Monday, November 28, 2011

Monday Inspiration: Criticism

It may seem like an odd place to draw inspiration from. Odd but necessary, if you want to get anywhere. It is oh-so easy to tell yourself your writing is great and write a novel in a vacuum. Things get harder when you ask writing associates to critique your work and they come back with less than stellar reviews.

At first you don't want to even read all the comments. It's depressing. Then over time you think about them and realize there's a lot of value in what they said. After a few days you see how you can use that feedback to make some dramatic improvements and take your manuscript to the next level.

When you've been through all that, and polished things up as well as you can there's the gauntlet of finding an agent. If you make it that far it's easy to think you've got it made. A successful agent who makes a living by her eye for what will sell chose your manuscript out of the pile of thousands she receives every year. It's easy to get carried away at this point, imagining your book on the shelf next to some of your favorite authors. Imagining what the cover will look like. Chatting it up with fans at book signings... Ahh the life of a successful author.

I heard the author of The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon, on the radio talking about her first few months after being published. She had been nominated for a major Canadian award, but still hadn't got much money from the publisher so needed to keep her day-job working in Munro's Books in Victoria (yes, strangely enough, THAT Munro, Alice Munro's ex-husband). When a customer would bring her book to the checkout she'd offer to sign it for them. Inevitably the customer would frown, clearly thinking, "Crazy woman, why would I want you to sign my book?" She'd flip to the author's photo at the back, hold it up next to her face and try to copy her expression from the photo. The customer would redden and thank her kindly for signing the book and she'd get a giggle from the episode.

That's where the thoughts tend to run when you've got an agent. What kind of great anecdotes am I going to have when I'm a famous author?

Then your manuscript goes out to publishers, and you get feedback from an editor. It's the same process all over, but harder this time. You've probably lived with the book for a year or more now, so you're getting a bit tired of it. On top of that all your dreams of massive, rock-star success pile up in a train-wreck. One more hurdle to overcome. Another, higher bar has been set and the manuscript is not clearing it. Time to knuckle down and get back to work on it, knowing that even this is not the last edit. If you're lucky it's the penultimate overhaul of your manuscript, but if the changes are accepted it will still mean another round. Then several more rounds of minor revisions.

The only way to survive, at least for me, is to find inspiration in the critiques. I look at them and think about how much better the final product will be for all the advice and feedback I've received. Maybe I will get to be a writing rock-star one day, but I won't have done it alone. There will be a litany of people to thank for telling me what I got wrong, taking me down a peg when I needed it and inspiring me to do better.

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