Tuesday, April 06, 2021

Writing and the hard truths

By Rick Blechta

As anyone who’s ever had a book published knows, relatives, friends, friends of friends, even complete strangers will eventually find their way to you, asking for help getting their book published.

I had this happened to me again last week, and in a fit of (misguided) generosity, I said I would look over a few chapters of the novel the writer told me, “…is finally ready to be sent to publishers!” (The budding novelist was also asking for help with that.)

There were a number of positives in what I read, but there were also a number of rather huge problems. I first gave congratulations on the good things I spotted (a couple of good characters, a plot that looked — based on four chapters — as if it might go somewhere, and reasonably good writing, as in the nuts and bolts of punctuation, grammar, paragraphing, etc.

Then I had to move to the things that were definitely not good, the biggest of which was verbosity. The writer just went on too long about things that did not need to be told to readers. For instance, characters couldn’t just walk into a room without it being minutely — and I mean minutely — described.

There were also tons of what I refer to as “dead words”, as in they just weren’t necessary for any good reason.

I knew, based on just these two things, that no publisher or agent would be interested in the manuscript. The person I was offering to help seemed very nice, so I took some extra time and provided what I hoped would act as a template for the ms being, well, pretty massively revised.

As an example of more economical writing, I took two multi-paragraphs of description and rewrote them. At the end, one was now only two paragraphs long with about half the number of words, and the other had even fewer words and was one paragraph long. With a covering letter explaining the thoughts and reasoning behind my suggestions, I sent everything back.

As I feared, the reaction from this writer was somewhat hysterical. She’d previously shared her manuscript with her husband (“an avid reader of mystery novels”) and some friends (ditto), and they’d all loved what she’d written and thought it was great. “Now you’re saying that I need to go back and completely redo my novel!”

All I did was tell her the truth. Based on my own experiences, I knew I was 100% correct. Of course every writer thinks all their prose is deathless. The truth is, it isn’t, and you have to expect and accept that. As I’ve said on this blog several times before, “I’d rather be good than right.”

These days publishers aren’t willing to take the manuscript of a writer who shows some promise and do the heavy editorial lifting required to see a novel make it to print — assuming they ever were.

In a return email, I told this person that I was only giving her my opinion, but that, based on my experience with 10 published works under my belt, I felt I was on solid ground. “But by all means, if you disagree with what I’m saying, send your ms out into the world and see what feedback you get.”

I have good suspicions how this will end. I just hope she’ll have the resilience to accept the truth and continue polishing what I think might actually be a good story. She simply has a good bit of growing to do in the craft of writing. But I suspect she might well give up.

I fervently hope she proves me wrong on that score.


Tanya said...

Rick, the situation you encountered is all too common. People ask for feedback and then are mortified by the idea of changing one word of their precious prose. You were kind to take the time to provide constructive feedback, even if the recipient may have blinders on and may not be capable of acting on it.

I've been a professional editor for 30+ years, and the overwriting you described is typical of amateurs who will never become published writers (other than self-pub) if they can't learn to edit their own work and graciously accept critique from others who are more skilled/knowledgeable. It's one reason I do far more work for publishers than for individual authors.

In my opinion, the hallmark of a professional writer is having a vision, doing the work to churn out a first draft, and then being willing and able to dig in and edit and revise to chip away the excess and reveal the true essence of the characters and story.

I very much enjoy the posts when Type M authors discuss your own writing and editing processes. Hopefully others will learn from your example.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks, Tanya. You're absolutely correct.

I can't say the reaction I got was unexpected. My wife says that she's going to accompany me to all meetings of organizations because I have a great tendency to volunteer for things. I guess this recent encounter was just another example of that.

Anyway, I certainly tried to help so I have a clear conscience.

Melodie Campbell said...

Oh Lord, yes, Rick. This has been my experience every time I agree to look at manuscripts for free. To the point that, I no longer do so. If I charge even a nominal amount, people respect my advice. If I don't charge, they ignore my advice and seem to feel insulted that I had any to give at all. P.S. I think I need Vicki to go along with me to meetings, as I apparently just volunteered to go on the CWC board as VP. (I can see you rolling your eyes from here!)

Rick Blechta said...

I think CWC will be a better organization with you on the board. GREAT move!