Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Pain, Gain, and Avoiding Both

Something I see all the time while surfing writing websites and blogs when I should be working (like right now), is a writer vehemently defending the weaknesses of his work. We are all guilty of that; goodness knows I am. But, as the old saying goes, argue for your weaknesses and, sure enough, they're yours.

What do I mean by "defending weaknesses?" It goes like this:

Writer: Hey, did you guys read my WIP?

Reader1: Yeah. What's up with this Jonas guy? I don't get why he killed that bear.

Writer: He had to. It shows the change in his character.

Reader1: Really? 'Cause it just seemed random and senseless. And you misspelled "grizzly."

Writer: You just didn't get it. Can you read it again?

Reader2: I agree; the bear business made no sense at all. And Jonas didn't change so much as he just did weird stuff all of a sudden.

Reader3: Yeah, why's he suddenly all pissed off and stuff?

Writer: Did you read the book I sent, or someone else's? It's all about his dad, right?

Readers1-3: Huh? His dad's like...the bear? Is this symbolism?

Writer goes on to explain for half an hour what's going on in the book, and when the readers finally understand what he intended, he congratulates himself on having written a fine novel. Time to work on that query letter!

Here's the thing: When a trusted, intelligent, well-read person (or a group of such people) reads something you wrote and can't figure it out, the problem is very likely not with their reading.* The problem is with your writing. This is true for query letters, too. If you have to explain what you mean, then what you have written doesn't mean what you think it does. You will have to rewrite it. Period.

We all resist rewriting. We all resist the idea that what we have already written isn't perfect, isn't the best we can do. But sometimes it's not perfect, or it isn't even close to saying what we think it says. Yes, sometimes readers are lazy or do miss the point, but if you are consistently being told that something makes no sense or isn't well written, you ought to probably prick up your ears at that warning and take a good look at your novel.

Hearing that you've made mistakes or not been clear in your writing is hard. Fixing mistakes, plot holes, poor characterizations, muddled themes, unclear conflicts or weakly defined protagonists is hard work. It's painful. It's time consuming and can be disheartening. But. We have to do it. There are two very important benefits to going back to something and fixing its flaws. First, the book will be better for it. That's the most important thing, right? But the longer-term benefit is that we become better writers when we struggle and suffer and fix our mistakes. Usually, we learn enough to not make that particular mistake ever again, which saves time and effort the next time we sit down to write.

The only thing you gain by defending your weaknesses is the guarantee that you'll have those same weaknesses in the next thing you write. So if you find yourself giving a lengthy defense or explanation of your novel to someone who's read it, stop for a moment and ask yourself if maybe the problem is the novel itself. Be brave and honest about this. If the book needs work, go to work and make it better.

*Unless you're part of the French Symbolist school, in which case your readers aren't supposed to understand it. You lot can stop reading this post right now.


  1. This is an excellent post, Scott. It's something that most new writers, including myself, have come up against and either ignored or stuck our tongue out at. I've avoided changing things so many times - and chalked it up to my readers not understanding the brilliance of my story and characters.

    I think that when we reach the point where we're willing to make sacrifices - both in TIME and EFFORT to make our story better and more CLEAR, we reach a new level of writing. That is so much easier said than done. It's often a pride issue for me, and difficult to accept. It's especially difficult when you love your story so much, and you just want it to be good so you can get it out there! I've finally moved beyond that point, thank goodness. I'm willing to spend years on my work before sending it out.

    So are you more willing to listen to your agent's ideas for changes? If you feel that he's wrong, how do you separate that from your love of the story from what really needs to change?

  2. Excellent post. You said it all. I'll have to bookmark this one for those times I'm grumbling about critiques.

  3. Scott,

    One day you are going to post something that is complete BS and I'm going to call you on it.

    Today is not that day.

    Nice post!

  4. Hah! Nice post and so true.

    In an early draft of one of my short stories, I thought I was super clever in the way I disclosed that the main character's father committed suicide.

    When I asked about that in the critique discussion, no one knew what I was talking about.

    Writer fail. :)

  5. Michelle: You know how much I complained when I got the most recent comments from my agent. "He wants me to ruin my book!" and all sorts of nonsense. So I'm no better at taking criticism than anyone else. My huge ego and love of my story gets in my way. But more than that, there's the self-knowledge I've gained that the stronger my reaction against criticism from people who know what they're talking about, the more likely it's spot-on. Which sucks. But still, I go a lot on instinct. If someone points out a problem they have with the story and, when I think about it, I have the same problem, there's only one conclusion to draw. Darn it. So we have to be bold yet humble.

    What's going on with my agent is more like him saying, "How about this idea?" and me saying, "Yeah, but if I do this other thing, it fixes your issues and Makes It Even More Cool." My changes have been far more sweeping than anything he suggests. It's my way. Darn it. And now I'm rambling off-topic.

    B.J.: Thanks! We all grumble.

    Rick: Ah, a challenge!

  6. There's a time to stubbornly cling to what you believe in about your writing, but when multiple betas tell you the same thing, stubbornness is your own worst enemy.

    Sometimes it's hard to step out of our own heads and see the story the way it reads to others, but it is an important part of the process of growing as a writer.

    Great post, Scott!

  7. In my first critique group, most of us decided that if we had to explain something that our writing didn't show, then it's unclear.

    It is so very frustrating when the plot/action/dialogue you've so carefully crafted to subtly show your point gets completely misunderstood, especially by those whom you trust. Because you *know* you'll have to rework it.

    So far, my revisions (done while grumbling and/or mourning)that have resulted from these have made the work better, clearer.

    The problem is trying to decipher when I am defending my weakness or unnecessarily second-guessing myself.

  8. Erin: Whenever I think I'm being awfully clever, readers invariably give me the "WTF?" treatment. Don't you hate that?

  9. I particularly liked where you said we may learn from our mistakes not to make them again. That is something I would love as a by-product.
    I have a rule-of-thumb in critique if several people stumble on something, I need to rewrite it. I'm not saying I don't have any defensiveness, but I tell that voice to shut up.

  10. I used to defend myself by saying, "Well, I just need to work on it more." And this was not a very good argument because that's just what my readers were telling me.

    The last time I got critiques back on a short story, the readers had different ideas about the plot than what I intended. Now, I really like feedback because it's a faster way for me to figure out my problems than just staring at the manuscript and trying to remove myself from it.

  11. Ah yes the truth can be painful! I've learned the hard way ignore good advice and your doomed to repeat your errors. God help me I still do it on occasion.

  12. You are absolutely right. I think the most important words of your post are these: "When a trusted, intelligent, well-read person (or a group of such people)"

    You must find people who you trust, are intelligent and well-read to read your book. Don't just take the advice of any willy-nilly you met last week in a forum.

    But once you find those people who are smart and well-read and trusted. Listen.

  13. This sort of thing applies to more than just writing, doesn't it. I've tried hard not to make a big deal of this on cyberspace, but Oprah is pretty high up on my list, just below Tolstoy. She once said something like "Life will keep testing you until you pass the test." That's exactly what you're saying. Until you figure out how to solve a problem, it will remain a problem.

  14. One of the main things I tell my readers is to make sure they point out spots in the story that are confusing or don't make sense. No matter how significant I think these scenes are when I write them...if they're confusing to the reader...they need to be changed.

  15. This could and has been my reaction early in my writing life to readers questioning my WIP. "You didn't understand what? Well I think it's very clear." Then I might mumble something about that person. Something quite unbecoming.:) Okay I've grown some and take criticism much easier and then try to figure out if it's warranted. If the criticism is coming from my crit partner, then I KNOW I need to fix it. Beth is usually right. SHH! :)

    If I read something that a writer has asked me to read and then said writer comes at me with a hatchet, I just get that the writer isn't really ready for an honest to goodness critique.

    Nice post, Scott.

  16. But the longer-term benefit is that we become better writers when we struggle and suffer and fix our mistakes.

    great post on writing, but this is awesome commentary on the human existence, i do believe.

    unfortunately, not all understand the incalculable worth of the struggling, suffering, and fixing.


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