On June 12, 2010, Erin Edwards wrote, How do you cope with revision requests/suggestions, or did you never have a problem with them? Do you find that they were easier or harder to take after you got a contract or had a book published?
When I was starting out and hadn’t yet tried my hand at a novel and all my picture book manuscripts were being rejected, I wrote one that garnered editorial interest. The story was about a girl, maybe four years old, miserable when bedtime came and her parents were having a party for grownups. Awake in bed, she decided to dress up as an old lady and crash the party. She did and was the life of it.
In the story I didn’t say whether or not the adults were onto her, and editors didn’t know what to do with the ambiguity. I received editorial suggestions that I attempted to follow in revisions. One editor even met with me. He talked about “warm storytelling” and suggested I read Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, which I dutifully did (it’s great!). Afterward, I felt that I had an epiphany and really learned something about craft, rewrote the story in a state of great excitement, submitted it – and this editor hated it.
With each revision, the charm of my original story melted away and I couldn’t get it back. Finally, I saw it was permanently lost and stopped submitting it.
However, nothing like this has ever happened to me since. I included the anecdote because it can happen, and when it does, it’s really sad. Maybe the trouble in this case was that the story hung on that gossamer thread between adult belief and disbelief. Possibly it would have resolved itself if the editors had left the uncertainty to an illustrator to interpret.
Again when I was starting out, I joined critique group after critique group (they tended to fall apart after a while) and I kept taking writing classes. In my first critique group we were all beginners and none of us knew what we were doing. We just offered each other what we could, at that point more as readers than writers. I decided that I should try all criticism. If a suggestion didn’t work, I could go back.
But usually they did work, and I learned.
A friend of mine had a brain injury that has left her with limited ability to hold onto new memories. She can’t hear a fact and remember it, but she can still learn by repetition, by doing, through something called implicit learning. We all learn some things implicitly, like how to ride a bike or how to swim, and I think most writing learning is implicit. For example, I may read that writers should vary their sentence structures, but just reading the words and remembering them isn’t enough. I have to try out the suggestion in a mechanical way many times before the practice becomes part of the way I write.
Before I got published I took a writing class that I loved and repeated again and again. Bunny Gabel, our marvelous teacher, who has since retired, conducted the class as a workshop. At the end of every class we would drop our week’s writing on her desk. By the next week she would have picked a chapter of a novel or an entire picture book of three students to read aloud. She wouldn’t identify the writer, and when she finished, the class would weigh in, constructively of course. At the end of the student comments, she’d give her own. The writer was not supposed to speak, just to listen. In the years I took the class nobody ever broke the code.
Just listening works well under any circumstance. If we explain or defend, the criticism doesn’t penetrate. We need to sit with it before we understand its value – or worthlessness.
In class, the level of the criticism was high. A bunch of the students were published and most of the class were repeaters like me. At the beginning of every semester, Bunny laid out how the class worked, and she always said that any and all comments could be entirely wrong. For me, sometimes they were. The class was hearing a chapter only, so occasionally they couldn’t judge. Luckily, some of my classmates were in a critique group with me, and I could ask them if an opinion was off-base.
I’m better now at knowing which criticism is worth listening to and which isn’t. Experience has made me better. Writing is weird, and I think it’s that implicit learning. Every book is a different challenge, and what I learned on my last book may not apply to my next. I feel like a perpetual beginner, and I am, because we learn to write for as long as we do write. At the same time, I have attained some mastery – and I owe a lot of it to that class and to other criticism I’ve gotten along the way. I learned the advice implicitly by doing, and now the voices of my fellow students whisper as I work, Am I revealing feelings? Can the reader see what’s going on? Have I remembered the other senses in addition to sight? Am I writing ideas in order?
So how to tell if criticism is on target? In your comments on the blog I see that many of you are good critics of your own work; you know what your weaknesses are. When someone criticizes an aspect you know is difficult for you, that’s criticism to believe. If more than one person identifies the same problem, you probably should pay attention. If someone fails to understand something you wrote, that is worth looking at. In fact, when a reader says she’s confused, her confusion may be the most useful criticism of all.
One of the things I love about writing for kids is that there are standards. One can judge. Someone can really tell me what’s wrong with my story. For example, there isn’t enough tension, or the story is too long, or my main character is annoying in a bad way.
But when I used to paint there didn’t seem to be an objective standard and, maybe as a consequence, I never found my way. If I visit a show of contemporary art and see badly drawn images I can’t tell if that’s the artist’s intent or if he’s a lousy draftsman. I love art and my taste is broad, but sometimes I’m clueless.
I’ve mentioned that I’ve gotten very interested in poetry. Last night I was working on a poem and making extra spaces between words and lines for a certain effect. I’m not sure if I was being too obvious or doing something good, and I don’t know if anyone can tell me or, even if another poet has an opinion, if that opinion is valid. Much as I love poetry, this makes me uneasy. In kids’ books something is right or it isn’t. Poets can actually use incorrect grammar on purpose and that’s okay. Aaa!
In our writing, the only kinds of criticism we need to be wary of are global criticism as in, You’re not much of a writer, dear, and harping criticism that isn’t meant to help. If someone insults your writing, don’t show it to that person again. No second chances, in my opinion. And if someone nitpicks and you come to understand the nitpicker doesn’t mean your writing well, cut that connection too. The person can still be your best friend, but not your writing buddy.
And the only recipient of criticism who needs to be very careful is the writer who is already too hard on herself. If that’s you, cultivate kindness to yourself. When you show your work for criticism, warn the person that you’re fragile. This is okay to do. You in particular may misunderstand and think that what you’re being told is worse than it really is. Double check to make sure you understand. Ask, if you need to, if your critic thinks you should trash your story – before jumping to the conclusion that that’s exactly what he does think.
I’m almost at the end and I haven’t talked about how getting criticism changes once one is published or accepted for publication. It changes enormously, and the answer segues into working with an editor, which I think is worth a whole post, so I’ll continue next week.
The only prompt is to be brave and show your work to other writers, to friends who are big readers, to teachers, librarians. If you’re not accustomed to doing this, observe yourself as you take in the comments that come back. Write down what you need to remember. Don’t argue. Work on developing a thick skin. Then return to your computer and try out the edits, being sure to save your earlier drafts.
Meanwhile, keep writing, save everything, and have fun!