Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Hell Of A Catch

Here is the problem.

I have begun work on the eleventh draft of the novel.

The last two drafts stalled out after the first act due to my lack of confidence in my work.

Here is the Catch-22 of my situation:

This work is so odd, and so personal, that I have come to be very, very sensitive about it. Critiques that fail to understand what I'm doing have become actually painful for me to deal with.

This is not how I think of myself reacting to criticisms. I have an iron hide, damnit!

But I don't. Not now. This book is an open wound, and I'm stitching it shut by writing it. I don't need anyone poking around in there!

But! But!

If I don't get regular feedback and praise, I lose confidence, my will to perform shrivels, and I work less and less, and then...


It looks kind of gross to me, but there it is. I need to figure out how to get regular doses of praise that will keep me interested in working on the novel, while not getting any critiques that trigger my overdeveloped defensiveness about the quality of my work.

Here is one thought.

At this point, I've written a volume's work of short fiction. Short fiction does not sell; publishers do not like it.

I'm very curious about self-publication.

Perhaps I should start going through my back catalog, revising weak works and compiling strong ones, and put together a collection. Do a story every week, every other week, while I work on the novel.

But what if I can't do both at the same time? What if interactions based on the short fiction don't bring energy to the novel?

I've got to do something. Any ideas?


Neil Vogler said...

I can empathise with this, as it happens. This comment has run a little long, so it's going to have to be in two parts.

I'm going to give you the advice that I myself wouldn't want to hear:

The critiques that don't understand the true nature or value of your work are important. Because in all likelihood, those critiques are going to be representative of the views of a disproportionately large amount of your final readership.

Ultimately, an alarming amount of your readers just won't get it. They'll skim over the bits that you laboured for months perfecting. They'll misread lines, and miss a lot of the nuances. They will not retain key details of character and setting. The true richness and scope of your text will be lost on them, and the meanings and double meanings and references and ultimate worth of the prose will be secondary to whether or not they "enjoyed" the book enough to finish it and were caught up in the sweep of the characters and story.

However, it’s one thing to know this. It’s entirely another to come to terms with it. It’s even harder when you’re still in the process of finishing a manuscript. Because a decent compliment will sustain your for about half a day. But every negative criticism burns for weeks.

They should definitely be listened to, these critiques. After all, it's good to know how your novel reads on a bare bones, you-missed-the-point-but-still-finished-it level. But you should not give these crits undue credit and allow them too much influence, unless upon analysis you find that your gut agrees with them.

And speaking of burning, I believe that in the end that’s what it comes down to. If your story is burning brightly and painfully enough in your head and heart and guts and balls, then you’ll finish your novel whatever happens. Whatever criticism comes your way, you’ll find a way to navigate past it. Because either it’s essential to your mental and spiritual survival that this story be finished and done with and out there, or it isn’t.

Personally I only want to read essential works. I’ll take passion projects any day of the week, even if I ultimately misread or misunderstand them and fail to grasp the true weight of what a writer was trying to do. It’s fucking passion I’m interested in.

But yeah, I well understand it’s different when the book is done and available for readers. Once your work is over, it’s easier to deal with the people that don’t comprehend what you were aiming for. Once it’s complete and out there, it’s too late to suffer a crisis of confidence and pull the plug.

I used to very prissy about showing people any works-in-progress, precisely for the reasons you’ve outlined. I’ve got better with it now, but it’s been a long and lousy road. I’m having to learn and then remind myself to re-learn over and over that criticism has value, but that I should never place a disproportionate amount of importance on that criticism. With my work, yes of course I’m concerned what people will take away from it, but in the final analysis the only opinion that matters is mine. Either I can stand to read it and stand by it or I can’t. If I can’t stand to read it or stand by it then I have no business showing it to anyone in the first place.

Regarding the short stories, I say do it. Publish them. Don’t do it for the possible praise or recognition, though. Do it for the sheer thrill of getting your stories into the minds of strangers, and allowing them to take on a life outside of your influence. I’d wager that thrill will be enough to propel you onward through your current project.

Neil Vogler said...

Part two:

I would say two more things. Firstly, if you need compliments to keep you going (and who doesn’t?), I know from experience that you’re in for a very rough ride. What you really need someone who is deeply enthusiastic about your stuff and believes in you by your side, and you need to trust their opinion. I’m lucky, because I have a couple of very good advocates. I imagine you have one or two of these people in your life too. Take strength from them, and believe them when they tell you your work is good. Then cling to them when someone else is flinging shit your way.

OK, I'm nearly done. Lastly: hurry up and finish this book, Sean. I want to read it.

Sean Craven said...

Thank you very much, Neil. Dead on.

I think what I'll do is complete the first act and give it to them all at once. That way I'll hopefully have enough momentum to keep going while they work on that, and then we'll go back to our regular patterns of submission.


mirandasuri said...

You could write something else. If this novel is too personal and raw, put it away for a couple of years until you're ready to deal with (and responses to it) and come back to it. For now, maybe write a new novel, perhaps one that doesn't have so much that is personally intimate about it (for you).

Sean Craven said...

Hey, Miranda!

Well, it's pretty much a specific type of comment that sets me off. "Why don't you put those two characters together? Why don't you make the bad guy more of a real bad guy?" That kind of stuff. The actual difficult personal issues are, uh, easier. So I'm just running this through my Wednesday group.

13,313 words as of this evening...