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Nov
30
2021

You Are Not Your Story -- by Stephan James

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said, of a story you’re thinking of submitting for critique, “What if they don’t like it?” Keep those hands up if that’s the reason your story hasn’t gone past the first draft. No judgment here – my hand is the highest in the room.

Unfortunately, this happens far too often. I’ve seen it plenty of times in both online groups, like here at Critique Circle, or in-person writing groups. People hold back on sharing something they’ve written for the wrong reason. Most of the time they don’t even realize it, either, and they make excuses like “It’s just not quite ready yet” to keep from putting their work out into the world.

The thing is, I don’t think they hold back because they’re afraid that their peers will tell them that the story has flaws. Instead, I suspect they subconsciously believe that their peers will tell them that the writer has flaws.

This happens because it is so incredibly easy to identify with the story.

I get it. You've poured hours and hours and hours into making your work as good as you think it can be. The thing is, when you spend so long at a specific task, it becomes very easy to identify with it. “This is my story and my idea. This is my effort. This represents my skill.”

However, when you merge your personhood with the story, or a script, or a poem, critiques can feel like personal attacks.

Because someone who doesn't know you, doesn't know the time you've put in, doesn't know how much you've tweaked and changed and revised and reordered and scrapped and refined and proofread, just swoops in and says, "Yeah, it doesn't work." And you're devastated. It's as if they said, "You are not a good person for having written this."

How dare they!  Don't they know that this is the best you've ever done? Don't they know this is the thing that will define you and confirm your ingenuity, creativity, and wit to the rest of the world?

Nope. They don't.

The only thing they know is, that your heroine initially wanted to save the prince, but then on page eight her goal somehow changed to wanting to destroy him and they don’t understand why. Or they don’t get why your spacefaring species, which is technologically adept enough to create wormhole drives, somehow can be brought down by an indigenous population with blow darts.

Something just doesn’t work, and that’s all that a critique is. It’s pointing out the parts of the story that need to be better, tighter, clearer.

It’s not a critique of you, the person. It’s not a critique of your effort, your skill, or your passion.

So in order for you to actually fix the problems in the story, you're going to have to find a way to cut the umbilical cord and let the work stand on its own.

You as the author have to step back and distance yourself from the story.

After a couple of times of feeling like they’re coming after you, you start to get defensive. To protect yourself from those perceived attacks, you wrap everything up tight and don't submit anything.

This is a problem, because if you're so tied to what you've written than you can't see the flaws, or are unwilling to change them when they're exposed by the feedback, then you're inhibiting the opportunity to make the thing better.

Ultimately, this is holding your stories back. If you’re not getting critiques because you’re afraid of what those critiques will say, and how that will make you feel about yourself, then your story isn’t going to improve.

This is hard to do. It takes noticing that you are identifying with a story and practice to separate yourself from it. Write a story. Request critiques on it. Remind yourself that the critiques are about the story itself, not about you and your self-worth. Take the critiques with a grain of salt, and change the story. But don't change you! Change the thing- that's what the critique is for. 

Then, when you've made it better, perhaps get a second round of critique and see if you’ve fixed the problems from before. [Frankly, there’s a chance you’ll find some new ones, too. That’s okay.] Let those critiques again be about the story, and only about the story. Revised according to the critiques, keeping in mind that they’re not saying anything about you, and send it out to your target market.

Then start over on the next one. Make another outline. Make another draft. Remind yourself that the story is the story, and you are the author, and that critiques are about the story, not about you. 

Do it again. And again. And again.

And again.

And again.

Eventually, you’ll get there. You will recognize that the story is a thing, separate from you, the writer. Seeing it as a thing apart will allow you to do the work necessary to make it better.

Ultimately resulting in a story that truly is the best it can be.

Posted by Stephan James 30 Nov 2021 at 03:32
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