Monday, July 31, 2017

Dealing with subjectivity - they can't all be right can they?



I’m currently sitting on tenterhooks waiting for a competition to announce a winner - one of my manuscripts is up for best unpublished. I’m familiar with those tenterhooks, my manuscripts have been in that position before. It’s a great feeling – one of validation.

But that same manuscript has been entered somewhere else and didn’t get over the first hurdle.  In fact, in one comp I entered, the feedback from the judge was that the story didn’t work – and would never work. I might also benefit from heading back to grammar class.

Writing is such a subjective pastime, isn’t it?

As I’ve been on my writing journey, I’ve spoken to a range of authors who have experienced the same thing. Competition entries that say a novel is a winner. Competition rejections that say you need to go back to the drawing board (or school in some cases).

I’ve also found it at conferences.  When I’ve speed-dated agents or editors, one has sat in thrall of my elevator pitch while the second one stifled a yawn.  They can’t both be right can they?

I’ve had two beta readers tell me my characters are both engaging and flat. They can’t both be right can they?

Well, they are actually, because writing is such a subjective pastime.

I’m guilty of it myself as a reader.  Someone has recommended I read a book because “it’s amazing” and I gave up 15 pages in because I was bored or lost or didn't engage with the characters. And then I haven’t rushed to Amazon to see what else that person has written.

So here’s my question for today: if we’re writers, and our work is the subject of such subjectivity, how do you know you’re heading in the right direction? How do you stay centered in such a subjective space?  How do you stay true to what you’re trying to do when conflicting opinions give you different feedback to the same work?

It can be a challenge to not take those comments to heart, and in turn to have them creep into your self-worth and your writing.

As a writer, you need a central point to which you can turn – an anchor to which you can ground yourself.

For me – as I presume it is for other Christian writers – it is God. I need to keep coming back to the realisation that He’s given me the stories, He’s given me the ability to string two words together, He’s given me the framework to write them and He’s opened up opportunities in my life to be able to write them.

He is the ultimate publisher, the ultimate editor and the ultimate reader. I just need to trust Him.

To me, that’s a significant challenge of being a Christian writer.  To please God in what I do, and to interpret the other opinions – important as they are – through that lens.

I’ll leave you with one piece of advice that I’ve found invaluable as I navigate the subjectivity maze.

We had a guest speaker at church a few weeks ago and he gave this quote, which was aimed at the congregation, but I took it to heart as a writer. The speaker said this:

Sometimes we tell God we’ll trust Him for the process, because we’ve got the end goal in mind. The reality is He wants us to trust Him for the goal and we need to look after the process.

That has helped enormously in trying to work out if I’m on the right track or not. It helps to put into context the fact that the award nomination is as valid as the person who didn't get past page three. And it helps to provide context to what I'm trying to do.

And I hope it can help you too.

18 comments:

  1. Thanks for that, David. I can relate to the subjectivity dilemma. I had one writing teacher last year tell me that I needed to change my first chapter to incorporate X. (Being vague because of spoilers) :) So I took her advice to heart, but then realised that X had other consequences that I felt were taking me away from where the plot needed to go. After 8 months of dilemma, I spoke to a publisher who said they would have been fine with the way I originally had it and didn't need X. So I went back and rewrote it again. Through that process, I've been learning too that's it's important to follow God's direction rather than well-meaning advice that takes you away from what he wants us to do. However, feedback from others is also so important. I like what you said about looking at feedback through God's lens. We can pray over feedback and ask God what he wants us to do with it.

    Congratulations on being short-listed too. Good luck with that and thanks for sharing.

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    1. Thanks Nola - it can be frustrating can't it? I've been trying to head in the same direction as you: following God's direction rather than every piece of advice that floats past.

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  2. Thank you, David! So important for us all as Christian writers to take your comments on board, as we all navigate that 'subjectivity maze'. I often feel for authors who don't have that same close relationship with God, because where do they go when they get lost in that maze?

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    1. I guess that's why so many writers start out in a blaze of enthusiasm but then peter off into nothingness. It can be really disheartening if you're constantly questioning your path without some kind of signpost. A bit like life really?

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  3. Loved your blog David. Thank you. How exciting that you are waiting on a competition result. I like how you questioned the fact that different readers like different kinds of books. It's true. I've had the same experiences you have. It's a good thing we have One Standard isn't it? Loved this sentance in your post: He is the ultimate publisher, the ultimate editor and the ultimate reader. I just need to trust Him." Totally agree that pleasing God is what it is all about. It's so much easier when we have that lens to look through. Thank you too for making me think through that quotation. Something worth pondering on and a big help for me as I reflect of why I am getting my next book published. I think we Christians are good at making our own plans and getting God to bless them. And yet - it should be that we first decipher His plans then do our part in the process as we trust Him. Thanks David. I hope you win the competition!

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    1. Thanks Anusha. That quote from the guest speaker (the guy's name was Ray Williams) hit me like a bolt of lightning. Suddenly my mindset changed and it made sense.

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  4. Love the quote about trusting God with the goal, David. It can be hard when feedback is conflicting and in part it may be that it's not from your (human) target audience -I had strong feedback from a group to change my opening paragraph but the majority were not Spec Fic readers. In the end, I didn't change it and I'm glad I didn't. And sometimes the feedback can identify a problem even when the proposed solution is not the right one I've learnt something even from the most devastating feedback that somehow didn't get what the book was about. But I do think you are right, that we need to know what our story goal and vision is & to keep in tune with God's vision. Thanks for your post 😊👍

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    1. A pleasure Jenny. I've had to learn to balance feedback about everything from plot to characters and dialogue. I've worked as a corporate copywriter for 25 years, so I'm used to criticism, so while there are similarities with fiction, it's actually a lot harder when it's your own story, from your own soul.

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  5. Competitions are difficult. I've had 3 judges award me more than 40 marks different. I've seen people win when I would have given them a 1 star. Yes, for me it is important to write for the 'audience of One' and also to have a sense of humour. I also musn't let me sense of who I am get tied into my work. I am a daughter of the King of the Universe and loved ... whether or not I do well.

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    1. You're right there Christine. And that spread of marks (it's happened to me too) can throw you into a headspin for a while. And then the big challenge is to not love the 95 score and ignore the 55 score, which is a human nature thing.

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  6. Thanks for your post David.
    I am reading Steven Curtis Chapman's Book "Between Heaven and the Real World - My Story" and ran across a great comment this morning in line with what you are saying.
    "God never calls us to be successful; He calls us to be faithful"

    I love your comment "To please God in what I do, and to interpret the other opinions – important as they are – through that lens."
    So true and what a great reminder!

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    1. Thanks Di. It's such a mind-shift from a 21-century achieve at all costs mentality. But it's one that I'm finding I need to keep coming back to.

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  7. Thanks for your post David. Great thoughts and truths to ponder. Really liked what you said about trusting God for the goal and not just in the process.

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  8. Amen and amen, David. That's the challenge of faith, isn't it, that we trust God regardless of the outcome. Thanks for sharing so honestly.

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    1. No probs Carolyn. It was something that was on my heart (and mind) and felt I needed to share it.

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  9. Awesome post David, thank you. Helps puts things in perspective. Thank you for pointing out the fact that subjectivity is the bottom line.
    A Readers' Favorite reviewer said my 'characters leapt off the page', on the other hand someone else said that she 'couldn't relate to the characters at all.'
    Like you,I believe that God gave the stories. (On my own I could never have written a whole book never mind a series.)

    Copied out that guest speaker comment to think about, and to help keep me 'in line' and 'on track.'
    Thank you

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  10. Great post David. You've reminded me that our responses to subjective feedback are also subjective. And perseverance is a good thing.

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