Peer pressure

First off, thank you for all the congratulatory emails, and tweets, and Facebook posts, and blog comments. You guys are great. And Baby Sam (a boy!) is doing really well. Here’s the obligatory cute baby picture.

I feel terrible about leaving you without content for the last few weeks. I’ve always been an industry blog addict, and it seems that everyone shuts down their blog during August. Lately, a lot of blogs are shutting down, period. I miss Editorial Ass. Editorial Anonymous. Even Pimp My Novel is shutting down for a while.

I’m crying. Do you hear me crying? I am.

But none of that has anything to do with peer pressure, which is what I wanted to comment on today.

I write YA. You know I write YA. But it means that I spend a lot of my time trying to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Sometimes, that’s really difficult.

Other times, it’s really easy. Like when I think about the guy I dated in high school. We dated for two years. I loved him. He was wonderful, and well-raised, and fun, and funny, and we had a good time together. He dumped me because I wouldn’t have sex with him (I wasn’t ready), and all his friends were pressuring him to “do it.” He went to an all boys’ school, I went to an all girls’ school. Every year, my school had a variety show called The Coffee House, and because I played the piano, I was called on for any songs people wanted to sing. My ex-boyfriend came to the show shortly after we’d broken up, for whatever reason.

Wait, I know the reason. To tell me, during intermission, that he’d started dating another girl. One who “did it” with him on their second date. In the back seat of his Nissan Sentra.

(Sexy, right?)

I was crushed. I almost couldn’t go back for the second half of the show. I remember sobbing in the darkened school library. I mean, it’s one thing to dump someone because you’re not getting what you want. It’s entirely another to come back and slap them in the face with the fact that you found someone who will.

And all because of peer pressure.

My four-year-old goes to pre-K at a local private school. In the morning, they have eighth graders who direct the flow of student traffic, and hold the doors for parents, things like that. This year, the boy who holds the door is very polite. When he opens the door for me, he makes eye contact and says, “Good morning.” When I leave, he says, “Have a good day.” From what I can tell, he does this for everyone.

Because I was raised to be polite, I always respond in kind.

A few days ago, his friends were hassling him. Mocking him. “Ooooh, good morning!” and making kiss-up noises, things like that.

He ignores them, and keeps doing it.

But it made me wonder. By the time he reaches his senior year of high school, are his friends going to break him down? Is he going to start being a jerk, just because it finally got to be too much effort to be polite? Is he going to break some girl’s heart, just because his friends kept mocking him?

The sad thing is, he’ll probably get more girls (or guys, no judgment) if he keeps acting with politeness and confidence. But I know it’s hard to see that when you’re thirteen. Or eighteen.

Or hell, when you’re in your twenties and thirties and beyond.

How have you guys been affected by peer pressure? Does it play a role in your writing? In your life? Do you ever regret following your friends, instead of following your heart?

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You don’t know what you’re talking about. (Or, how to handle criticism.)

I was telling a friend the other day that you have to be a little bit arrogant to make it as a writer. Not a lot arrogant (the world doesn’t need more of those), but at least a little. It’s true: with the amount of rejection writers face, you’ve got to have the cajones to keep putting yourself out there.

Being a writer is not for the faint of heart.

But what if it’s not just rejection? What if it’s criticism?

I’m the first one to admit, I’m a competitive person. When I was in high school, if I wasn’t the first student to finish a test, I’d get upset. I went to an all-girls high school, but if it had been co-ed, I would have been one of those girls crusading to do everything the boys could do. Not because I have any desire to play football (as if), but because I love competition.

So when you’re competitive, you’re doing what you love (writing), and someone says, “Yeah, this part right here, it’s just not working for me,” that hurts.

There are a lot of levels to this.

Trust.
If Tamar (my agent) tells me something’s not working, then I know it’s not working. I trust her implicitly. When I was outlining my sequel, I wanted to have two brothers fall in love with the same girl, thinking it would create conflict between them. She shot that down, and I’m so glad she did, because now the conflict will be more about the brothers growing apart as one finds a relationship, and it doesn’t feel as cheap-and-easy as the first idea did. It’s more subtle, but in the end, I think it’s going to be a lot more powerful.

If my husband tells me something’s not working, I take it with a grain of salt. (Sorry, honey.) Yes, I trust him, and yes, I value his opinion, but he doesn’t read YA, and he doesn’t understand the craft of writing. If he reads a scene and says, “Hon, no guy would ever say that to another dude,” then I know I need to make a change. But if he says, “Why can’t you just add a monster?” (or some completely random guy thing), then I know to smile and nod and keep on writing my way.

If a friend tells me something’s not working, I slow down and think about it. 

Here’s where a lot of people get tripped up, I think. If the person is truly a friend, it’s easy to get offended. You want your friends to love every word you write. It’s very, VERY hard to accept criticism from people you love. By nature, we want to impress our friends and family. We want them to think we’re great writers. It’s a blow to the ego to hear something didn’t work. Do you know how hard it was to tell my family that my first novel didn’t sell, and now we’re on to the next one? You know the looks. The ones that say, “Maybe Brigid isn’t a good writer after all. Aw. What a cute little hobby. She thinks she can write.” Here’s where that little bit of arrogance comes in handy. Those looks are enough to make you curl up and cry.

If a critique partner (or a random beta reader) tells me something’s not working, I have to trust my gut.

I’ve been doing a lot of beta reading lately. I think I’ve looked at 10 manuscripts over the last two weeks. (No, I don’t have much of a social life. Why do you ask?) I throw my advice out there, for what it’s worth, and if the person wants to take it, great. If they don’t, that’s completely fine, too. I’m okay either way.

But when critique partners tell you something isn’t working, you really have to step back and see if there’s some merit. Complete strangers are going to be the most honest. Conversely, when it’s a complete stranger, that’s when the knee-jerk reaction of “This lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about” starts to kick in.

Control the knee-jerk. Control it. Step back and listen. Since this person is a complete stranger, I always have to remind myself that it’s not a personal attack. They don’t know me! Why would they spend hours going through my manuscript just to tell me off? But since it’s writing, it’s personal, and it hurts.

I always read my crits in two pieces if they’re coming from a complete stranger. First, I read through all the comments, let my blood pressure fly off the meter, and then close the file and have a cup of coffee. But then later, I start to think about the comments. Maybe she was right, and the hero was a little too wussy right there. Maybe he had a point, that I needed a little more oomph to that fight scene. Maybe this character is a complete bitch, and I just didn’t see how she was coming across.

Here are my rules for handling criticism:

1) Do the gut check.

This is absolutely the number one rule. If your initial reaction is to reject that idea, but you have a feeling in the back of your head that it’s right, it’s probably right. With the first novel, the one that landed me an agent, people kept telling me that it took too long to get to the action. I needed to condense the first five chapters. I didn’t want to do that — I loved those chapters. But I had a feeling in the back of my head that they were right, that I was going to need to fix them.

When I signed with Tamar? I had to condense them.

This works the other way too. If someone recommends a change that comes out of left field, let it roll off your back. 

2) If it’s a matter of clarity, fix it.

No matter what. If one person trips over your phrasing, someone else will. This is such an easy place to dig in your heels and refuse to fix it. (“What kind of idiot doesn’t know that I’m being funny?”) But it’s also a silly place to dig in your heels. Rephrase. My issues of clarity always get fixed, no matter who’s criticizing.

3) Consider the source.

This is a tough one, and it goes along with the gut check. Like I said above, when my husband reads my stuff, I know where he’s coming from. When a fellow writer reads my stuff, I know where they’re coming from. But you never know if someone is having a bad day, or if they have a bone to pick or a chip on their shoulder. Take criticism with a grain of salt.

4) Say thank you.

If someone gives you their time, appreciate it. Even if they’re an idiot. It’s still their time, not yours. (All my recent beta partners have been awesome. But some people aren’t so lucky, so I had to throw this out there.)

5) Don’t be afraid to discuss!

When I send my critiques out, I always tell people I’m happy to talk out the changes I recommended. I love discussing what’s working (and what’s not) and brainstorming new ideas. It’s rare that people want to discuss anything, which is a shame. I never critique to be cruel or mean, and if an idea isn’t working, I’m happy to learn where the writer is coming from, and maybe brainstorm ideas to make the story stronger. I love writing, and I love the whole process. I’m always happy to throw ideas back and forth. It’s one of my favorite parts of this whole writing gig.

How about you guys? I know there are thousands of writers out there, cringing from criticism. Do you have any tips for how to handle it?

Faking it

I used to ride horses.

Scratch that. I used to ride horses well. I still know how to do it; if you dropped me in a saddle right this second, I’d be all right.

Horseback riding is one of those things that all kids should be required to learn. It’s unfortunate that it’s so cost prohibitive. I don’t care about horse shows or competitions or looking good in a pair of skintight pants and knee-high boots. A kid can learn to ride horses while wearing jeans from Target, heeled shoes from Payless, and the cheapest safety helmet you can find. Competition is fun, but that’s not what it’s about.

Riding horses levels the playing field. It’s you and the animal. That’s it.

I taught riding lessons for ten years. I was a good instructor. A very good instructor. I knew what I was talking about, and I really cared about my students.

One of the first things I always told my lesson kids was that they were in charge. Once that horse moved away from me, I couldn’t do a damn thing to stop it. Even a small pony had a good 500 pounds on me. A horse? Twice that. The only person in control is the person sitting on top of the animal.

If you think about it, that’s really empowering for a child. Kids are constantly being “instructed.”

Put your shoes on. Put that down. Take that off. Don’t touch that. Stop it. Come here. Sit down. Be quiet. Move. Hurry. Slow down. Watch your head.

On a horse? It’s all the kid.

You know how they say an animal can smell fear? We talked about that in the last post. It’s true. And horses — especially lesson horses — know when their rider is afraid. They know when their rider is confident. They know when they can get away with standing in the corner, no matter how many times the kid wails on them with her heels. They know when their rider is accomplished, and disobedience won’t be tolerated.

Horses are a great equalizer.

I remember being twelve years old, at a rinky-dink riding camp where my parents let me spend my summer. There was this cocky boy who was also a student. He was a horrible rider, but he liked to talk the talk. At the end of every day, we got a thirty minute free ride. I was assigned this horse Gretchen, who was the cream of the crop. Perfect gray pony who would do anything you told her. She’d never misbehave. Cocky kid was assigned Tassie, this nasty red roan mare who wouldn’t listen unless you were confident.

For fifteen minutes, Tassie stood in the middle of the ring and refused to move for that kid. I was happily cantering around on Gretchen.

So cocky kid whined to the teacher. The teacher asked me to trade.

Three minutes later, I was happily cantering around on Tassie. Cocky kid was pissed.

Horses know.

But here’s the thing: horses are pretty frigging stupid. Their brain is the size of a walnut. Seriously. A walnut. When people tell me they’re afraid of horses, I always look at them sideways and say, “Have you ever been near a horse? Do you realize that you can wave your hands and yell Boo!, and a horse will run away?”

I went out on a few dates with this one guy who came out to the farm with me once. Horses will do just about anything for food, and lesson horses recognize all the sounds associated with snacks. Rattling plastic, crinkling foil, you name it. This guy was eating chips from a bag when we walked into the field. The closest horse, an aged mare, heard the bag crinkle. She lifted her head and started ambling towards us.

The guy? He yelled, “They’re charging!”

And he ran from the field.

Freak.

But I digress.

Horses aren’t brilliant. So if you aren’t confident, that’s fine.

You can fake it.

I had one student who cried in her first few lessons. I had a zero-tolerance policy on tears. You can’t cry on horseback. It’s like texting while driving. You’re just bound to get into an accident. If you’re crying, you aren’t paying attention, you can’t see, and you’re not in control.

The last thing you want is for the horse to be in control. Thousand pound animal, brain the size of a walnut. Yeah, they can’t be in control.

So I taught that student the “Grr!” philosophy. When she got scared and wanted to cry, she had to say, “Grr!” And I mean, she really had to growl. She had to make herself the scary one. She had to pretend to be the badass. The horse didn’t really know the difference.

It worked. She did it all the time. She bought a tee shirt that said, “Grr!” (That made my day.)

And you know what? She’s a beautiful rider now. A brilliant one. If she reads this and sends me a link to a video of herself riding, I’ll add it to this post. Every time I see her videos on Facebook, I remember the scared little girl who sobbed in the corner of the ring, then got it together to find her inner “Grr!” and got the horse under control.

She faked it until she didn’t have to fake it anymore.

Horseback riding isn’t the only place faking it works, however. It’s just a great place to practice.

I’m terrified of confrontation. I hate it. I always want to squirm and back down. But I find that inner “Grr!” and stand up for myself when I’m right.

I just started coaching soccer for my son’s team. I don’t know anything about soccer. Nothing. I have never played in my life. During our first scrimmage, one of the kids scored a goal. I cheered, high fives all around, the whole schebang.

Then I realized I had no idea what happened next. Do they start in the middle again? Do they just throw the ball out of the goal and play on? I had no idea.

But the kids didn’t know either. I faked it.

Same thing with writing. (You knew it had to come back to that, right?) I don’t have a college degree. I don’t have any creative writing classes under my belt. I took AP English in high school, and that’s about it. Sometimes I read real writing blogs (a great one is www.storyflip.blogspot.com) and read about the mechanics of a scene, or plotting, or the way dialogue comes together with narrative to build a scene.

Then I’ll say to myself, “Huh. I guess that is how that works.”

Sometimes confidence has nothing to do with how strong you are, or how capable.

Sometimes it’s just about how well you can fake it.

In the end, what’s the difference?

**ETA: She did send me a video!

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