Friday, March 23, 2012

Humility and Objectivity in the Writing Biz

Thursday morning, I spoke with a young writer whose first novel I was editing for a publisher. I paused the edits after the third chapter, because her book was just not ready; thus the phone call.

I didn't know this young lady, so was uncertain how to approach pointing out the huge flaws in the narrative including (but not limited to) repetitive material, believability stretched to the breaking point, long boring passages (anathema in fiction for grownups, let alone for children), chatty and unnecessary dialogue, cliched characters, incomplete research into the era and setting, and so on.

So, as soon as introductions were exchanged, I just dove right into what needed a second look. I tried to throw in encouraging comments, because 1) no writer wants to feel as if his or her work is being attacked, and 2) sometimes a little praise goes a long way. More than once, I reminded her that a constructive critique is a compliment: someone believes in her work to the point that he wants to help her mold an okay story into a dandy novel.

I could tell she was discouraged -- it was in her voice and in the reasons she gave for why things must be as they are in the manuscript. Still, when the call ended, I thought she was willing to give it a try, willing to do the hard work of changing the opening structure (a matter of shuffling existing material, and cutting out the extraneous) in order to create a more compelling, tense, interesting story.

One of these days, I'll learn not to be so optimistic.

Turns out, she gave up. Oh, she doesn't see it that way. After all, she's standing her ground and defending her work, and -- as the author -- that's her prerogative. I've had to stand behind my own work a time or two. However, she's new to this world, and she still thinks her words are pristine. The way she has put them on the page is the best arrangement, and how dare anyone tell her different?

"The Greatest" (kid photography) c.KB
This is one of the aspects of editing that I dislike: the inability of a writer to be objective about his or her work. In order to be objective, one must stand apart from the manuscript, and not view a critique of the words to be a critique of oneself. That, in turn, requires humility.

Ah, there's the rub.

A teachable spirit means a humble writer means an objective author, one who can stand back, see the bigger picture yet remain focused on the details; one who can welcome the feedback of honest readers and incorporate useful advice into crafting a better novel.

(Notice I said useful. There are other kinds of feedback that just belong on the refuse heap: unremitting negativity, and unremitting praise.)

I looked forward to helping the young author shape her novel; after all, there's an iron-sharpens-iron quality to the give-and-take nature of a solid critique partner/group, benefiting everyone. However, she has backed away, and -- as far as I know -- been released from her contract with the publishing company. This is not something to celebrate.

And, yet, there is still hope. Perhaps, in her search to find a new publishing home for her novel, she will encounter similar feedback from agents and editors, and realize that, yes, revisions and rewrites are not anathema to good stories -- they are often the genesis of great stories.


Bryan Thomas said...

Just had to have a similar conversation with an author for a client. Publisher's wife, too. It's tough but I wouldn't serve her or myself or my client well by not being honest. After all, my reputation as an editor is on the line, too. I did, however, offer pros and cons and give as much helpful advice as I could. We talked for over an hour on Skype. I think that's the least I can do to keep someone at it who just needs a little more time on craft to get there.

Keanan Brand said...

Those kinds of conversations are always difficult for me, especially with new writers. They don't quite understand yet, perhaps have never felt the sting of a critique or an edit, and they're expecting only praise for this baby they've birthed.

The veterans, though, are more often the ones already wooled around by this process, have already had a few rough edges knocked off their egos, and tend to be willing to do whatever necessary to get the job done.

Here's an accusation tossed at me a few times: "You just think you're better than everyone else," followed closely by "Just because you don't like it doesn't mean a publisher won't." That may be true, but if the writer keeps pushing against good sense, I don't fight him. I'll walk away from a project with potential if the writer refuses to be helped.

We editors have to take a few knocks to our egos, too -- it's never pleasant!

Robert Treskillard said...

Sounds like a tough situation ... I think you did your best!

Hopefully the person will learn, as each of us has to, that our words aren't golden and that often they're just plain awful. I know I still have a lot to learn.