Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When Loved Ones Don't Love Your Books

About fifteen years ago, I sent my mom a copy of my manuscript – my very first novel. It was 973 pages long, and was, looking back, pretty much a mess. At the time, however, I thought it was perfect, and I was very, very, very attached to it. To every word. While she was reading it, she’d occasionally call me to tell me what part she was at, and I knew without looking what page number she was on. While she was fairly enthusiastic, her biggest comment upon finishing was, “Cut the first 300 pages.” She didn’t like it because it was dark. There was drug use, some child abuse, and a generous sprinkling of the F-bomb. But she didn’t say, “Maybe you should cut the first 300 pages,” or “You know, I really liked it but have you considered toning down the first third?” She simply said, “Cut the first 300 pages.” Like it was God’s law, or that her opinion was the only one that mattered.

This tripped me up much more than it should have. I knew rationally that she was objecting to a personal taste, and that it wasn’t necessarily a universal opinion. But I couldn’t shake it, mostly because I’m sensitive and have wobbly self-esteem. I did stage acting for a number of years and can still quote every bad review I’ve ever gotten; the same goes for my novels. But at least I can recover – mostly – and continue on. That initial criticism, however, almost shut me down for good, and right when I was getting going. Thinking about it always makes me worry that there are many writers, or would-be writers, out there that have stopped writing because of a comment someone close to them made.

When we write that first novel – or any novel for that matter – our initial impulse is to give it to immediate family (when we’re ready to have someone look at it, that is). But what happens if our parents, significant others, or siblings simply didn’t like it for whatever reason? I would venture to guess that many writers don’t make it past that point. They might simply shut their manuscript up in a drawer and say, “I guess Dad was right. I better keep my day job,” and never write again. What is so important to remember is that everyone’s opinion is different. This is an obvious statement, but when staring down the face of criticism, it’s easy to doubt.

Looking back, it’s a miracle I ever found the courage to continue writing, and send that manuscript out to agents and editors. Over the years I did do significant rewrites to it, but instead of cutting the first 300 pages, I simply cut the book into three parts so that the first third, essentially, was its own story. My mom still doesn’t like it, but it was the first novel that snagged me an agent and a publishing contract. Not only that, but it’s gotten some fairly good reviews and won Novel of the Year last year from my publisher. Ironically enough, some people only like the first part, because they enjoy contemporary and dark stories. Once the setting changes to a fantasy setting (the part my mom did like), they lose interest. I’ve also written several other novels since then, but my mom wasn’t my only opposition.

My husband hasn’t read any of my fantasy novels, and he’s my life partner, whose opinion matters the most. I spent a lot of years (and still, on occasion, fall prey to self-pity over it) feeling devastated that I wasn’t good enough. He did, however, read my historical-fiction novel right away and loved it. He simply doesn’t like fantasy. Thank goodness I didn’t let that stop me from writing three fantasy novels.

So the moral of the story is, in case you couldn’t tell, don’t let the opinions of those close to you shut you down from writing. Their voices are going to be the hardest ones to shut out, as I know from experience. I’m still smarting after all these years over the first 300 pages with my mom, and it still hurts when cousins and friends say on Facebook, “Oh, my gosh! I just bought your novel and I’m SO excited to read it!” and then I NEVER hear from them again. I have a revolving rolodex in my mind of the people that did like it, and when these things happen, I bring out their positive comments and let them wash over me. The problem is that to get the good comments, sometimes you have to move past the bad ones and keep sending it out. Regardless, you have to stick to your guns. Many years (and novels) later, you may decide that you want to make significant changes to your first manuscript because of all the things that you’ve learned. And if you are willing to take advice, take it from a writing professional who knows what they’re talking about – someone who will give you tips to make your writing better, not just some general disparaging comment. Never simply toss your manuscript and give up because of something someone said. When your baby is new and feels perfect, then it is perfect, in that moment, for you. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

Ashley J. Barnard
Dark Fantasy with a Contemporary Twist


Julie Eberhart Painter said...

Good advice. Nothing slows your writing career down faster than the disapproval of someone you love and repect.

As we get on in our careers, we hit that other walk through molasses, our own self-criticism. All those voices of doubt conspire to slow us down. But being our own critics should make us better writers.

January Bain said...

I know it's been said a lot, but Ashley, this really is an insightful blog that will speak to many writers.

I wanted to write very young and could not find someone to read my first efforts. I lost heart and did not get back to writing till a few years ago. A lot had build up apparently because five books have spilled out none-stop in that time!

But sometimes I wonder if I had not stopped for over a decade if things might have been different. What voices have been silenced?

Ashley J. Barnard said...

Aw, thanks for sharing that January. I'm glad you got back in the saddle!

Jude Johnson said...

It does make you wonder...If the path had been easier, would I have been so damned determined? All I know is that I can't show anything I write to my spouse. He has no interest, and the one time he read a love scene, he decreed it was "smut." So I write and share with only a select few friends, who are greatly honest.

Thanks for sharing this, Ashley.