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Feedback. For better or worse?

Goff
By Christine Goff

A writer’s best friend is a good editor. That’s what they teach you in Journalism school. An editor is that person, or persons, who force us to “kill our darlings.” You know what I’m talking about-those absolute gems of purple prose you pour onto the page and just can’t seem to get rid of, no matter how much you know you should. They whip us into shape, hold us to deadlines and hold us hostage to the paycheck (or proverbial paycheck, depending on the reward).

My first editor was my third grade teacher, Mrs. Green. My short story project turned into a novel-a novella, really-entitled “The Haunted Mansion.” It was a great story about these kids who discovered a haunted mansion and spied on the witch, who lived there. When she would go out flying on her broom, the kids would sneak inside and tinker around in her workshop-testing the eye of newt, that sort of stuff. Mrs. Green took a red pen to the pages and told me to shorten it. She cut this, cut that, then made me rewrite the darned thing and turn it back in. I was convinced she had messed up my story. She gave me an A and my mother published my work in the family scrapbook.

I grew inured to having teachers mark up my work. I moved through the grades hating the red, blue or purple pen. Even my favorite uncle sent back my correspondence with edits. After college, my newspaper editor did the same thing, taking my words, loping off the end of one story and stealing my punch-line. Damn editors.

Years later, as a stay at home mom, I tackled my first novel. It was a great book called “The Mystery of Phantom Ranch,” all about these kids that rode mules down to Phantom Ranch at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and searched for the ghost of Bert Loper. Living in Summit County at the time, I workshopped the manuscript through a novel writing correspondence school. I would write a chapter, ship it off and the pages would come back all marked up in red pen with advice from a published author hired to dispense their words of wisdom. My published author had many pearls of wisdom for me to choke on. That book never sold!

I workshopped my second novel with a well-known romance writer. She had moved to Summit County and offered to share her hard earned knowledge with a few of us, who had admired her from the front row of the library audience. She was tough, and, by lesson three, I was the lone duck in the classroom. When I finished “Frozen Assets,” my mentor generously agreed to read the full manuscript. Three weeks passed, then I received a three page, single spaced critique of my book. She said something in the first paragraph about my incredible talent, then slashed and burned my novel, ending with her conviction I would someday be published. I cried, stomped on her letter, and then looked at it again a few days later. She had a point-about some things. I took what resonated, made a few changes, and book was seriously looked at by a New York publisher, who asked for two more revision before rejecting it.

My third book, “Stalked,” I shared in critique. Once a week for nearly four years, I took 10 pages and read them for a group of my peers. Some were other aspiring published writers, like myself; some were already published authors. Finally, determined to publish or quit, I took my critique-shopped manuscript and enrolled in a 10-day workshop. The instructors, two New York agents, stood shoulder to shoulder, blue pens at ready. They decimated me, tearing apart the premise, brainstorming the plot, tinkering with my words. My ability to take what resonated and make changes landed me one of those New York agents. He sold my bestselling “Birdwatcher’s Mystery Series” to Berkley Prime Crime, and the rest-as they say-is history. My editor hated a character in my first book. I replaced him. She wanted me to have a bird solve the mystery (think Cat Who… mysteries). I refused.

To this day I attend critique. I’ve bounced around groups, loving some, not liking others. But take note, with the groups I abandoned, it’s not the criticism that drove me away. It was all about the intent behind the criticism. My current group is comprised of eight (half published, half aspiring published) writers with one common goal-to help each other produce publishable work. Each perspective is valued. Each perspective raises my hackles. Each slash of the red, blue or purple pen cuts to my soul. I take what resonates.

The best lesson I ever learned came with a “pat on the back” critique I received one night at my Capital Hill group. Twelve people around the table loved my ten pages. Published authors showered my work with praise. Fellow aspiring published writers cheered me on. Then one lone dissenting voice of a friend said, “I don’t know, it just doesn’t work for me.”  She went on to explain why, and I drove home fuming. “What the hell does she know? She’s not even published.” I spent the next four days trying to ignore the voice in my head, the one that kept harping back to her comments; trying to ignore the twist in my gut that said she was right. I took what resonated and made the changes.

None of my first three books sold and the one I’m currently taking to critique is a work-in-progress. It’s got a challenging setting, a challenging premise and may never find a home. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is-with every teacher, every editor, every piece of advice from a fellow writer-I get better. That’s what feedback is all about.

_______

Christine Goff is the award-winning author of the bestselling “Birdwatcher’s Mystery” series. She began her career writing non-fiction for local, regional and national publication. Her latest novel, DEATH SHOOTS A BIRDIE, was a named finalist for the Colorado Authors League 2008 Best Genre Fiction Award. Her first in the series, A RANT OF RAVENS, was recently published in Japanese. Christine’s novels focus on environmental concerns through bird-related issues. She is currently at work on an international thriller set in Israel.

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