Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Snarky Idol

Trip to Ireland, July 1999

“How will I know (Don’t trust your feelings)

How will I know…

I’m asking you what you know about these things”

-Walden, Narada Michael; Rubicam, Shannon; Merril George Robert. Song “How Will I Know” Whitney Houston

Yesterday morning, when it was clear that I wasn’t subbing, I became excited to have a block of writing time. Since I decided to write at least four hours on the days I didn’t have a sub job, I’d only gotten the opportunity last Wednesday. Let me tell you, those four hours flew. I edited my work and other people’s work, and polished my post for the blog. I can’t wait to get caught up on my edits so I can begin the new piece.

Today is “Evacuation Day” in Cambridge and Boston, so there’s no school. (I’m sure the fact that it’s also St. Patrick’s Day has nothing to do with it.) Evacuation Day is when the Americans evacuated the British from Boston during the American Revolution. Although it would be nice to have off for the holiday, 1) I don’t get paid, and 2) with children at home, there’s less time to write.

On Saturday, I bought On Writing by Stephen King and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, both which were recommended by a number of writers’ blogs that I follow. I decided to begin with King’s book first. One passage on page 136 stuck with me:

“… while it’s impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it’s equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.”

This begged the question, am I bad writer or a competent one? In other words, am I without hope or is there some raw material to work with? How do I know? I shoved the doubt deep down, and went on my merry way… until last night.

I mentioned in last week’s post* that I had entered Miss Snark’s First Victim’s latest contest. Although I didn’t expect to win, I wanted feedback. Something was bothering me about the beginning and I knew it. After reading, Hooked by Les Edgerton, I played around with the opening scene, but I feared that I’d made it worse. It’s hard to put myself out there, but how else will I improve? I agree with my blogger friend, Rebecca** – I feel naked!

The feedback has been invaluable – it was just what I needed in order to make it right. As I read the comments, I knew the protagonist needed to start in the kitchen, and then her mother could comment on her clothing, which would be a way to introduce the sixth-sense. This "gift" needed more explanation and more excitement (Hook). I got it.

But I was still waiting for the secret agent’s feedback to begin the rewrite. The Authoress posted a delay in feedback from the agent, and I decided to see if I had any new comments. One wound up being mean-spirited. Before this one, I already had a bunch of comments, so I knew where I’d missed the mark. She just wound up saying I didn’t have a hook (got that already) and the rest was harsh. In the back of my mind, I know that if I put myself out there, I have to be ready to hear the good, bad, and ugly, but I didn’t dwell on the fact that critique can be downright BEASTLY.

I couldn’t help it – I went over to the snarky commenter’s blog. That should’ve made me feel better. Her profile was odd and her blog was… I don’t know… odder. And she has none of her own books published, so should she act like the Simon Cowell of critiquing? Then I reminded myself of all the positive feedback that my dialogue piece received on The Authoress's site. But the commenter's words stuck with me and I repeated them in my head like a mental patient.

While I mentioned the comment in passing to my husband last night, I wasn’t honest until this morning about how demoralized I’d gotten from it. He gave me a hard time for giving myself a hard time. I knew he was right, but… have I mentioned that I’m needy and insecure and sometimes, pathetic? How do I know if I’m a bad writer? Maybe this snarky chick is the only one who will tell me the truth.

In a past post, I've mentioned Malcolm Gladwell and his 10,000 hours needed to perfect talent*** (Of course, there’s a premise that there’s talent, which is NOT established in this case). My husband put, What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell in my hands. After he finished the book, I started it, but put it aside to read The Percy Jackson series and writing advice books. He told me to read the chapter “Late Bloomers”.

Me, a late bloomer? One week and two days until the BIG birthday, six days after my one-year anniversary subbing? And I just realized that April is the four-year anniversary of when I let myself first write. Four years? I’d better be a late bloomer or I’m in trouble.

I decided to take a break from my inner-madness. My son and I rode our bicycles to Boca Grande, where we bought burritos and ate them by the Charles River. This ride on a beautiful St. Patrick’s/Evacuation Day cleared my head.

When I returned home, I read the chapter. Turns out that prodigies start early with little rewrites and agony, and tend to do their best work young. Late Bloomers agonize, rewrite or repaint many times, and then succeed later in life. Gladwell uses the author, Ben Fountain as an example for his theory:

“He quit is job… in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the 1990s. His breakthrough with Brief Encounters came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write… took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.”

And you should read what he said about Mark Twain and Cezanne.

Am I a late bloomer? Only time will tell.

“Oh, time is on my side, yes it is

Time is on my side, yes it is”

- Ragovoy, Jerry. Song “Time Is on My Side” The Rolling Stones

Happy St. Patrick’s Day!

* Previous post that mentions contest:

** Check out Rebecca’s opening of her WIP (I know you’ll be kind):

*** One of my early posts:


  1. Great post - and Happy St Patrick's Day! I hear you about demoralising critiques. They can really get you down, especially if you've been working hard on writing for awhile. I've written six novels (six!) in the past two years, and I'm almost embarrassed to admit it's taken me this long and this much practice to even start understanding things like character arcs, tensions, pacing... and I still have so much to learn.

    I sent my fifth novel off to be critiqued and got slammed. I was really upset for awhile before realising it was a learning experience and I needed to try again!

    Also, I think you're right in checking the 'source' of the critique. Not all critiques are equal, by a long shot!

  2. Happy Saint Patrick's Day to you! Err, also Happy Evacuation Day! I could relate to your post today, Theresa. I am definitely a late bloomer. Literally. I have written all my life, but I didn't develop a passion to become a real writer/author until after I was forty. I've written two books in three years. Who knows if I will every be commercially successful. As you said, time will tell. Thankfully, I have blogging buddies, critique groups, and family support to sustain me. Plus, I just really love my characters and the writing process. It's a glorious privilege to have the desire, and a measure of ability, to write.

  3. I liked this post. When you mentioned late bloomer, I thought of Grandma Moses, she didn't start to paint until she was in her 90's. Being a late bloomer is good. Keep working at it.

  4. The good thing about waking up every morning is that you never know what that day will bring, usually when you least expect it something wonderful happens.

  5. Talli - good for you to write six book in two years. It means that each one is a rough draft that needs work from there, which means more years to develop them.

    In five years, I've written eight full manuscripts. Three of those counts as sequels to two others. So, that means five in five years. I'm excited to write my next one because, like you, I've learned a lot since I wrote my last one. I think I'd have better eyes to view the big picture and the details as I write it.

    Roxy, I'm glad you're pursuing it now. I've been impressed with the snippets you've shared. We all need blogging buddies, critique groups, family, and friends to sustain us.

    Choices, I hope I bloom sooner than Grandma Moses! Thanks for the support.

  6. Sheila, do you know something I don't. Seriously - you're right. Since I became a writer, each day is its own roller coaster ride.

  7. I have to say that I was just as ready to head over to snarky commenter's blog and leave a nasty note after I read what she said to you. But then I went over there and saw what you odd blog. And had the SAME thoughts as you, what makes her God's Gift to Critiquing? Hang in there...seems like we all have days where we wonder if it will EVER be :)

  8. I must be an over the hill bloomer. I too have written all my life but sporadically and never showing anyone my writing. With all the insecurities. I spent the last years feeling lost, knowing there was something I was supposed to be doing with myself, but not having a clue what it was. Since last year I have found a peace in myself, because I started to write. I started a blog. I have made the step and allow people to read what I write.

    I love your writing. If you really think about it, there must be published authours out there you don't care for. I don't read Stephen King, I don't like his stories. Their not to my taste. That does not mean he isn't a brilliant writer. Take Naysayers with a grain of salt is my advice. Stick with the writing. Stick with what you love. I am finished ranting now.

    Have a wonderful St. Patrick's evening. :)

  9. Ant, that is very sweet of you to be ready to defend me. The person who commented after her was nice about it and firm with her, if she even bothered to come back and check.

    Ann, you're right - there are plenty of authors that don't write in a style and/or subject I like. But they're published and I'm not, which feels like a big divide right now.

    I'm glad you found peace. That's how I feel when I write - when I don't let the outside insecurities intrude.

    Malcolm Gladwell agrees with you too. He said:
    "Whenever we find a late bloomer we can't help but wonder how many others like him or her we have thwarted because we prematurely judged their talents. But we also have to accept that there's nothing we can do about it. How can we ever know which of the failures will end up blooming?"

  10. You will love Bird By Bird! I gave it to every one of my daughter's teachers the year I read it.

  11. Hi!!

    I love the green font!! Happy St Patrick's Day and er.. Evacuation Day (sorry that just sounds a tad..erm..rude - but that's my sad sense of juvenile humour peeking through!! LOL!)

    Anyway you Bloomer you!!! I want to join your club and be one of the Bloomers too! :-)

    Isn't it always weird how the most stingy and more unhelpful and so most hurtful critiques stay in one's writerly mind despite all the others?!?!?! I hate that - I've never known how to deal with such a thought that someone somewhere out there doesn't like ME!!! LOL! It's true!! I take things so personally... and only time and a lot of chocolate and wine helps.

    Anyway! I am dying to have a gander at this odd critique person as my curiosity is so piqued now!

    BTW, Ms Theresa Milstein. You are a DARNED GOOD WRITER! And a super sub! So there.

    Nine days to your b-day and counting.. (I think I got the maths right..)


    Take care

  12. Those mean critiques are hard to take. And personally I don't understand anyone giving out mean feedback. It's not helpful it's hurtful. Those people are just jerks who do it. I've got a really awful one on my Uncut Diamonds Amazon site. Plus some bad ones on Goodreads. And they're just mean-- that's the only word for it. Don't listen to them when you're wondering what your talent level is. Believe in yourself and your dream and your talent.

  13. Theresa my dear,

    Have you ever read Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt? At the age of 66 he burst onto the literary scene with a best seller sooooooo....not all writers do their best work when they were younger. This is a terrific post!!!

    I had never heard of evacuation day though.

  14. I understand how tough critiques can be. Personally, I don't think my skin is thick enough yet for too much public critique, but I better work on that soon if I ever want to be published and be able to face the Amazon reviews. You're a stronger person than I am for submitting your work.

    Glad you bought both "On Writing" and "Bird By Bird". I found the first one very valuable, and haven't read the second, but it's coming in the mail.

  15. I am impressed by your ability to even submit your work to critics! I have a weird relationship with my writing as I feel so connected to it that I'm scared once it's out there it won't be mine anymore. I'm trying to get over that and you are doing such a good job inspiring me!

    Btw, my blog has been on the fritz, so I had to change the url to
    I didn't know if you needed to update it--I read things through Google reader and I'm not sure exactly how it works when it comes to that stuff.

  16. Hi Theresa,
    We are all late bloomers. I think it is a bit difficult to write until life gives you some material.
    I think we all are a bit too willing to believe what other people think of our writing,
    Go with your instinct and remember a lot of people follow your blog so your voice has an impact.

  17. Ricochet, thanks for the comment. That's an endorsement of the book!

    Old Kitty, I should do some research on Evacuation Day. Every time I've mentioned that Evacuation Day probably didn't become a holiday until there was a big Irish population here, I offend long-term residents.

    Yes, let's all be the successful late bloomers that Malcolm Gladwell talks about.

    Thank you for the compliments. I won't try to figure out your math. Between the time zone difference and daylight savings time, I'll be older in England before I am in The States.

    KarenG, you're a late bloomer and an inspiration. It seems that every author gets a bad review on Amazon, which (to me) is a sign of success! Thank you for the encouragement.

  18. VKT, I'm glad you reminded me about Frank McCourt. Did you ever read Teacher Man? Not only did I find his unorthodox teaching methods in a tough vocational high school inspiring, but he discusses the frustration of being an English teacher who had never been published. And his intro in Eats, Shoots & Leaves is funny.

    Shelley, you should try a public critique. It gets easier every time (This post notwithstanding). Especially in the beginning, it's hard to be objective about our work, so feedback is essential. Post a snippet on your blog - I promise that I'll be kind.

    Tiffany, start small and show it to a friend or family member and then another writer. After a few family members read my first manuscript, I started showing my work to a manuscript exchange partner I found through SCBWI, and then I had some pages read aloud at a critique group at a NESCBWI conference. My face was scarlet through the whole thing, but I go back and do it each year and I've received helpful advice.

    I haven't seen posts from you in a while, so I'll have to check if I need to update your info. Thanks!

  19. Brigid, thanks for the encouragement. I often wish I'd started writing sooner, but I'm sure I wouldn't have been any good. The one thing I would change is that I would've taken more writing courses in college. A solid foundation would have prevented a lot of my mistakes.

    Now I have to translate blog voice to manuscript voice.

  20. I have Stephen King's book "On Writing" as well. It's a great book and has helped me immensly. :)

  21. Aubrie, everyone seems to feel this way. One or two people have said to skip the bio, which cuts out about 1/3 of the book, but writers found his advice invaluable.

    When I was a teenager, I read some of his books, but I haven't since. Horror just isn't my genre, but he's a good writer and so far, I've found his book helpful.

  22. Happy St. Patrick's Day -- yesterday. :) And I think you deserve major kudos for even putting your work out there for hundreds to see and comment on. That takes guts! So congrats!

  23. Thanks, Elana. While I certainly didn't impress the agent, at least I tried.

  24. Hi Theresa. I love your blog. I also entered that competition and received great feedback exceept from that mean-spirited oddball. Most writers on there are really helpful. Your story is very good and only needs a little tweaking here and there. So does mine. I’m in my fifties and didn’t start writing until I was fifty three. I had no idea where commas went as I left school at the age of fourteen. When I posted my first few chapters of a manuscript on a writing forum, I got told to learn the grammar rules, but they all helped me and I joined a critique group over at CC. I’m still learning and that’s why I enter those competitions, for feedback. It's all good, except for nasty comments like that mean-spirited woman. I commented back to her on a couple of posts, so did some of the others. How dare she say she wouldn’t put us in her slush pile? She doesn't have one. She said my story didn’t have a hook at all. She’s never had anything published except for a self published book. She talks babble. So don’t take any notice of her. You have a great story there, Theresa, and I hope you keep posting.

    Oh, and thank you for the lovely comment on my post about the girl with the bald head. I really appreciated that.

  25. Well, you aren't alone as a late bloomer. I never wrote til in my thirties , published a couple of articles. Then, never wrote again til fifty and have spent nine years writing my first novel, now in the editing stage. Someone one told me if you write, you are a writer. So to all of us late bloomers, doing the writing is what counts. Here's to all the late bloomers.

    As for your nasty critiquer, many of us know who she is, and who she isn't.

  26. Trish - I remember your story vividly - the hat, the references to the mean boys, and a little fairy. I'm glad that I wrote a "lovely comment". Good luck with it. Your story is inspirational.

    After reading what you wrote about Slush Pile Woman, I realize that I overreacted. Apparently this woman is a critique sniper. Too bad, per the rules, I have to wait six months to enter another contest because I'd like a chance to redeem poor Indigo in the Know.

    Junebug, your story is an inspiration too. And thanks for the comment on the nasty critiquer. I guess I haven't followed The Authoress's blog long enough to see this woman in action.

  27. Oh Theresa, you sound like a lovely person and I hope that snarky woman's comment won't keep you from writing. I can tell just by reading your words how much you love to do it and how strongly you want to improve. Already you are a million times more of a writer than that sad person will ever be. I believe that mean-spirited comments are made by people who are jealous or just so unhappy about themselves that they want to bring everyone else down. There is no call to be mean about someone's work, especially when the writer is like you and has bravely offered up her work and is vulnerable. People who take a shot at these writers are just sad, period. Ignore her and keep your chin up! :)

  28. Julie Dao, I haven't stopped writing. Thanks to blogging, everyone leaves comments that keep me from becoming too demoralized.

    You're probably right about snarky woman. She reminds me of someone who was in my college creative writing class. When we shared, he was harsh and the teacher had to talk to him. When it was his turn, his manuscript was the worst of all. We tried to be kind, even though he wasn't. At some point, he dropped the class.