There are people who enter our lives and make an impact that calls for more than a thank you, but everything else just falls short.
What makes a Pro?
I mentioned to a friend I met at a writer’s conference that I wanted to submit my novel somewhere to get input. It was a book I had received some positive comments on from several agents, but in the end, all had ended with rejection. I knew the book wasn’t quite working, but I couldn’t put my finger on the reason. I remember telling my friend, you know how you read something that reads like an amateur wrote it, and then you read something that reads like a pro wrote it? You can tell there is a difference, but what defines the two pieces? What’s the difference? I considered those questions for quite a long time and decided there are a hundred things that add up to amateurish writing. And, each one of them requires mastery. It’s when all of the smallest details are cleaned up, and the reader can lose himself in the story, that the reader knows he is in the hands of a pro. But how to identify all of those details when you don’t even know some of them exist?
My friend said she had heard Sandra Scofield speak at a writer’s conference in Iowa and was impressed. She said she was all about understanding and improving craft. Just what I was looking for. My friend also said she talked to someone at the conference who said Sandra had edited a manuscript for her. The price was reasonable and the advice was invaluable. I Googled Sandra and contacted her through an email link on her website. She responded and asked me to email her an attachment of my work, just a sample chapter to see if she thought she could offer anything. We emailed a few times and I liked her immediately. She has that special quality that great teachers and editors seem to possess: a combination of kindness, compassion and a willingness to share the truth – she’ll tell you when it works, and when it doesn’t. I did not want, nor did I need, empty praise. I needed someone willing to dig into my manuscript and tell me the good and the bad. I needed to hear what was working so that I could build on it, but I also need to understand what was holding me back.
Sandra has edited three manuscripts for me. The first manuscript was the one I mentioned above. I mailed her a bound copy and she kept it for two or three weeks. She responded first with a lengthy email. That email is still one of the highlights in my years of writing. It was the first time I had ever received serious, in depth feedback on a complete piece of writing. I have received great feedback from my writers group (which I’ll address next time) but we’re limited to about 2,500 words per critique. They have never read my books front to back. Sandra dealt with plot first, characterization, setting, the story arc, etc. She told me what worked and what didn’t. She recommended other fiction that I could read for exemplars. She also encouraged me to email her back with questions to clarify her comments.
The second manuscript I sent her was handled similarly, but the outcome was different. She let me know – your writing is there, but the story isn’t. She told me up front – your story probably won’t sell. It didn’t have the conflict, the edge, the engaging characters, etc that have to be present. I appreciated her candor, and we moved forward with the edit. I approached it as a learning experience and I learned so much about the craft of writing, and the importance of revision from that experience.
Side Note: This book was my first attempt at a full blown mystery, and I missed some of the key components of mainstream mysteries simply because I didn’t know what they were. But, I also missed a bigger issue, one that every writer has to master. I had been writing for some time, but had not given much thought to the idea of scene. To that point, I wrote scene intuitively, but with no plan. In the written notes that Sandra provided she said it was problem. She recommended several fiction books that handle scene expertly, and she said I might want to read her book called, The Scene Book. Available through Amazon, or from her website at www.sandrascofield.com. It is an excellent read, with great examples from other works, and a plan to help you create a scene outline for your work. It made all the difference. I now outline everything using a scene outline. I plan to post a sample of it in a few months. If you tend to write in a linear fashion, from page 1 to the end, it might be something you need to think about.
When I finished The Territory I sent Sandra an email and asked if she would consider editing again. She agreed. I knew my level of writing had improved and the story was there. I was fairly confident I had moved up to the next level, and Sandra affirmed it. She told me to start looking for an agent. Her edits had moved from primarily a discussion of storyline to mostly a line edit with The Territory. Soon after I finished my revisions I entered the Tony Hillerman contest. So, Sandra, please accept my sincere thanks for your help and encouragement through the years. We finally did it!