A few years ago, when my sister-in-law, Meriam Wilhelm retired, she decided to write witch novels. She asked me to help. I had been an active mentor with RWA and an instructor at UCLA’s Writers Program, so I jumped in with gusto and started to mentor Meriam. The goal was to help Meriam create a salable, entertaining novel and learn the business of indie publishing. I am nothing if not focused and that was a problem.
A few weeks into the process, I was really impressed with her progress even though I'd thrown the kitchen sink at her. Meriam had revised dialogue to make it less formal and given each character a distinctive voice. She completely revamped a main character and deleted another. She reworked and rethought one full chapter, a task that is difficult even for a seasoned author. Meriam totally knocked chapter endings making them both compelling and strategic. She policed herself on show/tell.
At 25,000 words, the initial document, which originally read like a character sketch, was now taking on the form and substance of a full-length book.
While Meriam was getting A+ from me, I was failing and didn't even know it. It was when I read her blog, that I got a little schooling of my own. It seems that while I was being oh-so-professional using my editor’s scalpel, I had inflicted a couple of unintentional wounds on the person I wanted to help. What I thought of as constructive criticism, she only felt criticized. Reading her blog I realized there was a fine line between destructive and constructive help. I had forgotten the ego of a fledging writer is often felled by a well-placed, but unintentional, sling or arrow.
That's when I took a moment, and revisited my rejection letters, my first editorial letters, and read the opening of one of my first books. That's when I discovered a few 'ouch' moments of my own. This is what my editors said about my early work.
1) I wrote predictable dialogue. High emotion was equated with tears and raised voices.
2) I wrote the characters that I thought people wanted to read instead of characters I believed in.
3) I did not ask myself if the situation, dialogue, place, or time made sense?
4) And I was told to do rewrite my books over, and over, and over again. As one editor said, 'do it over not just for a reader but for yourself '.
And here's the corker. My favorite rejection of all.
5) "It is a pity Ms. Forster is not as entertaining on the page as she is in person."
I was trying to share with Meriam lessons that I learned long ago, but I should have asked myself if the way I was critiqued was something I should pass along. I was mentored by editors who took my raw material and helped me sculpt it into publishable books. They did not pull punches. They told me what was wrong, why I should fix it, and expected me to rise to the occasion. Not only do my sister-in-law and I share a common history in terms of craft, but we also share an understanding that there is no magic when it comes to creating a good book. Success is in the desire to learn and the ability to roll with those darn punches.
Perhaps that is the most critical piece of the writing equation. An author might bring a personal magic to her writing, but for it all to work a mentor or editor must be there show how the ingredients go together and in what proportion to make the literary spell work.
Luckily, we rebooted. I am a corporate type; Meriam is an educator. My voice is most clear when I am writing a plan or creating a budget; hers when she is tapping into a student's emotions. We compromised somewhere in between, and Meriam finished her book. Now, the magic is all hers, and she has gone on to publish many more without my help. Still, I’d like to think I had a hand in waving a wand over her creative cauldron, and that a pinch of that magic belongs to me, a good mentor who learned a thing or two from her student.
*Find Meriam Wilhelm's books here: The Witches of New Moon Beach