Wednesday, April 25, 2012

It’s not always about me (gasp!)

No, I’m not one of those self-absorbed people who think the world revolves around them and that everyone must conform to my wishes. Rather, I’m one of those self-absorbed people who believe if anything goes wrong, anywhere, anytime, I must either a) be at fault through incompetence or negligence; or b) fix it. Sometimes both.

My misapprehensions come from a dysfunctional history I still fight to overcome. This week’s lesson highlighted those mental errors.

First, when Hubby and our law-school son have a silly misunderstanding, I need to walk away and let them figure it out. They’re adults – far more alike than either care to admit most days, but intelligent adults nonetheless. I don’t need to mediate, fix, soothe, or make excuses. And it’s not my fault technology frustrates at the worst possible moment. That’s the nature of frustration.

Second, my writer’s group friends are adults, too. Creative, sensitive, self-absorbed…and probably much more like me than I care to admit. I don’t need to mediate, fix, soothe, or make excuses.

See a pattern?

Finally, on a more stressful note, I’ve been researching extremely distressing topics for my current temp job, and I struggle to separate myself from the horrors on the page. As I’ve noted in earlier posts, Hubby often counsels me to take the emotion out of a situation. It’s so very difficult for me to do, and this week I paid the price. My empathic reaction to the passages I’ve been reading has left me with a borderline migraine for days, and finally erupted in yet another painful cold sore – my body’s second most frequent reaction to stress after the migraines.

The texts I’m reading cannot remotely be considered my fault, although I’ve managed to find a way to believe I’m being blamed unfairly for society’s crimes. The situations depicted cannot be fixed or soothed or excused. They’re reality.

In searching for a new email tagline, I recovered a quote from my collection that speaks to my week: “Memory can so fix us in the past that we turn to salt - and all we are good for is preserving something that used to be.” ~ Daniel Aleshire

I need to shake those old memories, mine and the intensely negative ones I’m inflicted with from reading ancient history at work.

It’s not all about me. You?

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

You live and learn. At any rate, you live. ~ Douglas Adams

As I was debating my blog topic for this week, I realized how many of my recent musings have been on “lessons learned.” A running joke between my oldest and dearest friend (next to Hubby, of course) has always been that by middle age we’d have all the answers.

Apparently we were wrong. My much-needed lessons are not diminishing in number or import. It seems I’m confronted with at least one new message every week, if not daily.

Thanks to the Mad Anthony Writers Conference in Hamilton, this week started things off with a master class on Sunday, and the lessons-learned were about more than just writing. I faced misplaced assumptions (my own), diverging opinions on what constitutes good writing (from classmates), and a reminder that we all approach life, and writing, with personal baggage and perspective.

We received email files of each participant’s manuscript a few weeks before the workshop so we could read and critique in advance, and arrive ready to discuss. I started to read early and made a few notes, but because of my too-often overloaded schedule, I stayed up late Saturday to finish class prep in the hotel room. Assumptions made based on the review of a few sheets of typed words are nearly always dangerous; I’m glad I withheld most of my comments until I’d had a chance to meet my classmates. One particularly “ambitious” story I questioned because of its disjointed sentences and overreaching metaphors turned out to have been written by a brave teenager. The discovery cast her story in a new light, and I was able to make what I hope were intelligent contributions to the critique discussion.

When it came to comments on my own manuscript, it took a day or two to absorb the sometimes copious notes (which made my scribbled marginalia on their papers look even more pitiful). The opening was evocative; the opening was too wordy and needed more tension. The characters were intriguing; everyone sounded the same. Too much setting and description; not enough description. Show, don’t tell; don’t show so much. What’s a writer to do?

Listen. And learn.

Our intrepid moderator pointed out how important it is to consider each critique in light of the commenter’s writing style and genre. Do I like what they write, and trust their competency on the page? My novel is a mystery; some of the participants, such as the memoir writer, were of a more literary bent. Without a working familiarity of a genre, it’s difficult to provide an appropriate critique on certain areas. I’m sure I was just as guilty of that misstep as I brought a “just-the-facts” crime mentality to literary works. All of this parsing reminded me of the classes I taught in critical writing last quarter. Consider the author, the perspective, the audience. I must think critically before I can write critically.

The varied personal perspectives of strangers are difficult to gauge in only a few short hours. Obviously, the teenager came with a different world view than us middle-agers. We explained more than one popular culture reference to her, but it was a good reminder to consider how such mentions play in a manuscript. Another participant brought a particularly feminist mindset which found misogyny in places I didn’t feel it existed. And I know from past experience that my history makes me overly sensitive to certain topics.

All things to keep in mind as we traversed the workshop together – seven people who may never meet again, sharing and learning from each other. We exchanged emails and the conventional promise to keep in touch, but again, from past experience, I have my doubts. One or two of us may cross paths at future conferences, and my fellow writer’s group member is an important part of my life so I’ll see her regularly. As for the rest of the participants, I wish them well on the writing journey.

And thank them for the lessons they shared.

What have you learned today?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sticks and stones...?

“Nasty and mean-spirited.”

Me?! The editor’s email set me back, and I’m still processing its impact. I’m fairly confident most people who know me even a little would not use such descriptives. Am I in denial? Maybe she sees something in me I refuse to acknowledge.

Or maybe she’s full of it.

Over the past two years or so, I’ve written book reviews for a respected online journal. I received some excellent volumes, added a number of decent bylines to my writing credits, and enjoyed the experience. But it didn’t provide an income. I found another site, which shall remain nameless, that offered cash for each review in addition to the book. I sent in my clips and was accepted to their roster.

My first assignment was a disappointment. It was a self-published non-fiction book which could have used another good round of edits, and probably another rewrite. Decent enough, I suppose, but if I’d paid money for it, I’d have regretted the expense. Unfortunately, that has been my experience with self-published volumes in general. I know there are exceptions, but I’ve found very few. I danced around the issues and submitted a bland, vague, unsatisfying (to me) review. The editor loved it.

I nearly dropped the site after that first round, but decided it really wasn’t a fair evaluation of their offerings. I should have heeded my instincts.

The second book was an unmitigated disaster. It too was self-published, with a graphic cover and fancy text. Inside – formatting issues galore, random punctuation, disjointed scenes, huge chunks of information-dump narrative and dialogue. I plowed through, missing my deadline for the review, but with every intention of finishing. A politely-worded email from the editor to half-a-dozen reviewers reminded us of the due date. Strike one against me, from the editor’s perspective. I fully admit my responsibility in that regard. I’m usually very good with deadlines; this was too much of a struggle and I didn’t meet my obligation.

Then my laptop died, and with it, my email archive which contained the site’s guidelines. I still had an email address, and I knew the expected word count, so I figured I could get by. My memory was faulty and I didn’t provide all the pieces they request (title, author, publisher, 25-word quote, all at the beginning of the piece). Strike two.

I tried very hard to abide by the AWW workshop dictum of love notes first, then criticism when reviewing a manuscript. It was tough to find anything good to say about this book, but I did try.

And then I laid it out in plain language. Strike three.

Since my honest effort was summarily rejected, I’ll let you be the judge. The names have been changed to protect the innocent, and telling details have been omitted:

While the premise for (title) is mildly intriguing, this misidentified “trilogy of novellas” is a rambling attempt at a novel that never quite lives up to its potential. The characters are flat and largely indistinguishable; the protagonist (John Doe) elicits more scorn than sympathy as he bumbles through an unlikely string of scenarios…(Doe) fumbles through a series of increasingly improbable situations as dead bodies accumulate. The final “novella” is dedicated to long rehashes of the crimes from the first two sections which brought (Doe) to the improbably-convoluted ending.

The writing is uneven, with stilted dialogue and largely information-dump narrative that too often tells a tale that would be better shown. Another good round of editing could have eliminated the many punctuation errors and smoothed out the choppy text. I truly wanted to enjoy this book, but in the end, I had to force myself to finish reading. This is yet another self-published effort that should not have been.

Harsh? Most definitely, but how does a reviewer write an honest critique of a terrible book without harshness? “Nasty and mean-spirited”? That was certainly not my intent. I tried to imagine the author, what he must have felt about putting his work out there, who told him this effort was ready for publication, if anyone did (and the vanity press that took his money). I know how terrifying a prospect that is whenever I submit my pieces and I feel great compassion for his efforts. How is a wake-up call more gently delivered after a book is on the market? Should I simply have declined to write the review?

Doesn’t the very fact that the author put his book out there, expecting people to pay money for it, open the work to more pointed criticism than what might be received from a standard submission to an agent or publisher? If I bought a book because of a glowing review only to find something so thoroughly lacking in polish as this was, I’d be furious with the author and the reviewer.

Needless to say, my days as a book reviewer are over. But I’m still stuck on the “nasty and mean-spirited” comment. The possibility of being perceived that way certainly gives me pause. Maybe when I rushed to get the review in, on an admittedly frustrating day, I let my emotions spill onto the page unfairly. Even as I reread it though, I can’t find anything I disagree with. I always tell Hubby, “It’s in the delivery.” Did I ignore my own advice?

To any other book reviewers out there, how do you handle such situations?

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

The illusion of control

Reruns of a minor dust-up in the office yesterday buzzed in my brain all last evening. It wasn’t even really enough to be called a dust-up, rather a simple misunderstanding. She said one thing, I heard something else. We tossed words back and forth past each other for a few seconds until we figured out the disconnect. The matter was resolved quickly, I thought; no harm, no foul, so the saying goes. It annoyed me a bit since I felt like I’d been scolded for nothing, but it was over.

Three hours later she raised the matter again, insisting we debate how and why it happened, where the problem started, and who was to blame (in so many words). I reiterated my earlier explanation of what I thought happened, added yet another apology for the confusion, and steered the conversation to a new topic. But now it really bothered me.

I mulled over the discussion on and off all evening, and again this morning on the drive to the office. I tried to look at the whole board, as Hubby always counsels, and realized it wasn’t about the words I’d misheard (or possibly, she misspoke).

It was about control. Not having control is frightening.

In our short month or so together, she has exhibited an inordinate need to control every facet of the work that passes through the office. Every document, every work product, is vetted and redone and revised and edited again. Yes, she’s in charge, but if you can’t hire people you trust, give them a task, and believe they will do the job well, there’s a bigger problem to be addressed.

The illusion of control.

There are very few things in life we can truly control. How people hear and understand our words is not one of them. Once those words leave my lips, or I hand off a printed page, I’m out of the loop. The recipient’s perception of my most carefully constructed thought is entirely up to them. I do my best to craft my words carefully; it’s one of the reasons I prefer writing to oral communication. I can rework those phrases, find just the right nuance to explain what I really mean. In conversation, I lose that luxury. My brain freezes, the words won’t come, and my effort is often thwarted by my insecurities.

As I pondered the recent office situation, I realized why her unacknowledged need to control is so very obvious to me.

I’m the same way.

Not as much as I used to be, thank goodness. I’ll never knowHow Hubby put up with me all those years when I insisted on micromanaging every detail of our life, but I’m eternally grateful that he did. I’ve learned, slowly, painfully, to let go of those things I truly can’t (or shouldn’t) control. There are times I still fight the urge, when I find myself chafing at my inability to be hands-on, in control of something from start to finish so it’s done exactly as it should be, or rather, the way I want it to be. But I am getting better.

And as I return to the office non-dust-up, I realize I was trying to control her response almost (?) as much as she wanted to control mine. I’d let go to a certain extent; now I needed to release that last bit which I insisted on clinging to after it was all over. She will respond to me according to her perceptions. All I can do is be the best that I am, at any given moment and stop trying to control how she reacts.

Control. Release.

One more life lesson the universe knew I needed to be reminded of. What did you learn from life today?