Mailbox Pages, Pressure, and the Writing Seesaw

listeningI try to be a disciplined writer. That is to say, I try to write something daily.  Something on a story page. Blog posts don’t count.

That part works most of the time. When I’m in danger of falling off the discipline wagon is when I’m near the middle of a large project and my self-doubt is reaching tsunami proportions. In recognition of this seemingly inevitable stage, a colleague and I agreed to serve as each other’s “mailboxes” for pages from a work in progress.

We decided on an arbitrary deadline (the 5th of each month) by which to send each other approximately 30 pages apiece. If we didn’t receive pages in any given month, we’d send gently nagging emails.

When a mailbox sender’s working draft got completed, we agreed, it was completely optional for the mailbox recipient to  read it and offer comments. No pressure at all, right?

Six months later, my colleague, who is obviously more disciplined than I am, completed her draft. I read it. It was wonderful. Not finished but filled with good energy and story and brimming with character. I wrote my comments, sent them off and got back to work. She said I was right on track–she might not necessarily agree with all my suggestions but my reading of the draft gave her lots to work with, which is the whole point. I felt validated as a reader which is always good for my writing confidence.

As for my draft, travel intervened. And teaching. I went to Kindling Words East, which kindled the fire for my novel right back up. I longed to get back to this work. What I didn’t have were enough hours in the day. Then, predictably, the doubts began to creep in. Had I packed too much into the novel? Should I go back and take out a subplot or two? Was it even a middle grade? This is a slippery slope.

My semester began. The picture book intensive kicked in. My reading started piling up. I’d sent in my February 5 mailbox pages in January, anticipating the crunch, but March 5 now loomed. It felt impossible.

I wrote a picture book draft. That’s always a nice break from a novel.  But somehow, I couldn’t go back to my mailbox pages.

I asked my kindly mailbox for a hiatus. A couple of months, I said. I’ll have to set the novel aside. How about I resume in May? She agreed. This is a no-pressure agreement, right? All about mutual support and respect for our work.

Then something odd happened. Right after I’d hung up the phone, I fired up Scrivener and got right back into the novel. Right into the messy middle. That evening, I wrote a couple of new scenes. Not 30 pages, granted. More like 10. But I was off and running again. Just the thought of not having to meet this (completely flexible, erasable, voluntary) deadline unfettered my creative impulse and allowed me to move ahead. And so the seesaw goes.

The Tenderness of a New Draft

I’ve often wondered at my ambivalence about giving new work to someone else to read. I mean, I’ve done this for years. I do want to know what’s wrong with my draft. I know there’s always something wrong. I know I don’t have the judgment to see it yet. But sometimes, especially with something that’s really new and just developing, I really just want to be acknowledged. Let’s face it. I just want to be told what’s right.

So this post on Brevity’s nonfiction blog really spoke to me.  L. Roger Owens frames the whole complicated business of asking for feedback in terms that finally made sense. He begins with an anecdote about his 8-year-old daughter:

“You’re a writer, Dad,” she said. “You can give me some pointers, if you want.” In other words: Here, Dad, take the bait. This could be the last time I ever ask for your feedback.

How easy it would have been for me to declaim on showing versus telling, the importance of eliminating adverbs, writing with specific details (“Did he fall out of a tree or was it an oak?”). And then end my craft talk with a kicker-quote by Annie Dillard or Natalie Goldberg.

But I didn’t.

He goes on to talk about how to think through what you need at different times when you might ask for feedback, so you don’t need to end up shutting down your inner child. Instead, you just learn to shield her tactically.

I’ve discovered there is an art to asking for feedback, and if you learn it, you can get the kind of feedback you need, when you need it.

It’s good to remember that the self who makes me long for praise is the very one whose boundless energy throws up the best ideas for me in the first place. I don’t need to outgrow her, just channel her energy where it serves me best, and acknowledge that sometimes we all just need a little praise.

Audience, Purpose, Content

At the moment, I am struggling simultaneously with two picture book manuscripts. This is unusual. Mostly, picture book manuscripts liberate me when I’m feeling defeated by  a novel draft or revision. Mostly, picture books help me to see more readily the bigger landscape of story. They get me disentangled from the words on the page. But not these.

They are both nonfiction. Historical. With multiple layers of story. The question that keeps coming up is whether there is too much here for a picture book. I’ve had fellow writers read both of these at different times. I’m drowning in all the very good critical appraisals I’ve received.

But now the job is mine and mine alone. Because in the 20+ years since I began daring to call myself a writer, here is something I have learned.  At every successive stage, a work in progress differs in its audience and its purpose, and therefore in its content.

Early Drafts: The first draft is for me and me alone. Some people say the first draft is the writer telling herself the story. In my opinion, it’s not even that. The first draft is simply to pin the idea down, to commit to the page my intention to pursue it. No one should ever see that first draft but me. It is too fragile to share even with trusted readers.

imageDeveloping Drafts: Subsequent rounds of drafts can benefit from the opinions of informed readers. Not my family, I hasten to add, but readers who are writers themselves. At this stage I go to craft books as well, or books about books. I might flip through their pages to see if I can pick up on any ideas to help me bridge the gap between intention and outcome.

Drafts Nearing Completion: Back to me, myself, and I. Last rounds to clean up, get rid of extraneous ideas and wishful thinking, self-indulgent prose and unnecessary decorations. Sometimes at this stage, I can’t see the work with any judgment at all.

This is not a bad time to send the work to an agent or an editor. An editor told me long ago that she’d rather get a manuscript with a strong idea, good execution but with work clearly yet to be done, than one that is weak and prematurely polished. Every book begins with an idea that offers many, many possible directions. A writing group or critique partner can tell me all the many paths that my work seems to be pointing toward. But an editor, especially a good, thoughtful, practical, visionary editor (they do exist–really) can point you to a single path. Then you can decide if that’s the one.