A couple of days ago I got an e-mail from a reader of this blog asking if I'd thought about doing an entry on editing to go along with the ones on writing.
My initial reaction was no, since I'm not a good editor of my own work. But after a fair amount of thought, I decided my initial reaction was super duper correct. I am blissfully oblivious to problems and weaknesses in my own writing. I tell the stories I most like to hear and write in the style I most like to read. What's there to criticize?
However it did occur to me I've been taught a lot of lessons about writing and being a writer over the millenia, and those I could pass along. These lessons are so significant I intend to use boldface. Be prepared.
1. My junior year of high school I wrote a humorous autobiographical essay for the school paper. A lot of people read it and liked it and told me so, making me very happy. Fool that I was, I pushed my luck and asked my English teacher, who didn't like me, what she thought.
"It's like everything else you do," she said. "Every sentence starts with 'I.'"
Naturally I denied it, but on further examination, I realized she had a point.
Now the moral of the story could be, The people who don't like you are more likely to offer honest criticism. But here's the boldface moral:
Don't start every sentence with the word "I."
This can be tricky in a first person narrative, but it's worth the extra effort if it keeps your main character from seeming like an egotist.
2. My senior year in high school, I took a creative writing class. The other students were all bright and talented; many of them ended up writing or editing. We'd stand in front of the class and read our stuff and be criticized viciously. I was so traumatized by the experience that I decided I had no future as a writer (my career plan since first grade) and went to college with every intention of becoming a Great Film Director instead. Luckily for me and the film industry, I stumbled back into writing. A number of years later, I read some of the things I'd written for the creative writing class and found there had been no change in my writing style from senior year of high school on.
So is the moral of this story, High school kids can be mean? Nah, we all know that. The moral is:
Your peer group, even if you have reason to respect them, may not be the best judge of your writing.
Remember that when you read your work to a writer's group. Some of their criticism may be useful, but don't assume it all will be.
3. The next three lessons have to do with my first book, Just Morgan. As a senior in college, I decided for reasons too lengthy and uninteresting to go through, to write a book. I knew I wanted to write one for 11-13 year olds (I was 20 at the time) because that was the age when I'd first developed critical awareness; I knew what I was reading was junk and that I could write better. I decided to write a story about a girl who gets involved in a political campaign as a volunteer. She meets a cute boy, but her candidate loses.
I told this basic plotline to a very good friend, who said, "That sounds like something you'd like."
Of course my immediate reaction was to deny it, but I gave it some thought and realized not only was she right (especially the part about the cute boy), but if I wanted to write for 12 year olds, what I needed to think about was what would 12 year olds like. I thought back to when I was 12 and remembered that all I'd wanted was to be an orphan. Immediately, I dumped the political plot and wrote a book about an orphan.
While the moral of the story could be, Your peer group, no matter how much you might scoff them, might actually know what they're talking about. But no, here's the boldface one...
If your audience is children, tap into the child within you.
4. So I write the manuscript and with the help of one of my professors, a publishing house reads it. I have lunch with two editors, who offered some sage advice on rewrites. One thing they specifically pointed out was that I had two characters that basically did the same thing in the story. "Keep the boy," they said. "Dump the girl."
I did as they told me and they accepted the book for publication. I bet you think the moral is going to be, Editors are smart. Well they are, but that's not the moral, which is:
Don't use two characters if one will do.
5. The plot to Just Morgan goes pretty much as follows: A girl is orphaned in the first paragraph and goes to live with her uncle. At first they're both uncomfortable with the relationship, but by book's end, she and her uncle have grown to love each other.
Sound familiar? Of course. It's the plot of Pollyanna and Anne Of Green Gables and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm and every Shirley Temple movie ever made. That's the theme that resonated most with me when I was twelve, and what I tapped into when I was twenty.
The book got published and got startlingly good reviews. One highly respected literary journal praised it effusively, specifically referring to its original plot.
To quote Bret Maverick's old pappy, "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time and them's pretty good odds." And a fine moral that would be. But the moral truly is:
It isn't the plot that's original in a story; it's what you do with it that makes it your own.
Tomorrow I'm off to NYC to have lunch with the Harcourt folk, those wonderful people who published Life As We Knew It and the dead & the gone (hi Google!). Here's the life lesson that a friend of mine taught me before my first business lunch: When you eat a piece of bread and butter in a restaurant, tear a piece of the bread first and then butter it.
Now there's a lesson that never goes out of date!