Tuesday, May 31, 2011


Writing is gardening, the result a feast. The metaphor is obvious: plant seeds, water, fertilize, weed, harvest, and enjoy the result in the form of a fabulous meal. Why does this metaphor feel so right? Every stage of growing food to nourish our bodies has a counterpart in growing stories to feed our minds.

A plot is like the garden map; if we throw seeds randomly the result is a confusing mess. Subplots are like carrots; if we have too many of them, it’s as if we’ve planted seeds too closely. The row is so tightly packed that no carrot can grow to its potential. Plots need room to breathe.

We find the perfect spot to plant our strawberries, radishes and scallions. We space the seeds just so. But darn it if the neighbor didn’t plant a fast growing Ausstree Willow that sucks the water right out of our bed and throws shade on our nascent plants all but ten minutes of each day. Likewise, the shade of negativity can stunt the growth of stories, even those begun with the best seed. There will always be interruptions and backslides but we needn’t pout. Maybe the neighbor would be willing to trim his tree or help us dig out a new bed on the other side of the yard. It serves us well, in gardening and in writing, to seek and accept support from others. If we surround ourselves with sunshine, the veggies and fruit will thrive.

You’ve got to edit. And edit. And edit. Enough said.

How should we look at our bruised fruit? With admiration! Do you want taste or shiny wax? Good characters are like bruised fruit. The imperfect ones often taste sweeter and are full of authentic flavor.

Unlike farmers competing with their 1,000+ pound pumpkins, we writers compliment and even combine our crops; my zucchini, her parsley and garlic, his onions and tomatoes and your eggplant mix to make an unbeatable ratatouille. That’s what critique groups and involvement in the greater writing community are all about. It’s in our best interest to cooperate rather than compete.

Writing and gardening are emotional roller coasters. There are exquisite highs (a bumper crop of jalapenos) and agonizing lows (that damn rabbit ate the strawberries). Expect them. Celebrate them both as forward movement. Even a rejection gets you one step closer to publication, as long as you listen to the reason you were rejected.

Next time we can talk about my favorite subject (as a foodie and food writer): cooking up our crops.

Publication and sharing our bounty is the purpose of planting our garden. Go grow some cucumbers and a ton of fans!

Inkpot wishes you good gardening!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

A Two Crit Litwit?

Hello, my name is Folio, and I’m a two crit litwit. A litwrit? A critwrit? Okay, a nitwit! Ahem.

Let’s try that again.

Hello, my name is Folio, and I belong to two critique groups. I love them both. Benefit from both. Why two? Because they're different. Yet some writers wonder whether they should even belong to one, let alone two.

I credit my friends in my first group (Uff Da!), with pushing me up the mountain. Or perhaps we linked hands and climbed the Fourteener together. We met at a class on How to Get Published, so we were all ambitious and at somewhat similar levels of experience. This proved invaluable. While there’s certainly an appeal to joining a group with members that have far more experience, consider whether that makes the slope a bit slippery. You might be an amazing talent, but if you’re trudging up the hill and don’t even know what to carry in your backpack, have to be guided every step of the way, it could be frustrating for everyone. Some groups I’m aware of require an “audition” before an invitation to join for exactly this reason.

Uff Da Cum Laude meets monthly, exchanges pages at one meeting and critiques them at the next. We’re friends, supporters, and cheerleaders. We love good stories. We’ve been through the battles of trying to get published and some of us have. Once, disaster visited. A man I’ll call Big Bad John asked if he could join our group. What an arrogant, unhappy person. He was loud, uber ambitious, and voiced the opinion that kindness had no place in critique. He preferred the slash and burn method. Didn’t care if there was blood on the trees.

After that first meeting our “old” members privately critiqued him as a potential member, and we disinvited him. Because of John we closed our group. That one encounter taught us how important it is to learn if you’re a fit for your critique group, and vice versa. I want critique and I’m pretty tough and resilient, but who needs deforestation? Not me. John apparently thought he did. I hope he found a group that shared his goals and preferences.

Enter my second group, the Sisters of the Quill. Oh sisters, was I ever flattered to be approached at a writer’s conference by an incredibly gracious author, Storm Petrel. She introduced herself, noted that we were from the same small town (displayed on our nametags). She belonged to a critique group with only a few members. Would I like to join them, try a meeting or two? Would I!?

That was many years ago and these days we meet weekly to work and critique. And to enjoy our friendship! Camaraderie is good in this solitary profession of ours. We have one long-distance member, and several years ago we began reporting our progress on a regular basis, sometimes daily, via email. We’ve found that one sister’s success can be celebrated, shared by all, as can coping with angst. Then every once in a while we meet for an all day or multi-day retreat. Talk about fun! We brainstorm and work hard, pound out plot points and eat wonderful food.

As you might gather, we’re supportive but at the same time aggressive, about getting published, that is! “What iffing” is sought out and appreciated. If something doesn’t work we say so, then it’s up to the sister to decide if she agrees. Or not. During this journey we've truly become sisters, in every best sense of the word. Such a treasure.

I know a few writers who think their voice will be massaged to a homogenized mush if they run their words through critique. I think it could happen. So remember that every comment should be filtered by you. After all, how many times have you started reading a bestseller and found it wasn't worth turning the pages? Opinions really do vary. So remember to be open, to really LISTEN to the comments about your work, and THEN decide whether to edit. At the same time, if you're not interested in changing and learning, and argue about every suggested improvement, then why bother with critique?

I hope you’re as blessed as I am with your friends in critique. In both of my groups what started as nervous meetings of strangers flourished, grew tall and strong, and now reach steadfastly for the quill or pen or keyboard.

Uff Da! SOTQ!


Wednesday, May 11, 2011

“Being Gretchen”: Happiness for Writers Who Second-Guess

We writers are blessed with extreme sensitivity; it’s what allows us to write. On the other hand, it can be a curse: we constantly gauge reactions to our work, even our own, as we self-edit. But self-editing is essential! (Sound of pulling hair out.) I constantly second-guess my approach to my current novel; with every rejection—and nearly every reading—I’m tempted to rethink the entire project.

But there’s help! The other night I was reading an enjoyable book called The Happiness Project. In it, author Gretchen Rubin discusses her own second-guessing paralysis.

On pp 77-78 of The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin explains that along the way to her immensely successful New York Times bestseller, many people gave her advice. One friend suggested she change the title; another recommended she emphasize different aspects of her life such as conflict with her mother. When she protested she had no conflict with her mother, he harrumphed that she was in denial.

With each suggestion she worried: was her tone wrong? Was she wrong to talk about her own experience so much? Perhaps the answer was yes, and yet… “I didn’t want to be the novelist who spent so much time rewriting his first sentence that he never wrote his second.” Gretchen decided that if she wanted to accomplish anything, she needed to push ahead without constantly second-guessing herself. She needed to "Be Gretchen." And there I was, holding her beautiful and worthwhile book, now in reach-the-masses paperback, in my hands.

Possibly because I had just read about Gretchen’s experience, I felt much more relaxed about heading back into my jello elephant of a novel yesterday for one more go-round. And something wonderful happened: a new idea took off and made magic. At least I felt that way, though I’ve heard that a chemical released in the brain during creative bursts gives that euphoric sensation of having created something special…

Oh no! There I go again, second-guessing. Today I will choose again to “Be Storm Petrel” and push ahead with my own vision of the project, and encourage you to do the same.

Thank you, Gretchen Rubin!
- Storm Petrel