Category: Writing

Married to the Pen

This post is not about me advocating human-office supply marriage rights, even though I did see this sexy stapler the other day… No, having just celebrated my fifth wedding anniversary (to a human, just for the record), I’ve been thinking about the parallels between a committed relationship with your significant other and the committed relationship between you and your writing.

The craft is demanding… time, energy, resources… all of them being drained until you question your own sanity and start talking to your collection of cat posters, wondering just why you couldn’t have been a Sherpa, guiding foolish climbers to their mountainous tombs. Same with being married. Erm… sort of. Love you pookie!

Since it’s my fifth anniversary, I picked out a top five list, and present them to you, in no particular order.

Both are WORK with a capital W-O-R-K


It takes incredible discipline to sit in your chair day in and day out, especially when things aren’t working well and you’d rather be anywhere else in the world. But you make yourself sit there because you know that the end result is going to be worth it. Or at least that’s what you hope will happen. Same with marriage. It takes an enormous effort to communicate with one another consistently and openly. You’re doing so in the hopes that you’ve chosen the right person to live the rest of your life with. There are days where you don’t want to put in the work, where you feel like you’d rather be any other place in the world, but those are the days when you really need to buckle down and try harder, because any one can get through the easy times. Anyone can make it when everything is going well. You only succeed when you can persevere and you can only persevere by putting in the work. In your writing, in your relationship, in anything you do.



Outsiders just don’t get the idea…


Being a writer is a little bit like being in a club. So’s being married. I’m not trying to sound elitist here, I’m just referring to a lack of experience when dealing with certain situations. There are certain things that a fellow writer will understand that someone who doesn’t write won’t. For married people, the ‘non-writers’ are their single friends. A fellow writer wouldn’t question you for digging through a trashcan for a scrap of paper to jot down a brilliant idea that came to you when your supply of paper was out. They’d understand that need to commit the idea to paper immediately or risk losing it forever. A good friend would immediately hand over some of their paper, or perhaps offer their arm and a Sharpie. The best you could hope for from a non-writer is an odd look and them pointing out which napkins have spaghetti sauce on them. For married people, other married people tend to understand things like getting home at a decent hour, last minute runs to the grocery store for tampons, and things of that nature. Non-wrtiters/singles look at the effort that goes into these relationships and they just don’t get it, because they haven’t been there. That’s okay though, we like them anyway.



The sexiness of forbidden fruit…


Temptations are everywhere. People give in to those temptations too, sometimes with alarming frequency. In marriage, there’s a reason that the term ‘7 year itch’ is able to exist. Obviously it varies from person to person, but I’d be willing to bet it’s a pretty vast majority of married people that have experienced the temptation to either stray, or just give up on their relationship. The longer the couple is together, the higher that likelihood. It’s a natural emotion really. We live in a world of infinite choices and it’s easy to start thinking about the choices you didn’t make and get to wondering what might have been. Thinking about them is okay, obsessing about them is not. Neither is letting them get in the way of the good thing you’ve got going already. Believe it or not (and this is one of those things that other writers will have no problem believing), doing the dishes is a temptation. The laundry is a temptation. Mildew is tempting. Don’t get me started on the kitchen junk drawer needing reorganized. Ohhhh the kitchen junk drawer… I need a cigarette. These are all temptations because they all look better than writing when you’re in the middle of a block. They all look better when your focus and attention NEED to be on that relationship. If you’re not strong enough, you stray. Fortunately, writing isn’t there waiting to key your car and give a tell-all interview to all the supermarket tabloids your grandma reads. Or maybe that’s not so fortunate, it might keep me at the computer instead of in the junk drawer.


Don’t you just love hearing about everything you do wrong?


If you’ve got a good relationship you try really hard to be accepting of who the other person is, without wanting to change them. Sometimes though, things slip through. Little things, meant innocently enough, that when added up over a long period of time, can really grate on a person’s nerves. Five years of marriage and I know my wife and I have these kinds of things with one another. Can’t wait to see what we come up with in the next twenty. For example, I’ve learned to be particularly careful when it comes to comments about her driving. Never meant maliciously, but if stated while she’s in the wrong mood, not the smartest move to make. Lesson learned: If there is ANY doubt about her mood, keep the trap shut. But even if you know the signs and how to avoid most of the pitfalls, if you’re married long enough, and you do something wrong, you’re going to hear about it. Repeatedly. For writers, we don’t call those people spouses, we call them editors. Or even readers. Sure, they may mean well and want to help you improve, but let’s be honest here. It’s still grating and a touch hurtful to have those flaws pointed out, especially when we can’t see them ourselves. Even the most well intentioned critiques can cause panic, retreat, and self-loathing. That’s to say nothing of the venom spewed by Internet trolls on comment boards. We’ll call those our ex… or mother-in-law (no offense intended to any of the nice exes or mothers in law out there).


January 15, 2008

January 15, 2008

This is why I do what I do…


Why do you write? Why stay with the same person for years and years? It’s constant work, an incredible string of ups and downs, sometimes moving at such a fast pace that you have no clue which way is up or when the ride is going to stop. Why? Because of the high it gives you. As an individual, absolutely NOTHING compares to how I feel when a story is clicking. When everything is coming out of my mind and onto the paper (or screen) exactly how I envision it. Whether that stuff is any good or not isn’t the point. It’s WORKING for me and that’s all that counts. There are no true words to exactly capture that feeling. That feeling is why I write. I’ve felt it before and like the most helpless of addicts, I have to feel it again… and again… and again. Writing can be such a personal act, it was difficult to imagine getting a similar feeling outside of a solitary environment. When I look at my wife and everything is clicking, it’s that same euphoria though. Knowing I have someone who loves, supports, cherishes, and honors me, with all my faults, foibles, and the occasional stapler fetish… it doesn’t get better than that.


So how do you think being married is like being a writer? Anyone else have an unhealthy obsession with office supplies? I’m officially declaring this a judgment free zone. Peace, love, and ink my friends.


After taking a look at Kay Honeyman’s ( guest post on Chuck Sambuchino’s (Guide To Literary Agents) blog about how to deal with critiques (something every writer needs to know), my mind started working on just what makes a helpful critique.

If you haven’t developed a thick enough skin, receiving critiques can be the most damaging part of the writing process. It’s up to you as a writer to develop that skin because not everyone is going to love everything you write. Reviewers have a responsibility as well though. Taking a bit of care with your delivery can be just enough to save a writer from hurling themselves onto the tip of their favorite fountain pen.

Many of these ideas blend together and could probably be condensed down into a smaller number than six, but I thought that each one was important and merited its own focus.

Be respectful – There is no need to attack the writer for what they’ve written. Even if it’s the most abominable thing you’ve ever read and you never want to read another word written by that author again, telling people they should be ashamed, or kill themselves for ever having written such tripe is completely unnecessary, and unwarranted. This rule goes double if it’s someone you actually know and who has trusted you to provide feedback. There are ways to deliver the bad news without calling a person’s sanity into question. Find them.

Limit Yourself to What The Author Asks For – If you’re being asked to provide feedback, and the author specifically asks you to comment on a particular area… be it theme, pacing, character names, that scene with the purple alien who only eats guacamole, then do your best to keep your comments confined to those areas. For every author the writing process is different, and if they’re asking about a specific area, then that’s where their focus is at that moment in time. Some don’t go searching for typos until the very end, so telling them of the 2,003 spelling errors in the first three chapters is not going to be helpful. By offering feedback on what they ask about it will help them get to those other areas faster. If you’re the kind of reader a writer comes to repeatedly for advice on their work (congratulations, you’re a trusted associate!) it’s okay to make notes on other areas you see that need improving, but hang on to those for later. If an author doesn’t specify, it’s helpful to ask if there’s anything specific they want you to look at. Failing that, keep your comments broad and don’t zero in on one area too much. Point out one or two larger problems, then move on with a comment like “I did notice a few other things like that and would be happy to go over them with you later if you want me to.”

Be Honest – This can be tough if you’re close to the writer, and also ties heavily into being respectful. If you don’t like something, then by all means tell them directly. Every reader has their own preferences and an author needs to know what doesn’t work for a certain type of reader. If they have multiple readers (and every writer SHOULD have MULTIPLE readers) then they’ll be able to take the feedback and evaluate if it’s a problem with the overall writing or just a problem for a small subsection of readers, in which case changes may or may not be needed. Lying because you’re afraid of hurting a friend, or because you want to get laid by the hot, successful, soon to be globally known writer… it’s understandable, but completely not helpful. It also leads right into the next point.

Be Specific – One of my favorite writing quotes of all time is: “I would rather be damned precisely, then praised generically.” Who said it? Me. I stand by this statement even when a review makes me want to curl up into a ball and ride a boat down my river of tears into oncoming traffic. Comments like “That was great!” and “Loved it!” DO NOT MAKE YOU A BETTER WRITER. They feel good for sure, and don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to tell someone to never say such things to me, but when I give a work in progress to someone and I’m looking to improve it, those kinds of things are not what I need to here. If you loved it, tell them what you loved, in great detail if at all possible. You loved the characters? What about them? Their actions? Their words? The fact that all of them shared the same name as you for some unknown reason? That’s the stuff a writer needs to know. What’s working and what’s not. If something struck you as off and you can’t put into words what it is… TRY. This is where you call upon your high school essay writing skills: If you say something, back it up with facts. Details, details, details.

Be Thoughtful – What I mean by thoughtful, aside from the thought put into the other areas mentioned here, is to try to remember that nothing is completely good, and nothing is completely bad. When giving feedback, find the silver linings, and find the nits to pick. Even if I absolutely love a piece as is, I feel obligated to point out SOMETHING that could have been better in my eyes. Even if it’s something as trivial as not liking the font chosen. Something as ludicrous as that reminds a smart writer not to fall too much in love with their own work. They may not do anything about the nits you’re picking, and depending on what they are, they probably shouldn’t do anything with them, but it’s a kind of protection against themselves. The reason to find the silver lining in a work is a bit more obvious, and a lot more kind. Silver linings are what keep writers going when the rejection slips pile up. They’re the “Person Who Tries Hardest” trophies when you’re working towards the giant 1st place one. In essence, it’s motivation. Motivation is lifeblood to a writer, and a review with no silver lining is unnecessarily crushing out that spirit. I try to pay attention to how I format my critiques to other writers. I often start with the biggest problem (I’m a ‘what’s the bad news first?’ type), then go into the biggest success. Then I pick the nits, and I wrap up with the silver linings. May not be right for everyone, but no one I’ve reviewed has jumped off a cliff or come at me with a shotgun… yet. Which goes right into my final thought…

Be Prepared for a Fight – No matter how respectful, honest, specific, and good at following directions you are; it doesn’t matter if your silver linings are pure sterling coming out of cotton candy clouds with rainbow pooping unicorns flying above them, at some point a writer is bound to take offense at something you said about their work. That’s their baby. Privately, they might think that Junior is one stroke short of a masterpiece, but heaven help the person outside the family who points that out. This is the danger of critiquing and why all the bad habits of reluctant reviewers were formed in the first place. As a writer, I’m sorry to say that this behavior isn’t going away. It’s up to you, dear reviewer, to take the high road. Defend yourself and your comments, which we will privately admit are spot on (in about 30 years and 2,000 rewrites), but please do not attack back. We plea temporary insanity and throw ourselves upon your mercy, because you, trusted and valued friend, are the only one still willing to read what we wrote… and we appreciate you more than even a genius wordsmith like ourselves, can say.

So there you go… if you can hit those six points, you’re well on your way to being immortalized in the Acknowledgments page of an International Best-Seller. Or, being forced into a lifetime of reading every single piece of crap we come up with. Either way it’s a win, right?……………. Right?

So what’s the least helpful review/critique you’ve ever gotten? Let me know in the comments… or feel free to test my resolve regarding my own critiquing philosophy. It’s been a while since I’ve had a good cry.