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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Pulling the sword from the heart of my novel

Twenty years ago, a friend said, "I have a suit of asbestos permanently welded to my skin," and I adopted that mantra for critiques. You hate my book? Tell me why. In critique, I want to hear about one-dimensional characters, comma overusage, exactly what you think of my 96-word sentence, and plot holes big enough to hangar a 747. Even if you're nasty, it won't hurt my feelings, and then I can get to work.

So why, for six months, have I trembled every time I think about working on THAT book?

THAT book has been around for a while, and it's on schedule for release this year. I need to get it up to snuff, but I actually wrote a different novel last November rather than look at the file for this one.

Huh. My asbestos suit is still welded in place. So what happened?

Let's go back in time, back to when I was confident in THAT book and got a request from Janet Reid (who kindly gave me permission to quote her in this post.) She had already given me an R&R for Honest And For True, so I knew I trusted her judgment. Actually, I hadn't known I'd trusted her judgment, but when I'd read her editorial suggestions to my father, he'd said, "That's huge! Are you sure you trust her?" and the word, "Absolutely" slipped out before I even heard myself. (And she was correct, which is why she's named in the acknowledgments.) So this time, when she rejected THAT  book, it was kind and it was firm, very detailed, and then this:

“The rest of the tension just seems like daily living and while that's how we all live, I think novels require more of the higher kind of tension.”

It's been years now, and whenever I think of how to deliver bad news well, I come back to her rejection because this is the nicest way anyone ever told me my book was boring. And she was right. I'm not going to sugar-coat it: in the version she read, that book was boring. It was numb. Not enough happened. Sometimes a writer produces a boring book, and this time it happened to me.

I rolled up my sleeves and rewrote. I started from a blank document and re-crafted, moved scenes around, gave my protagonist a Hero's Journey, and took out the parts that didn't make sense.

[While I'm rewriting THAT book, please enjoy this scene from my college novel-writing class, taught by a bitter professor who hated the entire publishing industry and would cast his disbelieving eye upon your manuscript, growling, "This is craaaaaaap" as if he himself were in the midst of producing a bowel movement. Do not take advice from this man. I don't care how many PhDs he has or if his book was on the NYT bestseller list. Just don't.]

Once again, after the rewrite I loved THAT book. So why this year couldn't I look at it for six months?

Because in the interim, I had someone else with editorial credentials take a look at THAT book and put a sword in its heart. Not with words. I could have dealt with a critical skewering. No, it was in the attitude, in the way this person wouldn't get started, complained about having to do it, wouldn't finish, blew every deadline they themselves set, and in the end refused to understand the book at all. Blamed me. It was my fault the book was awful, my fault the person's job was awful, mine, mine, mine.

After a while, I joked with people that I couldn't even pay someone to read THAT book.

Nothing ever happened with it. I put it away. I wrote other things. I published other things. And now...

Well, for years I've told writers, "Listen to all critique. Throw out what's bad. Even if the person is mean-spirited, analyze the comment to determine if it meshes with the text."

After weeks of scrubbing toilets rather than look at my own book, I'm going to change my advice: Don't listen to critique from someone who is emotionally wrung out on the industry and is taking it out on you. Because a critique isn't all in the words: it's in the speed with which they deliver it. It's in the energy of their comments. It's in the zest of their suggestions.

You can easily dismiss "This is craaaaaap," but when someone sits on your manuscript for longer than it takes to gestate a human baby, then delivers a half-assed set of comments and expects to earn money for the pleasure, you blame yourself. Especially if you trust them: you absorb their ennui.

So back to THAT book. On January 2nd, I sent two chapters, unread, to my real-life critique group because then I would have no choice but to jump in the deep end. I closed my eyes and hit send. I asked for help and prayers from a locked Facebook group. And then, emboldened, I finally re-read THAT book.

It's funny.

It's energetic.

It moves at a decent pace.

Don't get me wrong: I have six weeks slated to edit it. My critique group found loads of reasons to utilize their red pens. BUT! But it's good! It's not this boring, dry, horrible thing you want to hold at arm's length. It's not confusing and dead. It's a book. It's got a pulse. It's mine.

I love it again.

Don't listen to jaded people. Or rather, listen for the things they're not saying, and if Heaven forbid you detect that ennui, weld my friend's asbestos suit of armor to your heart and take back your book.  Some people have nothing to say, and they'll try to make you say it for them.


PS: Janet Reid has an amazing blog for writers. Go check it out.


Karen Duvall said...

What a great post! Very inspiring and equally true.

I need to release the choke-hold I have on a recently started novel. I have a dozen completed ones, 6 published ones, but this latest book scares the hell out of me. I should open it up and read what I have so far and maybe I'll start loving it again. My main problem is that I'm writing a new genre in a style I'm unaccustomed to, and it has me a bit intimidated. Plus I don't have the time I used to have for writing.

Thanks so much for your words of wisdom!

Mirka Breen said...

I used to think there was an Opus, as in THAT BOOK. Now I think it depends on which decade... Yours sounds intriguing.

Adventures in YA Publishing said...

Definitely be prudent in who you ask for feedback. Writers need people who will give constructive, honest feedback, and who will invest a fair amount of time in giving that feedback. Someone not invested in giving a critique--whether they wrap up all their "this is great!" comments with a bow or whether they rip the manuscript to shred without giving effective feedback for improvement--is not a good choice. Pair yourself with a partner or a group who is invested in the craft of writing and wants to help your story grow to the best it can be.

And don't be afraid to take time away from the manuscript, if you need to. Some weeks away can make all the difference in regaining your own energy and viewing the manuscript like a reader, like someone approaching the story for the first time. But don't forget to come back to the story! Manuscripts don't happen without writers tacking the hard questions and putting in time at the keyboard.

--Sam Taylor, AYAP Team