Friday, February 22, 2008

Arguing One's Work

(No names are being given, in order to protect no one in particular.)

I've been on both sides of the argument when it comes to defending a piece of writing. This week, the argument came again, this time from a published writer whose submission to an online magazine was not bad but definitely not his best work. After I, a slush reader, offered my comments and suggested a rewrite, the author composed a long and well-thought e-mail response essentially stating that his work should remain as it is, that any changes to it would alter his message.

Although I can understand what he was attempting to do with his short story, his message did not come through in the final product; thus the request for a rewrite. Defending one's work without considering the possibility that a change could improve it is (dare I say it?) arrogant. Very few of us in this world--regardless of our publishing statistics, adoring audiences, or innate talents--can produce work so near perfection that it cannot use a bit of polish to smooth the rough edges.

Several years ago, an older and wiser writer once told me that if I needed to explain what I wrote, I needed to rewrite it.

Excellent advice. If I expend too much prose trying to tell the reader something, maybe I'm not sure of what I'm saying. Maybe I'm over-explaining--and almost any explaining can be eliminated if the story is being told in clean, clear words. Maybe I'm skipping necessary information or, in an attempt to be literary or mysterious, I'm being too vague or am jerking the reader too quickly or awkwardly along the path toward story's end.

I have a duty to the reader. Why should he follow my lead if I keep losing him in a coy attempt to be clever? Why should he lag behind when he can skip ahead of all the chunky, clunky prose and find a clearer path ahead? And why should he stick around for the end if getting there is too much work, or if he's always being jerked off the path?

Recently, I had a small debate regarding a short story of mine published in December. In that case, I was the one presenting a defense of my work--not to an editor who asked for a rewrite, which had been requested and promptly given, but to a fellow writer who wasn't all that impressed with the end result. That's okay. Anyone who's ever hired me to edit a romance novel knows how much it takes to impress me. I've seen my fill of cliched westerns, unmysterious mysteries, and boring thrillers. But that's why I nudge, and sometimes prod, my fellow writers toward something better.

We can't please everyone, nor can we please every taste. All we can do is present our best work and maintain enough humility to realize there are only a few perfect pieces of writing in this world--and ours are very likely not among them.


The Texican said...

It is difficult when someone says your baby is ugly, even if they say it in a euphemistic way. However, like you I have discovered they are sometimes right. I recently started going over many of my former masterpieces, and discovered they were no longer masterpieces. The critics were right. They needed some work. Putting work aside for a year sometimes reveals the flaws.

The Texican said...

Hey Keanan,
Take a look at "Beth's Stories on my favorites. Her post today has an interesting little test you might enjoy taking.


I ventured over there and took the test--mine brain is purple. Ay-yi-yi. So that it explains it!

As for masterpieces with flaws: There does come a time when a writer has edited a piece past editing it any further, and any artist can point out flaws the audience may not even recognize as flaws. However, in my case, just about everything could use an upgrade.

There are things I write just for myself, not for any thought of publication, and those I do not touch. If the work is meant to be read by other eyes, however, I can be ruthless.

Eaglewing said...

Good food for thought. I always like feedback on anything I write as its always interesting to see how different people take it. But yes, if I have to explain it, then it probably needs a rewrite. The reader has to feel it was worth his time. Although, at a certain point of editing, you have to let it go and let it sink or swim or nothing ever gets out there to be read.