So, here I am reading a book I’m enjoying immensely. I come upon a chapter in which the writer does something that I know, positively, I have told some young writers in my capacity as a critiquer to never do—switching POV late in a book to one not encountered before. Hey, I’ve been told not to do that myself. The thing is, it works perfectly in this book. As a reader coming upon that shift, I could give a hairy pontiff’s left ear whether the writer has changed POV. I want the information it can give me, I want to know what happens next. And in that moment of realization a great crap paper tide of old critiques fluttered behind me and a voice called across the abyss as it filled with the perfidy of my Writing Thoughts, It doesn’t really matter what you’re supposed to do. The only thing that matters is if you can make what you do work.
Not the first time I’ve had that thought, but it came home especially strong to me today. It may have something to do with rereading one of my older novels—a shuddering experience if ever there is one.
Experience. That’s the key word. The perfidy mentioned above is all about the difference between critiques based on experience (and maybe instinct) and those based on regurgitation. “The Rules” only matter if the story doesn’t work. And here’s the other thing, even if a beta reader or critquer or critic says the story doesn’t work, it still might not matter. That “doesn’t work” can be a question of individual taste, or prejudice, or the sour feeling left in the reader’s stomach by the cafeteria food. If your own gut—not the one turning sour—tells you that something is right, you need to stick by it.
I’m not saying we writers have a magic I’m A Genius Don’t Bother Me With Your Tiny Opinions card. No. If enough people tell you that something isn’t working, you should probably pay attention to that. Be very sure that your gut is talking, telling you a thing is right, and not some fractured corner of your ego.
And even as I’m typing that last paragraph, I’m thinking “Regurgitated Wisdom.” (Because, really, haven’t you heard the one about “if enough people” ad nauseam?) In this case, it happens to be regurgitated with a side of experience, so maybe it’s not total bullshit. Maybe I do sort of know what I’m talking about in this particular instance, as opposed to some of the half-assed critiques I have offered up over the years.
But you never know. Reading my old stuff and realizing how deluded I was about the quality of that work has me stumbling through a funhouse of fractured and distorted opinion. What do I really know?
This is an existential question and has no real answer. The question is the black matter holding the universe together like invisible glue. It is self-contained and complete and needs no critique to make it whole. Sufficient unto the day is the question thereof.