A Spirit of Openness

There are so many qualities that are important to the career writer, but one of the most critical may be the spirit of openness.

Unless you're self-publishing, the process of bringing a book to fruition is far more of a collaborative venture than you might imagine. The term "submission" is apt, for when you start submitting your project, whether it's to an agent you hope will represent it or an editor you want to champion and acquire it, you're in a position of stepping back from your own words and listening to other points of view, based on the professional's experience.

Some of what these folks have to say will smack hard against the wall of your resistance. Whether it's because the suggestion contradicts your original vision or because your subconscious is screeching that making the requested changes will be a heck of a lot of work, this reaction (I call it the "This editor's a complete moron!" moment) is a predictable, even instinctive part of the revision process. And whether or not you'll make it in the publishing world depends a great deal on how you find a way to deal with it.

Early in my writing journey, I had a huge problem with taking direction. Ego-involved with the work as I was, I was terribly myopic when it came to any perceived criticism. This only began to change for me when I started rereading contest judges' feedback many months after I originally received it. Shockingly, I realized that in a lot of (though not all) instances, the judge was right on target, or at least that his/her suggestions pointed out a deficiency I might correct by some other means. Attempting to learn from this, I started to allow myself to react, however negatively I needed to, to disappointments to get my ego out of the way, and then re-reading comments a few weeks or months later to glean whatever wisdom I could from the suggestions.

Cue forward a few years, and lucky me! I'd sold to a New York publishing house, where I didn't often have the luxury of weeks or (especially) months to shove my ego out of the way. At that point, I was receiving my most significant editorial input via phone, where it is frowned upon (to put it mildly) to throw a tantrum and call the person on the other end of the conversation an idiot. So I began taking careful notes, promising to consider or try out all suggestions, and then getting off the phone to wail and gnash my teeth or call a long-suffering friend to gripe about how my agent/editor "didn't get it." I put a strict five-minute limit on the bitching portion of those calls.

And then I moved directly to the discovery stage, where I realized that, for the most part, the person who'd given me this advice really did have some great insights into what readers want to see. This isn't to say that I went with every suggestion. I didn't and still don't. But I do take time to think through every one, and often, I'll "test drive" the idea and see how it works out. Just this past week, I've done so, even though this particular opinion utterly conflicted with my initial instincts.

I did promise to try it out on the first chapter, however, and darn it all, I could almost immediately see that it was a great suggestion, even though it cost me dozens of hours of extra work. Will my agent and others ultimately agree it was a good choice? I have no idea, but I know that in making those changes, I also improved other story elements that I'm 100% certain made this proposal more viable. If I'd been unwilling to risk trying something different, I would never have found my way to these new elements.

There's something else to be gained as well, from opening yourself up to the spirit of colleagiality. In doing so, you make the publishing pro part of the team, someone with even more of a vested interest (other than the obvious financial aspects) in fighting for your book's success. Since we're all on the same team anyway, The Team of Creating, Producing, and Marketing a Successful Book, it's a great thing, not a failure, to get as many people on board with it as possible.

That myth you might have stuck in your head about the misanthropic lone writer in the ivory tower? That's rarely the way things work out in real life. Most successful writers understand they're only one factor in the formula and they'd better darned well listen to their peeps.

So how about the rest of you? Can you think of any changes you initially resisted that turned out to be a great help? How do you put your ego aside to deal with criticism?

Comments

Allison Chase said…
Hi Colleen. I always say it takes a village to write a book, lol. I work with a brilliant editor but sometimes those revision letters can be brutal. I always give myself at least three days of self-pity/chocolate-eating/wailing to the winds that I just can't do it. Then I begin so see how she might just be right, and ideas start flowing. I know each of my books have been stronger, tighter, all around better because I listened to her input and then figured out how to handle the revisions in a way that pleased not only her, but myself.
Hi, Allison! Thanks for stopping by.

I'm pretty sure chocolate is the drug that gets many a writer through revisions! I have to admit, my last revision letter took me days to get over before I could deal with it. Just when you dare to think you *might* know what you're doing... Dangerous thinking, that. :)
Suzan Harden said…
I'll admit my ego definitely took over brain function when I first started writing.

Now, it depends on who the criticism comes from and how it's said/written. There's people I trust who know what I'm trying to accimplish and they make the work better. And then there's people who mean well, but don't have a clue. I just smile, nod and go on.
I agree, Suzan, that you definitely have to consider the source. Especially, when you're more familiar with a genre's expectations than your reader.
Lark said…
Thanks for the terrific post, Colleen. As always, a brilliant insight into how things work.

My first agent revision call was so devastating I thought I'd never be able to tackle her questions and suggestions. Once I let it all "cook" for a few days, I knew she was dead on target. I pulled up my big-girl pants, re-wrote almost the entire ms and improved it 1000%. The biggest hurdle for me was the magnitude of the effort it was going to take to fix the problems. Now I'm so glad I did the hard work because the end result is a ms I feel truly proud of.
Mylène said…
It's so strange but I tend to think I am not a collaborative artist, that I don't have the skills for it, that I prize control overmuch . . . and then (when a work is accepted for publication) the editing process begins, and I leap it into with what I recognize (each time a little startled, a little surprised at myself) as joy, generosity, gratitude, playfulness, determination. Happened to me today. Why am I always surprised?
After being in academia so long,one of the things I am most hungry for is feedback from industry professionals. I actually crave it--So far the best and most formative feedback I've received has come from journal editors and from the two agents I talked with a long time ago about the book. It's not that my colleagues in the program didn't have great things to say--I just appreciate the directness of people who have a vested interest. The way I look at it is that if they are willing to take me on, I am willing to bust my BUTT to make things happen.

That said, I received two pieces of advice from the dissertation process that have completely transformed the novel in ways that without it I could never have imagined. Possibly the biggest and best change occurred between drafts #1 and #2, which have at best a 15% overlap. Not only did I completely restructure the novel (by backwards plotting) after workshop, I also changed the entire point of view (from 3rd close to 3rd omniscient). Nobody suggested I go omniscient, but I listened to what people said and realized that the problems they were having were resulting from the voice being caught between those two perspectives. I'd never written in omniscient before and had no idea how to do it, but as soon as I started over, the voice just snapped. I started hearing everything in my head in a way I hadn't during that first draft.

And Alex Parsons also gave me brilliant advice during my defense that has resulted in another big overhaul. I have no idea what's going to happen with the book, but my hope is that if an agent chooses to take me on, most of the hard-core creative work will be behind us, and all that will be left is some shaping towards a market audience (something I'm already trying to do now).

Thanks for this post. I keep trying to tell my students this, particularly my young MALE students (no offense, guys, but really), and they just do not listen. I actually had one tell me he thought he was the best writer out there right now--and I don't think he was being ironic. He's also the person who doesn't want to workshop because people will steal his ideas . . .
@Mylene While we're doing the creating, we do have to work independently, confident in our own vision. We're just shifting gears at the editing stage. To be successful, the writer has to develop both skill sets.

@Kathryn I've met a lot of writers like that over the years, the kind who will stand around at conference receptions telling you (at length) who various popular authors stink and they're much better. The thing is (cue forward a decade or so) these strapping young egos still aren't published.

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