May 1st, 2011

image courtesy of healingdream

Fellow erotica author and Facebook friend Gregory Allen made a post on his page recently that mentioned the theatrical maxim “Acting is reacting.” Because I’m ever so witty on Facebook, that prompted me to respond, “Does that mean that ‘writing is rewriting’?” (slaps knee again)

It is, though, isn’t it? I mean, it’s lucky that we’re not stone carvers, because inevitably, whatever we write, no matter how inspired or well planned, is going to need some reworking once it’s done.

First, of course, I look a piece over on my own. However, unless something is really bothering me, I notice that I tend to do more editing than revising — that is, I’ll swap out a few words for better choices, I’ll fix a typo or two, I might add some more details or combine some sentences. It’s rare that I’ll make sweeping changes to structure or character or plot.

I wish I could say that’s because those larger elements never need to be changed. But alas, it’s more that I have trouble seeing the changes that need to be made. For those larger elements, then, what I need is an outside reader — someone to read my story and give me a critique.

I’ve published over 20 books, now, of one type or another, and countless journal articles and magazine pieces and blog entries. I’m a good writer. I sell stuff. And yet… and yet… it is still surprisingly hard to offer something up to “other eyes.”

Harder still to get the piece back — with suggestions. Or criticisms (and isn’t any suggestion actually a criticism at some level?). It’s funny, of course, because the entire point of asking someone to critique a piece is to get suggestions on what to change. If I really thought it was absolutely perfect as is, there’d be no need to show it to anyone (except an adoring public with their pocketbooks out). When critiquers respond only with “That was great, I wouldn’t change a thing,” I worry that they’re not being honest, or that they’re simply not astute to find the flaws that must be there.

When I do get the suggestions back, though, I know that, inevitably, I must go through what I’ve come to think of as The Four Stages of Rewriting:

1) Denial. Yes, that’s right — I’ve asked for advice, and now that I have it in hand, I argue against it. My hero is weak? No, he isn’t. My heroine sounds snotty? No, she doesn’t. And my piece is not too long/too short/too pornographic/not sexy enough. If you can’t see its brilliance, then you just didn’t get it. It’s perfectly fine how it is!

This stage never lasts too long, because it so easily bleeds into the next stage, namely:

2) Anger. And just who the hell is he to say that my writing is flat? What’s he published — recently? I read her poem last week; I thought it trite. So where does she get off telling me my plot is overused? I guess some people feel they have to criticize in order to be useful. Harumph!

After I’ve had a good seethe comes the next stage:

3) Grief. I thought it was good. I really did. I thought I was done. I worked so hard on this! I wanted to submit it next week. I spent all that time researching prices of pensions in southern France, and everyone says that scene should be cut entirely. This is too hard. I’m not a good enough writer to make this work.

But finally, thank goodness, I get to

4) Acceptance. OK, it’s not perfect. And if three people say my heroine sounds snotty, then I need to adjust that, because that wasn’t the effect I wanted. No one said it was awful, after all, just that it needed some tweaking. If I cut out the opening paragraph and start with the action, it really is a better story.

I think it’s important to point out that “acceptance” is not the same as “agreeing with every suggestion you get.” It only means that you realize that a reader sees something you didn’t intend. You may want to change it, and then again, you may not. Final choice rests with the author. However, if several readers all offer a similar criticism, you’d be foolish not to listen. I know that’s hard. I just offered a short piece up for critique and two very different readers objected to the same sentence, which had been one that I really liked. Well, it could be a fine sentence, but just not for this piece. I sort of skimmed over the first reader’s objection, then stopped and paused again at the second reader’s objection… I might have to give it another day or two, to get over my denial and grief (it’s only one sentence, I’ll just skip anger altogether!), and then I’ll change it.

I’ve been writing and publishing since 2001, and professionally editing since 2003. I’ve worked with new authors and experienced authors, authors of fiction and authors of non-fiction. I’ve seen those four stages in myself and in my authors over and over again. I don’t know that the four stages ever go away completely. But I do think I get through them faster now, and at least I can see of some of my resistance for what it is — mere resistance, and not the Defense of True Art.

Best advice I could give a new author would be not to respond to an email or discussion while wallowing in stages 1, 2, or 3. Take your time, take a break, take a deep breath, and get over it. Get to stage 4, where you can make reasoned decisions about what to keep and what to change and how to change it.

Authors, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on dealing with critiques!

*  *  *  *  *


This entry was posted on Sunday, May 1st, 2011 at 2:46 pm and is filed under • The Four Stages of Rewriting. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

10 Responses to “The Four Stages of Rewriting”

Vida Bailey Says:

This is so very familiar to me, I could have written it!

allyson Says:

So true! Grief usually hits me the hardest and lasts the longest, too.

Willsin Rowe Says:

Yes, I think you’ve nailed it, Shar. A lot can also depend on how well you know the person critiquing. If you know that they’re, say, a very literal person then perhaps you treat their criticism differently than you would someone with a greater taste for sci-fi/fantasy. But as you say, should all your critique buddies point out a particular problem…that’s when you absolutely need to cut them out of your will. The bastards…

Fulani Says:

I can certainly recognise these stages, and as I recall they’re also the sequence of reactions to bereavement. These days I tend to get over them quite quickly. I want the thing finished and however unreasonable I think the comments are, they’re real reactions from someone trying to puzzle over what I’ve written. If it doesn’t make sense or read right, then it doesn’t and I’ll fix it. It probably helps that by the end of a piece of writing, most of my emotional attachment has already transferred to the next thing I’m planning on writing.

Shar Says:

You are correct — those are the four classic stages of bereavement. It can feel like that, sometimes, like you’re mourning a piece of writing. How quickly I get over something I think depends on how much I care about it. If I’m trying to write a short titillating piece, then I’m not so bothered if it needs adjusting. If I’ve put in a little bit of my heart, then it can hurt to have it not be understood, as if the reader isn’t understanding (or liking) me personally, and not just a piece of text.

I think to be always working on the next thing (or next few things) is an excellent antidote too. Now I wonder about an analogy between writing in general and, say, the stages of culture shock. Hmmm. An unnatural high? An unnatural low? And finally a balanced perspective? Could be!

Gregory Allen Says:

Critiques are helpful but they have to be specific. Stuff like “the hero is weak” or “this character is flat” are too vague, anyway. You have to really get at what a reader felt, sometimes dissecting what they say, but in the end, it has to be what you, the writer, want. No matter how caring a critique group you’re lucky enough to be a part of, no one cares about your work as much as you do. The benefit of a critique is to see your work in a different light. The worst thing is for your work to become “writing by committee” and that can happen, I forget where I read this, but someone wrote that if Kafka had “The Metamorphosis” critiqued, his readers would have told him that they didn’t find it believable that the main character woke up as a bug.

Katie Salidas Says:

I think you hit each stage perfectly. And I have to agree too, acceptance does not mean agreement. There are many times where I have to check my ego at the door when a critiquer or five say something about my work that I just don’t agree with. However, in the best interest of the story, I have to accept majority rule and make the darn changes.

Whenever I get a hard critique, I wait to respond or even rewrite. At least 24 hours has to go by before I begin to work with the suggested changes. The advice often needs time to marinate and I need time to work through those 4 stages.

So, yes. Short answer, you’re right on the money with everything.

Benjamin Russell Says:

Hi Shar, as a newbie writer, I think you have provided some great advice. We all want our writing to be liked but, as you pointed out, sometimes we can’t see the forest for the trees. I appreciate the advice and I will try to find a critique partner who I like well enough, that I won’t try to kill him/her if they tell me my story sucks. Question, do you have any advice on how to deal with the emotional ups-downs of getting rejection letters?

Shar Says:

Oh, great question. First of all, I don’t think you need to feel too badly that you don’t like getting rejected. I mean… it would be kind of weird if you didn’t mind, wouldn’t it? So it’s not necessarily the sign of a “new” writer to be disappointed if your story or book gets turned down. For me, it helps to consider this: In most cases, a publisher turns down your manuscript because they don’t think they can sell it. If they can’t sell it, they’ll lose money producing it. But if they can’t sell it — you aren’t going to see any money either. It means your book won’t be getting into readers’ hands. Now maybe they can’t sell it because they don’t handle that genre, or because they have too many closely competing titles, or they have no idea to market your unique work, or (well, we have to say it!) maybe your book just isn’t very good. However — there are plenty of books out there that “aren’t very good” that sell quite well, and whose readers like them. So it’s more a case of finding the right readership.

So… that means if a publisher turns down your book, you are free to take that manuscript to another publisher who might be able to handle it better. And you want your book to be with someone who can sell it! Right?

The other, less common reason a manuscript gets turned down is that the publisher is simply too busy. They don’t have the editorial staff at the moment because they’re committed to books already under contract. So again, you don’t want your manuscript to gather (electronic) dust in a (virtual) drawer for months or years before they can get to it. No, you’d be better off finding someone who wants it now.

I think you get fewer rejections if you research your publishers carefully, so you’re at least sending them they type of book they want, when they want it, and in the manner in which they want it. Most publishers have very clear guidelines about what and how to submit–how many chapters, how long a synopsis, etc. Follow those to the letter! But looking up every publisher in some exhaustive web search and sending each one a cut and paste letter, working your way through from A to Z — that won’t win you any love, only more rejection letters.

Good luck finding a good critique partner. It’s a little tricky, isn’t it? You want someone smart and honest, who can tell you what’s working as well as what’s not working, and be at least mostly right. What kind of writing do you do?

Shah Wharton Says:

I have been through all these stages so many times and boy – my confidence goes and a roller-coaster ride accordingly. It can be hard to remain driven when you hear bad comments (well, criticism). It usually knocks me off my perch a while. But then I look back at all I’ve learned from it and wouldn’t have it any other way. Shah. X

  • Facebook
  • Google+
  • Twitter