Listening to My Inner Editor

I’ve read over and over that writers are to turn off their inner editor. That advice comes from seasoned authors, novices, and instruction books. And I think it’s wrong.

Not entirely, mind you, but I think it’s a great advantage to develop an ear for what works, and I don’t think a writer does that by ignoring the nagging voice that says, This part isn’t right.

I’ll add another caveat: I don’t think an author should listen to any editor or critic when working on the rough draft of a story. An author must accept that a rough draft will be … rough. Plot points may not quite fit. Characters won’t always be adequately motivated, and their personalities probably need to be fleshed out more completely. Setting may need to be envisioned afresh.

And language! Repetition will need to be annihilated. Wordiness, cut. Weak verbs will need to be replaced, and so on.

But those are all things to do in the rewrite, not in the first draft.

When rewrite time comes, however, I think it’s important for an author to reach a point where he trusts his inner editor.

I remember when I first went to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference in Northern California and met some of the writers I’d first encountered on blogs and online writing communities. I remember asking one—Brandilyn Collins, I think, who co-taught the fiction track that year with Randy Ingermanson—if she was in a critique group.

No, she said. And I thought, How in the world does she do it? I had just found an online group that was changing my writing. I was learning so much and growing as a writer.

But the interesting thing I discovered later on is this: When I suspected something in my manuscript wasn’t quite right, those in my crit group who gave me feedback almost always overwhelmingly pointed out those spots as needing work.

In the end, I realized that when I thought something wasn’t right, it probably wasn’t right.

Perhaps that editing skill is something I acquired over years of grading papers. I know it developed exponentially as I critiqued others in my group and even more when I began editing professionally.

But in the back of my head I keep thinking, Writers are smart people, plus they are readers. They know what they like in the books they pick up, so why can’t we apply the same sense to our own work?

Usually, I think the answer is, we’re too close to it. We were visualizing a scene, hearing dialogue in our head, and we think what we wrote is what we were seeing, hearing. But if we set the work aside for a time, then come back to it, we have a much better idea if the words on the page conjure up those same images, that same dialogue, as we first imagined.

Critique groups are great. First readers are great. Editors are great. But I’m beginning to think we authors, who ought to have the most invested in our work, should own a lot more of the rewriting and revising.

The Art of Storytelling, Part 3

If you haven’t voted for the CSFF Top Blogger for December yet, please take some time to look over the posts listed here and vote. By the way, voting is not limited to CSFF members. Anyone reading the posts is free to voice an opinion.

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What are the chances there are actually some “secrets” to the art of storytelling? I know I used to think that was so, and if I just learned them and plugged them in appropriately, then publication awaited, as did best-seller status.

OK, you all can stop laughing now. You don’t know what it costs me to come clean about this! 😮 It’s not easy to admit I was so naive or so … proud. Yep. There’s really no other way to say it.

I know some writers will tell you it’s important to be confident. You need to believe in yourself, they say, or at least believe that God has you doing what He wants you to do. Of course the latter is true, but there’s a fine line between believing you have a story God wants you to write and believing your story is what the reading public needs, and in fact has been waiting for all these years.

OK, maybe the line isn’t so fine. But since I’m confessing, I might as well take you back to my school days when I used to scoff at the teachers who said we should read over our work when we were finished and make any necessary changes. Were they kidding? What I wrote was my best effort and it was just what I wanted to say. It needed no changing. How dare they suggest it?

Except, I finally got a teacher who not only corrected our papers but made us change our errors, and suddenly I discovered errors upon errors, many of which I could have corrected because I knew better—except I just hadn’t looked over my work before turning it in.

There was also one assignment—the details allude me (I probably blocked it out due to humiliation!)—in which I remember distinctly thinking, What is this teacher thinking? I’m not going to change a WORD of this masterpiece. This is the best bit of writing she’s going to see, and if she doesn’t realize it, well, her loss! OK, as I said, I don’t remember the details, so those weren’t my exact thoughts, but they couldn’t be far off.

Where am I going with this? I believe the first step to really learning the art of storytelling is to be teachable. Ironically, when I was teaching English, I discovered a good number of my students had similar thoughts to my childhood ones, but now it was my turn to convince them that there might be a thing or two they could do to improve their writing.

Being teachable, however, has several branches, and I think it’s important not to neglect any. I want to look at one of those tomorrow.

Published in: on January 9, 2009 at 2:05 pm  Comments (6)  
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So earlier today, I had two different topics in mind for this post. Do you think I can remember either one now? One was something about characters. The other … haven’t got a clue.

All I can think about is Efrathah. For those who might not know, Efrathah is the land of my fantasy world, and it is on my mind because I’ve been working on some chapter late in the final book.

I can’t give you the number because I’ve decided to split this book into two, but I won’t do that until I have it all into the computer. As it stands now, this is chapter 47 and I’m on manuscript page 445. How many words is it? I was at 100,000 thirteen chapters ago. And the thing is, I still have six more chapters to go, not counting the one I’m on. Yep, I needed to split this book. So no longer am I working on a trilogy. It’s a quatrain. I like the way that sounds better than quartet.

Anyway, what does any of this have to do with rushing. When I first joined a critique group, one of the writers, now a published author, would have these wonderful manuscripts, rich with detail so that you felt like you were standing beside the characters, witnessing it all first hand. Until the end. Then for some unknown reason, she’d start to rush. Scenes were no longer vivid. The climax seemed sloppy. It was a mystery to me

But lo and behold, as I dove into work on this current problematic chapter of The Battle for the Throne, I realize when I wrote the rough draft, I rushed it. I actually have two beginnings, and I never took time to resolve them. That would be for later, I’m sure I thought. Well, now is later, and I’m stuck trying to pull loose ends together.

What I will probably end up doing is writing an entirely new scene to bring some sense to this part of the story.

But here’s the question. How many stories are too rushed in the end and there’s no one around to hold up a slow sign? I doubt if I would have realized the problem in my work if I hadn’t seen this rushing in the manuscripts of my crit partner. But now that I’m aware of it, I’ve spotted it in several published works, and now in my own writing.

What’s the rush, you might wonder. By “rushing” I mean some actions aren’t properly motivated, some settings aren’t clearly drawn, some internal monologue is too prescriptive, some scenes are incomplete. The overall feel is that there are holes. Holes in the plot or in the character motivation. Things begin to feel a little contrived because there are too many coincidences.

I don’t pretend to understand why the rush. I only know I’m paying for it now because I’m having to fill in all those gaps during this rewrite. Here’s where I wish I had an editor who would just tell me what to do. 😉

Published in: on September 10, 2008 at 2:12 pm  Comments (13)  
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