Feedback is a Gift – Painful, But a Gift

The first draft of my novel, SYN:FIN, was typed on an Olympia SM9 from the 60’s.  One word after another with no delete key.  That is the great thing about writing on a typewriter.  There is no going back.

My Oly SM9

I keyed that first draft into my computer and did an edit for spelling and grammar and thought I had a killer novel.  Just before I pushed the button to publish, I decided to ask a good friend to read the first three chapters, about 30 pages.

She had great credentials.  Not only was she the CEO of a research consulting firm, she had published a book earlier in her life.  Competent and articulate, on the business side she had always been crisp and insightful in her analysis.  What better person to tell me how great my story was.

You know where this is going.

Here is an excerpt from the first paragraph of her email response.

Re: Syn Fin, here’s my take. You know me well, so I’m going to be blunt. Hope that’s okay.

The good news is that you’ve got an intriguing voice and a character that will become sympathetic once you edit out the noise.

The bad news is that you didn’t hold my attention.

She was calling my baby ugly!  And what the hell did she mean by “noise”? Fortunately, she explained herself.  You see, I had inserted a little twist into my first person writing.  I had given my character a device to record his thoughts, so that the book was his dictation, not his writing.  Every so often he would complain about something with the recorder or some other element and go off plot.  Here’s what she thought of my ingenuity:

The device of using the automatic writing software (and making occasional asides to the reader about not knowing how to write) is distancing and distracting. Lose it.

That was pretty specific.  I was thinking maybe she didn’t get my sense of humor.  But I read on and found out what she really thought.

The first couple of paragraphs manage to quickly build sympathy for your character–the reader identifies with him being hungover, getting dissed by his ex-girlfriend and sidekick, etc.

But it’s not enough for me to care about him for 30 pages. Since I forced myself to plow ahead, I know there’s more to this guy–but you need to pack it into the front end.

In particular, the fact that he’s a software genius is a) relevant and b) buried. You need to haul that puppy right out front, because it’s important.

You have very little time to create an emotional situation that causes me to care enough about the guy to turn the page. (By “very little time”–I mean more like 30 WORDS than 30 pages).

It wasn’t good to hear that she had to force herself to read the full 30 pages.  Even worse was hearing she had not uncovered the plot after she read it all.  My first reaction was that she just didn’t get it.  Then I remembered why I asked her to read it.  She knows her shit when it comes to writing and reading.

It took me a couple of days to be warm up to what she had said.  There was one comment I kept going back to.

Again, the point is that you should know exactly why each sentence is where it is, and what purpose it’s serving. If it’s not either conveying information, defining character, or moving the plot forward–get rid of it. And if it IS doing one of those—can you make it do two? Or, can you pack the same punch in fewer words?

She suggested I take a book I really liked and deconstruct the first few chapters. I did just that.  Damn, the whole setup was there.  Just like she had said.

I felt like a dismal failure.  This was my best effort and it sucked.  So, I took some more of her advise and stepped away from the book for a while.  Separation can be a good thing.

About 3 months later, I picked it up and took a red pen to it.  I learned quickly that there is a difference between writing and editing.  I listened to aggressive music while I trounced on my words and ripped, slashed and crushed everything.  What I discovered was a pretty good story under the coats of verbal varnish.  Each pass with the red pen brought that story into more crisp focus.

The pain of editing!

It took six, count them – six, edits to get it to the final state.  The seventh edit was purely for punctuation and grammar (forty-seven fixes that my six edits had missed).

The end result is that SYN:FIN has received seven 5-star reviews on Amazon. Even better is that my friend is still my friend.

Here’s what I learned:

  1. Write that first draft for fun and frolic.  Just get the thoughts out of you and on to paper.  Don’t worry about consistency or grammar.  Capture what is in your mind.
  2. Editing is a totally different mindset than writing.  It is surgical and clinical.  Edit as if you are a reader and you don’t give a flying F@&# about any of the words on the page.  Nothing is sacred.  If it doesn’t lead to the end game, get rid of it.  If you can say it in two words, not three, then cut one.  Don’t repeat what you’ve already told the reader.  They remember.
  3. If you are fortunate enough to know someone who will give you honest feedback, then listen carefully to what they say.  You will only get better as a result.

I am working on the next installment in the Chronicles of Jim Harrison.  It is going well and the plot is much trickier this time.  Exactly how it all works out is still in the air.  Each day at my typewriter is a surprise and I am anxious to see where my fingers will lead me.  I’m having a great time getting there.  More important, I won’t make the mistake of thinking that my first draft is a finished product.

This time I will do a lot more editing before I submit myself to feedback!

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8 thoughts on “Feedback is a Gift – Painful, But a Gift

  1. Honest, reliable critique is painful. It is difficult to not take it personally. Many people hesitate to be as honest as your friend because they know that ugly babies deserve tender care.

    Very well written and advice that I will remember and try to follow (if I can keep my defensive Amazonian ugly baby defender in check). Love that you type on a typewriter because you can’t go back.

  2. I’ve just turned over the first 17 chapters of my “baby” to a good friend, and I’ve been sick ever since. It’s hard to hear the kind of criticism you describe, but eliminating the unnecessary can mean the difference between a publishable book and an unpublishable one.

    I will add this, though: different readers have different tolerances. I get easily bored with description as a reader, but others like a nearly-photographic description of characters, settings, etc. When editing, I can only eliminate what *I* think is unnecessary and hope that my audience has roughly the same tastes.

    If I were editing Tolkein, The Lord of the Rings might have come out in one volume, but if I were Jane Austen’s editor, her books might occasionally have included descriptions of people, interiors and clothing.

    • Julie, I love your perspective. Since my novel is a techno-thriller, it needed pace and movement and a clear direction. You are right, different readers want different things from a book. I aimed my book to be a good weekend read. Fast and fun and leaving you wanting more.

      I wish you the best on your “baby”. I am certain that it will become a great piece of fiction.

      Jerry

  3. Feedback is crucial. Forget creative writing – ANY kind of writing. You get so close to it you read what you know should be there instead of what is. It becomes impossible to self-edit past a certain threshold.

    It’s a shame not everyone appreciates its importance as much as you.

  4. Interesting process to the final result. I have always loaned my manuscripts out for review and critique. It is uncanny how the sme, identical manuscript can elicet different feedback from two individuals.

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