Sunday, August 1, 2010

Always Room to Grow

Something that I’ve always guessed was true and now I can say from experience definitely is, is that the process of working with an editor to publish a book is extremely similar to the process of working with a thesis committee to get an MFA thesis ready to defend. When I was working on my thesis, I would have the head of my committee read a draft (or sometimes just an individual section) of my thesis; then we would meet and discuss her feedback; then I would go home again and bang out another draft, and the process would begin anew.

A basic unspoken rule at the heart of our meetings was that, as the writer of the piece, final say would always be up to me. Her suggestions were just suggestions and were meant to help me see things that I might not be able to see on my own. Her feedback was also meant to help me improve overall as a writer. The process was a lot of work, and I loved every second of it. And I definitely came out of it all a much better writer.

This is almost exactly what it’s like working with an actual editor to get a book ready for publication (with the exception, in my case, that my editor and I don’t live in the same state and so can’t meet in person to discuss feedback—instead, everything is done through email). To start with, my editor and I each read through the manuscript separately, paying attention to the fact that this would soon be a book, which we would be trying to market to an actual readership.

Then, we began an ongoing back and forth through email, during which she gives me feedback that I’m allowed to take or leave, and I ask her questions and bounce ideas off of her. Every day when I sit down to work on the book, I keep her feedback in mind as I work through new drafts of these stories. It’s been extremely fruitful so far, and I’m watching the book transform into something much tighter and more polished than it was when I entered it into the contest a couple of months ago.

But perhaps even more exciting than that: her feedback is helping me to become a better writer. I have this proclivity towards what she calls “prose hesitation,” (I love that term; it describes the problem perfectly), and she’s helping me to see that when I recognize and cut those hesitations, the prose shines through much stronger and brighter. This new knowledge will help me not only tighten the stories in this book, but it’s something that I can take with me to future writing projects.

Exactly like with my MFA thesis, I’m gaining more from this experience than just a ready to be published book. It’s a reassuring reminder that the learning process is not over when you start publishing books—that you continue learning and growing with every new piece that you write, every new editor that you work with. And whatever you’re working on right now always has the potential to be the best thing you’ve ever written.


Justus said...

Do tell: what's pose hesitation?

Ashley Cowger said...

Prose hesitation. It's this tendency I have to prolong getting to an important point by really elaborating on whatever comes right before it. I'm basically overwriting, as they say. The editor thinks, and I think she's right, that I should try to be more concise so that the prose will pack more of a punch. I've already cut four pages from the book just by cutting lines here and there, and I'm only about halfway through right now.

Ashley Cowger said...

Even in that comment I'm doing it. Ha ha! "I need to be more concise," is what I should have said.

Justus said...

That's such a tough thing to address because you want your prose to be tight, but you also want to make it your own and not try to turn into Hemingway or Carver or something.