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Pull back the curtain and see how a suspense writer puts the thrills and chills together.

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Here’s a confession, Dear Readers.

Every time I show my work to someone new, I’m afraid they’re going to tell me to keep my day job.

So you might understand how I was feeling before my masterclass with Jack Whyte.

For those of you not familiar with the epic fantasy writer, the man pulls no punches. He is as hilarious as he is brutal.

And for three hours, he was going to be tearing through manuscript pages submitted by other writers…and encouraging us to tear into each other’s. Yikes!

But I was willing to risk it all–my sanity, my self-esteem, my unwavering certainty that I was put on this earth to tell stories–to fix the first chapter of Dragonfly Summer. A friend’s agent had dismissed it, saying that “it had no voice”, which was devastating because I’d never had a problem with voice before. And I had no idea how to fix it. Whenever I tried, I would invariably make it worse.

I was really curious to see what Jack and the other writers would make of my story. (But I also secretly sort of hoped we’d run out of time before he got to mine.)

Jack began by telling us how much stronger our writing would be if we stopped using adverbs in  dialogue attribution. He then went on to say one of the day’s submissions had three of these “bad adverbs” on the first page. Uh-oh. (At least I knew it wasn’t me–I took Stephen King’s admonishment never to use them seriously.)

To my surprise, the first manuscript critiqued–the one with the offensive adverbs–belonged to a woman who was at the conference as a professional editor.

“In my defense, I didn’t edit this,” she said.

“In my defense, it needed it,” he said.

Ouch.

It got worse from there. I certainly wasn’t feeling any less scared. At some points, I was ready to crawl under my chair. And after watching the editor argue against every single aspect of her critique, I was reluctant to comment on other manuscripts unless there was something really glaring no one else caught.

Mine was the thirteenth out of fourteen.

One woman said, “I love the cheekiness of it. You immediately get a sense of who this character is. I like her.”

A young police officer who writes crime fiction agreed. “It’s got a very strong voice.”

There was that word. I couldn’t believe it. I asked if I could say something, and told them the story of my friend’s agent.

In response, Jack told me about his first book. He was rejected by all the agents in Canada and the high-ranking ones in the US. That book went on to sell over a million copies in Canada alone.

“Don’t listen to an agent. It’s only one person’s opinion,” he said. “If they could write a great book, they wouldn’t be agents, would they?”

And then he said the words that made all the difference.

“There’s not a damn thing wrong with your voice.”

I wish I could bottle this feeling: the euphoria of having someone solve a mystery that has plagued me for over two years. The joy of making new writer friends (I’ve connected with three already–one that I hope will edit my work and one I know is already becoming a good friend), and the shared sense of excitement and inspiration.

But most of all, I wish I had a recording of Jack Whyte reading my first page in his wonderful Scottish brogue. That is a moment I hope I’ll always remember.

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7 Comments

  1. Julius Csotonyi

    Wow, what a feeling of elation and vindication that must have been to hear it from someone as experienced and critical as Jack! What an awesome lesson to have driven home, that we ought not take a single critical comment unduly to heart, but recall that although there will always be critics, there will also be myriad members of our audience that really do love our work, and that people *can* differ in evaluations that we’d originally took for granted to be objective but which really turn out to be much more subjective. This reminds me somewhat of a wonderfully inspirational and encouraging commencement speech about writing and art that Neil Gaiman delivered to a high school graduating class. You’ve probably seen it already, but I hope that you don’t mind me sharing the link to it here ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hndaEH-HTeM ); I was rather moved by it, and hopefully your other readers will also feel some wind in their wings from it, as they most certainly will from your own post above. All the very best on your adventures in writing, Holli! Believe in yourself; the human mind is uncannily capable of unlocking unimagined depths of potential when we allow it to inspire encouragement.

    Reply
  2. Lisa

    Sounds like the conference is going/went well….

    I kept thinking of bad adverbs as “badverbs”…;0)))

    Reply
  3. Mystic_Mom

    Told you! YOU ROCK! And he is right – I love your voice! 🙂

    Reply
  4. Chris

    That’s awesome! You can’t see, but I have a huge grin on my face imagining it. I’m so glad you went this year.

    Reply
  5. Elle

    It takes a lot of guts to do a critique. I’m so glad you got what you needed out of it!

    Reply
  6. Lisa S.

    Congrats on having Jack Whyte reaffirm what we already know about you. You have an incredible writing voice.

    Reply
  7. Holli Moncrieff

    Wow, thanks for your wonderful comments and support. I’m quite touched.

    I should say that I’m normally not this swayed by one person’s opinion, especially when it comes to my writing. It was a combination of factors: the level of this agent, that he represented my friend’s work, and that my friend clearly felt the same way, since it was obvious from his comments that she hadn’t exactly gushed about the story to him. All I heard in his comments was a problem I could fix, and I became so focused on fixing that problem that I forgot to stop and ask myself if I saw any merit in that assessment in the first place.

    When I sent the book out to friends to read, I asked them pointed questions about that first chapter so I could figure out from their comments what the issue was. But of course if you ask ten people what’s wrong with something, they’re all going to find something wrong, and it will all be something unique to them. In short, it was a disaster.

    Jack is only one man, too, but the fact that other people mentioned the strength of the voice before he said a word to me tells me that the agent’s comment was just another subjective “this isn’t for me”.

    Thanks everyone! And thanks for sharing the link, Julius. That’s a very famous speech, but I haven’t listened to it yet.

    Reply

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