Monday, January 9, 2012

Learning to Love the Red Pen

Okay, maybe love is too strong of a word. Because really, who loves getting told they made a mistake? That's hard to do. How about learning to not despise the red pen? Maybe that's a good place to start. I don't know about you, but I tend to bristle when I first get edits or notes back. I can't help the feeling of "I wrote it that way because it's how I wanted to write it." I think (or hope anyway) that it's just human nature to feel that way. As writers, artists, creators, whatever, we are creating something from nothing. I'm bringing life to something that didn't exist before, and who are you to tell me that what I made isn't the way it should be?



That's right. We're Gene Wilder, all crazy-eyed and proud of ourselves, and with good reason. It's a huge accomplishment to write a book. But how often do we get it right the first time? Speaking strictly for myself, not very often. The framework might be there, but the dialog is too on the nose or the action is clunky and confusing, or a million other things are wrong with it. The good stuff is there in theory, just not reality. James Michener said "I'm not a very good writer, but I'm an excellent rewriter." I think a lot of people will agree with that sentiment. And besides, it's not personal. I'm not being critiqued. My story is. So I tell my pride to take a hike and I read the notes again and you know what? Half the time it's something I should have caught on my own, and the other half is suggestions that will really help the story in some aspect. So I dive in again, because I know the story deserves more than I've given it.

Now, I'm not saying that you should automatically accept the edits without question. Sometimes there's a note or edit I don't agree with. Just last week I got a round of notes from my agent, including a suggestion for a cool plot point that definitely could have helped the story. But I already had things plotted out a certain way, and it just didn't work with where I was headed. But we got into a good discussion and I ended up taking a large chunk of her suggestion and tweaking it to where it fit with what I'd been planning. This time it worked out pretty well. There have also been notes that I've argued against and ended up not using at all. The point is you need to be willing to explore. I didn't take my agent's note right out of the box, but it sent me down a path I otherwise wouldn't have gone, and I think my story is much better for it.

So loving the red pen? I don't know if that'll ever happen. But I don't despise it, and in fact I respect it. Because in the end it's there (and the people who use it are there) to help make my story the best it can be, and who doesn't want that?

Feel free to share if you've had any good or horrible edit experiences!

9 comments:

Jordan Dane said...

Ah, the metaphorical red pen. I chuckled at your post, Dan. Man, we have all been there, from the first time you let ANYONE read your baby. Before I sold & was working with beta readers, I called it bloodying the pages.

After Jenny's post on the drafts & rewrites authors do on their own before our books even get to another critical eye, our novels can be a real team effort by the time they get thru an agent, editor, copy editor, etc. I've grown to embrace the collaboration because I am still in control & can push back. Any advice from an industry professional, or from an avid reader you trust--especially if it clicks with you--that is golden.

I would only caution authors less experienced than you to be careful not to dilute your voice by too many opinions that make you doubt yourself. An author, whether pubbed or not, should have a strong sense of who they are as a writer, otherwise the second opinions can take the life out of your book.

Great post, Dan!

Anita Grace Howard said...

I never realized until I started getting REALLY serious about being published that it takes a village to write a book. There are so many steps, and so much input, necessary to make the shiny diamond out of the lump of coal.

JD is right, too. It's so important to know the difference between pride and vision. If people are telling you to change something in your book that you love, stand back and ask yourself why you love it. Is it personal to you? Something that other people, including your readers one day, are likely not to connect with? Or is it something integral to the characters in your story. Something that’s a part of them? That’s the difference between pride and vision.

Pride applies to the glory it brings you. Vision applies to the glory it brings your characters.

We should never make changes that will compromise our character’s voice which ultimately IS our book’s vision. But we should be humble enough to let go of pride if it will make our character’s voice stronger and our book a more solid read.

Excellent post, Dan!

J.M. Sloderbeck said...

All of the editing work I've done (and can afford right now!) has been my own work or offered by helpful readers. I've also learned that my fiance will edit anything I ask her to read within an inch of its miserable existence -- punctuation, description, this word and not that one. English as a second language (ESL) is a helpful bonus as well, I think.

I did have a minor editing nightmare when I realized that a ebook I published for Kindle was the wrong one. I lost sleep trying to get the correct version edited and uploaded in record time.

I haven't dealt with editing in terms of agents or professional copyediting yet. I'm thankful for a view of things on the other side, though. Thanks for the post.

Michelle said...

I actually do love being edited, although I have a policy: after initially reading the notes, I write an enraged email that I end...to myself. After I've had a day or two to think them over, I usually realize that most of the edits were necessary and critical.

With a few exceptions. In one book, an editor became unusually attached to a character (Cougar) who wanders in on the first page, finds a body, then continues on his merry way, having served his purpose. My editor LOVED this character, and for the rest of the manuscript kept making margin notes asked, "Where's Cougar?" and "What happened to Cougar?"

I had to explain that Cougar was basically the garbage men at the beginning of a Law & Order episode: he'd found what he needed to find, and wouldn't be showing up again. She was somewhat bereft over it, but we came to an understanding.

Jordan Dane said...

Maybe you should do a COUGAR sequel, Michelle. Hmmmmm

dan said...

Thanks guys! I totally agree that you shouldn't let your voice get overrun by too many opinions. It happens in movies all the time. You have to a have a strong vision of where you're going. But I do think it's important to let the story breathe a little. Be open to suggestions, whether or not you take them, because they can lead you in great directions you might not have gone otherwise.

That sounds kinda like what I do, Michelle :) And it sounds like Cougar totally needs his own story!

Jennifer Archer said...

I have just completed the third and final round of edits from my editor on my next YA novel. That's right -- THREE. Each one less intensive than the one before, but all of them still fairly intense. By the end, I wanted to never look at the story again, but I did and guess what? It's SO SO much better. It helps that I have an editor with great insight that I trust. And one who also gives me the final decision on any new direction or change. Great post, Dan!

Jordan Dane said...

Hey Dan--Great comment on letting the story breathe and keeping an open mind. Very true. Can't wait to read your book.

And Jenny--WOOT!!!! Another YA. Can't wait to read it. You have a release date yet? If it's 2012, we should post a summary, even if you don't have a cover to share yet.

Carol Tanzman said...

Okay, I am in the minority. I love getting notes and rewriting. Seriously. I was a theatre director for so long and I used to be the one to give notes. Playwrights knew me as the Carol "The Knife" Tanzman. Also, when directing, you can work on a single scene for hours with actors. I have a singular capacity to redo and redo and redo!