Written By: John Rosenberg – Originally Published OCT•03•2011
Receiving notes and critique from others is an essential but often painful part of the writing process. This week I finished correcting the galleys to my first novel, Tincture of Time, a tale about an American medical student in Brazil. (I became familiar with South America while working as an editor on a feature in Rio de Janeiro.) Revising these galleys was a different the book it will become, including a mocked up book cover based on an idea I had and that the publisher graciously executed. On the inside pages, the editor had written notes in ink throughout the book and, fortunately, they were smart and helpful. These days I welcome notes because I’ve seen how listening to another person’s response to material can make a huge difference in the final outcome.
It wasn’t always this way. Years ago I’d written a novel, Book of Matches, which immediately found a New York agent and the agent found a publisher, Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. Everything went smoothly until they asked me to re-write part of the book. Are you kidding? I thought. Perhaps because everything had come so easily or, more likely, because I truly believed the book was finished and didn’t need further work, I made only the most cursory changes and sent it back. Based on not fulfilling the requested re-writes, the book wasn’t published. At the time I felt I’d protected the integrity of the book – which might’ve been the case – but it’s possible to be overprotective.
Only through work as a film editor did I come to embrace the collaborative process and actually look forward to other people’s notes. In film editing you make copious and constant changes. You get notes from directors, producers, studio execs. You even get notes from people who haven’t a clue about filmmaking — recruited audiences in small towns outside of L.A. They watch the film and fill out questionnaires asking them what they thought of the ending or a character, etc. But they’re an audience and that’s who you are making films for. So you listen. You discover that some notes are important and worthwhile, and others should be ignored.
The main lesson you learn is not to take it personally and to appreciate that the people who give you notes are helping make you a better filmmaker, writer, editor, and so on. You actively seek out responses from others. Sometimes the mere anticipation that someone is going to read your writing or watch your film, alters your perception of the work and guides you toward improvement. So I’m packing up the galleys to Tincture of Time, and sending them back to the publisher, along with a revised Word file, confident that it’s a better book today than it was yesterday.