Spring Cleaning: Advice for Young Writers

Learning to take advice from other writers and critics can be a crucial, yet painful, part of your own growth process, as a writer. The most important growth, however, comes from following your own vision.

Pages bleed. All the pages are bleeding. Some are hemorrhaging and some just grazed by the editing pen. On the computer screen, the hemorrhaging is in blue or purple or green, signs of alien intrusion into the fabric and heart of the story. Characters are remodeled. Evocative descriptions are slashed to ribbons. Double-spaced lines flood the once pristine words with criticism and suggestions.

Shock sets in. Denial is followed by anger. How dare they? Curiosity peers over the edge, grows bolder and settles in for a long and thorough look until the writer is overwhelmed.

Are they right? Is the main character that unsympathetic? No, someone likes her grit and determination. Another critic sees the brittle facade hiding the fear and confusion. Yes, there's another critic who hates her, who missed the subtle body language: cringing against the wall, spooked by harsh sounds, refusing to meet anyone's eyes.

How much of the burning, pillaging and savaging of editing is personal and how much impersonal and useful? That is the real question.

When writers entrust the work to other writers of different experience and skills, the results are always mixed. It is easy to fall back on the knowledge that every opinion is subjective, colored by personal prejudices. The real problem is finding balance and weeding out the negative from the positive. In the end, it all comes back to the writer.

What is the point of the story? What is the dominant theme? What is the best starting point for the main character's journey? Where is the beating heart of the story? How much should be revealed — and when?

It is difficult to find balance between your vision and how the results are perceived and received. You are the writer. You get to decide.

Beginning writers will follow every suggestion and change the manuscript to reflect everyone's taste until the essence, the writer's vision, gets lost in a muddle of different styles. It is hard to hold up against so many different, and often more experienced, critics. The critics could be right. The critics could also be wrong. One things cancels out all the rest. No one writer can please everyone all the time. It is impossible. The best one can do is to hold fast to the vision and point of writing the story — any story.

Ayn Rand had a hard time getting The Fountainhead published. It was long. Some publishers considered it boring and pointless. Others thought it was too radical, too different. Rand stood firm. When a publisher finally contracted the book, editors suggested changes. Rand agreed to remove one character, Roark's girlfriend before Dominique, because it did not advance the story. The rest of the book would be published without any further changes or she would go elsewhere. The book was published without another change.

I remember seeing the massive book on the bookshelves when I was growing up. It was a book club selection. It was so big, taking up a significant space on the shelf. It would be missed. I chose The Graduate instead, switching dust jackets with a less adult book so it wouldn't be discovered. I didn't read Rand's book until many years later.

When I finally read The Fountainhead, I was mesmerized. I flew through the story, marveled at the themes and characters and wanted to start all over again when I read the last page. I didn't know that many critics panned the book and said Roark was unsympathetic, too harsh, too unlikable. I liked him immediately. I knew what he felt and wished I had the same strength of character, the same passion and devotion to my own dreams.

He touched and awakened feelings and thoughts I didn't realize were there even though I didn't care for his carrot orange hair. One small feature in another wise remarkable character was not enough to ruin my enjoyment. It was insignificant in contrast to everything else about the admirable and stoic Roark. Had I read the savage criticisms before I picked up the book, I would have read it anyway. No one earns the critics' ire or dismissal without arousing my curiosity.

I expected critics to rape and pillage my first published novel, but I didn't expect it with my current book. I had learned and evolved. I was a better writer — I thought — and I wrote a story that was close to my heart, born out of my own experiences. How could I go wrong? I forgot the rule. No one can please everyone all the time.

Seeing the bloody comments and suggestions was like starting at square one all over again. The main character isn't sympathetic. She's snooty. Why isn't she afraid? How can she be so cool, calm and collected in her situation? Too much back story. Not enough back story. Too many adjectives. Not enough adjectives. The sentences are too long, too short, too many. Too much dialogue. Not enough dialogue. Too much action. Not enough inner monologue. The comments went from one extreme to the other. I resisted the urge to change everything.

You cannot please everyone all the time.

I chose to focus on spelling mistakes, sneaky words that hid when edited and popped out later during critiques. I made a few changes. Added scenes, took others out, put them in earlier or later. Then I stopped. The story I wrote was getting lost. It didn't help that after over a year of stalling and schedule changes, the publisher decided not to publish the book after all. My confidence was shaken. This book meant so much.

All the books mean so much.

I cannot please everyone all the time. I can only write the story, fix the typos and grammar mistakes, and let it go.

No matter how many books an author publishes, when the critics descend, confidence wavers and the urge to change everything to fit everyone's suggestions grows stronger. No one can write a book that pleases everyone. It is impossible. The only thing that comes close is an interactive story where the reader gets to choose the paths the characters take. I don't write those kinds of books. I will never please everyone. There's no need to try.

In the end, it all comes back to the writer's vision, the writer's skills and experience and the writer's story. It is like spring cleaning. No two people do it the same way, no matter how they were taught. Editing one's own writing is like spring cleaning. No matter what rules and guidelines were learned, editing is as individual as the writer. Stick to the original vision.

Write the story in your voice with your style. Take criticism and suggestions under advisement. Stay true to your vision. It may take a while to find a like-minded agent or publisher, but the results are worthwhile. Your book may not be The Fountainhead, but it will be memorable and readers, critics, and other writers will like it. Even if they don't, it doesn't matter. Write what moves you.

J. M. Cornwell is a nationally syndicated freelance journalist and award-winning author who lives in the Colorado Rockies. Her debut romance novel, Past Imperfect, was published in July 2009 by L&L Dreamspell and she writes book reviews and in-depth critiques or Authorlink.com. Her articles and stories have been published in Ohio Magazine, Columbus Monthly, New Women, The New York Times, and ten anthologies that include the Cup of Comfort and Chicken Soup anthologies, Haunted Encounters: Departed Family & Friends, and Life's Spices for Seasoned Sistahs. A listing of Ms. Cornwell’s work and her blog are available here.

7 comments from readers  

To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.
This is fantastic advice. I passed it along to my daughter, who is an aspiring writer, and I hope she will be inspired by your words.
David R
0 points
Thank you. I agree with what was said about content, i.e., "To thine ownself be true."

As a retired college instructor, I often suggested that students read a their writen work out-loud, and let their ear judge "read-abilty." I did insist that words were spelled (no "texting" spelling) and used correctly (words have meaning).

I also corrected run-on sentances. More than one conjunction meant more than one sentance was needed, and no more than one use of the same adjective in consectutive sentences, preferably not in the same paragraph. They were third and forth year college students and the last few years' papers were far superior to the earlier.
I'm minded to offer Heinlein's advice, which I paraphrase as "Do not re-write your prose except to satisfy the editor to whom you want to sell it."

If you don't want to satisfy that particular customer's demands - and you may not want to - don't accept his critical direction except as feedback giving you another person's perspective on what you've written.

Bear in mind, also, that the perspective of that person may not be valid. He (or she) is paid to purchase copy that will grab eyeballs and thereby gain profit for his (or her) employer. You may not want to appeal to those particular eyeballs, but to others. Keep that in mind.
I enjoyed this article very much. Excellent advice. I should post it on the wall above my computer! We have all been affected by Ayn Rand's writings, but for some reason, I never related to these writing principles for myself. Thanks for reminding me of how things really work in this world, and how important it is to be true to one's own vision.
Excellent advice!! I am in the process of compiling 37 how-to articles I've written for a magazine over the years, and several "advisors" have told me I should mention something or someone in the building process only ONCE. To NEVER repeat anything, even if it's said differently. I can't do that because my articles are about property development and building and some topics HAVE to come up more than once.

I am going to do as I please to tell my story and be true to myself. It is very frustrating to try fend off "professional advice" when my common sense tells me otherwise.

Thank you for the advice to use my own judgment. After all, I'm the one who knows my story best and how it should flow because I'm the one who did the work. A critic has the easy job. Not that I won't listen to advice but I feel the writer should have the final word if there is a doubt. Thank you again for your objectivity.
Actually, it was Atlas Shrugged that was printed exactly as written. The Fountainhead had some editing, in particular a character named Vesta Dunning. She was Roark's first love interest, before Dominique. Her editor, Archie Ogden, said that the character didn't contribute much to the novel, and that Roark's behavior with her didn't fit the rest of his character. Rand agreed and eliminated the character.

Response from the publisher: Thank you for the helpful correction. Ms. Cornwell has updated the relevant paragraph of her column.
Would love to read the deleted passages in The Fountainhead that were about Vesta Dunning. I find it difficult to believe that the insights into early Roark would not have contributed to the advancement of the novel...that's not Ayn!
To post comments, please log in first. The Atlasphere is a social networking site for admirers of Ayn Rand's novels, most notably The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. In addition to our online magazine, we offer a member directory and a dating service. If you share our enjoyment of Ayn Rand's novels, please sign up or log in to post comments.