On the Critique and Editing Process, and the Support System for Artists

There are so many different kinds of writing and so many ways to work that the only rule is this: do what works. Almost everything has been tried and found to succeed for somebody. The methods, even the ideas of successful writers, contradict each other in a most heartening way, and the only element I find common to all successful writers is persistence—an overwhelming determination to succeed.” -Sophy Burnham

 

I recently had the immense honor of being a judge in the #SonOfAPitch contest. It’s an online writing contest where participants have the opportunity to be critiqued by other writers and by published authors. The judges then vote their favorite entries into an agent/publisher round. It was a super cool experience for me, and I’m really excited to be a judge again when the contest runs in September.

I’ve also recently started up an editing business, and have already gotten to edit some amazing queries and partials, which is work I’ve enjoyed even more than I thought I would. The opportunity to see the variety of styles and the techniques writers use to draw a reader in—and to actually have a hand in refining their work—is an incredible feeling.

I’m not entirely comfortable with all this, though. I’m putting myself forward as an “expert”, someone who can  help others to grow as writers and find their pathways to success, and I probably shouldn’t say this, but I feel like a horrible fraud.

I don’t want to be one of those annoying, constantly self-effacing people. After all, I am a published author. I have a good English skills; a solid grasp of story structure; and am a nerd with regard to techniques of character development, world-building, and pacing. I have written in a lot of different genres and styles, which gives me a unique perspective, and my long experience as a critique partner and beta reader definitely gives me something to offer in the professional sense.

But none of that stops me from feeling awkward when I’m judging, editing or critiquing writers who are better than I am. The fact I’m published and they’re not is more a function of luck, persistence, and timing than talent or skill. Who am I to tell them anything?

There is one thing I’m confident in being able to offer, however, and it is, in my opinion, the most important thing one can give a struggling artist: support.

Support and encouragement are even more important than brutal and honest critiques. Art is subjective. There’s no right or wrong way to do it, and sometimes even what I feel is my best advice doesn’t resonate with the writer, or with other readers of their work.

All my years in critique groups, I’ve often looked at all the advice I’ve gotten—some of it conflicting, indecipherable, or downright painful for one reason or another—and wondered if there is any value at all in the critique process. But when I look at how much my writing has improved because of it, I know that it was worthwhile. Even if some advice didn’t resonate, some of it did, and just thinking about and discussing the craft of writing with other writers has helped me grow so much.

The advice and critiques that have helped me most of all have been from the professionals: the editors, agents, and published authors who have been kind enough to take their time to help me. Get this, though: it’s not because those professionals have always given me the best advice (though they often have). There have been times I’ve gotten an R&R from an editor or agent saying they want me to put the manuscript back the way I’d had it in a previous draft, which hadn’t been working for other agents or critique partners at all. Even the professionals aren’t gods: they’re just people, and their opinions are their own.

Why the professionals’ advice has been so powerful for me is simply because I trust it. Even if their advice isn’t necessarily right for the manuscript, they do indisputably know what they’re talking about. And that fact helped me to see how subjective the art of writing is: it taught me that, just because my book wasn’t working for them, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work for someone else. It helped me to not give up, despite tons of rejection. And that is the one and only reason that I am now a published author.

Support is paramount, especially because of how lacking it can be in the general population. People who have never tried to make their living as an artist just can’t understand how difficult and crazy-making it is; how you’re doing this thing that a lot of people think is silly and pointless, but it’s so important to you. You’re putting in all this time, effort, and emotion, with no guarantee that it will ever pay off, and you’re having to deal with tons of hurt and rejection in the bargain. Society tends to tell you that, if it’s making you so miserable, you should just get a job and get a life, without understanding that art is your joy and your life.

I’ve grown up amongst musicians and artists. I’ve seen so, so many friendships and marriages fail because of the financial and emotional stresses involved in pursuing and artistic career. This was a huge factor in why I was served with divorce papers, two weeks ago today, in fact. But it’s worth it for us artists to persist, because of how important this dream is to us, how much meaning it gives to our lives. Even though sometimes we’re reduced to sobbing alone in the dark and wishing to God that we had some grand desire to be a plumber instead of a writer, it’s still so important that we not give up.

So, if I could ever have a hand in encouraging someone to not give up their dream, I would consider myself a success. I’ll keep putting myself forward as an expert until others start to agree that I am, including myself. And if I can make enough money at it, I’ll be yet another example of the fact that being an artist isn’t such a silly dream, after all – it’s just a job. It’s the only job I’ve ever been good at,  the only one I’ve ever loved, and anyone can succeed at a career in the arts if they love it and want it as much as I do.

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