Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Heart of the Author and The Heart of the Story

Authors are brave. I mean, very, very brave. You have to have a unique kind of heart to be a writer, or at least, to be a good one. On the one hand, you have to feel deeply. You must be compassionate, sensitive, even empathetic, to craft characters whose stories resonate with readers. You must care deeply enough to stick with a story until page three-hundred and twenty-two, through all the zingers that come along the way. You must have something deep in your core, a calling, that holds you to to task and pushes you toward your goal. You must, in other words, feel in order to be a good artist.

On the other hand, unless you are writing strictly for our own sake, your story must inevitably stand on its however-wobbly little newborn feel and step out into the real world of readers. That world is scary sometimes because it carries rejection, it carries disappointment, it carries doubt, and sometimes it carries straight-out pain.

Today I want to talk about the ever-important, ever-difficult-to-discern line we all must find between these two things, between compassion and the inevitability of writing as a business. I think it's important we take time to flesh out the space in between the two, especially as conference season approaches and we're all bound to face at least some measure of disappointment.

I don't know about you, but I think writing honestly, deeply, with feeling, is a struggle. I can't tell you how many times I have e-mailed my fellow Alley Cat Angie in the last two weeks with updated versions of my pitch or one sheet because I keep panicking over it, wanting my pitch to be the best it possibly can. Do you feel that way too sometimes? I think this kind of anxiety is normal when you've become so invested in a dream or goal. But we have to be so careful that we don't allow our fears of rejection to cloud our heart for a project.

What I mean is that we always, always must write from our hearts if we expect to write anything worthwhile. It's so much easier to detach ourselves from our writing and never experience the sting of rejection, is it not? But whenever we write a story that is close to us, whenever we craft a heroine who's struggles we truly understand, who's pain we actually feel, we take a risk. If she is rejected, does a little part of us not feel rejected also? But what benefit is to to the reader if we refuse to be brave enough to give them stories that we feel? How do we expect the reader to then feel anything, to be moved by the story, if we are not even moved by it ourself? Now, I'm not saying your stories have to be biographical. They don't have to be true or have happened to you. In fact, probably better if they haven't actually happened to you. But they need to live somewhere in you. You need to be able to imagine how your heroine might feel when she faces her greatest fear, and a little part of you, when you think about that playing out, should feel that fear yourself in the same way your heart would hurt over the trials of a good friend. Your characters, your plot arc, your narrative--they should all reflect your deeper heart and calling for the novel. That is how you find your writing voice.

Now let's say you've successfully done this. You've poured your heart and soul into a book and turned off those voices of inner doubt. You've worked with your critique partner and have squeezed every last bit of vulnerability out of your own heart and into the work.

That means it's time to let go. Going back to that wobbly-knees idea, it's time to let your story have a chance, to struggle, in the world. At this point in the process, you have to learn to detach yourself from any criticism, constructive or otherwise, that you might receive. You must turn your back on your own story, difficult as it might seem, so you can instead turn toward improvement. The neat thing about writing is that there is no perfect writer. There is always room for a story, for an author, to improve, and one of the best ways of achieving that is by exposing yourself to feedback from editors, critique partners, and even contests. I'm not saying you should listen to everything everybody tells you. I am saying you should listen sometimes. Surround yourself with people who believe in you as a writer, who "get" your vision for your writing and whose advice you can trust, and then trust them.

I know it may feel like your story is already the way it should be, that you made decisions like where the story starts or why a particular character has certain quirks for a reason. But what if you started at chapter three instead? What if you paired down some of your descriptions to make the dialogue flow faster? Things like this can only be found through keeping an open mind and being willing to let go of your original intentions for the story. Remember that we will never be able to see the larger picture in a story if we won't take our eyes off the first draft.

Here are some things to keep in mind about rejection and difficult feedback.

Rejection is...

  • Change
  • Challenging
  • Subjective
  • Inevitable
  • Character-building (pun intended!)

Rejection might be...

  • Helpful
  • Part of a larger picture
  • Wrong (plenty of authors are rejected only to find success with that same project--just look what happened with The Shack!)
  • Temporary
  • A source of self-doubt and fear, if left unchecked
  • The single-most reason writers give up

Rejection is not...

  • Personal
  • A reason to give up
  • A reflection of your heart for the book
  • Reason to give up writing

To get a different perspective on all of this, I asked my friend Amanda Luedeke of the MacGregor Agency her advice for authors who are struggling to find that distinction between the vulnerability of the writing process itself and taking rejection too seriously.

She said, "People just need to realize that not everyone is going to like your book... just like there are people who love Twilight, and others who hate it. People who love Dickens, Jane Austen, and Tolkein, and others who don't. The industry is subjective. It's nothing personal."

I thought that was such good advice, and especially helpful to hear when it's coming from a literary agent. So as you're gearing up for the conference, be encouraged. Your calling as a writer is so much bigger than any rejection or hardships you might face. Remember to see the big picture and hold fast to God's plans for you. They are always greater than our own.

It can be so difficult to stay balanced instead of 1) taking criticism too harshly or 2) writing from a place outside of our heart in an attempt to protect our feelings. How do you manage these two things effectively? What thoughts do you have on dealing with constructive criticism, even rejection, in a way that allows you to keep pressing on? (I.e. Hitting up the Godiva store.)

Ashley Clark writes romantic comedy with southern grace. She's dreamed of being a writer ever since the thumbprint-cookie-days of library story hour. Ashley has an M.A. in English and enjoys teaching literature courses at her local university. She's an active member of ACFW and runs their newcomer's loop. When she's not writing, Ashley's usually busy rescuing stray animals and finding charming new towns. You can find Ashley on her personal blogFacebook,Pinterest, and Twitter. She is represented by Karen Solem.


Jeanne T said...

Ashley, this is beautifully written, gentle yet pertinent truths.

I almost always feel the initial sting of rejection. I am learning to let that fade, then look at the reasons given (i.e. in a critique) and be teachable, willing to learn from the suggestions and use it to improve my writing.

I'm also learning that talking it out with a trusted friend helps me to process and move beyond the hurt that comes with rejection. Chocolate is always good too. :)

Becky Doughty said...


Thank you for a lovely post and for sharing YOUR heart with us today. Rejection is tough but these are great reminders of how to keep a balanced outlook on things.

Encouraging words,

Lindsay Harrel said...

Ash, sometimes it scares me how alike we are!! Loved this post, friend.

Ashley Clark said...

Such a great point you make about talking it out with a friend! I find that's the thing that always makes me feel better and gain perspective. Thanks for sharing!

Ashley Clark said...

Thank you, Becky! I'm glad you could stop by today!

Ashley Clark said...

It IS kind of weird, isn't it? Great minds think alike!

I think with me, I tend not to take criticism harshly (most of the time, at least) but usually go the opposite direction where I cut my heart out of my writing. I think it's an academia thing, and not always a good habit to have! Thanks for coming by today, Linds!

Jenna K. said...

I totally needed this post! I'm always going crazy over my story and not satisfied with things...probably because I'm not letting go of the thought of getting rejected. Thank you for this post, it was a great encouragement! :D

Ashley Clark said...

I'm so glad, Jenna! Thank you for stopping by! Best of luck with your writing!

Amanda Fanger said...

Great post - as always!