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It is the first official work day of 2016 (though, as a writer, most days are work days for me), and I thought I’d take a break from editing my manuscript to post a few thoughts about the year gone by and the year ahead.

So, yeah, 2015. It had good bits and bad bits, making it very like most of life. Reflecting back, the biggest challenges and difficulties the past year posed were also the source of some of my proudest moments and greatest accomplishments. Maybe I’ll try to remember that when I’m bemoaning hardship in the future. Good can come out of it. Growth, too.

Another thing that really jumps out about 2015 is the general awesomeness of my writing buddies. A small group of them in particular, who I have known since way back when I attended my first ever writing workshop, have been — and I know will continue to be — the greatest support network I could ever ask for. Sometimes cheerleaders, sometimes delivering much needed tough love, and sometimes just there to share a cup of tea and sympathy, I am really grateful to know them.

I landed an agent this year (!!!!) — Sarah LaPolla of Bradford Literary Agency signed me just as 2015 turned to 2016 — and I have no doubt I was able to brave the sometimes agonizing, sometimes thrilling process of seeking representation in large part due to the support of my writing group. I look forward to returning the favor. I think we’re all going to do great things in the year to come!

2016 is only a few days old and it is hard to predict the future. Still, I’m sure the year will hold its share of hardships and, hopefully, an equal measure of triumphs. I will try to face them with fearlessness, compassion, and equanimity.

For now, though, I have a rapidly cooling cup of tea to drink and a manuscript that needs trimming. Time to get to work.

Here’s to another year!

 

 

 

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The worst/best part about summer is that it’s summer. As a college professor, I have the whole summer off from work. This is, of course, glorious. And it could (should, that is) mean I get obscene amounts of writing done.

But free time is a dangerous thing.

Free time can be used for writing, yes. It can also be used for a lot of other things that do not include writing.

So when summer rolls around I have to be extra vigilant and very organized.

Step one: schedule lots of writing dates with your writing buddies.

Luckily for me, a very awesome fellow writer lives quite near me. We meet up periodically in coffee shops around Manhattan and Brooklyn and force each other to actually write (well, I mean, we chat an awful lot too, but what do you expect??).

Today we’re headed to Chelsea to check out Fika. I plan to slog through the last few pages of edits to the novel and then work on the cover letter, which is currently in a malaise of mediocre.

Wish me luck!

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When you think of Las Vegas, writing retreats may not be the first thing you think of.  Booze. Gambling. Scantily clad women. Hangover-esque bachelor parties. But not writing.

And yet, Vegas is an unexpectedly awesome place to have a writing retreat.  Think about it. There are usually cheap flights and deals on hotels.  The rooms are often quite large – many are suites which have comfy living areas perfectly suited for a bunch of writers to get together to critique or draft.  If you want a distraction but don’t want to waste time, everything and anything you could imagine is usually located within the hotel you’re staying at.  There is no need to even go outside.  You can eat anywhere from a food court a to five star restaurant, see a show, go to the spa, drink, dance, shop or gamble…all under one roof.  This cuts time wastage to a minimum.

And if you’re looking for inspiration, there’s no place better.  I mean, come on.  The place itself is a massive temple to the imagination, to the absurd, the sublime and the tragic.  Vegas is humanity dressed in its most colorful follies.  It is surreal.  Grotesque.  Glittering.  The only thing it is not is boring.  I dare you to walk the length of just a single hotel in Vegas and not come away with at least 3 new ideas for stories.

So, yes, Vegas is actually a fabulous place for a writing retreat.  In fact, I just got back from one yesterday (my second in Vegas).  A group of my writer-friends from Viable Paradise and Taos Toolbox decided it would be nice to have a retreat just for women (no offense, guys, but sometimes it’s nice for us to get away from you).  We wrote, we went to the spa, and we wrote some more.  In just two days I got more writing done than I have in the past month.  Better yet, I got excited about my project again — mostly because talking about it in person with other writers reignited my ethusiasm.

Many of us engage with other writers through writing groups — often online, exchanging manuscripts and feedback via the twisty tubes of the interwebs.  Sometimes we do Google chat or “hangout” online or Skype, but it’s no substitute for live, in-person interaction, for being able to bounce ideas off each other, share worries and triumphs, swap industry gossip and tips, and get to know each other better.

You can do all this at Cons, of course, but they’re so…overwhelming.  There are so many people and everyone’s attention is being pulled this way and that.  Small writing retreats offer a chance to develop relationships and support each other — both as people and writers — that Cons never could (at least in my opinion…please feel free to disagree in the comments!).  Writing can be a very solitary activity and the friendships formed at retreats and workshops help you feel tethered to a community when you’re beating your head against the keyboard alone in your office at 3am.  That is invaluabe, and thus the time and money sacrificed to travel to retreats and workshops is (again, in my opinion) money very well spent.

So, if you’re debating attending a workshop or retreat, I advise you to debate no longer.  Go.  And, if you’re thinking of planning one, I recommend Vegas.

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Since getting serious about writing fiction a little over two years ago I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon:  writers seem to form social bonds with each other very rapidly.  There is a lot of rhetoric in the writing community about “finding your tribe”, which is–I suppose–meant to imply the discovery of an alchemical union among those of like minds who color outside the normal lines of society.  I’ve always found the idea oddly cultish, but like so many things that worm their way into common vernacular, I’ve realized there is something to it.

Last weekend I attended a writing retreat in Dallas.  It was lunchtime on the second day and a bunch of us were sitting around at Chipotle, just hanging out.  It struck me that two years ago I knew none of these people, some I’d literally only met the day before, and even those I’d known longer I saw at most once a year or only online.  And yet I exposed my vulnerable insides to them on a regular basis and trusted them not to eviscerate me (or, to know if they did it was out of love).  Munching my tacos and pondering this, I though: “this is freaking amazing.”  And it really is.

When I attended the Viable Paradise workshop in the Fall of 2009 I didn’t know any other writers.  Because of the friendships I forged in that one short week on Martha’s Vineyard, today I am part of vibrant community of writers, many of whom I feel as close to as friends I’ve known for years.  How can this happen in such a short time and on such short acquaintance?  It sounds crazy.

It boils down, I believe, to the basic fact that sharing your writing and giving and receiving critiques is deeply, unavoidably personal.  It cuts right through the delicate dance of “how much of myself should I show these people” that we usually engage in when we make new friends.  You basically walk up to another writer (who may come from a different part of the country, have different political or religious views and a wholly divergent background from you) open up your chest, pull out your heart and say: “Here I am. What do you think?”  You’ve found your tribe when they don’t run screaming.

All of this leads you to come to trust people whose lives you may know very little about or with whom you do not interact much beyond your shared love of writing and desire to improve that writing.  It’s a broadening, life-expanding experience.  As an anthropologist, I admit I find this fascinating.  In some ways, the little tribes we writers form are nothing at all like real tribes, which are rooted in kinship.  On the other hand, if we consider this term more broadly, writer’s tribes are totally rooted in kinship, just not the biological kind.

So, sitting there in the Dallas Chipotle, looking around at a circle of friends I acquired by most unconventional means and cherished all the more highly for it, I felt profoundly grateful.  We may not see each other in person very often and our honesty with each other may sometimes bruise egos or rub up against prickly edges, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Update from the front, dear Readers!

I am getting close enough to finishing ABSENT that I can see the hoary light at the end of the tunnel!  I have decided, at virtually the last minute, to go do several weeks of archaeological field work in Honduras!  I am attempting to Beta-read two novels at once!  I have become overly fond of exclamation points (perhaps due to an excess of caffeine coursing through my veins!)

Yes, it is an exclamation point kind of week around the Suri household.  We have celebrated three years of lovely married life, have signed away our life savings on a new apartment, and have lined up so much travel for the month of July (all, of course, at the last minute) that I’m not sure it’s physically possible to accomplish it.  Most notable among our coming adventures is my decision to return to Honduras this summer to continue my archaeological research.

There will be more on this in future posts (and here’s a link to the project blog, for those of you who want to follow our adventures in the field), but in short: I co-direct an archaeological field school in Honduras.  The last time we were down doing work (2009), a coup d’etat happened.  It was not pleasant, and we haven’t been back since.  So, this is a big undertaking, and hopefully one that will go smoothly, as we’re taking 9 undergraduates with us.

On the writing front, I’ve been making happy-fun progress on the first draft of ABSENT, my archaeology time-travel novel.  With my new daily word count goal in place, I’ve cruised through about 8,000 words in the last week or so.  The climax is just a few chapters away, to be followed by another few chapters of denouement.  Is there a chance I could finish this bad boy before I leave for Honduras?  Probably not.  But what the hell, I’m gonna try anyway.  Wish me luck!

Complicating matters is that I’m now Beta-reading two novels at once.  Such is the danger of swapping novel critiques, in which the owed critique may arrive at an unspecified date in the future – you can end up with more than you can handle.  Both critiques are for writing buddies who’ve done me more than their share of favors and are due my best when it comes to payback.  So I’m going to power through.  Fortunately, I just bought an e-reader, the Nook Simple Touch (I’ll be sure to review this after I’ve given it a good work out), so I’m going to try to do one of the crits on the e-reader and see how that goes.

Clearly, I’ve got a busy week or so coming down the pike.  How about you all?

Oh, and this marks the 100th post since I started my blog last November. Nifty!

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Awhile back I discussed how I process critiques of my own work.  The post generated rather a lot of commentary, during which the topic of giving critiques came up.  In some ways, giving critiques is harder than getting them, but both require an ability to separate your personal feelings from your professional ones.

When I get a crit request from a writer buddy, the first thing I do is make sure I understand what they’re asking me to do.  Do they want a high level Beta read?  Are they looking for line edits?  Sometimes writers are very well aware of the problem areas in their own stories but are stuck on how to fix them, while others can’t pinpoint their problem areas at all.  Thus, you’ve got to look both at what they’re asking for and what they haven’t asked for but clearly need.

One of the more challenging aspects of critiquing is providing feedback designed to help the author make the story they want to write as good as it can be.  This means restraining yourself from trying to shape the story into what you want it to be.  I might want their story about a sparkly vampire to end with the violent death of said sparkly vampire, but if they’re set on a love story, it’s my job to help them do that as effectively as possible.  So, step one is figuring out what sort of story the author is trying to tell.  Step two is sussing out what’s preventing the story from being its best possible self.

For feedback, I usually try to give comments in orders of magnitude.  Some problems are going to be more sweeping than others and the fixes are going to require a more substantial overhaul, be it to the plot, world, or characters.  I spend the most time and detail on these kinds of problems (after all, line edits and nits may become irrelevant if big structural changes are made in revision).  Honesty is the best policy and I try not to sugar-coat my feedback while still remaining polite and professional.

Another thing to keep in mind when critiquing is whether the story is the kind of fiction you tend to like, dislike, or feel indifferently about.  Personal preferences are obviously going to influence how you respond to a story.  It’s good to include a disclaimer (e.g. “I just love me some steampumk vampire-zombie mash-ups! This is right up my alley” or “Take my feedback with a grain of salt because Cthulhu stories aren’t my bag”)

In his response to my original post on this topic, Ferrett used the phrase “pummel with love” to describe his approach to feedback.  I interpret this to mean being brutally honest out of a desire to make the story as good as it can be, or giving the author “tough love.”  I agree wholeheartedly:  it’s no good blowing smoke just to avoid hurting the author’s feelings.  It doesn’t help the author and it weakens your own ability to give a clear-eyed critique.  I also agree with the “love” part of it.  If you find yourself giving critiques to people who, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really want to help…stop at once.  A writer needs to trust that the feedback they’re being given is aimed at one thing and one thing only: making their work better.  To me, this means sitting down and putting aside everything but a cool, rational assessment of the story and then writing the kind of response I’d hope to get on my own work.

Now, we’re all big kids here, and big kids need to be able to take a few knocks and still get back up.  A good critique, though, also includes consideration of the language we use to present our feedback.  This is a tricky one, and most often the place where hurt feelings are born.  We all have different filters.  If our language is too harshly worded or tends towards the snarky, the author may become defensive and fail to take in the point we’re trying to make.  If our language is too careful and pampering, the point may be equally lost in unjustified self-congratulatory back-patting.  Striking the right balance is haaaaard.  I often find myself spending a good amount of time writing and then revising  my commentary, trying to balance the constructive and the criticism in “constructive criticism”.  Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail.  All I can do is try.

So.  Those are my thoughts on giving critiques.  What’s your process?  I’m always looking for ways to be a better crit partner, so share your approaches, please!

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One of my (few) superpowers is taking criticism of my work in stride.  I think this is a byproduct of my years in graduate school and, later, academia.  In those worlds, receiving regular and blisteringly cruel assessments of your writing, ideas, and general existence is sort of par for the course.  If you can’t take in the crushing and often mean-spirited negativity, parse it for the useful stuff, and then roll up your sleeves and eviscerate your writing to accommodate the demanded changes…well, you won’t last long (heck, even if you CAN do that, you might not last long.  Academia is a blood sport).

Coming from this background, I found dealing with the stress of critiques relatively easy.  After all, most people (assuming you’ve found a good writing group) are actually rooting for you rather than delighting in your failure.  Their critiques, therefore, are meant to be helpful and are rarely mean-spirited.  So right there we’ve got a big improvement.  Also, as noted above, I’ve been preconditioned to expect my work will need improvement and that readers I ask to provide feedback will be critical.

But still…

Still, it can hurt.  Even someone with Supergirl Teflon feelings is going to feel the pain of a harsh critique now and again.

How to deal with it?  We all have our own processes.  When I get a critique that’s tougher than I expected, I find I go through several clearly defined stages:

First: 2-4 hours of disappointment.  Man, I loved this story.  I thought this was the ONE that everyone was going to think was great.  I really thought I wasn’t going to have to make very many revisions.  Sigh.  *eats chocolate*

Second: 1-2 hours of indignation.  *addresses the cat* Why am I letting this bum me out so much?  Reader X obviously didn’t see what I was trying to do.  *shakes fist at the heavens*  What do they know, anyway?

Third: 3-4 hours to accept harsh reality.  Yup.  Reader X was right – at least about some things.  Especially THIS.  This IS a big problem.  Why didn’t I see it when I was writing?  After all, I was trying to fix that very problem in this draft and I obviously failed.  Will I never get any better at this???

Fourth: 12-14 hours of rumination.  Okay.  This isn’t THAT big of a problem.  Actually, I can fix it pretty easily by doing X, Y, and Z.  Plus, this will make the characterizations stronger and the narrative less clunky.  *tosses and turns all night while rewriting things in her head*

At this point I usually achieve clarity about what to do, regain my enthusiasm, and start revising.  This process varies in its intensity (and sometimes the duration of the stages) depending on how polished the story was (or I perceived it to be) and how dear to my heart it is.  Sometimes I know the piece is flawed (and in what ways) and so do not experience the first or second stages at all.

Even though receiving critiques can hurt and the process of dealing with them makes you feel like a crazy person who spends all her time having conversations in her head (or worse, with her cat), I almost always learn something valuable.  In most cases, it doesn’t just improve the particular piece I’ve had critiqued, but carries over to future projects – I become more aware of my strengths and weaknesses, as well as how to accent the former and improve upon the latter.

So, that’s my process for dealing with critique.  What’s yours?

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