Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Our Words, Our Babies, Our Fears

Some years ago, I attended a writing seminar where the keynote speaker stated that our words are not our babies. After long and thoughtful consideration, I beg to differ. Our words may, indeed, be our babies in a number of ways.

We nurture them in our hearts, sometimes for nine months, sometimes longer. Giving birth—getting them down on paper or a hard drive—can be an easy delivery or a painful process. Words, scenes, and chapters may roll from our minds through our fingers with little effort, figments of our imaginations’ creative processes, or emerge from difficult experiences of family, friends, or selves. Pent-up emotions may surface unbidden, sending hot tears cascading down our cheeks as we relive painful, perhaps suppressed events and transfer them to our protagonist or another character. Bottom line: our words often come from deep within, and their birth in written form may remain attached by a literary umbilical cord that refuses to be cut.


What’s the result of this ongoing connection with our words? Our characters insert themselves in our emotional lives. Especially when a story reveals one or more painful experiences we endured, we may be vulnerable to criticism of our work on a much deeper level than when a tale doesn’t have such a personal link.

Negative feedback hurts in any case, but it’s easier to accept if our story has an external basis. It’s the criticisms that pick at our thinly scabbed wounds that have the ability to inflict devastating pain. Ironically, these may be our best works; however, they engender extreme fear because we feel exposed. Harsh words about our story become a personal attack because rapes, abuses, bullying, abandonment, etc., shape our lives and our interactions with others. We can control our characters—what they say, how they get their comeuppances, what they are allowed to do within the framework of our stories. We can provide help for antagonists’ victims, help we ourselves may have longed for but never received. We cannot, however, control the words of readers, editors, critics, or reviewers. This is terrifying.

Rising above such fear demands detachment and determination, neither of which comes easily. Yet our willingness to put our experiences out there in a fictional setting may help others who struggle with similar situations. Does this relieve our pain? For some perhaps—we all react differently. However, negative criticism of such personally inspired works opens old wounds. Fear can overwhelm us, perhaps even squelching a story that begs to be shared.

Many stories do not engender fright; but when they do, should a writer risk pain and fear for the sake of the story? For the sake of readers? Would you do it?

Editor Linda Lane has returned to her first love—writing—while maintaining her editing work. She also helps new and not-so-new writers improve their skills through posts on Blood Red Pencil and offers private tutoring as well as seminars online. You can contact her through her writing website, LSLaneBooks.com, which is currently being updated. Also, you can visit her editing team at DenverEditor.com to find experienced editors in a variety of genres to help you polish your book into a marketable work.

15 comments :

  1. I totally agree, Linda. I often think of my book-babies as such, especially since one book was written while I was pregnant and took even longer to birth than my human daughter ;-)

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    1. Without intending to express any gender bias, I believe women are more inclined to become emotionally attached to words and characters. Typically, men have been categorized as more logical and less emotional beings; while this many times may be the case, nearly all of us are endowed with elements of both emotion and logic. However, I don't know how this plays out with writers. You guys out there, what do you think? I'd love to hear your viewpoint on this.

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  2. Good post, Linda. I think we all can relate, and as much as we try to thicken our skin, the criticisms still sting just a bit. However, you are so right about the need to separate ourselves as much as we can. Not only to be able to accept constructive feedback from beta readers and editors,but also to be able to take a more critical look at the work ourselves. It has taken me many years to accomplish that, but I am able to do it, even though I wince at cutting out those glorious words I wrote. LOL

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    1. I cut 20,000 words out of my first book and still had to trim and tighten. It was a painful process. Today, like you, I am far less reluctant to get out the editorial shears and prune the fluff.

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  3. A dilemma! I like to think that I'm getting better about accepting criticism, but I think the truth of the matter is that I'm just more selective about who sees my work. An honest critique is still better than phony compliments, though.

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  4. I agree about the value of an honest critique. A young, unpublished writer (less than half my age) wrote a critique of my first novel, and she almost ended my writing career. She ripped it up one side and down the other, including whose story I "really wanted" to tell -- which was not the one I was telling. I was so devastated by her attack that I actually stopped working on the book for a time. Was the manuscript she read in tiptop shape? No. Was it a total disaster? No. Did it still need work? Yes, but it was the exact story I wanted to tell. Now, a decade and a half later, it's in the final stage of being refurbished and sent on its way to the printer under a new title. I did publish the original, but I never tried to market it after it had been so critically accosted. Needless to say, I, too, am now "more selective about who sees my work." I always welcome an honest critique because the beta reader (or whoever) sees it with different eyes. However, a barrage of daggers three pages long was not warranted.

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    1. Definitely not warranted, whether the reviewer was suffering from publishing envy or not. *scowl*

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    2. It was harsh, Audrey, but it taught me a valuable lesson. When I am editing a piece for another writer, I speak as a fellow author. My words will always be honest and often accompanied by an example or two of ways to improve a scene or paragraph -- along with a positive explanation of why that example works. Most of all, I strive never to be demeaning or unkind. We writers are often sensitive folks. When we convey that sensitivity through our stories/characters, we touch the hearts of our readers. In that process, however, we also bare our souls and become vulnerable. Honest criticism? Absolutely. Unkind words? Never.

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  5. I see a lot of courage in this post, Linda. When we write our truth, whether in the form of fact or fiction, we make ourselves vulnerable. As Robert Frost said, "No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader." It can be scary to be that exposed, but as writers we find it is the only way to express the best of ourselves.

    As for negative feedback, I think much unnecessary pain is inflicted by those who confuse criticism with honesty. When offering feedback, I've found it helpful to use language that takes personal responsibility for my reactions to someone else's writing. This gives the writer a greater choice about what to let in and what to let go. I find it takes no longer and is more helpful to say things like: "I feel a little lost in this section" or "I'm not sure I understand why xyz is important to this character," rather than something like "Your writing is confusing here," or "This character sounds ridiculous." Kindness works.

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    1. Great points about how to phrase feedback on another's work, Cara. I try to do the same in my critique group, and we always remind each other that we are there for honest feedback, not a pat on the head. Plus, we respect each other, no matter where we are on the published ladder.

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  6. Great post, Linda. I have two books that I put away for years, one a decade. Both took longer than the birth of my sons. I did a critique swap with someone, a guy, who hated my book so much that he couldn't fulfill the swap. That one really set me back, and I doubted the book. Another person didn't like the beginning, and I wondered if I could ever publish that book. But oh, how those two people crushed me. I deferred to other critique partners who assured me the book was good, but I suffered from self doubt for a long time. I eventually published it, and it is one of my favorite books. I have a very good relationship with my critique partner. We've worked together for years, aren't always gentle with each other, but it works for us, and we've both benefited from our relationship. It comes down to trust.

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    1. I want to be tough; but if I shut off my feelings, I may turn off my readers. You're right about trust. I, too, have a critique partner. We are absolutely up front with each other, but each of us trusts the other to know what is best for our stories. It's a great arrangement and has worked well for some years now.

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  7. I'm pretty sure I've shared this with BRP in the past, Linda ... but here it is again. I spent the greater part of my adult life cranking out words in a corporate environment and had many of my words 'killed' ... wordicide would be a better term ... by unfeeling professionals. To survive I had to learn how let those words go gracefully. When you've had someone hold up a script you've written and say, 'What's that smell (sniffs the script) ... why, it's coming from this!' And toss it on the ground ... then you learn to let go. At first, it wasn't easy ... but after a while I would just shrug and say, 'whatever you want, boss.'

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    1. Well done, Christopher. That kind of acceptance and humility helps to keep the pay checks coming. Has that lesson in letting go of criticism affected your ability to incorporate emotion in your writing? I really do wonder if men are typically different from women in this regard.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.

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