Sunday, April 25, 2010

Divvying up those Character Points

David Sedaris published an essay in the New Yorker a few months ago that really stuck with me. He talked about the idea that success really comes down to whether you’re willing to shift your priorities in life. You spend more time and effort on whatever it is that you want to be successful at and less on things like hobbies or family and friends. Sedaris, of course, in his lovably self-deprecating way, used this topic as a springboard to talk about his relationship with his family, but this idea of shifting priorities, of allowing yourself to be a failure at parts of your life so that you can be a success at others, really resonated with me.

This is something Malcolm Gladwell talks about, too, something that many people would agree with: success involves sacrifice. This idea has been on my mind a lot recently because I’ve been so busy at work (I have – no joke – seventy five to a hundred papers to grade every week) and have also been working under deadline to address editorial comments on a couple of scholarly essays (essays which, by the way, I spent a lot of time last summer on, too). I also would like to keep my marriage a happy one, and I’ve been trying to be a more social person (which takes a lot of effort for someone with social anxiety, let me tell you).

And, of course, there is my creative writing.

I write, but I don’t write as much as I’d like to. Realistically, I don’t know that it’s possible to write as much as I want. I don’t write genre fiction and so will surely never make a living off of writing, which means I have to devote time to developing myself as a career gal. I also would like to have a baby some day (and yes, my husband and I are both aware that the clock is ticking on that one) and know that being a mother will take a lot of time.

The question I have is am I spreading myself too thin? You have to be a multifaceted person, I believe, to be a good writer, but you also have to be willing to spend a lot of time actually writing. This might mean sacrificing other things that you might also have wanted to spend a lot of time on. We all know that our writing should come before things like video games or TV, but what about things like publishing critical essays or furthering the great academic discussion on X book or Y field? These things would generally be considered a productive use of your time, but if it takes away from your creative writing time, is it really worth it?

I think real life is more similar than you might think to one of those games where you have a certain number of points to divvy up however you see fit. Do you want your character to be stronger or smarter? Do you want him to have better magic or battle skills? You might ask yourself similar questions when it comes to your own priorities. Do I want to be a writer or do I want to be fluent in French? Do I want to publish scholarly essays or short stories and novels? Maybe we all really do have a finite number of effort points, and we have to choose carefully what we want to use them on. We can’t pour them all into writing, but we can decide which parts of our lives we really care enough about to spend the points on. Do you want to be the sort of person who dabbles in a lot of things but isn’t very good at any of them, or the sort of person who can only do a few things but can do those few things very, very well?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Learning from Other People’s Mistakes

I’ve talked before about how I believe that the competition is fierce and that most of the work getting submitted to journals – even the tiny ones – is fantastically good. Yes, I know you’ve heard otherwise. I know you’ve read interviews with editors or agents who claim that most of the work submitted to them is terrible, but that is such a load. If that were true than every halfway decent, remotely publishable piece would get snatched up immediately because it would stand out so much from all the rest of the crap, and we all know that doesn’t happen.

A piece of writing can get rejected from a hundred places before it finds a home, and once it does find that home it can then go on to win a Pushcart or get reprinted in a Best American Anthology. I once got a really nasty rejection letter, in which the editor essentially told me my story was terrible and poorly written, and then it later got published (the exact same draft that had been rejected) and was read by an assistant at a literary agency who contacted me and asked me to query the agency. The reason why things can get rejected so many times first is because most of the stuff getting submitted is very, very good, and on top of that, there simply are no objective rules for writing that every single editor, agent, writer, and reader can agree on.

Which means if you want to be competitive you really need to find ways to set yourself apart from the competition. Working at a literary journal gives you a chance to see what other writers are doing and can give you a competitive edge with your own work. Once you get over the shock of seeing how much of the slush pile is great and how often pieces that you would have loved to accept still have to get rejected because there just isn’t room, you start to notice small, let’s go ahead and call them mistakes, for lack of a better word, that are causing other writers to get rejected quickly.

These sorts of mistakes can range from not following professional formatting (using a tiny or strange looking font, say, or stapling the pages together), to coming across like an a-hole in your cover letter (I pretty much immediately want to reject people who seem arrogant in their cover letter and act like they already know their work is going to get accepted), to writing a really great story that gets off to a slow start (these stories, sadly, rarely even get read all the way through because you put them down before you get to the good part), to filling up thirty pages when the story easily could have been told in fifteen. And don’t even get me started on typos and grammatical errors. If you don’t care about your work enough to proofread it, what makes you think anybody else is going to care?

These are sometimes things that writers who don’t understand how the selection process really works will assume won’t end up mattering. I think we sometimes look at the work that’s getting published in books and see things that those writers are getting away with, and we assume that we will be allowed to do that, too. But the difference is that a writer with a book published has probably already won the trust of an agent and/or editor. You probably haven’t. The editors reading your submissions probably don’t have a clue who you are, and they aren’t going to have faith that if they just keep reading, your work will end up coming together in a satisfying way. You’ve got to win them over right away and hang on to them until the very end, and you cannot give them any reason to doubt you.

Seeing what good writers who are submitting good work are doing that’s earning them rejections is more useful, I think, than only reading the stuff that’s getting accepted and published. Reading what’s been published might just teach you that you need to write something good. Reading the stuff that’s getting rejected will teach you to write something good, too, but it will also teach you to avoid any number of pitfalls that writers who are just reading the stuff that’s getting published might fall into.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Time Management: What Grad School Won’t Teach You

When I was an MFA student, I used to complain like a little baby that I didn’t have enough time to write. “I swear I had more time to write when I was just working full time,” I could often be heard saying. “Isn’t the point of grad school to give you time to write?”

The older, ever-so-slightly wiser me now looks back at that whiny me and shakes her head. “Please,” I would tell that younger Ashley if I could. “You have plenty of time to write. You’re just spending it complaining about not having enough time. On top of that, the point of grad school is not to give you time to write. The point of grad school, if we lived in such a simplistic world where there could possibly be one universal point to grad school, is to help you become a better writer. Nobody ever really promised you time.”

In fact, now that I’m teaching what most colleges consider a full-timer’s load of classes (though at my school I’m still technically considered part-time, ah semantics!), I’m realizing that the best way to prepare a budding writer for the harsh realities of the non-grad student writing life is to force you to scrounge writing time whenever you can. When you’re working full time and trying to be a good spouse and raising children and whatever else you do, you’ll be much better off if you’re used to never having time to write. You’ll come at it with the experience and tools necessary to find that time, wherever it might be hiding.

But in spite of my old, young self’s complaints, I do think you have a lot more time to write as a grad student than you do working full time, and so time management is actually something I don’t feel that grad school really teaches you. At least my program didn’t. When I was a grad student the only thing standing between me and my writing was my own invented excuses.

As a grad student I came up with the goal of writing an average of three hours a day for the rest of my life, but once I graduated the plan quickly became to just try to find time to write at all every day. I seem to have found a way to write for an average of about an hour a day, and that’s after something like nine months of shifting things around and experimenting with new ideas, desperately trying to figure out how to make it work.

I don’t mean to suggest that the fact that grad school gives you time to write should count as a strike against MFA programs. Time to write is always a good thing, as far as I’m concerned, and I think we should try harder to recognize it when we have it and value it for what it’s worth. But maybe we should reconsider the way we look at those times in our lives when we have very little time, or those times when we feel like we have very little time. Learning how to manage your time and squeeze those minutes or hours out of each day is just as important as studying your craft and reading until your eyes feel like they’ve been peeled and cooked. Time management is, let’s face it, an essential skill if you really want to make it as a writer.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Revision Beast

Here’s a question for you: Is there such a thing as too much revision? I’ve been thinking lately that there is definitely such a thing as too much writing – where you spend so much time in front of the computer that you forget to go out there and have experiences worth writing about, and I’m sure the same can be said of too much reading. What about revision? Is it possible to over-revise?

I’ve seen sometimes in workshops people turn in revised drafts of stories where the earlier draft was, in my opinion, better than the revision, and I’ve had that same criticism given to me about one of my own past workshop revisions. I’ve even seen, sometimes, in journals or collections, stories that feel sort of bland, lifeless, and I’ve wondered if this might be the result of too much revision, where the initial spark for the story, whatever it was that had made the writer want to write it to begin with, has been revised out.

I’m a huge proponent for extensive revision. I tend to believe that many writers, especially those just starting out, don’t revise anywhere near enough. Revision is, in fact, what I consider the biggest difference between writers and would-be-writers: serious writers take revision seriously.

But is there a line that you eventually cross where the piece is as good as it’s going to be and any further revision will damage it, or perhaps just turn it into something completely different? Or maybe what I should be asking is how do you know when a piece has crossed that line? I’ve heard that old rule that if you get to a point where you’re only changing minor things with each revision, you should take it to mean that you’re done. But what if you’re like me: a perpetual reviser, someone who might work on a single story or novel for years and years and years, someone who continues to revise stories long after they’ve been published?

I’ve heard interviews with professional writers – that rare breed that actually makes a living off of writing – who say that part of being a writer is finishing. Yes, you need to revise, but you also need to stop revising. You need to send your work out there. You need to move on to the next project.

I wonder if it’s possible that revision is actually holding me back. I revise so much that sometimes new projects will sit on the backburner for ages because I never have time to work on them, I’m too busy reworking this or that older project. Right now I have several new stories I’d like to write, for example, and a new novel I want to work on, but I keep not doing it because when I sit down to write, I always end up rewriting. And the thing about endless revision is that sometimes a new draft won’t necessarily be any better than an older draft, just different.

I’m not suggesting that anyone should ever stop revising altogether, but maybe it is possible to spend too much time revising. Maybe equally important to taking revision seriously is being able to face the empty page without fear, being able to open a blank document and create something new over and over and over again.