I decided to submit to the Pitch Wars writing contest this year. For those of you who haven’t heard of it, this isn’t the usual sort of writing contest, where you submit a “perfect” polished story and the “best” one wins. Pitch Wars contestants submit the query and first chapter of a book that has been edited and revised, but which might benefit from some revision before being pitched. The contestants chosen then spend several short weeks working with a mentor—a professional, published author—in order to rework and polish their manuscript and query. The resulting queries and books are then showcased in an agent round, where agents request to see more pages of the books that catch their eye. A large percentage of the writers chosen for this contest end up signing with agents.
The question came up during this contest, as it always does: how willing are potential mentees to do complete rewrites of their books based on mentor suggestions?
Because of the nature of this contest, everyone’s answer should be “extremely willing!” However, when this question was posed, my answer was somewhat more hesitant. “Yes, but…” I have a good reason for this hesitation, however. I’ll surely do myself no further damage by discussing why, in further detail.
Accepting hard critique and doing major revisions of your manuscript is never easy. At times, it can be excruciating and brutal. Stories about the revisions Pitch Wars contestants have done based on mentor suggestions are often tales of terror: “I had a few weeks to change the main character, their goals, the stakes, and the main love interest.” (That might be slightly exaggerated, but really not much.)
Most writers would balk at this level of rewriting, it’s true: our stories are our babies. However, we did enter this contest. It’s what we signed up for. And if we’re not willing to make revisions and go the extra mile to make our stories better, we may be in the wrong business altogether.
Don’t get me wrong: it may be hard for me to take critique sometimes, but I take it. I’ve ended up making major revisions based on critique that at first blush had me howling, because once it had sunk in I’d seen its validity. And, though I do believe an artist’s vision is something to be treasured, I’m not one of those jerkoffs that thinks tampering with it in any way is “selling out”. In my experience, the phrase “selling out” is only used by people who have never seriously tried to be artists. Critique and revision is an intrinsic part of the artistic process. Even songwriters (of which I’m one) work with other musicians, band members, producers, and engineers in order to hone and polish their work. Not all changes will be met with universal approval, but it’s still part of the process.
My reason for hesitation with regard to unconditional acceptance of critique with my Pitch Wars manuscript in particular isn’t because I think my vision isn’t to be tampered with. It’s because the book I submitted to Pitch Wars this year is an #ownvocies book. I’ve had some really bad experiences in the past with critique of my #ownvocies writing.
The Pitch Wars mentors are top notch. They are seasoned professionals with an excellent grasp of what makes a great story, and also of what makes a story marketable. I do trust them. I trust my CPs and betas, as well. I think they all have my best interests at heart. The root of the problem in an #ownvoices situation is that, sometimes, what makes a “great” and “marketable” story isn’t always compatible with an #ownvocies writer telling their story “how it is”. This is the whole reason for the need for diverse books and #ownvoices writers to begin with: we’re telling the story the way you haven’t heard it before, from our point of view. That isn’t always the story readers want to hear, or the one the market wants, because it’s not always comfortable. But there needs to be room for #ownvocies writers to tell the stories they need to tell without outsiders changing them to be more in line with what people expect.
I do know that I need to work hard to make my characters and my stories appealing and relatable for readers and agents. I DO work hard to do this. With characters like mine, not to toot my own horn, but I really have learned to bend over backwards to make them resonate with readers, in a way a lot of writers don’t have to do. That’s how I’ve gotten my books published so far, even though they’re written from the points of view of some pretty traditionally “unlikable” characters: characters that readers generally have a hard time identifying with. But if I had taken all the well-meaning suggestions of CPs/Betas/Agents/Editors, my stories would not have been #ownvoices any longer.
The first book of mine that could be called #ownvocies is The Hustle. When I first started putting the book out with critique groups in late 2014, #ownvoices wasn’t a thing yet. There was a call for diversity, and of course the idea of #ownvocies was there, but a real push for members of diverse groups to tell their own stories in their own way is startlingly new, and still developing. So, when I put The Hustle in front of critiquers, I knew that I felt differently about their advice, but I didn’t have the umbrella of the #ownvoices hashtag, as it were, under which to discuss the reason for that different feeling in a safe place where I might be understood.
The main character in The Hustle, Liria, had a pretty rough childhood. She has some mental health and addiction issues resulting from that, and when the book opens she’s homeless and addicted to heroin, with only the beginnings of realization that she won’t live much longer if she doesn’t make some changes. Liria, however, is in a position where she doesn’t have a lot of real options, and she has to do a lot of stuff she isn’t exactly proud of in order to get by and try to get ahead.
Critiquers said things about The Hustle like, “You need to give us something to like about your main character. Is she at least pretty?” (Direct quote there.) They were frustrated with Liria for her continued relapses and bad choices. “It’s like she doesn’t even want a better life.” As examples of compelling stories of people like Liria that I could integrate into my narrative to make it more compelling, critiquers would cite tales of homeless addicts they’d seen in the media: stories of beautiful blonde girls who had fallen into meth addiction because of some terrible tragedy outside their control, and ended up murdered.
The reason for these well-meaning suggestions is that Liria’s situation is something most people in the literary world truly have no concept of. They sometimes think they do, but they don’t. If you haven’t been an addict on the streets, you really can’t understand what it’s like. You can’t understand that sometimes you make bad decisions because there are no good decisions left to you. Even if by some miracle there are, you have no idea what they are or how to make them, because you’ve no experience with how to make good decisions, and/or you’ve no confidence in yourself to make them. Most of my critiquers had no insight into Liria’s hopes and fears and, despite it all, her joys and loves: because a lot of folks miss that there is good in even the most destitute and desperate of people, and that they have inner lives every bit as rich as their own. With The Hustle, the critiquers wanted me to use pity to hook the audience, instead of helping me to hone my own voice in order to draw readers in with the dark (but compelling) beauty and nuance of what life on the streets can actually be like. If I’d taken their suggestions, I might have had an easier road to publication; I might have better sales now. However, I wouldn’t have been adding my own voice to the literary world.
My voice has value. It’s all I have to offer, and I have to offer it, even if it hurts my career
I faced similar problems with my book The Other Place (which isn’t an #ownvoices book, but it is extremely close) and with the #ownvoices book I submitted to Pitch Wars, True Story. Both of those books have neurodiverse main characters: Justin from The Other Place has schizophrenia, and Mike from True Story has bipolar psychosis, like me. Critiquers asked me to make Justin and Mike “less crazy”. They said it seemed at times like they were “acting out for attention” and like they were “bad news”: in short, all the things people sometimes say about me in real life.
People tended, also, to be disbelieving about the treatment my neurodiverse characters received from the community, the police, and mental health professionals in these books. If you haven’t experienced this discrimination first-hand, it might seem outlandish and unrealistic, but unfortunately it’s not.
I also had one very nice, very professional, and very insightful agent tell me, after reading the full manuscript of The Other Place, that she would have rather the story have been about Justin coming to terms with his toxic mother and others in his environment that misunderstood him; learning to control his schizophrenia (with the help of his well-meaning girlfriend, of course); then getting his GED and becoming a successful, somewhat stable artist. That’s a beautiful narrative. It’s also one we’ve all heard before. My experience as a neurodiverse person is not so simple, nor is it for many of the neurodiverse people I’m close to and care about. That narrative is a good narrative, but it’s not really an #ownvoices narrative. The lives of people like me tend to be messy—even rather messier than the average person’s. We tend to alienate a lot of good, well-intentioned people because they don’t know what to do for us or with us. We tend to fail at a lot of things we try to do, because our mental illness causes us to behave in a certain way and/or people in our chosen profession see us as a liability and aren’t willing to give us a chance. We tend to be exploited, hurt, disenfranchised, discriminated against, and downtrodden more than people in the general population.
A lot of folks think neurodiverse people need to be “saved” and shown how to live a “normal” life, and so these are the stories they want to hear about neurodiverse people. But I want to tell stories about people like me who save themselves and people who make good lives out of the supposedly “flawed” materials they are given. Those lives may not always look the way most people want their lives to look, but that doesn’t mean they’re not good lives.
The thing that may surprise SOME of you is that I did, indeed, take all the critiques I’ve described above into consideration. After all, this is my audience. I need to make my characters as accessible as I can, or no one will read the book in the first place. Learning to work with these critiques has been a really excruciating process, and one that has really helped me to grow as a writer: I’ve had to find ways to make my characters and stories more compelling without sacrificing their authenticity.
I still have plenty of room to grow in my craft, of course. I would really love a mentor and/or agent to fall in love with my stories, and to help me to take my writing to the next level. The best thing for me and my writing, however, would be if that person understood me and my characters, so they could help me to hone my own voice so that I can use it to the best of my ability. No matter how wonderful, talented, savvy, and well-intentioned potential mentors and agents are, this job is more difficult and nuanced when you’re working with someone’s #ownvoices story. Not everyone will be right for the job. The Pitch Wars mentors (as well as literary agents) know this, of course.
This is the reasoning behind any hesitation I’ve expressed with regard to arbitrarily accepting all revision suggestions.