Silk’s Post #28 — You know what comes next in that old saw. That’s the beauty and the curse of clichés: They’re useful shorthand for things commonly experienced, and therefore instantly understood. But because they’re so familiar, so normalized, so predictable, they’re like the cold, dead planets of literature – all the heat sucked out of them, devoid of life.
My mission in this post is to re-animate, in gut-wrenching detail, the second half of that old nostrum. And explain what it has to do with the 5writers5novels5months challenge.
Because we’re definitely into the fire now.
Let’s switch to a somewhat more evolved device in the writer’s tool kit and replace cliché with metaphor: the shift from our initial 5 month frenzy of first-draft writing to the next phase of reviewing and rewriting is like travelling from a hot, steamy, fertile jungle of a planet to one that’s burning under a relentless sun, where every warty pebble is starkly illuminated by the harsh light of critique.
Aaaargh, cough, cough. Too. Hot. Can’t. Breathe. [Brief delay, scrambling noises]. Gulp. Whew, that’s better. I just had to go get myself a glass of water.
Last Friday, the 5 writers met in person for the first time since we embarked on our (for us) epic challenge on September 5, 2012. We hugged. We chattered. We toasted ourselves with a bit of bubbly. And then we re-oriented and plotted the renewed course of our shared writer’s journey.
The easy part is over.
Easy? It certainly didn’t feel easy. In fact, as the self-admitted Tortoise of the group (and you can hold the Tortoise jokes, thank you), I’m still busy catching up. With new zeal, mind you, and a new drop-dead deadline of May 15. But the first draft stage – Act I if you will – is the part of the journey when you can let your creativity run free and everything seems possible. You’re writing a book! It’s work, but it’s fun. It overheats your brain, but it’s liberating. And at the end of it, you have this beautiful thing – your story, your creation.
The end of our Act I came February 5, 2013. And, yes, we took a fairly generous intermission. But now it’s time for Act II, where we subject our newborn stories to judgement. And even though our first critics, our fellow 5 writers, are a friendly and supportive audience, we’re committed to helping each other actually get published. That means some hard truth telling is in our near future, here on the Fire Planet.
Our come-to-Jesus meeting (or substitute the saviour of your choice) will take place near the end of June, in a venue yet to be chosen. No place too distractingly recreational, yet no place too familiar. No place our respective partners would be jealous about not being invited to. No place too luxurious, yet no place too cramped or spartan for at least a modicum of comfort. We’ll need it. We have work to do.
This is where a great writers group really proves its value. It takes a lot of trust to give, and take, criticism. As a group, we’ve embarked on this journey as companions with a common destination. In addition to our individual aims and ambitions, we also share the goal of helping each other succeed. We walk the fine line of encouragement versus criticism, teaching ourselves to be good teachers. In the process, the teachers learn a lot about themselves and the strengths and weaknesses in their own work.
But we don’t pander to each other. We don’t let precarious plot structures teeter without insisting on renovations. We don’t allow clichés to stand, or beginnings to stumble, or sub-plots to remain unresolved, or adverbs to run rampant, or middles to sag, or characters to lose their way, or endings to disappoint. So even when delivered in the most supportive of terms, this process is still a trial by fire – make no mistake.
All criticism is personal. And it’s not valuable if it isn’t genuine. If you want to forge a great book, you need to learn to stand the heat. Uncritical feedback, the kind you might get from a non-writing friend or relative who’s wowed by the fact that you actually wrote a whole book (and knows how much sweat you put into it), is a wonderful ego boost. But it doesn’t help prepare you for the next (and even hotter) circle of hell: the criticism of the agent or publisher, which most often comes in the form of a rejection letter. No critique. No rewrite advice. No hints as to why your manuscript is, in their opinion, not worthy of publication.
And if you do pass through that fire, you get to submit your work to the ultimate critic: the reader, and that particular kind of armed-and-dangerous reader called the book reviewer.
Because the publishing business is a pass-fail system. You get published, or you don’t. (Or you self-publish, which is a whole topic for another far-off day). And if you don’t get published, the only thing to do is tuck that manuscript into a drawer and let it cool off, then get started on a new one. If being a “writer” is your calling, the curtain has to go up on Act I all over again.
Back to the frying pan on that cosmic stove.
When the 5 writers began this journey and launched this blog, we were totally focused on the challenge of trying to get a book written in 5 months. Clearly, that was just the beginning. Our challenge continues. We’ve now refocused and recommitted to the next phase of that journey, and we hope you’ll stick with us as we jump out of the frying pan and into the fire (last cliché, I promise).
On to glory. We hope.