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Keep it Yours

Good feedback gives you direction. The actual path is up to you.

Good feedback gives you direction. The actual path is up to you.

A few weeks ago I was at a local coffee shop with a couple of the girls in my writer’s group — my sister Shannon and my wife’s friend Becca. Becca was inching up on the end of her first novel and starting to think hard about the rewriting process. I offered to do a mark-up for her, and my sister described her own experience with one of my critiques.

“It was good,” she said, with a grimace at the memory of all that red ink. “They were all good suggestions, but it was hard to know what to do with them. If I just made every change he proposed, sure, the sentences were better, but it didn’t feel like my book anymore.”

Becca nodded, because that had been a concern for her, too. And I nodded, because what Shannon pointed out was a very real problem.

Red Flags and Smiley Faces

And the problem is complicated. As a new writer ready to start on revision, it’s difficult to know what’s wrong with your story, and sometimes even more difficult to know why it’s wrong. A good mark-up will reveal both of those things, but then it’s still up to you to figure out what to do with them.

Actually…y’know, it’s a whole lot like a scene in Becca’s novel when her characters go rock climbing. The main character is climbing for the first time, and she wonders how the others are able to scamper up what looks like a perfectly smooth rock face. When she gets up there, though, she finds all the ledges and crevices, all the little handholds and footrests she needs to make her way up.

That’s incredibly like the experience of rewriting. It starts off as a frightening bluff, an insurmountable task, but once you can find where to grab on and get started, it’s a pretty straightforward process.

The process is making your story better. And the handholds are all the jagged edges in your story, the things that stick out — good or bad. Those are the things that your readers are going to comment on. Maybe they’ll draw a little smiley face when your story makes them smile. Maybe they’ll mention how much they loved a particular character. Maybe they’ll say a certain scene left them feeling like they were right there, in the room.

If they’re really helpful, they’ll also throw in the red flags. They’ll tell you which phrases you used too often, or which characters really didn’t work. They’ll tell you when you got a real-world fact wrong, and when you lost their interest. None of those are things you want in your story, but they’ll be there. They’re an inherent part of rough drafts. Just count yourself lucky you’ve got someone to help you find them.

Learn from the Experts

In Becca’s story, her novice climber got to watch some experts scale the cliff first, before she ever took a run at it. They showed her one way to do it, a possible path up, and that gave her the confidence to get started at all. When she went to climb, though, she didn’t grab exactly the same handholds, she didn’t put her feet in exactly the same spots. They gave her an idea what to look out for, a general path to take, but in the end it was up to her to make the climb.

And that’s the answer to my little sister’s concern. That’s the difference between getting an editor and a ghost-writer. Every reader is capable of giving you feedback that hints at your problems (at your handholds and footholds). A good editor will go through your book page-by-page, scanning that rough cliff face and flagging every possible nook, then show you a path straight to the top. Your job isn’t to ride on their shoulders, though. Your job is to learn from their climb and then make your own.

Maybe I’m spending too much time in the metaphor. Let me say it plainly. When you get feedback on your novel — and I mean full mark-up, “I’d change this sentence so it reads like this” — every item your editor marks on the page is a legitimate concern. It’s a red flag or a smiley face, and it’s a spot you’ll probably need to visit on your journey through the revision.

The actual changes though, the suggested rewrites…that’s the expert climber scaling the cliff ahead of you. That’s how they would do it. When I marked up Shannon’s novel I found a sentence that looked like this:

All my friends, only two of which seemed sad to see me go, were behind in that world.

I told her I would rewrite it like this:

All my friends were behind in that world, although only two of them had seemed sad to see me go.

That doesn’t mean my way is the right way. That means that, when I read her sentence, I stumbled over it. Something was wrong with it. The value of my suggested change isn’t that it tells her how she should write, but just that it tells her what was wrong.

The aside confused the (otherwise pretty powerful) statement of the sentence. When she was writing, she put the words down on the page in the order that they occurred to her, not necessarily the order that most clearly conveyed the melancholy of her character’s thoughts. In essence, my suggestion was that she focus on simpler and clearer sentence structures for sentences like this that conveyed deep emotion.

But what would you do with that advice? If I read your book and that was my feedback, “You need to focus on simpler and clearer sentence structures for sentences that convey deep emotion,” you’d be left feeling pretty blank. Same thing if I tell you, “Use more active verbs,” or “Show, don’t tell.” The purpose of a good mark-up is to flag some good solid examples.

Make the Climb

Your job, then, is to figure out how you’re going to fix it. You now know what things need fixing, and why they need fixing, and you’ve even seen some examples of how someone else would fix them. All that’s left is to get in there and do it.

With experience you’ll get better and better at spotting those things on your own. You’ll learn exactly how you like to say it — in a way that gets smiley faces from your readers — so you no longer need someone else to demonstrate a path. You’ll get to the point you’re better and better at spotting your own handholds, too, until going along with someone else becomes more a luxury than a necessity.

You can’t start there, though. Nobody’s an expert rock climber their first time up the cliff, and nobody writes perfect prose when they take their first stab at it. You’ve got to practice, you’ve got to learn from people who know what they’re doing, and then just keep trying it, again and again and again, until you find yourself halfway up a mountain and realize it’s all become perfectly natural to you.

That’s when it will become yours. Everything up to that is simply training.

4 Responses to “Keep it Yours”

  1. Shannon says:

    I think it would be helpful if you linked to a list of active/passive verbs. That would be nice.

  2. Courtney Cantrell says:

    Here’s a third option, just for fun:

    …….All of my friends were behind me in that world.

    Only two of them seemed sad to see me go.

    (My thought behind this is that the second sentence is awful in its melancholy–and making it its own paragraph highlights the sense of isolation. However, as Aaron said, this is yet another of the many possible paths up the side of this particular cliff!) :o)

  3. Aaron Pogue says:

    Shannon, it took me a while, but I finally did. Sort of. I wrote a whole blog post on the topic.

    You can find it here.