Oops, I did it again. Almost.
Right on the heels of a post about how I let one negative comment stymie me, I nearly did it again.
I had a blue pencil session today. For those not in the know, a blue pencil session is when another writer or editor critiques your work.
For my session I chose a mystery writer with nine published books. I haven’t read a lot of her work, but what I’ve read so far reminds me of early Mary Higgins Clark.
I won’t go into the gory details, but she told me something that had me convinced my novel needed a massive rewrite that would result in the deletion of at least a hundred pages.
I felt like crying, but not for the reasons you may expect. I was relieved.
I knew there was something wrong with this book! Finally, someone had told me what the problem was. And how to fix it.
Or had she?
Unable to contain my emotion, I called The Boy. Instead of being delighted about this amazing leap forward, he was skeptical.
As we talked, I began to second-guess my delight about the feedback I’d received.
One of the issues she had with my novel is it starts in one setting, and because of some big events in the main character’s life, moves to another. The writer’s argument was that my story had to stay in one place. I couldn’t introduce the reader to my protagonist in one location, surrounded by one set of people, and then move her to another place, where she is surrounded by completely different people.
The Boy pointed out that a few other novels manage to do this successfully. For example, a little-known book called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. How different would that story have been if JK Rowling had started it at Hogwart’s?
Then I realized other things…
- The writer was suggesting changes that would have made my story more like her writing style; and
- Other people who had the same writer for a blue pencil session right before me were devastated by her critiques; and
- This writer reviews crime fiction for a newspaper.
While I do think my book needs some work, if I blindly follow her suggestions, it would be no better than thinking I have problems with voice because that’s what one agent said.
When I met Jack Whyte at the book-signing session later, he complimented me again on my writing. I jokingly told him about my blue pencil session.
“And then you’ll get an editor who will tell you to put those hundred pages right back in,” he said.
At the time, I thought his comment was specific to epic fantasy, but now I get what he was really trying to tell me. Everyone is going to have a different opinion of my work.
“How do you know when you’re good enough?” I asked him.
“When an editor asks you to put the hundred pages back in,” he laughed. “I told you before. I just wrote a book that is either the best thing I’ve ever written or complete crap–I have no idea. That never goes away.
You never know.”
That’s the scariest thing about writing. You need to have faith in your own ability to tell your stories your way–and you need to keep that faith even when readers, book reviewers, agents, editors, publishers, critics, book clubs, well-meaning friends, and writer’s groups tell you you’re wrong.
And faith–believing in something that can’t be seen or proven–is mighty hard to achieve.
But I’ll keep trying.
What other choice do I have?
So true. Didn’t Dean Wesley Smith say something about only rewriting if an editor asks you to? I think that’s too extreme, but it’s also extreme to rewrite substantially based on the opinion of any one person. You’re the brilliantly creative author of your own work – rewrite based on what your gut tells you.
Starting your story in one place and moving to another isn’t a flaw in itself. Telling you to not do that might be a way of fixing what she saw as a problem, but it’s not identifying the problem itself. If you agree with her that there are too many characters in the first location, or that too much time is spent building up a place the reader will never see again, there are ways to fix this that don’t require beheading your book.
Generally speaking, every book you write is better than the one that came before, so there’s a lot to be said for moving forward and not investing a lot of time rewriting when you could be creating. But if you feel in your gut that you know what you don’t like about the story and want to invest some time in fixing it, go for it. Either way, it’s still going to be better than some famous authors’ first novels. 🙂
Probably cause it’s my fourth. 😉
Thanks, Chris. It’s so difficult not to listen to comments like this when you haven’t been published and they have. It’s easy to think that they know so much better than you.
The problem was she fell in love with the story she thought I was telling and didn’t like the story it actually was. But it’s not my responsibility to write a story for another writer who probably will never read my book, anyways.
I’m going to do what someone wise suggested—sleep on it for a couple of days and then take what I can from her comments, using my own knowledge of the story to guide my edits.
At the end of the day, you just have to trust your gut, hey?
That’s actually the problem, Lisa–I don’t trust my own judgement when it comes to this stuff anymore. If someone said, “hey, you should turn this into a sci-fi novel”, I would probably listen to them. I need to start trusting my own ability to tell a story again. The writer’s suggestions would have resulted in a very nice cozy mystery, but that’s not my story and not what I write.
So what is going to be the magic spell that makes you know that you’ve done what you need to do? A good editor can help you fine tune, but you need to have a goal you’re working toward. What’s your theme? What is the conflict? How is it resolved? Are you characters distinct? Do they play the roles you needed them to? Do they fit properly into their arcs? You need to have faith in your own abilities. You’re not an imposter, as that keynote discussed.
As I go through it now, I’m just cleaning it up and preserving the story. I’ve already had good editors. I just need to resist the pressure to turn it into someone else’s story.
Thanks for the kind words and the comment! I’ve actually written a post about feeling like an impostor. Go figure.