(Not) A Day at the Beach

I sat in the chair, the gray, metallic surface hard and cold and unforgiving against my back.  I rested my elbow on the small wooden desk attached to the chair’s right arm, my legs moving in restless spasms, up and down, side to side, as I waited.

metalchair

 

The time had come.  All of my preparation, the writing completed over the summer,  had been accomplished with this moment in mind.

Would they like my story?

waitingwouldtheylikemystory

 

I felt reasonably confident sitting there.  I had completed four short stories ahead of the semester, and, the previous week, at the end of the first class, I had handed out the one I thought was the most polished.  It was titled “A Day at the Beach,” and I’d gone over it with the proverbial fine-toothed comb, sharpening themes, honing the focus, cleaning up the prose.

finetoothcomb

 

Even so, there were some very real nerves.  This was my first-ever graduate-level writing workshop, after all.  My classmates, about fifteen in all, were talented wordsmiths, and no doubt some of them were veterans of previous workshops–not rookies like me.

Two other intrepid souls had shared their stories with the class as well, and theirs as well as mine would be critiqued thoroughly over the course of the next couple of hours.

Whose story would be put to the test first?

The professor, a bald, bespectacled man in his late fifties with a thick British accent, announced, “To get things started, we have Michael Fedison’s ‘A Day at the Beach.'”

dayatbeachearly

 

So much for that question!

My legs grew more restless as the professor called for someone, anyone, to get the critique under way.

A blond, bearded guy named John was all too eager.

“I began this story, and I didn’t really find what motivated this character to do the things he did,” he said, thumbing through the pages of his printed copy.  “I kept waiting for that to change, for something to happen to show me something.  But it never did.”

charactermotivationuse

 

Ugh.  I felt as if I’d been punched in the solar plexus.

To back up, all throughout the previous week’s class, the professor, in a sort of introduction-to-creative-writing lecture, had discussed the all-important function of character in storytelling.  As I listened, I grew a bit concerned–not because I disagreed, but because “A Day at the Beach,” the copies of which were printed out and sorted in a stack at my feet, ready to be distributed to the class, was the exception to the rule.  It was a theme-based story, attempting to tackle social mores, group psychology; and, packed within its dozen pages, I had tried to delve into big issues that affected us as a culture and world.

socialmores

 

It was not in any way a character-driven story.  Looking back now, I can clearly see the problems this presented.  Lacking any real character development, the story needed to be a slam dunk in every other aspect to succeed–and even then, its impact would be muted.  At the time, though, on that warm September evening deep into the 1990s, I hardly thought that mattered.  Surely, the other students in the class would see the themes jumping off the page, and an intriguing discussion of said themes would emerge.

slamdunk

 

That’s not the way it happened.  John’s opening salvo had broken the literary ice, and several of the others began to chime in.

One young woman, whose name I’ve long since forgotten, pointed out that the prose style was arrogant, and she felt talked down to as she read the story.  Another student said she couldn’t follow the plot and agreed about the writing–it seemed forced, she said, awkward, the words self-conscious and without flow.  Still another complained that “A Day at the Beach” had no forward momentum, no thrust that wanted to make him turn the page.  It just sat there, flat and lifeless as a suffocated fish.

cantfollowstoryfish

 

By this time, when I wished a hole would open up in the floor beneath my chair and swallow me, the professor asked me to explain my story, to discuss what I had wanted (and obviously failed!) to accomplish with it.

And that’s what I did.  I talked about the different scenes, the character’s reaction to the events, even his name, all of which were symbolic.  When I was finished, I felt a little better.  Some of the students nodded and seemed a bit more receptive to the story than they had upon reading it.  But it was a Pyrrhic victory.  If I had crafted the story in the most effective manner, I wouldn’t have needed to explain it to the class.  It would have explained itself, without any postscripts from me.

emptypyrrich

 

When I drove home that night, I felt beaten, defeated.  I didn’t turn on the radio.  I just drove in silence.

I wondered if perhaps I’d made a big mistake taking this class.

More than that, I wondered if I was really cut out to be a writer.

deepcaverncutouttowrite

 

**************

In The Eye-Dancers, Ryan Swinton fears rejection more than just about anything else in the world.  A class clown of sorts, when he tells a joke, he needs for others to laugh and enjoy the punch line.

classclown

 

As writers, we’ve all been there–and I’m not sure if it’s something we ever fully overcome.  Is there anyone among us who is completely and unequivocally immune to reader response?  We toil and we labor and we plot and we live and breathe through our characters . . . and then we share our work.

And when we do, no matter how much praise we garner or positive feedback we enjoy, it is also inevitable that we will receive criticism.  It might come via a scathing remark from a friend or even family member, an angry email, or a negative review.  The question is–when the critical words come, and they will–what do we do with them?  Do we get angry?  Do we ignore them, blissfully unconcerned?  Do we take them to heart and begin to doubt our worth as a writer?  Do we disregard the ninety-eight positive reviews and fixate on the two negative?

criticism

 

Perhaps, as with so many things, there is a happy medium, a middle path.  Some criticism, after all, is valid, and should be weighed and considered.  When students in that creative writing workshop said “A Day at the Beach” suffered due to a lack of a strong lead character, they were right.  I would have been foolish to ignore that.

Other criticism, however, might not be valid.  Overly general, vitriolic, or irrelevant critiques, while they may scald, can justifiably be ignored.  How to discern the difference between sound, reasonable criticism that prods and encourages you to be better, reach higher, and hone your craft and critiques that offer little more than insecurity-inducing doubts that offer nothing of value can, admittedly, be a tricky and difficult task.  The only way I know how to attempt it is to try to detach myself emotionally as much as possible and apply the criticism to the story as if the story had been written by someone else.  With an objective eye (or as an objective of an eye as I can hope to attain under the circumstances!), I can then better digest the critique in a thorough and neutral manner and either learn from it or disregard it.

stayneutral

 

That’s easier said than done, of course–just one more aspect of the writing trade that is more art than science.

But whatever we do, it’s important to remind ourselves why we write to begin with–why we log the long hours, the writer’s block, the struggles, the joys, the failures, and the exhilaration of the creative process.

We have passions and loves and fears and longings that need to be expressed.  We have words inside of us that must be poured out, calling, prodding, kicking, screaming to be let loose onto the page.

wordspouringout

 

And we have a desire–no, more than that, a need–to share those words with others.

*************

I handed out two more short stories in that creative writing workshop.  Neither was as well received as I’d hoped, but both represented progress over my first attempt.  The feedback, though highly mixed, grew more positive with each effort, and by semester’s end, I was determined to keep at it, to keep trying, keep writing.

mountaintop

 

Sometimes the writing process is exhilarating, a mountaintop experience like no other; sometimes it is exhausting, draining, stripping you to the core.  But it’s what I love.  It’s what I am, and what I do.

Even if it isn’t always “A Day at the Beach.”

beachend

 

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

At the End of the Day . . .

When I was a graduate student, I had a professor in a creative writing workshop who would occasionally pick apart someone’s story in front of the entire class.  It wasn’t for the faint of heart.  But it was educational.  There were about fifteen of us in the class, aspiring writers all.  We would craft short stories, bring them to class, and share them with each other, critiquing our stories and writing comments in the margins.  For the most part, the professor,  a balding, bespectacled gent originally from London, served only as a moderator, facilitating the discussions and making sure the group stayed on topic.  But every now and then, he would decide to single out a particular story, and use it as an illustration of what not to do.

One day, he chose the topic of cliches.

cliches1

 

“You should never insert cliches in your story,” he said.  “It’s okay to use them in some dialogue.  People, after all, frequently speak in cliches.  But never use them in your narrative description.  Avoid them like the plague.”  (I admit, I nearly raised my hand here to tell him he’d just used a cliche to make his point on avoiding them, but, wisely, I just listened.)

cliches2

 

He then proceeded to eviscerate one young woman’s story, pointing out no less than half a dozen time-worn phrases in her ten-page piece.  I felt bad for her–brilliant as he was, this professor was not known for his tact.  Nevertheless, some of his lessons have stuck with me over the years, and whenever I edit one of my stories, I tend to keep an eye out for cliches.

I can’t guarantee that The Eye-Dancers is cliche-free.  Far from it!  But, with hope, there are very few cliches in the book.  In fact, if anyone can spot a cliche in the first three chapters, which are included on this website, please contact me, and I will send you a copy of the book for free!  Let’s call it The Eye-Dancers cliche challenge.

This gets me thinking about the entire creative process–from typing that first word, to sharing your work with others, to submitting it for publication.  It’s a challenging thing.  Looking out for cliches can sometimes take a backseat to the seemingly more important items on the writing list.

I mean, executing a story idea is no small feat.  It takes time, effort, blood, sweat, and tears.  Inspiration, after all, is 99% perspiration.  And coming up with a new twist for a story isn’t easy.  You have to push the envelope, think outside the box, and make sure you come up with an idea that hasn’t already jumped the shark.

Staring at a blank computer monitor, the cursor blinking, as if taunting you, can be intimidating, but trusting the creative process is essential.

blankscreen

 

The key is to type that first word and then keep going, keep working, and keep chopping wood.  If the idea takes flight, you will feel like a kid in a candy store–it’s almost too easy, too much fun!  Putting the pedal to the medal, you may speed right through the story, feeling like a champ.

But then you step back, inhale deeply, and take the time to read through what you’ve written during that whirlwind first-draft cyclone.  You may groan.  The rose-colored glasses are off now, and you see the results as clear as day.  The idea may have been worthwhile, the writing, in general, may even be passable.  But, being a first draft, the manuscript is littered with inconsistencies, poor sentence construction, the works.  The job of turning out a polished, completed story has only just begun.

snoopy

 

Knocking on wood, you hope you can start again at the top, put your nose to the grindstone, go the whole nine yards, and produce a top-notch piece of work.  There is still much to do, but it’s time to roll up the shirtsleeves, raise the bar, and shoot for the stars.  It’s easy at this stage to want to rush through the edits and just say the thing is done.  But patience is a virtue, and, if you’re planning on submitting the story for publication, well–you never get a second chance to make a first impression.  Everything needs to be perfect, and you have to give 110%.

Finally, after a second and third, and fourth edit, the story is finished!  The problem?  You’ve read, reread, edited, and reedited the piece so many times, you’re bleary-eyed and tired of it.  You decide to set it aside for a day or two, then read it one last time before sending it out.

When you read it again three days later, you are satisfied–it’s ready.  It’s time to submit the story, sink or swim, do or die.  Who knows what the editor will think of it?  All you can do is send it off, and let the chips fall where they may.  Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

And then you wait, and wait, and wait, and wait . . . and finally, after five months, a postcard arrives in the mail.

“Dear Writer,” it reads.  “Thank you for sending us your work and giving us the opportunity to read it.  However, we regret to inform you that it does not suit our needs at this time.  Thank you again for thinking of us.  Happy writing!”

You read the note again.  It’s frustrating.  After all the work, all the revisions, you don’t even receive a personal response.  Dejected, you wonder why you bother, but then you realize–there are so many other outlets where you can submit your story.  There are other fish in the sea!  Rejuvinated, you send the story to five other places within the next couple of days.  After all, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!  Besides, rejection is as much a part of the writing life as, well, writing.  It’s par for the course.  Some of the magazines you’re submitting to inform that they do not want simultaneous submissions–but this doesn’t seem fair.  So you simultaneously submit anyway!  Living dangerously can be fun.  And you need to break a few eggs if want to make an omelet.

Meanwhile, as you wait to hear back from these five new outlets, you are working on a novel–a vast, multi-layered tome that will likely take months, maybe years, to complete.  And then the process will begin anew–perhaps querying agents, publishers, networking.  Maybe you will try the indie author route.  So many options!  Life is a bowl of cherries.

One day, months later, while working on chapter twenty-one, you receive an email from one of the magazines where you submitted your short story.

“Dear Writer,

“We regret to inform you . . .”

rejection

 

You sigh, print the email, and toss it into a rejection pile on the edge of your desk.  You toy with the idea of wallpapering your room with these slips.  Oh well.  That’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes.  The story is still under review elsewhere.  Maybe someone is considering publishing it.  You never know.  Your fortune can change in the blink of an eye.  And truth is stranger than fiction.

A week later, another rejection slip–snail-mail.  But this one has a handwritten note!  “Great prose.  Keep up the good work.”  A rejection never felt so good.  You pin the slip on the wall, and get back to the novel.  There are still a dozen chapters to write, and hundreds of pages to edit, watching out for, among other things, all those pesky cliches!

“The life of a writer,” you say with a smile.

At the end of the day, it is what it is.

Thanks so much for reading!

–Mike

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