Writing a novel couldn’t be more different than writing an ad. Or so I thought.
In the last few weeks, I’ve realized just how much the lessons I’ve learned throughout my advertising career have been helping me in my latest pursuit of becoming a published author.
One of the most important things I took away from The Creative Circus (other than a strong portfolio and a realistic grasp of how ad agencies work) is the understanding that you are not your work. From first to eighth quarter, we had our work critiqued so often and by so many people, that we had to develop thick skin. There was no other choice.
We quickly learned that when someone said your idea sucked, they weren’t saying you sucked. And let’s face it, we’ve all had our fair share of sucky ideas. What really divided the students and how successful they were in class (and later in their careers) was how they handled that criticism.
When people look at your work, whether it’s a novel or a print ad, they are looking at it through the filter of their own life experience—which, of course, is different than your own. Because of that, they are likely to see certain elements in a different way than you may have intended.
While your first impulse might be to defend your work, it’s smart to stand back and listen. Unless you’re planning on being there to explain why your ad makes sense to consumers as they come across it, you should at least consider the feedback.
During one portfolio review, I saw a student react poorly to constructive criticism from Norm Grey, head of the Creative Circus at the time. The student told Norm why he was wrong, and why the ad he had presented was, in fact, THE BEST AD EVER. (It’ wasn’t. And last I heard, that student is no longer in advertising.)
What he should have done with the feedback was again, to listen. Note that I didn’t say he should have agreed to make all of the suggested changes. While it’s important to hear people out, there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen. If you take everyone’s suggestions, the work will end up becoming less cohesive and probably less effective. But it won’t hurt you or the work to hear them out.
This is true, even in a work environment. I’ve been in meetings where you couldn’t take everyone’s input even if you wanted to, because several of the comments contradicted each other. I’ve also been in situations where I didn’t agree with a request that came from a boss or client. In that case, it’s a good bit of advice to try it both ways. Show them what they asked for, and also show what you think the best solution is.
It’s easy to say no and shut down an idea that’s different from your vision. But sometimes, you might just be surprised and stumble upon something that’s even better than you originally imagined.
So it was with the thick skin of 17 years in the Advertising industry that I went into my Women’s Fiction Critique Group to have my second novel critiqued.
This novel, currently called You & Me & Us, was written from start to finish during NaNoWriMo last November and into December. I love this novel. My parents love this novel. My best friend loves this novel.
But they also love me, so I know their opinions are likely biased.
In the same way I learned to welcome and seek out criticism with my work in advertising, I needed a few readers who would be able to call my book baby ugly if it was.
The excitement and the nerve and the terror were real as I emailed my manuscript (with track changes turned on) to seventeen writers who I’ve never met in person. The first few days of my three-week review period crawled by as I waited for the first review to come in.
Unlike the many ads I’ve created on behalf of a client, this project was created by me, for me, on behalf of me. While it’s not about my life, this was as personal of a project as it gets. And I admit, it was a little harder to separate myself from.
After seven days of waiting, the first review was posted, and the writer (whose work I had just critiqued) said that she loved it. She had some constructive things to say, of course, but overall, the feedback was good.
And I was happy.
Then the second review came in. And it was not good.
It was a de-ja-vu moment, reminding me of an experience back when I was fresh out of ad school and had sent mini books out to agencies all around the country. I loved my mini-books, they were square and had one “interactive” ad where you had to lift a tab for a fake perfume sample to reveal the headline. Those were the days.
I had just gotten off one phone call with an agency who loved my work. They were so flattering and complimentary and I felt like I was on top of the world. An hour later, I had a call with another advertising agency.
The call started out in a similar way—they LOVED my resume. The creative director told me he thought it was smart and clever and funny. But that was the only thing he liked. It was a good thing I had already developed that thick skin, and a really good thing that I had the positive call first. Otherwise, I may not have been brave enough to pick the phone up again.
Back to the bad review. It started like this:
“Alison, I first want to ask you to think about why you wrote this story. Be honest with yourself and find the true answer. After you do that, ask yourself if that reason would be enough reason for someone else to want to read this story.”
But it got worse.
“The story was dragging on and felt tedious, so I jumped ahead and read the last 10 chapters. Guess what? I didn’t feel like I’d missed a thing.”
Minutes after that review was posted, I got a note from a friend in the group asking if I was okay. I was better than okay. Really, I was. Although, if that had been the first review that came in, I may have not have been that great.
I thanked the reviewer for taking the time to read (most of) my work. I told him, and my friend, that if I only got feedback from people who liked the story, then I wouldn’t be doing myself or my novel any good.
Luckily there was one positive thing in his notes, a suggestion to start the novel with a line that was currently in middle of the second chapter. While that didn’t work for structural reasons, I was able to make it the first line of the second chapter. And the chapter is much better because of it.
While I welcomed the negative review, I was relieved that the rest of the group had more positive reactions to it.
The biggest compliment I received, and the thing that got me the most excited, came from five separate readers. They all said, in their own words, that they forgot they were reading to critique, and felt like they were reading for enjoyment.
That felt good. Really good.
I had another critiquer say they had just planned on reading the first ten chapters, but ended up finishing the whole thing. I figure that balances out the reader who skipped most of the middle!
Once the fifth or sixth review came in, I knew there were a few things I needed to change.
In another parallel to the advertising industry, when I review portfolios of ad students or junior creatives, I tell them to consider the collective feedback more than individual reviews. If one person tells them to take out an ad that they love, they should leave it in. It’s their portfolio and it’s supposed to represent the work they like and want to create. But if three different people tell them they don’t think a specific ad is working, then it’s smart to go ahead and take it out, or look at making some revisions.
So after a few reviews, I knew that I needed to change a character’s age from 12 to at least 14, to better match her behavior and some of her thoughts. I also knew that I needed to do a better job of explaining the motivation behind the actions of two of the main characters.
Another change was suggested by one person, but it solved a problem that a few others had pointed out, the annoying (but true) rule that every scene should move the story forward. And some of mine weren’t.
Since my novel is told from the point of view of two different characters, I wrote it with alternating chapters, going back and forth between the two. The suggestion, which I’m currently implementing, was that I didn’t need to make the split that even, and I could give one character more chapters than the other.
The freedom to break that ‘back and forth’ rule (that may have only existed in my head) helped me adjust the story so that each chapter could in fact move the story forward.
The most insightful suggestion I got from the group wasn’t about the book itself, but about the revision process. She said, “You wrote fast, maybe now you need to revise more slowly and thoughtfully. I think this story is well worth whatever effort you expend on it.”
So that’s what I’m doing. Taking my time. But I also gave myself a deadline. Another lesson learned in advertising: if we have all the time in the world, we’ll take it.
All that said, I should probably get back to writing. After all, I have a deadline to keep.