A recent post in an online writing forum I participate in got me thinking about the role others play in our creative process.
Nobody writes a story completely, 100% alone. Even short stories only consisting of a few thousand words have, or should have, someone else’s eyes on them before they reach the final draft, and this is exponentially more important with longer works, such as novels. The opinions of friends, parents, loving spouses, boyfriends and girlfriends, fellow writers, and random strangers who think our work shows promise are invaluable to the writing process.
Writing fiction of any length is like building a house from the inside, with a blindfold on; no matter how good the blueprints you start with are, there were will always be holes and awkward things jutting out that will be impossible for you to see or fix without outside help.
Not all help is Good
Editors, proofreaders, beta readers, and in our modern Amazon-dominated world where published manuscripts can be changed with the single click of a mouse, even reviewers, all hold the power to change our work for the better or worse, depending on how much access we give them.
For the sake of brevity, I am going to lump all of these monumentally important people together under one name, and call them Suggestors. I am not choosing the name Suggestors because it makes anyone who tries to help your writing sound like some flying, demonic banshee from Harry Potter who wears black and wants to give your precious hard work a bone finger enema – quite the opposite.
Suggestors are people who suggest changes to your work. Without them, you cannot survive. But at the same time, their suggestions are only that. They are offering you ideas that will change your work. Because it is your work, you have every right to take or leave them.
You must filter the good from the bad
To preserve the artistic integrity of your work, it is of monumental importance you learn how to filter good suggestions from bad ones, but more importantly, how to filter good from bad Suggestors, early on. Granting and limiting the correct amount of access to others can be what turns a good story into a great one, or what turns a piece of writing you are proud of into a steaming pile of unreadable poop.
Take the case of the guy in the forum post. The writer who made the post had a “friend” he hadn’t seen in years blow up at him on social media for promoting his book, because, wait for it, the writer didn’t seem open to taking creative criticism. Note that the problem wasn’t that the writer in this example was given criticism and took it poorly, or even simply stated he wasn’t open to it. A potential Suggestor slammed him for merely appearing not to be open to it at all. Which seems to suggest one thing: that the potential Suggestor felt entitled to change the author’s work.
Here was my response to the writer’s forum post:
…it’s kind of weird he felt entitled to give you criticism in the first place. It’s your work of art and you’re not obligated to let anyone else influence it.
I work in games, and one thing I’ve seen countless times over the years is the tendency for writers and other creative types to criticize, or straight up change, someone else’s work for no better reason than that they had a different vision about it, and felt their own superseded the other person’s. In fact, killing that urge has been an ongoing battle whenever I edit another person’s work… something I have been doing daily, professionally, for six years.
It’s only natural that others want to participate creatively in a piece of art or entertainment they see promise in. But fiction is also one of the only places left in the world that the artist has final say over the work – in fact, that is what makes fiction fiction in the first place. It is a mind-to-mind transmission between you and your audience.
You should treat that relationship as sacred, and so should everyone else who works with you. If they don’t, I would say their intentions are not to make the work better, but to make it (partly) their own. And there’s no reason you need to share that role with them. You can if you want – it’s your work – but, you are not obligated. Just my $.05.
I know this may seem like a weird example, since the writer didn’t actually do any filtering himself – the passive aggressive Gods of Internet Communication did it for him – but it illustrates the point I want to make perfectly, which is what you probably have already guessed…
“Good” and “bad” are mostly questions of intention
In my six years of experience as a game writer, I have learned that, 100% of the time, it is a bad sign when someone else feels entitled to change your work simply because it is their role to do so (as the Suggestor in my example did). Typically, these types of changes do nothing to improve what you originally wrote, and in fact, can oftentimes break it, or at least compromise what you were trying to say. That’s because the act is symbolic, not functional – when someone who feels entitled to change your work does, their intention is not to bring out the best version of your words, but to make the words their own, like a dog lifting his leg over another canine’s scent.
These people are everywhere: in games, TV, book publishing, and yes, even in those enthusiastic messages from your friends and family when you make open calls for beta readers on your social media. In a professional setting, you have no choice but to play the office politics game and humor these people (sometimes).
In fiction, though, you have no such obligation. In fact, if we’re talking self-publishing, hybrid publishing, or small-press publishing, chances are you’ve got some of your own money on the line and would actually be investing in their foolishness if you let them into your creative process. i cannot be dramatic enough when I say that this can lead to catastrophic consequences – or at least, a massive headache as you scramble to pick up the pieces of a good piece of writing that someone with different ideas has flown in and shat on.
The question you must always ask yourself when involving a new Suggestor on your project is: is this person’s intention to bring out the best version of my work, or to cover my words with their scent?
A Parable About Good and Bad Suggestors
Remember, good Suggestors can make terrible suggestions, and bad Suggestor can make great ones. But the net effect of having a good Suggestor help you will always be that the writing improves and is constantly growing closer to the ideal version you had in your brain, while the net effect of having a bad Suggestor help you will always be that the writing less and less resembles your own.
To illustrate the difference, let’s do a thought experiment.
One day, Writer Guy (or Girl) starts working on a project. He pours his heart, soul, blood, skin flakes, and a few hair follicles into it. When the first draft is done, he decides he wants to hire an editor. Maybe he’ll self-publish and maybe he won’t, but he knows he doesn’t have a good enough manuscript yet to decide, and he needs outside help.
Writer Guy finds an editor online. He doesn’t know her, but she has a good reputation. The editor reads and returns the manuscript with a ton of markup. Writer Guy’s first reaction is that he wants to murder her, because she screwed up his totally cool and awesome but far from perfect story. But when he goes for a walk, catches his cool, sits down with a beer and looks at the editor’s comments again, he realizes most of her edits actually bring out what he was trying to say much better than he could himself. Maybe 25% of her edits, especially the added dialog, didn’t quite hit the mark, and leave Writer Guy scratching his head, so he decides not to accept those changes. But, for the most part, her edits are subtle, and make the story a better read. Not only that, but Editor Lady was fast, professional, and doesn’t trip on Writer Guy when he declines to use some of her edits.
Editor Lady is a Boss-Ass Suggestor, and exactly the kind of person you want on your team.
Now, cut to a few weeks later, when Writer Guy is preparing the draft he hopes will become his final manuscript, and wants to send it out to a few close friends and family for feedback. One friend who Writer Guy hasn’t seen since grade school responds to his open call for beta readers on Facebook. Beta Reader comes off as a bit overly enthusiastic and eager to help, which raises a red flag for Writer Guy – he’s seen Beta Reader’s posts, which are usually about contentious political issues and combative in tone. But he ignores his better gut and sends Beta Reader the manuscript, anyway.
Months later, Beta Reader sends the first several chapters back with massive rewrites, including new dialog, changes to narrator and character voice, and a general air of smug superiority that doesn’t make Writer Guy angry as much as it makes him nervous. He doesn’t want to burn the bridge, but he also can’t use 90% of Beta Reader’s suggestions without changing his original vision for the story. A few of the edits highlights things Writer Guy didn’t see, but should have, so he uses those. But he simply can’t accept the vast majority of edits. Predictably, Beta Reader’s response to this is passive aggression, followed by fading on Writer Guy as well as the project, and the bridge is burned, wasting months of time for everyone involved.
Beta Reader is a Bad Suggestor. While he may be a good person in other aspects of his life, and while his heart may be in the right place, when it comes to making suggestions about other people’s writing, he is a clown.
You need other people’s suggestions to bring out the best version of your own words. Involving other people in your writing process is unavoidable. Just make sure the ones you do involve are actually there to help.
Your words are yours, and they are sacred. Keep them away from clowns.