Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Mistake of Writing it Wrong Before Getting it Right

I did it backwards.

I wrote the book and then consulted a professional to guide me in the writing process.  I was nearing the finishing stages of my book or so I thought. I was expecting some changes but not a full body re-write. My advice . . . don't do this!  Learn the ropes before you start your book.

For a couple of years I had been following a writing studio web page hoping to take one of the  classes for novice writers which were offered periodically.  I'd never met the owner-instructor, a community college professor, or knew anyone who had taken her classes. She seemed to be on the level and I was interested in getting serious about writing. Besides, I didn't know anyone else in the business and you have to start somewhere.  My busy schedule got in the way.

It didn't help that I am a reserved person who holds back when I should push forward. I should and could have made it happen.

Then I came up with the brainy, though late, idea of buying a block of the writing consultant's time to solicit some advice and know-how in regard to the book I was writing. I was fairly certain that my writing would stand up and my time with her would be productive, netting positive results. I knew next to nothing about the craft of book writing or the publishing world and I didn't have any writing or author contacts. I thought my book's concept was good and that it had the potential to find an audience and to meet a need.

I took the plunge by contacting the writing studio in an email. The owner called me. We set up a time to meet. She asked me to email her some pages from my manuscript.

She didn't waste any time getting down to business. First question. "What is the message of your book?" My response was vague. Next question. "Who is your audience?" I hesitated, sorting out my thoughts. Again, my answer sounded weak, it floundered - too far off the mark. I knew it and she knew it. I commenced to tell her that I wanted my book to reach hurting people, to offer hope by giving realistic solutions for those caught in the midst of disillusioning pain, a story based on my personal experiences. I'd not thought it through in exactly the same way as she was asking, not in concrete terms anyway. Apparently, my book lacked continuity and focus. She commented on my incorrect use of interior book constructs, confusing a preface with an introduction. A sinking feeling began to settle in.  She continued on, not unkindly, in a matter-of-fact voice.

"Your writing is like that of an amateur," in reference to the sample pages she had previewed, "a book publisher will spot it immediately.

However, you make some strong statements. It has potential. The grammar usage is fair. You have a command of language. You articulate well, you won't need beginning level instruction. ... A book that is well-written will possess specific elements. An author is cognizant of the way to write a book so that its voice is active, engages the reader but doesn't tell too much too fast. An author never insults their audience by telling their readers what to think, they don't "show off" (by inserting a barrage of high-end words requiring a dictionary), and they also refrain from the use of jargon (which can litter Christian literature). To write a book that is taken as serious by a publisher, you must become familiar with the book writing format and then apply yourself to improving your skill at writing. Writing is a craft. Let me explain what I mean." With the formalities aside, she began to open a door and I entered a new world. Her comments about "what good authors do" fell on fertile soil. I was an eager student although a very quiet and subdued one. It was a bit overwhelming. She went on to say that it is easier to start a new book than to re-do a poorly written manuscript. I understood what she was saying, but the wind had been knocked out of my sails.  I left the session realizing that I had approached it from the wrong angle, I'd gotten it backwards. Maybe my book was a faulty enterprise, not that good, really. I took the hint.

I abandoned my book. Just like that. It was over; one hundred-plus pages, full-size single-spaced manuscript pages, abandoned.

I slipped my manuscript into a legal sized envelope to store it away to possibly revisit another day. Writing my book had consumed a whole summer and then some, encroaching on family time and wedged into the pause between teaching years. I was out of time, school would be starting soon. I quit; now feeling discouraged and deflated. All that work, hours and hours of it. I never looked at it again. I wasn't sure what I thought or how to react. One thing I did know, I would try again. When? I had no idea.

I had wizened up. The instructor had been frank, telling me the truth about writing that I needed to hear. What I now knew had effectively stopped me in my tracks ... and that was a good thing. You have to know what you're doing before you do it.

My mistake had been in a misplaced, innocent belief. I made the assumption that my natural writing ability would be the most important skill necessary for writing my book (I had a lot to learn). This misconception wasn't too surprising, though, writing had always come easy for me. I'd always loved the process of finding the right word to make a sentence sing, writing with fluidity of expression, and never allowing myself to be satisfied with a mediocre effort. Many times in high school and into my college years I depended on my ability to weave words in a smooth fashion. I'd aced some pretty heavy exams by employing this gift, once writing answers to essay questions for a six hour State Teacher's Exam in which I didn't  have the slightest idea as to the right answers to the narrow questions. That hadn't stopped me. I responded in a plausible fashion with general information related to the subject, writing well enough to convince the examiners that I knew what I was talking about. It worked. I scored well on the essay section. For church and other venues, I often contributed my skill at writing. Somehow, I had mistaken my past experiences to carry over as a slam dunk or close to it. In fact, the three people who read my manuscript had found it interesting and worthy. I was in a state of mild shock. I hadn't expected to be so far off the mark. The constructive criticism was exactly what I had paid for, but the thought of rewriting the book was staggering.

The writing consultant, in her honesty, did me a great favor. A poorly written book containing flaws in its structure would have imploded my book's marketability. My voice would have been silenced, and my message, which was dear to my heart, would have been lost.

Instead of continuing the book, I let it go. A few years later I decided to write an entirely different book, still non-fiction but written with a greater understanding on how to craft my writing. I never returned for another session with the writing coach even though I had intended to do so, paying in advance for more of her time. I couldn't face it right then. Initially, it shook my confidence, I had taken it the wrong way, you're not any good, instead of the right way, you need to work at this. When the new story presented itself to me, I found that my memory of her professional comments were still active in my mind, a resource alive inside of me, that, plus a book I purchased from her that she had compiled, describing mistakes an amateur writer makes -- things I would avoid as I put pen to paper. Both contributed as resources to help me move forward, getting it right this time.

I was off and running.


In my next blog I will share some critical aspects of writing which I learned from the writing coach in our two sessions together. I will explain how her comments have shaped my writing. Also, it will afford an opportunity to give her the credit she is due.


About the original book, I still want to re-write it. It may well be the most important book I ever pen. It is the story of the overcomer: Pain and Healing.

Tags: writing, mistakes, learning, amateur writer, book, author

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