Pandering to My Inner Nerd

Now that I’ve gotten about 2 dozen people’s written comments on the first 25 pages of my novel Two Women and a Boat, it’s time to do something about them. But I’m not the kind of person who can pull up an electronic document, pick up a pile of markups, and just dive in. I’m more methodical. More anal.

WHAT I’M SOLVING FOR:

  1. Much of the feedback, like typos and grammatical errors, is the same throughout all the edited manuscripts.
  2. I won’t act on all the feedback I get from each critic.
  3. I don’t want to have to keep going back and forth over those 25 pages over and over. I want to be able to go through and correct all the typos, then all the single-line fixes, then all the global fixes, etc.
  4. I want to keep track of who gave what feedback.
  5. I want to be able to incorporate the recommended grammatical fixes from all seminars/classes/lectures.

I don’t mind taking a little more up-front time to create a system that will save me time later, but I’m not a natural programmer (unlike my amazing husband). I can’t just look at a pile of data and order it in a way that will get me what I wanted. After four tries, I think I’ve come up with a database that I think is perfect.

It captures the name of the critic, a description of the correction, the date it was entered and the date it was completed, the manuscript version, and, the touch that I really feel will make a difference in my ease of editing, a field for correction type. I’m all excited now because it means that I can power through these 24 packets of comments, enter them into a single long list, add in all the rules that I know I should be looking for in my whole manuscript, and THEN sort by the type of correction I’m making. I can do all the globals at once. I can fix all the typos in one sitting. All the missed words, all the added words, all the local changes…

And now I’m going to get back to it.

Who Do You Believe?

I’m currently at Borderlands Press Boot Camp, and today is the day that we met with the folks running the group and got small-group feedback. Last night, a staffer read our separately-submitted two-page excerpts (we were requested to send in two pages from a current work in progress) out loud. We were instructed to raise a hand when we felt that we had heard enough to make a decision about the book, either yes or no. The group was brutal. They completely trashed nearly everyone’s submission, and by the time they got to mine (the last one), they were just shrugging their shoulders and asking each other “what the hell is this” and laughing in a not-kind way.

Mr. A, the man furthest to the left, said that it was a mess – he couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be happening. Mr. B, the man in the center, just laughed derisively. He shouted out “Muffin-faced? What does that even mean?” (I find this slightly funny because I stole that term from Paul Theroux, who used it to describe Queen Elizabeth in an article in Vanity Fair.) Mr. C, the man furthest to the right, seemed to want to hear more. He was willing to forgive its obvious deficiencies because he wanted to hear the end.

I was expecting the small-group feedback to look a lot the same – that everyone would trash me and I’d feel like an idiot. Imagine my shock, then, when Mr. A pronounced it “nearly perfect,” and observed that “either you’ve been writing for a very long time, or you’re gifted.” In the next session, Mr. B’s written notes said “I confess: I loved this.” Mr. C, the man I was sure would hale me as a genius, made some very discouraging remarks. He did say that it worked, that I had managed to walk a very fine line between horror and hilarity. I feel like he was tough on everybody, and that perhaps I got off a little easier than some, but it was still much tougher than I was expecting.

Here’s my dilemma, and I know that this has happened to everyone: On Friday night, I sat and listened to Messrs. A, B and C. I listened to how they presented themselves, how they put their thoughts together, the points they made, etc. I decided that Mr. A was a waste of time. I didn’t agree with his ideas or opinions and thought that he was a little full of himself. I wasn’t entirely sold on Mr. B either. He laughed at his own jokes and parroted the words of the other two men constantly. Mr. C seemed the most well-prepared, the most articulate, the most mentally together of the three. I had already decided that I would listen more carefully to his advice than to Mr. A’s or Mr. B’s.

But now that I’ve gotten their advice, I can’t help but feel that perhaps Mr. A and Mr. B are smarter than I had given them credit for. Obviously, they’re smart enough to see what a “perfect,” “gifted,” lovable writer I am. And perhaps Mr. C isn’t quite as bright as I wanted to think he was.

It’s tempting to believe the people who flattered me, but I’m going to go home and look at the dozens of copies of this same 25 pages I’ve now had critiqued and handed back, and I’m going to try the suggestions that Mr. C gave me. I’m not going to rest on my A and B laurels.

You Have to Give to Get

Tomorrow morning, I leave at just after 6:00am for Baltimore to be part of the Borderlands Press Boot Camp. Each of the participants had to read and critique 15 other participants’ stories, up to 25 pages. Does this sound familiar?

I think that as a writer, my most valuable asset is having a group of people whose opinions I respect, to look over my work and give me feedback. But, like any valuable asset, it doesn’t come free.

In addition to the not-inconsiderable financial cost of grad school, I have upwards of 50 books to read each semester – that’s ~2 per week, 10-15 of which require annotations. I also have to write something like 100 pages of new work each semester. I have to read, critique and be prepared to discuss in detail the work of 5-6 of my fellow students per semester. For Borderlands Press Boot Camp, I had to pay to attend, but I also have to read and critique the work of the 15 other participants and be prepared to discuss it in detail. For the critique group I’ve been part of on and off for the past 4 years, I have to read, critique and discuss in depth an entire novel (not just the first 20 pages) every couple of months.

I’ve learned so much from all the people who have taken the time to critique my work, and when I critique theirs, I think hard about what I could do to make their work the best thing it can be. But I also want to point out to everyone who has ever said to me “You’re a writer. Could you just look at this thing that I wrote and tell me what you think?” that no, I can’t. I don’t feel that it would be fair to the dozens of other people who have made some real sacrifices and put in a lot of time to help me make my writing the best it can be.

 

 

Annotation Nation

This, my friends, is Annotation Nation: a collection of book annotations done by a small group of authors. “What’s an annotation?” you ask. I certainly did.

An annotation is just a 1-2 page synopsis of your own thoughts and feelings about the craft of the book you’ve read. As part of the project period work for my MFA, I’m required to do ~10 of these per semester. Annotations are subjective, don’t necessarily include a plot synopsis and may be positive about a work even though it wasn’t a great read, provided that the author did something specific that the person writing the annotation found valuable. The purpose of doing these annotations is to get us to pay attention to the craft involved in the works we’re reading – to dissect and drill down on those things that worked and on those things that didn’t.

Annotations are useful to other writers when they give another writer who’s struggling with some aspect of their writing a reference to another author who is successfully managing that aspect.

Remember, as writers, it doesn’t do us any good to read if we’re not reading critically, with an eye toward what’s working, what’s not working, and what’s worth stealing.

Days 10 & 11: The Home Stretch

Friday was our last session with our writing groups, and to celebrate, our writing mentor brought us sparkling wine (we are, after all, adults). We sipped sparkling wine while giving our critiques, and I was surprised at how amazing the critiques I got were. This particular piece of writing was a comedic piece that I’d read on the radio two years ago, and at the time I thought it was pretty good. I was amazed at the great comments I got, things that really got to the heart of what was missing. Now I’m really torn between spending the next five months working on the piece I had originally started for Nanowrimo and spending that time on this thing.The even better part was that one woman ended up a bit better for the drink and ended up doing that thing where every sentence tailed off in quiet giggles and she kept having to put her arm around the woman next to her and sort of lean on her. We decided that letting this particular woman drink anything is probably not a great idea.

My mentee group met with our mentor to get our contracts signed, and I really thought there would be more of a process to it. More of a discussion, if you will. But deep down, I also knew that it was really going to be up to me, and I was pretty happy with what I’d put together.

Saturday, our very last day, was a guest lecture by Fr. Gregory Boyle. His book had been required reading in preparation for the lecture, and while I had tried to read it, I found the stories so touching that I was never able to read more than two pages before I would break down crying. The lecture was called “The Literature of Witness,” but Boyle talked far less about writing and far more about his own experiences. And, of course, I started to cry. Worse, I was sitting in the front row, so whenever Fr. Boyle glanced at the front row, there’s me and my streaming nose and sopping hanky. By the end of the lecture, I noticed that he was tearing up whenever he looked at me. Whoops.

I drove home, and I wasn’t able to leave until after another meeting that got out 4-ish. Crying always exhausts me, so between getting to bed late (I was up packing), getting up early (to put stuff into my car) and weeping for two solid hours, I was exhausted. The Pirate, being the sweetest man possible, encouraged me to stay for another day so that I could leave early in the morning, but I wanted my own bed, my own husband, my kids, my own dogs. I didn’t miss the cats.

Here’s how amazing my best friend is: when he heard that I was going to have to leave late and make a 6-hour drive alone, he offered to drive up with me and fly home today. Could anyone possibly ask for a better friend than that? This is a guy who’s been my best friend for 25 years, but we had enough to talk about that the time in the car seemed like nothing. By the time we got to my house, I was more awake and feeling better than I had all during my residency.

I’m home. I’m tired. My first residency is behind me. Only four more of these to go.

Days 4 & 5: Welcome to the Blur

Saturday was the first day of nothing but lectures. The first lecture was given by one of the graduating cohort. Giving a lecture is a requirement for those in their last residency period, as are submission of a final manuscript, submission of an annotated bibliography of all books read during your grad school process and giving a reading of your work. The grad student was sufficiently nervous and unprepared, as though in her entire undergrad life she had never had to stand up in front of people and give a lecture. Maybe she hadn’t. But the subject was engaging, and what I liked was how much she encouraged the discussion of those of us in the room. The second lecture, on minimalism (which lasted for two hours), was similarly engaging. The faculty member giving that lecture was soliciting answers from the class and was the sort of person who, when a comment was made that wasn’t perhaps what he was looking for or that seemed to contradict what was being said, had the generosity of intellect to take a second and actually think about what was being said to him and either say “Yes, I can see how that can be true,” or “I see what you’re saying, but I’ll tell you why I think differently.” It was the best discussion I’ve heard yet.

I contrast it with the last class I took, another two-hour lecture. This faculty member asked us to save our questions and comments for the end when she would have a question period, but by the end of her lecture, nobody had anything to say. I could see several people during the course of the lecture talking to the people around them; clearly they felt engaged with the material and had things to contribute to the discussion, but there was no discussion. It meant that this two hour lecture felt like just that. A Two. Hour. Lecture.

So, day 4’s tip: engage your listeners! Make your audience part of the conversation! Encourage them to think and participate!

Today, we chose our mentors. All the faculty who will be mentoring in fiction this semester sat in a “Dating Game”-style lineup and told us a little bit about their style, and then we got to ask questions of them. What surprised me was how many of them (7 out of 9) said “I don’t do genre writing.” Frankly, I find that hard to believe. My personal feeling is that if you have a well-written story with engaging characters, a good plot, etc., does it matter whether the setting is Middle Earth, or whether the characters are werewolves? I wasn’t the only person to be offended by the seeming blanket condemnation of genre writing as being somehow unworthy of graduate-level students.

We also had our first actual critique session with our writing groups. Because I am the newest to our group, I was worried that maybe I hadn’t “done it right,” but I was grateful for the experiences I’ve had with my other writing groups. It gave me solid grounding on what helpful critique looks like, and the whole process was wonderful. As with nearly any group who shares an intimate experience (and critiquing someone’s writing is very, very intimate), we are already inviting each other over to our houses and wanting to hang out.

I have to turn in my four top choices for mentors, and it turned out to be harder than I thought to pick just one. Do I go with the guy who’s really supportive and likes to talk on the phone? Do I go with the woman who really values experimental fiction, even though I don’t like the way she writes? Do I go with the guy who gave the absorbing and challenging minimalism lecture, despite the fact that he intimidates the hell out of me? We’ll see how it goes. We submit our choices tomorrow morning and we find out our assignments tomorrow afternoon.