We long-form book writers talk amongst ourselves about how solitary our work is. We spend hundreds of hours alone in our minds (except for the casts of characters in our stories). We rightly view it as a solo art.
There are other arts that are solitary in the creation stage, of course—music composition and painting/designing come to mind. Yet they don’t seem to have the collaborative facet that I think is necessary for success as a novelist.
It was a thank-you that got me to thinking
I was revisiting testimonials on my editing website that were written by writers for whom I have edited novel manuscripts.
And it struck me that many of them were saying “thank you” for something they had bought and paid for. For example, here’s what one client, Georges Melhem in Lebanon, said:
“What should I thank you for the most? Being always there for me to hammer you with questions? Encouraging and coaching me? Teaching me the ropes in a way no business-weary pro would? Giving me fair and blunt criticism at all times? Suggesting ways to fix the many problems you pointed out?”
Aren’t those the very things that a good critique partner does for us? His novel, which I heartily recommend even though other editorial hands have taken part after my contributions, is Brotherland. I hope you’ll check it out. It’s a fascinating window into the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Okay, so Georges paid me for a service, yet here he is thanking me for what I did as a necessary part of doing my job. Besides his and the other testimonial validations making me feel good, they caused me to think on a broader scale about how we writers operate. And on a personal one, too. I owe a lot of thank-yous, too.
“Fresh eyes” is a clichéd phrase that we see and use often. We acknowledge the need for fresh eyes to look at our work in the light of their not-us point of view. The lucky among us have critique partners who fulfill that role. Others can afford to hire the services of someone like me.
Writers lucky enough to sign contracts with publishing houses have editors who pore over their manuscripts and give notes. And many writers are good enough to sign with agents who perform the same service.
I have critiqued more than 450 opening chapters on my blog, and I’d say that no more than 10 have been at a pretty much professional level right out of the box—and even those could be improved. Yet the writers of the remaining 440+ had done their level best to make their narratives sing. It seems that many of us, especially on the lower slopes of the learning curve, have a tin ear when it comes to the flat notes in our own compositions.
Can we fly solo and succeed? The Anne Rice rant.
There may be some who are absolute geniuses at the narrative art and perfection flows from their fingertips, but I doubt it. Here’s a case in point: a few years back there was a hot string of comments on the Amazon.com page for Anne Rice’s Blood Canticle. It received tons of criticism from readers who found copious narrative flaws and a general lack of the level of storytelling expected from this famous writer. Many reviews were so negative that Anne entered her own “review” in the string that became a famous rant (link is to a copy posted on author Chuck Palahniuk’s website).
I will tell you that, for years, I was a huge Anne Rice fan, and eagerly bought book after book in the vampire and the witch series. And then I came to feel that her work was declining, and finally I bought one novel that was so unsatisfying that I stopped buying her—I will just revisit the good stuff that I already have. After reading the following in her Amazon rant I understood what had happened. Anne wrote:
“If and when I can’t write a book on my own, you’ll know about it. And no, I have no intention of allowing any editor ever to distort, cut, or otherwise mutilate sentences that I have edited and re-edited, and organized and polished myself. I fought a great battle to achieve a status where I did not have to put up with editors making demands on me, and I will never relinquish that status. For me, novel writing is a virtuoso performance. It is not a collaborative art.”
I’m pretty sure that her first successful novels in both the vampire series and the witch series DID have the involvement of an editor. They were fascinating, involving stories that never let me go. And then both series, in my experience, wandered and got sloppy. It wasn’t a matter of sentences but of storytelling where Rice went wrong for me.
Anne felt that she had become a solo artist—a virtuoso, in her words—whose performance was above any criticism, just the way it came out of her mind. Yet readers disagreed, loudly.
I know how much I’ve been helped by other writers
I’m not currently in a critique group, but three different crit groups over the years have had fundamental and beneficial impact on my novels. Not that they were all-seeing; after all, most of them were not published authors, and none were editors. But they always helped me see where my narrative wasn’t doing what I meant it to do, or where it did the wrong thing.
Their fresh eyes gave me a fresh lens through which I could view and revise my own writing. I provide that professionally for clients, but devoted the same energy and skill to my crit group partners, and now to writers who submit material to my blog.
Yes, I write alone—but then I craft what I’ve written with the help of my writer friends and companions who make the road less lonely and the writing better.
But we’re still unique
The final result of what we craft is still uniquely us because we’re the ones making the decisions. If, when I edit, I point out a lazy description that uses an adverb to try to bring life to a flat verb, I may make a suggestion or two for an alternative word that does the job better, but it’s still the writer who decides on what words end up in the narrative. Despite the input, feedback, coaching, or editing we receive, the decisions we make as we follow our individual muses create our personal voices and the unique quality of our stories.
I want to take my turn at thanking all the writers who have contributed to my work: the critique partners, the readers of Flogging the Quill who have given me insights, the beta readers of my books, and all the writers who discuss craft on the Internet, especially those who contribute to Writer Unboxed.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.