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a:Learning to Say No Thanks: Standing up for Your Creative Vision

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Please welcome new contributor Kasey LeBlanc to the Writer Unboxed team! From his bio:

Kasey LeBlanc (he/him) is a graduate of Harvard College and of GrubStreet’s Novel Incubator program, where he was an Alice Hoffman Fellow. He has been published by WBUR’s Cognoscenti and was a finalist in 2018 for the Boston Public Library’s Writer-in-Residence Position. He is currently revising his Novel Incubator manuscript, a young adult novel about a closeted trans teenage boy, Catholic school, and a magical dream circus. 

We’re so glad to have you with us, Kasey!

If you’ve taken a writing class before, you’re probably familiar with the stereotypical “nightmare” student. He, for it’s often a he, is someone who thinks his words are a gift to humanity, someone who skewers other writers with his harsh criticisms, but is unwilling or unable to take feedback on his own writing. This person may be someone you’ve encountered in your own writing workshops, or perhaps is simply a fictional bogeyman meant to scare students into being better workshoppers. Either way, it seems that we focus a lot on this type of student.

I’ve taken a fair few workshops, most with the wonderful GrubStreet writing organization in Boston, and I’ve not seen many of this type of writer. But I have seen plenty of another type of writer. This writer is the opposite of the nightmare student in many ways. Instead of skewering their classmates’ work, they give advice generously and kindly. And rather than rejecting the suggestions given to them, they take them in. All of them. Or, when they don’t, they stress that they should somehow incorporate them all.

Today I would like to talk about this second type of writer and when you might choose to ignore a suggestion and stand up for your vision. 

A book that pleases everybody is a book that pleases nobody. Or, as Aesop may have once said in a fable about a man, a boy, and a donkey (helpfully titled The Man, the Boy, and the Donkey), “If you try to please all, you please none.” It’s an unfortunate truth that in the end there can only be one version of the book we write. Along the way we’ll try out many different versions, but eventually need to pick just one. “Okay, sure Kasey,” you might be saying, “that’s a task much easier said than done.” As a writer known for drastically revamping and overhauling my book between drafts rather than getting to the nitty gritty line edit stage, I totally feel you. But if there is one thing I’ve become good at doing, it’s choosing when to listen to writing advice, and when to pass. And today I’m going to pass along three bits of advice I hope will help you. 

1. Know your audience. Who are you writing this book for? My current manuscript is a YA novel about a closeted trans teenage boy and a magical dream circus. While I hope that my book can speak to many people, I write first for teens and for transgender people of all ages.

The nature of belonging to, and writing for, a marginalized group such as trans folks is that it’s not uncommon to be the only person with that identity in a particular workshop or writing group. This doesn’t mean you should categorically reject all writing advice out of hand, but it does mean you should pay particular attention to advice directed specifically at aspects of your (and your character’s) identity. 

It may make my classmates uncomfortable when I choose not to use my character’s deadname on the page. Or that I don’t always choose to dwell on the physicality of his pre-transition body. And if cisgender people were my primary audience I might feel compelled to change those things. But they aren’t, so I don’t. 

This same advice applies as well to places where you’re writing from a place of particular expertise on a topic. Perhaps you majored in chemistry and are incorporating that knowledge into your manuscript. Or maybe you’re writing a book that deals with grief and you have particularly intimate knowledge of that subject. It can be useful to know where people are confused so you can address those concerns, but at the end of the day, you need to trust in your own lived experiences, identities, and expertise. 

And because no one experience or identity is a monolith, this is also why it is crucial to have your work read by readers from your intended audience. The first fan art I received for my book was sent to me by a transgender friend and reader of mine, who periodically texts just to tell me how meaningful my book is to them. It’s a reminder that my story matters, and so do the choices I make about it. And it helps me have the confidence to say, thank you for that suggestion, but I don’t think it’s right for my book.

2. Zoom out on feedback. This bit of wisdom is one I’ve heard from multiple writing instructors, but in case it’s new to you, I wanted to pass it along. Your readers can tell you when something isn’t working, but they can’t always give you the solution. If you’re workshopping a piece and multiple readers tell you that something you’ve written is confusing, or the character reaction or motivation doesn’t quite make sense, they might be onto something. At this point, it’s natural that they’ll suggest solutions to the problem. One of these solutions might resonate with you. But it might also be the case that none of them is going to fit, and that’s okay! Being right about the problem doesn’t mean being right about the solution. 

We all have blind spots in our writing and–as much as we wish it were possible–are never going to be able to see our work the way fresh eyes can. But at the end of the day, this is still your story, your voice, your characters, and your world. And often, once a reader reveals a blind spot to you, the best person to figure out a way to fix it will be you. The writer. So have some confidence in yourself. Even the best writers have these issues (I think. I hope. Please no one tell me if this isn’t the case!)

3. Get to know your critique partners. This advice is of course most applicable when you are in a multi-week or multi-month workshop, where you can not only have your work read by the same people multiple times, but also read their work as well, and most importantly, listen to their critiques of your classmates’ work. 

When I was enrolled in Grubstreet’s year-long Novel Incubator program, and before that in multiple ten-week courses, I had the chance to learn the critique styles of my classmates each week. It can be difficult to know how to weigh feedback when it’s your own work being discussed, but by paying attention to how those around you discuss other writers’ work, you can learn a lot.

Which writers love flowery, purple prose, and which cut down sentences like they’re swinging a machete through the jungle? Which beg for quieter scenes, and which ask for more high-stakes thrills? Which genres are they familiar with? Do they cite the latest literary darlings but blink in confusion at the conventions of young adult and middle grade fiction? 

Knowing the biases and preferences of your classmates can help you decide how to weigh their feedback when it comes to your own work. Just don’t discount someone’s advice wholesale (unless perhaps they’re that nightmare creature I referenced at the beginning of this piece).

In the end, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about what advice to take and what advice to pass on, but rest assured, so long as you keep an open mind and an open ear, no one will hate you for following your writerly intuition. 

Are you a writer who has trouble turning down advice? If not, how do you decide when to incorporate a suggestion from a reader or critique partner?


About Kasey LeBlanc

Kasey LeBlanc (he / him) is a graduate of Harvard College and of GrubStreet's Novel Incubator program, where he was an Alice Hoffman Fellow. He has been published by WBUR's Cognoscenti and was a finalist in 2018 for the Boston Public Library's Writer-in-Residence Position. He is currently revising his Novel Incubator manuscript, a young adult novel about a closeted trans teenage boy, Catholic school, and a magical dream circus. He eagerly awaits the return of writing in cafés, libraries, his friend's couch, or really anywhere besides his bedroom.


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