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Protecting your story

Ever think how odd it is that writers want to create their own stories–but then they want others to tell them how to change it?

It seems that we want both independence and safety. We want to tell our unique story, but we feel it needs it to be a group exercise, or one overseen by a mentor. So we cherish our vision of the novel, but we just can’t seem to go it alone.

The wrong help.

Sometimes I wish that writing a novel was a group process. I, too, get lonely at the keyboard, have moments (or bouts) of self doubt, and long for validation. I certainly experience confusion about aspects of my novels and wonder if I’m getting it right. But I’m skeptical about who can help me with the current story.

Once you have hold of story, getting feedback is a tricky enterprise. Other people do not have your vision of the theme and heart of the story. They can’t have. They aren’t you. They will bring their own life-issues to the interpretation of the story, thus re-visioning your intention. Writers groups can be helpful, but they don’t release you from the obligation to be the story decider. If you find a mentor at significant level above your current status, you will want to listen to advice more carefully. But even these readers possess a down side: The better their credentials, the more at risk you are of losing faith in your own judgement. And they, after all, may be wrong.

A note on writing groups: I’m not saying they are a bad idea; on the contrary. It’s just that they shouldn’t influence you unduly, nor give you a false sense of security. You still must revise and take responsibility for evaluating your own work. If you get an “aha” moment at a session, that may lead you to some wisdom about your story. But be wary of taking writing group reactions as some kind of broader truth. Pay close attention to places where these readers got confused, however; those are often great catches. 

Whose story is it?

I recently worked with a beginning writer on her opening pages. I felt I gave some good advice (and picked only a few salient features to comment upon.) But in my own mind I was already rewriting her story, thinking how it should go. If I were writing it, that is. Was I being arrogant? Not intentionally. It’s just that, as a writer, I can’t help myself. She gave me her core idea and I had to fight hard not to restructure it. So where did that leave me in my critiquing? It left me wondering what I could tell her that wasn’t hopelessly compromised by my own vision of her concept.

OK, so there are much better writing teachers out there than I am. I’m pretty good on theory, but when it comes to manuscript feedback, not so much.

The thing is, I admit this, and some of your mentors won’t. Not because they are evil geniuses who want to take over your mind, but because they can’t step away from themselves to know what they’re doing to your story. They are, in effect, an unconscious saboteur.

But let’s say that I was right about that beginning writer’s story, and that my ideas could bring this book to the next level. This may well be the case. However, the aspiring writer must still execute this story, and they likely won’t be able to. Why? Because it is no longer their story, the one their subconscious wanted to write. They will not have the life-experience to draw upon to write that story.

And did you really want that many opinions on your story?

On risk and uncertainty.

Maybe you did. We do want to stay open to story feedback, after all. I’m just saying a little goes a long way.

If you accept this warning on too much feedback, you face a sobering reality: Stories require us to work mostly alone. (I understand if you can’t accept my advice, but I do urge you to think about whether you are indulging in just the teensiest bit of false hope.)

Risk is inherent in the profession. I’m sorry to report that there is precious little that can provide the assurances you need to live an untroubled life in this business. Novels are incredibly complicated and personal undertakings, fraught with land mines (and attendant exhilaration.) Nothing provides safety. But then, nothing provides as much fun, either. (Well, not too many other things.)

It’s completely natural that we sometimes pretend that other people can make our stories better. (And of course, in a limited way, they might.) But we do our creative selves a big disservice by leaning too hard on other people. Such as writing teachers, writing groups, beta readers, editors for hire and agents who take a strong editorial hand.

By all means listen. But do so from a position of strength and integrity. You will be cultivating that inner direction that will sustain your stories over the decades. And you will save yourself a lot of second-guessing and–ironically–the very uncertainty you were trying to avoid in the first place!

I kind of wish it were otherwise, but it’s the nature of the beast. So let’s be careful of mentors and well-meaning readers. They may give you way more than you bargained for. And more than is good for your story.


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