Writing is hard. It takes years to get to a point where you can produce something worth reading. Even after reaching that point, an author has to keep striving to become better. I fully believe that the best, fastest approach for improvement is the following:
1. Write something.
2. Revise it until it is the best you can make it.
3. See critique on it.
4. Learn from the critique.
5. Go back to Step 2.
I feel I’ve reached a point where my writing doesn’t completely suck. I get positive feedback. I had a story accepted for publication in an ezine. I won an award (yes, I’m still hanging on to that.)
Even so, I have yet to scratch the surface of the writer I will become, and I actively seek to improve. As such, when a fellow Mythic Scribes member mentioned that a professional editing service, Flourish Editing, offered free critiques of 750 word excerpts every Monday, I jumped at the chance to submit.
In this post, I’ll share the editor’s (Tim) comments and tell you how I’ll use them to make my future writing better. First, though, let me say how impressed I was by the quality of the response I got from them — really first rate stuff. If you’re looking for an editor, give them a look. Disclaimer – Tim did really get on my good side with the following comments:
“First of all, your writing is excellent. I don’t say that lightly. Yours is by far the best piece I’ve worked on today. Xan is an engaging character and there’s lots of mystery surrounding him to draw the reader in. There were a number of nice touches and observations which helped add some character and flavor. I thoroughly enjoyed working on it, and after a long day of editing, that’s quite something. So thank you for that.”
My wife is quite mad at Tim for that; she feels my ego is quite large enough and that people shouldn’t feed it. I, on the other hand, appreciate the validation. It makes me feel that I’m not completely delusional in my self evaluation of my writing.
The bottle slipped through Xan’s fingers.
He bent to catch it, but it tumbled past his outstretched hand. It arched inexorably toward the hard wood floor.
Tim doesn’t like my use of the double space after a period. My views on that subject are well documented; I’ll let it slide. He also “arched” implies that Xan imparted a forward momentum to the bottle. That’s a great call. His suggestion of “plummeted” makes much more sense.
This comment highlights one of my big flaws — I don’t immerse myself enough in my scenes. I need to be less lazy about visualizing these things actually happening.
Scrunching his face in anticipation, he intercepted the vial with his foot. Sharp, throbbing pain exploded as his big toe took the impact, the tortured leather of his boot doing little to soften the blow. The glass, at least, thudded to the floor undamaged.
Tim called this “too writerly.” He’s probably right. Still, I don’t hate a touch of prose that shades purple every once in a while. I think I can live with it as is for now.
This situation illustrates an important point. Even though a knowledgeable, professional editor is pointing to a potential change, it’s still my call as to whether to make a change. It helps, in this case, that he qualified the statement that he didn’t feel the “mistake” was particularly egregious.
Xan shook his bruised foot but otherwise ignored the sting, counting himself lucky. He much preferred suffering fleeting discomfort over spending two weeks’ pay to replace Master Rae’s bottle.
Tim noted that this statement is distant from Xan’s point of view. Already, he’s pointed out, perhaps, my two biggest weaknesses — the lack of visualization above and not being close enough to the POV character here.
It’s so important to filter the scene emotionally through the POV character. I have to continually remind myself to bring the writing closer. I think I’m going to write my next book in first person!
“Way too close,” he said to himself, stifling a yawn as he retrieved the wayward container.
Young for a journeyman apothecary at seventeen, he knew what the position required. He must be precise in his movements. Each pinch of powder should contain the same amount of material. Each chop of a blade should cut the same length.
Xan couldn’t afford accidents. He looked at his hand. His grip on the container had been firm. His fingers had simply released on their own accord.
As he turned to a small pile of powder on the table in front of him, Xan’s eyelids grew heavy. He blinked a few times, on each occasion letting his eyes stay closed longer. His head nodded, and he swayed on his feet.
His eyes snapped open. “No! I can’t.”
Tim made minor suggestions on word choice and sequence throughout this section.
Those kinds of comments are valuable for improving the work in question, but I didn’t take away any great change that I need to make to my writing.
He shook his head rapidly from side to side, but the action did nothing to clear the fatigue. A fog blunted his thoughts. “I’m sleeping through the night and more. I still don’t understand how dreams can leave me so tired.”
Tim suggested cutting this to, “How can dreams leave me so tired?” He’s right. My version is too telly and unnecessary.
Sometimes it takes an outside influence to point out this kind of thing. Every time I go through a scene, I ask myself if I can make it more concise. Since this is scene 1.1, you wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve gone through this one. See why hiring a professional editor is a good idea?
He ran his hand through the disheveled mess of brown curls atop his head.
Tim suggests getting rid of brown. From Xan’s POV, he knows the color of his hair. Why would he think it?
This is one of the few points where I disagree with the advice. POV is important, but it’s there to serve us, not us it. Instead of going through gymnastics to get information to the reader that Xan’s hair is brown, I just say it here. It’s efficient, and I don’t feel that it detracts from the reader’s immersion to make a POV tweak like this. Who knows though, maybe I’ll change my mind on this in the future.
Despite the fact he manned the shop alone, Xan scanned the area. Cabinets and shelves obscured every inch of wall space. Neat rows of glass canisters of all sizes and baskets filled with all manner of plants lined the roughhewn boards. Three worktables stood in the center, two empty and the one in front of him covered with piles of herbs and glass vials. Two oil lamps supplemented the light of the afternoon sun streaming through the shop’s sole window. The room gave him comfort he never felt at the Diwen’s.
Secure in his solitude, he pulled a leather container from a bag stowed near his feet. He kept his gaze steady on the entry as he worked the stopper out. The door didn’t move. His heart beating rapidly, he gripped the hard, molded cowhide and tipped it toward his open palm. Before any of the contents tumbled out, he hesitated.
Xan righted the container and hid it behind his back. He traversed the width of the room in a few strides of his long legs and pulled the door open while standing to the side. Peeking around the edge of the doorjamb, he searched the street for potential interlopers.
Stone structures with thatch roofs lined both sides of the hard-packed dirt street. The grays of the mortared rocks and the deep brown of the wood trim complemented the granite mountain tops looming over the roofs. A lone horse-drawn cart laden with wooden casks provided the only sign of life, and two men led it away from the shop.
Xan closed the door and leaned his back against it. After taking several long, deep breaths, he tipped a seed into his hand. He frowned and added another before tossing them into his mouth. Immediately, the world brightened, and his mind snapped awake.
“Five already today. At this rate, they won’t last another week. Where am I going to get money for more?” A single seed had lasted him the entire day when he started taking them a week ago.
Xan shrugged off the disturbing thought and set about finishing his assigned tasks. After washing the fresh herbs, he tied them into bundles to dry. Mixing two potions for later delivery took an hour. Sweeping the floor and cleaning the used glassware took another.
His work complete, he looked longingly at the door. Instead of leaving for the Diwen’s to go to bed, he walked to a cabinet in the far corner and pulled out a small glass bottle filled with brown powder. He turned and took three precise steps, ending in front of the shelves on the opposite wall. After selecting two fronds from a basket of red leaves, he returned to his worktable.
Tim makes more comments throughout, but none that I believe point to a systematic problem with my writing.
The main takeaway I hope you gain from this post is that you should constantly evaluate your writing and seek to improve it, no matter your perceived talent level. Examine all critique critically and try to understand how that micro feedback can be applied on a macro level.
If you’re looking for feedback on your writing, check out Tim’s website above or check out the Submissions page for my blog. http://brianwfoster.com/submissions-for-critique/