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Sometimes the Mirror Lies

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During my teens, Max Factor and Mary Quant dominated the make-up aisles.  Periwinkle-blue cream eyeshadow (looked like silvery-blue foil), Petal Pink lipstick (one drop of blood in a vat of chalk would have had more color), thick, black eyeliner, and blackest-black mascara applied with a trowel to lashes later separated with either a straight or safety pin were de rigueur.  All the coolest gals added a ‘cat-eye’ flourish to their eyeliner, mimicking the models walking NY’s runways. 

Like all teens, I wanted to be cool, so I followed the program.  The heavy black, with a little assist from the shimmery periwinkle, made my crystal-blue eyes shine like beacons across a midnight sea.  With my lips all but erased, they made a striking focal point.  I knew it to be true.  My mirror told me so.

Now, our high school had mirrors on every corner of every hall—ostensibly for safety, but who cared about that?  Teenage girls just want to be certain they look good.  So, being a teenaged girl, I knew the location of every one.  There should have been no room for suprises, right?

One day, while walking to class and arguing with a friend over a potentially tricky AP bio test, I glanced up.  Some garishly raccoon-eyed chick who looked like death very slightly warmed stared back at me like I was the nightmare come to life, not she.  It took me a moment to realize my friend and I had reached an intersection, and since that death-masked horror wore the same outfit as I—well, you get the picture.  I wanted to vomit.  All the people who’d offered make-up advice (including my mom who I had, naturally, ignored) hadn’t been jealous or spiteful or just plain mean.  They’d been trying to make me see the truth.

That’s when I realized mirrors lie.  Or, perhaps more accurately, we lie to ourselves, seeing what we expect to see—until faced by a mirror for which we are unprepared.

The same can be said of our writing.  We look at it and look at it until we cease to see what’s there.  We can practically recite it by rote, so when we read, we see only what we want to see and ignore flaws evident to anyone but ourselves.

I’ve often heard other writers suggest putting a work aside for several weeks before attempting to edit.  The idea is to see it with new eyes.

Newsflash:  You haven’t changed much in those few weeks or months, and the story you wrote, the product of your imagination, research, blood, sweat, and tears, is still yours.  You will pick it up determined to be objective, but you won’t see the death mask; you will see crystalline-blue and be deluded by your own expectations.  Your eyes can never be new to the story again.  It’s like trying to regain innocence lost.  It isn’t going to happen.

So many people are going the indie route to publishing these days, which is good in many ways.  However, we can all agree there’s a great deal of dreck available, tarnishing the credibility of hard-working, responsible indie authors.  While many can’t afford professional editing—yet—there are alternatives that can better the product of both the indie and traditionally published author.

I do the lion’s share of the editing for my critique partner.  I don’t claim to be an editor, mind you, but I am rather anal about quality, and when trying to make something the best it can be, that usually undesirable characteristic can be a blessing.

One of the tools I use is a voice program that reads the work aloud.  A word missing?  Your ear will catch it even if you eyes don’t.  Awkward phrasing?  Trust your ears.  Unrealistic dialogue?  Ears are a much more reliable detector than eyes.

Even so, never underestimate the value of a second set of eyes.  Don’t have a CP or a particularly anal friend?  Get a couple of Beta Readers.  These can be anyone who reads romance.  Romance readers have expectations, and they’ll let you know if you fall short.  If you confuse them, they’ll tell you.  They don’t need professional training to recognize slow pacing or cardboard characters before you submit to an editor or agent or make the jump to indie publishing.

If you plan to go indie and can afford it, hire a professional editor.  Of course, finding a good one may require some work, but both  the effort and the cost will be small in comparison to the potential rewards.  Ask around.  Talk to other writers.  Join the appropriate loops.  There are good, free-lance editors available.

Don’t let yourself be deceived.  Realizing that ugly girl in the mirror is you is nauseating, but make-up comes off with a bit of soap and water.  Realizing you sent your book into the world too soon, painted on a death-mask that no amount of cleanser can remove, could destroy something precious.  Don’t risk it.

Have you encounted a mirror, whether literal or metaphorical, that has revealed something you’d rather not have seen (fitting room mirrors don’t count; those things are simply diabolical), and how do you go about the editing process?

27 Responses to “Sometimes the Mirror Lies”

  1. Vivi Andrews says:

    Great metaphor, Gwyn. It’s downright impossible to see ourselves (and our work) with unbiased eyes. I would be lost without my betas & editors and I worry when they don’t come down on me hard enough. Thank god for that red pen. Great post.

    • Thanks, Vivi. Sometimes the easiest way to see something is from another direction.

      I couldn’t agree more; it’s rather like a mother looking at a beloved child, don’t you think? Love colors the way Mom sees that precious face. Everyone else may see something rather like a wizen spider-monkey, but moms see with their hearts.

  2. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Great post, Gwyn, and all very true. And I beg to differ. You’re a wonderful editor. I cringe every time I get a manuscript back from you, my unforgiving mirror. My books wouldn’t be what they are without you.

    • Gwyn says:

      Thanks, Laurie. I do my best, but don’t have the credentials—or the desire—to be a ‘real’ editor. I don’t envy them their jobs at all!

  3. Hope Ramsay says:

    Gwyn,

    Every time I get a revision letter dripping from my editor, dripping with red ink I say a prayer of thanks. If course I’d love to have my editor send back something without a mark on it, but if that happened I would worry. When she rips it apart — and I’m talking about not just missing words and commas, but problems with characterization and plot — it means a lot more work, but the result is always, always, always better. So hug your CPs and editors. They are your best friends when they are being tough on you.

    • Gwyn says:

      I can understand that, Hope. You’d love to write it right the first time, but if it comes back too clean, you wonder if the editor even read it, or did it have his or her full attention while reading it. We are hopelessly contrary. ;-)

  4. Amanda Brice says:

    This is a GREAT post, Gwen. And so, so true. I love when my critique partners and editor send my work back dripping with red. Yes, it’s more work, but it needs it and I want to make it the best it can be.

    • Amanda Brice says:

      Er, I meant Gwyn, not Gwen. :)

      • Gwyn says:

        Not to worry, Amanda. Lots of people make that mistake, and as my mom would say, “As long as you don’t call me late for dinner.” ;-)

        I’m truly amazed to learn everyone wants a manuscript dripping red. That’s the one time the red is the last color I want to see. Of course, the anal I bring to Laurie’s work is also busy in mine, which means I try to write clean from the get go. I see the red ink, beat myself up a bit for missing the mark, and hunker down to make the work better.

  5. What a great analogy! And so true! It is really hard to see our work for what it is when we’re so close to it. And I’d go the other way too — sometimes we look and see something horrible when it’s really not that bad. I’m guilty of seeing my words in a negative light, believing a book is awful, and it’s only by my fabulous CP’s unbiased eyes that I can look at my story and see the good stuff. Of course, she doesn’t hesitate to point out the bad stuff :), but she also helps me see the good.

    • Gwyn says:

      Very true, Cynthia. The mirror analogy still works but now the writer and her reflection are reversed. One way or the other, we still aren’t seeing the truth. Thank heaven for CPs and readers that set us straight!

  6. Such a powerful post, Gwyn. Loved it.

    I use a couple of beta-readers as my *first* second set of eyes, and my agent and editor are the next few sets. I’m lucky to have all of them, because you’re so right…there is simply stuff we miss or gloss over because we’ve looked at the same thing so many times. I also find that setting the manuscript aside for a month or two and then revisiting it helps so, so much.

    Thanks for the great post!

    • Gwyn says:

      I wish setting it aside worked for me, Anne Marie, and it does, at first, but I soon find myself engaged by my own words and it’s all downhill from there. I’d have to do a chapter, set it aside again, and repeat which would make for never-ending edits—of which I’m often guilty anyway. Sometimes being a perfectionist makes me my own worst enemy.

  7. Great advice, Gwynlyn.

    I’m a HUGE advocate of reading every single line out loud. And beta readers are worth their weight in gold.

    Thanks for a great post.

  8. Shoshana Brown says:

    Great post, Gwyn. The funny thing is, many times the problems my CPs catch are things I’ve already noticed, but managed to convince myself weren’t really so bad. Good CPs won’t let me be lazy.

  9. Gwyn says:

    Yep. Separate those lashes with a pin! We are, at heart, masters of self-justification and self-deceit. I’m glad your CP’s took a washcloth to the gunk and helped you clean it up.

  10. June Love says:

    Gwyn, you’ve hit the nail on the head with this post. It’s difficult to be objective when you’re the creator. We tend to either think it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, or we want to delete and re-do. In my case, the more I read my ms, the flatter it becomes.

    I also believe it’s important to have readers, whether CP’s or Beta’s, who will be honest with you. I’d much rather receive a bleeding ms, then a clean one. It’s like judging a contest. If the entry has problems, then I make a lot of helpful comments. If it’s an excellent entry, then I have a lot of good things to say about it. However, if it’s lukewarm, then I leave very few comments. Not good enough to praise, but not really problematic enough to critique.

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Gwyn says:

      Oh, I like that, June. Not good enough to praise, but not really problematic enough to critique. Can you say Damned by faint praise? *G* That’s what I think whenever I read comments like well-written or a nice story; the only thing they tell you is the book didn’t hit the wall.

  11. Rita Henuber says:

    Great reminder for us all Gwen. I don’t like to hear “you can cut half of this or this needs to be fixed.” My initial reaction is no. Then I think about it for a couple of days and maybe I might fix it. Then in a week’s time I’m working on it thinking what a great idea I had. Fresh eyes are great even if they are garish raccoon ones.

    • Gwyn says:

      I’m with you, Rita. Laurie will tell you, often my initial reaction is no, but she knows me well enough to leave be and let the idea stew. Usually, she gets a call where I admit she was right. No call? No change. *G*

  12. Fantastic post!!! And I couldn’t agree more. I have been recruiting beta readers, at least a couple per book, for a final read before I send back page proofs. They always see something I missed and to point out other things that I probably knew weren’t quite working but skimmed over with every read. NOTE: If you are skimming, there is a reason.

    Love this!

  13. Liz Talley says:

    Fabulous post, Gwyn!

    As you know with my short story The Nerd Who Loved Me, I asked several Rubies to use a fine-toothed comb and rake it over the coals since it was going up in a very public place (Harlequin website) and surprisely, all the volunteers found different flaws…or maybe that’s not surprising?

    You (special thanks again) mostly found syntax and word choice issues. Another found plot/character arc issues and still another action issues (as in plausibility). It was eye-opening to see how different readers interpreted the characters’ actions, and even more surprising when readers, who followed the daily episodes, miscontrued intent. The whole process really stressed that beauty :) is in the eye of the beholder, ahem, reader.

    So, yes, we certainly have our blinders on when we approach our own writing, and thus, we do need others to vet the writing and make sure it is where it needs to be to be “out there”.

    • Gwyn says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Liz. It’s true that, as readers, we all have our buttons. I’m so glad you had enough willing readers with differing strengths to catch potential problems. Still, no matter how thorough we are, someone has a button we didn’t think about, and you can bet it’ll be pushed. Such is the nature of the business.

      • Liz Talley says:

        Exactly. I learn that more and more. Some people love my writing. Some hate it. I’ve really learned to accept that I can’t please all readers, and that was a hard lesson for a pleaser like me :)

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