Sometimes the Mirror Lies
Posted by Gwynlyn MacKenzie Oct 18 2012, 12:01 am in craft, editing, employing beta readers, writing, writing tips
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?