On discouragement

Writing is in large part dealing with discouragement. And uncertainty. The two things that we must face are discouragement and uncertainty. And poverty. The three things – hang on, I’ll come in again.

Last night I took a recent batch of words to my wonderful critique group (of which, for my sins, I am Chair) and I got them critiqued. And it was a discouraging experience. Nary a positive thing was said. And on my way home I was considering all my excuses, of which a sample I shall here present for you:

  • I didn’t set the scene properly
  • I chose the wrong scenes to present
  • There are many characters and not enough time (with a 1,500 word cap) to draw distinctions between them
  • The scene is fragmentary and involves multiple points of view – and, indeed, is part of a very complex novel
  • It’s in a genre that few others in the group are familiar with
  • They know I’m a decent writer and so they don’t feel they have to bolster me with praise
  • It was a linking section and so not much actually happened

Excuses. All excuses. And I’ve no idea how much merit any of them have. Almost as soon as I thought these things I was countering with:

  • These people are good writers, wordsmiths I respect; if they say something doesn’t work then it doesn’t work
  • A good piece of writing should stand on its own without context
  • Gaiman’s quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

So: discouragement. For just about the first time I came away from a meeting wondering what the point of it all was: why am I struggling to produce something that’s just not working? If I can’t create tension in quiet scenes then I’ve got nothing worthwhile at all. Quiet, building scenes are the most common in my novels and it’s a skill that needs to be mastered.

But my heart, my instincts are telling me that these scenes will work. When they’re placed in context, when we’ve had the full build-up of the novel to develop the characters and their voices, then this will come alive. I have to believe that. Sure, the writing needs improvement. I can sharpen the dialogue and the action and bring the characterisation alive. This is a first draft. Of course it’s not going to be perfect. I’ve written before (at least once) about the unimportance of words in this context, and I still believe that I’m right.

So I am upon the horns of a dilemma. I can’t allow myself to ignore criticism as that way lies arrogance and a failure to grow as a writer. But, frankly, I think that my group is wrong. My novel will work. This will work.

As a writer you need to be able to accept criticism and rejection and sometimes you’re going to hear things that hurt and sometimes you’re going to be left thinking ‘this person just doesn’t get it.’ But if you’re hearing the same thing over and over – the same specific suggestions, the same problems highlighted – then you really do need to look hard at your work and your skills. But you need at the same time to have a little faith in yourself.

As for me, I’m going to ignore this discouragement for now and crack on. There’s plenty of time for agonising in the second draft. But in order to have a second draft you must complete the first. And that’s what I’m off to work on now.

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5 thoughts on “On discouragement

  1. I, too, belong to a tough critique group, and I’ve gone through many of the same emotions you describe here. I rarely have an easy session with the group, but the astute comments I receive have helped me immensely. The problem with submitting a novel piecemeal to a group like this is that they don’t get to envision the whole. That is why you must take their comments seriously, but not too seriously. Use the criticisms that make sense, but don’t lose sight of your own vision.

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    • You’re absolutely right; I’m in another group that does whole manuscript evaluation and that’s much better for this sort of thing. Still, it’s frustrating. As you said, comments need to be taken seriously but not too seriously. The plan’s to finish this draft (draft zero) and then look through the whole damn thing with a better eye for character and context

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  2. Hey Rob,

    Two thoughts on this.

    1. Group feedback is kind of a snapshot in time. Of both the state your draft was at the time you read it but also the feelings and emotions of the people that constituted that particular group at a particular time. Sometimes your raw material can resonate with the people in the room, other times it just doesn’t work. Take heart in the fact that you shared it, take the pieces of advice you can work with and move forward from there.

    2. Write to please just one person. You’ll never please everyone, so take group comments just as another means of helping you develop. Ultimately, the key people are your editor or the key peers that you trust to share your raw thoughts with. Often showing work too early is beset with risks as people may not ‘get’ what you’re trying to share, tear it down mercilessly and leave you feeling a bit crappy.

    Knowing the group I’m sure nothing harsh was intended, it just goes that way sometimes. So, chin up old son and keep moving forward.

    All the best

    Chris

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    • Thanks Chris! You’re absolutely right, and it’s lovely to hear from you. Hope the small people are well and happy and you’re managing to get some sleep; any chance you’ll be back at AW before too long?

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  3. Pingback: The critic’s black heart | A Writer's Life

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