Thursday, February 3, 2011

Sensitive Writer Syndrome

The Sensitive Writer Syndrome is a common, and complex, disorder. While there are writers who claim they don't get 'upset' or 'take to heart' the critiques they receive, I sometimes have to wonder how honest they are being with themselves.

Not too long ago, I claimed to be one of these people. But over the last couple of months, I've really noticed how easily swayed I am by others views. Not consciously, of course. But all it take is a passing remark by someone to plant the seed of doubt.

And, as we all know, doubt can be a rather savage creature.

Second guessing myself and my writing because of other people is new to me. That's not to say I never questioned it or put to the side something I wasn't sure on. No, it's just saying I never did it because of what someone else might have said.

Oh dear. This is making me sound like a spineless jellyfish without a thick skin. That is not the case. Whenever you put yourself out in public whether that be through blog, vlog, twitter, facebook, Authonomy, Write On, or SlushPile Reader, you open yourself up for criticism. Everyone who's been along for my journey knows I've received plenty of criticism. And a lot of it does roll of my back, but sometimes, certain things stick.

Usually, it's the certain things said by certain people.

Up until the last year and a half, I didn't have an audience. It took awhile to adjust to it. After over 700 comments on Seeking Eleanor on Authonomy, I understood my writing isn't for everyone. Someone will always hate it. And you cannot please everyone. These are wonderful things to come to terms with, because once you do you can relax a little and just shrug it off.

I think I've adapted rather well.

Here's the tough part. No matter what sort of writer you are, whether you only plan on writing one book or you have three completed and working on your forth, it's personal. It is your idea, your time, your energy, and, in some cases, your blood, sweat and tears. It's hard not to be sensitive about it. And while we may grin and bear it, there are times that it really gets us down. And that's when the SWS comes into play.

Sensitive Writer Syndrome can strike at the most inopportune times. It could be on the third round of edits or the thirty-sixth 'not for me' rejection. It might do a sneaky ninja attack in the middle of the night and prevent you from sleeping. Hell, it might even show up when you're sitting on the toilet really regretting eating that second extra-spicy bean burrito from the dive Mexican place around the corner. The tricky part of this affliction is one never knows how long it will stay for, how debilitating it may be, or when it will go away. Sometimes it never goes away.

The key for all writers in regards to SWS is to understand your own version of it. Like a compliment, a complaint will render different actions from the person receiving it. All sorts of things come into play. Who said it? How they said it? When they said it? How detailed they are?

For example, while Jackie O'Mackie, the writer of Gothic literature, doesn't care if her friend Betsy Boom rips her work apart, she becomes an emotional basket case if her own mother says anything negative about it. And, quiet the opposite, Peter BoBeater, a writer with a penchant for creating silly little children's books, hates it when his wife Lena mentions his horrible punctuation, but is perfectly happy with his own mother's pedantic ways.

See how it can differ from person to person.

While I did make those examples up, shocking I know, I can only shed light for you on my own version of SWS, because it is rather unique.

Once my work is in completed form, the ending finished and at the stage where I start my edits, I am open to anything anyone says to me. This is not where my Sensitive Writer Syndrome comes into play. No, mine exists before the novel has been completed.

Up until this last year and a half, I didn't have an audience. I didn't have people who showed an interest in reading my work, least of all while I was actually in the middle of writing it. But now, I have people clamouring (that's so the wrong word) to read my work. They ask me to post snippets. They question what I am working on. And they seem excited about the idea of reading it.

This is where my back goes up now.

When I am in the middle of crafting something, I think that idea is amazing. It's all I am focused on. I eat breathe and sleep it. It consumes me. Literally, devouring me until I get it all out and can get back to my life. And so, when someone shows interest in reading what I have started I get a little thrill. But what accompanies this thrill is my SWS.

If I opt to let someone read my work at this stage I run the risk of being derailed.

This is something I know.

Depending on the reaction I get back, I could completely give up on the story. It could be something little, like the person suggesting I write it from a different POV. It could be something big, like someone saying they didn't like it and it had no substance. It could be something ridiculous, like someone not being as excited as I think they should be. And it could be something hurtful, like someone saying it's cliched and expected.

I know these are just their opinions. For the most part, I don't even want to take them into consideration! Especially when I know they are unprecedented and foolish. I mean, they are on a piece of work that isn't done! How could it be cliched and expected, they don't even know what's to come! And yet, still they bother. They plant that pea-sized seed of doubt, and that pea feels like a mountain when I sleep on it at night.

I love feedback on my work in progress. Wait...that's not clear enough. I love helpful feedback on my work in progress. Wait...that's not enough either. My Sensitive Writer Syndrome loves helpful and constructive feedback on my work in progress.

It's really easy for me to be derailed when I am in the middle of writing a novel. That's a unique characteristic to my disorder. I think I am a better writer for recognizing the traits of my special brand of SWS. And I think others would be better off knowing the nature of their own beasts, because there are things we can do to curb it.

We could avoid the things that flare our SWS up...because, like Herpes, it's never going to fully go away. Or we can face it. To be honest, I'm not going to stop letting people read my material, even though that's exactly what my urge is to do. What I am going to do? Cultivate a smaller group of people whose opinions I value. Try not to take to heart the comments I receive from the peanut gallery. And try with all my might to finish the things I start, and not allow myself to be derailed.


Loralie Hall said...

I'm very much the same. I'm all about constructive feedback. But if I show someone a piece that isn't finished yet, it's because I'm hoping for praise. i want them to love it so I know I'm not just writing it for me. And the wrong comment can completely derail me.

Once it's all finished, people are welcome to tear it to shreds. Just not before, or there will be no after.

jasouders said...

I'm this way too. I send my work as I'm going to certain friends I know are cheerleaders and let them know specifically I'm only asking if they like it. I don't want any other feedback. It's usually enough to keep me going. And like Loralie said, after that they can tear it up as much as they want.

Fear Not the Darkness but What lies Within said...

Sheilagh Lee said:So true as writers we want some praise for our work.We want to know that someone will appreciate what we write.

T.L Tyson said...

@jasouders - I can tell them I only want to know if they like it???? This opens up a whole new world for me.

Greta said...

Yeah, I think you have to develop your own little trusted crit group who will tell you what you need to know. And be honest about it. I have a few people who will tell me when I've derailed. I think it's important they are folk who 'get' your work and are at the same writing level as you. Those people are like stardust.

Cameron Chapman said...

The same thing happens to me. Once I've finished the first draft of anything I'm working on, I'm all about the constructive criticism and it really doesn't bother me. But when I'm mid-first-draft, anything anyone says can derail me completely. I had one novel that I posted on Authonomy when I was about 45k words in (of about 65k), and someone said the setting was completely unbelievable. They were brutal about it (as they were with any critique they gave, not just the one directed at my work). This came from someone who had been to the place I was writing about (I haven't). So it really got to me.

I tried rewriting it in two other settings (one was another place I'd never been to, and the other was here in Vermont), but stalled after 5-10k words in both cases. Then I put it away for 6 or 8 months. Finally, I went back and looked at it, realized I was over 2/3 done with it, and decided to finish writing it in the original setting.

I ended up really happy with the result. I submitted the first page to Nathan Bransford's first page critique thing, and he gave it one of the most favorable critiques he's given out (which really bolstered my confidence in it). I've still got some editing to do on it, but I'm so glad I finished it, despite the setbacks.

And the lesson I learned was this: DON'T LET ANYONE READ ANYTHING YOU WRITE UNTIL YOU'VE GOT THAT FIRST DRAFT DONE! (Can you tell I'm a bit passionate about this now?) If you must let them read it, then tell them not to say a thing to you about it until you're done.

T.L Tyson said...

@Cameron - It's nice to know I am not alone. Your passion is appreciated.