Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m a writer (currently unpublished, but that’s only a matter of time!) and I’m having difficulty processing some recent, very specific feedback about my work. Two of my short stories have received similar responses from two separate sources (one response per story). The first was that the writing had become a little too “polished” and had seemingly lost qualities that made it distinctly mine. The second was that I needed to stop trying to be insert-author-we-both-love-here (also author who has been unofficially mentoring me this year) because my writing is already insert-positive-stuff-here and I don’t need to be her. I don’t know whether I’m struggling to process it because they’re right, or because they’re wrong (or somewhere in-between).
These people have previously read my work, have given excellent, insightful criticisms, and have seen my development as a writer over the past couple of years through workshops we’ve taken together. These two have shown that when they deliver feedback it’s to better the story and better me as a writer. And normally, I’m really good at accepting constructive criticism, noting everything down, sifting through all of it later and selecting or discarding what’s applicable and what will help me shape the story into the story I want to write. Even stuff that’s delivered in a not-so-helpful manner I can find useful.
But this has me stumped. Firstly, I don’t know what to do about it in my work (or if I even want to do anything about it) because it’s such a general, intangible sort of concept (is it the content? the structure? the atmosphere? the syntax?). Secondly, I don’t know if it’s a bad thing (but two trusted critique fellows have said the same thing, so maybe it’s an issue).
To the first response, that my writing has become too polished, I have years of critiques from this person pointing out similar flaws (i.e. “overuse of adverbs”, “tendency to overextend description”, “overuse of similes/metaphors”), which I worked really hard to fix. And now it’s too polished? Well, great, that was my aim.
For the second response, I’m not trying to write like anyone else other than myself. Certainly, this author’s work/mentoring has influenced me, but that’s because she writes dark fantasy/horror stories steeped in fairytales and this particular story was exactly that.
I keep going around in circles. Is it useful feedback to take into consideration? Is it arrogant to dismiss it? If it’s true/useful, how do I actually tackle the issue? If it’s false/not useful, how do I respond to them tactfully?
Written Myself Into A Corner
Here’s what you do: You say “Thank you so much for your comments! I really appreciate how generous and thoughtful you are with feedback, and I think working with you has made me a better writer.”
Then, if you haven’t read these pieces out loud before now as part of your process, do it now. The reading will help you hear anything that doesn’t land quite right and you can make any final tweaks.
Next, send those stories out for publication and write some new ones. Even if your stories have the issues these beta-readers say and they are right about everything…so what? You can still decide that your creations are as finished as they are going to get, and they can still connect with readers. You are hearing “almost not quite good enough” but I am hearing the ding of the oven timer telling you that these particular story-cakes are done.
I’m a believer that each piece of work you make answers questions and solves problems from the last piece, and raises questions for the next piece. Your old work wasn’t polished enough, maybe. Your new work is “too polished,” maybe. Your next work will probably find a different balance because you will have progressed as a writer and you will have a little more control. You are writing in the same genre as a mentor and your stories are reminding people who know that you work with that mentor of that mentor. Read Steal Like An Artist and think of Joe Hill & his dad Stephen King, Brian De Palma & Hitchcock, Neil Gaiman’s homages to Conan Doyle (among many, many others)…Is “If you like ________’s work, you might really like ________’s work, too” such a terrible thing, especially when you are starting out? In cinema, when we talk about authorship (creators who have a recognizable signature in their work even when they work across genres & styles), we are talking about something that can only be observed over time and over the creation of multiple works. Your unique voice and point of view exists already in everything you create, but until you’ve made more stuff and until that stuff has been read by audiences outside of a few people who know you very, very well, isn’t it pretty hard to say at this point what defines it? The answer is to keep going, keep writing, keep seeking. Give yourself permission to start somewhere.
Workshop teachers, professors, beta-readers, and editors can help you improve and polish your writing, but in the end only you can send your work out the door into the world. In the end you must be the champion of your own imperfect work. I personally hope you will because I effing love some dark fantasy/horror steeped in fairy tales.
P.S. Your worries about being too “arrogant”…what’s that about? Where does that come from? Internalized sexism, awkward feelings about possibly surpassing your friends, perfectionism, probably, but, yikes. You are absolutely allowed to disregard feedback that doesn’t bring the work closer to what you want it to be, and you do not owe your critique-givers an explanation. If you ever start to worry that you are being too arrogant, look at this picture and know that the answer is “Nope, I’m good!”