The Writing Life: Reading Your Own Writing

Ah, my writing holiday is almost over, as I get the developmental edits on The Killer and The Dead back tomorrow. I have one more night of imagining I’ll get a note of stunned awe, and thanks for writing such a thing of searing beauty.

And writers out there, you do hope for that kind of feedback, don’t you?

Of course that is not what I’ll get, and not what I want. The searing beauty can come later, after working in the word mines a while longer. I’ll get flaws pointed out, suggestions for alterations of pacing or character, ideas for things that feel like they are missing, or parts that seem superfluous. Positives will be pointed out, negatives discussed with a view to eliminating or inverting them, finding a way to make weaknesses strengths. That’s the fun, if you can call it that, of the developmental edit, it’s there to help you dig through your book, find the gold, discard the tailings, or perhaps rework them, smelt some unused ore into something shiny and fine.

I’m really stuck on metal metaphors this week! Next week I’m going organic!

Of course to do all this I’m going to have to read my own words. Which is always easier said than done at the start of the process.

I think, for me, maybe not for other writers, I have two basic reading modes of my writing when I’m not in the groove of actually working on it, when the self-conscious mind is cast aside. That doesn’t happen for me at first. My first instinct when reading my own work is to cringe. I find fault, read the first page and see a blizzard of errors and things to improve, mentally barf, just a little, and wonder if it is even worth me reading on. The cringe is powerful, and sometimes I stop right there and decide to come back later, because I’ve slipped too far into the negative, and need to rebalance the way I look at my own writing.

The other way is hilarious (to me, I’m not going to make it remotely funny for you). I’ll come back, start the read again, be kinder to myself through the passage that I cringed at, and move on. I start thinking “you know, this isn’t half bad…” another page or two “this is pretty good right here…” another few pages, “damn! That was sweet! I mean, I totally nailed that, and how cool was the construction? Eh? Eh? I know! It was effing awesome! Did you like how I…? Of course you did! High self five!!” From cringe to euphoric delusion in 15 pages tops. It is amazing.

During the second type of reading I can still spot flaws, make notes, but I’m so enamoured of the parts I view as good that I’ll forgive myself whatever it is I see that needs to be fixed, and view it as an opportunity to bring everything up to the level I imagine the good stuff is at. So that is good, but in general the euphoric reading style is almost worse than the cringe, because I’m more blind to real flaws then than I can ever be when cringe-reading. I’m reading it as I imagine I want it to be, not as it is. I forget how much extra stuff is in my mind informing what I’m reading, and forget that another person who reads my words is not going to know how or why I got there, or possess all the background info I have that gives the words far more context than they currently give themselves. A new reader is only going to be picking up my world from the words I put down. Euphoric reading often forgets the reader you are ultimately writing for, and as such can be dangerously self serving.

And this is why we need outside readers folks, or at least why I do, and why hiring a professional to burst your bubble in the nicest possible way is for me a must. Because good feedback allows me to approach my writing more dispassionately, as a sequence of problems to be solved, and to take the emotion out of my reading and become more professional myself in my approach, with identified goals and objectives to be met. I can still hoot with glee when I solve a problem in what I think is some style, but I am working within a framework, and I have the next issue to move on to, to resolve. It also reminds me to read the book as an artifact to be read by others, to consider how to share information, emotion and action with readers who are not as intimately involved in all the behind the scenes work as I have been. This is not easy, which is why multiple editing passes are needed, to strip the book down to bare rock and then build it back up to the forest covered hill or flower filled valley I hope the reader will enjoy exploring. It isn’t easy, but it is, in a masochistic kind of way, fun.

He says now, before the work has begun!

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