Okay, so my last six articles have been about aliens. Maybe I should explain why a Lutheran pastor has little green men on the brain so badly. And in doing so, I’m hoping to pass along two bits of advice that I’ve either received or kind of figured out along the way.
Like I said a few articles ago, what got me on the whole “how do aliens fit into God’s plan of salvation” business was a class I took in the Seminary called “The Gospel and C. S. Lewis.” Long story short, one fall day I sat down and started piecing together an idea. I grabbed two of my friends and forced them to listen to me ramble for forty-five minutes, going over the plot ideas that had sprouted in an overly-fertile imagination. They suffered through it and, once I was done, told me to go for it. Write my heart out and get that story on paper. And thus began a long and winding journey, one that’s taken longer than a decade.
Only here’s the thing: my soon-to-be-published book, Failstate? Yeah, there isn’t a single alien in it. Well, that’s not entirely true. Not exactly. Never mind, that’s not important. Plus I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. The upshot is this: I was sure that that idea would one day be my debut into the world of Christian speculative fiction. Only now, when I’m on the cusp of my debut, I’ve done a 180 on the idea. It may never see the light of day.
Does that mean that I’ve stopped believing in it? Not at all. I love the characters I created for that story. I spent a lot of time crafting the world(s). There’s one alien species that I’m particularly proud of. And I stand behind the spiritual payload I wove into the story. And yet . . .
So let me spend some time telling you a story about a story, one I call The Leader’s Song.
After that forty-five minute recitation, I started working feverishly on creating this story. I wrote multi-paged outlines for the plot (yes, I’m a plot-firster and a outliner). Then I started work on what would turn out to be an epic science fiction tale, one that blended the best traditions of adventure, space opera, and Biblical historical fiction. Seriously. Stop laughing.
Here’s the problem I ran into, though: by the time I was done telling the tale, the entire thing had blossomed to the size of three books. I don’t remember the final wordcount, but it was somewhere hovering in the 300k word range.
No problem, I figured. I’d simply chop the behemoth into three individual parts. Instant trilogy! Who wouldn’t want to publish that?
But I’m getting ahead of myself here, just a little.
Shortly after finishing the manuscript, I joined American Christian Fiction Writers and attended my first conference in Dallas. Even though I had been told it wouldn’t happen, I figured that I had such a great idea, someone would certainly be interested in my story. I was sure that The Leader’s Song trilogy would be my way in.
Strange thing, though. No one was interested.
Well, that’s not entirely true. I kept getting mixed signals. Some people, when I told them about my book idea, absolutely loved it. Others, though, didn’t like it at all. I couldn’t quite figure it out.
It wasn’t until I got home and had some time to think about it that I realized what the difference was: whenever I told a writer, whether published or not, about my story idea, they all loved it. But when I told editor and agents about my story, they all said, “No.” It drove me up the wall. Why the difference? And who should I listen to?
In the end, I realized that the publishing professionals were right. They spotted a major structural problem with my trilogy, one that would easily sink it. I’m not saying that the other writers were blind to it. But at that conference, I realized that a writer has to be careful whose advice and criticism they give the most weight to.
To put it another way, there’s a hierarchy of sorts when it comes to criticism about our stories. One could even chart it out on a handy-dandy pyramid. At the bottom are the non-writers, people who have never written a story or even part of one. Is it okay to show your work to these folks? Absolutely! But will they know their stuff when it comes to criticizing your work? Some will, some won’t. Some might not want to hurt your feelings and will thus hide the fact that they fell asleep half-way through the manuscript. The point is, while it’s easy to get a non-writer to read your writing, their criticism, while well-meaning, shouldn’t be given as much weight.
Further up the pyramid we have our fellow writers. Because they have walked this road before, their advice is more trust-worthy and valuable. They’ve likely encountered similar problems as you have and, as a result, will be able to help you through it. They’ll be able to help you evaluate ideas, ferret out problems in the text, and act as cheerleaders as you keep on keeping on. It’s great to have your fellow writers give you advice, encouragement, and criticism. But, as I found out, sometimes that criticism can fail you, especially if you’re seeking to be published.
The gold standard for criticism will always be (at least, in my grubby little opinion) the professionals of publishing, agents and editors. Part of the reason for that is obvious. They’re the gatekeepers, so to speak. They’re the ones you have to convince to take a chance on your writing (unless you self publish). But more than that: in the course of their work, they see more good and bad stories than we ever will (I think more of the latter than the former). Because of that, their advice should almost always be trusted, especially if they’re willing to give it.
Now I’m not saying that non-writers will always be wrong and publishing professionals will never make a mistake. But the lesson I learned from the “story of my heart” all those years ago is something that I’ve tried to pay attention to over the past several years and I think it’s served me well. It’s good to listen to advice about writing. But be sure that the source is trustworthy.
Next time, we’ll talk about one of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn and the reason why “the story of my heart” will likely remain shelved for the foreseeable future. Until then.