But It’s a Good Pain

Back in October, I realized that I had a whole book done. I had avoided realizing this for a while because my deep intuition was that it was a sprawling mess, and I didn’t want to show it to anyone while I had this inchoate touch-the-pretty-pool-of-mercury-and-it-all-skitters-away sense that I couldn’t get a handle on what was wrong with it. But when I knit all the bits I had written together, I realized that I had a shaggy, shambling, mess of a book finished. On advice from members of my writing group I sent it to them for critique.

This was remarkably brave of me. Normally, I don’t send out anything until it is much closer to done, mostly because I don’t like sending my children to their first day of school unwashed and in torn and dirty clothes. They are my children, I love them, and I want them to be above reproach. No one and nothing is above reproach, of course, but you can improve the odds by, say, proofreading a little. But by the time I made the decision to push the button I had read these words over so many times that I probably couldn’t have found a mis-spelling of my own name. So I pushed the button.

Yesterday the group met and gave me feedback.

The hardest part of presenting work to a writers’ workshop is battling regression on all fronts, from “you don’t like my book, you’re mean, you don’t understaaaaaaaaand!” to “my book sucks, I suck, I should give up and live in a box. Also I am unlovable and funny-looking.” Even the pleasant rush of having sold a short story a week or two ago does nothing to ameliorate the feeling of “they’ve all figured out that I am unworthy” that comes from fielding the perfectly reasonable feedback my group gave me. And if you’re a seasoned workshopper (spell check kept trying to turn that to worshipper, and what would that even mean in this context?) you know better than to give voice to those feelings during critique. You asked for this, you are getting it, and it’s your job to consider and act on the takeaway.

Basically: my takeaway is 1) too many twists and turns and names. Reduce, clarify, focus. 2) shore up backstory on relationships (this is the fourth book in a series, and it’s hard to be sure that I’ve laid the right foundations for new readers without boring the pants off returning friends: PS: I hadn’t). 3) Make sure that if it’s in my head it’s on the page (an oldie but a goodie, but until the publisher can send out a slice of my brain with every copy, necessary). 4) Apparently killing is too good for at least one of my characters. Who knew?

There was a lot more. By the end of the workshop I did feel a little battered. But this morning I’m feeling more hopeful, not only that my child is not as much of a disaster as I was beginning to feel, but that basically she’s got the right bones, and with work she’ll be okay. Maybe better than okay.

This is why I workshop. To get out of both the good and bad echo chambers and get new perspectives. I asked for this, I got it, and it’s given me the tools and the will to fix the problems.



About Madeleine E. Robins

Madeleine Robins is the author of The Stone War, Point of Honour, Petty Treason, and The Sleeping Partner (the third Sarah Tolerance mystery, available from Plus One Press). Her Regency romances, Althea, My Dear Jenny, The Heiress Companion, Lady John, and The Spanish Marriage are now available from Book View Café. Sold for Endless Rue , an historical novel set in medieval Italy, was published in May 2013 by Forge Books


But It’s a Good Pain — 5 Comments

  1. I tell all young writers to find a crit group. Either in the real, or on line. But you must run the work past others. New, old, in genre or out, as many as possible.

  2. Sometimes you just need reactions to figure out what it is that you really want to do with something. Though I share your desire to have someone say (and really mean), “Why no, this isn’t a mess at all.”

  3. this is a hard thing to live through clutching a precious story in your hand, but I’ve done it several times, been devastated, then went back and rummaged and rearranged and rewrote what I thought were valid things to change… and it’s come out better every time. It’s bitter like any medicine worth its salt but in the end… it works… this is what makes you take a good hard look at things that you don’t normally even notice because you’re too close to the work…

  4. Whee, exciting news!!!

    And yeah, getting fresh eyes is crucial. But also so is listening to them. (Even Jane Austen didn’t always listen, and look what happened to the end of Mansfield Park, when Cassandra, her most trusted fresh eyes, begged her for a different ending . . .)