Tag Archives: Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers

TAKING CRITICISM

By Kevin Paul Tracy

Some of the most respected classical writers throughout history did literary criticism as either a sideline or as a career before they sold their own novels. From Edgar Allen Poe to Oscar Wilde, then great writers would often decimate their peers in papers and writing journals, eviscerating them in public treatments. Today, when two or more people get into heated, venom-laden, often imaginative insult wars in emails loops or chat rooms, we refer to it as a "flame war," but this sort of thing is not new to the journalistic world. Often quite famous writers would go back and forth in periodicals, attacking and counter-attacking each other's works in the most colorful and often personal ways. The public loved it, so it sold a lot of papers, so the editors loved it. Back then, there was a certain poetry to the insults exchanged. Poe once wrote of Ralph Waldo Emerson that he "...belongs to a class of gentlemen with whom we have no patience whatever — the mystics for mysticism’s sake." Because profanity was much more taboo than it is now, writers had to really challenge themselves to come up with original and imaginative ways to dress each other down that would both make their point and entertain the reader at the same time.

One could make a very convincing point about the lack of efficacy of such frontal assaults, popular as they were to the readers. It stands to reason than our best efforts in any endeavor are going to become intimately intertwined with our ego and self-esteem. This is our attempt to accomplish something intended for public consumption. We are expending effort and strain in its creation, and we want to do it correctly and in good form. We want others to not only read, but to enjoy it. No one sets out to fail, not on purpose. The man who does not care about whether others appreciate his attempts to create is a man better off dead - he is not truly contributing anything to the human condition, but stroking his own ego, little more than public masturbation. We are better off without him. Frankly I submit such men do not exist, or if they do, they are too rare to care about. So understandably we are going to feel attacked on a personal level whenever something we have created is attacked, and when that happens, any truth or lessons to learn from the criticism, however deeply buried under hyperbole and colorful language, is bound to be lost on us. We don't learn much from such criticism.

On the other hand, couching criticism in too much pillowy language to soften the blow often risks obscuring the points one wishes to make, or to blunt their importance so much that a very critical point may be ignored as less important. Saying, for example, "I love your writing. Just one small thing, for what it's worth, when you have a one-page character like the patrolman, who is very colorfully written by the way, discover the blood on the baseboard, no offense but you are not utilizing your protagonist, my favortie character in your book, in the most proactive manner," the point is so well couched in diplomatic rhetoric it could be lost. Ego and self-esteem of the writer aside, the best way to make a point is still the most direct, pointed, even blunt way: "You waste an opportunity to show your protagonist's sleuthing genius by having a minor cut-out character find crucial clues instead. And you do it repeatedly through the book." There can be no mistaking the point being made, and also the importance the critic places on that point.

Crying at The ComputerIn receiving a critique, I prefer the blunt approach to being coddled and swaddled and fed treacle. And still, other writers can get their hackles up and throw a glass of wine in your face for saying it.

There are those whose opinion, no matter how qualified, we as individuals do not respect, for whatever reason. I submit that the level of umbrage we take from a criticism increases exponentially in reverse proportion to the amount of respect we bear the critic: the less we esteem his opinion the greater offense we take at it. For this I'm afraid there is no remedy. As writers, we must merely bite the bullet and take it.

I further submit that to engage a critic on any level is folly. It doesn't matter that you can explain away his point, that you have a greater knowledge of writing craft than he, or that you are right and he is wrong. Engaging him can only make you look bad on a multitude of levels. One, you come off as insecure about your own writing. No matter how well reasoned or skillfully worded your retort, any retort at all smacks of defensiveness and lack of confidence, like you feel you have something to defend. Second, you can come off as petty, especially if anything you say can be interpreted as a personal attack on the critic. Reacting to a critique can sound like you are only reacting to the critique, and any personal opinions you express about the critic were only formed as a result of his critique, not based on any other independent knowledge or observation. Thirdly, you can appear quite arrogant in a retort, as if you consider yourself above any criticism at all, and not just this one critic or critique.

A lot of criticism, especially on the Internet, isn't worthy of response. It is in vogue these days on the Internet to launch attacks on someone who has put themselves forth in the public eye if only because it is so easy to do so. Fifty Shades of Grey author E. L. James recently underwent just such an ordeal, setting aside time to answer questions from fans on Twitter, only to be attacked by a collection of online thugs who found it funnier to lance and humiliate her publicly than to permit any serious dialog about her books. The only way to protect oneself from such a basting is to maintain some control over those permitted to participate - charge a nominal fee or issue invitations to the event without which one cannot participate. At any rate, the kinds of flaming criticisms to which she was submitted has been quite aptly described by many as appalling and uncalled for. These sorts of attacks aren't even worth a response, they are just ignorant and mean-spirited.

The only effective response to criticism is no response at all. Utter and complete radio science. It can be very difficult, but as I've already said, there is no way to indulge in the alternative with any sort of success at all. It is simply professional suicide to try.

There is a mind set to taking criticism gracefully, and while it isn't easily adopted, with practice it can make hearing harsh criticism much less sharp and damaging to our ego. First, always remind yourself that this person, whatever else they may be, is a reader, just like every other reader out there in the world that you wish to reach. In the end, his reaction is the reaction of a reader, which means out of the millions who potentially might read your book (and let's face it, none of us dream of a small audience) there are those out there who will have the same reactions, thoughts, and objections as him/her. You must decide whether you believe that number to be great or small, but in the end you are not going to be there, reading over their shoulders, ready to defend yourself against their reaction to your novel. So to the degree that they are honest, his criticisms are valid, not matter how they are worded, merely due to the fact that he is first and foremost a reader, your audience.

Second, if the critic is a colleague or fellow writer, be grateful that this particular reader, the critic, has himself writing chops, the skills himself to recognize flaws in prose and story craft, and the language to describe it in such a way that makes it very clear to you where you have gone wrong. Thirdly, especially if the criticism is badly worded, or deliberately worded to be insulting or to get a rise out of you, keep in mind that such personal attacks say much more about the person leveling them than they do the person at whom they are leveled. In such a case, leaving such caustic criticism unanswered tends to bring out in even greater relief and clarity the pettiness and arrogance with which the criticism was written/given.

And lastly, always remember that no matter the criticism, in the end you choose to accept it or not. If the project is still in development, you still get to decide whether to take the criticism and make the requisite changes to your work or to ignore it and leave it as it is. If already published, then you are limited as to what you can do anyway, and so it accomplishes nothing to take such things to heart. Even as you take the criticism of those whom you respect and admire, retain your faith in your own talent and skill. In the end it is your project, ultimately your offering to the world, and it must feel right to you, or you are not being true to yourself.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog

TURNING OUR NOSE UP AT THE INDULGENT

By Kevin Paul Tracy

The other day I stumbled across, of all random things things, the old Punk Rock hit, "Turning Japanese." ("I think I'm turning Japanese. I think I'm turning Japanese. I really think so!") Before I knew it I was laughing and doing a silly dance there at my desk. It had been ages since I'd heard the thoroughly ridiculous, utterly indulgent song, and I'd forgotten what a catchy beat, toe-tickling melody, and nonsense lyrics it brought to the ear. I found myself completely delighted, my spirits lifted for no other reason than this empty-headed little song. And, as most things do, it got me thinking.

There is a certain snobbery in certain industries, most notably the arts, that summarily dismisses and in almost all cases delights in tearing down and lambasting the simple, the silly, the indulgent. "Turning Japanese" was roundly dismissed as inconsequential and in some cases even detrimental to the library of American music, and yet someone listened to it, enough people to make it, if not a number one hit, then at least a top 40 gem. There was something about it, silly and inconsequential as it might be, that pleased people. They enjoyed listening to it.

I stopped watching the HBO TV series "Game of Thrones" after the so-called "Red Wedding" episode, but only partially because I was disappointed as a viewer. While doing research online I came across several credible quotes by the author of the show who freely admitted he killed off his heroes in ignoble ways to shock and alarm readers/viewers. He didn't want them to rely on the heroes to save the day, didn't want fans to relax in the idea that the hero would eventually prevail, that good would eventually defeat evil. Perhaps that is fine for him and for the thousands who still read his books and watch his television program. But it seems to me a cynical focal point around which to pivot a plot. I write because I have a story to tell. I write the story that wants telling. I don't indulge some disgruntled agenda to manipulate an audience or to make a rhetorical point.

There is an on-gong debate I've been following online in British literary circles where the underlying operating assumption is that any book with a happy ending is immediately dismissed as unimportant, puerile, indulgent and of no consequence. Never mind the quality writing that may fill the pages leading up to it, if it ends with the good guys winning then it is summarily dismissed. Forgive me, but such a sweeping displacement strikes me as every bit as shallow as the books themselves supposedly are. Am I wrong? To me, I love reading well written prose. How the story ends is almost immaterial to me, if the intervening story and the skill with which it was written was a joy to experience. Almost, because an arbitrary or manipulative ending can spoil a good tale.

We are all entitled to write what we wish, and if you find an audience, well good God of course more power to you. But I think it wrong to try to shame others for indulging in certain literary palate cleansers such as Louie L'Amour's westerns, Ian Fleming's James Bond series, or even Charles Dickens entirely operatic but delightful fiction. There is a reason television shows like Little House on The Prairie, The Gilmore Girls, and today's Castle run for so many years. No one mistakes them for real life. But there is something simple, silly and pleasing about them to a great many audiences.

While I, myself, prefer a happy ending, I don't dismiss a book that doesn't have one. In point of fact I think Stephen King is an American treasure, probably one of the best writers I've ever read, and I don't recall a single one of his books that ended on a totally positive note. So while I prefer one, I can appreciate all. I would never dismiss the hard work of any writer on so slight and arbitrary a criteria as that. I take in the entire work as a whole and take it as it is offered by the storyteller, and judge it on that basis alone.

Something many of you have heard me say many times, and I think it is entirely true: Whether your story has a happy ending or not depends entirely upon where you choose to end your story.


Don't miss Kevin’s latest releases: the startling and engrossing series of gothic thrillers featuring vampire private detective Kathryn Desmarias, including Bloodflow, and Bloodtrail, the bestselling sequel to Bloodflow; also the wonderfully entertaining espionage thriller, Rogue Agenda.

Follow Kevin at:
Kevin's Amazon Kevin's Blog

No Need to Bleed: Painless Ways to Breach the Blank Page

By Lori DeBoer

“It is easy to write. Just sit in front of your typewriter and bleed.”

Ernest Hemingway likely wasn’t recommending that one literally open a vein. I think.  Besides being dark and witty, this quote keeps coming back in different forms, attributed to disparate authors, because for most of us wordsmiths, it speaks a truth.

I’d rarely had to search for that vein in my 20 years as a journalist, because the fear my editors inspired made me able to compose leads in my head during the drive home from an interview or an event.  By the time I hit my computer, I already had a few full paragraphs ready to tumble to the page.

That was until I sat down to write my first piece of fiction. I pulled up a blank page and blanked. It was sheer, imposing and seemed to offer no toeholds.

I breached that blank page, with a bit of determination and a fair amount of bloodshed. Since blood, metaphorical or not, makes me faint, I’ve developed some easier ways to get into story, ones that don’t require stocking up on iron supplements.

Here goes:

Write nonsense--Type any old thing until your brain stops its bitching and gets engaged in the story.  You may have to write nonsense for a few pages, but keep going.  If you fail to gain some traction midway through your allotted daily word count or writing time, then shift to revising, research or sending stuff out.

Write a shitty first draft--I wish this were my advice, but it’s Anne Lamott’s.  If you aspire to write, you must read her book, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. She talks openly about her own fits and starts and has this to say:  “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

Give it your worst shot--I teach for a living and found that my students not only loved examples of crappy writing, but they learned from trying to improve them. Since I am a do-it-yourself kinda gal, I rose to the challenge of writing some of the crappiest crap around for my advanced writing classes. There wasn’t a cliché I didn’t borrow, a run-on sentence I didn’t elongate to a ridiculous end. Writing crap turned out to be fun and liberating.  Often, crap turns into keepers. For inspiration (and a spot for your own terrible writing), please visit the website for the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction contest, organized by the English Department at San Jose State University, which invites entrants  to write the worst opening sentence to the worst possible novels.  (www.bulwer-lytton.com)

Pen a gossipy letter--This strategy confuses your internal critic because it doesn’t know whether to bark, bite or wag its tale. That’s because writing a letter--dripping with juicy details that only someone in the know would know—is rather a quaint endeavor, don’t you think?  In that letter, which you may or may not send, indulge in the latest scandal about your characters.  What is up with your main character’s latest choice in lovers?  What is your antagonist hiding, anyway?  You love to dish.  Indulge.

Borrow a line--Your English teacher would call this plagiarizing, but I prefer to think of it as priming your pump.  Just remember to delete this line from your story at some point during the revision process.   For bonus points, don’t pick a line you love; pick one at random. For extra bonus points, jump genres.  Caveat:  don’t spend all day picking out a line, please. If procrastinating’s your game, go scrub your tub.

Cut to the exciting part--Instead of walking in circles, trying to figure out where you are supposed to start story, try fast  forwarding to the exciting part.  Chances are, that’s your real beginning, anyway.

Prompt yourself--If you find yourself staring down a blank page, having someone tell you what to do can help.  Lucky for you, there are a kazillion tried-and-true writing prompts.

Throw in some mystery--If the main point of view character encounters some sort of mystery to puzzle over or an intriguing problem to solve, chances are your fuzzy little writing brain will start puzzling over it, too.  You’ll find yourself several pages in just because you want to figure out what’s going on

Come out swinging--You don’t need to have your characters taking physical punches at each other like mad monkey ninjas, unless that sort of scene suits your genre. Simply starting a story with two characters at odds with each other will send a thrill up your storyline and have you coming back for more.

Picture it--Break up a blank page by slapping some pictures on that sucker and you’ll be closer to starting your story.  Many writers take this to extreme, creating whole Pinterest boards with photos of their story’s characters, settings, costumes and the ilk.  If you do this, I not only approve, but am a teensy bit jealous.

Start with the ending--I like writing the ending of a story before I start the beginning because I can trick myself into feeling like the heavy lifting is done.  Plus, I have a better chance of starting a story if I know where it’s going to end up, just like I have a better chance of having a successful road trip if I know if I am driving to Santa Fe or San Francisco

Well, that’s a sampling from my bag of tools for breeching the blank page.  What are some of yours?

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach whose work has appeared in The Bellevue Literary Review, The New York Times, Pithead Chapel, Arizona Highways, Gloom Cupboard and more. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She founded the Boulder Writers’ Workshop, is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and is a homeschooling mom. She and her husband Michael and son Max live in Boulder.

For more about Lori, please visit her website and blog.

Reading Like a Writer

By Lori DeBoer

We read for many reasons—to be entertained, to be swept up in a story, to be transported into an interesting world, to laugh, to cry, to learn, to gain insight and to be inspired. But when we become writers, we need to read like a writer. We become active readers, slowing down the process and becoming conscious of the material. We examine published writing to learn what moves us, to figure out what works and what—in our not-so-humble opinion—doesn’t. By doing so, we gain insight into what we want to write and how we want to write it. Ultimately, we learn about both craft and art by reading and emulating great writers.

Someone reading for merely for pleasure engages in a passive process—he or she may romp through a book or story but probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about what went into it. An active reader may read something the first time through for pleasure, but pays attention to which parts of the story were memorable, which passages were funny, sad, thrilling or merely confusing. An active reader goes so far as to make notes in the margin to flag passages that call for a more in-depth look. Active reading requires revisiting a piece of writing many times to understand its underlying structure and all its nuances.

When I worked as the public relations director for the Liquid Crystal Institute, a research center at Kent State University, I remember that one of the research scientists showed me a really expensive, tiny computer from a competitor that he was going to take apart.

“This will show me they work.”

“Can I have one after you’re done?” I asked.

He looked at me, frowning. “After I reverse engineer them, they won’t work anymore.”

Lucky for us, when we reverse engineer a piece of writing—taking it apart to see what components it contains and how they fit together—we rarely ruin the story. In fact, we can come to appreciate the story even more because the skill of the writer is revealed. Reverse engineering is a good model for the process of active reading.

Another way of thinking about being an active reader is to think about a piece of writing the way you would a house. If we visit someone’s house for the first time, we like taking a tour and looking at all the cool pictures and furniture. If you were an interior decorator, you might observe that the rooms are harmonized with blue and red accents, or that the walls have a rich, faux paint. An architect, however, would likely visit the house and become engaged by its structure and design style, and perhaps may not be jarred if the décor doesn’t match the period. Bring along your buddy the building inspector, and you can bet he’s not going to go gaga over the décor or the architectural style. He’ll peer at the porch to see if it sags or has termites. He’ll poke around in the basement with a flashlight to see if the foundation stands firm.

Taking a cue from various building professionals, the professional writer needs to roll many roles into one, examining writing in the same way that a potential home owner might scrutinize houses. You need to incorporate not only your penchant for interior decoration (the aesthetics of the writing), but you need to cultivate your appreciation of architecture (how the story is designed) and the critical eye of the home inspector (for construction details such as grammar and spelling).

You can learn just as much from pieces you don’t care for as the ones that you love. Reading like a writer requires that you read widely, that you venture into territory outside of your preferred genre to see what you can bring back to sustain your own work.

Action Step:  Make a list of your all-time favorite books, essays or articles. Note the genre you like most to read. Leave room to jot down what you liked about these works. Be specific. Was the story riveting or were you most moved by the quality of the language? Did the characters stick in your head and heart?  You might want to revisit a few works in your personal library and read them more closely, practicing active reading.  Please let me know what discoveries you make.

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Lori DeBoerLori DeBoer is an author, freelance journalist and writing coach. She has contributed essays on writing to Mamaphonic: Balancing Motherhood and Other Creative Acts, Keep It Real: Everything You’ve Wanted to Know About Research and Writing Creative Nonfiction and A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF. She is a contributing editor for Short Story Writer and director of the Boulder Writers’ Workshop. Her stories have been a Top-25 Finalist for the Glimmer Train Fiction Open as well as being shortlisted for the Bellevue Literary Prize. She’s been published in Arizona Highways, The Bellevue Literary Review, Gloom Cupboard, The New York Times, Iowa Woman, Pithead Chapel and America West Airlines Magazine. One of her clients was a finalist for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and four of her clients have been finalists for the Colorado Gold Award.  For more information, visit her website and blog at www.lorideboer.net.