Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The 1% Solution

In the recent The Feedback Loop post, Anonymous "JZ" mentioned that getting feedback on her personal writing was scary for her, especially since she wanted to write a semi-autobiographical novel based on her experiences.

At about the same time, I heard about a relatively new writer who -- after finishing a novel he had spent months writing -- was considering completely gutting his story. The reason: he thought of the main character as an extension of himself... and no one who read the story thought the main character was a likeable person.

Now, every writer has the prerogative to change their story to suit whatever objective they want to achieve. But this writer, until he got that feedback, was relatively happy with the story. It was solid. The events unfolded in a way that made sense. The characters were consistent. But the main character's behavior was morally questionable -- his deception and manipulation of his wife was the driving force of the story. And this writer had invested a good deal of himself into this character. As a result, when faced with feedback that called his character "a bad guy," the writer heard judgment not of the character, but of the story and -- by extension -- himself.

I used to fall into that trap myself. I had gotten better over the years, but it wasn't until I started taking the improv classes (new session started last week - yay!) that I really got it. You are not your characters. On stage, the audience is not laughing at you. They know nothing about you. They are laughing at the character you've created through the silly actions you take.

It is the same in writing. Readers aren't judging you. Ninety-nine percent of the time, they know nothing about you (except what you choose to tell them.) They're judging the character you've created.

It's the judgment of that pesky 1 % writers fear most. These are the people who do know you, who may know the origins of  a specific character, scene or idea . You fear what they'll think of you. ("He'll think I'm a pervert for writing that sex scene.") You fear they won't like what you have to say. ("That's not how it really happened. She's lying.") At it's core, the fear of the 1% comes down to: if they don't like some part of my story, then they don't like some part of me.

All stories -- fiction and non-fiction  -- come from something that is part of the writer. It's truth as you see it. Characters inspired by real people, and plot lines inspired by life events, are part of that. But in a story, the characters you create and the life events you choose to use should only appear in a story for one reason: to serve the telling of your story -- the "truth" that you want to tell.

Writers can't control how readers will judge their story. All writers can do is tell their stories honestly, truthfully, to the best of their ability. Most of the time, the 1% of feedback you fear hearing the most is going to come from people who know you best, or at least understand and care about what you are trying to accomplish with your story. They will know the difference between you and a character, because they know you.

When a story contains truth -- especially a hard truth -- your 1% readers, 99% of the time, will respond not with anger, but with love. They will like you more, understand you more than they did before. And so will the other 99%.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous3/16/2011

    another awesome post - i actually plan to avoid a lot of that by using (if my stuff actually gets published!) a pen name ... maybe it means "chickening out," but i figure if it frees me up to write what i want without most of the guilt/self-consciousness, so be it ... (yes, this is, ironically, "anonymous jz" again ;))