Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Nuh-uh!

When I got home from a jog Saturday morning, what should be waiting for me but a revision letter for THE BOYS NEXT DOOR? My editor says she wants to chat on the phone today about the revision. I should be nervous, right? But I’m not. I’m halfway done with the revision already. I look forward to having a friendly conversation with her because I haven’t spoken with her in a few months. I owe it all to the nuh-uh letter.

You know what I’m talking about. You slave over your book, or even a few chapters. You finally share it with someone, knowing she will be blown away. You get her comments back. There are things she liked, but things she missed totally. And your reaction is, “Nuh-uh!” Cheeks burning, you write a point-by-point response, explaining why she is wrong. Providing page numbers where she missed something. Offering some anecdotes from your life so she’ll understand exactly why you wrote what you wrote. And then you send this letter to her.

No!!! That’s what you would have done before you joined RWA. Now you know better. You realize that in explaining these points to your reader, you have written out a whole lot of stuff that should have gone into the book in the first place. You shouldn’t have to explain anything to anyone about your book. It’s not going to be published with annotations! In dashing off the nuh-uh letter, you have written yourself a guide for how to revise the book. Good job! Now you’re ready to have that conversation with your editor in which you tell her, calmly and truthfully, that everything is under control.

When I first joined RWA and I was casting about for critique partners online, I sent them a lot of nuh-uh letters. They sent nuh-uh letters to me about their writing, too. The turning point for me was entering unpublished contests. Wow, the judges’ comments needed a nuh-uh or two. The most insulting of their comments? “Comma splice.”

Now, if you were an English major like I was, you know a comma splice is a specific and defined entity: “Independent clauses joined by a comma without a coordinating conjunction” (Bedford Handbook). You would not write a comma splice without meaning to. The very idea that you would do such a thing is highly insulting--especially if you have been making your living for years as a copyeditor. It’s like someone off the street wandering into the operating room and telling the cardiologist how to perform open heart surgery. And if a judge marked you down for writing comma splices when you didn’t write any comma splices? This is the nuh-uh of all nuh-uhs.

But the conventional wisdom about contests is that you should look for patterns in the judges' comments. If more than one judge says the same thing about your writing, even if you don’t agree, maybe you should start to take notice. Well, more than one judge incorrectly marked my comma splices. A couple more told me my sentences were too long.

Oh! This was an epiphany for me, a paradigm shift in the way I thought about my writing. I had been thinking of my books as neat little packages, as products. In other words, I had been thinking about myself. What I needed to do was think about the reader and her process of reading. My job as a writer of commercial fiction was to tell a great story in such a way that the reader was entertained but never pulled out of the book. The reader should never stop to puzzle over anything, because then the line of the story would be broken. And no matter what the judges called it, I had been writing sentences that were hard to follow. This pattern was noticeable enough that four different strangers mentioned it.

Since that day, I have lost my passion for arguing with my readers. It helps that I send my writing only to my editor, my agent, and my two critique partners, all of whom I trust. If they trip over something in my writing, I know it’s not because they’re clumsy. It’s because I took off my shoes and left them in front of the door again. And since it’s my house, I’m so used to leaving my shoes there, I didn’t even see them! Good thing I invited someone else over to check the place out before I threw a party.

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