They hammer it into you: The first chapter has to be perfect. The first page has to seize the reader’s attention. The first paragraph has to hook you. That first sentence has to compel you to read more.
Whole books on writing are devoted to beginnings. Entire workshops are dedicated to putting together a captivating first sentence.
How many times have you read your first chapter? How many times have you read your first page? We read our work again and again, until pathways are formed in our brains, until it is committed to memory and our eyes aren’t even reading the words anymore.
Once we get to the point where we’re showing our work to another live soul, our writing–especially that first chapter–has become as familiar as the last mile of road before arriving home. Revising it, changing even a word, at some point just seems wrong. You’ve read it so many times, it is just the way it is supposed to be.
We give our work to friends, beta readers, book doctors, people in our critique group. Yes, we want feedback. Yes, we want advice on how to make the story better. But let’s face it, what we truly want to hear is, “This is wonderful! Exquisite! Don’t change a word!” Anything less is disappointing. (Admit it. It’s just the two of us. No one else has to know.)
So, what mental state must you get in to hear and react to feedback? Some would say, the more you do it, the easier it gets. It’s the whole develop-a-thick-skin thing. (Is it just me or does the image of someone with thick skin sound disgusting?)
I would say, sure, practice does help. More exactly, the more you write, the less any one page becomes sacred, because you know what, baby, there’s always more where that came from.
What helped me look at revisions differently was watching a documentary on one of the Friends DVDs. Season 4, I think. The documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at creating an episode of Friends, from writing to post-production.
One of the things that struck me about the process in particular is how mutable the script was. There would be a live reading with the actors around a table. Adjustments were made. In rehearsal, Matt Perry might ad lib a new line. The script was altered again. The cast perform in front of an audience and discovered what moments were getting laughs, what moments fell flat. Yet more revisions. The script was an organic thing. Something that grew and evolved. In the end, it made for a better script.
In your writing career, you are going to hear criticism. Some of it will instantly make sense to you. Some you’ll resist.
Here are some suggestions: First, sit with the advice for a while. Let your brain absorb it. Unless you completely agree with the new ideas, it helps to sleep on it for a few days. Let your unconscious marinate in someone else’s way of thinking. Avoid trying out changes when you are in that mode of Resistance. If you don’t, whatever you produce, you’re going to hate.
You’ll know when you’re ready to take a stab at changes. You still might not agree with the advice, but the emotion behind it will have worn off a little. Then, give it a try. Challenge yourself to write something awesome, just to see if you can do it. What is the worst that can happen? You’ll lose a little time. The new material falls flat and you go back to the way it was.
More likely, you’ll end up with something new, something that works better. It might be roughly the way you had it before, but tweaked in such a way that addresses the issue in a way that you or your critiquer hadn’t anticipated.
And if the new stuff doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. It’ll be a valuable exercise. You’ll have gained experience as a writer.
Check out that Friends documentary. It may change your perspective the way it changed mine.
Brian Mercer is the author of Mastering Astral Projection: 90-Day Guide to Out-of-body Experience (Llewellyn, 2004) and the Mastering Astral Projection CD Companion (Llewellyn, 2007). A board member of the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, he is the webmaster of and occasional contributor to Author Magazine. When he’s not working as a programmer analyst or exploring alternate dimensions out of body, he can be found writing novels. He lives in Seattle with his wife, Sara.