Step One, Intimacy; Step Two, Distance

I’d like to follow up on yesterday’s post about the vulnerability of putting a lot of “yourself” into your writing. I think that the blurred boundary between self and characters during the writing process is incredibly beneficial. Why would you keep returning to these characters again and again if you weren’t personally invested in them? If you think of them as extensions of yourself, or as your “children,” the thought of neglecting them is rather painful, immoral, even. This is all good. It also ties into my advocacy of honest writing. If you’re truly being honest, sharing your work is going to feel a little scary, whether it’s a first draft of a novel or a letter to the editor.

This kind of intimacy and blurred boundaries are less healthy when revising. That’s why part two of my advice is this: when the first draft’s been written, allow yourself distance. Accept the reality that those characters are NOT you, nor are they your children. When someone doesn’t like what you’ve written, or when a writing buddy does an honest critique — good, bad, and ugly — they are not disliking or criticizing you. Just as a child must “grow up” and learn to differentiate herself from her parents, your writing must “grow up” to exist without you.

So rather than get defensive when someone says something seems unbelievable (“What do you mean?!? That’s how it really happened!!”) or when someone points out that a character comes across as whiny (“What?!? I am NOT a whiner!!!”), take a step back. Don’t jump in to defend yourself or your character-extension-of-self. Let the critique settle with you–it will point you to the truths you might have been too close to the situation to see. Just as the “customer is always right,” the “reader is often right.” Sure, you’ll get readers here and there who clearly want something totally different than what you’ve written, and you have to take their feedback with a grain of salt. Yes, as the writer, you have the ultimate say over what you’ll change and what you won’t (I know I’ve certainly dug my heels in on certain points). But if the reader is telling you she doesn’t buy it, listen. And listen well.

At the end of the Mary Sue Litmus Test, there’s a question that asks, “Do you think of your characters more like tools than like friends/children?” This question has stuck with me since I first read it. Yes, think of your characters as friends and children to motivate you to spend SO much time with them. But after the initial draft, remember that they ultimately are tools, to be wielded and refined as you see fit, for that all-important task of telling your story.