Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Deb: The Bounce

“People say I don’t take criticism well, but I say, what the hell do they know?” Groucho Marx

Some call it resilience, but I think that’s too nice a word, too easy. I prefer bounce, because it often comes with a smack, and the whole game can ride on which way it lands.

I’m talking about how writers respond to criticism, and how this relates to our overall success, which directly connects to how willing we are to fail. Writers aren’t so different from students in this regard. It doesn’t take much time in a classroom to realize that some students will never try very hard to succeed, and while there may be many explanations for this phenomenon, among the most fundamental is that if you don’t try, you won’t fail. In other words, you won’t need bounce.

Like a basketball, a writer must be pumped full to bounce back from criticism. Full of what, you ask? Some will say ego, but ego is unreliable and quickly deflated. I think bounce is a blend of confidence and strategy.

If the book in your head is always better than the one that gets on the page, how much better is the book no one ever reads? Except that’s not the goal, for most projects. At some point your project must meet its readers, and that’s where you’d best be ready with the bounce. I’m speaking here of the bounce you need with your early readers, pre-publication, though it should be noted that you’ll also rely on the bounce post-publication, when the reviews aren’t as stellar as you’d hoped and the sales figures are lackluster and before you know it your book is out of print.

At its core, the bounce is a state of mind. When teaching revision, I often direct writers in a process I call “Potholes and Spine,” a variation on an exercise I learned in Now Write. Part of the process involves looking hard at the places that aren’t working in a piece and recognizing that each one is a gift, an opening where you are able to go in and tinker around with the assurance that you’re zeroing in on an important spot, because in most cases the messy parts are messy because we’re trying hard to articulate something that matters.

Besides approaching our first readers with the knowledge that they’ll deliver back to us these gifts, we also benefit from confronting our unarticulated expectation that these readers will love what we’ve done. Usually we’ve been at this project for months, and we have to be rather in love with it ourselves, or we’d have ditched the thing awhile back. But first readers aren’t there to reassure us. They’re our first gatekeepers, able to see what we can’t, so love isn’t what they’re likely to deliver

The other part of the bounce involves set-up and reaction. The last time I shared a chapter with my writers group – all of them wonderfully gifted authors – I failed to adequately explain what my project was about. When I submitted the piece, I said it was part of a proposal I was prepping for an agent. Wrongly, I assumed they’d know that meant it was a nonfiction project intended for a general readership. But writers are busy people, and busy people don’t necessarily read between the lines – and not writers bring the same set of experiences to the table. Half the group launched into a critique of the project as a novel. Where were the scenes? The dialogue? The intimate moments? Straight-away, I had to launch into bounce mode, though it was heartening to learn that the piece at least read enough like a novel to make my readers wish it were a stronger one.

Another reader got that the project was non-fiction but questioned my use of present tense where I was narrating from a particular point of view, juxtaposed against a broader narrative voice. I duly noted his objection, writing it down the way I write everything down when I’m getting reactions from first readers. It’s a great way to distance yourself, to avoid jumping in and explaining or defending what you’ve got on the page. Still it doesn’t squelch all the internal dialogue. The use of present tense in this project was a considered decision, used for conscious effect. Yet here this guy was, talking like it was a mistake.

The fourth reader liked it, a lot – no bounce required. All four of them launched into a lively discussion over whether I should have included speculative language that allows for scene-making in nonfiction: this character might have done this, or perhaps she would have done that. Or maybe I should have stuck to one point of view. Maybe the whole project should be redone as historical fiction, not nonfiction at all. All approaches I’d considered and rejected, but I wrote them all down, because – guess what – sometimes I’m wrong.

I thanked my readers and gathered their written critiques and went home. How had it gone, my partner wanted to know. One person liked it, I said. The rest, not so much. Even as I gave this report, I knew it wasn’t an accurate rendering. That’s where a good night’s rest – maybe a good week’s or even a month’s rest, if necessary – is critical to the bounce.

The next part of the bounce, perhaps the most crucial, is figuring out what to do with the hodgepodge of reactions you’ve collected from your readers. Most likely, your first readers are also writers, creative thinkers who’ll open a lot of lovely little doors to you. You can’t walk through them all.  You can’t do everything they say, and you shouldn’t. But if you wrote down all their ideas, you go through them, one by one. I find it helpful to make a master list that includes even those items I’m certain I don’t want to change, just so I can look at it all on the page.

At this point in the bounce I’ll often go back and do a little reading in aspirational books, ones that line up nicely with what I hope my book will one day be. Regardless of the nuts and bolts of my first readers’ comments, at this point I especially reconsider the voice – what makes mine (I hope) as captivating, at least in places, in those books I admire.

Then I review that summary list of comments again and consider what’s behind each of them. Often one concern masks another. The objection about tense, I realized, had more to do with choppiness, a real concern I’d been glossing over in the draft, and sticking whole thing in the past was in fact one way to make sure it read smoothly. At this point I also consider why I made certain decisions and whether that reasoning still holds. Everything should be laid out and up for grabs.

You know you’ve bounced when you realize it wouldn’t hurt to rewrite with some changes, even and especially big ones, and when you find yourself getting excited to discover how those changes might sound and feel. Then you thrash around in the muck and usually, by some miracle, the piece starts to get better, though in the end you may not be able to explain exactly how or why.  That’s the bounce.

Rejection isn’t so much the cross we bear as the uniform we wear, that dorky little hat or crazy vest or pointy shoes or whatever we symbolically put on each day to say look at me, I’m a writer, a real one. Then our first readers know they don’t have to pussyfoot around with their remarks: we’re real writers and we know how to bounce.
 
Try This: Shore up your attitude, get your pen ready, and share a work in progress with your first readers. This might be easy or hard, depending on how well you’ve perfected your bounce. If you don’t have a set of first readers, you can find them online, at places like You Write On

Check This Out: Great for perfecting your bounce: Jessica Page Morrell’s Thanks, But This Isn’t For Us: A (Sort of) Compassionate Guide to Why Your Writing Is Being Rejected.  Morrell works as a developmental editor; in her words, a living made “by breaking writer’s hearts.” Prompted by a multitude of good ideas she’s seen go bad in their delivery, she pulls no punches in the volume that helps you get tough while showing you how to get better.

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