Turning Whine Into Gold
Our society as a whole, and publishing as a subculture, rewards action and achievement. The Holy Grail seems to be a book a year, and you can’t pull that off while sitting on your hands.
Yet I would maintain there are at least four times in your writing career when sitting on your hands might be the most effective strategy.
- When you are coming up with a new story.
One of my favorite definitions of story is, “internal conflict made external”: an author sets in motion a cast of characters that has been carefully orchestrated to bring to life principles that are at war within the protagonist. Your story will be more powerful—and I maintain, your book club discussions more interesting—if you are conflicted over these issues as well.
Identifying them might take some soul-searching, especially if you’re beyond your first two or three novels. What else do you care about? Why are you conflicted about it? If you’ve settled on a personal stance—say, you want to write about abortion and are pro-life—what are the ways in which you empathize with other points of view? What are the challenges in doing so?
What moves you to tears? What situations make you burning mad? What seems unfair? This wellspring of emotion can drive your novel, but it needs a quiet stage and an attentive audience to deliver its gifts.
- After you receive a tough critique.
Whether the criticism came from your mom, a critique partner, a developmental editor, a publishing professional, or a reviewer, a wound to the ego needs to heal just like any other wound. That takes rest, good nutrition, a break from additional stressors—and time.
As a developmental editor and author, I know from experience on both sides of the fence that the unwritten message we’ll see as “you’re an unworthy hack” will fade, and in time, the mist of negativity will settle out into what feels true, what was misunderstood, and what was informed by personal opinion.
You might be so desperate to hear a compliment that you phone a friend and tear the critique to pieces, writing it off entirely. That might feel good at first, but to do so is to miss an important opportunity.
Your inner Supreme Court will determine whether to capitalize on your reader’s perspective or gently set it aside, but can only do so when our inner lawyers stop prosecuting and defending, and you give the court enough quiet time to deliberate.
- When life throws you a curve ball.
Many authors have learned the hard way that they need to build some “s**t happens” time into their deadline-driven word count goals. You may have hunkered down in your writing cave with laser focus, all systems go, but that doesn’t mean life stops around you. Storms rage, bodies break down, lives end and begin, financial setbacks occur, mental health wobbles. Sometimes you just have to throw up your hands and surrender.
Now maybe you have a protective barrier in place, like a husband who will hold your mom’s hand while she’s dying and let you write. Personally, I think allowing this protection is to miss the point of our work entirely. Authors are revered for their ability to reflect upon and process the human condition in a way from which readers can benefit. That requires that we take the time to reflect and process.
- When you’re feeling whiny.
In her book A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles, Marianne Williamson posits that every positive emotion is rooted in love, and every negative emotion is rooted in fear. I have yet to think of an example where this isn’t true.
If your loved ones get off on hearing you whine, have at it. But here’s another option: when you’re tempted to whine, take a few quiet moments to ask yourself what it is you’re really afraid of. Is it that you don’t feel equal to the task before you? That your loved ones will forget you as you pursue this time-gobbling, all-consuming goal? That your publisher will blow their promo budget on someone else’s title?
Those are just a few from my own life—go ahead and fill in your own questions. Giving our emotions due consideration will point us right towards what is important in our lives, and our readers depend upon the fruits of this contemplation. The quicker we can dig beneath the whine and uncover our real concerns, the faster we can get back to writing stories that matter.
How do moments of quiet contemplation fit into your writing life? Have you learned to allow it? Do you allow yourself the grace to call such contemplation “writing,” or is writing to you only word count?
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Kathryn Craft is the award-winning author of two novels from Sourcebooks, The Art of Falling and The Far End of Happy, and a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, specializing in storytelling structure and writing craft. Her chapter “A Drop of Imitation: Learn from the Masters” was included in the writing guide Author in Progress, from Writers Digest Books. Janice Gable Bashman’s interview with her, “How Structure Supports Meaning,” originally published in the 2017 Novel & Short Story Writer’s Market, has been reprinted in The Complete Handbook of Novel Writing, both from Writer’s Digest Books.