Stuff I know 3: Strangers will tell you when you suck. That is good.

stuff I knowIf you’d like to push some fiction onto the world, you’d do well to let someone who isn’t you – preferably someone who doesn’t even know you – read your draft. Yeah, draft. You’ve revised and revised. You’re sure it’s the most shiny and amazing it could be. You are probably wrong. I’ve been there, I’ve done it. I’ve seen things published, in print, with my name on them, and with errors, both typographical and… craftigraphical? I dunno if there’s a word for it, but basically you know it’s not technically bad, but the writing is crappy. There’s something about reading your work in a published, cannot-be-fixed format that makes errors just JUMP off the page at you. Doesn’t feel good. It’s embarassing.

So get someone to edit your stuff.

This should probably NOT be friends or family. They know you. They like you. They care about your feelings. That’s not what you need right now.

Caveat: I don’t mean to say that it is impossible for friends and family to be good critics. Heck, my Mom doesn’t pull any punches. I just mean that you have to be careful giving or taking criticism from people who are already emotionally invested in you. You have to be able to keep the cold, harsh, professional relationship of author/critic from overlapping with the warm, gooey, complicated nougat of bing besties. And vice versa. If you and your BFF can do that, then more power to you. Probably means that your relationship is healthy, indeed.

One trouble with writing is that you’re trying to be telepathic. You’ve got a thing in your head, and you’re trying to put that thing in other people’s heads. Words are a damn ineffecient medium for that kind of activity. You lose all control over the thing in your head the moment you try to turn it into words. And then someone else is going to pick up those words (not the image in your head. Just your words) And translate them into an image in their heads. Veracity? Forget about it. You’re lucky if they identify the protagonist correctly. Language is like that – a half-dead deformed miracle of mutuaally-accepted arbitrary convention. (Side point – you have to get comfy with this. Relenquish control. Don’t try too hard to force the reader’s brain to do something. Get the story out with the minimum words possible, and be willing to let the readers build the details themselves. REad anything I’ve published and you’ll see how bad I suck at this. Relenquishing control is hard.)

Another trouble with writing is that you, the author, cannot achieve true distance fro your work. Every time you read your words, you’ll fit them back to the original picture in your head, and feel convinced that your words are doing the trick. But they’re not. Of course you’re getting the right picture in your head – the brain-picture (idea) came first! You can’t get it out of your head without some very irreversible surgery. Do not try this at home, or at all! Some people are better than others at getting distance between themselvesand their stories. Some people find that time away or working on other projects gives them some objective distance from a draft, but everyone has blindspots.

That’s where writers, normally solitay troglodytes, need to reach out to other people. (Cue the song: “I get byyyyyy witha  little help… from my friends!” Awww, feels so warm and fuzzy!)

Find, join, or create a community of people who will read your drafts and claw them apart with wild abandon (and let you do the same with theirs). It is hard to hear someone trash-talk your baby, but grow a professional thick skin. Shut up and listen, and say thank you. If you feel like this critiquer, this… this… this mouth-breathing stranger just doesn’t get your story, well, there’s a sign for you. A critiquer represents the broader audience, those whom you are probably hoping to convince to pay money for your story. If they don’t “get it,” then you, writer, did something wrong. Eat your pride and, if you’re lucky, the critiquer will point you in the right direction. Don’t join a writing group because you want people to tell you just how neat and dandy your story is. That’s what your mommy is for. Buy her a new magnet and she’ll stick it on the fridge. Join a writing group to cut all the crap out of your story and find the bad spots you can’t see. Pick your metaphor; crucible, metalworking, gemcraft, darwinism, gladiatorial arena. However you want to dress it up, it’s not a pretty process. But it’s worth it.

There are tons of writing groups out there, in your real-life community, and online. If you can’t find one, then make it. I’ve found my home at Critters. Critters has a great setup – you have to give crits before you recieve. There is structure to the interaction, but it’s not too rigid (writers aren’t so good with being dependable). They give all the help in developing a good professional demeanor, and delivering good criticism. And then they don’t hsitate to yank you back if you turn out to be a whiny, mean-hearted screaming flamer. If you’re in need of some feedback on your work, check them out. Join in. Or prowl the web –  there are plenty of thriving communities online. Or go old-fashioned, and take a class at your community rec center or college. However you find your group, don’t make the mistake of thinking your story is good to go without having at least a couple of people look at it.

Damn, that’sa long “Stuff I Know.” I’ll try to be better next time.

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