Writers’ Tears

I recently finished the second draft of my novel, The Silvergreen Sea, a full six weeks ahead of schedule, just in time to go off on holiday to the South of France. Hooray! Celebration! Get out the champers!
Once the initial jubilation fades, it’s time to think about what happens next. And – oh dear – what happens next is the most terrifying part of the whole writing process. Giving the manuscript to another human being to read. Aargh! Can’t I just lock it away on my hard drive, never to be seen by another pair of eyes? Well, I suppose I could do that, although it seems a little self-defeating. After all, isn’t this what I want, isn’t this the whole point – not just to write, but to be read?
Well, yes. But. Handing over the book to someone else can be pretty nerve-wracking, even if it’s someone you trust. The essential problem for the amateur scribbler, of course, is that anyone you can cajole/bribe/emotionally blackmail into reading your book will inevitably have a vested interest in keeping you happy, and so there’s always a doubt that they will be entirely honest. My husband – long after the fact – confessed that when he started reading my first book, he was terrified that he’d hate it and not know how to tell me. Luckily, either he enjoyed it, or he’s a remarkably good liar playing a very long game. This time round, there’s more confidence, on both sides: he’s confident I can deliver a decent read, and I’m confident he’ll give me his honest opinions on anything he doesn’t like.
Oh dear. Honest opinions. Every writer’s greatest desire, and greatest fear. We want absolute honesty, but only if you loved it. The writing process is a very solipsistic one, and after spending many hours locked away in your own very carefully constructed castle in the air, it can be difficult to come back down to earth and be told that your character motivations are unclear and your chapter transitions too abrupt – and by the way you’ve used dashes when you should have used commas, and vice-versa.
How should the writer respond to criticism? Well, there’s any number of possible options. Crying uncontrollably. Sulking. Arguing with your reader – ‘I think you’ll find if you read more carefully you’ll see that was foreshadowed near the beginning of Chapter 3’. Ignoring the criticism – after all, what do they know, they’re not an artist! – and listening only to your muse. These options are all possible, but none of them is remotely constructive, and some may result in permanently falling out with your long-suffering reader. If you want to derive something helpful from the process, there is only one way to deal with criticism.
Suck it.
That’s right, suck it all up, take it on the chin and get over yourself. Listen carefully to everything the reader has to say, and don’t try to argue with them. So they didn’t appreciate your plot twist? So they didn’t much like your main character? Well, so be it. Maybe your plot twist is stupid and your character is insufferable. Maybe not. But the point is, you’ve got an opportunity here: your reader has given you the precious gift of an honest opinion, before the book is unleashed on the world, and you still have the chance to make some changes.
And of course, if they say nice things, you can bask in the smug joy of having created a thing of beauty. And, if someone is prepared to tell you the bad things, you know that when they say good things, they mean them. Honest praise – the most precious thing of all.
I’ve also found that my latest read, Misery by Stephen King, has been very good at putting things in perspective. Hey, so my husband found fault with some parts of my book! At least [SPOILERS] I’m not being held prisoner by a raving psychopath who’ll burn my manuscript and amputate assorted body parts if she doesn’t like what I’ve written.
Now to start thinking about that third draft…

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