Friday, July 8, 2011

Today I Apologized To My Book

The decision to apologize to my book, DDB, a mystery novel-in-progress, came after lunching with a writer friend who told me about an experience she had with her own novel-in-progress.

My friend attended a writers' conference to which she submitted three chapters of her novel for review. During the course of the conference, she was advised to cut these chapters from her book. When my friend pointed out that she had received an award for these chapters, she was told that winning an award didn't mean anything. As you can imagine this didn't go over well, and why should it have. The advice was given without knowing anything about rest of her book.

At a writers' workshop that I attended, I was given similar advice -- cut the first three chapters of my novel. This advice, from the workshop instructor, was also given without knowing anything about the rest of my book. I certianly didn't dispute that the chapters could be improved. I all ready knew that. However, I did dispute the idea of eliminating them, as all were emotionally powerful and necessary to the story, as well as the plot. I was then told, that if I kept these chapters in the book, they could not be at the beginning and I should write a new beginning to the book.

So, I wrote a new beginning for my book. I have said on various occasions that this advice was both the best and the worst. In some ways it was beneficial; in other ways it wasn't. In the long run, it cost me a lot of time during which I could have been moving forward with the revision. And, because I knew, on some level, that these chapters were where they needed to be, writing the new opening put me at odds with my story.

After writing the new opening, I went on submitting my novel-in-progress to various workshops, grant and award-giving competitions, as well as continuing to submit it chapter by chapter to my critique groups. All of which has generated box loads of commentary. So much so, I had trouble keeping track of it all.

I'm sure you are familiar with the saying: "Too many cooks spoil the broth." Well, it is also possible for "too many writers to spoil a book."

What I am getting at here is this: There is a time to expose your book to the opinions of other writers/readers. That time is when the book is DONE. That time is when you have written the book YOU want to write; a book that pleases YOU, that interests YOU and keeps YOU entertained. That time is when you have written a book that YOU would want to read if you found it on a shelf in a bookstore. That time is when you have written the best book YOU are capable of writing. When you have done that, then open your doors to the masses.

If you have too many writers tossing ingredients into your book, each "seasoning" it to her/his own taste, while you are still writing or even working on the first revision of the draft, you are creating a recipe for disaster because you are now no longer writing your own book. And, you may also find yourself becoming deaf to the wisdom of the story itself. You may find yourself looking on your work with growing distaste, and worse, distrusting your own ability as a writer.

A writer friend told me recently that the best advice she ever received regarding her writing was: "Don't listen to anyone." Meaning, I assume, don't listen to anyone while you are writing your book.

Understand, I am not advocating the rejection of all comment on a work-in-progress. I intend to continue submitting chapters of my novel to my critque groups. I trust my critique partners. They will see my book through to its conclusion and they will read it as a whole after having read it in parts. But I am suggesting a way to handle critique comments on a work-in-progress:

1. Only make changes to the manuscript that are obvious and that feel right to you when they are pointed out.

2. Make minor changes to setting, character, dialogue, etc. only if these changes enhance or clarify the story/plot. Do not make any changes that significantly change the story you envision.

3. Other than that, read through the critiques and file them for future reference to revisit when your story is complete.

I have been indiscriminate with my book, and that is why I am going to apologize.

So today, DDB, I apologize to you.

And, I promise to limit the number of writers/readers who see you before you are complete.

I promise to stop "shopping" you around to all and sundry workshops, conferences and contests before you are ready.

I promise to stop trying to make you into what others think you should be.

I promise to listen to your voice because I know you will reveal the wisdom of the story to me.

I promise to trust my abilities as a writer and my ability to write this story.

I promise.


UtM, SherryT said...

Good job, Joanne!
I agree that presenting chapters for crit before you've finished the first draft can be counterproductive--especially if you get counter-productive advice.

Please forgive me for being brutally frank. I've often wondered why such a good writer seemed not to have progressed beyond the first few chapters of your WIP. Now I get it--you kept going back to the beginning, trying to take everyone's advice serially. As you wrote, it's important to trust your own knowledge of your story. No one knows it better.

Forgive me for wandering off on a tangent, for a moment. Your experiences remind me of a workshop to which I submitted Seabird's Prologue. As you know, Seabird is a fantasy. The prologue setting is a passageway under a mountain chain that links two countries.

I remember only one crit after all this time. An agent kept trying to pin me down about exactly -where- the prologue took place. I kept trying to explain but got nowhere at the conference. Naturally, when I got home, I tried to clarify this "flaw" in the setting. It took a long time for me to realize that this wasn't a flaw in my WIP--it was a flaw in the person's opinion because they knew nothing else about the book.

I'm so very glad that you've come to the same realization. So, has DDB forgiven you?

Sherry Thompson

JM Reinbold said...

Hey, Sherry -- Thanks for you comment. As I've said, the whole book is written, but needs to be revised. I know from going through the chapters that some can be revised, some willl have to be cut and some new writing needs to be done. Since the beginning of a book is so important, I was concentrating on that, sinced it seemed like the best thing to do before moving on. Turned out that wasn't the best plan. Now I pretty much have to put things back the way they were, but with a few changes -- and then move on with the revision with no more changes until the revison is done. Should have done that in the first place. Oh well. As to whether DDB has forgiven me ... I certainly hope so!