Friday, July 17

Don’t Write, Bleed

Don’t Write, Bleed

I’ve been mulling over a pattern I’ve noticed: my work that has received the highest praise from readers is work in which I wrote about, if I may put it like this, the peculiar themes of my life. My hopes and fears, my hangups and triggers. My deep, dark, secrets.

Of course I didn’t just slap my traumas on the page and say: Here you go! No, I transformed them into the language of the story.

For example (and my apologies if I’ve mentioned this scene previously), in one of my scenes I had my protagonist sit down to coffee with her overbearing mother. To say that they didn’t get along is an understatement of staggering proportions. It’s like calling the Hindenburg disaster “unfortunate.” But the protagonist needed a favor, so she was trying to make nice. 

Well, as they sipped their coffees and chatted my protagonist came to an uncomfortable realization. She saw her mother not just as a parent but as a person, as a more-or-less ordinary human being. More than that, she realized her mother was suffering, that in fact she had been suffering for a while. She was being crushed by the weight of carrying, of safeguarding, her many secrets. Over the years these secrets had eaten away at the woman, at her sanity. My protagonist feels guilty and tries, in her stumbling inelegant way, to let her mother know she loved her and she didn’t need to be alone.

When I wrote this scene my own mother was in the hospital, slowly slipping away. In that scene ... I suppose it was a way for me to say things to my own mother that, due to her condition, she was beyond hearing.

Sorry for the melancholy post! My point is that readers were able to relate to my protagonist in that scene in a way that transcended the specific story I was telling and which, ultimately, helped bring it to life.

In connecting with my emotions concerning my mother, in channelling them into the scene, I made it better. Why? Because it brought to bear my specific experience of this universal human experience.

A Word of Warning

No doubt you’ve all heard the expression, often attributed to Ernest Hemingway, “Writing is easy. You just open a vein and bleed.”

The first time I read this quotation it resonated with me, but I didn’t realize that what I’ve been talking about – translating both the happiest and most painful experiences in life into one’s work – is how we bleed. 

At least, that’s my take on it. 

This kind of writing – writing with a kind of brutal emotional honesty – is uncomfortable because we feel a bit like we’re undressing in public. It’s a bit like living out one of those stress dreams we’ve all had where we walk into a crowded room, stark naked.

But, in a way, that’s what we’re doing. We’re revealing our essence, exposing our soul.

Yes, of course, we translate these experiences into the language of the story. Your dad coming home drunk and beating you becomes the protagonist’s betrayal by their best friend. It’s not the same thing, but that’s the point. We use the real emotions we have from the actual events of our lives but attach them to fictional events.

That’s how we bleed. 

That’s it! What do you think? Is this what the author of this quotation (“Writing is easy, just ...”) meant by opening a vein? Perhaps they were only trying to say that writing is a painful, exhausting experience.

Whatever the case, till next week, good writing!

Thursday, July 9

4 Tips For Finding Beta Readers Right For You

Lately I’ve been thinking about the importance of finding beta readers, readers who are right for you. 

For the most part I’ve had wonderful experiences with beta readers. They’ve been energizing to work with and have made my stories better: shorter, more interesting, twistier. Sure, I’ve had one or two bad experiences, but the good eclipses the bad.

For what it’s worth, here are four things I look for in beta readers:

1. They regularly read the genre you’ve written in.

I speak from experience, folks. Never, EVER, give a light, breezy paranormal romance to a fan of hard sci-fi. The conventions of the two genre are at odds (fact-based extrapolation versus flight of fanged fancy). Not only would the reader not know where to begin the critique, but they just might resent you personally for asking them to do it!

Let’s face it, many of us can tell when someone who disliked the book on a personal level tries to give a fair, even-handed critique. I’ve found it’s a bit like watching a car crash in slow motion – with me in one of the cars!

If I had one piece of advise I could pass off to new writers it would be this: Never ask for a critique from a person who doesn’t actively read the kind of book you’ve written. (Copy editing is different since the editor doesn’t comment on the content of the story. That said, if I knew my copy editor disliked the genre I’d written in, I wouldn’t want to inflict my story on her.)

2. They critique the work rather than the author of the work.

This may seem obvious, but saying, “It looks like a three year old wrote this,” or slightly less cutting, “I think this material may be too advanced for you,” is (generally speaking) not helpful. In my opinion, someone should never discourage anyone from writing. (Suggesting that a work isn’t ready to publish is another matter.) 

3. They are consistently consistent.

Everyone is biased. Which may be just another way of saying we each have our own taste, our own preferences. Sure, we try to be impartial but this is especially difficult when we don’t realize if or how we are biased.

So it’s no surprise that one beta reader will say they loved (for example) your protagonist’s tearful goodbye to her mother at the end of chapter one while another will think it extraneous and overwrought.

Such is life. Different strokes and all that.

I’ve found after I receive several critiques from someone that I get a feel for what that person likes, what they look for in a story. Which is to say that I begin to get a peek at their literary biases.

And that’s great! If I know someone disliked my tearful scene because they are constitutionally averse to tearful scenes, then I know what to make of their comments.

But sometimes – not often, but sometimes – folks are less than consistent.

What I’m talking about here are people who, if I might put it like this, are consistently inconsistent.

Thankfully I’ve only had one reader who was like this, and it was years ago, back when I first started writing. I suspect she didn’t read any of the stories she critiqued, but feeling the need to come up with a criticism, she picked a random paragraph and took issue with it!

Which brings us to ...

4. They are someone you won’t lose as a friend if you only ask them to read for you once, and never again.

This is just my advice, take it or leave it: Before you ask someone to read your work, think about what might happen if you never again ask this person for another critique.

When I was a teen (so, YEARS ago) I asked a close friend to look over my work. It was my first year of college and I loved everything about the english class I was taking, especially the teacher. She was awesome. I would go to her office hours and we would talk about literature and ideas and, well, life-in-general for hours. 

So, no surprise, when it was time for me to write my first essay for her course I wanted it to be perfect. (Cue ominous music.) Because I was especially nervous about my essay I asked my best friend to read it and give me her feedback.

And she did! She put a lot of time into reading my scribbles and composing her feedback. I still remember her handing the paper back to me, her look of hesitancy, the uncertainty (fear?) in her eyes.

“I think I may have gone a bit overboard,” she said.

“Nonsense!” I said, and pried my paper from her fingers.

I swear to you I do not exaggerate when I say there was more red ink on the paper than black!

My excitement took a nosedive, but I managed to hold my smile in place and thank her for the time she’d taken to look over the paper.

My friend, though brilliant on many levels, was neither a reader (of fiction) nor a writer. Her edits would have stripped my voice from the piece. It would have been more hers than mine!

Anyway, I handed my paper in sans the changes she had suggested and didn’t ask my friend to look over any other papers. I wasn’t upset at her – sure I was a little sad that she hadn’t ‘gotten’ what I was trying to say, but it honestly wasn’t a big deal. I recognized that her heart had bene in the right place and was touched by the amount of work she’d spent on my essay.

What I didn’t anticipate was that, because I didn’t give her another paper to read, she felt as though she’d failed. She thought I was upset with her and didn’t believe my claims to the contrary. It got to the point that my refusal to use her as a reader affected our relationship. Thankfully, we found a way to leave the incident in the past, but it has made me consider what might happen if I only use a reader once. 

Let’s face it, there are many reasons to only use a reader once, none of them negative. Perhaps one of your regular readers was busy so you needed someone to fill in, but just this once. Perhaps you experimented with a new genre and don’t write in it again. Perhaps the reader has a preference for stories of a certain length and you don’t normally write to that length. Whatever the case, before asking someone if they would read for you take a moment to consider how it will effect your relationship if you never ask them to read for you again.

Before I close I would like to thank all the beta readers out there. You’re terrific! You folks volunteer to read unpolished prose and give honest, heartfelt feedback. You rock!

That’s it! Thanks for reading, I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!

Thursday, July 2

Be Fearless: Make Your Characters Real

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been overly concerned with what others think about my work, letting it paralyze me at times. This week I want to talk about the importance of knowing oneself and infusing one’s unique perspective into one’s work.

As Grace Paley wrote:

“The difference between writers and critics is that in order to function in their trade, writers must live in the world, and critics, to survive in the world, must live in literature. That’s why writers in their own work need have nothing to do with criticism, no matter on what level.” [1]

The writer immerses herself in the world to, in part, develop her unique perspective on the world. 

Paley goes on:

“One of the reasons writers are so much more interested in life than others who just go on living all the time is that what the writer doesn’t understand the first thing about is just what he acts like such a specialist about — and that is life. And the reason he writes is to explain it all to himself, and the less he understands to begin with, the more he probably writes. And he takes his ununderstanding, whatever it is — the face of wealth, the collapse of his father’s pride, the misuses of love, hopeless poverty — he simply never gets over it. He’s like an idealist who marries nearly the same woman over and over.” [1]

Writers are both stubborn and biased. We have our own questions, our own fears, our own concerns. Certain things mystify us and we are driven to unravel these mysteries even as we recognize the impossibility of such a task.

Paley’s words connected with me like a swift punch to the solar plexus and I realized a truth I’ve been ignoring: each writer’s work is unique because they—a person unlike any other—have given birth to it.  It has grown from the soil of their own concerns, their flaws, their unique worldview.

Creating Human Characters: Letting Your Life Guide Your Writing

This is going to seem like a digression, but hold on. 

I read an inspiring post today, “The Secret Behind Making Me Care About Your Characters,” by Chuck Wendig. In it he wrote:

“When I talk to you about your character, and you start to tell me, “Well, she has to find the DONGLE OF MAGIC to fight the WIZARD OF BADNESS and then she tames HORBERT THE MANY-HEADED DRAGON,” I immediately start to cross my eyes. I emit drool. I have a small seizure and then fall into a torpid grief-coma. Grief over what you’ve done to the human condition.

“And what you’ve done to the human condition is ignore it utterly.”


“A character doesn’t care about the WIDGET OF MAJESTY or the GIZMO OF FLARNIDONG unless those things suit something altogether more personal. Meaning: the character cares most about things personally relevant to the character. Not global, galactic, kingdom-wide concerns. But concerns about that person’s intimate sphere of influence.”

“Characters care about family, friends, jobs, love, hate. If they care about money or power, it’s because they see it as something they need personally. If they have larger, grander principles, those principles must be rooted in something intimate to the character.”


“We don’t sympathize with Luke’s galactic ambitions. We sympathize with him wanting to get off that [...] hillbilly planet. We totally grok him wanting to be something greater than he seems to be — the desire to stop being some blue-milk-slurpin’ sandfarmer and become the last of the Jedi, well, shit, who doesn’t want to accelerate past our seemingly mundane destinies?

“And it’s from this — from the part where the characters cleave to their personal goals, ideas and problems that we see them start to make changes.”


“[W]e look for things we understand. (And here may be the truest exploration of “write what you know” — it’s less about the facts and data and details and more about the authenticity of the human experience that you should draw upon. You don’t know what it is to karate kick a yeti, but you do know what it is to suffer loss and lies, to want love and experience hate [...].”

Although Chuck Wendig goes on to make a larger point about character versus plot, what he says right here, in the excerpts I’ve provided, nicely echoes Grace Paley’s point.

In a way, each of us is trapped inside our own skin, locked into one perspective, one worldview. 

In this light, then, perhaps one of the roles of a writer is to know our own mind, our own questions, our own fears, our own puzzlements, with such thoroughness that we infuse this understanding, this perspective, into our writing. Further, we want to do it so successfully that, for a time, our readers feel themselves transported into another worldview. 

Which, incidentally, doesn’t narrow what we can write about. Just the opposite. By getting in touch with (for instance) our own fear of failure one can craft innumerable believable characters, whether they want to build a rocket to Mars or get through their child’s first day at school.

That’s it! Write your worldview, write your soul. I’ll talk to you again next week. In the meantime, good writing!


1. This quotation is from a lecture Grace Paley gave in the 1960s entitled, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything.” The transcript was included in the volume “Just As I Thought.” I came across these quotations on the site Brain Pickings ( Specifically, through an article by Maria Popova, “The Value of Not Understanding Everything: Grace Paley’s Advice to Aspiring Writers.”