A New Day, A New Page

Absolute Blank

By Tawny McDonald (Butcher)

Like a fresh page of a new notebook, the year stretches before us and like during the year that’s just passed, we lick the tips of our pencils and wonder where it is we begin. What beasts will be conquered, what dreams will be accomplished, what will we do this year to make it different from the last. How will we fill these empty pages both figuratively as individuals and literally as writers?

Writing is by and far one of the more solitary pursuits in this crazy, crowded world—we long for the lonesome, long for that time when the world around us has receded. It’s our time to do our thing, to create, to be happy. But if this is what we actively pursue, then why is it when we finally achieve it (the kids are in bed, the significant other is running an errand, the ringer on the phone is OFF), we don’t make the most of it? What propels us to log onto the Internet rather than loading up Word? How can we succumb to acting out another SIM reality or flipping on the soaps when our own realities are begging to be spun? What leads us done roads well traveled when we should be on those ragged paths that lead to who knows where?

The pure nature of our passion is based on solitude, and as a result, it’s easy to see how it can be one of the most difficult to commit to. But it can be done. Any fitness expert will argue that exercise regimens are most successful when you have the support of either a friend or a group. Rehabilitation programs like Alcoholics Anonymous demonstrate that same philosophy—weekly meetings and sponsors are mandatory. So if writers are infamous for our isolation, then what are we to do? Where’s our buddy huffing along at our side and where are our twelve steps keeping us on track? They’re there—but it’s up to you to pursue them. Here’s a gentle push in the right direction.

  1. Set goals, not ‘resolutions’.

Recently, at Chasms and Crags, Beaver pointed out that she typically chose to refer to her yearly ambitions as goals rather than ‘resolutions’. The idea being that “resolutions are vague wishes that are destined to fail (often due to their daunting scope: “I’m going to write a novel this year!”). Goals are achievable things (it helps to keep them concrete & small: “I will fill one page—even if it’s total crap—each day.”) that you actually plan to do this year.”A goal is a nice idea—it’s something that you can aim for, without the pressure of having to succeed. Much better than a resolution, which often becomes something that needs to be dealt with to avoid failure.

  1. Seek out a writing environment and participate.

There’s something to be said about peer pressure—it’s not always a bad thing. When we surround ourselves with those with whom we have things in common, it becomes natural to want to fit in. By joining a writing community, either physically or online, you can use the effects of peer pressure to your advantage. Surround yourself with those that are writing and sharing their work and you’ll feel yourself drawn into doing the same. When you witness the response and feedback that someone else gets, your need for similar attention will kick in—you’ll desire the same thing. It’s hard to be involved with a group of talented people and not want to share their experiences. Toasted Cheese aims to provide this kind of environment online, but it’s not the only place where writers meet. Do a search online and find out where the community for you is currently residing.

  1. Try writing something daily.

Any fitness expert will tell you that consistency is the key to a successful exercise regime. Writing is no different. If you are to think of yourself as a writer, then you need to write daily. It’s hard at first to establish that routine, but once you do, it’ll be natural for you to pick up that pen each day.Toasted Cheese has added a new feature to their site to help you get started writing each day. It’s a calendar of daily writing prompts that are simple and a lot of fun—for example, one of January’s is to “write about something blue.” Why not give one a try? Visit!

  1. Find a writing buddy.

Everyone can use a buddy, no matter if it’s to spot you while lifting weights or a sponsor to keep you from taking that next drink. A buddy keeps you going when you think your writing is trash, and a buddy will lick the stamp for your latest submission. All of us have dreams of success in a world where many fail and so who wants to go it alone? Toasted Cheese might even be able to help! Visit the “Find a Writing Buddy” area and see if you can’t find someone to travel that lonely path with you.

  1. Attend ‘meetings’.

An important aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous is their weekly meeting—members rely on each other to stay sober each day. Writing groups can achieve a similar form of success—as a group, we can rely on each other to write each day. Find a writing community that meets at least on a weekly basis either in person or online. Take advantage of Toasted Cheese’s weekly chats that already exist by viewing the chat schedule. It’d be great to see you there!

  1. Take part in a class.

Being around other writers is an important part of maintaining your motivation to write and it’s an added bonus if you can actually improve your skills while you do so. A writing course will help you grow in more ways than one and when you find the right one, it’ll be something to look forward too. Universities offer tons of writing courses but they’re not the only choice. Check out your local library for recreation programs and see if you can’t find a writing course that’s “write” up your alley. Another option is to consider a writing class online—they exist and have their advantages too—you can wear your pajamas and eat popcorn if you like!Not sure if you’re quite ready to start with a course? Then why not just write with some other writers? A new concept at Toasted Cheese is the Writers’ Brunch every Sunday where in the first half-hour, a couple of writing prompts are presented and everyone writes. In the second half-hour, participants talk about what they wrote. Sound like fun? You better believe it. And best of all, it’s free!! See our chat schedule for more details.

  1. Understand why you’re not writing.

Probably the most common reason for not doing what needs to be done is time. Unfortunately, between you, me and the keyboard, that’s a lame excuse. If the average person sleeps for 8 hours each day, then that leaves 16 waking hours. That works out to 960 minutes each day. Don’t tell me that you can’t find at least 15 minutes to write?Time is merely a scapegoat, a ridiculous excuse. For many people, the reason for avoidance is a much deeper and more acceptable reason—fear of failure.

People don’t exercise because they get discouraged and think they will fail. They can’t drop 20 pounds; why bother trying? Alcoholics avoid recovery for more serious reasons perhaps, but isn’t denial partially refusing to accept that you are a failure to yourself?

Get past the fear of failure and perhaps writing will become more appealing to you. Stop writing to get published and instead write for yourself. Allow yourself that freedom, and perhaps writing will once again become something you want to do.

  1. Accept the nature of your solitary pursuit.

We live in a world that is over-stimulating and words like lonely, anti-social, seclusion all have negative implications associated with them. But these words also work to your advantage as a writer —and so it’s something that you should adapt to.Practice being alone. Start with 5 minutes each day and rid yourself of all distractions. Turn off the TV, shut the door or take a walk around the block. Distance yourself from people—tell them that you need ‘me-time’. Don’t feel guilty, you deserve it! Increase your time each day until you’re at 15 minutes and then use that time to write.

To get your started, visit one of the many boards at Toasted-Cheese that offers a 15-minute writing prompt. Or, use the calendar. 15 minutes may not seem like a long time—but it can work out to anywhere from 300 to 500 words. Do that every day, and in a week you’ll have written a short story (or chapter) of a reputable length!

  1. Create your space.

Perhaps one of the most awkward things about exercise is the whole idea of being self-conscious, of having those around you watching. And like exercising, writing is hard enough on its own—it’s even worse when you have an audience.Find a quiet spot where you can write and then label it your spot. It can be anywhere—the kitchen after everyone’s in bed, the room with your computer (with the door shut!), even the bathroom if you’re really pressed for space. Surround yourself with things that will please and inspire you. A cup of hot coffee, a novel by your favorite author, candles or incense. Take it a step further and craft yourself a Do Not Disturb sign and tape it to your closed door. We’ll even provide you with one—print off Toasted Cheese’s very own Do Not Disturb sign! [Set your page setup to “landscape” before printing on 8½ x 11 paper.]

  1. Writing comes first.

A lot of exercise experts agree that the best time to workout is early in the day. Not only does it make you feel great, but you don’t have all day to find excuses not to. The same applies to writing.Consider writing first thing in the morning, before all those pesky distractions start to surface. Take 15 minutes or a half an hour before rushing out the door. Do it before you shower or grab your breakfast. Plenty of writers started their careers this way and it makes sense if the rest of your day is hectic. And of course, the perk is you get to go through the rest of your day guilt-free because you’ve already written something.

If you’re not a morning person, then consider writing to be the first thing on your list when you have some free time. Ignore the television, the Internet, the sink full of dishes. Think about how much writing you could get done in a week if you skipped just one thirty-minute sitcom each day!

  1. Keep a journal.

Food and exercise journals have become very popular on the weight-loss scene and they can help with your writing as well. Journals help to keep you focused and are a great way to track your progress. Use your journal to chart the circumstances that either assist or prevent your from writing. Check back through your entries and start to look for the occurrences in your day that either kept you from writing or inspired you to write. You can then start to focus on what you need to eliminate or add to your daily schedule so that you are writing more.Need some tips? Check out Boots’s recent article at Absolute Blank about journaling to help get you started!

  1. Start today.

How often do you hear people who want to lose weight or even stop drinking, say, “Okay, we’re going to change things, but it’s Friday—I’ll start on Monday.” Procrastination is probably the biggest hurdle to conquer in any challenge. Stop it! You’re only cheating yourself by delaying the inevitable because when Monday comes, you’ll find another reason.The best way to avoid this pitfall is to start immediately. If you want to write, then do it. Now.

So there are twelve steps to get you started. The year stretches out before us, its pages just waiting to be filled. What story are you going to tell?

Final Poll Results

Finish These Sentences + Goals for 2002

A Pen In Each Hand

By Butcher

Finish These Sentences: I don’t write because _________________. I should write because __________________. My favorite time to write is _________________. My worst time to write is _________________. The most productive place for me to write is in the ______________. The least productive place for me to write is in the _______________. If you want to share, post your replies to Chasms & Crags!

Goals for 2002: Write a journal entry outlining your writing goals for 2002. Ask yourself what you want to accomplish and how you plan to achieve these goals. Don’t forget to read Butcher’s article at Absolute Blank. It’s chock-full of fabulous ways to jumpstart your writing!

Dance Naked

Absolute Blank

By Tawny McDonald (Butcher)

My first year of university, I signed up for an introduction to literature course, thinking that my high grades in high school English would help me breeze through. The first thing we read was Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and shortly after that, we were assigned our first essay.

Looking back, I’m sure that the professor must have dealt with her share of smarmy students who made As in high school and entered her classroom with egos that touched the roof. So when she handed out the assignment, she also handed out a healthy dose of reality. “If you want, show me your first drafts,” she said. “I’ll tell you where to improve.”

I wrote my essay and brought it to her, confident that I was going to blow this woman away. “Wow,” she would say, as she read my prose. “This gal is a genius!”

Of course, that’s not what happened. I still have my journals from my university days and the entry on the day she handed back my first rough draft reads as follows:

I really despise my English teacher. I gave her my essay to read over today and she told me it had no direction, it didn’t have a thesis and therefore, she had no idea what I was trying to prove. (Also, I had no purpose!) She said she read my opening sentences for each paragraph and found nothing—she couldn’t see the point in reading the whole thing.

Pretty harsh feedback, certainly not very nice, but it was honest. Looking back, I realize two important things. One, she was telling me what I needed to hear. Two, if she didn’t care, she wouldn’t have bothered asking for the first drafts.

Dealing with critique is one of the toughest skills to acquire as a writer. Our writing, after all, is something that is very personal and, often, the result of a lot of hard work. But the writing is the easy part.

Handling critique happens in three steps. The first thing you need to be able to do is share your writing. The person with whom you are sharing will critique it. Receiving the critique is your next challenge. Even harder is accepting it.

Step One—Sharing your work

Before you can receive critique you first must share your work. For even experienced writers, this is perhaps the hardest step. Maya Angelou said, “I have written eleven books but each time I think, ‘Uh-oh, they’re going to find me out now. I’ve run a game on everybody and they’re going to find me out.'” That fear is quite normal and it’s a tough fear to overcome.

It’s like undressing in front of someone for the very first time. They’re similar in that you first worry if your audience is going to like what they see. You worry that they’re going to notice those little flaws—that your sentences wobble like your knobby knees and your dialogue drags like your saggy bottom. You get past that only to worry that your audience will tell you what they don’t like and that can be the most devastating of all.

Make it easy on yourself. Find someone you trust. If you trust this person, you will know that they have your best interests in mind. This person will tell you what you need to hear and they will be honest with you. You will feel comfortable with them and when it comes time to share your writing, you won’t be able to get it to them fast enough.

The Second Step—Accepting the critique

When you receive critique on your work, it’s hard not to take it personally. This is your writing after all, something that you invested a lot of time and effort into. It is a reflection of you, your exposed, naked body. So when someone critiques it, we really feel their words.

In an ideal world, every word that we write would be perfect. Sentences would be flawless, paragraphs immaculate. Our readers would fall at our feet, utter words of awe.

There are writing sites out there that promote this kind of atmosphere and they are often successful. After all, who doesn’t like to receive constant praise? UPOP (Unqualified Praise Only Please) is nice—it helps to fluff the ego and makes you WANT to write—and any writer can accept that kind of praise quite easily. But it’s not critique and it won’t help you improve as a writer. It’s someone telling you that you’re not fat when even you know you could shed a few pounds.

The opposite of UPOP is ROTC (Raked Over The Coals) critique, a brutal massacre of your writing. It’s the person who has an ego the size of Texas and who thinks that any writing but theirs is a waste of time and paper. This person could say things like, “You’re such a dumbass, you shouldn’t be ALLOWED to own a pen and paper.” When you start to cry, they tell you to quit blubbering and stop writing while you’re ahead. I’m sure there are people out there who are like that; fortunately, I’ve had the good luck not to run into them. Hopefully, you won’t either. But if you do, don’t feel like you have to put up with their abuse. According to Anne Lamott in her book Bird by Bird, “No one should talk to you like this. If you write a long piece, and it is your first, and you are wondering if it’s publishable, and it isn’t, even by a long shot, someone should be able to tell you this in a way that is gentle yet not patronizing. So that you are encouraged—maybe not to pursue publication, but to pursue writing.”

This brings us to the third kind of critique, which we need as writers who want to succeed: Nit Picky Critique, or NPC. We need someone to take an objective look at our work and point out what’s good and what’s not so good. They’ll point out character inconsistencies, inaccurate details of your setting, comma usage that is embarrassing to watch. They might growl at you when you mix up “its” and “it’s”. They might be so blunt as to say, “Sorry. Nope. Doesn’t work.”

This is the type of feedback that you want. Feedback like this is what makes your good work great. It might sound harsh to you and some of it could sting and cause you to prickle up, but it’s what you need to hear. Wipe your tears, take a deep breath or go for a walk. Calm down and read through the critique again. You’ll see that the person who critiqued your piece had your best interests in mind and is trying to help. Understand that they think your piece has potential or they would never have bothered going over it in the first place. The person who is honest and tells you what your work needs to improve is the person who wants you to succeed.

Step Three—Responding to Critique

Regardless of the type of feedback you receive, it is usually polite to respond to the person who took the time to read your work. Drop them a line or call them up and tell them thank you. These people worked hard at helping you and they deserve that much. If the critique was a mere UPOP, you don’t need to say anything further. If the critique was ROTC, still thank them and consider Lamott’s advice to “ditch the sucker”. If the feedback was the third kind, NPC, thank them and do your best not to get defensive. According to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering The Craft, “it’s almost impossible for an author whose work is being criticized not to be on the defensive, eager to explain, answer, point out—’Oh, but what I meant was…’ ‘Oh, I was going to do that in the next draft…’ ”

Don’t succumb to the “Yeah, But” syndrome. Take the opportunity to ask them to clarify some of their comments or to inquire about what they thought of certain parts of your piece that they didn’t address. Use the critique to your advantage, understand that their comments are just suggestions and you don’t have to use them. After all, as LeGuin points out, “Always in the last analysis, you are your own judge, and you make your own decisions.”

I remember looking at that first draft with my professor’s notes written in red pen in the margin. The anger and devastation that I felt, and the humiliation was like standing naked before someone and having them laugh and point and call you fat. I can still recall that strong temptation to run to her office and pound on her door. I wanted to lay on her floor and thrash my legs and flail my arms. I wanted to throw a tantrum. Instead, I took deep breaths and calmed down. I went home and vented in my journal.

Even then, I knew she was right. One line followed my tirade against my professor:

I guess I should be grateful—I know what changes to make.

My ego was wounded—let’s be honest, deflated—but I was still able to see her critique for what it was. Since then, I’ve been dealing with critique in the same manner. I still share my work thinking that it’s the best writing ever and I still bristle when I get it back with red notes all over the place. I’m still tempted to yell, “YEAH? OH YEAH?” But I don’t. I breathe deeply and go for walks. I accept the critique for what it is. These three steps have helped to establish myself amongst my peers as a writer that is both dignified and gracious. The same can be said for any writer once they’ve learned to deal with critique.

Be brave. Share your writing. Keep a stiff upper lip and recognize critique for what it is. Learn to be grateful and how to be gracious. Acquire these skills and no matter who your audience, you’ll be able to dance naked.


References

Ban Breathnach, Sarah. “Owning Your Talent” from Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1995.

Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing & Life. New York: Doubleday, 1994.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Steering the Craft: Exercises & Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew. Portland, Or.: Eighth Mountain Press, 1998.

Handling Critique

A Pen In Each Hand

By Butcher

Using a NPC critique that you’ve received in the past, write two responses to it. With the first, be negative and vent. Act defensive. Argue all the statements as if they are either unwarranted or inaccurate. With the second, be positive and gracious. Thank your critiquer. Ask questions for clarification. Form a dignified response. Study the two and ask yourself, as a writer, which you would rather receive as a critiquer. If you haven’t already thanked this person for their critique, perhaps take the opportunity now to do so.