Friday, September 24, 2010

The Horror of Self-Critique, pt 1

Posted by LD Keach on Friday, September 24, 2010

(Or, why won’t my inner voices just shut up?)

I’ve got a book coming out. It’s small press, and its only loosely horrific so I’m not plugging it here, but suffice it to say the experience has taught me quite a lot about publishing novels. (I’m working out all my industry naiveté before my Great American Gore-Fest Novel is finished.) The most important of all my lessons learned are; decide your pen name early in the process (and I mean early), give the publisher hard specifics on what you want for the cover (else doom befall you), and fix the damn story before you even submit.

It seems pretty simple, the idea that one should fix the flaws in their novel before submitting it to a publisher. But, funny thing—that’s harder than it looks.

Case in point: an advance copy of my book was sent out for reviews, and one review came back…let’s say reliably honest. This reviewer, while liking the book overall, was not catering to anyone but potential readers, which is fantastic—but that also means that she very straightforward when it came to pointing out my book’s flaws. And, there were a handful of flaws. At least two paragraphs’ worth.

But here’s where the bizarre Twilight-zone twist comes in: I read the review, and I knew she was right.

Everything that she pointed out that was wrong with my novel, I already knew about. It was like an odd sense of déjà-vu swelled over me, as though there was a glitch in the matrix, or I’d gone back in time to read my own critique of my novel. And I sat there, wondering, if I already knew those flaws existed within my novel, why did I send it out before fixing them?

Because, of course, knowing something and admitting something to yourself are two fantastically different things.

I have a feeling that most of us know, instinctively, what’s wrong with our writing. If you’ve ever written more than a paragraph or two, and ever read more than one book, chances are you’ve got the makings of a decent critic spawning in the back of your head like a larval alien. Of course, that inner Predator art critic is going to be influenced by personal taste—writing is subjective, and everybody’s going to have a different opinion on a certain piece of fiction. But, when it comes to the basic building blocks of fiction and genre, there’s some things that many people of similar taste agree on. Its like tapping into the collective subconscious, so to speak. And more often than not, we all are going to hear those collective art critic whispers in our heads like the burgeoning symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia.

It’s not something we can nail down in a formula or label out with tight grammar rules. At a certain point, we just know. If you’re writing the kind of fiction you like to read, at a certain point, your inner reader will tap you on the shoulder and go, “Uh, hey, I like what you’re doing but…” The trick is listening to that reader-voice.

And then, the trick is swallowing a gnarly lump of pride and going back to do more heavy lifting over the story to work it out until those flaws are gone—which is exceedingly difficult and horrible, and I certainly couldn’t do it in this case. But its not just pride that keeps a lot of us from going the extra mile—it’s acceptance. One has to know, and accept that knowledge, in order to properly self-critique.

...And then, at a certain point, that inner reader-Predator drives us absolutely stark raving mad and chases us through the jungle, but that horror upon horrors will be covered in part two.