The comments came in, and they were excellent. My readers took time to really think about the story, especially its complicated structure. Where did they fall into the "dream" of the book? Where did they fall out, get distracted or confused? I took all the pages, the emails, and I made a master list. These were the areas to look at more closely. Where I hadn't quite delivered what I wanted.
Of course, with feedback, especially feedback in quantity, there are some rules to keep your sanity. Extreme likes or dislikes are suspect. Opposing views cancel each other out. You look for repeating comments. What many people noticed is often worth your notice.
This is my fourteenth book, my second novel. I've been through the feedback rounds before.
The same thing always happens: I fall out of love with my story.
I turn a more critical eye on it. I stop enjoying the characters quite as much. I find holes in the plot. I think the setting is overblown, over-detailed.
It's a date gone bad, and gone on too long into the evening. I'm tired now. I want to go home.
Falling Out, Falling In
I'm telling you this story because (1) you may have been there, (2) you may be there now, or (3) you believe professional writers don't go through this. They do, we do. It's normal. The ego gets slammed, no matter how gentle the comments, how right-on the suggestions. It's not perfect? Really? You say this to yourself, never to anyone else; you wouldn't be that foolish. But it haunts you for a while.
It's like finding out something really bad about someone you love dearly. What do you do with this new knowledge, this new way of seeing them? Do you say, "Get lost," and move on? Because you know it's going to take some work to get the love back.
It took me about five weeks. The printed-out comments and the manuscript itself languished on my office shelf. I got busy with teaching, four new online classes and an all-day workshop in Boston. I started reading more--three books I loved, in different genres. I painted a bedroom wall sunshine yellow. I wrote letters (yes, still do that). I made soup. I didn't worry about the manuscript sitting and waiting for my verdict.
Well, yes, I did worry a little. I thought about it sometimes and felt a rush of anxiety. What if I never touched it again? What if I just stopped writing, forgot I am a writer?
Beyond the worry was trust. As I said, I've been here before. I know the ego needs a while to lick its wounds, to settle down. My perspective needs to realign. I need to fall in love with my story again--and that can't happen when I am only looking at its warts.
The reading was doing me good, anyway. Alice Munro's collection of short stories, Runaway. Brilliant. Claire Messud's novel The Woman Upstairs. Dani Shapiro's new book, Still Writing.
It was Dani who got me going again.
A few nights ago, I was reading her little book in the bathtub. It's about writing, how to keep writing. I had picked it up weeks ago and set it back down, not interested, but now it pulled at me. Truth all over the place. Just start, it said. Get back into it, one sentence at a time.
The next day, something had shifted inside. I was cleaning out some old teaching files and came across a writing exercise I loved. (I don't remember where it came from, whose class I learned it from. If you know, let me know--and credit is yours!) It follows this post. I found my last freewrite from this exercise. To my amazement, it was about this very novel that I was working on. I'd taken the prompts and created some backstory about one of the characters. As I read it, I fell in love! She's a great character, one of my favorites, one I've worked hard to even like. Cranky, fearful, and utterly charming.
My family went off to bed. I stayed up. I opened the manuscript on my laptop and began to read. Not half bad, I thought, getting interested. Then I took a deep breath and began reading through the feedback. An idea came, how to solve one of the questions. I began to type.
When I looked up again, it was two hours later. The house was silent, just me and the furnace clicking away. I closed my computer and went to bed.
The next morning, I was at it again. And so it's been, ever since.
I treat book relationships a lot like people relationships. You can get tired of each other. You can discover some nasty stuff, and still you can come back to an agreement: You're in this for the long haul.
Try this exercise, to celebrate Valentine's Day with your writing, if you wish.
Eightfold Writing Exercise
Choose a character or narrator in your current writing project, someone you'd like to get to know in a new way. Spend no more than five minutes freewriting on each of these prompts. Take them in order. Set a timer--it's easy to go over the five-minute limit, but the game is not to.
4. First criticism
5. Listening in
There's no right way to do this, no explanation of what any of these prompts mean. What do they mean to you? Where do they send your writing?