Friday, August 28, 2015

Friday Fricassee

Back when I was a fledgling novelist, Mr. A would read my chapters out loud and comment on them.  This was one of the best tools ever for winnowing out bad dialogue.

It also led to a lot of fighting.

As is true for pretty much all new writers, I became defensive if he questioned anything, or indignant if he didn't understand something.  And if he suggested I do something differently?  Heaven forbid.

It's embarrassing to think back on, really.  The guy invested a lot of time in me and my not-so-hot novels.  His "character voices" for my bad dialogue made me belly laugh.  As in, doubled over in pain because I couldn't stop laughing.  (He still quotes them.  It never goes away.)  Yet I gave him such a hard time if he started questioning me.

Then I grew up.

I learned that, if somebody doesn't understand something in your story, it's because you didn't write it clearly.  Or because your logic is flawed.  Or because you didn't take the time to flesh out your world properly.


Everybody has to start somewhere, right?  So we can give ourselves a little grace when we look back on our "formative years" (such a stuffy term).  In the beginning, our stories feel bigger than life--as in, LOOK WHAT I JUST DID! I WROTE A NOVEL!  IT'S THE BEST THING EVER!  Because we haven't learned how to build a world, much of our story exists in our head, and we assume that anyone who reads it will also "see" what we do.  Except, they don't.  And if they try to tell us?  Well, we might get upset.


Problems arise when we stay in that place--when time passes, we write another novel or two, and we're still not really listening to anyone who dares to question anything we've written.

Mind you, this doesn't always come off in the form of an argument.  Sometimes it doesn't even sound angry.

It might sound like, "Oh, well, you really can't see where her character arc is going yet, and right now she's in denial, so that's why that dialogue sounds so awkward."

Um, no.  The dialogue sounds awkward because you wrote it that way.  Awkwardly.

Or, "Nobody understands how the magic works yet, so it's confusing.  It's supposed to be."

No again.  It's okay if your characters are confused, but if your readers are confused, IT'S YOUR FAULT.

Or how about, "I'm leaving this in because it's funny!  Probably you just didn't get the joke."

Well, that might be true.  But it's more likely that I didn't laugh because it actually wasn't funny.  Mind you, the situation or comment or whatever it is that you think should produce laughter might actually be funny IF YOU WRITE IT WELL.  If you're just learning your craft, there's a high likelihood that something isn't funny just because you think it is.

And even if you're a more seasoned writer, there are still going to be times when things just don't gel.  They're confusing.  Or unbelievable.  Or just...not good.  At this point, if you're still trying to justify things instead of taking constructive criticism, YOU WILL NEVER GROW AS A WRITER.

Not ever.

Why am I saying all this today?  Partly it's an outgrowth of my experiences as a freelance editor.  And partly it's because of a wonderful experience I had the other day--an experience I never could have had when I was a fledgling author.

My beloved Jodi Meadows spent two and a half hours Facetiming with me about the first two chapters of my current project. (Okay, full disclaimer: I was a little terrified.  Always before, Jodi simply sent notes, like everyone else.  This time, she wanted to talk.  So of course that must mean EVERYTHING WAS REALLY BAD.)

Aside from the fact that I am overwhelmed by Jodi's kindness (though not surprised), I'm also keenly aware that, a few years ago, I would not have been able to have this kind of conversation with Jodi (or anyone).  I would have been fighting back tears.  I would have been drowning in a sea of "I can't write I can't write I can't write".  It would have been...challenging.  For both of us.

But wow!  Our conversation was so energizing--so helpful--that I came away from it even more inspired and committed to finishing these revisions.  Jodi GOT my story, GOT my characters, GOT my world.  And then she pointed out a thousand things that could be better.  Or more clarified.  Or approached differently.

She asked questions.  She made me think.  She told me what she liked (which is, yanno, important, too).  She affirmed my story while at the same time challenging it to go deeper. Farther.

And and and she pointed out this huge THEME that I didn't even see, and she was absolutely right.  And THAT is probably the most exciting thing of all.  (It was almost like a psychotherapy session for my novel.)

All that to say -- THESE are the dialogues that happen when we finally let go of our stranglehold on our work and put it out there with a completely open heart.  When we say, "SHOW ME ALL THE THINGS" and really mean it.  When we KNOW that it actually does take a village to create a novel.

So, that is my challenge to you this Friday.  Ask yourself, "How tightly am I holding onto my work?  How willing am I to actually take criticism into account?  How open am I to admitting that someone else might see something more clearly than I do?"

When you get to that place, you will begin to soar. And when you soar, all things are possible.

Love and hugs to you all!  Go forth and write, and have a fabulous weekend.


  1. I remember getting a critique a few years back. I couldn't even read all the notes - I cried as I read it, I cried when I thought about it. I cried. A. Lot.
    It was one of the best things to happen to me as a writer! I've grown up, too :)

  2. A truly inspiring post, Authoress. I'm cheering for you and your story, and it's so very fortunate for you to have someone like Jodi. There is nothing like that type of clear, insightful advice from a skilled and laterally-thinking editor.

    You are so right, to grow as a writer one must let go of insecurity and embrace the knowledge that yes, our writing is not perfect, our stories are not yet told to perfection. I think it took me five years to realise that. Now I grab every delicious bit of advice or time spent with an editor, or close author friends - mainly because they see possibilities I don't because I'm too near my stories to see perspective.

    More power to you!

  3. Hi Authoress-I haven't been commenting for a while-long story. Anyway this is SO HELPFUL. I've joined a writing community in Mass. called The Writers' Loft and we have several crit groups and are always looking for sources to turn to to help the leaders guide their members.
    Thank you for this!

    1. Hi, Kristen! I'm so glad you commented today; I always appreciate the feedback. Happy that this is helpful! :)

  4. What a great site!
    You give me the inspiration to continue...


  5. Thanks for the post, Authoress. After my first draft completed on my first novel, I was eager to receive critiques which led to years of revisions. But when I opened myself up to receive critiques on my 2nd novel, with only the four chapters completed on my first draft, I was defensive. Lesson learned-finish first draft so that I can truly receive what my fellow writer's discover in my work.

  6. This is so, so true. My husband and I do this all the time. And often times, he brings up some valid points (even if I'm wanting desperately to refute them because I really liked that plot point).

    So I know exactly what you mean.

  7. I wish I could learn to take this advice about life in general.