Now, we all want to be right — to be smart, admired, to think for ourselves and not let anything sway our convictions. But at a certain point does certainty inhibit progress?
I’ve been asking myself this question a lot this year. Firstly, as I move forward toward becoming a professional writer, I have started thinking more about what audiences want — and deserve. A little background: I’ve been a follow-your-vision, write-only-what-interests-you, write-what-you-love-and-the-money-will-follow type for years and years now. And as I started to discuss the idea of writing more toward the audience’s desires with other writers, I heard my own arguments returned to me again and again.
“I think you’ll be more successful if you just follow your heart.”
“It’s more interesting to just create what you like.”
“Doing what others tell you and chasing popular opinion is no way to live your life.”
True. True. True.
But I couldn’t shake the feeling that just being self-satisfied with ‘being me’ wasn’t — actually — helping me get better. I wanted to take the confidence (and experience) of listening to my inner voice and pair it with something more — with the tumultuous seas of outside opinion.
Rarely has the universe responded so quickly as it did now. 😉 Within weeks of seriously starting to think about this issue, I was challenged with a huge question — Did I want to be right, or better?
I had sent my newest novel, the 1810s-set Society & Civility, out to several friends for feedback. But this novel — you have to understand — it had become such a favorite with me. Ever since I’d started it last fall, I had enjoyed its world and characters so much, reread it several times almost just for fun, and thought it was a huge step forward for me as a writer. It was a lark, a love story — and the best thing I’d ever written. SO. When the reviews came in there was a lot of love (most rated it 7 to 8.6 out of 10) and a BIG problem. Toward the end of my story it totally breaks with the whole Jane Austin genre. I knew that might be a problem, which is why I’d sought feedback before completing any more drafts. People didn’t understand or like ‘the twist’ (as it came to be called).
I held out hope that my sister (the last of my beta readers) would feel the same way as I did and ‘get it’ as it were. Then the crushing blow came — she felt the exact same way as the other readers. So my perfect novel wasn’t considered by others to be perfect at all — now what?
Well, here was the puzzle of pleasing the audience writ large: they loved the book except for the twist. Did I hold fast and complete it as was — the way I loved it — or should I change it? I knew I could just brush off the opinions of these smartest, kindest friends — all creators and lovers of this genre — and tell myself that *my* audience would totally get my choices — whenever and under whatever rock I’d find this mystery group.
But– but. In my heart of hearts I knew these were my readers — and I’d let them down. I could always have a copy of *my* edition, but now what? Didn’t I want to challenge myself and make a story everyone could fall in love with? Didn’t I want to become BETTER that I was? The answer — after only thinking about quitting writing six times in one morning — was yes.
So far the rewrite is going well. (Update from the future: The rewrite went sensationally)
So when you come up against that question, that challenge — should I listen to others or go my own way? — I would ask yourself:
- WHO is giving you this feedback? Are these people you respect, people you want to emulate, or people who have valuable experience? There no point in following someone down a road you don’t want to travel anyway. In the example above, I had every reason to admire these readers and believe that they would give good advice. In a different example, a co-worker was recently applying for a job I’d previously held for two years and I offered to help them out and answer any questions they had. They pretty well blew me off, believing they already knew ‘everything’ about the position. I was someone with insight and a desire to help — and that could have been a powerful resource to help them if they’d been willing to listen.
- WHY are they telling you this? Some people just like to complain, nitpick, or put others down and you should never be using these people to judge your work or your life. But if you’ve asked someone for their advice, you should listen because you probably thought they had something valuable to say — you know, before they told you what you didn’t want to hear. And if you are creating products you want people to buy, consume, or love — you need to listen double-hard. Most likely, they are disappointed — and now they are trying to help you — maybe imperfectly, maybe in the human language of anger or frustration — but what they take the time to tell you are the words a hundred other customers may have walked away with still written in their hearts.
- Are YOU 100% happy with your results? If the answer is yes, you’re done. Stand firm. Tell the rest to go to hell and hold true to your path. Discover your fans and let them discover you. But… if in your heart you know you could be better, then listen. Acknowledge that you may be very good — you’re at least very smart and full of potential — but you not as good as you could be. So learn a better way to jog, take a class to improve your painting skill, and be open to starting anew on that book. If you see a gap, you owe it to yourself to bridge it and get better. Even if the gap is just between the audience’s expectations and your design.
- Are you EXPERIENCED enough to weed out the noise? This is high-level stuff, this balancing of being true to yourself and listening to others, and I want you to side 100% with your heart and intuition until you’re ready for this level 16 challenge. Keep in mind that you always get to decide in the end — listening to others and getting feedback is nothing more than offering you more options to choose from. And like I said, beware unsolicited advice, negative people, and anyone who truly doesn’t ‘get’ what you’re trying to do. You really are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff here (okay, not really 🙂 — what you are looking for is that small bit of advice that interests you, challenges you, and makes you say ‘Damn it — they might be right’.
- Will this help you get BETTER? In the end, it doesn’t matter if the critics are right or wrong if their advice hurts your progress. Weird but so true. With young writers, my secret feeling is ‘Yes, you are not there yet, but all you need is ten years of enthusiastic hard work. Then you’ll be great.’ No one really wants to hear that, they want the shortcuts — but you can still bleed from those cuts. Don’t wound yourself upon the opinions of others if you’re not ready. I loved my first critique group but there came a time when I felt I must withdraw, and grow in secret like a mushroom, pushing out of the leaf litter and into the sun only when fully formed. And now I’m ready to face the light.
I believe you can get 95% of the way to your goal under your own steam, keeping your secret counsel, and trusting your instincts. But when it comes time to finesse the final pieces, to push yourself further than you know how to go, you have to seek, to see beyond your own faith and fallacies, to press and push yourself ever upward — to become more than you are, more than you thought you could be.
To stop being good and to become truly great.