I planned to write about my struggle with the query process this time around, but something happened this week that bumped that topic* from the roster. Tuesday night, I had to give a healthy dose of tough love to one of the members of my writers’ group. And now I’m wondering if either a) she will actually absorb some of what I said and be better for it, or b) I will never see her again.
It’s been building for a while. This member, I’ll call her Shelly, joined our group about six months ago and since then we have been reading the first draft of her manuscript, which purportedly comes in at a whopping 150,000 words and still doesn’t have an ending.
Prior to joining our group, Shelly had only shared her work anonymously on writers’ support websites, and she was clearly uneasy when she submitted her first chapter to us. It’s hard to put your work, and ostensibly yourself, out to be judged. But we all loved her first chapter. It was dark and mysterious and utterly intriguing. She seemed heartened by our praise and our desire to read more.
As the chapters kept coming, we noted issues of plausibility, repetition in scenes, unnecessary details, and other things that I absolutely expect while reading a first draft**. Submission after submission, we gave her the same critiques, the same suggestions, but none of our feedback ever seemed to make it into subsequent chapters. There may be some selfish interest at work here, but it’s a bit frustrating to critique into a vacuum. After all, hadn’t she joined the group in the interest of improving her writing?
During our meetings, she readily acknowledged that her novel needs work, but repeatedly made statements such as “But I don’t know how to fix it” and “But I need for [insert random scene] to happen that way”. When we questioned the plausibility of certain plot points, she responded with complicated explanations as to how it was actually possible. The real issue was that she listened to five people express the same concerns, and instead of making a note to address the problem, spent five minutes essentially telling us why we were wrong.
But the real topper came along with her last email:
Yeah, just think of these [two chapters] as a rewrite of the last. Or if you have a really bad memory, you can think of them as new… You guys ever seen Groundhog Day?
I actually rolled my eyes when I read this. She was essentially warning us that the next two chapters would be exactly like the last. So why the hell was she submitting them?
This week’s meeting was much like those in the past with one exception: someone finally spoke up. One of our members, Gus, ended his critique with the following statement: “In this group, we are here to help each other in whatever capacity is most beneficial to the writer. I’m not sure what your process is, but as a reader, I would like to see a lot less repetition of the same issues submission after submission.”
Shelly looked like she’d been slapped in the face. I tried to soften the blow but also back him up.
“I’m not sure how beneficial it is for you to hear the same comments with each submission, so perhaps it’s best if you take some time to revise before you share your next chapters.”
This only seemed to make matters worse. “But I can’t revise until I finish the book. I can’t go back, and also I don’t even know how to fix it.” I pointed out that she is currently sitting on about fifteen chapters’ worth of our feedback, but she shook her head. “But I can’t go back. I have to write the ending first.”
Gus suggested she write a synopsis of the ending, that way she could start revising from the beginning in good conscience. “But I can’t,” she insisted. “I have to write the ending.”
We went around in circles for some time, with each suggestion met by an adamant “But-“ or “I can’t-“. Then Shelly said maybe it wasn’t even worth finishing her book since clearly none of us like it, since we’re always pointing out how many problems it has.
Finally, I had to level with her.
“For the last fifteen minutes, everything that has come out of your mouth has been negative and self-defeating. You can’t do anything until you finish your book but you don’t know how. You know you need to revise but you aren’t going to do it until you finish the book and anyway you don’t know how to fix it. You have already decided that there is no hope and you immediately dismiss any suggestion we make. Why are you so determined to self-sabotage?”
This got her attention.
Of course I already knew the answer. We are all afraid of failing. We are also afraid of succeeding, and in some ways, even more afraid to let ourselves believe we are actually capable of success. Shelly is essentially telling herself – and now us – that she is going to fail. Don’t get your hopes up because this is going to suck!
Words matter. A lot. The words we read, speak, and hear inform who we are and how we see the world. And when you tell yourself that you are a failure, you will believe it.
I leaned in toward her, pointer finger extended. “Stop telling yourself that you can’t. Stop shitting on yourself and your work. Stop it!”
I’d like to say that in that moment, Shelly had a huge life-changing realization and we all hugged and everyone left much happier. In truth, I did see the shock of recognition spread over her face, if only for a moment. I had called her on her shit and she was temporarily without words. Alas, deeply ingrained destructive habits aren’t so easy to break, and she responded with, “But that’s my M.O. I don’t know how else to be.”
On our way out of the café that night, I told Shelly to call or text or email me if she wants to talk more after she has time to think about our discussion. Because I get it. I have spent a fair amount of time in introspection and therapy to finally get the “worst critic” voice in my own head to shut the f*ck up. Mostly, anyway.
Our next meeting is scheduled for the week after Thanksgiving, and I hope to see her there. But it’s in her hands now.
*Although believe me, the struggle is real.
** Which is why I generally do not let anyone read my first drafts.