Thursday, September 1, 2011
You know what's wrong with your story.
Let me change that to, You probably know what's wrong with your story.
I hate to make generalizations, but I've never met one person who was in therapy and didn't know why they were in therapy. Sure, there are plenty of us who don't know how to get out of therapy, how to "cure" ourselves, but we sure know there's something wrong in our lives, and we have more than an inkling about what that something is.
Writing is like that. Just as therapy junkies can talk to psychologists using their own lingo, a writer who's been around the writerly blogosphere a few times can usually spot the main problem with her own work, and often give it a name: pacing, dialogue, detail, realism, characterization, story arc.
When I worked with "troubled teens" in a wilderness therapy program in southern Utah, one of my more experienced co-workers said to me, "Physician, heal thyself." See, when you live in the woods for a week or two at a time, Nature has a way of kicking you in the butt and bringing things to the surface you thought you'd already dealt with. That's why it's so effective as therapy. Add to the mix 6-8 teens with their own inner demons and you wind up with a whole lot of bumbling, blistering self-healing going on. Yeah, the kids had real therapists to hash out their issues, but most of the real work happened between therapist visits, during the long, hot hikes wearing a heavy pack, digging in almost frozen ground so we could have a fire and a latrine, or dealing with in-fighting among the group. It was easy for me to see their issues (just like with your critique partners and their writing). In the wilderness, you wear your heart on your sleeve.
It was harder for me to see and deal with my own.
You can only depend on an outside observer to a limited extent. Real therapy happens inside you. And that's how writing is, too. Your critique partners can't write your book for you. They can point out where you seem to be struggling, like good friends do. But they can't go to therapy for you.
The good news is the title of this blog post: You know what's wrong with your story.
Just like you know your Aunt Bertha's mustache is the reason you avoid dating mustached men. You read healthy, published books and you see where your own work falls a little short. The key is noticing that feeling, embracing it, and remembering it. Because as soon as you realize you fall short somewhere, the human tendency is to forget. It protects us to live in denial. But it doesn't make us better people, and it's never made me a better writer.
So my goal in the future as I'm reading healthy books is to recognize that feeling when I see something that just works, and to write down the thing I struggle with before my protective self tries to hide it from me.
I can read a thousand Harry-Potter-quality novels, but I'll never get any better until I own what's holding me back from writing one. Writing therapy is hard, messy work. It's like climbing a mountain to cut words from your manuscript or rearrange scenes and then (my least favorite part) try to make them all flow together again with segues that don't read like segues.
One day out in the woods, my group had to get to a zone for food drop (a once a week rationing thing) and there was a massive, steep hill standing in our way. It was a quarter mile of straight uphill! Without packs, it would have been formidable, but with our "baggage" it was even harder. When we got to the top, we took pictures. They were the most genuine smiles I saw out there in the entire year I worked there, counting Christmastime! And when we parked ourselves at the bottom, made camp, and started our fireside chat, the personal epiphanies poured out.
The hill had changed us all.
The moral of the story? Take your pick:
1) Hard things are worth it in the end
2) You can do amazing things you might think are impossible
3) The mountain is your friend
So, my fellow writing therapy junkies... Physician, heal thyself. Climb that mountain. Do the hard thing you're afraid of.
p.s. If you don't know what's wrong with your story, keep reading and submitting your work to critique partners. If you do know what's wrong, you can join me in my quest to work through my writing issues, one at a time. I think this is going to be a hell of a long hike.
P.S. Kristine Asselin has written a glowing Afterglow Review on Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes. If you're like me and always looking for great middle grade find, check it out!
P.P.S. EPIC 500 FOLLOWERS APPRECIATION CONTEST at OPERATION AWESOME! Going on all week. Don't miss these prize packs, including books, swag, critiques, and a beautiful piece of jewelry.