Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thankful 2015

As I prepare to drive myself, husband, and children up to Cheyenne, Wyoming to spend the day with tons of family and indulge in ALL THE FOODS, I want to take a minute to write down all that I am grateful for this year:
  • My children. They are amazing, and smart, and healthy, and kind, and challenging, and the reason I know the true measure of love.
  • My husband. He is loving, and smart, and healthy, and works hard every day to support this family and seems to love us all a great deal, even when we, collectively, are difficult.
  • My family. They are big, and messy, and kind, and supportive, and a safe place to land if and when you happen to fall down. 
  • My health. Because I experienced not having this, and ever since that time I now know it makes all the difference in the world. 
  • My home. It's safe, mostly clean most of the time, gathers together the people I love most in this world, and keeps us warm and sheltered from the rain and snow. 
  • My job. I get to work with dedicated teachers and staff who fight the good fight for the kids that probably need their efforts the most, and I get to be amazed by those kids and be a part of their lives and growth while also being able to be home with my own children at a reasonable time every night and during their breaks from school so that my "mommy guilt" is kept to a minimum. 
  • My writing. It's a never ending well of possibility that excites and exercises my love of creativity and desire to connect with people through the written word. 
This Thanksgiving, I am deeply grateful for my every blessing in this world, because the people and things I've listed, and so much more, are tremendous gifts that I get to have in my world every, single, day.

Many people in this world, too many, never or rarely get to even feel safe, warm, or well fed.

So I am exceedingly grateful--be very grateful.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Not at This Address

“This manuscript of yours that has just come back from another editor is a precious package. Don't consider it rejected. Consider that you've addressed it 'to the editor who can appreciate my work' and it has simply come back stamped 'Not at this address'. Just keep looking for the right address.”

Barbara Kingsolver

Monday, November 16, 2015

My Personal Rules About Critique

As some of you may know, this January I start teaching at Regis University's Mile High MFA program. Consequently, I've been thinking quite a bit about critique. Critique I've received, critique I've given, and critique yet to happen (sorry--holiday brain).

Specifically I've been thinking about how critique, no matter which direction it is flowing, can be stressful. 

Years ago, when I first started writing, the very thought of showing what I had written to another human being brought on spasms of anxiety. Writing was like, getting caught in the act of admission. My writing was personal, raw, and tethered tight to the roots of my identity. To share this type of writing, and subject it to critique, would be to cut open my darkest innards, spread them ugly and haphazard across a table while handing another person a knife to finish the job of judging and killing my soul--this was not the type of writing to be shared with others. Thankfully, even though I had no idea what I was doing at the time, I knew enough to sense that these words were only for me.

Later, when my writing moved past that need to examine only myself and my personal histories, I started working on my first novel. I remember not having any idea what I would do with such a thing, I certainly didn't entertain any ideas about publication, but I did feel that I would like to share the story with someone other than myself. I wanted to know if it was any good, if I was any good as a writer and a storyteller.

I joined my first critique group.

I will never, ever forget that drive, that first night I would ever dare to read my words out loud to a group of other writers. Pages carefully printed and stapled for each person rested on the passenger seat beside me, a nervous and excited thrill coursing through my entire system, the thoughts about turning the car around, driving home and making up a lie about a sick child, maybe a sick *cough* me. I wasn't just scared, I was exhilarated and terrified to read those ten pages. But somehow, I managed to make it all the way to the back tables of that now empty Borders Bookstore and steady my voice long enough to get through all ten pages so that, in the end, I got to hear a fellow critique partner whisper the words, "Wow, I wish I could do that."


For the record, my critiques have not always been this positive, but I've always felt fortunate that my very first one was. It set the foundation for beginning to believe in myself as a writer.

After that first night, I collected all my printed pages back with every note and correction, drove home, turned on my computer, and made every single change that every person recommended. Even the ones that didn't make sense or contradicted other changes! And the next week, I excitedly went back with that first, now revised chapter, and we all read it again with the suggested changes. And again, my generous critique partners offered up more revision notes.

This went on a few more times before one of the more seasoned writers suggested I bring in chapter two for the next meeting. (sigh, we all must learn how to do this it seems)    

It's hard for me to believe that those nights were almost exactly ten years ago.

Anyway, I learned a ton from those amazingly generous and kind writers, and much more from the many, many writers I have had the pleasure of getting to know since those early days. Some of the biggest and most helpful epiphanies are ones that I will share with my students this January and they have to do with incorporating critique advice into your work.

When you put your early draft work out there and ask others to help you view it through a different lens from your own, you're going to get back a wide swath of suggestions and some of it, maybe much of it, will be in opposition to other feedback from other readers. If you get too hung up, like I did in those early days, trying to please everyone, it's likely that your story will actually end up worse, not better.

I found that it was easier for me to incorporate meaningful suggestions once I had established a few ground rules regarding critique:

1. Realize that critique is a tool that you can choose to use to make your writing better. But always remember, it might not be the right tool--and only you as the writer can know the difference.

2. Critique of your work is not personal if you don't let it be. Regardless of how it is delivered, and it should be delivered professionally, it is still up to you as the writer to accept this feedback gracefully.

3. You are not obligated to change anything in your book--but you should really, really consider what other people are saying.

4. If you have more than one person giving you the same or very similar feedback, you should probably REALLY listen to what they are saying and make changes.

5. When a reader says, "I think...," and you get a strong, almost deja vu like feeling--there is something this reader is telling you that you sorta already knew but hadn't quite put your finger on yet--you've hit the feedback jackpot. This is absolutely when I for sure make changes.

6. Many, many, many critique readers can identify the WHAT is not working but are unable to hand you a good HOW to fix it. So while their suggestions to "Engineer a fight scene!" may sound exciting to them, while not working AT ALL with the tone of your book, it doesn't mean that they got the WHAT IS WRONG, wrong. Don't get hung up on the pieces of advice that are a miss. Be objective and separate the useful from the not useful.

7. And finally, always, always, always, thank a reader for taking the time to not only read your work, but to think about it critically and offer feedback. This is incredibly time consuming for them, acknowledge them and be grateful that you have such excellent people in your life.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Being Friends with Other Writers

Friendship, Collaboration, Wine, and a Sefie Stick
Writing is a mostly lonely business. No question about it. There is an equation to writing that looks something like: time x solitude + quiet = words on page. For an introvert, which many writers are by nature, that solitude part can be a relief from our daily tornadoes of activity. For me, writing is my legitimate excuse to shut my door, tune everything out, and focus.

I suspect the solitude is much more difficult for the extroverted writer. (If you doubt this creature exists, I invite you to attend a writers' convention and watch the lobby bar for signs of existence. Usually they are standing and holding court in the center of other introverted writers that are drawn to their spectacular energy and oration skills like moths to a flame).

In either case, introvert or extrovert, the requirements of being a writer, one that actually does the physical writing part of being a writer, can leave you feeling a little like the lone inhabitant of your own private writing island.

Mostly, this is great--so much writing gets done on the island! But sometimes, even the introverted writer needs some company.

For me, developing and nurturing reciprocally supportive relationships with other writers has been a huge benefit.


These people as a collective have so much information. It's through my writer friends that I've learned about techniques, events, opportunities, the list goes on and on. Furthermore, I've had the pleasure of sharing my ideas, my knowledge, and the joy of engaging in crazy town conversations about characters, plot, and settings no other people in my day to day existence could possibly tolerate.  

Starting these relationships can be hard, especially for introverts, but there are so many places and opportunities for these friendships to take root. Maybe it's through your critique group, or social media. Maybe it's attending writer's conferences and offering to volunteer, or simply striking up conversations. No matter how these relationships with other writers begin, it's important to fan them a little and help them grow. Getting to know and sustaining genuine relationships with other writers is enormously beneficial to your continued, and rapid, growth toward improving your skills.

At first, it can feel hard and awkward. I know this. But keep showing up, keep reaching out organically by attending events, shaking hands, contributing to the conversations that surround the writing community. The friendships that develop will bring you a unique joy because it exists between two people, or a group, that share a passion for an activity most people in your day to day life cannot fully understand.