The value of a fresh look at writing? Priceless
By Carol / April 8, 2013 /
A fresh read of a manuscript points out all kinds of problems: flat characters, scenes that though beautifully written go nowhere, leaps in logic that were clear to me in the writing but not to a reader. A fresh location can also inspire a fresh look.
A few weeks ago, I met my writing partner Mary Gottschalk in Moab, Utah, for what has become an annual tradition – a week devoted to our writing.
I’ve written about retreats before, but I was particularly excited about this one. Having given the full manuscript for my work in progress, All She Ever Wanted, to Mary for a complete, start-to-finish read, my goal for the week was to fill in the holes and trim the fat she saw on this read through. She didn’t disappoint. Her critique offered both big picture and fine-tuning feedback.
Reading with clear eyes, she found sections that could be eliminated entirely or reduced to a line or two of backstory. With her comments in hand, I set about hacking entire scenes. Once I embraced the idea of eliminating anything that didn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way, I found other scenes that were surprisingly easy to send to the cutting room floor.
But it wasn’t all about cutting. In the course of the week, a character who started off as a minor player at a holiday party took on a major role. By the end of the week, Harley was challenging my heroine Liddie to grow up, speak up, and face the reality of how quickly gossip can travel. To accommodate this troublemaker, I wrote new scenes and changed the tone of others.
In addition, I fleshed out the historical setting, adding richness of detail to the story skeleton, based on research I’d been doing. The war in Europe (WWI) had a broader impact on the U.S. than I’d realized it did, years before the U.S. sent troops into battle in 1917. Every American was being taught economy. Women were called to eschew foreign labels in their clothes and buy American. Clothing designs took on military influences.
At the beginning of the week, I hoped to be able to respond to Mary’s comments on the first half of my manuscript. What an adrenaline rush to find that I could tackle the entire manuscript. By the time we were driving back home, I could visualize having my manuscript ready to put in the hands of beta readers by the end of April.
A fresh look and a week with focus let me take some very big steps in that direction.
Yes, you can’t beat some fresh eyes – and I have both you and Mary to thank for giving my own story a thorough going over.
It was truly a pleasure to read your manuscript, David. Mary and I know we’re good for some things but the more we read each other’s work, the more we know we need folks who are totally fresh to the stories. That’s on my horizon at last!
Isn’t this the truth? I’m working with my publisher’s editor right now and she is so good at fine tuning and polishing. A fresh set of eyes is invaluable. Good luck with your book Carol.
I think a good editor makes a huge difference in quality of the final product. One of the steps too often missing from many indie published works. Good luck with your book, too, Grace!
Carol … as you know, the inspiration and support went both ways. My primary challenge for Moab was to flesh out the scenes in which my protagonist, Lindsey, begins to realize that her exhilarating new love affair reprises the dynamics of her failed marriage. The ability to talk it out … and to confirm that what appeared on the page told Lindsey’s story was invaluable. Thanks for the help and for this lovely blog.
Our ability to support each other with insightful critique and honest encouragement is one reason our partnership has lasted eight years – and will go on!
Right now I’m reading APE, Guy Kawasaki’s masterpiece on self-publishing, or “artisinal” publishing, to use the term he’s coined. He has introduced the concept of collaborative writing. He “invited a few thousand of his best friends” to become involved as he wrote APE, and it shows. The book on such a potentially dry topic is eminently readable. I definitely plan to follow his lead on my next significant tome. Why settle for only one or a few pairs of fresh eyes? At some point he reminds readers that by involving this horde of people in the planning and polishing stages, he had thousands of people feeling invested in the product and helping promote it.
I don’t have thousands, and may be stretching it to think one hundred would become involved. I’ll be happy with a few dozen.
I’m sure there are some who would argue with the idea of creation by committee, Sharon, but I can see his point, particularly for a non-fiction work – on self publishing, no less. Ideas abound!
But I’m with you on involving more people as I write my novel. For my memoir, my readers were a handful of very good people in my writing group. For my novel, I’ll engage dozens of readers as I shape the final product.
True, Guy does write non-fiction, and my next book will be nonfiction. Indeed, I really don’t see his approach working with memoir, especially in the content development stages. A novel — who knows? That could be an interesting experiment, but quite a different experience from the traditional approach. I have no doubt your memoir will be captivating and wish you well with it.
Thanks, Sharon. My childhood memoir is already published. The readers I’ll enlist for my novel will be beta readers to let me know if my story is cohesive with a strong enough arc, has good pacing, if the characters are well developed. That sort of thing. I’d like to think Guy’s point about people being invested in the work is true whether it’s non-fiction or novel. Time will tell!
I’ve always admired the ‘true grit’ and authenticity of people who grew up in the Midwest and the American prairie. For any writer who wants to take a fresh look at what that might have been like for a sensitive woman during the Great Depression and during the 20th century, I recommend “I Speak of Simple Things…Collected Poems, ” by Donna G. Humphrey (1915-2005). Her children found her poems in boxes, folders and desk drawers after her funeral.
Thanks for letting me know about Donna Humphrey’s poems, Edda. It’s sad that her children didn’t know of the poems until after her death, but it’s wonderful that her poems will carry her voice and her stories on.
Hi Carol, This lovely post resonates with my own revision process. After three years of writing and two rounds of professional edits, I find I am finally honing in on the heart of my story, which means big changes and surprises I hadn’t anticipated- rethinking theme, slashing scenes, being open to where it takes me. I am so intrigued by your writing retreat with your writing buddy , Mary and how this collaboration helped you break through to the next level. Congratulations and best wishes getting your manuscript to your beta readers. You have inspired me!
It encourages me to hear from others who are committed to taking the time to write the best stories possible, Kathy. I have not enlisted a professional editor yet, but will be soon. I don’t know that my collaboration with Mary is unique but it is very special. In spite of (or maybe because of) all the time we’ve written together, we have the trust and confidence to challenge each other on all levels. All the best as you plumb the depths of your story.
Joanna Howard offered her approach to getting perspective via LinkedIn. I thought her idea was so interesting, I had to share it here. She approved me posting her comments.
“I put some of my writing onto my Kindle – it shows up flaws in the most unnerving way, because it compares it more directly with the published things I have there. It shows up boring or self-indulgent bits, using the same words too often, things like that. I think it’s because it’s like a ‘real’ book and looks as good or less good that the others I’m currently reading, something that the on-screen or even the printed-out pages doesn’t seem to do so well.” – Joanna Howard
Carol, the week, as well as the location, inspired not only fresh thinking, but creative action!
True on both counts, Diane. One of the reasons I enjoy these retreats so much.
I think one of the most difficult parts of being a writer is ensuring your writing comes off as intended and you penetrate the reader’s mind exactly how you wanted. This is easier said than done as you might write with a certain message in mind, only to have your reader view it from another angle.
You make a good point. We all bring our own live history and points of view to reading. I think the best the writer (or any artist) can do is to tell the story they want to tell, the best they can tell it. What that story means or doesn’t mean to the reader is an entirely separate exercise.
Carol, what an exciting time it is when a fresh pair of eyes focuses on your writing and the feedback is essential to filling those nooks and crannies! I was in attendance at a local writers’ forum last evening. One of the panelists could not drive home often enough that your finished manuscript must be a shining example of good writing, an eye for the tiny details, and shine with the cooperation and input of others’ having read and given feedback. You and Mary are such a team! I wish you well in your current book and with this new one coming along.
Mary and I work well as a team, a collaboration based on trust and built stronger by shared goals and writing experiences. We both know, though, that there’s a point at which we know each others writing too well and it’s time to get those fresh eyes engaged. With my novel moving ever more quickly toward publication, the “fresh eyes” are now those of reviewers. Unbelievably exciting.
Congratulations on getting a publisher for your book, Sherrey. I look forward to watching your progress and reading when the time is right.