Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions

Despite our seemingly constant online interconnectedness, the act of writing—the physical part of sitting down at the computer or notebook and translating ideas into words—is a lonely, isolating endeavor.

(Especially for those who work from home in PJs and stay up all night with the vampires and frequently miss the window of opportunity for showers. *Ahem* not to name names…)

Anyway, flying solo isn’t bad. It’s part of the process, and the alone time is necessary to creating unique and powerful stories. So I say, turn off your phone, ignore your loved ones, embrace the loneliness (and the stinkyness, if you’re so inclined), and write like mad.

But at some point, even if no one else is speaking to you because you’ve ignored them for so long and/or you’ve become olfactorially offensive, you’ve gotta show that manuscript to someone! Even a maniacal literary genius (an unavoidable combination, if you ask me) can’t write forever in a vacuum—not if he wants to be published or gain a readership beyond his dog. Seeking external feedback from writers and other industry professionals is critical to writing (or revising) a good book, and it’s critical to a writer’s longterm growth and development.

One of the best ways to seek that feedback—along with some much-needed moral support—is through writers’ critique groups. In addition to getting objective opinions and (hopefully) helpful advice on your own work, reviewing the work of your peers is a great way to inform and inspire your own writing.

I’m a huge advocate of critique partnerships, either one-on-one, in groups, or through workshops that offer both craft lessons and critiques. In the right hands, a writer can really hone her craft, learning from and supporting her peers and contributing to valuable discussions about writing and literature. In a strong group, the bonds she forms with her fellow writers may even extend beyond her early writing days into the agent search, publication, and beyond.

Conversely, the wrong group can be toxic, rife with jealousy and inertia, stressful, and wholly detrimental to the writing process. It can suck the creative energy from even the strongest writer or worse—discourage her from writing altogether.

Finding a good critique group or partner is a huge challenge, but a worthwhile and totally attainable one. Like the search for a literary agent, doctor, babysitter, or soul mate, you just need to do some homework (i.e. Google stalking, chatting, and reference checking) before jumping into a longterm relationship.

Evaluating Critique Groups: 6 Crucial Questions

Whether you’re checking out an online or an in-person group, asking questions like these—either of the group moderator or of individual members—can reveal information about the group or partner’s working style and help determine whether you might be a good match. There are no guarantees for ultimate satisfaction, but the answers to some of these questions might make your initial decision a little easier:

  1. Is this a general writing group or does it focus on specific genres? Many groups are open to a broad category of writers such as “novelists” or “short story writers,” especially in smaller communities where there simply aren’t as many people. However, reading is subjective, and while an adult historical fiction writer may be able to offer suggestions on the basics of a contemporary YA romantic plot, she might not be familiar with the nuances of today’s popular YA fiction, or she may have preconceived notions about what the category means and how it “should be” written. Many of my YA workshop students have come from general novel workshops where adult fiction writers who don’t read or care for YA are unnecessarily critical or unhelpful, simply because they aren’t qualified to critique young adult fiction. That’s why I recommend finding a group of writers who are experienced in your specific genre or category—and by experienced, I mean writers who not only write in your genre, but who read it avidly. I’m always surprised to meet aspiring writers who simply don’t read (but I’m not surprised that these folks don’t make the best critiquers).
  2. How does the submission process work? You’ll want to find out how often and how much you’ll be expected or allowed to submit, and whether the group focuses on one member’s submission at a time or encourages a less structured everyone-submit-as-you-can dynamic. Also ask about the expected turn around time for giving and receiving feedback and the format in which feedback is given. Do members bring printed copies to in-person meetings? For online or email groups, do they mark up changes and comments in Word, respond directly in an email, or simply provide a summary of issues and suggested changes? How extensive is the feedback, generally speaking? Then ask yourself: Does this meet my needs? Can I commit to their schedule and format?
  3. How long have most of the group members been writing? Has anyone been published? Chances are you’ll seek out a group of writers with similar experience levels, where most everyone is on equal footing. However, if possible, look for a group with at least one or two writers who are more advanced than you so that you can learn from their experience, and one or two who are less experienced to offer fresh ideas and perspectives. A mixed group can balance experience, enthusiasm, and creativity nicely. Above all else, keep an open mind—all writers, regardless of experience level or publication credentials—can learn from one another if the environment is nurturing and positive.
  4. What are the goals of the writers in the group? Writers seeking traditional publication or looking to write as a full time career will have different expectations for and approaches to the writing and critique process than those who are writing as a hobby or for a school project. Look for writers with similar goals—you’ll have a mutual understanding of what’s at stake and what you’re all trying to achieve and you’ll be able to support each other through the various stages of the journey.
  5. Is there a group facilitator or moderator? Some groups use moderators to coordinate submission schedules and resolve member issues. If not, find out how the group handles situations such as hostile or negative members, scheduling issues, or members that consistently miss deadlines or skip critiques. This is your manuscript we’re talking about—probably your dreams and quite possibly your career as well. The last thing you need is to be stuck with a group that allows toxic or dead-weight members to linger, dragging the rest of the group down with them.
  6. Can we do a trial period before committing to a long-term relationship? By participating in a round or two of feedback on a trial basis (ideally where you have an opportunity to both submit a piece for critique and to evaluate other members’ writing) you can get a feel for the group dynamic and critiquing skill level before fully diving in.

It’s Not You, It’s Me. And You. Okay, Mostly It’s You.

You might find an ideal critique partner or group that exceeds your every hope and expectation. Congratulations! That’s a great feeling, and you should certainly appreciate it and work hard to keep it that way. But also know that situations can easily change, and the perfect group today can turn sour tomorrow. Group members drop out and new ones join, people’s lives and writing goals change, people get published and move on, people don’t get published and quit writing. Things happen, and maybe the group no longer meets your needs (or you don’t meet their needs).

Don’t panic.

Whatever the reason, if at any time in the relationship you feel that it’s not a good fit, be honest and end it. Don’t stay in a bad situation out of obligation or inertia, and don’t drag others down if you’re the one who can no longer commit. Part ways quickly and professionally. Some people may feel badly about your departure—they may take things personally, talk behind your back, or act spitefully toward you—but you can’t control that. Again, this is your writing, your dream, possibly the way you make your living. If it’s no longer working for you, move on. Take some time to regroup, reassess, and write. And when you’re ready to jump back in again, look for a new match. There are plenty of writers and groups out there seeking partnerships, and chances are you’ll find a great fit, one in which you can build a mutually beneficial relationship for the length of your project, your journey to publication, or your entire writing life.

Added bonus? Making a new writing buddy may even give you that much-needed reason to change out of your PJs and venture out into the world! Preferably showered! (*Ahem* not to name names…)

I hope you’ll also check out part two in the critique group series: Are You An Ideal Critique Partner? next. In the mean time, if you have any advice or experience on seeking or participating in critique groups, or questions about anything in the article, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

ETA: Also check out Kristen Lamb’s Can Critique Groups Do More Harm Than Good?

How To Query Lit Agents: 6 Overlooked Steps

For novelists, the path to publication often feels like throwing a bunch of goop at the wall (spaghetti noodles? Gak? Caramel sauce? You decide!) and seeing what sticks. Individual agent and publisher tastes, industry trends, economic doom-and-gloom, luck, timing, fairy dust, even whether an agent got decaf instead of regular from the coffee cart guy just before opening your email — all of these invisible forces can influence an author’s ability to snag an agent.

But for every random twist of fate, there are plenty of forces writers can control — concrete steps to ensure the novel has the absolute best shot at find an agent home and ultimately, a place on the shelves.

The search for the right literary agent should be targeted, informed, and methodical. While most writers are familiar with the basics, in those exciting first weeks on the adventurous path to publication, many overlook the details. Details may seem overwhelming, but when it comes to finding the best home for your work and the launch of your writing career, a little extra time and care are worthwhile investments. Don’t shortcut!

6 Steps to Querying Literary Agents

1) Finish your novel.

This one seems obvious, right? You can’t query something that doesn’t exist. Yet, people do. Eager writers looking to get a jumpstart on what may be a long process reason that if they query early, by the time they get a request for material, the currently unfinished manuscript will be ready. Or, better still, their idea is so amazing that agents will make an offer on concept alone.

The truth is that querying unfinished novels wastes time. If an agent shows interest immediately, at best, you’re scrambling to finish, turning in something rushed and unpolished that will ultimately get rejected. At worst, you don’t finish, and then you’re forced to respond with an awkward apology, potentially blacklisting yourself from his future consideration.

So, before you send out that first query, complete your novel. And “complete” does not mean the moment you type “the end.” It means that your novel has been reviewed by other trusted writers, revised (probably multiple times), and polished until it’s the absolute best thing you have ever written (at least, for now!).

An exception: If you have an opportunity to chat with an agent about your novel-in-progress — say, at a party or a literary conference where you’ve paid for a critique or the event is set up specifically for you to meet agents — by all means, talk about your book. It’s never the wrong time for agent feedback in these settings, and even if your story is still in draft mode, you may benefit from an agent’s thoughts on your idea. Regardless, if an agent shows interest, this doesn’t mean you rush home, slap together the last few chapters, and send it off to your new agent bestie. It means that you thank the agent, let her know where you are in the process, and then, when you’re ready to query, you remind her of your meeting and her initial interest in your letter. Making a connection (and a good, professional impression) now is a great way to reintroduce yourself later.

2) Familiarize yourself with the querying and publication process.

I know you’re anxious to get your completed novel out there, but a little preparation will save you anguish and anxiety later. Take a few days to learn about the industry and in general, how the querying process works. Take notes on potential questions you can ask an agent once you receive an offer. Try to prepare yourself for the potential wait and for next steps.

There are lots of great resources out there on queries, synopses, and general information on how publishing and book contracts work, including:

  • THE SELL YOUR NOVEL TOOL KIT by Elizabeth Lyon. From Google Books: Lyon offers novelists the wisdom of her experience as an author, book editor, writing instructor, and marketing consultant. Step-by-step, she details what editors want, what questions to ask them, and how to develop a marketing strategy.
  • GIVE ‘EM WHAT THEY WANT: THE RIGHT WAY TO PITCH YOUR NOVEL TO EDITORS AND AGENTS by Blythe Cameson & Marshall Cook. From Google Books: An overview of the entire publishing process, this book is a must-have for any fiction writer.
  • AgentQuery. AgentQuery claims to be the largest, most current searchable database of literary agents on the web. It’s free, and it also includes articles and tips on querying, the publishing industry, and guidance for new authors.
  • Pub Rants. Agent Kristen Nelson blogs about the agenting and publishing business with topics like book contracts, pitch sessions, industry trends, queries, and tons of interesting info for authors. Check out her Agenting 101 and Queries series’ (linked in the blog’s lower right sidebar) especially.
  • Nathan Bransford’s blog. Nathan is a former lit agent turned author and tech industry guy. His site contains a trove of publishing tips and industry info, and he still blogs regularly.
  • Miss Snark. Miss Snark no longer blogs, but her archives — not for the easily discouraged! — are worth a perusal.

If anyone has other resource suggestions, let me know in the comments below and I’ll update the list accordingly.

3) Develop a list of targeted agents.

Once you have a handle on the process, start putting together a list of agents for your query campaign. Be sure that the agents you’re targeting represent your genre, are currently accepting submissions, and would be — to the best of your knowledge — a good fit for you and your project. Remember, this isn’t a generic email blast. Targeting is key.

I used Publishers Marketplace and AgentQuery to research agents. QueryTracker is another one. These are informational Web sites that list agents, genres, clients, recent sales, and contact preferences. QueryTracker also lets you set up an account to organize and manage your search through their website. Writer’s Market is a subscription-based service that contains information on agents along with agency terms and recent sales.

Once you’ve identified potential agents, Google them by name, too. Check out blogs where they’re mentioned or websites from their current clients to get a better feel for how the agents work. For example, if you prefer an agent who offers a lot of editorial guidance and new project direction, but one of the agents on your list turns out to be primarly focused on contract negotiations, you might want to reconsider querying him.

Some writers divide their list into top ten, tier two, and tier three so they can query in batches. This can be helpful if you’re looking to test the waters, make adjustments to your letter, and send out a new batch. How you approach the list is up to you. The important thing is that you do your homework!

4) Write a kickass query letter.

Yeah, the really hard part. There are lots of sample letters in the resources I mentioned (and you should definitely check them out), but here are the basic components of a good query letter:

  • Address the query to the agent by name
  • Title, word count, and genre of your manuscript (e.g., “I’m seeking representation for my 60,000-word middle grade fantasy novel, Wizards Who Live Under the Stairs.“)
  • You may want to include a sentence on how you found that agent and/or why you think he or she would be interested in your work. “As a regular Pub Rants reader, I know that you represent young adult authors and thought you might consider reviewing my 50,000-word young adult novel, Awkward First Kisses at Parties, or “I enjoyed your client John Smith’s Pioneer Girlfriend and thought my YA time travel romance might also resonate with you.”
  • THE MOST IMPORTANT PART: A short, exciting summary of your novel (a paragraph or two) that gives a glimpse of the main character and the primary conflict. Don’t give away the ending or over-inflate the premise — you want just enough to make the agent say, “Whoa, I want to know what happens to this guy! Send me more!” This is the most challenging part of the letter, because unlike the creative writing talent you harnessed to write your novel, a query letter is pure sales and marketing. If you’re stuck on how to summarize your story in an exciting and sales-y way, check out the jacket copy on books similar to yours. Jacket copy is designed to capture a reader’s attention and get her to read on, which is exactly your goal with an agent.
  • You may want to draw comparisons to other novels or well-known movies (“Readers who enjoy J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series will appreciate the magical twists and turns and lovable underdog in When Good Wizards Go Bad“), but this can be tricky. Done well, a comparison can give agents an idea of your intended audience and can show that you’ve already started thinking about marketing. But you also run the risk of confusing the agent with awkward comparisons (“My Friend Jenny is If I Stay meets Hunger Games…”) or false and overconfident promises (“My novel Vampy, Campy, and Trampy is sure to be the next Twilight!”). It’s a tough balance, but if you have a natural and compelling comparison in mind, go for it.
  • Your writing bio (the honest version) and related experience. Don’t lie or exaggerate publishing credits. Include only relevant credits (e.g., if you’re writing a YA werewolf story, you don’t need to mention your masters thesis on the theory of relativity), important contest wins, and any work or personal experience related to the subject of your novel (e.g. “After living on a farm for six months without modern amenities for a class project, I was inspired to write about the experiences of pioneer teens.”) If you have a current and well-trafficked blog related to writing or to your subject matter, mention it. Avoid self-aggrandizing or meaningless endorsements like, “My mom and all of her Scrabble club friends said it was the best book they’d ever read.” If you’re not published, that’s fine. There are lots of debut authors out there, and plenty of agents who love working with them.
  • A professional, non-aggressive closing. “If this project intrigues you, I would be happy to send the manuscript for your review. Thank you for your time and consideration, Mr. Smith. Sincerely, Sally Jones”
  • Your contact information (phone number and email address)

The query letter should be no longer than a single page.

Once you’ve written your letter, let it cool off a bit before sending. With fresh eyes, take another look to ensure it’s succinct, compelling, and totally error-free. Show the letter to some trusted friends — another set of eyes can’t hurt!

5) Launch Your Query Campaign

With your compelling letter and targeted list in hand, it’s time to start querying. While the body of your query — the exciting stuff about your book — will remain the same, your letter should be personalized to each agent and submitted per his or her individual submission guidelines. That means no “Dear Agent,” “To Whom It May Concern,” “Dear Sir or Madame,” and certainly no cheeky “Dear Future Representative of The Next Great American Novel.” Most agents accept electronic queries, but some request them via email and others use forms on their website. Follow those submission guidelines carefully! Some agents want just a query letter, others want a letter and the first 5-10 pages of your manuscript, others want a synopsis. They’re all different, and many agents won’t even open submissions that don’t adhere to the guidelines.

6) Assess, Regroup, Retry

Responses to your query campaign will generally come in one of three forms:

  • Requests. You may receive requests for a partial or full, meaning an agent was intrigued by your letter and would like to review part or all of your manuscript. This is a good thing! Respond promptly with the requested material.
  • Rejections. If you get rejections, resist the urge to reply and tell the agent he’s a moron or that he’s missing out on the next J.K. Rowling. Be nice, and be professional. Either don’t respond at all, or just send a quick email thanking him for his consideration and wishing him well on future projects.
  • Crickets. Most agents have at least a form rejection, but it’s normal to not hear back for a few weeks or even months. Resist the urge to re-query or check in unless the agent suggests doing so on her website or submission guidelines.

If you’re not getting requests for your manuscript, take another look at your query letter. While it may be your novel itself, or timing in the industry, or any number of those random uncontrollable things we talked about earlier, it may just be that the letter isn’t doing its job in selling the concept of your novel. Since this is the shortest fix and easiest to test, give it a rewrite and try again.

If agents request your partial or full manuscript but ultimately decline representation, or if you’ve re-written your letter and you’re still not getting requests, then it may be time to take another look at your novel. If you’re fortunate enough to receive specific feedback on why the agent passed, take a look at it and see if it resonates with you (especially if you’ve received the same type of feedback from more than one agent). Yes, publishing a subjective business, but if five agents say “I loved the concept, but your opening is bogged down with too much backstory,” or “The main character comes off as cold and unsympathetic,” pay attention and consider revising.

Lather, rinse, repeat. Some authors find an agent on the first try. Others query hundreds before finding the right match. It’s hard to be patient, but use the time to work on a new project or take some time off from writing altogether. Go outside. Smell the roses and stuff.

(Seriously? Don’t listen to me. I got myself so worked up during the waiting period I called in sick to work and got up close and personal with Ben and Jerry as I manically refreshed my email every nineteen seconds. Not healthy, but true!)

An Offer? An Actual Offer?

If after requesting your manuscript an agent makes an offer (or even if she simply wants to chat further by phone), congratulations! That means you’re ready for the next set of important steps: Literary Agent Offers: Don’t Settle!

Until then, happy writing, and best of luck on your agent search!

Got questions? Let me know in the comments and I’ll answer in a follow-up post.

All This Darkness! What to Buy The Grownup Reader? (A Parody)

Note: this article is a parody of the stupidness going on over here: Darkness Too Visible, by Meghan Cox Gurdon

Contemporary fiction for grownups is exploding with explicit abuse, violence, depravity, scandal, lies, casual sex, crime, conspiracy, oneupmanship, financial ruin, loose morals, overt glorification of generally bad ideas, and boobs.

Why is no one talking about this?

I recently stood slack-jawed in the adult fiction section of my local big box book store, having decided that supporting my community while getting personalized recommendations by professionals who generally adore books and make it their business to know exactly what sorts of things a reader will love was just not on my to-do list this year, feeling stupefied and helpless.

I was searching for a gift for a grownup friend (at the risk of sounding tokenistic, some of my best friends are grownups and I have a great relationship with “the grownups” as a whole), but at every turn, my poor and tired eyes were met with red-and-black covers with proclamations in huge typeface that screamed IMPENDING DOOM. The titles alone gave me instant nightmares: BURIED PREY? SIXKILL? THE FINAL STORM? THOSE IN PERIL? It was all, like, conspiracy and apocalypse and vampires, murder and incest, thinly veiled racism that seriously undercuts our upstanding moral code as a nation — especially when it comes to the impressionable sensibilities of our country’s adult population.

I was astonished and more than a little appalled, frankly, that adult fiction had gotten so dark. How dark, you ask? Well, as a person who doesn’t actually read adult fiction, and doesn’t remember what it was like to be an adult, and in fact categorically looks down on adults as out of touch and unable to think a single original thought without their mass media drip feed, I’m obviously very highly qualified to answer this question: adult fic is so dark, why, just writing this blog post about the darkness requires a sun lamp, a clove ciggie, and a bottle of chilled Bombay Sapphire, lest I become apathetic and socially disengaged by all the dark-mongering and partake in some totally grownup coping mechanism like, IDK… spawning an illegitimate child with my housekeeper, tweeting pictures of my crotch and lying about it and then not lying about it, sexually assaulting a hotel staff person, shooting at people with an AK-47, deciding that forced sexual intercourse isn’t actually rape if the woman said no but didn’t physically fight back, taking away health benefits for the really old people, causing the collapse of the free market economy, or any of the other “that’s sooo grownup” activities I’ve read about in today’s news. It’s so dark that in a single book, let’s call it Martin’s GAME OF THRONES, the first few chapters alone cover the alarmingly black topics of incest, rape, slavery, beheading, something with magic wolves, dragon eggs, forced marriage, poisoning, and native women dressed in all-too-revealing animal skins, every curve described in such excruciatingly vivid detail that the book may as well be called GAME OF BOOBS.

If books are a lens unto the world, the adult section at my local big box bookstore is a magnifying glass unto the ass of the ant of decency, people. Obviously not every book aimed at tender-minded grownups is pure evil, but for the careless old reader, or one who actively seeks out licentiousness and vice (yes, those rare tainted souls certainly exist in the world of grownups, much as we’d like to stick our heads in the sand and pretend otherwise!), the path to the wicked world of horrendous literary indecency and exalted iniquity is a mere swipe of the overextended debit card away.

I mean, look at Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD. Total effing downer, man! Books like that are why people like Harold Camping ring the doomsday bells every few years. He probably picked up that story looking for a fun armchair travel read, or perhaps hoping for a movie-still of Viggo Mortensen’s naked ass (who hasn’t! That movie was called Eastern Promises, though, FYI), getting instead a bleak tale of violence and cannibalism, roving gangs of rapists and murderers, death and mayhem and utter hopelessness on every page. Rapture? Don’t bother. Might as well just off yourself after reading something like that, bud.

Speaking of gratuitously morally bankrupt books made into movies, have you read Dan Brown’s bestselling THE DAVINCI CODE? He practically accuses Holy Mother Mary of cashing in her V-card. Talk about blasphemy! And what’s up with this Sookie Stackhouse person, anyway? Come on, Charlaine Harris! Don’t you know that grownups are feeble-minded, easily spooked, and downright impressionable? You think you can just write about vampires and sex and sex with vampires and not impact — dare I say, shatter — the entirely too delicate worldview of adults?

I realize these authors believe they’re validating the grownup experience, giving comfort and succor and a real voice to an otherwise subverted, subjugated, sublevel subgroup. But hasn’t anyone considered the obvious fact that such stories, rather than validating a terrible yet ultimately rare experience, in fact normalize a collective thirst for blood, no pun intended? Feed the flames of sickness and immorality? Infect the weak-minded with negativity and self-loathing? Give otherwise good, well-meaning grownups some really bad ideas, the consequences of which the soft folds of their brains simply can’t comprehend?

Honestly, folks, let’s call this complete lack of censorship and mind control what it is: lazy, lackadaisical, inexcusable buck-passing in an era where none of us wants to claim any responsibility for ensuring that our adult population survives this difficult transition. You’ve all heard the rhetoric: it’s not our job to raise other people’s parents — their own kids should do it! Their bosses and teachers should do it! CNN should do it!

No, friends. I’m afraid it’s down to us. For if not we — the wise and knowing and all-presumptuous — who will take a stand against authors and publishers and booksellers who insist on filling the heads of old people with filth, flarn, and smut? Who will save the lives of those endearing yet ultimately etiolated adults who learn how to commit rape in books like BASTARD OUT OF CAROLINA or how to fake a nervous breakdown after devouring THE BELL JAR? What if they read the original, unedited version of THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN and learn the dreaded n-word? What if Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD inspires them on a road-tripping, poetry-writing, substance-abusing bender?

If it’s true what the experts at the Wall Street Journal (that bastion of journalistic integrity and forward-thinking) say, “Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it,” then frankly, I’m concerned for our future as a people. Because if authors and publishers and booksellers don’t stop shoving misery and depravity down grownups’ tender pink gullets — if they can’t come up with more appealing, relevant, and appropriately non-dark works of substance for the adult reader — if they can’t write and sell stories that stop encouraging rampant extramarital fornication, brutal criminal acts, the rape of our natural resources by corporate giants run by hapless adults, and the near-complete and utter effing-over of society by a bunch of grownups in suits who obviously learned the how-tos and justifications of bad behavior from novels glorifying such debauchery and turpitude — the adult reader, and those slack-jawed gift-givers like myself, will be forced to make the most immoral, appalling, and dangerous choice of all: to shop in the YA section.

Let’s all pour a little out for the collective loss of innocence, shall we?

*Takes another swig of Sapphire.*
*Spits on the floor*

You’re Not a Thing: 10 Anti-Insanity Tips for Writers

In my limited, biased, ever-changing experience, the hardest part about being a published author is enduring the external, perceived transition from a person to a thing. I say external and perceived because even though it feels real, it’s not. But after publication, the reading and publishing world may start treating us like it is, and if we’re not wholly conscious of it, we may start believing it. Evaluating ourselves against other perceived things. Behaving, writing, and speaking as if we are things. And then… our heads explode (really! That part’s in the manual and everything)!

How exactly do writers become things?

I blame capitalism.

(Ha! I always wanted to say that.)

Before publication, writing is deeply personal; it’s art, soul, dreams, creation, sweat, blood, and fairy dust. After publication, writing is deeply personal; it’s art, soul, and all that other stuff… but it’s also a commodity. A thing that can be branded, packaged, categorized, shelved, and stickered with a price based on fancy economic principals. A thing that can be copied and distributed via virtually limitless media and channels. A thing that can be loved, hated, analyzed, dissected, favorited, cheered, booed, challenged, spat upon, lovingly dog-eared, passed reverently among friends, used as kitty litter liner, awarded, or altogether forgotten—and done so exponentially, thanks to the internet.

Our tendency under this model is to arbitrarily define “success” in sales numbers, awards, and dollars, and then to measure against this limited definition with the only scraps of information we have: advance amounts, delayed sales numbers, marketing campaign details, print runs, lists, stars, buzz, and all the other stuff that can be counted, taken out of context, and overanalyzed until it sucks the write right out of us.

It’s quite crazy-making, because from a practical perspective, authors who make their living writing books need to sell books, and to sell books in our capitalist society, we kind of have to accept this thing-ness stuff. It’s part of the deal, just as it is in any for-profit business endeavor.

The important thing to remember, though, is that we’re not the things—our books are. So if you’re feeling a bit thingy these days, read on!

How to Not Be a Thing: 10 Anti-Insanity Tips for Writers

  1. Turn off Google alerts. Google alerts is like being in high school, and every single time someone utters your name, the principal comes over the loudspeaker. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, Jeff Johnson doesn’t know you’re alive, so stop practicing your signature with his last name. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, your brother found your diary. Why do you write about Jeff Johnson so much? See announcement number one. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, you have a huge butt, and also, there’s toilet paper stuck to your shoe. Bzzzz! Sarah Ockler, um, your hair looks nice today. But bzzzz! Not nice enough for Jeff to notice. Yeah, Google Alerts is like that, personalized insults delivered right to your inbox. Trust me—nothing said about you online is worth risking your emotional sanity, because if there’s something being said about you that you really need to know, such as… you’ve been nominated for a National Book Award! or Johnny Depp loves your book so much he wants to pay you a personal visit to get a signed copy! …someone will contact you directly.
  2. Stop comparing. Unless you’re self-published, it’s unlikely that you’ll have accurate, up-to-date sales data at any given point. And what’s a good number, anyway? 1,000 or 10,000 or 100,000 copies sold might be phenomenal for one book, abysmal for another. This author got on a 10-city tour, that one got a dedicated Web site, this one got an ad in the NYT, that one is visiting every school in the country, this one got a 6-figure advance, that one got less… well? Every book is different and requires different marketing. You don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes at your publisher, but even that doesn’t matter. Maybe you got the platinum edition marketing campaign or maybe you got utterly forgotten, but comparing anything to other authors doesn’t make the next book happen. I’ll tell you what it does make happen: crazy! Now stop looking at so-and-so’s Amazon rank and go work on your manuscript!
  3. Think like a reader. If you walk into a book store with 3 friends and ask each to point out her favorite book, what are the chances you’ll pick the same book? Your best friend might’ve based her entire life’s dream on a book you thought was utter drivel. Your neighbor can’t stop ranting about a book that you love so much you’ve read it a dozen times. And your cousin Louise was all mehhhh about a book that’s just been turned into a blockbuster movie netting a gazillion dollars. So it makes sense that readers will have widely differing opinions on your work, too. This is a good thing. If we all liked the same stuff, how lame would this joint be? Sure, no one wants to be on the receiving end of a crappy review, but it’s all subjective. I don’t take sugar in my coffee, you hate coffee but love tea, someone else only drinks the chemically-laden General Foods International powdered stuff, which I personally think is nasty (even though I secretly used to love it), but you don’t see the General crying about it, right? I know, I’m a lot braver writing about this than I am in real life, but I’m working on thinking more like a reader when it comes to other readers evaluating my stuff. Better yet…
  4. Don’t read reviews. I’m still not 100% off the review pipe, but I’m getting there. Reviewers do not take the place of a good critique group, and readers aren’t there to give us constructive editorial feedback. They’re there to be entertained, informed, inspired, and educated. All the reasons we read books ourselves. And if your book doesn’t do it for them, that’s okay. It really, truly is. The question is, do you really need to know about that? Unless it’s going to help you improve your next project without killing your spirit, skip it.
  5. Don’t take it personally. Maybe you haven’t turned off Google Alerts, or you’re still analyzing every review, or someone actually emailed to let you know how much he hates you. I know it feels personal—it should feel personal, because it’s our art, right? But you have to know (and believe) that it’s not personal. That reader doesn’t like your book—he doesn’t even know you as a person. That reader may even say he doesn’t like you, but he means your book. It’s all part of that external perception thing—lots of times, readers don’t separate the book from the writer. Guess what? That’s sooo not your problem.
  6. Don’t chase trends. For one thing, it’s totally impractical. From initial sale to shelves, the book publishing process can take several months to 2 or even 3 years. By the time “the next big thing” hits the shelves, the rest of the industry is on to the next next big thing, or maybe even the big thing after that. More importantly, if you’re writing something just because you think it’s going to be a hit, and you don’t really care about the story or the subject, welcome to flopsville. Teen readers have highly attuned B.S. detectors, and they’ll see right through it. Plus, you won’t be happy.
  7. Write what you love. Notice I didn’t say the oft-spouted “write what you know.” You don’t have to know anything. You just have to care about it enough to find out, to imagine, to create.
  8. Remember the joy of writing. What brought you to the page in the first place? Do you remember? If you’re losing it—if writing feels like a chore instead of a joy (even a hard-won joy), take a break. Recharge. Come back when you’re feeling more excited about it again. If you’re slogging through the work, readers will slog through the book, and that isn’t good for any of us.
  9. Write. Period. Talking about writing, reading blogs about writing, thinking about writing, dreaming about writing… all of this may be important and intellectually stimulating, but it’s not actual writing. To be a person who writes, you have to be—wait for it—a person who writes.
  10. Don’t give up. Keep writing. Write another story. Write the next story. Write the story that’s keeping you up at night. If you’re getting rejections or negative feedback, try again. Again and again and again. Writing is not easy. Publication of one book doesn’t guarantee future success of another. All you can do is keep writing. Don’t. Give. Up. Ever.

Say it with me now: I am not a thing. I am not a thing. I am not a thing.

For all my writing friends, wherever you are on the journey, here’s to a new year filled with joy, inspiration, and of course… writing! Lots and lots of writing. In fact… get back to work!