“Writing for yourself” doesn’t mean ignoring all criticism…just most of it

Am borrowing a friend’s house in Nevada City so I can get away this week and do some writing. It’s pretty incredible. I generally have few enough responsibilities, but it’s nice to have absolutely zero. Trying to make some progress in my writing. Did a fair bit today, so I’m feeling good. But there’s always more out there to be done.

Sometimes I get depressed, when I write, at the thought, “Oh, here’s another character that people are going to hate.”

When I wrote my debut, Enter Title Here, I never imagined people would have such a negative reaction to my protagonist. I always sympathized with her wholeheartedly, and I still do. I’ve never fully understood why people abhor cheating in school SO much. Because the fact is, most people have cheated at least a few times. Whenever I’m standing around with parents or teachers, and they’re like, oh, plagiarism in school is such a problem, I’ll ask, “Didn’t you guys ever cheat?” And inevitably around half of them admit to having done it at least a time or two (and those are just the ones who admit to it!)

And I think most people understand the difference between cheating in things that really matter (like your profession or your creative work) and cheating in school, which is nothing more than a bunch of meaningless assessments designed to sort you out into strata that ultimately are correleted less with intelligence and skill and more with parental education and income.

I think these opinions of mine came through pretty clearly in the book, and I don’t have much in the characterization that I’d change. All you can when you write is be honest. In fact, one thing I’ve learned over time is to make characters exactly as bad as they truly are. It’s very tempting, if you’ve got a character with anger issues, for instance, to make them go around hitting people. But there’s really no need. You can show them speaking sharply to people instead. Or just getting visibly defensive and flustered. I find that the lightest possible touch is the best, because that’s the truest.

If anything, authors have a tendency to weight the scales against their characters, because they can’t tolerate ambiguity. But, ironically, this often works out for them, because it’s harder, usually, to sympathize with the character who speaks sharply to their friends or their spouse, because their lack of force betrays a certain hesitancy and insecurity in their character, and this hesitancy feels too real to us. It makes us confront our own powerlessness and the ways in which we ourselves can be villainous.

That’s why audiences can sympathize with characters who engage in vigilante killing or who steal millions of dollars, but not with a character who cheats in school.

 

I’m speaking too generally, of course. Many people sympathized with my main character in Enter Title Here, and I’m sure many will sympathize with my character in the new book. But I also know that lots of people won’t like him. And not for anything he does, either, because he really doesn’t do anything even as bad as cheating in school. If anything, he’s much better than most guys. But they won’t like him because he’s selfish sometimes (just like we’re all selfish, when it comes to love). There’ll be a feel to him that we won’t enjoy. Something in the texture of the narration. Most fiction is full of elisions and little lies, particularly when it comes to teenage boys. Young adult fiction pretends we are so much better than we are. That’s one of the reasons I loved Emma Cline’s The Girls. The book was, at least in small part, about how difficult it is to love a teenage boy and about how many concessions girls need to make to keep that fantasy alive. But because of these elisions in typical YA fiction, any book that breaks the illusion comes across as disturbing.

 

What I don’t want to do is seem entitled. People are allowed to like whatever books they want. Certainly I have books that others love which I don’t like. What’s interesting, from the writer’s standpoint, is how you deal with these issues. It is hard to write when you know that most of the audience is not going to approve. That if you went against your deepest instincts and your sense of what’s true, the book would probably be more critically and commercially successful.

I’m also well aware that this is exactly what really shitty novice writers say when you try to tell them that nothing is happening in their book. They’re like, well, it’s not like all that other crap out there. My book is doing something innovative and new.

Sometimes they’re right, of course. I read so many books that are not written the way I’d have written them, but which are still very successful. I’m thinking of Proust, for instance, which strikes me as so overwritten, with so many relationships that parallel each other and situations that recur over and over. But his book is a masterpiece, and it was the product of a singular vision, and, most importantly, it’s given me about as much pleasure as anything I’ve ever read.

That’s the problem. Your instincts usually lead you down wrong pathways in addition to the right ones, and both good and bad end up so inextricably mixed that it’s hard for you to figure out which is which. Usually the result is interesting, at the very least to yourself, but there’s no guarantee that what is interesting to you will be interesting to anybody else in the world. Peoples’ comments can give you information about how the book is being read, but they can only go so far.

When it comes to revision, I am incredible. I mean it, I’m a great reviser. This wasn’t always true. I used to never revise. But nowadays I’ve gained this ability to re-envision my work and figure out ways of setting aside what I’ve actually written and thinking of ways to simplify and streamline it. In some ways I’m a very cerebral writer. I do actually think, explicitly, about themes and character arcs and how the different strands of a story play out against each other. And my books change radically through the revision process.

And yet I’m also not a huge believer in this idea that revision can turn a hater of your book into a lover. When people love or hate a book, they’re usually responding, in my opinion, to its core. For instance, I just read an early work of Asian-American literature, John Okada’s No No Boy. This is a book about a Japanese-American boy who refused to fight on America’s side in World War II and was sent to prison as a result. After he gets out, he wanders around Seattle frothing with wordless rage and getting into fights with Japanese-American men who’ve recently been demobilized from the army.

It is…not well written. Everything is repeated so many times. The themes and thoughts are stated so baldly. The writing is purple, but not lyrical, and the character development is very slow and fitful. And yet I really liked the book, because its core was the protagonist’s deep ambivalence about his own actions. He took this highly principled stand, but he feels like a coward. He wishes, on some level, that he’d been able to go abroad and fight, and yet he’s angry with those who did. His relationships are so complex.

And people who hated the book are also, usually, responding to this core. They thought it portrayed the Japanese-Americans in a bad light and gave support to the white people who had called for internment.

The book would’ve been improved immeasurably by greater revision, but I don’t think any number of rounds would’ve turned those haters into lovers. Both they and I ‘got’ the point of the book, we just responded, because of our own history and propensities, in very different ways.

So when I revise, it’s not really with an eye to the critics. Instead I revise with an eye to the people who are going to love the book. When I revise, I think, “How can I trust my audience more? How can I surprise them and delight them more? How can I give them more to remember? How can I quicken their pulse and heighten their sense of longing?”

And, most importantly, I think about the integrity of the book itself. “How can I make this book more perfect? How can I better express the essence of what it is?”

Because that’s ultimately what it’s about. I think it’s very possible for your own ego to come between you and the book you’ve written, and criticism, when it’s useful, is only useful for me in that it reminds me that the book has a soul of its own that’s totally separate from any thoughts and desires that I or my agent or my publisher or my fans or all the reviewers on Goodreads might have for it.