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More About How to be a Writer...

Catherine Ryan Hyde

Most of you know that I collaborated with friend and publishing industry blogger Anne R. Allen on a nonfiction book for writers, How to be a Writer in the E-Age...and Keep Your E-Sanity. I'm dedicating today's blog post to our book because it just passed a lovely milestone. Its first updated ebook is now live.

When we set out to write a book about our rapidly-changing industry, we knew it presented a challenge. On the one hand, writers desperately need a map to navigate these changes. On the other hand, our information was fated to date quickly. Enter our publisher, Mark Williams International, who offered the ebook with free updates every six months. 

Our book is evolving.

This, of course, is something that can only be accomplished in the digital age, and a great example of the value of ebooks. But I'm also aware that How to be a Writer has fallen victim to a misperception. The market has been flooded with books about how to make lots of money self publishing ebooks. And because Anne and I are obviously writing about authors in this new digital era, I'm afraid many people think that's what our book is about. But How to be a Writer in the E-Age is about all aspects of being a writer. It compares and defines many publishing models without taking sides in the debate. And when we suggest our goal is to help you keep your sanity, we mean it.  

Anne and I write about topics that extend all the way from getting your first draft on paper to keeping your head on straight after that major shot of success. In between we offer advice on rejection, unsupportive friends and loved ones, the care and feeding of your critique group, social networking and the creation of an online author's platform, and.... Whew. There are a lot of topics. Have to stop to catch my breath. We compare and contrast the different publishing models and offer helpful suggestions for writing the pitch, query letter and synopsis. We even offer new perspectives on depression and writer's block. And of course Anne goes into great depth on her specialty, how to blog.

And that is by no means an inclusive list. I'm just skating over the surface of the table of contents to give you an idea of our scope.

Here's an example of one of my short pieces on making sense of criticism. I chose this piece because I know many of you reading this blog are not writers. But everybody has to deal with criticism. So I thought everybody could potentially relate. 

MAKING SENSE OF CRITICISM

My first short story acceptance praised the way I “depicted the characters with brief brush strokes." The same story had just been rejected by another magazine because of the “hollowness” of the characters.

One story was accepted with such enthusiasm that the editor thanked me for sending it to his magazine, citing such work as his reason for being an editor. He went on to nominate it for Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry award and the Pushcart Prize. The last editor to have read the same story rejected it, saying it did not hold the reader’s interest and was told, not shown.

When my novel Pay It Forward came out, Time Magazine called my dialogue tinny and my characters stunted. The Chicago Tribune called my dialogue believable and my characters well-drawn.

It starts the day you join a critique group, it intensifies when you get an agent. Every time your agent sends out the work, the rejections get more confusing. One editor says it’s too this, the other says it’s too that. In the face of such conflicting opinions, what do you keep and what do you throw away?

I like to say that you must never, ever, under any circumstances, change your work just because someone tells you to…unless, of course, they’re right.

The writers in the group usually laugh. Because, of course, knowing who is right was the problem to begin with. I can’t sum up this thorny situation in a handful of words and make it all come clear. But I can offer a few ideas for consideration:

1.) There is no “right” and “wrong” concerning art or creativity. Everyone’s opinion is just that. An opinion. I despise the work of Ernest Hemingway. If I had been a contemporary, I might well have told Papa not to quit his day job. Would he have been wise to accept my opinion as fact?   

2.) Lichtenberg said, “A book is a mirror; if an ass peers into it, don’t expect an apostle to peer out.” This is not cited to characterize those who disagree with you, only to make the point that people bring their own experiences and perceptions to your work. You can’t stop them. No two people will have the same experience with what you write.      

3.) Our egos tend to dictate that all the advice given us regarding our work is wrong. This is what I like to call the “You just don’t get it” syndrome. Sometimes that same advice sounds a lot saner and more workable a few days later. In a critique situation, it helps to write down everything that’s said and sleep on it for awhile.

4.) Try saying nothing when faced with advice. When you begin to argue you stop listening. Even if the person really is saying stupid things, arguing will only make him or her say more stupid things. Right or wrong, just listen.

5.) Your reader is important. If your reader doesn’t get it, you’re not done. Then again there will always be someone who doesn’t get it. If it’s one in ten, you can’t please everybody. If it’s nine in ten, it’s time to listen.

6.) Important as your readers are, their names do not go on the finished product. It is your own sensibility that you ultimately have to please. No matter how strongly someone disagrees with the direction of your work, it must remain your work, or you’ve lost everything worth having. 

One of the biggest breakthroughs I ever had was when I learned to stop saying, “Is it good or is it bad?” and switched to, “What is the market for this? Who would like this kind of work?”

Dealing with the opinions of others is, in my estimation, the hardest part of being a writer. I don’t know that anything I’ve said makes it all that much easier. But there’s a question you can ask yourself at times such as these, and the answer will tell you everything you need to know. The catch is that you have to ask it on a deep level and answer honestly.

The question is, “Do I agree?”

When you can answer that question honestly, a great deal of initial confusion will fall away. When you base changes—or the refusal to make changes—on that answer, you will be honoring your reader, your work and yourself. 

______

If you're a writer, check out our ever-evolving ebook HERE. If you're a paper book person, you can find the paperback HERE. It was also just updated. But after you buy it, of course it won't continue to evolve. And if you don't know my co-author, Anne R. Allen, you should. She's a wonderful author and Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris is an invaluable tool for writers. And you might want to check out this lovely interview with Anne and myself by Joanna Celeste for You Read It Here First

If you have writer friends who are still trying to figure out which publishing path is best for them, please spread the word that How to be a Writer covers it all, without undue slant.

I hope it makes a noticeable addition to your continued sanity in this crazy business.