Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hit Me with Your Best Shot

(This brave boy courtesy of Modern Medicine Image Gallery)
In Christina Thompson's memoir/history Come on Shore and We Will Kill and Eat You All: A New Zealand Story, she recounts an anecdote from her (Maori) husband's childhood, where a doctor tried to give him a shot in the heel of his foot, but his skin was so tough from going barefoot that it bent the needle!

We should all be so lucky.

Whenever we put something out there for public consumption we risk the world's criticism, its random meanness, or its downright targeted meanness. My husband knew a fellow pastor who, some years ago, upon greeting people at the door post-service, was told by one of his congregants, "That was the worst sermon I've heard in twenty-five years." Really? Really truly? If the man attended fairly regularly, say, forty times per year, that was the worst sermon he'd heard out of the thousand? It's almost a wraparound criticism: one so incredibly harsh and unhelpful that it becomes almost complimentary. If I were that unfortunate pastor, I might be tempted to get a button printed and wear it: "Preacher of the Worst Sermon since 1975." Or brag about it on the church message board: "Join us this Sunday and have your time wasted and ears battered by some absolutely stink-awful preaching."

I feel fortunate that my books so far have only garnered a few reviews along the this-really-sucks-big-time line, maybe because I'm personally acquainted with a large share of my readership, and if they have a problem with the book they either (1) keep it to themselves, or (2) come and tell me personally. But there are the negative comments and reminders that, skin will need to thicken up a little more if I plan on bending any needles. Random meanness I try to disregard, but valid criticism I never want to bounce off me. Was James a bore in Mourning Becomes Cassandra? Should I have tied up Gladys' storyline better in Everliving? My writing should get better and better, right--not worse and worse?

All of which is to say, I've finished the rough draft of my latest novel (tentatively titled The Beresfords) and sent it to my critique group, so now I sit on tenterhooks, waiting to see if it's any good. I love it, of course, having conceived it and labored over it for about six months so far, but it remains to be seen if this newest baby of mine has "a face only a mother could love."

I haven't come up with the streamlined copy for it yet, but I've posted here and here and here some of the thoughts that went into The Beresfords. Basically, it's the contemporary story (opens in 1985) and coming of age of a girl raised with her sort-of cousins. She loves her cousin Jonathan in particular and has to watch as he goes off with a girl who's all wrong for him. If you've read Jane Austen's Mansfield Park you know the drill. The fun in writing it was wrestling with how to update a very of-its-time storyline and render one of Austen's least-loved heroines more sympathetic (to others, I mean--I adore Fanny Price in MP).

After I've taken into account corrections and revisions, some version of the book should be available in a few months. And who knows? You may love it, or you may think it the worst book you've read in twenty-five years, in which case, be sure to tell me in front of a lot of people. (That was a joke, in case you happen to be that mean man who ripped into the pastor.) Here's hoping I don't have to get those buttons printed up...

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