Recently I attended an interdisciplinary artists retreat where I got to spend twenty-four hours with creative people representing all avenues of art: musicians, fine artists, film makers, actors, and writers. I was encircled by amazing people and I got to stare at these trees. It was a total win-win.
While there, I learned from James Christensen that some fine artists, when almost finished with a piece, hold it up to a mirror to check for errors or inconsistencies. As the creator, your eye compensates for what is missing or uneven. Sometimes you can’t really see what you’ve done until you look at it through a mirror. It’s the reflection of that creation that shows you what it truly is. This is such a profound concept.
I, myself, have gone “eye blind” while working on a manuscript. Sometimes after working for months and months, it feels impossible to really see my work for what it is. I miss blaring typos and fail to notice that I’ve used the word probably about thirty-nine times in one chapter. I have trouble seeing the problems in the plot. It’s so strange how our brains compensate for our mistakes. After hearing about the mirror trick from Christensen, I wished writers had some sort of magic mirror we could hold up to our manuscripts and immediately see the flaws. Wouldn’t that be dreamy? Although, I’m afraid my mirror might turn into the Mirror of Erised, from Harry Potter, and I’d stand there for months…years even.
What can writers do after we’ve stared at a piece for so long that we’ve gone eye blind? How do we test our manuscript for flaws? How can we know what our writing truly reflects? We need a Writers Mirror. Here’s what I think it consists of:
First, you need to write your piece until you are completely sick of it. Only after you’ve spent a significant amount of time revising your novel, and are so sick of reading it that the thought of having to read it again makes bile rise to the back of your throat, are you ready to take a break from it. Put it away and let your manuscript breathe. Give your mind a rest. I did this with SURIVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE. I put it away for a long, long time and wrote something else. Doris Lessing said, “In the writing process, the more a story cooks, the better.” While writing a different book, I could slowly see the problems in SSOTAB and was able to go back and attack the pages with fresh eyes and a new brain.
Second, give it to a trusted writers group (or reader) who understands your genre. If you don’t have someone, get someone. In my opinion, every writer needs a nice, healthy, critique from smart people who like you, but aren’t afraid to hurt your feelings. Every writer needs a truth teller. Actually, I need these kind of people in every part of my life. Right now, my fifteen-year-old thinks she’s my truth teller (but I fear her motivation is highly suspect). When writing a book, you need a truth teller. Preferably it’s nice to have more than one, so that when they both mention a common concern, you will be more likely to believe them. It wasn’t until I heard from two different editors that SSOTAB should be a journey novel that I took it seriously. In the end, I re-wrote my entire manuscript.
Third, be brave and get smart. Attend a writers conference or retreat where you can get feedback from professionals (SCBWI has a great list of resources). I know for many introverted writers, this sounds excruciatingly painful. You have to make small talk with people you don’t know and then are expected to talk about your work. No, thanks. But these kinds of events are really the place to be if you want to find success in traditional publishing. Not only will you get honest, industry-sound, feedback, you’ll also learn a lot and make great connections with other writers and professionals. I met my current editor at a writing retreat where she gave a lecture about the publishing industry and then agreed to read ten pages of whatever the attendees wanted to submit. It was there, during her ten page critique, that she asked to see my full manuscript. I would have never made that contact unless I had been a little brave. So, do it. Even if you don’t want to go, go. I promise you won’t be sorry.
Lastly, don’t give up. I cannot say this enough. Do you realize the amount of self-soothing and loathing that goes on inside my head as I work on a manuscript? Let me tell you, it’s a little pathetic. And I don’t think I’m alone. Writing is a hard, and sometimes lonely, business. Don’t give up. I have this quote at my desk: A published author is an amateur who didn’t quit. It’s true. Don’t ever give up. One of the common complaints from literary agents and editors is that a writer sends their manuscript too soon. This shouldn’t be you. You’ll know you’re ready after you hold your WIP up to your Writers Mirror. Give your manuscript a break, listen to great advice from trusted truth tellers, and attend a conference or two. It can only make your work shine brighter and you’ll feel more confident sending it out into the world of publishing.
Jen White grew up in Southern California and had a mostly uneventful childhood except for the one time when her parents accidentally forgot her on a family vacation. Her debut middle grade novel SURVIVAL STRATEGIES OF THE ALMOST BRAVE was inspired by that experience. She has an MFA in writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and lives in California with her family. jenwhitebooks.com