I’ve asked myself, am I a good writer? many times and I believe a lot of writers ask themselves the same question. Even authors that have sold millions of copies of their books have reported imposter syndrome of one type or another.
But what happens when you receive constructive feedback that highlights so many problems with your story it feels like a hopeless wreck? The energy to write runs off faster than Usain Bolt.
The book didn’t just have a problem or two with character, imagery, world building or plot: the editor didn’t like any of it. Page after page of what I’d done wrong and helpful suggestions on how I might have done better. It’s exactly what I asked for, only more than I might have wanted.
I recently paid to have a developmental edit on my book, Unlocking the Dead. The feedback that came back…honestly sucked the life out of me. If you haven’t read my update for where this book was supposed to fit into my publishing timeline, you can read it here. It’s taken a few days to bounce back and focus on the lesson’s learned, rather than how disappointing it is to know I need to start over; it’s not salvageable.
The mistakes were obvious and I’d read, watched or heard every recommendation the editor gave. I’ve read Save the Cat, which was a great book on pacing and scene beats. I’ve watched all of Brandon Sanderson’s University lectures and read, watched and listened to many more. It’s interesting how hard it was to see the major problems in my own work and how easy it was to say to myself, “Yeah, the tension builds throughout the novel, the characters are going through struggles and the plot is interesting.”
Here are some big picture lessons I took away from this. Maybe it can help you:
The story needs a strong protagonist and antagonist, both with established needs and desires (no, those likely aren’t the same). It doesn’t have to be your main point of view character, but it needs to be clear in the story. I had too many characters vying for top spot of importance, with none of them undergoing the needed transformation by the end, but rather stumbling upon it almost like a Deux Ex Machina.
I didn’t take enough time to flush out minor characters, so I ended up with many cardboard characters serving cliche roles (like wife, daughter, etc.) without having enough of a personality and backstory. This is what happens when you’re a pantser and you can’t hold a character’s backstory in your mind. Not that all pantsers face this, this is just my experience.
Outline, built a beat sheet as you go along, and have a genre in mind. The narrative of the book travelled back and forth between the character’s home and the facility where the antagonist created the product that unlocked human potential. The problem is that I didn’t continue to build tension. The book follows a moderate level of tension, which gets repetitive by the end. Instead of a big bang, it fizzles out.
It’s impossible to select a genre because it bounced between science fiction, paranormal, and half a dozen others. Yet it didn’t delve deep enough into any of them. The dead showed up more as a feeling and horrific things were caused by them, but they weren’t developed enough (adding horror to the genre list). Seeing the big picture might have showed me all my mistakes.
While writing the story (or in the outline process), consider the ramifications to the world. For the number of deaths in the story (billons, so let’s add post-apocalyptic to the list of genres) the reaction was too small. Police, government and even the family of the dead didn’t put up enough of a fuss. I could have toned down the number of dead quite easily, which would solve this issue. But then I’d need to change chunks of the story and justify why the world doesn’t have the product available. This is something I might consider in a re-write.
The story could have used more imagery. This is something I’m working on by utilizing the five senses and taking more time to be thoughtful while writing. My brain is often distracted with my environment and it’s difficult to dig deep into the story.
Although disappointing, I’ve used the feedback to look at my current story to make sure if follows the beats. I’m developing rounded characters. I have to outline rather than fly by the seam of my pants. Pantsing might be possible if I found it easier to focus on my stories when I’m not writing. I can write much faster when I’m pantsing and the story comes easy. But it’s not a good story. So I have to stop and take a step back before moving forward again.
My advice to others? Keep a beat sheet of your story so you know it’s following a clear path, the tension is building and the world is well developed. If you skip this step and write, go back to the outline as you write and analyze how it’s going.