Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Not Quite Ready for Prime Time


Yesterday, Clare alerted us to a great discussion about how professional writers create by listening to an inner voice. It occurred to me that we also need to develop another "inner ear", one that can discern whether our own work rises to the level of being publishable.

It's difficult to tell someone their work isn't ready for publication, or even submission. I ran into this situation the other day. A friend told me (breathless with excitement) that she'd signed up for an agent pitch session at an upcoming conference. 

"You're pitching your XYZ manuscript?" I asked in disbelief.

A happy nod. "I finished it over the weekend," she said.

Cowardly Lion here didn't tell her friend the truth--that her project is not ready. It's nowhere near ready.

It's interesting to note that this same writer friend can provide a keen analysis of other people's writing. Just not her own.

I wonder if we all tend to have a blind spot for our own writing. Perhaps the way we "hear" our writing is influenced by the way it unfolds within our imagination. Stories can live so vividly inside our noggins. Unfortunately, there's a huge leap between seeing a  story in the imagination, and conveying it successfully on the page.

Bridging that gap is a critical part of the writer's job. 

Have you ever sensed you had a "blind spot" for something in your own writing? How did you correct it?

29 comments:

  1. Great post. Great topic for discussion, Kathryn.

    As a beginner, I know I have MANY blind spots. I'm still struggling to discover the best way to find them. The hefty price of developmental critiques and edits is inhibiting for an unpublished writer. I paid the price for one, and was led astray. I'm still looking for a critique group. I've imposed on fellow writers to look at my work, and that has helped. But, as you mentioned, it is hard for friends to be brutally honest with friends.

    I was excited about Joe's ideas (writing with a coauthor) in a recent post. Certainly someone else with a vested interest in the final product would point out and change "problems."

    I honestly think this is one of the most difficult areas for new writers. I'm eager to read all your and your readers suggestions.

    Thanks for opening this discussion.

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    1. I feel your pain, Steve. When my first manuscript was nearing completion, I was starving for informed, professional feedback. I went to conferences and lucked into some great feedback. But getting that input required an investment of time and money. I wish there were an easier way! I'm assuming you've already joined your local chapters of MWA and Sisters in Crime, or other genre-specific writer's organizations? Those are good ways to connect with resources in your area.

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  2. Funny you should mention this, Kathryn. Just yesterday, I opened my WIP (one of them; we have two going at once). I hadn't read it in two months. Which is exactly the amount of time I recommend that folks put their manuscripts aside before they attempt a rewrite. I found two things:

    1. The first five chapters were A LOT better than I remembered them being. Starting this new book, I really felt at sea because it is a departure for me. I thought I was being too writerly. But no, the story moves along at a nice pace and I like my protag.

    2. I got to chapter 6 and it was a hot mess. I had thought it was good stuff at the time but now I realize it has major problems. The biggest being: I have the sequence of events in the chapter wrong and my most compelling moment is BURIED. Geez.

    The point I am trying to make is that yes, you must listen to your inner voice. (And others you can trust). But sometimes you need a long period of silence before you can HEAR what that voice has to tell you.

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    1. The hardest time to "hear" ourselves properly must be when we're changing genres. It returns us to a state closer to "newbie" than the stuff we were previously writing. Thanks for sharing that, Kris!

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  3. I definitely have a blind spot with my own writing and sometimes I really can't tell if something is great or crap! I think the need for distance/time between completing the draft and reviewing it is critical - often, however, I don't feel I have the luxury of waiting that long. That's when beta readers become vital - they give me the heads up if everything is coming together well or not. For some reason my own perspective, though often spot on, can sometimes be totally off!

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    1. My critique group serves as my beta reader resource. They don't tell me how to fix something--they simply point out where things don't work. It's incredibly valuable to get feedback like that, unless you're at the point where you know and trust your own output 100 per cent. Even then, it's possible to get lazy or go off track somehow.

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  4. Thanks for this post. It has amazed me for years that people who allegedly read as much as writers need to fail to develop the critical reading skills needed to learn anything from that reading. I'm a recovering musician, so maybe I have an advantage on this, but, to me, a point is reached with my writing where it sounds right, by which I mean comparable to quality, published work by writers I respect.

    Musicians can tell who's good and who's getting by within seconds of hearing them play; there's an assurance in the tone that gives it up. It's much the same for writers.

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    1. I can relate Dana. I took up piano a couple years ago and I am terrible. But boy, do I have passion. So it is with writers. Maybe like me, they are not meant to be heard in public. :)

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    2. I'm the same way singing in the shower. I feel sorry for anyone within earshot, however!

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  5. Kathryn, your post today is a great heads-up for all writers, whether published or not. Step back from the story, take some time out, then come back with a bit of emotional distance, as a reader.

    For newbie writers, savvy beta readers and an editor are essential - when you're just starting out writing fiction, often you aren't aware of effective fiction techniques that will bring your characters and story to life, and issues that will bog it down and turn readers off. You don't know what you don't know, so you aren't in a position to spot any weaknesses in your story or your writing.

    Thanks for your insightful post and for opening up the topic, Kathryn!

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    1. Thanks Jodie! I couldn't live without my critique group--they provide invaluable feedback about my writing, which I wouldn't get any other way.

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  6. I WISH I had a blind spot for these errors, but instead, they're all I see, and it totally kills the joy of writing for me. I've written several ms's (one published by a traditional publishing house) and for each and every one I get more and more aware of my own shortcomings as a writer. It's come to the point where I can't even finish the first draft because "It's just crap anyway" (=not worth the time). Do you have any advice on how to shut off that inner critic during the first draft? I've tried not reading it until I'm done, but it doesn't help.

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    1. Kati, I have struggled at times with exactly the same issues you describe. It happens to me when I'm struggling to establish a tone a "voice" for a type of book. When I started writing, it felt easy to find that voice, because I was writing Nancy Drews under contract--and I knew the voice of that series very well from having read NDs as a child. But when I started trying to write my own series under my own name, it took me years to discover a voice for the new character and stories. Then I decided to switch genres to thrillers, and again, I spent years wandering in the wilderness. False starts, pits of despair--you name it, I've gone through it! What helped me was to do activities such as going to a fun conference, or a retreat. Being around other writers in a supportive learning environment has really helped me every time I've teached out for such an experience. You will make it through this if you don't give up. Write on, and check in to let us know how you're doing!

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    2. Ah, make that "reached out", not "teached out". Oh, for an Edit button! ;)

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  7. As a freelance book editor, I run into this problem a lot. My business is about two-thirds self-publishing authors (and one-third traditionally published authors who don't trust the quality of their in-house editing).

    About 20 to 25 percent of my self-pub clients think they're further along than they are, and want to hire me for a copy-edit when their stories still have serious structural deficiencies. So, like a doctor who has to tell that what you thought was a mole is fact cancer, I have to oh-so-gently-but-firmly bring these clients back to reality and tell them that they're just not as far along as they think they are. Some don't take it well and respond rudely if at all. The majority, however, swallow hard, blink back tears ... and roll up their sleeves and ask whether I'll handle their manuscript chemotherapy. (For this reason, and for professional survival, I'd had to expand my services into developmental editing — and I should add that James Scott Bell's books on writing craft were instrumental in helping develop my dev-edit chops.)

    I've been doing this full-time for four years now, and I'm pleased to report that my experiences with a few hundred clients over that time stand as a strong rebuttal to the "tsunami of crap" trope that's still commonly used to attack of marginalize self-publishing authors. Most of the people who inquire about my services make it clear that they're willing to invest in quality editing. Those that aren't, I've found, tend to sit on their books rather than put them into the world in not-ready-for-prime-time form.

    I should add that I'm trying to nudge my own novels over the finish line, and I've found to my dismay that I have plenty of the same blind spots that I am able to see so clearly in the works of others. My instincts lead to info-dump, to knee-jerk to silly similes and metaphors, and I have a terribly toxic tendency toward alliteration. I'm getting better at seeing them, however (for that, thanks, Kill Zone; thanks, Jim Bell; thanks, great writers; and thanks, clients).

    There are days I really want to hate writers who get it right, right out of the gate. Like Michael Koryta, who published his first novel at twenty-one and raises the level of his game each time out. (I'll bet that by the time he's my age, he'll be at the Stephen King level.) I just have to remember that people like him are like LeBron James — once-in-a-generation freaky-brilliant phenomenons. I'm more than twice that age, and I'm still learning to integrate craft essentials into my writing mindset.

    But that's true of most of us, I would imagine — slow and steady wins the writing-craft race.

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    1. Thanks for joining the discussion, Jim! From your profile I see that you have a journalism background. Not that I'm biased (as a former reporter), but I think having experience in the news biz, particularly as an editor, helps so much in being able to separate the wheat from the chaff!

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    2. Thanks, Kathryn! I was a newspaper reporter for twelve years, and a copy editor and assignment editor for another twelve, before getting laid off in 2010. I agree that newspapering is a good boot camp in terms of being pragmatically tough with copy on both a line level and a structural one. (And it's good for developing what I think of as a gutbucket work ethic.) On a daily deadline, there's not much room to gently hold someone's hand through their blind spots.

      That said, it was considerably tougher training my brain to flip its switch from Associated Press style to Chicago Manual style ....

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  8. Yep. I try to be ultra-aware of my work and how close it is to being ready to be sent out into the world. For me, this means writing, going away, coming back, re-writing, polishing, etc. It's a long process--but it's necessary. I am by no means a writer who can just write something and sent it off.

    Also, I am at the point where I no longer offer to read my friends' work. As a writer who has been lucky enough to be published by a major publisher, I get a lot of requests to read and comment on other's work. And I used to do this happily--thinking that I wanted to give back and help my pals as others have helped me. But, I'm realizing that there is a fundamental arrogance (that is subconscious, I think) on the part of writers that makes us think our work is better than it is. I have yet to encounter a work in progress that is anywhere near as finished as the writer thinks it is. I think part of this is the idea that these people just want to "get on with it"--they don't want to spend time fiddling and polishing and rewriting. They think if there are any problems, they are probably small and can be fixed by a quick flick of an editor's pen.

    I just finished my second cookbook (it's now with my editor) and I am struck, again, with how humble you really need to be to go forward in this business. No matter how good you think your work is, it can always be better. And you need to be willing to do the grunt work (rewriting, polishing, editing, agonizing) in order get better. This is where so many people get stuck--they don't want to go the extra mile that you need to go to actually write a good work.

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    1. In my critique group,Jeanne, I am a bit further ahead on the publishing continuum than the other writers. Whenever I have to deliver som unwelcome feedback about someone's WIP, I always make sure to make it clear that I am sharing that pain--addressing the feedback about my own writing. It keeps me humble!

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    2. Kathryn: Yes! So true. I always try to help out in the spirit of "we are all learning." It's so important to come to this with all of the humility we can :).

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  9. Kathryn--
    IMO, the key to curing the writer's equivalent of macular degeneration (a hole in the middle of perception about one's own writing) is for the writer to compare his own work with that of a published writer he admires. The way to do this is to read the pro's work out loud, and then for the writer to read his own stuff out loud. I am a great believer in the power of hearing problems that can't be seen. If writing is congested, halting, hard to read for the writer, it will almost certainly come off that way to someone else. BUT: this technique is only applicable to prose style/voice. It can't help with structure--which just happens to be my own biggest problem as a writer. That's where a reliable, worldly-wise gun-for-hire editor comes in.

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    1. Ah, structure. I'm struggling with that right now myself, Barry. I'm really looking forward to attending MasterCraft this year at Thrillerfest, to help me sort it out.

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  10. Barry, I've been having this issue with a writer who has an amazing 'voice' but the structure in dialogue, scene, and sequel has major steps missing in the writing. This person simply cannot 'see' the gaps. And this person has an editor. For me THE best structural guide is by the late Jack M Bickham - Elements of Fiction Writing, Scene and Structure. It will change your life as it did mine. As writers we need to really understand how to apply each step. THE best book available is Jack M Bickham's Elements Of Fiction Writing - Scene and Structure. Jack taught creative writing at Carnegie Mellon and wrote many adventure stories including Twister, which was made into a movie. IMHO every single book on structure out there is overly complicated and convoluted because authors don't want to copy Jack's book. He was a master of the craft for a reason.

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    1. Christine--
      Thank you for giving me this title--I'll look into it. I unconditionally agree with you that many of the current how-to books dealing with structure are essentially useless, owing to complexity. The writer must be free to write, but aided by basic guidelines as he/she does so. Thanks again.

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  11. What do I do to check my blind spot? I read a few mediocre to lousy books and they give me courage and determination to be ruthless with my own: I WILL not follow in their footsteps.

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    1. Reading lousy stuff is a good way to build confidence. We can tell ourselves, "Well, at least I can do better than THAT," lol.

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  12. Boffin: Basil has missed the past few days at TKZ because he has been busy talking to himself in the closet. So we’ve decided to help him out so you all don’t forget he’s still here and not just a figment of your ‘maginations.

    Gnillii: So blind spots is the question, right?

    Berthold: That’s what the pretty lady said, “Have you ever sensed you had a ‘blind spot’”

    Fillii: Well now that is certainly a complex question as I am interpreting it. If an individual suffers from the possession of a blind spot how does said individual come to the knowledge of said region of visionlessness, since by definition one can’t see a spot against which one suffers from an amaurotic condition, thereby making said spot invisible, and henceforth unable to be seen, do you concur with my veridicality?

    Boffin: Huh?

    Berthold: You’ve been reading the thesaurus again haven’t you Fillii.

    Fillii: I find it conspicuously advantageous to regularly increase my applicable vocabulary and through such academic cogitation to enhance my comprehension and articulation of the English language, both ceremonial/formal and in the indigenous vernacular of the general populace.

    Boffin: Huh?

    Gnillii: You best not bump your head, all those fancy-dancy words will fall out and make a mess on the carpet.

    Fillii: Obviously you, my dear gentle leprechauns, are sensing the comparatively dim coruscation of your own limited intellectual acuity and finite mortality in comparison to the radiant emanations of linguistic brilliance proceeding forth from my own erudite and self-aware consciousness and….

    WHACK!!

    Fillii: Ow!

    Boffin: Would you look at that…tiny black dots streaming out of his ear.

    Gnillii scoops up some of the dots as they trickle down his shoulder. Looks close at them.

    Gnillii: Well I’ll be, tiny little letters.

    Fillii: Berthold! Why’d you slap me ‘ead?

    Berthold: Your brain was about to burst. I saved your life Fillii. … Remember children, Logorrhea kills.

    Gnillii: And it smells really bad too if you don’t flush a couple extra times.

    Boffin: Huh?

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  13. This is more about what I did to fix it... I had just finished the first draft of my novel on the last day allowable to enter Pitch Madness. I worked all day on my short pitch and not my novel and entered, thinking I'd never make it in. Well, my pitch was chosen! And then, I only had one week (I think it was about a week) before it had to be perfectly polished for the event. I worked like crazy, all day, all night, till the wee hours, and finished just in time. Then I discovered that the "game" the agents played would last a few more days. I worked furiously, because my novel still wasn't as polished as it should've been. When the requests were finally released, I was ready. Or, at least, I thought I was. But as we all know, you're never really ready when you rush like that. Somehow, however, I pulled it off. But, it was a harrowing experience, and one that I do not recommend. I'd love to tell you I gained representation from that experience, it would make for a much better story, but the story isn't over yet. I am still waiting. I wrote another novel in the meantime, the sequel, and then, thought of a great idea for the original novel. Just recently I made the changes and sent off the new revised version. I am now keeping my fingers crossed.

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  14. Hi Kathryn, great subject. Before I started writing – very late in life – I believed I was very self-critical and honest, yeah right…
    The first cure I found was time. Leave the work for at least a few days before coming back to it – longer if possible.
    The second was to join a writing group. If you have to read something out loud to 20+ fellow writers you make dammed sure it’s as up to scratch as you can make it.

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