Weeds and plants in writing

 

Yarrow

This shot of wild yarrow, taken from the same location as the rainbow in my previous post, captured just one little patch of several around our cabin. Given how many patches there were, I’m surprised none made it into the bouquet of wildflowers picked for me by my granddaughters on my birthday. But you can see there was no lack of other flowers for them to choose from.

Wildflowers copy

It always amazes me that there are so many different kinds, surviving in some of the harshest locations. Just a couple days ago, my hubby commented that despite it being late September, during his daily walk he counted six different varieties growing in the ditches and gravel shoulders of the road.

I love wildflowers! They’re essentially weeds, but what’s not to love about them? They’re hardy, colourful and prolific.

A few years ago I bought two perennial Yarrow plants from our local nursery. I was sure they would do well in our country-style garden, but I was wrong. They petered out after one season, and I was so disappointed.

During the garden bed rejuvenation project at my daughter’s home earlier this month, one of the few plants doing well was a pink Yarrow, and I assumed she wanted it rescued and transplanted.  Not so. She said it wasn’t a thing of beauty — she considered it to be no better than a weed, flowering sporadically and flopping out over the pathway.

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I would happily have salvaged it to bring home to my own garden, but we decided that once it was dug out, it wouldn’t likely stay alive for two more weeks in the summer heat and survive being transported in the back of our truck for 800+ kilometres. ::sigh:: So it ended up on the compost heap. It might have been a case of one person’s trash being another person’s treasure, but it didn’t work out.

Not only is there truth in that proverb, it’s also applicable to our writing. What one person deems a well written story may well be rejected by another. Differing opinions don’t change its quality, but might well determine its destination. When faced by endless roadblocks, sometimes it’s worth considering if it might be time to change direction.

Have you ever taken a new direction with your writing? How did it work out? 

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Critiquing: #1 – Getting Punched in the Gut

In past years I’ve written a few posts on the topic of critiquing which generated several comments. Now that I’m back in another critique group, I am reminded of how difficult it can be to adjust to the critiquing styles of a new group of writers. It takes time to get to know and trust each other… time to understand what kind of feedback each one needs and desires… time to determine how best to provide individualized and constructive criticism that’s truly helpful.

In an April post five years ago I said, “Good critiquing is as much an art as good writing. Anyone with a modicum of editorial ability should be able to go through a manuscript and highlight problems with its plot, characterization, structure and grammar. I believe it takes someone who has also experienced a writer’s journey — who has survived through the creation of her own fictitious world and thus understands the exhilaration and desperation that is a part of the process – to be able to offer advice in a way that is both helpful and welcome.”

During this next week I’m going to dig into the archives and re-issue two posts on the topic of critiquing, Here’s the first…

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How do you feel when you offer your writing for examination and it gets torn apart? For me, it would depend on the motivation of the person who is doing the criticizing. Does he/she sincerely care about me and want to help me improve my writing, or is he/she using the opportunity to dish out personal opinions and humiliate? Since I would be looking for an honest evaluation I would expect to hear not only about my manuscript strengths, but also its weaknesses. What I wouldn’t appreciate is to be told that large chunks of the story should be deleted or rewritten because “it will sound much better than the way you wrote it,” or to be told the work is unredeemably bad. That would feel like a punch in the stomach.

It’s painful to get negative critiques on one’s writing but how do you deal with them? I’ve discovered several recent posts on the topic and would like to offer a few excerpts for your consideration.

In mid-September (2010) Phoebe Kitanidis blogged about “The jerk in your critique group,” but with an unexpected twist – she referred to herself as the jerk! In an effort to avoid any negative feedback from her fellow writers she found she wasn’t submitting anything for critiquing that hadn’t first been polished to perfection. Having others not find anything negative to say about her work felt good. It made her feel superior, and in turn she offered arrogant opinions on the work of the other members.  She ended up discouraging others and not learning very much herself at the critique sessions.

In retrospect she saw herself and others like her as “people invested in the idea of themselves as writers—but not especially invested in the craft of writing itself.”

On the Writer Unboxed website Anna Elliott says, “There comes a point for every writer, published or not, when you have to let others read your book.  It’s a scary moment, because however hard you’ve worked, however much you love your beloved manuscript, there are never any guarantees that your reader will love it, too. … When I’m still in the writing/revision stage, I try to remember that my first loyalty is to the story I’m telling, not to my own feelings.”

So if we steel ourselves to turn in less than stellar writing for peer critiques, how do we handle the emotions that erupt at the inevitable criticisms and suggestions?

Kristen Lamb on the Warrior Writers site  says, “I would like to point out that a good critique might very well make you angry. But, before casting judgment, take a break, calm down, then ask yourself why this person’s comments so upset you.

“A really good critic is highly skilled at finding your greatest weaknesses. That is a good thing. Better to find and fix the flaws while a work is in progress and changes can be made. But, it is normal to react. Thus, the best advice is to breathe deeply. Listen. Calm down by breathing deeply some more. Ask questions. Check your ego. And then grow. Trust me. One day you will thank these people for having the courage to be honest.”

One reaction on the Writer Unboxed post: “I’ve heard so much about rejection in the industry, but I wasn’t expecting it from my friends. I know this is going to sound bitter, but when you get your manuscript back, you’re going to find out who your true friends are. They’re the ones who will give you the bad news with a soft touch, and the good news with a big smile.” [Tamara]

There are always tactless people who feel superior and need to prove it by tearing down others, but Kristen says,“they were born little creeps who just grew into larger creeps.” Perhaps we have to accept that, and, if we truly want to grow, put aside the hurt and carry on.

It’s good advice if you can follow it. Have you ever had to deal with tough or unfair critiques? How did you cope?

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Wednesday’s Words of Worship: Life Shadows

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Writers know a lot about insecurity, rejection, disappointment and discouragement, but I don’t suppose there is anyone whose life at some time hasn’t dipped into the shadows. The reassurance and confidence expressed in this hymn remind us of God’s promises. He said he would always be here for us even when shadows make it difficult for us to see him. We can depend on that. Great is his faithfulness!

 His compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is Thy faithfulness. 

Lamentations 3:22-23

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How’s your week going? Some of you have been particularly on my mind, so this is just a bit of mid-week encouragement to keep you going until Sunday rolls around again. 🙂

Great Is thy Faithfulness
(Chisholm / Runyan – 1923)

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Using more than half a brain (or, hints for successful querying)

Nesting birds are testing our patience this week. A junco decided to build a nest in the middle of one of the twelve-inch flower baskets that hangs just inches from our family room window. (Yes, the same basket from which the finch eyed me last week. What’s with these birds?!)

It’s an impossible location for us to accommodate since there are patio tables and chairs beneath the planters (plus I need to keep watering the flowers), so, although we felt badly about it, we chased her away.

That same evening, before we had a chance to remove the nest, a robin took it over, and the basket swayed precariously as she flew in and out on a redecorating mission. We discouraged her, too, so she has moved on to the top of the spotlight above our driveway, where anyone with half a brain can see the angles make it impossible for any twigs or moss to balance. Not having half a brain, and undeterred, she keeps picking up the bits that land on the pavement below and returning them to the spotlight… from where, of course, they slip off. Again and again.

Wasn’t it Einstein who said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting different results? Silly wild things!

Then again, the not-so-wild among us have been known to act in a similar manner.  Who hasn’t taken the same query letter, polished to make the best impression possible, and sent it out to agents time and time again – the same letter to every agent on a constantly expanding list?

We’re told to be persistent, to have patience, because some day that letter will connect with *the* right person. But I’m not so sure it will! How can the same letter avoid becoming generic? I can’t help wondering if agents feel the same about our impersonal queries as we do about their form rejections.

What can we do to improve our chances for a positive response? Here are my six common sense (but as yet unproven) suggestions:

  • Research agencies and their client list. Do they rep our style of book? If not, we’re wasting our time (and theirs).
  • Explore agent websites to stay up-to-date on any changes in genre preferences and to find out whether or not submissions are currently being accepted. They aren’t going to make an exception for us.
  • Spend time interacting with agents on social media. Discover them as real people. (But don’t stalk them. Respect professional boundaries.)
  • Leave photocopying for manuscript pages. Make every query an original, using the agent’s name, correctly spelled.
  • Think about the mood of our manuscript and the voice that took us through its writing. Put ourselves in the same headspace while we write the query letter.
  • Don’t try to cram an entire synopsis into the query. Get the story’s concept across, introduce only the main characters and the conflict they face.  The job of a query is to captivate the agent, not to bog her down with a litany of details. Send a separate synopsis if one is required.

It also wouldn’t hurt to keep in mind agent Kristin Nelson’s admonition:  “It’s more important for a query concept to be original than for a query to be perfect.” If we don’t have an intriguing story, the perfect query letter isn’t going to help get it published, no matter how often we send it out.

We have to take steps to ensure our querying efforts aren’t wasted, unless we enjoy being constantly turned away like silly birds!

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Blowdowns and Abandoned Writing Dreams

Thank goodness for a 4×4 truck! As I’ve mentioned in at least one previous post, when we head north to our cabin, the route takes us via major highways, gravel logging roads, private dirt roads and eventually to our very primitive road.

There is no public access to our land, and therefore no road maintenance. When trees are down, or washouts happen, you know who has to deal with them.

A couple weeks before we arrived there for our summer holiday a localized tornado went through, affecting areas on a hit-and-miss basis. In some places only a tree or two went down; in others, whole stands fell over. We had to cut our way through three trees before we reached our cabin. Readymade firewood!

On our recent fall trip, the now leafless branches became art as they arched across their fallen neighbours. I’ve returned to these photos several times, noting how it was mostly the less mature growth that bent, broke or flattened in the pummeling wind. I see how tall and gangly some of the growth was — struggling to escape the crowd to reach elusive light.

The images morph into a question … whether experienced or perhaps more mature writers are better able to withstand the stresses of an uncertain future in today’s publication industry.

How often do newer writers become discouraged and decide to lay down their pens? What makes them give up on their dreams while others determine to hold on? I wonder why some writers seem more firmly rooted in the path they’ve chosen.

I’d like to hear your ideas.

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Happy 176th Birthday to Mark Twain, pen name of Samuel Langhorne Clemens.

“Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.” [Mark Twain]

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Since when is a writer like moss?

I don’t understand moss. Shallow rooted, persistent beyond belief, it turns up everywhere. It’s in the gravel walkways around our property, taking over the lawn, creeping up trees and hanging from the limbs like gymnasts on a trapeze.

In some places wild mosses are overcollected … varieties becoming threatened. That’s definitely not a problem in my yard. Moss multiplies like dust bunnies (don’t you dare look under my desk!) happily smothering less hardy plants in its wake. We’ve pretty much given up fighting it in the lawn. It’s green, is soft under foot, needs no maintenance and doesn’t require mowing. Bonus!

How it survives the bleak conditions around here is a mystery to me, but it provides a fine example of what it takes to succeed as a writer. Find your niche and then be persistent. Don’t be demanding. Don’t worry when someone rejects you by tearing away a chunk of your soul. Just carry on doing what you’re doing until the wound is covered over and you’re re-established on the path.

Not bad advice, don’t you think?

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Footnote:

The photo of moss hanging from branches wasn’t taken at my coastal home but at our Cariboo cabin on a frosty morning. We’ve always called it ‘Moose Moss’ but that’s a misnomer. It may be Alpine Tree Moss but I don’t know for sure.

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Are we poisoning our chances for publication?

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Common snowberry, or Symphoricarpos albus, is a deciduous shrub in the honeysuckle family. It grows wild on shady hillsides and woodland areas but its attractive clusters of white berries have also made it a popular ornamental shrub in many gardens.

It grows in wild abundance on our family’s Okanagan property and provides winter food for quail and pheasant. In other areas it’s also browsed by deer, bighorn sheep and bear.

On a recent visit I admired the shrub and came home to research its name. Despite its innocuous appearance, I found one source (Wikipedia) that said snowberries are considered poisonous to humans. “The berries contain the isoquinoline alkaloid chelidonine, as well as other alkaloids. Ingesting the berries causes mild symptoms of vomiting, dizziness, and slight sedation in children.”

We have a lot of wild berries in BC, many of which are edible, but some are known to be poisonous while others are of doubtful edibility or are just plain unpalatable. Around our property each spring we have bushes that bear small red berries that I think are huckleberries. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s what they are… but not sure enough to eat them. I’m going to take a sample to our local nursery next spring and get a knowledgeable opinion.

In this case I think I’m smart to admit I don’t know what I don’t know. When in doubt, be cautious. Go do some research. That’s not a bad philosophy in writing, too. Barging headlong into unfamiliar situations without first doing adequate research can often cause irreparable damage.

A couple years ago agent Rachelle Gardner posted a “Friday Rant” about people who fall into her inbox looking for an agent. They pitch work that she doesn’t rep; they’ve clearly made no effort to read guidelines or learn about the querying process; they “aren’t taking the time to approach publishing seriously.” In their ignorance they alienate agents and effectively kill any chance of having their work considered.

That’s not very smart if their goal is publication.

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When tackling something new in life or writing, how do you determine the proper approach? Do you prefer to jump in first and ask questions later? And here’s another question: Do you think it’s unfair to be penalized for ignorance?

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Paralyzed by Fear

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The fabric has well-defined folds and wrinkles from being squashed under a stack of tablecloths and placemats. It’s a batik I created somewhere around 1985. I’ve kept it because I enjoyed the experience of making it and love its colours, but it has resided in a drawer hidden under table linens for all these years because I felt it wasn’t good enough to display.

"Moonrise" - Batik by Carol Garvin

 

Early last week agent Rachelle Gardner wrote about not being able to hit ‘send’ when it comes to submitting our writing. “What holds us back?” she wrote. “It’s our fear of failure. As soon as we put it out there, we become open to rejection. What if we did it wrong? What if it’s not good enough? What if someone says it’s horrible? Can I handle that?”

‘Paralyzed by fear’ may be a cliché, but when your finger hovers over the ‘send’ key and, with a mind of its own, refuses to engage, what else do you call it? Reluctance? Nervousness?  Timidity? They’re too tame. It’s fear all right.

I rarely enter writing contests, but in three of the years that I attended the Surrey International Writers’ Conference I submitted entries in the associated contests… and finalled each time. It isn’t a contest that offers feedback so I’ve never known what the judges liked or what they thought was lacking. One might think the obvious next step would be to submit to contests that do offer feedback, but I’ve become familiar with the Surrey Conference. Anywhere else is out of my comfort zone.

In my comment on Rachelle’s post I said, “I think I’ll recognize God’s prodding when it’s time to make the move.” Immediately after leaving her site I clicked over to Ann Voskamp’s blog as my last read of the day, and found this among Ann’s words: “We’re in the God zone when we’re out of our comfort zone….” Now, if that isn’t prodding, I don’t know what is!

“Don’t wait for perfection,” said Rachelle. “You want your work to be as strong as possible, yet you can’t just wait forever, always saying, “I can do better.” At some point, you’ve got to listen to your gut when it tells you, “This thing’s good to go.”

So-o-o-o… this past weekend I polished required submission material to a sheen, and sent my entry off to its first “uncomfortable” destination, a contest with written critiques from multiple judges.

It wasn’t easy. I stared at that ‘send’ key for a long time. But it’s done, and now I’m about to take an iron to the batik. Then I plan to get it framed.

Are there obstacles that prevent you from moving ahead into your desired tomorrows? What will it take to overcome them?

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I Like It. She Doesn’t.

Not long ago I mentioned that I don’t choose books based on reviews. What one reader likes in a story isn’t always what satisfies another. Do you ever wonder why that is? Why one agent passes on a manuscript because it doesn’t ignite a spark, and yet another agent will become a passionate advocate of the same story?

Some years ago I designed a small stained glass piece for a church group in Port Alberni — a fish symbol suspended on the diagonal midway between the indigo of sky and ocean, and the green of land. Deciding on exactly the right colours wasn’t easy. Depending on where it would hang (south-facing window, on a wall, in a dark alcove, etc.), the light would affect the perception of its colours.

A Benedictine monastery near where I live provides a worshipful environment enhanced by the effect of unusual stained glass windows. The chapel is circular, and the colours of the glass gradually change from one window to another around the perimeter. Depending on the time of day and location of the sun, the light infusing the chapel glows with different hues.

It’s only my opinion, but my heart tells me that each individual sees the intensity of colour differently, according to where they stand in a room. Each feels degrees of emotion in relation to their own experiences. Each receives an author’s words into the unique arena of their own preferences.

One person likes our writing. Another doesn’t. It’s nothing personal. Then again, it’s all about personal taste and individual choice. It’s true in stained glass, in all forms of art, so why not in writing?


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When things get a little rough…

A few days ago an agent wrote on her blog about how a disgruntled writer had sent an e-mail and then, before the agent had a chance to reply, had sent a follow-up e-mail lambasting her for not responding, and labeling her as a bad agent. She concluded with, “We know we’re supposed to brush it off, but sometimes it’s hard.”

Among the comments to her post was one that suggested she should ‘suck it up’… “and if it is ‘hard’, get some tips on coping skills.”

After I digested the post and its various comments I found myself wondering about these negative aspects of the industry – the effects of unjustified criticism, misunderstandings, and yes, the rejections and bad reviews.  How should we handle such things? As writers we try hard to write with integrity and express ourselves honestly and coherently, but our words are open to evaluation. When the interpretation of our work (or actions, as in the case of this agent) seems unfair, are we obliged to ‘suck it up’?

What’s your opinion? If you’re not thick skinned when it comes to those ‘black cloud’ situations, how do you cope with them?

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