Monday, February 14, 2011

What’s a romance writer thinking about on Valentine’s Day?

Not romance. At least not today.

I read a great blog the other day and just had to share (“The Smartest Writing Advice I Ever Got,” found over at the Seekerville blog). I love blogs like this, with tidbits from various authors about the secrets to their success and/or what they’ve learned from years in the trenches.

The blog made me think quite a bit. I’ve been lucky to know so many writers who have shared their ups and downs in this tough profession. It’s difficult to choose one piece of advice that stands out from the rest. But after much contemplation, I have to say the best advice I’ve received on writing is to take readers’ opinions (whether contest judges, CPs, book reviewers, family, or friends) as exactly that—just opinions, good or bad. I’m not including agents and editors here because that’s a different scenario.

Like most writers, I'm sincere in keeping an open mind to suggestions that could make my writing better. Still, there’s a tendency to cling to my original ideas, style, and delivery, because my work is, after all, MY work. I've tried to develop a good filter when receiving feedback—to know what to listen to and what to discard—but some days walking that fine line can be tedious considering others’ ideas without compromising my original vision. Tweaking paragraphs here or there is no problem. Anyone who has written long enough can do this with relative ease. But those major revisions? The suggestions that could potentially change the entire story? Yeah, gives you a knot in your stomach just to think about, doesn’t it?

After editing my work and others' for so many years, I would think I should have more of a gut instinct about revisions. I don't. Not yet. I still torture myself for days, even weeks, when contemplating revision suggestions. When to let go or when to hold on. Ugh. It's enough to make a writer crazy.

So tell me, how do YOU know whether to use or dump a big revision suggestion? What’s the best writing advice you’ve ever received?


Heather said...

I'm not sure I trust my own judgment on cutting big scenes, but I recently received a confidence booster.

The very first scene I wrote for my completed manuscript was a courtroom scene I loved. You know what they say- write what you know. So I did. I had so much fun writing and reading it because it captured the personalities of my characters so well. However, as the manuscript progressed, the scene had less and less to do with the plot.

I clung to the scene like a toddler with a security blanket, forcing a subplot to justify keeping the scene.

In revising the manuscript, I couldn't ignore the fact that my beginning was slow. The courtroom scene, which I now justified keeping on the grounds it was essential to character development, didn't do a thing to move the story forward other than to provide some mild comic relief. However, the scene had been receiving great comments in contests. I was finally ready to cut the scene, but worried that by ditching it, I would hurting my "voice." (Okay - that was probably another justification to try to keep the scene - I still love it).

Then, I received a request for a full from an editor who had been a final round judge in a contest where the scene had received a lot of praise. The request came a few days after I cut the scene. What if the scene was why she made the request? Oh dear. What if I had made a huge mistake?

Thankfully, the judge/editor made a one line comment on her judging sheet which gave me a sliver of faith in my judgment. She said while the writing was solid, she didn't see the point of the courtroom scene.

Killing your darlings is hard. That courtroom scene is in my "save file" ( I learned from the assault on poor Karen last year not to "delete" anything). It will reappear in a story that is right for it.

Callie James said...

Oh yes, cutting an entire scene is no fun at all, especially when you enjoyed writing it. I've done that many times myself. I've taken out chapters, in fact. Good for you, though! Sounds like your final judgment call was spot on!

Anne Gallagher said...

I've written two books, working on a third. I'm an overwriter. Meaning, I just write and write, adding everything I can so I can 'see' the whole. When I get to revisions, if it doesn't move the story foreward, it goes.

My first book finished at at a whopping 135k. I cut it down to 95k but even now, there are still two scenes that do nothing (Okay, well, they do move the story, but I could make it so much better).

My second book, I have yet to get really good feedback on so I'm just waiting to find the right beta or critter to help. I don't think anything is wasted in it, but I'm still too close to the story to tell.

This last book is also being overwritten but I actually like that about myself. It leaves me with options.

Callie James said...

That's such a positive attitude, Anne! And great that you can get enough distance to distinguish the scenes that work and the scenes that don't.

Lisa said...

Great post!
Personally, I've always found that the ideas and paragraphs that I love most are usually the thing that needs to go.

Carla Swafford said...

Sounds like you've got it right to me. If we change every single thing judges or critique partners say, it would be come less our book.

Best advice? Don't give up.

Louisa Cornell said...

Best advice ?

Finish the damned book !!

When it comes to criticism I have learned to take what I can use and leave the rest. If I get dings on the same thing from more than one judge/editor then I take a good long look at it. I have cut entire paragraphs, entire pages and entire chapters because a particular judge or editor hit on the one thing that I could not deny was wrong or didn't fit. It is NOT easy. I HATE cutting my work. I HATE changing things.

But my current revisions are teaching me that sometimes you have to cut away all of the things that aren't story so that you can see the things that are. Rather like a sculptor and a big chunk of marble. I chip away at the things that aren't part of what I am trying to create and hopefully keep the things that will make the story beautiful.

Callie James said...

Lisa, that's just sad. The scenes you like most are the ones to go?

Carla, thanks! You're right. Never give up!

Louisa, I usually don't have a problem finishing the book, but lately it's starting the book. Not sure what that means.

Thanks, all!

M.V.Freeman said...

You ask some hard questions.

I remember William Zinsser "On Writing" said don't get "married" to a scene or a phrase--because you may have to get rid of it.

For me, I know when to change when I step back and look at the overall picture of what I am wanting to accomplish and that's how I use it.

Sometimes I change it to see if I like it, if not I switch it back.

And finally if I get a bunch of people spotting the same thing I re look at it.

Like Louisa said..the best thing is to Finish the Damn book..and then do what you want...LOL

Callie James said...

Totally agree, M.V. Personally, I can see my book much better after six months. I read somewhere that Stephen King will put a manuscript in a drawer for a year before looking at it again. That's probably the key. Step away. Far away.