Friday, June 21, 2013

In Which I Gush about My Retreat, Confess My Biggest Flaw, and Reveal My New Life Goal

And now a break from my regularly scheduled How to Get Published program to gush about my amazing retreat...

Of course, there was the usual recharging of the writing battery, the reminder of why I love writing books and being around others who have the same obsession and love. Where else can you discuss the elements of the Hero's Journey while noshing on gourmet appetizers or gripe about rejections while taking an invigorating walk in the woods? 

I go into every retreat expecting the restfulness and the opportunity to get a lot of work done without the constant interruptions and distractions of daily life.

What I always forget--even though it has happened to me EVERY SINGLE TIME I attend one of these retreats--is how much left I have to learn.

My biggest flaw as a writer (and probably as a person) is my reluctance to hear criticism. I am getting better at this! But there is always that icky feeling when someone tells me what's not working in a manuscript.

I had brought a novel with me for the plane trip--one of the huge tomes from my teetering TBR stack--Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham. This book is over 700 pages but I had the absurd idea that I could read it before I arrived at my retreat. Instead, I barely put a dent in it, and ended up reading bits of it each night and then on the trip home.

Not to get into the whole saga (it's a very good book, if somewhat in need of editing) but one passage jumped out at me, for obvious reasons:

The main character, Phillip, has decided to be a painter. He asks a friend to look at his pictures and the friend says no. Phillip is outraged and asks why. The friend answers simply: "People ask you for criticism, but they only want praise."

This made me laugh because it gets at the heart of my problem. When I ask someone to read my writing what I really want is for them to say that it is perfect just the way it is.

What I learned (again) on this retreat is that my writing is not perfect. (I know, ha ha, right?) but I can handle hearing about the weaknesses and flaws without crumpling or getting defensive. And more than that, I can get EXCITED about figuring out the solution.

It helped that all of the writers there were amazingly supportive and encouraging. 

And I can't say enough about the teacher at the retreat, Kim Griswell. I actually met Kim at an earlier retreat where she was randomly assigned as my mentor.

The first time she gave me a bit of criticism--and she was so NICE about it--I struggled not to cry or make a grouchy face. I'm sure I came off acting like a jerk. Later, after I had time to stew and consider, I knew she was right, and I apologized.

That was the retreat where I heard Newbery Winner Linda Su Park give a speech about how to accept criticism. You look at the person with a blank face and say one word: "Okay." (I wish I had heard that speech BEFORE I had my meeting with Kim.)

At this last retreat, I remembered the "Okay" part and braced myself for whatever Kim was going to lay on me (but inside, I confess that I was hoping she'd just gush about how perfect my writing was.) See, I really do have to learn this over and over.

I'm happy to say that there were no tears or grumpy faces. Okay, I did argue with her. A little. But only because I was trying to understand what exactly had confused her. She was a good sport about it, God love her. And I spent the rest of the week picking Kim's brilliant brain whenever I had the chance.

Here is another thing I have to learn over and over: often that bit of criticism is the key to everything--it's the Way In that was shimmering just out of my reach. Instead of making me weary, it resonates, because it is right. I almost cried during this retreat--not out of frustration, but out of relief. This project that I have been working on for YEARS may actually be one step closer to completion.

Toward the end of the week I got a string of emails from my publishing company. The first official review of Thin Space has come in, and it is a starred review from Kirkus. Not many people outside of the writing world know what this means.

But I can tell you, the writers at the retreat knew.

Kim read the review out loud and there I was, almost crying again.

The retreat was over all too soon and I was doing what I always do as I packed my suitcase, plotting how I could come back. 

Since I truly believe that you have to ask the Universe for what you want if you ever expect to get it, here is my new life goal:

Return, next year, as a teacher. 


  1. Congrats on the star!

    When I get a critique, the first thing I do is thank the person. Not only because it's a lot of work to critique something and I want to acknowledge their work, but it helps me get in a more receptive frame of mind. It can take days for a critique to really sink in.

    1. Thanks, Jenn! I thank people who critique my writing too (along with my apologies). I also have written thank you notes to every agent and editor who has ever sent me a rejection. That, strangely, feels very good.