Thursday, November 11, 2010

Hard-won praise

Today Julie wrote about our retreat critique sessions over at What Women Write. (Who knew I was the quiet one?!) She shared a hilarious and honest take on our critique and, like her, I value this special group we’ve found.

At one of our sessions, I learned that one of my characters is not fully drawn. It’s hard to hear criticism, especially from five writers I admire greatly, whose opinions I not only appreciate, but also seek as validation of my talents (such as they are).

My WIP is told from four main characters’ perspectives, one of which is a young architect in bid competition with the great-great grandson of his own ancestors’ rival. At an earlier session, I had already shared two other characters’ sections and received mostly good feedback on the story’s opening hook and level of intrigue in the first pages.

When I readied for my session, I was excited (shouldn’t I have known better!), thinking they would connect with this new character’s humble nature, love his big-hearted dog, and sympathize with his obvious pain at losing his wife so young. But they wondered where this storyline was going and why exactly the reader would continue with it. (And pointed out my over-fondness for simile!)

After we'd finished our critiques and glasses of wine, I wrapped myself in my now MIA snuggy (if anyone finds it, there’s a reward!), retreated to a comfy chair, and buried my nose in Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth (a sure impetus for any writer to attempt Julie’s self-inflicted fork to the head!). After sulking for a bit, I realized they were right. I was mostly disappointed in myself. Why couldn’t I see the flaws in my chapter? I felt duly discouraged and wondered if I should continue.

I’ve invested two years on this manuscript (in between “real” work), including hours and hours of research and plot development. I love the story, the setting and the characters. I knew I could not give up.

Yesterday, armed with Donald MaassWriting the Breakout Novel workbook, I set off to apply several of his exercises to my not-fully-drawn character. After several hours of work and reflection, I had not only dug deep into my character's psyche, but I'd also heightened the stakes for all my characters.

Some purists might wonder if studying how-to fiction isn’t teaching writers to create formulaic blueprints instead of growing organic tales. Perhaps the answer lies with the old argument of nature vs. nurture: Is one born with the gift or can it be learned?

I wasn’t born with inherent talent, but aided by honest critique, Donald Maass and a lot of hard work, I will create a story I hope not only readers will appreciate, but one worthy of my fellow What Women Writers' hard-won praise.