Monday, April 3, 2017

The Skin of a Writer

A few years ago, when I was editing a manuscript for the agent I worked for at the time, I came across a line that described the protagonist as “standing taller in her high heels.” I laughed and flagged the description with: “It’s not like she’s going to stand shorter in them!” Then I advised the writer to either cut the line or expand it (“Her heels made her an inch taller than her date.”)

My joke earned me a terse note from the agent: “Don’t ever make fun of the writer!!!” She went on to say that writers were very sensitive creatures and I must take special care with every suggestion I made, thus I break their tender little hearts.

I found this surprising for two reasons. One, had I written the line myself, I would have appreciated the editor’s joke and admonished myself for writing such an obvious description. And two, because ever since I started writing, I’d been told over and over again that writers needed thick skins.

I’d certainly spent years developing one. Otherwise, I’d never been able to survive the years of harsh notes (like the friend who told me over and over again how much she hated my protagonist), the hundreds of query rejections, and, even more painfully, the dozens of manuscript rejections I’d received after the initial query had garnered requests. It takes a thick skin to keep going when all the signs around you point to taking a different direction.

Yet I also think it’s possible for writers to have skins that are too thick. After all, it’s our deep empathy for our characters and the world around them – and us – that allows us to create stories to begin with. If our skins are too thick to feel what our characters feel, then they won’t feel. And neither will our readers. And our thick skins may make us oblivious to changes we need to make. We all know writers who greet notes by disagreeing with every point their readers make.

And our skins need a certain amount of thinness during the editing phase as well. While it’s painful to hear that our stories don’t work, we need to feel that pain. How else will we know when a note is worth following? Many writers I respect – and this is true for myself – know that a note is the right one when they feel it in their guts. Although Stephen King advises writers to show their work to three readers, and only take the note if all three mention the problem, most writers I know prefer more than three. And they know the note is right when they get that gut check. For me, the right note lands in my stomach like a plummeting broken heart. It’s not only the right note, but deep down inside I feel like I knew all along it was a change I needed to make. Other “right notes” land more lightly, like fluttering wings on my arms. These are changes that I did not know all along were necessary, but insights from the editor that open up new possibilities in scene work or more. For instance, in a draft of my fourth novel, the developmental editor I hired questioned the location of a first date scene. I realized this tied in with a nagging feeling about the climax, which took place at a new location. I changed the location of the first date and made it the location of the climax as well. All thanks to those fluttering wings, which I would not have felt had my skin been too thick.

When rewriting our own work, our skins need to be something Goldilocks would appreciate – not too thick, not too thin, but just right. Thick enough not to burst into tears at rejection, but thin enough to appreciate the changes that need to be made. And we must always have a sense of humor. If we can’t laugh at our own mistakes, someday they will make us cry.

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