Sunday, February 25, 2007

On Writing # 2

Now on the other two questions raised at my writing group. How does one handle criticism and how does one make production in writing?

The first question is an interesting panel topic for a science fiction convention -- not because there's an answer to be found, but because it's fun to hear how different authors react. I find non-response, silence more painful than a negative review. When I first started writing, I got very few reviews. I felt as if I was dropping stones into a well, but there was never a splash.

Part of the problem was my difficulty with noticing positive feedback. My background is New England English on one side and Midwestern Scandinavian on the other. Both cultures have a tendency towards the dour, an ability to handle hard times pretty well, but a discomfort (almost) with good times. The second or third story I published was a Nebula finalist. I barely noticed this. I certainly did not realize what it told me: my peers -- the people I wanted to have as peers -- liked my story well enough to put it on the Nebula ballot. Not shabby, for a writer just beginning.

I don't think I was that unusual, and it may not have anything to do with my background. Writers, especially beginning writers, have a deep hunger for praise, which is almost impossible to satisfy.

I guess my answer to the question would be: notice when you get praise and enjoy it. As for the negative responses, the bad reviews -- I think the best thing to do is ignore them. You can rarely learn from a review; it's too short.

What I learned from reviews and editor's rejection letters was -- people did not get my stories. The late Terry Carr sent me note after note saying, "You write really well, but your story has no point." I wanted to put stars in the margins next to key paragraphs and underline the sentences that gave the story's point, but I didn't.

Finally, ten or fifteen years ago, which was twenty years after I began to publish stories, people began to see what my stories were about.

This is not entirely true. There had been people all along who liked my work. Charles Platt bought two stories for New Worlds, and Damon Knight bought three for Orbit. Pamela Sargent reprinted my Nebula finalist story in one of her Women of Wonder collections. My worst problem has always been that I didn't write enough. I think my stories are simple and obvious, but apparently they are distinctive enough, so people needed time and exposure to understand what they were saying. The time happened. Time is always reliable. It just keeps chugging along. But I didn't do my part. Instead, I got bothered by silence and bad reviews and wrote slowly, with many periods of no writing at all.

Don't follow my example. Always keep writing.

Do I write differently now, in a style that is easier to understand? I think it's possible I do. I have written stories with footnotes, forewords, afterwords, and even one story with five morals listed at its end. I'm especially happy about the story with the five morals. They are good morals: Don't trust ghosts, don't use other people's bodies. Stuff you can live by.


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