I have known lots of writers, some of whom I have watched grow from novices to masters. And I’ve observed that the masters and the ones I suspect are on their way to that level have in common their desire to learn and their willingness to set ego aside to ask for help and listen.
A problem rises from the nature of most artists: we need to be hypersensitive, and vulnerable to emotions, in order to give our art passion and to make a way for the spirit to reach us. We also need to be bold, unwilling to run from experience or pain that can give us insights to pass along. So we can’t take the easy route to boldness, which is denial of fear and other troubling emotions.
When I observe a beginning writer who appears terrified to receive criticism yet asks for it, and who listens even while it batters his heart, I believe I’ve encountered a potentially fine writer.
One such person, Richard Russo, was a student at the University of Arizona when I taught there. Since he had finished the MFA in writing before I came, and had gone on to seek the PhD in literature, he didn’t have the occasion to take any of my classes, yet he brought me stories to read and listened eagerly to my comments.
He was no great writer at the time. But he was still young when he won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize in fiction for his novel Empire Falls.
On the other hand, I’ve known dozens of students, passionate writers amongst them, who respond to critiques with explanations and excuses. I can’t think of any of them who have yet sold a book to a publisher.
Authors who publish and get acclaim often slip into thinking they have arrived, they have magic, their words are golden and they’re beyond the point of worrying much about story structure, readers’ expectations for a particular genre, or anything else that will restrain them.
They’re usually quite wrong. I know I was.
Publishing a book, even to high praise, should make us more humble, more grateful to the spirit, and the people, who helped move us along. It should make us look closely for what we did right and use that knowledge to inform our next story while we also attempt to grow and reach for the next challenge.
Just because we can climb the first rung of a ladder doesn’t mean we can fly.
Last year, I gave a manuscript copy of a new novel to Dana Crowell, a student of mine, and asked for her comments.
She gave it back with lots of praise and this critique:
“My biggest issue was with sentence length. Some of the sentences were so long, I had to reread them several times to follow the story. Michael Seidman says that for commercial books, a sentence should be between 8-12 words long, a paragraph no more than 9 lines. Some of your sentences have 52 words. Just something to think about. The sentence length stopped me.”
I wondered, did Faulkner have to put up with such trivia?
But that’s no concern of mine. My concern, the question I need to ask: Does God want me (not Faulkner) to work with this advice?
I tend to push and perhaps delude myself with the notion that God would have me reach a wide audience, which is one reason I often write suspense and mystery.
So, after reading Dana’s note, given what I had read and heard about the average reading level of popular fiction, and given that Dana got stopped by some of my sentences though she is quite literate, I chose to heed her comments.
But I didn’t take them at face value. I took them under consideration and gave myself a task I hoped would better inform me on the sentence length issue. I picked up Michael Connelly’s last book and read it with an eye to sentence length.
What I found humbled me. To find out why, wait and find out the answer in a couple months on this blog, or you could get the answer today in the book Writing and the Spirit.