Not that… but that


Since I’m posting so late (sorry!!!!) I thought I’d post a link to one of my very favorite videos related to writing and editing.   

That Mitchell and Webb Look — Write That

(sorry I can’t figure out how to embed the video directly into the post…)

In my experience, almost every writer I know has gone through a similar conversation.  Sometimes your critique partners or your agent or your editor (or you) will merely begin throwing out suggestions for how to change your story without actually explaining what the problem being addressed is.   

I ran into this with THE FOREST OF HANDS AND TEETH, my first published book, when my editor suggested I add a series of journal entries from a new character to the second half of the book.  Since this was my very first experience with an editor, I wasn’t sure whether I could push back or how.  I just knew that I didn’t feel adding a journal would work — it would be introducing a new element and a new POV without warning rather late in the book, and there was no good way to keep the character from just sitting down and reading the entire journal in one go which would severely disrupt the pacing.

My editor and I were at an impasse for a while until I finally realized to ask, “Why do you want me to add this journal?  What problem does it fix?”  Her response made a lot of sense — we needed a way for the reader to understand this new setting/situation the main character had moved into.  Once I realized that this lack of information was an issue, I figured out how to address it in a way that satisfied both of us.

That experience was a huge eye opener for me because it made me realize that when critique partners and editors offer solutions, we don’t need to take them blindly but instead should ask, “What does this add/solve?”  Because that’s the real first step: determining what the problem is before figuring out how to address it.

I took a creative writing class in college that was set up as a workshop.  Every week two students would turn in stories and every week I’d be at a loss as to how to critique them.  I didn’t feel at all qualified to tell these writers how to fix their stories — I was in the same boat they were!  And then it dawned on me that my job *wasn’t* to fix their stories at all!  It was to try to explain my experience as the reader.  

Now when I critique, the first thing I do is make notes (usually contemporaneous as I’m doing a first read) explaining very simply, “This is how I read this.”  Sometimes it’s to point out where I’m confused or something doesn’t add up, but often it’s simply “This is what I think is going on here.”  The author knows what they want the reader to experience and by telling them how I read the story, the author can see where their expectation and my experience aren’t matching up.  That gap is where the edits come in.

I don’t want to in any way undervalue the power of a good beta reader or editor offering suggestions for how to fix a story.  Just this past weekend I met with a critique group who had some fantastic ideas to solve a problem that’s been plaguing me.  But what I do want to emphasize is that a solution in the absence of understanding the problem won’t get you where you need to be.

And one last caveat… while I can pretty much quote this entire sketch verbatim by now and I love to joke about adding “a shark, a squid, a pebble, a policeman or none or all of the above” to any story, I never want to suggest that brainstorming like that is a bad idea.  I’m a huge fan of throwing out any and all thoughts and suggestions… you never know what will stick!  


10 comments to Not that… but that

  • Great video, Carrie. 🙂 I totally brainstorm that way somehow. Sometimes the results make me face hard truths about what needs to be changed.

    One of my critique partners and I meet in person, and that means we have a chance to talk out our reasons why we think there’s something missing from a chapter or scene. We did this just today. It was so very useful. Being able to have that discussion really makes a difference, and we both left feeling positive and energized, even though we have a lot of work ahead.

  • Thanks, Carrie! This was extremely helpful. I recently joined an online writing group, and I’ve been agonizing about how to give useful feedback. Sometimes I write my thoughts down, read them over, and think, “Oh, that doesn’t have to do with plot or structure or anything literary, so it’s probably not useful.” I’m going to start leaving more of those random thoughts in now and not feel guilty about it. 🙂

  • sagablessed

    And yet the video at times can be so true, lol. I heart my writer’s group, as they are awesome and keep my story on track.

  • Hi Carrie. So so so true. My last writers group (and absolutely the best one ever) had sessions we called polting sessions. (polting in instead of plotting because of my persistent typos) Those sessions never solved anything, but they did open a writer’s mind to possibilites, freeing that creative energy to solve whatever problem there was. Thanks for reminding us that the “throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” method can be very effective!

  • “The story so far: As usual, Ginger and I are engaged on our quest to find out what the hell is going on and save humanity from my nemesis, some bastard who is presumably responsible.”

    Carrie, I am SUCH a fan of Mitchell and Webb! I love that scene you posted, especially because under the funny, it’s so true.

    You know, I remember, when I was in my weekly writing group (which I miss terribly), for so long not feeling that I was qualified to tell them what to do. It took some time for me to recognize that I was just as qualified as the rest, and they could take or leave my suggestions as they chose. We were all throwing spaghetti at the wall to see if it’d stick. -laughs-

  • Faith, I’d forgotten about polting! Those were some great nights!

  • WOW!!! That video captured every moment of discussions I deal with when writing screenplays! 😉 Usually, my questions of, what does that fix and why do you want it, sort of get ignored and I sigh and move on. In the end, it’s their final vision, I’m just trying to make it make sense.

    I’m glad you mention the question of “what problem does this fix?” That’s usually what I’m thinking as I go through edits and I’m not one to add/change things just because. I feel like it has to have a reason or it’s not needed. And I am one to explain why I did something the way I did. It’s just how I’m wired. I feel it helps to know the whys when trying to come up with a solution on how to fix a scene, especially for the person who didn’t write it. It’s that whole writer’s vision thing. Quite frequently, I’ll respond to a critique or edit request with, I did this because of this, but I’ll see what I can do to fix it and still make this thing here work or this bit of character growth still happen. I usually find that when the reasons for what you wrote are explained, it helps both parties come up with a solution that satisfies everyone involved. This is why I prefer discussion to what I’ve heard some groups doing where you take the crit and don’t get to respond to them. Though it’s understandable–some folk just love to argue–it’s not how I tend to work. I prefer a more back and forth brainstorming approach. “Oh! You wanted this scene to echo an earlier bit and show the growth of the character from that point to this pivotal juncture. Ah, then what if you do this instead and add more weight to this whole decision, and give you a stronger tie, not just to the earlier scene, but to the scene further on when this other thing happens?” Teamwork. 😉

  • Megan B.

    I agree, discussion is important to me too. I like to be able to ask questions of the person giving me feedback, as well as explain my reasoning for writing what I did. I think a good balance can be found in a critique group by allowing people to give all their feedback, then allowing the writer to respond. That way no one gets interrupted and discussion can still happen.

  • Love the sketch, and the post makes a great point. My editor often suggests changes that I hate, and it was something that caused me problems early in our relationship, until I finally understood and took to heart something that he had been telling me from the start: the change itself is not the issue — it’s the problem that the change is trying to fix. If I could come up with a better way to fix the problem he was all for me doing it my own way. He was merely alerting me to the issue.

  • I loved that video! I think I recognize the writer’s expression–I use to see it on my students’ faces because I sounded a little like that. Well, not like that. . . I’ve had to learn to help students figure out their own fix rather than throwing multiple possible fixes at them. Also, I try to remember to explain why I’m reacting a certain way rather than trying to provide a fix because that’s what I usually want from the feedback I get. In fact, just yesterday I asked my sister to respond as a reader for me–did what I have make sense, or were there gaping holes in the plot and/or characters. She’s great at digging down into the details, and was able to show me places where I needed to think through the story and make it clearer.