A few months back I attended a conference. While this wasn’t a writer’s conference per se, there was an author there and that was the main reason I attended. He had two sessions, I signed up for both. The first was all about breaking into the business from his experienced point of view, the second ended up being a critique of my work though I didn’t know it would go that way at the time.
There were at least three hundred people attending the conference, but only a dozen showed up for this author’s first session. Completely uncharacteristic of me, I sat up front. I had questions, and by god I drove to Detroit in the middle of winter to get answers (the big blizzard hit mere hours after arriving). It was all I could do to keep from pulling a chair up alongside him! It was curious how the author handled the small attendance. Obviously thrown by his unanticipated draw, he promptly made up his mind to change the plan by discarding what he came all the way from St Louis Missouri prepared to discuss. Explaining that, he added, “How about you ask questions and I’ll answer as best I can.” Needless to say my mind went into overdrive sorting the sheer volume of questions stored inside. What needed to be asked first? There was only so much time.
Were I an alien from another world, I’m sure I’d have one of those huge heads because I’m one of those people whose brain bulges with questions. I’m also very shy. These two components together tell me to hang back always. In other words, let’s see the lay of the land before we go for that hike. And so I did. I did until I couldn’t take it anymore. Here was this wonderful resource trapped behind a podium for an hour and a half and the first woman to raise her hand had a string of the most inane questions.
“Have you always wanted to write?”
To which he nodded.
“Where do you get ideas to write about?”
“From life and my imagination.”
On a roll, she became an interviewer. Please don’t get me wrong, her questions would be fine for an interview but this was a very particular opportunity. Review-type questions were wasting precious time. There was no room for anyone else to ask a question because she wouldn’t pause to draw a breath. This went on for nearly twenty minutes! I know. I sat facing the clock.
When the brief pause came, presumably because she was oxygen starved, I raised my hand and we were off. I picked this man’s brain to the nth degree and four other would-be authors in the room joined in. It was glorious. What one didn’t ask the others did, which was good because some of those questions were very important to know, and I didn’t know enough to ask them myself. When the aforementioned woman raised her hand and tried again to ask something completely outside the point of this open conversation, he told her he had time after class to go into that deeper and went back to the real reason he was there to talk. We talked agents, we talked publishing – both self-publishing and industry publishing, we talked self promotion. It was good. At one point I think I froze the hands on the clock with my mind because I learned so much in such a short period of time that it had me wondering how it was even possible. I was floating when I walked out of the room. I had information!
In the end I bought his book. I wasn’t really into the topic but I did so in complete appreciation for his time. I may never read it, despite the very nice bit he wrote just to me on the flyleaf. Just before the session ended, he told us what he had planned for session two was pretty pointless given our group was so small. Instead he asked if we’d like a critique of our work. Several people said yes so that was the plan for day two.
My family does regular critique. My verbosity is frowned on I think 🙂 Writers all, we each have our own definitive style. I get regular “Tighter mom, write tight” comments. Needing to see what they meant, one day I gave them each the same paragraph out of my larger novel-in-progress and each rewrote it as an example. My husband was the more generous of the three, stemming I suppose, from being privy to the inner workings of my mind as long as he has. My kids were brutal and saying it that way makes me laugh. But this was useful because I saw the unnecessary excesses they saw. Those were clear in their greatly-reduced versions of my paragraph. In some respects it was better than holding a mirror up to my face. Because of that exercise, I’ve shaved 10,000 words off 24 chapters. And you know what? It does read better. My son would have me carve another 10,000 off those same chapters but no, I don’t think so. It’s one thing to acknowledge the fat, it’s another to trim it to the point where the writing is no longer mine.
As a point of reference to this ramble, my son is the fiction writer in the family with the ability to write such tight scenes one can only say wow after reading. My daughter and husband are both essayists and scientific authors, the breadth and scope of their knowledge and ability to convey it is really something to behold. I fizz with pride and appreciation for the talents of all three. Hmm…Up until this moment I’d never given thought to how odd it was for a Wordy (me) to marry an essayist and have Wordy writer offspring. Nature vs. nurture?
Anyway…getting way off topic here. Dogged by insomnia whenever I sleep away from home, I naturally brought my laptop along to the conference. You just never know what might come out of a sleep-derived mind and one needs be prepared. I had a portion, a wordy portion, I really wanted input on. It’s one thing to hear “Tighter mom, write tight” from people I love, but I wondered if a stranger would have the same opinion.
Well, out of a dozen people in the first session, only half returned the next day. I was absolutely delighted. Only the would-be authors returned. Had we been in our pajamas we could have talked into the wee hours of the night. I wasn’t first of course, reading the lay of the land and all. I was fourth. Here’s what I brought to be critiqued —
Suddenly conscious of the downpour, he looked around confused. Where am I? He had no idea how long he’d stood in the rain but it had to be a while, he was soaked to the skin. Wiping his dripping hair back from his face, it took several seconds before he recognized where he was, and longer still before he remembered why he’d even be in this part of town.
Somewhere in the back of the fog he recalled he’d heard thunder when he left the lawyer’s office, recalled too he’d been there to sign his will. Everything he owned – the house and furnishings, stocks and bonds, the library – everything his parents had left him, would be given to his mother’s favorite charity for animals under the stipulation they’d see to cremating his remains, and scattering his ashes exactly where he’d scattered those of his parents. There was no one else to see to his body. They’d get a sizable estate in exchange for that simple request.
Passersby scurried here and there with their shirts and jackets pulled over their heads like awnings or with makeshift umbrellas fashioned from that day’s newspaper. Lost in thoughts of cremation, he took a seat on the park bench barely aware of people around him dashing for cover. More than one person considered him a lunatic who didn’t have sense enough to get out of the rain. He didn’t seem to notice and it wouldn’t have mattered if he had. The outer numbness he felt was miniscule compared to what he felt on the inside.
Aware of his uncomfortably wet shoes, he noted absently that his bench had a mote right where he’d put his feet. Making no move to head to higher ground, he toed a crumpled magazine page into the puddle before kicking a small dam of debris aside. Water rushing from the curb tossed the crumpled paper like a rudderless boat. As his makeshift dingy listed leeward on the rain stippled surface, a single printed word jumped out at him.
Yes, he was lonely. Needing to see more, he picked it up. The saturated paper gave way under his careful fingers but he managed to smooth it out on his soggy knee. Barely noticing the glossy buxom blond in a red bikini, it was the wording under the photo that caught his eye. The complete sentence read:
Are you Lonely? Want to talk?
He did want to talk. He was desperate to talk to someone, to actually have a conversation to explain the path he’d chosen for himself. He wanted someone to understand that he was ending his life because he couldn’t bear to live any longer. Carefully tearing the phone number from the soggy ad, he tucked it into his shirt pocket and headed home oblivious to the magazine page stuck to his knee.
Good grief. I was so nervous I was sweating. I’d printed this page at the hotel and to keep my moist hands from shaking, gripped it against my spiral notebook until the paper actually formed around my clammy fingers to leave their own form of water mark. What followed was funny in a way, one of those weird pregnant pauses that for the life of you you just can’t interpret. Each reader stood up and gave their offering and immediately after, the six other people in the room, professional author included, clapped and responded in some honest and useful way.
You could hear crickets chirping when I’d finished reading my offering. No one clapped. They stared at me. My heartbeat was echoing in my ears like the sound of the sea in a conch shell. I looked at the author and he turned his head to the side, his eyes looking at me as though I were a fraud and he wasn’t smiling. He said, “Are you a ringer?”
I searched my mind for the definition. Was he asking me if I was an impostor desiring to trip him up somehow? He couldn’t possibly think I was posing as a newbie looking to learn. Was this a compliment? I smiled nervously and shook my head. He sat back in his chair, brows raised in surprise, and clapped. The others followed. One person said they changed their mind about reading their offering “because how could anyone top that?” which honestly creeped me out a bit coming after the uncomfortable silence like it had.
The day before I had explained the “Tighter, write tight” business when I bought his book. Today the author told me, “I see nothing to change. It’s perfect. This is your style and it’s a good one. If anyone tells you to trim, fight for your style.” That was my first critique and it happened to be nice and above all, useful. Have no illusions here, critiques are not always rosy. The next critique an author gets might be harsh, and for me it was.
This particular story whose opener sits above, was judged hard when my publisher’s editor had a go at it. That was good and surprisingly painless. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past three years, it’s that different eyes are necessary in this business. I was too close to the stories I’d written fifteen years ago and when they inevitably got their rejections as nearly all do, it felt like someone was telling me my beautiful baby looked like a troll. I’ve grown up since then. I know I can weave a good story. I know because I can entertain myself with my writing, and I’m particular about what I read. 🙂 I’m confident the backbone of the story is good but I really want to know what’s bad. I’ll never improve if I don’t get honest critique.
There is something to be said about eyes without emotional ties. I’ve asked my new author group friends for opinions several times and always get extremely useful input. Their opinions aren’t softened by long friendship or familial ties. They too know that writers get so wrapped up in their work that proximity becomes an issue. Think of it like a Monet painting. Up close, it looks like so much paint dabbed on. Step back and take it as a whole and you see the water lilies. I saw something in that person’s professional opinion and I didn’t like what I was seeing. When the editor suggested, in so many words, that I back up to see the whole piece, I did. And you know what? I wasn’t seeing lilies, I saw trash cans. That’s not where I wanted to go with this story I wrote five years ago.
Though I did get a little finger shaking from my publisher for doing so, I asked to be released from the contract and understanding people they are, they released me. Thank god. Yes, it was poor form on my part and don’t think shooting myself in the foot didn’t come to mind. I humbly admit both, but at this time I just don’t have the time to tackle 70,000 words and make changes of the size and scope recommended. I’ll rewrite the story of this lonely man one day and resubmit it. Armed with a professional edit, the next draft might even make Monet step back and nod.