Monday, July 23, 2007

Owning Your Work (pt 1)

Getting comments and critique on your work is one of the most valuable ways to improve it. It's also something that you will have to deal with if you're planning on working with agents and editors. Finding the right balance between doing what's asked of you and putting your foot down is tough, especially when it could mean killing a deal (always a matter of last resort). There are two main questions you have to ask yourself when you look at a suggestion.

1, does is make the story better? If the answer to this is yes, you move on to question two. If it's no, you have to take a moment and think about why the suggestion was made (okay, so you should do that if it's a yes too, because you've just been offered a chance to learn something). I was going to talk about this in brief below, but I've discovered that it wants to be its own post on rewrites, so more on that later.

2, and potentially much harder to answer, does it advance the purpose of the story? This is the place where things go foggy and vary wildly depending on what sort of writer you are. If you've got the whole story in your head or in an outline and someone makes a good suggestion that doesn't follow along, you're posed with an immediate dilemma, go with the shiny new thing or stick to your outline. I've done both depending on the situation.

My very first short story sale involved taking the second half of a 6,000 word short and throwing it away to write a new ending. I've also looked at a beautiful idea and quietly (and somewhat sadly) put it aside. One of the few times I've really gotten hammered by a member of one of my writers groups (and rightfully so) was when I let myself slip and say that I wasn't going to do something at the time it was suggested. I had good intentions, but it was a breach of etiquette and absolutely the wrong way to handle the choice.

In general, if you're not going to take a suggestion, there's no reason whatsoever to tell the person who made it because it will only make them feel as though they've wasted effort. There are two exceptions to this. A, editorial/agent suggestions, in which case you discuss the problem the suggestion addresses and try to work out a comprise (more on this in the rewrite post). B, book length works where this person will be critiquing on an ongoing basis and where not taking the suggestion will have a significant impact on the reading of the story.

That latter was the case in the scene wherein I got hammered. I handled it the wrong way. What I should have done was shut my mouth and given myself a couple of days to think about it. Then, if I decided it still mattered (it would have in this case) I should have waited for the next meeting and spoken with the critiquer on an individual basis about why the (genuinely excellent suggestion) was incompatible with the novel I was writing.

What they wanted me to do would have made a good story, but it was a story that I had no interest in telling. The only way to stay sane in this business is to write what you love and love what you write. You are the one who is writing it and you are the one who's name goes on the byline--it has to be something you believe. You have to own the story.

So, does anyone have any thoughts on owning your work? Stories of critiques you loved but couldn't take? Critiques you later wished you had taken?


~ Mari said...

I no longer have his commentary - and I wish I did!! it was priceless - but John Urbancik in late 2005 gave me scathing marks on how I'd created and dealt with the main character in my first two books. For who and what she was, he said in essence, she was too weak, too sniveling, too emotional. Unfortunately, he never finished the second book. If he had, he would have seen her character grow, blossom into the person she was meant to be. I couldn't change her into something she wasn't at the end of the first book and BOOM there she was at the beginning of the second. It wouldn't have fit the story at all in many ways.

Stephanie Zvan said...

I just revised a story where I started to take a piece of fun advice (different setting) before I realized how many of the basic assumptions of my society it was going to change. Since the piece was largely about how the main character fit into that society (or didn't), I realized about 500 words in that taking the advice would mean taking the story apart and fitting it back together.

I might have done it anyway if I didn't know of a book that just came out in this unusual genre/setting combo. That makes the work the change would have taken quite possibly counterproductive. My fundamentally lazy core vetoed that one.

I've also set stories aside for a while when I've gotten critiques that pointed out a problem then offered me a solution I didn't want to take. Sometimes I've come back later and decided the proposed solution was better than anything I was going to come up with, and sometimes I've managed to find a solution I thought fit the "voice" of the story better.

I'd like to say I always at least try to find the problem behind the critique, but I'm more contrary than that. I do at least try never to say, "I love you and thank you for reading my rough, rough draft--but you're nuts." This is good, not only for relationship reasons, but because I have, more than once, had an a-ha moment at some point down the road when someone else phrased the same point in language I can relate to better.

Never saying I know better means never having to say, "Oops. Uh, you wanna critique another?"

Kelly McCullough said...

Mari, was that a published review? Or a personal one?

Steph, excellent story on the "small" change front. I've been there-you think, that's cool, but then you start to work on it and...

Anonymous said...

Mari, was that a published review? Or a personal one?

It was a requested critique.

Kelly Swails said...

Critiquing can be a lot of fun when it comes down to brainstorming ideas. "You know what would be cool? If you did this, this and then this! Can you imagine?"

Getting critiques can infuse the writer with new passion. I'm basically an instinctive, touchy-feely writer, so I like to take the "excitement" level for a piece of advice into account. As in, if the suggestion gets me all "Oh, my God! That's awesome, I'm so doing that!" and I want to sit down right away and write, well, it's probably a good idea. If I go, "Um. Hmm. Well. I don't know...," then it might be a great idea but it's probably not right for me or the story I'm trying to tell. That's been my experience, anyway.