Friday, September 2, 2011

Edits Are Not of the Devil

I was talking with another author recently who was complaining about how much they hated edits. I just bit my lip and smiled. I totally get the rewrite hating. Who likes someone telling them their artistic endeavor is less than perfect? I think it hails back to our time in school. Remember when you turned in a paper, hoping for the vaunted gold star, and got back something that looked like the teacher had tapped an artery and bled all over it?

red ink

So, yeah, discovering your gold star story is actually more of a tin star story can be pretty depressing. So much so, that I would literally rather go in for major dental surgery than read a manuscript for someone other than my critique group or a really close personal friend. It’s just so hard to decide what they want back. Are they looking for a real here’s-everything-you-need-to-fix response? Or a hey-good-job-really-like-what-you’ve-got-going-there response?

The thing is, I love edits. I mean LOVE in all all caps, with bold text, and maybe even a heart instead of the O. I was beyond thrilled when my edit letter for Grimville came in the mail. It’s not that I’m a glutton for punishment, or even that I love the smell of red ink. (Okay, now I have to go test that at some point. Does red ink smell different from blue or black? I always imagined the pink ink in the Dr. Seuss book smelled kind of like peppermint.)

I crave praise every bit as much as the next author. I want people to tell me they adore my characters, that they stayed up all night, enthralled with my intricately woven plot, that they laughed so hard at my jokes they cried.

But . . . and this is a big but . . . I want all that praise after my book has hit store shelves. Before it goes out, I want the harshest feedback possible. I want to know every flaw, foible, and fix.

Back when I was in high school I had a friend who was restoring a 64 Mustang fastback. It was a really cool car. But it was completely hammered—rust holes, oil leaks, broken glass, torn upholstery. Every time I looked at that car, I wondered how he could possibly not just pour gasoline over it and send it up in a flaming pyre to car heaven.


And yet, every week there he was. Sanding away some rust. Pulling out a dent. Painting on primer. Little by little, I began to see what had been in his head the whole time. By our senior year, he had one of the baddest (which meant goodest back then) cars in school.

Now I’m not saying your story is in as bad a shape as my friend’s car. Hopefully you have something that reads pretty well before you start sending it out for feedback. But these days there is so much competition out there—whether you are self-pubbing or going through the agent-editor route—that you can’t afford to have anything other than your very best work going out the door. The days when an editor said, “I love the story and we can work on the lousy writing,” are almost completely a thing of the past. You absolutely must view your novel as a work in progress.

The reason I love edits so much is because in my mind every change is clearing away a little more rust, or pulling out a dent. Even better, some of the edits aren’t just fixing the bad things, they’re adding things to make the story badder (again meaning gooder.) I’m putting on a spoiler and installing heated leather seats.

By the time I sent Grimville to publishers, it had gone through multiple edits from my critique group, my agent, my beta readers, my friends. And no matter how personally invested I was with the story, I asked them to be brutal. That way, when my editor sent me his suggested changes most of them were high end audio upgrades and fewer of them were, “Um, didn’t you forget to put in the carburetor?”

So what can you do when you are looking to get feedback?

1) View your book as a fixer-upper on blocks, not a showroom demo. It’s much easier to use feedback if you are expecting lots of work than if you are looking for pats on the back for a job well done.

2) As much as possible, let your readers know what kind of feedback you want. Sometimes it’s tough for family members to say anything more than “I liked it,” or “I didn’t.” But if you put together a form they can fill out, that is much easier.

3) Consider things like having them describe characters to see if their view matches your intent. Ask them to list anything that was confusing. Tell them to list three things they didn’t like. Get feedback on both individual scenes and overall story. Ask them what they view as major themes.

4) This is going to sound really weird at first. But, go to sites like Goodreads and Amazon and read negative reviews of books that are similar to yours. This will do two things. One, it will help you recognize problems with your book. “Oh yeah, I did that too.” And, two, it will prepare you for negative feedback.

5) Don’t let anything in your story become sacred. Again, this sounds counterintuitive, but things that you see as the very best of your work, are often the biggest weaknesses. Go into your editing with the resolution that anything in your book can be improved and nothing is untouchable.

So, yeah, that’s pretty much it. You should try and learn to love edits and if you can’t do that at least learn to accept them. Speaking of which, I better to back to work on Grimville. I’ve got these really bad mag rims to install.

Speaking of writing advice. If you haven’t checked out the new Wordplay podcast I am doing with James Dashner and Nathan Bransford, you definitely need to. It posts every Monday and the next two weeks we have Ally Condie, the incredible NYT bestselling author of Matched and Crossed, and my super agent Michael Bourret as guests.

You can go to the site, add it on iTunes, or listen to it right now by clicking on the player below.


Donna K. Weaver said...

I've learned that the editing process is when the real story is told. Up to that point all I've done is a rough sketch. I have a couple of sons who are artists, and they totally get it when I compare it to their early rough sketches of a project. They have yet to do the shading, the colors, making sure it's balanced and visually appealing. Same thing with writing.

I love your analogy with the rusty, beat up car.

Robin Weeks said...

Donna can attest that I LOVE brutal crits--and for the same reason you said: I want to identify and fix all the problems (and I KNOW they're there) before the end readers see them.

Love your list of how to get good crits--excellent advice, as always.

Diony said...

Great Post!!!

Nicole Pyles said...

Now, I will admit that I don't always receive bad critique's well, BUT with that said, I absolutely LOVE the person who gives me that critique. THOSE are the ones I go back to, because I know they are not afraid to really tell me. And if they tell me something is good, I know they aren't just trying to be nice!

Lauren said...

My problem isn't harsh critiques, it's that I can't find people to critique in the first place! Or rather, the people I ask always have something better to do.

Or the response that I got a few days ago. All she said was "Like."

So I work on my own, pretty much.

Any suggestions on how to find people to read and critique?