Friday, February 4, 2011

Good Editor + Receptive Writer = Potential Magic

By Kim

As some of you know, my last post detailed the inner workings of my critique group (a.k.a. the ladies of What Women Write). I would like to continue on with that theme this time, not by offering advice or generalities about the power of a good critique partnership, but by showing you a concrete example of the magic that can result. In order to include things such as my critique partner's comments and my thoughts during the rewriting process, things that you may find helpful, this post is much longer than usual.

For those of you anxious for a sneak peek at the beginning of The Oak Lovers, you’re in luck. Take # 1 will only live on in this post. Take # 2, while perhaps not the absolute final draft, is close. The only similarity between them is the very last line.

The Oak Lovers – Take # 1

Martha Niles glanced at the stack of afternoon mail, still untouched on the table. The top envelope, identical to several others she had received over the past few months, bore the signature orb and cross logo of the Roycroft Shop in East Aurora. This one was addressed to Sarah Wainwright, her mother. As promised, Sammy timed its arrival a few days into Martha’s spring holiday; she would have the remaining time to convince her family of the wisdom of their plan.

Helen Niles Dardess
She smiled faintly, returning to her drawing. “I’m nearly finished, Helen,” she said, pondering the assortment of pencils scattered across the dining room table. “Try not to blink so much.” The gray rims around her older sister’s irises were pronounced; if she used too soft a pencil the result would appear inhuman, too hard and it would not resemble Helen at all.

“You haven’t finished my eyes yet?”

Martha shook her head. “They’re all I’m drawing.”

“What a pointless exercise.”

“Not at all. A portrait’s ruined if the eyes are wrong.” She added a touch more shading to Helen’s upper lids, and frowned, wishing she were back at her art school in Boston, where she was blessed with a constant stream of light. Here at home, it changed by the minute. Her grip tightened on the pencil, white knuckles of anticipation. She glanced again at the mail. “Is there a letter for me, Mother?”

“I’m not sure.” Mother shifted her shawl, revealing Martha’s baby sister, who had dozed off while nursing. She reached for the stack. “Sammy sent something, but it’s for me. That’s odd.”

Martha shrugged, feigning complete absorption in her sketch as Mother read. When she refolded the letter and opened the next without comment, Martha dropped her pencil. “Well, what did it say?”

Samuel Warner (left) with Carl Ahrens in 1900
“He’s the new art director at Roycroft. No wonder you improved so much under his guidance. He sends his regards.”

“Surely that’s not all. He could have said as much to me directly.”

“I sense a conspiracy.” Mother sighed. “Whose idea was this apprenticeship?”

“His, I swear. Please consent. I want so very much to go.”

“This time last year you wanted ‘so very much’ to go to art school.”

Martha knelt before her mother’s chair. “Yes, but I’d learn much more at Roycroft. You’ve seen their beautiful books. I could paint the illustrations.”

Mother raised one eyebrow. “And?”

Pamela’s response

When Pamela initially returned the opening chapter to me, she said nothing at all about this section other than suggesting I let readers know who Sammy is. About an hour later she called. “There’s nothing wrong with the first scene,” she said. “It’s written well, but it’s not as compelling as what I know you’re capable of. I always picture the opening of a book like the first scene of a movie, and what I visualize here is just a young girl drawing a portrait of her sister and glancing at the mail from time to time. I don’t have much sense of who she is or have any emotional connection with her until she argues with her mother. Could you maybe start somewhere more interesting and work that part in?”

My thoughts

Pamela genuinely wants me to succeed and believes in this book. She knows what I can do and cares enough to push me to my full potential. With that in mind, when she throws down a challenge, I take it.

I re-read the opening and saw at once that she was right. At the end of page one the reader knows more about the anatomy of Helen’s eyes than the voice of the female protagonist. After that, Martha shows a little spunk, but much of what she says could be the words of any young girl angling for something she wants.

I saw a checklist of facts, remnants of the days when this book was narrative nonfiction. Martha’s invitation to work in the Roycroft book shop came by way of a letter from Samuel Warner, her former drawing instructor. Martha went to art school in Boston. Most members of her family are introduced. There is some mystery surrounding the letter and its contents, but it's quickly solved. If someone read only the first page of this novel in a bookstore, would they be compelled enough to buy it?

What I did

I opened a blank Word document and started over.

The Oak Lovers – Take # 2

Martha Niles bought the sketchbook only last week, yet its leather cover already bore a permanent crease and the pages within offered glimpses of a life no longer hers. The lake view from her former bedroom window took up a whole leaf, as did the whitewashed saltbox-style rectory, where she lived, and a rubbing from her father’s tombstone. Portraits of family, friends, and servants alike graced the next few pages, though she would not linger over these until she could do so without tears.

On the train from Albany to Buffalo, gentlemen stared at Martha, likely wondering why a proper young lady traveled unchaperoned. Wearing a corset and a crown braid pinned under her hat must imply a fragility she had not possessed last year, when her hair still fell in auburn waves down her back. No one had paid her the slightest attention then, though she often commuted to and from her Boston art school alone. She felt vulnerable without a pencil in her hand now, and sketched absently until hunger dictated she cease. A doughy man in a threadbare suit watched her take her lunch in a manner that made swallowing difficult. Annoyed, she bestowed on him her most haughty glare, and prayed it would deem her unapproachable.

This tactic worked on him but not on the persnickety matron seated to Martha’s left. Her hat contained such an abundance of black feathers it appeared a whole crow nested on her head, and her thin lips pursed in a permanent frown. She glanced at Martha’s sketch of the platform at the Utica train station, their last stop. “You’re wasting your time with that idle hobby, dear,” she said in a clipped tone. “Only men can be true artists.”

“The same was once said of writers. How tragic it would be had Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters listened.” Martha signed her name, and added an orb and cross symbol beside it. Inside the orb she wrote a capital R with an exaggerated tail.

As expected, her companion gasped. “You’re a Roycrofter!”

“I start tomorrow as an illuminator in the book shop.”

“Oh dear, Lord, no,” the matron said. “That place is not for a young woman of class. It’s nothing but an enclave of sin and depravity.”

Martha sighed. She had already heard this argument from her step-father, but thankfully Mother felt otherwise. “I’m to apprentice under Samuel Warner, a respectable gentleman my family’s known for years. My virtue could not be safer.”

“Don’t be so sure. That Mr. Hubbard who runs the place is the devil incarnate, encouraging boys and girls to both work and play together. Why, when I visited there, a brazen woman walked up to a group of men playing baseball and asked to join them.”

“Did they let her?”

“Yes, and she made a frightful spectacle of herself by hitting the ball clear across the park. She later had the gall to try to hand me the bat to ‘give it a go’. Can you imagine? It’s not dignified to perspire in such a manner.”

Martha doubted that the baseball player perspired any more than she did at the moment. The July air filtering in the open windows of the crowded train car felt like a slap from a wet wool blanket. “If you disapprove of Mr. Hubbard, I’m curious as to why you went to Roycroft at all?”

She huffed. “Because everyone who’s anyone eventually does.”  

Pamela’s response (to the entire scene)

Oh, my. Fabulous, madam. I am so much more emotionally tied to this scene than I was the previous one. Love, love, love it.

My thoughts

Martha Niles in 1900
While I still show a girl drawing, the reader learns a lot about both Martha through the act. Martha’s respectable middle class background is apparent. We know Martha's young, adventurous, independent, and a bit blunt. We know she has enough talent to be a professional, and that she's about to go someplace controversial, a place that's already caused a rift in her family. She's anxious to leave, yet starts her new life with images of what she’s leaving behind. There's also some sense of the time period even for readers unfamiliar with the Arts and Crafts Movement of the early 20th century. (Roycroft was an important part of that.)

Read a little further and you'll see that while she's always been as sensible as her name, being at Roycroft immediately sparks the first flames of rebellion.

This is the voice of my great-grandmother at seventeen, mere hours before meeting a married, crippled, and penniless painter named Carl Ahrens. Hopefully readers will hear her as clearly as I do now.

Carl Ahrens at Roycroft - 1900

Please feel free to weigh in with questions or comments. We’d love to hear any stories about your experience with critique and how it has enhanced the quality of your own writing.


  1. I loved this new version--not that the other wasn't beautifully written also. I, too, have had the benefit of Pamela's critique/editing! I'm a better writer because of her (and all my fellow WWWers!)

  2. Joan - you are excellent at calling me on it when my writing is lazy. As Pamela said, there was nothing really "wrong" with the first version. She just knew I could do better!

  3. Darling Daughter, Not being one of your "first readers", this scene is all new to me. All you raving about this wonderful group of friends sharing their feelings honestly with you is certainly deserved. It is amazing how a scene that has nothing nothing wrong with it can be so dramatically improved. But then, that's what make a best seller. Hugs to Joan!

    Love you, Dad

  4. Hi Dad,

    Joan is my second reader, right after Mom, and she's fantastic at catching places where she thinks I'm being lazy. Pamela is my third reader, and this was all her doing. She wrote nothing about it in the critique, but it bugged her enough to call me shortly after sending it back to me.


  5. Kim. Thanks for sharing your two versions of the opening of Oak Lovers. The second version drew me more quickly into the story. I found the dialogue in the first version more confusing also as I was trying to figure out who was speaking.

    In the second version, I found you doing more showing than telling when describing her family. I could see her brother who always had his nose in a book. The way she was drawing her sister as "the incensed school teacher" reminded me of a sketch a student did of me with my hands on my hips. I was wearing my granny shoes that were in fashion at the time (early 1970s). Unfortunately, I don't know where that sketch is now. It is likely long gone.

    When I worked on my book The United Churches of Grey County, Ontario: Historical Highlights, my sister worked with me and critiqued what I wrote. In the end, I ended up with a better book. At first, it was difficult to accept her suggestions but I valued and appreciated her help that was given freely.

  6. Thank you for stopping by, Janet. I agree - the second version is MUCH better.

    I learned how to have a thick skin in graduate school. Critiques there were vicious at times because most writers are insecure about their own abilities. It seemed that many of them wanted to build themselves up by shooting others down.

    My current critique partners and I work well together because we genuinely want to help each other succeed.


  7. Kim, This is a wonderful example of a re-write. You have have sat yourself down and taken a whole new perspective of the first act, so to speak. Good for you!

    My response to the first take was similar to Joan's, which I read after jotting down my own thoughts. I found it somewhat confusing. "Who is Sammy?" I asked myself. Also, the writing seemed static and unemotional; your writing is usually so much more flowing and alive!

    There is more flow and engagement in the second 'take'. I still didn't know where Martha was as I began to read; it took me until the end of the reading to realize she was already in Roycroft. although you don't name the place for those who don't know what is coming as you did in the first take. At least in the first 'take', we know where she is going. I too like the second re-write better; the drawing scene was too draggy.

    In the second take you gave us a very succinct picture of her family members and their reactions to her going away and you informed us that she had a very disapproving, man of the cloth and step father, whose fear was not too far off the mark as her life at Roycroft will prove!

    Your Thoughts: This writing is more dynamic; more you; there is something alive when you express "your thoughts" that is lacking in your quiet openings--I miss the the excitement, the punch. I am not grabbed and pulled into the story as I would have expected to be, but of course I know what is to happen and your readers don't . . .is there a way to promise them that they are about to enter upon a dynamic love story and an unusually interesting life adventure? Do you need to go for a walk and hug an oak tree?

    My, wasn't Helen a beautiful girl!

    Don't take my comments too seriously, I am not a professional as your friends are. Regardless of what I reflect back, I know this is going to be a best seller, especially among the members of the art world!


  8. As a highly visual person, your second version immediately hooked me. Made me want to go back and reread all the captivating chapters you've written so far. These two openings have me singing again the praises of constructive criticism.

  9. Hi Paula and Mom,

    Thank you for your comments. As I find myself writing the final chapters, I'm falling even more in love with the story and can't wait to share it with others.

    No worries, Paula. By page seven the readers will have met Carl, and by the end of their first conversation the reader will likely be thinking 'uh, oh!"

  10. I feel my job as a critique partner is to be honest in the most helpful way possible. When I sent Kim back her edit, I was honest but not all that helpful. Which was why I called her. After I had a chance to voice my...concerns seems to strong here...but I wanted her to know that the opening of a such a wonderful story needed to be something more. And I think she delivered.

  11. I appreciate your sharing the editing process with us. It shows how dramatic feedback and revision can impact the content of artistic writing. You know we're all anxiously awaiting the publication of The Oak Lovers, and this is one step closer to that occasion!


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