Monday, October 8, 2012

Write Your Strengths

Today's post comes from Ariel Allison Lawhon from our sister blog, She Reads. Please join us in congratulating Ariel on her recent book contract with Doubleday! 

You can never read your own book with the innocent anticipation that comes with that first delicious page of a new book, because you wrote the thing. You've been backstage. You've seen how the rabbits were smuggled into the hat.”
– Margaret Atwood

I love this observation by Margaret Atwood. I am incapable of reading my own work with clarity and have been known to love sections that need to be cut and hate sections that need to be kept. For instance, my latest novel recently went on submission* and during that process I had the opportunity to discuss the story with a handful of interested editors. During one of those conversations an editor commented on how much she liked a particular scene. She talked about the tension and nuance and how present she felt in the story. But all I think about when I read that scene is the eight dollars I spent on lunch the day I wrote it and how I sat in a corner booth in a crowded café shivering beneath an air conditioning vent. My association with the book is much more complicated and fraught with memories of wiggly rabbits and tattered top hats and clumsy attempts to create literary magic.

This is where the feedback of others—particularly those who are reading our work for the first time—becomes vital. We don’t know how to play to our strengths until we know what those strengths are. And it often takes a fresh eye to point them out.

I tend to approach feedback from a clinical perspective these days. (My husband pointed out this wasn’t always the case and reminded me of the time he went out for flowers, chocolate, and a card in the middle of the night after one particularly brutal critique that left me sobbing on the couch. Needless to say I’ve developed thicker skin in the years since.) So when my agent began forwarding the feedback she received from editors I took careful notes.

This strategy does two things: helps us see areas of natural strength (which I believe ought to be the foundation of our writing) and also areas of natural weakness (which show us where to invest the majority of our effort while writing). Through this process I learned that Plot and Pacing come easy for me. Almost every editor commented on this. And apparently I’m much better at Setting that I thought. The words “atmospheric” and “cinematic” cropped up frequently in their notes. This was quite new to me.

On the flipside I found that most of the negative feedback came in regards to Character Development. (Interesting aside: the novel is comprised of three main characters and I was fascinated to see how different editors related to different characters. They were often hot or cold, love or hate. There was no unanimous favorite. Given my fondness for book clubs, I envision many vigorous discussions in the future about these three women.) I needed to know this, despite the fact that it’s disheartening. Plot, Pacing, and Setting will only take the story so far. Without believable and sympathetic characters there is only a fast moving, pretty backdrop.

So where to go from here? A large stack of printed pages—407 of them to be exact—sit on the desk in front me. Now comes an edit consisting of fine-tuning. I’ll pay special attention to Character Development on this round. I will revisit everything I’ve learned from John Truby. I will develop my characters until they are nuanced and real. I will strengthen my weakness so I can play to my strengths.

Question for you: what are the strengths that others have consistently pointed out in your writing? How can you bring those to the forefront in your current novel?

* After two hectic weeks, the book sold at auction to Doubleday to an editor who loves it as is, Characters and all. (Knowing this, it would be easy to disregard the other feedback I got but I think that would be a mistake. I will trust my editor but keep in mind that I have areas where I need to grow) That pile of pages sitting on my desk was mailed by her and is filled with notes on how to enhance the story. If you care to, you can read the Publisher’s Marketplace announcement here


Susie Finkbeiner said...

Ariel, congratulations on the book deal. I can't wait to read it!

I can relate to needing fresh eyes. I took a story to my critique group yesterday that I thought (and still think) is weird. No, really. It's a strange story. They didn't agree. They commented on the character development and pacing. They encouraged me to enter it into a short story contest. I listened to them. I wrote the story while in a transition. So, I just go back to those emotions when I read it.

The weaknesses that I have to really focus on when writing (especially when editing) is tense and passive voice. But now that I'm hyper aware of these things, I'm a more careful writer.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Huge congratulations to you, Ariel. I can't wait to read The Rule of Three.

Megan Sayer said...

Ariel congratulations! That's wonderful about your book.

I like your attitude to feedback. You're so right, it's so valuable. I get precious little feedback most of the time (with the amazing Susie Finkbeiner being my notable exception). People say things like "It's really good" and "I loved it" and I get grumpy at them and say "Say something MEAN, you're not helpful!"

Ariel Lawhon said...

Sorry I'm late stopping in today, but thanks ladies! And yes, unbiased feedback is so valuable. Which is why I only let my husband read the final drafts. The rest of that Margaret Atwood quote reads:

"Therefore ask a reading friend or two to look at it before you give it to anyone in the publishing business. This friend should not be someone with whom you have a romantic relationship, unless you want to break up."

I hope Monday is treating you all well!


Cherry Odelberg said...

I know without reading your book that you are a real writer because you said, "I am incapable of reading my own work with clarity and have been known to love sections that need to be cut and hate sections that need to be kept." I have heard this is the way it goes. So, it gives me hope - and courage to go under the knife myself.

Patti Hill said...

I never trust a syrupy, all-is-perfect critique. Never. I, however, get all syrupy with gratitude to those who love me enough, or my story enough, to tell me the truth.

Thanks for writing another stellar post at Novel Matters. Was that syrupy enough? I DO mean it. Loved your honesty and humility AND THAT YOU HAVE A LOVELY BOOK DEAL!

Amelia said...

Congratulations on the book deal! I love the quote from Margaret Atwood.

Nicole said...

Fabulous! Kudos and congratulations, Ariel. Terrific!

I've been told strengths for me are character development and dialogue. Since I write love stories, this is a plus. Weaknesses would be pacing, action. Tend to write "street literary".

I know for me if I can't muster real care for characters (even a little) I tend not to enjoy a book.