heartburn, and the digestion of feedback

Kurt Vonnegut

Question: how do I know if what I’ve written is any good?

The short answer: you don’t.

Say you write a short story about your Uncle Max and his shoplifting habit. You work a long time on the story, and now you believe it’s done. It’s as good as you can make it.

You print off a couple copies and you give them to people to read. The range of responses you get is astounding:

Your mom wonders if Uncle Max will be offended; Uncle Max wants to know if your mother will be embarrassed;

Your best friend says, you know, I really like where you’re going with this.

Your best friend doesn’t think it’s done. Should you sit down and start revising? You show it to a wider range of people. Your friend Janet who has some short stories in print says: You know I just can’t get into first person narratives. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Your coworker says: wow, where do you get the time to write? Your boss says, When DID you get the time, and: I liked the bit about the dog.*  You find a writing workshop, where other people are working on short stories or novels. After a couple meetings it’s your turn so you submit Uncle Max. The range of the feedback is confusing:

You have a good eye for detail.

I liked the way you built tension around the police interview.

There’s a certain raymond carver feel to this, were you reading him while you wrote?

On the way out the door a woman who writes obituaries for the paper says: I really liked the scene with the dog.

So you put the story away for a month, and then you take it out and read it again. You remember the rule of thumb: if one person makes a specific criticism, take note but don’t do any editing. If two people dislike the same scene, make another note. Three people have exactly the same problem with your story? Get out your pencil.

You come to the conclusion that the bit about the dog is good. In fact, it’s the only thing that works at all. So you delete everything but the scene about the dog, and start from there.

This cycle could repeat itself a hundred, a thousand times. At some point you have to trust your own instincts and send the story out to magazines and journals. That process may go on for years, too, and mostly you’ll get photocopied no thanks letters, but every once in a while you’ll get something encouraging and insightful. For example: The story about your uncle’s dog was funny and moving, and I liked it very much. But it’s not right for us here at Mechanics Today.

So you got a little stamp happy, sending the manuscript out. It was worth it for this note. And you’ve learned something: only submit to places that like the kind of story you’ve written.

I once went to a reading by Charlie Baxter at the Shaman Drug bookstore in Ann Arbor. I haven’t been in touch with Charlie for a long time, but at that juncture we were acquaintances, I guess you’d say. So I went up to talk to him before the reading and he was standing there with a copy of his just-published short stories in his hand, and he was making changes. In ink. I was shocked. Um, I said… um, now? Right now?

And he said: it’s always right now.

So people reading along silently as he read aloud were stymied now and then. I saw one of them check the edition and printing information, but of course nobody would interrupt a reading to ask if he really meant small? because on the printed page it said asked. Nobody put this question to him, because it was his story. His story, his call. However. The only writer I know of who actually revised a lot of stories and then published them again is Louise Erdrich. It was an odd move, and much discussed at the time.

So how do you know if you’ve gone over the top, or if the story is any good, or if the scene works? You want to know when you are done. Here’s the answer. Some clever writer (does anyone know who?) put it in plain words:

It’s all a draft until you die.

Advice for aspiring authors of fiction

Edith Wharton

I get mail now and then from readers who are working very hard on their own stories. These are people who are struggling with the very issues and questions and doubts I faced some years ago, and that I still face, in a different way, today. I understand very well what they are experiencing but the help I can offer is limited.

It is a great responsibility to read the work of aspiring authors, and it is also a delicate, involved, and time consuming one. When I have a piece of work in front of me, I hold a person’s hopes and dreams in my hands. The wrong word or approach could crush those aspirations.

This is true no matter what the relationship. I exchange work with my best friend, and we both step carefully even though we give each other honest criticism. Over tea I can say to her “This just doesn’t work for me,” or “The transition here falls short” and she will not be crushed, because she knows that I respect her and her work. She can say to me “You just can’t use that name, it evokes too many associations to X” or “You’ve used this image before” or “huh?” and I’ll just nod, because she’s right and I know she is.

But an author who is just starting out may need commentary on many levels. From how to open a story to where to end a paragraph, from word choice to dialog, from story to character. When I teach introduction to creative writing I don’t let my students write a whole story to start with, simply because they will give me ten pages that require so much commentary it would take me longer to comment than it did for them to write it.

I once had a graduate student in creative writing who was very talented. She was writing her master’s thesis — a collection of short stories — under my direction. She had a whole file of stories she said were “junk”, but I asked to see them anyway. She believed that they were junk because a previous teacher had handed them back to her with the words “not worth the effort” written on them. But in that pile of rejected stories (about seven of them) I found four that had wonderful promise. Strong characters in interesting conflicts, but the rest of the story was in poor shape and needed extensive work. Over a summer I worked with her on those four stories. Each went through ten or even fifteen revisions, and she worked them into something wonderful. But it took tremendous effort.

The moral of that story is that the wrong reader can do a great deal of damage; the right reader is just the beginning of a long writing process.

I am sure that some or even many of the people who ask me to read their work are talented. They may need direction and help, and need it very sincerely. If I am not the person to provide it, what other choices do they have?

My strongest suggestion is to make connections to other writers around you. Community colleges often have classes in creative writing. Even if a new writer feels they are beyond the “introduction” stage, this can be a great way to make contact to others with the same interests and concerns. I found my first writing group (an excellent one) through a creative writing class. The other real advantage of taking such a course is this: it teaches you to accept constructive criticism gracefully, something that is often very hard for beginning writers, but absolutely necessary.

If for whatever reason it isn’t possible to take a course, then there are very good writing communities on-line. I highly recommend the authors’ forum at CompuServe, which includes sections where people submit and critique each other’s work, according to genre. CompuServe was very helpful to me when I was in the early stages of writing Into the Wilderness. Finally, I am always happy to suggest two books which were (and still are) helpful to me. The first one because it looks at the nuts-and bolts of putting together fiction with great insight, wonderful examples, and most of all, common sense; the second one because it is hopeful and wise and funny.

Jane Burroway. Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. 5th edition July 1999. Addison-Wesley Pub Co. ISBN: 0321026896

Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird. October 1995. Anchor Books/Doubleday. ISBN: 0385480016

Writing is a demanding business, but a rewarding one. It’s hard for everybody; take comfort in that. And then get down to work.

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What to Leave Out

Stephen King

1. Do important stuff in scene. That means, you don’t have the crucial confrontations, discussions, stares happening out of the reader’s view. It’s disappointing and frustrating to work toward the day when Jane finally tells Inez what she really thinks of her, and then not be invited to observe.

2. Dialogue is gold. Every word has to bear multiple burdens. Few writers can pull off pages of dialogue. Try writing a five page scene that is nothing but a telephone conversation, and you’ll see what I mean.

3. Trust the reader to make logical leaps. We don’t need, we shouldn’t be subjected to, every movement and thought.


first paragraphs

Willa Cather

An email came with this very good question:

What makes a first paragraph feel “right” to you?

Now, this is one of those questions I’d like to be able to answer, but probably whatever I say will sound vague and touchy feel-y. To start with the obvious: as I read the paragraph to myself (not aloud, in my head) the rhythm of it either works, or it doesn’t. The images and associations evoked are enough, or they aren’t. It’s a wholly subjective process, based on years of experience and experimentation, and dependent on a hundred very subtle cues that I couldn’t articulate for any money.

This isn’t exclusive to writing. Anybody who paints, or sculpts or does anything creative from cooking to dress design goes through the same process; you feel your way there, and you know if you’ve lost your way, or overshot. You know when you get there. Sometimes you come to the conclusion that you just can’t get there from where you are.

Often you have to walk away from the work in process because you’ve lost perspective. Some writers will tell you to take a finished story or novel and put it in a drawer for six months before going over it one last time. This isn’t bad advice, if you can spare the time. Time, distance, perspective are important because — this does need to be said — sometimes your instincts will lie to you. You’ll convince yourself that opening paragraph is as good as it’s going to get because please dog you can’t look at it one more time. And clearly what feels right to one person may read like dreck to another.

See? subjective.

The good news : This is a skill that can be learned. It takes a lot of close reading and thinking and (if at all possible) discussion.