It never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I should shutter the doors on this online journal, something comes along that I realize I haven’t written about, and the blog goes on for another few weeks.
My wife and I hosted the reading party for A Father Christmas last night. I brought in five community theaters regulars, a writer-in-progress with some theater background, and my two children. And between Christmas cookies and other snacks, we managed to slog our way though the second draft of the script.
Yeah, I said slog. A funny thing about writing – you can look at a manuscript all you want and think you’ve cut it to the bone. But then something happens that makes you reassess what you’ve done and suddenly there’s stuff all over the place that makes you cringe as you reach for the red pen.1
In the case of the Christmas play, it was a matter of having a bunch of people together in one place at the same time reading the parts of the characters. Not only did I hear lots of cringe-worthy moments that made me bloody my pages with red ink – but between acts and afterwards the readers had lots of useful comments for me. It helped that one was a writer, but some of the other had lots of theater experience and were quite articulate in things they thought were wrong with the play:
- The parents were nice… too nice… sickeningly nice;
- But the wife was something of a cypher who didn’t really react to losing her adopted daughter (well, the play is called A Father Christmas, but that’s no excuse);
- The antagonist was not nearly sympathetic enough. With him the way he was, the court case would have been a slam dunk in favor of the parents. Making him more sympathetic would create more conflict over who had the right to the child;
- The antagonist also didn’t act like someone who’d been in the military, who’d seen combat. And he was a loser;
- The courtroom scene was way… too… long…;
- The six-year-old seemed more like a four-year-old (that’s a fair cop – my six-year-old was six twelve years ago);
- Some of the dialogue was really, truly, cringe-inducing. No, wait. That’s my comment. Although one brave soul did tell me that one particular line “really sucks” (if I hadn’t caught it and red-penned it, it was red-penned then);
- There was also some disagreement among the cast over the motivations of some characters. Some agreed with what I’d used, some didn’t. Lining those up for tweaking, too, to get everyone on one side – hopefully.
Looking at this laundry list of literary sins, perhaps some of you writing aspirants are thinking that maybe my friends were a little too articulate in their critique of my play?
No. They weren’t.
That’s why I picked these folks. I knew they’d be honest. That’s what I needed. Besides, in my career as a novelist, I’ve had my share of criticism that was just plain mean spirited. It was filed under the heading “Reviews.”
See, editing is an important part of the process of creating a piece of writing, but the ability to see what needs to be edited or revised is one of the hardest things to learn. Ask someone who teaches writing at any level of education. I have even been asked to speak in classes specifically about the need to edit one’s on writing simply because the participants thought that one draft was all that was needed and that their work was perfect, say Amen and close the door.
But it’s not. It’s the very nature of our closeness to a work that we sometimes get blinded to its faults. So we do things like employ outside readers (for a general look or to look for specific things), or set manuscripts aside and work on something else for extended periods of time (at least a month works for me).
Besides, if you’re serious about writing, you understand that your work is going to come under scrutiny at some time or another. Better that you give it your own beforehand. There’s no guarantee you won’t get an unflattering review, but how much worse will it be if you realize that it addresses dumb, stupid things you did in your draft that you would have fixed had you only known about them? Besides, if the mistakes are that dumb and stupid, they will likely prevent your work from getting into print in the first place. Yeah, better to get those out of the way now, while the manuscript is young.
Which means you’ve got to get used to criticism. Which means seeking it out.
Author David Brin has an approach to using outside readers that I think should be a model for how we all approach criticism. He recruits readers to look at his work – and if they don’t have any criticism of the manuscript at all, he does not use them again.
The lesson being, the whole object of the criticism exercise is to make the manuscript better, not accumulate Yes-men who would grin and nod their heads if you handed them your novel that reads like it was carefully plagiarized from the Manhattan Telephone Directory.
On the other hand, you don’t want to continually use someone who shoots your material down just for the sake of being critical, or perhaps out of jealousy (I’ve chronicled here before about an acquaintance of mine who did just that, so I won’t revisit that here – just be mindful that folks like that are out there).
Which is why it helps to accumulate a trusted group of people you can rely on for that kind of favor. If they’re writers, you should be prepared to return the favor for them, too. And if they’re not, well… maybe you could promise them a part in the play (if you’re writing one).2 And if not, well, I usually promise an autographed copy of the book. Some people have been known to respond well to plates of Christmas cookies, too.
So don’t be fearful. Thicken your skin and seek out folks you can trust to give an honest criticism of your work. As I said, if you don’t, there are overworked editors, agents, and critics who will also point out the error of your ways in terms a lot less blunt. And if you can’t bear the thought of doing it, be prepared to accumulate a closet full of unfulfilled manuscripts.
Or else become a goth poet and do a lot of coffee house readings.
Yeah, the reading party worked really well for me. It’s a shame that I can’t do the same for a novel. I did put out a feeler – “Anyone want to come over and tackle my 800 page thriller?” – to which I got the response, “Should we bring our sleeping bags?” Guess I’ll have to stick with first readers, and letting the manuscript sit.
And in the case of And That’s The End of the News, that’s one peoject that ought to be ripe for the plucking. While going through the blog to add
categories labels to all the posts, I realized that it’s been three years since I last looked at the manuscript.
I’d better get another box of red pens.
And then I heard some footsteps in the hall outside my door
The same ol’ Christmas trick my dad had played since I was four
He stands outside my bedroom yelling “Ho! Ho! Ho!” because
He knows I don’t believe in Santa Claus
(via iTunes shuffle play)
1 Yeah, I know that by tradition it’s a blue pencil. But what I’m doing is editing to get a manuscript in shape to face the blue pencil, so I use a red pen, which can be easily seen against the white page and black print.
2 But what if their comments result in you cutting out their part? Best not go there right now…