“Don’t burn over criticism. Stand up to it like a man.”
– Carole Lombard
One of the most important things you can learn as a writer is to take notes. I don’t mean dictation– I mean the editorial notes you will get, at some point in your career, from your editor, your agent, your publisher, your copy editor, your managing editor, your director, your co-writer, your producer, your trusted first readers, etc.
When you write something–in this case a book– this is what happens: you give your life over to it, which means forgetting to eat, sleeping only when time permits, saying goodbye (temporarily) to your family and friends, and immersing yourself in the world of your story. You work and you work and you work. And you work. Then you turn the book in to your editor.
The book has been your life and sole focus for months, but it is just one of many projects on your editor’s desk. You wait to hear her thoughts. In the meantime you work on other projects, other things that have been waiting for you, you see friends again, you realize you need to get your hair done, you begin to eat and sleep like a normal person.
Then the notes come back.
I knew someone in film school, when I was studying screenwriting, who refused to take notes from anyone– his classmates, his teacher, his agent, and, later, a director and producer he (briefly) worked with following graduation. As he told us at the end of a three-hour session, during which we’d spent most of the time discussing his script and the thoughts we had for how he could make it better: “Thanks but no thanks. It’s my story, not yours, and I think it’s fine just the way it is.”
That was two years before I’d thought of the idea for my first book (or ever knew I would actually write a book one day), but I remember, after he said it, feeling sorry for his script. Because without a rewrite and without at least some of our notes, that script– an idea with potential– would never become what it could and should become. I picture it now, all these years later, lying under a layer of dust, shoved into the back of a drawer or the bottom of a box, if it even exists anywhere at all.
It’s not that I love hearing critiques about my writing, and it’s not as if I love the idea of going back to the computer to spend hours and hours and days and days once again on a project I’ve already spent hours and days on. But, bottom line, it’s not about me. It’s about the work. It’s about those words I’ve worked so hard for, that story I’ve lived in and lost myself in, that one I believe in so soundly and passionately. I owe it to the story to see it through. And seeing it through means, almost always, being able to stand up to notes like a man.
My editor is savvy and smart and she’s been doing this longer than I have. I trust her. She isn’t trying to hurt the book or me. After all, though she may not be as emotionally invested in the book as I am, she certainly is invested in it, and she wants the book to succeed. It’s not that I agree with her on every note all the time. And that’s okay. You have to know which notes to take and which to ignore. Again, at the end of the day it’s about what’s best for the story.
I have spent today reading through her notes: the editorial letter that accompanies the returned manuscript–which contains lovely lines of praise and an overview of what she feels needs to be done; and the manuscript itself, which includes her comments throughout. In the old days, editors used a red pen, but now the edits come in something called Track Changes. These can look scary and daunting, even if you’re used to them–and that first moment you read through a round of editorial notes is never fun.
Today, after I’d finished reading every last comment, I felt a wave of tiredness and the urge to run to my bed and hide indefinitely. Oh my God. It’s so much work. And I’ve already worked so hard on this. I have to write a new book, which I’m still researching and trying to figure out, and how on earth am I supposed to do all these edits on the old book at the same time?
But then I start thinking about the notes one by one and how the book is only going to get better, and how I can see by her notes how this part and that section are going to be stronger and have more impact, and actually it might not be too grueling to go back and tinker with this, and oh that gives me an idea for the beginning, of how I could start it at a different place, and it can’t be dinner time already, can it? Well, it’ll just have to wait while I do this one thing…
Causes Jennifer Niven Supports
Alley Cat Allies
The American Cancer Society