Monday, March 15, 2010

No Longer Afraid of the Red Pen

We all remember them. Those moments in fourth grade when our teachers would hand back our papers and exams marked up with red pen.
It was horrible.
To our minds -- and to our peers -- the red markings meant: "This isn't good enough. You screwed up," or perhaps even, "Can't you get this right, yet? What are you, stupid?"

But now, I'm all grown up. And five years into this task of joining the writing profession, I always hand my manuscripts to my critique buddies accompanied by a RED PEN. It's true!
You see, when we start in this profession, and join our first critique group, all our fears from fourth grade still stick with us, I think. We hand our manuscripts to our new crit buddies with trembling hands, and a bit of nervous nausea. We stash a first-aid kid of band-aid's and emotional salve (chocolate) in our book bags -- just in case these critters say something negative about our work and it makes us want to jump off a bridge in dispair. We look for gentle comments like: "You know, I think this chapter is really wonderful, and probably ready for publication right now...except that perhaps just one or two of your sentences, if even that, out of the whole book, are a bit convoluted and long. That's all. Easy to fix. And really - I could be wrong about that. I love it!"
Awesome! We can handle that critique. It sounds like it means our work is basically perfect.
Of course, we know they're lying...ehem. They're being nice to us so we don't run off crying.
But now, two and a half novel manuscripts into this business of writing fiction, my heart is stronger; my determination is more profound.
I don't want to publish "reasonably good" books. I want to publish "REALLY good" ones.

So, now I hand out the red pens with all of my manuscripts.

Why? Well, for one thing, it's easier to find the comments of my crit buddies among the black and white type, if they're written in red ink. But more than that. It's because I really want those comments to be honest -- perhaps even more honest than my fourth grade teacher was.
If the plot is shabby, or the sentences are too long, or my grammar is off, or my dialogue is `too adult,' I want to know it. And truthfully, we don't always notice these things in our own writing the way that we notice them in other people's. So mark it up, my friends. I can take it!
Sure, I still keep my little package of band-aids and chocolate -- just in case the "truth" means I'll have to go do some frustratingly in depth revision, right when I thought the manuscript was ready for submission to editors and the like. But these days I leave my first aid kit farther away, in the car, rather than keeping it in my bag. That's because now I really want to make the hard corrections if I need to -- even though it's heart-wrenching. (gulp). Better to change our manuscripts before they go to editors, than to skip that step, and send them something "good but not great," which they won't have the time or motivation to read.

So hooray for the red pens -- and for the critique buddies who aren't afraid to use them!
(Of course, handing out cookies when you hand us back our manuscripts with those red markings is never a bad idea either. Remember that great old red-coolaid and all those cookies we enjoyed in elementary school? There was a reason for that.)
As all fourth grade teachers know...
A combination of Red Truth and Chocolate just may be the best way to create GREAT writing.