Jeff’s Pep Talk: The Big C(riticism)

Jeff's Pep Talk2

The Big C(riticism)

By Jeff Bowles

The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

I don’t think there’s a soul on earth who likes criticism. There’s just something about it that can cut to the bone. Human beings have such fragile egos anyway, those pesky little conscious seats of individuality that get bruised and battered when others make us feel small, less talented, less competent, perhaps even less valid as people. Some more than others, right? I’ve had writers tell me they never feel offended, angry, upset, or in any way discouraged after a round criticism. I don’t think I believe them. I mean, not at all? Even just a little? Really?

And of course, if you’re checking out this blog, odds are you’ve seen your share of creative criticism. It’s essential to the process, right? Every writer can benefit from it, from the newest of newbs to the most seasoned authors. And a change in attitude often occurs once a writer actually gets neck deep in a viable career. At that point, criticism has become just another part of the job, kind of less of a hassle than, say, making deadlines you have no hope of making or enduring long, drawn-out revision cycles.

But there’s another dimension to writers that’s so common it’s a cliché. Many of us suffer from mental illness. I know I do, and lots of my associates and acquaintances are in the same boat. Most of the time their personal stories boil down to a bit of depression here and there, but look, there’s something about a creative profession that requires long periods of solitude that seems to attract folks who are maybe a bit less emotionally equipped than the rest of humanity. Plus, you know, the ubiquitous link between genius and madness. Some of the greatest writers in history should have been in the nut house. Some of them were.

Now there’s a big difference between getting your feelings hurt over some bad comments from a crit group and losing your mind completely. We subject ourselves to the honest (and often brutal) opinions of our colleagues because we understand in the end criticism will make us better. Especially when we’re just starting out. If we can find a few people who really get what we’re all about and who consistently offer good feedback, we’re wise to consider them valuable resources. The fact remains, writers pour ourselves into our work. In many ways, stories and novels, articles and memoirs, they’re like our children. Sometimes it’s hard not to take criticism personally. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong in admitting it.

So as a writer who’s had one or two creative outbursts himself (sorry about that black eye, prof), here’s a few tips to soothe the wounded beast. Number one, and going back to the crit group thing, it really does help to know a few people who are on the same page as you creatively. It’s old advice, but it is enormously beneficial. Also, try not to work with writers who aren’t quite as skilled as you are. Likewise, learn to recognize when you’ve gotten in with folks who have a lot more ability and experience. Writers who punch in above your pay grade aren’t going to be able to help as much as you might expect, and you may even struggle trying to understand and disseminate their feedback.

Next tip: always keep a few pots on the fire. Okay, this new story didn’t work out for me, but at least I have that other one that shows way more potential. Dive into this process head first, if you can. Conceive, draft, and revise in cycles. Nothing blunts criticism like a sense of forward momentum. Keep an idea notebook handy. Never miss an opportunity to dream up something new and play with it a little. We’re still growing here. Got lots and lots of stories to tell in the future. Stagnation sucks. It crushes the life out of creativity. Avoid it if at all possible.

Tip number three: make sure to honor your private life. I mean that. Some people throw themselves into their work at such high velocity their relationships and daily routines suffer. You’ve got friends, right? Hang out with them, have some fun. While we’re at it, don’t neglect your romantic life, either. Seems like kind of a toss-off to some people, but look, you’re human. Biology is a factor, and it’s just a basic fact that people tend to be happier when they consistently engage this part of their personality. Family, hobbies, even other, more practical career goals, these can all serve as a refuge when your creative mind is battered and tired. Conversely, writing itself can act as a pretty powerful refuge from things like, oh, family, hobbies, career goals, romantic life, friends…

Fourth tip: don’t worry about developing a thick skin. Focus more on developing a keen critical mind. Say someone tears your latest to shreds. You can either A) get emotional about it, B) decide this loser doesn’t know what the hell he or she is talking about, or C) penetrate the matter a little more deeply, choose which criticisms are valid, discard everything else, move on to the next thing. Your lizard brain is your lizard brain. It’s a given. But your analytical mind, that you’ve got to hone. So get clinical if you can. Easier said than done? For some it really is. You’re not a robot. At least I don’t think you are. I mean, you haven’t blinked in several minutes. I’m watching you…

Do the best you can to stay neutral during and after a round of feedback. Or if not neutral, at least receptive and pragmatic. This is a process. Repeat it to yourself if it helps. This is a process. This is a process. And don’t forget to ask plenty of questions. Stay engaged. Again, criticism affects people differently. I imagine some will read this blog post and think, “I don’t see what the big deal is. This Jeff Bowles guy must be a total train wreck.”

To which I might reply, “Stop staring at my mangled caboose!”

…Ahem, yes. Anyhoo, there’s no accounting for temperament. Look, it’s always seemed to me writers just aren’t honest when it comes to these things. And why should we be? Nobody likes a hot head. No one’s particularly desperate to work with a soppy, spongy mess. But there’s always the case to be made for blowing off steam when necessary. Never let it jeopardize your work, your reputation, or your sense of professionalism, but don’t bottle it up, either. If you find the situation becomes chronic, do a little soul searching. What’s really bothering you here? Why does criticism seem to affect you so much? Self-analysis, some say, is the path to divinity. Not that divinity has anything to do with the life of a writer.

Speaking of which, and if all else fails, there’s still good old-fashioned counseling and therapy. It might sound dopey and overwrought to even remind you of it, but sometimes in life, it helps to get serious about ourselves and consider our own triggers and shortcomings. No shame in it, and never let people tell you there is. Mental health is extremely important, much more important than the modern world ever seems to recognize. And even simple depression can become dangerous if left unchecked.

And now to spoil the mood completely, some depressed writer jokes!

“Well doc, I guess it all started when they said my steampunk riff on The Notebook was even lousier than my 50 Shades of Grey fan fic written from the whip’s perspective.”

“Really? And how did that make you feel?”

“Like we should have used a safe word.”

Why did the anxiety-riddled writer cross the road? Are you crazy? I’m not going outside. That road is clearly a death trap.

[end of joke digression]

Ready to tackle another round of critiques? Well, in a perfect world, I guess you would be. Do what you need to do to combat discouragement and self-defeatism. One of the healthiest attitudes we can adopt as professional writers is the macro, career-long perspective and an abysmal memory. If the fates allow, you’re in this for the long haul, so just remember this or that little hiccup will mean nothing in the end. It’s a basic fact that we learn more from failure than success. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and fail as hard as you can!

Pep talk concluded. Feel better now, don’t you?


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Video Games – Music – Entertainment – So Much More!


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“Writing to be Read”: 2018 full of surprises – 2019 promises more

From Old to New

This is the time of year when I like to take a look back over the year to see what worked and what didn’t for Writing to be Read, but there are exciting changes coming as well. So let’s move forward in the logical order and talk about the old first. Let’s take a look at the past year on Writing to be Read. For me, there were several surprises and if you are following, they may surprise you, too.

I feel like we had a really great year in 2018, featuring two rounds of Ask the Authors, with two wonderful and diverse author panels sharing writing tips and advice in many aspects of writing with almost seven thousand views. Now that may not seem like a lot to some, but when you consider that it’s over three thousand more views than in 2017, that’s not too bad.

Ask the Authors

For those who don’t know Ask the Authors is a twelve week blog series, where an author panel responds to questions on the many aspects of writing. Panel members in the original series of Ask the Authors, which ran from February through April, included author and ghostwriter DeAnna Knippling, dark fantasy author Cynthia Vespia, Y.A. author Jordan Elizabeth, literary author Margareth Stewart, action novelist Tim Baker, action and speculative fiction author Chris DiBella, women’s fiction author Janet Garbor, multi-genre author Chris Barili, and Y.A. author Carol Riggs. Round 2 ran from October through mid- December with the first four authors from the previous list as returning panel members and seven new panel members, including multi-genre author Dan Alatorre, nonfiction author Mark Shaw, pulp fiction author Tom Johnson, thiller author Ashley Fontainne, romance author Amy Cecil, multi-genre author Art Rosch, and speculative fiction author R.A. Winter. I’d like to thank them all once again for taking time out to share with us here.

Wednesday Line-up 2018We also were blessed with three new Wednesday blog series with three new team members. The team member from the 2018 Wednesday line-up with the most views was Jeff Bowles with Jeff’s Pep Talk, but Jordan Elizabeth and Art Rosch brought in their fair share with Writing for a Y.A. Audience and the Many Faces of Poetry, respectively.

To my surprise, the team member with the mosts post views over 2018 was Robin Conley, who is currently not an active team member, but readers continue to seek out her writing advice in her writing Weekly and Monthly Writing Memos from 2017; the most popular was her Weekly Writing Memo: Word Choice is verything, which had the second most views of all blog posts this past year. Right up there with that is her review of Pride and Predjudice and Zombies, with over one hundred post views.

I was also surprised to learn the most viewed interview was tied between children’s author Nancy Oswald from the 2016 series Pros and Cons of Traditional vs. Independent vs. Self-Publishing and action novelist Tim Baker from the 2017 series Book Marketing; What Works. But those interviews were focused more towards information on publishing and marketing, respectively, so I don’t really count them in the same category as author interviews, because readers may view the series posts for different reasons than they would author interviews.

My author interviews provide a focus on the author, so in this category the most post views came from my interview in 2018 with screenwriter J.S. Mayank. My interview with author Alexandra Forry was next in line, and my interview with performance poet Rosemerry Wahtola Trommer recieved the third most post views.

In 2018, the top book review was Dan Alatorre’s dark fiction anthology, Dark Visions. Another surprise – the second and third most post views in the review category are both from 2016, with my review of Simplified Writing 101 by Erin Brown Conroy coming in second, and Wild West Ghosts by Mark Todd and Kym O’Connell Todd coming in third.

2018 Top Reviews

The other review that I feel is worthy of mention is my review of Mark Shaw’s new release, Denial of Justice. I did the review in December, so it hasn’t been available long enough to acrue a great number of views to rank in the yearly statistics, but it is a tale that deserves telling and Mark did a smash-up job of telling it. I’ve no doubt this book will be as popular or more so than the original tale, The Reporter Who Knew Too Much, because we all love mystery and intrigue, and the story of Dorothy Kilgallen is a true life tale filled with both. I am privilaged to have been allowed to review both of these books.

Along the lines of other content, again my 2016 post Why is Fact Better than Fiction recieved the most viewed, and surprisingly, a post from 2011, The Process Takes Time close on it’s heels, with my 2016 post, A Writer’s Life in No Bowl of Cherries following not far behind them. Not one of my top three posts was from this past year. My post from 2018 which recieved the most views was Join Me in My Protest Against Facebook, a rant I did about Facebook and their changing policies after I got blocked from posting in groups, including my own group, for a twenty-four hour period. I think this post was my cry in the dark from the frustration I felt as a busy author who promotes her own work and limited time. It makes me laugh to think it was my most popular post published last year. 

Views outnumber visitors, so I’m thinking that the increased views of all the older posts comes from new viewers who popped in to read a newer post and decided to browse the site, which is great. If I gained some new followers due to this, I certainly won’t complain.

Overall, it was a great year and my following has steadily grown, as well as post likes and comments. I have to extend thanks to my readers, my followers, my team members and my guests on Writing to be Read for helping me make it happen. I couldn’t have made such strides without all of you.

Writing My Way Into the New Year

Logo Switch2019 promises to be an even better year for both Writing to be Read and for me, and I’m excited to share my plans with you here. To start, this site will be getting a facelift: a new theme which will coincide with my new WordCrafter website and a new logo. The WordCrafter site will be the new home of Write it Right Editing Services and WordCrafter Copywriting, now housed here, as well as WordCrafter Press and WordCrafter Online Courses in the near future. Writing to be Read, although remaining here, will operate under the WordCrafter trademark. I was hoping to launch it tonight to start the New Year off right, but time constraints have not favored me. The launch of my WordCrafter and new image and logo for Writing to be Read will happen sometime in January. That’s the revised goal.

On Writing to be Read, look forward to some great new content beginning in January.  To start the year off right I already have scheduled reviews for Freedom’s Mercy, by A.K. Lawrence and Fanya in the Underworld, by Jordan Elizabeth, and an interview with western author Loretta Miles Tollefson.

Growing bookworks 2Let’s not forget the new addition to the Wednesday line-up. Starting in January, children’s author Robbie Cheadle will be joining us with her blog series, Growing Bookworms. You can learn more about Robbie and her exciting and creative new series in my introduction and welcome post last Monday.

I also have an exciting new monthly blog series planned for the third Monday of each month, called Chatting with the Pros. Starting in January, I will interview a successful professional author in a different genre, who will graciously allow me to pick their brains for tips and tidbits of writing wisdom from authors who are making it work. I can’t reveal the guest line-up yet, but it shows promise of holding some well known names. And I’m thinking about doing a writing contest, with entrants recieving an invitation for inclusion in an anthology and other cool prizes.

A third round of Ask the Authors is also in the making for this coming summer and I’m planning an Ask the Authors book to follow, which will include material from all three segments. I already have a cover for the book, created by D.L. Mullen of Sonoran Dawn Studios. I hope to have it out by the end of the year.

WIPs

And of course, you’ll be able to get updates on my other works in progress: The Great Primordial Battle, book one of my science fantasy series, Playground for the Gods; The Homecoming, book two of my western series, Delilah; and my memoir about losing my son to teen suicide, His Name Was Michael. I hope you will all join me in the coming year. 

With that, I’ll just say see you next year.

Until then, happy writing!

Happy New Year

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Jeff’s Pep Talk: Learning to Let Go

jeff black and white

Learning to Let Go

By Jeff Bowles

The first Wednesday of every month, science fiction and horror writer Jeff Bowles offers advice to new and aspiring authors. Nobody ever said this writing thing would be easy. This is your pep talk.

To tell you the truth, I never wanted to be a writer. So many authors–successful and unsuccessful alike–seem to have been aware of a certain literary calling from an early age. Stephen King began telling stories as a kid and never stopped. One of my personal favorites, Frank Herbert, creator of the Dune series, told his parents when he was little, “I want to be a author.” Adorably so, I’m sure, even if in basic syntactic error.

I had precious few moments like that. At the age of eight, I began an ambitious Star Wars fan fiction novel in which Luke Skywalker was forced to confront an evil dark Jedi clone of his poor dead Uncle Owen. I never got off the fourth page. When I was a teenager, I wrote about seven chapters of a complex space opera. But even though I showed clear aptitude, the process was long and boring, and I had better things to do, like playing music with my friends and spending hours on the couch in front of my PlayStation.

I didn’t decide to devote myself to writing until I hit my mid-twenties, by which time the life of a coffee-house-playing singer/songwriter had lost its appeal. Nobody listened to me when I performed. They were too intent on their dark roasts and shallow hipster conversations. I reasoned that even if I someday made it as a musician, I’d have to spend all my time on the road touring, and I’d just gotten engaged to a wonderful woman and had future plans to start a family with her. It made sense at that time to go after a new dream, and I’d always liked telling stories, even if I’d never demonstrated the necessary discipline to actually finish them.

Like so many young hopefuls, I was convinced literary success and stardom would be just around the corner. Ehem, they were not. What can I say? If you’ve been at this thing for any length of time, you know well the real hard work comes in the form of keeping your head down, applying butt to chair, and pounding out thousands of unsuccessful words before a single one catches the eye of an editor or an agent. Maybe you’re just starting out, in which case you might be wondering what the long-term odds of your success are.

Sad to say, but instant recognition is pretty rare. I know some very talented but also very lucky writers who hit it big their first time out. Ultimately, their jobs and their lives haven’t been made any easier. Sometimes the work is actually harder for them, because big success comes with big pressure. Each morning, they still have to make that basic choice: to write, or not to write. And that isn’t easy. Nothing about this job is. Anyone who tells you otherwise … actually, I seriously doubt someone with experience will tell you otherwise.

If you’re like me, your first stabs at storytelling were bad. Like really, really bad. I wrote at least thirty short stories before I snagged a single decent pub credit. I had a couple things working against me, and so did you. First off, I had to learn to write. And I don’t mean in the general sense; writing a blog post like this and writing a fully realized novel are two incredibly different beasts. That probably goes without saying, too.

Secondly, most of us have to build a name for ourselves slowly and over time. Many of your favorite authors didn’t get anywhere near success until they’d generated an incredible amount of published content (that’s published content; the unpublished stuff doesn’t count). The difficulty curve inherent to all this is enough to derail the majority of us. Everybody wants to write a book at some point in their life, but actually finishing one, submitting it through the proper channels, and receiving scads of rejection letters … well, may I just say, fresh meat, welcome to the great literary meat grinder.

At this point you may be asking, “What gives, Jeff? I thought you were going to give us a pep talk. This is more like trash talk.” Well, yeah, I guess it is. But it does no good to approach creative writing as a profession with anything less than a level head. You’ve got to know the odds. Or at least, I feel you should know the odds. The truth is–and this may seem counterintuitive–recognizing your likelihood of failure is just as important as having your writing dream in the first place.

I’m a dreamer by nature. Most creative types are. When I close my eyes at night, I’m just as likely to see book signings and red carpet movie premieres as blank white pages with blinking, unfulfilled cursors … taunting me, taunting me … the horror, the horror. Just because I recognized a long time ago instant success would never be mine doesn’t mean I no longer do what I can when I can to get there. Actually, and this is the important part, the slow and steady nature of my career thus far has allowed me to let go my prodigious and unproductive white-knuckle grip, helping me at last to relinquish just enough control so I could, say, have a life outside of my stories.

That’s kind of the point. Failure teaches us more than success. Failure hurts, no doubt about it, but it also heals. Failure is not a four-letter word. Count ‘em, seven letters, not even close. Nor is it some cosmic slight. Don’t be afraid to fail. In the grand scheme of things, there’s no difference between the careers of a thirty-year vet who hit the mark right out of the gate and a thirty-year vet who had to slowly build an audience with each successive work. In other words, it isn’t the destination, it’s the journey.

Here is your pep talk in four simple words: learn to let go. Seriously, that’s it. Let go of your need for recognition, for validation. Let go the desire for royalty checks the size of the annual Defense Department budget. Letting go doesn’t mean giving up. Far from it, in fact. Some very big writers love to spoil it for newbies. Gleefully, they hand out advice like, “If you can quit, you should,” implying of course this job sucks so bad you shouldn’t even bother.

I’m not that guy. I like to build people up. Learning to let go of your expectations, your insecurities and personal timetables, it’s actually a cure-all for life. The day-to-day of a writer really can be challenging. There are just so many lows, sometimes more than there are highs. You’ll have days you want to give up. Heck, you may have entire years or decades you don’t write a single word. So I find it’s better for the mind and the soul to consider writing a lifelong journey rather than a pass/fail vocation. Do you know what happens when you let go? You actually start enjoying what you do. Some time-tested philosophies think of this as living in the now, embracing the flow of life, or choosing to let the stream carry you rather than fighting its currents. It’s a healthy attitude to cultivate, especially when you’re in a creative industry that hands out disappointment like local discount car wash flyers.

Don’t give up. Don’t do it. And don’t let anyone, including yourself, tell you that you should. If you find you’re getting frustrated with your progress, take a break. That old chestnut, writers write, applies only to very unhappy people and very well-adjusted robots. Writers are just average folks, and like every other warm body on this planet, you need a life that’s fulfilling on more than one level. You know what you can do instead of pounding out words until you tear your hair out? Fall in love. Go see a movie. Have kids. Start a stamp collection. When you let go of the desperation, the incessant need to be somebody, you can be anybody, and that, my friends, is freedom itself.

You know who you are. You know you love to write. If you didn’t, you wouldn’t be here on this blog. So why not trust yourself? Trust life. Tell a story for the joy of it. One moment, one second, one word at a time. If you worry too much about the future, the next rejection, the next failure, if you obsess over the past and all the ugly moments still living there, you’re doomed to forever hate right now.

It’s okay to admit you’re no superstar. At least not yet. Trust me, it won’t hinder your ability to create awesome stuff. I’ve met some big name talent. Many of them feel imprisoned by their careers. The grass is always greener, right? So while you’re busy fuming with jealousy over their magnificent sales figures, they’re busy resenting you for what they perceive as your complete and total freedom. The joy of writing is in discovering what’s just around the corner. Imagine if a new entry in your favorite book series telegraphed its epic ending on page one. Wouldn’t that be disappointing? Life, like any story worth reading, works best when you don’t know what comes next.

So don’t try to predict the future. Live free, focus on today. And that’s your pep talk for the month, folks. Read ‘em and weep! Just don’t weep too hard.


Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative short stories are collected in Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Black Static, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars.

Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Video Games – Music – Entertainment – Fun!