I [used to] pride myself on how well I could take criticism. My work used to be posted on FictionPress for all the world to see, and sometimes it felt like all the world did see it. Many reviews glowed, but others critiqued. I like to think that early on I built up a tough skin to criticism, but those reviews were coming from ‘anonymous’, people I’ve never met. It’s totally different when critiques come from friends.
That’s been a lesson I’ve learned over the past two years I’ve been with Let The Words Flow. For the first time I had experienced, industry-knowledgeable writers judging my work. The usual tricks didn’t work with them. Instead they shattered my blinders and showed me how to see my work for what it really was.
And I did not like it.
For example, the zombie story. It was finished, I was in love with it, thought it was beautiful and scary and compelling, etc. Off it went to the first CP. Oh yes, I assured her, it’s in great shape. I write really clean first drafts. I just have a question about one scene at the end. Take your time.
My CP came back with constructive criticism along the lines of: You have too many flashbacks, and it detracts from the story. I think you started in the wrong place. I think your characterization of these race relations was offensive.
And I thought she was wrong, wrong, wrong.
We had to have the flashbacks to make the reader care about this character. If we don’t know this character’s background she might as well just be Susie Cheerleader! Everyone’s always yelling about starting with action, so that’s what I did! I feel like this viewpoint is realistic and edgy, and I don’t want to censor myself because I’m white and ‘shouldn’t’ write across different races. Clearly people don’t get me. They don’t get what I’m trying to do. This is a character-study, not a paperback action book like that one piece of nonsense I saw in the bookstore the other day.
But I’ve read enough blogs and articles to know that a reaction like this is irrational. I read the in-text comments, and then the larger summaried stuff started to make sense.
Oh, I realized. She was right.
My CP’s suggestions really would make my book stronger. They really would help hold reader attention. I really did have to make these changes, even if I loved the book as it is. And this is what they mean by kill your darlings.
There’s a moment of surrender when you realize that you really will do anything to make your project a masterpiece. You will cut entire plot lines, characters, favorite scenes. You will change names and love interests and motivations. And you will do it for the story you love, because you want to one day share it with the world, because you really can retain the essence of the struggle, even if the details change to let that struggle shine through more clearly.
Recently Susan Dennard posted about ‘one book to rule them all’, and the concept was this: If you were only allowed to write and publish one book in your life, what would it be? What is your ultimate story?
And for me, the answer is Nameless. My first love, my baby. The story I’ve had with me for seven and a half years and I’m still ripping it apart at the seams and stitching it back up. I wrote the sleeping beauty story and the zombie story this year just to give myself some space from that project so I could recharge to tackle it again. And I think I’m finally ready.
I’m working on a new outline [again], tearing out all but the first third of the book and starting over. By now the characters and plots are like figures in a game of chess. I know how all the pieces move, but I’m still struggling with getting the moves in the right order to win the game. But with every draft I get closer.
My big moment of surrender came last year when my agent suggested rewriting the trilogy into a single book. At first, I cried. I felt hopeless, misunderstood. But fifteen minutes later, I got it. My agent was absolutely right. That was my first realization that I would do anything to publish this book. I cut 400,000 words down to 100,000. I cut beloved characters and scenes. To make it stronger.
That’s the moment I think about whenever I have to swallow a jagged little pill. Will these suggestions really make the book stronger? Will it improve the story, even if it hurts me? Do I have the strength to confront my flaws and correct them?