Monday, December 17, 2012

Writer's Rules Revisited #9

I've made all of my current deadlines, and story ideas are biting at me like no one's business. Plus I have that novel to finish (I'm sooooo close.) But, since I submitted the last piece I had on a major deadline this morning, I wanted to take a moment to bring you another edition of "Writing Rules Revisited."

And I'd like to say the kind words about this series really help. A good friend and excellent writer whose opinion I quite respect told me that she thought this series was invaluable and "an act of generosity to other artists."

I hope you all feel that way and letting me know that any of this is helping is certainly appreciated. And if you have any to add to the original list, I'd be more than happy to add them and write more essays about my take on them as well.

For those new around these parts, a brief explanation is in order. A long time ago I posted a list of rules and guidelines I've been collecting in my notebook over the years as a writer. I put together the list on the blog and it was fairly popular. (You can read the whole thing here) But there's only so much that comes across in a simple bullet point list. I wanted to expand on it and we've been doing it two or three at a time ever since.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 herePart 5 here, Part 6 herePart 7 here, and Part 8 here.

Without further ado, we'll dive into the next three "rules," two of which involve how to handle criticism.

28) Don't ask people to read your material for praise. Tell them to hate it and criticize it to no end. If they do that, you know exactly what to work on.

This dovetails nicely into a point we made last week, and my larger piece about the importance of writer's workshops. When you ask people to read your work, get out of the habit of doing it for a pat on the head. If we wanted pats on the head, we'd ask our mother's to read it. Or our significant others. Or anyone in our life dedicated to making us feel like we can make it. Which isn't to say it's bad to have a pat on your back now and again, but if you're looking for meaningful advice to make your story as good as it can be, these are not the places you should be looking.

You should be welcoming as much criticism as they can shovel at you. Even if they're dead wrong as far as you're concerned, their criticism will force you to either defend your decision or make you think about it in a different light. We all have different sensibilities and what works for me won't work for you, or the next writer, or the next writer after that. It's why writers, when given a uniform story idea to work from, will each come up with a wholly unique take on that story.

So when they come at you and explain where they'd come from with your story, you need to understand they're not actually criticizing you. They're helping you see your story from a different perspective, whether you agree with their individual notes or not. Seeing your story from that different perspective allows you to better diagnose the problems it does have. But it's a fine line discerning between those elements of taste and them being genuinely right. Sometimes their notes aren't up for debate.

When I was workshopping Operation: Montauk, Aaron Allston explained to me the problems I was having with points of view shifts in the text. I thought the technique that I'd learned in my screenwriting to track the action and see it from different points of view was elegant. Aaron explained to me how wrong-headed it was for prose and gave me a list of a dozen reasons why it didn't work in the book, for him, for editors I'd work with, and especially for readers. That wasn't up for debate.

He was right. And no matter how much it pained me to think about how much work clearing up the POV issues would take, he forced me to look at the entire piece in an all new light and it's not a mistake I'll willfully make again.

These sorts of criticisms aren't meant to get you down, but to improve your prose and make it more salable.

So, when you hand your work to someone, be honest, both with them and yourself. You don't need a pat on the head. You need them to eviscerate the material so you know exactly what to fix, or work on, or polish. Even though you may not take their specific prescriptions, you'll have a good general idea of what to work on.

29) Don't get defensive or mad when someone criticizes your work. Criticism is done to help, not hurt or compete. And chances are the more mad they make you, the more right they are.

Here's the thing to remember: When you ask someone to read your work, they're giving you their time. Time they could spend at work, reading finished books for leisure, writing a book of their own... They could be doing literally anything with their time, but instead they've give it to you. That is an extraordinary gift from anyone. It's difficult enough to get people to read these days, let alone for them to read it with a critical eye, and then have them take the time to give you notes? That is a Herculean feat.

If they've given you the gift of that time, you owe it to yourself and to them, to not get upset or defensive when they have something to say about your work that you might not like or may well hurt your feelings. They're giving you the gift of their time and their knowledge, getting mad and defensive is the rudest thing you can do.

And if you're really getting that mad, chances are it's not about something they're wrong about. It's about something you really do need to fix and hadn't considered the option you were wrong and weren't willing to put the time and effort into fixing.

You have to learn to kill your babies. I don't know how many times I'll write the first chapter or scene in a story and absolutely fall in love with it, it's what made me want to write the piece in the first place, and then quite rightly be told that I started the story too early or too late. Either I have to go back and add a better hook before the scene, or axe it entirely. It's frustrating, but it's for the better.

You really can't take that kind of criticism personally. Again, they're not giving you criticism because they're trying to compete with you or tear you down. They're giving you criticism because you asked and because they want you to succeed. They may not always be right, but they would not have taken the time to read your piece if they didn't have your best interests and success at heart in the first place.

I can't emphasize how important that is to remember.

I know how hard it is to hear that your brilliant idea, flourish of prose, or snappy opening isn't as brilliant or snappy as you thought it was. Writing in itself doesn't make you vulnerable, showing it to someone else is what causes that. But you need to thicken your skin and listen to that contention. It's important.

And if you can't take that criticism from your friends, are you going to go to pieces when an editor tells you that you need to fix something?

If the answer to that is yes, then maybe you should give up the idea of writing professionally, because it's going to happen constantly. You need to write for the joy of writing and accept criticism like an adult in the pursuit of honing your craft. It's a whole different kind of writing if you just want to write to blow off steam and not publish.

It's important to manage those feelings and to keep them managed.

30) Don't go back and revise until you've finished. Otherwise you won't get past page 15.

I know far too many people who struggle with this one. 


They want to craft the perfect opening before they bother with the ending. They take 30 passes on chapter one, when in reality they should have taken one pass at 30 chapters. It's counter-productive for a few reasons. One, you get caught in an endless loop. And since, presumably, you're still studying and honing your craft you're getting better at writing, you're definitely going to be improving things. 

But here's the thing: I never know how to make the best edits on my first chapter until my last chapter is written. I have to know where the ending is headed, sure, but things will present themselves in a way that will require you readjust your first chapter anyway. Chapter one is like pulling the string back on your bow and letting an arrow fly. The final chapter is the target you're supposed to hit. If you don't know where the bulls-eye is, you don't know what minute adjustments in the aim need to be made. So you fire the arrow, see where it lands on the target, then readjust your aim in revision to make sure you hit the bulls-eye perfectly the next time.

Which is to say this: Your first chapter, no matter how endlessly you revise it, is not going to be perfect until it hits the target at the back of the story. 

So, it's my firm belief that you need to get a complete draft done before you go back and revise. Period. No questions asked.

That's not to say you can't do minor tweaks as you look over yesterday's work as you sit down to work today. Of course that's going to happen. And of course you'll go back and make notes about things you want to add based on new revelations the text presented to you. But it's imperative that you leave them for the finish. Otherwise you won't have anything to show for yourself.

I understand it's a difficult habit to break, but break it you must. Initially, this is why I wrote the first draft of my first book on a typewriter. I wouldn't be able to go back and do anything but jot down notes until I was finished and could transcribe it into the computer, which in and of itself, was a revision on its own. And it's killing me that I have ten pages of notes and suggestions from my writer's workshop on the book I'm working on now, but I'm unable to do anything about it because my draft of the book isn't finished yet (and it's oh, so close to finished.)

It doesn't matter what strategy you use to finish things, but you have to finish them. 

Neil Gaiman gave as one of his best pieces of writing advice
You write. 
You finish what you write. 
It's sounds almost too absurdly simple, but too often people get caught in that perfectionist revision trap and end up with nothing but a well polished first chapter.

I'll tell you what: no one is going to publish a well-polished first chapter without the rest of a book to back it up. So spend your energy in where it's needed in the first place, and that's by finishing your first draft.

Otherwise you're just spinning your wheels.

And that concludes another session of these writing rules. Like I said, please don't hesitate to let me know if these have been helpful, and any suggestions for more rules will be greatly welcomed.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, Part 5,  Part 6Part 7, and Part 8If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. 

And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.
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