Criticism is a wonderful gift. If articulate and well timed, it can give us the bridge we need to make our lives better.
I really need to learn to hear criticism.
I listen to it. I do. And I acknowledge its inherent usefulness, even if mean-spirited or misguided. But genuinely constructive criticism is an opportunity I apparently miss. In trying not to wince in pain at the idea of needing improvement, I found out today, I effectively block out the actual useful bits of criticism.
I thought I was rather self-aware. But today I realized I need more often to listen to turtle*.
Back story: I’ve been working on a novel for a while. I wrote it as a screenplay more than a decade ago. Once it was done I put it away and forgot it until Peanut was cooking and I finished teaching. I needed a project, and thought the script would be a good book.
So I transformed it. And edited and polished and sent it to agents.
And some sent feedback. My memory of that feedback is “It’s fine, I like the characters. It’s just not the right project for me. By the way, the language at times is too showy, so watch that. And nothing good happens until page 300, so move the action up if you want to sell it.” My memory has served me for three years.
I got the feedback while pregnant with Butterbean. I spent nine months rearranging the scenes and cutting the showy language. Then the little guy was born and all work ceased.
Fast forward. Peanut is in school. Butter is in a home-based day care three mornings a week.
Work is proceeding apace. But I’m not sure how much of the action to move, nor how to juggle the characters. Five main characters. Hard to time the introduction so many since I don’t want to focus too long on anyone, nor jump around like a narrative ping pong game. I’ve been rearranging scenes on index cards and a corkboard for years. I need a new perspective.
So I map the book. But then realize: most of what happens…really happens…is in flashbacks. Nothing much actually happens. Lots of feelings, minimal plot.
[Bear with me. The graphics below were penned without intention of making them public, but there’s no way in h-e-double-hockey-sticks I’m redrawing this exercise just to look good for you lovely people.]
The emotional maps, overlaid, look like this.
But the actual character arcs, overlaid, look like this.
Cue sad panda music, ‘cuz that’s one pathetic book right there.
So I ask a dear, brilliant writer friend two questions:
1. does stuff that happens in the past just color how a reader sees a character, or does it actually count as action?
2. how do I introduce all these characters without lingering too long on any of them? Should I force them together more?
While I wait for a reply, I stumble upon the agents’ emails, which I haven’t opened since 2009.
More than half mentioned that
1.not enough happens
2.there are too many characters and we need to see them all together doing something.
The good news: I’m asking the right questions.
The bad news: I had the answer three years ago.
The good news: I now, finally, have time to do this work.
The great news: I still want to.
*Bonus points if you get the reference. Actually, genetic test if you get the reference because I think you and I might be family.