A confession: I’m letting Book Two, just a poor little baby manuscript, suffer. She’s been an estimated 90% done for about four months now, and I just cannot bring myself to do that last 10%. That almost certainly means there’s something wrong with what I think the last 10% should be, because that’s what books do when they’re trying to stop you from ruining them. But I can’t even bring myself to do the work to find out what it is that needs fixing.
Maybe the problem is that I doomed her from the beginning. I started her off saying that I didn’t care how she turned out; that she was just practice; that I didn’t expect to do anything with her no matter how she turned out. Upon reflection, what an unkind way to treat an idea. What would Liz Gilbert say?
I mean (for effect, pretend I’m contorting myself into a classic observational-comedy standup pose, leaning wryly on a mic stand) talk about “kill your darlings!” For what I said about this little book they oughta lock me up and call me a murderer!
Writing my own fiction has turned me into a critical reader of others’ fiction. Critical in two senses: yes, in the sense of critical thinking, meaning I read more actively and analytically. But also in the sense of a harsh critic, judging minor mistakes, and even things I simply would have done differently, as failures.
While reading a certain novel recently, I could barely pay attention to the plot with how distracted I was by trying to figure out what was wrong. It wasn’t a bad book. It wasn’t a great book, either. But did I give it its due? I couldn’t see it, whatever it actually was, because I was too busy taking its measurements against how I would have written it. Would I want someone to read my book that way? Or would I prefer them to simply trust me to take them along for whatever ride I was able to take them on?
Speaking of critical: I have a habit of providing feedback to bad drivers. As we all know, bad driving is entirely subjective, but we all know it when we see it. Generally my stink-eyes and slight shakes of the head go unanswered. But sometimes they don’t, and this always leaves me unsettled. One time last year, a woman nearly ran me down as she blew through a crosswalk, and flipped me off for making a face about it. Earlier this spring, I had a prolonged argument with someone who catcalled me from his (official government!) vehicle. (This may not count as bad driving, technically, but it is bad behavior while driving). We disagreed about whether he was paying me a compliment (his position), or whether I deserved to be left alone (my position). The light eventually changed and we agreed to disagree.
Just today, I muttered a suggestion for someone to stop at a stop sign rather than significantly in front of it. It turned out, to my chagrin, that his window was down and he heard me. “My bad,” he said with a tone of genuine humble remorse.
I felt really awful after all of these interactions. Each of them made me regret expressing anger, even though I know that developing a healthy (gulp) relationship to anger is something I really ought to keep doing. No matter what the reaction, be it rage in return, an argument, or an apology, I always feel like I’ve lost the high ground by letting my criticism out of its little secret cage.
I’m becoming a better writer by reading critically, and a better reader through writing. But this is not without peril. My own criticism of Book Two began as self-sabotage, writing the book off from the beginning. (It’s not important; it’s just practice). This made it easy to write, for a while, because the stakes were so low. But now the stakes are so low that I can’t be arsed to finish.
And second, I know this critical eye can be turned on me, just as I turn it on others. Perish the thought of another author finding my two-star review for her book that was…fine, that a lot of people liked, that just wasn’t for me. Perish the thought that the two-star “shrug” review can come for me, too.
Anyway, I’m somehow managing to cope using “Tiger King” and marshmallow Oreos, so it’s not all bad.