I’ve had a long day at work. I come home to find that my roommate has trashed the living room. I am no longer surprised by her antics, so I have a drink and from the safety of the kitchen attempt to explain that ideally, we should be able to see most of the floor, most of the time.
We go from discussing inhospitable situations (say, this one) in the real world to inhospitable situations in fictional worlds. I admit, I’ve always been fascinated by people who make homes in strange places. I actually think that’s one of the reasons I like science fiction. Hell yes, I want a house on Mars.
Anyway, we hit upon building homes in corpses and, recognizing the futility reaching the couch anytime soon, I excuse myself, claiming that I am going to write a story about someone living in a dragon skull, because reasons. I am actually kidding. However, what ensues is several hours of watching people on YouTube attempt to make cobb floors, then scribbling something resembling an outline.
Also new roommates, though that’s another story.
Inspiration comes when it comes. It’s not the biggest part of writing— that would be getting the words down —but nobody would write if we as humans didn’t have moments of inspiration and a drive to share them. Besides, telling others about the people we imagine has helped us shape the world, spread joy, make strangers cringe.
Our inspirations don’t have to be about big things. If a big thing that’s happening over much of the world inspires you, then by all means, write your story about it. Enjoy it. Put your heart into it. But! You don’t have to be inspired by big things. You can be inspired by ants if that’s what works for you. “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson was supposed to have been sparked by the author pushing a baby carriage up a hill in summer.
When you are cooking, when you are driving, when you are raking leaves— your mind can spark at any time. Images, conversations, profound concepts which deserve whole novels: there’s always something there. It might be the seeds of one of the most commented upon stories your favorite venue has ever published.
Please keep your eyes on that road if you’re driving, though. The rest of us writers would very much like you to make more stories!
I have been up much too late reading creepypasta, as one does. Once I pull myself away from the screen to stretch, I am startled by streak of white at the bottom of my window. It’s snowed and of course I didn’t even realize.
I am a bit afraid of snow, especially large amounts of snow that obscure the landscape. Featureless, white fields are some spooky stuff. Like an adult, I climb into bed and pull the covers over my head so I don’t have to see or think about this particular snow.
Drifting off to sleep, I imagine an alien wolf stalking down the side of a mountain. I can hear her belief that this place is hers. I hear her hunger.
I reach out from under the covers to grab my notebook, followed by a flashlight.
Not everyone can write things that they’re afraid of, but maybe you are that person who can and who grows from doing it, or at least trying. Then again, maybe you write horror, you do this every day and you’re having a chuckle at my expense right now.
If you can face your fears with words, that’s a great source of story ideas, not just of plots you formulate deliberately, but of things which may or may not literally creep up on you at night.
You should never worry about telling your readers what you’re afraid of. They’re afraid of things too, just maybe different things than you. For instance, most of your readers will never have dreaded their inbox pinging upon the arrival of a response from your dream market. This does not, however, mean that you can’t share your terror with them.
It’s raining. I am sitting at my desk listening to a cassette tape of darkwave music a friend gave me. It’s a lot different than the kind of music I prefer, but I live in a small town with a DJ who plays unusual 80’s music after midnight and I think I could get to enjoy this. I have only been writing for a few years, but I know that I could turn out an amazing story to the one song. Now, if only I could find the words.
They aren’t there, so I wait.
Twenty years pass.
I sell my first short story.
I find out that one of my favorite semipro venues is taking submissions for the next month.
I sit down at my computer. It’s raining again. I play the song. I remember thinking I could never be published.
But, a few weeks later I cross off my first dream venue. I’m not sure many people know I was trying to write a story that felt like listening to wailing synths. Or that I like darkwave.
A lot more stories are inspired by music than people let on. Saying you got an idea from a song is really not that unusual, though it has an ignominy to it which frankly, given our music-infused culture, seems a bit odd.
So what if we wrote bad song fic in high school? If we crank Phil Collins tracks on repeat when we think no one else is listening? Our shame when it comes to the connections between songs, between other forms of art, and our writing, is getting a bit silly at this point. The first InCryptid book by Seanan McGuire has a suggested list of dance tracks in the back, so said shame seems to be fading at least.
However, there’s no need to rush into any story. Sparks can and do die, but sometimes they linger on for hours, weeks, months, years, decades. It’s very OK to let an idea marinate. In fact, some ideas are much better after they mature.
If you’re concerned about forgetting your sparks, the best thing you can do is carry around some form of paper and pen. It’s low tech, cheap, and highly effective. Have an idea, write it down. I bet it will look lonesome on the page sooner or later, and soon you’ll have a good, old-fashioned writer notebook.
Then again, if you think you’d find a playlist more inspiring sometime next week, absolutely make a playlist.
I am sitting at the coffee table beading. I have come to a series of monotonous stitches. I’m not exactly bored, but I’m not exactly engaged. I can literally do what I’m doing right now and make eye-contact with another person. I just happen to be alone.
I am filled with the image of a woman in a 50’s day dress holding a bloody hand scythe. I know how she came to be in her situation, but I also have a need, intense and dreamy, to explain this to other people. That way, we can appreciate her together.
I am also pretty sure this is not what most people think of when they’re beading.
There’s a reason a lot of classical authors had dull jobs. There’s just something about zoning out doing one thing that makes the plotbunnies thrive. What if part of the reason we have so much amazing science fiction right now is because, once again, so many people get bored at work? Hmm, actually that’s a depressing thought…
However, it’s possible to get the inspiration benefits of a mindless job and create something amazing at the same time. Moreso than even carrying a notebook, I believe it’s important for writers to engage with the world in a way that isn’t words. Knitting, painting, singing, dirt biking— whatever sounds like a party to you, strive to make wondrous things with something besides fiction. By doing so, you’ll keep your brain limber, you may well stumble across a source of endless of birthday presents for your friends and the zen of monotony can be yours whenever you wish.
Besides, even the act of trying new things can be inspiring, so do that thing you’ve been thinking of doing instead of worrying about being stuck on your dream story.
It’s the start of another long, hot Arizona summer. I am annoyed with having to live in a timeline where literary torture porn is considered art and Hulu is getting awards for theirs. My sibling is on the phone, complaining about the initiative at her hospital to guilt women for declining to breastfeed.
My first thought its I’ll show you (some nebulous, hypothetical you) literary. Well, what’s literary? Found manuscripts with lacunae are literary! Again, apparently.
I write what was originally the first line. “You didn’t tell me she was pregnant.” I sit back and I think— that is a proper Naomi Mitchison pipe bomb opening. This is what actual pro-woman fiction looks like. I then bang on about beading and ships for five-thousand words.
Personally, I find anger very inspiring. But again, you don’t have to be angry about big things, or even the same things other people are angry about. You don’t even have to be angry at all if that isn’t what inspires you. Every author is different. But if you are angry, even over something trivial, it’s very OK to put the energy of your anger towards your writing.
My bookmarks are frankly embarrassing in this regard. I imagine that another person looking at them and not knowing what they were for being utterly appalled by some of them! I know one thing about them though: whatever they are, and however they do it, they inspire me. They are good for something, even if that’s the only thing in the whole, wide world.
You know, I don’t think that’s a big inspiration thing at the end of the day. I know what makes my author motors run. I am only myself. I can make suggestions all day every day, but I cannot know what will or won’t tickle the fancy of someone reading this essay and hoping to sell to Uncanny someday.
Only you can know yourself as a writer when it comes to inspiration. So, if you’re reading this, here’s a fun exercise— why don’t you imagine sitting me down and telling me the top three things that give you story ideas. No worries if you need to think about it some. This can be a challenging question. It is one, however, that I absolutely know you have the answer to.
You’ve probably figured out what my three main sources of inspiration are.
-The desire to share surreal scenes with other people
But, that’s me. Your inspiration, however you get it, is wonderful, precious and probably sometimes kind of a jerk. It is also, first and foremost, absolutely yours.
Though incidentally, if any of you know what other people think about when they’re beading, please tell me. I never did get an answer for that.
M. Raoulee is a queer author and artist howling with the grasshopper mice somewhere in Arizona. She has previously appeared in Broken Metropolis, Lackington’s and other fine venues which accept spite. In fact, you can go read three of the five stories above right now if that’s your jam. Catch her on Twitter, Instagram and www.mraoulee.net. Look out for the one-eyed tortie.
This is the first in a series of Guest Posts where I’ve posed some deeply serious questions to some awesome writers. My questions are in bold.
Who are you and what have you done with the Real TJ? I had to laugh, because I have actually gotten rid of the real TJ… or at least tucked her away out of sight. I used to work in national politics, so I crafted a pen name to keep my fiction separate from my work. (You never want your coffee shop AUs to besmirch your candidate’s good name. Granted, this was back when appropriate behavior in politics was an actual concern. ahem)
Over time, my political work waned and writing became my day job, so TJ eclipsed my original identity. Even my family has started calling me TJ. Even though… and this is a secret… there is no “J” in my real name. Every once in a while, someone from my old life finds me and is like, “You do what now?!”
If you had to describe yourself in terms of a soft drink, which would you be and why?
I am a Pepsi 1893. No one knows I exist, but when they discover me, they’re delightfully surprised by my nuanced complexity and smoky sweetness.
Harry Potter world: what house are you? And what animal would be your patronus?
I am so Ravenclaw that even non-Harry Potter fans have rolled their eyes at me and said, “Ugh, you’re so Ravenclaw.” My favorite phrase is, “Let me google that.” I’m currently taking five different classes and learning seven languages. I’m utterly ridiculous, but I will get that A+ if it kills me. I think, in 2019, I’m working on developing my gentler Hufflepuff side a little bit. My patronus would be a hedgehog. Prickly at first, but cuddly and friendly if you know how to approach the right way.
Are you a Thing Everything Through Before Acting person or a Great Idea Let’s Try It! Person?
Oh, I’m totally a think everything through before taking action person. I can never stop my brain from going a thousand miles an hour in a dozen different directions.
My only hope is to corral that energy into productive and not destructive channels. I’m also working on saying “yes” to more things. I tried it last year, and ended up in some wonderful situations that I would have declined in the past. Everyone ask me to coffee–I will show up!
What got you into writing?
I started writing when I was about ten. I read Five Go Off in a Caravan by Enid Blyton and was completely in love with the descriptions of four kids camping together alone. They would just randomly approach farmhouses and buy slabs of meat and baskets of eggs. The farmer’s wife made them cakes. It was darling. I immediately wrote Famous Five fanfiction, though back in the eighties, we didn’t call it fanfiction. I think we just called it plagarism. Anyway, I haven’t stopped writing since.
Why do you write now?
Ideas just keep showing up and I’m compelled to write them down. Whether I’m reading a nonfiction book, watching mindless televison, or grocery shopping, I keep discovering stories that tug on the edges of my consciousness. I love writing about people and the complex relationships they have. I also love writing about bizarre occurrances. In science fiction and horror, I get to do both.
What’s the earliest story you can remember reading and loving? Socks for Supper! It’s a children’s book about an old man and his wife who have only turnips to eat. The wife begins knitting socks and trading them to a neighbor for milk and cheese. She runs out of yarn and begins unraveling her husband’s sweater to get them more cheese. Eventually, she makes a new sweater for the neighbor. It’s too big for him, but he gives her the cheese anyway and hands her back the sweater, which perfectly fits her now-chilly husband. It’s so cute and warm-hearted that I bought it for my own kids to read. And as a big fan of cheese, this book spoke to me on a visceral level.
What’s a book you remember reading as a teenager and absolutely loving? I inexplicably fell in love with Jane Eyre as a teenager when it was assigned in class. I wanted nothing more than to marry a wealthy man with a mentally ill wife hidden in his attic. Now that I’m an adult, there’s just a heater in my attic and if anyone knows how to change an HVAC filter, please DM me.
What are you reading right now? I just finished Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple. I’m taking a class with Maria and not only is she an excellent teacher, her writing is fantastic. Something about that book just resonated with me–despite the fact that the protagonist is intentionally unlikeable. I just sailed through the story and even teared up at the end, which is unusual for me.
What’s a book that you have on your shelf that you think might surprise people? I just finished the A-Z Guide to Black Oppression by Elexus Jionde. The cover is both shocking and beatiful–a nude black woman lying in a pool of blood and covered with hundred dollar bills. The book goes through aspects of racism and systemic oppression with both historical notes and anecdotal illustrations. It’s a rough and important read. Pay black women for their labor and buy this book.
Are you a stop reading at the end of the chapter, mid chapter, or just whenever reader? I have a goal of reading 25% of my current book each night. Now it doesn’t always happen, but when I reach that mark, I stop unless the chapter is really intriguing. If I finish a book in less than four sittings, I know it hooked me.
What book would you like everyone to read?
The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur was a surprising read for me. I’m not usually into poetry (sorry, poet friends!) but this book just grabbed me. Her poems are visceral and affecting. As a collection, they tell a story about womanhood that many of us understand.
Can you name some formative books for your own writing? I read a lot of Stephen King as a teenager and I think that’s where my love of clean, stark prose comes from. The elegance of his stories is in the images he evokes, not the elaborateness of the word choices. I also loved Asimov and Hubbard as a kid. Oh and Piers Anthony. In some ways, what I write is in direct conversation with what those guys were doing. I see their flaws and low points and aim to riff off their work in a way that doesn’t have the same pitfalls. I can’t wait until thirty years from now when some kid is saying the same thing about me.
How do you organise your personal library? (alphabetical, dewey decimal, what’s your system?)
I moved cross-country a few years ago, so I had to get rid of most of my books. (I know, but movers charge by the pound!) I mostly read on my Kindle, but I buy physical copies of friends’ books so I can have them signed. I put them on my shelves in the order in which I buy them. Looking back through the spines, it’s a timeline of the signings I’ve been to and the friendships I’ve made.
Creative writing in primary school, what did you write about? Can you remember any stories?
I was such a secondary-world fantasy writer back then! Which is funny, because I don’t go near that genre now. I think because I associate it with my own childish writing. I still have some of those manuscripts tucked away around here. I had whole series’ written. I was quite prolific as a kid, but rarely showed anyone.
What do you do/where do you go for inspiration? Inspiration filters through everything I do as I go about my day. I’ll hear a phrase that sticks in my head or see a name that would make an intriguing city name. I have a huge file in which I capture these ideas. Some get made into stories and others wait for the future. I will say that having my file was incredibly helpful when I attended the six-week Clarion West writing workshop. About week five, when inspiration had deserted me and exhaustion had set in, I was able to open my ideas file and find a couple of things to cobble together into a story.
Is there anything you’ve seen passed around as writing advice that you really disagree with?
I’m at odds with the hardline “write every day” crowd. I tend to write on weekdays, because this is my full time job, but I’m at my best when I’m binge-writing. The longer I write for, the more I get into a state of flow and the work is better. Thirty minutes a day wouldn’t have the same effect. I aim to write 3-4 days a week for at least six hours at a time. You really have to experiment and find the process that helps you produce your best work.
Do you believe in a divine muse, and if so, what’s yours like? I do belive the muse arrives, but only after you’ve put in the work. I tend to be hit with divine inspiration around two hours into a hard writing slog. Some tidbit zings me, the clouds open, and the words pour out as fast as I can get them down. But I have to be doing the work first in order to get that lightning bolt.
What does your physical writing space look like?
I’m lucky enough to have my own office at home. One wall is covered with a huge 10′ x 10′ felt pinboard where I put up story ideas, enamel pins, and memorabilia like convention badges. I have a window that looks out on a very active hummingbird feeder and the entire neighborhood. But that means when a car pulls in, I have to duck so no one sees me. I do not answer my door during work hours.
When I need a change of scenery, I head to a building in Seattle that has a hidden- but-public lobby with tables, private offices, a café, and couches. I grab breakfast, work at a table or office for a while, people-watch out the windows, then settle into the couches to read. It’s like having a free co-working space. No, I’m not telling you where it is.
Are you more a ‘write drunk, edit sober’ Ernest Hemingway, or a ‘shut the door, eliminate all distractions and write for a set amount of hours’ Stephen King?
I definitely take more of the Stephen King approach. I sit down at a set time and pound out words until quitting time. Sometimes it’s like pulling teeth, sometimes it sails along. This is akin to the Ditch Diggers philosophy of writing (if you haven’t listened to that podcast, you should). Writing is a job like digging ditches. Ditch diggers don’t wait around for inspiration. They do the work.
Open up your skeleton closet: can you tell me about an abandoned project of yours which seemed awesome when you started but you’ll likely never return to?
I wrote an allegorical story meant to talk about the state of US politics and how it affects the most vulnerable people in society. It wasn’t until I got feedback from a few sensitivity readers that I realized some of the scenes evoked the pain of marginalized people to further the story. I debated whether this was my story to tell and decided to trunk it.
Any advice for anyone looking to start writing?
You only get better by practicing, so just start writing. It’ll be terrible at first, but you’ll eventually understand how to arrange words in the way that sounds right to you. Get in the chair!
Star Wars or Star Trek? Star Trek!
Hogwarts or Narnia? Hogwarts. The Turkish Delight is a lie.
Ideal holiday, price and time no concern, where would you go? I’d live on a ship for a year. There’s a cruise liner called The World which never stops sailing. You just get on and off wherever you want. It’s my dream to live there.
If you could plan perfect meals for a day, what would each be, and would you snack?
Okay, if perfect means how I shoud be eating, here’s what I would do: Meal planning is a task I enjoy. It’s the Ravenclaw in me. We have a diabetic in our household, so we tend to avoid sugar, starches, and grains. Most days, I eat an avocado, bell peppers and vegetable dip for breakfast. I’m not hungry for lunch, so I tend to grab nuts or pepperoni as a snack. Dinner is usually some kind of protein with roasted veggies and a salad. If the question refers to how I would like to eat, it would be hot, fresh Jersey Shore pizza sices as big as your head and cupcakes all day.
Imagine you won one of those ‘grab a cart and spend five mins in a store’ competitions. Which store would you want to win it for, and what goods would you be shoving in the cart first?
There is a local jewelry maker who has a shop called Angelwear Creations and I absolutely love all of her items. In five minutes, I could have one of everything.
Planet necklaces, beehive earrings, spiral galaxy jewelry… I’m flushed just thinking about it.
Imagine you’ve had your best ever year, what photos would you have from that year? Lots of travel with family, photos of us having fun in new places. Trying new foods, meeting old and new friends. And castles.
Desert island castaway time: you get three albums, three books and a luxury item, what do you choose?
For albums I’ll pick the Pacific Rim Soundtrack, Def Leppard’s Hysteria, Levi Patel’s Affinity. Books I’ll take Jane Eyre, Madame Bovary, and Great Expectations. For a luxury item I’ll take tweezers because nothing will be more annoying than getting a splinter on a desert island without tweezers.
What’s your favourite quote? It’s just one of those random insiprational memes, but it speaks to me: “Sometimes the fear won’t go away, so you’ll just have to do it afraid.”
Pokemon: if you were a trainer, what pokemon would be in your team? (you get 6)
Iron Man, Magneto, Frozone, Deadpool, Storm, and The Ancient One
Weirdest hobby you have, other than writing?
I take random glassblowing classes all the time. I don’t even want the glass thing you get at the end, I just want to play with the honey-like melted glass. I really want to touch it. But I won’t. Probably.
TJ Berry grew up between Repulse Bay, Hong Kong and the Jersey shore. She has been a political blogger, bakery owner, and spent a disastrous two weeks working in a razor blade factory. She now writes science fiction from Seattle with considerably fewer on-the-job injuries.
What’s that? You think you did? Nope, you’re wrong. You can tell because I’m writing this personal essay, and I never got over the first novel I wrote, so by the transitive law of personal-essay-writing neither did any of you. First novel stays with you for life.
Mine was (is) called in move. Yeah, all lower case, because when you write your first novel you are definitely pretentious. Here’s my pitch: four teenage guys staring down the end of high school struggle to cope as their friendship starts to collapse. It’s about relationships under pressure, dodging the worst aspects of masculinity, and making a giant hash of things with the girl you like. There is sex and drugs and bad language, and a total absence of “coming of age”.
It has been with me a long time. First conceived when I was one of those teenage guys staring down the end of high school, daydreaming during some boring class (probably statistics). Basically in move is me imaginatively exploring all the stuff I refused to take part in during high school, as per the well-known principle “write what you no”. Every unlikely element of the book is pulled directly from real events.
And. Those four friends and their shifting relationships? I have not been able to shake it off. Getting close on two decades since I typed “end” on that first draft and rarely does a week go by without me thinking about their story. I’ve written plenty of other stuff since, created so many other characters, set up so many other plots, but none of them stick around like these ones do.
What is it about first novels that makes them live on in our heads with such tenacity? I have a theory.
Writing a first novel calls for a particularly large amount of imaginative work. We must hold a big long narrative in our heads, carrying it as we laboriously type out word after word after thousandfold word. This puts heavy demands on our imagination. We can’t shortcut – we don’t know how yet. We can only learn imaginative discipline by doing the thing, so first novels by definition have to be wild and free-roaming. As we try to find our way through, we conjure vivid sequences in our minds and strain to capture them on the page. The only way to do the work is to bring it to life, or near as, in our heads. The only way to put characters on a page is to sit with them, too close, as they struggle and fail and burn with shame. We have to imagine it in hardcore full-resolution zoomed-in maximum-emo mode.
That imaginative work sticks. We’re making memories. Fake memories, sure, but our brains are useless at figuring out which memories are real and which aren’t. It all feels the same. Actually, it’s more than that: these memories are being worked over so thoroughly, rehearsed and reviewed and captured, that they end up feeling even more real than most of what really happened to us.
With such potent memories, no wonder our we never get over our first novel. But that’s not all folks! These memories aren’t isolated moments of everyday life that don’t connect in obvious ways to anything else. They follow the rules of fiction. The context around most memories dilutes meaning – life is too random and obtuse for clear lessons. But the context around these first-novel memories makes them richer, lines them up with beginnings and middles and endings, sits within arcs that we can appreciate if not fully understand.
And even more – even more! – than that: when you write, you can’t answer every question. You have to leave spaces and uncertainty around every scene. Those uncertainties will nag at you, forever. When you’re a more experienced writer, not so much – you’re accustomed to uncertainty, you know the questions you need and the ones you can skip, you know the shapes of what is off-screen. First novel, nope, you gotta do it the hard way. And even even even more: when you write your first novel, oh it is true, you aren’t quite good enough. Your choices won’t be perfect. Your plot won’t line up just right. Your metaphors will get confused in the face. All this is good – first novels have a raw energy to them that shines through all that imperfection! But it also means you won’t ever get to treat this novel as solved. Its the one you’ll always know you could have made better, if you knew now what you did then, or is that backward?
All of which gets us to this: vivid, intensely salient memories, positioned within the structures of a story, laced with unanswered questions and things you’d do differently if you could go again. What red-blooded human cognitive system could resist?
And that’s why you will never get over your first novel.
(…oh wait a second. Just remembered, in move wasn’t really the first novel i wrote. Huh. So I guess my premise is invalid? Shhh. Pretend you didn’t read this bit.) —
in move is freely available online in various digital formats, here. I am really proud of it, even though it is (an awful mess) “full of things I’d do differently if I could go again”. Currently I’m enjoying thinking about adapting it into a full-cast audio production using binaural sound, because that’s the kind of thing you think about doing with your first novel that you can never entirely shake off.
I am Morgan Davie. Find my stuff about games, stories, psychology and interactivity at taleturn. None of my novels have been published but I do have some very nice rejection slips.
I’ve been told a couple of times, from different editors and beta readers, etc, that I’m good at taking criticism. I want to tell you right off the bat that it was Not Always So.
At one point I got so hyped up about a certain piece of work, so convinced it was Perfect and would Change the World, that when it didn’t win a National competition I was devastated. That’s right, win. I didn’t care about the achievement of just getting it done, and entered. I expected to win. I had built this thing up in my head so much that one little set back really hurt me. I thought I’d never write again. I had months of over the top despair (granted, some other things were going on in my life but still).
I took a long break from writing. I nursed my hurt and told myself I’d never be good enough. It sucked, it sucked like nothing else.
But then, as I sorted out my life, and I found some joy, I found inspiration again and I began to write again, too. I started out with short stories and then I attempted a couple of ill-thought-through novels which I’ve abandoned, then I got to work on the old one. The one which had failed in the National competition. I gave it another edit and I sent it in for a manuscript assessment competition, which I won a place in. It’s been edited a few more times, and I’ve had positive and negative feedback on it. Feedback which hasn’t gutted me, or convinced me I’m hopeless.
A couple of months ago I self published that book (without the help of a professional editor, mistake mistake). I’m currently reading it as a proof paperback and writing all over it, all the things which need to be updated. I feel shame that I let it out into the world, but overall I’m proud of the achievement I made getting it out there.
I’ve learned a few things about taking feedback and criticism, and having learned these things, I want to share them. Its’ all about how you frame the feedback. Here’s my tips:
Think of it as a favour – no one has to give you feedback on your work. In fact, in my experience, very few people will give you useful feedback. So if you get feedback that is technical, that points out that you use dialogue tags wrong, or that your character has been inconsistent, or that you’e contradicted yourself later on, that’s great and valuable stuff! (all real examples). The fact is, you hadn’t already noticed these things yourself, and now some awesome person has given you the feedback. Think of it as a generous favour they’ve done for you, and be thankful.
It’s not personal – when someone critiques your work, when someone finds an error, they’re not insulting you. They’re not telling you you’re a bad person, or a bad writer at all! They’re giving you the opportunity to improve. If you feel hurt by the feedback, take a step back. Move away from the manuscript for a day or three and let yourself sit with it. Then you go back in and look at the criticism again.
Trust – maybe I should’ve put this one up at the top. But basically, trust the person you are getting feedback from. Don’t give it to someone whose taste doesn’t match yours. Ask for feedback people who are better at writing than you, people who know their shit. Then you can trust that they know something when they give you advice.
You don’t have to listen – just because someone says you should change something doesn’t mean its true. You can disagree with the feedback given. You can ignore it. You can listen, judge if it’s worth it and use it or not. It’s your choice.
Consider if it would improve your work – even if you don’t agree right away, stepping back and looking at feedback objectively is important. A little distance from your words is important, because maybe what they’re saying would make your sentences and your story stronger.
Read and Learn – always be learning. There’s a thousand writing blogs, podcasts, videos, courses and conventions that you can take advantage of. The more you learn, the more you improve your craft. The more you learn, the more you can write without making so many mistakes. There’ll always be mistakes, but you don’t have to make the same ones over and over. Getting third party feedback on your writing can highlight these mistakes for you.
So… those are my things I’ve learned about taking feedback, comments and criticism. Do you have anything else to add? Comment and let me know your thoughts on feedback.
I’ve been writing out at cafes a bit, here’s my rundown of which ones worked for me and which didn’t so much. Here’s what I’m rating on: food quality, service, atmosphere/noise, how comfortable I was, how easy it was to write.
Disclaimer: I don’t drink coffee so cannot give you a review of how good the coffee was.
Cafe Melba is my favourite cafe chain in Auckland. Whichever one you go to the food is great. Ellerslie is great for friend meetups and taking out of towners for a nice meal, but for writing it wasn’t ideal. I think partially because the tables are quite close together, I felt like I was in the way somehow. The table wasn’t quite big enough for my laptop, too. I love this place, food and service are great but I won’t go back there to write.
The other Melba I go to is a bit more of a trip from home, but it is a blessed space of lightness, inspiration and motivation. Something about the amount of natural light, the high ceilings, the weird geometric shapes on display, it works for me. The tables are big enough to have food and notebook side by side (haven’t gone there with laptop yet) but I’ve consistently got a lot done. Love it here. Staff are attentive and friendly but also happy to leave you to it.
Bean there has a great line of giant, sturdy tables, and is usually pretty quiet so you don’t have to worry about where to sit. It’s counter service, so you have to either decide what to eat really fast or go and sit and then decide and get back up again. They have excellent orange juice, but the food’s just kind of okay. It’s kind of good, and kind of not. I actually started feeling conspicuous because it was so quiet, like everyone was watching me, or noticing me or something. Little awkward.
Circus Circus is where my writing group meets up in the evenings, and that is always brilliant. Nice large tables, friendly staff who are willing to add another table to the one you already have (if needed) and fantastic food. Going on my own, during a weekday was a different experience, due to different staff, etc. I did get a lot done, and it’s nice being in the middle of Mt Eden for other chores but overall I didn’t feel entirely comfortable. Not sure why.
The Fridge is great. Large, sturdy tables, various rooms, so if you see a bunch of people in suits having a loud business meeting you can just skedaddle into another room and sit in a corner. Sometimes sparrows come in. It’s quiet during the week and the staff have a good level of checking if you need anything else and leaving you alone. Brilliant pies, do recommend. It’s a bit out of the way for me to get to, but if it was close I’d probably be there all the time.
The food here is brilliant, you can get soft boiled eggs and toast soldiers. Hot chocolate is good but not awesome. The table was great, atmosphere pretty good. But I happened to open my laptop to start writing just as a guy came in with a friend and he seemed to decide that he needed to impress her and me (he kept looking at me, it was weird) with his knowledge of generic geek stuff like Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. They sat at the table next to me and he was diagonally across and it was so annoying I couldn’t write anything. On another day this place is probably great.
Too loud, the music was great but I was singing along to it because it was up that loud. The chairs are comfy, the one/two person tables are a little too small for the laptop though. Although the food is delicious, the staff don’t ask if you need anything else, like a hot chocolate. Disappointing. I mean, probably they were being considerate and not interrupting, but also they didn’t bus the plates away when I was done so. Not ideal. Delicious fried chicken though.
Now my conundrum is: do I keep looking at other options or do I just keep going back to Hillsborough Melba even though they stopped having the porridge I really liked?
I’ve written previously about Impostor syndrome and the way it’s affected me. One of the really annoying things my brain does is distract me from my goals by forgetting things.
It’s so frustrating, because I’ve missed a hundred different competitions and opportunities because the dates go shooting out of my head. Or even goals like ‘finish this novel’ get forgotten, because I’ll get excited about some other project instead and spend all my time on the new thing.
Once I’d realised this was a problem for me, I used a tool I’d enjoyed using at work for organising projects. Trello. Trello is like a free online to do list, and totally customisable.
Here’s what mine looks like:
I like colour coding my works in progress, and it’s very satisfying to move a card from ‘doing’ to ‘done’. It saves all my thoughts for me, and all I have to do is go look at it to see what I should be looking at. You can open the cards and put checklists in it, or due dates or random comments. Very useful stuff.
If you have any kind of organisational problems I recommend trying something like Trello or a personal kanban board to see if that helps.