Making the Cuts

I am a firm believer in the saying, ‘everything happens for a reason.’ I couldn’t believe my luck that I’d have connections to a critiquing professional, who was also a special needs mom. There was much for me to learn about the art of writing, and I was eager to dig in and learn from the best.

That first essay draft of A Different Kind of Childcare was an exhausting piece to write. I was glad to know I had something to work off from, but I had to take a break. My daughter’s accident wasn’t the only part of my life that I thought was worth writing about. There was goodness, laughter, and other experiences that I wanted to put into print. Getting published was just one part of my writing goal. The other was that I didn’t want my life stories to die along with me.

I had my next project mulling around in my head. It was a comical version that I’d tell people about the time I agreed to go out in an evening snowstorm, to help my husband dump corn kernels at his deer stand, because he promised to take me out to eat afterward.

My fingers seemed to fly across the keyboard. I had fun inserting my sense of humor into the storytelling. I enjoy making people laugh, even if it is at the expense of me.

The first draft was 15 pages, 4425 words. I titled the piece, Thoughtful Intentions and a Bad Idea.

On Tuesday, March 18th, 2014, I paid the required $56.00 fee, and sent the manuscript to 2nd Draft, Attn: Carolyn Walker. Category: Nonfiction- Romantic Comedy.

On March 26th, 2014, Carolyn emailed her review and comments. I clicked on the email attachment and felt my hands sweat while I waited for the download.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath before reading the first paragraph of Carolyn’s review; Thank you for sending your story to Second Draft for review. I enjoyed reading it. It’s a lot of fun, with a quirky, interesting narrator. You did a great job of maintaining a solid tone throughout the piece. The piece is funny, as you intended. I laughed . . . I think this piece has lots of potential, and it is the kind of thing women would enjoy reading. (Not to say that men wouldn’t like it, but it’s sort of Erma Bombeck-y in nature and women love that!) I don’t think it’s quite arrived at its potential, however . . .

I can still remember how my heart fluttered when I read her remarks. Carolyn Walker, who was a published author, college instructor, and Writer’s Digest critique specialist, enjoyed reading my work. That was the day I knew I had what it took to be a writer.

I learned through the critiquing process that writing was a lot of hard work. Thoughtful Intentions and a Bad Idea took seven rewrites over a 15-month period. Working with Carolyn, I was getting college-level training for a fraction of the price.

I didn’t just read Carolyn’s responses and critiques. I studied them.

My first lesson was on verb-tense. Carolyn suggested I pick a tense and stick with it. She got my undivided attention when she added; inadvertent verb tense change has the effect of looking amateurish. I certainly didn’t want that!

Carolyn gave me comments on content. I wrote about my fear of bears, except I didn’t make my fear sound believable. When I re-read the paragraph, as written below, I understood what I had done wrong.

Although I wasn’t alone, I was feeling incredibly vulnerable. I understood I was in another living being’s playground and I was the foreigner. The only thought that kept me from completely freaking out was the fact that these wild animals in the forest are supposedly more afraid of us than we are of them.

Carolyn suggested I use more powerful imagery and go there in writing. I edited the paragraph to read like this,

I got the feeling that we were being watched. My husband was not properly using the flashlight. He wasn’t periodically searching for glowing eyes in the dark. He seemed to be oblivious to how cunning bears could be when they hunted humans. Only I seemed to understand that a bear was a patient predator and stalked their prey. I got to see this for myself in a movie I watched some years ago called ‘The Edge.’

Dialogue was part of my writing that was missing. Carolyn wrote, part of what makes this kind of piece work, of course, is the back-and forth between husband and wife, male and female. The ‘play’ that contains truth. We need a bit more of that.

Writing past the natural ending was another issue I had. It wasn’t easy for me to highlight and delete those last 349 words. I thought that the punch line I ended the essay with wrapped up the story like a bow on a package. But what I learned was endings need to be earned, bows are not a good thing. Carolyn’s last comment was, consider ending the piece where I have suggested.

As hard as it was to delete that last page of prose, I did. It was more important to me to become a published author than to waste time on a bruised ego. Over time, I understood what she was trying to teach me about the natural ending to an essay.

The editing part of writing takes hard work and commitment. For me, digging in, fleshing out, and verb tense have taken time to learn.

Carolyn reminded me more than once that she was just a guide. I had to trust my own instincts. But as a novice writer, I didn’t feel like I had earned any credible feelings about my work yet. So, I put my faith in the person who had, and made the changes when she suggested them.

Even though I remembered reading in manuals that it is easy for writers to fall in love with their words, I was doing just that. It was tough for me to delete things from my essays. Believe it or not, some of those sentences took me an hour. One page could have taken me days. I’m embarrassed to admit that like a stubborn child, I’d sometimes leave some of my beloved passages right where I wrote them.

I realized that some of my problem wasn’t so much as being stubborn, but more of the fact that my writing was becoming a diary of sorts, including events I didn’t want to forget. Sometimes I researched for days to get the facts right. Depending on the topic, I’d contact my sisters and brothers, friends, and acquaintances, and pick their brains. I’d call on my Mom and push her to remember things from long ago. I enjoyed weaving the information into my essays, rewriting them until the flow felt right.

I found the perfect solution. I started pasting the cuts to a document I titled, ‘Notes.’

I’ve learned that the more I deleted, added, and changed under Carolyn’s suggestions, the better my stories got. Having a place where I can safely keep the rejects has made my editing process a much more enjoyable experience. I don’t have to throw the baby out with the bath water and I end up rewarded with a polished and publishable piece.


1 Comment

  1. Marlys on July 2, 2021 at 8:20 pm

    Wow! Excellent perspective towards getting to be a better writer. You have always done great, sharing what you are learning is even greater. I am so looking forward to more great works of yours Doris, keep it up!

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