Critiquing the Lion King... And Other Problems with Being a Writer

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Writing is my life. I don’t mean I sit at my computer all day and come up with blogs or bang out best-selling novels (don’t I wish). No. I mean, I live, breath, and think writing... and it’s all my husband’s fault.

I’m married to a professional writer. My husband, Alex, has eleven traditionally-published novels to his name, plus a handful of self-published books. You may have heard of him, the illustrious A. Lee Martinez.

Oh, you haven’t? Well, unfortunately, that’s what being a writer is all about. Writing is often a labor of love in obscurity. Ideally, for money.

As such, writers get really comfortable with talking about the craft of writing. I don’t mean to sound obnoxious using the word “craft.” But seven years being married to a writer has taught me that storytelling is so much more than putting words on a page.

Alex and I talk about writing. All. The. Time. We talk about storytelling the same way other families talk about politics. I must confess, before I decided to try my hand at writing a novel, it irritated me a little bit to have Alex pick apart movies I enjoyed. Nothing was sacred. He critiqued the Lion King.

Fast forward through nine years of the DFW Writers Workshop's weekly read-and-critiques. I’m telling Alex about a bizarre episode of a show I’m watching. This show is usually pretty good but this particular episode is so bad it's breaking my brain. As I’m describing the issues I have with the clearly first-draft nature of the story, Alex just pats me on the back and says, “Babe, it’s because you are a writer.”

I’ve had other moments where my new-found ability to analyze storytelling has led to some uncomfortable truths. I loved a certain superhero movie... while I was watching it. But on the drive home, my brain decided to dissect it, even without Alex in the car. "I gotta say, if you peel away the bright colors, rock anthems, and fan-favorite characters, it’s just an okay movie. Fun? Yes. Thoughtful? Not really."

Does every movie have to be thoughtful? I think so if they want to be remembered twenty years from now. But stories that stand the test of time don’t finance the next big blockbuster. Good enough is good enough, but that’s not good enough. (English is weird.)

We deserve good stories! And I’ve found them in the most innocuous of places. Take the movie "Happy Death Day." On the surface, it looked like a by-the-numbers Groundhog Day rip-off with a serial-killer twist. Except it wasn’t. Sure, the main character got murdered over and over again, often in creative and grizzly ways. But her arc as a human being was fascinating. She really used the opportunity to hold a mirror up to herself and to make some changes in her life. Plus, I didn’t see the ending coming. The movie is brilliant. It had its cake and ate it too! Serial killers AND self-actualization!

I guess what I’m trying to say is that living with a writer is dangerous. Good stories are no longer good. Bad stories are suddenly great. As it turns out, writing is contagious.


Reading Out Loud

Unlike most people who join a writer’s group to perfect their craft, connect with beta-readers, or simply commiserate about their latest rejection over pancakes and coffee, I was essentially voluntold (and yes that’s a made-up word) by my therapist to join the DFW Writer’s Workshop. As part of my exposure therapy for social anxiety, I had to join a group. Not only did I have to become a nametag wearing member of the DFWWW, I had to show up and participate in their activities. And if you’ve ever been to our weekly meeting, you know that there are two main activities — reading and critiquing. 

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The first time I read my work in front of my peers, my voice shook, my face turned fifty shades of red and sweat dribbled down the inside of my shirt as if I were soaking in a sauna. Even worse, I felt as if my rapidly beating heart was about to shoot up and out of my throat as I struggled towards my last sentence. I wanted nothing more than to slide under the plastic table and die. And that was while I was still reading. I hadn’t even gotten to the worst part, the critique, or the soul crushing evisceration of what I’d just read in front of real live human beings. That first read, I can’t even remember what people had to say about my pages. At the time, it didn’t matter. I was silently congratulating myself for surviving. I’d read my words aloud in front of people I didn’t know and I didn’t collapse and die, even though I felt like it was a very real possibility.

Each week it became easier. After each reading, I proved to myself that the fear I felt in my body wasn’t a real fight-or-flight situation. I could relax. More importantly, I could also listen and learn which has been the greatest gift of the workshop. I have learned more from hearing other people read their work and the resulting critiques on a weekly basis than I did in my MFA program. I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t work and more importantly — why. Even when I think I’ve nailed a passage and I look forward to sharing it, the simple act of reading it out loud at the group magnifies the stilted dialogue, the awkward sentence, or the lengthy exposition. It’s a wonderful, insightful exercise that I would recommend to anyone who wants to become a better writer.

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Be a Better Beta Reader

So, your friend wants you to beta read his book. It’s a masterpiece, a baby carved right out of his soul. You tell him he’s smart not to send that baby out into the heartbreaking world of “Dear Agent X” without someone else taking a look at it first.

The manuscript arrives in your inbox, and you soon discover that your friend’s baby weighs 300 pounds. It’s not really that fun to play with and screams a lot. It vomits on you occasionally. And the diapers...ugh...you’re knee deep in them.    

So when you hand that 300-pound baby back to him two months later, the poor thing has a single comment on every chapter, right at the end. They read something like this:

“Great opening chapter!”

“Hmm...Something wrong with this scene, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well...I’m not sure about this...I no longer like this character. Check motivations.”

“Meh.”

“Great chapter! You’re back!”

Most writers have to deal with critiques that are less than helpful, but a bad beta read is just depressing. The writer is left with a vague feeling of unease, because it’s obvious this baby needs some work. Vague unease does not lend itself to an enthusiastic and targeted revision.

So the next time you say “yes” to that desperate writer friend, think about the following tips:

1. Stay in your comfort zone: If you hate police procedurals, don’t beta read your friend’s cop mystery. If you’ve never read a romance novel, you’re absolutely the worst person to beta read your buddy’s Scottish highland erotic adventure. Pick your beta reads carefully, and learn to say no.

2. Stay on your toes when you’re reading: Your writer friend is most likely lost in his or her own revision. Take the time to mark specific locations in the manuscript. When the story made you laugh, make a note on the paragraph.  If you were moved to tears, mark it. When the narrative slows and drags, find the spot where that began and make a note. The comments don’t have to be long, but this approach to beta reading can help shave dozens of hours off of your friend’s revision.

3. Be specific:  Good critiques pinpoint dropped plot threads, weird character motivations, and ugly dialogue tags. Your comments should also suggest revision ideas, although it’s best that you include fleshed out examples in a comment bubble rather than inside the text of the manuscript (writer friends can be sensitive about their babies).  

4. Don’t forget to praise: It’s not all about telling your friend what’s wrong with the book. More than anything, your writer friend needs to know what’s right. A beta read that constantly focuses on the negative can hobble a writer during the revision process. Positive reinforcement encourages the writer to reproduce that excellence again.   

5. Tell the writer when to cut: So here’s the truth. It’s not a baby. That means that cutting a chapter is not like cutting off your kid’s arm. Help the author realize that and let go. Sometimes it’s better to ditch an entire chapter than spend six months revising something that will never, never work.

Beta reading is part of any thriving writing community, but it’s also part of being a good friend. Learn to do it right, and you’ll get the same treatment on your own 300-pound baby novel when you really need it. 


GRATEFUL

I am a writer, so it’s only natural that I create an elaborate metaphor to talk about… well, to talk about anything. My mission in this post is to describe DFW Writers Workshop and my experience with the group. I could go on to say that the DFW Writers Workshop is an accidental blessing that I am grateful for walking into. I could explain how it’s a community of diverse people gathered together by one strong pull to create and keep creating. I could go on and on about how much this workshop means to me and how much I have changed by participating in it each week. I could say a lot. Trust me. Instead, I have decided to deliver a metaphor.

Forgive me now, I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. In light of the holiday season, it has come to mind that the workshop reminds me a lot of Thanksgiving. 

Stay with me.

Every week, people travel across the metropolis to gather together and celebrate their work. We ready our reads in the comforts of home and then slug through traffic to be with one another for a few fine hours. Old friends and new members mingle, discussing what will be read that night. I hunger to hear other people’s stories like I hunger for good turkey. I hold my own brand of creation in my hands hoping to be critiqued and also hoping, just hoping, someone likes it enough to say I should continue cooking up the plot.

The actual workshop works like this: you read aloud a small piece of your work for fifteen minutes or less and people critique you for five minutes. A collection of people sits around a table, each of us serving up a piece of genre and letting others digest our words. And then we talk. We talk and we listen. Okay, sometimes we argue. But that only strengthens the analogy if you think about it.

And even though we only wait a week between meetings, people catch up with each other as if it’s been a year because we discuss not only our lives, but also the lives of our characters.

 

            “My protagonist is acting up again. I can’t get the voice right with this one.”

            “Yep, I am still working on the climax. It’s going… well, it’s going.”

             “I have not written a thing in months. I know, I know, it’s been a hard month.”

             “I have an event this Saturday. Hope y’all can come.”

 

We are a group. We are a tribe. We are a family of our creation. And there is nothing like working out the kinks of your writing with a family that truly understands what you are going through. For that, I am grateful.


TIME IS RELATIVE: Making Time to Write

Whenever I am asked, ‘So, what do you do?’ I fumble through a series of emotions, defaulting on a grin-and-bear-it smile.

Wife and Soccer-Mom-of-Three by day. Emergency Room and Neonatal nurse by night. Breastfeeding Educator. Romance Author.

Eyes normally get wide and the person who just wanted some small-talk responds in one of two ways:

“Whoa, what’s the coolest thing you’ve seen in the ER?”

“Really, you’re an author? Where do you find the time?”

The first question is easy and usually starts with some genius who said, “Hey, hold my beer.” The second is pretty tough.

A writer needs to write. Everyday. I compare it to training for a marathon, except you don’t get the satisfaction of a medal or a sticker for your car when you type “The End.” My world doesn’t allow for writing rituals or long stretches of time with my fingers feverishly putting words on the page. Over the years, I’ve tried little ways to find time. I carried my tablet around like a fourth child in the off chance I’d have a moment during soccer practice or that my brain would be able to restart and re-tool a scene between patients. But those situations didn’t always work out. I needed to be a mom at soccer and a nurse in the ER.

When I finally started calling myself an author, I gave myself time. Billable, bursts of time where I officially put on my romance-writer hat. I stopped trying to find time to write and made time to write. I get up early. Stay up twenty minutes late. I let my children play the iPad (yep, I’m that mom). I complete three mom chores, and grant myself equal amounts of time to work as an author. My children know I work in the hospital and on the computer. My co-workers simply ignore the fact I talk out my scenes while turning over beds or charting vital signs. And my husband understands why some days the laundry doesn’t get finished.

Sure, the “Mom Guilt” monkey hitches a ride on my back every now and again, and somedays my precious thirty minutes is spent deleting three sentences and googling a word. Maybe all you do is draft or doodle. Maybe it’s listening to the song that inspires your story. If it fires your imagination and is solely devoted to your craft – it will never be time wasted.

Don’t look at your day and decide there isn’t time for you and your story. Don’t try to give 100% to five different things at once. The outcomes are never worth the effort.  Except for cooking. Crafting a scene while making dinner always turns out nice and spicy. 

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