Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

In search of judgment

The greatest gift for every writer is judgment–Obari Gumba

 Back in December, Agent Carrie and I had our annual strategy session, where we set the course for the upcoming year. One of the things Carrie wanted me to do, once I was finished writing the first draft of the WiP, was to take a new look at an old project, one long-time readers will be familiar, first as BARTON’S WOMEN, then as POWERLESS. (Quick rundown: this was the project that received the offer of representation from Carrie; it went through several submission rounds before we opted to pull it). The story was deemed by some editors as being a little too dystopian, and dystopia was dead, in the wake of several years of Wool and Divergent and The Hunger Games.

But Carrie had been hearing rumblings, that publishers were opening up again to dystopia, and she encouraged me to take another look and consider potentially revising it and putting it back out there, so I did (take another look at it, that is).

It was a bit of an eye opener.

Last summer, I took an online course through the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop (written about here and here), which is where, in the first week, I encountered that quote from Obari Gumba. There was another quote, from novelist/playwright Kia Corthron that I wish for the life of me I had written down. I thought I did, but I couldn’t find it. (I may not have written it down because I think I thought at the time I’d have access to all class materials, including lectures and transcripts, forever; I do not) It went something like this: “The first draft, say your point clearly; say it again a little quieter; say it again a little more subtly still.” In other words, subtlety is your friend. Don’t spoon feed the readers.

Looking back through POWERLESS, I am amazed (and disturbed) by how obvious and heavy-handed I was, not just with some of “the points” I was trying to get across, but just with character thoughts and emotions. There’s a hell of a lot of explaining going on, a hell of a lot of spoon feeding, a hell of a lot of making sure any future readers will get exactly what I was going for, no room for interpretation. There was little subtlety, little good judgment. Ugh.

I’m hoping I’ve moved past this. Some time in the not-too-distant future, I’m going to crack open the WiP with the responses of beta readers to guide me. What will I find? Spoon feeding? Explanation? Dictation? Or will I find I’ve exercised judgment, given my readers space to fill in some of the gaps themselves, a demonstration that I’ve learned something in the last few years? Time will tell, but I know what I’m hoping for.

Have you ever had similar reactions to your past work? Have you found your judgment has improved over the years?
 

5 Responses

  1. When I sold my first book (which was the 3rd book I had written), I wanted to offer my first book next. But I read it first. Good thing. Whoo! I now understood WHY an agent didn't want it. Not that the writing was bad, it was just awkward. And it lacked emotion. I'm glad I was able to fix it. I'm glad I knew HOW to fix it, because it's still my favorite story. That judgment didn't change. 🙂

  2. Some days I think I am the WORST at spoon feeding! It generally shows up in redundancies where I hit the reader over the head with my thought rephrased in case they're idiots… I'm working on it! 🙂

  3. -Stacy–yeah, I LOVE my first manuscript, but I'm terrified of going back to take a deeper look. It will likely stay buried forever, no matter what happens going forward.
    -Jemi–the first step in solving a problem is knowing you have one–cheers for self awareness!
    -Donna–I'm not sure if I've grown or not (I think I have) but at least I can recognize these things from the past, and that's a start!

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