Beautiful Words,  Craft

Top 10 Questions To Ask Others and Avoid Being Labeled Another Emily Dickinson by Katharine Grubb, 10 Minute Novelists

If you are a writer, then it is likely that you prefer to be isolated from the rest of the world.

You spend your days thinking up great stories, making them as perfect as you possibly can. You may create that ideal lover, that ideal setting or that ideal story that you believe is the only story worth telling, at least for now. You may often be so engrossed in the creation of your little world that you forget that when the story is over, you may have to share it.

And that thought makes you want to pretend you’re Emily Dickinson.

Emily Dickinson was an American poet who lived about an hour from where I do now, in Amherst, Massachusetts from 1830 to 1886. Dickinson was a famed recluse. And when she died, her family found over 1800 poems that she had hand composed. Some had been “published” in that they were sent to friends, but most were left undiscovered. And this video from Crash Course and John Green explains my favorite commercial jingle related Dickson explanation. 

You don’t want to be Emily Dickinson.

Okay, having 1800 poems written would be kinda cool, but if you are going to have readers, editors, agents and publishers, you’re going to have to come out of the house and show others your work.

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This means that you should get feedback.

This means that you have to open yourself up to criticism. This means that you may risk being misunderstood or disliked. This means that someone may not agree with your choices. This means that you may need the opinions of beta readers, critique partners or writers groups in order to be the best that you can be.

Yikes. That sounds scary. It’s bad enough that we’re writers. But we have to do this too?

When we start out, we’re hesitant and flighty, nervous and fretful. We crave affirmation that we’re on the right track, but we stop so often to ask, we make little progress. Then it doesn’t help that there are so many book/websites/blogs to read about how to be a great writer that it just makes us more insecure in who we are.

Oh, we writers are an insecure bunch aren’t we?

So are we good or not? How do we know? When do we find out? Why isn’t there a rule about this?

Um, well, this is the problem with the subjectivity in good writing. No one really knows. But that doesn’t help you, the new writer.

Good writers, or at least writers who want to be the best that they can be,  use beta readers’, critique partners’ or writers’ groups’ opinions to iron out the story’s wrinkles, find out what’s missing and see what the writer doesn’t see. You can use beta readers early in your writing journey, say, after the first draft. Or you can wait several drafts into it and then let trusted people read it.  Either way, you may find it helpful to give them specific questions to answer about your manuscript. Need a beta reader? The 10 Minute Novelist Facebook group has Buddy Day every Tuesday just for this reason! 

“Judge tenderly of me.”
Emily Dickinson

I’d like to suggest that the world is only big enough for one Emily Dickinson. I’d like to suggest that you get over your fear and ask for help from other writers. To help you, I have this:

Top 10 Questions To Ask Others & Avoid Being Labeled Another Emily DIckinson by Katharine Grubb 10 Minute Novelist

1. What were the strengths of the book? Start off with a positive! If anything else goes wrong, you at least have one or two nice things others say. 

“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and I look at it, until it begins to shine.”
Emily Dickinson

2. Who was your favorite character, why? The characters need to be interesting, not necessarily likeable. They need to have a distinct arc. They need to change either for better or worse. They need to be consistent. 

3. Did you think that the plot lines were plausible? Even if your story takes place on a distant planet, underwater or sometime in the future, you need to make sure that the things that happen have the possibility of actually happening. If it is too far fetched, even in fantasy, your reader won’t be interested. 

“There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.”
Emily Dickinson, Selected Poems

4. Did you think anything was missing? You first readers should be paying close attention to what isn’t being written about? If they say to you, I kept waiting for this to happen and it didn’t.  Then you may want to find a way to fill that hole. If one reader thinks something’s missing, another may too. 

5. Where you ever tempted to put the book down and not pick it up? Why or why not? This is a good question. Your beta reader should tell you when things get boring or dry. If you don’t need the description of the back alley behind the pizza joint, don’t put it in. If you don’t need the backstory of the girl next door that explains her scar that you’ll never mention again, then take it out. Your reader’s willingness to keep going is good marker on whether or not you’re doing your job as a storyteller.

“But a Book is only the Heart’s Portrait- every Page a Pulse.”
Emily Dickinson

6. Did you find the setting fully described? Regardless of your genre, your setting will have a role to play in the story. The story itself will dictate how much of the setting is pertinent. Pay attention to what your beta reader says about it. You may have given us too much information or maybe not enough. 

7. Did you find the characters to be distinctive? Each character needs to be developed enough that the readers have no trouble remembering who is who. My personal goal is removing all the dialogue tags from their conversations and see if I can spot the distinctions in what they say. Ask your readers if they can find distinctions easily. If they can’t, consider fleshing them out more, or combining a couple of characters together. 

“I have been bent and broken, but -I hope- into a better shape.”
Emily Dickinson

8. Did you understand the goals of each of the characters? Each character should want something. Sometimes what they say they want and what they really want are two different things. Ask your readers if the goals are clear and reasonable. If they aren’t, then spend the time to clarify them. You may find by fine tuning goals, the character itself will become richer. 

9. Did you “see it coming” or were you surprised by the progress of the story? You story should be plausible, but not predictable. Hopefully your readers can be honest with you about what they saw coming and what may seem cliched. You may have to change a few things, but that’s okay, your work will be all the better. 

“Opinion is a fitting thing but truth outlasts the sun – if then we cannot own them both, possess the oldest one.”
Emily Dickinson

10. Do you wish that other things had happened to the characters that didn’t? I had a reader once who told me that she thought my poor main character went through far too many conflicts and I should ease up on her a bit. I respectfully disagreed. The variety of conflicts made the story a good one. But check with your readers. They may give you an idea you hadn’t thought of. 

Now Emily Dickinson did write, 

“Saying nothing sometimes says the most.”
Emily Dickinson

I’d have to disagree with her. I think that we need feedback from others. It is scary. But once your get your answers, handle them gracefully. You don’t need to follow every suggestion. Just use them for what they are: another helpful tool in your novel-sculpting.

“They might not need me; but they might.
I’ll let my head be just in sight;
A smile as small as mine might be
Precisely their necessity.”
Emily Dickinson

And the nice thing about having relationships with other writers is that we can reciprocate! Our turn will come when we can be the one who is called to critique. Hopefully we’ll remember the experience and answer these questions with grace and gentleness.

You need not be afraid of others’ opinions about your work. As poetic as you may be, it’s healthier not to be an Emily Dickinson.

Take your chances with the world and be as good a you as you can be.

Katharine Grubb is an author, poet, homeschooling mother, camping enthusiast, bread-baker, and believer in working in small increments of time. She leads 10 Minute Novelists, an international Facebook group of time-crunched writers. She lives with her family in Massachusetts.