Friday, July 11, 2014

Everybody loves some novel, sometimes...*

By Russel D McLean

I have a nightmare.

Not the one involving snakes.

Not the one involving Jay Stringer and Dave White's disturbing burlesque routine.

But rather the one where I finally get found out. The one where people realise I was faking being a writer all along. Where they call me out on years of bullshit.

Its a fear common among us all. When someone doesn't like our work, we wince and get this feeling like someone kicked us in the heart. Even when that criticism is wrapped up with good stuff there's a feeling like, you know, we failed somehow with just this one person.

And you know, what I've realise over the years is you either get used to that feeling or you night as well pack up your keyboard and go home. Because part and parcel of being a writer is dealing with criticism. I watched recently as a would-be writer kicked back against someone who gave them a professional report on their work.I won't go into details but it got me thinking about how we react to criticism, particularly early on in our careers.

Now I get the emotional reaction to criticism, but here's the thing: if one reader thinks there are issues, you can guarantee others will.  And you can either feel strongly enough that other readers will understand your work, or you can listen to the critism and learn from it.

Early in my career I signed with an agent who worked with in house editors. The first editor - who persuaded the agent that I had something - loved my work and gave me a lot of constructive advice that finally made its way into what would become The Good Son. The second editor had a hand in booting me out of that agency because they didn't like what I was doing and wanted me to write a very different kind of novel. Now that novel would have probably got me a huge six figure deal but it wasn't the kind of novel I wanted to write. I stuck to my guns. And got booted off that agent's list. Quite unceremoniously.

But I didn't call for the editor's head. I didn't gnash and wail and grind my teeth (in public). I looked at the reasons I got booted and weighed them up. I wondered whether there were things I could learn. In the end I took a few of those things and made the novel stronger, but I learned that sometimes people just aren't going to react to your manuscript. And that different folks have different tastes.

I took my keyboard and walked away from that one.

In another case, I sent a manuscript off to someone whose opinions I trusted. They came back and told me the book wasn't worked. I was gutted. It was a good book. I was sure of it. But I couldn't be sure. So I went through the manuscript looking at the points they suggested. And sure enough there were issues there. And in this case the person was right to tell me I maybe needed to restructure and restart. Sure, I could have sold the novel, according to this person, but it would have been for a pittance and it wouldn't have gotten the kudos that was clearly deserving of the story. I needed to re-examine it. I needed to really really re-examine it.

This time, I followed the advice.

And the book that emerged was, I think, better.

What I'm saying is this: at every stage of your career you will get criticism. Some of it will be as meaningless as a ranty one star review on Amazon saying that you're "not like Rebus" but some of it might just be worth listening to. Some of it might be well intentioned or even good advice that just might not gel with your plans, but is still worth listening to without losing the plot. Some of it might even save your book.

But anyone who simply praises your work should not be listened to at all. I never send WIPs to friends or family. I did it once and actually got measured responses, but I need to know that the person reading my book has the impartiality of a distant reader or someone who won't take into account who I am or what they know about me. Sometimes that means I get things that do not tally with my expectations. But I learned long ago that kicking up a fuss doesn't help. Listening the criticisms and asking yourself whether you think they might help your novel does.

In short, you and your novel are not special flowers. You do not get a pass just because you wrote something. You have to expect criticism. You have to expect to be imperfect. And you have to expect that sometimes you will learn from that.

*with huge apologies to Dean Martin...


Dana King said...

Well put. An author needs a clear vision of what his work is to be, and the nerve to stick with it. As with your agent and editors, some criticism will be contradictory. If the author doesn't have a vision and a willingness to stick to his guns, then what results will be a hodge-podge without conviction no one will want to read.

There are many more kinds of success than six-figure contracts.

Kristi said...

Great post. So true. I think I've always felt this way. As a journalist, I kept waiting for someone to expose me as a fraud. And back in the newspaper world, same thing! I have nightmares of failure.
As a writer - same deal! I'm about a month into my debut novel being published and am waiting for the criticism to appear.
I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. Luckily newspaper has prepared me!