Thursday, December 03, 2009

Raising the Bar - Austin

There is something about the writing life that seems to work backwards. A manuscript that wins acclaim, earns its place on a publisher's short-list, and feels complete -- takes on a different tone when subjected to a professional critique.

Requesting a critique anticipates flagging some weaknesses. There is fear of overly harsh judgment. A writer's ego is pretty resilient and has an intensely strong core, but is still subject to bruising. Generous praise for the good, makes it much easier to swallow the advice on less than perfect aspects of the manuscript.

Practical, pointed suggestions, a heavily marked document, lack of transitions pointed out, inconsistencies flagged, places where dialogue becomes cumbersome, or it is difficult to follow who is speaking -- these things, seen by a new set of eyes with professional skills, become painfully obvious when pointed out. They can also prove rather painful to fix.

Two weeks of intense effort (on a "completed" work) have resulted in a new chapter added, dialogue examined and dialect greatly reduced. A key character is introduced earlier with little winsome glimmers given throughout. Dialogue attributes appear much more frequently, and transitions have been added in several places.

Like good editing, the changes resulting from a professional critique are almost invisible. They do not change the author's voice. They maintain the integrity of the story -- where the story has integrity. They are blunt and honest enough to point out places where it fails. Responding to a professional critique can raise the bar. Mediocre writing skills, of necessity, become sharpened. Good writing skills gain that little edge, move that much closer to excellence.

There is a mental exhaustion that sets in, but there is also a healthy tension. A deadline looms. I can settle for 'good enough.' The manuscript did, after all, make the short-list. But is 'good enough' a worthy goal? I have heard both strong praise and harsh criticism for this work and know it is going to fully engage some readers while missing others. But because I have taken to heart those things the critique pointed out, the quality has gone up measurably. Some will choose to keep reading, who two weeks ago with a 'good enough' manuscript would have quit by page three. Others will read with deeper satisfaction and delight.

Putting my writing under the scrutiny of an editor or a critique team is a bit like giving a surgeon permission to go at me with his scalpel without anesthetic. Like most writers, I don't like my writing being under the knife. But I would be hard pressed to put a value to this experience. It has undoubtedly been worth the cost, in dollars and in time and effort.

Deadlines loom, and had I chosen to skip this process, I would still have a book I could take pride in. Yet I would always wonder if I could have done just a bit better. When I hold the published book in my hands, the investment in a professional critique, and the intense and demanding follow-up work from that critique will undoubtedly prove to be a good and worthwhile investment. For I will hold a much better book than I would have published just two weeks ago.


N. J. Lindquist said...

Yes! I love to hear thoughts like this. :)

Peter Black said...

Honest and vulnerable, as always, Brian.
Very helpful and instructive piece.
Thank you.

Popular Posts