Monday, March 10, 2008

Fear and Loathing at the Keyboard

By Barbara D'Amato


The story goes like this:

Your first book comes out. The critics say, “Not bad, but shows some of the problems of the beginner.”

Your second book comes out and the critics say, “Not up to his usual standard.”

Is it any wonder writers have deep doubts as they write? One of my first books was set in a retirement community in New Mexico. One critic said, “She certainly knows New Mexico, but the plot line was weak.” Another said, “Great puzzle plot, but she is not familiar with New Mexico.” Most of us have had this kind of thing happen, haven’t we?

Everybody is entitled to criticize you. It’s like standing naked at the corner of Adams and State Street and letting people jeer. Except it lasts longer. And—cliché alert—the worst critic is yourself.

I start with some glowing, golden idea of what the new novel is going to be—fast-paced but rich [maybe not possible to be both], characters so rounded they practically jump off the page and hit me, deep social consciousness but a light touch of wit. Well, it never comes out quite like that.

In twenty years I’ve met only one author who liked her books when she was in the middle of writing them. She was Mary Shura Craig, who wrote children’s’ books under the name Mary Francis Shura, espionage under the name M. S. Craig, and mysteries under the name Mary Craig. I would meet her at an MWA dinner and she would say, “I’m about halfway through with the most wonderful story.” I would just stare at her in amazement. When mine are half done they are recalcitrant, sagging, stupid, and will never come to an end. I’m pushing a chain uphill. And why did I think this was a good idea for a book, anyway?

Probably one of the best moments in life is the Aha! When you get the idea that will not only solve a plot problem but be a vivid, effective scene. But the worst is to be stuck. The more you reread the thing, the less fresh it seems.

And there are all those critics out there waiting to attack you.

This is some scary job.

31 comments:

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Barb, for a speech I gave a few years ago I compiled a bunch of the contradictory statements made in reviews of CAST OF SHADOWS. There are more than this, but here's a sample:

NYTBR: "Cast of Shadows is an always surprising medical thriller complete with elegant prose and well-developed characters."

The Cavalier Daily: "Guilfoile's first novel impresses despite clunky prose and poor character development."

---
Toshen.com: "Cast of Shadows seems to condone the 'righteous' murder of civilians while demonizing science."

NY Times: "In Kevin Guilfoile's novel about cloning, science, for once, is not the villain."

---
Chicago Reader: "This smashing idea raises all sorts of interesting questions, which Guilfoile proceeds to bury beneath storylines until it feels like at least three different novels."

People Magazine: "There's enough plot in this riveting book to fuel three novels!"

Dana King said...

Maybe this is easy for me to say because I am as yet unpublished, but it seems to me all of the above are reasons not to read reviews of your own books. Let the agent read them, or a trusted reader. They can distill what you need to know, and the writer can get on with his life.

Is that way too simplistic?

Sara Paretsky said...

Barb, I'm so with you on looking at the sagging middle. And I, too, remember Mary and her enthusiasm for her works in progress. I'm supposed to be finishing a book which I've actually only just started--I think I'm so tired of falling short that I just can't bear to do it again.
David Remnick, writing in teh New York about Anthony Lucas, said, "There are few writers of value who do not approach the end of a long project with at least some sense of dread, the self-lacerating [belief] that the [work] is not so much finished as abandoned, and that everyone will see all the holes [in it], all the shortcuts, the tape, the glue. Finishing is more about terror than exhilaration."

Barbara D'Amato said...

Kevin, I chuckled a lot at your comment, even though I know it's not funny when it's happening.

Dana--some writers read comments, some refuse to. I have a horrible fascination with them, but I'm also looking for real usable criticism. I don't think somebody could filter it for me.

Sara--you don't fall short.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

Yeah, Barb, I don't mind if a critic doesn't like something I've written. Sometimes it's actually instructive. And if you can't find somebody who hates your book, then not enough people are reading it.

Sometimes it's just dumb, though. A critic in the San Francisco Chronicle said something (in a very condescending context) like, "Guilfoile is the kind of thriller writer who, when two characters are having dinner, finds it necessary to tell you that one of them is eating pumpkin ravioli."

He also spelled my name wrong 11 times.

Barbara D'Amato said...

Wait a minute, Kevin. To me, it's the punpkin ravioli hat makes the character three-dimensional.

Bob Liter said...

The muddle in the middle. Apparently it is as common as that feeling at the end of writing a novel that it is not really finished, just abandoned.
Bob Liter

Picks By Pat said...

This blog entry (and the subsequent comments) are making me feel a little better about my debut novel. I'm still waiting for the reviews, and I'm very nervous. Of course, I'm also practicing my response in case it gets panned by telling myself, "I don't give a rat's a** what they think".

So I guess the best course of action is to keep writing the next one, and reread Kevin Guilfolle's comments when ever I feel like hyper-ventilating.

Jon Jordan also had some good advice at the LIM conference panel on reviewers this year. He said something like, "After three months, no one will remember that you got a bad review, only that you got a review, period".

Barbara D'Amato said...

picks by pat -- Jon Jordan is right. Also -- if you write a book to which everyone has no objection, maybe the book is bland? Good luck.

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