On Being Perverse

In the proper usage of the word, not its current defilement. I simply mean that, upon receiving advice from First Reader that a certain character wasn’t important to the story I’d just written and should be cut out, I not only didn’t cut him out, I went the other way and added an entire extra scene starring you know who.

It’s not that I wasn’t listening to First Reader’s reaction. On the contrary, her reaction was the reason I did exactly the opposite of what she suggested. See, I knew something that First Reader apparently did not know—that the character was indeed important, nay, crucial to the way the story unfolds, and was in fact the entire foundation on which the theme of the story was built.

“So she was wrong?”
“Whadya mean, “impossible”? Anyone human can make a mistake, and unless
First Reader isn’t human, she could be wrong.”
No, she can’t.
“You’re not making any sense.”

Sense has nothing to do with it. We’re talking about an aesthetic response. A reader’s reaction to a story. It can be uninformed and naive. It can be limited by the reader’s prejudices and pre-conceptions. It can even be boneheaded and incomprehensible. The one thing it cannot be is “wrong.” Or as some Roman pointed out a couple thousand years ago—“De gustibus non est disputandum,” which more or less translates as “It’s useless to argue on matters of taste.” Which is what a reader’s reaction to a story is. There is no objective “right” or “wrong.” There is only reaction, and First Reader’s reaction was that the character didn’t belong.

But here’s the flip side to that canard—If she can’t be wrong, it doesn’t necessarily follow that she’s always right, in the sense that her own response to her personal reaction was “cut the character out.”

I did consider this, but after some serious reflection I realized that the problem wasn’t that the character didn’t matter. The problem was that it wasn’t clear enough in the context of the story WHY he mattered. That is, I agreed that First Reader’s reaction was fully justified, and I understood why she was reacting that way. All we were really disagreeing about was the best way to fix that.

Now, as writers, we can also be uninformed and naive. And bone-headed. And sometimes, incomprehensible. And we damn well can be and often are “wrong.” But right, or wrong, as a writer how you fix a story problem is entirely up to you. One sermon I always preached in the late great writer’s group with no name is that you listen carefully to all critiques and feedback, but the Unchanging Truth is and always remains: your story, your name on the byline, your rep on the line with editors and readers, your decision. Right OR wrong. You have to make it yourself.

And, at least in this context, I practice what I preach.

*edited to fix a really, really generous “about.”

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