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.
(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!