Deathless Prose


Deathless Prose

Whether we admit it or not, deep down and at 2:00 in the morning, we think that every piece of prose we write is a gem which must be preserved. That’s why writers keep copies of everything they’ve ever written (you know you do). I create an ‘extras’ file into which I deposit all the bits of writing which don’t fit this story but might have a place in some other piece of deathless prose. (Almost never happens.)

And honestly, why shouldn’t we? Don’t we write because we have something to say? Didn’t we start this journey for that reason? Why delete our attempts to do so?

Yes, of course, but I think we all need to get over ourselves. Keep all the files, by all means, but we need to lose the idea that every piece is worthy of publication.

Writing prose for the sake of

I know this sounds harsh but if we expect/assume that everything we write has to be published, it discourages writing.  You may avoid:

  • Learning a particular technique like foreshadowing or flashback
  • Working out a problem in the story
  • Doing backstory to understand the character better
  • Experimenting with different endings, openings, characters, etc.

Worst of all, assuming that everything you write should be published can morph into I should write only for publication. And then that really dampens your willingness to play or otherwise access your creativity.

Benefits of launching many expendable pieces[1]

‘Wasting’ time on pieces which aren’t in the ‘must publish’ file will help your writing in the long run because you can:

  • Stop work on something which has done what you needed it to
  • Let go a lovely piece of prose which slows the action or confuses the reader
  • Allow yourself the freedom to move on, not just because the piece isn’t working, but also maybe because you are bored with it or your interest has moved elsewhere.

You still need persistence

None of this should be interpreted as urging you to avoid working to perfect your pieces, or to trying to get your work published, or that you are not ready for prime time. But a more relaxed view on the need to publish gives you permission to throw in the towel if you need to.

[1] I know this is something the writer William Stafford said, but damned if I can find the actual quote, Sorry.

Categorizing Reader Opinion


Categorizing Reader Opinion

In the last post, I suggested you decide on your own how to treat reader opinion of a piece of your writing or memoir. That leaves the question open, of course, on how to decide which to keep. Here’s my not-very-rocket-science way of doing it.

The obvious

This one is, well, obvious. Spelling mistakes, seasons of the year out of whack, missing one place where you changed the character’s name from Wendy to Sue. These are no brainers but are nevertheless valuable as you need to fix them at some point.

This category you change immediately.

The doubtful opinion

Sometimes you’re not sure whether the feedback is applicable. Here are some examples:

The opinion

Why you’re doubtful

The historical period you’re writing about doesn’t seem real or credible

If you know the period well, you might be unsure that this is a piece of feedback worth taking. Follow-on question might be: Were there particular points which didn’t seem credible to you?

The premise of two cats talking is not particularly funny

Well, you think it’s funny. The definition of funny is wide so you should try it out on others. Follow-on question: Can you point out where you didn’t think the humor worked?

The main character’s constant malapropism is annoying

You think it gives the character an eccentric appeal—at least that’s what you were going for. Follow-on question: Is it the quirk itself that is annoying or its frequency of use?

The subordinate characters take the spotlight off the main protagonist.

This surprises you as you know whom you intended to be the key character. Follow-on question: Where (i.e. what scenes) did you feel that the subordinate characters dominated the main one?

In all these cases, feedback from other readers would be helpful to allow you decide whether or not you agree with the initial feedback.

The rejected

Okay, so you’ve gotten a range of feedback and the consensus seems to be that the cats really aren’t funny.

Generally speaking, it probably makes sense to look at your piece to see if it is salvageable or whether it is destined for the trash heap.

The only exception is if, all the feedback notwithstanding, you still believe in the potential of the piece. You might take some of the minor suggestions but fundamentally, you feel it works.

While I think this category should be used sparingly (i.e. not like Fred), it should be used. You need to think hard on it before you reject the reader reaction (especially consensus) but if you feel strongly about a point, do it. After all, whose writing is it anyway?

Using Feedback Well


Using Feedback Well

In the previous post, both the defensive writer and the one who accepts all feedback are not doing themselves any favors.

Dealing well with feedback is a three stage process.


First of all, when you are receiving feedback, just listen. Take notes if useful but the key thing is to listen. Sheila has this stage down pat. For the Freds in the world, listening is not simply keeping quiet or running counter arguments in your head until the others stop talking. This is not listening—that’s just not putting your hands over your ears.

Try to take in what’s being said. And say nothing. I repeat this for Fred. Say nothing.


The time to speak is when the feedback is finished. But (Fred) not to jump into the defenses you’ve been storing up. Nor (Sheila) the time to thank everyone and vow to make all the changes suggested.

You want to make sure you understand the feedback, whether or not you agree with it. Possible questions:

  • You said you couldn’t understand Alfonso’s motivation. So the paragraph on page 5 wasn’t enough? What else would be needed?
  • One of you thought the flashback was too long. Does everybody feel that way?
  • Patty thought that Melissa needed to be more wild and crazy while Donald wanted Melissa more introspective. Could you tell me how each of you came to your conclusion?

This is a period of clarification, not defense of the best laid plans of mice and men.

Decide on your own

After the feedback session, and in a quiet time with a glass of wine, go over each comment. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Review each comment seriously, making sure you understand the point. If there’s a split opinion, read over why each person felt the way they did and choose the one which makes the most sense to you or ignore both suggestions if you don’t feel they fit.
  • What to do with consensus opinions. If there was general agreement on a point, this is important information. But it still doesn’t mean you automatically make that change. Consider whether this change is taking the piece in the direction you want to go. Will it help or take you off course? If the latter, then even a unanimous view may not be enough to make you change it.
  • This is your work not a composite effort and only you can decide what changes are improvements. If the suggestion helps the piece, great. If it doesn’t, then it’s okay not to take it.

Balancing belief in self with listening to feedback

You are after a Sheila-Fred amalgam. Be Sheila in the feedback session itself, with the addition of ensuring you understand the reasoning behind the comments. But when you are later considering what to change, be a little more Fred (although don’t take it too far). You should take the piece in the direction you feel is right. Hold onto that when you consider what changes you will make.

 The next post will help you make the decisions on which piece of feedback you’ll accept and which you will not.

Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types


Criticism: A Tale of Two Writer Types

In writing groups, there seem to be two kinds of writers when it comes to criticism of their work. Both shoot themselves in the foot (feet?) without realizing it.

Type 1: No, no, no.

This writer spends all his time telling you that your suggestions are impractical, impossible, and artistically wrong. There is already an example of this in Feedback Defensiveness, but I think the phenomenon bears repeating.


Fred, I was really liked your premise. However, would people adapt quite so quickly—


Well, how long should it take?


I don’t know, but a clearer indication of the timeline—


The vagueness is intentional—it will all make sense eventually.


But if the reader can’t situate himself—


Well, no, you can’t. I have more faith in my readers.

Might as well have spared your breath. Not only did Fred fend off any feedback but handed you an insult as a bonus.

Fred wins the battle and loses the war by turning the feedback session into a combat zone.  He leaves with his manuscript unaltered and may even have the mistaken impression that, by fending off all criticism, his piece is closing in on perfection.

Yet I have a sneaking sympathy for Fred. You have to believe in yourself and your writing. Otherwise, why would you keep going?

And, let’s face it, there is usually a variety of levels of experience and talent in any writing group. Some give great on-point feedback and others can’t distinguish between how they would write your piece and helping it be the best it can be.

I get why Fred might be defensive but it’s not an effective way to improve his or your work. But there is another more insidious way to prevent progress.

Type 2: I agree with all your criticism

This writer usually takes copious notes in a feedback session. When anyone suggests a change (Didn’t buy the motivation; the flashback was too long; don’t have the protagonist tell the story), Sheila writes ‘change motivation,’ ‘shorten flashback’, ‘lose story frame.

This writer seems the perfect antidote to Fred. Tries to benefit from all the feedback. But her approach is also ineffective in the longer term. Here’s why:

  • You get different points of view, which of course is why you’re in a writing group. But one piece of feedback might be, ‘I found Melissa cold and distant,” while another says, “Oh, no, she reminds me of my aunt Zebby—we all loved her.” So, cold and distant or warm and loving? When Sheila tries to fix her piece, she doesn’t know which feedback to choose.
  • You are allowing others to shape your voice. While Fred’s belief in his writing is getting in the way, so is Sheila’s willingness to treat all feedback as equally applicable. With this approach, you run the danger of establishing a voice which is a composite of your writing group rather than one which is uniquely yours.
  • Feedback can be idiosyncratic. Perhaps the group member liked Melissa because you put her in a blue dress which was Aunt Zebby’s favorite color. Which is not to say that the feedback of Melissa being cold and distant is right, either, since it may also be an idiosyncratic response.

So, where are you? There is a way to receive criticism which would work for both Fred and Sheila. Next post.

Finding Your Distinctive Voice


Finding Your Distinctive Voice

In the previous post, What is a Writer’s Voice, I listed some characteristics of a writer’s voice. Your voice is you on the page and can be comprised of what you like to write about, type of characters you favor, style of writing, settings you use, etc. Every writer needs his or her distinctive voice. As Kurt Vonnegut pointed out in A Man Without a Country, that there are only a few basic stories in literature which keep being repeated (boy meets girl, etc.). It is the distinctive spin you put on that retelling which makes the narrative worth reading.

How do I develop a voice?

Not by sitting down and deciding what it is. Right, I’ll just fill in the categories or I will write about high powered people in urban settings. A voice developed this way would be as mechanical as the method used to generate it. It is not an analytic or reductive exercise. Voice, once developed, is as distinctive as it is hard to describe. You can’t point a finger to where it resides in a work, yet it infuses everything.

The way to develop your voice is to write. Write and write and write. Launch many expendable pieces, as urged by William Stafford. You of course don’t have to stick with one setting, one type of character, one type of plot—in fact, you shouldn’t. Experiment with different settings, structures, characters, persons (first, third, etc.). You try writing about your old home town, or your grandfather’s day, or the latest intrigue at the office, or a fantasy of what you would like life to be. Each story helps you to both get more comfortable with the craft of writing but also helps you to define you as a writer, to allow you to sink into that space which is the magic of writing. Take the time and space to find out what is unique about your writing.

Getting feedback

The type of feedback you get and from whom is always important but it is especially critical as you are finding your voice. When you are in the midst of experimenting, you don’t need someone harping on your overuse of similes. Because a lot of similes may be part of your voice. That kind of criticism early on might make you think you should cut back when your voice may not be stable enough to know for sure.

Seeking feedback which is highly technical or specific may not be right for you as you are starting out. Instead, you are looking for readers who can tell you what they like best about what you have written.

Do I need to put everything on hold until I have a distinctive voice?

Of course not. It’s an organic thing and will develop as you do as a writer. In fact, your voice may shift somewhat over your writing career. And that’s fine. It’s not a stable state any more than it is fully definable.

The key as always, is to write, write, write. Magic, magic, magic.