Cynthia’s Column November 2007
You have completed a project you have been working hard on for some time. This comes with a payoff. The creative high. Actually completing any task releases a burst of energy. A feeling of accomplishment. But the high of having created something is even sweeter. It’s like writer endorphins. And it’s as real as a runner’s high. (I am speaking here, theoretically, being merely a walker myself.) And as real as other psychological states that can get you into trouble. (Denial for example. I have first hand experience with this one.) Beware of acting on this high.
For much of my writing life I have had a childish belief that this creative high means that the work is fantastic. As in, can’t be improved on. Ready for the world. Over time I have come to learn from my embarrassing Morning-After emails: “Have you read it yet? If not can I send you the new improved version?”
So I have had to come up with a system. You may already have yours happily in place, or you may be more emotionally mature than I. But in case it may be useful to you in your highs (and lows) here it is.
Your baby is newborn and beautifully printed out on 104 bright 20# paper with a healthy dark ink cartridge. To your eye, it is the Gerber Baby. So you get other eyes. I have a list of people who I trust and respect who will read for me. (And I return the favor by reading for them. And will acknowledge them in print when/if publication comes. Or thank them in imagined awards speeches. You get the idea. Thank you, guys! (Just in case.))
These readers need to be people who are smart and like what you like. If your hero is Woody Allen (just as an example) and your best friend HATES the Woodman, do not offer your child up on what will surely be a sacrificial altar. I shared my work with my parents, but didn’t use them for input. They were the “we love everything you do” type of parents. Wonderful, but not helpful for rewrites. My sister Laura is a novelist and smart and loves the things I love. She loves a few things, I don’t, like Stephen King chillers, but she is a tremendous asset and can show me things I didn’t see. I have a different list of readers for plays, actors, directors, people who know more about plays than I do (or than I did prior to reading 310 plays this year and counting.) These are people who can read a play and actually visualize it on a stage and point out what the problems are going to be realizing it.
For screenplays I usually have too many producers and executives weighing in with all their good (and of course not so good) ideas. Book authors get a lot of notes from editors. And many of you have Critique Groups and writing buddies to give you notes. (One cautionary tale. I had a good friend in my critique group out of college that was out to sabotage my work. It was an immature competitive thing, but he told me that a couple of my pieces were worthless and should be thrown out and chalked up to the learning experience. One of those went on to win a prestigious award that led to my getting an agent. Never trust anyone more than you trust your own heart and intuition.)
If the feedback you’re getting is not as helpful as you need it to be, here are a few questions you might ask your readers:
Did you believe the story? If not, what exactly made you disbelieve? What moment did you think “no way?”
Did you care what happened to the protagonist? Were you invested in her? Did you feel you understood and could identify with her? Were you sympathetic to her? Where did she lose you?
Did you laugh? When? Did you cry? When? Did you get angry? Frustrated? What were you feeling as you read? (For me this is the most important data to collect. The emotional response of the reader. If you have this, everything else will still fly.)
Did you put it down often? Fall asleep? When did you put it down? What parts lost your attention?
Did you understand the story? Were you ahead of the protagonist or left behind, confused by it?
Did it feel true? New? Original? Did you feel you’ve read a lot of pieces like it? (If you get the “been there/read that” response to this, do not despair. Go back and look for places your story turned right, and see if it can turn left instead.)
Good. Now you have notes. Hopefully substantive, smart, constructive notes. How do you approach the rewrite?
1. Make a list of all the notes you have from all sources. It may be a few pages on a legal pad. Fine. Don’t be afraid of this list. Write it down.
2. Do Not Do Notes You Don’t Get. Seriously. There will be notes that make you think “Of course. I should have thought of that.” And other notes that feel like they are about someone else’s project. They are either not within your vision of your work, or off tone, off genre, or just plain bad ideas. Cross these off. With a black Sharpie. Forget them. Be grateful that these people tried to help. It’s not their fault they don’t get your quirky charm and twisted genius.
3. If there is a note that impacts the whole piece, do this one first. If it changes the structure or involves a character-changing new back story. Occasionally an idea comes through notes that inspires a major revision. When this happens I will go back to the scene cards and lay them out again, moving them around, losing some, adding others, to give myself a new outline to include the change. Don’t resist this on the grounds that it’s a lot of work. It’s all a lot of work. The writer’s life is made up almost entirely of hard work. If you want to be happy doing it, rethink your relationship to the word “work.” I have befriended it and now think of it as one of my best friends and best loved words in the language. When someone asks if I’m working, and I can answer “yes” I am a happy writer. Aren’t you?
4. Next, I do the easiest notes on the list. The little stuff. Someone thought the name “Willard” was wimpy for the heroine’s husband (or it reminded them of the Rat Movie). In five minutes, using Global Search/Replace he becomes William and I can cross off one of the notes on the list. I use a green highlighter to cross these things off the list. So the pages become more and more green.
5. Now work your way through the notes. Some people set a daily goal, as in 3 Notes per day. Some have a date by which they plan to finish this draft. The only thing that really matters is that you keep moving forward. Keep gaining ground. Even if you only have fifteen minutes before you have to go to work. You can do a note in fifteen minutes. Seriously.
Now you have a new polished draft. If the changes were major, you may want to get your team to read it again. Or a new team to read for you. If the changes were minor, polish type changes, you can send it out now with confidence. This creative high from completing your rewrite, is one you don’t have to be afraid of. Go ahead. Address that envelope. Put the postage on it. Work up a great one-page cover letter. Kiss the envelope for luck and send it out into the world. If you’re too mature for envelope kissing, I ask you to do a small scientific experiment. The next time you hurt your hand, kiss it. Go on. I dare you. The way you made your children’s pain less with a kiss. It actually works. You love your work. You are sending it out into the world. Give it a little hug and kiss it good-bye. Maybe the person who opens that envelope will feel a little bit of that love. Or maybe it’ll just make you smile as you bask in the high of creative completion.