A few years ago, I started a fictional story about two people who had been high school sweethearts and now, in their late 30s, are brought back into each other’s lives by a tragedy, which is what opens the story. That’s about all I knew about what I was writing. I never plan out stories, so I never know how long they will end up being or what will happen to the characters. So much of the joy for me is the surprise of finding out.
As the story became longer — I had only written a short story up until this point — the characters did things I never could have predicted, and they revealed secrets to me that shocked me. Sometimes it felt as if I were not writing the story, that it was more coming through me than anything else. By the time I finished, my story was the length of a novella.
About two years ago, I got the chance to take a weekend workshop with a New York editor. Four of us were in her class, and each of us had turned in the first 20 pages of a manuscript. I chose my novella. I was confident about my writing, but I wanted feedback about the plot and pacing.
The editor started the workshop telling us she wasn’t going to hold back on her critiques (that was good! I wanted honesty, and I’ve had my writing critiqued hundreds of times, no biggie). She told us she was going to move fast because she had limited time (that’s cool). Then she warned us that in the past she had made workshop attendees cry (um, wait a sec …).
Over the next two days, the editor lectured us about how if our manuscripts didn’t have a big, new idea that no one had ever thought of, they would probably never get picked up by a publisher like hers. Then she proceeded to take each of our stories and tear them apart.
I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t pretty. And nothing about it felt good. I didn’t even understand some of her feedback — that’s how much it was either over my head or I was in overload mode. I did not cry, but I felt bruised. My story was never going to be a big, new idea no one had ever imagined. It was a love story — between two young people, but also between parents and children — and love stories have been written about a million, billion times.
But — and this is a big but — that editor also gave us a full lecture on how to improve our writing. She listed out words to avoid, specific no-no’s in characterization, and how to handle things like pacing, among many other things. I knew that list could became a game-changer, and I could either keep on feeling bruised or I could take the lessons this astute editor had given and become a better writer.
I chose the latter.
Although after I got home I could not open my novella for months, I applied her list of tips to my other stories and anything else I wrote moving forward. A year after working with that editor, I wrote the best short story I have ever written. It was published in a well-respected literary magazine, to my great happiness and pride. Now that story is the opening of my third book, to be published in 2020.
I saw that editor last year at a writer’s conference. I thought she would see me and ignore me. Instead she gave me a hug and asked how I was doing. One day, I will write her a note and tell her the workshop was tough but worth it. I will tell her she changed my writing for the better. I will tell her thank you. For now, I am still focused on her list of tips, and on becoming a better writer.
Shuly Cawood of Johnson City is a writer and the author of three books, including the memoir, “The Going and Goodbye,” and the forthcoming short story collection, A Small Thing to Want.