Illustration by Matt Faulkner
Talk about subjective. Are we comparing my backside to War and Peace or Charlotte’s Web? (No need to answer.)
And what about our crazy winter weather? Earlier this week, it was a frigid -12 where I live. And then this morning on my way to work, it was a balmy 27 degrees. I didn’t even bother to zip my jacket. It’s all relative.
Relativity + Subjectivity = Confusitivity!
And that, my talented, perplexed friends, is every writer’s dilemma. We write. We seek feedback. We rewrite. We wring our hands and rack our brains (simultaneously!), yet how do we know when what we’ve written is worth reading? It’s such sticky, subjective business.
Now, what about feedback–the kind you get from your writer’s group or a paid critique with an editor at a conference. Given that opinions are subjective, how do you know who to believe?
Then once you’ve written something you hope is solid, you have to contend with a submission process swaddled in subjectivity. It’s not that editors are fickle or capricious (generally), it’s that they’re people with particular tastes and needs, like the rest of us. I love kalamata olives and black licorice (not together, mind you). You think that’s gross. You’re wrong, of course. But you are still entitled to your opinion because matters of taste are subjective. And so it goes in publishing.
Let me be brave/silly and try to take a stab at this subjectivity business.
When in doubt, try it out. Let’s say someone in your critique group suggests a subtle shift in your main character’s personality or a major interruption to your subplot. If you trust this person and your respect her work, why not give it a go? If your story is stronger for it, be thankful. If it’s not, then at least you’re affirmed in your initial approach.
At a recent writer’s conference, a Scholastic editor admitted that she’d asked an author to make a major change in her YA novel and then realized she was wrong. After reading the results of six months of stellar revision, the editor had to admit the author’s first take was actually better. I’m sure the editor and the author were both surprised! Scary as it sounds, editors can’t always be right. But I admired the author for following her editor’s instructions. I’m sure she learned a lot in the process–and gained a deeper respect from her editor for trying.
Don’t get mad, get even (better). In my second middle grade novel, one of the main characters goes to school with an aide hired by the girl’s mother to assist her. My writing teacher told me that would never fly in a public school. But I liked the aide and I didn’t want to sack her. I was perplexed. Then, at a writing workshop this fall, two writers, who are also teachers, suggested I change the school from public to private. Perfect! Not only did I get to keep the aide, the private school environment introduced a whole new set of challenges for my fashion forward girl character. I found a way to make it work, instead of being stupid and stubborn by plowing ahead in the wrong direction.
If the reader don’t git it, it ain’t gonna git got. See, that’s the tricky thing about writing. It’s supposed to communicate something. If the sender sends, but the receiver doesn’t receive, well then, no communication. I have to remind myself of this when I’m tempted to “explain” something to my critique group. Sure, I can tell them what the character meant by a particular comment, but I won’t have that option to follow a ten-year-old around to see if he has any questions. There’s no “what the author meant was” button on an e-reader (at least not the last time I checked!) When my manuscript critique-provider/reader is confused, I can’t pass their comments off as subjective opinion, I know I have some refining and polishing to do. Git it?
Hear! Hear! You’re smart enough to know you don’t have to edit your manuscript because one person said she doesn’t like girl characters having boy names. But what if you’re getting the same advise from multiple reliable sources? That’s right. You avoid them all in the future. Who said that? What I meant to say was the obvious–when you keep hearing similar feedback on a particular plot point, you’re wise to heed and re-read. Chances are, your gut was telling you something wasn’t right with it in the first place, you just didn’t know what. Now, everyone’s telling you what’s what, confirming your suspicions. A plot hole is like cellulite. You can try to ignore it, but it ain’t going anywhere.
And speaking of your gut . . .
What’s that, Mr. G? In the end, you have to trust your gut (aka, Mr. G). (You had a gut feeling I was going to say that, didn’t you?) But I think applying the suggestions of trusted, respected writers and editors is still smart. I believe actively seeking feedback and really listening with an open mind and heart is vital to growing as a writer. I accept that I have room to improve (so we’re clear, we’re talking a room the size of a major league football stadium). But, for better or worse, when it all comes down to it, I have to do what feels right to me.
For example, I have a picture book manuscript for very young children that has been declared “perfect” by a professional illustrator and an accomplished picture book author. When I entered it in a contest, it finished in the top 5 out of 750 entries. Does that mean it’s been scooped up by a publishing house? Noop. It’s had close calls several times and received some champagne rejections, but no acceptances. I have taken each editor’s suggestions to heart and made some modifications, but I finally realized I can’t keep re-writing this poor little 375-word manuscript until I don’t recognize it or love it. I’m going to have to embrace it and trust that someone else will too.
Well, at least that’s my subjective opinion.
The faculty to think objectively is reason; the emotional attitude behind reason is that of humility. To be objective, to use one’s reason, is possible only if one has achieved an attitude of humility, if one has emerged from the dreams of omniscience and omnipotence which one has as a child. ~ Erich Fromm