A lot of times writers are asked why they write, or–as Daniel Jose Older put it at Kweli’s Children’s Writers of Color Conference yesterday–why they came into the game. I’ve said it before, but it rings truer now: I came into the game to write the books I never got to read. And if not to write them (because I can’t / don’t want to write everything) to one day acquire and edit those books.
I talked with a few writers yesterday who were discouraged and/or overwhelmed after their critique session. (To be clear, the agents/editors were great, but for many it was their first time having their work read and examined by “an outsider.”) That broke my heart. Yes, a lot of us have been talking about how exciting the conference was, but fear is also very real. As writers, we often celebrate our successes publicly and widely. No one talks about “failures.” Well, lately, I’ve seen more talk about failures, which has been nice, but as a whole people want to hear about your successes, not about how many times you f-ed up. And let’s face it, we all do.
First, I would say, one critique is just that. One person’s opinion. Set it aside. Ingest it. Take it with a grain of salt. (But do try to consider it, especially if it’s something someone else has pointed out.)
Second, remember why you came into the game. For many of us “diverse” folk, it’s because growing up we could count on one hand the books that were truly mirrors for us. I read a f-ing ton of window-books. If you don’t know what I’m talking about by mirrors and windows, read this: https://www.psdschools.org/webfm/8559 The books that were mirrors, for me, as a not-sure-I-was-queer (surprise, I am) black girl growing up in Texas, were few and far between. My parents are warriors, truly they are. They found and pushed so many black books into my hands. Most of which were about sharecroppers, slavery, and segregation. I, however, loved reading science fiction, fantasy, and all of that speculative, genre-bending stuff. You want to know who was doing that then, writing those characters who looked like me? Octavia Butler. (There were a few others, like Nalo Hopkinson <3, but I found out about them much later. And even with Octavia Butler I had to search beyond “children’s books.”)
And, of course, I read Octavia Butler. What queer, black, speculative fiction nerd hasn’t? And that is precisely the problem. Not that we shouldn’t be reading Octavia Butler. (Let us all take a moment to honor the queen.) The problem is that she shouldn’t be the main person everyone thinks of… there should’ve been too many to count (like there were for my white friends).
So as someone who has received some harsh critique before, some pretty racist critique before, critique that has literally almost stopped me from writing, please keep going. We need your voice. Anything can be revised. Sure, “voice” is my jam. Sure, I would prefer to work with authors to revise plot than revise characters and voice. BUT that doesn’t mean that if your character’s voice falls flat that you can’t revise it. You know what you can’t revise? A blank page.
So take that critique. Read it. Set it aside. Come back to it. Ingest it. And figure out what you can use and what you can’t. Everything is a lesson in how to be a better writer. Remember, being a writer isn’t a one-time, one-book published job this is your career. Nothing is a waste of your time (except for dealing with racist, sexist, etc. people. Don’t engage the Twitter trolls).
You’ve got this. I believe in you. And now I’m going to go back to writing and revising (instead of writing about revising, LOL #irony) because guess what? If I don’t write, if you don’t write, those stories that we would’ve loved growing up…they’ll never happen. Like Edwidge Danticat reminded us, “We never know how far our words will travel and who they will save.” Also, “Words are tools…tools that some folks never get.” Use your words, use your power (because publishing is about power and as a writer you weld it) to write the books you never got to read. After seeing all of your glowing, beautiful faces yesterday, not sharing your stories would be the biggest failure of all.
Happy writing, revising, etc. <3