My first scathing review did not come from an editor, literary agent or publisher; it came from my sister. I had not completed my first manuscript yet, but I had covered most of the plot. I was eager for another pair of eyes to look at my work, but I was also apprehensive. There was a possibility that she wasn’t going to enjoy or appreciate my book.
Why my sister, you may ask; because she was the smartest person I knew. Whenever I converse with her, I can tell that she is thinking. She is not the kind to regurgitate gossip or wives’ tales as fact. I knew that she would be honest with me. Plus she reads the classics. I think at the time she was reading Anna Karenina.
When she read the manuscript, I was living hundreds of kilometers from her because of my job. She gave me her first review over the phone. She basically congratulated me, and lamented how the story had abruptly stopped when it had become riveting.
I was obviously thrilled that she wanted to read more of it. Truth be told, I was over the moon that she liked it. It meant that I was heading in the right direction, and that something real could come out of my writing.
But then I went back home after my job contract had expired, and I requested the formal review from her.
In a nutshell, her review was as follows:
- The world you created is cold and sterile (not even as much as mention of a tree).
- I felt that I didn’t really know the characters.
- I felt nothing when so and so died. I feel nothing about so and so.
- You have no idea about the power of micro-expressions.
- Why was so and so doing this? Why is so and so like this?
- So and so is the most boring character I have ever read.
Although the light of my soul was being extinguished little by little, I took the criticism graciously. I smiled at points, even though I was slowly dying inside.
- Well, most of the stuff is happening in the city.
- I didn’t want to explain who the characters were. I wanted the reader to discover for themselves as they read their chapters.
- How can you feel nothing for so and so? All they want is such and such.
- Fair enough. But won’t descriptions of micro-expressions distract the reader?
- So and so is like this because of such and such.
- Fair enough. He was there to provide the more conventional human angle.
- You are explaining all these things to me, but they are not in the book. You don’t write a book in your head; you write it on the page (response to 3 and 5 above).
After the discussion, I was crushed, even brooded a little. How could she be so blunt? So should I continue writing, or should I cut my losses before I go too far and invest too much?
After much thought, I decided that I would not give up, but would improve. I came up with actual backstories for all my characters. No longer would my characters only be ideas in my head and in my notes. I typed a separate document explaining each character’s defining history and personality.
And like the amateur I was, I dumped these backstories in some of the chapters. I would later learn about the importance of artfully weaving backstory into the main story.
I also went back to my manuscript and humanised my characters in their thoughts and gestures; what I already knew but had decided to omit (write the words on paper, not in your mind). I discovered how liberating it was to allow myself to live through my characters, to see what they see and to feel what they feel. If they felt it, it landed on the page.
After I was done, the story became richer. It began to make more sense, even to me. I felt that I knew the characters better after delving into their pasts and into their minds.
It was only when I began learning about the concept of story that I confirmed how absolutely correct my sister was.
The story is not the plot. It is how the external elements affect and change the protagonist internally. It is about the character’s internal dialogue; their internal struggle; their internal change. The most interesting thing is not what the character does, but why they do it; not what they say, but what they are thinking when they say it. As a writer, be prepared to address every why question.
What my sister was simply expressing is that she didn’t know what my characters were thinking (micro-expressions convey one’s true emotions), why they were thinking it, why they were doing what they were doing, where they came from, why she should care. She didn’t know who they were.
Her critique made me look into concepts I should have been aware of before I even began writing. For all you budding writers out there, don’t fear or avoid criticism. If you welcome it, it will only make you better.
In the next post, I’ll be sharing what I learned about story.