Saturday, 4 December 2010

Reactions that Work for You

A student recently presented a piece for workshopping. It had already been workshopped before, and here it was in its shiny new revised state, having taken on board all our previous suggestions. It had taken time and effort and not inconsiderable amounts of ingenuity to get it to this position.

The response was mixed. We liked X but didn't like Y. A didn't seem as effective as the first time we'd seen it. B was the wrong ending, C would have been better. Several things that had been suggested at the last session didn't work as well as we'd thought they would - the original version was in fact better. Overall, the feeling was it was nearly there, but not quite.

Poor author.

I spoke to her privately afterwards and was impressed by her response. Yes, she'd have liked it if everyone had said it was marvellous just as it was. Yes, she was a bit daunted at the amount of work there was still to do. Yes, it was a bit annoying to respond to people's suggestions, and for them to turn round and say now that the first version had been better.

But - and this was what impressed me - it was better to know now so she could make it as good as she could rather than send it out when it was flawed. She'd rather work until there was nothing more she could do, to make sure she was sending out her best effort to agents and publishers. What a great attitude.

I believe it's the sort of attitude which gets you published. I think you need to be able to take feedback, even if you don't like it. I think you need to be able to persist with re-writing even when you're sick to death of working on it. I think you need the sort of pragmatism that says, better to know now when you can re-write, than get rejected for work that isn't your best.

I'd like to be able to wave a magic wand and guarantee that this writer will get published, but I can't. No one can. But I can guarantee that this attitude makes her more publishable than not.


Dan Purdue said...

Hi Sarah,

All good advice there, although what stood out for me was this bit: "She'd rather work until there was nothing more she could do"

I'm intrigued by this part of the process, and would like to know how a published novelist goes about identifying when they've reached the point where nothing more can be done.

For me, sticking mainly to short stories at the moment, it's usually a case of a competition deadline coming along and putting an end to my incessant tinkering.

Of course, there are stories where I feel I've reached a kind of equilibrium - the (in)famous "taking commas out in the morning, putting them back in the afternoon" stage - enough to send them out, at least. Yet when they come back, rejected or unplaced, and sometimes even the ones that get accepted, I look at them and think, "What was I thinking? With that opening sentence? Seriously?" It seems incredible that I didn't spot the flaws.

Is this something that ever goes away, do you think? Or does success simply mean you're even more critical of what you've written?

Sarah Duncan said...

Hmm, the short answer is, I don't know how I know. There's definitely a point when I've tinkered as much as I can and I'm sick to death of it and that's when it goes off. Then it goes through all the copy editing stages, the proof reading etc. A year later I'm doing readings and thinking, heavens, that's clumsy, why didn't I do xyz?

Getting as much distance as you can is good, so is getting feedback. And always work from the outside in ie get the structure and story right first before you start line-editing.

I think you do get more critical as you go along because you know what is possible. I'm much tougher on my writing than my editor is!

Dan Purdue said...

I thought that might be the case. It sounds as though 'shifting goalpost syndrome' is something that a writer just has to put up with!

I suppose you can look at it as a sign that you're improving all the time - it would be oddly depressing to read something you wrote a year or more ago and be amazed at how great it sounds.

Thanks for your thoughts on that. And I definitely agree about distance.

Jessica Bull said...

Hi Sarah,

Thank you for providing my motivation for today! I am rewriting, on the advice of an agent, and finding it really hard I think because I'm trying to create somebody else's vision of perfect, rather than my own, and it's almost impossible to second guess. I suppose I have to find a way of implementing her suggestions that I also believe will make the book better. Anyway, it's hard and it's nice to have a little encouragement.

Thanks again,
Jessica Bull

Sarah Duncan said...

Dan wrote: it would be oddly depressing to read something you wrote a year or more ago and be amazed at how great it sounds.

I had that happen to me recently! I read something I'd written ages ago and was pleasantly surprised. But it was a piece that had been workshopped and rewritten and workshopped and put away and then rewritten...

Jessica, I'd say only change your work as a result of someone else's suggestions if you can understand where they're coming from, otherwise your writing will lack confidence. It's got to come from your heart. Tricky situation I know.

I've done quite a few posts about feedback and how to deal with it - might be worth have a look at some of the back posts?