I’m an editor. I get a manuscript, dissertation, or textbook and I dig into the words to root out fluff and transplant content from areas where its meaning is obscured in shadow to places where the light hits it more directly. I do a little pruning, a little grooming, and then I hand my trowel back to the person who planted the garden. Now I’m watching other people dig through my plot and it is a weird feeling, my friends.
I’ve had my work picked apart before, and receiving criticism sometimes felt like being hit in the face with a shovel. But then I was writing researched non-fiction and/or philosophical essays, which have relatively stringent requirements for content and structure. There was only so much room for interpretation. I either provided a sufficient amount of relevant information to support my conclusion or I didn’t; I either clearly expressed and organized my premises or I didn’t. Purely subjective criticism—whether someone liked my argument or how they felt reading it—was immaterial.
Then I wrote a novel.
As a fiction writer, I can’t disregard subjective criticism so easily. The more rigid requirements of my academic work have been supplanted by the more artistic considerations of fiction writing, which include taking into account how readers may feel about my story. Not everyone will like the book, but I do want to write a something that many people will enjoy. This requires me to do one of the most difficult, agonizing acts known to humankind—take my own advice.
I must do proper research and be respectful when I draw from other cultures; be mindful of my word choices; look for inconsistencies in my plot, characterizations, and descriptions; avoid info-dumping; etc. It’s bloody nerve wracking. I know that a mere mortal like me can never create the perfect book, but I have to try, dammit.
The real test, of course, was in finally handing over my word baby to someone else to read. I know I need external feedback from astute beta readers, but it’s scary not knowing whether they’ll love it or hate it or (gasp!) be indifferent to it. Maybe I’d get solid, helpful feedback or maybe I’d get incoherent drivel.
But then, I might defensively dismiss helpful feedback as incoherent drivel so that I won’t have to face the possibility that I wrote a junk story. Of course, every writer churns out some crap, it’s nothing to be embarrassed about, but it still hurts to find out that the whatever-it-is you wrote isn’t worth a hill of beans. Sometimes a mangled narrative can be rescued with a gentle critique accompanied by sound advice and thoughtful suggestions for turning the Frankenstory into a seamless read. Other times, the story should just be dismantled for parts.
Well, I passed the beta reading hurdle, but I anxiously wondered if my readers had been too polite in their criticism or didn’t point out a problem because they weren’t really sure how to express their concerns. Maybe they just missed some things. My book is unusually long—around 240,000 words, or roughly three times the length of the average novel—so there was plenty for everyone to miss.
I tried to set my panic aside and made some changes my readers suggested plus some additional changes to fill in little holes here and there. Yes, this was definitely a better book, one good enough to land a publisher.
The first round of editing really wasn’t too bad. My editor was pleased with the book overall, but had a number of suggestions for tidying up certain things. She even caught a number of small errors and inconsistencies that my readers and I had missed! There were quite a few things I had to thank her for, and a few places where I wanted to scream DON’T TOUCH THAT! (But no, I did not scream at her, in case you were wondering.)
This round of revisions took longer than expected, but I went through the whole manuscript with a machete and hacked out the weeds. My book is cleaner and clearer than ever, and back in the hands of an editor. I’ll be doing this all over again in a few months, but that’s what it is to be a writer. It isn’t glamourous, but it is rewarding.