Shaking It Up: Part 20

Let’s talk about critiques! Yeah, I know. Most aspiring writers I have met fall into two categories: those who think their stuff stinks and refuse to show it to anyone and those who think their stuff is golden and offer it up expecting praise and adulation. To both groups I say: If you want to be a good writer, your first job is to get over yourself. Because those two attitudes are two sides of the same coin. A focus on self, not on the work.

Any writer who hopes to succeed must first undergo two trials by ordeal.

  1. Stop talking about writing and actually sit down and do it. Put in the butt-in-char hours to get stuff down on paper.
  2. Learn to take critique from knowledgeable writers and focus on fixing what’s wrong instead of focusing on your hurt feelings.

Lots of people talk about writing, but very few actually sit down and do it, so if you have actually put a first draft down on paper, or in electrons, you should celebrate. You’re in a select group of the less-than-one-percenters. You have jumped the first hurdle, which is either self-doubt or lack of determination.

But as hard as the first hurdle is, the second is a thousand times harder. In fact, most writers who jump the first hurdle never make it past the second. A fraction of a fraction of a percent. That’s because the second hurdle is ego, and rare is the person who can jump that hurdle.

I never had problems with the first hurdle. I love everything about writing, but especially the process of writing. I used to think that people who were reluctant to put in the work would never amount to much as a writer, but I have met many exceptional writers who don’t enjoy the process of writing. What I say is, “Good for you for actually doing the writing.” But what I think is, “Man, it sucks to be you.”

Not really. Okay, maybe a little bit. But I do have great admiration for those who actually sit down and write brilliant stuff anyway. I’m looking at you, Lisa Joy Samson, award-winning author of a couple dozen novels. When is the next one coming out?

Way back toward the beginning of this series, I think I mentioned that I started writing seriously in 1981 when I got a computer with Word Perfect installed. At that time I was the second kind of writer. I was very pleased with what I put down on the page, brushed off critiques, and continued down the path of writing crap. I even formed a small critique group so I would have someone to read my stuff and tell me how great it was. Yes, I am that pathetic.

It took a few years, but finally Jodi Wheatley got it through my adamantine head that if I wanted to be a good writer I needed to shed my self-satisfaction and work on the craft. It was a 20 year journey from buying a computer to getting a publishing contract, but that contract never would have happened if Jodi hadn’t critiqued some sense into me.

The big hurdle to welcoming critiques is realizing that it’s not about you, it’s about the work. If you were building a house and someone came in and pointed out that your foundation wasn’t level and your framing wasn’t square, would you get insulted and say, “I like it that way,” and keep building on a bad start, or would you say, “Thanks, how do I fix that?” The answer depends of which is greater, your ego or your desire to actually build a house and live in it?

The type 1 writer might write something and then say, “This is crap,” and never show it to anyone. The type 2 writer might write something and then say, “This is great!” Both approaches miss the mark. When you finish a first draft, your first observation should end with a question. “Hooray! I got a first draft down on paper. I’m one in a million! Now how can I make it better?”

That’s where critique comes in. It goes without saying, but I will say it anyway. You can’t rely on a critique from your mama. Unless your mama is a student of the craft, but how many of us have one of those?

After the Fred books came put, I was approached by a producer looking for novels to turn into a movie. That was cool, but if Welcome to Fred was going to made into a movie, I wanted to write the screenplay so they wouldn’t screw it up. Thus began my three years of screenplay hell.

In fact, my first 30-page submission to the screenplay group achieved a result no other submission has ever experienced, before or since. The leader stopped the reading after 11 pages. That’s how bad it was. I stayed with the group for three years, and I am happy to report I learned enough that none of my other submissions suffered that indignity.

In those three years I learned a lot about structure, and I also learned two other important things about myself: 1) I suck at writing screenplays, and 2) I hate writing screenplays. I went back to writing novels and published Muffin Man the next year, the novel I’m most proud of. So far. I have a feeling my current project might eclipse The Muffin. But we’ll see what my critique group says next week.

Because when I left the screenplay critique group in 2010, I found a novel critique group, the most legit critique group I’ve ever had the honor to be a part of. I’ve run my past six novels through the group and they have helped me make major improvements to all of them. (If you’re in Austin and are working on a novel, come on down! We meet every second and fourth Sunday afternoon at 1:30 p.m.)

You may remember that a few weeks ago I mentioned I was preparing a submission for my critique group. My place in the hot seat is Sep 13. If you want a copy of my submission, ping me and I’ll email it to you.