Monday, January 27, 2014

A favor for me

I am not always good at taking other people's advice.  I have heard that in order to really know if you like or dislike a food you have to try it ten times.  Maybe that's the way I work with certain kinds of advice.  I need to hear them ten different times and maybe ten different ways before I get over being a stubborn cuss about it and give it a try.

This time I was being kind of stubborn about  the value of reading other people's work.  I read a decent amount (I should read more) but I haven't done a lot of critical reading.  Mostly, this is because when I read someone's work in progress it's usually a friend who I would like t remain a friend.  I don't usually offer much feedback because who needs to lose a friend over constructive criticism?  This week that changed.

A friend of mine wrote a fan fiction story that I particularly liked.  She was getting excellent feedback from people who said they really liked her writing, but she didn't really understand what that meant. Really, what does it mean "your writing is good?"  It's pretty general and sometimes that's the best you can do.  It can be hard to articulate why you loved a story so much.  Was it the characters that drew you in?  The prose? The humor? The swashbuckling adventure?  So, in perhaps a fit of foolishness, I said I could take a look and let her know what I thought.  We sent several messages back and forth assuring each other that honest feedback was just fine and away I went into the story.

I found the entire experience to be surprisingly fun.  I enjoyed reading the story again but I also enjoyed using a critical eye to look for things that worked and things that didn't.  Truthfully, there weren't things that didn't work and I think that is what I find hardest about editing my own stuff.  The things that are terrible or don't work at all stand out enough that I can fix them (or just cut them entirely) right away. That hard part is finding the things that work really well and trying to figure out what makes them different from the scenes or paragraphs or even sentences that don't work quite as well.

I think reading her story and trying to figure out where the magic is and where it is missing was very helpful for me in my own writing and editing.  So, what started out as a "favor" for a friend, really ended up being an educational experience for me.  It helps that she didn't lash out or tell me I am a stupid fool for any of my feedback (although she may be doing that without telling me).  But I am hopeful that it helped her with her story while also helping me with my editor's eye for my on stuff.

I'm not sure I am any better that figuring out how to make magic where it doesn't already exist but I am sure I am better at recognizing both (at least in another person's work).  I got to use some of the tools and ideas I read about in On Writing and I am hopeful they will start to become second nature. Mostly, I have been converted to the idea that reading someone else's work is a truly valuable experience. Reading it with an editor's eye only makes it more so.  And I suppose if our friendship can survive the feedback, that's a good thing to know too.

1 comment:

  1. For a professional writer, getting a good editor can be enormously important. Before one is a professional, the sympathetic friend is a fine stand-in. Some writers have been known to eschew an editor (George Macdonald Fraser told his publishers that he would not be edited, but in his case he had spent many years in journalism, and that experience proved invaluable in writing fiction). Like he said "It may be rubbish, but it's all my own rubbish".

    Perspective is a vital thing for an author to find. That lofty, objective view of their own work that allows them to see what is genuinely good prose, and what is wordy babble. Some authors never find it, and eventually drown in their own style (turning into caricatures of their early selves). The more we can be honest about others prose, the easier we will find it to be objective about our own work.

    As you learn to dissect stories, it might be an idea to look at books that you really love, and ponder on what makes them work. You can learn an awful lot from good writing. A year or two back I read Ian Fleming's original James Bond novels. Although some of the plots veered off into the crazy (DR.NO has a wonderfully wackydoodle scene where 007 fights hand to tentacle with a Giant Squid!) the prose always remained calm and convincing. He writing is evocative, but very clear and easy, and he has some beautiful opening lines "James Bond, with two double bourbons in him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death". It's probably not the sort of book that you'd want to write, but in the end it's the same skill set. Attracting the reader, hooking them, and reeling them in, is vital whatever you're writing about. Learn from writers that you like.You can end up sounding like your favourite author, at least initially, but it's something that most writers go through.

    Meanwhile, I thought that you might like a bit of grist to the authorial mill. Here's an interesting little story that you might find some use for someday in your writing