One of the things a writer needs most is mental distance from her writing, and it seems it’s also one of the most difficult to achieve. Recently a writer sent the opening of a story to my blog, Flogging the Quill, for a critique.
In addition to my take on writers’ submissions, readers of the blog often chime in with comments, and they are by and large quite helpful to the writer. In this particular case, though, the comment string went to 55, perhaps a new record. And it included, after a time, a few bits of heated snarkiness, if not insult—those are uncommon on my blog, but not for this post.
It was a lack of distance
The main cause of contention, I believe, was the author’s lack of mental distance. The writer was still too close to, I think, the gestation and birth of this particular creative baby, still too connected with the passions that generated the story to see it with a cooler objectivity.
A number of commentators expressed confusion about aspects of the story (which, hearing where they were coming from, made sense to me). So far, so good. But then the writer started explaining what he’d meant, and the tone was not one of “oh, I see why you didn’t get that”—it was, well, more defensive. One argument, for example, was “that’s the way it really happened.” Unfortunately, what really happens is not always good storytelling.
When it was pointed out that the author wouldn’t be there to explain things if the story were ever published, the reaction seemed to be that was fine, the writer didn’t care about those readers. That’s a legitimate response, but, after all, the challenge on my blog is to write an opening that’s compelling enough to get you to turn the page. And I include a poll where readers can vote as to whether or not they’d read further.
84% said no
Only 16 percent of FtQ readers voted to turn the page. This is not, in my view, a desirable outcome. But I don’t believe this writer will ever make the changes needed to create a compelling opener. The writer received a great deal of good input and positive suggestions that could guide a productive revision, but it’ll never happen in this case, I fear.
Mental distance from your work is VITAL to successful self-editing and to making the best use of constructive criticism from agents, editors, and critiquers. Without it, you’re likely to end up as this writer did, defending the indefensible—and not having a narrative that compels readers to want to know what happens next.
The chief ingredient in mental distance: time
When we’re fresh from the heat and the screaming and the blood of a tough delivery, our emotions are a part of the warp and woof of the story’s fabric. We simply cannot extricate ourselves. That’s why there’s such truth to the advice to put the story aside for weeks—I suggest a minimum of 6 weeks. The fire of creation cools over time, the flames die down and you can better see the reality of what you’ve wrought.
I experienced this in a critique group in Seattle. We were going through one of my novels when we reached chapter 3 and a critique member said, “This is where your story begins.” The manuscript wasn’t new, so there was a fair amount of mental distance already present. Still, that comment felt like an assault on what I’d done. It said to me that what I’d done was wrong in some way. Naturally enough, I defended (internally, not in the critique group) what I’d written. My first two chapters were needed, otherwise the reader wouldn’t get the story and the characters the way I wanted.
Then 3 months went by, and another aspect of achieving mental distance finally came through—a willingness to being less than perfect. You see, that comment nagged at me. What if he was right? After enough time had gone by, I revisited those first two chapters, and I’d achieved enough distance to see that he was right. The best starting point was the third chapter. But what about all those elements that were so necessary?
It turned out that only a few of them were truly needed, and they were easy enough to weave into the narrative of the new first chapter. The lesson I learned from that critique partner has not only helped my writing but has informed my editing in a significant way—the distance I provide as an editor and what I learned back then about how to start a story is what works now to help me help writers see how to create a truly gripping opening.
Other techniques for distance
I cover these in my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells, but it makes sense to share them here.
1. If you’ve been working exclusively onscreen with your manuscript, this time, print it out.
2. Make your manuscript look different to create distance. Simply reformatting the pages in a different font—changing from Times New Roman to Arial, for example—can be a mental eye-opener. Change the line spacing from double to 1.5 or single-spaced, and your narrative will “read” differently. This is one of the easiest ways to get a fresh take on your work.
3. Make the pages look like an actual book. Hey, it’s a computer, you can play all you want. So change the page size to 5.5 wide by 8.5 high, the dimensions of a trade paperback, change the text to single-spaced and to a font like those in books (Garamond is a common one that you’ll find in published books), make the margins a half inch or so like in a book, and then see what happens. If you’ve a big-enough monitor, set View to two pages, and then you’ll see how one page flows into another in a spread. Can be very enlightening.
4. Read it aloud.
5. Read it somewhere else—a library or a coffee shop. Author M.J. Rose told me that she sometimes takes her laptop and rides the train and reads—the distractions of noise and motion help reveal the softer, less compelling parts of a narrative.
What about you? Do you have any techniques for creating distance?
For what it’s worth.