Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Piltdown Man and the Revision

Even though I keep writing new books, there’s one manuscript that I pull out every so often and stare at again. There’s something I really love about it, and something that’s wrong that I just can’t put my finger on. People used to tell me that my character doesn’t have enough feeeeeeeelings, but now I think I’m making progress, because now people say she has feeeeeeelings, she just doesn’t have a personality. Eep. Anyway. I’ve recently started going to a local in person writers’ group, and was looking around for something good to bring this time. We do all the reading on the spot, which is time consuming, and which means that really, everyone can only bring a snippet. It’s not the sort of setting for feedback on your complete novel, whether all at once or broken up—it would take years to read the whole thing that way. So I thought that maybe I could bring a bit of this problem novel and see if they have any new insights on the character.

What I noticed while reading over my opening was that after so many revisions and critiques, it now resembles Piltdown Man. If you remember anything about anthropology, you’ll know this was a famous hoax in which someone stuck together a bunch of different bones from different species and tried to pass the lot of them off as Man’s Early Ancestor, when in fact, it wasn’t anything but a mess. Alas, my novel (especially the opening) looks like that.

What was she like before the story starts?
A bone the shape of school activities.
What is her Big, Personal Problem? Another bone with guilt over something she neglected to do.
This book is supposed to have magic in it. WHERE IS THE MAGIC? Show it to me on page 1! I’ve crammed a bone of magic in there.
I don’t understand why she’s here. It’s too confusing. So now I’ve got stuff about her mother and her brother and her aunt and her uncle and even her broken-hipped grandmother glomming up the place.


I’m not saying they’re wrong in feeling there’s a problem. But I think that you have to be careful when you listen to critiques. Critiquers are usually right when they put their finger on a problem. But they’re not always right about the solution. And you can make yourself crazy (and make your own little Piltdown Man) if you try to incorporate every single change anyone suggests.

Take a deep breath. What is the story YOU want to tell? Maybe that critique gave you a good idea. But maybe you know that what you need to say is more than that. Listen to that little voice inside you. Don’t let your internal editor—or anyone else’s—crowd out the core of your story.

I still don’t know exactly how to fix the book. But I might just start by weeding.

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