Last night I ran into two people who’d just read Lucy in the Sky. Well, one had read it. The other listened to the MP3 – my self-described “awesome author-narrated audio” – and he had a few comments about that. I could see that he was afraid of “hurting the writer’s feelings,” but I encouraged him to be candid with me, because actual factual feedback from actual factual readers is to me a pearl of great price. Good news, bad news, I don’t care; bring it on! Well, he said that as a narrator I was only okay, not nearly as good as the pros he usually listens to. When he saw that his critique didn’t cripple me, he explained that I had a monotone thing going on, which made for difficulty distinguishing characters.
Okay, that’s a note I can take. What else you got?
He said he found it a “fast listen,” just five and a half hours, whereas most of the books he listens to – and he listens to many – run eight to ten hours or more. So a fast listen, is that a good thing or a bad thing? Not either one, really, it’s just that it butts up against his expectation for longer works with more fully realized worlds. That’s a note I can use, too, for I already know of my struggle with detail. I love to cheat detail because I hate doing research. In fact, I have tried to make accelerated pace a virtue of my work specifically because I hate research. As a consequence, this work feels thin to this listener’s experienced ear. If I want to make him part of my audience, I have to think about serving his needs with more detail. Which means more research.
God, I should really embrace research.
When I get usefully critical notes like this, I try to focus not on how the information makes me feel but on how I can use it to improve what I do. That’s called filtering information through process, instead of through ego, and it really works. It’s not that you don’t have an emotional response to criticism, it’s just that you don’t let it drive the discussion, and you don’t let it get in the way of what’s useful. But this guy’s note struck to the core of my deep shame – I cheat research! – and how could it not make me go, “Ouch, my feelings”?
Now stick a pin in that while I tell you about the other reader, the one who wanted to tell me that he hadn’t had a more exciting read in ages, that he sat down and devoured Lucy in a single sitting, and afterwards felt totally turned on. He compared me to Tom Robbins.
Wow, how do my feelings feel now? My big head wants to swell up and explode because, golly, Tom Robbins, he’s been my idol all along. But I’m going to use my process filter here, too, and go to school on what I did right for this reader, so I can do it right next time, too. Because what I’m hearing is that my novel got him off, and getting readers off on my novels is really what I want to be about. Pace, I know, is part of that. I like to write books you can devour in one sitting. It pleases me that people read them thus. But what if I want to satisfy that other reader, too, the one who wants more meat on the bones? Should I sacrifice pace to meet his need for more detail? Hmm. ‘Tis a puzzle.
The best writing advice I know is, “Keep giving them you until you is what they want.” In writing Lucy, I discovered something of lasting value to myself as a novelist: a way to write words that resonate deeply for me and, as evidence indicates, resonate for some others as well. I can keep giving them that. I think I can. Should I strive for no more? Or should I try to take my game to the next level? Embrace the damn research so that the worlds of my story are both richly realized and emotionally resonant? Can I project increasingly textured and complex realities onto the page? Or will I be content to keep hitting the same target every time, now that I know what it is, and know that I know how to hit it?
Well, another piece of advice I know is, “Go off in all directions at once, you’re bound to arrive somewhere eventually.” What I take away from this tale of two readers is to keep playing to my strengths yet still shore up my weaknesses. I remind myself to detach from my feelings – or no, not detach from them; honor them, but keep them in check – and use the information I receive, bad news and good news alike, in humble service to the work.
So by what perverse logic am I now going in entirely the other direction and writing a dark – virtually mirthless – mystery? Folks, mirth is an absolute strength of my game. Why would I turn my back on that? Sheer cussed-mindedness, I guess. Since everything I write teaches me something I didn’t know before about writing and about myself, it stands to reason that while I’m ready and willing to go off in all directions at once, I have a predilection for the new. But don’t all self-respecting writers always want to break new ground in their work? And don’t I want to be one of them? Of course I do.
Except for the research.
I just can’t wrap my brain around that.
Photo by salamanca.