Will You Meet Me In The Air?

Okay, I’ve spent weeks now telling you all what you CAN do.  Yes, you can write that story.  Yes, you can finish it.  Yes, you can proof it.  Yes, you can even convert it to ebook.  You can do covers.  You can do indie.  You can work for traditional at the same time.

Now, are you all pepped up and squeeing with glee?  Good, good.

Let me tell you what you CAN’T do.  No, seriously.

You CAN’T evaluate your own writing.  (And for a certain period of time, at least, you should be leery about evaluating other people’s writing too.  We’ll talk about in a moment.)

No, don’t talk.  Listen to me.  You can’t evaluate your own writing.  You just can’t.  I know what I speak of.  I’ve spent the last twenty years dealing with beginning writers and for at least five of those years I was a beginner writer myself.  (We’ll CALL it five years.  Hey, I’m a slow learner.)

What I’ve found for all writers – and no, not just beginners – is that when it comes to evaluating our own writing, our switch is stuck in one of two positions.  One of them is “Everything I write is gold and I’m so good I make the angels weep.”  The other is “I really should stop dirtying paper on one side or sacrificing innocent pixels when I can’t write anything worth reading.”

Both sides need to learn to temper this instinctive reaction if they EVER are to get anywhere.

Being solidly in the second camp, I wish to say that I think we make better writers in the end.  I doubt it, though.  I think it’s just that I’m wildly jealous of people with a shred of self-confidence and wish to hit them hard half the time.  It doesn’t matter in either case, because my side of the evaluation matter is woefully under represented.  Why?  Because most of us – those of us who are compulsive enough to actually power through the doubt and finish novels – just fling them under the bed or into the closet.  Because, well, we wouldn’t want to inflict our stuff on anyone else.

Frankly the only reason I ever sent things out is that I felt guilty.  If I was going to live from my husband’s money and spend most of my day writing (instead of saying, cleaning or taking the kids for walks or whatever it is “just housewives” do) then I needed to at least give it a chance to make me money.  So I sent stuff out out of a sense of obligation and in the serene certainty no one would ever buy it.  Also, I seized on any excuse (oh, we don’t have five dollars for stamps.  I’ll buy a paperback book instead) not to send stuff out, which means my marketing was sporadic.

You can usually tell people on my side of the equation because we have a hell of a time dealing with editorial letters.  We come across as bipolar divas.  That’s because we sort of are.  Whenever someone tells me that I need to change ANYTHING in my book, my immediate reaction is to agree.  Even if the person telling me this last read a book during the Eisenhower administration and has never in his/her life read a book in the genre I’m writing in.  Also, no matter how absurd the suggestion is.  However, I’ve learned – through, trust me, bitter experience – to doubt these suggestions and to try to look dispassionately at the person giving it.  “Okay, so he’s a beginner writer and this is what he’s struggling with and he’s projecting.”  (More on that later, too.)

This then makes you feel like you’re being defensive and makes you MORE insecure about rejecting the changes.  All of which is sheer hell when it comes from an editorial house.  They’re only used to – or always believe – they’re dealing with the OTHER type of writer, so they tend to think ANY resistence means you’re being a prima dona and think all your stuff is perfect.  So, they also tend to give the suggestions in the form of snark or over-powered suggestion.  You know, stuff like “This part really stinks” – when it turns out they want you to change a line.  This type of thing makes people like me go in and scrape that entire part and write it anew, possibly in German (which we learn for the purpose) and leaves the editor in a screaming rage of “why did you change that?  I loved the part with the girl.  It was just that line.”

(If you’re ever in that position, do what I do.  Send the letter unread to a friend who then distills the requests to what they’re really asking for, stripped of color commentary.)

Of course, if this is not a professional editor giving you that kind of commentary STOP USING THAT PERSON TO BETA YOU.  (We’ll go into this later.)  Pick your betas carefully.

So, do people whose self-evaluation is stuck on “sucks” have any advantage over the other type that causes me to think they’d be better writers in the end?

Only one.  These people – we’ll call them the nail biters, okay? – tend to work really hard on their own stuff BEFORE they ever show it to a single living soul.  In fact, they’ll study other authors to know what they’re doing.  They’re always trying to improve what they think is dreadful dreck.

This is the greatest weakness of the self-satisfied set – we’ll call them the Jack Horners, shall we (“What a good boy am I!”) – they are perfectly happy with the stuff they write from the very first line they put on paper.  There are degrees of course, but from my vantage point (here, under the bed, braiding my hair) they are varying ranges of smug.  They go from the person who comes across as perfectly normal but thinks his breaking in is assured if he just learns to work the system because, duh, his stuff might not be the best thing in the world but “is best than all of that” to the ones who think Shakespeare should bow down and kiss their muddy boots.

I can’t tell you how these people get good enough to break in.  Maybe there is a way critics can get to them.  As a mentor, I have yet to find it.  You can stand in front of them and shout what they’re doing wrong and the reaction will be one of three things: a) you don’t understand my style/substyle/subgenre.  I write what I’d like to read.  I bet there are more people like me than people like you.  b) You’re just jealous of my talent.  c) You’re talking about OTHER people, not me, right?  Because I don’t make any of those mistakes.

I know, because I’ve met these people as published – as bestselling – authors, that they CAN break in.  They can get at least good enough to sell.  Some of them are even quite decent.  So there must be a process by which they see their flaws.  Perhaps it just takes a meaner, nastier critique than I’m ever willing to give.  Or perhaps it takes a truckload of sugar per spoon of medicine.  Or perhaps they ARE better at the beginning.  Perhaps they never evolve.  Perhaps one in a hundred really are as good as they need to be to break in, right the first time.  (I’d rather not think that, though, because it makes me think lovingly of cyanide and I’m not sure if it’s for them or me.)

I’ve met incredibly talented Jack Horners, but I’ve never succeeded in mentoring one.  So we’ll just assume “something happens here” and they learn to improve.

Once they’re in, though, they have a huge advantage over us nail biters.  PARTICULARLY in the old system.  I hate to say it, but most publishers took you at your word.  (Why?  I don’t know.  I suspect because there’s no objective evaluation standard for writers.)  If you come in, all big, telling them how great you are you stand a much better chance of being believed than if you timidly slide up and reluctantly admit you wrote a book.  It also helps, still, in the new world of publishing, because the Jack Horners are out there, pushing their book at unsuspecting strangers, while we, the nail biters, hide in a corner and hope someone will discover us.  (Or in the beginning, when we’re afraid of being read, hope NO ONE will discover us.)

You can always tell one from the other in public situations.  Say, at panels, at a con.  ALL the Jack Horner talks about is his books.  The Nail Biter will mention them at the beginning, then talk about OTHER PEOPLE’S books.

Okay, it’s important for you to know which you are.  Either style can be compensated for IF you know that you are one or the other.

If you’re a Jack Horner, you need to remember that art requires practice.  Yeah, you might be all that and a million dollars, BUT even if you are Shakespeare, Austen and Walter Scott rolled into one with a dash of Dumas peppered in, at the beginning there are things you won’t know how to do.  They might be LITTLE things like “how much description is appropriate.”  BUT in certain places they are enough to stop you from being accepted/bought.

You know better than I what it takes to make you accept critique.  Choose your betas carefully for being able to give it, and choose people you HAVE to trust.

Also, on behalf of the Nail Biters of the world, stop telling us you’re the best thing since sliced bread.  It will stop us glaring at you.  It helps if you realize it’s not your talent we envy (necessarily)  – it’s your self confidence.  Go ahead and do your spiel for the public and the editors (A lot of us learn to fake it to a degree, anyway) but don’t do it among us, in private.  And don’t ASSUME you’re better than us because we’re mousy about our stuff.

If you’re a Nail Biter, be aware that you’re judging yourself more harshly than anyone else would.  In addition to betas, pick a couple of support people.  These are not bullshitters.  They can’t be, because you have to trust them.  They’re just people who like your writing most of the time, even if they’re willing to tell you when you’re going severely wrong (which all of us do at times.)  Then rely on them when you scare yourself and can’t go on because you think you suck like a Dyson.  Make sure they’re patient.  There will be times they’ll want to brain you for your bottomless pit of lack of self confidence.  (Mine are all long distance because ah ah, it’s too far away for them to throw rocks at my head.)  THEN TRUST THESE PEOPLE.  When they tell you it’s good stop oscillating.  TRUST them.  That’s why you have them.

Second, make sure you pick your betas carefully.  If you’re like me, a bad or wrongly worded comment about the last book can stop you working on the current book.  And if you are like me, you have stuff out at betas while you start the next book.  So, for instance, a beta who sends you comments piecemeal whenever he/she hits something he/she doesn’t like can be truly destructive, because it stops you in the middle of writing something else, and can cost you a day per comment.

Okay, I’m not being clear, let me explain.  I usually ask my betas to send me a report at the end.  What I do is collect ALL of those and then, when I have the first draft on current book done, or I come to a logical stopping point or what we call around here “the weekend” I take two days, read all the reports one after the other.  I’ve trained myself not to obsess on anything that two or more of you don’t hit on.  Unless it’s an obvious one, like when the reader reminded me suits of clothes don’t last fifteen years.  (DUH.) The rest, things that confused Jane but not John or vice versa (and I have twelve of you, at a minimum, at all times, and I have a minimum trigger of three echoing each other for “take seriously.”  Correction – three I KNOW don’t talk to each other.) I just go “okay, whatever” particularly if they’re minor nitts.

Now, let’s suppose Jane, instead of sending me a report which I can then just go “I’ll open next weekend” thinks her stuff is SO VITAL, so IMPORTANT that I must hear about it RIGHT NOW when she’s having a problem with it, and keeps sending me one-line emails, of the sort I can’t even delete without reading.  (Or worse, and yes, people have done this, calling me to tell me this.  One at a time like Juan Valdez.)  Even if – and usually that’s what happens – her “insights” are such earthshaking stuff as “you use the word good too much.”  Or “you changed the character’s hair color in chapter three.” it’s going to cause damage.  First because it gets to the point I see the phone number or the email address and I flinch.  Second, because even if it’s all a misunderstanding on Jane’s part, I’m a nail biter.  I’ll wonder what I did to bring it about.  Best case scenario, I waste three hours hunting typos on the old manuscript.  WORST case scenario I become hyper conscious of, say, the word “Good” and become unable to write for a month.  Yes, I know that’s ridiculous.  But I yam what I yam and I work with what I yam.

So, if you’re a nail biter use betas who will work with you and who will work in circumstances you can manage so that you can continue to be productive.  And if you are a beta for a writer and you don’t know which kind they are – well… do what they ask you for.  And unless they specifically ask you to be “brutal” or other code word for “I need to be hit over the head with a safe before I’ll listen” present your critique as dispassionately as possible.  Avoid stuff like “this part sucked.”  Or “I hated how you dropped that plot on the floor” or even (if you’re that kind) “this didn’t work for me.”  (Because some people use that with the ‘for me’ as an afterthought and the clear implication it wouldn’t work for anyone.)  Instead say “this confused me” or “I didn’t understand why you did that.”  Or… (grin) “wouldn’t his suit fall apart in fifteen years?”

Then pay attention to what comes back from the writer.  And if the writer gets defensive, don’t argue.  Look, if the writer is a nail biter, they’re really arguing with themselves, not you.  And if your criticism is warranted they will accept it, it just takes a while and you’re really not part of that process.  The more you argue, the more defensive they’ll get.  OTOH if the writer is a Jack Horner, there’s a chance you CAN’T get through.  So why argue?  And as a beta, note when you get proprietary over something you “spotted” too.  (This is only a problem if you’re Jane and keep asking the writer if they’re going to change what you said – usually.  Normally my betas just tell me stuff and don’t ask if I’m going to change it or not.  Those who do usually don’t beta more than once for me.)  If the writer says “It wasn’t a problem for anyone else” let it go, unless it’s your area of expertise.  (Like, you’re a gun expert, and there’s a chance none of her other betas is.)  (Hell, sometimes even if it IS your area of expertise.  I’m beta for a dozen people and sometimes I correct them, say, on foreign languages.  Most of the time the reply is “Oh, thanks.”  But if they say “That wasn’t a problem for anyone else” I SHUT UP.  Why?  Because those people are likely to be closer to the audience they’re aiming for.  If, say, they have a pun in Portuguese (don’t ask.  Culturally it doesn’t REALLY happen.  Okay, in rare circumstances, but not nearly as much as in English) and I tell them “that wouldn’t be considered a pun” but none of their other betas did… well, how many native Portuguese people will read their book?  See what I mean?)  It’s not about your being RIGHT, it’s about helping the writer.  No matter how right you are, if you find yourself browbeating the writer over a point that does NOT affect how the book will sell, stop.  If you’re dealing with a nail biter, at BEST you’ll be cut off.  At worst, you’ll cost the writer months of block.  If you like the writer’s writing, that’s plain stupid. (And if you don’t, why are you betaing?)

On this, and to save both innocent writers and innocent betas I HAVE to urge caution.  If you’re a would-be writer, or even a pro, and you’re betaing… be careful.  You tend to see the same problems you have issues with or had issues with at that point, whether they’re there or not.  If you still think they’re a problem for the writer you’re betaying, put in a “save”.  I always say something like “I might just be seeing this, because I’m struggling with it myself, but I think–”  AND make sure you KNOW that might be all.  For instance, right now I’m struggling with stage business, which means even in published books, I notice clumsy stage business, and I have to remind myself it’s just because I’m sensitized to it.  Be particularly careful if you’re betaing upwards (someone more published.)  The bane of contests are judges who are beginner writers and who assume any submission must be from someone junior to them.  A couple of years ago, I entered a romance contest under a pen name.  I was judged by someone who is a “veteran judge” but unpublished as an author.  I got back a note telling me I was trying too ambitious a theme for my poor vocabulary (!) and grammar skills.  This idiot had gone around changing words like stolid to words like solid and then complaining the sentences didn’t make sense.  She was seeing the speck in my eye because she had a mote in hers…  Beware of that.  (And I’ll say RIGHT NOW I’ve only had that issue with contests, and never with one of my betas, but other people might.)

Okay, that’s out of the way and sorry for the ramble.  I really am not awake enough to be brief.

Whether you’re a Nail Biter or a Jack Horner, there is one circumstance that will throw you for a loop in your own way…  When you’re evolving.  I call this being “in the air.”

You can NEVER judge your own writing (unless it was done anywhere from a one to ten years ago, when you MIGHT have an inkling) but when you’re changing then you REALLY can’t judge your writing.

All writing “growth” is saltational.  I don’t know why.  I bet some of the people on my blog do, though.  What I mean is that you go along a long time, get comfortable with your style of writing.  But all the time, something is happening.  It might be a series of small accretions that suddenly change it completely, I suppose – though that never happens to me or my mentees – or it can be that SUDDENLY your writing becomes completely different.

Maybe the Jack Horners think they’re especially good then.  I don’t know.  I KNOW the Nail Biters immediately get the feeling they aren’t doing it “right”.  They’ve managed to negotiate a truce with the inner critic long enough to write stories or books, but now the inner critic is going “this isn’t even as good as you usual cr*p.  It’s really, really bad.”

Over the last week I’ve been dealing with two of my mentees telling me how AWFUL their current piece is and how they don’t know how to write anymore.  I had a feeling they’d both taken a jump, but being mid rewrite in response to editorial letter (which to me is in itself a delicate psychological act) I couldn’t read them.  I’ve now read one of them.  Let’s say she’s taken the leap I’ve been praying she’d take for the last three years.  It’s not a leap I could take for her, or even explain how to take it.  But she’s taken it, and, of course, she’s terrified and wants to shove the story under the bed.

Fortunately she has me to tell her that her writing isn’t sh*t, but her judgement is.

If you’re a Nail Biter and you’re in the air, take a deep breath.  If you’ve been writing what other people judge is competent prose for years, it’s unlikely the current effort is THAT bad.  (It’s possible, but it usually correlates to illness, injury, extreme old age or extreme tiredness.  If you eliminate those, you’re just probably “in the air.”) If it feels that bad, chances are you’ve taken a leap in style and proficiency.  Take a deep breath and keep writing until your support system can reassure you.

Yes, I know how scary it is.  I’ve been there and have bitten my nails.  My last two books were huge leaps for me, and I cried moaned and (metaphorically) crawled under the bed biting my nails.  But betas and editor agree that at least the last one is a huge leap.

Be of good cheer and force yourself to forge ahead.  Stop biting your nails.  You’re just getting good.

46 responses to “Will You Meet Me In The Air?

  1. There is a certain evolutionary logic here. If someone is good enough to get published, why would they change? Updike is my fav example of a mediocre writer. He wrote some decent early stuff, never improved and continued to write stuff just slightly worse than his earliest stuff. Ugh.

    Me, I think I’m a nail-biting Horner. In my heart of hearts of course I believe I’m the next Shakespeare, or at least the next Rowling. But I have what my therapists call “Excellent cognitive skills” which just means I can talk myself down from thinking I can fly…usually. The cognitive skills usually keep Horner in the corner, which is all for the best.

    My latest book is big problem however. Everyone likes it. Even people who usually don’t like my stuff. I spread it over a wide group of betas of different tastes and backgrounds. And my cognitive skills are having a hard time with positive reinforcement. Are they all drunk? Am I living in the matrix? Or have I finally done it? You CAN catch lightning from time to time, and I’m almost ready to believe I’ve done it. Then Horner starts getting excited and the cognitive skills kick in and start throttling him again.

    Hmmm.

    Great post as usual.

  2. ppaulshoward

    Agree, great post.

  3. Great post, thanks

  4. Jumbled reactions. I have to think more carefully about what you have said.

    I think that for some people the bravado is a cover. I watched Capote while the other two were at StellarCon. It appears that T.C. was a both a supreme Jack Horner and total nail-biter rolled into one. (Acknowledging that this was a film — but it struck a cord…particularly when you realize that he was the model for Dill.) No wonder he never completed another book after In Cold Blood.

  5. If you chew your nails too closely, it hurts to type. Besides, cleaning blood of they keyboard is a pain. 😉 Fortunately, band-aids are cheap.

    Like most, I mix the types. My default state is something along the lines of “This is a compelling story. If only I could write it with some degree of competence!” (Of course that confidence evaporates if I’m trying to write anything longer than a short story. But I’m trying to delude myself into believing it.)

  6. I’m probably a little too thick-skinned about criticism. I don’t let it hurt, and tend to react in a passive-aggressive way. Then I finally stop long enough to think about it and usually decided half the criticism is right on the mark.

    My current (too small) group of Beta readers are very useful, but perhaps a bit on the “too nice” side.

  7. Personally, I think everyone is secretly a Jack Horner, emotionally at least, but that we talk ourselves out of it, or pretend that we aren’t because we know it’s rude, smug or delusional. The first condition is necessary to keep writing. Honestly, if you REALLY thought your stuff always was crap, you’d quit, eventually. What rational person wouldn’t? The second condition of the nail biter, which is a form of false modesty, or imposed rational deconstruction, or mix of the two, is partially the requirements of a civil society, and partially the demands of a rational conscience.

    The irony here is that you have to promote yourself and show a lot of chutzpah, so Horner has to be let out of the corner from time to time, but then you also have to have the nail biter self-edit your stuff.

    • Travis,

      You’re going from inside yourself. THIS is what I meant. Of course, each of us, to function, must convince himself partly to the other position. I started as extreme nail biter. I’m telling you, as recently as last year, the only reason I continued writing is that my HUSBAND told me to continue trying. And this was not an isolated occurrence. In fact, the only reason I started sending stuff out at all was Dan pushing me. Now, well… it’s hard to believe I’m not writing publishable, what with people liking my books. But it’s still difficult to believe.

    • Travis,

      You’ve fallen for one of the classic blunders! Oops. Sorry… channeling Princess Bride for a moment.

      Seriously, a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that because something is this way for them, it must be this way for everyone else. For me, writing is this compulsive thing. It has to happen whether it’s crap or not. I don’t keep at it because I secretly believe it’s fantastic. I keep at it because I have to keep at it. Bad things happen if I don’t (bad in the ‘nervous breakdown, suicidal episodes kind of range). I still have to remind myself that people I know and trust are not saying nice things about my writing because they want something from me. They say it because they mean it.

      There is no Jack Horner here. The closest I get to that is “Well, I think it might be better than some of the worst shit that makes it to press.”

      • Luke’s point here is valid.

        My opinion was “Well you must like your stuff because if you didn’t, why would you keep doing it? That’s just irrational.”

        Luke rejoinder was “What makes you think writers are rational?”

        I suppose I have to accept that you and Sarah are irrational. (Lucky for us in Sarah’s case.) Has anyone diagnosed compulsive writing as a form of OCD?

        • Actually it has a name all its own: Graphomania

        • I’m very rational. I just start from a highly irrational, possibly abolished position. Think the logic in Hitchhikers Guide – everything makes sense so long as you accept the opening proposition.

          • Most starting assumptions are largely based on faith. But that’s also largely irrelevant to the discussion at hand.

            Start with the objective fact that you have a stories you wish to tell.
            If you start with the assumption that writing is a skill, then you automatically accept that skills have to be learned and mastered, which won’t happen without large amounts of time and effort. In the meantime, your telling of stories will be necessarily flawed. But the only way to get better is to write more stories, put them out there to be evaluated, and listen to the inevitable criticisms. If you are still learning, you obviously have work to do before you attain mastery.
            The position is perfectly rational. It just has unsupported assumptions.

            Of course, it’s possible to start from a different assumption. Perhaps you believe you have natural talent. Or you just believe “I can write a better story than [published and hyped piece of dreck]. The Jack Horner route may be completely rational and defensible from these different starting assumptions.
            That doesn’t mean you can get there from here.
            Trying just results in people unproductively talking past each other.

            • Thank you Luke. You explained it all admirably. And trust me, I’ve often wished I came at it from the other side. But then I wouldn’t be me, and the stories would be different.

              It is perhaps worth noting I only started working HARD and seriously at this after I almost died, sixteen years ago. I felt like leaving stories untold, locked forever in my mind, was a terrible sin. I have no idea why, but next time I face the end, I don’t want that on my conscience. There will always be stories I didn’t tell, but at least I TRIED.

  8. You’re assuming that humans in general, and writers in particular, are rational. That’s a very questionable assumption.

  9. I’m like the above, I’m mixed – some Horner, some Nail Biter. I look on the whole thing as a learning experience and (rightly or wrongly), my psyche believes I just need to keep working on it and it will be right some day (and thus am in danger of working on something forever ^_^).

    I love your line about the defensive person arguing with themselves, not you. That is so true. My first mental response to a lot of critiques is No! No! – my brain is thinking about the impossibility of incorporating the changes into the existing structure (not to mention whimpering about doing more work). I have to sleep on it a bit. Though there are things I hear where I can immediately nod and think, Yes, I see that.

    I also thoroughly agree with people seeing problems that they themselves are struggling with. I’ll go further and say that I’m wary of critiques by new pros or near pros, good enough at the craft to get published, but still not comfortable with their own voices yet. That person can hijack your book and turn it into their book. I not there yet, but even I have to watch this – I’ll want to add stuff that I like that a book might not need.

    • YES, though my immediate reaction is “Yes, yes, of course. They know better.” — which is what I mean about being at the heart of it, irreducibly a nail biter. And then the part of me who thinks and knows I’m a pro goes “But… who is this person. And why are you accepting all this. You know that character IS NOT important. G-d knows why they think it is, but why are you just taking it all wholesale.” “Because they’re READERS, so they’re outside and know better.” “SNORT” (Yes, my rational brain is QUITE rude. Geeks, you know?) And then eventually, after I’ve lost most of my hair, I choose one way or another. But I always feel guilty if I DON’t take the suggestion. I always have to justify it to myself. Sometimes years later, I’m still defending not taking it.

      Kris Rusch, long ago told me I should never read my own beta reports and I shouldn’t take workshops, because I was more likely to damage my books by taking critique than by ignoring it all. Actually what she suggested was that a friend read the beta reports and only tell the things that bothered three or more people. I didn’t think of that advice till now, and now I’m wondering if I should take it.

      • I started out as an extreme nail biter (I bet a lot of us do), but I’ve been in too many writers groups where different people completely contradicted each other and where I knew their biases. (*looks carefully around* I’ve also written fan-fiction (non-romantic) and gotten enough positive feedback to buck up my ego and give me some confidence. ^_^)

        So I’m big on taking the advice if it resonates with me – if I can see it and say, Yeah, I can understand that’s a problem there. And that can come from anyone – from a good reader, from a fellow writer.

        But I know that everyone’s different, and it’s not a case of inner strength or being rational or irrational. This is a place we are all vulnerable, even the strongest of us, and we live in a culture that can be extremely cruel to those who are still learning to communicate and be articulate.

        • Oh. Thank you for mentioning that. Writing Austen fanfic and getting comments — good, bad and UH? — for what was essentially first draft helped build my confidence. PARTICULARLY when people wanted to see more. THAT helped.

  10. instead of saying, cleaning or taking the kids for walks or whatever it is “just housewives” do

    Frankly, I’m more troubled by the things unjust housewives do. Just sayin’.

    • Indeed. I once got told that I’d have all this time “once the kids left the house” because “there’s so much less cleaning.” And I thought “But the writing will fill it up, won’t it?” I’m not putting down housewives. As someone who does all her cooking from scratch, as someone who refinished most of her own furniture, recovered sofas, made clothing, etc, it took up a lot of my time. But I still spent a lot of time writing.

    • Just as long as we don’t take up what the housewives of whatever are doing to occupy TV, gossip mags, etc.

  11. you stand a much better chance of being believed than if you timidly slide up and reluctantly admit you wrote a book

    I have this vision of shady characters in grubby overcoats sidling up to people in dark alleyways and whispering: “Psst. Hey buddy, you wanna read a book?”

    Not especially inviting to the reader, eh?

  12. There was a point in this essay that had me envisioning 7th-graders at their first mixer, everybody obsessed with their own flaws and imperfections, hastily averted gazes lest somebody think them over-eager/needy/creepy … and the Jack Horners boisterously oblivious to how they come off.

    Nail-biters and betas need to relax, keep in mind that taking somebody’s writing seriously is just about the highest compliment that can be paid (short of, y’know, actually paying to read it.) Your life won’t be ruined forever if that cute reader doesn’t like your story, and the writer doesn’t really need to know EVERY SINGLE FLAW in their tale so they aren’t embarrassed in front of EVERYBODY and the world.

    Besides, when has this world ever welcomed perfection?

    • actually what gets to me, particularly with new betas is the “imaginary flaws” and the “I’d have done it this way.”

      BUT while talking of that, you just described the first largish writers party I attended. There were fifty of us in the room, most of us avoiding talking to anyone else and kind of hiding. It was… creepy.

  13. Several people have mentioned Truman Capote. He’s in that odd category of a writer who hit it big with his first book and was obviously relieved that he could live off it and never have to write again. Margaret Mitchell, Ralph Ellison, Harper Lee. They just wrote little bits, played the celebrity, or in Mitchell’s case, supervised the process of the book being a megabestseller and that of it becoming a movie. I suspect they were all supernailbiters who just couldn’t face trying again. Capote tried to do another “In Cold Blood,” called “Handcarved Coffins,” but it appears he forgot how he had briefly been just about the best true crime writer ever, and just made a story up and tried to convince people it was true.

    • Nell Harper Lee is about as unusual as they come. She is someone who had A story she had to tell. The novel that was born reflected the voice of a seemingly fully mature and developed writer. Once that was out of her system no other story was so compelling as to force it’s way out after that.

      According to an article in Southern Living on the recent 50th anniversary of To Kill A Mockingbird, Ms Lee is supposed to have written a second book, which was lost, apparently in a burglary. She is rather shy, and those in her hometown protect her privacy.

  14. I always feel quite confident in myself until it actually comes time to share it with people who aren’t already familiar with my work or my work in that style/genre. (ie: I was more nervous about sharing my steampunk/wuxia short with a friend than the m/m short stories, since she’s already familiar with my m/m work).

    Do you have any particular place you recommend for hunting up new betas? Oddly enough, the people who’ve given me the best beta advice have been my parents, but I’d like to recruit more. Especially as there are stories I have no intention of sharing with my parents. xD; There are a few people I “can” recruit and think would make great betas, but I’m technically their “boss” and until such time as either they stop working there or I do, I’d rather not risk them feeling either obligated to agree or obligated to pull their punches. And I joined a writer’s forum because someone recommended it as a good place to find betas, but unless it also happens to be where you find yours, I’d rather not involve myself in the community based on the current climate there re: attitudes about self-publishing.

    (Not sure why I’m getting a, “hey, log in!” notice. As far as I can tell, I don’t *have* a wordpress account…)

    • On the login — wordpress is being a pain. On the betas — well… mine used to be friends. Once I asked my husband to ask colleagues to beta but that sucked, because they simply weren’t up to it (i.e. what they read wasn’t even remotely what I wrote. Also, for whatever reason, they figured things like comments about the fireplace meant the characters were having sex. I think they WANTED the characters to have sex. It was VERY odd.) Now… my first line betas I acquired by accretion over the years. They’re my closest friends who are also writers. Then there’s another circle who are also friends but who don’t get to see the stuff in dribs and drabs as I write. And then the rest are fans. If I become friendly with a fan and know he liked book x or series y and he seems to me to be a sensible person, I’ll ask him if he wants to read the new thing. Then I cull them by behavior on first beta. The ones who go insane trying to prove their useful by inventing ever more recherche stuff to find “wrong” — you know… “you can use both a bus and a train in the same book. My grandfather said that.” type of thing, I don’t use again.

      • My alien is all spidery too. :c (Though it has nice ponytentacles.) I want my kappa picture back, darnit! xD

        But – yes! I’d be leery of asking a SO’s colleagues unless it were on the vein of an expert advice. And now I’m doubly so. xD I wouldn’t want to wonder about them and their relations with fireplaces. xD

      • “On the betas — well… mine used to be friends.”

        Oh, C’mon Sarah, you can’t have chased them _all_ away! ;D

  15. Can’t evaluate my own writing? What’s so hard about that? It sucks. I mean, it really, really, really sucks. We’re talking stinks on ice here (I must look up the etymology of that idiom sometime). We’re talking _bad_ here. The fact that some people have lost their minds and actually paid me for some of it doesn’t change any of that.
    .
    .
    .
    .
    What?
    😉

  16. What this sort of discussion inevitably leads to is that I’m not a writer.

    To the extent I match one of Sarah’s extremes it would have to be “Jack Horner”, but to me, at least, it seems a little different from inside. Reba McEntyre, in a recent interview, said that she wasn’t afraid of failure, which is why she’s been able to try so many different things and succeed in many (most?) of them. I don’t expect that I come within several orders of magnitude of Reba’s talent, even considering it’s a parallel field, but I’m not afraid of failure, either.

    Unkind people, including myself in my blacker moods, might point out that that’s because I’ve had so many already that failure is an accustomed state, comfortable as an old shoe. And that’s true to an extent, I suppose — I’ve tried to lift a number of rocks that were too heavy for me in my lifetime, and if I can’t lift that particular stone I suppose it counts as “failure”. I’m not traditionally published, which is a failure, but it illustrates my attitude, supposing that I can explain what that is. I know there are stones that I can’t lift. I also know that there are some I can carry, and I’m reasonably content with that subset of the set “rocks”.

    Editors, agents, and other gatekeepers of the publishing business have both their own taste and some sense (however erroneous) of what the market for a particular book might be. I haven’t met those standards — but, in observing the things that do get published, many of which induce in me something between indifference and disgust, I conclude that my failure is, in that case, failure to meet a fairly narrow set of standards I’m not at all sure I consider valid. What that means is that that particular failure doesn’t weigh particularly heavily on my mind. If I were engaged in a shooting contest I would probably lose, fail, because I wouldn’t get (enough of) my shots in the teeny-tiny black circle in the middle. That wouldn’t mean I’ve failed to discharge the firearm. The people who won’t publish me do publish Snooki’s autobiography and the endless output of authors like Patterson and Dale Brown. What that tells me is that my work isn’t bad, as such, it just doesn’t match what those people want and/or think they can resell.

    Note that Kate, whom I’ve met in person and who is aware of my sales figures (through Sarah, if nothing else) hasn’t made any suggestions. See above; also the fact that in person I’m an a**hole for whom nobody is anxious to do favors.

    And I’m not compulsive, in either the sense of “needing” to get my thoughts into concrete form or having a burning desire for others to read them and stroke me for it. That, alone, means I don’t count as a “writer”, I suppose, which is another failure, isn’t it? I am, however, egotistical enough to assume that there may be one or two people around who consider my input of value, thus this sort of essay. It also helps dampen the mood swings, which is a private success.

    Regards,
    Ric

    • actually using writing as medication IS the reason Kate and I do it — I don’t know about others, but I’ve talked to Kate about it.

      And you know even as we type, there is a party heading to TX to make you finish the sequel, right?

      Also, I didn’t find you unpleasant to hang out with. Not sure what that means about me, but mind that in everything I could possibly get that comment, I got comment equivalent of “doesn’t play well with others.” Sadly true. I like people, but I don’t like what used to be quaintly called “group work.”

    • … the fact that in person I’m an a**hole for whom nobody is anxious to do favors.

      Ric, it really isn’t nice to so challenge our self-restraint.

  17. Susan Shepherd

    Oh, wow. Thinking about personality types in this way explains so much. I’m a nail-biter, so much so that it’s hard to keep writing because any time away from a story turns into “No, work on something else, this story is sucking and you need more practice to get it right.” (No, the nail-biter part of me is not rational enough to see the silliness here.)

    This situation is made more complex by the fact that I am a fairly smart cookie. So I’m aware that I’m talented at many things and that other people have consistently told me that my writing is excellent for my age. So I can psych myself up to trying an ambitious project — a story outside my preferred genres, a novella-length work, or what have you — but then get few thousand words into it and the confidence gets whittled down to shreds.

    Having read your comments, Sarah, I think I can probably get a better handle on the problem by just gritting my teeth and forcing myself to finish stuff. (That sounds silly, I know, because even though I write a lot and I’ve been writing since forever, I only have a handful of finished stories / novellas. Clearly I need to change this.)

    Anyway, thank you for writing this. There’s a lot to think about here.

  18. On the subject of betas (rather than bettas, which are a kind of fish), that’s one of my multitudinous weaknesses. My social circle is extremely small (well, not counting the voices in my head, of course) and rather small even online. There are a handful of people who follow me on FB, There may be some people who follow my blogspot account (all three of them), and a few more on my more political LJ account. It’s not exactly a large pool from which to draw beta readers. Last time I went trolling for beta readers I got maybe a half dozen responses. About two of whom read and reported on the story for which I was looking for feedback.

    It’s enough to make you cry, if, that is, I did that kind of thing.
    (Don’t believe him. He really does.)
    (Shut up, you. I’m talking here.)
    (No you’re not; you’re typing.)
    (You know what I mean.)
    (Really? How? Read your mind?)
    (Why not? You’re a voice in my head after all.)
    (Yah! You’re supposed to be a writer. Doesn’t that mean you’re supposed to use words precisely.)

    Excuse me. One of the voices in my head needs a beatdown.

    • well, if you’re like me the INSIDE circle is so loud, you have to keep the outside friends sparse, so as not to get overwhelmed

      I’ve accrued betas over time (As opposed to bettas, whom the cats would eat.) It started about like you, then another year another beta. Nowadays I have a tight group of about eight that I consider “minimum” extensible to twenty for problematic “How will this go over” properties.