Ye Olde Gut Kick

Diana Pharaoh FrancisDiana Pharaoh Francis
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Ever written something you really liked only to have someone tell you it’s not right/good/perfect/delightful? yeah, that happened to me. Yesterday, in fact. It’s crushing. It always is. And it’s part of the daily world of writers. I hate that part. But the truth is, that’s why agents and editors exist–to tell you what you need to improve your writing. While it’s hard to hear, at the same time, it’s necessary to improving craft.

It’s not that the entire piece was wrong. Just most of it.  Heh. Really though, the conversation was really constructive and taught me a lot about where I need to go with this project. I’m going to have to tear it down to the ground, and some things will still work as is, and some will be able able to be recycled later, but essentially it’s a complete rebuild. It’s a little daunting, but also exhilarating. I love this project. It’s fun. I’ll have as much fun rewriting as I did with the initial drafting. I look forward to it.

The thing is this. When someone gives you news you don’t like about your work, it’s going to hurt. Accept it. Eat some chocolate and pour a shot of scotch, maybe two or four. Wallow. Weep. Snuggle the dog and watch a couple episodes of Devious Maids, Firefly, Farscape, or Duck Dynasty. When that’s done, pull yourself up, get to your computer or wherever you write, and start thinking this through. You always get to be in control of your writing, but let’s face it, others can have an experienced eye and a perspective that can and will improve your work–if you let it.

That doesn’t mean throw everything out and stop trusting yourself or your voice. But try to see what it is you want to do and how you want to do it and how you missed the mark with what you did. Then salvage what you can and rebuild and re-envision what your want to do and go for it.

We all need that gut check/gut kick. Like it or not, pain is part of the process. Don’t just accept it. Embrace it.

By way of a bit of shameless self promotion, anyone in the Portland Area tonight, I’ll be reading as part of the SFWA Pacific Northwest Reading series with Laura Anne Gilman and Irene (Phyl) Radford. More info here. I’d love to meet you if you can make it!

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12 comments to Ye Olde Gut Kick

  • ‘Tis the season ::wry grin:: It took me three posts to write about the pain of receiving a critique, but you get it one good kick! Good luck with your revisions!

  • Amen. That gut kick can be paralyzing. I speak from experience. I think I might print this post and tape it to my monitor. <3

  • Ken

    I havent been there yet. Still have around 35k words left in the WIP then the revising…and then I need to show it to people :o That part feels like I’m staring at an oncoming train. Maybe the Gut Kick wont be that bad. Maybe it will be worse than I thought. Either way, thanks to posts like this and others, I know that no matter how hard it hits, I can get back up and keep going.

  • Ack. Yeah, that happened to me yesterday over my query letter. So far I’ve been enjoying (mostly lurking at) WriteOnCon, the free online writers’ conference happening yesterday and today, and now I’ve got a few more tweaks to make. It didn’t help that the first person to comment was rather negative-sounding, but the rest made some good points! I think how that gut-punch is delivered matters, too.

    Have a great time tonight!

  • Nathan Elberg

    How do you know when you deserve ye olde gut kick, or when it’s just a matter of taste?
    I sent a short story to my paid editor for revision, and he sent it back virtually untouched, saying it’s great. He refused to charge me. When I started submitting it, I got comments to the effect that the main character was a psychopath. This was a real kick in the gut because the MC is also the MC of my novel. The short story was published in an online journal that specialized in strong female characters. They understood why the MC planted poisonous flowers in the park, offered to castrate her boss, killed a man, etc.
    Sometimes the gut kick is coming from the entirely wrong direction, and shouldn’t touch you. How can you know the difference?

  • I think how that gut-punch is delivered matters, too.

    I agree. I’ve always said there’s a line between constructive and destructive criticism. Unfortunately, not everyone knows where that line sits. There’s always room for improvement in a work and good criticism can help with that, even if it does sometimes suck to hear that your word baby isn’t as beautiful as you might see it. It’s when that crit seems more geared to tear you down than help you that it turns to the destructive. When I hear someone say, “I just tell it like it is” I hear in my head, “I have no tact or empathy and I’m expecting you to deal.” ;) You can still give a good critique without tearing a piece down. There’s always good and bad in a work and both should be mentioned to both soften the blow of the things that didn’t work and to show the writer what they’re doing right. And at the end of the day, we can’t satisfy everyone. There are going to be those that plain dislike the work for one reason or another, but that’s just the nature of the beast.

    I’m a lot less “knee-jerk” than I used to be with critiques. Then again, I’ve always been very laid back in my attitude (though as I get older, I’m finding that I’m cultivating my inner curmudgeon ;) ) and I tend to take critiques and such in stride. I just keep thinking that, even if I don’t necessarily agree with everything there, it can help me see and fix things that I might have missed. I guess I’ve learned to roll with the punch, so to speak.

  • Gut kick. I hate it. I’ve always hated them all. But they do help. And they are often the difference between a career and a … nothing.

  • PS — Nathan, From my perspective, there are 2 ways of looking at this.
    1. If the gut kick comes from someone who doesn’t read the genre you write then Ignore it. It has no value. If you write horror and the editors don’t read horror, then ignore it. But if the gut kick comes from someone into what you write, then listen. And go with your kicked gut.
    2. Did your query letter explain who your character was so they understood what you were writing toward? SOmetimes it’s the way we offer our work that is not quite right. Just as a consideration.

  • Nathan Elberg

    The kick came from someone respected in the genre, who read the whole short story and concluded the MC was a psychopath. I made a few minor changes as a result, but the editor who loved it enough to publish it, read the story differently. The incident reminded me again about how much depends on the taste and even the mood of the reader.

  • Mindy and Misty: altogether now–primal scream!!!

    Ken: that’s what makes a writer. Getting up and keeping going. Pretty much makes for survival in any situation. Keep going!

    Laura: I hope you can make good revisions!

  • Nathan: That is a good question, worthy of its own post and I may take that up more in my next post. But until then . . . You have to try to distance yourself and see whether you can see the merit in the feedback. It isn’t always right. More, sometimes your readers are pinpointing a problem and will say look, the problem is here, fix it here! But maybe the real problem is earlier or with another character. What your reader is telling you is where s/he first noticed it. A lot depends too on how well you can trust the source. Are they skilled? Do they understand the conventions of the genre? For your main character, I would consider first the emotional connection the reader can make to the story. With a psychopath, it’s very hard to make the connection–an emotional one–to the story. That may be the critical point for you. When I think psychopath, that’s the first place I go.

    As to how do you know the difference–if the piece isn’t selling, if it isn’t finding its audience, then you know something is off. Even if you believe in it fully, it isn’t getting there and there has to be a reason. But, and this is a big but, finding the correct fix is critical.

  • Daniel: I try to tell people I’m blunt. I do that because even though I work hard at tact, at the same time, I want to get to what needs fixing. I do point out good, but sometimes people are so attached to their work, they can’t hear the critique. That said, I do agree. It has to be constructive and in terms of–for me, this doesn’t work here. I’m not connecting to . . . In other words, it’s my reaction. I have a skilled and experienced reaction and hopefully that carries weight, but at the same time, it’s my reading of the thing and it has to be about what makes the story better. That can be tough.

    Faith: join Misty and Mindy and I in our Primal Scream!

    Faith: yes to both of those responses.

    Nathan: is the character a psychopath? And why did the editor think so? If not a psychopath, what could you do to humanize her? Make her more sympathetic/more connected emotionally to the reader? I think reading between the lines he sees someone who is too cold, too unemotional, detached, too focused on killing or violence without caring about the fallout with not a sufficient reason driving her to make the reader connect. That’s a bit of a rambly/babbley sentence, but hopefully it makes sense.