Monday, May 2, 2016

Never Too Old to Learn

Although I abhor the fact we have lived through real threats to our culture and society, to our lives, to arrive at an age where great universities and even libraries issue “trigger warnings,” I feel the need to issue a trigger warning in preface to this blog.  It may be too personal a subject for enjoyable first Monday of the month blog reading.

A month or so ago, I received a surprising rejection. Rejection should surprise no writer, I admit, but this novel has a strong story line and its writing had not sprung, mirabile dictu, from my forehead.  It had taken two years of hard work and three beta readers. In a fit of assuming I had grown up, matured, and learned something, I neither subjected it to a workshop nor did I hire an editor to review the last draft (something I had done for both my published novels.)

My rejection carried a second surprise. A 486 word evaluation report came back citing four reasons for the rejection.  After reading the four reasons, 1. Head-hopping, 2. Generally, the prose style is weak, 3. Character inconsistencies, and 4. Show, don't tell, I had to take a few moments, well, a few days, to self-connect (breathe, what are you feeling? what do you need?)

What I felt was kicked in the stomach and open to learn from what the evaluation told me, both.  What I needed was to understand how the evaluator saw what she saw because with all but one of her comments, I could not even understand what she was talking about. 

I turned to a friend whom I trust, who has the background and the accomplishment to guarantee that his comments are borne of competence.  I asked him to do this for a professional fee, not because he needed it or wanted it.  The fee serves as the welder’s torch, creating the bond between my seriousness and his work on my behalf.

From the evaluation, it became clear that the evaluator had read the first seven chapters of the novel, about thirty pages and about 8,000 words.  That is what I sent him, along with the evaluator’s comments, and the broad assignment to help me understand what and why she said what she said.  

He did his work and, with time, the thirty pages came back, fully commented upon, with a summary of his observations.

A Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, has a wonderful book/cd named Unconditional Confidence in which she trains her students that unconditional confidence is not the confidence that everything will work out the way you want it to.  That is ego at work.  Unconditional confidence is the confidence that no matter what you are handed, you can deal with it.  That practice was my practice before, during, and after reading what my friend had to say. 

I read what he sent me and on a second reading, started to take notes.  The remainder of this blog is those notes, sometimes with a little addendum about what I did with them.

a. Point of view: my friend chose to use p.o.v., instead of the jargon head-hopping, and he identified every ambiguous, wandering, or switching p.o.v   I have spent a lot of time with my butt in the seat of a classroom, including workshops, physical and online, as well as researched p.o.v. My current point of view on p.o.v., not quite despairing, contains a very large dose of how will I ever master this?

b. The philosophy of writing dialogue: I did not even know there was such a philosophy. My research tells me it was initially articulated by Martin Buber.  About fifty-years ago, I was thrilled to be the only one, among my friends, who had read the entire collected works of Martin Buber.  It did not even count that I was not Jewish.  Now, I am embarrassed to say, I have reveled in the collection of compliments on dialogue in my stories, and I had never heard of the philosophy of writing dialogue. Welcome back to earth!

c. The principle of show don’t tell.

At this point, I also started noting some of his observations, helpful without being part of the list: “It’s as if something has alienated her and you won’t win her back.”  This is a valuable, general observation that fully explains why the first two or three pages are very important.  There’s no good reason to make an enemy before you get started.

d. Parallelism. How does that principle work with “with” and “and”? Back to research.

“Some editors may not care for a story that begins with dialogue.”  I had never heard this before, so I googled it.  I can tell you, he is 552,000 times right.

e. What is telling? e.g in my draft, he pointed out, “The conflict has already been shown.”

f. The rules of the comma.  I am one of the people who has memorized Strunk and White, so this comment came as a great surprise. I went back to my Strunk and White.  There were all the rules I had learned and memorized and not followed.

g. You might want to get rid of the ‘ly’ adverbs.  Everyone knows that.  Still, I was charmed by his gentle way of saying it.  So, I did a find and replace: 79 replacements in 8,000 words.  This alone could be the subject of an essay.  That is 1% and yet it is enough to poison the water for a reader (and when reader = evaluator, it is real trouble.)

h. This sounds like a lecture from an omniscient voice.  A particularly troublesome observation because I doubt any fiction writer wants to be viewed as lecturing.  When you need to get information on the page, how do you do it without lecturing?

i. In the narration, lose the contractions.  Dialogue only.  If you have an opinion on this, go to the internet.  There is a string devoted entirely to debating this point.  I offer no contra-argument.  I am going to follow the suggestion and duck the confrontation.

j. Unclear pronoun antecedent.  Oops

k. Pronoun use.  Pronouns are a bit thick. Oops.

l. Multiple viewpoint characters.  This flaw probably follows or causes the wandering point of view diagnosed above.  Trying to adhere to the principle of telling the story from one point of view (best) or two points of view (next best, etc.) poses a challenge when the story includes multiple character conflicts.

“Some editors flinch at the verb ‘to get’ in its various forms.”

m. Up, down, out, got identified twelve times on one page.

n. Summary narration,  This should be a realized scene or else covered by someone else’s inference.    Perhaps back to the show and tell issue, but what a fascinating insight.  This particular risk arises trying to create a bridge from one scene to the next.
o. Artistic control.  Expediency rather than artistic control. I’ll end on that one.  It is such an elegant thought. It carries me through my continued efforts. 

If something burned into the brain by the branding iron of pain can change the neural pathways, perhaps this experience will help me develop artistic control. 
E-mail Edward Massey with comments, author of 2014 Gold Quill winner, Every Soul Is Free and Amazon ABNA 2009 Quarter-finalist, Telluride Promise.


  1. Great post, Ed. There's two kinds of writers --them's that continue to learn and grow, and them's that stop (though they may roll for a while out of sheer momentum). Good on ya for being one of the former. Remember --we've all been kicked in the guts. Nice work.

  2. Thank you for an informative post. Using your own experience brings the point home forcefully. Doris