think about it.  But there is a problem.  Let me make a tech nerd comparison, but please understand that I'm usually flummoxed if using a computer requires something more complicated than pushing the button on the front of the case.

If you think about how much information you absorb in a given moment, through all your senses it is GB worth of data.  The uber-high def movie upload of your life in surround-cam, surround-sound, smell-o-vision, tactile display would crash your 3 terabyte drive after about ten seconds, so unless it was some pretty steamy action with two southeast Asian cheerleader nurses, it really wouldn't be worth it.  Now if I wrote a hundred pages about those same ten seconds, in addition to being the most boring thing you've ever read--including your first exposure to Hawthorne--the information would be measured only in kilobytes.  That's a huge gap of data.  We fill in those gaps naturally with our imagination and our own world but there's really no way to ensure that the writer and the reader are filling in the gaps the same way. Pretty much we never do.

If I describe a red balloon to you, an image pops into your head.  If you were raised about the same time as me, it's probably an image of a French indie film about a sentient balloon.  I must have seen that movie in school about thirty times.  But what if you meant a hot air balloon? And you start describing people in the balloon, and it's obvious to you because you know what you meant, but I would read that and wonder if these were like little tiny people living in some fucking sentient balloon, and suddenly I'm confused as all hell whether I'm reading some experimental piece that is an allegory for the benefits of communism or something, and you're just talking about a hot air balloon ride you had as a kid.

So finding out how a few people are filling in your gaps is probably a damned good idea.  That thing you think is SO obvious, might be really confusing.  That plot twist you think is SO clever might be really obvious. There's one thing you can't avoid bringing to your writing no matter how deep into the voice of your narrator you are, and that's yourself, so it's worth it to make sure you haven't written something that has the blinders you have.  And don't even TRY to say you don't have any.

It's good from a pragmatic point of view too.  You will make mistakes in writing--you will dangle your modifiers or split your infinitives or miss a comma or just describe something in a confusing way.  The problem is you know what you meant.  You really need someone who doesn't know what you meant to take a look because there the ones that can say "Dude, the 'they" in this sentence looks like it means the giant robot French Maids and not the attack porcupines."

Mostly though, you just need to know what's working and what isn't.  What's good.  What isn't.  What's popping off the page.  What is a bit boring.  Writers usually have two modes: "Fuck I am awesome!" and "Fuck I suck!" and it's basically the hardest thing in the world to find that middle ground between invulnerable god of writing and own worst critic, so get some peeps you trust and have them help.  You know why?  It's not really a hard one.  You are emotionally invested in your work.  And if you AREN'T emotionally invested in your work then your art probably has other problems that have little to do with feedback.

This doesn't have to be painful.  Find peeps you trust, peeps you like, peeps who give feedback you respect on OTHER stuff.  It doesn't have to be some USA Movie writer's group where the dude with the unidentifiable Euro accent says "This is shit.  This is worse than shit.  If I wiped my ass with this, I would worry about what it was getting on my ass."  It can be a kind, gentle process with two or three of your good, close writer friends.  But it really needs to happen.

Just think about it this way. Someone is going to give this feedback and "review" it. Do you really want the first person to give you an opinion to be some total stranger with a form rejection letter already filled out?

Tons and tons of starting writers want to neglect this step so bad.  They really really want to believe that their contemporaries are stupid fools who can't see their genius, and that they will just submit to someone who can appreciate how brilliant it is and become a sensation. They believe that some editor assigned to them from Random House is going to do nothing but make six minor suggestions and correct their spelling.

And if that's your thing, let me just say this:  GET THE FUCK OVER YOURSELF. If you hire a professional editor (or a publishing house hires one for you because you're ideas are just so unique and awesome and....yeah get over yourself), they're going to show up with a big red pen and an smile that seems to have just a few too many teeth, give you 90% of the same feedback your peers would, and charge you about $100 an hour for it.  If you want them, hire them after you've gotten everything you can from peers and things are as good as you can get them.

With peer review, you get to pick who's giving you feedback from among those you trust and who know when you say "be brutal" you really mean "you tell me one thing that didn't quite work before I cry."  You get to pick whether or not you want to take or ignore each bit of feedback they give you. But what you really don't want to do is ignore this step.  There are certain forms of writing that are informal enough or immediate enough that you don't always absolutely NEED this kind of oversight (like blogging), but even a journalist hands off to an editor before it goes to print.  Most writers writing things that matter get feedback.  And most bloggers I know (including me) have a group they trust to show an entry to before posting when they know they really have something important to say.

Writers also GIVE feedback, and though I will talk about this later more extensively (since it's not strictly a part of the writing process) you should understand something pretty fundamental: most serious writers are going to be excited to give you feedback if you're willing to reciprocate.  Because serious writers know that you will gain much more from GIVING feedback about what makes for good writing than you will from getting feedback.  You should also, if you intend to be a serious writer, give feedback. Reviewing someone's work that you're not emotionally invested in is like a gold mine of craft advice.  What not to do.  What to do differently.  How to reword this. And what totally works.  If a starting writer took a class where they only gave feedback and never got any, they would improve remarkably in only a few months.  I've seen it happen time and time and time again.  Most of them walk into the class way too cool for feedback, and walk out understanding that it is a fundamental part of the process that really can't be neglected.

It's not glamorous to have someone tell you that the part you really like isn't working.  But you really need to hear it.  So if you're in this for the glamour, and you want to just keep writing away in private, sequestered from the world, enjoying your fantasies of grandeur, that's totally cool, and you're in great company.  Writing doesn't have to be about publication to be cathartic and meaningful and wonderful.  But if you want to go beyond that point, get some feedback.  You are not as wonderful as you think you are.  Also, and perhaps more importantly, you are a lot better than you think you are.

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