We’ve all been there, felt that. We’ve finished something that we’ve poured our souls into. Spilled enough blood on it to warrant a transfusion.
We wait. We toss and turn. It’s in the hands of someone who needs to love it – an agent, an editor, a trusted friend.
Or worse, your proofreading significant other. Who is almost always right.
And then it happens.
It totally sucks.
That’s not what they’ll say, of course.
No, it’ll sound more like, “we have to talk.” There are major problems. It’s just not working. Tell me what you were thinking here.
What were you thinking?
Well, that it was the best you had in you. That it would launch your Big Career. That it would make someone at the New York Times Review of Books want your phone number. And that, while you are welcoming of feedback and expected to hear some stuff, you weren’t expecting a one-way ticket under the bus.
The news hits hard. Like, an IRS audit kind of hard. Like, maybe I’m kidding myself kind of hard.
But here’s the deal.
It might not be that bad.
Even if the critic is someone with more chops and credibility than Kirkus or Gene Siskel.
Really. It happens all the time. It’s really not that bad at all.
In my experience, critics need to justify themselves. They need to criticize. And, they have buttons that, if pushed, allow for no recovery.
It’s not that they’re wrong, in fact they usually aren’t. But what happens is when something doesn’t sit well with them, especially early in the story, the rest is rendered sour. They can’t get past it. Like someone from Fox News reviewing a speech at the Democratic Convention. Nothing is going to work after that first sound-bite.
A fly in the soup might validly send someone bolting from the dinner table. But it doesn’t mean the whole meal is a travesty, or that the recipe needs an overhaul.
It’s just a fly. Take it out and the whole nasty “it sucks” problem goes away.
I’ve lived this little literary nightmare several times.
A character is too flat. The setting isn’t vivid enough. There’s too much focus on the sex or the violence or the backstory.
Not all at once, mind you… all of these story-killing flies fluttering in the soup at once would indeed merit a stinker review. No, these were isolated little ditties of validly criticized minutia, out-of-synch moments, poor creative calls… all easily fixed.
That’s the thing to look for when someone says a story isn’t working. Is it true, or is it something that is easily fixed?
It’s critical that you drill down beneath the psychology – which manifests as blindness after the shocking explosion of a single moment of distaste – behind the criticism. Is the color of the house all wrong, even though the place is otherwise an architectural palace? Is the meal perfectly scrumptious even though it’s served on cracked china? Is the story stellar even though the main character isn’t as witty and charming as he or she could be? Or that they swear too much?
Or maybe the whole thing really does suck.
It’s your job to make that call.
Just as it was your call to create those narrative details in the first place, it’s your job to decide what to do with such input. It should always be considered, but it should also always be broken down and evaluated.
The total shambles that you turned in might be salvaged with a twenty-minute tweak. That’s happened to me, too, and more than once.
Turn a few screws, tighten down a few details, slap on a new coat of paint… and miracles can happen. You turn it back in, all buffed up and humbled before the genius input of your critic, and you just might hear raves.
Because it was the critic who saved it. Of course it was.
In which case, you can just smile and say thank you in the knowledge that no story is perfect out of the printer. You don’t have to reveal that it was always just a spit-shine away from being every bit as good as you thought it was all along.
As writers we live and die with such decisions.
Fixing what isn’teally broken can sometimes be the worst one you can make.