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Defensive or Reliable

May 6, 2011

One of the things that has been most frustrating on my journey to a master's degree in creative writing is the feedback from my teachers and peers. Me and my superhero book are in the tiny minority of what's being written by students in my program. On occasion I've had to explain the concept of superheroes and super powers in an elementary way. As an American consumer of genre entertainment in several media (movies, books, graphic novels), it has been very confusing to me when this happens. I always pause and study the person's face to decide if they're teasing me or being purposely obtuse. They aren't.

Now a large part of it, I am convinced, is that I am living and studying in another country. Granted, Australia doesn't seem that different from America in daily life. But the way people think is a little different, and what Australians in general prefer to read or watch at the movies is different enough that I believe I genuinely confuse them with the kinds of things I write. (I've also presented parts of romance novels, young adult novels, and urban fantasy novels in class for critique.)

So when we're in class reading our work and giving each other feedback, I find myself pausing every single time. I don't read many short stories. I don't read much literary fiction. I don't read any experimental fiction. So I pause and try to think of something helpful to suggest to improve the story or the writing. More times than not I'm calmly shut down with some form of “but that's the point, that's what I was trying to do.” I rarely feel I've helped anyone with my comments unless it's one of the few people writing some kind of commercial/genre fiction.

When it's my turn, I read my work and wait with trepidation for my classmates' comments. Sometimes I feel people are making comments as if the work were in another genre. I know this or that person doesn't read in my genre so I wonder how seriously I should take their feedback. I just read a Harry Dresden book over the break to re-immerse myself in the world of urban fantasy. So this week when some of the comments seemed to be what not to do in an urban fantasy, I spoke up and defended my work.

Authors tend to be too defensive of their words and they don't always see the wisdom in the proposed changes. I'm well aware of that, so I write down every comment no matter how I feel about it. But at some point, I have to ask myself – are my instincts on what is and isn't a valid potential improvement a defensive stance? Or are my instincts reliable because I've studied my genre and know how it works.

It's not always plot issues. Many times the point of view is called into question, or the character development, differentiation between characters and between the actions of different characters, the way things are described or set up, etc. This week I kind of wanted to yell out – this is not The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay! That superhero book is more a literary novel, and my classmates would probably like it much more than my book. But regardless of the fact that Kavalier & Clay is critically acclaimed and a Pulitzer Prize winner, I don't want to write that book. It's not a Kitty book. If there is only one thing I've learned in the last fifteen years, it's that Kitty needs to write Kitty books.

So what advice do I take and what do I leave? How can I be sure I'm not ignoring advice that would improve my work? How can I be certain that I'm not in love with my own words to the detriment of the book as a whole? If I were writing only for fun, it wouldn't matter. But since I plan on writing for an income-earning career, I need to use wisdom at every opportunity.

You've heard the advice, if you get several people giving you the same feedback then you should seriously consider it. Well, here is my problem. I'm consistently getting the same feedback from my Australian teachers and classmates (with the exception of people who are reading in my genre), and I'm consistently getting almost the opposite feedback from my equally qualified American friends. (I stress “equally qualified” because it's important to compare apples to apples here. The Americans I've had read my work are published and/or working writers.)

So what's a girl to do?

That's the question of the day. The only answer I can come up with is to go to the source of my inspiration, the giver of my gift, and ask God to help me write, rewrite and polish with wisdom. And I need to be sure I'm doing so with joy, writing for fun!

Then I guess I'll let the grades and the level of respect from my academic peers fall where they may.


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