Before you read this post, please note: A reader brought it to my attention that she thinks it sounds like I’m not willing to take critique, here. That is not my intention.
I love critique. I will always listen to critique, because I know I’m not perfect and I need help to make my writing better. That’s not what this post is supposed to be about. It’s also not supposed to be about me saying that there is anything wrong with my critique partners–between their opinions or the ways they critique–because there is nothing wrong with them. I love them. I love it when they’re sassy or thoughtful or sweet or any combination of the three. Me writing this post has nothing to do with a problem with them and everything to do with a problem with me.
I got so scared of making a mistake, recently, that I could no longer tell whether a decision was right or not.
This post is supposed to be about me learning that my voice matters just as much as everyone else’s–that my novels should ultimately reflect the style and ideals that I want them to–and that I, as a writer and individual, need to learn to trust my own instincts, sometimes.
That does not mean I will not take critique. That does not mean I’m not willing to rewrite scenes and revise plot lines and work with someone else to make my writing stronger. It just means that I’m learning to bring myself into the equation, as well. If I disagree with a suggestion, I’m going to bring it to the other person’s attention, and work with them to come up with something that we both agree on, rather than blindly following what they tell me to.
Critique is good, dear reader. But it’s all about how you interpret it. And that is the point of this post.
I really don’t know how much of all of this I should be saying. And by “all of this” I mean “talking about the revisions I’ve spent the past month doing on CADENCE.”
I wasn’t planning on talking about the revisions at all, actually, but Wednesday felt like a perfect time to mention them. And, here I am again, two days later, writing another blog post.
Because while I wasn’t planning on talking about them, right now I feel like I need to.
I finished my own changes to CADENCE on Saturday. They involved lots of rewriting, cutting and condensing and adding scenes, and attempting to deal with my apparent obsession with dialogue tags (I have no idea WHY there were so many dialogue tags in CADENCE up until this point, but I cut about a thousand words worth of them during line edits last week). Then I sent the manuscript off to four critique partners, all of whom I would trust with my life, and therefore I trust with a red pen.
The first critique landed in my inbox just a few hours after pressing send: CP Numero Uno loved the novel, loved the changes I had made (she and CP #2 had both read an earlier draft, back right before I began querying) and had very minimal suggestions for improving it.
The next day, CP #2 sent me her critique of the first few chapters, with the same sorts of suggestions: “Oh, there’s a typo here, an awkwardly worded sentence there. Maybe add something to further flesh-out what you’re saying in this paragraph?”
–All in all, those are the kinds of critiques I live for, because they mean I must be doing something right. They give me confidence in my decisions as a writer, and make me feel like my “maybe, someday I’ll be good enough to be published” pipe dream isn’t all that much of a pipe dream after all. I happily implemented my CPs’ suggestions and tucked the manuscript away for when the critiques from my other two CPs–the ones who hadn’t read CADENCE before–began appearing in my inbox.
The next couple days passed in a whirl of WriteOnCon and relaxing with books that have already been published (because, believe me: you get tired of reading ones you need to edit, after a while). Then Thursday came, and with it the next wave of critiques.
And Critique Partners Numberos Tres & Cuatro were not nearly as glowing as the first two.
Now, don’t get me wrong: neither CP #3 or 4 were mean or rude or ANYTHING of the sort in their critiques. These girls are awesome, and they really have just been giving me the tough love treatment I ask my critique partners to hit me with. However, their tough love also involved comments on rewriting scenes, restructuring whole chapters, and other major overhauls that made me want to simultaneously vomit my heart out and throw my laptop against hard surfaces. Like concrete, from the top of a very tall building.
I trust my critique partners with all my being. I know they just want what’s best for my novel. There’s a reason I chose these particular four people, out of the more-than-a-dozen who volunteered to read CADENCE without my even asking*, to be my CPs.
But as I sat alone in my room freaking out last night about which comments to take seriously, and which ones to disregard as we-write-different-styles opinion, and which ones to take into consideration but ultimately not act upon right now, it occurred to me that I’ve been spending so much time trusting my critique partners’ judgement–trying to make the novel what they want it to be–that I’ve stopped trusting my own.
As much as I love my CPs and want to make them happy, what’s ultimately important, with CADENCE, is making myself happy. It needs to be the story I want to tell, the way I want to tell it. And if I don’t agree with one of their suggestions, I should trust my own judgement enough to make a decision on how to handle it.
It’s hard to swallow, but it’s true. This is not something to rely on other people to figure out. If they don’t like something that I’m doing stylistically, or they don’t like my plot or narrator’s voice, oh well. It’s not for them to decide. It’s my responsibility.
I don’t know if it gets easier, when you’re older, to look at these sorts of things and go, “Okay. I value your opinion. But since this is my novel, ultimately I need to value mine more.” Maybe it’s just because I’m nineteen years old and everyone always talks about putting others first. But it’s difficult to look at something and truly believe that my opinion matters more than–or even just as much as–someone else’s.
And I’m working on that. When it comes to me, when it comes to my own personal work, my opinion needs to matter, above my friends’ and family’s and colleagues’. I have the final say in what happens with my writing for a reason. While most of the time it’s good to put others before me, this is one situation where it’s important to put myself first, because CADENCE is my novel. I need to take ownership of it. I’m the only one who can.
So yes, it’s important to listen to and respect my lovely, wonderful, brilliant critique partners (you have no idea how much I love you guys). But it’s also important to look at some of their suggestions–like rewriting my opening paragraph because it didn’t grab CP #4 enough, despite the fact that none of the other CPs had problems with it–and say, “You know what? This opening paragraph has been working just fine for me so far. It’s gotten me requests from literary agents. I like my opening paragraph and I worked really hard on it. At least for now, I’m not going to change it.”
Someday down the line, I may rewrite that opening paragraph anyway. But for now, these opinions on CADENCE are just that: Opinions. Not law I need to follow. And they’re coming from only a couple of readers (most of whose advice has been oh-so-helpfully contradicting one another’s), out of what will hopefully someday be many (knock on wood).
It’s time to stop listening to what everyone else wants CADENCE to be, and focus on making it my own instead.
Everyone in the publishing industry is always talking about how you need a thick skin in order to take rejection and critique and reviews. But I think there’s also something to be said about knowing when to look someone in the eye and say, “No.” There’s something to be said for standing up for yourself, against your own doubts and fears; in trusting your own judgement.
I will never be able to please everyone with my writing, but at the least I should be able to please myself.
Of course I’m going to listen to my CPs about some things–like maybe how a sentence reads awkward or a paragraph needs a little more fleshing out or a sequence is confusing. But otherwise, it’s time to start listening to my own judgement. It’s time to start believing in and backing my own decisions. Because at the end of the day, this novel isn’t theirs. It’s mine.
One of my major fears, last night, in deciding what to do about these not-so-glowing critiques, was trying to figure out how I would feel over CADENCE being rejected, based on whether I took the suggestions or not. If I took them and agents rejected me, would I feel like I’d sold out? What would those what-ifs be? “What if I hadn’t listened to my CPs? Would the agents have still rejected me if the novel was more my own?” But what if I didn’t take the suggestions, and they rejected me then? “What if I had listened? What if the agent had preferred the plot to go in that other direction instead?”
I will never know how this whole thing would have turned out if I’d decided to rewrite parts–and possibly most–of CADENCE, based on the conflicting, confusing reactions of my critique partners. But it’s not something I should worry about.
I would much rather have an agent reject me for something I’ve consciously done on my own terms than accept me for something that no longer feels like it’s mine.
This story isn’t over yet. I don’t know how it’ll turn out, where it’ll end. Maybe it’ll be a happily ever after, and maybe it’ll be yet another dead end on the path to publication. But either way, it’s time to start trusting myself again.
I don’t know which is worse, jumping blindly or jumping with your eyes wide open. And I’m not exactly sure which I’m about to do.
But I’m tired of being afraid. I’m tired of not trusting my own judgement and trying to please everyone else, even at the detriment of my own happiness.
So I’m going to jump. And I’m not looking back.
*If any of you are reading this, by the way, I want to give you a massive hug, because you’re great and I love you and I’m so thankful for having you in my life. (But no, you’re not getting a copy until it gets published. And that “until” should be read as a very big “unless.”)