A great man said people watched movies because they believed in heroes. Decades ago when that same man lit up the screen with his signature walk and no-nonsense talk, he was one to me and many like me.
I just finished reading The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom. The first part of the book was a little boring but surprisingly a pleasure to read. Does that make sense? Can something be a wee boring, still a pleasure?
Perhaps I felt a little bored because the first part of the book covered much of the same material I had read many times before: research, libraries, getting your hands on the documents, getting your facts straight, what is history, staying true to history . . .
When I was around ten years old, I had an accident. It wasn’t a big one; it didn’t involve a vehicle or a trip to the Emergency or stitches. It involved a bicycle, lots of blood and an old rag stained with paint.
Last fall, my sister gave me a 4×6 photograph I had never seen before. At least I didn’t remember seeing it before. It was of me and my sister, taken on a summer day at Liscomb Mills. If I had seen this picture shortly after it was taken, I probably wouldn’t have liked it. I never liked pictures of myself. However, time and forgetfulness has changed my opinion. I do like this picture now.
This change of heart reminded me of a folder of writing I had found not long ago. I had begun reading one of the stories and was impressed with how well it was written. I didn’t remember writing it, but it had to be mine. It was with other stories I had written. Although it wasn’t finished, it had great potential.
While reading another story in the file, one I was familiar with, I made a different discovery. It wasn’t as great as I had originally thought it was twenty years ago. It was filled with bookisms, bad dialogue and shallow characters. The spelling was fairly good, but the punctuation needed work.
The other stories in the folder were similar – some better than I remembered and some worse than I could imagine. Being able to read these stories with an open mind was a great exercise. Ideally, we should all put ten years between our so-called final draft and the copy we submit to an editor, but that’s not practical.
Many how-to books and writing websites recommend putting distance between you and your writing, snipping that umbilical cord to gain some perspective. Almost every writer becomes emotionally attached to their writing. It is why we fight against any changes, scoff at negative comments and roll our eyes at helpful suggestions.
But we shouldn’t ignore comments by others. Helpful criticism is just that – helpful. If you feel like rejecting comments without considering them, put them away for a while. Comments, like our own stories, need time to ripen, time to become void of emotions.
After a week or two or a month, read the comments again and then read your story. Try and imagine the suggestions put into action. Does it make your story better? Or have the suggestions missed the mark? If you disagree with the suggestions, see if something can be tweaked to see avoid any future similar suggestions.
For example, the person reading one of my stories added a few words to describe how a character was feeling. It was a simple addition in place of a missing emotion, but the emotion the person added was the opposite of what I had in mind. So instead of ignoring or adding the suggestion, I added my own, giving the character the emotions I wanted her to have to avoid future misunderstandings.
You don’t have to toss things in the closet and forget about them, but . . . who knows, after several years, you might discover a gem, a gripping story or a photograph you’d love to share with the world.
Something caught my attention this morning while filling the bird feeder at the kitchen window; a crow with a grey collar. No, the crow wasn’t carrying a collar; it was wearing it. Let me clarify this further. It wasn’t a collar that could be removed. It was a collar of grey feathers.
The crow swooped by the window so quick, a glimpse was all I managed. I cocked my head, stared out at the frosty branch tips of the trees and reviewed my memory files, trying to remember if I had seen such a thing before. No, I hadn’t.
I stretched my neck to see if the strange crow had landed where I throw food for these feathered friends. It hadn’t. No surprise, I hadn’t yet tossed the green bread or left-over pancake outside.
Then, from across the field, the crow with the distinguished grey collar flew in and landed on the large evergreen beside the driveway. I stared at it. I was in awe. I had never seen a crow like that before. The two-inch wide grey feathers flowed neatly into the black feathers and completely encircled its neck.
Another crow flew in and perched on a branch just above Mr. Grey Collar. I leaned toward the window and squinted in the early morning light. That crow had grey feathers, too, except his were covering the entire back of his head. Another crow flew in. You guessed it; he, too, wore grey feathers.
All these grey-feathered crows began the cogs turning in my head. Regardless of what my eyes told my brain, it wouldn’t believe them. My brain wanted more information. So I stared and I watched and I observed, looking this way and that. Then I saw it; the rays of the morning sun sparkled on the grey feathers. Squinting more, I realised the feathers weren’t grey at all. They were frost covered. Given the -20 degree temperature, this was plausible.
After more watching, I realised my latest observations proved my hypothesis correct. Mr. Grey Collar was really Mr. Frosty Neck. I finished filling the bird feeder, hung it and the suet in the trees, then threw out the bread and pancake for the frosty crows.
Receiving a critique from someone is a lot like these frosty crows – sometimes it takes thought and observation to see the truth.
Two friends and I exchange short writing passages weekly. Sometimes when I receive a critique, I express my disapproval by throwing my arms in the air, doing laps around the kitchen and blurting out things. If I really disagree, I close the message and go on to something else, trying to forget about it.
After time has passed, I return to the message, reading it with a more opened mind. Sometimes I’ll agree with the suggestions. Other times I see why the suggestions won’t work. And then there’s that stubborn streak that won’t let me accept a change because I really – for some reason – want it the way I wrote it.
But just like that grey-collared crow, my brain won’t accept my answer. Something keeps needling me every time I read over the passage I refused to change for no good reason. In the end, I usually give in to the original suggestion.
After almost three years of exchanging critiques, I think I’ve finally got this stubborn thing under control . . . almost