Tuesday, September 27, 2011

19 Write What You Love, But Make Sure Only You Can Write It

I know I am overdue for a really good, meaty craft post, and I am thinking about craft, I promise. I just haven't had any huge revelations that have inspired me lately. My writing journey is a bit of a leaky faucet. At the beginning, knowing nothing, learning craft was like an open spigot. So much information poured through, I couldn't absorb it fast enough. New knowledge, new flashes of inspiration come more slowly now. I've read and heard enough craft advice that it's not as much about hearing something new as it is about hearing it in a different way, and being ready to hear it. I have to wait for something in my writing to need that information for it to process. Or maybe I am looking for the small droplets to gather enough momentum, to pool together and grow big enough to fall and create the ripple that will reshape my work.

For various reasons, I've done a lot of thinking and discussing about critiquing and workshopping recently. In part this is because I had one of the worst critique experiences of my life a couple of weeks ago, when a new member joined my local critique group. I read her work ahead of time, and loved it. LOVED it. But it was a like reading two different manuscripts all jumbled together. Although she hadn't yet finished her first draft, she had been workshopping and critiquing and submitting it to many different contests. Everyone recognized her talent, but she had gotten so much different advice that the work read like it had been written by committee. And when I suggested she needed to go back to her own voice, she said, "but that's not what people are publishing." And yet it is. Within her genre, that's what the best books are like. She got so upset by my critique, so defensive and offended, that I actually resigned my group. I just felt I couldn't work with her and didn't want to stand in her way, or in the way of the rest of the group as a whole. In the long run, sadly, she is going to be the one leaving, and I truly, truly hope she will find the faith in the voice of her heart to see that she can write what she loves.

It's such a fine line. Trusting yourself versus trusting what critique partners, or agents, or experts have to say. The market is fickle, and we are all here searching for answers. I wish I had them. There are so many writers I want to hug and remind that they need to BELIEVE. Just BELIEVE. It will come. Maybe not tomorrow, or the next day. But it will come, because they have something important to say.

For me, I think that's the whole point of writing. We're communicating. It's entertainment, sure, but the stories I love and connect with are those that have some essential truth to share. Some inner core of beauty or ugliness that makes its way from the page to burrow into my soul.

Last week, I talked about the emotional heart of a story. For me, THAT is what writing is about. It's not about a great plot, or the mot juste, or a finely crafted sentence. Those have to be there too, but writing is also about creating a line from one heart to another.

There are many different hearts out there. Everything we read, every critique comment we receive, every workshop we attend grows ours a little more. Opens the spigot of our craft and knowledge a little bit more.

So if you are struggling, BELIEVE. Keep looking for the critique partners who will support you but give you honest feedback while letting you be yourself. I'm so blessed to have Marissa, Clara, Cici, Carol and Lisa Green along with my "real world" critique partners Karen and Elizabeth. Despite the solitary nature of writing, sometimes it takes a village to give us the courage to continue writing. The trick is that no matter how many critiques we get, no matter how many workshops we attend, we have to make our writing sound like it is our own, wholly our own. It can't be written by a village.

Write what you love. Love what you write. But make sure there is something in the manuscript, on every page of your manuscript, that contains an essential truth--a different truth--from what is already being published. If your pages could have been written by anyone else, there probably isn't enough of you on them yet.

So there. That's my droplet of knowledge for the day. I hope it will ripple through my own writing.

What about you? What's the essential truth of your writing journey? Have you found the nugget in your own story that only you can write? What makes  you keep believing?

Happy writing,



  1. Great post! It's so important to maintain your voice - the part of your writing that is uniquely YOU. It is easy to get caught up in too much advice. It is actually why I've stopped using critique partners during the process as Stephen King suggests in On Writing. By getting out the first draft and editing it, BEFORE letting others read it, it allows me to continue with my voice. Beta readers come into play only after everything is on the page. The method may not work for everyone, but for me, it is essential.

  2. Beautifully said.
    I'd be willing to bet that that person who was offended by your crit, will be thanking you one day for saying what no one else had the wits or guts to. We need CPs who will call us out and she may not realize it now, but she will.
    When stories don't have heart and truth, I feel a little cheated.

  3. Great post!

    And don't feel too bad! We've had that happen a couple times in my local critique group, people getting offended and leaving.

    And You're so right. All of the books I love the most are so unique within the writer. The subject matter may be similar to something else, but the writing sparks a flame that keeps me reading.

  4. Your post is amazing. And just what I needed and I'm sure a lot of others needed to hear it too.
    I recently attended a conference and found the majority of writers seem to be focusing on a specific aspect of a specific genre. I was doubting my own manuscript because it is completely different from those.
    This helped me realize that I need to be true to what I believe in.

  5. Very well timed... I won't go into details, but I needed to hear that :)


  6. It's so easy to read the debuts or books I love and think - I should write something like that, something more serious, something bigger. But then I stop myself. I need to write what I like and not try to be like someone else! Face to face crit groups can be tough sometimes!

  7. Tina, I love that book! And I kind of think that's what I'm going to do with the manuscript I am prepping now. I'm becoming less and less of a pantser, so I am going scene by scene through my turning points, and I am letting (begging) my CPs shoot holes through that. I may even ask their opinions on the voice for a sample first few pages or something, but after that, I think I need to get through the initial draft and find that voice and rhythm that will sound true to what I want to say. Good for you for having the guts to get that draft out without the reassurance. I'm not sure I would have that kind of courage anymore, but I'm trying :D!

    Pk, thank you! I only hope she stops worrying so much about getting it published right away and takes the time to make it the manuscript it deserves to be. The writer had incredible talent. I also hope I learned something from the encounter about how to say what needs to be said in a more gentle manner next time. ;)

    Holly -- YES! YES! That's it exactly. A great writer could write about sparkly vampires in a way that would be completely different from TWILIGHT, as many times as vampires have been done, as much as it has become the V-word, when someone has something unique to say, the subject doesn't matter.

    Halli and 1000th.monkey -- Hang in there. Honestly. Keep working through whatever you are working through, and as miserable as the road may be right now, it will get easier. Hugs to you both!


  8. This is just lovely. And so important to remember. Thank you.

  9. Martina, this is absolutely one of the most truthful, insightful, and inspiring posts I've ever read. And I'm not just laying it on. I love what you have to say about writing being communication and sharing an essential truth. That's so much how I think of it as well.

    Thank you so much!

  10. Gah! I just tried to comment but it wouldn't take. So, trying again, more condensed version--great post, and I'm sorry you had that uncomfy CP experience. Most of the time I don't like sharing with my CPs (beyond a first chapter or so) until I'm all done figuring out the voice and the vision of my novel. So that means when I finish the rough draft (like Tina said).

  11. While it's true that "sometimes it takes a village," your village seems profoundly sexist. Why are there no men in your group of seven critique partners?

  12. Gail and Lydia, thank you, ladies!

    Susan, thanks. That's doubly especially meaningful to hear from you. Your blog is such an amazing resource, which has given me so much help and food for thought!

    Carol (and Jemi!) I'm so sorroyu you encountered problems with the blogger interface. Sigh. Thanks for trying to post your comments and Carol, I am going to be interested to see how your technique works for me.

    Gallant Press -- I would love to find a great male perspective. I've actively sought male beta readers, but they are a rare breed among children's writers. Have you ever seen the ratio at an SCBWI conference?

  13. That was beautiful!

    And Gallant Press definitely hasn't been to a SCBWI conference. Men are a novelty there. :D

  14. Stina, right? LOL! But shhhh! Because if single, straight guys had any idea of the target rich (and testosterone-free) environment at SCBWI events, those numbers would change dramatically.

  15. LOVE this post. Thanks so much for sharing it, Martina.

  16. Thanks so much, Debbie! That means a lot coming from you! :D



  17. Actually, this was pretty meaty and the idea of "writing by committee" (have I used that word too often recently?) resonated very strongly with me. In my day job, I struggle with proposals and documents and information leaflets that also suffer from the very same issue - there's no voice, they've been written to please everyone and no-one, all the lifeblood of the thinking of the person behind them has been drained away...

    (I did read the following guest post but really didn't feel I had anything to say about it - I run across too many "be yourself" admonishments on writing blogs, I suppose. But having worked back a day to this post, I'm suddenly feeling a lot more charitably disposed towards its message...)

  18. Martina, this was an amazing post. I need to remember this when I think "why would someone want to read something I wrote?" Well, I want to read what other writers wrote, and those books are uniquely "them." Let's hope readers will want to read what's uniquely "us." Good luck to you!


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