Belief in Your Artistic Vision

I have never in my life been as all-in and sure of myself as the crazy dancing man at the Crosby, Stills & Nash concert in Chicago last week. I realize his experience may have been, let’s just say, chemically enhanced, or possibly enlivened by the manic phase of a mental illness. But he didn’t seem drunk or high or ill: he simply seemed passionate and unself-conscious in a way that astonished a more restrained person like me. I found myself thinking about that in the context of writing. In her blog, Carly Watters talks about the importance of risk taking for writers. Why don’t we more often hear of literary agents urging writers to take risks? Well, we do if they work out, but that’s the thing about risks: you don’t know that when you take them. What risks to take are up to each artist, as part of her or his artistic vision. Sometimes I worry that the way we writers critique each other may hamper that.

We’ve all heard of how J.K. Rowling was riding in a train when she was struck by the idea of a boy who didn’t know he was a wizard. Talk about being all-in: she structured a seven-book series out of that idea before she had the contract for a single book. Veronica Roth was so obsessed with her concept of a dystopian society divided by virtues that she wrote her first book when most of us would have had our hands full with college. Genre writers aren’t alone in this: literary writers can get obsessed too. Jonathan Franzen wrote The Corrections in a blindfold and earplugs – I’d call that pretty crazy. But when an idea lights up your brain, I think you should go for it, even if it seems foolish or risky to others.

Technique can be a place to take risks as well as story concept. Magic realism came out of literary risk taking. So did story cycles with their roving points of view. The genre-blending mentioned in Watters’ blog is another example. Why can some writers get away with this, but not others? The old adage about learning to walk before you run is worth keeping in mind. Choosing to depart from the norm isn’t the same as being lazy. If you’ve found a great voice that doesn’t follow the rules of grammar, that’s different from not taking the trouble to check. You want to understand and be capable of following the rules you’re rejecting. You want to have reasons for your departures, even if they’re only in your own head.

Of course, no one can tell you in advance whether your risks will pan out in the marketplace. That’s what makes them risks. Sometimes when traditional publishing fails, writers believe so strongly in their work that they decide to self-publish. Other times they decide to move on to new work – to take on new risks and visions.

My wariness about critiques has to do with the possible chilling effect of peer judgment on risk taking and artistic vision. I still believe in the critique process at the heart of MFA programs and writer’s workshops across the country, often called the Iowa model. This is when fellow writers read each other’s work and provide detailed comments as they sit around a table, first about what’s working and then about what’s not, often with an instructor who weighs in at the end, only after which the author may respond. But you need to find a balance between being open enough to learn and self-protective enough to keep your voice and vision intact.

An excellent writer and good friend of mine, J. Scott Smith, writes dialogue without quotation marks, similar to Cormac McCarthy. One of her short stories, “Lynlee Floats,” is posted at Solace in a Book. As part of a recent critique of one of Smith’s novel chapters, the instructor asked a room full of writers for a show of hands about whether the lack of quotation marks made the piece harder to read. Most hands went up – that’s information for the writer – but Smith has her own good reasons for this stylistic choice. I applaud her commitment to her vision.

Sometimes you need to ignore the rest of the room and dance.

Beta Readers vs Critiquers

Over the course of four years, I’ve subjected my soon-to-be-completed novel to over 200 critiques of various chapters. I’m not sure if that’s brilliant or insane of me, but I know I’m not alone. Like many other writers, I’m in multiple critique groups. One is composed of 20-30 published writers, led by a more established writer, who listen to a chapter being read out loud, critique it together, then provide individual mark-ups. In another, when it’s led by my favorite writing teacher, at least 60 writers are in the room with the chance to weigh in. In my smallest and most demanding group, my entire book was critiqued by two Pushcart nominees and a writer/editor/publisher. But with this particular novel, I’d never allowed myself the thrill of real readers, until now.

Reader3Last week, I had my book read by a Chicago-area book club that has been meeting almost once a month for over 25 years. They read all different kinds of books and are excellent readers, but they’re not writers, editors, teachers or script doctors. In this instance, they acted as beta readers. I’d also call them real readers.

Real readers are the kind who let go, who are in for the ride. They leave you excited messages about how much they loved your book. They get all worked up about your characters, sometimes worried about them, sometimes upset, asking you questions like how could she do that? Your characters seem as real to them as they do in your head.

This is the why we write, isn’t it? To have the characters we imagine take on life in other people’s minds. We want readers to care about them, to be affected by them, to find themselves pondering their problems. To be transported, to be entertained. To laugh or shiver or cry.

Readers are the prize, and for the most part you want to save them for the final product. When your work is in process, you should seek out the best critiques you can possibly find. But when you think your book is ready, before you start submitting to agents and editors, and the often discouraging realities of the marketplace, don’t deny yourself the thrill of a few real readers.

They give a writer hope.