Freelance Blog + writing

Guest Post: Being Teachable

By Trish Ryan Last spring I finished my first book, a memoir about my search for the right God and the right guy. I'd spent the previous ten months dredging up and ruminating over every stupid thing I'd ever done, so I was pretty excited to finally reach that last page, and the pronouncement of my happily ever after. When I sent the manuscript to my editor, I was quite sure it was complete. While it's true that my final version weighed in at a hefty 135,000 words (my contract required only 85,000), I thought this was simply because my story was BIGGER than we'd realized at the start. I had, after all, screwed up A LOT. I checked my email hourly that week, waiting for my editor's enthusiastic words of affirmation. I imagined them in my head, something along the lines of, "This is fantastic! We may need to move some punctuation around, but other than than, it's perfect!" I was sure there would be lots of exclamation points, and perhaps the occasional word set out in all caps. Editors like to encourage first-time authors, right? Six weeks later, a package arrived. It contained a marked-up version of my manuscript, along with a two-page (single spaced) editorial letter. Suffice to say, there were no all caps. The letter began, "An important thing to remember when telling a story is that it needs to have a cohesive narrative arc." Ouch. But the truth is, I hadn't known. My editor saw my problem--that I had writing skill, but no writing sense--and called me on it. Rather than leaving me to wallow in my ignorance, she spent the next five months putting me through book writing boot camp, helping me transform my unwieldy collection of anecdotes and essays into an actual STORY. (One that now weighs in, interestingly enough, at about 85,000 words. ) I wasn't always the best student. It's not fun to be challenged by someone trained to identify and correct your weaknesses. I wrestled with the usual array of prideful temptations: the urge to blow off her suggestions, to cling to the stylish turns of phrase I'd come to love (these were always the ones she'd mark, "This could be clearer," or--worse--"Is this necessary?") But I fought that temptation: I took deep, calming breaths. I prayed for humility. I reminded myself that my editor wasn't a professor grading me or a critic trying to tear me down--she was part of my team, coaching me to reach beyond where I could get to on my own. And she was spot-on with her questions and comments--every single time. Now, as I wait for my book to come out this spring, I'm sometimes asked if I have any advice for aspiring writers. It's good to l i sten, I say. Be teachable. That's pretty much all I've got. Having someone work on your work, adding their best to yours, is a gift. Don't refuse it. Feel free to remind me of this the next time I blog about receiving an editorial letter... Trish Ryan is the author of HE LOVES ME, HE LOVES ME NOT: A MEMOIR OF FAITH, HOPE, AND HAPPILY EVER AFTER (Hachette, April 30, 2008). She lives outside Boston with her husband Steve and an improbable, adorable mixed-breed dog. Her website is www.trishryanonline.com .

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Guest Post: Being Teachable + writing