I read an article in The New York Times about Julie Straus-Gabel, the publisher of Dutton children’s books. When she is editing books, she sends writers—including John Green (The Fault In our Stars)—stinging letters full of criticism and suggestions.
Adam Gidwitz, who wrote the best-selling A Tale Dark and Grimm, said that he both dreads and depends on Ms. Strauss-Gabel’s editorial letters.
“Whenever I get a letter from her, I go through this mourning process,” he said. “The first day, I rage all day. The second day, the tears set in, and I say she’s right, and I’m a terrible writer. The third day I say I’m not a terrible writer, but I can’t write this book. The fourth day, I get to work.”
I’ve been through the exact same thing when I receive letters from editors telling me what I need to work on in my writing, only I skip the mourning and the rage and go write into, “I’m a reeeellly bad writer. I. Can. Not. Do. This.”
When I first sent out my novel, A Remarkable Kindness, my literary agent, Steven Chudney, sent me back an email with everything I needed to change. One of the things he said was the novel seemed too long. Too long? I wanted to laugh. Or cry. Because while I was writing it, I felt like I was pushing out a baby elephant and I couldn’t find enough words. Now, he wanted me to cut what took me so long to write? One chapter, he explained, that took place during a Hanukkah celebration. I liked that chapter. I really didn’t want to let it go. But when I re-read the chapter with an open mind, I had to agree with him.
Still, I asked Steven, “What do I do with the sex scene from that chapter? It’s a really good one!”
“I’m sure you’ll find somewhere else to put it!” he joked.
Then, after several more back-and-forths, and after I dug in andmade all the changes, Steven sent the book to Rachel Kahan, the editor-in- chief of William Morrow. After Rachel accepted it, she went through it again, and wrote notes like this one:
“This scene needs to be fleshed out because it raises a lot more questions than it answers, and if you’re going to split it with the scene in the burial circle, you have to give it more heft so the reader learns something new and there’s some payoff.”
Rachel was right about that scene. I hit the delete button. Cut it completely.
I think that the toughest part for me as a writer is being willing to stay open-minded about my work. If I want to improve my work, I can’t stay defensive. I can’t give the old, “Yes, but…” (Because as my dear friend Maggie used to say, everything after but is bulls- -t.) I have to be willing to look at my writing with fierce eyes, which is often hard to do because I’m so tied in and attached to the story.
That’s where great editors like Rachel steps in. She doesn’t care that I slaved over that one sentence for two hours. If it’s gotta go, it’s gotta go!
When I worked at The Southampton Press as a reporter, every Wednesday we laid out the newspaper for the next day. The production editors pasted the articles on big white boards. If an article was too long, it hung over the board like Rapunzel’s long hair. (Or a bad mullet.) We reporters had to go around with razor blades and slice off extra copy.
My editor, Michael Pitcher, used to joke with me because he knew how much it pained me to let go of my words. “Oh, I know how it pains you to get rid of your fine prose,” he’d say.
But after a while, I started to get used to throwing away whole paragraphs without looking back. I learned that in newspaper writing, the rule is to put the important information in the start of the story. Give the readers the pertinent facts first. The background stuff isn’t important. The same holds for fiction writing. Keep the fluff out.
However, we have to write more than we need. That is the most essential part of the writing process. We won’t know we’ve written too much until we write and write and write and then stop and look back.
We have to write a lot because that’s how our imagination works, spontaneously and fast. If we hesitate, if we start with the false premise that our first draft has to be perfect, then we’ll never start.
Here’s my rule: The first draft is the worst draft.
That idea frees me to write badly. It frees me to write.
When Stephen King was a high school senior, he got a rejection letter from an editor who wrote: “Not bad, but PUFFY. You need to revise for length. Formula: 2nd Draft = 1st Draft – 10%.”
That means we have to write more and not less. Write a lot of junk, write freely, and then be willing to look at it and throw a lot of it away.
I’m almost finished for today. The key, dear writer, if you want to publish your work: be willing to write a lot and then be willing to let go of a lot. Be willing to have someone else read your work and suggest changes and then you must go back, work just as hard, and make those changes.
So, what is the best way to respond to criticism? Take it.
Hey, stick around. In an upcoming post, I’ll talk about how accepting criticism as writers also applies with criticism we get about ourselves.
We have to write a lot to get to the kernel of the story. We have to live a lot to have something to write about.