The Importance of a Growth Mindset with Lauren Leach Steffens
First question: Tell my readers about yourself. I'm an associate professor of human services at Northwest Missouri State University. My first love was creative writing, and I wrote my first poems in third grade, and started writing short stories in fifth grade. I told my mother I wanted to be a poet when I grew up, and she asked me "Do you like eating? Because you'll starve to death as a poet" and I kept my work pretty much to myself for many years. Then, about six or so years ago, I started writing short stories around a dream I was trying to interpret, and my husband said, "If you're going to write short stories on the same topic, you might as well write a novel". So I started writing novels, or at least rough drafts. I didn't really get that I was supposed to polish them. Where are you now In the novel writing process? I have written 4 novels and a novella that are in various states of editing/re-editing. All have seen a developmental editor and beta-readers, but still there were aspects of them that I was dissatisfied with. I recently was advised to read "Save the Cat Writes a Novel", and I learned a lot about what was wrong with my novels -- they started too quickly with very little time to set up the story. Currently, I am fixing the pacing of one, Prodigies, after an agent told me what she thought was missing in my story (a feel for the characters). Another. Whose Hearts are Mountains, has been through that process and is in the hands of a very demanding beta reader.
Wow. Sounds like you’ve been under going a lot of learning. What are your novels about? What genre do you write in? I write in contemporary fantasy. I would call my work the opposite of high fantasy, because it deals with humans touched with preternatural talent, or living in the presence of immortals. I think one of the themes that keeps coming across in my work is a line from an E. E. Cummings poem, "the single secret will still be man". Gifted humans, or as one of my characters puts it, "Homo sapiens donatus", find they have power and responsibility, and most deal with it very well because human nature is generally good. The tension comes, though, in having to meet extraordinary situations, like accepting one's gifts and, oh, having to stop the end of the world or something. Saving the world? What's hard about that? Your stories sound really great. What do you find is your biggest daily inspiration to write? Hmm ... When I'm writing something new, my inspiration comes from dreams and fascinating people I've encountered. Whose Hearts are Mountains actually came from a long dream I had during a week-long kidney infection some 30 years ago. When I'm revising, my inspiration comes from improvement. I crave improvement and making my work better. I get frustrated when someone isn't engaged in my work and can't articulate why, which is why it's so great to get constructive criticism, even "this doesn't work for me and this is why." Ugh. Kidney infections are awful. But at least something good came out of it. But I love that you say that it's great to get constructive criticism. I think a lot of authors fear being judged, but it sounds like you've really put your novels out there to editors and beta readers. Can you tell us more about why you've sought so much constructive criticism? I think it's because I crave excellence. I don't think of criticism as telling me my writing is no good; rather, it tells me how my writing could be better. And I always want to be better. I don't want my work to get published until it sparkles, and I need help with what will make it sparkle.
I love that. When I taught clinical rotations for undergraduate nursing students, I liked to tell them "There is no such thing as negative feedback." There is feedback that says what your strengths are, and feedback that sets goals for what you should become. Of course, there are also people who just give criticism that is vindictive and cruel, but that's a different issue altogether. How did you develop such a positive attitude? Was it always so easy to accept critique? I'm not even sure it's easy for me to accept critique now! I have to admit a sinking stomach when I first read a critique, followed by "Well, wait ..." and then I work to accept the criticism in the spirit in which it's given. As long as the criticism is concrete enough -- if you don't like what I'm writing, say why! -- I can use it, and that is what I focus on. That's a great and a hard lesson to learn. What advice would you give writers for distinguishing whether feedback is just a one off opinion or something that actually needs to be fixed within the novel? Oh, that's a good one! I almost always assume there's some truth in the feedback, but there's some feedback with a lot of truth and some with very little truth. When I approach feedback, I first look for evidence that their opinion is right rather than evidence that it's wrong. Looking for evidence that they're right gets through my natural defensiveness. If I don't find a lot of evidence, then I think it's their personal opinion. If they give me a source to explore to backup their opinion -- like "Save the Cat Writes a Novel" or other well-written source, then I take their opinion that much more seriously. They're an expert if they can cite sources. I like that. I think it's also important to have multiple sets of eyes go over. That way if you hear multiple people saying the thing, you know it's something that needs to be addressed. I totally agree, but sometimes you don't get that. Most of the time when I've had beta-readers, they haven't all seen the same problems. That would make it difficult. Who do you trust to get feedback from? As you might have guessed, I really like to find a dev editor, even though that means putting some money aside. And I find beta-readers -- some of my best readers aren't writers themselves, and they give me good "I don't understand this" or "those words are too big" comments. My husband helps me with reading through things, and he has a BS in English, but he's more of a technical writer. I don't have a critique group, because I'm in an isolated area and my writing is so different than that of the writing group locally. I think that a critique group might be able to help me with more writerly things like the flow of the story and plotting. To be honest, I don't know what to expect from a critique group.
Well first off I like that you look outside of your friends and family to get the most of your critique from. I think that important in order to ensure you are getting unbiased feedback. And I want to come back with what it’s like to work with both beta and developmental editors.
But first I want to actually talk about critique groups. I have been a part of one and I actually just started an online one hosted every Monday which anyone is welcome to join. A critique group is made up of fellow writers of all different genres, so it’s a great way to get lots of feedback, though you generally only get a small amount read. It also gives you a chance to bounce things off off of fellow writers like: “Did this grab your attention?” “Am I showing and not telling?” Or “Do you get a good feel for this character in this chapter?” I think they are extremely valuable in growing and also I’m not supporting other writers and being supported Ahh, so the idea is to give them particular scenes you want feedback on, then? Yes. Generally 5 pages. But our group meets weekly so you’ll get the chance to share a lot of what you’re working on and get guidance as you go. Ahh, okay. I may just show up next week! I could use some writerly feedback. We would love to have you! (and anyone else who wants to come - link at end of article) But all right. Back to you. What’s it like to work with a developmental editor? What should a writer expect? And what tips would you give ? A writer should, first of all, expect to pay for the development editor's expertise, and I've paid around $500-700 for the service; generally half down and half at the end. What happens is you send them your manuscript and they go through it, reading for things like plotting, feel, characterization. They do not copy edit or proofread; you should do that or get a proofreader before you send it to them. They will give you a report back, chapter by chapter, explaining where they saw issues and suggestions of how to deal. You can ask questions back. Then a good one will let you send it back after corrections for another read-through. Now you want to send them the best copy you have. They're not a substitute for solid skills on your part -- plotting, characterization, etc. and the fewer issues in the copy you give them, the more they can see ewhat needs to improve. You employ a developmental editor for their skills in seeing the bigger shape of the story and understanding the genre and market in which you are writing.
How does this differ from a beta reader? Beta readers are generally not content experts — they read more in a general sense and give their impressions, not analysis. They’re closer to the general reader. They are going to be an indicator of what your average reader will be turned on or off by. My favorite beta reader reads a lot of fantasy but is not a writer. She’ll tell me what confuses her, what makes her laugh and cheer. She’s upfront about it. It sounds like you have a great understanding of the critique process for a book. What other lessons have you learned while writing your first novel and what has been particularly difficult to learn? The first lesson was, since I write fantasy, to let my ideas be big in the first draft and not try to make them small. I was inspired by fantasy type anime, which at its best fantasizes big. Reincarnations of goddesses? Why not? People turning into pigs who fly airplanes? Of course! In the second draft and onward I could work on important fantasy structures like consistency in world-building and the cost involved in special talents, the concept that everything, even preternatural ability, has limits and costs. The hardest thing for me to learn? Pacing. My beginning efforts were too much storyline run through in too much of a hurry without a good introduction to the world. And that’s the reason for my current love affair with “Save the Cat”.
That’s really interesting. What things do you still want to learn or feel as though you are in the process of learning? I’m still learning plotting and giving my characters well-developed emotions. There’s a saying one of my professors had, “I can’t grade you on what’s in your head.” If my characters’ emotions are in my head and not on paper, my readers won’t be able to feel them. It sounds easy, but it’s not, because you have to convey emotion, not just name it.
You have a really great growth mindset. I don't feel like everyone is so open. Sometimes, I think it's easy to feel like if you admit you need to grow that means you're not a good writer or , in other words, can shake someone's self-confidence. What are your thoughts on this? And why is it so important to you to keep a growth mindset? Having a growth mindset requires not focusing on the value judgments we make on ourselves like “I’m not a good writer.” If I go there, does it make me a better writer? No, and it’s likely to make me just give up. So it’s necessary to separate who you are from what you’ve written —not “I’m a bad writer” but “here’s how I can improve”. It helps to remind myself that the writers I admire go through this. I love that. I think I've given very similar advice in writing too. And yes, even Margaret Atwood said "If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word." And to me, she's a literary goddess. So if she says that, I guess it's okay for me not to be perfect too. I have two final questions for you. First, tell me one random thing about yourself. The sillier the better. I once played Santa’s elf in high school even though I was 5’8” and taller than Santa. One little kid asked, “if you’re an elf, why are you so tall?” I said it was because someone needed to reach the high shelves. Awesome. If you had one piece of advice to give a writer, what would it be? Commit to writing every day. It’s that commitment that will give you the strength to have a growth mindset because you’ll come to realize that you’re a writer, and writers strive to hone their art. God, I love it so much, Lauren. Thank you for an amazing interview.
As always, Fearless Writer. Chase your dreams. Be kind. And keep writing fearlessly, darling!
The Fearless Writers Writing Club - Monday 6pm CST
Lauren's Twitter: @lleachsteffens
Lauren's IG: @laurenleachsteffens