On the Topic of Writing

The Red Pen: My Experience With the Inkwell Council

It’s an endless debate—what is the hardest part of writing a novel? For some writers, it’s the first word. It’s staring at an empty screen or blank page and praying that a muse will appear. For others, it’s mastering an element of writing. It’s dialogue, or character development, or maybe even grammar.

I have to say the hardest part of writing a novel is not, actually, writing your novel. It’s editing it.

On January 18th, I received an email from the Inkwell Council. Before that moment, every writing-related email had been a rejection of some form.

Thank you for submitting your work to (agent/competition/magazine). At this time, we have decided not to proceed….

I braced myself for another rejection. It becomes a habit after a while. Your heart skips a beat, but it still sinks.

Congratulations Sara!

I froze. I stared at the screen. I couldn’t comprehend I was actually reading, Your manuscript has been chosen for critique by The Inkwell Council. Here’s what’s next. Today, I will distribute your work to the other members of the council. Over the next week or two, our trio will read through your work and edit . . . .


It’s been just over a month. I’ve had time to sift through their critique, sit back to digest, and dive into revisions. To put it lightly, the experience was sobering, humbling, enlightening, enriching, infuriating, depressing, and encouraging. And exhausting. Those are a lot of emotions to feel all at once.

“…sometimes it’s hard to see the forest for the trees when we’re so close to our work.” —Justine Manzano

Truer words were never spoken. As I was more than ready to admit, I was too close to my own project. I mean this on two levels. First, I had an entire world and culture mapped out in my mind. Transferring every single detail to the written page for a reader to interpret is a monumental task. In some aspects, I succeeded. In others, I failed. Pinpointing those failures, or rather, miscommunications, requires an outsider’s eyes. Second, I had edited this manuscript so many times already that I felt ineffective. Was that a repetitive explanation, or just familiar because I’ve read it over and over again? That question is detrimental when trying to edit.

Grammar corrections are an easy pill to swallow. Conceptual criticisms don’t go down quite as easily. One comment was particularly noteworthy. In all honesty, I doubt it was given a second thought by the Council. It was a simple, innocent question. I couldn’t even explain why I fixated so intensely on it. Basically, the Council was questioning my weapon choice and my explanation that bullets were a resource that had been depleted in my war-torn world.

I irrationally simmered all night and into the next day. My explanation was justifiable, I argued. It made sense. Why couldn’t they see my logic? Why nitpick over a detail like that?

It made sense. I told myself that over and over again. It made sense. It didn’t need to be changed. It made sense.

But what if a different explanation made more sense?

Once that epiphany blossomed, I marveled that I hadn’t considered this alternative solution before. Naturally, the idea struck me in the shower, because that seems to be where most brilliant ideas attack. I wish I could describe that incredible feeling in better detail. It’s like lightning in your brain, like all the planets just aligned and the fog cleared so you can see in absolute clarity. In this case, one little change, just a few sentences of dialogue, completely altered the warfare of my story, affecting the interactions between my feuding races and the motive for creating advanced weaponry. Just from one simple, innocent question.

The Council replied to my observation: “If you didn’t react with a little bit of anger and frustration at a deep edit like that, you wouldn’t be human. It’s okay to take a couple of days to fume about it. It’s also okay to disagree with some of what we’ve said.”

The scope of the changes that arose from the critique surprised me. Editing is sometimes like a puzzle. Here is the issue. Devise a way to solve it. Keeping in mind that the Council edited only my prologue and first three chapters, my alterations ranged from changing verb tense, to splitting and reversing chapters, to miniscule but important grammatical fixes like unnecessary capitalization and deleting the word that.

What really struck me was the application of the Iceberg Theory to the editing process. As I wrote in my post about Hemingway’s theory of omission, mastering the skill is a fine line to walk. The Inkwell Council essentially marked areas of potential misunderstanding with a red flag. It was then my job to scrutinize those flags and decide how to proceed. In some instances, it was a place of confusion that required immediate definition. In others, it was a question that would be answered later in the story. And finally, certain flags marked questions that did not necessarily require an answer. These sections had to be carefully weighed and judged. I had to decide if the reader could glean the answer with nothing but reasoning skills and perceptive reading, or if I needed to elaborate.

What did I learn from my experience? First, keep an open mind. It’s so easy to tell yourself that, but actually smothering your ego and lowering your defenses is the hardest part. The brain is easy to train. We spend our whole lives doing just that. The heart, on the other hand, is more difficult to rein in. You can remind yourself to stay open as many times as you want, but the heart will still fight you and try to throw up walls. It takes an immense amount of willpower to expand your mind and look beyond a criticism to see it from an outsider’s perspective.

Second, sometimes you have to step away. This seems counter-productive, but it’s necessary if you want to follow that first piece of advice. Edits can be grueling, and closing that laptop and letting your mind wander may illuminate new solutions. Stop staring at that bright computer screen filled with never-ending edits. Walk away. Fume a little bit. Take a shower.

Third, we can’t improve if we don’t recognize our faults. Nobody likes having a mistake pointed out, but it can’t be corrected if it isn’t first identified. The Inkwell Council saw only the beginning of an entire novel, but they identified recurring issues that I hadn’t been able to see because I’d been focused on the forest instead of the trees. Once those issues were brought to my attention, I was better able to notice them as I proceeded further into the manuscript with my own editing eyes. The result? I’m tightening my prose, whittling my word count, and eliminating repetition.

To Justine, Megan, and Ismael of the Inkwell Council—my sincerest appreciation for all that you do. I can only hope that you continue to guide new authors forward. Your advice and expertise helped me grow in so many ways. I count my blessings that you selected A Fallen Hero from your pool of submissions.

 

For any authors interested in sending a pitch to the Inkwell Council for consideration, please check out their website:

http://www.theinkwellcouncil.com/

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “The Red Pen: My Experience With the Inkwell Council

  1. OMG, I loved this! You hit some stuff right on and I have experienced similar emotions as I’ve started getting my MS critiqued. I’ve gotten much better about flagging an issue an editor brings up that irks me. I don’t let myself address it head on for a day or two-its their, in my brain, slinking around and causing angst, but now I’m at least aware of it and those changes are usually the ones that make a huge difference in the MS. Thank you for this wonderful post!!

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Katie! Glad to know I’m not the only one who goes crazy sometimes while editing. And you’re absolutely right–oftentimes it’s those painful edits that end up making such a huge difference in the ms.

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