In my last post I talked about the value of multiple eyes on your writing. I’ve always believed in the importance of objectivity to assess a creative work, because the creator is too close to see it clearly. When I finished the first draft of Transitions, I passed copies out to friends and family to give me feedback. Most raved about how much my writing has grown. Obviously that pumped me up, and I dreamed of landing an agent and maybe even ending up on a bestseller list.
I should have had fair warning when I saw a friend over the weekend who had promised to give me an honest assessment. We were at a party, and she always managed to be in a different room. On the way home I told my husband I was pretty sure Pam hated it and thought it was really awful, because otherwise she would have mentioned the book and made at least some general remarks.
But what a reader likes is subjective. I held out for the professional critique I had paid for. It arrived earlier this week – six pages of summary notes and 350 pages of notes in the margin. In that massive volume of feedback, I found maybe one or two positive comments. The rest, essentially, said I should scrap the entire project because it wasn’t redeemable. Well, she didn’t exactly say that. But she said to throw out more than half of the manuscript and, if I really wanted to use any of it, I should turn it into a formula romance.
That line just about made me lose my breakfast. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with formula romances. Lots of writers make good livings writing them. But I had set out to write something bigger. My first two books had been romance/women’s fiction – not the usual formula, exactly, but that was at the core. I wanted to write something important. Something people would remember.
Clearly I failed Big Novel 101.
And speaking of 101 – she referred me to numerous books and resources to go back to square one and learn how to write a novel successfully. I’d only taken 15 years of classes in colleges and on-line, and filled my bookcases with how-to writing books. If I hadn’t “gotten” what made for a good novel by now, going back to the learning stage wasn’t going to make a difference.
My first reaction was anger. How dare she imply I lacked basic skills and where did she get off bashing the courses I’d taken. “Have any of the instructors ever written an actual novel?” That’s what she asked. I not only found it condescending, I was insulted for my past instructors – all accomplished, published novelists, some with multiple awards.
I vowed I’d never write again.
Then I slept on it and got up the next morning and started going through the detailed comments. She wasn’t kind – but then, I hadn’t paid her for false compliments. And when I looked at her comments and compared the relevant text, the novel really didn’t hold together. I had tried to do more with the novel than was realistic. I loaded it with political commentary. I sacrificed up close and personal scenes with the main characters in my attempt to write “more than just a romance.”
Seen through her eyes, I had to admit she was (mostly) right. I’m still offended by her lack of any positive comments, since I do a good job with dialogue and I personally still think I did a good job with setting some of the scenes. They were just the wrong scenes. I tried to cram so much into the story, I ended up doing a lot of summarizing – the dreaded “telling” vs “showing” that I had learned to avoid in one of my many 101 classes.
I don’t know yet where I will go from here. I’m still licking my wounds, and dread the thought of blowing up the whole story and starting over. And I still refuse to write a silly category romance with a lot of phony tension and battles between the sexes. But I did succeed in writing non-formula love stories in my first two books. I have lots of fans from those books asking me when my next book is coming out.
My husband would be thrilled if I gave up writing, as it takes me away from “us” for long periods of time. Part of me would love to just leave it behind – surely there are more productive ways I could spend my time?
But every time I think about that, it feels like an amputation. I am a writer. I’ve been a writer since I was a child when I made up stories to get my baby brother to eat his vegetables. I loved doing term papers in school. I sought out opportunities to write throughout my health care career. Removing writing from my life would be like cutting out a vital organ, or a piece of my heart.
So I need to let all this gel a bit.
This bashed manuscript was not well-conceived and really out of my comfort zone. That was part of the appeal of writing it. But it taught me a lesson. Work from your strength. Use what you do well. Maybe experiment a bit once in a while, but stay the course.
Maybe I will go back through the manuscript and see if there are parts I can use toward another women’s fiction. Ideas are already ping-ponging in my head. I’m trying to stop them because I know I should step back and take an objective assessment of what I want to do with the rest of my life. But I think I already know.
I am a writer.