If you want to be better, you need someone who has the guts to tell you the truth.
Family won’t do that. Most friends won’t. They want to encourage. They don’t want to hurt your feelings. They’ll lie to you and tell you work is wonderful, even if it’s not. But if you want to get better, you need someone who will tell you where you’re going wrong.
A few years ago I wrote my first novel, Counsel of the Ungodly. It’s the story of Savannah Joyce, who fled big city life in Boston to set up shop in a small resort town in the mountains of West Virginia. A new highway will bring more tourism to the area, but there will also be winners and losers as developers vie for prime real estate along the proposed highway. Savannah’s peaceful world is turned upside down and she realizes she can no longer run away from her past.
When I finished, I sent the book to Joe Higginbotham to take a look. Here are a few of his thoughts (along with my reaction to his comments).
JH: I have good news and bad news. The bad news is that Counsel of the Ungodly needs a lot of work. (Ouch.) The good news is that it’s worth it. (Ok, that’s better.)
JH: You’re opening paragraph needs a grabber. (Sure, I can work on that.)
JH: Your settings are weak. Each scene needs to answer the fundamental questions: what, when, where, who. (Seems like a lot of work, but ok.)
JH: Your dialogue is lazy. (Another ouch.) I think you’re trying to make your dialogue too realistic. Realistic dialogue is boring. Make every word of dialogue do one of two things: 1) Move the action, or 2) reveal character or relationship. (Ok, this is good. A lot of work to do, but good advice.)
JH: Your sentences, in places, are as meandering and indirect as the mountain streams of Hampshire County. (He was right. I still struggle with this.)
JH: I rejoiced when you finally killed Tim off. (Uh-oh. Tim was supposed to be a likable character. The reader was supposed to be shocked and sad when Tim took the deep-six dive. JH had much more to say about why he didn’t like Tim.)
JH: I never liked Savannah. (Triple uh-oh. Savannah is the main character. She has to be likable. This is even worse than not liking Tim JH had much more to say about why he didn’t like Savannah. My two main characters, and the reader doesn’t like them.)
You get the idea. Friends and family won’t tell you stuff like this so directly. JH had the guts to tell me not only what he didn’t like, but what he really didn’t like. Better Joe than a potential agent.
So I worked on the book and did the best I could with his suggestions. I entered the book in the West Virginia Writers Competition and it won first place. So yeah, I’m feeling pretty good about what I did. I sent Joe the revised copy.
JH: I calculate that this iteration of Savannah could not only beat 40 entrants from West Virginia, but another couple hundred form surrounding states. (Yes!)
JH: But you can and must do better. (I realize now that he was right. 100% correct.)
And then he followed that comment with three paragraphs of what I needed to work on with Tim, to whom he was finally warming, and Savannah, who in his mind, needed more clarification of her character and motivations.
Do you want to be a better writer? A better artist? A better song-writer? Find someone who knows what they’re talking about and ask them to be brutally honest. It’s the best way.