Developing your Calloused Soul

In Britain, where I did my graduate work, your PhD. thesis culminates in something called your “Defense.”  There’s one person picked from your own university (called an Internal Examiner) and one person picked from outside of your university (called an External Examiner).  They read your thesis and rip it to shreds, until the day comes that you enter a tiny room where they sit facing you.  Then they rip you to shreds.  It’s all done very politely, and, as it is Britain, there is inevitably tea involved.  After they pound you into the dirt, they tell you what you have to fix in your thesis to make it tolerable.  After which, because it’s Britain, they pour booze down your throat.

Sounds like a horrendous experience, no?  It is, in many ways.  But it’s not all that bad because you’re already used to it.  The whole system is built to prepare you for that one day of hell.  So you have a supervisor (or two or three) who approaches every chapter as if it were being submitted for its defense.  In other words, my supervisor would cover each and every submission from me in cuneiform, which, when translated, read things like, “Why?” “How are you defining these terms?” “What does this really mean?”  When he was really exasperated with me, all he could do was pencil an enormous question mark in the margins.

(He’d also write things such as, “flabby,” “loose,” and “awkward,” but he insisted he was talking about my syntax so I didn’t go all old-school on him.) 

I was reminded of this yesterday, when I had a talk with my editor about my sequel, Tracking the Tempest.  It’s not officially being edited, yet, and she was really calling for other things.  But I want to be thinking in terms of edits for Tracking as I write the third book, so I asked her for some feedback.

And it was just like being in my supervisor’s office, again.  Whenever I would sit down in my supervisor’s office and he started in on my work, I would get this feeling that started in my stomach and rolled outwards towards my extremities.  It feels a bit like a hot flash, I imagine.   My gut clenches, and then I feel a palpable wave roll through me that is a combination of heat tinged with anxiety and shame.  Shame that what I did wasn’t good enough, and anxiety that what I can do won’t ever be good enough.  

Then I shake it off.  And then I start to enjoy the dressing down.

Basically, from all my time spent in little academic offices (naturally, my editor called when I was in my own little academic office), I’ve become a masochist.  Seriously.  I was so thrilled to open up my copyedited manuscript of Tempest Rising and see a flood of red.  The manuscript was inundated with little squiggly red lines.  Talk about cuneiform . . . But I couldn’t have been happier.  And I was much, much happier than if I’d been handed back clean sheets of paper.  As it stands, the book is 338 pages right now, with all the extra stuff.  Anyone, no matter how grammatically gifted, will make mistakes in 338 pages.  And I am not that gifted.  So when I saw loads of red, I did have that same initial reaction of shame and terror.  Then I shook it off, looking through what the copyeditor had done, and I wanted to make out with her.  She’s a genius.  She read my work so carefully, and caught so many things.  I want to fall at her feet and promise her my unborn children.  

And that’s how I felt after I talked to Devi.  After I shake off that first hot flush of disappointment in myself, I get soooo into it.  And then I think how lucky I am to have such a good editor who cares about Jane as much as I do and doesn’t want to see me fuck up her story.  Better than that, my editor’s not afraid to articulate exactly where I went wrong.  Just like my supervisors at the University of Edinburgh, she says, “Now, I want you to know that there was a lot here that was good, and I liked it.  BUT . . .” and then she proceeds to shred it like lettuce.  And I take every glorious blow as if they were rained down from heaven.

Because readers are going to do far worse.  They don’t have an investment in me, they don’t want to see me succeed.  They’re certainly not my enemies, but neither do I have them in my contact’s list.  When they say, “I thought Jane did this or that,” and I meant for Jane to have done something entirely different, I can’t call them or email them and explain what I really meant to write.  What’s on the page is all the reader has to go by, and if I have screwed up somewhere, and not explained something correctly, or let something slide that’s important to the development of the plot or the characters, I have failed.  Not the reader.  Me.

It’s my responsibility to create a coherent story.  It’s my responsibility to anticipate reader reactions and to recognize weak links where they threaten to break everything apart.  It’s my responsibility to take the reader by the hand and guide him or her through the world of Tempest Rising.   

So when I feel that agonizing feeling of failure, the reason it’s instantaneous and not debilitating is that I know, from years of experience getting pummeled by the powers that be, that these are the questions that strengthen my writing.  I recognize that I am lucky to have people who care enough about me and Jane to invest themselves in my imagination.  I can’t add a disclaimer to the front of a book, reading, “Dear Sir or Madame: Please shut off your brain while you read this and accept everything I say.”  Readers will question, readers will recognize weakness, and readers will react to that weakness.  I’m a reader, too.  Moreover, I’m a reader who makes a living reacting to the weaknesses and strengths of writers a hell of a lot more talented and intelligent than I am.

So I need all the help I can get.  And that’s what my editor, my agent, my Alpha Team, my copyeditor (whoever you are), and everyone else who takes a divot out of Tempest Rising does . . . they help me.  And I want to thank them, with all my heart.  And I know Jane thanks you, too.  She’s lucky to have all of you.

2 thoughts on “Developing your Calloused Soul”

  1. I think the two person defense committee is so much scarier than the five person one I did for my MS in the US. Mine could be distracted or go off on tangents that filled some of the defense time (ie, the tool appointed by the school to chair the thing, who cared more about my punctuation than the research.)

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