Over the years I’ve had occasion to critique quite a few pieces of fiction by aspiring writers. When I critique, I call it as I see it. If there’s stuff that’s awkward or doesn’t make sense, I say so. I’m not always right (though of course I always think I’m right), but I do think in detail about the story or novel I’m reading and make precise observations.
My experience has been that, quite often, writers don’t want to change what they’ve written. Again and again, after I offer a critique, the writer will explain how their story has to be the way it is.
Folks, last year I paid a freelance editor $5,000 to critique my novel series (see the covers up at the top of your browser window). I’m still doing rewrites on Book 4. My editor was not right about everything, but she was right about a lot of things. I had to toss out some scenes that I really liked. I had to do a lot of difficult grunt work to fix things that were flawed.
Not just sentences. Fixing sentences is easy. I’m talking about fixing basic story problems.
Why don’t all writers do this? I think they’re too emotionally attached to their work. A certain level of emotional attachment is of course vital! If you didn’t care about what you were writing, why would you bother writing it?
The challenge is this: When it comes time to edit, you need to separate yourself from those emotions. You need to be willing to look at your own work in a cold, clinical way. If there’s an emotional attachment, it should be at the very highest level — to the work as a whole, not to a certain character, a certain scene, or a certain plot premise.
Maybe, in order to be loyal to the work as a whole, you have to ditch a character or rethink your plot. This is painful, and it’s a lot of work. Amateur writers don’t want the pain, and they don’t want to do the extra work.
Maybe if I charged $1,000 instead of offering to critique for free, my comments would be taken more seriously. Maybe.
There’s another factor to consider, and this may be more central. I spent many years as a staff writer and editor at a magazine. We published only nonfiction, and that may make a difference. My job as an editor was to provide good material for the readers. The level of satisfaction or anguish that freelance writers might experience when I asked them to change a story mattered not a whit. This paragraph makes no sense: change it. Your lead is boring: change it (or I’ll change it myself and not even consult you — I did that a lot). You need to do more research on X and Y.
What mattered was the reader’s satisfaction, not the writer’s.
I should note in passing that over the years I’ve sold a few fiction stories to well-known science fiction magazines. No magazine editor of fiction ever changed a word of any of my stories. They rejected a lot of stories, but they didn’t demand changes. Novels — a different situation again. Yes, editors of novels at mainstream publishing houses do demand changes.
The factor that makes a difference is not magazine publishing versus anything else. It’s about whether the story works for the reader. Editors are in the business of judging that.
My suspicion is that most amateur writers of fiction have no idea how to separate their own deep emotional satisfaction over what they’ve written from the potential satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of their eventual readers. They’re unable to step outside of their work and look at it the way a reader would.
This is hard to do. I’d be lying if I said I can always manage it. (That’s why I hired an editor.) We all need to have someone else read what we’ve written and provide that outside perspective. But once I have those comments from an outsider, I take them seriously. I rewrite. That’s where, as the saying goes, the rubber hits the road.
In other English-speaking countries, “rubber” is a synonym for “pencil eraser.” ‘Nuff said.