Posts Tagged ‘criticism’


With just one month till the release of Beautiful Monster, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, mostly about how all of this came to be. It still feels like a dream to me, and I still expect to wake up any minute. And if it’s real, I’m waiting for something to somehow go wrong. I’ve been anticipating some kind of terrible news for some time now, but so far, things seem to be on track, and the novel is still set to be released on September 1st, one month from now.

There are a lot of things I anticipated when the day came that I finally got a book published… and there are some things I did not anticipate. First on this list of surprises is the speed at which this whole process has moved. I didn’t give much thought to the new age of e-books, and therefore, I figured once I found a publisher, it’d be a good few years before I’d be able to see and hold my own book. As it is now though, the book is set to  be released in both hardcopy and e-book versions in about three months after having been accepted.

I didn’t expect to get a publisher before I got an agent. While I queried just about every agent on (and a few off) the American Continent for The White Room, I did things differently for Beautiful Monster. Because of Monster’s violent and graphic nature, I never expected it to get picked up at all. My co-author and I queried 27 small to mid-sized publishing presses for Monster as opposed to the 157 literary agents I queried for The White Room. My feeling was that The White Room was simply more commercial, and therefore would have a much easier time selling. That hasn’t turned out to be the case at all.

I didn’t expect to be so worried about who might read this book. As I mentioned before, Beautiful Monster is laden with violence, sex, and drug use. And I didn’t skimp on any of the details… nor did I use gentle language to convey these acts. I suppose that because I never expected the novel to find a home, I was much more liberal with my own twisted-ness, but now that it’s going to be a real book, I’m a little bit mortified. Not ashamed… but I do cringe a little whenever someone in my family or someone I know (who isn’t a lover of horror stories) asks me about the book.

I didn’t expect so much support, and the person who surprised me the most was my mother. Not because she isn’t supportive, but because I know that if my own son had written this book, I’d probably be a bit concerned about what the neighbors might think. When the contract was signed, I called my mom (who had read – and actually somehow enjoyed the book) and had a little talk with her in hopes of preparing her for the possible negative side-effects of the situation. I told her that people whom we may not necessarily want to read this book might read it, and there’s nothing I or anyone else can do to stop them. I told her I would very likely be harshly criticized and that a lot of people, even people we love, may not exactly appreciate the wicked and vulgar nature of this story. After prattling off my list of possible unpleasant scenarios, she said, “So what? If they don’t like it, they don’t have to read it. I’m proud of you anyway.” That made my day.

I didn’t expect to make so many new and wonderful friends. Since this book has been picked up, I’ve made the acquaintances of so many other writers, many of whom were my heroes back in the days when I used to read for the sheer enjoyment of it while dreaming that I could one day do this thing. These other writers know exactly where I’m at, and they have all been absolutely wonderful about talking to me, giving me good advice, and letting me know what it was like for them.

Most of all, I didn’t expect that I’d so quickly feel that it was time for the next step. As beginning writers, we all live our lives in terms of, “one day, when I finally get published…” and I didn’t expect that when I finally did, I’d be worried about the next book just a week or two after. The sparkle fades fast, and soon you’re left with the feeling of “So… now what?” … So now, as best as I can guess, I just keep writing the next one. I knew I’d never be content having written only one book (or even just two or three for that matter), but I guess I thought I’d at least take some time off mentally to figuratively roll around nude in my newfound glory. But I never really did. I just started worrying about the next story.

One month to blast off… and here’s what I know: there really is a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow… but as soon as you find it, you just see another rainbow to chase.

 


There aren’t many things that are more revealing than art. Whether writing a story, painting a picture, or singing a song, we put ourselves directly into the things we create. Knowing this, many people tend to keep their creations to themselves for fear of judgment from others and/or having their work rejected outright.  The good news about never disclosing your inventions is that you eliminate the risk of being criticized. The bad news however, is far more considerable. First, if no one sees your work, you will never get any feedback. This will limit your potential because we are biased, either negatively or positively, toward our own art. Second, if no one sees it, no one can buy it. And last, but not least, whether you have a natural talent for something, a burning desire for something, or both, you owe it to yourself to take it is far as you can.

The other day a friend of mine asked me how I “overcame” the fear of rejection. It was a subject I hadn’t given hardly any thought to for a very long time. I stared at him and gave him the best answer I could – “I don’t really know.” That question prompted me to give a little more thought to it though. Truth be told, I rarely suffer from any distress over whether or not someone will or will not like my writing. However, that certainly wasn’t the case ten, or even five years ago. So, to the best of my ability, here is the story of how I got from there to here:

When I was young, I often wrote little poems and stories that no one ever saw. As I got older, I kept writing, but still kept it to myself. In my twenties, I took a temporary interest in photography. Photography was much easier to exhibit because I could hide behind the models. I still never became entirely comfortable with displaying my work though. After a few years of taking pictures, I reached a point where I felt I’d taken my photography as far as I wanted to. It was like walking off a cliff. I was left wondering, “what now?” I spent a great deal of time and energy looking for a more powerful sense of purpose, and all the while, only one thing kept happening consistently: I kept writing.  At this point, I was writing mostly poetry, and no one except a very few carefully selected folks were allowed to see it. I was terrified of what might happen to me if someone didn’t like it.

As my seriousness in writing grew stronger, so did my need to expand my confines. I vividly remember the first time I ever posted a poem on MySpace. I put the poem up and took it down three times before finally deciding to let it linger on my “blog” for a while to see what happened. I checked my MySpace a dozen times that day, waiting for the hate mail to flood in.  By the end of the day, an amazing thing had happened: nothing. No one seemed to notice whether or not I posted my poetry, and that is what gave me the self-confidence to keep doing it.

Over time, I accrued a cute little following of poetry readers who liked my work. I also made friends with some other poets and eventually I was featured on several radio shows and some online magazines. I was at the height of my career as a poet! But I was restless and had fast grown tired of the limitations of poetry. That’s when I started writing novels.

I paired up with my friend and mentor, Kim Williams-Justesen, took some writing classes, devoured every book I could get my hands on about the writing process, and above all, I wrote my ass off. In the meantime, I attended writing conventions and workshops, signed up with the local writer’s league, and began to meet all kinds of writers, big names and little names alike. I didn’t have time to be terrified of what people would think of my writing.

Then, the first literary agent I ever met took a strong enough interest in my book to request my full manuscript. I was both elated and horrified. I sent her the book and for the next five months, I obsessed. When she finally got around to letting me know she didn’t feel the market was quite right for my story, I felt as if I had been dropped like a glass ball, and shattered into a thousand little shards of the man I thought I was. It wasn’t fun and it wasn’t pretty. But I had a lot of helping hands putting me back together, and was very quickly back on the wagon, acquiring rejection slips from agents far and wide.

Today, I take criticism and rejection like they’re candy-coated Klonopins, and somewhere along the way, without even realizing it, I have (for the most part) seemed to have misplaced my fear of judgment and rejection. After analyzing it a little, I’ve decided that the answer to that question, “how do you over come fear of rejection?” is that you don’t. You just plug along and take the necessary steps despite the fear. There are however, a few things you can do along the way to soften the blows.

The first, and most important thing you can do to combat the fear of rejection is to be damned good at your craft. Learn everything you can, utilize that knowledge, and experiment with it openly.

Second, give yourself permission to suck. You don’t have to be perfect. You aren’t even supposed to be.

Third, read the works of your contemporaries. I assure you that therein lies much suckiness. The point to this however, is not to scoff at your friends. The point is to stop comparing yourself to Charles Dickens.

Fourth, read the stories behind the success. Stephen King acquired enough rejection slips he was able to wallpaper his office with them… and he did. “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” was rejected over one hundred times. “The Wizard of Oz” was called stupid and unimaginative by critics. No matter what an agent or anyone else tells you, art is subjective. No one has the facts on what is good and what sucks. They never have and they never will.

Fifth, accept the fear. Oh yeah… I said it. Accept that you’re afraid and that being afraid is part of the game.

Finally, one of the most important things one can do to combat fear of rejection is to just keep writing. By focusing your attention on your craft and away from the opinions of others, you are putting your energy into the only thing you can control… which is you. Also, by continuing to attend writer’s events, critique groups, and submitting to agents, over time you’ll naturally build an immunity to the scathing reviews.


     

     Me and my friends’ Kim (Williams-Justesen) and Joe (Ostler) talked about forming our own critique group for many months before we ever got together and actually did it. The trouble was that the project Kim and I were collaborating on was very high in gore and horror, and I, being the nice guy I am, didn’t feel comfortable corrupting poor Joe by subjecting him to the nastiness and raw morbidity of our story, (little did I realize at the time that Joe has his own unique brand of deviance ~ but hey, I was trying to be nice!) Just kidding, Joe. 😉

So, as Kim and I wrapped up An Evil Heart, we both began new (and far tamer)  projects which we used in our critique group of three. The interesting thing about our group is that I write Horror/Supernatural, Kim writes for Middle Grade and Young Adult, and Joe writes Sci-Fi/High Fantasy, so the contrast of our styles creates a fun dynamic. The three of us were only able to meet twice though. I am leaving the state in two days from now, but we plan to continue the group through Instant Messenger and e-mail, but already, in the short time I have been a participant of a critique group, I have learned a good deal.

A critique group is an assembly of writers who’ve come together for the purpose of gaining insight and feedback from other writers, and no matter how good a writer you may be, there can be no arguing the benefits of being part of one. Critique groups may be as large or small as the group desires. They may be done face to face, over the phone, or online.

The beauty of the critique group is that however polished a writer may be, he or she will undoubtedly overlook some necessary detail at some point in his or her story. The other member’s of the group will hopefully be able to see these snags and help the writer smooth them over. Editors, agents and publishers don’t want raw and sloppy rough drafts. They want polished, revised material that has been read and critiqued, preferably a few times over. A critique group can help a writer be sure that the material he or she sends to an agent or editor is clean, concise, and professional.

     There are however, those groups of writers who do not have their fellows’ best interests at heart. I’ve heard many horror stories about really nasty critique groups whose members were apparently more interested in stroking their own egos than becoming better writers. These kinds of folks undoubtedly run rampant in writing communities worldwide. These kinds of writers aren’t hard to spot and should be avoided at all times. When someone works up the courage to allow his or her work to be viewed by others, I think we need to respect the vulnerability of the writer. That’s not to say that honesty isn’t imperative, it absolutely is, but honesty in and of itself does not need to be cruel. Writer’s are up against enough rejection and damage without having his or her peers standing in line to take turns crushing him or her. Critique groups should be constructive and supportive, and if they aren’t, find a new one. End of story.

Critique groups are as good (or bad) as the members make them, and I am grateful to have a pretty good, albeit very small, group of trusted writers to share my work with. It’s a disconcerting and unfortunately very necessary thing to lay your heart out and ask to be critiqued. To find just a handful of people who I feel comfortable asking feedback from is a wonderful thing.

     The world in general loves to give its opinion and whether you ask for it or not, you are going to get it. The trouble is, you have to be very careful who you listen to. The way I see it, you can divide the world’s population into three groups. The first (and probably largest) group, are those who really just don’t much care whether or not you succeed or fail. The second group is what I call the “cockroaches”. These guys will go out of their way to try to sabotage your success and sense of self-confidence. And the third and final group is the group you need to stick with. These are the folks who want to be better people themselves, and who want to help you become a better person.

So if you are thinking of joining or creating  your own critique group, my advice is to be sure you are among good company because, as important as it is to get feedback from other people, it’s even more important that you don’t give up on writing at the hands of someone who took it upon him or herself to let you know how bad you suck. We all suck or have sucked at some time or another. Totally sucking is the first step of good writing, so if you have to suck, why not suck with the best of them? 🙂

Write on.


     So, after four long months of feeling much like I was being frisked by a police officer, I finally heard back from the New York agent yesterday.  Of course, after that amount of time, I was certain she wasn’t going to choose to take me, so it wasn’t as hard of a blow as it could have been when she told me she was sorry that she wasn’t going to offer to represent me.  Her greatest concern was that The White Room was caught somewhere between commercial and literary fiction.  I assume this means that she felt marketing the book would be difficult.  Otherwise, she said very kind things about the manuscript, and admitting she could be wrong about it, encouraged me to continue seeking other agents.

     I expected to be shattered, but strangely, I’m okay.  I am lucky, I suppose, to have the luxury of understanding how this business works a little.  I didn’t expect to write one book, meet one agent and become a an all-time famous novelist.  In fact, if I follow along the same statistical lines as the majority, I can expect an average of six or seven more years of rejections before one of them chooses to represent me.  The sad fact is, unpublished authors are a high risk.  It’s similar to a college graduate who has a hard time getting a job because they lack experience.  But how can you get experience if no one hires you?  The writing business is much the same way.  This goes to show that in any field, competition is stiff and one must always begin at the beginning, which unfortunately, is at the bottom.

     Needless to say, about a month ago, it was clear to me that this wasn’t going to happen with the New York agent, so I began querying other representatives.  This week alone, I’ve gotten three rejections and have more coming to be sure.  Thankfully, I have yet to receive any of the scathing reviews I’ve heard so many horror stories about.  The agents who have replied to me have been kind, supportive, and encouraging.  In one case, I was simply told, “I’m not the right agent for this.”  In another, I was asked to send the first five pages so the agent could get a feel for my voice.  After a day or two, she wrote back saying thanks but no thanks.  And,of course, the New York agent.

     So, what is the next step?  From conferences, my mentor, and listening to other writers, I’ve learned that it’s too early on to start thinking about revamping the story.  If I receive twelve or fifteen rejections, all pointing out the same troubles, then it’s time to revisit and revise.  But until then, a writer must keep in mind that one, or even a few agents’ opinions are not law.  They’re generally looking for a book that speaks powerfully to them and leaves them with little doubt about it’s possibilities in the market.  Some agents will read your manuscript and get a strong vision for it… and other will not.  So for now… I will keep writing, because that is my only weapon against the rejection.

     From what I have learned, one of the biggest (and most common) mistakes a writer can make is to write one book and place all of their hope into it, not realizing that it may never be published.  After having one book rejected a few times, they throw their hands in the air, call this an impossible business, and bow out of it.  I’m not going to do that.  If it takes me ten years to get published, then the way I see it is, I will have ten to fifteen novels written by then, which will create a great back log of material when my agent asks, “what else have you got?”  This is an incredibly tough, rigid business and, as I’ve been repeatedly and earnestly warned, it is not for the weak.   Times like these, writers must simply remind themselves that all the great writers have taken some pretty tough punches to  the gut in this business.  Laurell K. Hamilton was told she didn’t fit into a genre tightly enough to ever be published.  “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, by Robert M. Pirsig was rejected one hundred and sixteen times before it caught the right person’s eye… and poor Stephen King was rejected several times a month for almost fifteen years before he published “Carrie.”  So you can’t quit because someone says you’re not good enough.  This is simply that part of the process which separates the hobbyists from the lifers and, on the bright side, weeds out your competition. 

     I am lucky.  I have a vast network of supporters; people who have read my work and love my work.  These people keep me in perspective and remind me of the realities of this world that I, for some masochistic reason, insist so vehemently on one day penetrating.  So, I will let myself feel this.  I will feel bad for myself for an hour or two and then I will sit down and keep working on the next story while The White Room makes it rounds among the agents I have sent it to and the agents I will continue to send it to. The truth is, I believe in The White Room- as it is right now.  If I need to make some changes later on in order to find it a home, I will, but for now… I still believe in it and will continue believing in it until the time comes that I no longer can.  But… in the meantime, I have about a hundred more books to write…  so that’s what I’ll be doing.


   

     Earlier today, I had an unusual and rather in-depth conversation with a good friend of mine about sex.  We talked about everything from the obvious basics to the more sophisticated habits, rituals and desires of our fellow men and women, musing over the roots of their various tastes and beliefs.  Many hours later, I again wound up engaged in yet another sex-based discussion with a different friend entirely.  This talk centered more around sexual orientation rather than the act itself, but still, today’s sexual theme was not lost on me, and it made me wonder at the sudden prominence of the subject of sex.  After all, despite what it may sound like right now, I don’t usually sit around and discuss the various forms of human intimacy with everyone I know.   I don’t even know what inspired the topic in either case, but it got me thinking of how dominant of a force sex really is in our lives, and how important it is in writing.

     For all the years I’ve been writing, sex has never been one of my subjects until recently (except a little erotic poetry, of course).  I wasn’t avoiding the topic really, it’s just that until I began the book I’m working on now, there was never a place for sex.  I’ve been pretty diligent about incorporating all the other factors that make characters feel more human, such as bathing, brushing their teeth, changing their clothes and getting an occassional night’s sleep, but it never occurred to me that perhaps fictional people like having sex, too.  Until now.

     In the book I’m currently working on, it’s as if all the sex-starved characters of fiction’s past are exacting their revenge on me.  In this story, I don’t think a chapter has gone by that someone wasn’t getting skins, knocking boots, doing the horizontal hokey pokey, or at least getting well felt up.  The particularly challenging thing is, in this book, no one is having conventional sex.  The main character is a perverse, sexually deviant murderer, so most of the time, the sex isn’t even consensual, making this especially foreign territory for me.  But I’m learning.

     One thing I’ve determined about fictional sex is that it follows the same basic rules of fictional anything.  In the world of fiction, everything seems to be slightly dramatized. When fictional characters are rich, for example, they are filthy rich.  If they’re depressed, then they’re really tormented… and if they have sex, they have a lot of sex, and if it’s good sex, then it’s got to be mind-bogglingly great sex.  The key, of course, is striking a balance that is believable but also engaging.  If you don’t amp up the intensity of the characters lives and emotions, then you’ve got a story as dull and lifeless as, well… real life, and why would anyone want to read a book about someone whose life is as drab as their own?  But, on the other hand, if you aggrandize your character’s experiences too much, it becomes melodramatic and ultimately alienates the reader.  Regarding sex, striking this balance is an especially challenging feat for me.

     There are other problems also.  I’m finding that writing about sex (especially sex of the deviant variety) is a multi-faceted and precarious thing in that, on one hand, there’s the fear of repulsing and offending your reader, and on the other hand, setting out to do just that. After all, don’t I kind of want to repulse and offend the reader?  And if so, to what degree? 

     Also, there is description.  Just how much detail do we need?  Do we need to know how bad Martha wants it (or in my case, doesn’t want it), and is it important to mention the exact bodily and psychological responses of each character in this situation? 

     Finally, there is word choice.  This one is especially tricky because there are times that the clinical terms for certain acts (or parts of the anatomy) just don’t properly illustrate the mood you’re trying to create.  Which brings us back to the first problem: am I offending the reader? 

     It’s a cyclical and potentially stressful dilemma, writing about sex.  And add to this your mother’s voice (real or imagined) – disapproving and stunned by your foulness – to the mix, and you’ve got a pretty toxic cocktail of troublesome puzzles to contend with.

     For me, the key to overcoming the stumbling block that is sex can be found in two words:  just write.  I can’t stop and think about what the agent, the mother, the sister, the priest, or the produce manager at Wal-Mart is going to think of my book.  If I do that, then I’ll be writing to please other people.  And if I do that… then I’ve lost all integrity and should look into getting a new, tamer passion than writing.  No matter what you do, some people will love you and some people will hate you.  The way I see it, I’d garner just as much criticism if I wrote stories about butterflies and dandelions… so I might as well write what feels true to me, because in the end, my own truth is all I have… and honoring that is the only way I know how to sleep with a clear (well… somewhat dirty) conscience.