A writer’s challenge – criticism to early drafts

At a session of the International Festival of Authors in Toronto several years ago when I was more naïve and less experienced as a fiction writer, I challenged an author on a panel who was talking about all the revisions she did after negative feedback from readers to an early draft of hers. I said, “But isn’t what is important that you are true to your own voice, whatever others may think?” 

She replied, “But if what I’ve written doesn’t communicate with the reader, what’s the point?”

To which I responded, “The point is we write primarily for ourselves. At least, I do.”

I was speaking out of the context of having written a very personal memoir “August Farewell” that initially I had no intention of publishing and being in the midst of writing my first novel “Searching for Gilead” that was also precipitated by personal and systemic issues that I wanted to tackle.

Well, now I’m at a point where I agree with Lao-Tse, “The more you know, the less you understand.” Meaning, the more I’ve written and published, the more confused I’ve become.

My current dilemma is in relation to a collection of inter-related short stories that I’ve begun. I finished the first one and sent it out to a few friends to read. I’ve gotten mixed responses. One person, who is an editor by profession, said, “But nothing happens in it.” A second friend, an avid reader, said, “I just didn’t connect with the main character.”

However, a third wrote me, “What stays with me a few days later is the feeling of intense passion that is conveyed by the story…I identify personally with the feeling behind the words, but I also think they have enduring and universal appeal… a very successful writing project.”

The short story in question is intended much more as a character study than an action thriller. And I happen to like it pretty much as it is. It speaks to me.

Though the creative satisfaction is by far my principal motivation for writing, I’m no longer in the place where I am writing just for myself. My life has been immensely enriched by the touching reader feedback that I have received to “August Farewell.” I’m learning a great deal from the responses that I’m getting to “Searching for Gilead.” The author-reader dialogue in person and through social media such as Twitter and Facebook is a big part of my life now.

I want to be as fine a writer as I can be which suggests that I have much to learn from feedback. But, I also want to be authentic to my own voice and not tailor my writing to the expectations and tastes of others.

How do you resolve this dilemma in your writing?

* * *

My memoir “August Farewell” tells the story of the two weeks between my partner’s diagnosis with pancreatic cancer and his death. Interspersed among the scenes are vignettes from our thirty-three years together as a gay couple.

Information on “August Farewell” and on my novel “Searching for Gilead”, including YouTube video book trailers on each, is available on my website at http://DavidGHallman.com

Both the memoir and the novel are available for order from your local bookseller or on-line retailers including http://amazon.com, http://barnesandnoble.com, http://amazon.ca, http://chapters.indigo.ca, http://amazon.co.uk










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7 responses to “A writer’s challenge – criticism to early drafts

  1. Ultimately we write stories for our own pleasure. I do not believe we should ever write for a specific audience or market (as opposed to writing with mass market appeal). Of course, if people like what we write, they buy the book. But staying true to yourself is a difficult thing to do, especially if something you write becomes well liked. How do you remain objective and not caught up in the success?When I get feedback to my first drafts I look at common themes, and then I decide what changes, if any, I will make to the draft to accommodate those themes. The important thing here, is that I am not looking at specifics (except in grammar, spelling, etc.), but themes. In this way it helps me improve the book while leaving it still something that is completely mine.Good luck!

  2. Hi David,I’ve not had a book published (working on that!), but I embrace the feedback. Not to change my style or alter my voice or even change the story. Just to be sure that what I want the reader to "get" – they do. My first round of beta readers supplied me with some common issues to deal with, and a bunch of suggestions based on their individual personal perspective. I took what I liked, discovered some changes I hadn’t considered but thought improved the story, and left the rest behind. Then I thanked them all profusely that they cared enough about me and my work to take the time to read it and tell me their thoughts. I love your picture. Hope to have a similar one someday. Of my published books I mean, not the view of downtown Toronto… 🙂

  3. Jeff Ballam

    David, I’m fairly new to writing, but what I have gathered so far, is that I write to get the stories out of my head, so I’m doing it for me. But, I do want the reader to ‘get’ the story. Is there some general cleaning up I need to do? Some continuity errors to catch? Any loose ends? I may bounce what one reader says off another, but ultimately it’s my story. I hope this helps.

  4. Hi David,Wonderful post! To attempt to answer your questions… I think we first write for ourselves, unless it’s technical writing, educational writing, etc… and even then… As writers we have to connect to our story, otherwise how can we expect our readers to do the same? Maybe we first write for ourselves then for our editors (they are the once who publish our writing), and then for our potential readers. I think it’s more of a blend of the the three. But it starts with our passion for the subject we decide to write about. If that initial passion is not there, if our interest is not involved, it shows in the final (published) worked. [For lack of a better analogy, it’s like a gymnast who performs everything perfectly, technically speaking, but she’s like a marionette (there’s no soul/passion involved). Also, while at it, I don’t agree with the old "write what you know" motto (I’d have been done in no time, and I’ve been writing professionally now for a decade now). I say, don’t write what you know (although you may start with that), write what you are interested in… You’ll find your passion and you’ll eventually have that passion come through in your writing. Also, for a long time I thought I had to please everybody, in life, in general, and through my writing/photography. Then I figured out that was not quite the case. It’s the audience you have to please, say, with your writing. But you can’t have everybody as your audience (I don’t think it’s a good thing to start with). But if your writing has a soul, than your readers will find it (that soul) and become your fans and audience.Again, great post! Thanks for the opportunity to comment on it and share my thoughts.Alina Oswaldalinaoswald.blogspot.com

  5. Traci Ford

    I agree with Ms. Oswald. I start out writing for myself and writing what I know, but inevitably my story evolves into writing about what interests me and what I think will interest my readers. Also, I hardly, if ever, write with the intention to sell. Though, don’t get me wrong, I would LOVE to be able to make a comfortable living as a writer and not have to work to supplement it, but I write mostly to get outside of my own head and share what’s going inside there.This is a great post, David! I look forward to many more!

  6. There’s a difference between preserving one’s own voice and observing certain rules of craft. Obviously, rules are meant to be broken, especially in writing, but sometimes criticism can point flaws in the story-telling, organization, etc. I have improved my own writing immensely through the help and critiques of others. I shudder to think what I might be writing if I’d simply decided, "To heck with it, I’m just going to write this however I want!" I’m as independent as anyone else as a writer, but the writing, whatever the voice, still has to be "good." And we can argue all day what "good" actually means. 🙂

  7. Hi David, thought I would let you know, I gave you a Liebster award 🙂

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