What Shall I Write About Today?

Stop by for the musings of your cordial host, Richard Hartzer

donkey standing beside concrete wall

If you ask my family and friends to describe me in one word, they would probably say things like “witty”, “elegant”, “hilarious”, “poignant”, and “alive”. They would probably eventually mention the word “stubborn.” And they’re right.

I usually don’t like people telling me what to do, because I’m totally smart and my way is always the best way. At least in my mind it is. However, there are times when my stubbornness gets the better of me and keeps me from doing something great. There’s no greater example of this than what I recently experienced with my work in progress.

All good writers (and lots of bad ones) know that getting feedback is crucial to developing a strong book. The feedback I have received from my totally awesome suspense novel, “A Confession of Faith”, has been very positive, but a couple of people had some constructive criticism for me. And if I’m completely honest, I didn’t like that so much.

This manuscript has undergone several revisions and I have put a LOT of thought into every part of it in order to erase plot holes, ramp up the foreshadowing and suspense, and just making sure it didn’t stink. I felt like every part of it was vitally important, or else I wouldn’t have included it. So when these two people suggested I rework the first few chapters, removing nearly all of the backstory, and starting the novel a little later in the timeline, I thought they were crazy. I remember saying to myself, “Every part of those chapters was deliberately written and everything serves a purpose. How can I take that out? Who cares if these suggestions came from professional authors and editors? Surely I know more than they do.”

gray steel scissors

I mulled this over in my head for a few months, and wrestled with the notion of cutting around 10,000 of my perfect words from my perfect manuscript. I wasn’t afraid of the extra work; I was just too stubborn to admit that somebody might know more about writing than I do. I finally decided that maybe, just maybe, the professionals were right, and I decided to make some changes. I asked myself, “What would I do if I had a publishing contract and my editor told me I absolutely had to make these changes?” I talk to myself a lot, don’t I? Yes, I do. But I’m one of the few people who understands me.

I started by making a bulleted list of the things that happen in my first three chapters. Once I really looked at it, I realized that while it included some amusing anecdotes and cute things, very little of it was actually vital to the plot. And those things that were indeed vital could easily be plugged in a bit later (or maybe I’ll just release a special expanded edition along with the director’s cut of the movie version).

I began rewriting the opening of the book and found that I could set the stage with a couple of paragraphs instead of using a couple of chapters. (This is the whole “showing, not telling” thing I’ve heard so much about). Instead of my main character writing a few paragraphs about how often her father is gone on business trips and how this is straining their relationship, she now looks at her father with a pitiful face and asks, “How long are you gonna be gone this time, Daddy?” That one sentence tells the reader a lot about their strained relationship due to his frequent and prolonged absences.

Once I made this change (and similar changes), I realized my opening was much stronger and much more engaging. By doing this, I still manage to let the reader know what’s going on, but I get them to the action of the story much faster. This reduces the risk that my reader will lose interest and stop reading before they get to the good parts. When I was able to take my emotion out and look at this part of my manuscript objectively, I discovered that the pros were right. Who knew?

Even though I deleted a lot of things, I’m glad I wrote them because writing those two chapters of backstory helped me understand my characters much more deeply. I don’t view it as wasted time because although it won’t be published, it makes the book much stronger and makes my characters more like actual people instead of cardboard cutouts.

So my point is, you don’t know everything. You’re probably smart, but when it comes to your creation, you have blind spots and sometimes you can’t see the problems. When people give you suggestions, act as though they just might be right. If you think it through objectively and don’t agree with their suggestions, that’s fine. This is your vision, after all. But if you hear the same suggestions from multiple people, or from people who really know their stuff, they may be on to something. Don’t be stubborn…unless you need to be. That being said, in a future blog I’ll talk about times when it’s good to be stubborn.

Have any of my writer friends ever experienced something like this? Leave me a comment and let me know what you think. And be sure to subscribe if you want to be notified when I post more words of wisdom. Until next time.

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