Okay, So What Did I Learn about NOT Writing a Failed Novel?

I’ve already written about some of the things I learned: Listen to your characters. Assume that you’ll be the one bailing when the ship starts to sink. Be in a position to pull out (e.g., have a day job) if there’s no hope: you gain nothing by having a bad book to your name. Use the resources available to you if you’re lucky enough to have some: for example, if dangerous channels need to be navigated, let your agents steer; that’s what you’re paying them for. Give editors the benefit of the doubt (just as you should your writing teachers: writing—and figuring out what to tell people about their writing—is HARD).

But here are Nos. 1, 2, and 3:

  1. Get feedback
  2. Get feedback
  3. Get feedback

Of course, that lesson learned begs several questions.

  • Where can you get this magical feedback?
  • Can feedback really make your book work?
  • What is good feedback? How can you recognize it?
  • Should you be a slave to feedback (after all, it is your book)?

One thing at a time.

How to get feedback? I’m offering my experiences, interested in hearing from others. Maybe you’ve been where I have, maybe you’ve been somewhere better. I haven’t yet participated in online groups; when I do (soon), I’ll report on that.

In the meantime, I’ve previously written about face-to-face writing groups, their virtues and limitations—especially for a novelist. It helps to speculate as well that a writing group can get too large. Yesterday ten people instead of the usual six or seven showed up for our regular three-hour session. People voluntarily cut their submissions in half, but we barely had time to nibble around the edges of what we wanted to say. But most cities have multiple writing groups, each with a different culture. I’ll never be without one again.

You can ask your colleagues to read for you: people whose expertise you recognize and whose views you respect—and who like the kind of writing you do and actually read in that genre. Beware: it’s terrifying. You’re asking a huge favor. Weeks go by. You hear nothing. Do you dare ask whether he’s had time to read? (Usually to be told, “I just haven’t had a chance yet,” a response conducive to two-way guilt trips, you for asking, him for letting you down.) Or did she hate the book and is trying to figure out how to tell you? If she did like it, where’s that ecstatic phone call telling you how wonderful you are?

That said, the best advice I’ve ever received has been from saintly readers like this. The adage that you should never ask your friends and relatives for their opinions on your work has not proved true for me. I seldom get specific directions from such sources: no “do this” or “do that,” though on the few occasions when I do, it’s specific and to the point. More often, I learn what my colleagues thought the book “was about,” what they thought of the people in it—who they connected with, who they found unsympathetic, who they considered unbelievable—where they got completely off the track I had so carefully laid out for them.

And best of all, over a good dinner and a couple of bottles of wine, they’ll tell me why. Why didn’t you like my protagonist? Why did the opening chapter fail to do the book justice? And the what questions: what did you need from me to understand this character’s motives the way I intended them? What did you need to know to visualize how the characters moved around in this setting?

There are the questions no agent or editor who has rejected you will ever answer. And sometimes not even if they’re accepted you. It doesn’t get any better than this. If you can take the pain.

If you’re a teacher, you can do what far too many composition professionals used to recommend: take your writing into class to show your students your own struggles with writing, so they’ll see that writing really is hard, and they’ll see your solutions. Bad, bad idea. (“She actually took class time to make us fix HER writing!!!) They’re not there for you. They’re there for them. If they want to read your writing, they’ll ask.

Finally, you can pay.

I have.

Not good. Next time: why not.

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Filed under Learning to write, Myths and Truths, Teaching writing, What Not To Do in Writing Novels, Working with editors, Writers' groups, Writing and teaching writing

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