One thing I cannot stress enough for writers is to have a reliable group of test readers who will tell you the unvarnished truth. And I don’t mean just one or two. Have as many as you can. (Of course, quality over quantity… make sure they’re good.)
Recently, I had one such reader go over my latest book. At least a dozen people had read the work or parts of it. So imagine my surprise when she mentioned something about the third chapter that no one else had. She made a comment about the actions of a pair of minor characters and I thought to myself, “Wow? How did she get that out of it? That’s not what I meant at all!” And since no one else had ever mentioned it, I was inclined to think she’d simply not read it carefully enough.
But in reading over those scenes later, I could see how she came to that conclusion. And since it was most certainly not what I wanted any reader to think, I had to make some changes… in the process of which, I came to realize I’d overlooked something significant that needed to be addressed… something that may have been part of what caused this reader to come to the conclusions she did.
The irony here is that this chapter was one of my favorites in the entire book, one that I regarded as being as solid as could be. The reason, though, is that I knew exactly what I meant. But no one else does, of course.
So have your cadre of readers. And take what they say seriously. They’re not always right. But then, neither are you.
As a young writer, having been told how wonderful my work was since I was in elementary school, I developed the mindset that just about everything that fell out of my head onto the page was good, if not great. Beyond spelling and grammar corrections, and the occasional tweak here and there, I didn’t really do much in the way of editing.
My first novel was published more than eleven years ago, as I write this. And though I think the book still holds up pretty darn well, I certainly could have had a heavier hand when it came to edits. There are entire subplots that could have been extricated without damaging the story at all and doing so might very well have improved it. At the very least, it would have resulted in a tighter plot.
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I don’t know that I’ll ever be as good at cutting material from my work as I should be, but I do know that today I don’t hesitate to erase half a chapter if I don’t think it’s working the way it should. In the past, I would have tinkered with it until it was passable and called it a day. Recently, it’s been common for me to sit down at the computer, look over what I wrote in my last session, delete maybe a third of it, and continue forward. And I’m actually pleased by this.
If I could pass on only one bit of advice to young writers, it would be this: Praise can be a good thing for a young writer, but if we’re serious, we should never believe all of it. We must be our own harshest critics and never assume that what we’ve written cannot be improved by the judicious application of the delete key.