Writing Humility

I dread revising and editing. I hate spending the time.

Yeah, yeah, Michaelangelo and Tolkien, blah blah. Sometimes you just want to have an accomplishment in your hands so you can have something to show for all the time you didn’t spend playing Xbox, or going to the movies, or doing those chores that your wife wanted done.

But I learned a lot of lessons from New Arbor Day. With it, I had waited until draft three to start getting feedback, and I never got feedback all the way through. Oh sure, I had some alpha readers, but frankly, some readers don’t yet have the experience to really tell you what they think. It takes time to learn to read a story and identify why you are reacting the way you are.

So get a beta by draft two, in my opinion. You don’t want to waste a good beta; they are hard to find. So go take a break then go through your draft and purge the obvious grammatical problems, patch up those plot holes, and while you’re there add another layer of characterization. Then give it to that good beta.

And listen.

I know it hurts. I hate to hear what my beta thinks even before they think it. I’m preparing to defend every choice and explain why it was right. But remember . . . you can’t defend your work to your final reader. They won’t ask you for explanations. They’re going to go to Amazon and tell Amazon readers what was wrong with your story, and if they are nice they might hedge it with “personally.”

Evangeline had three chapters in the beginning that for a long time I was unwilling to change much. I kept getting negative feedback from critiquers (not my beta) saying they didn’t like this or that. In my defense, I rejected a lot of that because it seemed like a lecture, a dislike born out of convention rather than personal reaction. “I like the story, but I’ve read that this is wrong . . . ”

But finally, I start to look at it from another perspective. Maybe this wasn’t so defensible? Who cares how good it is technically, if the reader can’t stand it? I kept the opening scene because I thought it was important, and I could say why, though I tinkered with the identified problems.

The next scene, I decided to ‘try’ and rewrite changing major things, like point of view character. A long list of problems shouted for me to shelve it. Call it good enough. The surprise will be given away! How will we see how bad the clone trainer is? I can’t show some of the other background stories from the clone’s POV!

But I tried anyway.

As soon as I decided to think up a different course, new details occurred to me. Sure the POV knows such and such information, but he isn’t thinking about that so I don’t have to show that. The surprise could be maintained. Be made even better because in the other POV the surprise comes from the character’s ignorance, from this POV the surprise comes because the POV is too busy thinking about other things to mention what he already knows until its relevant. Suddenly, the scene stopped being about how cool I was, and became about the character.

Because I started listening, I freed myself to actually solve the problem and refine a new skill to solve this problem in the future.

Now I’m facing another challenge. I can see the same theme repeating. I wrote this really neat scene where I told two streams of time in the same chapter. Originally, people complained because they were most of the way through the chapter before they realized what I was doing. So I went back and changed the transitions to make them more obvious. “Ok, this one is the present . . . now we’re in the past . . . now in the present again.”

It sounds stupid from here, but the thought was to show the character’s numbness. Feeling like their life is fragmented and confusing. They’re in shock. That’s how I justified it, but when I really am honest, I thought . . . that was a pretty cool way to write a surprise in. Oh the cleverness of me?

I decided to rewrite it, straight forward because the bottom line is if the reader is confused: A) They aren’t enjoying the story. B) Time spent confused is not time spent getting to know the characters. C) They are seeing the exits signs in the theater. They know it’s a story.

Most writers I meet want to be invisible. They want the reader to forget they are reading.

To achieve that, you have to be willing to stay in the shadows. You have to be humble.

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