The Scylla and Charybdis of Creatives: Criticism and Impatience
Spend five minutes reading a craft book for creatives or following an advice thread on Twitter and you’re told two things: 1) Grow a thick skin. 2) Learn to be patient. I do pretty well with the first one. With the second I have little patience.
The thick skin came from years as a daily reporter. My first criticism came within minutes of filing a story, first from copyeditors then from news editors. The next morning I was sure to hear from any reader who disliked that story. (Funny how few times someone reaches out to a reporter to tell them they liked a story.) Not only do you have to learn how to take criticism, you learn how to parse it. From my managing editor, who was also a mentor? Pay attention, because the feedback will help me improve as a reporter. From a reader? Occasionally one had a point, but usually the hate came from the fact that I hadn’t crafted a story that completely matched their narrow and biased world view.
(Side note: I get that much of the criticism a reporter receives is about content, not prose. But have you ever participated in a creative writing workshop? When my memoir underwent several of those, it was shocking how much of the feedback was criticism of actions I was revealing about my past rather than useful feedback on the actual craft of storytelling.)
Now as to patience? Again, how does one develop patience as a daily reporter? The author game is a long one. There’s the significant time it takes to write a full-length book that’s actually worth reading. Then there’s finding a literary agent. Revisions ensue. Then the agent—should she still wish to represent you—has to find a publisher. If that miracle happens, there’s more editing, along with the minutia of publishing (cover art, print layout, slotting in the publisher’s list). And once it’s published you’ve only started. Now you have to find readers.
At least if you reach that point you’ve had a few moments worthy of a glass of Taittinger champagne. What about that stage where you’re querying agents? Oh my, that’s where I’m finding my patience wearing thin, and I’m only three months in.
Since mid-January I’ve been simultaneously querying agents about the first novel of a proposed urban fantasy trilogy while working on the second novel for submission for professional mentoring by a Vermont College of Fine Arts instructor (part of their June Novel Retreat). It’s difficult pouring my creative soul into a novel that would only ever be published if the first one found a home.
One thing keeping me out of my funk is that I’m in talks with an agent about possible representation. We’ve had several email exchanges and an hour-long phone call. She needs to finish reading my full manuscript, but made it clear she doesn’t want me to accept an offer of representation from another agent without her having a chance to compete. There does not appear to be an imminent threat of such a scenario arising, but I didn’t share that with her.
This agent may not, in the end, offer representation. She may, and I may decide she’s not the right fit. Or we’ll agree to work together and she’ll fail to place it with a publisher. Twice in my career I’ve had literary agents who failed to place nonfiction projects. Still, I push forward. Just as I learned how to have a thick skin, I can learn to be more patient.
Oh, a final note on my choice of a title for this essay involving Greek mythology. One way I sought to distract my mind during this wait was to start work on a short story. I came up with a brilliant idea, essentially a “fractured fairy tale” on a well-known Greek myth. Online research revealed I was hardly the only writer to come up with that idea. Others included the legendary Terry Pratchett, a former collaborator with one of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman (Good Omens). Yes, I could put my own spin on the story twist. I’m not yet ready to go head-to-head with a literary giant, however. There are other stories to be told. I can slip my love of mythology (a passion I share with Gaiman) into other areas, like newsletter headlines.
The Praise Continues for Patrick Madden’s Disparates
I’ve spent the last three years immersing myself in speculative fiction, following the (logical) advice of experts to read, read, and read some more in the genre in which you’re seeking to be published. I have always had a passion for creative nonfiction, however (it was my focus of study in my MFA program), so I’d like to give a shoutout to one of the best literary essayists you’ll ever come across, Patrick Madden. His latest collection of essays, Disparates, is winning lots of praise as well as awards recognitions.
I planned to share a bit about what I love about Patrick’s writing. This reviewer in the Tupelo Quarterly does it better than I can:
Disparates features plenty of recognizable aspects of an essay collection, such as recurring, reverential mentions of Montaigne, and a smattering of shout-outs to others: Aristotle, Lamb, Hazlitt, Dillard, Borges, and Nietzsche. And then Horace, impossibly credited with the quote, “Whoever smell’t it dealt it.” Here, as he does throughout the book, Madden uses humor to show his hyperconscious wielding of the essay form. He acknowledges but resists hierarchies. For every standard reference, Madden also has a Wikipedia entry, YouTube commentary, or Rush lyric ready.
(Note: The first essay I ever read by Patrick was a reflection on Rush; I’ve been a fan of his ever since.)
You can listen to an interview with Patrick on New Books Network here and read about how he’s been named a finalist in the 2020 AML Awards for Creative Nonfiction here. There are many ways to purchase his book, including directly from his publisher, the University of Nebraska Press; if you can order it from your local independent bookstore, so much the better.
June 7-13, 2021 - Virtual
Published and aspiring novelists alike have until May 1 to enroll in the 2021 Vermont College of Fine Arts Novel Retreat. You don't need to make your way to Montpelier, Vermont, this year. Connect with fellow writers, get workshop feedback on your writing, learn from highly respected authors/instructors, and participate in student readings! VCFA also offers professional manuscript mentoring; should you wish to do that, you can sign up even if you can't make the retreat. You only have to pay for the mentoring.
I did both last year and found the whole experience of great value. The manuscript currently being considered by a literary agent is the result of a significant rewrite that grew out of feedback from my manuscript mentor as well as input from a week-long workshop and insight from their literary-agent-in-residence. I'm signed up again this year.
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