When one is working to build a career as a creative professional, be it as a writer, painter, or drummer, one of the most important skills to develop is discernment – the ability to judge well. It’s not enough to say something isn’t working. We have to be able to discern why it’s not working so that we can then proceed to fix it.
Any writer who’s ever been part of a workshop has probably heard the feedback: “it just isn’t working.” And if you’re like me, that was probably the moment you started looking for another workshop to join because, really?, that’s all you’ve got?
The feedback of “it just isn’t working” often jives with some internal, quiet voice in the writer’s mind that agrees, but can’t pinpoint what, exactly, isn’t working. Pair that ambiguity with the hard work it takes to persist in rewriting and what you get is a piece that gets labeled as “done” when it still has potential to be much better.
As writing professionals, we need to be able to recognize what isn’t working. Not only for giving feedback to other writers at workshops, but for when we’re editing our own writing. When we get that nagging sense that something “just isn’t working” we can either blindly keep rewriting in the hopes that we might stumble across a version that works (which may or may not get you there, but will definitely take a lot of time). OR we can practice figuring out what isn’t working. Discernment is a skill we can develop.
I had a meditation teacher once who told a story about hitting a very low point in his life. He didn’t know what he wanted in a relationship or work or anything. He felt like he didn’t even know what he enjoyed anymore. His own meditation teacher suggested he walk to the store, buy two types of apples, eat them, and decide which he liked better. The next day, he would buy the preferred apple and a third kind and again, decide which he liked better. He was to do this until he had tried every apple the store had on offer, until he knew what kind of apple he preferred. Then he would have one thing he knew he enjoyed.
Talk about baby steps.
But I think about this story a lot. I think about him tasting each apple, comparing it to the other one he bought, thinking about what he liked or didn’t like about each one. Sometimes just allowing ourselves to have strong opinions is an important place to start.
Discerning Story Preferences
A while back I wrote a post about how I have no qualms putting a book down if I don’t want to finish it. I had just begun to embrace the fact that I had strong opinions. It took me another three years to write a follow-up post about WHY I put books down.
That was me starting to be more discerning. I no longer stopped reading because a book “just didn’t work.” I actually started thinking about WHY a book put me off.
These days, I don’t allow myself to ditch a book until I understand exactly why I want to. And despite my handy little list of four reasons it’s not always easy to elucidate the exact reason I’m not enjoying a book. So I keep reading and inevitably, the thing that was bothering me on a subconscious level begins to irritate and annoy more overtly as I go along.
Sometimes the writing is really good, so it takes a full 100 pages for me to realize something as simple as “I really don’t care if the protagonist gets that raise/boyfriend/necklace/whatever.” I would categorize this under: uninspiring stakes. Other times I can tell in about 5 pages what I don’t like about a book. In those instances the culprit is usually poorly written prose. If I’m confused by the author’s wording more than once in the first five pages, I put the book down.
Your Own Work
Perhaps the most important time to have strongly formed opinions about writing is when you’re talking about your own pages. When you get notes from an agent or editor, there will be things they suggest changing.
You will likely agree with some of those notes and bristle at others. But if you want to ignore a suggestion from someone who’s job it is to help you improve your manuscript, good reasons are going to help the process go much more smoothly.
For instance, imagine your agent wants you to cut a scene that s/he thinks is too gory. Your first instinct is “no.” But then you think a little about why the scene is important to you and you tell your agent: “it needs to be gory because later, when the protagonist goes to the house…” Then your agent knows your concern and s/he can say: “but it I can’t sell a romance novel with that kind of gore in it. Can you tone it down?” To which you will have to decide if you’re willing. The point is, the discussion is based in reason, rather than just a gut feeling of something “just not working.”
Form Some Opinions
So, dear artist, I would encourage you to start forming some strong opinions. They’re important. If you’re not sure where to start, maybe pick up a collection of short stories and do the apple exercise – comparing one story to the next until you have a favorite in the collection and clearly understand why you prefer it.
At the very least, don’t let yourself, or anyone else, drop that “it just isn’t working” bit on you. Dig deeper. Figure out why. Your stories will be better for it.