Tuesday, January 15, 2008

You've written something ~ now what?

Let's assume you've written a story or an essay or a poem. Good work! Now put it in a drawer and walk around the block. Ten times. Or, if you live where I do, walk up the dirt road a mile and trot back down. What will happen is that your brain will begin to sort out your writing, fill in the empty spaces, cut things you don't need, organize your thoughts according to some logic that escaped you when you were communing with the muse. For some reason, the rational mind engages when you're away from your work. I think of that first draft as a big crush. That fellow is just the cutest thing. How could anyone be any cuter than he? I want to show him off to the world so everyone can agree that I'm a great gal to be with such a jolly fellow. But if I put him in the drawer and take a walk, I start thinking about the lump on his forehead and his giggle (which seemed so endearing at first and now is inane and vacuous). I begin to think like my mother, who would wonder what I'm doing with such a loser. And then I have to decide if this fellow has enough going for him that I'm willing to work with him. I can trim the hair growing in his ears. I can buy him a belt to hold up his pants. I can teach him how to order good wine. I think I can do these things. And so maybe I'll give him another shot.

If you do decide to go back and work with the draft, give it a solid rewrite. When you think it's ready, ask someone else to read it. Michael Chabon says you need a conscious critic, what he calls a guy on the dock. Writing a story is like designing a ship. You've got a good drawing and a pretty smooth idea of what the ship is going to look like. Now you've got to start building it, but in order to do that, you've got to go down into the boiler room. But once you're down there, you can't see how the ship is coming along. So you need a guy on the dock to tell you if the deck is level, if the portholes are even, if the mast is straight. For you, the guy on the dock is also a good reader.

So, how do you find this guy? In the last blog, I suggested you talk to your local librarian about good books to read. Now I suggest you go back to her and tell her that you need a reader. She probably knows people who like to write or at least people who like to read and know something about what they're reading. You don't need a Pulitzer winner to give you feedback on your story. Some of my best readers don't write at all, but they read everything they can get their hands on, and they read really good literature. They know when I'm off course, and they get a little thrill when they read a description that lifts off the page. Don't discount someone who hasn't published. Good readers are hiding in your neighborhood like gems in the cracks of the floorboards. See if you can dig them out.

You may have to do favors for a good reader, like bake her a pie or take her out to lunch. When your story is farther along, you may even want to pay someone to read it, but save that for just before you're ready to send it to a publisher. In the meantime, ask your librarian to put a small ad in her monthly newsletter inviting people in your community to start a writing group. My writing group is my most valuable resource. Two other members are published writers: one writes a weekly finance column for a women's newsletter; the other is an acupuncturist with a book about medicine and spirituality. Then there's a midwife, a retired elementary school teacher, a Buddhist nun, and a 21-year-old genius. They are each good eyes for my work, and I value every word of feedback they give me on my writing.

Next time I'll write more about writing groups. There are some things you should know before you hand your tender paragraphs over to outsiders. Stay tuned.

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