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Posts Tagged ‘learning’

Yes, I have now had the equivalent of a college education in blogging. I am taking a moment to bask in my sense of accomplishment.

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Basking achieved!

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I’ve been spending more time than usual over the past few months thinking about the future of this blog. Should I continue to post like clockwork two days a week? Should I experiment with length? With topics? With styles? What about Tumblr? Should I even continue to write the blog at all?

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My very first post on this blog was “Originality: Having Something to Say.” I spent some time last week muttering to myself: “What do I have to say? WHAT DO I HAVE TO SAY?” (Okay, that last wasn’t so much a mutter as an emphatic question.)

I think it’s important to periodically reflect on that question, as a blogger and also as an artist. Even if the answer is sometimes, “I have no idea.”

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I have heard the observation that blogging is inherently narcissistic, I suppose because it requires the belief that what you have to say matters. I’d argue that if you don’t value what you yourself have to say, it is perhaps not about narcissism as much as it is about a lack of self-esteem or self-confidence.

That is not to say blogging is for everyone. It really isn’t. Perhaps you don’t have a lot to say, and that’s fine. Perhaps you don’t want to post what you have to say publicly, and that’s fine. Perhaps you’d rather say what you have to say through fiction, or through visual art, or through film-making, or through Toastmasters, or through running for local office. Perhaps you want to keep your thoughts for yourself and yourself alone.

All fine, and none of it is automatically narcissistic. Since when did having something to say become equated with narcissism? Are we all just supposed to sit around in a state of complete apathy?

No, thanks.

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In a recent post, Penelope Trunk wrote: “Because he’s a good blogger, Noa blogs as he learns….” And a lightbulb lit up for me.

Because this is what I strive to do. I blog as I learn. That’s why I never run out of things to say: because I am always learning, and I’m always thinking about what I’m learning. Sometimes you, my readers, help me along the way with your insights and experiences. And then I get to learn even more.

Thank you for taking this journey with me, dear readers. I don’t know exactly what form this blog will take in the future, but I can’t wait to find out what we’re going to learn in year 5.

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On Mentors

I spent time with a writer friend the other day who said, in a wistful tone of voice, that she’d like a mentor. “But how do you even get one?” she asked.

This isn’t the first time I’ve heard this lament from a writer, and for a while, I thought getting a mentor sounded pretty amazing. It’s so easy to Hollywood-ize the idea into an inspiring training montage with said mentor, at the end of which, you (pick your poison) write the best book ever! Land a top agent! Get a six-figure publishing contract! Become well-known throughout the land as an amazing plotter/world builder/ace of characterization/wordsmith!

But moving from the realms of fantasy into reality, the first thing that strikes me is that in most fields, mentors expect to be paid. If you’re part of corporate culture, then maybe a higher-up will take you under their wing, but they get paid a salary to do their best work for the company, and one of the things they’re getting paid to do (perhaps not explicitly, but still) is to help fellow employees on lower rungs of the ladder.

In other environments, payment is still the name of the game. For example, I wrote about the differences between developing writers and developing musicians, and one of those differences is that most musicians have mentors helping them along; namely, their teachers. But musicians are giving their teachers money for lessons. The same is true for dance classes, art classes, and martial arts classes. Even Buddhist teachers are typically offered dana (donations) for their time instructing people in spiritual matters. And typically once you stop paying for services, your mentors have less time to help you because most of their time is being given to the people who are helping them pay their bills.

Another issue is that of connection. Not every mentor is right for every person (and this is true whether we’re talking about writing or music or martial arts or any other discipline). I had a well-respected writer read my work a few years back. She has a reputation for taking newer writers under her wing and helping them out, but she didn’t connect with my work, so she didn’t do that for me. This is a good thing. She wouldn’t have been able to help me the way I needed to be helped. She’s helped others of my friends with whom she was a better fit, and I’m really happy for them. But I needed to learn from other people.

Photo by Jose Tellez

At this point I’m not actively seeking a mentor because I feel like I already have several, and I’m finding more all the time. They’re not mentors in the fantasy montage sense of the word, but they help me learn and grow and become a better writer (and isn’t that the point?) I have one friend who I rarely speak to, but whenever I do he inevitably tells me exactly what I need to hear career-wise. I have my plot whisperer, my structure maven, and my YA crew. I have Nancy Kress’s voice in my head reminding me to write in scenes. I have several books on writing that keep me pushing my boundaries. I have a friend who made me think more deeply about first person. I have my blogging writer models. And I have all the writers of all the novels I have ever read.

We find mentors and teachers all the time. They may not fit our preconceptions of who those people should be, how they should act, or what they should look like. But sometimes we just have to pay enough attention to notice that they’re there.

Or else, you know, pay someone money. That works too.

But even then, having a mentor is not a magic bullet, nor a replacement for time, effort, practice, and hard work. They can give you a helpful hand along the way, but what happens from there is up to you.

What has been your experience? Who are your mentors, and how did you find them?

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It’s been a little over a year since I wrote my first Sit at the Table essay, although it feels like exactly a year since it was published the Thursday before FogCon, and guess what today is.

Last week I received word that I sold my story “Man on the Moon Day” to Daily Science Fiction, which was the same market to buy my first story a year ago. First off, hooray! I am really excited for this story to reach the reading public. The timing of the sale also made me realize that in about a year’s time, I’ve gone from having no sales of any kind to making six sales, four of which have paid professional rates. So this is me, taking a moment to pause and tell myself, “Not bad, Amy. Not bad at all.”

All of this has reminded me of sitting at the table, a surprisingly tenacious idea for me to still be contemplating a year later. It’s a powerful idea as well. It’s easy to lose sight of it given the undeniable role that random chance plays in events; so much is out of our control, it can be hard to focus on the parts that we can do something about. But that’s what sitting at the table is all about: being present to take advantage of opportunities as they arise.

Photo by Ben Raynal

Here are some of the things I’ve been doing to sit at the table this last year:

1. Submitting, submitting, submitting. If I don’t submit, there is absolutely ZERO chance of a sale. This is not to say I haven’t taken mental health breaks in my submitting process, because I totally have. But once I’ve enjoyed my breather, I’ve gotten back on that horse and submitted some more.

2. Behaving like a professional. And part of being a professional is believing in our work and our right to sit at the table in the first place. This doesn’t mean blowing up our achievements to encompass more than they do or refusing to accept needed criticism and editorial input. What it does mean is cultivating an inherent feeling that we belong, that we are writers, and acting that way.

3. Picking and choosing the industry-related events I attend, and being there 100%. Happily for me, I adore meeting people in my industry. But I’d be lying if I told you I don’t have moments alone in my hotel room when I feel like there’s no way I can navigate the social scene. I’ve learned to expect those moments, and I leave the room anyway. I feel so grateful to be at these events, I can’t justify giving less than 100%. This pays off in dividends, by the way. I’ve also learned I can’t do All The Things. I can only attend as many events as I have 100% energy to give out.

4. Creating space to write. If I don’t take my writing time seriously, no one else will either. So I’m being much firmer about defending this time. I’ve taken the myth by the horns that because I don’t have a typical job, that means I have loads of free time. Sadly, this is simply not true, and writing time has to come near the top of my list of priorities.

5. Continuous striving for improvement. And with it, embracing its inherent risk. I’m writing by far the most challenging novel I’ve ever written. This January I participated in a flash fiction contest, even though I knew nothing about flash fiction and honestly, my first two attempts were embarrassing. My third attempt sold to the first market to which I sent it. The last short story I wrote, I had specific writing issues of mine in mind that I tried my best to address and practice on. I picked up a few more writing books that I hope to work through in upcoming months. I am always trying to get better, and the more I learn, the more I realize I still have to learn. While this can at times be discouraging, it’s also an amazing realization: there will always be more to learn. And therefore, I can remain fresh and excited and hopefully avoid the enemy: Boredom.

Of course, there are ways in which I’ve failed to sit at the table as well. As in my writing skills, there is (and probably always will be) room for improvement.

How have you sat at the table in the past year? How would you like to sit at the table in the future?


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I read a lot of blogs. Some I read regularly, some I occasionally swoop down upon and catch up in a big glut of reading, some I read only once. Many of these blogs are writer blogs, and I’ve seen more than one post about Writer Envy.

What is Writer Envy? It’s that niggling feeling in the pit of your stomach when you hear that Jay Lake averages 2,500 words per hour. It’s the pang you feel when you hear someone’s broken into a market that you’ve been dying to get into. It’s the discouragement of feeling that maybe you’re being left behind as one by one, all your writer friends get agents and publishing deals and more and better sales than you think you are getting.

Does anyone know why we call it green with envy?

Well, guess what? I’m giving you permission to be jealous, whether with Writer Envy or because of your friend’s superior cooking or for any other reason. To envy is to be human. And, it turns out, it can even be good for you. Psychology Today recently ran an article citing a recent study about envy. The results are fascinating: it turns out that feeling the emotion of envy both causes us to focus more on the object of our jealousy and boosts our memories. Basically, jealousy allows us to more efficiently learn and remember how to achieve what we’re jealous of.

Therefore, instead of beating ourselves up when we feel it, we can begin to think of envy as a tool. We can use it to make ourselves better writers (or cooks, or car washers, or underwater basket weavers). We can harness that energy to motivate ourselves instead of to discourage.

Example: Let’s say my friend Beth makes a sale to Greatest Ever Magazine, which is the market that I most want to break into. I can wallow and feel terrible about myself because Greatest Ever Magazine still sends me form rejections. Or, I can use my desires and feeling of jealousy to motivate me. I can read Beth’s story and analyze why I think Greatest Ever Magazine liked it. Perhaps the subject matter is perfect for the market, or perhaps the market prefers upbeat endings like Beth’s. I can figure out the strengths of the story, and then compare it to my own recent work. Perhaps Beth’s story shows excellent use of setting, whereas I have too many under-described, white rooms in my recent work. Or perhaps Beth’s story has a twisty and exciting plot that drives it, while my recent stories have all been character-driven. I can learn from my friend Beth’s success where the weaknesses in my own work are and how I might get started on improving them. Beth might even be willing to share her own insights on Greatest Ever Magazine. Meanwhile, because I am jealous, I’ll be more likely to focus and remember what I’ve figured out.

(This can also work, by the way, with embarrassment. I was so embarrassed that I forgot the names of the two rivers of Mesopotamia in seventh grade social studies that I will probably remember that they are the Tigris and Euphrates for the rest of time.)

Of course, experiencing jealousy doesn’t mean we can’t also feel happy and pleased for a person who has succeeded. And it certainly doesn’t excuse any bad behavior on our parts. However, knowing that our brains are designed to feel jealousy on purpose to give us a better chance of survival can change our outlook. Instead of seeing jealousy as an embarrassing weakness, we can see it as another way to move forward towards our goals.

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Many of you will remember my first backbone post in which I gave my own take on how critiques can go wrong. Now, I think that critiques can sometimes be an extremely helpful tool for writers, so I’d like to talk about my ideal critique. Before I begin, though, I’d like to emphasize that all writers are different. Thus, my idea of an ideal critique and your idea of an ideal critique may in fact be radically different. I’m not saying that my ideas are the only right ideas. There are several different styles of learning, so it follows that there are probably several helpful ways of critiquing. The trick is to figure out which one works for you. If what works for you is ignoring everything I’m about to say, more power to you!

For me, critiques are all about learning. When I’m receiving a critique, I’m doing so in order to learn more about writing and to improve my writing abilities. While it is lovely when critiques end up making my story stronger, that is not my primary motivation for seeking critiques. Instead, my goal is to continue to improve by gaining insight into what works and what doesn’t work. When I’m giving a critique, I’m doing the same thing: trying to teach the writer in question by pointing out what worked and didn’t work for me as a reader.

One thing I am not trying to learn from critiques is how to deal with rejection. I understand that others feel differently, but honestly, I get plenty of practice dealing with rejection by…getting rejected. There is no shortage of editors and agents happy to help me out in this regard, except with them, there is always at least the chance that they will instead decide to help advance my career and/or give me monies! Another thing I’m not looking for in critiques is warm and fuzzy validation that everything I write is awesome. If everything I wrote was awesome, I’d be getting warm and fuzzy validation from my fans, who would be–guess what!–paying monies to read my work. Yes, I know, again with the monies. Notice a trend?

I look at critique as a learning process between colleagues; therefore, my main focus is on how I can help the other writer, and this focus informs my delivery. My husband tells me that people get promoted into higher tiers of management partially because of their ability to deliver bad news. Delivering bad news well is hard! And yet this is, I believe, an essential skill in giving a good critique because almost every critique is going to include the bad news that our work isn’t perfect (and it might even be hanging together precariously with paper clips and duct tape).

Here are some guiding principles that I try to think about as I critique:

1. Mention the positives as well as the negatives. It is so tempting not to do this, and instead just focus on what’s broken. Sometimes, honestly, it’s hard to even think of any positives. But not only does this leave the writer more receptive to thinking about any criticism, it also shows the writer what she’s doing right, what she shouldn’t mess with, and what her strengths are (that she can showcase and allow to shine in future work).
2. Discuss what doesn’t work in a matter-of-fact and positive manner. Example A: “I can’t believe you used all those adverbs. There were just adverbs adverbs adverbs flying all over the place. Get rid of those goddamned adverbs, okay? It was just so bad how you used all those adverbs.” Example B: “I noticed you used a lot of adverbs. I’d suggest going back through and deciding which of them you actually need.” Example A makes people feel bad and stupid and discourages experimentation. But if you’re not experimenting as a writer and taking risks, how are you ever going to get better? (Note I am not actually advocating vast amounts of experimentation with adverbs in particular.) Example B or something similar is what I prefer.
3. State your points in a clear and concise manner. So often I hear people speak at length about one point of criticism that they could have easily expressed in a few sentences. In a verbal critique, using loads of examples to make your point is not required. Instead, mark them on the hard copy of the manuscript or in track changes, and summarize when you’re speaking. The writer can always ask questions later if something is not clear.
4. Use ditto freely. Another thing I hear a lot is several critiquers waxing long about the same point, one after the other. There is no need to do this. Instead, just say, “I ditto Katherine that the beginning seemed slow” and move on. My Taos crew were experts at doing just this, and it was amazing how much it sped critiques along…as did the two-minute time limit per person.
5. Decide what key points you wish to make verbally ahead of time. Prepare for the critique as you would for a lesson. (Can you see my teacher background here?) Consider typing up a summary sheet of your critique that you can give to the writer afterwards. I know a few writers who are masterful at doing this, and I always look forward to receiving critiques from them.
6. Help the writer by talking about their story, not yours. We all have the types of stories we like to read, and the types of stories we like to write. These types might not be the same for other writers! (I know, it’s shocking, but there it is.) Give feedback and suggestions while keeping in touch with the story you think the writer was trying to tell instead of figuring out what story you would be telling. The second rarely provides a useful learning experience since it mostly just reflects your own personal taste.
7. Critique with an eye towards making clear the promise and/or vision of the story. Benjamin Rosenbaum said something very intelligent in the comments of my critique backbone post. “I think detailed, specific positive critiques — not just cheerleading, but analysis of what worked — are actually more useful than negative ones which focus on what’s not working. Both are useful, but in the end you want to revise towards a vision, not away from problems. Doing the latter will result in a dead story — all rough corners smoothed away, with what’s left being something no one would object to, but no one is excited about either.” What he said. If we as critiquers can help the writer hone his vision, then we’ll leave him excited, both to potentially revise this story and to write in general.
8. Be encouraging. There is no reason for a writer to leave a critique feeling like a swollen and bloody rat. Honestly, I don’t care how bad the piece might have been. If a writer is regularly working and improving, there is something to be encouraging about, whatever the flaws. I’m not saying to lie and say this was the best story you’ve ever read, but a few kind words acknowledging that the writer has worked hard can go a long way. No, editors and agents won’t usually give these words. That’s why it’s even more important that they be given by supportive colleagues.

Of course, this list covers my ideal critique. In practice, I often fall short in execution, but it is what I strive for. I have been lucky enough to receive many fine critiques that have taught me both how to be a better writer and how to critique with an eye towards helping a writer learn instead of tearing them down.

What is your ideal critique? What are your guiding principles when you’re preparing a critique? What about giving a critique do you find the most difficult? Let me know!

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