Writers fill my screen, their faces showing intense concentration as we sit silently before our laptops, each in our individual rooms, plying our craft. Three months ago, I would never have dreamed of writing fiction this way. Heck, I was never terribly fond of writing in a coffee shop with others at nearby tables, let along with a group of my colleagues in the same room.
Then came the pandemic and all of my words fled. Every single last one. After struggling for weeks, in desperation I completely shook up my long-standing writing habits. I’ve always found accountability to others to be a useful tool, whether on a monthly, weekly, or even daily basis. So I gave group writer sprints a try, reasoning that the result could hardly be worse than zero words. To my great surprise, my words came back.
How does a writer sprint work, you ask? A bunch of writers assemble via Zoom at a prearranged time and begin by saying what we each intend to write. Sometimes we’ll take a “Twitter pledge” to stay off social media, that great distracting bane of many writers and destroyer of productivity. Someone will set a timer and we’ll spend thirty minutes or so of silently writing. Well OK maybe with an occasional comment in Chat. Then we’ll all unmute and go around with brief updates as to how we each acquitted ourselves.Those who accomplished their goal for the sprint get applause, cheers, thumbs up, etc. Lather, Rinse. Repeat.
I have no earthly idea why this radical overhaul of my method works. Maybe it has something to do with an occasional cat waving its tail at a webcam or a dog come to beg for treats. Anyway, I’m putting it out here NOT to say you must adopt this method, or any specific method whatsoever. My point, instead, is that if what you are doing no longer seems to work, try something else. Whatever helps during this terrible pandemic is good.
We are all different people with many and varied approaches to our creative processes. My friend Jason Sanford has written an insightful piece on how the pandemic has affected a number of writers. Some keep chugging steadily along. (Awesome!) Some have been unable to produce anything. Some have had to abandon works in progress and begin afresh. The approaches are as varied as the writers and their creative endeavors. My point is to simply suggest that this could be the time to try a fresh approach.
New writers are often advised not to read reviews of their work. The theory goes that reviews are for readers, not for writers who can do nothing whatsoever to make amends for whatever glaring faults the reviewer finds in their work. Worse yet, a few bad reviews–or maybe only one or two–just might dishearten the newbie author to such an extent that they wreak havoc on further creative endeavors.
What this well-meaning advice neglects to address is how a new writer, or even a well-established author with numerous publications to their name, is supposed to resist the siren call of the review. In my own case, for the longest time, I wouldn’t even admit to reading reviews of my work because I thought it showed a character flaw. Over time, I came to see that a great many writers, maybe even most of us, do read published reviews of our work. I suppose we could justify doing so on the grounds that it’s nonsensical for us to be the only ones who have no idea what professional reviewers are saying about our body of work. A lot of us also read Amazon and Good Reads reviews written by readers. Again, it seems to make sense to find out what our fans, no matter how numerous or how sparse, think of our stories.
There’s another reason to read reviews. Writing is, inescapably, a solitary profession for long chunks of time. It can also seem frustratingly like casting one’s work into a black hole from which not a solitary ray of feedback escapes. Who wouldn’t want to hear something?
Besides, there are times when that feedback can be extraordinarily gratifying. Take for example, Rich Horton’s review of the my own story, “Conservation of Mismatched Shoes,” in the July 2019 issue of Locus. It’s his favorite story in the issue! Mark me down as thrilled. Thrilled, I tell you! This isn’t simply a matter of basking in his kind words. My reaction has everything to do with the fact that while writing this one, I really struggled to portray the teenage protagonist and her older brother. Rich Horton deemed it “[a]n honest story, convincingly characterized.”
I intend to keep on reading those reviews!