As I was reading the submissions for Critique Intensive VI, I came across one that I found disturbing. The author, whom I’ll call Cathy, is one of the best writers I’ve come across in all my years of teaching classes privately, through writers’ organizations and the University of Washington Outreach Program. Her prose is lovely and her stories are well-crafted and witty.
So why did I find this submission so difficult to read?
The novel opens with a very dramatic hook: two large dogs break through a farmer’s fences and slaughter most of his sheep, including a lamb that the narrator of the novel, a teenage girl, has cared for since its birth. The author is such a fine storyteller that we feel the anguish the narrator does. The farmer kills the dogs and files a complaint with the sheriff against the dogs’ owners, and the trouble escalates. The story is about as gripping and poignant as any could be, but I had a difficult time finishing the submission. The problem is mine, not the writer’s.
I teach my students the importance of connecting emotionally with the reader. The best books make you feel something. They offer tension, fear, chills, sorrow and other emotions. Cathy’s novel had all of those, but I was afraid to turn the page. I barely made it through The Art of Racing in the Rain and The Lovely Bones. I couldn’t bear the horror of those lambs being slaughtered. I’m an animal lover, always have been, and I saw every heartbreaking image in my head. I desperately wanted to stop reading.
Cathy did exactly what a good fiction writer should do. She did what Robert McKee, writing instructor extraordinaire, advises: “We render the precise experience necessary to cause emotion, then take the audience through that experience.” Cathy rendered that experience with such precision that I felt an overdose of her protagonist’s pain.
If Cathy were not one of my students, would I buy this novel? Absolutely not. Is that Cathy’s fault? Absolutely not.
As another attendee said during our trip to Portland, “Isn’t Cathy’s submission incredible? I just love her story.”
I told my friend how miserable I felt just reading it. She was surprised. How could I not love Cathy’s story?
Here’s what I plan to tell Cathy when it’s her turn at the workshop:
“It is an incredible story. The writing is stunning. And I cried all the way through it. I’ll buy it, of course, but I won’t be able to read it again. But then I’m just one person, just one reader. I think most people will love it and you’ll sell a million books.”
In case you haven’t noticed, writing is a subjective business.