Guest post–Leave the Vomit In or, Learning to Trust Your Voice
by Jennifer Pelland
Back in 2002, I was a student at the Viable Paradise writing workshop. I hadn’t been writing original fiction very long, and had submitted a story for critique that was wildly different from anything I’d ever written before — a gritty, post-cyberpunk tale filled with vomiting junkies. I had no idea how it was going to go over with my fellow workshoppers. Needless to say, I was pretty nervous.
The very first day, I had a one-on-one critique with Jim Kelly. I swallowed hard, steeled myself for the worst, and walked in to his room.
“I asked for this story specifically,” he told me. “It’s very similar to the stuff I write, so I understand what you’re trying to do. You’re probably going to have a lot of people this week tell you that it’s got too much puking in it, but don’t listen to them. Leave the vomit in. If you start doubting that, just come back here and I’ll remind you.”
You know what? He was right. Several people over the course of the week complained about the amount of vomit in the story, and I might very well have been tempted to yank it all out to try to satisfy them if Jim hadn’t given me the validation to keep it in.
Now, we can’t all count on having Jim Kelly around to look at everything we write and tell us which parts to hang on to. If only! That’s why an important part of developing as a writer is learning when to trust your voice, and how to tell the difference between trusting your vision and being stubborn about something that doesn’t work.
Stubbornness, now there’s the rub. Writers need to be stubborn to create. We need to love an idea enough to cling to it, wrestle it to the ground, and pummel it into submission, despite the fact that we’re late for work, the dishes are piling up, the litterbox is overflowing, and it’s been too long since we last worked out. If we weren’t stubborn, we’d just let the idea turn into a daydream to be played in our head during our morning commute rather than trying to turn it into something worth sharing with the world. We need stubbornness to get our rough drafts done.
But when it comes time to revise, that formerly-helpful stubbornness can become a real hindrance. How can you tell the difference between being true to your voice and digging in your heels and being unreasonable? And what about the flip side — how do you know when you’re abandoning your vision too easily in the face of criticism?
The difficult answer is that this is a learning process that is highly individual, that takes time, and that often needs to be relearned over the course of a career.
It occurs to me that I should probably take a moment to define what I mean by “voice” before I go any farther. I’m not speaking of writing style. What I mean is that voice in your head that whispers creative ideas to you, the voice that dictates the story to your fingers as you write, the voice you have to negotiate with when you feel stuck, the voice that encourages you to keep going because your story idea is so damned cool, or alternately yells at you for writing crap. Your voice is your muse and your compass, and without it, you wouldn’t write a thing.
So, how do you learn to train your voice to speak the truth to you about your work? A good way to start is to find a really good group of critiquers to read your stories on a regular basis. They should be people who understand the type of work you’re writing, who understand the level you’re shooting to write at, and who aren’t interested in either flattering you or tearing you down. Listen to what these people have to say about your stories, and take note of how your gut reacts. Do they say anything that leaves you feeling defensive or insecure? Yes? Well, those are the story elements that you feel most protective of. Those are the story elements you and your voice care most deeply about. And those are the story elements you need to fight for.
By “fight,” I don’t mean “fight your critique group.” No, by “fight” I mean “fight to write it right.” You love your story, and want to get it in front of an adoring audience. So your critique group doesn’t think your idea’s as cool as you do. Great. Now’s the time to absorb their comments and make the story better.
Here’s how not to do it:
When I was starting out, I would read and re-read everyone’s comments, then try to figure out how I could address everyone’s concerns in my rewrite. This is a terrible idea. For starters, it’s impossible to make everyone happy. Have you ever heard of a story that was universally loved? Give me two minutes on Google and I’ll find you someone who hates Hamlet. More importantly, trying to make everyone happy is a great way to lose what makes you happy about the story, and thus a great way to discourage your voice.
Here’s also how not to do it:
Sometimes, when I adored a story and the crit group didn’t, I’d look at their comments, get to one that I disagreed with, and then toss that comment out the window without a second thought. The “without a second thought” is what I was doing wrong. It’s fine to disregard comments, but only after careful consideration. You should ask yourself, why did someone offer this critique? What about it bothers me? Even if I disagree with what they’re saying, can I understand where they’re coming from?
Here’s what I do now:
I listen to everyone’s critiques, take notes as they talk, and if I have questions, ask them at the end. I take all of the written critiques, put them in a pile along with my notes, and set them aside. Then, I let the comments soak in to my back brain, and as thoughts come to me on the revision, I scribble them down in my composition notebook. If there were particular comments that I strongly disagreed with, I think about them for a while to see if I’m still resistant to them even after time has passed, and try to figure out why. If I have a specific question about someone’s comments, I’ll refer back to their written critique, but otherwise, I leave that stack of paper alone. Then, when I feel ready (or when the deadline demands it), I start revising.
Why don’t I spend time reading and re-reading people’s critiques and the notes that I took? Because in order to be true to my voice, I can’t. The critiques that resonate sink in, and those that don’t just slide away. But — and I can’t stress this highly enough — it’s important not to use this technique as a way of ignoring the crits you reacted badly to. That’s being inappropriately stubborn, not trusting your own voice.
What do you do if everyone in your crit group hates the very thing you love most about your story? Well, it could mean one of two things: that you are being critiqued by people who genuinely do not understand your work (for instance, you’re having your romance be critiqued by a group of horror writers), or that you refuse to see that your idea is genuinely flawed. One way to test this is to start sending your story out to appropriate markets to see what response you get. If you sell the story to a good market, congratulations! You were right to trust your voice, at least in this instance. If you start racking up a thick stack of rejections, then maybe it’s time to have a little talk with your voice to see if perhaps it’s mistaken about what the story needs. Remind yourself what it is about the story that made you fall in love with it, go back to your stack of critiques, and look through them to find suggestions that will help you make other people love the story as well.
Can your voice lead you astray? Sometimes, sure. You might come up with a killer idea and write entirely the wrong story for it. Or you might have a great character who you just can’t bring yourself to mistreat, so you pull every punch. Or maybe you simply write about the wrong day in your protagonist’s life. That’s okay. These things can all be fixed. Sometimes you have to rewrite the story from the ground up, and sometimes you need to toss it in a drawer for a couple of years until you gain more sophisticated writing skills. If you quiet your mind and disconnect your ego, you should be able to have a nice little dialogue with your voice to figure out which course of action is the right one.
I’ll give you a personal example. A while back, I handed something over to my writing group that I thought was pretty nifty. They disagreed. So I sat back and asked myself what had gone wrong. The answer? My story was all surface and no depth. The characters were two-dimensional, their motivations were shallow, and my happy ending came out of nowhere. Where did my voice lead me astray? It was too focused on the idea behind the story and didn’t spend enough time thinking about how to flesh out the characters and give them a good story to live through. The solution? I’ve decided not to rewrite the story, but I’ve tossed several of the ideas back into the plot recycling bin in my brain. I’m not abandoning the cool idea, I’m just waiting to come up with a better story for it, one that will engage my voice at all levels so I can write the hell out of the idea.
Will your voice need to use a writing group as a sounding board forever? It might. Or it might only need them for some stories and not others. Nowadays, I occasionally send some of my stories out to markets without getting them critiqued first — but only stories that I feel my voice has a good handle on. The story I mentioned in the previous paragraph? Sure, I thought it was nifty, but I had the nagging suspicion I might be wrong. The stories I sold to The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, Volume Three and Dark Faith? Those, I was confident in. My voice had no doubts. And I’d learned when to trust its judgment.
In time, and with the right mind-set, you should be able to develop a sense of how to protect and polish the core of each story idea so that it stays uniquely yours and so it conveys exactly what you dreamed it would. In the meantime, when a particularly well-placed critique leaves you wincing, tell yourself, “Okay, self, this is the part of the story that I most want to protect. How do I rebuild my narrative to make it work?” Then listen to what your voice has to say.
And if that means leaving the vomit in, then I’ve got your back on that one.
This article originally appeared in The Broad Universe Broadsheet.
Jennifer Pelland is a writer, a belly dancer, and an occasional radio theater actor, as well as a 9-to-5 wage slave. She lives outside of Boston with an Andy, three cats, and an impractical amount of books. Her collection Unwelcome Bodies was published by Apex Books in 2008, and they will be publishing her debut novel Machine in 2011. Visit her on the web at http://www.jenniferpelland.com