Monday, November 06, 2006

I Write...Don't Tell

At a family function a couple years back I accidentally mentioned that I wrote. A sister-in-law looked at me. "You write? What?"

"Stuff," I mumbled and hastened away.

Now anyone who knows me, even casually, knows I consider myself a writer. However, I seldom let anyone read my work other than my wife and other writers. Or editors. I just don't. I guess it's that I feel they will read my work out of courtesy and respond politely rather than honestly.

I hate talking about my writing with people who aren't writers. Why? First, because most people who aren't writers really don't care. And second, there is nothing more pathetic than a would-be writer babbling about his work. You know the type? He goes on and on about plot, all the while becoming more excited as he revels in his exaggerated self-concept.

A writer should write, not talk. Give the reader your work and walk away. Bang. That's it.

Want another reason why I don't tell people I write?

Me: I just sent a story out.
Uncle Gregor: You write? Ah. You should write about me. I can tell you things about my life that would really make a great book.
Me: That's great, Uncle Gregor. Thanks anyway.
Uncle Gregor: Maybe I'll write it. Maybe I'll write an autobiography. I'll start at the first day I went to work at the sausage factory and follow my climb to General Manager. It's a great story.
Me: Isn't that Aunt Shirley over there? She's not looking well. Maybe I should go and check.....

I've discovered over the last few years that there are a lot of writers who feel as I do. As I've had a chance to talk with people in different writers' groups, they too seldom share their work with family and friends. It's astonishing how few even allow their spouse or partners to read their work. Fortunately, I don't have that problem any longer. I married a woman who reads my stuff, comments intelligently, and actually helps me. She's even been working to help me find an agent. My ex-wife never read my writing, mutual agreement. I used to swear the dedication to my first novel would be:

"To my wife...who will have to buy this book at the store in order to read it."


Susan Miller said...

So I wonder do you have ideal readers? Do you keep certain people's opinion, such as your wife's, in your head as you write or is it more free than that? Once you have written it I would think that there are people that you allow to read it first ...somewhat of an ideal readers' group like your writers' group? By the time you have completed the writing, editing, rewriting do you just want to throw it at someone, like you have to get rid of it? Tell me more.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Different people give us different things. It's a matter of being discerning.

When I critique a work, I tend to be pretty thorough. Some of the feedback I give can suggest extensive rewrites. My goal is to provide people with a guide. One person's opinion and a guide. If they read that critique and shrug it off, then that's fine.

Here's a true story. I stupidly agreed to help edit an anthology. I won't discuss it in detail here. I read the work of the submitted authors and found only three stories I could recommend for acceptance. Three out of twelve within the writers' group.

Nobody was outright rejected. Instead they were critiqued and offered suggestions for improvement and resubmittal. Three of us made these crits. All working independently and coming up with similar feedback.

The writers exploded. Their brains covered the walls. It was a scene out of a Romero film. I am surprised they didn't hunt us down and kill us. It taught me why editors stay the hell away from most writers and why they offer only a small rejection slip.

But I digress.

I won't answer your comment point by point (I suspect there will be other writers commenting at hand here who will take up these issues) but I will say that I write and then when I have edited and rewritten, I send it out. And then it comes back. And I rewrite it and send it out again.

I think each story is a work in progress. I don't usually take critiquing personally. If I think someone is totally off base, then I move on.

People can get inside your head though, so you have to be careful. I remember at one meeting a lunatic poet said: "You use too many 'was' in your work, man." For the next three months, all I could think was "don't say was...don't say was...."

Made me nuts.

I will be posting more blogs about the art of writing. More casual observations than anything else.

miller580 said...

Man Stewart, you nailed it. Back in the day when I was in school for Graphic Arts, I used to get, so you draw and stuff? What do you draw?

Then I graduated and started designing web sites and that was worse. I'd get the inevitable question, "What do you do?" I'd answer, "I design and program web sites? It seemed that nine out of ten responses were Oh, my high school kid does that too or my neighbor kid does that.

The first time I slipped up and said I was a writer, I faced a blank look, and a "oh, that's nice." My dad tells me, every time I talk to him, that his lady friend’s son is a writer. He works for a Michigan newspaper and is struggling to raise his family, so much so that he had to join the reserves and is now in Texas (I think Texas) guarding borders. I try to explain to him that I won’t enlist, but he doesn’t listen. Now when family and friends ask what I'm studying, I simply say English. I tell them, “I am going to be an English teacher, you know, books and stuff.”

Jon said...

Sue, when Stu says he, "...tends to be pretty thorough," it can mean:
1) Giving you a thousand word critique of your story.
2) Taking that thousand word story of yours and rewriting it, front to back.
3) Giving you another thousand words on the critical justification for his suggestions.

It can also mean that after reading it he might toss it on the table and say, "Garbage."

In either case the story would have gotten what it deserved. He's good like that.

I consider it an honor to have him critique my work. But remember...don't ask the question if you don't want the answer.

Susan Miller said...

Forboding, I wonder if I should even ask what the next assignment was. I've been wanting to ask but wondered if everyone thought if maybe I should just stick with nonfiction. It's okay, I'm not scared of answers.

Chuck zaglanis said...

Outside of Stu, Rick, and William, I don't really show my stuff to anyone else. My g/f thinks books are snakes or something, my family dosen't care for the genre, and my friends don't give criticism.

And Stu, I wasn't insulted because I have a thick skin, but maybe you shouldn't have started those anthology critiques with "You ignorant savage..." hehehe


Charles Gramlich said...

I once dedicated a piece to my ex-wife with: "To Mary, who doesn't read them but is happy when I have them published."

Pythia3 said...

Well, I wish I would have read this entry BEFORE I followed on the coat tails of Jon and sent an e-mail out to some friends and family directing them to my new blog. Oh my! What was I thinking?
I laughed out loud when I read this one. And here I thought "real" writers were never questioned. All these years I have been writing my way from the "So, you write?" and the "What do you write?" to becoming an unquestionable “real writer." Now I see that doesn't happen. For even the great one, Stu, is questioned.
So, Stu, when are we considered “real writers?” Is there a rite of passage short of writing a best seller . . . or even being published? Are we fated to a life of clandestine critique groups and secret seminars to feed our craft and keep our breed alive?
Thanks for sharing this. I am comforted to know . . . I am in good company.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I hope more writers leave their observations.

Susan, I haven't yet written the assignment. I'll probably post it by Thursday. That's when I send out an email to the group members and start nagging them.

And Susan, as for your other statement: keep writing fiction. You have a good way with details and narrative flow.

And as for when someone is a writer? In my humble opinion: when they write and care about their writing. And when they proof read what they write and edit it. And edit it again.

I used to believe that everyone should work with the same dedication and strive for publication. No longer. I think different people are motivated by different things. For some it is enough the bring a story to a group. For some it's enough the publish on a blog. I say it's up to you.

Me? I write to annoy people.

SQT said...

Writing has always been a love and source of frustration. I haven't met anyone I feel comfortable handing my writing to and asking their opinion.

I've learned not to let my husband read anything if I can help it. I find it stifling to have someone pay too much attention to the creative process I go through and casual opinions tend to make me change my mind too much. I prefer to have something more complete before I have it looked at.

I used to write for a newspaper and it was tough to have my articles changed by the editor. You get used to providing what they want and it happens less often as time goes on. And I suppose the same is probably true in book writing, the process is just longer.

The hardest thing for me is to transition from a extremely straightforward journalistic style to a less structured creative style. It's what I seek but have a hard time getting right. Also, I find that the idea's I have in my head don't always translate well onto paper. I have a friend who is a published author who tells me that she allows herself to write crap knowing that she'll just hack away at it later and rearrange things until it feels right. I'm working on allowing myself to do this and not self-edit so much that I don't get anything done.

miller580 said...


It's good that writing causes frustration; it means there is passion in the process.

I usually don't start give up a story until it is at about the second draft. By then I ususally have it locked down where I want to go. Then I workshop it, and rework two or three more times.

Also, read. Read alot of good fiction. Read a little bad fiction. Read it all. This will help you to develop your narative technique.

You should try and find two or three dependable readers though. Dependable meaning that they will critique the writing not the writer. (right Stewart?)

Remember your writing for the reader as much as for your self.

Stewart Sternberg said...

I am going to do a posting about writing for an audience. At a recent workshop I attended we discussed the idea of audience. Some people have a problem with writing toward a certain demographic, but if the goal is being published, then writing without knowing the audience is rather idealistic at best, and ignorant at worst.

Some writers say things like: "I write for myself." Me too, sometimes. However in the last year or two, I have started tailoring my fiction for a specific audience, studying what a magazine is accepting, looking at the already accepted work, and trying to get a handle on its demographic.

Again, I think I will be posting more on writing related topics. That's one of the main focuses of this blog, after all.